Please welcome Amber Royer to The Qwillery, as part of the 2018 Debut Author Challenge Interviews. Free Chocolate was published on June 5th by Angry Robot.
TQ: Welcome to The Qwillery. What is the first fiction piece you remember writing?
Amber: Thanks for having me!
I’ve always been interested in writing and storytelling. You can probably thank my mom for that, because she made sure I was enrolled in the local library’s summer reading club from before I even started school. And my brother, who’s five years older, was into role playing games, so from pretty early on, if I wanted to get to hang out with him and his friends, imagination and storytelling ability were key.
I don’t remember it clearly, but apparently I wrote a story in first grade that my teacher, Mrs. Russel, thought was good enough that she told my mom to encourage me. I remember more in the fourth grade, when we did story assignments and my teacher pointed out that writers were real people, and it was something anyone could aspire to. (Author visits are important too, you guys – you never know who you’ll inspire to write!)
Ironically, the first thing I wrote where I can remember much about the plot was after I had had a fight with my brother, and I imagined a city where you were only allowed to have sisters (never having had a sister, eight-ish year old me had no idea that that wouldn’t have solved anything).
TQ: Are you a plotter, a pantser or a hybrid?
Amber: I like to think of myself as a recovered pantser turned mega-plotter. You should see the Wiki file I have built for the Chocoverse. I have entries for every alien planet I’m planning to mention for the entire series, and for every named character I’ve introduced. I have a lexicon for the language Brill speaks, and one for the Zantites. I have mocked-up charts for the relative locations of these planets in space, and maps of the ones I’m planning for Bo to visit.
I really believe that the more planning you do at the beginning, the less re-writing you’ll have to do overall. I’ve tried editing some of the manuscripts from when I was a complete discovery writer, and I find myself looking at strings of cool scenes that are each fine on their own, but don’t necessarily add up to a plot. And some of these manuscripts were things I’d re-envisioned two or three times. Understanding the mechanics behind what you’re building, structurally speaking, lets you engineer the story for maximum emotional impact.
TQ: What is the most challenging thing for you about writing?
Amber: Finding the right place to begin a story has always been hardest for me. I usually start too far in and find myself referring to the most important events in the book as backstory. And then I wind up going back and writing the beginning, which is a blessing in a way, because by then I really know who my characters are, but sometimes I’ll overshoot the natural start point and wind up having to trash the “first” two or three chapters.
TQ: What has influenced / influences your writing?
Amber: Obviously, there are a ton of books that have influenced me, but can we talk for a minute about old movies? I’m talking black and white classics, where they couldn’t do much in the way of special effects, so it all came down to the acting and the dialogue. Some friends and I were talking about this recently, and I came to the conclusion that some of the stuff I stumbled on as a teenager/twenty-something with access to the classic movie channels helped shape (and perhaps warp) my sense of humor.
The Road Movies – I was re-watching one of these adventure stories with Bob Hope and Bing Crosby recently, and it struck me how similar the tone is to what I’ve been doing with Free Chocolate. One minute, Bing and Bob are arguing over something completely ridiculous (and it usually comes down to a joke about Bob’s nose or Bing’s ears) and the next, they’re in the middle of a fight for their lives. There’s tons of meta references (like the opening song to Road to Morocco, when they’re betting they’ll run into actress Dorothy Lamour -- because they always do, or when something they usually do to get out of a fight doesn’t work, and one of the guys guesses that the bad guy has seen the previous films) and over-the-top plot twists, but they commit to the formula, and so it works. Man. Come to think of it, can we just start calling Free Chocolate a Galactic Road Movie in Book Form?
The Thin Man – One trope I LOVE is socially mis-matched heroes and heroines who banter and face danger and acknowledge how being different from each other can cause conflict, but underneath it all really love and protect each other. You’ll see it pop up in a lot of my work, Free Chocolate included. To me, the original model for this is Nick and Nora Charles, the crime-fighting duo in The Thin Man movies. She’s a socialite and he’s a now-retired private detective. Nora married Nick because his work as a private detective made him exciting. He’s suddenly got money, but is now out of his element and bored without his previous justice-seeking purpose. So when the opportunity to solve a case together arises, we get to see the mechanics of their relationship and the “rightness” of them being together as a couple. While the specifics in the relationships in Free Chocolate are completely different, I hope you can see hints of this type/trope.
