What if you take four amazing and talented writers and pose six questions for a Sci-fi roundtable like no other. This is no longer a what if. The FoF is honored to host our first Sci-fi roundtable featuring:
A Mound Over Hell author, Gary Morgenstein
Speciman 959 author, Robert Davies
Wired author, Caytlyn Brooke
Serpent Rising author, Victor Acquista
1) What’s the biggest challenge for a speculative fiction writer? For me, there are two. You’ve got to create something different, not derivative, while still having an anchor in familiarity for the reader. My most recent novel A Mound Over Hell is set in 2098 after America has lost World War 3 to Islam, leaning into a thousand-year conflict while building an entirely new world on the ashes of a failed United States. Democracy is dead. Patriotism outlawed. Social media banned under the Anti-Narcissism Laws. But you also have to avoid dating yourself with needless predictions. I never mention contemporary political events. Our job as speculative writers is to ask, “What if?,” not act as fortune tellers. Y
2) Are the best stories still to be found in novels or have they been overtaken by movies and TV? You mean like the 18th reboot of Star Wars? Forgive the sarcasm, but while there are wonderful original genre stories like Star Trek, the preponderance of movies/TVs are based on fiction, from novels to graphic novels to comic books. That isn’t intended to diminish the power of those films; Lord of the Rings is, I believe, better than the novels. But speculative fiction depends on a singular vision of a distinct world from solitary writers like us living inside the somewhat controlled chaos of our imaginations. The entertainment business is too dependent on the collaboration of differing viewpoints. Sci-fi and fantasy themes can’t be synthesized or watered down because its very nature is bold and challenging by depicting a future that may be worse, may be better, but it will certainly be different. Remember the Golden Age of science fiction took on uncomfortable themes such as nuclear war and racial equality through the prism of the future.
3) Do you write in any sub-genres? Do you think they’re opening up the genre or fragmenting it? My new novel series is dystopian science fiction-baseball. In the books, baseball is disgraced, associated with treason, totally irrelevant and about to begin its very final season ever. While there are other baseball sci-fi works, they’re rare. Given the game’s steady decline, most writers believe that baseball simply won’t make the cut into the future. I flip that upside down by giving baseball, as representing the old America, a second chance. That enables me to straddle two worlds. I love the notion of more sub-genres because I applaud anything that opens the creative doors for new voices and new ways of looking at the world.
4). Who were the three most profound influences on you as a writer? Philip K. Dick for the often Kafkaesque brilliance of depicting worlds where paranoia was entirely justified; Ray Bradbury for the vivid imagination of the human soul, and Ernest Hemingway, for the clarity of his genius. In particular, Hemingway said that a writer must be honest and write what he knows.
5) Are there differences between characters in speculative fiction and “mainstream” fiction? In speculative fiction, the society is different so your characters must obey your world building rules, which I’ve found amusing, challenging and sometimes downright perplexing. Like who was the dummy who outlawed this particular behavior? In my novel, four million children died during World War 3. The new dystopian America is run by The Family, which reveres children, relationships, love and marriage (there’s no distinction between gay and straight long as you love, for example). Out of that grew the notion that single women shouldn’t raise their children outside a family structure. One of my characters gets pregnant. I realized in this world, abortion would be illegal; children were needed to restock the population. That forced me into unanticipated story lines. But speculative writers must be careful that their characters behave as people would in these worlds because otherwise readers will bust you. There should be no shortcuts in speculative fiction.
6) What are you working on now? A Fastball for Freedom, Book Two in The Dark Depths series, will be published by BHC Press in 2021. I’m writing Book Three, untitled so far. I’m also a playwright. My funny new drama about racial harmony, A Black and White Cookie, originally postponed because of the health emergency, will premiere later this year. It’s about the powerful and unlikely friendship between an African American newsstand owner and a Jewish Communist who must overcome anti-Semitism to confront corporate greed and their own mortality.
