Ben Jeapes has been a prolific SF writer since age eighteen. Working under the banners of Solaris Books, Scholastic, Random House and Wizard’s Tower Press, Belfast-born Ben has published 18 short stories, plus 7 novels of his own and several more as a ghost writer.

FB: What set you off on the path of Science Fiction?
BJ: That would be TV, pure and simple. Doctor Who, Thunderbirds, Star Trek. Of course, you can like Doctor Who and Thunderbirds without turning into a science fiction fan. Here I point the accusing finger at Countdown.

Countdown was a weekly comic that mostly ran reprinted strips from TV21, which specialised in adventures based on Gerry Anderson shows, but as I was too young to remember TV21 that didn’t matter to me. It also had a Doctor Who strip and I think I got my first ever Countdown simply because I recognised a drawing of Jon Pertwee on the cover. I didn’t know the Gerry Anderson stories were reprints – to me they were all brand new, and they expanded the TV-based stories into whole new adventures. The effects budget of a cartoon is pretty good, second only to the unlimited budget of the imagination. This was where I learnt of the other Anderson series – UFO, Stingray, Captain Scarlet, Fireball XL5 – all of which I eventually caught up with on TV as well.

On top of these there was an entirely original comic strip, the titular ‘Countdown’. Much darker and more complex than any of the others, this used spaceship designs from 2001: A Space Odyssey and told the tale of the struggle between a unilaterally independent moon colony and the oppressive Earth government under Controller Costra. The lunar colony was unexpectedly helped by the crew of the starship Countdown (based, externally, on the Discovery from 2001), returning to Earth after a decades long mission with an extra alien passenger who had augmented the ship with useful alien technology.

Countdown is what made me realise science fiction could exist as original stories outside TV. So as my reading tastes developed, from comics to books, it was only natural that they grew towards SF books.

I am astonished how unfamous the ‘Countdown’ series is today. The very first issue takes the reader through the gloomy, chill corridors of the ship towards the crew’s hibernation chamber – just as Alien would, nine years later in a manner that can only be described as reminiscent. And a mere eight years later, Blake’s 7 would give us … a bunch of heroes using the superior technology of an alien starship to fight an oppressive Earth government.

I am also astonished how much the evil Costra resembles the late Robin Cook MP. Yes, ‘Countdown’ badly deserves a revival.

FB: Where were you when you received the famous “Yes” from your first publisher, and what do you remember about that moment?
BJ: That would be His Majesty’s Starship and I remember the bafflement at learning it had been taken by Scholastic! I had written what I thought was a perfectly good hard SF space opera. The hero was a burnt-out forty-something with a teenage son and a divorce from a group marriage. There’s alien sex (not with the hero). Yet my agent said the level of sex and violence ‘would not raise the collective eyebrow of the Captain W.E. Johns readership’, which even today makes me wonder if he got his manuscripts mixed up, and if so, what happened to the Scholastic novel that ended up with Gollancz.

I can’t remember the exact ‘yes’ moment. I was probably at work when he phoned me up to say that Scholastic – or rather, the legendary (in children’s publishing) David Fickling, publisher of Philip Pullman and much other good stuff, who was then at Scholastic – would like to talk to me. That was by no means an assurance of publication, but it led to a hopeful meeting and a sequence of rewrites during which the ‘yes’ kind of crystallised.

FB: If you had to compare the writing journeys for each of the SF novels you have written, which one holds the most weight in your life, and why?
BJ: Hmm, good question. His Majesty’s Starship will always be my first child, of course, and it made me feel validated in all kinds of ways. It was also the most intensive course in writing I’ve ever had. David Fickling was full of suggestions, mostly helpful, but he also made it clear that if he ever thought I was just doing something because I thought he wanted it then it was off the table. (I’ve chronicled the development experience here if anyone’s interested.) And it still holds up. It’s been re-issued electronically by Wizard’s Tower and in hard copy by myself: I took copies of the latter along to Mancunicon and every one of them sold – not bad for a novel that will be old enough to vote in December.

But then again, I wouldn’t be where I am now without every other novel I’ve written, because each one has helped me grow and develop as a writer. The Xenocide Mission was an accidental sequel that arose when I realised there were unfulfilled plot lines; Time’s Chariot was the time travel novel I always wanted to write; The New World Order was the alternate history I always wanted to write; and Phoenicia’s Worlds was my most grown-up novel yet (and the first actually published as such) and the one that broke a ten-year hiatus. Each one has been significant, but His Majesty’s is where it all began.

FB: It isn’t often we get to meet a ‘ghost writer’. In today’s world, where many people would sell their mothers and a kidney for fifteen minutes of fame, it seems unthinkable to let someone else take a bow on your behalf, and steal the limelight. What made you accept this role, not once but three times? Shed some light for our readers behind the scenes of the elusive world of the ghost writer.
BJ: Nicely put about mothers and kidneys … My name might not be on the front cover, but my agent knows, the publishers know, it’s on my writing CV, and I’ve already got additional work because my reputation has spread behind the scenes.

