Recently I had the chance to have a little back and forth with N.J. Tanger – the pseudonym for the writing team of Nathan Beauchamp, Joshua Russell and Rachael Tanger – ahead of the release of their debut novel Chimera. This thrilling sci-fi adventure is the first in the Universe Eventual series. (If you haven’t checked out my review, you should read here first: Chimera review) There’s no spoilers here – the book is being released April 24 – but our conversation is wide ranging. I’ve left a lot of the fun asides out of this post, but if you want to check out the entirety of our talk check here: Chimera (unedited interview). I hope you enjoy this glimpse behind the scenes.
Like human chimeras that see out of two different color lenses, your novel offers two main protagonists and their viewpoints in which to see the world and beyond of Stephen’s point. Was there ever a time when the story was going to be told from Theo’s view only or was this always going to be a two narrative book?
As far as I can remember, Chimera was always going to have dual protagonists. I think we started out that way because it was easier to write in a team with dual protagonists (for the obvious reasons; that is, we were stepping on each other much less). Now that we’ve developed a structure to our team-writing, I think we could easily write a single-protagonist novel, but honestly, it’s more fun to write ensemble stories. I think they skirt the overworked hero myth that Western culture worships.
Stephen’s Point seems like a well lived in place. Was it created ex nihilo or did you draw on certain images or stories to piece it together? Is a habitable moon different from having the story take place on its own planet? The permadawn gives an edge to the world, does this subtly affect the characters?
Stephen’s Point originated from a few complimentary ideas. The first was of an Earth-like moon versus an Earth-like planet simply because it added a layer of intrigue. The science behind it is relatively sound (such a moon could exist and could support life) but it would need an extremely thick atmosphere to hold in the heat. In terms of how the permadawn would impact the characters, I like the greyness that permadawn provides, the mystery of it, the aloneness. We have a moon that’s not that different from Earth in a great many ways. Permadawn felt like a good way to differentiate and give the reader the experience of a unique, alien locale.
Theo. Fess up, is he autobiographical? Do all readers feel like they’re the potential hero that has unrecognized skills and a good heart even if life hasn’t worked out their way?
Yes, I think so. Certainly it’s a trope, but I do think the trope is in fact true. Every human being (every creature) is unique, by definition. We all have unique DNA, we all have unique life experiences. Because of this, we all have the ability to be uniquely special, or uniquely gifted — each of us, in our own way. Theo actually has unconventional strengths, and I think that the ninety-nine percent can get behind that. We all want to believe we are special, and (surprisingly), we all ARE special, because we’re all unique. The hero myth reaffirms that, and rightly so — we all need to be reminded who we truly are. Nevertheless, the thing that’s most fun about Theo, and most important about all heros in my opinion, won’t be fully revealed until late in the series. No spoilers though…
Selena is the firebrand of the book, savvy with ships but not with her temper. She could easily be the anti-girly girl cliché, but she has a reality that keeps her believable. Did you feel like you had to walk a line with her character from being too much of one thing?
Selena is polarizing. People tend to really like her, really identify with her, or have a tough time with her brashness. I wanted a strong female character that maintains some level of vulnerability, who makes significant mistakes, and who has a lot to learn about becoming a leader. Without giving too much away about Book II: Earthbound, Selena has a lot of obstacles to overcome to step into her destiny as a leader. Showing how those changes take place is the most exciting part of storytelling for me personally. I hope that as readers see her grow and change in the next few books that she’ll become even more nuanced, even more complex, even more likable.
One of the great intrigues of the novel is the ship Chimera. Is she semi-aware, fully sentient, somewhere in between? What can you reveal about how integral she will be deeper into the series? Are ships always “she”-s?
