In the first interview of my new series, “Spotlight on Australian Authors”, I feature speculative fiction author Shel Calopa, who has recently celebrated the release of not one, but two novels – Emoto’s Promise (the last in Australian Speculative Fiction’s Drowned Earth series) – and Letters of the Light.
In this interview we talk about how Capola balances writing for two different audiences, the inspiration behind her work, and how she’s dealing with self-isolation – both as an author and a parent.
Congratulations on the release of your new novels, Emoto’s Promise and Letters from the Light. Can you tell me a bit about them?
Thank you. They are two very different books, yet I guess you could say they both celebrate the power of the underdog.
Emoto’s Promise is a dystopian cli-fi [climate fiction] set in a walled city in the middle of a raging ocean. It might just be the last city on Earth, and Macie maybe just different enough to save mankind from taking a disastrous leap into dangerous technology.
Letters from the Light is a sweeping sci-fi thriller set in a future Australia where only the elite have access to light, and the underclasses are deliberately disabled to keep them compliant. In this darkly divided world, an act of terrorism decimates Sydney and unearths an ancient, secret war between a criminally insane scientist and his rebellious AI.
What’s the response been like so far?
I’m thrilled with the positive reviews on Goodreads. Debut novels can be challenging. Readers have plenty of choices from existing authors and trying something new takes a leap of faith, but I’ve been lucky – people are giving it a go and loving it! I’m very grateful.
I believe you used a Kickstarter campaign for Emoto’s Promise. What did that entail?
Emoto’s Promise is part of the Drowned Earth series of climate fiction novellas published by Aussie Speculative Fiction. The concept was eight different authors publishing novellas set in a shared universe. In this case, the universe was an Australia struggling to rebuild after an asteroid strike triggered a massive tsunami that wiped out our major cities.
Our publisher set up a Kickstarter campaign which we promoted to our networks. This allowed supporters to pre-order their novellas up to a year in advance and receive a few special bonuses for their early commitment. The campaign garnered generous support, good social media coverage and about $2500 in funds. I would highly recommend Kickstarter for collaborative writing projects.
Both novels are sci-fi/dystopian fiction, with Emoto’s Promise being a YA book released through Aussie Speculative Fiction and Letters from the Light (released through Inspired Quill in the UK) being more for adults. How do you balance writing for different audiences? Is your approach different, or relatively the same?
I wish I could say I planned it that way, but honestly, it’s more a matter of me following the story. An idea will pop up, and I’m compelled to see where it goes. The story then defines its structure and to a certain extent, the audience.
I’ll give you an example. My sister dragged me to an orchestral concert about a year ago. It wasn’t really my thing, but I ended up being very glad I went. When I closed my eyes and let the sounds wash over me, I wondered what it would be like to experience the music with my other senses, not just my ears. What would it be like to taste the sounds or hear colours as music? How different would that make me feel? These questions lead to the concept of a character isolated because of her different sense perception and “ta-da” up popped my lead character Macie.
Given that Macie is a disadvantaged young woman grappling with identity while working through new relationships, it seemed only natural to make it YA fiction. I have a lot of respect for the challenges millennials face in our complex, highly tech dependant world. How can you hear your truth when social media has been shouting at you since childhood? Or in Macie’s case how can she rise up to stake her own identity and sense of place, when she is locked out of her own culture. The story cried out for a young adult audience.
Why did you decide to go with different publishers for your books?
That’s simple – an opportunity came up, and I grabbed it.
Aussie Speculative Fiction (ASF) opened a submission round for the climate fiction novellas right about the time Macie’s story was brewing. I knew ASF was very innovative, and I couldn’t resist their concept of a post-apocalyptic flooded world. Aren’t we all just a little bit afraid of the power of the roaring ocean?
Anyway, two submission rounds later, I got the nod – Emoto’s Promise would be the last of eight Drowned Earth novellas. It was an amazing experience working with the other Aussie authors on this ground-breaking series. I feel very blessed.
My other publisher, Inspired Quill, doesn’t publish novellas so they were happy for me to do the project with ASF.
Do you believe the content or themes of these novels is especially relevant given the current health crisis?
There has been a lot of talk amongst authors about the appropriateness of the dystopian genre at the moment, with some writers even delaying publications to avoid being seen as insensitive. I can’t agree with this position.
Genre stories are much more than just entertainment. When we put our characters into extreme or exotic locations, we give readers a non-threatening way to consider their own problems. We pose the question of “what if” to make people think about “what is”.
Star Wars has a fun spacey setting, but it’s really about family dynamics. Hunger Games is all about political freedom and personal identity rather than children in death battles. My book, Letters from the Light features a ruling class with such extreme power they control access to light itself. Underneath that; it has a lot to say about diversity, ableism and the search for self.
At a time when many of us are challenged by isolation and fear, dystopian fiction can give us an entertaining escape from reality while still helping us process current issues. And there is a certain reassurance in the idea that no matter how bad things get, there is always hope.
What do you want people to take away from reading your work?
I want people to take away an appreciation for their personal power.
We live in a world where superficiality is worshipped and “perfection” is defined so narrowly that almost no one can measure up. It’s easy to fall into the trap of continually seeing ourselves as not enough – not white enough, rich enough, thin enough, physically able enough and the list goes on. The twisted portrayal of “normal” in modern media can leave us questioning our value or worse assuming our so-called imperfections render us powerless.
The truth is, we are all intrinsically valuable. It is time we celebrate the gifts of all people, not just the precious few who can make it onto a magazine cover.
Can you talk me through the publication process for these books?
Both my books have been traditionally published with small presses. It’s a fantastic way to publish as there are no upfront production costs for the author, and you get the editorial support you’d expect from the big publishers only you have all the marketing freedom the indies enjoy. It’s a very collaborative process.
