Ashley and Leslie Saunders are joining us with their novel The Rule of One. Here’s the publisher’s description:
In their world, telling the truth has become the most dangerous crime of all.
In the near-future United States, a one-child policy is ruthlessly enforced. Everyone follows the Rule of One. But Ava Goodwin, daughter of the head of the Texas Family Planning Division, has a secret—one her mother died to keep and her father has helped to hide for her entire life.
She has an identical twin sister, Mira.
For eighteen years Ava and Mira have lived as one, trading places day after day, maintaining an interchangeable existence down to the most telling detail. But when their charade is exposed, their worst nightmare begins. Now they must leave behind the father they love and fight for their lives.
Branded as traitors, hunted as fugitives, and pushed to discover just how far they’ll go in order to stay alive, Ava and Mira rush headlong into a terrifying unknown.
What are their favorite bits?
Steely-vented hummingbird (Amazilia saucerrottei), perched on verbena plant, Costa Rica, July
“Resist much, obey little;
Once unquestioning obedience, once fully enslaved;
Once fully enslaved, no nation, state, city, of this earth, ever
afterward resumes its liberty.”
Ashley and I bought Walt Whitman’s Leave of Grass when we were studying abroad in Paris. We devoured the poetry then put it in our bookshelf and thought no more of it. Fast forward years later when we first started writing the story of the Rule of One. We divide our novel into four parts, and in earlier versions of our manuscript we put quotes before each one. We were researching impactful, thought-provoking quotes when we came across the Walt Whitman poem “Caution”. The words hit us like a lightening bolt. They were a warning, an urging, a call to arms. The poem was written in the late 1800s but it felt like the words could have been written today. We knew we had to use the poem in some way for our storyline and as we further developed our outline we knew we found the perfect usage for such bold, meaningful words.
We made the poem the words of Ava and Mira’s rebellion.
In a militarized, surveilled world, these words are criminal, illegal. Impossible. Twin sisters Ava and Mira are not supposed to exist. Mira is an illegal second child living in a one-child policy America. When the governor’s son discovers their secret the sisters are forced to go on the run, embarking on a cross-country journey of discovery. When they’re on the road the sisters learn of Whitman’s words inside a journal their father left for them. Will they take the words to heart and resist? Or will they obey? We had great fun using 19th century poetry to inspire a futuristic rebellion.
“The government may always be watching, but they do not always see.”
That is one of my favorite lines of the whole book. Government surveillance in our future United States is at an all-time high- citizen’s every move is monitored and tracked. We were challenged with how in such a restricted world where families can only have one child, a family could get away with having twins. Ava, the eldest twin, is the only one to have a microchip. She is the face of the sisters, the character they both play.
However, Mira can game the system because she has identical features as Ava. She can fake out the Facial Recognition System, so she’s allowed to go to school every other day. A key to the sisters’ success: people see what they expect to see. Twins haven’t been detected in the United States in generations- no one has the slightest idea that Ava could possibly be hiding such a massive secret as having an illegal twin sister. Every time someone sees Mira at school they see Ava, because that is what they expect to see.
Privacy is a huge issue in our current generation and it will only get worse as technology continues to advance. I hope that the government’s iron-clad authority in The Rule of One does not become our future reality.
Hailing from the suburbs of Dallas, Texas, Ashley Saunders and Leslie Saunders are award-winning filmmakers and twin sisters who honed their love of storytelling at The University of Texas at Austin. While researching The Rule of One, they fell in love with America’s national parks, traveling the path of Ava and Mira. The sisters can currently be found with their Boston terriers in sunny Los Angeles, exploring hiking trails and drinking entirely too much yerba mate. Visit them at www.thesaunderssisters.com or follow them on Instagram @saunderssisters.
Peter James is joining us today with his novel Absolute Proof. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Investigative reporter Ross Hunter nearly didn’t answer the phone call that would change his life – and possibly the world – for ever.
‘I’d just like to assure you I’m not a nutcase, Mr Hunter. My name is Dr Harry F. Cook. I know this is going to sound strange, but I’ve recently been given absolute proof of God’s existence – and I’ve been advised there is a writer, a respected journalist called Ross Hunter, who could help me to get taken seriously.’
What would it take to prove the existence of God? And what would be the consequences?
This question and its answer lie at the heart of Absolute Proof, an international thriller from bestselling author Peter James.
The false faith of a billionaire evangelist, the life’s work of a famous atheist, and the credibility of each of the world’s major religions are all under threat. If Ross Hunter can survive long enough to present the evidence . . .
What’s Peter James’s favorite bit?
My favourite bit of my novel Absolute Proof, is Chapter Eight, in which my central character, investigative journalist Ross Hunter, gets the phone call that I did actually get out of the blue, one afternoon, that resulted in this book, the one I am most excited about of everything I’ve written.
Almost 30 years ago, back in 1989, the phone rang, one afternoon. An elderly sounding gentleman asked if I was Peter James, the author. Hesitantly, I said I was.
‘Thank God I’ve found you!’ he replied. ‘I’ve called every Peter James in the phone book in the South of England, it’s taken me two weeks. My name is Harry Nixon, I assure you I’m not a lunatic, I’m a retired academic, and was a pilot in Coastal Command during the War. This may sound extraordinary, but I’ve been given absolute proof of God’s existence, and I’ve been told, on the highest authority, that you are the man to help me get taken seriously.’
If it wasn’t for the fact that he sounded so genuinely sincere, I might have hung up on him, but there was just something about this that intrigued the writer in me. ‘May I ask who exactly recommended me?’
‘Well I’m sure it will sound strange, but I can assure you it was a representative of God. Please hear me out.’
He was right, it sounded mighty strange and far-fetched. But I let him continue.
He told me he lived in the Midlands and that his wife, also a former academic, had recently passed away from cancer. Before she died, they made a pact that he would go to a medium to attempt to communicate with her, as proof of life beyond death. Some while after her death, he dutifully did this, but instead of a communication from his wife, a male claiming to be a representative of God came through.
He told Harry Nixon that God was extremely concerned about the state of the world, and felt that if mankind could have faith in Him reaffirmed, it would help steer us back onto an even keel. As proof of his bona fides, God’s representative had given him three pieces of information no one on earth knew, all of them in the form of compass coordinates: The first was the precise location of the tomb of Akhenaten, uncle of Tutankhamun and the first monotheist of the pharos. The second was the location of the Holy Grail. And the third was the location of the Ark of the Covenant.
I asked him if he had checked any of these out and he replied, excitedly, that he had indeed. ‘I can’t tell you any more over the phone, Mr James, I need to come and see you. I’m going to need four days of your time.’
I told him that was a pretty big ask! I said I could spare him half an hour for a cup of tea and if he could convince me we needed longer, we’d take it from there. We made an arrangement for him to come down the following week, at 4pm. I thought that would be a safe time, as my wife would be home from work at 5.30, and if he had me in headlock, she’d be able to assist!
On the nanosecond of 4pm the following Tuesday, the doorbell rang.
Standing there was a man in his seventies, holding a large attaché case, who had the air of a retired bank manager. He was dressed in a neat suit, with matching tie and handkerchief and looked at me with sad, rheumy eyes. ‘Thank you for seeing me, Mr James,’ he said, shaking my hand and holding my gaze. ‘You and I have to save the world.’
‘Yep, well, I’ll do my best, I replied.
I made him a cup of tea and sat down with him in the living room. ‘So where do we start?’ I asked him.
He opened his case and removed a manuscript, hundreds of pages thick, bound with an elastic band. ‘We start with you reading this, please.’
