An Interview with Suncatcher Author Alia Gee
It’s 2075 in a post-climate change, post-pandemic, post-peak oil world. Professor Radicand Jones has earned a nice quiet sabbatical on her sister’s solar powered airship, floating serenely above it all. Instead, Radicand finds herself:
Defending the airship flock against pirates with nothing but her rifle and her wits.
Risking her mind every time she goes deeper into the enhanced virtual reality of the aether—just like her father before her.
Helping her best friend escape from bounty hunters determined to keep her genetic property under corporate control.
Falling in love with a killer. He has a heart of gold. It might belong to someone else.
Happy endings may look easy in the sky, but can Radicand Jones save everyone else’s hearts and minds without losing her own?
Alia is a self published author, and a fellow Oberlin College graduate. She and I started chatting recently when I took note of her book on the web and reached out to ask her about. I'm happy and honored that she agreed to do this interview which follows her bio below.
Alia Gee was raised on a steady diet of science fiction and the kindness of strangers. She is grateful for both.
Alia has loved Rumi, solar power, and her husband for a very long time. She recently fell in love with Occupy Wall Street. Now she lives and loves in New York City raising her eyebrows at her children and her glass to art and her voice in the streets.
Her poetry has been published in
The Omnibus of Doctor Bill Shakes and the Magnificent Ionic Pentatetrameter
and the forthcoming Poetry for the 99%.
Suncatcher is her first novel.
1. Let's start with the basics. How long have you been interested in science fiction?
Since my parents told me that I was named after a science fiction character.
They explained that they were young and stupid (they really said this. At least they were honest) and named me after this great character, a saint, no less! … but then a couple of years after I was named the second book in the series came out and little Alia goes crazy and kills herself. Apparently they wrote Frank Herbert and explained the situation and he wrote them a lovely letter back saying that it was ok, it was a real name before he used it and told them it meant “exalted one” in Arabic, don’t panic.
As far as I know, though, they were young and stupid AND LOST THE LETTER. One of those things I may never be able to forgive them for… sigh.
I remember the first SF book I read was The Menace from Earth when I was 9, and I devoured all the Heinlein juveniles my dad had. Then all the ones the library had. I read Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke and all those Adventure-type stories with the rocket ship on the spine. My mom tried to steer me towards Ursula K. LeGuin but I wasn’t ready for her yet. (I could wax poetic about Always Coming Home, the best book I’ve never finished, for hours.)
Round about the same time I really started to accept that I was not being taken seriously by my science teachers (“but you’re going to be an English major, so I won’t sign the form that will let you take Chemistry even though you have the second highest grade in the class” “next year you’ll discover boys, so I won’t sign the form that will let you take physics even though you have the highest grade in the class”, I realized that Heinlein and the other Adventure SF writers didn’t really take English majors seriously, either, and I drifted away from hard SF for a long time.
I didn’t really get back into it again until I discovered Lois McMaster Bujold. She’s my current favorite SF author—though I think The Curse of Chalion and Paladin of Souls are her best work and they are pure fantasy. Nobody’s perfect. ;)
I’ve also become quite fond of John Scalzi, mainly because of his blog but his books are fun, too.
2. Are you influenced by other types of speculative fiction, or other types of writing in general?
Anything Bujold writes, see above. ;) Also, anything that Terry Pratchett writes even when he forgets to be funny and lapses into poignancy. Damnit, Pratchett, stop making me cry.
I was really influenced by web comics, when I was writing this book. I had a newborn, and that made reading books difficult, but I had a long list of webcomics that I could squeeze in between nursing and changing diapers and wiping noses. That pacing and emphasis on punchy dialogue really affected the way I wrote this novel. (I did write a different book as my “first first novel” and it was excellent practice and no I’m not planning on publishing it any time soon because it has no drama.)
3. When did you get the idea for Suncatcher? Was there a particular moment, or did it evolve over time?
3. When did you get the idea for Suncatcher? Was there a particular moment, or did it evolve over time?
You know how they talk about rock bands that suddenly get discovered, but actually they’ve been working for years in their Mom’s basement? That. But here’s the overnight success version, because that is pretty long just by itself…
I was reading a blog, http://silver-goggles.blogspot.com/, which is not updated often enough and takes a dim view of steampunk that whitewashes alternate history.
