Charles Stross: SciFi, Fantasy & Lovecraftian Horror author interview

Charles Stross, award-winning author interview

Merchant Princes & The Laundry Files – The past, present and future of the 12 year series

JMW: Hello this is Jean Marie Ward for BuzzyMag.com. With me today is Charles Stross, award-winning author of the cross-dimensional alt history series “The Merchant Princes” and my favorite slice of government life, “The Laundry Files.” Welcome, Charlie. 

Charles Stross: Hi, thanks for inviting me here.

JMW: We’re so glad you could make it. You’ve been publishing both series, “The Merchant Princes” and “The Laundry Files” for over 12 years now. How do you juggle two such different worlds, both of which have worlds within worlds?

Charles Stross: Well, you’ve got to bear in mind that this is over a period of many, many years, and I’ve been writing “The Laundry Files” since 1998, nearer to 20 years than 12, and  “The Merchant Princes” since 2001. The books take a few years in development and production before they surface on the shelves. The upshot is that I’m only writing an average of one of these books every couple of years, each. And there’s plenty of time to come back and to revisit the earlier works in the series, think of new ideas and carry on developing stuff. I’m currently in the middle to near the tail end of a spate of work I’m focusing on these two series. I’ve been endeavoring to work on three titles, three consecutive titles in each of these series simultaneously with result that starting in January of next year there is a new “Merchant Princes” universe trilogy coming out, one book per year while at the same time I’m in the middle of publishing three “Laundry Files” novels in a row.

merchant princes, charles stross interview, the family trade

The Family Trade
Book 1
Merchant Princes

JMW: Most writers never revisit their published work. What inspired you to completely revise and revamp the first six books of the “Merchant Princes“?

Charles Stross: Let us rewind the clock to 2001 when I came up with a proposal for this series for Tor. It was originally going to be a four book series of really big, fat, technothrillerish books, roughly 600-800 pages each. And I wrote the first of these books titled “The Family Trade” and sent it to my editor at Tor who, for contractual and production reasons, did two things to it. The first was to market it with sort of high fantasy branding on the cover and the second was to chop the book in half because it costs more to physically manufacture a large book.

Now when you fast forward several years, the book didn’t initially sell in the UK. I am a de facto American author even though I live in the UK. After a few years, Tor UK finally decided to publish the first couple of books but then my editor at Tor UK retired, and it wasn’t until a couple of years later that I got a Dear John email from my editor at Orbit where my science fiction was based saying “Dear Charlie, sorry but I’m leaving Orbit. I’m going to Tor UK to reboot their line, so I guess I won’t be editing you again.” To which my reply was “Well, Bill, don’t be so hasty. Do you realize you’ve got the rights to six of my novels, three of which have never been published in the UK?” And it was an opportunity, I had a chance to sell an editor I’d worked with before who had the books, in a new market that they’d never really been sold into, to let me reassemble them and set them up the way I’d originally intended them to be.

And that’s how the big omnibuses got prepared. I bust a gut one year to basically re-edit and redraft the entire series as these big, brassy, fast paced, fat, thrillers, exploring the consequences of interdimensional trade and espionage between different timelines. And the omnibuses were originally published by Tor UK, but then bought back in by Tor U.S. And they seems to be a better format and more successful, and it laid the groundwork for me to begin work on a new trilogy set in the same universe.

the atrocity archives, laundry files, charles stross interview

The Atrocity Archives
Book 1
The Laundry Files

JMW: Which is what’s coming out next year?

Charles Stross: Yeah. It’s titled “Empire Games” and the best way to describe it is it’s not a continuation of the previous series but is a new series. Many of the old characters recur, but it’s set 17 years later in a near future, grim, post-Edward Snowden surveillance state dystopia. I call it my big, fat, post-Snowden revelations techno-thriller.

JMW: As a former civil servant, I admit a certain bias for “The Laundry Files“. What inspired you to marry Lovecraftian Abominations and bureaucratic horror?

Charles Stross: It goes back to about 1992 to 1997, a period during which I was working on a short story, not the whole time. I began it in ’92 then realized I couldn’t finish it and shelved it until ’97. That story, which has had quite a lot of reprints, is titled “A Colder War” and it’s my definitive Lovecraftian update story. When I say Lovecraftian update, we have Cthulhu plush bedroom slippers these days and, you know, “My First Mythos” coloring books. Lovecraft has become almost a camp cliché, and I wanted in that story to go back and add back in the existential dread and horror of Mythos.

