INTERVIEW: A Chat with Leah Petersen About Characters, World Building and “Fighting Gravity”
Leah Petersen lives in North Carolina. She does the day-job, wife, and mother thing, much like everyone else. She prides herself on being able to hold a book with her feet so she can knit while reading. She’s still working on knitting while writing. She kindly sat down to an interview with me. I have no idea if she was knitting while answering my questions.
Paul Weimer: Who is Leah Petersen?
Leah Petersen: Leah Petersen’s a bit of a rebel and likes to shock people. She hides this behind her secret identity of good wife and mother with an accounting job in the conservative Southeastern US. She’s less successful at hiding it than she thinks. She’s a bit likely to express her opinion…whether she’s asked for it or not.
PW: Coming from the conservative Southeastern U.S., how were you introduced to genre fiction?
LP: I don’t remember ever being introduced to it, it was always there. When Star Trek: The Next Generation debuted, I remember being excited about it as a new way to indulge my geek fix. If I had to put my finger on what I knew of geekdom before that, I’d say maybe my grandma’s VHS recording of the Star Wars movies edited for television.
What is it they say about small towns, that there’s nothing else to do? I think they are usually talking about something else, but I think it certainly cemented my love of sff. Until I moved away at 18, I was current on all the Star Trek books, all the shows and spinoffs (though I had to get VHS copies of Voyager from a friend who had one of those huge satellite dishes in his yard and could get channels we didn’t get on our small-town cable.) I had read all the sff books in the local library and never left the mall (in the nearest city) without a stack of new ones.
I don’t want to give the impression that I fell into geekdom because I didn’t have any other options, it was purely for the love of it. My older sister was very popular at school and we used to sneak out together to go clubbing with her friends. When I realized I just wanted to stay in the car and finish my book rather than go inside for dancing with older boys and underage-drinking, I knew I was a fan for life.
PW: How did you get the itch to tell your own genre stories?
LP: I’d always kept my stories to myself, as I told a friend, “my stories are weird, no one wants to hear them.” His answer was “lots of people are weird. The might like your stories too.” Lovely thought, and it moved me, but there’s real life and all.
But the story of Jake in Fighting Gravity would not go away. I NEEDED to tell it to someone. The worst part was, it wasn’t just genre, it was gay! It had a homosexual relationship in it! I love my husband of lots of years, but I was afraid to share it even with him, because that’s just not what the values of our families and homes, and from which our marriage had started, go for.
I gave in. On an anniversary dinner, I couldn’t bear not to tell him the story that had been BURNING in my head for a year. He listened, watched me, blinked, and then said “why don’t you write it?”
LP: When a brilliant young scientist is accused of treason, he discovers that he only way to save himself is to betray his lover, the Emperor.
PW: I am somewhat reminded of the story of Emperor Hadrian and Antonius. Was that relationship an inspiration for this story? Where did the germ of the idea behind Fighting Gravity originate?
LP: Actually, the relationship was a development that surprised me. The idea for Fighting Gravity came from a dream I had of a brilliant child taken from his family to a special school so he could eventually be used by the government. It wasn’t something I was planning to write, but the idea stuck with me and I played out the story in my head for a while, wondering what would happen to that kid. It wasn’t until the emperor came into the story, and they actually met, that I realized this was going to develop into something I hadn’t expected.
Nowadays, when I know I’m going to start a novel, I plan ahead a bit more, but that one was just a fun thing I was doing for myself. I let the characters write it. They got little say once I decided to write it down, plot it out and revise it, but the relationship was so intrinsic at that point, I couldn’t have taken it out even if I’d wanted to.
PW: The archetype, these strong characters, and basic story here could have been set in any setting. Why a space empire and not, say, a secondary world fantasy kingdom?
LP: There should be a sophisticated and well-reasoned answer to that, but, honestly, it was just the setting that evolved with the story. I blame it on the I-wasn’t-intending-to-write-this aspect. I could imagine it up as crazy as I wanted.
But once I got serious about writing it, I assumed I’d have to make major changes in the setting, since you’re right, it’s classic for high fantasy, but for scifi, not so much. Thing was, two major points of the basic plot, that Jake was a physicist playing around in the age of space exploration and that an emperor figured prominently in his life, were non-negotiable pieces for me. So I needed a place and time where both would fit.
I discovered I really didn’t have to abandon the setting. A little creative tweaking of how current events might play out, and I could see how I could get to a future setting like the one I’d been playing around in. One thing I like about that is how similar events can have such a different connotation when set a few hundred years into the past or future of the same place and people. When Jake’s taken to the Imperial Intellectual Complex, it’s got almost a dystopian flavor, a government that takes children for its own use whether anyone agrees to it or not. Whereas, that same sort of appropriation of common child for the ruler’s convenience is one of those things you’re not surprised to find in a fantasy setting and can take for granted. It allowed me to play with more with the social and personal impact on Jake from an angle I couldn’t have in a setting where you expect a authoritarian or totalitarian government.
PW: I do think the social and personal impact on Jacob is heightened by the first person point-of-view. What were the challenges in sticking to that point of view?
LP: Honestly, I write in first person by default. I always narrated my internal stories that way. And as a character-centric writer, it fits my focus and mindset. I immerse myself in the experience and emotion of the character and write his unfolding story from in there. It takes effort for me to stay OUT of that point of view.
PW: As a first person POV, character-heavy writer, how do you go about your world building?
LP: Well everything starts with the character for me. Even the world. At that point it’s not necessarily its own entity and simply an element that impacts him, just like the other characters. Once I have a good idea of who my character is and how the world works around him, then I sit down and really make it work, as a world separate from my character.
