Interview With an Author: Gareth Brown

Daryl M., Librarian, West Valley Regional Branch Library,
Author Gareth Brown and his debut novel, The Book of Doors
Author Gareth Brown and his debut novel, The Book of Doors. Photo of author: S P Lee

Gareth Brown wanted to be a writer from a very young age, and he completed his first novel as a teenager. For the last twenty years, he has worked in the UK Civil Service and the National Health Service while writing in his spare time. When not working or writing, Gareth loves traveling, especially the whirlwind first few hours in a new city and long road trips through beautiful landscapes. He enjoys barbecues, patisseries, playing pool, and falling asleep in front of the television like an old man. Gareth lives with his wife and two impudent and highly excitable Skye terriers near Edinburgh, Scotland. The Book of Doors is his first published novel and he recently talked about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.

What was your inspiration for The Book of Doors?

I’d had the idea for a 'book of doors' that could turn any door into every door for a long time, but I’d always imagined it as a device that would suit a fantasy novel, something a wizard might have. I don’t write fantasy, so I never really did anything with it. It was only during the Covid pandemic, when travel was restricted, and I couldn’t go anywhere that I found myself wishing I had a ‘book of doors’ so I could open my study door and just be somewhere else. That was really the genesis—what would happen if there was a book of doors in our contemporary world? What sort of person would have it, and what would they do with it?

The other key bit of inspiration was New York City itself—it is one of my favorite places. I’d been in the city in 2018 on a trip to the US that my wife and I took, and I really wanted to go back again. I set the book in New York so I could travel vicariously through my characters!

Are Cassie, Izzy, Drummond, Lund, or any of the other characters in the novel inspired by or based on specific individuals?

I don’t think so. I do sometimes use a real-life person as an inspiration for the look of a character—for example, the physical description of Lund is based on a real-life person—but the characters themselves are usually entirely a product of my brain.

Who or what was your inspiration for The Woman?

The Woman was interesting because it took me a long time to work out who (or what) she was. I think I understood The Woman when I realized that she would say very little. To me, there is something terrifying about a villain who reveals nothing about their thoughts. I wanted the woman to be silent, mysterious, and terrifying, almost like a force of nature, a storm that blows in unpredictably and causes devastation.

How did the novel evolve and change as you wrote and revised it? Are there any characters or scenes that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?

It changed hugely. I don’t plan at all, and when I started, I had only the very first scene and I knew nothing else that would happen. As I write, I prefer to discover the story as it is much more like reading a book. That can be thrilling, but it can also lead to lots of plot problems. For a long time, the character of Drummond Fox had a completely different motivation and back story, and it was only very late in the writing process that I discovered the idea of Drummond’s hidden library. That seems unbelievable now because it is such a central feature of the plot. I didn’t lose any characters or scenes. If anything, scenes were added during the edit because my publishers wanted more of certain things—more of the back story with Drummond’s friends in the library, for example, or more scenes showing just how evil The Woman is.

There are a lot of different types of books in The Book of Doors with different types of powers/abilities. Was there a book that you had the idea for but were unable to include in the novel?

There were one or two other books I came up with that didn’t make it into the novel. I am keeping those up my sleeve in case there is a sequel!

If you could own just one of the special books, which would it be?

It has to be The Book of Doors. That is where the novel started, it was the first book that occurred to me. I love traveling, but I hate airports and airplanes, so The Book of Doors would be just perfect.

If you had the Book of Doors for a day, where is the first place you would use the book to visit? How would you spend your day?

The one thing I love more than traveling is eating, so I think I would spend the day going to my favorite places to eat my favorite food! I would start with breakfast in Malaysia, where my wife is from, perhaps with a curry laksa at a restaurant near the beach in my wife’s hometown. Then through a doorway to Tokyo for a wander around Shinjuku for a few hours before we find a place for ramen or sushi for lunch. And then I think we’d have to end the day in New York City, watching the lights come on as the sky darkens. We’d have dinner in a deli, maybe 2nd Avenue Deli, which is one of our favorites, and then home for a cup of tea in front of the television before bed!

The Fox Library sounds beautiful! Is it based on an actual location (or a combination of locations)?

Yes. The Library is heavily based on a hotel in the north west Scottish Highlands called The Torridon. It’s a beautiful red stone building set in fabulous surroundings. I unashamedly stole it as the inspiration for Drummond’s home.

