It was my pleasure to interview Becky Chambers, author of “The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet”, a wonderful book that I heartily recommend to everyone (Read the review here: https://amidtheimaginary.wordpress.com/2015/02/28/the-long-way-to-a-small-angry-planet/)
Below are my questions in italics and Becky’s complete, unaltered answers beneath them.
Tell me a little bit about yourself, for example background, studies, hobbies, day job, etc.
My background is in theatre, which I studied and worked in for a while. I shifted over to freelance writing five years ago. I wrote about pop culture and video games, and did copywriting to pay the bills. I started a full-time technical writing job late last year, so my freelance days are behind me for the foreseeable future.
As for my hobbies, I spend most of my free time gaming, and I like to be out in nature as often as life allows. I also have a real soft spot for museums and planetariums.
Does your writing primarily fall under the science-fiction/fantasy genres?
Fiction-wise, I’m all about the SF/F. If it doesn’t have spaceships or dragons…I mean, I can appreciate it, but it’s not my jam.
How did the idea of your novel “The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet” come about? Did you start writing it right away or did it develop over time?
The Long Way sat with me for years before I finally took the plunge. I came up with the characters during college. It’s not a very glamorous story. I was at my boring front desk job at the campus gym, and I was passing time by making up aliens. Sissix happened, and I thought she seemed pretty cool, so I gave her some friends. I figured they needed a ship, and a job, and the rest of it just kind of followed. I don’t know what it was about them that stuck, but they hung out with me for seven years. I’d scribble little conversations between them, and when I’d see things while traveling or hear stories while bartending, I’d recontextualize it through my crew. Eventually, I had a box full of notes and scraps, and told myself I needed to do something with it. My book’s that something.
Some of the scenes in the book suggest a familiarity with living amid other cultures and languages. Is that the case?
Oh, definitely. I grew up in Southern California, which is home to people from all over the place. I grew up alongside a lot of first and second-generation kids, a lot of ESL students, a lot of different cuisines being unpacked in the cafeteria. That was my normal. I learned very early on that everybody’s from somewhere else. That was the primary fuel for the human future I created, the idea that the cultural and racial categories we hold to so rigidly are not the same ones we had a thousand years ago, or even a hundred years ago, nor are they the ones we’ll have down the road. Human history is entirely based in migration and mixing. Always has been, always will be.
As for my family, my mom’s parents were from Germany, so we had some different cultural traditions, too, and often had relatives visiting from overseas. And then I grew up and decided to spend my life with an Icelander, so that’s been added to the mix. Having an international family is all I’ve ever known. I’ve lived in Iceland, and Scotland as well, and I drew on both of those experiences a lot when I wrote the book — all those mixed-up feelings of adventure and homesickness. I wrote it when I was living in Iceland, actually. I think that had a big effect on how the final version turned out.
How did you research some of the science in your book (sub-space, wormholes)?
Scientific literacy is a pretty big deal in my family. I didn’t go into a scientific field of study, and I’m no expert on anything, but I’ve got a decent level of understanding when it comes to space and natural science. So I did the groundwork on my own, looking things up on the internet, pawing around the library when necessary. When I needed verification, though, I’d ask my mom, who teaches astrobiology. I obviously took a lot of liberties with the universe in my book, but I wanted the science to be at leastplausible, even when I was flat-out making stuff up. For example, at one point, I realized I’d off-handedly described the Aandrisk homeworld as being larger than Mars, but then later, Rosemary (who grew up on Mars) casually observes that the gravity there is a little lighter than she’s used to. I thought I’d screwed it up, but I called my mom, and she talked to me about mass and density, and I felt much better. That bit got left in.
The nice thing about wormholes and the fabric of space is that nobody knows how those things actually work. There are mathematical models, of course, but we can’t verify any of it (yet!). I intentionally avoided any attempts at real astrophysics when explaining wormhole construction — one, because I knew someone out there would call me on my bullshit, and two, because if these people have spacetime figured out, they’re not going to be using the same conceptual language we are anyway. I wanted this book to be accessible to people who don’t come from a science/science fiction background, and to not have any factual hangups for those that do. Thus, wormholes are explained with a bowl of porridge, and the physical laws behind them are left vague. It’s cleaner that way.
I understand you used Kickstarter to propel to the finish of the book. Can you tell me a little about that process?
Putting yourself out there and trying to fund a thing is a nerve-wracking experience. Not just because you’re asking for people’s hard-earned cash, but because you’re effectively taking something that means the world to you and asking The Public if they think it’s a good idea. It’s akin to getting on stage naked.
