Hi all, if you saw our panel with Khan Wong, Ciel Pierlot, Kristy Gardner, Taran Hunt & Ren Hutchings you will know we had the best time. Afterwards we were thinking about all the questions we didn’t get to answer. And voila this blog post was created! Please welcome all these talented authors back to chat about their books!
When approaching your book, in terms of what you wanted to write about, were there any themes or questions you specifically wanted to discuss?
Taran: In THE IMMORTALITY THIEF, I wanted to talk about compassion. I think the most inspiring and wonderful thing is when people are kind despite the world being opposed to kindness. Early on in the book, a character tells Sean that the universe teaches everyone a lesson: No one will help you, and you are alone. Sean spends the whole book defying that lesson—as do two other major characters. None of the three have any reason to care for each other—they start off as enemies—but, out of compassion, they end up choosing each other over and over again, and a relationship is forged out of that.
Khan: I knew I wanted to explore art and community as drivers of cultural change (kind of a thematic obsession of mine), and I knew I wanted to explore an ace/allo romantic relationship. Other than that, it was all about doing justice to the circus acts and making the world as fully realized as I could.
Ren: A central question in UNDER FORTUNATE STARS asks, “What if you could actually meet your historical heroes, but you had to face the reality of them as complex, imperfect people?” In the book, lifelong history nerd Uma has to confront these things directly because of accidental time travel. I wanted to engage with how mythologies are created around historical figures. There’s this assumption that “heroes” should conform to certain expectations and archetypes, so I also wanted to explore what it would mean for an ordinary person to suddenly have to live up to an idealized image that history has created of them.
Kristy: A central theme in THE STARS IN THEIR EYES is the meaning of home and what that looks like to us as individuals and a society. We’re a social species and even those of us who’d rather hide inside, alone, under a blanket with a book and a coffee most days still have this innate need and core desire to belong–to a group, community, or even just ourselves. In Calay’s quest to reunite with the woman she loves and survive the alien apocalypse, she shoulders the weight of what belonging means, what home feels like, and what it is that fulfills that need: is it love? Hope? Resilience? Or something less admirable?
Ciel: Once I started writing BLUEBIRD, I realized pretty swiftly that while I wanted to write about gunfights and spies, I also really wanted to write about colonialism. All of Rig’s actions are defined by her struggle against the colonizing factions in that galaxy; from her job helping refugees to her estrangement with her sister. Every character has had a different experience with colonialism, and I wanted to emphasize not only what those differences are, but why they’re different and how they clash with each other.
What kind of research did you have to do for your book, world, and characters? Any fun facts you wanted to include but didn’t?
Kristy: Most of my research came from studying sociological and philosophical studies on human behavior and related material. I analyzed works like Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford prison experiment, Jeremy Bethem’s Panopticon, Judith Butler’s Undoing Gender, and Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation. The deeper I dug, the more obsessed I became with WHY people behave the way they do, how we’re shaped by internal and external forces, and what that means for our future.
Fun fact: the major events that shape the backstory to THE STARS IN THEIR EYES is something that actually happened: two billion lightyears away there’s a galaxy called Galaxy 3C303. The University of Toronto measured radio waves there and found it has a giant jet of matter shooting from its core. The energy being released is an electrical current with the strength of a trillion bolts of lightning and it’s the largest electrical current ever discovered in space. I get into this in the book, but folks can Google it if they’re interested in learning more about it.
Taran: Most of my research was focused on what kind of experiments the scientists on the Nameless ship were running—in particular, about types of biological immortality. I read about a lot of long-lived animals and plants (and everything in between) in order to figure out what sort of methods might be used to make a person immortal. My favorite long-lived creature is the jellyfish Turritopsis dohrnii, which, when stressed, de-ages itself. It just bounces back and forth between childhood and adulthood, never aging, never dying.
Khan: I interviewed a scientist friend who has researched juggling in weightless environments. I wanted to get some insight into how the weightless acrobatics in the book might work, and how the acrobats would have to think about their movements. The ideas made it into the book, but not the terminology – phrases like “angular momentum” and “axis of rotation” which are things acrobats would be aware of but not necessarily name in that way. The principle of embodied cognition was paramount – the performers would have this knowledge in their bodies and express it in their movements, rather than intellectualizing with terms like that.
Ren: Making the time travel elements internally consistent was something that I spent a lot of time on. There are a lot of different models for time travel and how it might work, both from a theoretical scientific standpoint and from a narrative perspective in fiction. My book is on the squishier side of the “hard-SF” spectrum, but I wanted the science that does get mentioned to feel real. A lot of the concepts in the book were influenced by actual theoretical science. The universe is an endlessly strange place, and it only gets stranger the more we learn about it.
