Today, I turn this blog over to author Jusina Robson who join us from a quaint little place called The U.K. (You may have heard of it. It was featured heavily in the early Bond movies.). Enjoy Justina’s insightful Q&A, post any questions for writer-producer Carl Binder if you have ’em, then check out the video at the bottom of this entry for a peek at how the crew spent their final hours – giving each other rides in the F-302! Over to Justina…
Delynn writes: “Upon whom did you base your characters? (Zal reminds me of someone I know!)”
JR: I didn’t consciously pick anyone as a template. Zal appeared first as a notion, along with Lila. I was thinking of the silliest, most cool situations I could think of, which made me smile, as well as made me want to write and I immediately had this vision of a Lord of the Rings style elf as a rock star and the tormented girl robot with whom he falls in love. So that was the kernel of the whole thing. When I get to the point of writing scenes in full my usual technique is just to note down what’s going on in the cinema in my head. I think Zal probably had traces of a lot of people and fictional characters in him. It’s like the old Dorothy Parker quote. When she was asked the same question by someone who suspected she was taking the mickey out of them in print, she simply said that she didn’t base her characters on anyone exactly, although they were all drawn from people she knew and collaged together, ‘…you’d never recognise a pig in a sausage.’ So I guess if you are seeing a pig (just to follow the metaphor, not to insult anyone) in this particular sausage it’s a coincidence. People are quite samey however, and we all play roles and have our different faces, based on what we see so I’m guessing in today’s massmedia culture we’re going to have even more similarities than usual to one another.
Drldeboer writes: “Question for Justina so how did tying your book to this music group come about?”
JR: One day not too long after accepting the typescript my US editor, Lou Anders, phoned me up and suggested we do a website and wouldn’t it be great to have some band play a song? Neither of us knew any bands, certainly not the kind who’d give a song away for free, but I started surfing MySpace that very minute. A short while later I found Cynic Guru doing ‘Doom’ on their demo spot and it sounded so right. I figured I didn’t have anything to lose so I wrote to Roland Hartwell, the contact, explaining our case. He was really enthusiastic and kind – I was quite blown away by the response as I felt a bit cheeky asking someone for their work for nothing. He explained that the song was a bit of a one off which he hadn’t managed to fit into their last album and that he was wondering what to do with it. Perfect! I thought. It’s clearly meant for me! Happily he agreed and his record company gave us permission. He even rerecorded the track to make it fit the book more closely. I’m still thrilled with it and being able to make a connection like that. They’re touring here in the near future so I hope I can meet them in person then. Meanwhile the NoShows site is being redone so it won’t be back up for a short while but I’ll post an alert when it is fixed.
Antisocialbutterflie writes: “Questions for Justina Robson….
1) How did you decide which supernatural elements to keep traditional and where to mix things up?
JR: I didn’t consciously think about this very much (she lied) – haha, it’s funny that I say that first because I thought about it a LOT but it felt like so much fun it didn’t seem like hard work, which is the feeling I associate with difficult decisions and ‘thinking’ as opposed to daydreaming and dillying about. I used to sit in front of OneNote, pulling in material from all over the place and making a big mess on the page. Then I’d delete what felt wrong or silly or just irrelevant. My history with faery tales, folk lore and Tolkien was pretty traditional, and as a student I’d done my time with Campbell (Joseph Campbell who wrote a great deal about the psychological impact, use and history of stories and their figures). I was also a big fan of Rob Holdstock and the greek myths (I studied classics at school). So when I came to do this I knew that I wanted to write what I felt was true to the spirit of these archetypes and fictional beings and I let my creative guide pick and choose what it wanted out of all I’d known, so that’s why there are shadow and light elves, and the shadow form is two dimensional as they are in the ancient northern myths. That’s why demons aren’t the Christian kind, but are creatures of enormous vital energy, creators and visionaries and crazy wild living hedonists. There are devils too, but these aren’t remotely the same. They’re opposed to one another in fact, so much so that any demon who is prey to a devil is immediately robbed of his form and power and reduced to becoming an imp, a creature who is only able to annoy others beset by devils. You see that at work in the second book, where Lila has a lot of old baggage to work through and picks up an imp when she goes to visit the demons.
