Wednesday, March 7, 2012
Writer interview - Greta van der Rol - the saga continues
I feel very privileged to have Greta back at Mind Lively, especially on the heels of a new book. Our previous interview took place eight months ago, and this fantastic author shows no signs of slowing down. She continues to deliver exactly the kind of quality adventure, science fiction and romance that we need more of in today's literature.
Q: You write in two very different genres: historic fiction and space opera, which, in your case, is very much in the classic space sci fi style. How do these two coexist in your world, as a writer? Are you planning to add any other genres to your plate?
A: I really enjoy writing space opera. I used to love the planet-hopping stories of Isaac Asimov, including his Robot series and his Foundation series and I suppose to some extent I've emulated that style. Jack McDevitt is another favourite who writes what might be termed "space opera" in that his books involve aliens and planet hopping, albeit his is 'hard' science fiction. I also love Star Wars, in spite of the scientific inaccuracies. In the Star Wars/Star Trek debate, Star Wars wins for me every time because it is action-packed space opera. I ignore the science and enjoy the story for what it is. Writing space opera is fun.
In contrast, writing historical fiction isn't fun. I've only written one, of course, and that's based on a true story. I felt an overriding obligation to the very real people who lived and died in the wreck of the Batavia and its horrific aftermath. I've tried to make them real and set them in the time and place. Of course, I've had to make up a lot, especially about character. But I tried to extrapolate on the evidence available to me to build the characters, especially the minor ones about whom so little is known. I've had a couple of ideas which could lead to another historical fiction novel, both based on true stories. However, they won't see the light of day unless I feel compelled to write them.
Another genre? My current WIP is a sort of paranormal romance, inspired by the plight of the tiger, a species teetering on the brink of extinction. I think it will be rather different from the 'normal' novels in this genre. It's contemporary Earth, set in India, Australia and Hong Kong with a good mix of action. There might be room for a second book if this one works out.
Q: When building your sci fi universe, where do you begin? Characters first? Worlds? Politics?
A: Characters, without a doubt. That's my straight from the shoulder answer. And yet it's all mixed together because a character must fit into a scene. Just as in a historical novel (see above), characters must be motivated and act within a setting to be believable. So I spent a lot of time coming up with my alien species the ptorix. I've written at length elsewhere about the challenge of creating a believable alien which would interact with humans. I've always wondered why energy beings inhabiting worlds like Saturn would be in the least bit interested in little old Earth.
In my latest book, Starheart, I re-used the universe I had created for the Iron Admiral books. It's such hard work building a convincing environment it's a pity to only use it once. So I had my aliens and my political system and its resulting tensions. I even alluded to events mentioned in the Iron Admiral which helps add depth.
Back to character, in the new book I decided to go for an ordinary woman. No special skills as we found with Allysha Marten and Morgan Selwod. Jess Sondijk is a smart, beautiful woman making the best of life on an impoverished planet. From there, I looked for a plot.
Q: Do you use real-life people as inspiration for your male and female characters?
A: No. Never. That way I'll never offend anybody. But that sounds as if it was a conscious decision. It wasn't. I've never felt inclined to use a person. The closest I think I ever came was when trying to imagine Adrien Jacobsz, captain of the Batavia. I think he might have been a bit like my dad in some respects. Certainly I might use some characteristic, or some behaviour I've come across. For example Chaka Saahren, hero of the Iron Admiral, is very nearly a misogynist who has never married when he meets Allysha. He would be in his late thirties, early forties. Some people find this unlikely. But I'll point you at Douglas MacArthur, a dedicated military man who married at 42.
Q: Some of your interplanetary political conflict are eerily similar to those we face today right here, on planet Earth. Of course, nothing is new under the sun (or suns, as may be). Any particular real-life events that inspired your sci fi books?
A: Not eerie at all. At university I read history. As part of my Honours year I was forced to take a unit in historiography. Patterns in history? Tosh. But it isn't. In broad terms, history is almost predictable. As an example, look at revolution. The revolution is started by moderate, well-educated people who want a share of power. Then the rabble becomes involved. Mass murder and anarchy ensue until the moderates try to exert some order but they are overthrown by a dictator. I give you the French revolution, the first Russian revolution and the second, recent, Russian revolution. You can see similar patterns in Zimbabwe and I watch South Africa with interest. Also the Arab spring.
People are tribal. We wouldn't have survived if we weren't. It's natural to actively look for ways in which people outside our tribe are not like us. If it isn't color or slanty eyes (nice and obvious) we find something else. What they eat, how they dress, what they worship. I can't see those characteristics changing just because we head for the stars. There will always be dreamers, fundamentalists, fanatics, power-hungry politicians, those who seek wealth above all else. And it's easy to find examples in our own history. The first Iron Admiral book, Conspiracy was loosely based on the incident Hitler contrived to give him an excuse to attack Poland. In Morgan's Choice the society is based on the caste system in India. The ebb and flow of Empire (another candidate for patterns in history) is based on the Romans, the Ottomans, the British Empire, the Golden Horde… whatever.
Q: You are a formidable photographer. When you look through the viewfinder of your camera, does it ever occur to you, "Ooh, what a fantastic landscape/creature! I wonder what it would look like a thousand times as big!"?
A: Haha. I guess that one's been done before. The aliens in Ender's Game were insectoid and how many SF movies have been made with reptilian aliens? But to answer your question – no.
I see something that interests me in the here-and-now, I point 'n shoot. I don't class myself as a great photographer. I've captured some nice pictures but it's luck, really. I have a reasonably good camera and if I have the opportunity I take a snap. Sometimes they turn out really well, most times they're crap. Why do I take them? Because you literally freeze a moment of time. This is one reason I love to take pictures of birds in flight. It all happens so fast you don't see what actually takes place; the flex of the wings, the way the tail is used, how they generate lift. Some of my pictures are for sale on Dreamstime but some of my favorites they don't want because they are so unusual, like a bird that's been for a dip in the swimming pool and is fighting to get clear of the water, where it will surely drown if it falls back. I have others showing the power of a wing beat – but the bird's head is not visible. And my favorites the lorikeets – they fly so fast that the astounding colors under those wings are seen so briefly you'd never know, but in a photo you can see and marvel.
Having said all that, I use my photos to add color to my writing. Light through leaves, the curl of a wave, evening shadows, sunrise through clouds. I have a photo, somewhere.
Greta's books are available for Kindle, NOOK and as paperbacks.
- Barnes and Noble