Please welcome Robyn Bennis to The Qwillery as part of the 2017 Debut Author Challenge Interviews. The Guns Above , the first Signal Airship Novel, was published on May 2nd by Tor Books.
TQ: Welcome to The Qwillery. When and why did you start writing?
Robyn: I started writing in grade school, because I needed somewhere to put all the ideas that didn't fit inside my head. I mean, it's a pretty large head—people at movie theaters often complain—but I would be sitting in class, dreaming up so many worlds and fanciful situations that I couldn't keep track of them all without writing them down. Of course, that gradually evolved into writing actual stories.
TQ: Are you a plotter, a pantser or a hybrid?
Robyn: I'm a plotter, and I plot hard. That's not just a glib response, it's also going to be the tagline if they ever make an action movie about me.
I won't start chapter one unless I have a full, scene-by-scene outline prepared and annotated. Sometimes I have to deviate from it, but it's always there when I need it, waiting to bring me home. (That'll be the tagline of the sequel.)
TQ: What is the most challenging thing for you about writing?
Robyn: Like many writers, the hardest part for me is sitting down and doing the thing I love more than almost anything else in the world. It's weird, right? Getting the next scene started is often one of the hardest challenges a writer faces.
If I may be allowed to play amateur psychologist for a moment, I believe it's because writing is very much an exercise in free association. You have to open up every corridor of your mind and let whatever's in there spill out, to be poked at and combined until the right words present themselves.
Now, once I get going, there's no stopping me, because it's a fun exercise and I love my characters. But getting into that state—going through the transition period between the protected mind of daily life and the wide open mind of creativity—is stressful, and it's easy to develop an aversion to stressful things, even if they lead you straight to something you love.
TQ: What has influenced / influences your writing?
Robyn: Oh, finally someone has asked that question without the word "literary" stuck in there! I've been waiting for this chance to reveal the true font of my writing: my family. They are the wildest, weirdest, rottenest bunch of miscreants and lawbreakers that you'll ever meet, and they are collectively my muse.
TQ: Describe The Guns Above in 140 characters or less.
Robyn: I'll do you one better! I'll describe it with less than 140 characters, in haiku.
Explosions and wit.
That Lady Captain shot me.
Don't you love airships?
TQ: Tell us something about The Guns Above that is not found in the book description.
Robyn: I had a blast writing it. I set out to make the sort of military fiction I enjoy reading, like Hornblower, Aubrey-Maturin, and the Sharpe series, and I loved almost every minute of writing it. I'm not sure many authors can say that about their novels, so I consider myself a very lucky book-momma.
TQ: What inspired you to write The Guns Above? What appeals to you about writing what your publisher describes as "military fantasy"?
Robyn: I've often answered this by citing Poe's "Great Balloon Hoax", but my inspiration also stems from a story I wrote years ago. The only things my beta readers liked about it were the dialogue and the action scenes, which they absolutely adored. So I thought, "Well, what kinds of books have a lot of both?" The rest is history. Somewhere along the line, I must have gotten good at plotting and character, or I wouldn't have been picked up by Tor, but the genesis was simply a desire to write a lot of what I'm best at.
TQ: What sort of research did you do for The Guns Above?
Robyn: Wow. What research didn't I do? Because I did all the research. Everything from reading old War Department airship manuals from cover to cover, to actually going up in a real Zeppelin—the Eureka, flying out of Moffett Field in Mountain View, California. I purchased or borrowed every book I could find on airships and airship service, and I spent months with my nose in them, taking notes and doing my own calculations on ballast, horsepower, and estimated top speeds of various airframe and engine combinations. And let me tell you, I was in heaven.
TQ: Please tell us about The Guns Above's cover.
Robyn: It's beautiful, isn't it? That is one of the most gorgeous covers I have ever seen, and I'm still having trouble believing that it's on my book. I cannot thank Tommy Arnold enough for his work on it. His art captured Josette and Bernat so perfectly that they could have been ripped from my own mind.
The scene it depicts is near the end of the book, so I won't spoil the context, but readers will know it when they get there. Then they can turn back to the cover and just gawk at it for a while, before reading on.
