Thursday, March 27, 2014

"Synthetic Illusions," by Mary Fan... author interview!

Last year, Red Adept Publishing released Mary Fan's debut novel, "Artificial Absolutes" -- an impressive work of science-fiction that introduced readers to the plucky Jane Colt and her fascinating futuristic world. Now, Mary is back with a sequel, "Synthetic Illusions," which is drawing high praise from reviewers and readers.

The blog tour for Synthetic Illusions wraps up in the next few hours... so don't delay! Enter for prizes with the form at the bottom of this post.

We're pleased today to interview author Mary Fan.

Welcome back, Mary! And congratulations on your latest book. How does it feel to have your second book published?

Thanks for having me back! It’s a really amazing feeling to have a second book out – and to no longer be wearing the “debut author” hat! I think every author feels like an imposter when their first book comes out – like, “oh, somehow I finagled my way into a publishing contract, but I’m not a real author!” For a while, I was worried that I was “one and done,” that nothing else I ever wrote would be worth anything. So it’s great to have something to prove that isn’t true! Of course, I still feel like an imposter… it’ll probably take a few more years for that feeling to wear off!

After reading both of your books, we feel you have little to worry about there! In a few words, how would you describe Synthetic Illusions?

Synthetic Illusions is a space opera with a dash of cyberpunk. The story follows Jane Colt’s efforts to protect the young man she loves from a powerful interstellar agency hell-bent on capturing him – and the operative chasing them is her own brother.

The book is a galloping read with plenty of action and battle scenes... but it also addresses questions about relationships and humanity. How did you go about working in those thought-provoking themes without breaking the fast pace of the book?

It’s definitely a challenge. Every author has their own approaches to pacing. Many action/adventure writers start with the proverbial body on the first page and take off at breakneck speed without ever stopping to breathe. While that keeps the pages turning, as a reader I often felt disconnected from the story because I never had a chance to really know the characters, and so I didn’t really care about what happened to them.

So with my own writing, I aim for “rhythm and release” – a term I heard movie director Steven Soderbergh use to describe the pacing for Ocean’s Eleven. When outlining the plot, I alternate between plot-driven action and slower scenes for character moments. Even planet-hopping interstellar fugitives need to rest, and it’s in those parts that I allow them to catch their breaths and bring up the internal drama.

Several readers have made comments that the book is enjoyable as a standalone novel. Was that intentional, and what was your approach to explaining the characters' backstories for readers new to the series?

While Synthetic Illusions is a sequel, I designed it to work as a standalone. While the story picks up on threads from the first book and leaves one or two dangling at the end, the main plot is self-contained. I believe every book, even books in series, should be able to stand on their own two feet, rather than having to cling to their series-mates for support. Makes things harder as a writer, but easier as a reader! Especially since books are usually released a year or more apart. So even if someone read Book 1 and loved it, by the time they read Book 2, they may have forgotten the details (this happens to me all the time – I have a horrid memory).

For explaining backstories to new readers, I found that usually a few lines of explanation here and there would fill in the general facts – like that Jane used to work at a bank. However, the effects of these backstories become part of each character, and therefore carry through into the sequel with or without the physical details. And really it’s these effects that are more important anyway – how they shaped each person into who they are.

In the story, Jane's relationship with her brother Devin goes through some shocking transformations. Nothing in Jane's world is as it seems, and she faces agonizing decisions. What is it about these "all is lost" moments that make for unforgettable stories?

I’m a big believer in emotional stakes. Physical stakes are great for keeping the pages turning, but it’s hard to really care about what happens to characters unless you care about them. Because when you care about them, you become part of the story rather than just a witness. You feel invested rather than just curious. And so with everything I write, I make sure the story’s not just about beating the bad guy, but also about the characters’ personal lives.

Artificial Absolutes is about Jane sticking by her brother no matter what. So I thought, wouldn’t it be heartbreaking if I tore them apart? I’m a bit of a sadist that way…

You planted various threads in Artificial Absolutes that set the stage for Synthetic Illusions. For example, the secrets that torment Adam. Were you already thinking about a sequel as you wrote the first book?

Yes and no. When I plotted Artificial Absolutes, I meant for it to be a standalone. But the ending left so many things open that I couldn’t help wondering what would happen if I ever wrote a sequel. For the longest time, the plot of a sequel wouldn’t coalesce in my head, and so I wrapped up Artificial Absolutes as a standalone and thought I’d keep the dangling plot threads at the end my own little secret, since they’re not particularly obvious. However, they wouldn’t leave me alone, and so I started work on the sequel again.

In what ways did the experience of writing a second novel differ from that of your first novel?

Some things were a lot easier. For instance, my editors had already drilled into me the importance of strong verbs and the like, and so while rewriting clunky sentences for Book 1 was a chore, most of them came out right the first time for Book 2. Other things were harder. With Book 1, I pretty much told myself that what I had in mind was what I would write down, and what I would write down would be what I put out there. But by Book 2, I had come to see all the ways a story can evolve after it’s already written. And so it was very hard to get going at the beginning, knowing I’d probably change everything (and I did. Twice).

