Interview with Susan Jane Bigelow
Susan Jane Bigelow is the author of the space opera novel The Daughter Star. She is also the author of the genre-bending Extrahumans series of novels and short stories. She was kind enough to answer a few questions about her work.
PW: Who is Susan Jane Bigelow?
SB: I’m currently a lot of things! I’m a writer of fiction and genre essays, but I’m also a reference librarian at a small college in Massachusetts and a political columnist for a Connecticut news website (CTNewsJunkie.com). Outside of that, I’m a fan of biking, hiking, hanging with cats, gaming, and reading. I live with my wife and cats in northern Connecticut.
PW: What drew you into genre reading?
SB: I have no idea, but it feels like it’s always been there. I have always loved science fiction and fantasy, from watching Star Trek and reading books about spaceships and dragons to Narnia and Metroid, my childhood was filled with SF/F. When I got old enough to read books meant for adults, the first one I picked out for myself was Ender’s Game. I collected Star Trek: The Next Generation comic books, went to conventions, and plowed through Isaac Asimov, Lloyd Alexander, and Susan Cooper.
PW: How did you get started writing in genre?
SB: I was an imaginative kid, the kind who has imaginary friends with really detailed backstories. I was also kind of lonely as a kid, so during recess when everyone else was off re-enacting Lord of the Flies or whatever it is normal kids do at recess, I went into the woods next to the playground, sat on a big, flat rock, and pretended it was a spaceship. It actually looked a little like the Millennium Falcon, so you can’t even blame me. From this I started creating worlds, characters, and storylines, and it wasn’t long before I began to write them down.
I rarely thought of writing anything that didn’t have some element of the fantastic in it. Even stories that I started as straight character studies eventually had either an alien or a wizard show up in them. I sent my first story to The Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy, and got my first rejection slip, when I was in my early teens.
I managed to get a story published on a website that no longer exists in 2004, but that was pretty much it until Broken (Extrahumans #1) came out in 2011. Ever since that, though, I’ve been writing nonstop.
PW: So what’s the Extrahumans Universe all about?
SB: In the early 22nd century, after fifty years of intense and far-reaching change including first contact, colonization of other worlds, and emergence of so-called “extrahumans” or people who have super powers, a reactionary, repressive government comes to power. The series follows the adventures of several extrahumans as they alternately fight, run from, or try to live with this fascist power.
The first book, Broken, is the story of a teenage boy who can see the future, a superhero who lost the ability to fly and is living on the street, and a baby who is destined to either save the world or become its worst nightmare. The second book, Fly into Fire, follows the former leader of the extrahumans and a young woman as they run from the government. The third book, The Spark, is the story of an extrahuman who can create and control fire, as she tries to have a normal life in the middle of a revolution.
PW: The Extrahumans universe, with interstellar contact and superpowers, sounds like in treads in the porous borderland of fantasy and science fiction. What are the challenges and opportunities in working in that space?
SB: I think a lot of superhero stories exist in that space, and are quite comfortable there. Superman’s powers, for instance, don’t make any actual scientific sense, and many superhero origin stories are far more mythology than they are science fiction. The difference between superpowers and magical abilities is often more of difference of expectation and setting than anything else. I also do write fantasy, urban and epic, and I’m sure my love of fantasy stories from Robin McKinley to Bujold’s Chalion series helps.
As for the challenges/opportunities, I think it’s very freeing but also very lonely to work in borderlands like this. Being able to move between, over, and around various genre borders means I can tell stories without having to worry about bumping into those limitations. I can have a young woman who can control fire with her mind, but she can take a spaceship to a planet where the fish sing at night, and commune with big, furry alien beasts. I also think it opens science fiction up to a wider audience. One of the comments that has been really gratifying on review of Broken has been people who said they “didn’t like science fiction,” but they liked this, and wanted to go on and read more science fiction books! How cool is that?
Of course, the trouble is that people aren’t sure how to classify the series. Is it science fiction? Superhero stories? That can be challenging when trying to find an audience for the books, and that’s especially rough for those of us who publish with small presses.
PW: Let me ask you about Small Presses, then. What are, from your experience, the advantages, disadvantages, challenges and opportunities with writing for a small press?
SB: Small presses, just like any other form of publishing from self-pub to going with a big national publisher, has unique advantages and disadvantages. The disadvantages are all pretty self-evident: there’s not a lot of money for marketing or tours or anything like that, so it’s sometimes very difficult for a book to find its audience. Sales are never going to be huge, either; that’s just the nature of the beast.
But there are a lot of fantastic upsides, too. I get a lot of personalized attention from my editors, and I have a lot of input at various stages of the creative process that I might not otherwise have. For example, I’ve helped choose the covers and fonts for all of my books. I also feel like I have more flexibility with a small press, especially one like Candlemark & Gleam. They’re more willing to take risks, so I can feel more free to write the stories I want to write.
SB: Girl meets girl, girl loses girl because of interstellar war, girl gets her ship blown out from under her, girl meets alien conspiracy, girl gets pissed off and decides to set everything straight. The Daughter Star is set in an entirely new universe, and is the first of three books about the three Grayline sisters.
PW I myself am reminded of Elizabeth Moon, but what were your inspirations for The Daughter Star?
SB: Can you believe I’ve never read Elizabeth Moon? She is on my massive to-be-read pile, along with dozens of others.
There are a couple of influences. One is Bujold’s Vorkosigan series, specifically the way she created a world, Barrayar, that at first glance seems very backward, hostile, and dangerous. Barrayar is initially presented in Shards of Honor as an aggressor, and is sort of a one-dimensional villain. But as the book and series goes on, Barrayar becomes very understandable and sympathetic. That was sort of the basis for Gideon, Marta Grayline’s home country. It’s a very repressed, deeply conservative and religious place, and somewhere Marta spends her whole life trying to get away from. But there’s more to Gideon than that, and the next book in the series really explores the place’s more positive qualities, and its capacity for change.
Other influences are David Weber’s Honor Harrington series, and Susan Ivanova from Babylon 5, which feature tough women in very difficult situations.
PW: What’s next for the Extrahumans Universe and for your writing?
SB: Right now I’m planning a fourth extrahumans novel, though I’m not sure when that will come out. I’ve just finished work on the sequel to The Daughter Star, which is all about Violet Grayline searching for her sisters Marta and Beth. I’ve also been working on lots of other projects, including another SF novel and a YA fantasy novel that I hope will see the light of day soon!
SB: Where can people find you on the Internet?
SB: My website, which sadly needs updating, is http://susanjanebigelow.wordpress.com. You can also follow me on Twitter @whateversusan, where I talk about books, politics, My Little Pony and all kinds of other subjects.
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