TQ: In The Guns Above who was the easiest character to write and why? The hardest and why?
Robyn: Josette was the easiest, which is odd now that I think of it. She's just about my opposite, a woman of action and resolve. Yet, all I have to do is let her loose, and she practically writes herself. I guess there must be a small part of Josette hiding in me, like the wolf hiding in every dog.
The hardest character was the ornery bitch herself, His Majesty's Signal Airship Mistral. The ship is very much a character in The Guns Above. It has its own sort of personality, quirks, and habits. That was tough to pull off, to give life and depth to a mere thing. It took a lot of work, but I think I managed it pretty nicely.
TQ: Which question about The Guns Above do you wish someone would ask? Ask it and answer it!
Robyn: The question I wish someone would ask is, "How many mansions did you buy with the money from this book?" Or, I suppose, I wish someone had cause to ask that.
My answer would be, "So many mansions I've lost count. I haven't even been inside most of them, you know. I just use them to store the cryogenically frozen bodies of all the celebrities I've hunted for sport. Why cryogenically freeze them? So that I may revive them and hunt them again and again, over the next ten thousand years."
Hey, I can dream, right?
TQ: Give us one or two of your favorite non-spoilery quotes from The Guns Above.
Robyn: Here's one of my favorite moments from the first half of the book:
“Private Corne, what the hell are you doing?”
Corne looked up from the pigeons, but continued to rattle their cages with both hands. “Er, Corporal Lupien told me I had to keep the pigeons flying, so we’d be light enough to stay in the air, sir. He said we’ll crash if more than half of them land at once.”
Despite the noise of the engine and the airscrews, Bernat could hear snickering coming from the hurricane deck.
“And you believed him?” Dupre asked.
Corne swallowed. “Er—no, sir.”
She put her hand on her hip and took a deep breath. “Then why are you harassing those birds, man?”
“Well, you see, sir, he is my superior, sir. That and, well, better safe than sorry?”
Dupre seemed to consider this. “Very well, Private. Carry on.” She walked aft along the catwalk.
Bernat followed. “You’re just going to let him keep at it?”
“Well, I don’t want the ship to crash.”
TQ: What's next?
Robyn: My editor, Diana Pho, and I are currently polishing up the sequel. Tentatively named By Fire Above, it will continue the adventure and delve deeper into some of the characters. Beyond that, I'm trying not to think too hard about my next steps. I just want a chance to catch up on my reading, to be honest. Over the past couple years, I've gotten hooked on some amazing novel series by Geonn Cannon, Garrett Calcaterra, S. Usher Evans, Jacqueline Koyanagi, and Suzanne Lazear, but haven't had the free time to finish them, which is a kind of torture.
TQ: Thank you for joining us at The Qwillery.
Robyn: Thank you for having me!
The Guns Above
A Signal Airship Novel 1
Tor Books, May 2, 2017
Hardcover and eBook, 352 pages
In the tradition of Honor Harrington and the high-flying Temeraire series, Bennis’s THE GUNS ABOVE is an adventurous military fantasy debut about a nation's first female airship captain.
They say it’s not the fall that kills you.
For Josette Dupre, the Corps’ first female airship captain, it might just be a bullet in the back.
On top of patrolling the front lines, she must also contend with a crew who doubts her expertise, a new airship that is an untested deathtrap, and the foppish aristocrat Lord Bernat, a gambler and shameless flirt with the military know-how of a thimble. Bernat’s own secret assignment is to catalog her every moment of weakness and indecision.
So when the enemy makes an unprecedented move that could turn the tide of the war, can Josette deal with Bernat, rally her crew, and survive long enough to prove herself?
“Full of sass and terrific characters. Great storytelling. Loved it.” —Patricia Briggs
ROBYN BENNIS works in biotech but dreams of airships. She lives in Mountain View, CA, within sight of the historic Hangar One at Moffett Airfield. The Guns Above is her debut novel. You can learn more about Robyn Bennis at http://www.robynbennis.com or follow her @according2robyn and RobynBennisWriteringPun on Facebook.