Do you have a favorite time travel novel, television episode/series, or motion picture? A least favorite? (I realize that you may not want to address this one, and if that is the case, please don’t. But I also realize it might be so bad that it could be fun to answer.)

Great question! I can bore you for hours about time travel in fiction… I haven’t read very many time travel novels, but there are a few that I really liked: The Time Machine by H.G. Wells; The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers which is fabulous, and Replay by Ken Grimwood. I find that many novels that are supposedly about time travel actually just use time travel as a plot device—to put a character in the past or the future, where they go off and have adventures. There are not many novels that are actually about time travel itself and the impact time travel would have on people—The Forever War by Joe Haldeman is one that does do this very well. (The novel I wrote that first got me signed with my agent was an exploration of the implications for our real world if time travel was possible—sadly, that novel didn’t sell, but I still think there’s a gap in the market there for time travel geeks!)

Thinking of films, Back to Future 2 is a fabulous time travel film, Back to the Future, is a better film, but number 2 is a better time travel film because it really explores the implications of time travel). There is also a brilliant Spanish film called Timecrimes, which explores what Wagner in my novel would describe as 'closed model time travel.' Primer is probably the best pure exploration of time travel in film that I have seen. I am good with time travel, but even I had to consult various internet sources to help me understand it.

As for television series… there is a fabulous German series called Dark, which plays with time travel. I watched it last year, and it blew my mind—any series that has characters ending up as their own grandfather is worth a watch.  And of course, I have to mention Doctor Who, which does on occasion do wonderful things with time travel, particularly during the years Steven Moffat was showrunner.

I do have some time travel books I have read that I didn’t enjoy for various reasons… but I don’t like bashing other authors publicly, so I won’t answer that! (I might tell you over a nice cup of tea if we ever get the chance.)

Coffee or Tea?

Tea. All day, every day. I am not a coffee drinker. Tea is just better in every way. I know that might be controversial to my coffee-loving friends in America, but I will die on this hill.

Where is the strangest place you’ve ever asked if they had whiskey, knowing they would probably tell you no? Where is the most unexpected place where they answered yes?

I actually don’t drink whisky! Other people have suggested that Drummond Fox’s love for whisky perhaps reflects my own predilections, but it does not. I don’t drink alcohol at all, and certainly not whisky (spirits of any type are the worst). So the answer is: I have never asked for whisky!

As a debut author, what have you learned during the process of getting your novel published that you would like to share with other writers about this experience?

I have learned a lot about how busy everyone is in publishing! Also, how many different steps there are in the process between manuscript and published book. I knew, of course, that the book would be edited, but I didn’t know about the many different rounds of edits the book would go through. The promotion and marketing side of things has been a learning curve—having to promote myself and the book through short videos, podcasts, and Q&As—I have loved it, but I can well appreciate that for many people, it would be daunting. I would say to other writers that if you want to be a published author and if you want as many people as possible to read your book, you have to engage with the commercial and promotional side of things. You may feel more comfortable as an artist and a creator, but as a published author, you are part of a commercial business.

What’s currently on your nightstand?

Two books, that I am starting almost simultaneously: The Book Eaters by Sunyi Dean, and Damascus Station, a spy thriller by David McCloskey who is a former CIA analyst. I’ve heard great things about both.

Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?

Stephen King, because he was the first author I read who made me want to be a writer. Michael Connelly and Lee Child, because I love compelling thrillers that make you want to keep reading, and I am a big fan of popular, commercial fiction. Connelly and Child are masters in that field. Dan Simmons, because he is a brilliant writer who can jump between genres and deploy mind-bending ideas seemingly with ease, and because he wrote my all-time favorite novel. Finally, I would say Iain Banks, a brilliant Scottish author who sadly passed away ten years ago. Banks wrote both literary and (as Iain M Banks) science fiction novels. I still miss the books he would have written.

What was your favorite book when you were a child?

I didn’t read a lot as a child, I only really started reading properly as a teenager. But I used to love the Asterix comics—are they available in the US?—I would borrow all of them from my local library. They were so witty. I also remember loving children’s editions of both Dracula and Frankenstein long before I read the full novels.

Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?

No, never. My parents were always very liberal when it came to books. I think they encouraged us to read, and they saw the value in whatever we were reading. Certainly, I remember my older brother reading adult fiction at a very young age. I think there would have been very few books—perhaps horror novels or very graphic novels—they would have stopped us reading as younger children, but by the time we were in our teens, I think we could have read anything.

Is there a book you've faked reading?

