"I like to get up before sunup and crank, while the big fish of the dreaming imagination are still swimming near the surface."
Christopher Brown is a writer and lawyer living in Austin. His debut novel, Tropic of Kansas, was published earlier this year from Harper Voyager. His shorter works—stories, nonfiction, and criticism—have appeared in a wide variety of magazines and anthologies. He will be a featured author at ArmadilloCon in Austin next week, and he talked with Lone Star Lit via email.
LONE STAR LITERARY LIFE: Chris, you have led such an interesting life! According to your website, you've taken two companies public, restored a small prairie, worked on two Supreme Court confirmations, rehabilitated a brownfield, reported from Central American war zones, washed airplanes, co-hosted a punk rock radio show, built an eco-bunker, worked day labor, negotiated hundreds of technology deals, protected government whistleblowers, investigated fraud, raised venture capital, explored a lot of secret woodlands, raised an amazing kid, and trained a few good dogs. But where did you grow up and where did you attend college and get your law degree?
CHRISTOPHER BROWN: I grew up in Iowa, in a weird house at the end of a dead end street where suburbia disappeared into the woods. I left for high school in New Hampshire, and then headed to New Orleans to study political economy at Tulane—with a year at Oxford in the UK along the way—and back to Iowa City for law school on a Truman Scholarship for public service.
What was your first job out of college?
I worked in government right out of high school, then college, then law school—all of it legislative work in the United States Senate. The longest stint was for my first job out of law school, as staff lawyer for the Senate Judiciary Committee, working much of my time on protecting whistleblowers. My first project as a lawyer was working on the Clarence Thomas hearings, which taught me a lot about how Washington—and the country—really works.
When did you begin writing?
I started writing professionally in college, editing my school paper and working as a stringer for Newsweek. I started writing science fiction professionally after I moved to Austin and got plugged in with the local SF literary scene.
What was your first “break” as an author?
Probably when I got invited to participate in the Turkey City Writers Workshop not long after I moved to Austin. This was when cyberpunk founder Bruce Sterling was running it, and would fly in another professional sf writer as a guest for each installment. I was never really a native to science fiction, writing work that straddled genres and didn’t really fit in any established categories. Turkey City helped me find markets for my work, helped me develop my craft, and led to collegial relationships that have been integral to my career.
Tell us about the Tropic of Kansas.
The “Tropic of Kansas” of my book is not a real place, but you can see it from here. It’s the part of the middle of the country where our one-sided relationship with land has finally caught up with us. Tropic of Kansas, the novel, is a dark road trip through the resulting all-American dystopia, in search of the better futures that might lie on the other side. It follows two characters through the barren heartland all the way to Texas and Louisiana: Sig, the fugitive orphan of political dissidents who gets deported from Canada back to a U.S.A. that has been walled off from the other side, and Tania, his foster sister, a government investigator coerced into hunting Sig after he escapes from a Midwestern Gitmo. It’s an effort at a dystopian realism, while at the same time working to be a compelling adventure story.
What authors do you enjoy reading?
Too many to comprehensively list, but my favorites include Joan Didion, J. G. Ballard, Cormac McCarthy, Walker Percy, Renata Adler, Samuel R. Delany, Joanna Russ, Don DeLillo, Hunter S. Thompson, and William Gibson. Two recent discoveries that have had a big impact are the twentieth-century novelists Anthony Powell and John Williams. I also love reading literature of other countries, especially Latin America. In recent years I have been enjoying the work of Roberto Bolaño, the Mexican fabulist Amparo Davila, and the French novelist Mathias Enard. And I am an omnivorous consumer of what J. G. Ballard called “invisible literature”—the institutional output like government reports and corporate disclosures that in many ways are the most authentic voices of the world in which we live.
What Texas authors do you enjoy reading?
