Interview with Jack Skillingstead author of Life on the Preservation

Jack Skillingstead has produced a novel that is both thought-provoking and hugely entertaining. He was kind enough to answer a few questions about this fantastic book.

LIFE ON THE PRESERVATION (UK)

For those yet to read the book, could you give a brief outline of what ‘Life on the Preservation’ is about?

The city of Seattle is caught in an endless one-day time loop. A graffiti writer and painter named Ian Palmer periodically wakes up to the new reality but his efforts to sort it out are thwarted by the Curator, an alien presence inhabiting and, apparently, controlling the loop. Meanwhile, outside of Seattle, the world lies in apocalyptic ruin. A teenage girl named Kylie, one of only a handful of survivors, manages to penetrate the dome covering Seattle. When she and Ian find each other they eventually figure out the mystery. The novel is about alien intervention, outsider mindsets, the possibility that we make the worlds we live in, and sex. Honestly, it’s hard for me to reduce the book to a paragraph, but this is the gist of it.

 

You’ve managed to pack a huge amount of ideas into one novel – a post-apocalypse adventure, zombie automatons, an alien invasion as well as questions of an afterlife along with a deeply heartfelt love story – how did all this coalesce in your mind to form the novel?

LOTP began as a short story I wrote for Asimov’s and published back in 2006. This original version was much more straight forward than what the novel eventually became. I first began to think of doing an expanded version when a famous writer verbally critiqued the story for me at the Nebula Awards in Tempe, Arizona. He seemed to think the background was inadequately filled in. I didn’t agree, at least not in terms of the short story, but it started me thinking. In the Asimov’s story all the action takes place on the Seattle Preservation. Now I began asking myself questions about the world outside the dome. It occurred to me I could write a big science fiction adventure novel about alien invasion and the plucky survivors who reclaim their planet. I must have been out of my mind, because that is exactly the kind of book I would have little-to-no interest in writing. Nevertheless, I tried for about two years to make that concept work, gulled by visions of popular success. Finally, I gave up on that angle and surrendered to what the book really wanted to be, simply showing up at the keyboard every day to discover what came next. This approach allowed things to flow. Basically, I stopped trying so much and my unconscious began to deliver interesting stuff like the rejected androids that wander the blasted lands outside the dome — not zombies, but doomed and immortal simulacrums that had started the process of becoming self-aware. As for the love story between Ian and Kylie, that was the through line that was present from the very beginning, especially in the short story.

 

Your book has some similar mechanics as the movie ‘Groundhog Day’ – the notion of one day constantly revisited – which has become a cult classic, especially amongst Buddhists. Whilst very different to the movie, your novel considers the same idea of mistakes and learning to make the perfect day – what was the thinking behind your approach?

 

I’ve always been fascinated with the idea that the world isn’t what we think it is, that there is something going on behind the scenes. This is fertile ground for the imagination and mental illness — that perfect intersection where genius meets the guy in the straight jacket. What I liked about Groundhog Day was the dark stretch, where Bill Murray repeatedly tries to kill himself. He was desperate to get out.  In real life, if you want to call it that, I often have the sense of being trapped in a day that repeats with only minor variations. I doubt I’m alone in this feeling, but if I am then please issue me my straight jacket. Is all the world a stage, or are we nothing more than bags of self-deceiving brain chemicals? And can we chose which to believe? Does the truth matter, or just the belief? To reference another movie, think of John Murdock in Dark City.  Murdock discovers he can remake his world with the evolutionary power of “tuning.”  In Groundhog Day, Bill Murray transforms his relationship to the world, and so transforms the world itself.

 

 

The book’s main characters are all quite damaged in their own ways and the work deals with loss, isolation and death in an interesting way by suggesting that love can overcome all – could you explain a little about your intention here?

I don’t know if love can overcome all that stuff, but love is probably our most potent defence against fear. Damaged people tend to isolate themselves. It’s an emotional act of self-defence. There’s a great Stephen King story called, “All You Love Will Be Carried Away.” His character is a travelling salesman in the Midwest, trying to decide whether to kill himself in his crappy Motel 6 room. So, the damaged and isolated person’s response is: Don’t love anything, because if you do it will just be carried away. Isolated people develop crooked interior lives. They may believe they are seeing the truth of the world, but they probably aren’t. In the book, Father Jim’s ugly, guilt-twisted response to his sexual urges and Ian’s desperate isolation are counter pointed by his innocent love, and love-making, with Kylie. Does love overcome all? Probably not, but without love we are something less than human.

