Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Interview with Terri Favro, Author of Sputnik's Children

Please welcome Terri Favro to The Qwillery as part of the 2017 Debut Author Challenge Interviews. Sputnik's Children is published on April 11th by ECW Press.

Please join The Qwillery in wishing Terri a Happy Publication Day!

TQWelcome to The Qwillery. When and why did you start writing?

Terri:  I come from a family with a strong storytelling tradition, so I started making up stories and telling them to the neighborhood kids before I even started kindergarten. I grew up in a community in Canada’s Niagara Peninsula (across the Niagara River from upstate New York, near Buffalo) that was almost entirely made up of immigrant families from eastern and southern Europe, as well as black families who had been there longer than the rest of us. Quite a few of the newcomer kids didn’t speak English or had parents who didn’t, and one mom actually told my mother that she learned English partly by listening to me tell stories to her kids. I was probably about four years old at the time. I wrote my first stories in grade one. So, I have no concept of not writing: I’ve always done it.

I’m not sure why I write although I suspect it’s genetic. Storytelling was a survival skill for one of my grandfathers, Giovanni-Battista Favro. He was from the Italian Alps, near France, and would often find himself snowed in on high mountain passes with other men. While they were waiting it out, they’d tell stories to one another to keep themselves from developing what we now call ‘cabin fever’ – like in “The Shining”. As a child, I heard stories from him constantly –– very dark, sometimes sexier Italian versions of fairytales like “Jack in the Beanstalk”. As a result I grew up to be an avid reader of books and comic books, and quickly starting writing my own.

I loved MAD Magazine and I was always writing parodies and send-ups, usually of the blurbs in the TV Guide or advice columns in the newspaper, making fun of the boilerplate writing styles. I was published for the first time at age 12 when I won a limerick-writing contest in a magazine for grown-ups. I made $5.00!

TQAre you a plotter, a pantser or a hybrid?

Terri:  I am a dyed in the wool Pantser all the way! I like Stephen King’s approach: come up with a ‘what if?” scenario, then stand back and watch your characters work their way out of it. I find stories a lot more interesting when they unfold before me. But I do a lot of re-writing to create a solid narrative arc and a strong ending.

TQWhat is the most challenging thing for you about writing?

Terri:  Research, because I want to get down to the writing! When I have to dig deeply into a topic before I write, I find myself impatient with the process.

TQWhat has influenced / influences your writing?

Terri:  I think my strongest influence is the community where I grew up, because it was unique in many ways. It was very much a neighborhood of outsiders – new immigrants, primarily Roman Catholics or Orthodox Catholics, who weren’t of the typical Scots-Irish-English stock that was the dominant group in Canada of that era. I sat in a lot of classrooms where kids were learning English on the fly, usually by having another kid translate everything the teacher said. And we were so close to the U.S. border that we were much more exposed to American TV shows and radio than Canadian ones. I think we identified more with upstate New York. But we weren’t Americans either – we were on the outside looking in. Watching TV stations from Buffalo, we constantly saw ads for candy and fast food joints that didn’t yet exist in Canada, so it was like watching transmissions from a wonderful fantasyland that we could only enter by crossing the Peace Bridge – we always referred to the U.S. as “Over The River”. (Canadians in Niagara still call it that, or shorten it to ‘OTR’.) Plus, we were all living on the “wrong” side of the Welland Canal, which was the part of the St. Lawrence Seaway that made it possible for ships to get around the obstacle of Niagara Falls to get to the Great Lakes. Ships passed through the canal from all over the world and the sailors would throw candy, cigarettes and toys down at us, or call out where they were from. It was as if we were always seeing the “real world” from a distance. You’ll see the influence of my old neighborhood very strongly in “Sputnik’s Children”, for which I invented a kind of grey area between the two countries called “Canusa”.