Arsenic and Old Lace – This was offbeat and quirky in its time period, but it has endured as a classic, and I think part of the reason for that is, even though it’s a comedy, it didn’t skimp on the development of the character relationships and backstory. A lot of the time, comedy equates to throw-away jokes and inconsistent worldbuilding, but when you enter the Brewster home, you really feel like Mortimer is coming home to a place he his highly ambivalent about. This is a comedy of a normal person surrounded by eccentrics, and it is because of how well he knows the eccentrics that allows us to get just a glimpse of the pain inside them before returning to the humorous tone. There’s some grim dark stuff here. Think about the scene where Mortimer’s brother remarks that their aunt Martha – who is standing right there – that she always wears high collars, “to hide the scar where Grandfather's acid burned you.” That could have been drawn out in a flashback with agonizing detail, or we could have been shown the scars, but Martha just subtly touches the collar, acknowledging her backstory, and we move on. There are a couple of grim things that happen in Free Chocolate as well, but I hope I’ve developed it well enough that you can just glimpse the edges of the darkness and bounce back to the comic tone.
TQ: Describe Free Chocolate in 140 characters or less.
Amber: Telenovela drama meets space opera stakes in an action-packed novel where the galaxy’s hungry for the one thing Earth won’t share: chocolate.
TQ: Tell us something about Free Chocolate that is not found in the book description.
Amber: When developing the alien races, I gave Brill’s people color changing eyes, but I didn’t want it to be just random or cosmetic. If I was going to include something like that because I was playing with a trope, it needed to be relevant to the plot, so when you see Brill with lavender eyes on the cover, it’s not just to match Bo’s dress. The chromashift reveals Brill’s emotions, so when they’re that color, it means he’s really happy. Or, if they’ve shifted through a certain shade of pink to get to the lavender, that he’s just told a huge lie. So when I first got to see the cover art, I took one look at him and thought, yep, liar!
This is why sunglasses are illegal on his planet. And why he’s one of my favorite characters I’ve ever written.
TQ: What inspired you to write Free Chocolate? What appeals to you about writing Space Opera?
Amber: There are so many things that went into bringing this idea together, but one sparking point was an article I read years and years ago about the history of coffee. A summary of that article can be found in Free Chocolate – only I slide from true history (how the guy who smuggled coffee plants back to Europe nearly got thrown overboard when everyone found out he’d been sharing his limited water rations with a couple of specks of greenery) – into a huge what if (aliens landed and bought coffee plants on the internet, and now the best coffee is grown on the other side of the galaxy.)
Several people have asked why I didn’t write it as historical fiction, based on that true story. There are several reasons. First, while I’m playing with history and human nature, I don’t want to wind up judging history or specific historic people. I wasn’t there. I don’t know the complexities. I’m a history fan, not a historian. Second, that one account is just a jumping off point for the story I want to tell. Honestly, Free Chocolate is just the jumping off point for what I want to do with the Chocoverse. What’s happening on the space opera scale of it is complex and hidden (this is intended to be telenovela in book form, so expect dramatic confessions and secrets brought to light) and Bo’s assumptions about her world and her place in it will be tested at every turn. I needed it to be space opera to give me a big enough canvas to work with. Book two, Pure Chocolate, has already been completed, and I’ve just been discussing the cover art for that one with Angry Robot. I’m just hoping enough people like the universe I’ve created that I get to tell you guys the whole story!
In general, space opera has always appealed to me because I like stories with strong characters and actively arcing character relationships. I also like the fact that you can focus on the story over the science. As long as you establish something right from the beginning, people are a lot friendlier when you do handwavium (giving a weak reason why something works in your ‘verse when physics or biology would find it improbable in the real world) than they are with “hard” science fiction. There’s also a huge tradition to reference and build on.
TQ: What sort of research did you do for Free Chocolate?
Amber: Before I wrote Free Chocolate, I did a chocolate-related cookbook to sell at events we were doing for the local herb society. The cookbook is currently out of print (though we are toying with the idea of expanding and re-releasing it) but a lot of the research I did for that cross-applied. The idea for the cookbook was sparked when we were in the Dominican Republic and got to tour a Cacao Plantation and came home with gorgeous photos of cacao pods and trees, and I built on that to explore how chocolate was used in both sweet and savory recipes from around the world.
I did more research specifically for Free Chocolate on chocolate production equipment, and I found out the hard way that most craft chocolate makers consider their process a carefully guarded secret and do not take kindly to requests for tours. So we made a couple of attempts at doing bean-to-bar chocolate in our kitchen, and went to the Dallas Chocolate Festival (not that we wouldn’t have gone again anyway), where the people selling small-scale processing equipment were more than happy to answer our choco-questions.
