AUTHOR INTERVIEWS

  • SJ Kincaid

    SJ Kincaid

    THE EMPRESS

    SIMON AND SCHUSTER CHILDREN'S BOOKS

    NOVEMBER 2017


    THE DIABOLIC by SJ Kincaid was one of the most talked-about YA books last winter; now its sequel, THE EMPRESS, has been published where readers get to find out what lay beyond Nemesis and Tyrus's 'happy ever after' ending in book one.

    Beset with intrigue, dwarfed by their galactic empire and with Nemesis still hated by the 'old order' of the Helionic faith, the couple must fight for the survival of both themselves and their empire.

    SJ KINCAID tells us more about her latest, dramatic, science-fiction adventure:


    Q: When we spoke to you about The Diabolic a year ago (see interview, below), you weren't sure about writing a sequel. What drew you back to this story?

    A: It's more a case of what drove me away! I am a history buff, and loved Elizabeth Tudor growing up. I knew from reading about her reaching the throne - the point of the traditional happily ever after - was truly only the beginning of the difficulties in her life.

    I knew with Tyrus and Nemesis that reaching the height of power in the Empire would just usher in a lot more difficulties than they already faced. The idea of writing those was so daunting that I planned to just leave the book there with a seemingly happy ending. Alas, I couldn't let go of this one idea for continuing the plot, and so I went there.


    Q: How did writing the second book compare with writing book one, The Diabolic?

    A: The second book began with me poking at this storyline uncertain whether I'd really write it, convincing myself that surely I would not, all while not under contract for it...

    The Diabolic was a much simpler and straightforward story, so The Empress was certainly much more difficult. I didn't merely have a story about a girl taught she's subhuman coming into herself as a person. That girl is now a galactic Empress. That's a very daunting and enormous transition to capture, so I had a good bit more self-doubt and second guessing with the story this time. Standard book two stuff, though! Middle books are never easy.


    Q: Although the science-fiction world you created in The Diabolic is complete, which areas did you need to do more work on for The Empress?

    A: Since I had to obliterate the happily ever after of book one, I think a lot of what needed to be done was addressing the lingering emotional and trust issues of the characters while also establishing them as two people who truly, genuinely love each other, which is entirely what they need for the challenges they face.

    I was also balancing this with fleshing out the details of the Empire/political situation Tyrus has assumed control of, without losing readers to boredom with details - that was the tricky part.


    Q: The focus in this book is the relationship between Nemesis, the Diabolic, and the Emperor, Tyrus. They both change significantly through the book - how hard was it to track / pace those changes?

    A: Well, their changes were truly meant to be in tandem and, luckily with science fiction, there are some plot devices one can use. I made use of a stellar phenomenon [no spoilers, though!] in a way to sort of even out the character development, and I quite liked doing that.


    Q: Nemesis and Tyrus spend a lot more time travelling in this book than being confined to spacecraft. Which parts of this universe were you most excited to visit with them?

    A: I was most excited to visit my sci-fi equivalent of the Vatican, mostly because this was the introduction of the previously mentioned stellar phenomenon (which I find so cool) and also my space religion.

    It meant that the reason this Empire even exists, as well as the contradiction between revulsion to scientific study and their advanced technological state, could finally all be addressed.


    Q: And which of the spaceships you described would you like to find yourself travelling in?

    A: Definitely The Hera. I love the idea of an asteroid ship that's been meticulously worked upon by an artist. I find anything carved out of stone just so cool to see, and coupling that with a spaceship, well... I definitely want to see it.


    Q: Do you think that, like your characters, humans will one day be living on different planets?

    A: I earnestly hope so. Star Trek is my utopian future. However, so many people do not even understand the purpose of NASA and ask why we aren't just feeding starving children with the money we devote to advancing humanity's future and horizon.

    NASA's budget is so tiny and space exploration must continually be justified to people unaware of the fact that a single asteroid could obliterate all life on Earth so we should hedge our bets... Well, I guess I'm just less optimistic than I used to be.


    Q: There is a big problem in this world of 'malignant space' - what made you want to create a new problem, rather than use an existing space formations like black holes?

    A: Malignant space is basically meant to be like Kurt Vonnegut's ice-nine, so not something that currently exists in theoretical science.