The demons and devils were really refreshing to work on for me. I’ve been a Christian fundamentalist of a kind in my youth, and an occult student, and a devotee of all things theological and then I discarded formal approaches and religions altogether for a kind of atheism and went on a more personal kind of spiritual quest, which I am still on. But I used to have very fixed ideas and literal notions of all kinds of things and being able to finally sift through all that and find my version of what the truth is was just tremendously exciting and liberating. Of course it’s just my version and although I’m passionate about writing this stuff and feeling it’s true I know it’s only a way of seeing things. Hence the book’s title.
Faeries, demons, elves, devils…these things are human and not human at the same time in the sense that they are just names and forms given to ways of being and perceiving which all of us share though they aren’t physically obvious, they’re energy states, emotional sets, attitudes ( at least that’s my take on what’s going on with fantasy figures we create). However, I wanted them to be able to interact with the humans in a way that was natural so that’s why they all have simulated human forms that are the same scale as we are, can speak English (it’s a future language that never was actually but you know, there seemed little point in saying that!) etc.
2) I found it very interesting that you chose to make humans fairly magic deficient. I was wondering how you came to that decision?
JR: I decided that there would be hard physics for the material world here, as there is in our universe, but for the magical parts there would have to be also a hard metaphysics – basically, rules governing how magic works. The physics and the metaphysics are part of one system; one of the things discovered across the series is that this is a false dichotomy. Some character is going to have to come up with a Grand Unified Theory!
After I’d sorted out the number of places and figured how the balance would work it looked fun to say that some places were extremely magical ( Faery is the most magical ) and some places extremely material (World 7, the place of machines, is the most material). Otopia, what used to be the Earth continuum, is the second least magical place. It permits a few things to go on if magical beings come visiting, but that’s it. In Book Four this starts to change as the result of Lila’s exploits in the faery world – she allows a primal fae a year of freedom in Otopia, rather unwisely – but it’s only at the beginning stages there. I’m not entirely sure how it will pan out.
3) It seems that books in this genre tend to suffer from “Laurell K. Hamilton syndrome” where the plot becomes a vehicle for sex rather than the sex being a vehicle for the plot. How do you find a balance between the two elements?”
JR: A lot of people made comments about the sex scenes, many of them questioning their validity or the presence of such things in general, so I’ll address all of that in this reply, as well as your question. I hope you don’t mind.
I’m interested by the way in which it’s commonplace to dismiss these books by saying ‘the plot is just a vehicle for the sex’. The assumption there is the writer ought to be doing something else, like writing a murder mystery or a detective thriller, in which, say, the plot is just a vehicle for the events. Plots are just what happens, they don’t have anything to say about the story subject. If the book is all about the transformative, healthy, energising qualities of a good time with a feisty lover, then of course the plot is going to take us to circumstances where that happens. Why should a book be about anything else? Isn’t sex worth writing fiction about just all by itself? Of course it is, whether you write A Lick of Frost (a LKH novel in the long-panting Merry Gentry series of steamy frolics giving rise to the resurgence of magic which is of course a metaphor for the awakening and enlightenment of the individual) or On Chesil Beach (a novella by Ian McEwan showing how a newlywed couple, ignorant of sex and full of hangups, have a truly awful time that mars their lives forever. Here he had to write all the details he did because that’s where the events of this story happen. That is what it is about. This one is realist fiction so it isn’t metaphorical in nature).
As for some activity being a vehicle for the plot – I never could separate these things in my head. Plot is just an editorial term, a way of asking someone to give the main story points, it’s a look at the structure of a thing. Actions; you know what these are. A lot of actions make a plot. It’s like words and sentences.
