A lovely day to you all, my fellow creatives! I’m really excited to have caught SFF author Adrian Tchaikovsky for another chat as he and readers celebrate the release of his latest, Shards of Earth. If you’d like to read our first interview, please click here.
Welcome back to Jean Lee’s World, Sir! Thank you so much for stopping by to share your work, your thoughts, your bugs, and all the jazz. In our last chat together, we discovered a mutual admiration for the Queen of the Fantastic, Diana Wynne Jones. One of these days I would love to visit England and see where she spent time as a child and student. Have you ever gone on a literary pilgrimage? If so, where? If not, where do you hope to go and why?
This isn’t anything I’ve done, to be honest. (Shakespeare, maybe, but that’s more just standard tourist stuff. And when I went to Oxford a friend took me to Tolkien’s old drinking den, but that was also just ‘a thing you do’). I have an odd relationship with places. People always seem to expect writers to be vastly plugged in to landscapes and the place they grew up and exotic locales they’ve visited. I’m someone who exists very much inside his own head. I draw from a melange of images that filter into my head but my connections to place are generally internal and imaginary. Which on the one hand is probably entirely unhealthy, but on the other hand is probably why I’ve been able to soldier on with things despite adverse external conditions.
What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
You mention Diane Wynne Jones and there’s a lot of that in her work, with the way she can use carefully chosen language to manage a reader’s expectations and perspective. Another enormously formative book I read was Pratchett’s Strata – one of his very early pre-Discworld (or proto-Discworld in a way) books. It remains the book with the biggest twist I’ve ever read. It turns the whole universe on its head, basically. But what it also does is suddenly make sense of a whole series of weird little inconsistencies that almost look like errors the editor missed when you first (as a 12 year old) romp through it. Except it’s all intentional and it’s all part of a carefully constructed trap.
Here in the States, summer break means long, agenda-less days for kids. Thankfully, all three of my children are avid readers, which promises a smidge of peace in the house. So now comes that precarious balance of celebrating my children’s reading while also challenging them with trying new authors/stories. I recently dared to let my eldest, Blondie, read my WIP Middler’s Pride, and I cannot tell you the wave of relief I felt when she said she liked it. What sort of stories does your son enjoy and recommend? Has he read any of your own stories yet?
So my son doesn’t read much. It doesn’t come naturally or easily to him, which obviously cuts a bit. I do read to him, though, and there’s a small list of books he’s completely fallen in love with. He loves Wynne Jones’ Homeward Bounders, Sophia MacDougall’s Mars Evacuees and its sequel, Space Hostages. He really liked Frances Hardinge’s Fly-By-Night and John Robertson’s Little Town of Marrowville. And I have read him a few of mine, and he really took to The Expert System’s Brother, which was nice.
Looking at your site, I see you recently compiled a list of your short story publications. YOWZA, you published a lot of short pieces in the midst of crafting novels. I confess that I get a bit muddled over submitting short pieces. Some recommend scouting journals first to see what their contests call for and write for the contests, but then others say to write first and then see what journals take the sort of things you wrote. Which process did you use—or did you use a different process altogether?
I wrote some stories on spec and then was able to find a home for them later, but there’s a network of small press contacts that’s fairly easy to get on the radar of, and there are always anthologies being put together with various themes and criteria, so I just wrote and submitted for whatever turned up and for which the ideas came. Writing to a prompt like that is a great exercise for the imagination.
You’ve also been sharing some wonderful bug art lately on your Twitter feed. Do you find that art helps you work out elements of the story, or does the art tend to come after the words are written?
So the art I share on Twitter is very much not connected to any of my books, It’s a relaxation thing, because there’s definitely a part of my mind that needs to do something that’s not writing, but still ends up with a finished product that I can feel proud of (I also paint Warhammer figures!). However, as these things go, I now have quite a collection of art and that professional part of my mind is telling me that I should be doing something with it, so… perhaps the connection will go the other way.
I’d like to touch back on your skill in crafting fantastically beautiful and complex fictional series. Instead of looking at the worldbuilding as we did before, let’s consider your prewriting process for the plot. See, I’m something of a pantser. I love getting into a world with the characters and just seeing where they take me and work out the plot accordingly. In creating series the likes of Shadows of the Apt, however, I can’t imagine “pantsing” to be a productive method in building a solid plot arc for a series. In our last chat you mentioned learning how to write from reading a lot, so would you say your planning process for your own novels was inspired by something you read, or perhaps from the trial and error of early writing? Or perhaps even both?