    I really thought it would be fitting for human beings in this future to be squabbling while ignoring this potent existential threat growing in their midst, because the problem only is a problem for others, or hasn't touched their own lives yet. I feel like that's exactly how human beings behave.


    Q: In the story, you give religion a very human face and expose the workings behind it - why did you do this?

    A: Any society in history features religion as a prominent force in whatever form it takes at the time. When I was defining Nemesis as a character, it made sense to me that there'd be a spiritual framework for why this conscious, thinking, feeling girl is not actually a person in the eyes of the society about her.

    I was also exploring what sort of religion would evolve in this place far from Earth where people dwelled among the stars rather than on our planet. So many religions we currently have are Earth-focused, and that just wouldn't make sense in a society removed two-thousand years from Earth, so that was a fun creation process.


    Q: The book also looks into AI technology and what makes humans and machines distinct. Do you predict there are profound debates to come over AI technology and where did you go to research it?

    A: Honestly, in order to achieve interstellar travel, I think human beings would have to be upgraded. We have to be smarter. I just don't think as a species we have the intelligence necessary to not only prioritize a focus upon travelling outside space, but also to really devise the means of understanding and mastering these natural forces that are barriers to such achievements.

    That said, we're also in the process of a revolution with computers, and there are many different theories about what form AI will take. It seems inevitable at this rate that a computer more intelligent than a human being will be created, and the question is, do we create it independent of us, or do we make it a part of ourselves and therefore reap the benefits without setting ourselves in direct opposition to some sort of artificial consciousness?

    I feel like the advancement of computers will lead to this question being addressed sometime in my lifetime, so I'm really interested in it and so I've read a good bit about the idea of the singularity, and futurism, etc.


    Q: Through this world, you also explore futuristic recreational drugs and how they impact on the user. This is important for the plot - but did you also want it to be a warning and did you need to research into the effects of drugs to write about them?

    A: This is the thing: The Diabolic is modeled upon Ancient Rome. If anyone has seen I, CLAUDIUS, you will know there were some shocking, decadent behaviors I could never put into a YA without getting the book banned from pretty much every school district there is.

    I considered what forms of decadence this galactic Empire would have, and drug use was literally the first one I could think about. This is a society where an Empire has such incredible technology, that the wealthy are virtually removed from the consequences of their actions. If there was no possibility of dying and overdosing, no addiction, no devastating health consequences - wouldn't there be a lot of people using narcotics? Why wouldn't there, if so? It's a short term physical pleasure.

    However, The Empress does explore another facet of this: what happens in a society of such casual narcotic use when there is something that wreaks a physical toll upon a person? In the modern day and age, human traffickers often use substances to hold control over other human beings, and I thought that was definitely a dimension to explore, especially given the fact that I didn't want to come across as promoting use of this stuff as some sort of consequence free thing in real life.

    As for research, nursing school honestly provided a very fantastic framework for me, since although I've forgotten much of the material by now, I still possess enough understanding to know what I'm looking at and think of the physiological, systemic consequences to certain things when I'm reading about the effects of substances upon a body and a mind. There's this fascinating old story about a man named Phineas who gets a railroad spike through part of his brain, and the way his personality completely transforms. That taught me people really aren't fixed human beings but the products of physiology, so that aspect of course enters the story in some form.


    Q: This book is also left open for a sequel. Can you give us a glimpse into what might happen next?

    A: The plotline for book two that destroyed book one's happily ever after alas necessitated a book three, so I knew The Diabolic would be one or three books. As for what happens next, revealing that would most certainly spoil the entirety of The Empress! All I will say is that the ending of book three is entirely fixed and set, and there may still be shades of I, CLAUDIUS in it all.


    Q: What are you writing now and do you have a favourite writing place?

    A: I am writing THE DIABOLIC III and I most prefer to write in this one particular Panera. Since I've recently moved, I haven't quite fallen into the groove with a new place yet.


    Q: Do you have another trilogy or standalone books planned?

    A: I do have an idea for a younger series I'd love to write, but it's so tonally unlike THE DIABOLIC that it's just not one I can write at the same time. But in short: yes.


    Q: What are your top tips for young people writing their own sci-fi story?

    A: Read a lot, write a lot - and grow a thick skin! There is a lot of rejection even for published writers, and the most important thing you can ever do is desensitize yourself to it and prepare to keep fighting for what you want despite hearing the word 'no' over and over again.


