Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Interview: Monalisa Foster

Alex Wallace sits down with Monalisa Foster, author of Threading the Needle

What made you start writing?

Some sort of mind virus, I think. I caught it some time back from a Heinlein juvenile, I'm not sure which one. I'm somewhat kidding, but not really. I think all of us get exposed to it at some point, and given how many people are out there writing "The Great American Novel," it's apparently quite contagious. I think it comes from getting hooked on the little hits of dopamine and serotonin we get while reading and then figuring it's time to level up and become our own dealers. So we sit down and give it a try because we're looking for a particular hit and just not getting it.

That's a roundabout way of saying that I wanted to read certain kinds of books written in certain ways and that, since I wasn't finding them or finding enough of them, it was time to write my own. My first exposure to this "need" was in high school. I think what cured me then is that I produced this awful thing I'm glad no one ever saw. Then I got re-contaminated in college, and between summers I wrote another novel, and I remember that one never saw the light of day because I couldn't afford the postage on the self-addressed, stamped return boxes we used in the late 80s. Then I got too busy with a career, marriage, and family, and they were an immunizing force until about 2015 or so when I realized that the virus had only gone dormant and was lying in wait to catch me unawares, which it did.

It was activated again on a trip to the library for my kids where I ran across a book called The Samurai by [Stephen] Turnbull. I was already reading a book on genetic engineering for work and had recently revisited some of the old science books I'd held onto from college. The idea for my other space opera series, Ravages of Honor, which is a far-future one with feuding noble Houses and genetically engineered samurai that does NOT fade to black, was born out of that trip. I started dabbling (that means writing when the muse struck) and realized very quickly that the mind virus was back and this time it was particularly virulent and refused to be displaced. Fortunately, since my kids were older, my life had gotten to the point where I could indulge it.

So I started to write books like the ones I wanted to read, and here we are.

What books/other media have been the most influential on your writing?

Heinlein's books in particular were very influential. I started out with his juveniles, using them to teach myself English. I did this by sitting down with them and a dictionary and copying down the words and their meanings, writing them out ten times to learn the spelling, and then translating them back. I would fill up an entire notebook and then erase it and start over. Besides the language itself, I learned about individualism in a way I had never been exposed to before, as well as about a future I could never have imagined. After exhausting Heinlein's juveniles, I moved on to his grown-up books.

There were others as well (Lester Del Rey comes to mind), but it's Heinlein that really stayed with me, that was the most memorable.

And then there was Lois McMaster Bujold. I remember discovering her debut novel, Shards of Honor, with a science fiction book club subscription, and I was hooked. I got hooked very hard. I had gone through a rather long period where I didn't have time to read any fiction of any kind, but Bujold got me reading it again. As she added to her Vorkosigan Saga, I would read through it every year. I've destroyed several physical copies of Barrayar.

Series like Babylon 5 were also very influential. I loved the characters, the storyline, the way it violated physics less than other shows, the way it made telling a good, character-driven story a priority. I loved Firefly for the same reason—characters, characters, and oh yes, characters.

I also don't limit myself to scifi. I read historical fiction, women's fiction, romance, thrillers, and literary works as well, taking from each what I find works best for my craft. And I continue to read as much, if not more, non-fiction as well (probably why my scifi tends to be crunchy).

What gave you the inspiration for Threading the Needle?

I grew up with pirate and cowboy films, mostly bad dubs in Hungarian or Romanian, black and white and very grainy, and often very censored. So I knew Errol Flynn and John Wayne as characters from the start, even though I wouldn't learn their actual names for years to come. Same with Yul Brynner, Maureen O'Hara, and Olivia de Havilland.

One of my favorite movies of all time is the John Wayne classic El Dorado. Leigh Brackett—whom I knew from her writing credits for The Empire Strikes Back, the best Star Wars movie IMHO—had also written that screenplay and I became fascinated with it, particularly the idea of two friends who were war veterans coming together after many years apart to fight on the same side, both of them reluctantly, both of them with ghosts from their pasts, both of them determined to do the right thing.

Doing the right thing, rather than the easy and popular thing, is one of those recurring themes that drive me to write.

So I started thinking about what Brackett had done, going from Westerns to scifi and how space opera itself was initially a derisive term for "horse operas in space" (i.e. Westerns in space). So it seemed only natural to do the same thing, take a concept like the settlement of a new frontier, and play with it. I didn't want a mindless retelling of El Dorado, but something that paid homage to its spirit instead, while making it my own, making it unique via characters, setting, and conflict.

