Hi Jonathan, thanks for dropping by to answer my questions on your new novel, Katya’s World and some other little bits about science-fiction and the young-adult genre. It’s been such a delight to get the opportunity to pick your brains and delve a little deeper into Katya’s World, your very first young-adult novel!
1. Russalka is such an intriguing concept, not only are they Russian descendants removed from Earth to another world, but they are a society on the sea. How did you manage to come up with such an idea?
On it, but mostly under it. As to where the idea came from, it’s… complicated. The core of it was for a vague idea I had many years ago for a Doctor Who story, well before its return in 2005. I think I had an intention of trying to write it up for publication with a range of books the BBC were publishing over ten years ago. Some of the elements are there, notably the Leviathan, but the focus of the story was narrower, and you saw little of the world. It never entirely gelled to my satisfaction, however, so I put it to one side.
Not long afterwards I was wandering around the children’s and YA section of a bookshop, and it struck me that there was very little SF of the type I grew up on in the ‘seventies. I used to read Robert Heinlein’s juveniles, which is the splendidly patronising name YA had back in the ‘fifties, such as Have Spacesuit, Will Travel and Tunnel in the Sky, John Christopher’s The Tripod Trilogy, and Hugh Walters’ U.N.E.X.A. novels about an ongoing space programme. Heinlein and Walters in particular had a lot of real science in their work, which fascinated me. Now, standing in that bookshop, I was hard pushed to find anything that wasn’t fantasy or science fantasy. I have nothing at all against them, I write them as well, but there was nothing I could see that was gritty in its details.
So, I started thinking about that story with the oceanic world and the strange thing lying at the bottom of the sea again. The lines of the narrative became redrawn in my head and, quite suddenly, I saw what had been wrong with my original take on it, and why it had fizzled out. The character of Katya Kuriakova started to solidify in my imagination. In terms of her advantages, she is a gifted mathematician although no more than talented, and she doesn’t freeze under stress. Her other great advantage is also frequently a disadvantage; her inexperience. While it can make her look stupid now and then when she doesn’t “get” something, she also has the gift of Candide, that she sees situations with fresh eyes where more seasoned people might jump to the wrong conclusions based on previous experience.
To return to your original question, it was an ocean world because I like submarines, as simple as that. They’ve fascinated me my whole life. And as to why the people of Russalka are descended from Russians, originally it was because realistically it was hard to think of a space programme that wasn’t American, Chinese, or Russian. I didn’t want it to be American, simply because that was too obvious. It’s always the Americans. This left me with the Chinese and the Russians. I thought I would have trouble getting the tone of Chinese characters right, which left the Russians. That makes it seem purely a process of deduction, but in reality it was the other way around. I identified the three likely countries and immediately wanted to use the Russians, because I found them most interesting. Ironically, during the writing the rationale that had led to those three nationalities became redundant, and I realised that they could have come from anywhere. Still, they had Russian ancestry by then, and I was more than happy to stick with that.
I definitely liked that they had an origin from Earth because it gave us something to associate with, and I have to agree with you Jonathan, it is always the Americans!
2. This is your first Young-Adult book, what prompted you to break into the genre?
I actually wrote it for my daughter more than anything else. I certainly didn’t think one morning, “Oh, I shall be a YA writer.” The first draft was written comfortably before I even had a contract for the Johannes Cabal books, so at the time I had no real expectation of it being published. Even after the Cabal books were in print, my agent told me the publishers’ market for a story like Katya’s World was non-existent. The publishers were all falling over one another to find books redolent of boy wizards and sparkling vampires. Hardish SF? Not a hope. Then along came the Strange Chemistry imprint. In their original call for submissions, they said they would be interested in looking at anything interesting, even poor old unloved space opera. Well, mine was sea opera, but the principle was the same. They liked it, signed it, and here we are.
I’m so happy to hear that Strange Chemistry came along because this story is far too brilliant not to be shared and sparkly vampires are very much overrated in my opinion.
3. There are lots of details about submarines and their controls in the novel. Did it take a lot of research for you or it some of it your imagination?
As I mentioned earlier, I love submarines. The thing about Russalka is that its industrial base was damaged in the war, and so it has little startlingly advanced technology. There’s an old rule of thumb that SF writers used to bandy about, that you can have three remarkable pieces of technology, but anymore than that and you’re writing science fantasy. My three are faster than light (FTL) travel, gravitics, and biologically analogous computer architectures that allow AI. I can handwave at the first two and talk vaguely about Grand Unified Theory, and the third sounds like a reasonable half-baked idea that might one day turn out to be bakeable.
As for the submarines themselves and their operation, though, that’s all for real. I came up with a form of thermocline specific to Russalka, but otherwise any submariner would recognise the rest of the submarine chat as realistic.
I’m no submariner so it was a little different for me, but I definitely could appreciate the technicalities. I like the rule of thumb, 3 remarkable pieces of technology sounds very good and definitely a tip for budding science-fiction authors!
4. One thing that stood out to me in Katya’s World was the fact that there was no romance and it’s become a big part of the Young-Adult genre. I found it highly refreshing to be drawn into a purely plot novel. Do you think you’ll broach a romance for the series in future or is it not something you see yourself writing?
Well, I don’t want to give too much away, but there may well be the tiniest of romantic interludes further down the line. I can see how it could develop organically from the characters and how the plot throws them together, but if it feels fake in the writing, I’ll cut it.
