If you’ve been following my blog for the last months, you’ll know I’m obsessed with Cole’s books, A Conspiracy of Stars and An Anatomy of Beasts. So when I had the opportunity to interview Cole, I jumped on it!
An Anatomy of Beasts
In the forty years since the Vagantur landed on Faloiv, the planet has existed in a tenuous peace between the humans who live in the enclosed community of N’Terra and the Faloii, the indigenous population. But after uncovering the shadowy secrets of the Council’s newly elected leader and helping a kidnapped Faloii man escape, sixteen-year-old Octavia knows that conflict is looming. Her discovery of a separate population of humans—including her grandparents—only serves to show her how out of touch humans are with reality on Faloiv.
Then the Faloii discover the N’Terran’s latest experiment: an artificially weaponized creature, and Octavia realizes that it’s up to her to prevent her people from causing any further destruction. More determined than ever, Octavia and her friends set out to understand the scope of humanity’s history. However, nothing can prepare them for the full weight of what they discover about both their home on Faloiv and the Origin planet. And as she learns to control her ability to communicate through the Artery, the network that connects everything on Faloiv, Octavia must act to change her people’s future before the natural balance on the planet shifts forever.
Can you talk about the inspiration behind this amazing series and it is quite an endeavor.
I overheard a conversation on the Megabus the year I started writing A CONSPIRACY OF STARS: a mother was talking to her friend about her daughter, and expressed concern that her daughter wasn’t able to dissect a frog in her biology class. “She can’t be a doctor! She has too many feelings!” the woman said, and those words just kind of burned me! Why should empathy and science be exclusive? And ultimately that’s one of the things that this series is about: empathy. It started out small – Octavia’s empathy for the animals of Faloiv – and then as I started writing, it just kind of expanded and expanded. I wanted to dig into empathy and what happens when it basically explodes within us.
One of the main themes in the series is that we have to have knowledge of our past so we don’t make the same mistakes again. Can you talk a bit more about what this theme means to you?
I think what it means to me is very different than what it means to Octavia and Alma. For me, as a white person in America, it means coming to grips with the actions of my ancestors and reckoning with my responsibility for the ripples – and tidal waves – those actions created. In that way, I am like Dr. Albatur, except that he is aggressively trying to recreate the past. But for Octavia and her friends, the past is something that has been actively kept from them. This becomes especially apparent in AN ANATOMY OF BEASTS as more and more of the truth is revealed. As Alma says in Book 1, knowledge is power, and Albatur and the Council have long controlled the narrative of humans’ history and how they came to arrive on Faloiv. This is part of Albatur’s power. As Octavia and her friends come to possess more and more of the truth, they are more and more empowered… and that’s really what I wanted to get at in these books.
The animals are some of my favorite parts of the books, do you have a background in zoology or how did you come up with them?
I do not have a background in zoology, but I have always been an animal nut. At eight years old, I spent my time taking cards with animal facts and sorting them by habitat. (I was a very cool kid…) So as far as how I came up with them, it was just a matter of reaching into my fondest memories LOL But really, a lot of the inspiration came from thinking about survival: on a planet like Faloiv, what would an animal like the maigno need to survive? How would it adapt? Earth’s animals have some pretty freaky adaptations of their own, so much of the inspiration was from animals right here at home!
Can you talk about some of the families in the book? Octavia’s family was one of the most interesting parts of the book, especially her relationship to her father.
I thought a lot about politics when thinking about Octavia’s family. I imagined what it would be like to have parents with political beliefs that are vastly different from each other, and the toll that would take on their relationship, and in turn their relationship with their child. I think a child would inevitably feel the need to choose, or else split off from both of them. Octavia cycles between a few different approaches, but her relationship with both her parents remains complex, even in AN ANATOMY OF BEASTS.
A huge part of the series is about activism and making a stand, Olivia, how do you bring these practices into your own life?
That’s an interesting question, because I think my approach has changed a lot over recent years. Around the time I was writing A CONSPIRACY OF STARS, I very much felt that I needed to be front and center, shouting about the issues I cared most about. Arguing with strangers. Yelling from podiums. I don’t do so much of that anymore. Instead, my arguments are quiet, and usually with people I know, as I think that is where I can make the most change. Instead of writing articles yelling about the importance of diversity – and taking up a lot of space in the process – I now do what I can to promote change from behind the scenes. I sponsor fellowships for women of color writers. I recruit for diversity for the summer program that I teach in Kentucky. I do my best to amplify and elevate women of color every chance I get. I don’t know if I call it taking a stand, but I do my best to stand up for the things I believe are important.
What were some of the most influential books growing up for you?
The two that come to mind immediately are ROLL OF THUNDER HEAR MY CRY and REDWALL. I had them checked out from the library on a regular basis.
What are some of your most recent obsessions?
Lately I am obsessed with green architecture. I am always thinking about climate change and its immediate effects. I spend a lot of time researching how to build houses from sustainable materials with methods that will keep my family safe as the injuries we’ve inflicted on Earth start to have more consequences. This is actually going to show up in my next book…
If we wanted to immerse ourselves either before A CONSPIRACY OF STARS or after finishing AN ANATOMY OF BEASTS what tv shows, books, music, or other pieces of pop culture should we tune into? A reading list of sorts perhaps?
Octavia Butler’s DAWN is also sewn into the very fabric of this book.
Alabama Shakes “Sound and Color” was something I listened to a lot when I was writing A CONSPIRACY OF STARS. Blood Orange “It Is What It Is.” For ANATOMY OF BEASTS, Charlotte Day Wilson “Work.” Janelle Monáe “Don’t Judge Me.” And really the whole theme song of the entire series is Laura Mvula “Green Garden.” This song (and video!) is at the core of these books in so many ways! So that’s more of a playlist, but…there you have it!