Chimera started as one thing (a low-AI, non-sentient ship) and made the jump to becoming something far more though her experience in fractal space with Stephen, her original navigator. We have a novella titled “Ascension” that will flesh out how Chimera came to be “more,” and how her friendship with Stephen altered her forever. That story is a really interesting one (I think) but you’ll have to wait for the novella to come out (sometime after Earthbound) to learn the details. The Chimera is a “she” because of the historical precedent of referring to ships as female, in addition to the way that she conceives of herself. She holds life within her, gives birth to that life. She’s a nurturer first and foremost, a protector. It felt natural to make her female. Earthbound will explore that theme extensively. If you like the Chimera, you’ll love the second book—she has a huge role to play, both in terms of plot, and relationally to Selena and Theo.
Marcus is a scary dude. Are there signs that there’s more than meets the eye or should he be shoved out an airlock? Locke? Let’s talk about names. There seems to be a lot of names with literary provenance. Would you like to reveal how any were chosen?
Thanks! I think it’s hard to write scary dudes. I mean I’m not frightened by most antagonists, personally, so it’s a big deal for me to feel like we’ve made a character truly scary. When I was writing Marcus, I tried to mimic the voice of a friend of mine, who holds his cards close to his chest, as a way of keeping him enigmatic — we all worked very hard to make him scary like a real life deviant, not just a force to add conflict for the protagonist. In fact, I hate that way of thinking about story: as if antagonists only exist to create conflict for the protagonist. It’s a lame gesture. The antagonist should be someone who thinks of himself as the protagonist in his own story. He should have excuses for his behavior. He should have a logic that makes his deviance acceptable. Someone who thinks and feels and has wounds of his own. Someone who, given better life circumstances, might even have been the hero.
I want to chime in here and say that if you’re asking if Marcus has some connection to the famous John Locke, the 17th century philosopher and idea man, then the answer is no. (The actual name John Locke was used for a main character in the television phenomenon Lost, and I think there was a connection there that was subtle and intentional.) But Dr. Locke’s ideas surrounding the self, the ineffable thing that makes us who and what we are–what makes us truly human, more or less–are definitely present as themes. They begin to make an appearance in book one, but it’s not until book two that they become visible in a strong way.
How does the writing work between three people? Do all three have inspiration about story ideas or has one person been the primary idea maker with the others coloring the story?
The short answer is that we all do it all, but this has definitely evolved as we’ve become a stronger, more cohesive team. Furthermore, even though we all can “do it all,” we’re not all equals. Some of us are quicker at making smart stylistic changes, have a better knack for dialogue, or are more gifted with character or story structure. I think the key ingredient for us here is in knowing ourselves. In other words, we’ve learned what to fight for, what to die for, and know what to let go of.
I’ll be honest, I’m hesitant to pick up anything with the tag Young Adult on it. For a middle-age guy, that just screams “Twilight” or something else that makes me want to pull up my pants and be grumpy. This book had young adults in it, but not some of the coming-of-age hallmarks and heightened emotionality that I equate with bad YA stuff. I think it has great appeal for all ages. Is this a targeted book or did you write it for everyone?
Truth told, YA is a hot market and we’re aware of that. We wanted to place a story into a market full of potential readers, and going the YA route is a way to do that. We hope to differentiate ourselves in terms of story type, characters, etc… I wanted to write about characters that I care for, that I personally can root for, and I think we’ve more or less accomplished that. We’re surprised (and thrilled!) at how well the book is doing with a wide range of readers. Most of the themes we’re working with are universal. The character set and their ages are merely the frame we’re offering the reader to look through.
The book, website, art, all seems very slick for a debut novel. Was there a specific idea to deliver an end product right away? How much more work has that been besides just writing?
Massive amounts of work, and a good chunk of it wasted. We’ve spent money on things we shouldn’t have, paid too much for others, and learned a lot in the process. We never wanted to just throw a book out into the world, but rather to establish long-term relationships with potential readers. Good art helps us win over potential readers because before someone reads one word of your book, they’re going to first see your book cover, webpage, Amazon page, etc…
It’s also incredibly helpful that there are three of us. We have all worked jobs, had professions. Once you’re working on something that you are completely responsible for, for which you feel this incredible ownership, you start digging deep looking for anything, any background or experience, things you know or can do that can be applicable to the project. It’s clichéd, but when people talk about projects being their baby, they are NOT making that up.
