S. Elliot Brandis wears Stetson hats and rustles electric sheep—in his dreams. He’s also the author of one of the best novels I’ve had the pleasure to read this year, Irradiated, and his work is starting to pop up in anthology collections across the country.
A dedicated indie who cares deeply about future of writing and his craft, Stephen’s someone you’re going to be hearing about in all the right circles very soon. I caught up with him recently to celebrate his latest milestone, 18/20, and discuss his future plans.
You have degrees in psychology and engineering, both challenging fields in their own right. What made you decide to give up the chance of becoming the next Faraday medal winner and try your hand at writing?
Well, I had to Google what the Faraday Medal was, which may be a sign I’m probably not in the running for one. Regardless, I haven’t really given up anything. I still work full-time as an engineer. The only difference is that I wake up at 5:15 each morning and get stuck into writing.
I started writing because I loved reading. I had stories in me that I needed to tell, ideas that needed an outlet. Now I’m getting them on paper, and have the chance to share them with the world. To me, writing adds to my life, not subtracts things from it.
Plus, I’m in good company. Kurt Vonnegut studied chemistry, then mechanical engineering. HG Wells had a biology degree. Arthur C. Clarke: maths and physics.
One of things that draws me into your work is how different it is from mine. You’ve got this wonderfully lyrical rhythm through your pieces and all of them are so…literary. Every time I read a story of yours, especially Biro, it feels like it’s saying something important about the human condition. How did you go about cultivating and creating your unique writing style?
The ‘literary’ thing I struggle with. I know people like to make a distinction between ‘literary’ fiction from ‘genre’ fiction, but really… there are well written, and poorly written, books in each. Many of my favourite books could be described as both, in equal measure. So I’m never sure what to say when somebody says they find my style of prose or writing ‘literary’. It can mean so many things.
That said, I do love to experiment, and short fiction is a great place to do that. I read a great short story by Jason Gurley called The Winter Lands, where he gives you all these great things to think about but never gives you the answer. There’s something really powerful about that, and something that’s missing from a lot of modern fiction. Life doesn’t often have definitive answers, only the ones that we create for ourselves. So when you give somebody all the threads, and let them do the tugging, it can elevate it to a new, personal level.
With Biro, I tried to take a similar approach. The story is based on a real exchange that I had with a strange man when walking home one evening. After it happened, I preceded to write the story in my head immediately, over and over, changing things around each time. Then, early the next morning, I wrote it in a sitting. The story you read was unedited from this original burst. I try not to over think things; I let the story tell itself, for the most part.
As for the actual question: I don’t know. I can’t tell you where my style comes from. It’s just within me. For me, it’s like trying to describe why I run the way I do. It’s very instinctual. My word choice, sentences and paragraph structure, all of it—I just write it in a way that feels right. Then I read over it, and tinker until, to my ears, it feel like everything is in its right place. This isn’t to say I ignore craft—I’m always trying to improve my writing—but a lot of it is intrinsic, style especially. I love it when somebody says they enjoy the rhythm of my writing, as it means they’re hearing the same things I do.
Before we get to 18/20, I want to talk about Irradiated. I was able to get a sneak peak at this fantastic work early and asides from the world building, I was struck by your use of silences. There are large portions of the novel where the dialogue is minimal or almost non-existent. How do you feel not having characters speak adds to the story?
First, let me say that I really like dialogue. It’s one of my favourite things to write.
On the silences, though, I think they can convey a lot of things. In my mind they were never ‘silences’, per se, but periods of isolation. In a post-apocalyptic landscape, it makes sense that a character will spend time alone, especially in a sparsely populated landscape. In these scenes, I wanted to convey the struggles that the character Jade goes through. I really put her through the wringer, and the way she deals with it says a lot about her character. She has a sort of ‘grit your teeth and get it done’ mentality, which goes a long way to explaining how she has managed to survive in the world of Irradiated.
I also enjoy the flow of action sequences. I write from a third-person perspective, and I don’t like to get too far into my character’s heads. Instead, I like to let the scene play out and allow the meaning to be conveyed through the actions a character takes. I think I’ve been influenced by film in this regard. In a lot of mainstream film and TV, the characters never get a moment alone. Then you get something great, like No Country for Old Men where you open with a single person hunting antelope, the landscape dead quiet, and it just sort of unfolds in a captivating, almost mesmerising, way. So many there’s a bit of cinematic influence here, too.
The only issue I have with Irradiated is that even though it’s set in Australia (Brisbane), it feels very American. The way the protagonists talk and discuss things, their dialogue pacing and flow seem similar to a number of southern U.S. TV characters. Do you think you’ve been influenced—Americanised, essentially—in the way you perceive a post-apocalyptic world to be?