    Q: What's your favourite way to relax?

    A: My favorite way to relax is also my favorite way to not relax, and to pass way, way too much of my day: surfing the internet! I'm pondering a terrifying hiatus from it maybe in December so I can get back into reading more, and make sure all of DIII is done, so I don't know what I'll do to relax then. I would love to think I'll exercise or something, but alas, I'll probably spend it pining for the internet...







    THE DIABOLIC

    SIMON & SCHUSTER

    JULY 2017


    Now available in paperback, THE DIABOLIC by SJ Kincaid enjoyed a considerable online buzz even prior to its launch last autumn when it got YA readers talking, especially fans of sci-fi and dystopian fiction.

    In The Diabolic, we are introduced to Nemesis, a Diabolic; a being who is created to serve and protect one person only. For Nemesis, this is the galactic senator's daughter, Sidonia. So when the senator's political meddling puts Sidonia's life in danger, it is up to Nemesis to protect her, even if this means becoming more human than she - or her makers - ever thought possible.

    We asked author SJ KINCAID - author of the Insignia trilogy - to tell us more about her latest book.


    Q: You've mentioned that The Diabolic was inspired by I, Claudius (written by Robert Graves). Can you remember first reading or seeing I, Claudius and why it was such a striking story for you?

    A: The only filmed version I've seen is the BBC miniseries from the '70s (my mother loved it when it first aired and insisted I give it a chance). I went into my viewing of it with a sense of skepticism, especially when I saw how much like a stage production it was.

    I soon forgot all about that. The acting, the writing, the sheer fascinating quality of the story just sucked me in and the flashiest sets and best CGI in the world wouldn't have made the least bit of difference.

    I think what I found compelling was the sense of being swept into this other world, the world of these decadent Imperial royals, and the sense of knife-edge peril that lurked between these aristocrats even as they drank wine together and smiled at each other. It's just a fascinating story I make sure to rewatch every few years.


    Q: Why did you decide to take your story into space?

    A: I've always loved science fiction, ever since I grew up fastened to the TV whenever Star Trek: The Next Generation was on. It made me something of a dork when I grew older, but when I was young, it was a huge influence on me.

    I love space stories because they hold total freedom of possibility. I love the idea that we're not alone in this universe, and that the fascinating explorations of humankind aren't confined to the limits of our own atmosphere.


    Q: Do you like the idea of actually travelling in space? They are talking about sending people to Mars; would you go?

    A: Yes! I want to go to space! The minute space tourism is affordable, I am up there. Regarding Mars, though, it would be a one-way trip as returning is thought to be impossible.

    Much as I'd love to be a pioneer, I love foggy, rainy days, and I would hate to live totally surrounded by bare crimson terrain. For a (return) visit? Oh yes. For resettlement? No.


    Q: How did you go about creating the space setting for The Diabolic?

    A: I always love creating new worlds. For The Diabolic, I first envisioned the primary setting - the Chrysanthemum, the 2,000 interlinked starships in a six-star system - where the royals live.

    My world-building always begins with the setting where the primary action takes place, and from there, often a lot of the narrative comes to me.


    Q: Can you remember what sparked the idea for Nemesis herself, the 'Diabolic': a bodyguard whose sole purpose is to live and die for its charge?

    A: The Diabolic began as a single page where Nemesis meets Sidonia for the first time, and to be honest, I am not sure where Nemesis or Sidonia came from.

    I started and stopped a lot of manuscripts in that period. I wrote many, up until around 30,000 words, before abandoning them, but this single page of Nemesis meeting Sidonia kept drawing my attention back to it.

    Nemesis sees Sidonia and is surprised that her nose has never been broken, noting that Sidonia is a 'real' girl... That single part alone raised so many questions in my mind about Nemesis.

    What I knew: 1) she came from a violent background, 2) Sidonia did not, 3) Sidonia is considered real, Nemesis is not. From there, I built the character. I felt I could explore her emotions but through the frame of a person much more constrained than myself - someone who dehumanizes herself. Nemesis was just a means of exploring many of the same feelings we all have but through a much darker lens, and it was fascinating for me as a writer.


    Q: Nemesis doesn't understand humour, so did this make it hard to write a book that has very little humour and how did you offset that so it didn't become too dark?