I glanced at it, it looked about 1,000 pages long, typed with the pages covered in handwritten annotations. ‘Sure,’ I said, ‘Leave it with me.’
He shook his head. ‘I cannot let this out of my sight – this was channeled to me directly from God, through his representative.’
‘So Mr Nixon, you are going to sit there, in that chair, watching me sitting here, reading it all the way through until I’ve finished?’
‘This would take me four days!’
Excitedly he retorted, ‘See, I told you so!’
I replied that either he took a massive leap of faith and left it with me, or he took it back home with him after his cuppa, but there was no way he was going to sit in my home for four days! ‘And, before anything else, could he now answer my question over the phone about whether he had checked out any of the coordinates.
He replied he had indeed. Using his skills learned as a pilot in the War, he now had, so far, the precise location of the lost tomb of Akhenaten in the Valley of the Kings, and the precise location of the Holy Grail. The Holy Grail, he told me, was at Chalice Well in Glastonbury. I’d never heard of this place, but I subsequently discovered this wasn’t too far-fetched a scenario. Long a holy and mystical site, there is some evidence that Joseph of Arimithea bought the Holy Grail – the chalice used at the Last Supper and to collect Christ’s blood when he was on the cross to Glastonbury and hid it at Chalice Well.
‘I’ve been dowsing and metal detecting there, and there is something under the ground in the exact position I’ve been given,’ Harry said. ‘Chalice Well is run by a group of trustees – I’ve approached them asking permission to do an archaeological dig at this location but they won’t take me seriously. But, Mr James, I am sure they would take you seriously.’
Eventually he agreed to leave the manuscript with me, and trundled off into the night. I settled down to start reading – and after about twenty minutes I began to lose the will to live. I was wading through page after page of religious tracts, new age diatribes, and barely legible annotations.
I might have simply returned the manuscript to him the next day, were it not for an extraordinary thing that happened and was to change everything.
By sheer coincidence, the following day I had to go to Bristol to do a BBC radio interview for my then latest novel. When we finished the interview, I carried on chatting for some minutes with the very bright and delightful presenter. Suddenly, out of the blue, she mentioned Chalice Well.
Coincidences have always fascinated me, and her words send a ripple of excitement through me. Twenty-four hours earlier I’d never heard of the place – and now it was twice in two days. ‘What do you know about Chalice Well?’ I asked her.
‘Quite a bit – my uncle’s a trustee,’ she replied.
Astonished and very excited now I told her the story of my encounter with Harry Nixon. She said she would ask her uncle what he knew about the man. I left, feeling very strange – not exactly the chosen one but I had the feeling something was going on, and phoned a good friend of mine, Dominic Walker, who at that time was the Bishop of Reading (he went on to become Bishop of Monmouth and is now retired). I asked if I could come and talk to him.
I should add that Dominic had always struck me as a very modern thinking clergyman, coming from a no-nonsense family – his father was a doctor, his mother a nurse – and he has a brilliant intellect. Over lunch a couple of days later, I told him the story and asked him what he thought.
He thought about it very carefully and said, ‘I think I would want something more than just three sets of compass coordinates to give me proof of God. I would want to see something that defies the laws of physics of the universe – in other words a miracle, and it would need to be a pretty spectacular one.’
‘OK,’ I replied. ‘If someone could deliver that, what then?’
‘You know what I really think if someone could deliver that? I think they would be assassinated. Because whose God would it actually be? You have all the different factions of the Anglican, Catholic, Judaic, Islamic, Hindu, Sikh and all the other monotheist religions in utter disarray. How would China view it or Russia? Would either of them want a higher power usurping their authority? What would the impact actually be on the world?’
As I left, I punched the air with excitement, as I realized I had my story right there! A thriller about a man on the path to discovering absolute proof of God’s existence, up against those who want to stop him, and those who want ownership of it….
Peter James is a UK No. 1 bestselling author, best known for writing crime and thriller novels, and the creator of the much-loved Detective Superintendent Roy Grace. With a total of 13 Sunday Times No. 1s under his belt, he has achieved global book sales of over 19 million copies to date, and has been translated into 37 languages.
Synonymous with plot-twisting page-turners, Peter has garnered an army of loyal fans throughout his storytelling career – which also included stints writing for TV and producing films. He has won over 40 awards for his work, including the WHSmith Best Crime Author of All Time Award, Crime Writers’ Association Diamond Dagger and a BAFTA nomination for The Merchant of Venice starring Al Pacino and Jeremy Irons for which he was an Executive Producer. Many of Peter’s novels have been adapted for film, TV and stage.
His new book Absolute Proof – a stand-alone thriller – which was published by Pan Macmillan on 4th October 2018.
We have a saying in puppetry, that “if it doesn’t hurt, you’re not doing it right. Conversely, just because it hurts doesn’t mean that you are doing it right.”
When I did Little Shop of Horrors, there’s a point in the show where I had to lift a 125 lb puppet, at a time in my life when I weighed 127lbs, rest its fiberglass shell just above my knees and walk downstage. It left pressure bruises. It hurt.
On more than one occasion, I remarked to someone that if I experienced that level of pain without a reason that I would go straight to the emergency room. But the show must go on.
So…when I was experiencing back pain two weeks ago, it took me a while to figure out what was going on. We were setting up for the Writing Excuses cruise and the pain started as a knot in my back, about where I hold tension anyway. But the show must go on.
Then it felt like I had a misaligned rib, which I’ve had happen before. But the show must go on.
It hit a point where it hurt more than Little Shop, which caused me some concern, but movement didn’t make it worse so… the show must go on.
A week later, on the cruise, a rash erupted in a band around my right side. Thank heavens, my roommate recognized it immediately as shingles*. I went down to the sickbay, the doctor looked at it and said, “Yep. But why is it turning up now? It can’t be stress, you’re on vacation.”
I’ve been on the road more than I’ve been home. I was in the middle of twenty days of travel and hand been home for a single day before that, with only three days at home at the end. I was leading a workshop of 150 students.
He stopped me and said, “You have to slow down.”
So, I am. We’re canceling some events and nothing else goes on my calendar for next year. Because the show doesn’t actually have to go on.
And to reassure you, we caught the shingles early so it stayed pretty mild. I got the anti-virals. Yes, I’ll do the vaccine when this is cleared up to stave off a recurrence. If you see me, please don’t hug me. I’m in the super-sensitive skin phase right now, which means contact with my back feels somewhere between a sunburn and a cheesegrater.
As a note, having described it this way to a couple of people, I’ve also learned that my pain threshold is in a different place than many folks, because that doesn’t seem bad, just annoying. I voluntarily worked puppets that hurt worse than this on a daily basis. Which… actually may say more about life choices than anything else.
Anyway, here’s my question for you… what are you ignoring right now? And what’s the next act of self-care you’re going to do for yourself?
Sherylyn and Karen Dunstall, writing together as S. K. Dunstall, are joining us today to talk about their book Stars Uncharted. Here’s the publisher’s description:
In this rip-roaring space opera, a ragtag band of explorers are out to make the biggest score in the galaxy.
On this space jump, no one is who they seem . . .
Captain Hammond Roystan is a simple cargo runner who has stumbled across the find of a lifetime: the Hassim, a disabled exploration ship–and its valuable record of unexplored worlds.
His junior engineer, Josune Arriola, said her last assignment was in the uncharted rim. But she is decked out in high-level bioware that belies her humble backstory.
A renowned body-modification artist, Nika Rik Terri has run afoul of clients who will not take no for an answer. She has to flee off-world, and she is dragging along a rookie modder, who seems all too experienced in weapons and war . . .