 

One of the novel’s characters is coloured by elements such as graffiti, his motorbike and Seattle – is there another type of love affair going on here?

Ian’s love affair with outlaw art is his way of not inhabiting any meaningful human relationships — those problematical relationships that experience has taught him will only be carried away and leave him broken-hearted. But it’s a fallacious idea that art can save you. The motorcycle belonged to Ian’s estranged father. While the father was building the thing in garage it was like a rival. Ian’s relationship to the bike is complicated.  As far as Seattle goes, what’s not to love? I should note that Ian’s neighbourhood landscape differs from the current reality. The building Ian lives in no longer exists, nor does Vivace’s — at least the one that Ian visits in the novel. Both have been supplanted by light rail construction, which is rapidly uglifying Capital Hill.

 

You’ve created an amazing cast of characters but you’ve also dealt with them as forms of consciousness (or spirits), able to cross time, reincarnate themselves and inhabit new life forms as themselves – could you explain your ideas on this a little more?

You could almost call the book “Who Am I And Does It Matter?” It wasn’t a conscious choice to explore this question, yet it’s all through the book. In subsequent, finer-grained drafts, I noticed this question recurring and deliberately worked it. My unconscious provided Ian’s “WHO” tag, but I more consciously decided how that would play out with the know WHO you are stencils, etc. In terms of identity, Charles Noble is the most interesting. As a human being he was a gay man from a small town, harassed and ostracized in all the usual ways until he took control of his life, changed his name, and moved to Seattle. The name he chooses — the identity — is that of a minor character in some novel. After he dies, the Curator begins using Noble’s body. The Curator was human-like in his original presentation. Then the Cloud “evolved” his entire race. The curator’s final physical form was that of a giant jellyfish thing, perfectly adaptable to space. After that, his transphysical evolution completed itself. When he begins using Noble’s body he is like a puppet master manipulating strings. But gradually he becomes more and more a part of the Charles Noble personality matrix. Here we have, let’s see,  seven fairly distinct identities inhabiting the one character.

 

With such a complex and layered novel, could you reveal a bit about your writing process – did you have to plot and plan extensively or was the process more organic in some ways?

I covered this a bit in one of your previous questions, I think. When I first decided to expand the short story to novel length I did try to plan. But my plans came to nothing, which is what usually happens. At the time I was worried about writing a popular novel and having that kind of success. I’d been publishing professionally for a few years and had plenty of writer friends who were more successful than I was, and it had started to bother me. Also, the story seemed to lend itself naturally to a Big Adventure kind of structure.  After two years of hand-banging labour on my so-called adventure novel, I knew that thing was dead-on-arrival. At that point I considered giving up. Instead, I started over from scratch, this time abandoning anything resembling a plan. Every day I simply sat down and wrote what happened next. When I got to the end I went back and rewrote. So it was another two years before I managed to find the novel in my unconscious and then fix it with my conscious editor (and the help of my wife and friends, who read various versions).

 

It’s fascinating how you managed to sketch in some huge concepts without getting caught up in the idea – how did you manage the details whilst keeping the story moving so brilliantly?

Though I am, at least nominally, a science fiction writer, the kind of Big Idea story that is a staple of our field holds only marginal interest for me. This is funny, since LOTP and my previous novel are both full of big ideas.  But those ideas are in the background. The Cloud is like God. You can’t really write about it directly. You can only explore it’s effect on the hearts and minds of your characters. I remember reading an Asimov novel in which there were no human characters. For me it was like dragging my attention through wet cement. Big Ideas are abstract, but human characters can transform the abstract to the personal. For me, smaller is bigger.

 

Finally, what is next for Jack Skillingstead?

Last year I wrote a reincarnation fantasy set in Las Vegas. It’s a YA, and my agent is currently shopping it around. Now I’m onto a new book, a kind of science fiction thriller based on my Sturgeon-nominated short story, “Dead Worlds.” In December I have a gig teaching a writing workshop on a cruise ship to the Bahamas. My wife and I did this last year and it was a blast.