1) Maintaining a delicate balance between plausible and entertaining. Creativity and novel content are the driving engines, but believability has a break point that, once crossed, can mean the difference between holding the reader’s attention and getting tossed into a recycle bin. Whether the subject is covens of witches terrorizing a small town in Iowa, or giant space ships invading to conquer and subjugate humanity, the writer’s imagination has free rein to dream up the fantastical and carry readers on flights of fancy straight fiction cannot easily match. However, an underlying (if unspoken) rule demands adherence to those elements the reader will accept without a second thought in order to maintain both story flow and an anchor in the real world. An ‘aliens versus cowboys’ theme is entertaining to some, but the sheriff’s six-shooter has to be just that – an 1800s Colt revolver, and not a ray gun.
2) The best stories take more time to consider and generate than either television or film can afford, so it’s a safe bet novels will remain the well spring of great stories. Books can’t match the visual impact of the tube or screen, but that has always been true. Few books were films turned into novels. Lots of movies were based on a book. Despite the limitations presented by no visuals, a well-written novel sparks a reader’s imagination to great effect and often so powerfully, a memory of preference becomes something more. As evidence, I submit the often-heard complaint that ‘the movie was good, but the book was so much better.’
3) I have written in the paranormal fantasy sub-genre once, but the effort was so poorly received I will not repeat the mistake. I now have a warmer appreciation for “write what you know” than I did prior, even at the risk of being offended by the parallel “stay in your lane” restrictions this approach might include. Some writers diverge almost by necessity in order to fill out their genre-specific creativity needs, but my experience has made me cautious and very hesitant.
4) My mother was the first influence. She was a librarian, and books were everywhere in our home. I didn’t fully appreciate the difference between ‘oral’ and ‘literary’ learning traditions until many years later (which is exacerbated by financial and social condition for many people), but reading was elemental to my upbringing. The second powerful influence were the spy novels of David Cornwell (AKA John le Carre) as a teenager. The Cold War subject was captivating to me in the extreme, but it was the author’s style and voice – his descriptive gifts – that turned me toward writing in a serious manner. The most recent influence (albeit twenty-five years ago) is Chet Benson, my first comp/creative writing professor in college. Whatever raw talent I possessed then was cultivated and polished under his tutelage, and I am still grateful today.
5) Aside from supernatural abilities, spec fiction characters are not meaningfully different to me than those featured in a traditional work of fiction. A character must grab and hold the attention of the reader, but I regard this as a requirement that transcends genre. ‘Bladerunner’s‘ Roy Batty character, inspired by Philip K. Dick’s ‘Electric Sheep‘ novel was a genetically engineered superhuman with incredible, physical powers, but it was his struggle with emotion and impending death that made him so interesting. Dostoevsky’s main character, Rodion, in ‘Crime and Punishment‘ murdered for personal gain, but it was his subsequent battle with guilt and self-loathing that made the story compelling. Both characters are representative of speculative and mainstream fictions respectively, and both worked beautifully.
6) I am in between at the moment. My third series novel has been submitted to the publisher, but has not yet gone through edit. As we speak, I am exploring concepts for a traditional fiction work outside the sci-fi genre – no space ships or nebulae, no aliens or post-apocalyptic heroes. I have always wanted to shift to something more literary, but lacked the experience or time required to take on such a project. I have both of those elements in the present, and a current-day novel with a deeper, underlying message may germinate and grow. I am still at the toe-dipping stage, but that may lead to a dive in the pool this summer.
The biggest challenge that I have had to face as a speculative fiction author is the immense amount of world building necessary to create a convincing, yet completely unique story. Science fiction has been around for years and there are so many incredible authors that it’s hard to even begin to imagine how to create something new. For Wired, rather than creating a new universe or life form, I simply looked at technology and asked, how will this be different in ten years? From that starting point, I was able to leap into the future and envision how not only technology has advanced, but the consequences to the human race and the decline of social interactions as well. Another difficult part of writing in this genre is creating technology that makes sense and could be realistic. Speculative fiction isn’t fantasy, there has to be some basis of reality and fact involved. For Wired, I had to do hours of research on neurological studies such as what causes our synapses to fire, the subtle differences between dopamine and serotonin, and how certain drugs and chemicals change our physical and mental behaviors. Once I had a solid grasp of that, I then focused on introducing my advanced technology and researched how it could work in tandem with the body and what side effects it would yield. Overall, as a speculative fiction author, you need to be able to logically fantasize what the future will bring.