    A: Hmm, that's an interesting question. My last series, Insignia, was meant to sway back and forth in tone between silliness and some truly dark moments - even despite the very dark moments in The Diabolic, I still think I wrote some darker stuff in Catalyst.

    With that one, I had to worry about how dark it was, because a book that starts off silly doesn't necessarily prepare a reader for what's coming in the dark moments. You can't pull a bait-and-switch on a reader, so I had to be a bit more careful with content there.

    With The Diabolic, the story launches into this dark tone from the very first chapter of the book. You know exactly what you're getting into, so I didn't have to worry as much about going too dark.

    Having said that, a story can't just be one bad thing after another. If you're doing your job right as a writer, there are highs and lows within the story, and moments of humanity to balance out the breathtaking acts of cruelty. I think it's just a matter of having a feel for your story as you write it and making sure it remains readable and not too entrenched in one emotion.


    Q: There are two strong female leads in the story - Nemesis the Diabolic, and the villain Cygna. Did you deliberately choose to put two women against each other?

    A: Despite my love for Livia in the original I, Claudius, my diabolical grandmother figure wasn't originally going to be a huge villain in the story. However, as I wrote, the Emperor Randevald - originally my big baddie - just wasn't doing it for me.

    His role removed him too much from direct interaction with Nemesis, and for a protagonist and villain to have a really interesting dynamic, they really need to have a powerful, emotionally charged connection. Even once Nemesis had a reason to feel extremely strongly about the Emperor, he didn't have a reason to reciprocate that animosity due to the fact that she was posing as someone else.

    Cygna, however, was the sharpest tool in the shed; the woman behind the curtain with a keen insight into everyone around her and perceptive enough to regard Nemesis with distrust.

    As soon as I clarified her in my mind as that character, I knew she'd be a better villain, both because she impressed me as an adversary, and because she had reason to both interact with Nemesis and dislike her. So she became my main villain, and Randevald more her ungrateful son who doesn't realize his mother is the mastermind behind his power.


    Q: You also explore hierarchies and how characters with difference are discriminated against in this world - Nemesis is perceived as less than human by many people; the robotic Servitors are considered to have no feeling; and Tyrus is isolated for his 'madness'. Why did you want to explore this aspect of society in this story and how hard was it to gradually strip away these 'differences' in your main characters?

    A: One thing about human beings is that we repeat the exact same mistakes and societal structures - just with minor variations and different labels - time and again.

    The hierarchies of The Diabolic would naturally be extremely different from the ones we see and understand now, as humanity is very far from Earth and we've had thousands more years to disassociate from the cultures of ancient ancestors, and we've achieved the technology to drastically alter almost any physical aspect of self at will.

    So what would delineate people? I mentioned that this story began with a single page of Nemesis seeing Sidonia and thinking Sidonia is a 'real girl' (therefore Nemesis is not). So I immediately had an idea of a divide in status there from the very beginning.

    As soon as I determined Nemesis' role - an artificial human created solely to protect Sidonia - it was easy to extrapolate that this is a society that would not hesitate to craft other artificial humans to serve other functions, hence an entire underclass of them (the 'Servitors'). So there is automatically a huge divide there.

    And just as, say, ancient Roman elites displaced Roman commoners from their jobs by using slaves, I knew there'd have to be a great mass of people who are not 'created', yet not elite, who also exist in this universe. Additionally, with technological progress, most anything could be done by machines, most anything could be automated, further exacerbating these divides.

    In Tyrus' case, it's not his madness that isolates him but his awareness that his own family is very likely to kill him at any sign of strength. The madness is his weapon of choice. A madman who isn't in touch with reality surely can't plot his uncle the Emperor's death - or can he?


    Q: You've said The Diabolic is a one-off book, but would you ever want to return for a sequel?

    A: I won't rule anything out. I wanted to do a standalone because it is always so stressful doing a trilogy. You also have to keep a lot of material on hold to fuel you for the next books. Standalones are great because you can blow everything up now.


    Q: Any news on a film deal?

    A: At this moment, right now? Nothing yet. But there is interest.


    Q: What are you writing now?

    A: A humorous middle-grade science-fiction manuscript.


    Q: Where and when do you write? Where can't you write?

