About Songs of the Dead by Butler Singleton

Writing Songs of the Dead

Chris Butler and Sarah Singleton

Sarah: I first met Chris about ten years ago through the letters to the editor page of the magazine Interzone, in which we disagreed about the merits of a story by Richard Calder. We were both writers at the beginning of our fiction-writing careers. I think it was Chris who suggested we should collaborate on a short story. I had never tried a collaboration before but I liked Chris's style and thought it would be an interesting idea. Neither of us, however, imagined this experiment in collaborative writing would evolve into a piece on the scale of "Songs of the Dead".

Chris: I had it in mind it would be a short story and wouldn't take much time. After all, with two of us writing...and it turned into a novelette and took months! I remember discussion about what kind of story. Did you want to write some science fiction? (no). Historical, then. Somehow we settled on Blake, but not just any Blake.

Sarah: I have written science fiction short stories but, perversely, always with some kind of historical theme--either as alternate histories, or, in "The White Devil" (Spectrum SF), a future in which Jacobean theatre has become fashionable again--even if the actors are robots. This time we appropriated the visionary, poet and engraver William Blake and created a story for his boyhood.

Chris: I remember I wrote the first page or two and sent it off to you. It came back completely transformed and I was amazed. I knew I had to raise my game! I think I had it in the back of my mind that I would learn something from writing with you. I had an inkling you had a different approach to things.

Sarah: We have very different writing styles--so I knew it was going to be a challenge for both of us, creating something with a sense of unity. I tended to write in a fairly dense, descriptive style while your writing is more pared down, and possesses a quality of clarity I like very much. I would say that since writing the story my style has evolved and become less baroque. It was a valuable learning process.

Chris: When I thought we were done you added more. When you thought we were done I added more. In the end we had thirteen thousand words and everyone knows you can't sell those. We tried anyway. And GUD took it seriously and did some proper copy-editing. What more could anyone want?

Sarah: I particularly enjoyed the creative dynamic. Usually a writer works alone, so when ideas and inspiration dry up you can feel marooned. An important aspect of the collaboration was your ability to come up with an excellent idea or a new plot development just at the point when I was flagging. I also enjoyed (as I always do) our joint effort at recreating the historical period and trying to make it vivid and sensuous. Inevitably we had disagreements about things--but fortunately didn't fall out or abandon the story! We always managed to reach a compromise.