Books also influence me, especially ones I read as a very young person: C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books, and his science fiction works, Perelandra and That Hideous Strength. I loved everything by Tolkien, especially The Hobbit. And then there was my intense love of comic books, which might be obvious from my novel. I was a huge DC fan: I liked the mythic story of Superman, who I saw as the ultimate immigrant. Michael Chabon’s “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay” is one of my favorite novels, and was a big influence on me in the way it showed comic book writers in New York of the 1940s being influenced by their own cultural backgrounds and the World War. I think we tend to think of the comics as just being wild flights of imagination but like all books, they have their roots in the subconscious of the creators.

Pop culture is important to me too especially television shows of the sixties and seventies: for “Sputnik’s Children”, the original Star Trek was a huge influence, particularly two episodes that dealt with time travel and alternative reality: “Mirror Mirror” (sometimes known as the Bearded Spock episode), and “City on the Edge of Forever”, which was scripted by Harlan Ellison. Trekkies will probably detect the influence of those two episodes when they read my novel. I won’t explain how, because it would be a spoiler.

TQDescribe Sputnik's Children in 140 characters or less.

Terri:  Cult comic book creator claims she sacrificed her own past to save Earth from a horrific post-nuclear future. Is her origin story true or a martini-fuelled delusion?

TQTell us something about Sputnik's Children that is not found in the book description.

Terri:  Debbie Biondi, the novel’s comic book writer and heroine, can’t settle down in one place for long, own property, have kids, or even have a normal bank account because technically she doesn’t exist in our timeline (which is called Earth Standard Time). In fact, she has to maintain the exact mass she had when she left her own timeline in order not to upset the time space continuum: if she gains weight, bits of her body fall off. (She discovered this after a weekend at a hotel with an all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet, when she woke up missing a toe.) So she seems at first glance to have an eating disorder but it could be simple self-protection. In the book she operates on a cash only basis –– which she earns from her comic books. However, Debbie is able to use cryptocurrency, which is my way of suggesting that maybe Bitcoin comes from an alternate reality.

TQWhat inspired you to write Sputnik's Children? How much do you and your main character, Debbie Reynolds Biondi, have in common?

Terri:  I was very much inspired by the experience of growing up during the Cold War years on the Canadian-U.S. border. Because we were so close to the Niagara Falls hydroelectric station, which provided power down the eastern seaboard to Washington, we were told as kids that our town was a ‘first strike’ target for the Soviets, and that if there was a nuclear war, we’d be ‘the first to go’. This was a common belief among all the kids I grew up with. I find it strange now that we weren’t all emotional wrecks, being told that by our parents and teachers. So, part of the drive to write the book was to explore the idea of a girl who was a lot like me, growing up in an alt-reality version of her home town where the bomb actually did drop. In a way it was a surprise to us all that it never happened.

And yes, Debbie and I do have a lot in common in terms of family background and life experiences. Like her, I made money as a picker on a strawberry farm in my teens, and I have a rare enzyme deficiency, which makes me intolerant of certain type of general anesthesia. And I, like Debbie, attempted to enroll in the Famous Artists Art School correspondence lessons from a Norman Rockwell ad in the back of a comic book with the headline “we’re looking for people who like to draw.” Unlike Debbie, I never got past the stage of the sales rep showing up at our house. My parents were not pleased.

TQWhat sort of research did you do for Sputnik's Children?

Terri:  I looked back at the era that I’d actually lived through, in the sixties, seventies and eighties, to try to accurately reflect an alt-version of the times. So when I twist history slightly, I wanted to be sure of the “true facts” before I offered the “alternative facts”. Also, I read up on the theory of parallel worlds posed by quantum physicist Hugh Everett, who believed that there are an almost infinite number of time continuums with alternate histories to ours. He theorized that every time we make a decision, a new continuum exists elsewhere in which we made a different decision, and so history unfolds differently.

I adapted his theory so that the “splitting” of time into multiple timelines only begins in 1945 with the testing of the first atomic bomb. In the 1960s another physicist who was a follower of Everett theorized that it would be possible for one time continuum or “world”, to pick up TV signals from another “closely coupled” world, which sounds a bit like the movie “Galaxy Quest”. I loved that idea, and since it’s something that quantum physicists think might be possible, I used it in my book.