Ciel: Oh boy, okay, disclaimer: I am not Science Smart and I am certain that it shows in BLUEBIRD. When it came to details such as what exactly is hard light made of, I tended to do a lot of handwaving and relied heavily on the fact that Rig knows what it is and she’d sooner explain it via a meme than a detailed explanation. I did ask my stepdad for a bit of help regarding a specific drug that exists in the book, as he works in pharma, but I knew that most of my attempts at science research would be hindered by my dumb non-science brain. In terms of non-science research, I actually came up with a bunch of other alien species and planets that I wanted to include but just never had the time for. I managed to sneak in a brief mention of space!Vegas for a space!Vegas wedding, but a lot of it got scrapped.
What’s your favorite line from the book?
Taran: “You didn’t love me until after I died.”
Ren: It’s a joke one of the characters from the past timeline makes, when they’re trying to find the right data connection cord to use for something: “A hundred and fifty-two years and still no standardized data ports, huh?” It’s funny because it’s true.
Kristy: It actually contains the original title of the book and is a nod to where it began 7 years ago: “It was all that ever was. All that ever would be.”
Ciel: “Had he not been so determined to look down upon her, she never would have had the right angle to put the bullet in his head.”
Do you have a writing routine and if so, what is it?
Ren: I wrote most of UFS while I had an in-person day job, so on most weekdays I wrote for 1 hour in a cafe before work, and did another writing/editing session during lunch hour. That was probably the closest to a specific “writing routine” as I’ve ever had. I don’t personally think a strict routine is necessary or that you need to write every day, but if you want to make significant progress on a long-form story, I think it’s important to carve out blocks of time to work on it and make sure that those are protected.
Taran: I have a day job and so my writing hours are very limited. Sunday is my writing day, every Sunday: wake up, get a big cup of coffee, put on headphones, and enter a state of ecstasy until I reach 5,000 words. If someone interrupts me, I kill them.
Khan: I sit down with the current wip every day. No real routine though – sometimes diving into it is the first thing I do in the morning, but other times I do email and social media and any promotional stuff first, then work on the writing. Sometimes a line or scene will come to me at night and I’ll have a surprise writing session from ~ 10 or 11 pm til 2 or 3 a.m.
Kristy: I work full-time as a freelancer so I’m lucky to be able to shape my schedule to work for my process. I do actually have a pretty consistent writing routine that I guard with my life because I have to get the book out of my head as fast as possible or the characters become flat and I forget what’s happened. I’m an early-bird so three to four days a week I get up nice and early–usually 5am. I give myself an hour for breakfast and coffee. Then, my phone goes in another room until lunch-time (because I can’t be trusted), I light a candle, and set a timer for 25/5 minute writing sprints. Then, I sit down at my desk to focus on my work-in-progress with more coffee, and write at least 500 words, though more often than not, it results in a full chapter (3-4K). Then, snacks.
Ciel: I don’t really. I find that if I try to schedule Time To Write™ then my brain refuses to do even a speck of writing during that entire time. Instead I just background write at all times. If I’m in class, I’m writing between taking lecture notes. If I’m working on homework or doing freelancing, I’m tabbing into my google docs to write down a sentence real quick. I do a lot of my best work while playing video games or watching tv, just the constant background process of writing while doing something else.
How do you approach writer’s blocks or creativity struggles?
Taran: Time. It’s like relaxing a tensed muscle. You can apply heat and massage but really what you need is rest. That said, I’ve learned that most of the time my issue is not with the scene I’m trying to write, but with a scene twenty chapters prior. Something is wrong with my set-up; if I go back and correct that, then the current scene goes much more smoothly.
Khan: Movement, music and nature.
Ren: If I’m stuck, I go back to my comfort media or inspirations that remind me why I love stories – refill the well! I also love to beta read and critique fiction by writer friends. Not only is it a fun way to stretch different creative muscles, but looking at other people’s work through a loving editorial lens helps me come back to my own work with a similar eye for detail and love for the text.
Kristy: If I get really stuck and am struggling to get words on the page even though I’m showing up and putting my butt in the chair each day, I listen to my body and give myself permission to rest for a week or two. Usually some form of movement will move the energy around and clear the block–yoga, cycling, hiking. I also refill the well and take a proper break: read other books. Remove social apps from my phone because nothing drains my energy more than comparing myself to others. Watch my favorite films or binge a series I’ve been meaning to get to. When I come back, I’ve gained some new ideas or perspectives and can revisit the manuscript through fresh eyes and things almost always begin to flow again.