I’d rather be writing than not writing. To grow as a writer, you write, so if you don’t have anything of your own then you write something else. I hit a bad case of writer’s block after The New World Order appeared in 2004, the novel that would become Phoenicia’s Worlds had stalled, and this came along. It’s in a field where I wouldn’t be writing off my own bat, so it’s usefully stretching as well.

And the income comes in handy too.

I started on the slippery slope by working for Working Partners who are very open about their business model: they develop a children’s series, sell it to a publisher, hire a writer to write it, and split the proceeds, so that if the writer has accidentally written the next Harry Potter they still reap the rewards. Publishers go for it because they know they’ll be working with professionals who submit quality work on time, rather than prima donna woolly headed writing luvvies – and having worked in publishing, believe me, that is something worth having! So, under the name Sebastian Rook I wrote the first three of the Vampire Plagues series – a trio of Victorian kids fighting Mayan vampires in London, Paris and Mexico. I was given the plot for book 1, I got to make suggestions for book 2, and for book 3 we all sat down together and worked it out from scratch.

Then my editor moved to Random House and inherited a kids’ adventure series ‘by’ A Well Known TV Celeb. Book 1 was already in the can, but based on our prior acquaintance she asked if I would be interested in doing books 2, 3 and 4. See the above paragraphs for why I said yes.

The Celeb had instigated the series because he wanted his kids to be able to read good, clean adventures like the Willard Price books of his (and my) childhood. In all cases I was given the plot and the situations the hero had to get into, while the nuances and anything like character development was left to me.

A couple of years later I was approached again for a second series. I said yes with reservations, because even in the first four books certain scenarios had started to repeat themselves. A bit like inviting Miss Marple to the vicarage tea party, you began to wonder why the hero ever went on holiday when such horrible things kept accidentally happening to him. So we talked about it at an editorial level and worked out a plot arc that added more narrative drive to the situations. Again, plots were given to me and I wrote.

And a couple of years after that I was approached again for a third series, this time with significantly more money to devise the plots AND write. I seem to have a job.

FB: Recently you’ve made the transition to Young Adult Fantasy. On your website you describe yourself as neither an adult’s nor a children’s writer – can you elaborate on this for us?
BJ: As I say, I was surprised when His Majesty’s Starship was sold to Scholastic and suddenly I was technically a children’s writer. I’d never thought of myself that way, and I just kept writing subsequent novels in the same style, though developing as a writer each time.

The boundaries between Young Adult and grown-up are more fluid than they ever have been and are only really sustained by the artificial constraints of publishers’ categories. I recently read Boy Nobody by Allen Zadoff: the hero is a teenage assassin who actually does assassinate two people, plus kill one person in self-defence, plus have sex twice (once under-age in flashback, and once with the second person he eventually assassinates) … children’s fiction, ladies and gentlemen. What makes it work is that we, the readers, know he has been horribly abused to become what he has, and we see that he is working it out too. Teen boys might read it for a vicarious snigger at the sex, but it’s all off stage and the themes are way more grown-up than that.

But, as a result of writing the aforesaid Vampire Plagues, I actually began to think in terms of writing deliberately young adult stuff. Given my druthers the Vampire Plagues kids would all have been a few years older (they were 12 and 13), and tucked away in my back catalogue I had a teenage boy called Ted who was a background character in a short story called ‘The Grey People’. I decided I would expand that story into a novel, making Ted the hero. It was a lumpy journey. I got a lot of useful hints from reading Orson Scott Card’s account of how he developed his ‘Ender’s Game’ novella into a novel – you expand it, forwards, backwards, sideways – but I finally had to conclude that the titular Grey People just didn’t work at novel length. So I had the exciting experience – and it was exciting! – of going through the draft and simply deleting every scene where the Grey People appeared, and filling in the holes with New Added Plot. And that inevitably caused the novel to grow in a whole new direction.

The result was what is now The Teen, the Witch & the Thief and very soon after that, a standalone sequel, The Comeback of the King, books 1 and 2 of the Ted Gorse Adventures. They are both contemporary fantasy, set in present day Salisbury, but they are also at the place where I now feel most at home, the interface between science fiction and fantasy. Ted is a techy kid, so for its magic the first book draws heavily on the concepts of databases and object-oriented programming and Platonic solids (which is one reason the title is a deliberate nod to Mr Lewis, even if the content is nothing like), while the second does the same with different operating systems. One of my test readers commented that the first book contains his first ever object-oriented killing. Magic and OOP are of course very similar, even though one is a dark, supernatural force and the other is just magic.

But I couldn’t interest my agent, so have self-published, in paper and electronically. It’s an interesting experiment because I’ve never been great at self-promotion even with a professionally published book, but now it’s going to be essential.

FB: What project is keeping you busy these days?
BJ: My day job is currently the third ghost-writing series. I’m contracted to do four books and have just begun number 4. What happens next … we’ll see. I generally do my daily stint in the morning, leaving the afternoon free for other things: maybe more writing, maybe promoting the Ted novels, maybe other stuff.

FB: Anything we should be looking out for?
BJ: Well, there’s another stalled fantasy novel … 87,000 words with a beginning and a middle but no end at the moment. It is definitively a Napoleonic novel as Napoleon is in it and it’s currently titled N. That might change …