The real meat of the relationships in the Russalka Chronicles, however, are all about trust. If Katya trusts someone, she will move mountains for them even if it puts her in dreadful danger. It takes a lot to regain her trust if she’s betrayed, though.
I definitely think this is what makes the Russalka Chronicles so unique and the friendships Katya makes when she trusts because it is pivotal to these friendships. I won’t hold out for the romance, but it’s nice to know you haven’t thrown it out entirely!
5. So Katya’s World is most definitely Science-fiction, which is exciting because I think the Young-Adult lacks really good Science-fiction. What’s your experience with the genre been?
I adored science fiction when I was growing up. Fantasy and science fantasy too, of course, but I was a sucker for anything with rockets, robots, and how all these shiny things might change us. With hindsight, I can see that SF tends to fall down on that third point in favour of how will the technology reflect the current world. In the ‘fifties, SF was full of people with very ‘fifties outlooks – the technology was a tool, and if it failed then it failed in an interesting way that generated a plot. In the ‘sixties and ‘seventies, there was far less trust that things would inevitably get better or that technology was our shiny-faced pal. In the ‘eighties, we got cyberpunk, which was largely about how we and the technology might start to merge, and the collapse of societal and governmental forms under the pressure of unbridled capitalism. And now? I’m not sure, really. It gets a lot easier to see shape of SF when you’re a bit further down the road and can look back at it.
I mainly write fantasy, but I do write SF now and again, and of course I want to write the sort of adventures that I once and still love. I can’t pretend it’s anything very radical, but it’s sincere. I love writing the Russalka stories.
Doing something you love is definitely something all of us can be envious of at times, especially when you do it so well.
6. It surprised me when I realised how young Katya was. She seems so mature and headstrong for her age. Will she be returning in the future series or is that too much to say? I feel like she has a long way to go and that we have so much to learn about her.
The Russalka Chronicles is a trilogy, and each title has Katya in the title, so rest assured she’s our heroine for the full trip. The second book will be entitled Katya’s War. Yes, she is very self-assured for her age, but Russalka’s demographics were badly skewed in the war; letting children have childhoods simple isn’t an option for them. As soon as you hit eleven, you’re in training for a particular role. Russalka is a tough and dangerous environment; a moment’s inattention could kill you and dozens of others. As a result, a sense of responsibility is drilled into everyone from a very early age. You can bet a ten year old Russalkin can recite a list of emergency protocols as easily as a child on Earth might know nursery rhymes or songs. As for being headstrong, yes. That’s not so extraordinary in fifteen year old girls, though.
I’m very happy to hear that because I shall be looking forward to the return of Katya in the next two novels!
7. Honestly, Katya’s World had me surprised at every new turn. It was so new and inventive and I think that was partly down to Kane. He was such a rugged, unconventional hero. Did you mould his character on anybody?
Not on any single person, no. When I started writing the story, there was still a faint miasma of the original Doctor Who story I was playing around with, and Kane as often as not in my mind’s eye looked rather like the Doctor I’d intended the story for, the eighth, as played by Paul McGann. It’s difficult to talk much about him without throwing spoilers around, but suffice to say that he’s a very conflicted individual.
I agree with you about Kane and finding it difficult to talk about the mystery man, which is definitely why you should all pick up the book and find out about him!
8. How did you come about drawing all the elements of Katya’s World together? Did you just start typing or did it require lots of planning?
I had the opening of the story in mind, and I know where I wanted it to go. It wasn’t exhaustively planned though, no, and some very large story elements started out quite minor. The Yagizban, for example, were originally little more than a footnote, but as I went on, they grew in importance. So, it was about half and half in terms of planning. Some elements were very worked out, but the rest grew organically in the telling. I like writing like that, to be honest. It’s nice when the needs of the story take you in directions you weren’t expecting. When I was writing the second book, a couple of characters so minor I wasn’t even going to give them names became steadily more significant.
They definitely take up an important role, so I can definitely see there has been some shaping after reading.
9. I have heard this book will be a series, so have you lots of plans in store for us? I feel like you’ve really kicked off with a lot of promise.
It’s that time honoured form, a trilogy. As I said, the first draft of the second book is already with Strange Chemistry, so that should be out in about November, 2013. Early in the year, I’ll be writing the fourth Johannes Cabal novel, and when that’s done I shall be going straight onto the third and final part of Katya’s saga. I was just going to write the three novels and be done with Russalka, but just today I started idly thinking about a story set during the Terran invasion, so that might happen. Looking at Russalka’s history, they’ve managed to cram in quite a lot in just over a century since the original colonisation, so I wouldn’t be surprised if some other ideas come to mind.
Sigh. That’s such a long time to wait, but I’ll have something to eagerly look forward to at least. There is definitely so much that you have to cover. Good luck Jonathan and thanks for stopping by!
About the Author
Jonathan L Howard is a game designer, scriptwriter, and a veteran of the computer games industry since the early 1990s, with titles such as the ‘Broken Sword’ series to his credit.
After publishing two short stories featuring Johannes Cabal (Johannes Cabal and the Blustery Day and Exeunt Demon King) in H. P. Lovecraft’s Magazine of Horror, Johannes Cabal the Necromancer was published in 2009 as his first novel.
He lives with his wife and daughter near Bristol.