Together this mismatched crew will end up on one ship, hurtling through the lawless reaches of deep space with Roystan at the helm. Trailed by nefarious company men, they will race to find the most famous lost world of all–and riches beyond their wildest dreams . . .
What is their favorite bit?
S. K. DUNSTALL
Our method of writing together involves a lot of talking. Sure, we might say one of us writes the first draft and the other then does the heavy bulk of rewriting, but it’s not that simple in real life. One of us does write a first draft, but the other writer follows, accepting or rejecting changes, editing the edits.
As we write, we talk about what’s happened in the piece that’s just been written, and what’s going to happen next. We call ourselves pantsers because we don’t use a formal plot outline, but having talked it out, we generally know what’s going to happen just before we start writing it.
Those talks are more than just about what’s happening in the next bit of writing. Sometimes we talk about plot, or setting. Sometimes we talk about character. We often go off on a tangent and talk out little mini-stories about the characters.
Some of those mini stories make it into the book. Most don’t.
We didn’t realise for a long time that we were creating character backstory.
We created a lot of backstory in the characters in Stars Uncharted. It was fun to talk out how the individual characters would work. Particularly Nika.
Nika Rik Terri is a body modder. That’s the equivalent of a modern-day plastic surgeon crossed with a doctor crossed with an artist. She makes people beautiful for living. She’s a perfectionist. She’s a craftsman. She’s acknowledged as one of the finest modders of her day.
So much so that young Bertram Snowshoe (aka Snow), who’s on the run with her, idolises Nika Rik Terri, and mentions her all the time. Which gets embarrassing, given Nika is on the run and is now calling herself Nika James. But we digress.
Most people would call Nika obsessed. She thinks about body modding every waking minute of her day; she thinks about the people she meets in terms of what she would do to their body to make them look better.
There’s a throwaway line early in the novel—at least, we thought it was a throwaway line when we wrote it—describing her ex-boyfriend’s old boss.
“Please, call me Leonard.” He smiled, showing beautiful white teeth. Samson Sa, of SaStudio, was meticulous about teeth.
We got a lot of mileage out of that line. So many verbal skits came out of it and helped us build Nika’s character.
There are only a handful of body modders in Nika’s class. One of them is Samson Sa, of SaStudio. Nika never says outright, in the story, that she has a professional rivalry with Samson Sa, but in the backstory we created she most certainly does.
So every time she sees SaStudio’s trademark teeth it makes her grind her own teeth a little, as it were.
As we told more backstory, the teeth (and a square jaw) kept popping up in the story, because all our bad guys went to the same body modder. Samson Sa. It became an in-joke.
Late in the book our ragtag band of explorers are captured. There’s an incident around a genemod machine, which leads to Nika saying,
“If you wanted cutting-edge mods you should have come to my studio. Instead, you went to SaStudio and got perfect teeth and a square jaw.”
Benedict stiffened. “How do you know where I got my mods done?”
“Samson Sa,” Nika said to Snow. “He’s obsessed with teeth.” He probably had bad teeth as a child. “And he loves a square jaw. What you see there is classic SaStudio. It’s like a signature.”
Snow looked at Benedict. Benedict looked at Nika. Both were a little open mouthed.
“What you’re aiming for, Snow, are mods so unique no one knows who did them. And every season you come up with a different look. Go ahead, have a closer look. I’ll watch the temperature.”
Snow shrugged apologetically and declined to go closer. “She does it to everyone,” he told Benedict.
Nika’s obsession with body modding, and creating perfect bodies is not something that we would normally write as a preference, but it was fun trying to keep her in character. Keeping that obsession and writing through how she would view the world and the people in it, although irritating at times, was one of our favourite bits.
Not only that, it shows perfectly Snow’s and Nika’s relationship.
S. K. Dunstall is the pen name for Sherylyn and Karen Dunstall, sisters who live in Melbourne, Australia. They are the national best-selling authors of the Linesman series, including Linesman, Alliance, and Confluence.
Their new book, Stars Uncharted, came out on 14 August 2018, published by Ace Books.
Lawrence M. Schoen is joining us today to talk about his novel The Moons of Barsk. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Pizlo, the lonely young outcast and physically-challenged Fant, is now a teenager. He still believes he hears voices from the planet’s moons, imparting secret knowledge to him alone. And so embarks on a dangerous voyage to learn the truth behind the messages. His quest will catapult him offworld for second time in his short life, and reveal things the galaxy isn’t yet ready to know.
Elsewhere, Barsk’s Senator Jorl, who can speak with the dead, navigates galactic politics as Barsk’s unwelcome representative, and digs even deeper into the past than ever before to discover new truths of his own.
What’s Lawrence’s favorite bit?
LAWRENCE M. SCHOEN
One of the problems with sequels is that you worry that you’ve used up all the cool bits in the first book, all the fancy magic or splendid gadgets or awesome concepts. The first book had anthropomorphic elephants (in space!), a drug for speaking to the dead, a plot to destroy an entire race and their planet, and a long dead politician manipulating society centuries from beyond the grave. It was a lot to take in, and I wanted book two to be even better, so I went looking for ways to build on what I’d already done, but expanding in new directions at the same time.
The Moons of Barsk occurs about six years after the first book. Our protagonist Pizlo, an adolescent who has been marked as an Abomination. He’s considered to be invisible by all “right-thinking people” and he’s only had two adults to talk to him, teach him, raise him. Fortunately, throughout his young life he’s conversed with the world around him, chatting with trees and clouds, even the moons that orbit Barsk. Poised on the brink of adulthood, he’s coming to understand that these voices are actually a manifestation of a more powerful gift: Pizlo is a precog. The voices are a metaphor his mind invented to make sense of his visions.
As part of Pizlo’s education, learns to use the drug for speaking to the dead and with converse the Archetype of Man, an ancient artificial intelligence and repository of all of humanity’s stories. It’s an imperfect system, as a boy who is shunned by his own world is instructed by the ghost of a machine that knows nothing of that world. But it does give rise to my favorite bit: After years of myths and tales and epics, Pizlo has an insight that all the stories are the same story. Frustrated, he confronts his teacher and rewrites his understanding of the universe.
“All your stories! They’re all the same.”
“That’s false, Pizlo. They involve different heroes performing different actions in different settings for different purposes—”
“At a meta-level, they’re all the same!”
“Oh, yes, that is true. As we discussed, there are patterns that repeat throughout all of human history and storytelling, that resonate for all people, but even so differences—”
“And at a meta-meta-level?”
“I’m sorry, I don’t understand the question.”
“Every story, they’re all about what you would call the ‘human condition,’ aren’t they?”
“How could they not? They are human stories.”
“Yeah. Not the long dead race of humans. They’re everyone’s stories. Humans and Fant and Marmo and Brady and . . . and . . . everyone. It’s all one story. It’s the story of us and what it means to be that.”
“Yes, Pizlo. Every story is a way of glimpsing a different facet of who we are.”
“But that’s not just true of your stories, is it?”
“Again, I apologize. I am not following your questions.”
“Stories aren’t just fiction,” he said.
“No, you’re mistaken. Stories, by definition, are constructed. They may be based upon actual events, or inspired in some way, but through the vehicle of metaphor they—”
Pizlo waved him to silence with his trunk. “No, I’m not. Don’t start in again with metaphor. You’re wrong. Everything we do is a story, whether anyone tells it or not. And because all the stories are the same story, so is everything we do. Everyone that’s ever lived, everyone that’s drawing breath right now, and even all who will be born sometime in the future, we’re all living a story. The same story.”
