Interview with Author Brian Trent

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Today I’m pleased to be interviewing Brian Trent. Brian is the award-winning author of the sci-fi thrillers REDSPACE RISING and TEN THOUSAND THUNDERS. He’s published more than a hundred short stories in the world’s top fiction markets, including in the New York Times’ bestselling Black Tide Rising series, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Analog Science Fiction and Fact, Nature, Daily Science Fiction, Escape Pod, Pseudopod, Galaxy’s Edge, and numerous year’s best anthologies. Trent lives in a tiny mountaintop town in Connecticut. His website and blog are at www.briantrent.com. If you’ve read my anthology RELEASE THE VIRGINS, you’ll be familiar with his work!

Brian, first tell us about your latest work!

BRIAN TRENT: REDSPACE RISING is set in a distant future where people can upload their minds at Save clinics, and download them into new bodies at a whim. Death is a passing inconvenience. Your memories, desires, dreams and fears are stored for easy retrieval.

In that future, Harris Alexander Pope is the man who ended the Partisan War on Mars. All he seeks now is solitude and a return to the life that was stolen from him. Yet when he learns that the worst war criminals are hiding in other bodies, he’s forced into an interplanetary pursuit. Teaming up with other survivors eager for their own brand of vengeance, Harris begins to suspect a darker truth:

Maybe what he remembers about the war isn’t what happened at all.

REDSPACE RISING is a futuristic thriller that explores questions of memory and identity. It’s set on a Mars that has come under control of a fanatical political regime which has dialed up the worst traits of nationalism to a planetary scale, and which uses propaganda in truly insidious ways. I was inspired to write it after hearing my grandfather’s stories of how, after World War II, British agents pursued Nazi war criminals who’d escaped the Nuremberg trials and went into hiding under new identities.

Locus Magazine was kind enough to say of my book: “Once begun, Redspace Rising will grip you by the throat–like its soldier protagonist grips his many enemies–and compel you to read it all the way to its jubilant, battered conclusion. And you’ll be very grateful.”

VENTRELLA: What kinds of readers do you think would be interested in your book?  In other words, whose work do you think your book is comparable to?

TRENT: I think anyone who likes a combination of action and thoughtful drama would enjoy REDSPACE RISING. I really love world-building—it’s one of my passion as a writer—and I think the future depicted in the book is fairly unique. It’s set a thousand years from now. There’s a lot of room to be creative, and to play around with unusual technologies, when you’re operating that far into the future.

Generally speaking, I think there’s some thematic alignment with Philip K. Dick, Neal Stephenson, and William Gibson. Some reviewers have favorably compared it to The Expanse. I should say that readers who are familiar with my short fiction in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction will recognize some of the characters, but no familiarity with those stories is required to enjoy REDSPACE RISING. It stands on its own.

Also, anyone who is a history and mythology fan might enjoy this. I’m an unabashed geek for all things ancient and mythical.

VENTRELLA: Let me say to any who have not read RELEASE THE VIRGINS that Brian’s final sentence in his story is one of my favorite final sentences ever. Where did the idea for your VIRGINS story come from?

TRENT: Thank you for the compliment! Given the anthology’s theme, I figured you’d be getting lots of stories of chaste maidens and unicorns, so I wanted an idea that would stand out from the pack. One morning, I was at my local grocery store. I overheard a guy on his cellphone telling someone—in excruciating detail—all about his daily workout routine. I swiftly imagined a velociraptor slamming into him, sending him sprawling down the pasta aisle. (I generally imagine various demises for people who talk too loud on their phones in public).

On my drive home, it occurred to me that this might be the very idea I was looking for. As to how I’d justify a dinosaur being in a grocery store… well, I decided to make it the ghost of a dinosaur. We’ve had stories of Victorian ghosts and pirate ghosts. Why not a Cretaceous-era poltergeist?

I pitched the idea, and you advised me that no one else was doing a story like that. So the store, the guy, and some 65-million-year-old virgins all went into “Old Spirits.”

VENTRELLA: You’ve been fairly prolific, with quite a few stories published every year. How do you find the right markets for your stories?

TRENT: I write a lot of stories. Just by law of averages, some are hard SF, some are fantasy, some alternate history, some lurid horror. It helps to have a body of work—the more lines you cast, the likelier it is to get a bite. At any given moment, I have a half-dozen stories or so under consideration.

I strongly encourage new writers to study the markets. It’s not an exact science, but it helps you get a read on what each editor likes. I rarely write with a specific magazine in mind; it’s only later that I sort the submission schedule according to what story I think would be best received by which venue. People will often say that nuts-and-bolts sci-fi is ideally suited for Analog, for example, and there’s certainly some truth in that. But it ultimately comes down to the story and editorial preference. Study the markets. Read lots of fiction. And never dismiss editorial feedback out of hand—you’ll know when you’re getting closer to making a sale when the feedback becomes more personal and tailored. It’s always disheartening when we receive the dreaded standardized rejection letter—even now, I automatically scan for the word “Unfortunately”. It’s always a pleasure to see the word “Congratulations” instead. The better you get to know the genre and the industry, the better your odds of success are.