For me, I believe that all the great stories are still hidden away in books. As of late, the movies and TV shows being put out have all been remakes or focus on the very politically correct society that we have found ourselves in. Even if a book is translated into a movie, the majority of the time, Hollywood destroys the true meaning or erases the subtly in favor of more gun fights or forced romances because that’s what they think the public wants to see. Not every story should have a happy ending because life does not come wrapped in a bow. Life is hard and messy and fearful and heartbreaking and books allow the reader to feel such a vast array of emotions because they’re not trying to fit a mold, they’re true reflections of the author and hit on a much more personal level than any big screen production can ever hope to achieve.
As an author, I love the creative liberty of sub-genres. I think being able to blend science fiction and horror or urban fantasy allows you to truly write the story that you want without worrying about the constraints of remaining in one specific genre. Combining them ultimately makes the novel more exciting and unexpected, not only for the author, but for the readers as well.
Who were three most profound influences on you as a writer? I always struggle to answer this question because writing is such a stop-go process that it’s hard to narrow it down to what or who truly inspired me. I know most writers pick famous authors who inspired them, but for me it was a few everyday people that helped set me on this path. I’ve wanted to be an author since 3rd grade. There was a creative writing teacher who held a workshop in class and after giving us a prompt, she read mine to herself and said, “Wow, these descriptions! You’re going to be a writer one day.” From that simple encounter I have never looked back. Watching her eyebrows raise in surprise at my writing filled me with such an incredible feeling of pride, that I knew from that moment on I wanted to wow readers with my imagination. My 7th grade English teacher was another person who really inspired me to start writing seriously. Another prompt, another story, and my creativity went wild. All my classmates groaned as they racked their brains trying to fill three pages whereas I handed in 27 pages and labeled it chapter 1. I didn’t want to stop and he was the first person who saw my ambition and the determination to do whatever I could to make myself a stronger writer. As for the third person, I was actually quite inspired by Stephanie Meyer. I was in high school when the Twilight books debuted, and I couldn’t read them fast enough. Lots of people criticized her writing because it wasn’t a literary masterpiece, but the stories were enthralling and exciting and put a new spin on a centuries old monster and brought them to our everyday world. I loved the characters she created and the enchanting yet dangerous world she created so much that when I began writing my first fantasy book senior year I asked, “What topic would Stephanie Meyer write about?” From there, I picked a mythological creature and introduced it to the modern world and described the challenges it would face and how it would have to adapt as well and hopefully I’ll have the same success as she did!
I do think there is a difference between characters in mainstream fiction vs. speculative fiction. For example, I think in mainstream fiction, characters must have a very strong moral code and the challenges they encounter throughout the story are forces trying to steer them away or abandon that code. Whereas in speculative fiction, I don’t think you have the same rigidity of the character and can have a protagonist who can be defined as morally gray, yet still likeable and relatable.
As of right now, I am halfway through the second book of my fantasy adventure trilogy that I started back in high school and mentioned in regard to Stephanie Meyer above! Ten years ago, I tried to self-publish the first book and it was awful. A huge flop because as a high school senior, I had no money for marketing, no clue how to market, and social media was just emerging, which again, I had no idea how to use. Now, over the years I have rewritten the first novel at least a dozen times and I am happy to report I am finally happy with it and it will be published later this year! The premise is about an aurai, or wind nymph named Kaitaini who becomes the fascination of Zeus. While trying to avoid Zeus’ advances, she seeks shelter in the human realm and meets Blake, an eighteen-year-old boy trying to survive high school and the inner voice telling him he’ll never be good enough. After a chance encounter with Kaitaini, Blake unknowingly becomes a vulnerability for Zeus to exploit to capture her. Now, Blake must choose whether to sit back and let a stranger die or jump into an impossible world and play a game where there are no rules and the price of failure is death.
Thank you so much for having me!
1) What’s the biggest challenge for a speculative fiction writer?
