October’s guest for #Scifi Women Interviews is author Jo Robinson. I met her thanks to the WordPress writing and blogging community and was deligthed when she accepted to participate to this series.
Jo Robinson was born in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, and now lives in a sleepy little town nestled at the foot of the Soutpansburg mountain range, having finally come home again after eighteen years in Zimbabwe. She is owned by a feathered horde who accompany her on her tale-telling way, inspire her, and keep her neck warm in winter. She keeps the cashew industry afloat with her out of control nut habit, which is fuelled by her aversion to leaving her keyboard. As well as science-fiction/fantasy, she writes of human frailty and the overcoming life’s challenges. You can find more about her and her books on her blog, Goodreads and Amazon.
NG: How were you first introduced to Science Fiction?
Jo: Television was only introduced in South Africa in 1976. Before that we used to listen to the radio or go see movies. When I was little, the local movie theatre used to air special series and films for children once a week on Saturday mornings, and one of these was an ancient animated series of Flash Gordon. That hooked me early. I can’t remember a time in my life when I wasn’t reading a book. My mother never controlled what I read, or when I read it, so from a very early age I used to buy piles of second-hand books at the flea-markets she was fond of going to, as well as spending a lot of time in the library and second-hand book shops. Ursula le Guin, Isaac Asimov, Robert Silverberg, Robert Heinlein, Arthur C Clarke were all part of my huge reading collection, probably before they should have been. In my teens I found and fell in love with Anne McCaffrey’s Dragons of Pern, and also read pretty much everything by Piers Anthony.
NG: How did you start writing Science Fiction?
Jo: Science Fiction and Fantasy have always been my favourite reads and movies, but I didn’t think that I could actually write them. I was editing one of my books, which was literary fiction, and a little heavy too, when I saw the hype for the NaNoWriMo event a couple of years ago. The temptation to have a month free of editing what had been quite a taxing story to write had me trying to justify spending a whole month writing something which could turn out to be absolute garbage, and mean thirty totally wasted days. I decided to write something that I had no intention of publishing, and that I’d just have fun trying my hand at writing Science Fiction. I had no outline or clue as to what I was going to write when I sat down on the first day of the challenge other than the story would begin in a mysterious cave on Earth. From the first line, that story seemed to flow into my head and out of my fingers as if it was a live streaming from wherever it was really taking place. That became the first book in my Shadow People series. You should never believe that doing any particular thing is not for you until you try. Science Fiction is the ultimate of almost anything goes, and the most fun to write.
NG: Which Science Fiction authors have been most inspiring to you?
Jo: I would say that Anne McCaffrey, Ursula le Guin, and Isaac Asimov have been most inspiring, and probably influential on the way I write Science Fiction. Pern has dragons, I have Voxavi, who are pretty much dragons. Anne has The Ship Who Sang, and I have the Vimana – sentient spacecraft able to pop in and out of many dimensions. Ursula le Guin shows you that absolutely nothing and no one kind of being is beyond the realm of possibility in Science Fiction, and Asimov’s books show the way to getting the way-out to be not only believable, but fabulously enjoyable.
NG: Is Science Fiction a popular genre in South Africa?
Jo: I think so, especially the movies and the shows. Lauren Beukes (The Shining Girls author) is South African, and raised in Johannesburg, just as I was. District 9 is also a South African Science Fiction movie, so yes, I believe that it’s gaining in popularity here. Science Fiction TV series have always been hugely popular, and so have all the movies, including those mentioned below. We have pay satellite television here with channels full of fairly current USA and UK programmes and movies, so while not everyone has access to these, those who do get to keep up with what’s new in the world of Science Fiction as well as all the rest.
NG: What are your top 3 favorites for Science Fiction books, TV shows and movies?
Jo: It’s really hard to choose only three! McCaffrey’s Pern series without a doubt, Asimov’s Foundation series, and the Rama series by Arthur C Clarke for the books. My favourite TV series would be Dr Who, Star Trek, and Third Rock from the Sun. Funny Science Fiction is a fabulous art form. The Star Wars, Star Trek, and Alien series are my top movies. Some of the newer movies have been great too. I loved Avatar and Pacific Rim. So many good ones.
NG: What are some recurring themes and patterns in your Science Fiction stories?