Ha! Great question! Yes… I studied literature at university, but I didn’t enjoy it for various reasons. I distinctly remember trying to read A Passage To India and failing to get past the first fifty pages. (I am sure that is a reflection on me rather than on the excellence of that book, and I have sort of committed to trying it again one day.) Somehow, I still managed to answer an exam question on the novel without admitting I hadn’t read most of it. I got a B as well, I think. That’s faking it!

Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?

So many! I always judge a book by the cover. And I love visiting the US to look at the different covers on US editions of books I have—I bought a US edition of Dan SimmonsHyperion because the cover was much better than the UK edition.

The UK edition of Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell has a beautiful cover, in a sort of dark pink color that you don’t often see on books. I bought that book because of that cover. I also have a lovely set of hardback editions of the Ring trilogy by Japanese author Koji Suzuki, from Vertical Inc publishers. I bought those books entirely because the covers were beautiful.

Is there a book that changed your life?

I have two answers to that. Firstly, Christine by Stephen King. It was the first Stephen King book I read, the first book I read off my own back after my friends at school recommended it to me. It’s not even one of King’s best, but it totally captured me. For the first time ever, I understood why people loved reading. It was upon reading Christine that I realized I too wanted to be a writer (and I proceeded to write blatant Stephen King rip-offs for probably five years).

My second answer is, of course, The Book of Doors! Because that is the book that enabled me to realize my dreams.

Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?

There are a few, but certainly Hyperion by Dan Simmons. It is my all-time favorite novel. It is essentially a series of short stories with a connecting thread, but those stories are individually superb, and the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. It features time travel, brilliant characters, a terrifying, mysterious antagonist in The Shrike, philosophy and poetry, ideas about religion and politics, and thrilling action and adventure. I love it, but I evangelize about it partly because I know many people would struggle to get into it. It starts with quite hard sci-fi, and the different voices and styles used across the different stories ask a lot of you as a reader. I am not a hard sci-fi lover, so I understand why people might be turned off. But it is a book that is worth the effort. I’ve read it three times, and it always gives you something new.

The other book I evangelize about is probably Red Dragon by Thomas Harris—probably the single best police-pursuing-serial-killer novel I have read. I love crime thrillers, but if you want to write in that genre, you have to know that you can compete with these all-time greats like Red Dragon. I just don’t see how anyone can do it better than he did it.

Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?

There’s a book called Boy’s Life by Robert R McCammon. The book is set in a wonderfully atmospheric Alabama in the 1960s, where life changes for a young boy when he and his father discover a naked, beaten corpse in a submerged car. The novel depicts that time in our lives when the darkness of adulthood drags us away from the innocence of childhood. It is a fabulous read, laced with the bitter-sweet nostalgia of someone looking back on their own childhood and remembering long-lost friends and old adventures. I would love to read it for the first time again.

What is the last piece of art (music, movies, TV, more traditional art forms) that you've experienced or that has impacted you?

I’ve watched a lot of excellent television over the last few years—it seems like the quality of programs is getting better and better (although you sometimes have to hunt to find them gems). One of the things I’ve watched recently that affected me most was a British program called The Detectorists. It is a comedy-drama about two friends who are metal detectors. It was very, very British, with lots of shots of the beautiful English countryside, gentle humor, oddball characters, fabulous music, and a lovely bitter-sweet feel. I loved it.

More recently my wife and I have just finished watching Severance and that was superb. A fabulous high-concept idea executed really well. I am looking forward to seeing what they do with the second season.

What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?

My perfect day would probably start in a nice hotel in a big city—London or New York or Tokyo. My wife would be there, and we would spend the day wandering the streets and exploring, stopping in cafes for cups of tea and slices of cake. And then an evening meal in a fabulous restaurant. Maybe a massage thrown in at some point to ease the aches and pains? And, of course, books and bookshops scattered generously throughout the day.

What is the question that you’re always hoping you’ll be asked but never have been? What is your answer?

Can I give you a million pounds? Of course, my answer would be 'Yes'!

More seriously…I would love to be asked to write an episode of Doctor Who. I don’t know if I would have the confidence to do actually it…but I would think about it very seriously!

What are you working on now?

I have just recently finished a draft of what I hope will be my second novel—it has gone to my agent and will shortly go to editors to see if they like it. With that done, I am happily doing nothing! I’ve written five novels in the last two-and-a-bit years so I am taking a break for a few months to enjoy the publication of The Book of Doors.

Book cover of The Book of Doors
The Book of Doors
Brown, Gareth