    A: Right now, I always right at Panera Bread, a chain coffee place near me, usually in the morning to mid-afternoon. I cannot write anywhere public, and I can't write anywhere I sleep.


    Q: What was the best writing advice you've been given?
    A: Keep persisting again and again until you reach your goal. Don't let rejection get you down.




    THE DIABOLIC

    SIMON & SCHUSTER

    JULY 2017


    Now available in paperback, THE DIABOLIC by SJ Kincaid enjoyed a considerable online buzz even prior to its launch last autumn when it got YA readers talking, especially fans of sci-fi and dystopian fiction.

    In The Diabolic, we are introduced to Nemesis, a Diabolic; a being who is created to serve and protect one person only. For Nemesis, this is the galactic senator's daughter, Sidonia. So when the senator's political meddling puts Sidonia's life in danger, it is up to Nemesis to protect her, even if this means becoming more human than she - or her makers - ever thought possible.

    We asked author SJ KINCAID - author of the Insignia trilogy - to tell us more about her latest book.


    Q: You've mentioned that The Diabolic was inspired by I, Claudius (written by Robert Graves). Can you remember first reading or seeing I, Claudius and why it was such a striking story for you?

    A: The only filmed version I've seen is the BBC miniseries from the '70s (my mother loved it when it first aired and insisted I give it a chance). I went into my viewing of it with a sense of skepticism, especially when I saw how much like a stage production it was.

    I soon forgot all about that. The acting, the writing, the sheer fascinating quality of the story just sucked me in and the flashiest sets and best CGI in the world wouldn't have made the least bit of difference.

    I think what I found compelling was the sense of being swept into this other world, the world of these decadent Imperial royals, and the sense of knife-edge peril that lurked between these aristocrats even as they drank wine together and smiled at each other. It's just a fascinating story I make sure to rewatch every few years.


    Q: Why did you decide to take your story into space?

    A: I've always loved science fiction, ever since I grew up fastened to the TV whenever Star Trek: The Next Generation was on. It made me something of a dork when I grew older, but when I was young, it was a huge influence on me.

    I love space stories because they hold total freedom of possibility. I love the idea that we're not alone in this universe, and that the fascinating explorations of humankind aren't confined to the limits of our own atmosphere.


    Q: Do you like the idea of actually travelling in space? They are talking about sending people to Mars; would you go?

    A: Yes! I want to go to space! The minute space tourism is affordable, I am up there. Regarding Mars, though, it would be a one-way trip as returning is thought to be impossible.

    Much as I'd love to be a pioneer, I love foggy, rainy days, and I would hate to live totally surrounded by bare crimson terrain. For a (return) visit? Oh yes. For resettlement? No.


    Q: How did you go about creating the space setting for The Diabolic?

    A: I always love creating new worlds. For The Diabolic, I first envisioned the primary setting - the Chrysanthemum, the 2,000 interlinked starships in a six-star system - where the royals live.

    My world-building always begins with the setting where the primary action takes place, and from there, often a lot of the narrative comes to me.


    Q: Can you remember what sparked the idea for Nemesis herself, the 'Diabolic': a bodyguard whose sole purpose is to live and die for its charge?

    A: The Diabolic began as a single page where Nemesis meets Sidonia for the first time, and to be honest, I am not sure where Nemesis or Sidonia came from.

    I started and stopped a lot of manuscripts in that period. I wrote many, up until around 30,000 words, before abandoning them, but this single page of Nemesis meeting Sidonia kept drawing my attention back to it.

    Nemesis sees Sidonia and is surprised that her nose has never been broken, noting that Sidonia is a 'real' girl... That single part alone raised so many questions in my mind about Nemesis.

    What I knew: 1) she came from a violent background, 2) Sidonia did not, 3) Sidonia is considered real, Nemesis is not. From there, I built the character. I felt I could explore her emotions but through the frame of a person much more constrained than myself - someone who dehumanizes herself. Nemesis was just a means of exploring many of the same feelings we all have but through a much darker lens, and it was fascinating for me as a writer.


    Q: Nemesis doesn't understand humour, so did this make it hard to write a book that has very little humour and how did you offset that so it didn't become too dark?

    A: Hmm, that's an interesting question. My last series, Insignia, was meant to sway back and forth in tone between silliness and some truly dark moments - even despite the very dark moments in The Diabolic, I still think I wrote some darker stuff in Catalyst.