However, a word about fantasy erotica if you like to call it that, or ‘elf shagging’ if you were trying to distance yourself a bit or, of course, paranormal romance to give it its ultimate euphemistic claim. One thing that strikes me about it however is that it’s a very innocent, sanitised genre, almost like Adult Fun With Dick And Jane. Everyone’s powerful, everyone’s pretty, they all have bucketloads of stamina and either they are in Lurve with each other or they hate one another with wholesome and simple fervour. Yet there seems to be a contingent of people who are happy to condemn it in Hyacinth Bucket middle-class righteous tones, as if it was the print equivalent of Man Bites Dog (a singularly repellent film I don’t recommend in which a film crew trails a serial killer and rapist as he goes about his daily business, larging it up for the camera). I suspect that, like Hyacinth, they all read it while they’re locked in the toilet with the lavender-scented fairy toilet roll dispenser they hand-knitted (else how would they know about it?). Then they can feel all lovely and scandalised, which is a feeling they seem to like a lot. (I realise I might just be writing about my own mother here – it’s a miracle I even exist – but I think not). I used to feel all snobbish about it too, though my objections were on LITERARY grounds, you understand (winks), but now I don’t care. I’ll read it in Borders without covering it up with Grazia magazine. It’s entertaining. Occasionally titillating. And in LKH’s case absolutely fascinating that you can write a sex scene that basically lasts over a hundred pages. That’s an achievement! Yeah, the story doesn’t move very fast. I’ve read about five books and I can get through more plot in one paragraph myself, but that isn’t the point of what she does.
So finally I shut up and answer your actual question and say that for me the balance is this: if the characters are baking bread or shooting each other or having sex AND WHAT THEY DO CHANGES THEM IN SOME WAY THAT’S IMPORTANT (and therefore is part of the plot) then I have to write about it. Otherwise I can just close the bedroom/oven/charnelhouse door on them and tell you, the reader, that it happened in just a few words so you can keep things tidy in your mind.
Narelle from Aus writes: “I am still seriously freaked out (excuse the extreme lack of articulation there) by the coincidence of standing behind someone with the same tattoo as that of Zal just 2 days after finishing Keeping It Real. I am wishing now I had have asked him what his inspiration was for it. So, a question to Justina, where did you get the idea for Zal’s tattoo?
JR: I needed to think of some obvious way to mark him as a demon. Wings have huge symbolic mileage and I liked that (freedom, speed, majesty, deity etc) and fire was his elemental affinity already. I just put the two together. Later I thought that I could make them literal wings that fall back into a tattoo for a more dramatic effect though they’re more of a signalling system of power than a flight aid for him. He might fly in the future but he hasn’t so far. I didn’t really think that part through at the time! Uh-oh…trouble potential there.
Your characters were so easy to visualise, were they based on people or variations of othe characters from film or literature?
JR: They draw a lot on comic book art and anime, I think. I love all those drawn styles, their inventiveness, colour and drama. It’s so powerful visually. That style of art is where religious art went, I think, after illuminated bibles. You can see, in just one image, an entire universe of possibility and adventure and energy. I feel I’m just trailing in the wake of the fantasy visual arts really. No specific characters were in my mind. I just chose what I liked best. In literature its difficult to write a lot of visuals because about a third of the readers find it hard to process that kind of thing, just as another third will get fed up with lots of intricately detailed social and relationship stuff and another third find blow by blow action deadly boring. People have preferences for how they take their stories. I love cinema and art, but I also love the way that written fiction can really make you feel like you’re there in the middle of all the emotional and/or intellectual action. You can’t get that any other way.
This isn’t necessarily a question for Justina, but a question in general, is there a reason that so many female protagonists in Sci Fi books seem to be red heads? The Garden of Iden, Cordelia’s Honour, Make Room! Make Room!, Keeping It Real; all red heads.
I hope some of that made sense. Long day.”
JR: I have no idea but I suspect it might have something to do with the myth that redheads are feistier and feistiness is frequently a necessary element in heroines who have to take on traditionally male genres.