Shout out to the Dallas Chocolate Festival, and chocolate festivals in general: They are a great resource for learning about all aspects of chocolate, from the botany to the industry. And the vendors all bring samples -- and are happy to tell you what makes their particular chocolate special.
What you can tell from all of this: I’m obviously a very visual hands-on learner, and sometimes I pick up ideas that take years to percolate into something usable. When I can’t actually be there to experience what something feels/smells/tastes like or fire up a burner to try re-creating something at home, I turn to video first.
Parts of Free Chocolate are set in Brazil, near Rio, and while I’ve been in the rainforest, I’ve never been in THAT rainforest, so I watched a lot of YouTube video on what it sounds like there, and which animals you’re actually likely to run into.
I also did a lot of internet searches and library research. There were tons of little things I wasn’t sure about. How does sand act in an earthquake? Are there natural sources for salt in the rainforest? What happens to the human body if it is rapidly depressurized in space? Why don’t artificial lungs currently exist? The list goes on . . .
At the same time, this is science fiction, with aliens from a variety of planets. So there’s quite a bit of tech, botany, language and such that I flat out made up.
TQ: Please tell us about the cover for Free Chocolate.
Amber: The artist is Mingchen Shen. He is amazing! Angry Robot came up with the concept for the cover as a splash poster, like you would see for a new telenovela series coming out. So while it’s not a specific scene, it does give the flavor of the ‘verse. You have Bo and Brill, both looking thoughtful, and one of the Zantites looming over them. I love it! Brill looks just young enough and arrogant enough, and Bo looks perfectly paparazzi-princess glam.
TQ: In Free Chocolate who was the easiest character to write and why? The hardest and why?
Amber: I’d have to say the easiest – and most fun -- was Chestla. She’s the RA at Bo’s cooking school – and an alpha predator on her home planet. Chestla’s the eternal optimist in Bo’s life, fierce and protective, and her outlook hasn’t been darkened by the tragic elements in her backstory. Her role in this first book was fairly straightforward, so she didn’t have a lot of complex moral decisions to struggle through. It was easy to figure out what she would do in any given situation, and her dialogue was a blast to write.
Frank was the hardest, and if I told you why . . . spoilers, darling, spoilers.
TQ: Which question about Free Chocolate do you wish someone would ask? Ask it and answer it!
Amber: Do you ever include “Easter Eggs” for your friends?
TOTALLY! I love that element of surprise and joy that comes when someone spots something in your work that is just for them. For instance, there’s a reptilian newscaster in Free Chocolate. He’s a minor character, and his name doesn’t really matter, so I named him after my nephew’s leopard gecko, Blizzard. It’s a minor thing, but it becomes a fun running gag. Throughout the series, you’ll catch glimpses of Blizzard and Feddoink in the Morning – because it’s always morning somewhere.
TQ: Give us one or two of your favorite non-spoilery quotes from Free Chocolate.
Amber: When Brill (Bo’s boyfriend who happens to be from Krom, the planet that took samples of Earth’s resources at First Contact) first meets Frank (Mamá’s boyfriend, who apparently knew Bo’s deceased father), Frank implies that Krom as a species are untrustworthy. This is Brill, turning the tables while letting the reader in on a bit of worldbuilding, as he explains how the chromashift in his eyes works. Because Krom are nothing if not respectful, he’s using the term human rather than Earthling.
Those patterns are as important to Krom non-verbal communication as body language – and just as telling. Brill’s eyes right now are bright blue, tinged toward violet, showing he’s happy and a little amused as he says, “That’s a good question, Mr. Sawyer. Not many humans are that observant.” He leans forward and drops his voice, as though he’s sharing a particularly juicy secret. “We can lie, but it takes practice. The part of our brains that shunts chemicals to the iris is buried deep in the subconscious. You concentrate on an old memory until you believe that the memory – the lie – is more important than the present. Much the same way humans lie, I believe.”
TQ: You are marooned on a distant planet, which types of chocolate would you want to have with you and why?
Amber: That depends entirely on what you mean by marooned.
If you’re saying that my hypothetical spaceship’s been boarded by the more compassionate form of space pirate (you know – the ones who don’t just space everyone on board when they take a ship) and left somewhere without refrigeration, I’d want Mexican-style drinking chocolate (Abulita’s or Tazo) and Peanut M&Ms.