Could each of you reveal a little about why you wanted to work on this project with the others? Do you feel that a team can work better or more efficiently than an individual writer?
I’m an extrovert. I love working with people. Writing is so often a solitary venture, and I personally wanted to find a way to make it collaborative. Josh and I have been friends for almost a decade. Rachael is my sister. They’re both very talented artists. I feel like a very lucky guy to get to work in close relationship with each of them.
Three years ago Nathan was working with Josh on what would become Book One. I was aware of that at the time, but I wasn’t involved. Nine months later, Nathan approached me about doing a satellite book: set in the same universe, but not part of the main series. I looked at it as something fun to do with my brother. More and more words were put on the page, themes developed, and it became clear that this was going to be part of the main series. I knew Josh through Nathan, we’d been at the same parties and events and knew one another in passing, but we had no idea what it would be like to work with the other. Really I think we went on gut feeling with the whole thing. It was organic, in the same way that the writing was organic.
I LOVE writing as part of a team (especially THIS team, because they’re my dear friends) and think it gives me a huge advantage over most solo authors. As you’ve heard it said, writing is rewriting… which is absolutely true. With three writers, we go through several rounds of heavy revision very quickly because of the built-in “fresh eyes” of our writing partners. In other words, as a team, we are able to do quality work, quickly. And I think we have only just begun to scratch the surface of our real capacity. I really can’t say enough about how great it is to be a part of a fiction writing team. Sure, you have to work with well-adjusted, mature creatives, but assuming you can land partners like that, it’s a huge plus.
Several novels are credited as being inspirational to this story, do you think that all sci-fi stories about teens trying to save their home planet are going to be compared to Ender’s Game? Is it a good or bad thing to be compared to Card’s stuff?
Is it a good thing to be compared to Card? Depends on who you ask. He’s taken a beating for some of his political opinions and stances on certain issues, but I don’t think anyone can take away from the man as an artist. Ender’s Game is iconic, and it would be impossible to write anything about teenagers in space without that comparison coming up. I think we’ve done enough to make our story unique while also giving credit where it’s due.
Name one under the radar sci-fi book to read and film to watch.
I would suggest reading anything by Ted Chiang. He doesn’t write a whole lot, but what he does write is spectacular. His first eight short stories are collected in a book called Stories of Your Life and Others. He’s won the Nebula as well as Hugo Awards multiple times, but because he’s not very prolific a lot of people haven’t heard of him. And a good sci-fi to watch is Primer. Made in 2004 on a (now famous) budget of only $7000, Primer is billed as a time travel story. But it’s actually the story of the destruction of a friendship through greed, hubris and the latent desire to control not only your own destiny but others.
I’m not usually into time travel, but the indie film Primer blew me away. The complexity of the story is insane. And they got time travel “right” by avoiding all the clichés and logic errors of pretty much everything else in that genre. In terms of short fiction, watch out for Brook Wonders. She sold a story to Clarksworld a year or so ago and everything I’ve read from her is simply fantastic.
Yes – Shane Carruth is the go-to guy for sci-fi cinema that is cutting edge (in more ways than one), in my opinion. His sophomore film after Primer, Upstream Color, is also spectacular. He has a very strong following now and has done a great job of keeping control of his craft and maintaining an active audience.
Is this solely going to be an e-book? Will Luddites like me eventually be able to order a print-on-demand hard copy to share with friends? Can I suggest Peter Kenny for your audiobook version?
We are in the process of making the book available as print-on-demand. We still have a lot of friends that haven’t read the book because they simply do not read electronically! Apparently our social circles are not good evidence for the death of the paper word. And funny you should bring up audiobooks. We’re pursuing that in a pod-cast form and are pretty excited about the process. Stay tuned for updates on that venture.
Please check out these links for more info on the Universe Eventual series:
Concept art by Yong Yi Lee