Brenda Clough is a writer of many worlds, and a pretty amazing person. Her oeuvre ranges from science fiction to Victorian historical adventures, and she was nominated for both a Hugo and a Nebula award in 2002 for her novella, May Be Some Time. I first came in contact with her remotely while working with Michael A. Ventrella to co-edit Across the Universe: Tales of Alternative Beatles, in which her tale “My Sweet Lord of Light” was a highlight — and more recently in person while visiting the West Coast she and her husband Larry Clough met with me and my husband for a delightful lunch. (Later, she was kind enough to send forward an enamel pin of the stamp featuring Ursula K. LeGuin, my husband’s favorite author.) A true mensch!
Having published dozens of stories over the decades, Clough is back with not one but two novels to come out in 2023: A Door in His Head and A Deal in Her Pocket, an achievement I wanted to mark with a blog post and an interview. Dive in with me as I grill Clough on her stories, her history and everything in between:
If someone is reading this blog and doesn’t know who Brenda W. Clough is, how would you explain your work to them in two or three sentences?
Brenda W. Clough: Probably I’m too creative for my own good. I write SF, fantasy, and historical fiction, children’s fiction, twenty-four novels in all. Surely it would be more profitable to buckle down to one thing?
You have your two novels coming out this year. Tell us a little about how these books connect to one another, and how they connect to your previous works.
Clough: Casting my mind back, this whole thing may have begun when I wrote Revise the World [in 2008]. This was the time travel novel about Antarctic explorer Titus Oates, and the  novella “May Be Some Time” pulled from that novel was a finalist for both the Hugo and the Nebula. Oates was born in 1880 and died in 1912, so to a great extent, although the work wasn’t set in the Edwardian period, there were mental attitudes Oates inevitably carried forward through time. And, above all, he had the vocabulary he was raised in, the words and cadence of the English upper class male.
To do that novel right I read not only ever word Oates ever wrote, but every word ever published by every member of the Scott expedition – everybody published their journals. And by the time I was done I had the voice and vocabulary down pat. It’s useful, for a writer to have a couple of gears, and now I had a 19th century one.
So it was easy to write Edge to Center, a trilogy about a Victorian scientist who invents a time machine. And then I wrote eleven straight Victorian thrillers set in the latter half of the 19th century, featuring Miss Marian Halcombe, last seen in Wilkie Collins’ famous novel The Woman in White. I have no idea why Collins didn’t write sequels himself. But since he didn’t, I did. It was so easy to write these things, it was frightening. I was writing three novels a year.
But then I finally hit a wall. I couldn’t do Victorian idiom any more. I had to bail out, do something entirely different. But I had built a deep back story for those eleven thrillers, a big family tree with a number of nasty implications. So I skipped forward a generation or so and dropped back into the story in 1949, right after WWII.
That novel, A Door in His Head [out June 20], is about Stephen See and his struggle to recover from the aftermath of the Japanese occupation of his (imaginary) country in Southeast Asia. This book has just been awarded the Diverse Voices Award from Grand View University in Iowa, and it should be available in May.
Then, because Stephen had a sister Star, I had to write A Deal in Her Pocket, about her problems juggling the demands of career and heart.
Your books have a lot of Victoriana in them – what’s appealing about that time period for you as a storyteller?
Clough: The Marian Halcombe novels are thrillers – I packed in every single Victorian peril I could find. Bigamy, murder, wicked schoolmasters, stolen gems, lost cities in the jungle, orphaned heirs to thrones, weird religious cults, I’ve tried to hit them all. And I’ve stuck as closely to real attitudes and beliefs as I can. Sometimes you look at the news and it’s impossible to believe we’ve progressed. In these books I’ve tried to demonstrate that it was much worse, 150 years ago.
Jumping into more modern times – the 20th Century – for Door and Deal provided what kind of challenges for you? What part of it was freeing?
Clough: The big relief about writing these two more modern novels was the bigger world. There’s radio and newspapers and, in the right places, telephone. Airplanes! Music! They can listen to Elvis Presley and Bill Haley and the Comets!
Your parents are from China, though you were born in Washington, D.C. and then traveled the world. How did that influence the story you wanted to tell in Door, which focuses on Singapore during World War II?
Clough: There’s no substitute for actually visiting a foreign setting. Raw imagination only carries you so far. I’ve made up a few nations in the region, mainly so that I don’t have to fit the entire series into the history of Indonesia or the Philippines. But I’ve happily borrowed large chunks of culture, food, climate and even politics.
What about Deal, in which a character runs an island nation in the South China Sea?
Clough: Thanks to the war the (imaginary) island nation of Singii cycled through Star’s older siblings. Now she’s the last one holding the ball. Although she can manage the country reasonably well, she has the same problem that Elizabeth I had. How can you find a guy who isn’t out for what he can get from you?
Are there echoes of personal family stories in that book, or did you want to avoid pulling from your own history?
Clough: No, I don’t need reality in these books. In fact every now and then the cloven hoof of the fantasy writer peeks through, and there are magical happenings. But I did put myself and my sister into Door. We’re on the airplane with Stephen as he’s flying back to Asia.
Do you consider Deal to be a romance novel? Why aim for that particular genre?
Clough: The situation – a girl juggling career and love – it’s already a romance novel! All Star had to do is find a way to get together with her Mr. Right. He’s Mack Spencer, American lawyer and CIA asset, and he produces a lawyer solution: a deal, delineating what the romance is going to include, and what’s not covered. Of course it can’t possibly be that easy.
What’s unique about your heroine’s romantic life in it?
Clough: After the previous unpleasantness with colonialism in Asia, and the war, Star’s people are not up for rule by foreigners. She can keep Mack on the side, but she can’t marry him. But then she does meet someone suitable, the son of a Singapore big shot. She doesn’t love him but she’s going to marry him, unless Mack does something about it.
Even though the books are just coming out now, Door actually won a prize in April: The Diverse Voices prize, from Grand View University in Des Moines, Iowa. What was it like to have the story honored before it even made it to an audience?
Clough: I was astonished and delighted when Door won. I’m hoping this will get the work to a wider readership.
Could there be a third in the Door and Deal series? Does the series have an umbrella name yet?
Clough: The series is called the Cockeyed Optimists, from the song in South Pacific. This is because it’s about people who can not only recover from war and tragedy, but who are resilient. They bend but they don’t break. I’m kind of hoping I won’t have to write that third novel, which already has a cover and a title, His Clockwork Heart. Too bad I’m not all that certain what it’s about!
What is inspiring you these days, whether from books or other areas of your world?
Clough: I’m planning to take another sharp left turn again, and get back to science fiction. I’ve had a first contact novel in mind for a long time now and if I don’t write it pretty soon I may never do it. And it’s devouring, to write a lot of novels very fast. There’s no time to do anything else! By attacking something really difficult and new to me maybe I can slow down.
More on Brenda W. Clough here.
Purchase A Door in His Head here.
A Deal in Her Pocket will be released on June 20 from Book View Cafe.