To start 2016, I am very happy to bring a twist to this monthly feature, with not only one but two guests this month! I am delighted that Robin Rivera and Heather Jackson accepted to do a joint interview. I met them via the great blog Write On Sisters (which I highly recommend if you aren’t familiar with it).
Heather escaped her small town for the big city of Toronto where she attended Ryerson University’s Radio & Television Arts program and the Canadian Film Centre’s Prime Time Television Writing program, which led to a career penning cartoons and tween dramas that are broadcast all over the world. But recently she transferred her screenwriting skills to a new medium: video games. She wrote an episode of Bloom Digital’s dating adventure game LONGSTORY, and is currently writing a super cool educational game for a top-secret client.
Heather is also working on two YA novels: PSYCHO SMART and DEMONS DON’T DO LOVE. Neither is autobiographical. Mostly.
Robin trained as a professional historian on the West Coast. Her studies led her to working as a museum curator, an educator, a shipwreck hunter, a curriculum developer and media consultant. After a lifetime of writing nonfiction, Robin loves the freedom of writing fiction. However, old habits die hard so she always grounds her young adult fiction in solid historical research. Her finished projects include: a novel set in an alternative vision of mid-Victorian Egypt, and a heist novel set in Italy. She is currently working on a YA Gothic retelling of the 14th century novel, The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio.
You can find Heather and Robin at their blog WriteOnSisters.com.
NG: How were you first introduced to Science Fiction?
RIVERA and JACKSON: Both Heather and I were late arrivals to the genre. I’m a huge Sci-Fi TV addict, but both of us didn’t read these books as kids. I was a pretty hard core mystery reader in my youth, and we both favored the classics. For me the big turning point was meeting my husband; he is a huge Sci-Fi reader. I remember he would rave about books I had never heard, the Ring World series, Dune, the Stainless Steel Rat or Starship Troopers and he would want me to read these books too. He gave me my first copies of many of the big authors. He still reads more Sci-Fi than I do, and he sure trained our kids from an early age. When a new book comes into the house, there can be some massive debates over who gets to read it first. At one point last year three of us were all reading the same book (Feed by M.T. Anderson) at the same time. It was crazy! We had a list of page numbers written down because we kept losing each other’s bookmarks. Now both Heather and I read a ton of young adult Sci-Fi and we often have long discussions over books we like. Or we don’t like. Our taste is somewhat different. Heather likes her books much edgier than I do.
NG: What are your top 3 favorites for Science Fiction books, TV shows and movies?
RIVERA and JACKSON: Only three? That is cruel and unusual punishment! We’ll go with just the top picks for each so we don’t crowd the whole page.
My book pick is Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Perhaps that is an unorthodox pick, but it’s one of my favorite books of all time. It’s funny and fresh, I just love it! There are others, I’m a River World fan and I can’t pass up on anything in the steampunk genre. Heather is a dystopian fan, so The Hunger Games gets her vote. It’s pretty darn high on my list too. Also the Lunar Chronicles gets a nod from both of us.
TV shows is much harder. As I said before, I’m a huge TV fan, I live for the Sci-Fi channel. Firefly, Warehouse 13, Eureka, X-Files, Star Trek, Dr. Who, Red Dwarf, Stargate… Brain implodes into mushy glop from overload. Okay, nope, can’t pick. I have been known to binge watch all of these shows and about two dozen others, over and over again. For Heather it’s Firefly. Lets face it, it’s a great show on every level and one any writer can learn a lot by watching. Oh, and Orphan Black! Heather is an emphatic member of the clone club.
Movie pick for both of us is Blade Runner! Honestly, there is no contest, that movie just has it all. We both loved the fact that it stands alone! Sometimes sequels just end up messing things up. Blade Runner stays pristine in a bubble, at least for now. Yes, we’re glaring at you Scott and Ford. Don’t mess with our perfect Deckard!
NG: What place does Science Fiction have in your writing?
RIVERA and JACKSON: I think I’m more influenced by my background in history than I am by Science Fiction. However, Sci- Fi taught both of us a lot about writing outside the box. The way we combine facts with fiction trying to make the impossible seem plausible, is taken right from Sci-Fi style writing craft. All the best Sci-Fi makes you think events could happen the way the authors describes it. Also Sci-Fi weaves social commentary and current societal concerns into other worlds and times, and we both love to weave deeper context into our writing. We both know as writers we are products of our own experiences, what we care about on a deeply personal level is what we make our characters care about, regardless of their race, age, or imaginary environments.
NG: Can you tell us a bit more about your writing projects?
RIVERA and JACKSON: Heather and I always have several projects going at once, all it various stages. In my case I have two sci-fi projects currently in the works, a serial that’s sort of Area 51 inspired, but it’s still in first draft mode. I also have a space opera that’s still in the plotting stage. However, I did write an 80,000 word steampunk novel. That project is packed with all sort of futuristic gadgets. Plus, it has Victorian social, gender, capitalist and colonial commentary of every sort. I really channeled my inner Jules Verne on that project. Heather is currently working on two young adult novels, one horror and one paranormal. She also has several media projects in the works, including a video game and a new TV script.