 

Fearsome Journeys edited by Jonathon Strahan

Fearsome JourneysJonathan Strahan is an editor and anthologist. He co-edited The Year’s Best Australian Science-Fiction and Fantasy anthology series in 1997 and 1998. He as brought together an amazing array of the most popular and exciting names in epic fantasy are set to appear in the first in a brand new series of anthologies from the celebrated master anthologist Jonathan Strahan. Featuring original fiction authors such as Trudi Canavan, Daniel Abraham, Saladin Ahmed, Elizabeth Bear, Glen Cook, and Scott Lynch, many more exciting names will appear in this collection. From dragons to quests, cut-throats to warriors, battles and magic, the entire range of the fantastic is set to appear on this first Fearsome Journey!

Solaris set to publish Gideon’s Angel by Clifford Beal

GIDEON'S ANGEL

A former editor of Jane’s Defence Weekly, a magazine reporting on military and corporate affairs, Clifford Beal has produced a riotous novel in Gideon’s Angel. Set during the English Civil War and featuring demons, religion, magic, Freemasons, this historical adventure requires an old Cavalier to save the English throne from the Lord of Hell! Check out the blurb below…

It is 1653. Naive Royalists plot the downfall of Oliver Cromwell. But only one man knows the true enemy isn’t the Lord Protector – not when Satan is after the throne of England.

The English Civil War has ended with Cromwell now king in all but name. Many want him dead, including exiled royal officer, Richard Treadwell. But when the soldier-for-hire returns to England, he uncovers another plot to assassinate Cromwell that could bring a very different monarch to the throne – Satan himself! Treadwell must choose between avenging the family and fortune stolen from him and the future of his country – because in order to save England from the Devil, he is going to have to save Cromwell.

 Not to mention convincing a certain musketeer by the name of d’Artagnan that he should help him rather than drag him back to his would-be masters in France.

James Lovegrove returns to best selling ‘Pantheon’ series

AGE OF VOODOO

New York Times best seller James Lovegrove has returned to his popular Pantheon series with a stand-alone novel full of action packed, military sci-fi. A thematic series of related, but stand-alone novels, the Pantheon series addresses the theme of “men versus the gods” in different worlds, with different pantheons, offering different takes. All high-action military SF books, the series has presented an armed uprising against distant but
powerful Egyptian divinities, a high-powered slugfest between battle-
suited humans and super-heroic Greek gods, and a gritty, intimate firefight
between an infantry company and an army of ancient Norse giants.

Age of Voodoo looks set to be another great addition to the series as Lovegrove takes the reader to the Caribbean, where paradise isn’t exactly what it seems and a world lurking beneath the surface is waiting to be unleashed.

Lex Dove, retired British wetwork specialist, is quietly living in the Caribbean when he gets the call: one more mission where the money and risks are high. But he didn’t think that leading a US black ops team to an abandoned Cold War bunker would lead to the discovery of barely human monsters, created in a disastrous mix of science and voodoo. But if they can’t stop the clock, if they can’t contain the god deep in the earth, then those monsters are the least of their problems – because if his anger is released, the world
might not survive it!

 

Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris makes UK theatre debut

Solaris, Stanislaw Lem’s 1961 cult classic, will make its theatre debut in the UK this month. Directed by Dimitri Devdariani and performed by the Circa Luna Theatre Ltd and Rogue Biscuit Productions the play explores the philosophical story on human behaviour and psychology at the far side of the galaxy.

Aboard a scientific research station orbiting the planet Solaris, the plot follows psychologist Kris Kelvin, sent to the planet to study the ocean covering its surface. On arrival, he is confronted by a painful, hitherto unconscious memory, embodied in the physical likeness of a long-dead former lover. As other scientists aboard the ship appear to suffer similar torments, questions arise about what the “ocean” really is. Could it be a sophisticated organism capable of incarnating the memories? Can humans truly understand the universe around us without first understanding what lies within?

Check out www.ciralunatheatre.co.uk for more info

Monkeys, Ninjas and Zeppelins…

Gareth Powell’s latest novel, Ack Ack Macaque, is to be released by Solaris on the 3rd January in the UK (available in the US and Canad on 18th December.

I’ve not had much contact with steampunk novels but this sounds like a great way to get introduced to the sub-genre. And, anything that involves a gun-tooting monkey taking on Nazi Ninjas has to be worth a read.

Monkeys. Ninjas. Zeppelins. A science-fiction novel with a Steampunk sheen and a primate twist, Ack-Ack Macaque is a blisteringly fun SF masterpiece from master storyteller Gareth L. Powell.