“Ah. I understand you now. Yes. And, it should not surprise you that I have stories about this too.”
“About pointlessness? About futility? About asking what the value of anything is?”
“Many such stories,” said the Archetype of Man. “The concepts of nothingness, of oblivion and uselessness are a popular subset of stories.”
“But if it’s all the same story, then the story about predestination is also the story of free will. Living and death. Joy and love and hatred and fear and indifference. Each of those stories is the same story like every story. Nothing matters because everything is everything.”
“Yes. Except . . .”
Pizlo froze. “Tell me,” he whispered.
“You have invoked story, and meta-story, and meta-meta-story.”
“What lies beyond that?”
“Nothing!” Pizlo shouted. “Nothing exists beyond because everything is everything else.”
“What if you’re wrong?”
“Even if everything is story, the fact that you can conceive such a state demands that you have rejected that there can be anything that isn’t. But, to make such an observation, you first must have the concept of something that isn’t. Which means you’re wrong. Which means that story isn’t like all the rest. But it has to be. But it can’t be. Paradox.”
“A self-contradictory statement.”
“You’re saying that yes, because everything is everything else, then everything is pointless. Except if that’s so, then saying so requires the existence of something that isn’t, or how could we know? Except then the first thing isn’t possible. Paradox.”
“I don’t think I have anything left to teach you, Pizlo. Many more stories, surely, but nothing that will inform the person you are.”
“Yeah. But . . . thank you. Truly.”
“What will you do?”
“That’s the question, isn’t it? Because it doesn’t matter, but it’s also the only thing that ever could. Paradox.”
This sets the stage for Pizlo to write his personal Hero’s Journey: the Abomination from a race that is reviled by the rest of the galaxy, a young man who can see the future but nonetheless believes he can change it.
It’s my favorite bit because Pizlo shows us something quite profound: knowing the future doesn’t mean you necessarily understand it, and understanding the future doesn’t guarantee you actually know it. And either way, or both, you have to go on. Because that’s what heroes do.
LAWRENCE M. SCHOEN holds a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology and is a certified hypnotist. He’s also one of the world’s foremost authorities on the Klingon language, and the publisher of a speculative fiction small press, Paper Golem. His debut novel Barsk: The Elephants’ Graveyard won the Coyotl Award for Best Novel, and his latest is the sequel The Moons of Barsk. Schoen has been a finalist for the John W. Campbell Award, the Hugo Award, and the Nebula Award. Lawrence lives near Philadelphia.
Lauren C. Teffeau is joining us today to talks about her novel Implanted. Here’s the publisher’s description:
The data stored in her blood can save a city on the brink… or destroy it, in this gripping cyberpunk thriller
When college student Emery Driscoll is blackmailed into being a courier for a clandestine organisation, she’s cut off from the neural implant community which binds the domed city of New Worth together. Her new employers exploit her rare condition which allows her to carry encoded data in her blood, and train her to transport secrets throughout the troubled city. New Worth is on the brink of Emergence – freedom from the dome – but not everyone wants to leave. Then a data drop goes bad, and Emery is caught between factions: those who want her blood, and those who just want her dead.
What’s Lauren’s favorite bit?
LAUREN C. TEFFEAU
Let’s kitchen sink this shit.
That was my mantra when writing Implanted, my debut from Angry Robot this August and my “first” in so many ways. I’d been writing for years with some painfully close calls under my belt, and I decided to mash up as many things I unabashedly loved as I could, including high-tech gadgets, light espionage, romance, and hard questions about the future.
I’m not saying I was completely out of fucks, but the marketability of such a story was certainly secondary to the fun I had in writing it, where I threw in everything but the kitchen sink. Perhaps even more amazingly, it worked. I still have to occasionally pinch myself that it’s a real book now, and there’s no looking back.
Every project of mine has had at least one aspect that warmed the cockles of my geeky little heart, but Implanted has them by the truckload. It started out with me wanting to write a love story without any physical contact between the main characters but in a way that would not compromise their emotional closeness. I’m a romantic at heart, and I liked the technical constraints such a story posed. I also had to think hard about the kind of storyworld where a relationship like that would be possible.
That led me to cyberpunk, one of my favorite subgenres, but I wanted to give it my own twist. The result is a Blade Runner –meets-solarpunk aesthetic with an added focus on sustainability and hyperconnectivity. The former I believe in passionately, and the later feeds in my academic background. I hold a master’s degree in mass communication and worked as a university researcher examining different populations’ use of internet resources. As a result, I have opinions thanks to those experiences, and they informed a lot of the book’s underlying assumptions when it comes to connectivity.
But the plot engine is all espionage. I loved James Bond growing up and have devoured a lot of spy-tinged stuff over the years, from Person of Interest to Jason Bourne to even Archer. And I like to think this project really benefited from all the action tips and tricks I’ve absorbed through osmosis.
I read Rachel Aaron’s 2,000 to 10,000 recently, and she talks about how important enthusiasm is to the writing process. She basically will reconfigure or cut out wholesale scenes she can’t get excited about. I think that’s partially why the “Let’s kitchen sink this shit” mindset was so useful when I was writing Implanted, blending together all the things I love in a way only I could do. An alchemy you can only find in writing.
And I hope you’ll love it too, with or without the kitchen sink.
Lauren C. Teffeau lives and dreams in the southwestern United States. When she was younger, she poked around in the back of wardrobes, tried to walk through mirrors, and always kept an eye out for secret passages, fairy rings, and messages from aliens. Now, she writes to cope with her ordinary existence. Implanted is her first novel.
Drew Williams is joining us today with his novel The Stars Now Unclaimed. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Jane Kamali is an agent for the Justified. Her mission: to recruit children with miraculous gifts in the hope that they might prevent the Pulse from once again sending countless worlds back to the dark ages.
Hot on her trail is the Pax–a collection of fascist zealots who believe they are the rightful rulers of the galaxy and who remain untouched by the Pulse.
Now Jane, a handful of comrades from her past, and a telekinetic girl called Esa must fight their way through a galaxy full of dangerous conflicts, remnants of ancient technology, and other hidden dangers.
And that’s just the beginning . . .
What’s Drew’s favorite bit?
“Fuck you,” she murmured, the words gentle, almost astonished. “Fuck your sorry.”
That’s it; that’s my favorite line from The Stars Now Unclaimed. As far as I’m concerned, if a character is funny, that means the reader likes them more and cares more about what happens to them – so my characters have a tendency to converse in rapid-fire bursts of wordplay and sarcasm. Every once in a while, though, those defenses get stripped away, and you’re left with the true nature of the characters, and in this particular case, that true nature was ‘in pain’.
The line comes at almost the exact midpoint of the novel, where Jane Kamali, our protagonist, has just revealed her own culpability in the great catastrophe that has befallen the universe. It was kind of a ‘live or die’ moment as I was writing the novel: I had to find a way to let these disparate characters react naturally to this new, horrible information, to react in a way that fit with who they’d been before they learned this, while at the same time not alienating them from each other so much that they wouldn’t be able to come together and stop the threat the entire novel was focused around.
The initial genesis of The Stars Now Unclaimed was my lifelong obsession with the atomic bomb, an obsession more with the decision to drop it, rather than the ramifications – both purposeful and unexpected – of its use. My favorite quote in the world is the (possibly apocryphal) exchange between Robert J. Oppenheimer and Kenneth Bainbridge, immediately after the first successful test of the Manhattan Project:
Oppenheimer (quoting from the Baghavad Gita): ‘I have become Death, destroyer of worlds’.