But sometimes there’s no way to anticipate how a story is received. I’ve been published several time at Daily Science Fiction (one of my favorite venues, which regrettably closed its doors to submissions last year) and I never had any clue which stories of mine they would buy and which ones they’d reject.

VENTRELLA: Let’s separate writing from storytelling for a minute. Writing skills can be taught, but do you think it’s possible to teach how to tell a good story, or is that just some kind of talent that not everyone has?

TRENT: That’s a really good question. The human brain is a wonder of neuroplasticity and adaptability. We’re capable of extraordinary feats of learning, and I have to believe that if you stretch your imaginative muscles neurons, most people can learn to become better storytellers.

On the other hand, I was writing stories from the moment I could get my hands on a crayon (and I know this is the case for lots of writers), so I think a case can easily be made that some of our creative natures comes genetically preloaded.

VENTRELLA: What’s the best advice you would give to a starting writer that they probably haven’t already heard?

TRENT: Eliminate your distractions. We live in an unparalleled age of things vying for our attention. It isn’t enough to say that you should stay off your smartphone—I encourage writers to hide their phones in another room when they’re ready to sit down and write. It may gnaw at your thoughts like the One Ring, but having it literally out of reach is a big step towards being productive. I know writers who incessantly grieve how they never have time to write, while they make twenty Facebook updates daily and engage in yet another online flame war. No one will remember our hashtags a hundred years from now, but people still read Sophocles and Sappho.

The trick is to make writing a habit. You don’t have to write 11 hours a day. You don’t even need to write every day. Rome wasn’t built in a day, right? There’s a line in THE TWO TOWERS (the book) from an unusually eloquent Gimli. The dwarf catches sight of the caverns beneath Helm’s Deep, and he explains to Legolas how the children of Durin would “tend these flowering glades of stone.” As he explains: “With cautious skill, tap by tap–a small chip of work and no more, perhaps, in a whole anxious day–so we could work…”

In the same way, if you only manage to write a few hundred words, that’s okay! It’s a few hundred words closer to completion. That’s the tap of the dwarven hammer, methodically opening up new passageways. 

Need to do research? Not while you’re writing, you don’t. Research is imperative to a story’s construction but there are times to do it and times not to, and when you’re sitting at your computer facing the glacial whiteness of a blank document, that’s exactly the wrong time. “Doing research” too often becomes synonymous with procrastination. I research my stories during my off-hours, or while riding a train, or on weekends, or at libraries. When I sit down to write, I’m writing.

VENTRELLA: What’s the worst piece of advice you’ve heard people give?

TRENT: “Wait until you’re inspired.”

Waiting around for Godot or the Great Pumpkin is an incredibly self-defeating tactic. Instead, go to a museum. Hike a trail. Talk to people—especially those outside your social circle and who’ve had jobs/experiences you haven’t. Play a new game. Learn to cook a new meal. Try horseback riding or haiku. Inspiration can arrive like a thunderbolt, sure, but more often it needs to be tracked down. Even Emily Dickinson found inspiration when she interacted with the world, whether it was watching a narrow snake in the grass or watching a train lap the miles on the horizon.

I met an archaeologist at a party once. She was kind enough to indulge my questions on her profession, on what it was really like to work at a dig-site, what her average day in the field entailed. I didn’t have a story in mind at the time, but man… my imagination was crackling after talking with her. The result was my most recent story in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction (“The Song of Lost Voices” in the July/August 2022 issue).New experiences, new knowledge, new places, new ideas… this is all spectacular fuel for our creative engines. If I waited around inspiration, I’d never get anything done. I’d be Jack Nicholson at the typewriter in The Shining.

VENTRELLA: What writing projects are you working on now?

TRENT: I’m working on an exciting alternate history series of books. I adore alternate history—it feels like a natural fit.

I’m also hard at work on the sequel to REDSPACE RISING, and I’ve been commissioned to write for a couple anthologies. Beyond that, I’m working on some random projects.

Readers interested in my latest news, updates and publications can check out my website and blog at www.briantrent.com.

VENTRELLA: With a time machine and a universal translator, who would you invite to your dinner party?

TRENT: Thanks for including the universal translator! I’d have an eclectic soirée. Livy, Archimedes, Herodotus, and Hypatia would be guests of honor. I also have a number of democracy-related questions for Pericles, so I’d be sure he got an invitation and came prepared to debate. And it would be outstanding to hear the life story of Xenophon from Xenophon himself (in REDSPACE RISING, I named an AI after him).

The ancient navigator Zheng He would be there, too. I’d love to hear of his maritime adventures, and to get details on his extraordinary ships.

I wouldn’t need the translator for H.G. Wells and Mary Shelley, but they’d have to attend.

Lastly, I’d have Otzi the Iceman, if only to learn who murdered him and why.

And everyone would be required to bring a book that’s been lost to history. Except Otzi. He’s been through enough.

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