Story behind Jeapes Japes by Ben Jeapes

I do admire Dire Straits for naming their greatest hits album “Money for Nothing”. I know it’s one of their more famous songs, but it also very frankly sums up greatest hits albums in a nutshell, and don’t tell me they didn’t realise it.

And what is a collection of previously published stories but the literary equivalent of a greatest hits album?

I knew I wanted to write novels. I also grew up on Asimov and Clarke, who between them managed several greatest hits albums. Both these authors loved to top and tail their stories with little essays on how the story was written, how well it had done, where it sold and so forth. Asimov was particularly good at this. They implanted the idea – which I would still say was correct, back then, though the market has changed now – that to write novels, you start with the short form. It gets you known and it’s good practice. This isn’t as easy as it sounds, since it’s a lot harder to develop characters and backgrounds and plots in 5000 words than it is in 80,000. On the plus side, if you write a short story that just doesn’t work, you’ve spent a lot less time on it than you have with a dud novel. So, short stories were what I thought I should be writing.

There was still the matter of where to sell these things. At the time this ambition took root in my head, I was a teenager living in Aldershot. Names flowed from Asimov’s articles: Astounding (which became Analog), Fantasy & Science Fiction, Galaxy. None of the above could be found in Aldershot on the newsagents’ shelves. I suppose, thinking back, that I could have asked a newsagent’s actual advice and they might have been able to get them in for me, but this was far too good an idea to occur to me at the time. I didn’t know then about Forbidden Planet or any other specialist outlets. Once, by pure chance, I did find a copy of Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine in a North Camp newsagent: I can only assume it had been ordered but never collected. The title story was ‘Her furry face’ by Leigh Kennedy, which I only mention because many years later I got to know Leigh quite well and published her excellent novel The Journal of Nicolas the American through my company Big Engine.

I found my first ever copies of Fantasy & Science Fiction and Analog in the Central Department Store, Bangkok – some distance from Aldershot – and read them over and over again. When I returned to the UK and started working in London, I discovered that you could get Analog at the WH Smith at Waterloo. For the first time I had a relatively steady diet of modern short science fiction. I emphasise the modern because even I had to admit my much-loved Clarke and Asimov wrote their best stuff back in the fifties. I can still do a very good pastiche of fifties science fiction and have spent many years trying to unlearn how.

But then came the day my father showed me an article in the Sunday Times about an SF writing competition they were running (I never got round to entering). J.G. Ballard had written an introduction. It mentioned this magazine called Interzone. A British SF magazine.

Soon after that, I came across the first Interzone anthology in the university bookshop. Quite how it got there I have no idea because the bookshop’s usual fare in the SF&F section was dire – endless, pointless fantasy trilogies and that was it. The stories in the anthology were like nothing I had seen before. More modern than Clarke and Asimov. More human than Analog. More gritty, more down to earth than Fantasy & Science Fiction. Also more literary, which I didn’t always understand but vaguely thought might be a good thing and I could learn by it.

It took time and a lot of effort and hard work, but I did become a kind of Interzone semi-regular. Well, nine stories between 1991-1999, which averages at one a year. But I still had the game plan in my head – fun as stories were, I wanted to be a novelist. And so I started to write novels and they started to be published. Some writers manage to turn out stories and novels at the same time. I’m not one of them. Thus, after the publication of my last story in 1999 (‘Go with the flow’, Interzone no. 142), it was novels only. Until … until … people started writing to me saying how much they liked the novels, and they’d read them all, and did I have anything else?

Well, actually, I did. Something in excess of 100,000 words of anything else, actually. Eighteen stories worth – sixteen if you discount the two that appeared in Doctor Who collections, for which I don’t own the rights. And so I put them up on my website, for free, as a loss-leading taster. If you didn’t read them then, well, you missed your chance.

And then people started asking about the stories. Oh for eff’s sake, what do you want, blood? But, you know, I do like talking about them … in fact I rather relished the chance of writing about them, too, Asimov-and-Clarke style. A bit of value-added for the readers, so not money for absolutely nothing. And it would be a fun exercise to edit them together into a collection, knock the dents out of them, maybe do a little (not much) updating and polishing.

Cheryl Morgan of Wizard’s Tower kindly agreed to publish the collection electronically; Colin Tate of Clarion Publishing consented that trees should die that you may read it on paper. And so, with fewer guitar riffs than “Money for Nothing”, I give you Jeapes Japes.

Ben Jeapes
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