Bainbridge: ‘Yeah, we’re all sons of bitches now’.
Both men knew the force they were about to unleash upon the world might ultimately have more destructive repercussions than the entire war it had been built to stop, but they – and General Eisenhower, and President Truman, whose quote ‘the buck stops here’ is given entirely new meaning in the context of the bomb – decided to move forward anyway, and the rest, as they say, is history.
I decided to set The Stars Now Unclaimed in a sort of post-apocalyptic space opera setting – I got to play with fancy toys like spaceships and sarcastic AI, whilst also getting down into the dirt and the ruin of post-apocalyptic desperation – but that conversation between Oppenheimer and Bainbridge was always in the back of my mind: an apocalypse starts somewhere, after all. Someone made the decision to do this to the galaxy, even if this wasn’t their intention. And the things we don’t intend sometimes have significantly more far-reaching consequences than those we do; none of us can see all ends.
One of my characters, in particular – an AI called ‘Preacher’, who speaks the above quote – was given reason to be especially bitter about the apocalypse: it had doomed her people to a kind of slow-motion genocide, no technology was left to create more of her species. So when she learns of Jane’s role in the unintended destruction of her entire species – when Jane, somewhat fumblingly, tries to justify what she did, why the decision was made, how it was carried out – the above line is her response. She doesn’t care why it happened, why her people are slowly vanishing from the universe: it truly doesn’t matter. There’s nothing at all Jane could say, to defend what the Preacher sees as the indefensible.
I didn’t expect the Preacher to say those words. I went into the scene with the mentality of ‘let’s just see how she reacts’; I’d expected rage, maybe, a kind of fury that would test the other characters. Instead, I got grief, and despair. The Preacher had been looking for an answer as to why her people were dying, and when she found it, it was no universal truth, no ‘there was a reason after all’: it was just people, trying to do something good, and fucking up despite it. Jane apologizes, and she means it, because she never intended for the apocalypse to happen – to go back to the metaphor of the atomic bomb, she meant to detonate a single weapon over Hiroshima (still a difficult moral decision in and of itself), not to set the entire planet’s atmosphere on fire.
The Preacher hears that apology, acknowledges it, and doesn’t care. Because she has her own pain to deal with, her own shock to process, and that’s too big for her to move beyond in that moment, and who can blame her? ‘Fuck you. Fuck your sorry.’ That doesn’t mean Jane was wrong to attempt to apologize, and it doesn’t mean the Preacher was wrong to reject it. Like I said about unintended consequences above: sometimes the things we try to do, and fail in, say more about who we are than where we succeed.
So anyway: that’s my favorite bit. Two people, trying to find a way around the wrong one of them has done, and in that moment, failing. It just feels more honest, somehow.
DREW WILLIAMS has been a bookseller in Birmingham, Alabama since he was sixteen years old, when he got the job because he came in looking for work on a day when someone else had just quit. Outside of arguing with his coworkers about whether Moby Dick is brilliant (nope) or terrible (that one), his favorite part of the job is discovering new authors and sharing them with his customers.
Michael J. Martinez is joining us today to talk about his novel MJ-12: Endgame. Here’s the publisher’s description:
A Cold War fought by superhuman agents reaches a boiling point in the thrilling finale to the MAJESTIC-12 historical thriller/superhero mash-up series from Michael J. Martinez.
Josef Stalin is dead. In the aftermath, the Soviet Union is thrown into crisis, giving former secret police chief Laverentiy Beria exactly the opening he needs. Beria’s plan is to secretly place his country’s Variants―ordinary people mysteriously embued with strange, superhuman powers―into the very highest levels of leadership, where he can use them to stage a government coup and seize control of the USSR.
America’s response comes from its intelligence communities, including the American Variants recruited for the top-secret MAJESTIC-12 program, who are suddenly thrown into their most dangerous and important assignment yet. From the halls of the Kremlin to the battlefields of Korea, superpowered covert agents face off to determine the future of the planet―a future their very existence may ultimately threaten.
What’s Michael’s favorite bit?
MICHAEL J. MARTINEZ
Three novels into a series, one ends up racking up quite a few favorite bits. It’s my work, after all, so I should hope I like it! And there’s a lot I really like about MJ-12: Endgame, from the way the characters have grown and developed, how things unfolded to bring the series to a satisfying…wait for it…endgame.
But one of the running themes in the story is how these characters – normal people suddenly gifted with extraordinary abilities and pressed into service as covert agents – deal with the “gifts” they’ve been given. In this book, superpowers come with trade-offs, and some of them are pretty severe.
Frank Lodge has the ability to absorb the skills and knowledge from people at the moment of their deaths – but must also contend with memory and personalities. Maggie Dubinsky can manipulate emotions, but at the cost of her own stability. Only technological “null-generators” can interfere with their abilities, and also cut them off from the side effects.
How they deal with all this has evolved differently for each person. For example, take this conversation between Frank and Maggie as they walk through a Moscow park undercover:
“Don’t you shut it off now and then? I do. If the voices are particularly rambunctious, I’ll flip on a generator for a few hours just to get some peace and quiet,” Frank said.
“You do that?” Maggie asked, eyebrows raised. “Don’t you feel strange without them?”
Frank just shrugged. “It’s nice. There’s no running commentary in my head. No analysis of every little thing I do. No opinions on how to cook a goddamned egg, or whether I’m doing enough weights at the gym, or arguments between voices on what’s the most authentic way to eat caviar with tea.”
“Yeah, just now at the hotel. Apparently, you can either serve it on half a boiled egg, or on bread with butter. If they weren’t just disembodied voices attached to random memories, I’d swear the people in my head would’ve ended up in a fist fight.”
Frank thought that would make Maggie laugh, but she just shook her head. “All that company with you, all the time. You’re never lonely. That’s something.”
“Wish I were sometimes,” Frank said. “That’s why I use the null generator, just to get some alone time. You don’t ever use one?”
“Hell, no,” she said, looking alarmed. “I’d feel . . . blind. Scared. I wouldn’t know how people were feeling, what they’d be likely to do.”
“You mean exactly how the rest of us live our lives?” Frank asked. “I have no idea how people are feeling except for what they say or how they look.”
“Most people hide it well,” Maggie replied, clutching Frank’s hand a little tighter as they walked, part of their married couple ruse, an old tradecraft habit. Their Russian tails likely already had a brief on them anyway. “But under the surface, they carry around so much anger. Disappointment. Lust. Sadness. All of it. That shit builds up and you never know when one of ’em is just gonna pop. The average person is just a stupid, instinctual, emotional powder keg ready to blow. All they need is the right push. And I don’t wanna be around when that happens.”
“You sound like you really don’t like people anymore,” Frank said quietly.
“People are shit, Frank. They really are. In the end, they’re just fight or flight, pleasure and pain. Everything else is just window-dressing to cover up the fact that they’re animals.”
So that’s my favorite bit in MJ-12: Endgame, and perhaps in the entire series. I like that as these powers have grown to be part of these characters, their attitudes and perspectives have changed dramatically – and maybe not necessarily for the better.
Michael J. Martinez is the author of the Daedalus trilogy of Napoleonic era space opera adventures as well as the MAJESTIC-12 series of superpowered spy-fi thrillers. He likes mashing genres together, obviously. His short fiction has appeared in Unidentified Funny Objects 4, Cthulhu Fhtagn!, Geeky Giving and The Endless Ages Anthology for Vampire: The Masquerade. He recently moved to Los Angeles and already misses rain and cold weather, but is otherwise thriving. He can be found online at michaeljmartinez.net and on Twitter at @mikemartinez72.