Ciel: I hate to say this, but I don’t tend to get writer’s blocks as often as I think some people do. I tend to be working on at least three or four different projects at once, so if I’m stuck on one thing I just pivot over to the next thing for awhile. My one piece of advice is that usually if you get stuck on something, that’s not where the problem is. The problem was a thousand words ago. Scroll back up, reread and edit that section, and usually that’ll get things headed in the right direction again.
Can you talk us through your cover process? Any fun easter eggs?
Taran: Graphic design is not my passion—I mostly leave the cover design to the professionals!
Khan: At the outset, I requested there be a praying mantis somewhere on the cover (story reasons!). Mostly I left it to the cover designer – after the initial draft I was shown, I gave some feedback regarding font choice and layout. It all went pretty smoothly.
Ren: I’ve actually written a whole blog post about my cover design process here! I was incredibly lucky in that I got to have input into the vibes I wanted for it, and my cover designer Dominic Forbes really knocked it out of the park.
Kristy: I was fortunate to work with a team who harvested my ideas before they did their magic. They were receptive to my feedback through the whole process and what they came up with was something I never would have created on my own, and am so grateful they did.
Ciel: I was really lucky that Angry Robot was keen on getting my feedback on every step of the process, because I’m actually a professional digital artist and I knew ahead of time that I would have to use every single ounce of my self control to avoid being a raging bitch about my cover (I think I succeeded, thank god). I actually had a great call with my editor and cover artist talking about the cover ideas I’d been sent. At one point I just screenshared, opened up photoshop, and dropped a lens flare onto my favorite cover idea like “This.”
What has been the most influential SF piece of media for you?
Ciel: This is so so basic, but Star Wars. I think it probably really shows, given that I tend to write stuff that leans more space fantasy than pure SF, and it was also the first real SF that I got mega obsessed with. Apart from that, again basic, Star Trek. I watched all of TNG as a kid and it percolated in my head for ages. Then I watched DS9 a few years ago and realized that was the best Star Trek, Actually, and a lot of those shows really wormed their way into my mind and into my writing style.
Taran: It was a struggle to choose between Star Trek, Blake’s 7, and Battlestar Galactica 2004—but Chris Boucher passed away recently, so in his honor: Blake’s 7. It’s a grim, extremely low-budget British sci-fi show from the 70s about a mismatched group of criminals and revolutionaries who get stuck together and can never quite decide whether they’re going to be criminals, or revolutionaries. The results are predictably tragic, but what’s not predictable is how tragic. The series has a much more nihilistic outlook than THE IMMORTALITY THIEF. But the sharp, witty dialogue and themes of trust and betrayal really spoke to me.
Khan: I’ll have to be basic and say Star Trek – not that Star Trek is basic! But it is the obvious answer, particularly given the worldbuilding in THE CIRCUS INFINITE. A close second would be X-Men comics.
Ren: UNDER FORTUNATE STARS is very much a love letter to Star Trek: TNG. That series was absolutely formative for me and is deep in the bones of so much that I create. But the piece of SF media that most affected the direction of my creative journey might be The Flight Of The Navigator. I saw it when I was a child, and not only did it introduce me to the SF genre, it also ignited my enduring love for time travel stories!
Kristy: I’m ashamed to say it wasn’t until my early thirties I realized I was an avid SF fan; I never had the word for it. My whole life I’ve been deeply inspired by character-driven, emotional sci-fi and I think THE STARS IN THEIR EYES is a culmination of my love affair with The Walking Dead comics, the TV shows Colony and Falling Skies, and books like Veronica Roth’s Divergent or Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games. But make it gay.
Can we talk about queerness in space? Something I really loved when I was researching for this panel was the idea of “queering space” and so I wanted to ask you all your thoughts on this.
Taran: I am a queer woman, and I have always wanted more queer representation where the characters don’t have to defend or justify their queerness—where they’re allowed to exist as a person first, and their sexuality second. (Or third, or fourth, or last.) I’m delighted by the huge increase in representation lately–including from the wonderful other panelists!
Khan: I very much wanted to create a universe where queerness just is, and nothing special to be remarked upon. That it exists and a point isn’t made about it is the point.