One of the most striking things about your novel is Talia’s prosthetic arm. Unlike in, say, Star Wars, it is integrated into the plot and into her characterization in a more than cursory sense. What inspired this element of the story?

I'm so thrilled to hear you say that. Thank you. I was hoping it would hit some people that way.

Remember me saying that we all write, to an extent, because we can't get enough of something we want to see? That plays into this.

In a lot of movies we see things like people getting skewered through the shoulder and then just moving on as if nothing was wrong a few minutes, a few hours, or a few days later. Verhoeven's Starship Troopers comes to mind, for example. People bounce back from losing limbs as if it was nothing, as if their physical reality is not actually a part of their identity. I get why it's done that way, but it's always bothered me a bit, or a lot, depending on the film/book.

A notable exception was Battleship, where they cast Col. Gregory D. Gadson in the role of Mick Canales, an amputee who was still dealing with the loss of his limbs. Here was a pulp film with lots of action and high entertainment value, a movie based on a kids' game of all things, and it was dealing wonderfully with something that is often neglected. I love this movie, as silly as some of its premises are (good thing I know zip all about fighting a battleship). It was just pure fun, yet balanced with "soul" for lack of a better term. Unlike Verhoeven's "walk it all off because we're badasses" characterizations, it had soul. It was science fiction with heart, which is how I describe my work. For me, characterization is what makes or breaks a story, and I was determined to write, first and foremost, characters who had depth, who were so much like real people that you'd want to go back again and again to spend time with them.

Talia especially had to have depth. She wasn't worth writing in any other way, so I put myself not just in her head, but in her heart, so I could see her soul. And she had the soul of a fighter and a survivor who knew that what she was was not all that she was. So, while she may have been a sniper, a veteran, a survivor, she was also someone with scars and wounds and a past and someone with incredible strength of will. In other words, she was not someone born on the first page of Threading the Needle. She is more like Leigh Brackett's heroes in that she's deeply aware of her own moral transgressions, which everyone forgives her for except herself (to quote Michael Moorcock).

Losing the very hand that allows one to do her job would have been quite impactful to a sniper. And it was a job that she did because it allowed her to save lives. This was a very important part of who she was, of her identity. I couldn't see her walk it off and pretend it was nothing like she was in some Verhoeven movie.

Which is why her phantom, which is the mind-space that is occupied by her phantom limb (i.e. she can still feel the presence of flesh that is no longer there) became, in a way, its own thing, something that is both integral and separate from her. Then I asked myself, what would it be like to have a brain-implant put in to control the prosthesis, and having it occupy that same mind-space? Once I put myself in her head, in her body, in her heart, the prosthesis and the phantom became what they are in the book.

Unlike many space opera stories, this one is confined to a single planet. What made you go with that choice?

I'm not sure it was entirely conscious, to be honest. I knew that I had to keep this space opera on the lighter side, no more than 120k words or so. So, in order to do that, I did two things: I made it single-viewpoint, something I've never done in a novel before; and I limited its scope, partly via the setting.

Planets have multiple environments. A habitable planet that is just an ice planet or a dessert planet may be a trope in space opera, but a planet that was already very much like Earth, i.e. Gōruden, would have to share the diverse climes of Earth. So I didn't see a particular need to have this story span across multiple planets. And once I settled on the terraforming aspect of it, particularly in regards to the dispute, there was no story reason to have it span across multiple planets.

Focusing on one world that already had several biomes and corresponding climates allowed me to flesh out the island of Tatarka, the town of Tsurui, the city of Sakura, in a way that, I hope, gives them a very real, very lived-in (and crunchy) feel.

How did you explore the Western setting of the novel? Is there any particular historical situation that influenced the plot?

If you mean based on any real historical situation, no. What I did was borrow from the "myth" of the samurai in a cowboy world. I'm sure I'm not the first to note the similarity between cowboy and samurai movies, and both of these types of movies have been an influence. I would even count the Tom Cruise and Ken Watanabe movie The Last Samurai as an influence, even though it was more of a cowboy in a samurai world, and highly inaccurate historically, which is one of the reasons I loved it. If I wanted actual history, I'd go read a history book or watch a documentary. We also see this myth at work in other mixed-genre works like Westworld and Firefly/Serenity.

You can also see the "myth" aspect (rather than any historical one) via the terraforming component and the genetic engineering aspect that dwells in the background in Threading the Needle.