Jha Goh, the blogger, was interviewing an author (much like our situation here) who claimed to have written a Third Wave Feminist Steampunk Adventure and I almost fainted from trying to hit the buy button on Amazon too hard. This, this was what I wanted to read! Pretty dresses and adventure with female protagonists but alive to intersectionality and nuance and stuff!
Only it didn’t. It was so so so disappointing I spent a very long Facebook status detailing just how terrible it was—it was literally Mary Sue Saves The Brown People, but it’s alright because even though she’s been raised white and privileged her *mother* was (albino) but Brown! So it’s ok! …oh, and she had phenomenal cosmic powers and there was a weird love triangle between her and a white guy and a brown guy, and she loved them equally so she wasn’t racist. And both guys loved her, but then the brown guy sacrificed himself/their love by staying behind to save His People, so she ends up with the white guy. But it wasn’t racist. Oh, no… and then there was the part where she “taught” the brown people to garden, and they planted PEAS NEXT TO THE PUMPKINS. (That’s a cool weather crop next to a hot weather crop. Even with cosmic powers, THAT JUST DOESN’T sdgebyx cmyoi suy YT…
You can see I *still* feel strongly about this, eh?
So anyway, I’m ranting and ranting and my friend commented, “So why don’t you write a feminist steampunk adventure, then?”
And I did. Or at least, I tried to.
It turns out I can’t write alternate history because I’m enough of a history buff that I can’t forget what I know and pretend it didn’t happen, so pure steampunk was out. But I started out with the Bechdel test— hey, random, did you know she went to Oberlin, too? We Obies get everywhere!—two women talking about something besides a guy. Two women…. Sisters! Right, so I needed to have two women talking, and I was thinking about steampunk, and so what’s more steampunk than pirates?
I hammered out a 2000ish word scene about two sisters on an airship discussing the imminent approach of pirates and posted it on Facebook. And that’s when things got interesting—several people commented, “That was great… but then what happened?”
6 months and 456 pages later, I can honestly say quite a lot. (And then I edited it and edited it and edited it some more…)
4. Is your book a single-person perspective, or do you have a wide cast of characters that the "camera" follows like Game of Thrones?
I was learning about the world as I wrote it, so it definitely follows the perspective of the protagonist, Radicand Jones. However, I found that extra stuff kept appearing, emails and restaurant menus and inter departmental memos, and I really enjoyed incorporating them into the story. Later they began to tell their own story in counterpoint to Radicand’s lived experience, and I hope they flesh things out that the reader would otherwise have to take on faith.
5. Tell us a bit about the world your story takes place in. (When does it take place, what's the "mood" of the setting(s))
It’s a cheerful dystopia! …an early reader called it that, and I love that description. It’s specifically set above and within Miami in June, 2075. But this is a world that has been changed by peak oil, pandemic, and climate change. For instance, Miami (and New York City, too) are walled cities surrounded by shallow sea water.
It’s pretty terrible—but when I was writing it swine flu had just sent half a nearby school home sick, the gulf oil spill and Katrina were freaking me out and I was reading a lot of doomer blogs just as Lehman Brothers imploded and it seemed like corporations were taking over everything and the world was a few breaths away from neo fascism forever and ever and everything owned by Monsanto.
The future was holding my babies hostage, and I had to do something about that.
So I had to create, almost for my own sanity, this world where all the scary things had happened, but my grandchildren could still grow and laugh and have meaningful lives.
6. Many characters in stories are based on people the author actually knows in real life. Are there any like that in your story?
They are all me, especially the bad guys.
7. As many of my blog followers may know, having reasonably accurate science in science fiction is very important to me. How much of the science in your book is real, based on known science, or a projection of what current science thinks might be possible?
Heh. Well, in the 4.5 years from when I first started it the “goggles” that I thought were super-cool and bleeding edge are just another form factor of what apple is doing. (Damnit, apple!)
I spent a lot of time with websites that predicted rates of sea level rising, on best to worst case scenarios, and talked to my friend the meteorologist about what climate changed storms would look like. (“That’s a good question, I should pose it to my students on their next paper,” was his first response.)