This is an interesting question, and not one I quite know how to answer. I think it would be interesting to ask an American if they felt the same way. My feeling is that there’s a hybrid of influences, and each reader will pick up on certain ones, depending on their background and familiarities.
Let me say, though, that I do have a fascination with the USA, especially the southern-most states. I visited last April, and travelled through Texas, Louisiana, and Florida. Each city I visited had a completely different feel, both the city itself and the people. In terms of literature, I do enjoy authors who write with a strong regional American flavour (Cormac McCarthy, Daniel Woodrell). I love the Southern Gothic sub-genre, and the type of storytelling associated with it.
There are characters in Irradiated that I give a strong drawl, and a sort of keep-things-close-to-the-chest way of speaking. Some of this may be influenced from the type of literature I enjoy, but also: I think there is a strong overlap between low-technology post-apocalyptic stories, and frontier westerns. You take away cars and electricity, depopulate the landscape, and suddenly it becomes more about peoples own interests and survival. Every encounter comes with the possibility of danger, and this affects how people talk. When Jade encounters people she doesn’t trust, she slips into a similar manner of speaking. I think this is very natural for many of us – out manner of speaking often mirrors our situation and the people we’re talking to.
I also think that many of my characters have a very Australian way of talking, especially the protagonists. I think if an American were to read this, these would stand out more strongly. The world of Irradiated is far removed in time from modern day Australia, so I’m happy to let a blend of dialects and styles blend together.
In your other work, 18/20, you come back to the society-on-the-brink-of-collapse setting with Elia, and a clear divide between the upper and lower classes. What do you think draws you to this type of sci-fi world instead of the utopian ideal?
Speculative Fiction, as its title suggests, comes from sitting down and thinking “what could happen?” For me, the results are almost always dystopian. The futures I imagine are negative because I think, respective to our current position, this is how it will be. In many senses, we’re already living in a dystopian setting. All I do is imagine future permutations it.
Occasionally, I come up with a story idea that is just, well, too negative. I had an idea about a story where, in order to control population, the government kills the mother if/when they have a child. It’s kind of like an inversion of the one-child policy. The story would have been about a young woman who discovers she is pregnant, and does everything in her control to try and save her life (and that of the baby). I told my partner about it and she just said, “No. You’re not writing that”. So I suppose there’s a line somewhere I should be careful of crossing. Either way, I do like to add a glimmer of hope, no matter how dim it is. There always needs to be the possibility of a character improving their situation, even if it has a cost (it should always have a cost).
Wow, that sort of sounded negative. So, another answer: Fiction is built on conflict and tension. If I imagined a utopia, there would be nothing much to write about.
We’re clearly at a pivotal moment in 18/20’s universe. The story ends, in a way, but in another it’s open and lets the reader decide the fate of everyone in that region. Are you looking to continue the narrative further in the future?
I really like this story, and I think I’ve packed a lot of ideas into it. There’s the class structure, the birth credits system, the modifications, the punitive system, and some glimpses to the history of the society. I don’t like to explain things to readers—readers are smart—so I avoid heavy-handed exposition. I think it was a challenge to fit so much world building into a 3,500 word story.
With that said, I think I would find it more natural to work it into a full-length novel, rather than continue it in the short story format. There is a lot to work with, a lot of the story still to tell, and a lot of the past not fully explored. I haven’t decided if this is something I’ll do, but it’s definitely a consideration.
Finally, on your website you’ve identified yourself as an indie author who believes self-publishing is the way forward for writers. What made you decide on this path and what have the challenges been so far?
Well, I think every writer should carefully consider their goals, and determine for themselves the best way to achieve them. The great thing about writing today is that we have options. The traditional system is no longer the only way to be a published author.
Self-publishing comes with many benefits: you have creative control, set your own release schedule, and can choose your own cover designer and editor. You can build your own platform and plan your own marketing. You can be nimble and adaptive.
Best of all, you own your own work, now and forever.
To me, it boiled down to this: did I want to spend years chasing a 1:100,000 shot at a landing a publishing contract, then wait a year for the book to be released, and maybe marketed, and maybe put in bookstores, and then maybe have them pick up my next book, in maybe another year, or maybe maybe maybe… all based on the decisions of a very few people, from very few companies. Or did I want to roll my sleeves up and get stuck into the business of writing and selling books? To me, the choice was obvious.
The main challenge is, and always will be, gaining the exposure you need to gain traction. This is the same for any author, no matter how they choose to publish. My plan is to keep an ear to the ground, an eye on the numbers, and re-evaluate my approach, week by week.
Thank you for stopping by Stephen. I wish you all the best with your future career.
Thanks, Kenneth. It’s been a pleasure.
S. Elliot Brandis’s works, Irradiated and 18/20 can be found on Amazon (here and here, respectively).