Well Shadows of the Apt was unusual in that the world was already thoroughly explored in a role-playing game I ran years earlier at university. In general, though, I’m a heavy planner but I start with the world. Worlds are what interest me, as reader and writer, and I feel they’re what the SFF genres can do in a way no others can. I’m always interested in bringing a new world to readers, and the plots and characters arise organically out of the details of the world that I’ve already set out.
Speaking of crafting new worlds, do you use any special author-friendly software to keep your writing organized? A friend of mine highly recommends Scrivener and Wonderdraft, but I’m a curmudgeon when it comes to learning new software.
I basically just use Word to write notes and lists and things like that, and sometimes I use pencil sketches or a drawing tablet to create visual records of what things look like. I know a lot of authors who do use dedicated writing software, and it’s like everything else, if it helps you, then it’s good.
The protagonists you write are not limited to one gender. Considering the care writers must take in writing outside of their physical experience, what tips could you share for those writers who want to write a for gender, race, or creed that is not their own?
I mean, the protagonists I write aren’t limited to one species! I’ve always pushed myself beyond the natural knee-jerk of characters who are basically of my own demographic, because it’s a very easy trap to fall into. I believe in positively expanding character diversity, especially in a fantasy world where the only limits are those you’ve set for yourself. There’s no reason to have everything follow some stale old stock pattern where it’s always men (white, straight, etc) who Do The Things, and everyone else is a supporting character. And the payoff is, books with a variety of characters are basically more interesting, imho.
Congratulations on your latest publication, Shards of Earth! Its premise promises grand adventure, to be sure, but I cannot help but contemplate your word choice in the title: “Shards of Earth”. I immediately think of something small, broken, but also sharp and able to pierce something strong. (I also think of Dark Crystal, but that’s not really relevant here.) Come to think, loads of your titles have a certain flare with word choice that hooks readers. A few examples:
- Cage of Souls
- Salute the Dark
- Redemption’s Blade
“Souls” are so ethereal, substance-less, yet we can cage them? Spiders are of the dark, skittering and silent, but they hold light? The word choices are just too enticing to not contemplate them. I don’t know if this is peculiar or not, but usually, my titles are in my head before I’ve even written a word. The title appears with a visual of a scene, and I have to grab it and copy it before it flies off on me into the unmapped region of the story’s fog. Do your titles arrive early in your process, or do they come later, perhaps with feedback, as you edit?
So the shameful truth here is that the majority of my working titles don’t survive contact with the editor. Either they get trimmed or changed a little, or changed completely. Doors of Eden was originally “The Brain Garden”! I’ve come to accept that what sounds good to me during the writing process doesn’t always hit the ears of others very sweetly. 🙂 We often have a huge faff and rush over the actual title post-submission, after my original gets voted down.
Speaking of those moments of inspiration, I’m also intrigued by Shards of Earth’s conflict with these architect aliens vs. man pushing its own evolution forward. Your antagonists are as intriguing as your protagonists in every novel, so I cannot help but wonder which came first in Shards of Earth (and/or in any other novel of your choosing): the villains, or the heroes?
So in Shards, the Architects came first. I remember talking the series concept over with my agent long ago, where we hammered out various elements (including stuff that will only be made explicit in book 3!) of the setting. The idea of the enormous world-reshaping monsters is definitely the heart of the series.
You can’t go wrong with world-reshaping monsters!
Let’s wrap up with another creature question. As a writer, what would you choose as your spirit animal?
Well I write a lot of animals so I’ve got a fair few to choose from. I tend to write about the animals that really appeal to me, too, so they’re right there on the page. So maybe octopus, or praying mantis, or salticid spider… Or perhaps some unholy combination of all three.
An unholy combination is right! I’ll just be sure to keep my daughter’s flying foxes handy…just in case, of course. 🙂
Thank you so much for sharing your time in the midst of a crazy release schedule! I hope you and your son continue to discover new stories to enjoy together, and that the worlds of your imagination never lose their wonder.
My podcast series continues with a detour to Juneteenth before returning to fantasy in celebration of Pride Month. We’ll also consider the timeless, transcending character that is the Outsider-turned-Hero. Character names, everyday absurdities, and more author interviews are on their way!
Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!
Great interview. Especially enjoyed the bit on the evolution of book titles.
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Thanks, Peggy! Isn’t it neat how different writers approach the titles and how the editors get involved? I love it xxxxxxxx
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Wow, look at all those lovely books! Fascinating interview, as ever, Jean. I particularly like Adrian’s choice of spirit animals: I’ve had a certain preoccupation for praying mantises of late.
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Hey, mantises are aMAZing!
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Especially my fictional ones… 🤣
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