Interview with Olsen Jay Nelson

Last November I did an interview with Olsen Jay Nelson’s awesome sci-fi blog about my debut novel, The Edge of Darkness, what with it being a NaNo novel and all that (National Novel Writing Month – held annually in November).

Olsen’s decided to take his blog in a new direction and as such, has given me permission to re-post the interview here. He says

“The guest blogging was quite successful in a kind of way.  Over the months following publication, some of the posts started doing quite well and gaining traffic from around the web including Stumbleupon.  In fact, Stumbleupon became a growing referrer; this led to one post, the Cyborg/dystopian interview with Lissa, leading all the posts on the blog with over 1500 page views in May.”

So here it is, the cyborg/dystopian interview originally hosted by Olsen Jay Nelson:

OJN: I’d like to introduce, Lissa Bilyk, author of ‘The Edge of Darkness,’ a futuristic, dystopian scifi novel with subjugated cyborgs who find a means to revolt. I love the sound of this, so I thought it would be a good opportunity to ask Lissa some questions related to this and her continuing participation in NaNoWrimo since it’s November again. Thanks Lissa …

‘The Edge of Darkness’ is dystopian sci-fi, right – among other things? What’s your opinion about why dystopian realities have such appeal? Also, how did you make use of dystopian themes in the story, and what’s the effect you were looking for?

Lissa:I think that dystopians appeal to a lot of readers because they themselves feel disenfranchised with reality. In the 21st century, we should really be living in a better world than what it is. There’s still mass murder and civil war and millions of people starving while the 1% live fat and rich in first world countries. Three billion people on this planet can’t read or write. That’s almost half the population. I think that dystopian fiction help people think about the world we live in now: well, it’s not great, but it could always be worse. At least we have a degree of personal freedom and can make our own choices. In dystopian fiction, characters are limited in their choices and their lives and most end up fighting back against the system. I also think that is what appeals to people: the idea of rebelling because their lot in life just isn’t good enough.

In my book, the cyborgs on the travelling spaceship the Eden vastly outnumber the Authorities keeping them in line. If the cyborgs weren’t happy, they could rebel. So how do you keep people happy? Give them want they want: jobs, recreation time, structure. Keep them afraid of stepping out of line. The consequences for breaking the rules on the Eden are dire. The life should be simple and pleasant, and if Max hadn’t made the choices she did, she would never have discovered the life isn’t so great after all. That’s what dystopians are all about.

UtopiaBy the way, I’ve read ‘Utopia,’ the book that spawned dystopians. It’s actually a dystopian itself.

OJN: Cyborgs play an important role in the story. What’s your take on why cyborgism is such a compelling area for sci-fi? And, could you explain a bit about the type(s) of cyborgism you employed and how this fits into the reality you wanted to convey?

Lissa:I must admit, I’ve never read another book with a cyborg in it, certainly never a lead character. I was influenced a little by the film Bicentennial Man, which is based on Isaac Asimov’s book of the same name, and I was influenced a little by the Terminator films. But my cyborgs are a lot less human-looking; they are less fine and less evolved versions, clearly still half robot. In writing The Edge of Darkness, I wanted to explore what it would be like if a human really was plugged into a computer and made into a super-powered being.

But more than that, my cyborgs are a stand in for another social issue that is very dear to me: social equality. In my novel, cyborgs are viewed as semi-human with no civil rights: they can’t get married or raise babies or vote or even earn minimum wage. Despite all cyborgs being former humans and more than capable of doing such things, there is a huge prejudice against them because they are different and a threat to social norms. I am a passionate defender of marriage equality and I hope my readers make the same parallels I worked so hard to weave into the narrative.

OJN: You’ve written fantasy fiction as well. I’m just curious if you could explain how you manage writing in the different parent genres and particularly your sub-genres of these, and what influence your understanding of fantasy had on you when writing ‘The Edge of Darkness’?

Lissa:I grew up reading light sci-fi and anthropomorphic books. I didn’t get into fantasy fiction until I was a teenager. I never really thought about how the two of them are so different: I guess to me, one of them is based in the future and their magic is technology, and one of them is based in the past and their magic is sorcery. It’s all speculative fiction that uses imagination. I tried writing a novel once where everyone was a normal human and I failed tragically.

My novels are always character-driven and about the choices the characters make, and especially the consequences of what happens when they make the wrong choice for whatever reason. My characters are directly responsible for their plot: they are active engagers and never simply react to what’s going on around them. If there’s conflict, it’s more than likely they’ve been directly responsible for it through a choice they’ve made. I can’t stand these books where the characters are passive doormats simply reacting to events and taking on a victim mentality.

OJN: Finally, you wrote ‘The Edge of Darkness’ during the 2010 NaNoWriMo; you’re also participating again this year. Could you tell us a little about that process and why you find it valuable to your productivity and narrative construction? Also, are you writing scifi or fantasy this year?

Lissa:NaNoWriMo challenges participants to write a 50K word novel in a month – granted, unless it’s a middle grade novel, hardly any publishers will even think of accepting such a short book. That’s why I self-published The Edge of Darkness, because it was a complete story within itself at 52K words. This year I’m writing an urban fantasy. This urban fantasy isn’t titled yet, but it’s the first full-length novel starring the heroine of five short stories I’ve made available to readers on Smashwords, about a teenage demon hunter called Tina Storm. I find that high fantasy comes to me so easily that I like to challenge myself to write other genres in the NaNo season. Other genres I considered writing this year included chick lit, historical romance, paranormal romance, post-apocalyptic, and psychological thriller.

Because I write genres I’m not 100% comfortable with, to make sure I achieve the goal I plan ferociously: I lay the bare bones and bigger details of the novel out (this year the plan is two pages, which gives me plenty of wiggle room plot-wise), and I plot exactly where I need to be at the end of each day on a calendar that I stick on the wall behind my laptop. Then it’s a case of reaching the word count every day. I need this kind of planning otherwise I sit there wondering what happens next. Plotting the novel in a three-act structure also helps me envision the entire project.

As for why NaNoWriMo is valuable for my productivity and narrative construction: it’s completely psychological. There’s a deadline that I don’t get in the off-season. I find the idea of holding in my hands a complete book I’ve written to be an irresistible lure.