Jo: Now that I think about that, it’s always about the balance of good and evil in my stories. That probably is the basis for most Science Fiction, so not unique to me. Since the first book in my series was published I’ve written a good few books worth of yet to be published words moving along with it, and while the times, universes, and people change, the underlying theme seems to remain the same.
NG: Does Science Fiction have a general influence on your writing, beyond what you write in this genre?
Jo: I don’t think that it influences all of what I write, but definitely quite a lot of it. I have two novels out that are totally focused on “real life” and not remotely Science Fiction related, although having said that, I do believe that Science Fiction has a general influence on the way I think. So much Science Fiction has become actual fact, and continues to do so all the time. I truly believe that anything is possible. We’ve made so many discoveries that have trashed previously supposedly written in stone facts. Who is to say if all of these stories that appear in our minds aren’t simply us psychically picking up on real things going on out there somewhere out there in the multiverse? How about a collective universal unconscious? Collective universal memory? Maybe it’s all true after all. There’s certainly enough space out there for it to be so.
NG: What is Science Fiction’s responsibility in diverse and inclusive representation?
Jo: Even though a woman wrote (Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein) what was the first recognised major work of Science Fiction, and while both male and female authors are now recognised as the giants of the genre, there still seems to be an undercurrent of belief that women are incapable of writing “real” Science Fiction. There are most definitely readers out there who won’t even bother trying to read Science Fiction that they know has been written by a woman. Many female Science Fiction authors try very hard to conceal their gender. This is a great pity, because authors like Le Guin and McCaffrey can write quite a large section of the boys right under the table. Just recently I discovered something called Afro Sci-Fi. Just the fact that something like this genre had to be created is a little sad. Just like any other fiction, Science Fiction should be written and read to include all. Girl, boy, androgynous, gay, black, white, pink, blue, reptilian, and amorphous pulsating triple-gendered Atraxlian blob should all be good. I haven’t actively tried to sell my first in the series science fiction book, and I won’t be trying until the next two books are published in a couple of months, but it has had a couple of sales anyway. One early reviewer was not impressed that the lead character, who kicks some demonic type backside, is a woman, and the two male characters with her seemed to him to have not important enough roles. Actually, one of the male characters is black, but not a single one of these things occurred to me while I was writing the book, and I wouldn’t say that their roles were too much less than hers. Either way, it shouldn’t matter what your characters are, but what they do and how well they do it. I don’t think that writers should purposely include main characters who are not perfect, straight, white, or male – that could end up as a stilted story, but I definitely believe that they are somewhat left out. People mostly don’t read a book and get appalled if a character is transgender or of a race other than they are, and those who do probably haven’t read much “real” Science Fiction. I certainly wouldn’t want them reading mine. People are people, and all deserve just as much space in this genre regardless of their incorrectly perceived differences.
NG: What advice would you have for an aspiring Science Fiction writer?
Jo: Right from the first page of your first Science Fiction book, write everything down. By this I mean have a separate notebook where as a scene happens, you jot down important information. Obviously you should do this with every book you write, but with Science Fiction it’s terribly important, and for a series it’s vital. Timelines, warp drives, dimension hops, species of alien and their attributes, names or other important information. Flora and fauna on various planets. Write it all down, because if you rely on memory you’re going to get something horribly wrong further down the line. Guaranteed. Do your research meticulously. I’m not saying that you need to include line drawings of your warp drive – unless you particularly want to that is. If you’re writing about an underwater world, you would research how underwater breathing takes place for instance. Seeing underwater. Underwater travel. There are so many strange things and knowledge of things right here on Earth, that you can always find something real or theorised to make your plots believable. Reading up on the latest news in the world of theoretical physics is my happy place.
NG: Do you have future Science Fiction projects?
Jo: Right now I’m rewriting my Shadow People books as a series of trilogies, rather than one open-ended series. Two of the books that I was going to publish earlier will now only be published either in December this year or early in January 2016. The entire series spans hundreds of thousands of years, so while the main characters of the first three books are part of each coming trilogy, either in large or small roles, main characters will change for each set. This is why the big rewrite is happening, and why I’m really thankful for my copious notes. I’m also planning a few short stories on worlds or in dimensions within my series multiverse, but totally unrelated to the main series itself and characters. I also write mainstream stories though, so they tend to take turns.
NG: Thank you very much for being with us today, Jo! I am certain my readers will enjoy learning more about your work.