First Contact, Moral Ambiguity and Passion in the Vacuum of Space

LODB 5As John Green once said (I think):  

“Dear authorial intent,

You don’t matter.”

And he’s completely right.  I mean, it ultimately matters very little what I intended when I was writing my book.  What matters far more is what each and every reader picks up on/gets out of it/takes away with them when they read it.  But since this is my blog I thought I’d allow myself a bit of a ramble about what my intentions were with TLODB.  And my alter ego <school librarian> suggested I went even further than that… so I ended up writing this blog post which, now I look at it, pretty much resembles a York Notes/Cliff Notes/Shmoop style study guide to my own book.  So here it is for your delectation.  You’re welcome, readers, you are welcome.  

On my setting…

I work all day and only write at night, so I spend a lot of time alone under starry skies, which I think is why I ended up writing about space.  Added to this, when I started writing TLODB I had just moved to a new country (for the third time in seven years) so there was something in the disassociation of the Ventura experience that I could relate to.  I’m the same age as the Voyager Probe (of golden record fame) so I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of space travel and the quest to make first contact.  This may be why I love science documentaries and podcasts almost as much as I love space movies like the massively underrated Contact, as well as Interstellar, and Gravity, and all-time favourite sci-fi tv show Battlestar Galactica (noughties not seventies).

So there were all these ideas I wanted to explore: are we alone in the universe?  What will we do if we’re not?  How will we overcome the barriers that stop us from being able to travel these massive distances?  Basically I just kept asking myself these questions until I had built the basics of the world I wanted to set my story in – which ended up involving maps, diagrams, even sometimes some advanced (compared to my skill level anyway) maths.  

However I realise now that what came to me first about Ventura was its mood – I wanted it to be grungy, low tech, cold and dark – this is no shiny, white, Apple Inc version of our future.  It had to feel authentic; it had to feel real and visceral.  I wanted my reader to be able to picture themselves there completely.  Ultimately this story is personal and emotional, and only through making this distant and alien setting feel concrete and truthful would it have impact.  The human relationships and struggles had to feel real in this unreal setting.

On my writing style…

When I was just a teenager myself it was angsty, voicey, freeform books like The Catcher in the Rye, On The Road and Less Than Zero that inspired me and made me even more sure that I wanted to write. I found books like that exhilarating to read and just adored how viscerally and vividly their main characters are rendered because the entire book is written as if it was them talking directly to you, in their voice. I have now realised that writing this way does mean being prepared to take risks, and to make sacrifices.  As a writer you have to constantly ask yourself: but would she say that?  Is that a metaphor she would use?  Is that a parallel she would know to make?  And if the answer is no you just can’t use it, even if it would have been beautiful.  Fully committing to rendering a character so faithfully can eventually lead to you bringing them to life in the fullest way, but the side effect of this is that that some of your readers may not appreciate what you’re doing, and may have preferred you to refine and beautify your prose in the more traditional way.  That’s just a risk you either are or aren’t prepared to take, and whether its responded to positively or not is just a matter of taste and not much else.

On my characters…

As a writer I am all about moral ambiguity.  I adamantly did not want Seren to be a chosen one, or the now ubiquitous gun-toting kickass revolutionary.  I wanted her to be flawed, reckless, impulsive, sarcastic, snarky, sad and weak.  But I also wanted her to be brave, loving, passionate, and honest to a fault.  In short, I wanted her to be a REAL person, a real girl.  An ordinary girl who ends up doing extraordinary things, not because she always makes good choices or does the right thing, but because she fails and makes mistakes, but never gives up or stops trying, no matter what difficulties she faces.

Seren struggles with her mental health in a way that’s pretty understandable in her circumstances.  There are SO MANY shades of grey with mental health, so many ways to suffer with it, so many ways to define a struggle.  We’re kind-of all struggling with it to greater and lesser degrees and in any one of a million ways distinct and unique to us.  What I wanted was for us to see that Seren is more sensitive and vulnerable to depression, and to anxiety, and so life on the Ventura is especially hard for her.  But I also wanted it to come across that the thing that makes her weak/dangerous in the eyes of her family/those in power, is actually the very same thing that makes her special.  Like most sensitive people, she sees things differently, she feels things acutely, and this is partly what takes her life in an interesting direction.

I had very specific ideas about how I wanted Dom to be – I wanted him to be a good boyfriend, fully deserving of Seren’s love, but still far from perfect.  I wanted him to seem like the first person Seren has ever fully been understood by and been able to talk to, but also to be a doorway into new realisations for her – a connection to nature and to the ‘real’ life she is unable to experience and longs for so keenly.  This is why I had him work with animals, why he is a musician and also, partly, why I wanted him to be Spanish.  It’s not a culture generally associated with space travel, so having Ventura be of Spanish origin was a leap.  But I live in Spain, and before that I lived in Costa Rica in Latin America.  I am fascinated by the blending of culture and languages that I see, but also I love the Latino/Spanish culture – it’s so warm and relaxed and romantic and free – family and the good things in life are so often the priority.  The idea of evoking this within the restrictions, confines and claustrophobia of the Ventura was interesting – and I thought would lend something extra to Dom.    

I strived to imbibe a certain moral ambiguity into my other characters too – no one of them is entirely good or truly bad – and all are left with the space and ability to surprise us with the choices they make.

On my themes…

I always knew that TLODB was going to be about first love.  What better contrast to the coldness of the regime on Ventura than the pure passion, heat and impulse of first love?  And I always wanted Seren to be a very active participant in this – not to view herself as the prey of a predator the way a lot of female characters in YA do.  I wanted her to be full of desire, to be passionate, to want as much as she is wanted.

But mostly, and unsurprisingly, in my mind TLODB is largely about loneliness.  A lot of teenagers are extremely lonely – I know I was.  It’s a time in your life when you have, necessarily, become somewhat detached from the family you grew up in and yet you are still some years away from forming the one you will create yourself.  And in TLODB this is mirrored in the quest of the Ventura itself – as a race we humans are so lonely, so desperate to know we are not alone, that we are prepared to risk it all to journey out into the unknown in our own hopes of making contact.

Which, in fact, is a little like writing a book.  TLODB is out there and its themes and messages are open to interpretation by those who read it.  I’ve had readers tell me all sorts of things they got from reading the book that I hadn’t realised were there – most recently that TLODB, somewhat ironically, feels like a love letter to the glories of the ever absent and much pined for Earth.  Like a lot of good sci-fi, questions of free will, what makes us human, whether our personalities decide our fate, and even existentialism are all in there too, but it’s up to every individual reader to decide what they find… or don’t.

That’s the joy of sending something out there into the big wide universe to make contact… you never know who you’ll reach, or how.LODB 4