Of course, the downside is the lead times. It does take longer to get your book to market. I’ve heard some indies write and release books within six weeks of concept. I can’t ever imagine writing that fast! I took two years to write and refine Letters from the Light.
When did you first discover you had a passion for these particular genres?
Apparently, as a young child, I used to wake up re-telling my dreams like MGM movies. When I was twelve, I discovered Abbott’s Flatland which lead to Asimov’s Robot series and Philip K Dick. By the time I read Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy I was hooked. I didn’t view myself as a writer though, that didn’t start until decades later. Sometimes it takes a little life experience to have something meaningful to say, doesn’t it?
If you didn’t write in these genres, what genre would you write in?
Many of my writing friends crossover from sci-fi to fantasy. Lasers to spells? Maybe not for me. If I had to change genres, I think I’d give chic lit a go. Perhaps Emoto’s Promise meets Sex in the City – then my antagonists could be persistent paparazzi instead cyborgs!
How does self-publishing compare to mainstream publishing, in your opinion?
The line between self-publishing and mainstream is very much blurred these days. There are wonderful books coming out from both camps. Just look at Hugh Howey’s Wool – an amazing self-published novel.
The biggest problem for new indie writers is the high cost of production which leads some to publish too soon – even at the first draft. It’s so sad to see a brilliant idea weighed down by lack of professional editing and proof reading.
As Hemingway says; “the first draft of anything is garbage.” All manuscripts need revision, revision, revision. Indie writers who do this can definitely produce beautiful books that measure up to anything published traditionally.
Is there a particular character(s) you have a fondness for in your novels?
Readers often mention Sam as their favourite character in Letters from the Light, because he’s a sweet kid who has had such a tough start in life including growing up as the only sighted boy in a village of blind miners.
My favourite character is Kohl the handsome but deeply flawed son of the Governor. Kohl holds a special place in my heart because he is totally ignorant of the atrocities inflicted by his parents to maintain their control, and when he does discover the truth, he has tough choices to make. He leaves me questioning whether any of us ever really change. Can we break free of our family shadows? Do we always deserve a second chance?
Who’s the first person to read your writing, and how did they make your published work what it is today?
I have a good victim friend, who kindly suffers through my first drafts. Her input is valuable because she doesn’t normally read sci-fi. If she understands the technology and world-building then I know I’m on the right path.
What was your research process for this book (if you had one)?
I must confess, for a sci-fi writer, I’m not a highly technical. I’m more concerned with what happens to the relationships on a star ship than how the engine works. That doesn’t mean I can escape all research, however. World building is more believable when it’s grounded in a few facts.
For instance, would the tunnels that traversed the world in Letters from the Light, feel cold and damp or warm? What is the climate in subterranean structures? For Emoto’s Promise I had to research sea walls to ensure I had a strong enough structure to resist the pounding tides and more obscurely, how much does a human finger weigh? You’ll need to read the book to make sense of that research!
When not writing, what do you like to do? What’s your average day look like?
I’m a working mum with a day job on top of my writing, and like most of our community COVID-19 has made big changes to my daily routine. The whole family are home either studying or working.
It’s an upheaval for all of us, tempers flare at times and the four walls seem to creep closer everyday, but the alternative is much so very much worse. I keep reminding myself that we do indeed live in the lucky country. We have food, resources, fresh air and most of us have backyards. We’ll make it work, somehow. Perhaps I’ll even come out of it with a new book!
Who are your idols, both professionally and personally?
When I was nineteen, I went to a Robert Palmer concert. He was my idol at the time and when he crossed the stage to kiss my hand – I vowed I would never wash it again!
Today I am more into words than romantic moves. The timelessness of Rumi’s poems astonishes me, and I continue to find enlightenment in Maya Angelou’s phrases. Within my own genre, you really can’t go past Peter F Hamilton. I love the way he tells a story through the eyes of multiple characters, often on multiple worlds or timelines, and you rarely guess the true plot which is sometimes disguised in plain site from the beginning. He is a master.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received in regard to your writing, and what advice would you give to aspiring authors?
A few years ago, I attended a workshop with Lev Grossman, NY author of The Magicians trilogy. He gave me two useful pieces of advice.
The first was to reach for a book whenever you are stuck in writer’s block. There is nothing like reading a well-formed sentence or two to spur on our creative processes.
The other advice was that there is a fine line between too little detail and too much. Your words should only be a scaffolding upon which readers will use their imaginations to construct their own worlds. Give them too much detail and they will turn off. I am still learning to apply this lesson!
If you could invite three people from history (living or dead) to dinner, who would you invite and why?
Well I couldn’t go past my namesake, could I? Mary Shelley is the mother of science fiction and I’m sure she would make a fascinating dinner guest, as long as she doesn’t bring her monster. Jim Carrey would have us both laughing and arguing, I suspect. The third would be Steven Bradbury of ice-skating fame – Aussie legend of the default win. Bravo!!
With the current health crisis, you’ve lost the opportunity to promote your books through readings and other events. How are you dealing with this? Are there any virtual events you would like to mention?
It is a challenging time for book launches. I had planned to place my novels in physical bookshops alas they are all closed. We held a virtual book launch for the Drowned Earth on Facebook which was lots of fun but certainly didn’t have the reach of a book tour. I have started doing readings on my website via Youtube. If people like those, I might do some more.
The best thing readers can do right now to support the industry and keep new stories coming, is to simply buy a book and leave a review. Reviews help books get seen and give readers the confidence to try something new.
Do you have another project on the go? What’s next for you?
Yes! I am writing another book in the Letters from the Light series. It’s set about three hundred years before Letters from the Light and continues the discussion of identity and what it means to be humane. It even features a lift that thinks it’s a mother! Lots of fun.