Please welcome J.B. Rockwell to The Qwillery. Serengeti was published in February 2016 by Severed Press.
TQ: Welcome to The Qwillery. When and why did you start writing?
J.B.: Oddly, not all that long ago. I honestly didn’t even think about trying my hand at writing until about six or seven years but that’s sort of a thing with me: I train for one thing and always seem to end up working in something else. I work in IT now but started out wanting to be an archaeologist, so obviously I’m not very good at picking something and sticking to it. So, blah-blah-blah, when did I start writing. Maybe...five years ago. At least, that's when I finally stopped messing around and figured out enough to actually buckle down and write something end to end. Like most writers, I'm an avid reader and have been for as long as I can remember. I’m also a maxi big SFF fan so I naturally gravitated toward writing speculative fiction. As to to why started writing…ahem, well, it was kinda, sorta a challenge. To myself. I wanted to see if I could even do it and after many false starts and wrong turnings—ta-da! Finished book! That said, I'll admit, I was completely naïve and had no idea at the time just how complicated the publishing industry is much less how many great writers are out there trying to get their big break. As you can imagine, there's been a sharp learning curve over the years. As you can also imagine, that first book I wrote only exists on my hard drive--it's never seen the light of day.
TQ: Are you a plotter, a pantser or a hybrid?
J.B.: Total pantser. Complete, chaotic, hot mess of a pantser. I have so much respect for all you diligent plotters out there but I've tried it and unfortunately all that structure and discipline just doesn't quite work me. I usually start a book with the beginning figured out, the ending and a rough ideas for plot points along the way, then I just jump right in and start pounding at the keys. That might not be the smartest way to go about it or the most efficient but it works for me and, oddly, the lunacy of it keeps me from getting stressed out.
TQ: What is the most challenging thing for you about writing?
J.B.: Umm…everything? Okay, maybe not everything but until you've sat down and written a book you don't realize how hard it is to come up with an interesting plot, plausible circumstances and engaging characters, and then spend 100,000 words stringing it all together. When I started writing, just finding my voice was a challenge but that's finally come to me after a lot of practice (and with a lot of help from my writer group). Nowadays it's that panic moment when you're fresh out of ideas, then the relief when you finally find one, followed by the panic that you've just stolen it from somewhere else and it's not a unique idea at all. So, I guess I'd say the biggest challenge right now is just that constant self guessing. And then, of course, there's dealing with bad reviews. Not exactly earth shattering revelations, I know, but I more of a shallow puddle than a deep well.
TQ: What has influenced / influences your writing?
J.B.: The works of other writers, obviously. There's a fine line between emulation and copycatting (see that whole second guessing thing I mentioned previously) but there are authors I admire (C.J. Cherryh and Elizabeth Bear immediately come to mind) that have voice and themes and character development that I really love and their works have definitely influenced my style. I'm a huge fan of folklore and mythology, and elements of both tend to slip in now and then, and I live in the country so nature themes, and that whole big world/small community concept often comes through.
TQ: Describe Serengeti in 140 characters or less.
J.B.: Wrecked and abandoned, Serengeti—a Valkyrie class warship with a sentient AI mind—struggles to save her crew as scavengers close in.
TQ: Tell us something about Serengeti that is not found in the book description.
J.B.: In addition to being sentient, Serengeti learns to feel and experience strong emotions. That aspect of her character is very important to the story and the themes behind it. Rather than being some cold, calculating, all analytics and no heart AI, Serengeti very much cares for her crew, and her efforts to save them are driven by more than just a sense of duty. And she's not the only one--there are many AIs scattered across the book’s story arc and I tried to give each one a unique personality. Make some 'nice' and others jerks. Even give them a sense of humor because, ya know, I like to work in a few jokes now and then. Hee-hee. Ahem. Yes.
TQ: What inspired you to write Serengeti? What appeals to you about writing Science Fiction?
J.B.: I love the idea of AI but it seemed like most of the AI characters I came across fell into that cold, emotionless, ‘I’m-a-machine-beep-beep’ category which is just so ho-hum. So one day I had this odd idea I jotted down about a character dreaming of dying but never actually dying and since I don’t write about vampires (good on you who do, just not my thing personally) I turned that random thought into an AI ship. Pretty obvious, right? Right??!! As for science fiction, I love the possibilities. The vastness of space and the thousands upon thousands of stars and planets out there. The infinite number of landscapes and plot possibilities and imagining tech that doesn’t exist yet. I’m not a ‘hard’ sci-fi girl (i.e., heavy on the science sci-fi) and I like a heavy dose of character development rather than straight up bash ‘em all into stardust stories, but that’s another thing I like about sci-fi: there are lots of iterations and room for just about everyone. Oh, and robots. I lurves me robots…
TQ: What sort of research did you do for Serengeti?