Bruce Sterling, Joe Lansdale, Jessica Reisman, Gabino Iglesias, Pamela Colloff, Frank Dobie, and Roy Bedichek all come to mind. I also recently discovered J. W. Wilbarger, the Texas settler who chronicled antebellum conflicts with the Indians of Texas—entertaining and illuminating reading that provides dark insights into the cultural origins of the place we live.
What’s your creative process like? When do you find time to write?
I like to get up before sunup and crank, while the big fish of the dreaming imagination are still swimming near the surface. I have even trained my dogs to wake me up at five a.m. I work until it’s time to walk them in the woods behind the factories, usually around eight. Beyond that, I write when I can, depending on what a given day permits, or requires.
Are you working on something new?
I have three longer projects in progress, all Texas-centric in setting—a book of speculative ecology writing about the Texas edgelands, a novel about a criminal defense lawyer in dystopian Houston (think Better Call Saul meets), and a book about people in the contemporary commercial-space business navigating the consequences when a spacecraft they launch from Corpus crashes into a Mexican village.
You'll be at ArmadilloCon in Austin, next week. Tell us about that.
ArmadilloCon is one of the nation’s leading conferences on imaginative literature, which has been held annually in Austin since the 1970s. It was the birthplace of cyberpunk in the 1980s, and continues to serve as a breeding ground for cutting edge literature from the diverse array of authors Texas incubates—including at the annual ArmadilloCon Writers’ Workshop, for which I will be one of the instructors this year, an event we have been working hard to make even more diverse.
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Praise for Christopher Brown's TROPIC OF KANSAS
“Tropic of Kansas is like a modern dystopian buffet [...] It is, in this particular moment in history, frighteningly prescient. It is the nightly news with the volume turned up to 11.” —NPR.org
“Futurist as provocateur! The world is sheer bat-shit genius…a truly hallucinatorily envisioned environment.” —William Gibson, New York Times bestselling and award-winning author
“This book is a powerful vision of an America that might be, an America that some nights seems as though it is all too likely to be, filled with powerful characters and a chilling presentiment of how far our country could fall...a novel well worth reading.” —San Francisco Book Review
“The great American novel about the end of America. This book is marvelously propulsive, big hearted, and whip smart.” —Kelly Link, Pulitzer Prize–nominated author of Get in Trouble
“Timely, dark, and ultimately hopeful: it might not ‘make America great again,’ but then again, it just might.” —Cory Doctorow, New York Times bestselling and award-winning author of Homeland
“This stunning novel of a time all too easily imaginable as our own highlights a few of the keen-voiced, brave-souled women and men who balance like subversive acrobats on society’s whirling edges...Read it to burn with the joy of realistic hope.” —Nisi Shawl, Tiptree-award-winning author of Everfair and Writing the Other
“A unique blend of Philip K. Dick, Kafka (just a smidgen), and a whole lot of Christopher Brown. Adventure novel meets political satire and the finest elements of realistic sci-fi, and it’s so well written it goes down like a greased eel. It’s hopeful dystopia. What a book.” —Joe R. Lansdale, author of the Hap and Leonard series
“Tropic of Kansas is the tale of a politically desperate USA haunted by a sullen, feral teen who is Huck Finn, Conan and Tarzan. Because it’s Chris Brown’s own imaginary America, this extraordinary novel is probably more American than America itself will ever get.” —Bruce Sterling, award-winning author of Islands in the Net and Pirate Utopia
“Tropic of Kansas is a great novel. Brown’s writing is tightly composed, and flows nicely...Definitely recommended.” —Civilian Reader
“Tropic of Kansas is savvy political thriller meets ripping pulp adventure-a marriage made in page-turning, thought-provoking heaven. It’s a vision both frighteningly prescient and already too real, and a story of valiant heart and brain up against the worst architectures of greed and power.” —Jessica Reisman, SESFA award-winning author of Substrate Phantoms
“[A] real page turner.” —Gavin J. Grant, Bram Stoker Award-winning editor and author