In collaboration with Pyr Books, I recently ran a contest in which the prize was a couple of copies of Joel Shepherd's Crossover. The premise of the story seemed interesting, so I invited the author for a chat. I wanted this Q&A to introduce Joel and his work to you guys. You'll see that he's got a lot to say!;-)
You can learn more on his website: www.joelshepherd.com
- For the benefit of those of us new to your work, without giving too much away, give us a taste of the story that is CROSSOVER.
Crossover is the first book in the adventures of Cassandra Kresnov. Sandy (Cassandra) is an experimental artificial person, created to fight a war for the progressive League against the conservative Federation. The League took a risk in making her more intelligent than their usual creations, in order to make her more dangerous... but this gave Sandy a greater degree of creative free will as a result, and she decided she didn't like the League's war, and defected to her former enemies, the Federation. The story starts in Tanusha, the 57-million-strong capital metropolis of the planet Callay, where Sandy is incognito attempting to make for herself a new life as a civilian. Except that her past, of course, catches up with her, and mayhem ensues.
Crossover has elements of cyberpunk, military SF and political thriller, but is neither entirely one nor the others. Mostly it's a character driven story about a woman struggling to make sense of her own existence, and to find a place for herself in a frequently hostile world.
- What can readers expect from the subsequent two volumes of the series?
A further development of Sandy, her relationships and circumstances in Tanusha, some of which improve, and some get worse, but none of which are ever simple. I've been really pleased with the number of different levels on which Sandy's character works, both on the personal and dramatic level, and also on the more philosophical issues that her existence raises. And of course there's any number of great action sequences for her to get involved with. After you spend this much time with a character, she begins to seem like an old friend, so it's been really nice to get to know Sandy better over the course of the series.
- What do you feel is your strength as a writer/storyteller?
I'd like to think I've got more than one! But overall, I think maybe realism. It's one thing to come up with a cool idea for a story, but another to make it seem like it's really happening as the reader reads it. I've always loved stories that seem absolutely real, whether in books or on film or TV, where the creator steps aside from the process and makes him or herself invisible, thus allowing you to suspend all disbelief and just sink into the story and become absorbed by it. That's what I try and do in my writing, to create an immersive experience. Probably the biggest part of that is character development, which is hugely important to me.
- What authors make you shake your head in admiration?
There's lots of people I admire, but I don't really like listing them because lists just feel too forced and artificial. And I admire lots of writing that isn't fiction, too, like current-affairs columnists... I get inspiration from lots of places, TV and movies too. But I will say that CJ Cherryh was a big influence on me growing up, she was the first writer who demonstrated to me that head-burstlingly intelligent, and wickedly entertaining, were not mutually exclusive concepts.
- What was the spark that generated the idea which drove you to write CROSSOVER and the Cassandra Kresnov series in the first place?
I'd had an idea for a super-warrior in my head for a long time, I've long been fascinated by the concept of great power, and the morality plays entailed in deciding how to use such power. Not in superheroes so much, because so few of the great American superheroes actually kill anyone, which seems to me the true essence of great power -- the power of life and death. Comic book superheroes always seemed to me to be dodging the issue -- the villain threatens to kill entire nations, and Superman responds by punching him in the jaw... no. That's a false moral choice, because Superman gets off cheap -- he never has to make the truly hard choices, the choice of whether or not to take life... and possibly a lot of life... and as such, he never acquires much depth for me as a character. Sandy's dilemma is much deeper, because all of her power is derived from lethal force, and she's the kind of person who'd much rather be loving life than taking it.
But it never occurred to me to make her fully artificial until one day I was reading the manga of 'Ghost in the Shell' by Masamune Shirow, and some characters were talking about how in that world, cyborgs with human brains have souls, and wholly artificial minds do not. It seemed a strangely metaphysical and possibly indefensible notion... and what if you were artificial, and quite certain you had a soul, and deserved all the same rights as cyborgs or straight humans, but no one believed you? And then it occurred to me that this could be the super-warrior concept I'd had before, and the proverbial light flashed on in my head -- her ethical dilemmas, her struggle for a purpose in life, the discrimination against her, the fear she generated, the broader politics of her creation... etc. And I knew I had to write a book about her. Possibly several books.
