Please welcome John Ayliff to The Qwillery as part of the 2015 Debut Author Challenge Interviews. Belt Three is published on June 18th by Harper Voyager UK. Please join The Qwillery in wishing John a Happy Publication Day!
TQ: Welcome to The Qwillery. When and why did you start writing?
John: Thanks, it's good to be here! I've been writing most of my life and I can't remember the point at which I started. Let's just say that my first SF stories were about a spaceship called simply the Falcon, because I didn't know what "millennium" meant or how to spell it! I've been writing with the serious goal of getting published for about fifteen years. The first story I submitted to a magazine (British SF magazine Interzone) received a personal, hand-written rejection slip, which I found enormously encouraging.
TQ: What is the most challenging thing for you about writing? Are you a plotter or a pantser?
John: As I've developed as a writer I've become more and more of a plotter. I can't start something without knowing at least roughly where it's going to go--although I'm very likely to rewrite my plan entirely before each new draft. I think the most challenging thing for me is overcoming the fabled "inner editor" in order to write the bad first draft that needs to happen before the decent second or fourth or eighth draft.
TQ: You've worked in the computer games industry. How does this affect (or not) your prose writing?
John: The writing I did in the games industry was for a game in which the main character is heavily customisable by the player, which meant I wrote them as a blank slate onto which the player could project their own personality. When I wrote Belt Three, I found this habit hard to break: for the whole first draft, my point-of-view character was kind of flat, less interesting than the characters around him. It took until part way through my second draft before I really worked out who my main character was and re-wrote the novel around that.
The games industry taught me some useful habits as well. When I'm writing I like to think in terms of game mechanics: what interesting abilities do the characters have, and how can they solve problems by using those abilities in clever ways? So, for example, the main character (as I eventually developed him) is very good at reading people and finding the best things to say to manipulate them. The other major character isn't good with people but is a genius engineer, so she'll approach the same problems using a different set of skills.
TQ: Who are some of your literary influences? Favorite authors?
John: My first favourite author, the one who got me interested in science fiction, was Isaac Asimov; his style influenced me greatly, including in ways that I've later tried to un-learn as I developed my own style. A couple of favourite authors from more recent years are Alastair Reynolds and Stephen Baxter. I try to read widely within my genre and don't really have a list of favourites, though.
TQ: Describe Belt Three in 140 characters or less.
John: A grieving identity thief is kidnapped by a space pirate, who makes him join her futile crusade against the robots that destroyed Earth.
TQ: Tell us something about Belt Three that is not in the book description.
John: Although it doesn't look like a typical one, Belt Three is really a post-apocalyptic novel. The Earth has been destroyed by alien 'Worldbreakers'; they have already won, and all people can hope for is to survive in the wreckage. The Worldbreakers are more like a natural disaster than an invading force: they're dumb and predictable but have destroyed Earth due to sheer power and numbers. This means that rather than being a story of humanity versus the Worldbreakers, it's a story about how humanity is surviving in the wreckage and the kind of society they've built there. For most of the novel the conflict is between human characters and the Worldbreakers are part of the backdrop.
TQ: What inspired you to write Belt Three? What appealed to you about writing SF? Is Belt Three Hard SF?
John: Belt Three started out because I saw a prompt to write a story about a female pirate, whom I decided to make a space pirate who was obsessively hunting alien robots. When I showed it my writing group, some of them said it read more like the start of a novel than like a short story, so I kept writing.
SF is the genre I most love to read, so it's where I have most of my ideas and it's the only genre in which I think I'm experienced enough to write. I love hard SF, and I tried to give Belt Three a hard-SF sensibility, not because I think hard SF is always better but because I thought it was what was appropriate for the story I wanted to tell. I wanted the Belt Three setting, in which people are hanging on to existence on asteroid colonies after the planets have been destroyed, to feel like a difficult and unnatural place for people to live, so I avoided soft-SF comforts such as artificial gravity and faster-than-light drives. Want gravity? You'll have to spin up your ship or habitat--which ended up having interesting implications for culture, because I realised that gravity close to Earth's would be healthier and therefore a marker of higher social class. Want to get somewhere? You'll be doing so slowly, according to real orbital mechanics. With the Worldbreakers I took more liberties, since they're meant to be products of a technology far in advance of our own, but even then I tried to make sure nothing they did was impossible: they can't create something from nothing and they can't travel faster than light. Belt Three isn't the sort of hard-SF novel that makes scientific details at the focus, though. The hard-SF setting is a backdrop for a character-driven story.
TQ: What sort of research did you do for Belt Three?
John: As much as I like the mental image of a writer buried deep in a public library, most of my research was online. Being a writer in the age of the internet makes simple research questions so much quicker to answer. Can you use a solar sail to move closer to the sun? Yes, hence the references in the book to "tacking against orbit". Can a conventional gun fire while in a vacuum? Contrary to that Firefly episode, probably yes, hence one character keeps firing after falling out of an airlock.
TQ: Who was the easiest character to write and why? The hardest and why?
John: The book has two main characters, Jonas and Keldra, and I think they were the hardest and easiest characters to write. Jonas was the one who was initially a bit flat, and the little personality he had was so unsympathetic as to put off my beta-readers. Half way through my second draft I stopped and invented a new backstory and personality for him and rewrote the book with that in mind. This new backstory also included scenes that I found quite difficult to write, but I decided I had to go where my story logic was taking me so I stuck with it. Keldra, on the other hand, seemed to spring from the page fully-formed in my first draft--I fleshed her out, but I didn't change her central concept--and writing her was both easy and fun.
TQ: Which question about Belt Three do you wish someone would ask? Ask it and answer it!
John: Wow, this is a good question. I can't think of anything major I want to reveal, so I will go for something more whimsical:
Q: Do you use any special techniques to visualise your characters?
A: I have been known to spend ages at the character-creation stage of a computer RPG, trying to recreate a character's appearance...then play through the whole game roleplaying as that character. Not that I count this as time spent writing!
TQ: Give us one or two of your favorite non-spoilery lines from Belt Three.
John: I'm quite proud of this one-sentence character description:
"Her facial tattoos were neon-blue today."
And here's something a little more lyrical:
"Here at the heart of the solar system Keldra had found the last real clouds, and they were clouds of fire."
TQ: What's next?
John: Belt Three is a standalone novel, but I don't intend it to be my only novel. I think you'll see more novels and short stories from me in the future.
TQ: Thank you for joining us at The Qwillery.
John: Thank you for having me!
Harper Voyager UK, June 18, 2015
eBook, 400 pages
Trade Paperback, December 2, 2015
Worldbreakers do not think, do not feel and cannot be stopped.
Captain Gabriel Reinhardt’s latest mining mission has been brought to a halt by the arrival of a Worldbreaker, one of the vast alien machines that destroyed Earth and its solar system long ago. As he and his crew flee they are kidnapped by a pirate to be mind-wiped and sold into slavery, a fate worse than death in this shattered universe.
But Captain Reinhardt is hiding a secret. The real Gabriel Reinhardt died six years ago, and in his place is Jonas, one of the millions of clones produced for menial labour by the last descendants of Earth.
Forced to aid the pirate Keldra’s obsessive campaign against the Worldbreakers in exchange for his life, Jonas discovers that humanity’s last hope might just be found in the very machines that have destroyed it.
I honed my writing skills while working in the computer games industry, and still sometimes call my protagonist the ‘player character’ by mistake. I enjoy interesting character drama against a backdrop of hard science fiction, and that’s what I aim to write. Outside of writing, my interests include computer games, tabletop roleplaying games, and going to the opera. I currently live in Vancouver, Canada.