What was the best part of writing this book for you?

Getting to “see” my characters again! I was really starting to miss Jane and company after I finished Artificial Absolutes, so it was great to delve into (and mess with) their lives once more.

Which of the story's main characters -- Jane, Devin, Adam -- is most similar to you?

Most people who read the Jane Colt books think I’m Jane, but I didn’t mean it that way at all! I needed her to have a creative side, and since music was the art I knew best, I made her a composer like me. But she’s also very much a kid sister, with the personality traits of someone accustomed to always being the little one. I’m the Responsible Older Sibling in my family, so in that sense, I’m more like Devin.

Then I made a personality quiz for the characters of the Jane Colt universe and took it myself just for kicks. I did my best to be unbiased, but no matter which way I took it, I kept getting Jane. So I guess I’m a bit more of her than Devin.

Here’s the quiz, by the way. Now, which one are you?

We took that quiz, and we got "The Seer." (At least we're one of the good guys!) Speaking of your novel's characters, the story is rich with secondary personalities, like Ines and Riley. What are your techniques for crafting memorable secondary players in a story?

I don’t think of them as secondary characters – I think of them as characters with secondary roles. Even if a character only shows up for one scene, I make sure to know their life story before beginning, unless it’s truly a two-line plot-point appearance. And even then, I often start wondering who these people are. Ines actually started out as one of those two-line plot-point characters, and she ended up taking over half the book!

We read an interesting blog post from you that talked about your approach to naming characters. Some sci-fi writers like to christen their characters with unpronounceable, futuristic names... which in our view distracts from the story. So, we liked that you gave Sarah and Adam relatable names... while throwing in a few more distinctive names for secondary characters (and middle names!). Please comment on your naming thought process.

I understand why sci-fi writers give characters out-of-this-world names. After all, they’re writing out-of-this-world stories that take place far from our here and now. In the distant future, the name Jane could be as uncommon as, say, Scioscia is now.

But even though my stories take place in the faraway, my audience is in the here and now. And names are first impressions. Whether you like it or not, you make assumptions about a person based on their name. So for my books, it was important to me that my character names give the right first impressions and fit the characters’ personalities. And like you mentioned, common names are relatable, which helps make the character herself relatable.

You have a busy life, with music, travel, career, and your various interests. How do you find time to write these substantial books?

To put it bluntly, I have no life. When I come home from the office, all I have to worry about is myself, my cat, and my books. Although I make sure to build in a few days each month to do other things, or else I’d go crazy! I seriously admire all the writers out there with families – no idea how they do it!

Many series consist of books that end in cliffhangers. It's one of our pet peeves! Thankfully, your first two Jane Colt books each tell a complete story, with satisfying endings (albeit with the promise of more to come). Was that a deliberate approach for you? How do you feel about those cliffhangers?

I hate cliffhangers. Hate, hate, hate. To me, they feel gimmicky, and the book feels incomplete. Also, as a reader, I feel cheated. Like, I invested so much time and energy into this story because I wanted to find out how it ends, so how dare you not give me my ending!

Of course, not all cliffhangers are created equal. Some books seriously feel like someone took a book, tore it in half, and published only the first half. And those are the ones I detest. Others aren’t really cliffhangers in my opinion, but could be considered such. These are the ones that wrap up the main story while leaving some questions unanswered or indicating the direction of the next book. I think of these endings more as promises for more to come rather than cliffhangers.

And that’s the approach I take with my books. It’s very important for me that the central question opened at the beginning of the story be answered. At the same time, there’s really no such thing as “happily ever after.”

Artificial Intelligence is a major subtext of the books. Even these days, we are seeing remarkable advances in technologies like automated speech recognition and decision-making. Do you foresee a day in humanity's future where we are existing side-by-side with beings powered by AI?

We already are! Every time you ask Siri a question and she responds, you’re interacting with an AI. Of course, that’s using the term in its broadest sense. If “artificial intelligence” is defined as an imitation of the human mind, then it’ll take us more time to get there. And I think we will someday if we continue down that road. I don’t think human-imitating AIs will ever be fully integrated into our mainstream society, since people have an aversion to any kind of “other,” but there may be sub-cultures that exist alongside them.

We really enjoyed this book! Will we be seeing more of Jane Colt in future books?

Thank you! I have a third book planned for the Jane Colt series, so stay tuned…

That is good to hear! Best of luck with that, and thank you for talking with KBoards today.

Thanks for having me!

Synthetic Illusions is available now to download to your Kindle! And be sure to enter below to win SWAG from the book's publisher, Red Adept Publishing.

Synthetic Illusions is available now to download to your Kindle!
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1 comment:

  1. I love the concept of "rhythm and release." I am totally going to put that in my wheelhouse.