Ren: There are lots of different ways to engage with queerness and queer identities in fiction, and I’m so happy to see many more canonically queer characters appearing in SF! Personally, I write queernorm worlds, where characters’ queerness is very much on the page, yet the stories are not about their queerness. It’s something that’s simply accepted as a part of the tapestry of their lives. It’s also important to me to allow queer characters to occupy all sorts of different roles in stories, whether they’re heroes or villains, soft or sharp-edged, powerful or ordinary. More queer characters of all kinds, please!
Kristy: As a queer woman myself, one of the best things about this past year was reading almost exclusively queer books or queer authors, including those on this panel. It’s been a delight! Sci-fi (or space) has historically been a cis-white, straight male space. In the larger ecosystem of our society and the issues surrounding who gets a voice/visibility/personhood, that isn’t breaking news. But it’s a little shocking this is the state of the genre since so many “space stories” already ask the question, “what if?” … What IF the landscape becomes more inclusive of diverse voices? Sharing LGBTQIA+ experiences makes more people feel seen. Loved. Validated. Human. It makes us kinder. More empathetic. It makes us a better species. The way we queer space is changing and with it, the depth in which we explore and understand experiences… The way we explore and understand ourselves.
Ciel: You know how heterosexual writers/readers/viewers/ect will assume that straight is the default sexuality? And assume that if a character’s queer there has to be a reason for it in the story? And will write straight relationships always? Anyway, I decided to do that but bisexually. Space is no exception.
What’s part of your writing craft that you feel like has most improved throughout your writing journey?
Khan: Expressing the worldbuilding through character interactions and dialogue, rather than info-dumping, was the aspect I learned most about. There are still a couple of info-dumpy passages, but for the most part I’m happy with how the expansive universe was expressed through character.
Taran: I tried a new structure with THE IMMORTALITY THIEF: short, concise chapters, all ending on a cliffhanger. It was a big change for me! I came away from the manuscript with a bunch of new ideas on how to keep the tension high (even when characters are doing nothing except walking through dark hallways).
Ren: I’m usually a pretty sparse writer in terms of physical descriptions while I’m drafting, but descriptive writing is something that I think I levelled up on a lot while rewriting and editing UFS. I’m much better now about remembering to get readers grounded in the physicality of a scene, conveying visual details and sensory cues in addition to emotional ones. I now do this more reflexively while drafting instead of having to add it all in revisions.
Kristy: All of it. THE STARS IN THEIR EYES was the first fiction I’d written since I was a kid, and the first draft (and the second, and third) was trash and far too short because the way the words hit the page flowed more like a TV script than a novel. Learning how to write prose and develop rich characters was a whole new adventure for me and one I’m excited to say continues with every new story I write.
Ciel: Well, full confession, I started writing with fanfiction and gained pretty much all of my skills and experience through that genre. And if you’ve ever read or written fanfic, you’ll know that there are certain things you do and don’t do in fic that you don’t and do do in original writing. So for me, much of the improvement of my writing craft during this whole process wasn’t just gaining technical skill, although I did some of that too. My main transition was learning what can and can’t be done in books versus fanfic. Did I succeed? Well I did stumble across a post on tumblr that basically said “I know BLUEBIRD was written by someone who writes fanfic I know it I know it I know it” so decide for yourselves on that one.
Do you have any tips for aspiring SF writers?
Taran: Write for yourself, not for publication. You will lose your mind otherwise.
Khan: Write the stories you want to read. Let the narrative be driven by the characters, not tropes. And also what Taran said!
Ren: Find your community! Connecting with fellow writers who are at a similar place in the journey will not only make the process far less lonely, but you can share what you learn and develop new craft skills together (while nerding out about the SF you love!)
Kristy: Put your butt in the chair and like Khan said, write the stories you want to read. Pull from your experience, even if your stories are brimming with aliens and hellfire. Tell the truth. Readers will connect with it, and so will you.
Ciel: Find someone to rant at. This can be a fellow writer, a group of writers, or just a poor unfortunate friend, but you need a person to rubber duck at while you’re working on the book. Ranting your thoughts aloud, even if all you get is a “Hm… I see” is incredibly helpful.
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Find Under Fortunate Stars on Goodreads, Amazon, Indiebound, Bookshop.org & The Book Depository.
Find The Immortality Thief on Goodreads, Amazon, Indiebound, Bookshop.org & The Book Depository.
Find The Stars in Their Eyes on Goodreads, Amazon, Indiebound, Bookshop.org & The Book Depository.
Find Bluebird on Goodreads, Amazon, Indiebound, Bookshop.org & The Book Depository.
Find The Circus Infinite on Goodreads, Amazon, Indiebound, Bookshop.org & The Book Depository.