This week’s Writers of Sci-Fi interview is with Gemma X Todd. She is an author, Mobile Librarian and LEGO enthusiast! Her new books, The Voices series, begins with Defender, which comes out in January 2017! So be on the lookout!
As a librarian and all round cool person, she has plenty of unique perspectives on the state of sci-fi and fantasy in the book world. Check it out!
1) Can you remember your earliest writing projects? If so, do you see any common themes that have followed through into Defender, and The Voices series?
The first “serious” project was a fantasy book I tried to write when I was fourteen. In the opening chapters, I killed off the main character’s family, so even back then I was all about the gore and violence and putting people through terrible ordeals. Honestly, though, I spent more time drawing the map for the story than actually writing it (see pictures). So, in terms of themes: violence, the predilection for killing people, and the loss of loved ones, all transferred over in to DEFENDER.
2) The Voices is going to be a quartet (or possibly a quadrilogy); how did you decide on that as the format for the story?
It decided for me, really. DEFENDER was initially a standalone story (which is why it reads so well as a standalone book with a satisfactory resolution at its end), but when I finished it, the characters wouldn’t leave me alone. They had a lot more to say and do, and there are a lot of questions that still need to be explored. The world I had created was so rich in possibilities I’d have been crazy to stop at just one.
3) What part of writing are you most comfortable with? Dialogue, prose,
characterisation, plot, etc.?
I’ll rank them in order of preference: characterisation, prose, plot… … … … … … … dialogue. I don’t hate dialogue – it plays an extremely important role – but I spend a lot of time writing it and then re-writing it then reading it aloud to myself before cutting half of it out. My main characters, however, are like family. I know what choices they’d make in any given situation. And plot is fine – I don’t tend to plan very much, but I am a huge film fan, and I do believe that over many, many years of watching thousands of movies, techniques such as story arcs and plot devices and pacing have all seeped into my subconscious.
“Alien is a big old puppet show” says Kowal. She talks the Glamourist Histories, theatre and more. Mary Robinette Kowal interview for writers of fantasy.
Mary Robinette Kowal is a multi-award winning author, best known for the Glamourist Histories series, as well as being a professional puppeteer. She talked about her writing process, about puppetree, and how even some of your favourite sci-fi movies, like Alien, are big old puppet shows.
Take a listen here, and there is a breakdown of key quotes below for those who can’t listen right away.
On performing arts, puppetry, and writing;
“It absolutely affects everything I do because I spent twenty plus years in live theatre. It’s very easy for people to think about puppetry and theatre as being two different things. We jokingly call actors who do not use puppets ‘fleshies’ or ‘meat actors’.”
“The thing about puppetry is much like what happens with science fiction and fantasy. People tend to think of it as something other than literature. That it’s somehow ‘lesser’. We’ve all experienced that when we’ve been telling someone what it is that we like to read. So, for me, one of the things that it has done in terms of influencing the way that I write, that I approach fiction, is that my job is to approach an audience. That’s what I did in theatre, that’s what I’m doing as a writer.”
“If there’s an audience where they don’t like the thing that I do, I try to find a gateway. Rather than trying to convince them that ‘oh no, this is really good’ or being embarrassed about it. You know, a lot of people will pre-appologise for what it is that they love… And that gives people permission to laugh at you.
“Whereas, with puppetry, when people say ‘what do you do?’ and if I say it very matter of factly, I’ve found the same thing is true of my writing. And if I present it as ‘this is the thing, they have to accept it at that point as something that grownups do, because I am, in fact, an adult.”
“They usually respond with ‘oh I used to love that when I was a kid’. I ask them what it is that they like now and then suggest something that they might like that is in my field. That is adjacent to what I like. So, for instance, if someone says ‘I used to love puppets when I was a kid, but now horror is really more my thing.’ I say ‘Have you tried Alien? Because, that’s a big old puppet show.'”
“Have you tried Alien? Because, that’s a big old puppet show.”
“In science fiction and fantasy it’s much the same. If someone tells me they are a romance reader, I am not going to immediately suggest that they read Ender’s Game. That would be a bad fit.”