I get picky at that point not only how things work in the now of the story and whether or not they make sense taken together, but also working out the history that brought them there. This often means I write long parts of the story that I don’t intend to go into the final product. They’re how I explain the world and its backstory to myself.
Once I get that worked out to my satisfaction, I take it back to my character and make sure he and all the other important pieces of the novel work within and are consistent with the world. If not, maybe some things have to be changed.
PW: The iceberg is an analogy and an idea that I’ve seen as an idea–that there is a lot of “unwritten book” that influences the text that readers see, but never read directly. How do you approach organizing a “story bible” or “style sheet” to keep it all straight?
LP: Wellllll, I’m not a terribly organized person. I’ll never be the worldbuilder some of the great science fiction authors are. As part of that confession, I’ll just say I’ve never kept a good worldbuilding bible. I tend to make a list of minor character names or places or things that don’t come up much, but usually only when I need the name and can’t remember it. *blush* This is why I’m grateful for good editors.
PW: Editors are, in my personal experience, underrated people and an underrated profession. How did you come up with the names of characters and places? What were your inspirations?
LP: I’m one of those readers who skims names and at the end of the book can only say “guy with the long name starting with an ‘A’ to reference a character. I’m not one who sees names as meaning much of anything on their own. Not to me, anyway. I tend to snatch the first name that comes to mind, or if I need something uncommon or to fit a different world, I use a name generator. I’ve even asked a beta reader or my editor to name a character for me. Sometimes this means I’ll use the names of people in my life for minor characters, but never because they remind my of the character or as a statement of anything. Just because they happened to walk by when I was thinking of it.
That said, on my current work in progress, I’ve given one of the main characters my son’s name, and a character who will become important in later books the name of my daughter. We’ll see how that works out. The character named after my son is so far nothing like my son and is one of those who is the good guy or the bad guy, depending on the situation and whose perspective you’re considering it from.
LP: It should be. I have a very basic outline for the third in the trilogy, and a few scenes already written, but I got distracted by this SHINY NEW IDEA! I think it’s going to be a great series to pursue when I’ve finished one more book in the Fighting Gravity universe. But the one I’m working on now is a YA high fantasy. It’s a lot of fun to work on because this main character is like the anti-Jake (the main character in Fighting Gravity and Cascade Effect.) Every bad trait Jake has and everything that trips him up are strengths for this new character, and get him out of scrapes. Even more interesting is that they still manage to have a lot of the same problems in the end, just for different reasons.
PW: So, once again, it does come to character. Is there anything you can tell readers, without spoiling Fighting Gravity, about Cascade Effect?
LP: One thing that a lot of readers commented on in Fighting Gravity was how, well, thick Jake was being about the complex issues of their class based society. Specifically about how it impacted him and he didn’t like it. As a person with absolutely no power in that scenario, and all alone, he would stand in front of the stampede and say “No! I don’t agree!” and then naturally get run right over because the herd didn’t care whether he agreed or not.
In Cascade Effect he can no longer ignore the complexities of the situation. Not only have his position and his power to effect change become quite different, but the “bad guys” have become a lot less obvious, the issues a lot more murky. He can’t cling to his paradigm of black and white, right and wrong, and he’s having to figure all this out while in the spotlight and in the cross hairs. The conflict in Cascade Effect is a lot more complex and faster paced.
PW: What lessons, learned from writing Fighting Gravity, did you apply to writing Cascade Effect?
LP: Fighting Gravity was the first full novel I’d taken past my own head and my own family and circle of friends. So there was a lot I learned in the process that I’ve taken with me into everything I’ve written since.
As a character-based writer, the biggest challenges for me, and the things I learned the most about, were plot structure and pacing. It’s one thing to know about those concepts in theory, and even to analyze them in someone else’s work, and quite another to apply them to your own writing. I had to learn to see my work as a reader and not as the writer. It’s so hard to step back and see your own work objectively, to take yourself out of the picture, and to see it as someone who doesn’t already know what’s going to happen next, who doesn’t know your characters and world the way you do.
I’ve gotten a lot better at it, and that made a difference in writing Cascade Effect. That said, I also learned how invaluable and how necessary good beta readers and a good editor are to the process. Because no matter how hard you try to be objective, and how much practice you have at it, you still need someone who is REALLY on the outside to show you the things you’re too close to see.
PW: Parallax and perspective are important, yeah. Fighting Gravity is available now, and Cascade Effect is coming soon. What else can we expect from you in the near future? Convention appearances? Signings?
LP: I’ll be up at Ad Astra convention in Toronto the first weekend of April for the launch of Cascade Effect. It’s going to be a great party, sponsored by Futurecon, and Nerds with Guitars will be playing, so it’s going to be a blast. I’ll be signing there and throughout the weekend at the Dragon Moon Press table. Anyone in the GTO or who can be there should come. Any further conventions are as yet unplanned. Summer conventions are almost impossible for me, what with the day job. I live at the beach, which means all summer long I’m shackled to my desk. It’s not as glamorous as it sounds.
As for future books, there will be the final in the Physics of Falling trilogy, which is tentatively scheduled for release April 2014, and I’ve got a short in an anthology coming out late summer. I can’t announce details on that one yet, unfortunately. I’m also working on a YA fantasy that I have great hopes for, but as yet it’s still between the first and second drafts, and doesn’t have a home yet.
PW: Writing. Yes. Always Be Writing. I want to thank you for sitting down for this interview, Leah. Where can readers learn more about you and your work?
PW: Thank you, Leah!
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