Thursday, December 19, 2013

In conversation with Jonathan L Howard #books #YA #SF

A big welcome to Jonathan L Howard, author of Katya's War (Strange Chemistry, 2013). He's allowed me to subject him to Six of the Best which actually turned into nine, but jawellnofine. So, Jonathan, for those of us who haven't read Katya's World, tell us a little bit more about Katya and the setting?

The novels are set on the colony world of Russalka. The place is one huge ocean, with no dry land unless you count the ice caps as land. It has a breathable atmosphere and the temperature is cold but bearable for humans, but there are constant storms and permanent 100% cloud cover. It’s a horrible, dangerous, hard place to live. The only reason it was colonised at all is that it has great mineral wealth in its waters. Both to be close to those minerals and to avoid the foul weather, the vast majority of the colonists live in settlements mined in the planet’s underwater mountains, and travel by submarine.

It was hard enough there, but then they were abandoned by Earth for a century and had to struggle through. Then Earth forces turned up again and tried to take over. This triggered a war that Russalka survived rather than won. The place is still badly mauled from the events of that war ten years after.

This is the situation when Katya’s World begins. The war may be over, but the scars run deep. Katya Kuriakova is just short of her sixteenth birthday when she joins her uncle as navigator aboard his minisub. The war messed up Russalka’s demographics badly, and the young are pressed into positions of responsibility early to make up for shortfalls. You don’t get much of a childhood on Russalka. She’s happily of the opinion that her life is pretty much mapped out now and she can just go ahead and do her job.

It doesn’t work out quite that way.

You have to sum up Katya's War in no more than 16 words, GO!

War is killing your world, and isn’t slowing. What would you sacrifice to save it?
(And I didn’t cheat by pretending “isn’t” is one word.)

Was there any particular scene from the novel that you found difficult to write, and why?

Yes, there is one scene that I found singularly difficult to write. I can’t detail it without spoiling the plot, but you’ll know it by the description, “When Katya realises what she’s looking at through the window.” I write the Johannes Cabal novels which are full of horror elements, but nothing in those has been so hard. I found it upsetting. It may be that many will read it and say, “So?” Fine, but I had to go for a walk after finishing that scene because it was horrible to write.

Your favourite bit of dialogue... 

From Katya’s War? Let me think. Hard to find a bit that’s not full of spoilers. Ah, this is fairly safe. Still, very mild spoilers ahead:

“Who’s going, captain?”
“Me, obviously, because I love risking my life. Ms Kuriakova here, also obviously, as she’s the one this is all being done for.”
“What? Me?” Katya looked at Kane as if he’d just ordered her shot.
“Well, yes, you. Why do you…”
“No. I mean, an ADS? Me? You want me to go outside?”
“Yes. You in an ADS. You could try swimming over there in your underwear, I suppose, but I wouldn’t rate your chances of making it.”
Katya was not in the mood for jokes; as far as she could see, sending her out in an atmospheric diving suit – an ADS – was tantamount to a death sentence anyway. “I… I can’t,” she stammered. “I’m not rated. No training. I’m not certified.”
Kane frowned. “Russalkin hydrophobia rears its ugly head again. I have to say, Katya, I’m surprised. After the things you’ve done, I really didn’t expect a drop of water to bother you unduly.”
“A drop… A drop of water? It’s Russalka, Kane! It’s the whole planet! The whole thing wants to kill us every day! Every single day! And you want to go for a stroll out there?”

Story seeds... They all have to start somewhere. What spark set fire to your imagination for this world? 

Oddly enough, the origin is sometime around 1998, I’d guess. I was playing around with ideas for Doctor Who stories for a hobby project and an ocean world suggested itself. That story didn’t gel properly, but there were intriguing elements to it, and some – notably the world itself and the hard lives of the colonists – came back to me when I was thinking, “Well, if I were to write a YA SF novel, it would look like this...”

If you have to profile who you think your readers are, who are they? 

At the risk of seeming egotistical, I think every author largely writes books for themselves. One has to; when you start writing books for what you imagine other people think like, you’re going to find yourself drifting into hackwork. It’ll feel artificial and shallow. So, I suppose I’m writing the Russalka novels for a teenage version of me, filtered through the sensibilities of current mores of style.

A writer's workspace often says a lot about that person. Can you give us a peek at where you create?

I don’t really have anywhere. I used to work in a box room, but the boxes took over. Now I write in the lounge. I really ought to clear out the box room and make it work as an office.

Which three books have had the most impact on your love of the written word? 

The playfulness with words of Lewis Carroll, particularly in Through the Looking Glass, the precision and dry wit of MR James in his collected ghost stories, and the brilliant explosions of texture and meaning in Ray Bradbury’s writing, especially in The Illustrated Man.

You get to create a soundtrack for readers of Katya's War and can choose five songs/pieces of music for them to listen to while they read. Go!

The Hut on Fowl’s Legs from Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition,” ideally one of the big, threatening orchestral versions like Ravel’s. I chose this partially because it’s Russian, even if the Russalkin no longer acknowledge their roots, but mainly because it’s a menacing, off-kilter piece.

Anderson’s Theme from the Dredd soundtrack, by Paul Leonard-Morgan. Cassie Anderson and Katya have a lot in common; decent people trying to make a difference in a very harsh environment. I think that comes through in the music.

One of Our Submarines by Thomas Dolby, because, well, it’s about submarines, obviously, but there’s melancholy there, too, and an appreciation of how impersonal and terrifying it is to die in the depths.

The Seaview Theme by Paul Sawtell, otherwise known as the theme to Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. It’s a really good piece for a programme about a submarine going on adventures, mixing a romantic Hornblower sort of theme over a lurking menace in the brass section while, in my favourite version, a sonar pings steadily in the background. It was probably the best of the Irwin Allen series, I think, certainly for the first and possibly second seasons before it turned into a cheap aquatic version of Star Trek. Jerry Goldsmith’s alternative theme was only used once, and was very different – all threat and no a
dventure. I love Goldsmith’s work, but – just for once – I’m going to side with the original theme.

La Mer by Claude Debussy. All three bits of it, as I just couldn’t choose one. It describes the changeability of the ocean beautifully, although it also shows it when it’s serene, which isn’t really very common on Russalka. You can pretend those bits take place underwater in the context of the novel.

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