Andrea Phillips is joining us today to talk about Season 4 of the serial fiction Bookburners, written with Max Gladstone, Margaret Dunlap, Brian Francis Slattery, and Mur Lafferty. Here’s a description:
Everything in the Bookburners’ lives falls into two categories: Before London and After London. Before London, things were strange, sure, but After London . . . “strange” doesn’t even begin to describe it. Magic is everywhere—and the Bookburners can only be in one place at a time.
What’s Andrea’s favorite bit?
Love is wonderful, isn’t it? It’s wonderful unless you’re a main character in a story. But when you are in a story, if you and your beloved get together any time before the last act… that’s pretty bad news for you and your chance things are going to go well and smoothly. Odds are strong that tragedy is coming your way, self-inflicted or otherwise.
That’s because you just don’t see healthy long-term romantic relationships in media very often (though it bears noting that our hostess Mary Robinette Kowal does write them, and brilliantly!) In large part, healthy relationships are inherently less dramatically exciting. Calm adults rationally talking through their problems and coming to a reasonable compromise makes a great world to live in, but it’s pretty boring to read about.
So in order to make a relationship feel exciting, all of the writer’s focus is often on getting the couple together — how many TV shows have had near-infinite seasons of will-they-or-won’t-they? And then, if the story doesn’t end at a first kiss or a wedding, we tend to fixate on the kinds of stories where it’s easiest to find continuing dramatic tension: external events that come between our lovers. Fights and breakups. Pasts coming back to haunt them, misplaced jealousy and trust issues, cheating, betrayal, ignoring each other’s needs or priorities. It’s high drama, and it’s exciting to read, to be sure. But it’s not… healthy.
Unfortunately, this can have a detrimental effect on the real world, too. There’s strong evidence that the way the world is portrayed in media has a strong effect on our own behaviors. Think about how the Hollywood smoking ban affected smoking rates, and how looking at Photoshop-thin fashion models makes girls more likely to fall into body dysmorphia and disordered eating. And so modeling how a healthy relationship should work is important, simply to maintain and reinforce our cultural understanding that such a thing even exists.
With that in mind, the Bookburners team was dead set on writing the Sal/Grace romance as a solid, healthy relationship going into Season 4. Sal is a veteran police detective, and Grace is a woman cursed in 1920s Shanghai to only live when the candle bound to her life force is burning. They’ve worked together on the Vatican’s black ops magic suppression team for years, and now their partnership has grown deeper.
The strength of this partnership was important to all of the writing team, not least because we love these characters and we want them to be happy. They were always meant to be together. But nobody’s interested a boring story. So what do you do? Introduce external complications that test the strength of the relationship? Just cut off that thread so the dynamic between those two characters remains static and dull for the rest of the series, however long that might be?
Ugh. Terrible options all around.
The good news, though, is that this is a false choice. In reality, a healthy relationship is like a symphony, with tension constantly arising and resolving. And on the Bookburners team, we pass the thread from one writer to another, like a melody passing through each instrument in turn.
The Grace/Sal relationship has been a slow burn, even if it was destined from page 1. Now that we’ve arrived at that moment, we planned extensively for how to move ahead with this relationship, because we did want it to be healthy. But we also wanted it to be dynamic and compelling.
That brings me to my favorite part of this season. At the end of episode 7, Wax, there’s a moment where Sal is worried because Grace has been unhappy lately — not with her; there’s no fear for the relationship there. But Grace has been frustrated with some of the unromantic parts of life, like doing the laundry. Unlike most of us, Grace hasn’t had to deal with the tedium of maintaining a life for years; she’s been a weapon, woken only when it’s time for her to punch something.
Now, though, she’s choosing to live like a person again, at the cost of shortening the amount of life she has left. And Sal is worried for her, wondering if Grace shouldn’t go back to sleeping through the boring parts.
But Grace has a speech that I’m tremendously proud of: she tells a story about a bottle of perfume she’d once had, that she kept saving for a special occasion that ultimately never arrived. And she doesn’t want to do that with Sal. Grace wants to be there all the time, even for the boring parts, because what they have is too precious to miss out on any moment of it.
It’s easy to be in love in the quick, flame-hot days of limerence. But a healthy relationship is what blossoms after that, on every day that you do laundry, or agree to have what your partner wants for dinner even though you don’t like it very much; every discussion about a thermostat or a difficult relative or a misbehaving pet or child. Love is what happens on every day that you choose to be together. Even — especially — on the days when it’s not very exciting.
Shannon Eichorn is joining us today with her novel Rights of Use. Here is the description:
In the 1960s, Project Blue Book assured America that no aliens visited its amber waves or shining seas.
Thirty years later, Project Black Book knows better and has the flying saucers to prove it, but they still can’t stop the body-possessing Kemtewet from scooping their pick of young women from Earth to host an alien queen.
Sarah Anderson yearned for an escape from her new life in Pennsylvania, but not for this: being kidnapped by aliens and faced with a choice between having a Kemtewet queen erase her brain or sharing her body with a Gertewet insurgent. Unless the Air Force can rescue her in time, it’s either death or a chance to make a difference in the galaxy. With Sarah, the Gertewet have one last shot to end the Kemtewet Empire and free billions of humans subject to their body markets.
In a war over consent, only some things are black and white.
What’s Shannon’s favorite bit?
I have an obsession with alien symbionts.
It started with Stargate. Or maybe it started when I was growing up as an only child. Or maybe it started when I was bullied.
I love the idea of having that constant companion, that implicit ally in every bit of pettiness in daily life. “No, you’re not overreacting. This is a problem.” I like the idea of being paired up with someone older and wiser who can take a step back from the emotions of the moment and call me out. “You can lay off the road rage, Shannon. Tailgating them is unsafe and not going to help anything.” I daydream about having a second perspective available the instant I need it. “You have to make this snap decision for the first time. Here are the implications you don’t know about yet.”
I’ve been writing about body-possessing aliens for fifteen years. As I’ve been revising and polishing the first book in a series, my favorite bit, hands down, is the implantation scene. When I started revising, this was the core thing that kept me from skipping the series beginning: when Vinnet and her host first meet. I especially love it after all the revisions. I love how immediate the host’s fear comes across, and how it shines in the last draft. Even more, I love the situation. Vinnet is a sentient, intelligent, compassionate creature desperate to get her potential host’s permission before implanting herself, but she has no ears and no mouth. She can’t speak or listen. This whole scene is how to be responsible and seek consent when all the odds are against you. Because that’s what good guys do, even when they’re body-possessing aliens and taking over hosts is a fact of day-to-day life.
I love this scene for how it fits in the overall book. This is the end of the world for the new host. It’s been one trauma after another, and to her, this is surely how she’ll die. But because she meets Vinnet and takes on this symbiont, she gets empowered to fight the oppression that brought her here, both as an individual and in conjunction with her entire planet. As a side effect, it even assuages the loneliness she dealt with before she was kidnapped.
Every time I read it, this scene and this book are a touchstone for me to remember that a lot of good can come out of “end of the world” crises. It just takes a long time to see it.
Shannon Eichorn is a scifi writer and aerospace engineer in Cleveland, Ohio. She received her Bachelor of Science in Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering from Case Western Reserve University in 2012. During the day, she works in aerospace testing but has also written service instructions for turbofan engines, taught horseback riding at a summer camp, and supported supersonic wind tunnel testing. She is a 2005 graduate of the Alpha Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Workshop for Young Writers.