NG: Which Science Fiction characters have had the greatest influence on you?
RIVERA and JACKSON: This question is so hard, Heather is bowing out! But for me growing up I think I was bit like Spock. I wanted the world to be a logical place, I just didn’t understand so many things others took for granted. At a very young age I started calling out adults for acting illogically, like punishing the whole classroom when one kid made a mistake. It took me a long time to let go of that inner lens that made me see everything as black and white. I still have a strong need for personal order. Now that I’m a mom, I can relate a lot to Beverly Crusher of Star Trek: Next Generation. I’m raising my own sons, two Ensign Crushers in training, smart, driven, independent boys. I know they need me to be a strong female role model and they also need me to be someone who drops everything at a moment’s notice to make them cookies for the school bake sale. It’s a challenge being a mom, even on a good day. I’d like to think in my next phase of life I’ll be a bit like Doctor Who. Taking on new challenges, having adventures, and being willing to risk everything to stand up for what’s right. But I’m not there yet. Maybe someday.
NG: Do you think that Science Fiction can influence writers outside of the genre?
RIVERA and JACKSON: We both know it does. It’s ingrained in our imaginations and into popular culture. People who would never consider themselves Sci-Fi fans make Dark Side jokes. We even talk about light speed travel, suspended animation, and death rays as if we have personal knowledge of these things. That’s the power of the genre.
NG: Do you believe that Science Fiction is a genre welcoming to complex female characters?
RIVERA and JACKSON: We would both like to think it’s getting better, but it’s still a mess! Look at how many films, TV shows and books don’t pass the Bechdel test, and it’s hardly a challenging standard:
The movie, show, book has to have at least two women in it,
The women talk to each other,
And those women must talk about something besides a man.
Also we both feel there is a tendency to over-sexualize all female characters, and they are too often relegated to the sidekick, love interest, or other secondary story roles. There is also an unfortunate age issue we still need to address. People want young, good-looking female Sci-Fi characters; the masses welcome a Zoe from Firefly, or a Gamora from Guardians of the Galaxy, someone who stops traffic with how beautiful she is while she kicks ass. But don’t let those female characters get over forty, or put on any weight and develop some wrinkles. I think the blowback over Carrie Fisher reprising her role as Leia has shown us all how far we still need to go. It’s not a comforting thought! We all get older, yet we live in a world where 40, 50 and 60 year-old male characters are expected to hook up with a person in their late teens or early twenties. Men dating women younger than their own biological children has become Hollywood’s standard relationship. But if a 50-year-old woman does the same thing, she is perceived as emotionally damaged and the relationship is ridiculed. We both feel like the one place making some fantastic headway is in young adult fiction. The characters are still young, and often pretty, but at least they are usually the stars of their own stories. And they are sometimes mentored, parented or partnered with some fabulously strong, smart, practical female characters. We think Hunger Games is a great example of this. It gives us a lot of hope to see teen Sci-Fi stepping it up and bringing us some complicated and memorable female characters.
NG: What is Science Fiction’s responsibility in diverse and inclusive representation?
RIVERA and JACKSON: We both agree the main responsibility of a writer is first and foremost to write great stories with great characters. The problem is too many writers seem to think what makes a great story is the life experiences of a pretty limited group of people. We are both tired of writers who take the easy route and just stick in a secondary character pulled from the same old (often negative) stereotypes. That’s not helpful to anyone. We want to see all writers step up their game and write better diversity, diversity that bridges gaps and creates unforgettable characters.
NG: Do you think that Fangirls are an expression of Feminism?
RIVERA and JACKSON: Neither one of us is a huge Fangirl, but I’m a bit more of one than Heather is, however we both identify as feminists. Short answer: we think it can be. There is a sense of solidarity when any group of women share a common interest, but we don’t think the two are necessarily related. We know some fandoms are more welcoming to feminist members than others, but if a Fangirl truly loves something, we hope she sticks with it regardless of the haters. Fangirls getting involved with any community can help pave the way for less enthusiastic women to also take part. Plus, if enough Fangirls decide to boycott or support a cause they can create a powerful voice. Giving women a voice that must be recognized is potentially beneficial to all women.
NG: Do you think Science Fiction is a genre that speaks as much to children audience as adult ones?
RIVERA and JACKSON: Heather is not a mom, so she is leaving this one to me. I have no concerns for movies and TV, but as a mom I do wonder about books. So many of my son’s friends have no interest in reading and if they do read it is for an assignment and not for pleasure. Sci-Fi has a reputation for being less approachable for fledgling readers. The books are longer and the words are harder. It’s a more challenging read, and kids have so many other activities that give them more immediate gratification than reading. If the decline in reading skills continue much longer, the next generation might have very little interest in reading Sci-Fi. Or any books.
NG: Thank you so much for being part of this project, ladies! I am sure my readers will be glad to connect with both of you.