This week’s Writers of Fantasy Interview is with RJ Barker, who talks to us exclusively about his debut fantasy trilogy, Age of Assassins! I met RJ at FantasyCon by the Sea earlier this year and knew right from the get go that this is an author who is going places, so we’ve nabbed an exclusive with an author you should deffinately look out for.
If you’re an aspiring author yourself, this interview also touches on the writing process and beyond! Check it out!
Your debut novel, Age of Assassins, is coming out through Orbit next year (2017). What can readers expect?
STABBING. A lot of stabbing. And there’s intrigue and magic and then more stabbing in AoA (which is a quite a cool looking shortening). Also, Mystery. I love 1930’s crime and in a way AoA is based around that idea, sort of Agatha Christie: you have a castle, a cast of characters and you know someone wants someone else dead.
Girton, the lead, is fifteen when we meet him and extremely capable. There’s a fluidity to the action sequences that I think readers will enjoy and they’re backed up by some real emotional heft. Girton himself is likeable, he’s funny and driven to do the right thing even when it’s not in his best interests. One of the first comments I had back was ‘I’d quite like to go for a drink with him’ and I thought, yes, that’s what I’m after, this might be the one. Oh, and antlers. Antlers play a big part in it (as they should in EVERYTHING.)
I like antlers.
How much writing of novel-length had you done before? And do you see common threads and themes in the kinds of things you enjoy writing about?
This is novel number four. The first was rubbish. The second I love but know needs reworking and probably has quite a niche appeal. The third, a space opera, nearly got picked up but in the end wasn’t really commercial enough. It might have been that I could have self published it or found a small press that would have taken a chance on it but when I first started writing seriously I’d made a promise to myself that it would be one of the a big publishers or nothing. It seemed like a completely ridiculous ambition at the time, but I’ve never been short on ridiculous.
As to common threads, I like outsiders but not outsiders in a strong, silent mysterious way. I tend to write people who are outside and wishing they could come in, but don’t know how to do that. Which I think is a feeling we’re all familiar with. And people who are good, because I think generally people are. In a lot of ways the difference between good and evil is more about how much of your own best interests you’re willing to put aside for others than it is about intent.
Becky Chambers Wayfarers series continues to be the kind of science fiction I wish I was reading all the time. The tone, depth, and complexities of the worlds and societies she has built, coupled with a crisp, clear breath of optimism and hope make this a perfect read for these dark days.
I interviewed Becky Chambers earlier this year and you can check that out here.
The main focus of A Closed and Common Orbit is on an Artificial Intelligence (AI) system called LoveLace, (or Sidra as she prefers), and a young mechanic named Pepper (or Jane23) and their seemingly distant lives. The book draws their stories together, revealing, slowly, the ties that bind them, the common threads that make them alike, and make them different. There are a lot of themes revolving around identity, personhood, and trauma. The pace can be slow at times as Chambers takes her time putting the reader (and the characters) through periods of self and social discovery. This can feel like a bit of an info-dump at times, but the information being dumped is still intriguing and builds your understanding of each character’s context.
Ideas like personhood are nothing new to the science fiction genre, and having an AI be the catalyst for such discussions and explorations are fairly common. But where Chambers takes a relatively lesser trod path is that much of the perspective on this is from that very AI, and how she navigates questions like ‘am I a person?’ Which feels very different to people asking ‘is that a person?’ in the more abstract. To make this a very personal journey, to put our eyes in that of a computer, does make the reader much more likely to empathise and to connect.
It is by no means a simple task. This isn’t Pinocchio who wants to be a real boy. Sidra isn’t even sure she wants to be a person for a long time. She is filled with guilt, with uncertainty, and with a lack of purpose. These struggles leave her desiring her old life as a ship’s computer, back when she knew what her existence meant, and knew what her purpose was. But as she grows, she doesn’t solve these issues, but gradually tries to embrace them as part of what it means to be a person.
What I particularly enjoyed was the fact that Sidra discovers her personhood through platonic relationships, through found family, and friendships. So often, in stories of robots or AIs where they are perceived as female it ends with them engaging in a sexual relationship with a – usually male – human. That was not the case here. Sidra develops close familial and platonic bonds with humans and aliens and through their shared experiences and love for one another, she grows. She gets to know her own personhood through her love and friendship, and it is not tied to sex, and perhaps it’s my ace side making me biased, but I really thought that was a stroke of genius.
