Please welcome Sylvain Neuvel to The Qwillery as part of the 2016 Debut Author Challenge Interviews. Sleeping Giants will be published on April 26th by Del Rey.
TQ: Welcome to The Qwillery. When and why did you start writing?
Sylvain: Ouch. I really don’t know when, and it was probably because I could. I remember writing little comic books and selling them to the neighbors for fifty cents so I could buy candy. I went on a radio show when I was ten after won a poetry contest in school and they asked me that same question. I had no idea then either. Writing is… well it’s there, it’s free. I could say something like “I’ll die if I don’t write” but the best thing about writing is that it will never be a problem. Well, you need a pen, but until the great pen shortage of 2028, I should be fine.
TQ: Are you a plotter, a pantser or a hybrid?
Sylvain: I’m either a rebel plotter or a chicken pantster. I start with the key moments of the book. For me, that’s usually three or four strong visuals more than actual plot points – wide shot of a little girl in a giant hand, that sort of thing. I structure the plot around those, break things down into scenes, and choose a point of view for each. There will be some holes here and there, some chapter descriptions will be just one word, maybe an emotion. Once I have enough to feel safe, I start writing. Parts of my plan will get upgraded with seat-of-the-pants technology, but the gist of it is still there in the end.
TQ: What is the most challenging thing for you about writing?
Sylvain: Time. For now, I have a day job, I also have a six-year-old boy. During the week, I get an hour or two of writing after he goes to bed. I try to work as much as I can on the weekends. I also try to spend quality time with the family, fix whatever needs fixing in our 125-year-old house, read a little. Every time I sit in front of the computer, there’s a lot of pressure to perform. I’m not complaining, I love what I do, but for now, time is the most challenging thing in my life.
TQ: What has influenced / influences your writing?
Sylvain: So many things. Movies, books, lots of movies, science. Oh, and the space program. I grew up with Star Wars and Star Trek, Alien and Close Encounter of the Third Kind. Dune really blew my mind. I also read a lot of Tom Clancy and Le Carré when I was younger. Of all the books that left a mark, Les Liaisons dangereuses is probably my favorite. My generation was the first to have home computers and I was born a year after the start of the space shuttle program. I remember my elementary school teacher cancelling the class so we could watch news coverage of the Challenger accident. Now, I get email alerts when the ISS is visible from my house and we all watch it go by. I live in a time where the brightest spot in the night sky is something we made. How cool is that? So once in a while I look up and I wonder what else is out there. I’m nothing is not a product of my upbringing (That’s a Farscape quote, btw.)
TQ: You have a Ph.D. in linguistics. Does this affect or not the way you use words in your writing?
Sylvain: I’m not sure. It’s an interesting question. My dissertation is about a non-concatenative theory of morphology based on West Greenlandic (Kalaallisut) examples, so, obviously, I don’t get to apply that particular knowledge directly. But how much does understanding the mechanics of something affect how you use it? Does a mechanical engineer drive differently? I don’t know. I can tell you, for example, that some of the humor in conversations with the interviewer is based on him either failing to decode or purposely ignoring conversational implicatures. Would I have written things differently if I didn’t know that? No idea.
TQ: Describe Sleeping Giants in 140 characters or less.
Sylvain: A young girl falls into the palm of a giant metal hand. What is it? Who made it? This is a hunt for truth, power, and giant body parts.
TQ: Tell us something about Sleeping Giants that is not found in the book description.
Sylvain: Everyone dies at the end. Kidding. Or am I? Seriously, the book asks some interesting philosophical and moral questions, but it’s also a lot of fun. There’s humor throughout and it’s riddled with pop culture references. Some are obvious, others will only be apparent to the hardcore fans of whatever I was paying homage to. I can’t wait to see how many will find them.
TQ: What inspired you to write Sleeping Giants? What appeals to you about writing Science Fiction?
Sylvain: I love the science part in science fiction. It’s about what could be. A few years ago, researchers at MIT created a drug that identifies cells that have been infected by a virus, any virus, and destroys them to stop the infection. In theory, it could work against all viruses. That would have made great science fiction twenty years ago, now it’s just great science. I love that. I’m a geek. My son sleeps in a Raptor from BSG, and my laundry room is a spaceship in the making. I have a life-size Darth Vader in my office, more toys than I can count.
That’s sort of how Sleeping Giants came to be. I asked my son if he’d like me to make him a toy robot. He had way too many questions about it – Where is it from? Who made it? What does it do? – and I told him I’d have to think about it. Some time later, we were watching Goldorak (Grendizer in English, it’s a Japanese anime about a giant robot from outer space) and I started imagining what it would be like if we really found giant alien artifacts somewhere. That’s how it started.