Chocolate in candy-bar form doesn’t do well with heat or moisture. Serious Eats says, “Chocolate keeps best between 65 and 70°F, away from direct sunlight, and protected from moisture.” This is because once chocolate melts, it loses its temper (that quality that allows it to snap when you break it) and becomes kind of bleh. This is one reason that, before electric refrigeration became common, most chocolate was produced in Europe, where the colder temperatures allowed for chocolate to be processed in ways that just didn’t make sense in the regions where the beans are grown. Before THAT, “eating” chocolate didn’t exist, because chocolate that’s been ground has a bit of grit to it.
Mexican-style chocolate disks (also known as stone-ground chocolate disks or tablets) are super-sturdy, don’t melt easily, are usually spiced with cinnamon -- and it doesn’t matter a whit if the ambient temperature gets a bit high, because they are meant to be dissolved into hot liquid and drunk. Which could go a long way towards making questionable water on an alien planet – which would need to be boiled anyway – more palatable.
M&Ms solve the melt problem differently. They just let it happen, and count on the candy coating to maintain the shape once the chocolate hardens again. In fact, they were designed as a non-meltable field ration during WWI. They also have a tradition in space, according to the Smithsonian Magazine:
“The most common form of chocolate flown today and throughout the 35-year history of the space shuttle program is M&Ms—or as NASA refers to them, “candy-coated chocolates”. Even now, M&Ms are part of the standard menu for astronauts serving stints aboard the International Space Station (ISS). Small volumes of the colorful candies are prepared in clear, nondescript packaging for each mission. . . . In many ways, M&Ms are the perfect space snack. They are bite-sized and, unlike other candies and foods, aren’t likely to crumble. “M&Ms are singular pieces that you can eat very easily, and you can eat multiples of them at one time. And because you’re not likely to bite one in half, you won’t make a mess,” Levasseur says.”
I’d choose the peanut ones if I was marooned without expectation of rescue, because that would offer a safe source of protein in a potentially hostile environment.
BUT if by marooned you mean that I’ve somehow fallen in with irresponsible friends who have ditched me without cash on a random planet, I’d want Ferrero Rocher. LOTS of Ferrero Rocher. The gold wrapping looks luxe, and in a number of real-world cultures both inside and outside the company’s native Europe, these candies have a reputation as a symbol of hospitality. It feels like that might translate, if I needed to show good intentions when say, begging for a ride, or explaining to the local authorities how I wound up on said planet in the first place. They’re also lightweight, individually wrapped and can be bought in their own crush-proof plastic cases. And if worst comes to worst, and I had to survive on them until I could figure out a better plan, the hazelnuts in the mix would at least be SOME protein.
I know none of the products I’ve described are the single-source craft chocolate bars you were probably expecting for an answer. I’ll tell you a secret. While I can chocolate-snob with the best of them (My husband and I attended a chocolate tasting recently where the presenters accidentally mixed up two of the samples, and we were like “there’s no way this is Amano, because this doesn’t match their flavor style” – and it wasn’t) and I LOVE a good single-source bar, I like certain grocery-store candy bars too (especially if they involve peanuts, hazelnuts or peanut butter.)
TQ: What's next?
Amber: Pure Chocolate will be coming May of next year. I had a ton of fun writing it, because it was a chance to crash all my favorite characters from Free Chocolate together in different ways, and move their arcs forward while giving them a chance to save the entire galaxy. You’ll get to visit several of the secondary characters’ home planets. If you like the first one, I think you’ll love Bo’s second adventure.
TQ: Thank you for joining us at The Qwillery.
Amber: Thank you for having me. I really enjoyed such thoughtful questions.
Angry Robot, June 5, 2018
Trade Paperback and eBook, 448 pages
In the far future, chocolate is Earth’s sole unique product – and it’s one that everyone else in the galaxy would kill to get their hands, paws, and tentacles on
Latina culinary arts student, Bo Benitez, becomes a fugitive when she’s caught stealing a cacao pod from the heavily-defended plantations that keep chocolate, Earth’s sole valuable export, safe from a hungry galaxy. Forces arraying against her including her alien boyfriend and a reptilian cop. But when she escapes onto an unmarked starship things go from bad to worse: it belongs to the race famed throughout the galaxy for eating stowaways. Surrounded by dangerous yet hunky aliens, Bo starts to uncover clues that the threat to Earth may be bigger than she first thought.
File Under: Science Fiction [ Heiress Apparent | Sticky Fingers | Pod People | The Milky Way ]
Amber Royer teaches enrichment and continuing education creative writing classes for teens and adults. She spent five years as a youth librarian, where she organized teen writers’ groups and teen writing contests. In addition to two cookbooks co-authored with her husband, Amber has published a number of articles on gardening, crafting and cooking for print and on-line publications.