In 1944, as waves of German ninjas parachute into Kent, Britain’s best hopes for victory lie with a Spitfire pilot codenamed ‘Ack-Ack Macaque.’ The trouble is he’s actually a cynical, one-eyed, cigar-chomping monkey, and he’s starting to doubt everything – including his own existence!

A century later, when nuclear-powered Zeppelins circle the globe, ex-journalist Victoria Valois is drawn into a deadly game with the man who killed her husband and stole her electronic soul, while the heir to the British throne goes on the run. Meanwhile, the doomsday clock ticks towards Armageddon…

 

Abaddon and Solaris Editor Jonathan Oliver talks about zombies, magic wands and e-novellas

Editor-in-chief of both Solaris and Abaddon Books, Jonathan Oliver took time out from his hectic schedule to talk about how he fell out of love with academia, found his place with Rebellion and started publishing the best pulp science fiction and horror novels around.

BSFA – Can you tell us a little about how you first got in editing graphic novels and what your background was that led you to work for Rebellion?

Jonathan Oliver – I was working for Taylor & Francis, an academic publishing house at the time when I saw an ad for an editor for a new line of genre fiction, and I saw that the email address was 2000AD. Having been a fan I thought that it was interesting. I applied for that job which was for the editor-in-chief position at Abaddon Books. When I took that job they also asked if I’d like to edit some of the graphic novels which I did for five years at the same time as setting up Abaddon. Then in 2009 Rebellion bought Solaris and I took that on as well.

What was it like working on both graphic novels and books?

There is a massive difference between the two. With graphic novels you are essentially collecting material that has already been published. So you are working with material that has been through an edit already. I was commissioning covers and we tried to add some extra, bonus material. With Abaddon everything was from scratch. We were a fairly small operation at the time so I was doing all the commissioning of covers, the editing, I’d be in all the sales meetings with the distributors and even the printer liaison. There was a hell of a lot more to do from the birth of the novel all the way through so it was a lot more involved.

You head up both Abaddon and Solaris imprints – how tough is it to juggle those two arms of Rebellion publishing?

It was a challenge when we took on Solaris in that it was a living list with a considerable back catalogue so had to ensure we kept stock levels up on that, carried on the authors who were successful for the line. It was twenty four more books a year so something had to give and it was the graphic novels.

What the hard and fast differences between Abaddon and Solaris?

With Abaddon it is work for hire in the shared worlds we’ve created, so the style of books we’re taking on are a little different, whereas Solaris is much more traditional publishing where the properties are owned by the authors and so working with slightly more high profile authors perhaps. We don’t really separate the two in the sense that there is an impermeable barrier. We do have authors that cross over and one of those is Al Ewing. I published his first novel and every single novel we work with him on is fantastic. He always surprises me and his books are always different so something I was keen to do when we took on Solaris was to give Al free reign, within reason, to write whatever he wanted. Eric Brown has even crossed over the other way and helped to launch our new series with Abaddon called Weird Space. There is a difference in that the mission statement for Abaddon is to create shared worlds and distinct flavours of fiction whereas Solaris’ remit is to publish the best in science fiction and horror.

Do you think pulp fiction is making a comeback or has it always been there, simmering away and is just a bit more accepted these days?

In some sense Abaddon or pulp fiction is looked at in the same way as tie-in fiction and that it is in some way inferior to ‘proper’ fiction which is quite plainly bollocks. Dr Who books operate on the same model and there have been some fantastic works there. Any writer worth his salt will do the best job they can. We were doing new pulp before it was cool. It’s never entirely gone away. Pulp fiction doesn’t mean bad fiction. There is a certain economy of style and rules that was inherited from the time but some of the best writing from the golden era of the 20’s,30’s and 40’s is some of the best fiction in the genre or indeed anywhere. In crime you’ve got pulp fiction writers such as Jim Thompson who produced incisive and brilliant literature and has been recognised as such. H.P Lovecraft came out of the pulp scene and is one of the most significant horror writers of any generation. Robert Howard is still being published and Fritz Leiber is another great writer and what they did helped spawn the modern genre fiction. I think Abaddon’s reaction to all these big epics was to take concise, exciting, punchy storytelling and show how big ideas can be used in a couple of hundred pages to the same effect. I wanted to use the term pulp because it is not a bad thing. Rather, it shows a commitment to storytelling.

