Thursday, June 23, 2016

An Interview with G. S. Jennsen

Visiting today is G. S. Jennsen, bestselling author of the Aurora Rhapsody series. G. S. is a science fiction author, as well as a futurist, geek and gamer. She lives in Colorado with her husband and their two furry, four-legged children. She has been a corporate attorney, software developer, editor, and is now a full-time author. Welcome. G. S.!

1.     Tell us about yourself. What got you into writing?

Looking back, I got into writing when I finally realized I’d been ignoring what I wanted to do for my entire life. I was an academic, almost from birth, and spent most of my teenage years obsessed with space and astrophysics. But I took a left turn in my first year of college to study international business, which led to me going to law school. I made the decision partially because of perceived expectations, but also because I didn’t consider that writing could be an option on the table.

In one of my undergraduate English classes, I wrote a short story that has a lot in common with Hugh Howey’s Silo works. What remains of humanity is trapped underground after an apocalyptic environmental disaster; the main character loses her mind, runs outside and eats a poisoned crop she finds, and her lover holds her during her final dying breaths. My parents were concerned about my emotional health and suggested therapy. My professor was thrilled and suggested I should go to work for Greenpeace. My boyfriend hired a food tester.

I never really forgot how much fun I had writing that story, even as dark as it was. Almost twenty years later I remembered a bit more clearly and started writing. Haven’t stopped since.

2.     Who have some of your biggest influences been?

First and foremost, Isaac Asimov. Specifically, the Foundation series. I’ve talked about it before, but reading those books during my teen years influenced me in a significant way, albeit not exactly in the way you would expect. While I loved the setting, the story and the ideas, I strongly disagreed with Asimov’s final endorsement of a collectivist determinism over individual choice and free will as the best way to steer the future of the human race.

It was the first time in my life I’d been faced with the cognitive challenge (dissonance?) of loving something so much while strongly disagreeing with its outcome and message. It forced me to begin to appreciate the difference between the author of a book, their biases, the quality of the work and its impact on the reader. If there was a moment I can cite as the birth of myself as a writer, that was it.
Beyond Asimov? Frank Herbert. Catherine Asaro. Lois McMaster Bujold. Arthur C Clarke. Peter F. Hamilton. And Carl Sagan—Contact and Cosmos were the biggest fiction/non-fiction obsessions of my teen years.

I also read a good bit of espionage thrillers (Ludlum and Clancy) and supernatural thrillers (Koontz and King) in my teens and twenties. Amusing side note – on my first date with my future husband, he saw the row of Dean Koontz hardbacks on my bookshelf. He later told me that he knew I was his future wife because of them.

3.     The technology in your stories is so detailed it seems like it could be real. How do you go about envisioning and developing these technologies?

If you study our history of inventing things, it turns out there are patterns. Technology follows the footprints left in the sand from the technology that came before. We tend to improve, but we also tend to not reinvent fully.

We drive cars down interstates because 150 years ago we drove buggies and horses down trails. Cars have two sets of wheels on two sides of the vehicle because the earliest cars were driven on the horse and buggy pathways where two ruts were cut into the earth. The modern transistor functions electrically a lot like the vacuum tube functioned, and many circuit configurations work much as they did when the vacuum tube sat in the circuit instead of the transistor.

So I looked at what we have today and tried to guess what footprints in the technological sand we’ll likely follow.

For instance, we all live on our cell phones today – texting, emailing, social media messaging – because it’s currently the easiest way to talk to others. At some point in the future that communication pathway will reach its natural terminus of sending direct thoughts to another person’s mind anywhere in the world (or universe). Basically, we’ll still need to communicate, and we’ll probably do it a lot like we do today, only with better tools. We’ll still need to travel from point A to point B; we won’t do it in cars with combustion engines, but we won’t erase their legacy, just as we haven’t erased the legacy of the horse and buggy.

Tell us about your Aurora Rhapsody series.

I’d love to! Aurora Rhapsody is the story of humanity in the 24th century. FTL travel has unlocked the stars, and we’ve spread out from Earth to occupy 1/3 of the Milky Way. Factions have formed, wars for independence have been fought and the sides have been set. The series encompasses nine books in three significant phases (conveniently organized as trilogies ;) ), of which the first five are available now, with four still to come.

Part 1, Aurora Rising, is the story of the continuing conflict between the two largest factions, led by Earth and Seneca – then it adds in the chaos of first contact with hostile aliens (the Metigens) and the consequential decisions made of necessity to survive their invasion. Oh, and it’s also a love story. Several, really.

Part 2, Aurora Renegades, sends the main characters beyond the Milky Way on a quest to understand the aliens and their reasons for invading, while also telling the “day after” story of humanity having to deal with the next phase of human evolution – mergers with AIs – that they jump-started to defeat the aliens. Part 3, Aurora Resonant, is still forthcoming, but up-to-date readers are starting to pick up on the fact it will involve humanity’s attempt to find its true place and destiny in the stars.

But above all else, Aurora Rhapsody is character-driven sci-fi. The plot and the action are set around a large (some critics have claimed too large) cast of people from various corners of the galaxy. While I’ve been a science fiction reader my entire life, I’ve always felt that the weakest part of so much sci-fi was the characters. The settings are amazing, the stories are wondrous, but the characters often feel like a stand-in, an avatar through which the reader gets shown the world. They don’t have their own stories, their own motivations, their own drive.

So I’ve embraced the “Opera” part of the “Space Opera” genre label. Five books in, readers – male and female, young and old – always come back to leave reviews about the characters. And the love stories. And the drama. And the consequences the story inflicts on the characters. Every now and then I catch a little blowback from someone who wants social commentary targeted at the problems of the 21st century, or a random guy who wants to know “if this is a kissing book,” but I’m okay with both of those criticisms. People deserve to read what they want, and I won’t try to convince them otherwise.