It is not history yet, but I suspect it might be (this is the extrapolation aspect of this science fiction), that there will be people not just willing, but eager to return to or maintain a lower level of technology in exchange for freedom and self-determination. If someone were to attribute self-determination and a yearning for freedom solely to the genre of Westerns set in the Old West (or even during the Meiji Restoration), then I guess they might see it as having a "historical" influence, but I don't. I find both the desire for self-determination and the yearning for freedom to be far more widespread both in time and place.

What was the trickiest part of writing this novel?

Keeping my desire to vomit everything about genetic engineering and terraforming onto the page. I work really hard at keeping myself off the page, while also writing both tight and deep perspectives. Keeping author-narrator voice out and making everything come from the character herself, all while having just one viewpoint, was definitely the hardest part of this. It required a lot of discipline, and there were several moments when I was really tempted to make it multiple viewpoint and just make it easy for myself.

I struggled with the crunchiness of the science because I didn't necessarily want a men-with-screwdrivers story. The men-with-screwdrivers component had to be there so it wouldn't be just a cowboy/samurai story with a thin scifi veneer, so I had to be careful to balance it and not have it overwhelm the story.

I really wanted it to appeal to several audiences, including the adventure seekers, those looking for a fun story with interesting characters. I wanted to keep a sense of wonder and discovery that would appeal to anyone that enjoyed space opera as well as Westerns or samurai movies.

And most importantly, it had to make sense, it had to work without asking the reader to completely shut off the logical part of their brain. So, while I'm sure it will make geneticists cringe, it shouldn't make the average sci-fi, space-opera, or mil-sf reader cringe at all.

The main character is an immigrant to this planet, and in your introduction you talk about being an immigrant from Romania. Did this feed into Talia’s characterization?

Maybe a little. As I said, I really try to remove myself from the story. While there are always aspects of ourselves we bring into a story, we are not our characters. As a reader I am particularly critical of writers who use their characters as mere mouthpieces. I work quite specifically at NOT doing that. This is why I said that removing author-narrator voice, the need to intrude and tell you how much research I did or how hard I worked at overcoming any and all objections, the need to explain things to the reader beyond the scope of what the character herself would know or be able to explain, or would say, is so very hard.

Since Gōruden is a planet of colonists, pretty much everyone is an immigrant from Earth. The first colonization effort failed, and those original settlers were wiped out, so while there are people on Gōruden who were born there, like Logan, Maeve, and the younger characters, it is a planet of immigrants, first and foremost.

There are story reasons for this, rather than personal ones, i.e. I did not set about to write a story about what it's like to be an immigrant. For one, there was no language barrier for Talia to overcome, and not much of a cultural one either. There were some class divisions, of course, in that Talia is not part of a ruling class. Being an outsider, whether one is an immigrant or not, did, however, inform the writing, just like the lived experience of being a cop would inform a story about cops written by a cop. Or a firefighter or a soldier or whatever. And I think we all identify as outsiders to some degree or other at some point in our lives.

Some of the war stories I overheard from the men in my family, the ones they told as we huddled around our illegal radio in the cellar, did make it into Talia's flashbacks, so if anything, she is a composite character based on their lived experiences rather than my own.

There’s a lot of humor in this book. Was there any difficulty balancing that with the rest of the plot?

I can't tell you how happy I am that you found humor in this book. Thank you.

Balancing the light and the darkness in my stories has always been a challenge. My idea of dark is somewhat different than most, I have come to find out, so this is another aspect of that idea of taking myself out of the story.

What was interesting about writing Threading the Needle was the snark. I don't tend to write snarky characters or sarcasm in huge degrees. I don't go for "silliness" as a matter of course. But all those things somehow made their way into this book.

My other work tends to focus on heavier, weightier subjects, and I think that has a tendency toward darkness. I ask big questions that have no easy answer, no easy solutions.

Threading the Needle is simpler (not simplistic) and lighter in mood and tone, and I think that's reflected in the characters, especially with the robotic dogs and the supporting cast.

What projects are you working on now?

I'm working on the fourth book in my Ravages of Honor series, asking big questions with no easy answer or easy solutions, and I'm researching a potential hard-sf novel set on the Moon while trying to figure out what happens next on Gōruden. I wrote a short story called Relics (available gratis on the Baen Books website) in the same universe as Threading the Needle, and a number of plot squirrels sprouted from that, and I've been trying to stay on target with things I've already started, which is much harder than it should be. If readers want to stay up to date with what I’m doing, I hope they will subscribe to my newsletter via my website.

Thank you, Monalisa!

POSTED BY: Alex Wallace, alternate history buff who reads more than is healthy.