J.B.: Well, when everything is set in space, you have to think a lot about speed and distances and how things move. What things are made of and how they would withstand collisions and interactions with other objects—that kind of thing. Plus, there are aspects to celestial bodies that need to be considered and theories on how faster than light travel would work. I’m not saying I got it all right—the science purists will no doubt find a lot of logic flaws and science fails—but sometimes you have to tweak the science to suit the story. Luckily I have a few more science oriented friends who picked up on some of the more…obvious fails and helped me brainstorm ways around them. Thank you, loyal beta readers!
TQ: In Serengeti who was the easiest character to write and why? The hardest and why? Did any of the characters surprise you?
J.B.: Serengeti, without a doubt--easiest and hardest. I thought about her character for a long time before I started writing and since the book is told from her perspective I spent a lot of time in her head. Well, in her mind, I guess since she’s a ship and doesn’t really have a head. Anywho… Writing her from a character perspective was well, not easy but comfortable, and just sort of came to me as I went. The hard part about her is she’s a ship and interacts with other characters inside her. Little things like showing emotion suddenly become very complicated, especially when dealing with a sentient AI. Basically, I had to throw out the big book of facial expressions and start over using things like voice inflection and and camera motions, that kind of thing to give the characters in the book something react to and interact with. That was a challenge, let me tell you. As to which character surprised me, I’d have to say her Captain, Henricksen. Initially, he wasn’t mean to play all that big of a role in the story, but Henricksen grew on me and ended up spawning a whole ream of sub-plots and undercurrents that really added to the depth of the story. In an odd sort of way, Henricksen makes Serengeti feel complete.
TQ: Which question about Serengeti do you wish someone would ask? Ask it and answer it!
J.B.: Question: How do you name your ships?
Answer: Glad you asked! I spend a lot of time picking names and each one is important in some way. Anyone who’s served in the Coast Guard or Navy knows there’s a nautical tradition of giving classes of ships themed names. I copied that to a certain extent in Serengeti. For instance, all the Valkyries like Serengeti are named for deserts and islands on Earth. And all the Dreadnoughts are human-shaped monsters from folklore and mythology. Other ships are more random names (things I just liked or had meaning to me for some other reason) so I didn’t flow this theme down into every class of ship, but that naming convention was important for the Valkyries and Dreadnoughts and underscores some of the book’s themes.
TQ: Give us one or two of your favorite non-spoilery quotes from Serengeti.
Quote the First: Ten’s feed was garbled—Serengeti slipped in and fixed it when Finlay wasn’t looking—and the other feeds from most of the other probes were empty. Just twinkles and black and line after line of data that basically said the universe was stardust and moonbeams and could Serengeti please keep it down a bit because she was ever so noisy.
Quote the Second: Space was many things, but it was seldom quiet.
Quote the Third (which is actually a tiny scene):
“I want that probe open, 442,” Serengeti said sternly. “Repair the doors and then run a full diagnostic so we don’t have any more problems. A full diagnostic,” she added, emphasizing that one word, “inside and out.”
A strange, strangled sound from Ten and his compartment doors magically sighed open.
Too late, you little pain in the ass.
TQ: What's next?
J.B.: Next is a good question. I’ve got a few things written and being considered by my agent (insert shameless plug for Mark Gottlieb of Trident Media Group), including a sequel to Serengeti. And,of course, there’s always a manuscript in progress—a couple in the Serengeti world, a couple in other, unrelated universes. I’m sort of hoarder of written things—I always feel better when there are a few completed projects in the can just in case the right opportunity presents itself.
TQ: Thank you for joining us at The Qwillery.
J.B.: Thank you for hosting me and letting be blather away!
Severed Press, February 4, 2016
Trade Paperback and eBook, 288 pages
It was supposed to be an easy job: find the Dark Star Revolution Starships, destroy them, and go home. But a booby-trapped vessel decimates the Meridian Alliance fleet, leaving Serengeti—a Valkyrie class warship with a sentient AI brain—on her own; wrecked and abandoned in an empty expanse of space.
On the edge of total failure, Serengeti thinks only of her crew. She herds the survivors into a lifeboat, intending to sling them into space. But the escape pod sticks in her belly, locking the cryogenically frozen crew inside.
Then a scavenger ship arrives to pick Serengeti\'s bones clean.
Her engines dead, her guns long silenced, Serengeti and her last two robots must find a way to fight the scavengers off and save the crew trapped inside her.
J.B. Rockwell is a New Englander, which is important to note because it means she's (a) hard headed, (b) frequently stubborn, and (c) prone to fits of snarky sarcasticness. As a kid she subsisted on a steady diet of fairy tales, folklore, mythology augmented by generous helpings of science fiction and fantasy. As a quasi-adult she dreamed of being the next Indian Jones and even pursued (and earned!) a degree in anthropology. Unfortunately, those dreams of being an archaeologist didn't quite work out. Through a series of twists and turns (involving cats, a marriage, and a SCUBA certification, amongst other things) she ended up working in IT for the U.S. Coast Guard and now writes the types of books she used to read. Not a bad ending for an Indiana Jones wannabe…