- Were there any perceived conventions of the scifi genre which you wanted to twist or break when you set out to write CROSSOVER and its sequels?
The 'android cliche', as Sandy calls it. She herself becomes a victim of these cliches in the series, because the cliches inform the Tanushan public's concept of what and who she is. She's either a murderous killing machine of pre-programmed malevolence, or she's an automaton incapable of true feeling... and even amongst those people who like her, there's that expectation that she should feel a desperate yearning to be human. Which Sandy thinks is pathetic, because to her mind, she's human already, just made of different stuff. The technology that created her is a convergence of the artificial with the organic -- artificial systems imitating organic systems so closely that it's very hard to tell the difference, either physically or philosophically. For Sandy, it's a struggle to be judged by who she is and what she does, and not by what she's made of.
- Given the choice, would you take a New York Times bestseller, or a Hugo Award? Why, exactly?
Either would be excellent of course... but the bestseller would be the most excellent. Awards are as much about luck as skill, and while there's some luck involved in selling well, I think sales are a more accurate reflection on general success as an author (though still imperfect, of course). Also, a Hugo would mean approval from the specific group of SF fans who attend Worldcons... which would be great, but I'm just as keen on appealing to the vast majority of people who don't attend Worldcons. Fandom is great, but should not be the final word on success or failure in the genre.
- Honestly, do you believe that the speculative fiction genre will ever come to be recognized as veritable literature? Truth be told, in my opinion there has never been this many good books/series as we have right now, and yet there is still very little respect (not to say none) associated with the genre.
I guess the counter-question is 'respect from whom?' From literary elites... well, I don't know they get much respect these days from the general public either. In fact, most people out there have as little respect for any genre of books as another, because most people don't read. I don't think SF & Fantasy should fret too much because a small minority of self-proclaimed literary arbiters don't like us much. To use a purely business analogy, I think we should continue to grow our marketshare out into the untapped masses faster than our competition, thus capturing more total readers than them. At which point, who cares if some minority doesn't like us?
- Pyr Books are slowly but surely establishing themselves as a quality outfit in the publishing world. More and more, the Pyr logo is associated with quality products and great reading experiences. What differentiates Pyr Books from the other fantasy/scifi imprints out there?
That might be a question best aimed at Pyr Editor Lou Anders. But from what I've seen, I think Lou's figured that there's a certain class of books that were getting ignored by the big publishers -- well written, intelligent, and while certainly entertaining, perhaps not falling neatly into the clearly defined categories that mainstream publishing sometimes prefers. So I think a Pyr book is usually going to be something that pushes the genre in a slightly different direction than it's been before.
- There appears to be a budding fantasy/scifi scene in Australia. Recent years have seen the emergence of authors such as Sara Douglass, Jennifer Fallon, Fiona McIntosh. Why has it taken so long for Australian writers to get recognition abroad?
I'm not sure. I think maybe there's been a perception in the past that 'Commonwealth authors' write differently to what American audiences are accustomed to. But I think we're getting to that inevitable point where it doesn't make much difference where you come from, so long as you write a good story and prove you can sell.
- With the three Cassandra Kresnov novels already out Down Under, what projects are you currently working on? How long till those novels become available in North America and Europe?
I'm working on a fantasy series, the first novel of which has been renamed 'Sasha', and has been sold to Hachette Livre Australia. International distribution should follow, but we're not at that stage yet... so maybe two years before it's seen outside of Australia, maybe less. There's four books in the series, and they're a fairly unconventional fantasy series -- no magic, no elves, very heavy on character, realism, and the big issues of human civilisation (nationalism, religion, war, etc). I've been told it's pretty intense.The rest of the Cassandra Kresnov series will be out in America shortly, and also (it now appears) the UK -- Breakaway in April 2007, and Killswitch sometime after that.
- Anything you wish to add?
Only that I've been thrilled at how well Crossover's been selling so far, and I hope it continues!