TQ: What sort of research did you do for Sleeping Giants?
Sylvain: I did more research for that book than I did for my Ph.D. I love science, but Rose (the scientist in the book) knows a hell of a lot more than me. I do my best to keep up with her. I also knew nothing of the military world when I started this. I spent so much time looking at helicopter specs, explosive yields and close-up maps of Syria, I probably have a file with every government agency by now. I compared evidence on conspiracy sites to find the most likely location for a hidden base. I researched everything, from airport runways, to where you could smoke. I even read restaurant reviews to find out what’s good where the characters eat.
TQ: Who was the easiest character to write and why? The hardest and why?
Sylvain: They’re all really fun to write. The interviewer is a bit tricky but he’s the one I look forward to the most. Kara is probably the easiest. She’s nothing like me, but she comes naturally, somehow. Rose is probably the hardest, just because she knows a lot of things I don’t. Every time she opens her mouth, I have to read a dozen science papers.
TQ: Which question about Sleeping Giants do you wish someone would ask? Ask it and answer it!
Sylvain: Tough one. How about this? You mentioned how much research you did for Sleeping Giants. Is there something in the book that you know to be inaccurate?
Yes! And I’m happy that there is. Early in the book, Kara says: “The US military doesn’t allow women in combat or special operations.” It was true when I wrote it, and it’s still mostly true, but in 2013 Barack Obama asked the Pentagon to open all military jobs to women who meet the gender-neutral requirements for it, and that went into effect at the beginning of this year. That doesn’t mean women who want to serve in special ops aren’t in for some tough times. They are probably, for the most part, unwelcome, and I’m in awe at anyone able, or even willing to put up with what they’ll have to go through. Still, at least in theory, women can now be Marines, Green Berets, Rangers, SEALs, whatever. In an ideal world, I’d rather see the military closed off to everyone because we don’t need it, but we don’t live in an ideal world, and I think the message this decision sends to our collective subconscious is more important than we might realize. Go Kara!
TQ: Give us one or two of your favorite non-spoilery quotes from Sleeping Giants.
"- I'm just saying, these things are buried in the dirt. The reason for that might be slightly less romantic than what we’re all hoping for… "
“- I believe the words he used to describe you were: obdurate, volatile, and irascible. He has quite the vocabulary.
- He plays a lot of Scrabble.”
“- I am not a physicist, as you know, but . . .
- I don’t know anything about you. - Well, now you know I am not a physicist.”
TQ: What's next?
Sylvain: I’m editing book two of the Themis Files, tinkering with book three. I’m really excited about where this series is going. I have some crazy ideas I have absolutely no time to develop, so my collection of napkin notes is growing rapidly. Since I wrote Sleeping Giants because of my son, I also have this idea about an illustrated kid version in the back of my head. Someday, maybe. For now, I’m too busy counting the days until April 26.
TQ: Thank you for joining us at The Qwillery.
Sylvain: Thank you for having me.
Del Rey, April 26, 2016
Hardcover and eBook, 320 pages
A page-turning debut in the tradition of Michael Crichton, World War Z, and The Martian,Sleeping Giants is a thriller fueled by an earthshaking mystery—and a fight to control a gargantuan power.
A girl named Rose is riding her new bike near her home in Deadwood, South Dakota, when she falls through the earth. She wakes up at the bottom of a square hole, its walls glowing with intricate carvings. But the firemen who come to save her peer down upon something even stranger: a little girl in the palm of a giant metal hand.
Seventeen years later, the mystery of the bizarre artifact remains unsolved—its origins, architects, and purpose unknown. Its carbon dating defies belief; military reports are redacted; theories are floated, then rejected.
But some can never stop searching for answers.
Rose Franklin is now a highly trained physicist leading a top secret team to crack the hand’s code. And along with her colleagues, she is being interviewed by a nameless interrogator whose power and purview are as enigmatic as the provenance of relic. What’s clear is that Rose and her compatriots are on the edge of unraveling history’s most perplexing discovery—and figuring out what it portends for humanity. But once the pieces of the puzzle are in place, will the result prove to be an instrument of lasting peace or a weapon of mass destruction?
Sylvain Neuvel dropped out of high school at age fifteen. Along the way, he has been a journalist, worked in soil decontamination, sold ice cream in California, and peddled furniture across Canada. He received a Ph.D. in linguistics from the University of Chicago. He taught linguistics in India and worked as a software engineer in Montreal. He is also a certified translator though he wishes he were an astronaut. He likes to tinker, dabbles in robotics, and is somewhat obsessed with Halloween. He absolutely loves toys; his girlfriend would have him believe that he has too many, so he writes about aliens and giant robots as a blatant excuse to build action figures (for his son, of course).