    With that one, I had to worry about how dark it was, because a book that starts off silly doesn't necessarily prepare a reader for what's coming in the dark moments. You can't pull a bait-and-switch on a reader, so I had to be a bit more careful with content there.

    With The Diabolic, the story launches into this dark tone from the very first chapter of the book. You know exactly what you're getting into, so I didn't have to worry as much about going too dark.

    Having said that, a story can't just be one bad thing after another. If you're doing your job right as a writer, there are highs and lows within the story, and moments of humanity to balance out the breathtaking acts of cruelty. I think it's just a matter of having a feel for your story as you write it and making sure it remains readable and not too entrenched in one emotion.


    Q: There are two strong female leads in the story - Nemesis the Diabolic, and the villain Cygna. Did you deliberately choose to put two women against each other?

    A: Despite my love for Livia in the original I, Claudius, my diabolical grandmother figure wasn't originally going to be a huge villain in the story. However, as I wrote, the Emperor Randevald - originally my big baddie - just wasn't doing it for me.

    His role removed him too much from direct interaction with Nemesis, and for a protagonist and villain to have a really interesting dynamic, they really need to have a powerful, emotionally charged connection. Even once Nemesis had a reason to feel extremely strongly about the Emperor, he didn't have a reason to reciprocate that animosity due to the fact that she was posing as someone else.

    Cygna, however, was the sharpest tool in the shed; the woman behind the curtain with a keen insight into everyone around her and perceptive enough to regard Nemesis with distrust.

    As soon as I clarified her in my mind as that character, I knew she'd be a better villain, both because she impressed me as an adversary, and because she had reason to both interact with Nemesis and dislike her. So she became my main villain, and Randevald more her ungrateful son who doesn't realize his mother is the mastermind behind his power.


    Q: You also explore hierarchies and how characters with difference are discriminated against in this world - Nemesis is perceived as less than human by many people; the robotic Servitors are considered to have no feeling; and Tyrus is isolated for his 'madness'. Why did you want to explore this aspect of society in this story and how hard was it to gradually strip away these 'differences' in your main characters?

    A: One thing about human beings is that we repeat the exact same mistakes and societal structures - just with minor variations and different labels - time and again.

    The hierarchies of The Diabolic would naturally be extremely different from the ones we see and understand now, as humanity is very far from Earth and we've had thousands more years to disassociate from the cultures of ancient ancestors, and we've achieved the technology to drastically alter almost any physical aspect of self at will.

    So what would delineate people? I mentioned that this story began with a single page of Nemesis seeing Sidonia and thinking Sidonia is a 'real girl' (therefore Nemesis is not). So I immediately had an idea of a divide in status there from the very beginning.

    As soon as I determined Nemesis' role - an artificial human created solely to protect Sidonia - it was easy to extrapolate that this is a society that would not hesitate to craft other artificial humans to serve other functions, hence an entire underclass of them (the 'Servitors'). So there is automatically a huge divide there.

    And just as, say, ancient Roman elites displaced Roman commoners from their jobs by using slaves, I knew there'd have to be a great mass of people who are not 'created', yet not elite, who also exist in this universe. Additionally, with technological progress, most anything could be done by machines, most anything could be automated, further exacerbating these divides.

    In Tyrus' case, it's not his madness that isolates him but his awareness that his own family is very likely to kill him at any sign of strength. The madness is his weapon of choice. A madman who isn't in touch with reality surely can't plot his uncle the Emperor's death - or can he?


    Q: You've said The Diabolic is a one-off book, but would you ever want to return for a sequel?

    A: I won't rule anything out. I wanted to do a standalone because it is always so stressful doing a trilogy. You also have to keep a lot of material on hold to fuel you for the next books. Standalones are great because you can blow everything up now.


    Q: Any news on a film deal?

    A: At this moment, right now? Nothing yet. But there is interest.


    Q: What are you writing now?

    A: A humorous middle-grade science-fiction manuscript.


    Q: Where and when do you write? Where can't you write?

    A: Right now, I always right at Panera Bread, a chain coffee place near me, usually in the morning to mid-afternoon. I cannot write anywhere public, and I can't write anywhere I sleep.


    Q: What was the best writing advice you've been given?
    A: Keep persisting again and again until you reach your goal. Don't let rejection get you down.