Having people I’d made a commitment to was incredibly useful, more so than the money in some ways. I never miss a deadline when it’s handed to me by someone else, but I’m atrocious at finishing projects when I’m doing them just for me. The pressure of knowing there were people out there waiting helped me see the book through to the end.
There was a warm fuzzy side to it, too. My backers were (and continue to be) humblingly supportive. They cheered me on the whole way. That meant more to me than I’ll ever be able to express. Say what you will about the internet, but for all its awfulness, there are few places where the kindness of strangers is more clearly on display.
What were the deciding factors behind self-publishing your novel versus going the traditional publishing route?
I actually intended on going the traditional route when I first launched the campaign. I got an agent, went out on submission, all that good stuff. But my agent got another job, which meant I was a bit stuck. From where I stood, I had one of two options: I could either keep querying agents, which could take forever, or I could do it myself right then. By that point, it had been almost two years since the Kickstarter campaign was funded. I figured I owed it to my backers to show them what they helped make. It was the right thing to do. I’m very grateful for having that option. It was a lot of work, but an awesome experience nonetheless.
You mentioned that you’ve recently accepted a contract from a traditional publishing house. Can you tell me why you decided to go that route this time? And do you think you’ll still self-publish other work?
I’ve got so many answers to that. First of all, my publisher approached me directly about picking up The Long Way, and they really put a lot of effort into showing me how much they care about the book. Accepting the deal from Hodder felt right, just as self-publishing felt right the year before. I am proud of the work I did on my own, but I know that self-promotion is not one of my strong suits. I felt that in my case, a publisher could help me reach further than I’d gone alone.
And honestly, I think that’s what the whole trad pub/self pub debate comes down to: knowing your strengths. I don’t believe one path is better than the other. They both have their pros and cons. I learned a ton through self-publishing, just as I am now through traditional publishing. They both have a lot to offer. I think self-publishing is an awesome choice if the idea of total control over a creative project appeals to you. Because it’s not just about writing a good story — it’s about commissioning a cover, and formatting ebook files, and building a website, and getting the word out. If all of that stuff sounds like something you’d like to do, then go for it. But if you’d prefer to just focus on writing and have a team handle the rest of it, the traditional path is probably more your thing (unless you’ve got the money to hire your own team, in which case, rock on).
Right now, I’m at a point in my life where having a team to handle everything that’s not writing is, honestly, a relief. I’ve just transitioned over from freelancing to a full-time job, and I’m trying to lay a good foundation for my future family. Self-publishing is a massive amount of work, and currently, I don’t feel I can dedicate the time necessary to do it justice. I may do it again in the future. I’m definitely leaving that option open. It’ll depend on the project, and where I’m at. Sometimes, it really is the best fit.
Can you tell me a little about what you’re working on now?
I can’t get into it too much, but I will say that I’m working on something within the same setting, with a bit of crossover. The rest will have to be shrouded in secrecy for now.
Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?
The best advice ever given to me about being a writer came from my partner, whose cousin is a concert cellist. Travels the world, the whole nine yards. She has a custom-built cello that she takes meticulous care of. When she flies to a concert, she books a seat for the cello, too, because it can’t handle the temperature changes down in the cargo hold. Her profession requires her to be good to her instrument. She can’t do her job without it.
As a writer, you are your instrument. You cannot do good work if you aren’t taking care of your base needs. There is nothing romantic about burning out. Make time to write, yes, but also make time to take naps and go for walks. Don’t beat yourself up for unwinding in front of the TV or on Tumblr, and be kind to yourself when that day’s writing wasn’t the best thing you’ve ever written. Eat good food. Sleep well. Spend time with the people you love. This is a hard job by default. Don’t make it harder by not taking care of yourself.
Most important question of all: Are you planning a sequel to your novel any time soon?
Not a direct sequel, but you’ll see some of these folks again.
Many thanks to Becky for taking the time to be interviewed on Amid the Imaginary! I know I’ll be on the look out for future work from this imaginative author.
Want to know more about Becky Chambers? Visit her website: http://otherscribbles.com/
Looking to buy the novel? The ebook is for sale on Amazon here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Long-Way-Small-Angry-Planet-ebook/dp/B00TTM2B84/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1426874797&sr=1-1&keywords=the+long+way+to+a+small+angry+planet
You can also pre-order the hardcover version here: http://www.amazon.com/The-Long-Small-Angry-Planet/dp/1473619793/ref=oosr