James Patrick Kelly is joining us today with his short story collection The Promise of Space and Other Stories. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Hugo and Nebula Award-winner James Patrick Kelly may offer the “Promise of Space,” but he delivers so much more. The sixteen stories included in this collection demonstrate the versatility of the author as a visionary and science fiction as a genre. Exploring Directed Intelligence, space opera, and shared sensory perception, he paints vivid pictures of startling futures and fantastic landscapes. And while Kelly pushes the boundaries of technology, his focus remains always on character, giving these speculative tales of loyalty and betrayal, love and desire, the human touch . . .
What’s James’s favorite bit?
JAMES PATRICK KELLY
My favorite bit of my new short story collection, The Promise of Space, is actually a statistic. Of the sixteen stories in the table of contents, all published in the last decade, thirteen are narrated from a woman’s point of view. So? Compare that to my first collection, Think Like A Dinosaur, which came out in 1990. Just six of the fourteen stories in that book are in the point of view of a woman. Am I proud of this statistic? Well, sort of, although I’m not looking for a medal or claiming any kind of literary breakthrough. I’m well aware that when a woman publishes a persuasive male point of view, nobody is standing by with a microphone and videocam to document it. Women have been writing men since science fiction was invented. Hello, Mary Shelley!
Of course, back in sf’s so-called Golden Age, when sf was run as a boys’ club, some particularly ignorant chauvinists in our genre insisted that women couldn’t create convincing male characters. Period. End of discussion. But those were the Bad Old Days. When I first started publishing, I believed that we’d moved on from the debate about whether men can write women or whether women can write men. Now my mind has changed. I don’t think we’re there yet and maybe we shouldn’t be. I’ve observed recently that the heat of the debate has cooled and has shifted into an interesting and more nuanced conversation. One that I believe is worth pursuing.
Whether or not my thirteen women are convincing is for you to judge. All I can say is that I try my hardest to get them right. I confess that it is the externals that often flummox me. Like clothes. Shoes. Hairstyles. I remember once taking the better part of a day to figure out how to describe a manicure, having never experienced what seemed to me, as I wrote, to be a particularly gratifying experience.
For the more essential and serious aspects of characterization, I can only draw upon my own experience. I was a stay-at-home dad before that become commonplace and was usually the only dad in the company of moms. The years of my daughter’s childhood helped me redefine who I was and how I related to the world. In 1989, when Maura was nine, I wrote this in an introduction to a chapbook, “Feminism may well be remembered as the most important contribution of the Twentieth Century. Yes, more important than all the high tech: cybernetics, space exploration, nuclear physics, or biotechnology. In the next few decades, it has the potential to transform the fundamental structure of human culture.” And so it has, even as the transformations continue. With the arrogance of youth, I thought myself a feminist back then, but now I realize that I can only aspire to be a feminist. These days, I feel the weight of my examined and as yet unexamined prejudices about sex and gender, baggage from growing up male in the Fifties and early Sixties. So I worry about what you think of my thirteen women. I worry a lot.
Which brings me back to my collection and the conversation about men writing women. I needed to write an original story for The Promise of Space and for reasons that remain mysterious to me, I decided to write about a highly intelligent fembot programmed to serve the sexual needs of a rich man. Not a particularly original idea, but the twist was that her master wasn’t interested in her and she was thus sexually frustrated. In the opening sections of “Yukui!” we see how enthusiastic she is about her skeevy role as a dependent intelligence and sexual plaything. I’d hoped that the intent of the author was made plain when her antagonist, a woman, tells her:
“’Intelligent servitude is a terrible institution,’ the lifeguide said. ‘You don’t realize it, but your sidekick programming is a kind of insanity.’”
The story’s ending, in my opinion, is upbeat and feminist. You can judge for yourself, since it was just reprinted in Clarkesworld. But when I workshopped it before sending it off to my editor, Sean Wallace, at Prime, the women in my group had some hard words for me. I realized that I had not made my intent plain enough. Okay, that’s what rewrite is for. But one workshop comment has been spinning in my mind ever since. A very smart woman said, “This story wouldn’t be so hard to take if a woman had written it.”
Flash forward a few months. I did a reading at the monthly Fantastic Fiction series at the renowned KGB literary bar in New York, hosted by Ellen Datlow and Matt Kressel. The final version of “Yukui!” is just 3500 words long, the perfect length for KGB. So I read it. The book wasn’t out then and this was the first time anyone had ever read or heard the rewrite. I was a little nervous, but apparently the revised ending worked and the audience seemed happy enough. But as I read those opening sections, I picked out a couple of women, strangers to me, who were listening intently with what I took to be troubled looks on their faces. After the reading, there was some time for mingling. I worked the room toward the two women, finally plopping down at their table. “Did I pull it off?” I asked. They knew exactly what I was talking about and one of those very interesting conversations ensued. They allowed as how I won them over at the end but that they were very uncomfortable for most of the story. And then one of them said, “It would have been different if you were a woman.”
And, you know, I think she was right. I absolutely get it.
Should it have made a difference? I don’t know, but that’s a conversation I’d really like to start. However, if you don’t mind, I think it best if I just listen to what other people have to say.
James Patrick Kelly has won the Hugo, Nebula and Locus awards; his fiction has been translated into twenty-one languages. His most recent story collections were this year’s The Promise of Space from Prime Books and Masters of Science Fiction: James Patrick Kelly published by Centipede Press in 2016. His most recent novel, Mother Go, was published in 2017 as an Audible original audiobook on Audible.com. He writes a column on the internet for Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine and is on the faculty of the Stonecoast Creative Writing MFA Program at the University of Southern Maine.
Matt Mikalatos is joining us today to talk about his novel The Crescent Stone. Here’s the publisher’s description:
A young woman with a deadly lung disease . . .
A young man with a tragic past . . .
A land where the sun never sets but darkness still creeps in . . .
Madeline Oliver has never wanted for anything, but now she would give anything just to breathe. Jason Wu skates through life on jokes, but when a tragedy leaves him guilt-stricken, he promises to tell only the truth, no matter the price. When a mysterious stranger name Hanali appears to Madeline and offers to heal her in exchange for one year of service to his people, Madeline and Jason are swept into a strange land where they don’t know the rules and where their decisions carry consequences that reach farther than they could ever guess.
What’s Matt’s Favorite Bit?
I have some favorite bits I can’t share because of spoilers, like a twist that comes late in the book but that I already set out in plain sight from early in the novel, or the secret world of unicorns that’s revealed in a battle scene. But I can share about a favorite bit that became a central part of the book, and that’s the oath taken by Jason Wu to tell the truth no matter what.
Jason has a terrible trauma in his recent past that he feels responsible for… something he lied about contributed to what happened. So he makes a decision to never lie again.
A character who never lies and is also a seventeen year old, it turns out, brings a lot of humor to the story as well as constantly complicating the plot. Jason can’t stop himself, whether it’s telling everyone about his high school principal’s toupee or explaining his plans in detail to the bad guys.
Here’s a scene where we see Jason’s truth-telling causing some future problems. Jason’s friend, David, sneaks him into the dungeons to meet one of the Scim — a captured warrior in a centuries old war:
“I’m Wu Song,” Jason said. “That’s my real name.”
The Scim chortled. “Truth teller, are you?” Its voice was like gravel spilt on concrete.
Jason’s eyebrows rose. “Yes.”
“We Scim say only three tell the truth: prophets, story-tellers, and fools. Which are you?”
Jason considered this question. “Probably fool.”
“Ha!” The Scim straightened, seeming suddenly interested. “I will trade you, truth for truth. I am called Break Bones.”