I researched airships and worked out a rough idea of how my flock of airships worked engineering-wise (hard envelopes, rather than the soft blimps we’re more familiar with) so that I wouldn’t screw up—and even then we almost made design choices that would have sent them nose first into the ocean.
The tech I took the most liberties with is something I called the “aether”… and this started out as a nod to steampunk but it became integral to a lot of things that were important to me and to the story. The aether is a “metaphor based virtual reality” and it was my way of making room for English majors in science fiction.
The seed of it came from a friend, who wanted to develop a hardware interface so that grade school children could “dance math”… He’s a bit of a mad professor, and I don’t know how far he got on that project, but his love of math and this idea that you could move your body to manipulate data meshed with my desire for beauty in my science fiction… So yeah. The aether is pretty out there, but it’s also very pretty.
8. What themes or storylines in your story do you hold to be the most important to you?
Community. Connections. Loyalty. Love. My editor thought that human identity and ownership were key, too. But honestly I think the story has enough complexity that you see the themes you want to see.
9. Do you think this book is geared for a specific demographic? Is it accessible to a broad range of readers?
I really don’t know. I want it to be. People who want to be entertained and are willing to trust me for a couple of hours. Anyone in that demographic should love it!
10. Describe what your method is. Do you sit down and write the book all the way though and then edit? Edit as you go? Do you have a particular ritual you do to get into the "writing groove?"
During the baby’s afternoon nap I’d sketch out ideas and what-ifs and future scenes I wanted to allude to or get to. In the evening after the kids were in bed and I was back at my laptop I would read the last scene and maybe check my outline to see where I was and where I was planning on going. Then with the afternoon’s notes on hand I would write out the dialogue, as fast as it came, often without tags or “she saids” just bam bam bam. Then I’d go back and write the in-between bits, the action, the description, the internal monologues.
Best advice I got was not to end my writing at the end of a chapter, but to write the first sentence or two of the next scene and then end so that when I came back to it the next day I could just keep going, rather than try and recreate the energy I was riding the day before.
I did a lot of light editing as I went, as things became more or less important—whole airship crews got deleted from earlier scenes because they just weren’t important to the plot.
11. What was your motivation for self publishing? What were the challenges you faced with moving forward on it? What triumphs did you achieve?
Well, Tor declined to publish it and Baen never got back to me. Those are the only SF publishers who will accept unsolicited manuscripts without an agent. Neil Gaiman’s agent did ask for the full manuscript, and I almost cried when I got that letter—but ultimately she wasn’t excited enough by it to take me on as a client.
All the other agents who take SF authors sent very polite rejection letters with my first query. That was a brutal 12 months of rejection. Later, a friend told me that she had drinks with a friend of a friend who was an agent, and mentioned my book to her, and apparently the agent wrinkled her nose and said, “A book about a middle aged Pakistani-American? Who would want to read that?”
So whether or not I wanted to go the traditional publishing route, traditional publishing did not want me.
I think the Suncatcher-verse is rich with potential (and I have a couple more books stuck in my head) …but they are very stuck. I thought that if I could get this first book out of my head and unable to be edited any longer (just one more edit, I can quit any time!) I could focus my energy on writing new material.
I decided to self-publish over a year ago, but then the problem was finding an editor. I knew I had taken it as far as I could, but the story deserved proper editing. It was really hard finding someone who would take my money but not give me BS about “show don’t tell” … that is the worst feedback ever, because believe me if I knew what it meant I would do it.
So yeah, finding an editor was really hard. In the end it was word of mouth and grabbing someone who wasn’t professionally trained but had experience helping another author shape her work. His feedback really helped me understand the villain and the villain’s story better, and I hope that will make the next book easier to write.
My most glorious moment so far was when I was freaking out about cover art, and a friend (also from Oberlin. Ha!) found the perfect image. It was black and white, though—but then an online community she belongs to sort of adopted the project and added color to the image.
I got tears in my eyes, and it really made me believe in this project, the first time I saw that airship sail through a blue sky into a yellow sun.
12. And where can we get Suncatcher?
Suncatcher, is available from these sellers:
(where the first 9 chapters are free to read online)
—and your local bookstore can order it for you, too!
Read global, shop local. ;)
A big thank you goes out to Alia for this interview. On a final, happy note:
Alia Gee can be found at: