Today for the Novella Project, we're speaking to Brent C. Lambert:
Brent Lambert is a Black, queer man who heavily believes in the transformative power of speculative fiction across media formats. As a founding member of FIYAH Literary Magazine, he turned that belief into action and became part of a Hugo Award winning team. He resides in San Diego but spent a lot of time moving around as a military brat. His family roots are in the Cajun country of Louisiana. Currently, his novella A Necessary Chaos is out from Neon Hemlock and he is also part of cyberpunk/solarpunk anthology Fighting for the Future and Black horror anthology All These Sunken Souls. Ask him his favorite members of the X-Men and you’ll get different answers every time.
Adri reviewed A Necessary Chaos for the project yesterday, and you can read that review here.
For your recently published/forthcoming A Necessary Chaos, did you set out to write a novella, or was it something that happened as part of the process? How do you make that decision when you write?
So I was approached by dave ring about writing a novella and I pitched a few ideas at him. He gravitated towards the one that would eventually become A Necessary Chaos. It was my first time ever writing a novella and whewwww boy it was difficult. I'm grateful for the experience though because it helped me grow so much as a writer. I think in the future what will determine for me if a story is going to be a novella or not is how much I want to zoom in on a character's relationships.
To follow up on that answer - what was it about it being in a novella format that made it so difficult? And what differences did you find in the process of writing compared to your previous work?
I had never done it before and anyone who follows me for a while knows I am a huge worldbuilder. I like to create sprawling worlds and that was a bit counterintuitive to me working in this format—at first. But with some very helpful editing, I was able to navigate those uncharted waters. I tend to have idea vomit in my first drafts because I’m doing what I love and keeping it interesting for me as I write, but in revisions you have to figure out what’s narratively important to present.
On a personal note, writing it was hard because there was grief in the midst of writing it. I had lost someone who I cared about dearly. Derrick Ferguson was a writing mentor to me for years and he passed right as I was beginning the process. If I’m being honest with myself, I should have taken the proper time to process, but I was so determined to get things done I pushed through and wrote a draft anyway. I think I would have done myself a favor if I had taken the time to step aside and deal with it.
Differences in the process…well, I think it’s safe to say that thus far this is one of my most personal projects to date. I had to deal with more inner hurts, hopes and traumas than with any other piece before it. I was doing a lot of bleeding on the page. This novella required me to show up authentically.
Picking up your point about worldbuilding there's an impressive amount of world in the story of A Necessary Chaos for a novella this size. Especially in the early parts you get us up to speed on a lot of politics of a lot of groups very quickly. Was it just a process of putting it all in the first draft and then cutting and cutting and cutting, or did you find some other way to strike that balance?
Definitely the latter. I say this a lot, but my drafts tend to be idea vomit. There’s just concept after concept and this historical tidbit and these nine characters and this listicle of poisons lmao. You get the idea, but yea I tend to just pour it all out in the first draft and then I need to pair it down as I revise. I tried to write something recently where I held back and I got bored with it before I even hit 10,000 words and I think I may need to just accept that this is my process. I have to feel like there’s a lot of going on to keep the words flowing.
As a separate question (which has been pretty much sat with me since I started the book) - One of the things I really appreciated about A Necessary Chaos is that sex is very present - in how the characters think about each other, as well as actually happening on page. I find it more unusual to see that for queer characters on page, compared to how present it is in books with primarily hetero love interests. Was that something you consciously thought about when you wrote it, or was this simply the story you wanted to tell, as you wanted to tell it?
Yes, it was a conscious thought, and it was one my editor dave helped to push me harder on. If anyone has listened to the podcast I’m a co-host on, Just Keep Writing, you will have heard me complain about the way that gay men are written in genre fiction. You rarely, if ever, see us talk about hooking up or having casual sex which is this omnipresent thing for many, many gay men. Just look on Twitter any time you see a cishetero person clutching their pearls about how many sex partners someone should have and the subsequent gay men reading them for filth in the comments about how boring and sad straight people are to put such restrictions on themselves.
And while I’m happy to see the gay romantic arcs where guys find their first love and stay with that love for years and years—that just ain’t the experience of a lot of gay men. We struggle with love and romance sometimes and a lot of that stems from the trauma of having to hide your fundamental self during your formative years. There’s a quote and I’m paraphrasing where it talks about Black boys who love Black boys need to be patient with each other because they don’t teach a love like this. And it’s so true! We don’t get to see what our kind of love looks like and so we sometime struggle. I think that’s important to show in fiction.
I just want us to have variety at the buffet.
Accepting that genre is often a nebulous thing, would you consider A Necessary Chaos a romantasy/romance book, or an SFF book with a strong romance thread in it? What do you think goes into making it that genre/subgenre?
I wouldn’t consider it a romantasy/romance book if only because I think that would be dismissive of those genres. The people who work in those spaces are very skilled in the narrative norms of those genres and have a deep intentionality when writing them. I hate to see those stories get written off as fluff because I can see how much actual understanding of mechanics is needed to do them exceptionally. I guess what I’m saying is; I didn’t have that kind of intentionality of skill when writing this novella. I knew at the core it would have these two queer men in love and trying to find happiness, but I didn’t go into the writing with the intention of “oh this is romantasy” if that makes sense?
BUT (I’m a Libra so there’s always a but) I can’t control nor would I want to control how readers receive my work. So if people receive it as being a romantasy or romance then I’m not going to stop them. I think how authors perceive their work and how readers perceive that same work can be very different and both still be completely valid. I’m a huge proponent of multiple truths getting to exist at once.
Do you tend to read books with strong romantic arcs yourself, and are there any other books, whether pure romance, romantasy or other genre SFF with romantic throughlines that you recommend, or that particularly resonated with you, or that you drew inspiration from for your writing? What do you think makes a good one?
So I don’t necessarily seek out romance as a genre per se, but I am a deeply romantic guy at heart and romance plotlines will never turn me off to a story. I think for me, most of my romance wellsprings occur in other media besides books. Like music and movies tend to be where I find the romances that rip me asunder in the best way. Moonlight left me an inconsolable mess. Joe and Nicky from The Old Guard are my forever relationship goals. I hope there’s a version of me out there in the multiverse that gets to proclaim my love for my partner the way Joe did.
Bringing back to books though, I did recently finished Fractured Infinity by Nathan Tavares a few days ago and OH MY GOD would I go to war for the couple in that book (Hayes and Yusuf). I didn’t know my heart needed that kind of romance where it’s just based in two beautifully broken people colliding together. Such a good story. The hard fought love story in The Spear Cuts Through Water with Keema and Jun is another one I really love. Not a thing is earned easily between them. Another such hard fought romance is between Touraine and Luca in C.L. Clark’s The Magic of the Lost trilogy is another I love because there are no easy answers.
…and I’m starting to see a theme in what I like as I respond to this! Yea I like the romances that aren’t easy. The ones where the love doesn’t happen instantly and even if it does, it can’t come to fruition right away. I like the romances that tip toe right on the edge of tragedy.
Looping away a little bit from romance, you touched earlier on working with dave ring, but what was your general experience of publishing with a small press like? Is there anything that was particularly unexpected/good/anything you wish you'd known going in?
So working with a small press allowed me to feel a lot bolder in the choices I made with my story. dave was exceptional at pushing me to make things sexier, more detailed, more vicious. It’s like he knew that I needed that permission and gave it to me wholeheartedly. I’m not so sure I’d get that experience with a traditional publisher. At least not for a debut novella out the gate. It seems to me that the industry doesn’t let you really start pushing the envelope until you’re a few books deep. Obviously, many exceptions exist but that’s been my general observation.
I really enjoyed the little frills I got for the book that I’m pretty sure don’t happen as often in trad pub books. Like I got chapter illustrations which was so cool and I’m pretty sure I want to get one of them tatted on my arm actually.
Like all Neon Hemlock novellas, A Necessary Chaos has a really lovely cover. What was your involvement in the process of designing/choosing/sourcing that art?
This is another area where I think being with small press was fabulous. dave asked me who I wanted to do the cover art. I had been a fan of Cathy Kwan’s for so long and just couldn’t imagine a better artist for my boys. But, she’s really really good and talent deserves to charge for their skills ya know? So I wasn’t sure it could happen, but dave just took the reins and reached out to her. She liked the story enough and agreed to do it within a budget that worked for the press. I could not have been more thankful and still am honestly.
But in terms of design, I sent Cathy this big ass document describing the characters. I went a bit off the deep end, but apparently that was appreciated because clients tend to do the opposite and it doesn’t give the artist a clear direction. But yea, after that Cathy went to work and created the amazing cover that so many people have fallen in love with.
Do you read novellas yourself at all? If so, what draws you to them particularly?
Oh yea I definitely read novellas! As to what draws me to them—well on a practical level the more involved I get in having a writing career, the harder it becomes to carve out time to read. Novellas give me the satisfaction of a great novel without as much of a time investment. But beyond the practical, I admire the craft of novellas because they really do have some different considerations. Best way I describe them in my head is that they are the special 6-episode mini-series to a novel’s 12 episode season. The mini-series and thus the novella, has to work so much harder in my opinion to emotionally capture an audience and get them past the hump of “this isn’t going to last long so I’m not going to give too much of myself to it”. And that’s a huge barrier to be able to move a reader past and some novella writers do it with such exacting precision.
Are there any you love and would recommend?
The Border Keeper by Kerstin Hall! I feel like that book was written specifically for me and some specter of me from an alternate reality was haunting Kerstin the entire time it was being written. I loved it that much and cannot recommend it enough.
Ring Shout by P. Djèlí Clark! There just aren’t many people who can build worlds the way he can. And this novella is a love letter to Black resistance during Jim Crow while also being a takedown of Lovecraft’s worship at the altar of racism. Loved it!
The Murders of Molly Southbourne by Tade Thompson! Talk about a high concept story being told to perfection. It’s gritty, brutal, and the prose just keeps punching you. I need Hollywood to stop playing and make this a movie already. It’s so gripping.
A Ruin of Shadows by L.D. Lewis! L.D. does not get the recognition she deserves for her writing and I will keep screaming that until I feel satisfied she does. General Edo is the anti-hero rejecting her role in empire that we all need desperately right now. But there’s just a sheer badassness tinged with a small hum of tragedy that L.D. brings to Edo and it makes her such a memorable character.
As the penultimate question, having read your bio, I have to ask - what would be today's answer(s) for your favourite members of the X-Men? (Child-me loved Gambit, but I'm not sure adult me quite concurs)
Exodus! It’s funny now how much the Krakoan era of X-Men has expanded my choices. But yea he’s been in my thoughts lately. His radicalism married to a religious fanaticism is an interesting mix to watch.I Want That Twink Obliterated and it’s basically taking a queer perspective to Pulp SFF style tales. The story I’m working on for it is heavily inspired by Conan and Vampire Hunter D. It’s been amazing getting to just be so lush with my worldbuilding as those stories tended to just go for more and more, leaving it to the reader to either catch up or give up.All These Sunken Souls with a group of just brilliant Black writers. I felt so honored to be in company with them. My story there is basically about some temporal madness and what it means to be able to see far too many futures.
A Necessary Chaos, I hope readers find comfort in it. I wrote it to be an action fantasy full of fun, but hopefully managed to slide in something about the possibilities of a better world too. And I don’t think there are many books out with two gay Black men on the cover (especially smoldering that hard!) so if you support the book for no other reason, let it be so that presses can see there’s a market for guys like me to be front and center.