The other half of the book, running parallel, is the story of Pepper, who also faced her own struggle with identity and personhood. She escapes a factory where she had spent most of her life sorting scrap and flees into the wastelands and eventually is rescued by the AI of a small shuttle. This AI, named Owl, is a caring and nurturing force in Pepper’s life, raising her, teaching her, and guiding her through the skills that will help her survive and thrive once they escape the planet they are trapped on.
Pepper’s life is shaped by her experience being raised by an AI, and so when Sidra comes into her life, we get a real sense of why it is so important to her that she looks after her. It is Pepper’s way of saying thank you. It is her way of sorting out her feelings, her way of reconnecting with the only real parental figure she ever knew.
Chambers’ writing style shifts between Pepper and Sidra. Especially when Pepper is younger, as the 10 year old factory kid has a simpler vocabulary, so does the narrator in these parts. She gets right into her head, describing the strange world in ways a young person with limited experience would understand. Big feelings. Bad things. This switch really hammers home how Pepper / Jane23 feels and really brings the reader into the moment.
Now, I won’t give away the ending, but I will say it was not what I anticipated. This is a good thing, I hasten to point out. Much like in The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, Chambers is an optimist, and the ending very much subverts what you might expect from a genre that is filled with the grim, and the horrorful. In an age of pessimism, optimism is a revolutionary act.
I listened to the audiobook, narrated by Patricia Rodriguez. It was a stellar performance (pun intended), though the moments where an online style text conversation is described tended to be a little tedious as the narrator had to read out every single identifying line, every single timestamp, and so on. Other than that, it was great.
This week’s interview on Writers of Fantasy is with Juliet E McKenna, author of The Tales of Einarinn, The Aldabreshin Compass, The Hadrumal Crisis and the upcoming Shadow Histories of the River Kingdom, which launched at BristolCon this October!
Juliet is an incredibly thoughtful and talented writer with countless books under her belt. We talked about the changing landscape of fantasy fiction, the rise of eBooks, politics, feminism, Doctor Who, and of course some good old fashioned writers’ advice. Take a listen below! You’ll also find some key quotes under the player for those who can’t listen right away.
On the new editions of The Alderbreshin Compass and working with Wizards Tower Press.
“Ah, the cover art by Ben Baldwin [on The Aldabreshin Compass] is absolutely fantastic! Those are the covers I’ve wanted for those books since I first wrote them!”
“This is one of the things that happens when you’re a writer who’s been around for quite a long time. When The Tales of Einarinn and The Aldabreshin Compass were written there was no mention of eBooks in my contracts. eBooks weren’t a thing. … So, basically, I retained all those rights. And, unsurprisingly, publishers have come along in recent years and said ‘Do let us do eBooks for you and we’ll give you a whole, oh, 15%!’ to which my response was ‘Thank you, but no!’ Because the returns on something like an eBook edition if you do it independently, obviously if you’re a writer, are very much higher. The trick is, of course, that you need somebody to do all the tech stuff!”
On working with Independent publishers vs bigger publishers.
“When it is one person working with one person on one specific project, we can have an exchange of emails in a morning and get umpteen things sorted out. An editor in a big publishing house is dealing with who knows how many writers, who knows how many books at different stages of publication … Again, a lot of people have to be involved in discussions and decisions and that inevitably builds a time lag into the process.”
Our Writers of Fantasy Interview series continues with David Anthony Durham, best known for the Acacia trilogy and his new book The Risen. We talked about building fantasy cultures, characters, and wider themes of representation and more!
Your books develop and explore numerous political machinations (Acacia especially); what was the development process for building and developing them? What did you enjoy most about the political intrigue?
I think the same thing sort of answers both parts of your question.
What I enjoyed most about the political intrigue was the process of slowly uncovering the secrets that are at the heart of what makes the Acacian world tick. In the first book I introduce the notion that the Acacian empire trades with a distant power that they know little about. They offer slaves; they get drugs to help them sedate their people in return. That’s about as much as the reader knows about things in the first book. Thing is, that was also about as much as I knew as well.
All the power players of the novel have secrets, things they keep hidden from others to give themselves advantages. They tried pretty hard to keep them hidden from me, too! I mostly had to figure things out by writing the story forward, following the characters, and every now and then going, “Oh… so that’s what these guys are up to…” And a little later, “And that’s what these other guys are up to…” And, “Wait… so these guys over here are actually doing this because of…” And so on.