I also researched the experience of black Canadians who would have been growing up in the era and place depicted in the book. My neighborhood as a child was home to a number of families whose Niagara roots went back to the nineteenth century, because their ancestors had come to Niagara on the Underground Railroad with help from Harriet Tubman, who lived in my home town of St. Catharines for many years. (It’s referred to as “Shipman’s Corners” in the book, which was the old historical name for St. Catharines.) In depicting Debbie’s relationship with a young black man, John Kendal, I wanted a sense of what that would have been like for both of them. I looked for books and articles about the black experience in southern Ontario that had been written at the time –the early seventies –– not interpretations of social history that were written more recently.

TQPlease tell us about Sputnik's Children's cover? 

Terri:  My publisher, ECW Press, hired an amazing cover designer, David Gee. My only suggestions were to consider something to do with outer space or satellites, or something that reflected Debbie’s martini drinking habits. We considered making it look more “comic booky”, but you run the risk of looking like a graphic novel, rather than a novel. David came back with an array wonderful options but the martini constellation against a glittery black space-scape was my favorite. I love that ECW produced the book so that the stars actually twinkle! And the interior design is cool too.

TQIn Sputnik's Children who was the easiest character to write and why? The hardest and why?

Terri:  The easiest character was Debbie’s friend, Bum Bum, in part because I had written about him previously in a novella called “The Proxy Bride”. He’s actually based on a real person, who had that awful nickname. I wanted Bum Bum to be a resilient child who came out of a horrible background. He’s going to turn up in another book I have coming out, too. I can’t seem to stop writing about BB.

The hardest character was Debbie herself because she’s struggling so much to write an origin story about her lost past, in the guise of her comic book, “Sputnik Chick, Girl With No Past”. Debbie is, to some extent, portrayed as an unreliable narrator. Sometimes she herself is not sure what’s true and what’s not, so I had to walk that line carefully. I didn’t want to confuse the reader but at the same time, I wanted to give a sense of Debbie’s deep insecurities and grief over having lost her past –– especially the people she loved who no longer remember her. And I wanted to do all that without making her a character mired in negativity and despair. In fact, Debbie can be very funny, but her complexity is born of trying to get along in a time line where she has no real place.

TQWhy have you chosen to include or not chosen to include social issues in Sputnik's Children? 

Terri:  Debbie’s relationship with John Kendal –– a girl from an Italian immigrant family dating a young black man whose family goes back to the days of the Underground Railroad –– is partly based on a couple I knew back in the 1970s. Their relationship was “acceptable” and yet in some ways, was not accepted. The racism they experience was not overt but it was there.

In the novel, Debbie is a bit oblivious to how Kendal is treated as a young black man in a small town immigrant neighborhood. There is a chapter in the book when a farmer catches the two of them necking in a strawberry field, with ugly consequences. That’s when it finally comes home to Debbie that she really doesn’t grasp what Kendal’s life is like, or the challenges he faces.

Later in the book, when Debbie is getting married, I touch on the role of women in that era of the 1970s when we were apparently “liberated” but still chained to our crock-pots and blenders. Debbie’s ambition to become an astronaut is seen as ridiculous because she’s a girl. That’s one of the reasons I use a quote from Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, as one of epigraphs for the novel, along with one from a Silver Surfer comic.

TQWhich question about Sputnik's Children do you wish someone would ask? Ask it and answer it!

Terri:  Is there really a place like the Z-Lands, where kids are exposed to radiation and born with extra sets of teeth and other mutations?

The answer is yes. The Z-Lands was inspired by the Love Canal neighborhood in Niagara Falls, New York, which was built on a toxic dumpsite, which, among other things, contained nuclear waste from the Manhattan Project. It took an enormous amount of community activism to have that area closed down and the people moved out of their homes. I think most people know the story of Love Canal. If you go on YouTube, you can see a video someone made by driving around the perimeter of the area, which is still fenced off. It’s creepy seeing the empty playground equipment still standing there as a reminder that a generation (or more) of children grew up on poisoned land and suffered the consequences.

