In a fun turnabout, author Marella Sands interviewed me on her blog about my forthcoming release, Collaborators. Here's our chat:
Marella Sands: What prompted you to write this book?
Deborah J. Ross: I lived the better part of 1991 in Lyons, France, and I was repeatedly struck by how history permeated every aspect. Some buildings showed damage from cannon balls during the French Revolution. Plaques marked places where citizens were executed by the Nazis or Jewish families were deported. After visiting the tiny Musée de la Résistance, I became interested in how many varied ways the French responded to the German occupation. Some protested from the very beginning for religious or ethical reasons, but others went along, whether from fear or apathy or entrenched anti-Semitism, or simply because the war did not affect them personally. Yet others more sought to exploit the situation for personal power or financial gain. Some became active only when their own personal lives were affected.
I knew then that I had to tell this story. Because I’m not a writer of history or historical fiction, but of science fiction and fantasy, I would tell it in the genre I know. I would set my tale on an alien planet, in an alien city . . . but one that I love even as I had come to love Lyons.
MS: How did you develop the motivations of the main characters?
DJR: The central inspiration for Collaborators – that individuals respond in a variety of complex and contradictory ways to a situation of occupation and resistance – immediately suggested many types of characters: the rebel, the idealist, the opportunist, the political player, the merchant willing to sell to anyone if the profit is high enough, sadist who exploits the powerlessness of others for his own gratification, the ambitious person who doesn’t care who his allies are, the negotiator, the peace-maker, the patriot.
One of the first characters to speak to me arose from an unexpected source. I never knew either of my paternal grandparents, for both had perished in the lawlessness and pogroms in the Ukraine shortly after the first World War. My father told me about how his mother ran a bookstore that was the center of intellectual (and revolutionary!) thought in their village, how when that village was destroyed, she kept her two children alive as they wandered the countryside for two years, going from one cousin’s house to another but never staying very long. He spoke of her courage, her idealism, and her unfailing love. Some piece of her, or her-as-remembered, stayed with me, and I wondered if I could create a character with that strength and devotion to her children. I began to write about Hayke, who opens the book as he lies in a field with his two children, gazing up at the stars and wondering what these star-people might be like. Hayke had other ideas about what his life was like besides merely following in my grandmother’s footsteps, and everything changed once it became clear to me that the alien race – the Bandari – were gender-fluid. Hayke, like my grandmother, was a widow (using the term generically to include both sexes), and one of his children was born of his own body, but the other of his dead spouse’s, and he told me he felt an especial tenderness for the latter child.
Even though the ground action takes place in an area roughly the size of Western Europe and most of the characters live or come from Chacarre, I didn’t want all the national territories to be the same. I wanted differences in language, dress, attitudes toward authority, etc., between Chacarre and its rival, Erlind, and also within Chacarre itself. Every once in a while, a new character would surprise me, like Na-chee-nal with his “barbarian” vigor and his smelly woolen vest, or Lexis, the dangerously repressed academic poet.
The Terrans presented a different challenge because they were more homogeneous than the Bandari. They inhabit a single spacecraft and although there is a natural division between crew and scientific personnel, for the most part their goals are shared and their hierarchies are well-defined. Left unchecked, that’s a recipe for boring, so I added some friction, a few divergent motives, a highly stressed environment . . . and into this walked Dr. Vera Eisenstein, eccentric genius. Most of the inspiration for her character came from the women engineers and physicists I’d gotten to know (thank you, Society of Women Engineers!) with a touch of Dr. Richard Feynmann thrown in. She doesn’t play by anyone’s rules, she cares far more about science than diplomacy, she’s simply too good at what she does to disregard, and her mind never stays still. I had a ball cooping her up in the infirmary and watching what kind of trouble she’d get into, but I didn’t realize at first that she would become a pivotal character, one capable of acting for the greatest good despite the depth of her loss. I’d been thinking about her passion in terms of science, not in terms of her capacity for love nor in terms of her ruthless commitment to understanding everything she sees around her, whether it is a problem in laser spectroscopy or alien psychology or the nature of her own grief.
MS: What is the best animal and why is it the cat?
DJR: The most amazing pet I’ve ever had was a retired seeing eye German Shepherd Dog. Tajji’s lineage had been bred (for 40+ years) for the kind of bonding, intelligence, and self-reliance necessary to do this difficult work. She’d served for 8 years, a long time for a guide dog, and her mental health had suffered. When we communicated to her that she was now free to sniff and romp and play, things she was never allowed to do in harness, and that we could “read” her body language and respond to her emotional needs, her joy was boundless. We had her for only 2 ½ years, but every day with this super-smart, human-focused dog was a gift.
MS: How does setting this story on another planet help or hinder you as a writer?
DJR: Collaborators is an occupation-and-resistance story, which at its heart is about the uses and abuses of power. In order to talk about power, I had to talk about gender. Rather than delve into 20th Century human gender politics (I wrote the book mostly in 1992-95) I chose to create a gender-fluid alien race to pit against the assumptions humans make. I wanted to create a resonance between the tensions arising from First Contact and those arising from gender expectations. What if the native race did not divide themselves into male and female? How would that work – biologically? romantically? socially? politically? How would it affect the division of labor? child-rearing? How many ways would Terrans misinterpret a race for whom every other age-appropriate person is a potential lover? Or, in a life-paired couple, each partner equally likely to engender or gestate a child? Maybe by the time we achieve interstellar space flight, we’ll have evolved beyond sexism. One can only hope.
MS: At what point in writing a book do you feel like you want to pack it all in? (I think there's an Orson Scott Card quote about how, at the 30K word point, he always wants to type "and then they all died.") Maybe this doesn't happen to you, but if it does, have you developed any habits that get you through it?
DJR: I don’t think that’s ever happened to me since I began writing novels on a pro level. Oh, back in the early ‘90s. I sell mostly on proposal now, so having to write a synopsis weeds out a lot of haring off after dead ends. I’ve learned to identify when I’ve gone astray (before having to revise a piece 5 or 12 times), which is the most likely source of frustration. Even with an outline, there is so much to discover. That uncovering of the deeper story is the source of so much delight. That’s more likely to happen as I get further into the story, and I always look forward to it.
MS: Electric or gas stove? Why?
DJR: I used to think gas, but after having survived the 2020 California wildfires, I’m not a big fan of flames. The newer electric ranges are just fine, thank you, even if I don’t entirely trust the smooth-topped kind.
MS: What was your first sale and how did that change things for you?
DJR: I’d submitted Jaydium to DAW about a year and a half before I lived in France (see above). When I returned, after having written every day and not seen clients at all, I took a leap in deciding to officially switch careers. The economy was in a recession and it was a very scary thing to do. Three months later, DAW made me an offer. The universe was telling me I’d made the right choice. Since then I’ve found myself in the position of needing a full time day job but have never stopped writing.
MS: What's the most important thing for people to understand about developing the skills needed to write a novel?
DJR: Be gentle with yourself. This is a marathon, not a sprint. It’s a feat of cognitive dexterity to hold 500 pages of plot, character, and theme in your head all at once, so find out whatever helps — a notebook, flow charts, diagrams, scene-by-scene outline (not a bad strategy for revision, by the way). Whether you write 5 pages or 5 words a day, be sure you write them well, and with heart.