Anne Teldy writes: “For Ms Robson: Did you have the idea for the book before you learned about the Hadron Collider and thought “Hey what a great explanation for…” or did you learn of the collider and think “what if”? Or maybe it’s just a big coincidence?”
JR: Years ago I read about the Colliders and their possibilities, I forget where, and when I started Keeping It Real I was searching around for some ‘plausible’ explanation that could have given rise to my universe and thought of a quantum event. I thought a collider was the best bet that raised the least trouble – no bombs involved so no war required with all the horrid aftermath that entails.
Charlie’s angel writes: “On Justina Robson’s website she calls the Quantum Gravity series a “shameless romp.” I’d have to agree. Lots of fun, and I enjoyed both books in the series.
What would you call this genre — cyber-fanta-punk?”
JR: Fanfiction? It’s fanfic for the genres I love so much and grew up immersed in. It’s slashfic of a kind because it involves various genres that are usually kept separate, but if I call it slashfanfic it’ll get lumped in with all those NC-17 rated elf/trek/farscape/atlantis shagging stories on the ‘net ;P Not that I know about that kind of thing you understand.
Lou Anders writes: “Hey, that’s two KEEPING IT REAL coincidences/synchronicities mentioned in just 37 posts. I wonder if that’s what happens when you mix quantum physics and magic. If it’s okay for the book’s editor to ask a question, I’d like to know if Justina herself experienced any synchronicities while writing the novel? Of course, I could just ring her up, but then only I would know the answer…”
JR: Only that between books one and two my life turned upside down (divorce, moved house), I got completely blasted to pieces and remade (bit of a nervous breakdown), met a new man who claimed to be an Aasimar (not literally, before you start dialling the funny farm), had to discover my demons and acknowledge my devils and accept that who I had tried so hard to be wasn’t who I really was and that I couldn’t fix everything and that best intentions can have really awful consequences.
Do you mean that sort of thing, Lou? J I’m guessing you probably meant something less dramatic but apart from locating Cynic Guru, that’s all.
Sylvia writes: “.Some questions for Ms Robson:
– What was the basis or “spark of creativity” for the principal characters “character?” What is/what was some of the reasons for creating each as you did?
JR: I don’t really plan them. They arrive fully formed and already talking in my head. I guess I must have some kind of ‘boys in the backroom’ like Stephen King says of his creative aspect, who make them for me. OR maybe they’re real. They’re certainly real AFTER I meet them.
– There were moments of the story giving vibrations of the US 60-70’s “Hippy” era of permissive of sex, drugs, and wild hair, etc. Is this just my own bias? Or, was there some basis for this? And, if Yes…Was this intended?
JR: There are sex, drugs and wild hair but I wasn’t referencing hippy culture. If anything I was more in tune with rave/dance culture over here in the UK at the time. But the resemblances are unavoidable.
Ladygeke writes: “I’ve loved Justina Robson for a long time – and we have something in common, since I also studied linguistics and philosophy at York University (in the late 1960s, though). The Quantum Gravity series is so cinematic, I’d like to ask her if she had any actors in mind for the lead roles. (especially Malachi, one of my favourite characters – Zal is a bit too Zaphod Beeblebrox for me). And also, does she think her books are truly international in appeal, or would she say they have definite British sensibilities?”
JR: I hope they have some international appeal! But I am British so I expect there are quite a few Brit-isms and idiosyncrasies in there too. Perhaps the entire sensibility of the thing is British, in the sense that it isn’t cutting itself out as part of the more US-style frontier mythology that American stories belong to, it’s coming from something more akin to Decaying Empire/OldWorld areas. For instance, to speak in the broadest terms, Lila is a self-doubting heroine, she isn’t a forward-looking adventurer. Self doubt comes from an awareness that you’ve made/can make some big mistakes and also from an inadequate sense of identity or a lost identity. Adventuresome go-getters discard such notions; their identity is action, they define themselves by it. That’s a very rough comparison of how I feel differences in fiction coming out of the two areas. You might well disagree.
