Today’s author has created a wonderfully diverse science fiction series and now she’s here to share her writing journey–and some fantastic advice–with all of you. Please give LJ Cohen a warm welcome.
1. Can you tell us a bit about your books?
When I started writing DERELICT, I thought of it as Firefly meets Lost in Space. I’ve always been a huge fan of ensemble SF stories – Farscape, all the Star Treks, Firefly (of course) – and wanted to set a group of characters loose in a near-future post-diaspora world. The novels of Halcyone Space are all about unintended consequences – which for an author are the best kind. I describe the series as:
After a reckless young computer programmer resurrects the damaged AI on a long dormant freighter, she and her accidental crew blunder into a galactic conspiracy forty years in the making.
2. Which part of the series came to you first?
Can I admit that I’m not completely sure? I remember rooting around in my plot-bunny files and found an old idea about a space station and a conflict between the children of the station personnel and the children of the ambassadors there to craft a treaty – some kind of ‘town/gown’ story in space. But there were no specific characters or plot attached. I think, from that old idea, I created two individuals – Ro and Micah – and the idea of the derelict ship.
Almost all of my stories start with a version of ‘Clue’, but instead of Miss Scarlet in the drawing room with poison, it’s a character in a place with a problem. So the series started out with both Ro and Micah needing to use the ship for their own purposes. The rest expended from there.
3. At what point did you realize you were writing a trilogy?
When I got about 2/3 of the way through DERELICT, I realized that the deeper I went, the richer the universe became and that it needed to be a series. It’s currently at 3 books. I’m at the halfway mark drafting book 4, and will probably need 5 or 6 books total to complete the story.
4. Coding is a big part of your first novel, Derelict. How much research did you do before starting the first draft?
I really didn’t need to research much. I’ve always been fascinated by computers and programming. I started messing around in the 1970s with an old mainframe that had been donated to our school system. The whole punch cards and do not fold, spindle, or mutilate deal and BASIC and Fortran! I bought my first personal computer in 1984. A Radio Shack TRS-80 (not so affectionately known as the trash 80) for $1000. It had two 5 1/4 floppies, so you could keep a program loaded and save at the same time. In those years, you really needed to know how to command computers to do what you wanted – which was likely why when the first Macs came out, they became so popular. But the dos prompt and I were old friends. I’ve taught myself html and css and used to create custom data bases for fun.
5. Did you start out wanting to create a diverse cast of characters or is that just how it ended up?
I wanted to reflect the world that I live in. My community and my family are diverse. We’ve both traveled and opened up our home to international students. And I came of age watching Star Trek. I couldn’t imagine a future less diverse than our present.
6. How did you get into the viewpoints of characters with different backgrounds/genders/sexualities than your own?
Honestly? It’s a matter of experience and empathy. And listening to others. I spent 25 years as a physical therapist where I used to say my main job was listening to patients tell me their stories. And truly listening without preconceived opinions is a rare skill. The most important element of empathy is accepting the lived experience of the person you are interacting with. That’s what I did in clinical practice, it’s what I do in my life, and it’s how I work with my characters.
What’s important to me is that I craft characters that are individuals, and not cardboard representations of any particular background/gender/sexuality. And I hope that if I do get something wrong, readers will tell me so I can improve.
7. What are some of your favourite diverse books?
There are stories with diverse casts and stories by marginalized writers and stories that overlap. I don’t typically pay attention to what grouping a story falls in to when I start to read it, but I have noticed that I often gravitate toward books written by women writers. I have become a huge fan of the South African writer, Masha duToit and her magic realism/fantasy novels, (CROOKS AND STRAITS and WOLF LOGIC). I love The Vorkosigan Saga books by Lois McMaster Bujold, especially when the conservative mores of Barrayar meet the rest of the universe. The EXPANSE books by James S.A. Corey have a wonderfully diverse world and characters and is SciFi with that ensemble cast I’m such a sucker for. I just discovered Nnedi Okorafor’s BINTI and loved the characterization and world building, though wanted the story to stretch into a novel instead of being trapped by the constraints of the novella length.
8. How would you like to see representation change in the next five years?
I would like to see the utter dismantling of white as default and see stories that reflect – as a matter of course – the richness of the culture around us. So, for example, stories with black characters that aren’t specifically about race (and don’t get shelved in the African American section of the book store, which is just another kind of marginalization), stories with gay characters that aren’t coming out narratives, or have tragic ends.
9. If you could give an aspiring writer only one piece of advice, what would it be?
Keep swimming. . . (a la, Dory from Finding Nemo)
10. What are you working on now that readers can look forward to?
I’m nearly to the halfway point on PARALLAX, book 4 of Halcyone Space. I have an alternate world fantasy out with beta readers for a final check before it goes to my editor and will be published before the end of the year, and am planning a collaborative cyber-punk thriller with the fabulous writer, Rick Wayne whose MINUS FACTION books are unlike any superhero stories you’ve ever read. So a busy writing year!
LJ Cohen is a Boston-area novelist, poet, blogger, ceramics artist, and relentless optimist. After almost twenty-five years as a physical therapist, she now uses her anatomical knowledge and myriad clinical skills to injure characters in her science fiction and fantasy novels. Her most recent book, Dreadnought and Shuttle, (book 3 of the SF/Space Opera series Halcyone Space) represents her sixth published novel. Derelict, the first novel in the series, was chosen as a Library Journal Self-e Select title and book of the year in 2016. LJ is active in IPNE (The Independent Publishers of New England), SFWA (The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America), and Broad Universe and blogs about publishing, general geekery, and other ephemera at http://www.ljcbluemuse.
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