Having recently read The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, I knew I had to ask Becky Chambers to come visit us at Zen DiPietro Science Fiction. In just one book, she managed to introduce an entire galaxy of peoples, social issues, cosmic chaos, and heart. Please give her a warm welcome, and check out her book at the link below if you haven’t already devoured it.
Zen: You initially did a Kickstarter to fund the writing of The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. What was that process like, and would you do it again?
Becky: It was such a positive, humbling experience. In the end, the money wasn’t the most important thing about it. The most important thing was knowing that strangers from all over the world thought that my project was worth something. That kept me going even on the toughest days. I don’t have any near-future projects that would be appropriate for crowdfunding, but if I come up with one, yeah, I’d absolutely do it again.
Zen: After self-publishing, you ended up signing the book with Hodder & Stoughton and Harper Voyager. Was that a hard decision to make, signing your baby over to a trade publisher?
Becky: Yes and no. I was careful about it, for sure. I gave it a lot of thought. But Hodder really bent over backwards to make sure I was happy with the deal. They negotiated things with Harper Voyager, and I couldn’t be happier with that arrangement as well. I knew when I signed with Hodder that they understood what I was trying to do with the book, and that quickly alleviated any wibbles I had. I have a fantastic working relationship with Anne Perry, my editor at Hodder. After she laid everything out for me, there wasn’t any question in my mind. I felt great about going ahead with it, and I still do.
Zen: Some of the characters in The Long Way are distinctly different from humans. Did you find it challenging to write those characters in a way that readers would be able to visualize?
Becky: I suppose I did, but I honestly had to think about it for a minute. I enjoy doing that so much that it doesn’t really feel like work! The trickier part, in some ways, was figuring out how the characters related to species other than their own. That works in both directions, obviously, and it differs from character to character. Sissix, a member of a reptilian species, sees humans differently than humans see themselves, but she’s been around them a lot, so she reacts to them differently than some of the characters in my second book. Rosemary, who hasn’t seen many other species before, reacts differently than Ashby, who’s been bouncing around spaceports his entire adult life. So, first I had to start with how aliens looked, then figure out how to organically explain that to the reader, then figure from there how they’d look to different characters. It was a lot of fun.
Zen: You did a three-year stint on The Mary Sue as the weekly video game writer. How did you balance your weekly gig with your long-term novel-writing?
Becky: At that point, I was freelancing full-time, so it was relatively easy to balance it out. I would do book work in the mornings, when my thoughts were the least cluttered, then bill-paying work and game reviews in the afternoons and evenings. I’d always take a long break in between, just to switch gears. It was stressful at times, but I’m pretty good about pacing myself. The hardest part for me is that if I like a game, I get super sucked in to the story, and that can make the business of switching my brain back to my own characters difficult. I didn’t have a problem with that balance when I wrote The Long Way. I did have a problem with it when I wrote A Closed and Common Orbit, which I finished a couple months ago. I had a day job during that one (which I just quit), and it was an entirely different beast. I played dozens of games for The Mary Sue while I wrote The Long Way. This past year, I went to work, I wrote my book, and that was it. I can tell you exactly what I played during that time: Minecraft, Hearthstone, and the Trespasser DLC for Dragon Age: Inquisition. I just didn’t have time to think about other stories. It was way, way easier to make time for both books and games when I had full control over my schedule.
Zen: Many authors I know got their creative start in role-playing games. Similarly, you started out in theater. How did that influence your eventual evolution into a writer?
Becky: It definitely had a practical influence on how I go about writing a story. In theater, you have to fill in a lot of gaps with things like color, lighting, costumes, and so on. You have to be able to look at a page of nothing but dialogue and make decisions about what’s happening around it. That’s very much how I tend to write scenes with multiple characters — dialogue first, then physical action and environmental details. I also draw out blocking for scenes that have more than, say, three or four characters. I sketched out all the dinner table scenes in The Long Way, so I could figure out who was moving where, who could see whom, etc.
Zen: A Closed and Common Orbit (publishing late 2016) is a separate story set within the universe of The Long Way. How do the two books differ, thematically?
Becky: The Long Way was intended to communicate the idea that space belongs to everybody. It’s a future all of us can be a part of. A Closed and Common Orbit acknowledges the reality that there has never been such a thing as a perfect society, and that there are always people on the margins that have to carve out their own niches. So yeah, they’re quite different, although I think — I hope, at least! — that it feels like a natural progression from the first to the second. I did my best to create a harmony with the first book, rather than a break.
In terms of structure, Closed and Common follows two protagonists in relatively fixed locations, whereas The Long Way went to a different place in each chapter, and it did it from nine points of view. Closed and Common additionally follows two different timelines, so it’s almost more like two books blended together, until you get to the end. As a result, it tends to be more focused and introspective. There are themes that carry over from The Long Way — family, self, personhood — but I take them in new directions. Personhood is a big one. Perception, too. The book as a whole is more serious than The Long Way, which is not to say that it’s grim. I still believe strongly in the value of science fiction that makes you feel good. But this one does make you sit in one place and chew on things more than the first book did.
Zen: I know you’re probably bound by contract, but can you give us any hints of what you’re working on now?
Becky: I’m going to have to be difficult here: A book in the same universe. That’s all I can say right now.
Let’s finish up with some either/or.
Star Trek or Star Wars? Oh, come on! I love them both! But…okay, if I have to pick, Star Trek. That’s a bitter choice, though.
Summer or Winter? Summer.
Movies in the theater or at home? At home.
Self-teaching, or classes/schooling? Classes, but no homework. I was never great with homework.
Plotter or Pantser? Somewhere in between. I make a rough outline and let it fly from there.
Cookies or Cake? Cake.
Vacation in Alaska or Hawaii? Hawaii.
String theory or loop quantum gravity? Loop quantum gravity.
Angelina Jolie or Milla Jovovich? So hard! I’ll go with Angelina.