I think the answer to this is writer dependent. Some general categories are coming up with a story idea, outlining a story either (formally or informally), plot development and pacing, creating interesting and appealing stories, editing, marketing. Every step along the way from conception to development to production to post production are all challenging in their own right. Authors have different skill sets and may excel in some areas and be terrible in others. This applies to writing books in general. Speculative fiction stands apart from the aspect of story creation which, in my opinion, is an exercise of imagination.
2) Are the best stories still to be found in novels or have they been overtaken by movies and TV?
The label “best” is highly subjective and is reader/viewer dependent. Having a story unfold in either the medium of a book or in film, in a way that is entertaining and enjoyable, presents overlapping challenges, but there are key differences. In both cases the story and characters must have appeal. Can readers or viewers connect with the characters? Is the story interesting? These are areas of overlap. Key differences are that film is largely a visual medium through which the story is told. Special effects and other techniques unique to movies and TV provide different opportunities to tell a story that cannot be accomplished on the printed or digital page. I believe creation using the written word is far less restricted than in film. By sheer volume, I think the best stories are in novels, but the absence of some of the restrictions I have mentioned is a second advantage that novels offer over movies and TV. Without contradicting myself, we are encouraged when we write to “show don’t tell”. In this area, stories told through the medium of film have an advantage. Still, my vote remains with novels as the place to find the best stories. But, I do admit to a certain bias since I am a novelist.
3) Do you write in any sub-genres? Do you think they’re opening up the genre or fragmenting it?
I could expound on these two related questions at some length. The 2018 Wikipedia citation on “Science Fiction Genres” lists 46 different categories. I’m sure there are more. Do we need additional sub-genres beyond “Feghoot”? For those unfamiliar with Feghoot Fiction, it’s a sub-genre of typically humorous short science fiction spawned from a series of stories called “Through Time and Space with Ferdinand Feghoot”. That’s too fragmenting in my opinion.
I prefer the more open-ended label of “Speculative Fiction” that is composed of ten specific genres including science fiction and fantasy. I also write both nonfiction and fiction, including speculative fiction. My upcoming release with BHC Press is in the following genres: mystery, suspense, adventure, and contemporary fiction. Trying to pigeon-hole this into a specific category seems artificial and unhelpful. There are at least a dozen sub-genres that could be applied to this particular work. I’m going to have a field day with keywords and SEO.
4). Who were the three most profound influences on you as a writer?
I’m going to narrow my answer to sci fi and fantasy influences. Robert Heinlein, Frank Herbert, and George R.R. Martin. I also must give honorable mention to Isaac Asimov and J. R. R. Tolkien. They all are masterful storytellers and create intricate and elaborate worlds to explore and escape into. They all include social messaging and provoke readers to think about human drives and behaviors and a host of other juicy things.
5) Are there differences between characters in speculative fiction and “mainstream” fiction?
Yes and no. Speculative fiction allows more latitude in creating magical and other- worldly characters but it doesn’t change what goes into a character, it just provides more choice and options. What do I mean by this? All characters have aspects (i.e CHARACTERISTICS) that are similar to the humans that the reader is familiar with. Those same characters have attributes that are different from what the reader is familiar with. That doesn’t change whether it’s speculative or mainstream, but there are expanded choices in speculative fiction. A multicolored insectoid creature that reproduces asexually and only on the moons of an alien planetary system presents some stark differences that wouldn’t be considered mainstream (notwithstanding Kafka’s The Metamorphosis). But if the character is searching for a soulmate and wants to survive and raise children (a brood?) is that so different than what may go into a mainstream fiction character?
6) Briefly, what are you working on now?
I recently concluded season one of a podcast series featuring fiction, nonfiction, ideas, and commentary. I’m working on season two. I’m co-editing an anthology of weird stories and am hard at work in the pre-launch phase of my new novel, Serpent Rising, scheduled for release in August. Not even on the back burner, more like on the counter near the stove, I’m writing a satire and am about 75% done with the first draft.
We cant thank Gary, Robert, Caytlyn & Victor for taking time out of their schedules to spend time with the FoF. Hopefully for round two, we can do this in person.
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