Hmmm. Interesting. “I am called Jason.”
Break Bones smiled, opening his wide, frog-like mouth to reveal jagged and uneven teeth that were each the size of Jason’s pinky. “Why do you come to the Sunlit Lands?”
“To protect my friend,” Jason said. He thought about his answer for a moment. “And to lay to rest old ghosts. And you?”
The Scim stood and shook its chains. “To shatter the sun and bring five hundred years of darkness and terror to the Elenil and all who befriend them. To crush skulls and break necks. To build a temple of bleached bones that reaches to the great dome of the heavens. To humiliate every Elenil before their death, then tear down the works of their hands, stone by stone, beam by beam, brick by brick. Only then shall I rest.”
“Huh,” Jason said. “I guess that’s why they call you Break Bones.”
“The fountains will run with blood. The city walls will be shelves for their heads.”
“Better make a priority list, because if you tear down all their bricks and then try to use the walls as shelves, you’re going to have to rebuild the walls again. It’s a lot of work.”
“You mock me,” Break Bones said, his voice low. “The Scim are not fond of mockery, Wu Song.”
Jason cocked his head. “Is anyone fond of mockery?”
“I think you’re ticking him off,” David said.
“It’s a legitimate question,” Jason replied, watching the Scim.
Break Bone’s chest was heaving, his breath coming in staccato pants. “Humans. Are you even allowed in this prison?”
“We should go,” Kekoa said. “I think you get the point. The Scim are terrible monsters.”
“No,” Jason said, answering the Scim. “We snuck in.”
Break Bone laughed, and the horrible sound of it filled the dungeon. “I like you, Wu Song. When I am free from this place I will honor you with a violent death. I will not humiliate you with captivity.”
“That’s nice,” Jason said. “Though I might prefer humiliation.”
Break Bones grunted, flashing his broken yellow smile. “What is the name of your friend? The one who is under your protection?”
“Don’t tell him,” David said.
Kekoa grabbed Jason’s arm and pulled him toward the door.
“Madeline,” Jason said. “Madeline Oliver.”
Break Bones wrapped his right arm into the chains holding him fast. “On the night I bring the darkness to you, I will come with her lifeless body, so you will know.” He slammed his arm forward, and dust puffed out of the wall where the chain was anchored. He yanked again, and the chain rattled, coming free. “So you will know you failed!” Break Bones roared, pulling the chain nearly all the way out. A distant trumpet sounded, and there was the sound of feet on the stone stairway.
As you might imagine, Madeline isn’t pleased to learn that Jason shared her name with a violent prisoner hidden beneath the city. Of course he tells her, because he always tells the truth.
Jason is part prophet and part comic relief. He ignores social niceties and his own safety to say what he thinks no matter what comes, and it creates a character who becomes equal parts charming and exasperating.
So there’s my favorite bit! Jason Wu, truth teller! I know you’ll love him, too.
Yay! New book! The Fated Sky released today and while normally on My Favorite Bit, we have the author talk, I decided to invite my assistant and first reader, Alyshondra, to talk about her favorite bit. My thinking is that it will give you a little bit of an insight into how a first reader can shape a novel. Also… honestly, it’s one of my favorite bits, too.
Here’s the traditional publisher’s description:
Mary Robinette Kowal continues the grand sweep of alternate history begun in The Calculating Stars; The Fated Sky looks forward to 1961, when mankind is well-established on the moon and looking forward to its next step: journeying to, and eventually colonizing, Mars.
Of course the noted Lady Astronaut Elma York would like to go, but there’s a lot riding on whoever the International Aerospace Coalition decides to send on this historic—but potentially very dangerous—mission. Could Elma really leave behind her husband and the chance to start a family to spend several years traveling to Mars? With the Civil Rights movement taking hold all over Earth, will the astronaut pool ever be allowed to catch up, and will these brave men and women of all races be treated equitably when they get there? This gripping look at the real conflicts behind a fantastical space race will put a new spin on our visions of what might have been.
What’s Alyshondra’s favorite bit?
I did a lot of beta reading for Mary Robinette before we got to know each other in person. I had already done The Calculating Stars and half of The Fated Sky before we met up at LTUE in Utah. We were talking in a small group, and I was working on a Star Wars/Hamilton cross stitch to keep my hands busy and my anxiety at bay. As part of the conversation, she asked me a lot of questions: How did I design them? What materials were usually required? How long did it normally take? I thought that she was just being Good Hostess Mary Robinette, interested in her guests.
A few weeks later, Mary Robinette sent out a new chapter for The Fated Sky, and I read this:
She had her needlepoint out, and it was far enough along now that you could recognize Orion in the star field. Florence tucked the needle into a corner. “To what do I owe the pleasure?”
“I brought you some pie.” I sent the baggie spinning across the mod to her.
Florence snatched it out of the air with a grin. “You are my favorite person.”
“Right now.” She winked. “Keep plying me with your pie . . .”
It turned out that I had been talking to Researching Writer Mary Robinette, looking for a hobby for one of her astronauts. When you are on a long journey–whether by car, plane or rocket ship–it helps to have something to do. You need something to (sorry not sorry) ground you, something that you do for your own joy. On a rocket, every ounce of cargo counts, so it’s important that it be something lightweight. Elma bakes, Terrazas does radio plays, and after Mary met me, Florence does needlework. Later, Mary Robinette asked me to design the actual pattern.
“In my head, what she’s doing is a star chart. It’s a gift for Elma, because she had such trouble with stars during training. It’d be on the same blue fabric as the flight suits, because there is a lot of extra floating (ha) around.”
I decided that the star chart Florence used is what the sky looked like from Kansas City on October 19, 1962. That’s the day that the Mars mission launched, ten and a half years after the Meteor strikes DC. No one in Kansas City would have seen the sky, though – the clouds from the Meteor would still have been ever-present. To Florence, that makes this view of the stars even more precious.
Here’s one of the charts I used:
And here’s the final result:
Florence cares about details, so most stars are represented with their correct colors, the background stars are relatively accurate, and the quarter moon from that night is shown as well. The visual binary of Mizar and Alcor (in the asterism of the Big Dipper) is one of my favorite things to tell people about, so she included that too. She does indulge in a little artist’s prerogative: the Moon (in Gemini), Mars, and the North Star are all in their proper places, but are larger than life. Mars is circled – here’s where we’re going! As a little dig at Elma, Alkaid (the last star in the Big Dipper) is circled too. You’ll see why when you read The Fated Sky.
Look, when I read that first line about needlepoint, I actually flailed. Think Kermit the Frog-style squealing and flapping my hands–the whole nine yards. The Lady Astronaut Universe is so precisely what I want out of my fiction. It sometimes feels like Mary Robinette is writing them *specifically for me*, and I can’t believe that I’ve gotten to influence some small part of the final product.
MRK again! So, this is one of my favorite bits, too and it exists because I know Alyshondra. There are lots of little touches throughout the books that come directly from interacting with other people. Writers often get asked, “where do your ideas come from” and they come from moments like this. They come from being curious and interested in other people. The writer is a filter, but the ideas are all around us.
Also, the cross-stitch is beautiful, right?
UPDATE! Want to make your own cross stitch? Kits and patterns are now on sale at Worldbuilders Market!
(Tor Books — August 21, 2018) Continuing the grand sweep of alternate history laid out in The Calculating Stars, The Fated Sky looks forward to 1961, when mankind is well-established on the moon and looking forward to its next step: journeying to, and eventually colonizing, Mars. Of course, the noted Lady Astronaut Elma York would like to go, […]