Terry writes: “For Justina, my questions:
–Which is your favorite secondary character in this series?
JR: Oh that’s a tough one! I like Tath; he’s all bitter and twisted and compromised and edgy. On the other hand I like Malachi; powerful, romantic, slightly lost. But other characters are coming up too. A new one is a human, head of spying, Temple Greer who just came right out of the casting department swinging a big self confident swagger and talking like he was a human who is already post-human (been there, done that) and is comfortable with that. And I really must write more about Calliope Jones, the ghost hunter, who started out as a nod to Holly Black’s lead character in Tithe (a very distant nod) but who has such a weird existence it just has to be discovered.
–Why did you choose to include explicit sex scenes?Do you feel that a sexually explicit scene has to reveal something about the characters or the plot?
JR: Done that one J But I’ll add that if a reader thinks that the explicitness is gratuitous or the whole scene is gratuitous then I’ve failed to get my point across in the scene. I do worry about that. Sometimes it’s hard to know how much to say about what’s happening in an authorial way and how much to show only.
–Do you enjoy writing series like this or did you lose energy by the writing of book three?
JR: I never wrote a series before and I may not again but I love this one. I knew there’d be a problem if all the books were static so I decided from the start that they had to get their own places and their own problems and if characters have to die then they do. I hate series where the status quo rules and people go in against terrible odds but they always come out again and nothing changes.
–What do you see as the primary themes of “Keeping It Real?”
JR: It’s about how you define yourself, will you be yourself or will you conform to someone else’s expectations?
–When you first envisioned this book, what came first? The world or the characters?”
JR: The characters. Then I was stuck thinking, “but WHERE could such people possibly come from?”
Kellyk writes: “1. Are you a fan of high fantasy? If so, what were some of the less obvious classics of the genre that inspired you in writing Keeping It Real (LOTR was obvious).
JR: I was brought up on LOTR, so there’s no escaping it. It’s hard to read any high fantasy without comparing it to that and nothing has the emotional whammy of LOTR to me because I was only ten when I read it and it had such a huge impact on me. I have enjoyed some high fantasy though I don’t read a lot of it now. Most of what I read was probably back in the early 80s and I quickly slipped off into Anne McCaffrey. People tell me to try George RR Martin and I will one day soon. I have a kind of high fantasy novel bugging me in the back brain that I might write one day.
2. Did you know this was going to be series when you started writing Keeping It Real? I ask because it’s a pretty self-contained story.
JR: I knew from the start but I wanted to do it self-sufficiently in case it didn’t work out. I try to make all the books self-sufficient, but I am having trouble getting the backstory into the later books, because there’s a lot of it and it keeps on piling up. Perhaps I should do a synopsis of the others in the front, I don’t know. Dropping the entire history into a novel that has its own concerns is almost impossible without causing a juddering halt. It’s tricky.
3. Were you ever into role-playing games like WoW or D&D?”
JR: I never played them until I was in my late 20s, when finally someone explained what all that Games Workshop and D&D stuff was about and took me through a game of Twilight 2000 and after that, Call of Cthulu. I liked reading the guide books but playing the games felt too slow to me. Then as I was writing Keeping It Real I picked up WoW and got hooked on that. It felt so real! I was in heaven for a short time because I’ve always lived a lot of my life in my imagination and here I was, really in an imaginary world! Then I woke up to the horror that is being a person who wants to please everyone in a game where everyone wants something, whether its 2golds for a new hat, or help in a dungeon, or a shoulder to cry on or a newbie to exploit. Now at our house my partner and I are two old cyber-fogeys: we play an hour of Warhammer or Ninja Gaiden together after the kids have gone to bed, then we watch a TV show or read and by 11 o clock we are in a coma. I really have to start inviting people to dinner again… Computer games are like a weird cross between a book and a movie. Unsatisfying on both counts but they’re getting better. I have high hopes for their evolution.