Brendan P. Bellecourt was raised in the cold climes of rural Wisconsin, where he lives still with his family and trio of cats. His love of science fiction was sparked early by Frank Herbert’s Dune and C. J. Cherryh’s Faded Sun Trilogy. Later influences include Robert Charles Wilson, Ted Chiang, and China Miéville. His favorite stories are those with flawed protagonists who are deeply affected by, and later come to influence, some jaw-dropping, world-altering change. Find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
In this post, Brendan discusses how pulling a few characters out and combining them into others gave readers more time to get to know them in his new science fiction novel, Absynthe, the importance of not aiming for perfection in a first draft, and more!
Name: Brendan P. Bellecourt
Literary agent: Russell Galen of SGGLit
Book title: Absynthe
Publisher: DAW Books
Expected release date: December, 2021
Genre/category: Science Fiction
Previous titles: Twelve Kings in Sharakhai (as Bradley P. Beaulieu)
Elevator pitch: Absynthe is Inception meets Metropolis, by way of The Great Gatsby, in a deco-punk tale of unchecked technology and the unforeseen costs of utopia.
What prompted you to write this book?
About four years ago, I stumbled across a TED talk from Ed Yong, a science journalist who reports for The Atlantic. The talk was on “zombie roaches and other parasite tales.” It focused on parasitic organisms and how various parasites, including bacteria, can affect the brain of their hosts.
It was a fascinating, if slightly repulsive talk, and the true genesis of Absynthe. I already knew I wanted to write a story in a reimagined version of Chicago during the Roaring 20s, but the idea of using bacteria to enhance extrasensory perceptions (with perhaps nefarious purposes) gave me a real spark to see how its development might affect the main characters, their perceptions, and how they view their place in the world.
How long did it take to go from idea to publication? And did the idea change during the process?
It took about four years from inception to publication. The basic idea didn't change all that much, but its manifestation certainly did. As the characters became more real, the ideas behind bacteria and what it allowed humans to do changed.
A prime example is via one of the main characters, a microbiologist named Dr. Colette Silva. Colette spearheaded a military experiment during Absynthe’s alternate version of World War I. In that experiment, Colette decided she couldn't trust others to report on the effects of the bacteria she was developing, and therefore began taking the bacteria herself.
Even more than the participants of the experiment, Colette developed amazing extrasensory powers, including telepathy, the ability to read minds, and more. As she gained in power, she realized she needed to hide these growing abilities from the other characters. This led to me giving Colette something no other character had: the ability to mentally mask her presence from others.
This sort of thing happened over and over again during the course of writing the novel, the basic notion of gaining ESP expanding into the ability to alter perceptions, cast illusions, even alter memories.
Were there any surprises or learning moments in the publishing process for this title?
One of the places where I felt like I stumbled was in explaining to the reader how a bacteria was developed that could affect our mental capacity. In the first version of the manuscript, I used experiments with mice to show how multiple minds might be connected in a neural network of sorts. It might've been effective in showing how the bacteria worked but did nothing to create a deeper connection between the reader and the story.
I ended up changing those experiments so that they were done on people instead of mice, so that the reader could not only see what was happening in the world around them, but also recognize how serious and grave the plans of the enemy were.
It was also the case that I had too many characters in the first draft of the novel. It meant the reader didn't get enough page time with some of them. A few ended up feeling wooden, like cardboard cut-outs. I ended up combining several characters so that the overall cast was reduced, which led, I hope, to a group of characters who feel more bright and real to the reader.
Were there any surprises in the writing process for this book?
I underestimated initially how difficult it was going to be to write a book about illusions and our basic ability to perceive the world around us. The story has, in essence, an unreliable narrator in former soldier Liam Mulcahey, not because Liam himself is deceptive in any way, but because the world was made into unknown quantity through the illusions and deceptions created by the enemy: a secretive government group known as the Cabal.
If I wasn't careful with material, it could end up being really frustrating for the reader. I had to take care in presenting the world while also creating a sense of wonder and mystery via the illusions involved in the story.
Part of the solution was to make sure it was doled out in small pieces. Another was to make sure the main character, Liam, was eventually able to recognize the illusions around him. Lastly, I wanted to give Liam some agency over the illusions. Providing structure and definition to the illusions Liam experienced, and later giving him a way to control them, hopefully gives the reader a sense of agency as well.
What do you hope readers will get out of your book?
The book touches on quite a few themes—from limiting government excess to the cost of unintended consequences to how we treat soldiers and veterans, particularly after a war is over—but I think the book’s main message is much more personal than that. I hope, after reading this book, people will consider what's most important in their lives and learn to cherish it, because there's no telling when it all might be taken away.
If you could share one piece of advice with other writers, what would it be?
I've given a lot of advice over the years through various talks and seminars on writing. As I embark on a new novel after writing Absynthe, I've been giving a lot of thought to how much pressure we put on ourselves while writing first drafts.
Writers tend to want to get it right on the first try. That's not terribly realistic, and in fact can impede progress in the long run. So, what I would say is this: know that the main purpose of the first draft is to figure out what the story is. Things don't have to be perfect first try. Many things will occur to you in the writing of that first draft that you will incorporate into subsequent drafts.
One of my favorite phrases in writing is, "You can always fix it in post,” meaning not everything has to be done immediately and perfectly. Mistakes can and will be made. Trust in your own ability to find and correct those mistakes. Trust that your beta readers and editors will help you along the way. This allows a certain freedom in writing the first draft, which, for me anyway, fosters creativity.
In short, do your best to lose yourself in the characters, the world, and the plot, and try to forget about the underlying structure.