That was fun. It kept things interesting and, hopefully, unpredictable.
With a number of cultures represented in your books what was the most interesting part of making new cultures and countries for your worlds?
I enjoyed being able to take bits and pieces of cultures from our world, pluck them out of their entrenched context, and splice them together with things that wouldn’t be possible in historical fiction.
The culture of the island power of Vumu, for example, is a real mixture of influences. Racially, I picture the people as looking like Sri Lankans. But the culture that took shape in my mind wasn’t particularly Sri Lankan. The mythology is more influenced by The Epic of Gilgamesh, which came from an entire different part of the world. I loved the racy bombast of the story, the epic conflicts and deceptions and the strange turns of events.
The people of Vumu take my variations on those types of stories and bring them to life with a visual religious display and ceremonies that seem to me to be sort of Polynesian. And I took the historical tidbit that there were once eagles in New Zealand that were large enough to snatch people into the air. I gifted that particular problem on Vumu. It became a physical danger on the islands, and it wove into their mythology and religion as well. The result, I hope, is fun and interesting and not quite like anything on earth.
This week’s interview in our Writers of Fantasy series is with Kelly Robson, author of Waters of Versailles, which won the Prix Aurora Award and was a finalist for the World Fantasy Award and the Nebula Award.
We had a really great conversation about the ins and outs of writing, the life of a writer, and how the industry is changing its attitudes. Take a listen, or check out the key quotes below if you can’t listen right now.
We compare the differences between self publishing, going with a small indie press and going the traditional route. Jo, who is a Grimbold author as well as an editor for us, offers her unique perspective on both sides of the publishing fence, and Adele talks about everything that goes into running a small press from acquisitions to cover art to editing and production.
At first glance, Joel Cornah’s fantasy novel The Sky Slayer may not put you in mind of Terry Nation’s sci-fi classic Blake’s 7. But the author has revealed that the inspiration for the story came right out of the 70s bleak space opera and the high seas piratical adventure would never have been the same without it.
“I first watched Blake’s 7 when I was quite young,” Cornah says. “And I remember loving the crew dynamics especially with the two leads. Blake, the heroic leader who desperately needs someone to hold his feet to the fire and hold him to account and Avon, the sarcastic cynic who does just that. A joke developed between myself and some friends that Blake and crew were basically space pirates and this inevitably led to me imagining them as regular pirates in the golden age of piracy.”
I’m going to this year’s BristolCon on October 29th 2016. I will be doing a reading and a panel as well as some interviews with authors of all stripes! BristolCon is a one-day convention open both to the public and the industry, making it a nice balanced event perfect for the sci-fi and fantasy fan.
Every year we feature panel discussions and lectures, an art show and small group sessions including kaffeklatsches and workshops. Books, comics and merchandise are available in the dealers’ room and authors will be available for book signings. There’s also a games room and a ‘brick-out’ space (a cafe-style area with lego to play with). A variety of entertainment is offered in the evening.
I’ll be on the ‘After the Heroes have gone‘ panel at 18:00 alongside Danie Ware (Moderator), Juliet E McKenna, Chris Baker and R.B. Watkinson. We will be discussing the aftermath of the heroes’ journey, what happens to the people affected by devastating battles and fate-of-the-world encounters.
We all enjoy a big battle, especially on the big screen, but what happens afterwards? Who’s picking up the pieces of New York after the Avengers have smashed it up, who’s living in the wreckage of a Godzilla-stomped Tokyo and what are the Alderaanians who were off planet at the time supposed to do next? Wars have knock-on effects that aren’t always explored – we ask our panel to think about the fate of the ordinary folk, after the heroes have gone.
I’ll also be doing a reading from The Sky Slayer at 15:50. Come hear me do silly voices and explore some characters. There will also be a Grimbold Books table where you can buy not only my books but others from our vast array of talent.
This will be my first BristolCon, but I’m reliably informed it’s a brilliant convention, packed with amazing events and people. Juliet E McKenna (who I interviewed the other day) will be launching her new book and I encourage everyone who can to come along and support her and other brilliant writers in the biz!