TQGive us one or two of your favorite non-spoilery quotes from Sputnik's Children.

Terri:  In a few minutes, Endeavour will enter the region of maximum dynamic pressure, 13,000 kilometers above the Earth. If she passes through safely, she’ll escape the fate of her doomed sister, Challenger. Bum Bum and I witnessed that disaster together at a twenty-four-hour greasy spoon on Bleecker near Broadway, hungover from a night at the clubs. I can almost smell the fug of cigarette smoke, bacon grease and Poison, a perfume as subtle as a kick to the grown –– my signature scent, in those days.

In the summer of 1969 (Atomic Mean Time), I was a couple of months shy of my thirteenth birthday. Linda was sixteen. We arrived in the Z-Lands at sun-up, the daisies already turning their monstrous heads toward the sticky, honey-colored sky.

TQWhat's next?

Terri:  In collaboration with my artist-partner Ron Edding, I have a full length graphic novel coming out some time this summer called “Bella and the Facer Street Gang”, which is once again based in my old neighborhood. It will published by Grey Borders Books in Niagara Falls, Ontario. Ron and I are also at work on a true-crime graphic novel set in Toronto in the 1930s, which will be called “Providence”.

A novel length sequel to “The Proxy Bride” will be published in September 2017. It’s called “Once Upon A Time In West Toronto” – the title was inspired by “Once Upon A Time In The West”, because the main character loves the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone. So if “Sputnik’s Children” crosses genres between literary and science fiction, “Once Upon A Time In West Toronto” crosses genres between literary and western romance. It will be published by Inanna Publishing of Toronto.

I’m also working on two new books: a Steampunk novel called “United Kingdom of America” (a full-length version on a short story I had published in the anthology “Clockwork Canada” last year) and a non-fiction book about my generation’s relationship with robots –– both real ones, and ones like R2D2 that exist only in popular culture. It’s called “Generation Robot” and will be out in February 2018 with Skyhorse Publishing, New York.

TQThank you for joining us at The Qwillery.

Terri:  Thank you for letting me talk about “Sputnik’s Children”! I loved your questions and hope your readers enjoy the book.

Sputnik's Children
ECW Press, April 11, 2017
Trade Paperback and eBook, 360 pages

A literary, genre-bending novel full of heart

Cult comic book creator Debbie Reynolds Biondi has been riding the success of her Cold War era–inspired superhero series, Sputnik Chick: Girl with No Past, for more than 25 years. But with the comic book losing fans and Debbie struggling to come up with new plotlines for her badass, mutant-killing heroine, she decides to finally tell Sputnik Chick’s origin story.

Debbie’s never had to make anything up before and she isn’t starting now. Sputnik Chick is based on Debbie’s own life in an alternate timeline called Atomic Mean Time. As a teenager growing up in Shipman’s Corners — a Rust Belt town voted by Popular Science magazine as “most likely to be nuked” — she was recruited by a self-proclaimed time traveller to collapse Atomic Mean Time before an all-out nuclear war grotesquely altered humanity. In trying to save the world, Debbie risked obliterating everyone she’d ever loved — as well as her own past — in the process.

Or so she believes . . . Present-day Debbie is addicted to lorazepam and dirty, wet martinis, making her an unreliable narrator, at best. A time-bending novel that delves into the origin story of the Girl with No Past, Sputnik’s Children explores what it was like to come of age in the Atomic Age.

About Terri

Photo by Ayelet Tsabari
Terri Favro is the author of three novels: Sputnik’s Children (ECW), Once Upon A Time in West Toronto (Inanna), and The Proxy Bride, winner of the Ken Klonsky-Quattro Books Novella Award. She also collaborates on the Bella graphic novel series, published by Grey Borders. A CBC Literary Prize finalist, Terri’s stories have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies including the Humber Literary Review, Geist, Prism, and Clockwork Canada: Steampunk Fiction. Terri is currently writing a book about human-robot relationships, and a novel featuring an Steampunk heroine of the War of 1812.

Website  ~  Blog  ~  Twitter @fluffybaggins


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