You’ve also written two books – how tough is it to turn off the editor in your head and allow yourself to write?

I’m a slow writer. The difficulty isn’t in switching between the modes but in motivating myself to write. I deal with words all day long editing and reading so when I get home there is the desire to write but also the desire to play Xbox. The conflict is there in trying to make yourself work in a way. I do edit quite a lot as I go along. I don’t really bust through a novel and then take it apart and reconstruct it. I think the second novel was written in 300 word chunks during my lunch breaks but you write because you have to. You can procrastinate as much as you want to but eventually you’ll have to tell a story or two.

Has editing so many titles been a benefit in terms of your writing abilities – knowing what works and what doesn’t?

Of course. Any qualification for a writer is to read. Lots. All the time. You get out what you put in and as an editor you’re more aware of what works in fiction. But, obviously, that is different for every editor but that is fine because if we all agreed on things then genre fiction would be very bland. But we don’t all agree and that is why genre fiction in this country is so vibrant. But, basically, as a writer you know what works and as a reader you know if it works so really you have to read a lot.

Has the editing helped you market your own novels to a specific area – allowing you to see what may succeed or do you write the stories that just excite you?

The thing about publishing is that you can’t predict what will succeed. I think Stephen King was living in a caravan when he wrote Carrie and after he finished it, he threw it in the bin. It was only his wife taking it out and sending it to the publisher and, lo and behold, he had a best seller and became one of the most popular horror writers around. There’s no magic wand but what publishing is good at is following trends. But, the thing with trends is that they can end over night. So, I commission based on the story entertaining and moving me. Obviously you keep your commercial sense and you keep your eye on the market but really it is a case of picking stories that speak to you.

Both imprints have been at the forefront of the SF and Fantasy, publishing post-apocalypse and zombie novels before most – why do you think that is?

With the post-apocalypse Afterblight series for Abaddon we just thought about the kind of pulp fiction genres that we liked; it was as simple as that. Then we fleshed out the world with Simon Spurrier and now we’ve got a fascinating series going on. With the zombie novels the idea has always been fairly popular and we decided to try a series of zombie alternative historical novels but we quickly realised that the timeline and continuity for that would be a nightmare. So we decided to just publish unusual zombie stories like detective zombie stories, gangster zombies – all kinds of flavours and we’ve been doing as long as it’s been fun. We’re still doing zombie fiction but we’re also releasing some new series next year. We just publish what we like and zombies became a big thing. I think we must just be trend setters!

What do you think will be the next big theme/trope (after the zombie fever dies down)?

I really don’t know. There seems to be a rise in the popularity of ghost stories and I think there is a move towards more supernatural stories. Whether that is the next big thing is difficult to say. I do think vampires and werewolves will be around for a while though. Next year we are releasing a new series called Gods and Monsters, an urban fantasy series, launching with Chuck Wendig’s new book called Unclean Spirits. We’re continuing the Weird Space series with a new Eric Brown novel called Satan’s Reach. We’re also launching a new series based around the Robin Hood myth focusing on Guy of Gisborne with Toby Venables, the lead on that. And then we also have a series of novellas where we are experimenting with the form and we’ve had an open submission window recently as well as launching a line of children’s fiction under the Ravenstone banner. You know, business as usual.

What are your thoughts on the e-reader revolution? Do you think publishing is evolving with it properly or do you think we might see more self-publishing (and consequently less peer-review and less quality) emerging?

I think we’ll see a bit of both. I think publishing is evolving with it because it’s not doing what the music industry did with the digital revolution by sticky its fingers in its ears and pretending it will go away. We’re making sure we’ve kept our hand in and paid attention to it. We simultaneously publish everything in print and e-reader. E-readers are becoming an increasingly vital part of the business. Yes, you’ll see a rise in self-published books but what the quality of those books will be like will be questioned on the quality of the writer and whether they get a professional to edit their work. It is still a product and it has to convince the reader to buy their work. Digital books from the editorial and marketing point of view take just as much work as print do.

Do you think e-reader novels allow publishing houses to test new authors more easily (and economically)?

They are a great way to experiment. Obviously the one cost you don’t have with an e-novella is the physical cost of distribution. So in that sense you can experiment and maybe do something unusual that you might be unsure of in paperback. E-books open up more doors than it closes. I’ve seen people say it is the death of publishing but I think it is actually the evolution of publishing.