And what I came up with was there’s one thing in recent memory in the 1990s that has the same resonance of terror of destruction by vast, cool, dispassionate intelligences and that was the Cold War and the nuclear standoff. So I wrote this novelette, which did the rounds and is still being reprinted twenty plus years later, and it occurred to me I wanted to write a novel along the same vein using the same mechanics, modern governance confronting the unthinkable. But I couldn’t write something that grim-dark at novel length. It was just too horrifying. So I added an element of humor and, in this case, a situational comedy whereby Bob, a dot-com startup type IT geek, circa late 1990s, wakes up in a British spy thriller bureaucracy, shades of “The IPCRESS File” Len Deighton’s very successful spy thrillers from the ’60s.

Now, bureaucracy is a natural fit for horror. All you have to do is think Adolf Eichmann and the Final Solution, bureaucrats diligently planning the unthinkable to begin getting a vibe in the direction that actually terror can go in. And again, if you posit a Lovecraftian cosmos where the stars are coming right and the Elder Gods are returning to eat our brains, you can bet that the government would have a plan for that and an agency dedicated to dealing with it. And it would suffer from all the usual bureaucratic malaises of any government institution.

JMW: Yeah, and you get the malaise so well. I worked for the government for many years, and yet I don’t see that jot of horror on your bio. How did you get the details right?

Charles Stross: Well, actually, there is a jot of that horror on my bio. It’s just concealed. I worked for a few years in the British National Health Service, which was the largest employer in Europe and de facto a government agency. In addition, during my period in IT, I did contract work including spending a few months working for local government agencies as a contractor. And I worked in a variety of other environments with different scales of management engagement from small shops with maybe two or three employees all the way up to software multinationals. And all these organizations have their own management issues which mirror themselves across the different scale factors. The bureaucracy of a government is not so different from the bureaucracy of a large corporation when you’re on the inside. And finally, I go drinking with civil servants.

JMW: Oh, and they do need to drink, a lot, a lot. You live and work in Edinburgh, and one can’t help but think of the great Victorian writers who also did. How has the city influenced your writing?

Charles Stross: Edinburgh’s an interesting place. It’s a small capital city of about half a million people. It’s a very vibrant city with an awful lot of history. There have been human beings living on the site for about 3,000 years. The new town is only 250 years old.

JMW: Yeah, and from where I come, yeah.

Charles Stross: Yeah, I have actually written a couple of crime thrillers, near future crime thrillers set in Edinburgh. But for the most part, it’s not a direct influence on me. It does sort of have that weird baroque, gothic sensibility that you also find in writings of Scottish SF writers from that area. Alex Gray is more on the Glaswegian side but Ian Banks lived just on the outskirts of Edinburgh and when you’re looking for a somewhat gothic sensibility for describing a city, it’s your go-to destination.

JMW: What are you working on now?

Charles Stross: I’m currently working on the production edits to the first book in “The Empire Games” trilogy which is due out next January. Behind that there is the final draft in preparation for the second book in the trilogy for January the following year. That book will be titled “The Dark State” to be followed in 2018 by “Invisible Sun” the conclusion of the trilogy. On the other side, my next novel that comes out next month, so all the work is over but the shouting about it on social media is the seventh “Laundry” novel, “The Nightmare Stacks”. And my immediate next job is to do the final submission grade draft of the eighth “Laundry” novel, “The Delirium Brief”. These have been eating my life for the past couple of years, and I’m really looking forward, after I get these out of the way, to starting work on a new space opera, which will be the first time I’ve been able to do that since 2007.

JMW: Is there anything you’d like to add before we sign off?

Charles Stross: Nothing for the time being. I think we’ve covered it all, but thank you very much for having me.

JMW: Thank you for joining us, Charlie. And thank you for BuzzyMag.com.

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Jean Marie Ward
Buzzy Mag Reporter & Reviewer

Jean Marie Ward writes fiction, nonfiction and everything in between, including art books, novels (2008 Indie Book double-finalist With Nine You Get Vanyr), and short stories such as WSFA Small Press Award finalist “Lord Bai’s Discovery” and “Personal Demons” in the award-winning anthology Hellebore and Rue. Her videos include author interviews and tutorials.
Jean Marie Ward
Visit The Official Jean Marie Ward Website
  • Jonathan McDowell

    I think that’s “Glaswegian side…”, not “Glass Region side…”

    • oops… thanks. No matter how hard we try, typos seem to find their way in.