5.     So what’s happening in Dissonance?

Dissonance is the middle book in the Aurora Rhapsody series – number five of nine – and is also the middle book in the current arc trilogy, Aurora Renegades.

Alex and Caleb are still in the Metigen’s portal network trying to puzzle out its mysteries, while the cast back in Aurora (our universe) are struggling with the increasing fallout from more and more people choosing to merge with AIs as the technology spreads. And in the background, the Metigen’s motivations are coming into better focus, as well as a larger and more terrifying mystery behind them.
Dissonance was the most challenging book to write so far, because its primary purpose is to take the characters and the reader through a significant perspective shift. While I won’t spoil the ending, the whole Aurora Rhapsody story has been leading to the revelation at the end of this book. After learning it, it’s my hope the reader wants to go back and re-read the first four novels, armed with this new knowledge, and see the story in a new light. Now the story progresses forward from a whole new perspective, in a way that doesn’t undo what has come before but certainly informs it.

In these books there are no pure good guys, no pure bad guys (well, maybe one). Against a canvas of moral grayness, the heroes still take the stands they must take and choose to be heroic, even as the bad guys turn out to have reasons that make sense and the good guys have to get blood on their hands to do the right thing. As events continue to unfold, actions taken earlier are seen from a new angle, and it’s easy for others to criticize and second guess. There is a lot of that happening throughout Dissonance (hence the title), and this dynamic is mirrored in both Alex and Caleb’s story and Aurora’s story.

Also, Alex and Caleb have now been together since they shot each other down ¼ of the way through the first book. Life is not a fairy tale, but so often in fiction we only see the falling in love phase, while the messy reality of how the relationship survives once the final credits roll is never played out. In Dissonance, the cracks start to show, and the next book is called Abysm for a reason. How do you stay in love – how do you make a life together work - when the universe is falling apart around you and trying to take you with it?

6.     What is the weirdest thing you’ve had to research for a novel?

Oh, the research. As with most writers, my Google Search history is likely a thing of wonder to behold in its unedited form. Science, math, biology, herbology, metallurgy, nuclear weapons, neurotoxins, eukaryotes. I’m not sure I can even pick out one specific thing as the “weirdest,” but what is really interesting are some of the conversations that stem from the research.

Between my husband and I, there are four degrees in the house, which means that occasionally a simple question (“If someone is shot in the head from the front from a distance, would the head snap backward or forward or not at all?”) will morph into a multi-hour discussion. We’ll go from violent death particulars to zero as a math construct that has no intrinsic value and back again. We sometimes get lost and two hours later I have to remember what sentence I was trying to write that started the rabbit hole journey to begin with. It’s a lot of fun.

7.     If you could own any fictional spaceship, which one would it be and why?

It might be strange for me to say this, but I want Alex’s loft above downtown Seattle. Forget the spaceship. Well, the spaceship can be in the hangar down the street.

8.     Do you have any advice for aspiring science fiction authors?

Very early in my career (shortly after Starshine’s release), I had the occasion to talk with several prominent authors in independent publishing. To a one, they all gave me the same advice. I didn’t fully “get it” at the time, but since they all agreed I tried to follow it. What did they say?

Write more books. Write. Publish. Write again. Publish again. Keep going, without fail and without giving up. Focus on getting more books (of quality) out and don’t get too caught up in the lure of marketing, measuring and comparing. If you want to make a career out of this, you have to write, above everything else.

Five books later, I get it. 99% of this job is just relentlessly showing up. Want to sell more copies of your last book? Write and publish the next book. And the next one after that. Once shoppers have seen your name enough – on new books and more books – they will start to wonder what the fuss is about and check one out. Starshine continues to sell well, and I love seeing new waves of readers pick it up every time I publish the next book. When I put Dissonance out, I saw another spike in Starshine sales, and now I’m watching those new readers tear through the series to catch up. With every book, you have the chance to grow your reader base. Of this, a career is made.

Given that reality, though, my advice is to only do this if you honestly, truly love to write. Because success will be slow in coming – painfully slow sometimes – and requires a continual investment of time and energy into your writing. There’s not some magical point where you can start coasting or phoning it in. Every single book is a risk. It has to be better than the one before it. Slip, and you’ll start to lose your readers, and they usually won’t return.

There are always going to be the one-offs – the “overnight success” who publishes their first book and suddenly sells 100,000 copies and is the focus of scads of attention for a few months. But surrounding them are many, many more people who have been working diligently and have a much deeper back catalog and an established reader base and are making a good living. In the long run, it’s better to be one of them, because they have stable, steady careers and know how to replicate success over and over. But to be one of them, a tremendous amount of work is required, and you really just can’t do it if you don’t love the writing.

9.     What would people be surprised to know about you?

I hate cows. At the deepest, darkest core of my soul I despise bovine life in all forms. My father had a part-time business as a cattle rancher when I was young, and I grew up on a semi-farm where a herd of cattle was being raised in my backyard. He also had a larger cattle ranch out west, and we spent many years traveling back and forth to events like cattle brandings and cattle birthings and cow day parades and cow purchases and cow sales. The cows were everywhere. They stand around, eat, moo, move and eat again. And that’s all they do. For a budding academic interested in Carl Sagan and fascinated by the mysteries the stars held, cows were the antithesis of everything I loved.
 My husband, who knows this about me, delights in torturing me about it. Pictures of cute baby cows posted to Twitter with me tagged. Cow figurines. Cow-pattern furniture he wants to buy. Rolling down the window and mooing at the cows as we drive by them. It never ends. And it never will.
But I do love steak, so I shall persevere.

For more information on all her books as well as links to retailers, see