Please welcome John Appel to The
Qwillery as part of the
2021 Debut Author Challenge
was published on July 20, 2021 by Solaris.
TQ: Welcome to The Qwillery. What is the first fiction piece you remember
John: Thinking back, I was about nine
or ten when I started writing a story based on a book about kid spelunkers that
I really enjoyed. But that story, like many others for years, never got
finished. It took me quite a long time to find my writing discipline.
The first fiction I actually wrote all the way through to the end was a series
of short pieces based on my World of Warcraft character, sometime in about 2006
or 2007. I was in my early 40s at the time, so you can see I had quite a long
period of starting but not finishing.
TQ: Are you a plotter, a pantser or a hybrid?
John: The plotter vs. pantser concept
is, to me, a false binary. In my experience, there’s really a number of factors
which different people plan ahead of time vs. discover, and you’d need a radar
plot to see where any given writer falls. In my case, though, I usually have a
strong sense of the overall plot arc, and I tend to be a solid world builder
before I start drafting. I also know a good bit about the characters, but not as
much as other writers I know. In all of these cases, though, I frequently
discover things while I’m writing, and this may lead to changes in plot events,
some aspect of the world, or in an extreme case, a whole new POV character.
In ASSASSIN’S ORBIT, for example, Noo came into being because another character
needed a mentor, and the character I’d intended to fill that role was otherwise
occupied at that moment in the story. She started as a secondary character but
her personality was so strong that she displaced the original POV character and
took her spot in the roster. This didn’t change the overall arc of the book,
just the perspective through which the reader sees it.
TQ: What is the most challenging thing for you about writing?
John: Sherwood Smith introduced me to
the concept of “visual writers”, i.e. people who see the story playing out in
their heads like a movie. I’m one of those, and one challenge I face is
unpacking the visuals and sensations the characters are experiencing and getting
that onto the page. I’ve found myself leaning hard on CL Polk’s “54321”
technique, where you jot down five things the characters see, four they hear,
three they feel, two they smell, and one they might taste in a scene. This gives
me the sensory detail I need to help connect the reader to the action – when I
remember to do it!
TQ: What has influenced / influences your writing?
John: So, so many writers! I grew up
reading adventure thrillers by Alastair McClean (THE GUNS OF NAVARONE, WHERE
EAGLES DARE, etc.) and I think my love for action-filled stories comes from
there. Lois McMaster Bujold is a big source of inspiration for characters, and
how to come up with challenges that are more than simple life and death. Current
influences include Martha Wells’ Murderbot stories, Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of
London/Peter Grant series, and most importantly, the members of my local
writing/critique group, the Maryland Space Opera Collective (MD SPOC).
TQ: Describe Assassin's Orbit using only 5 words.
John: Old women space competence
TQ: Tell us something about Assassin's Orbit that is not found in the book
John: This is kind of hinted at, but
one important aspect is that while the protagonists are key players in the
action, they don’t solve the problems they’re faced with by themselves. In the
real world, problems get solved by people working together, and portraying that
is a theme that keeps showing up in my work.
TQ: What inspired you to write Assassin's Orbit? What appeals to you about
writing Science Fiction?
John: I started ASSASSIN’S ORBIT in
late 2016, though it got put aside for a while to work on a different project
which didn’t pan out. There was no single point of inspiration for it, but I
definitely drew from certain aspects of then-current events and where I thought
they might go. Hard to say much more about that without giving away spoilers.
I’ve been a science fiction fan nearly my entire life, beginning with the Danny
Dunn series of children’s books back in elementary school and going on from
there. I think it’s the speculative element that appeals to me: “What if the
world changed in these ways? What would that look like? How would people behave
differently, or the same? What would a more just society look like?” But since
I’m also hooked on the escapist aspect, I tend to approach it through the lens
of action and adventure.
TQ: What sort of research did you do for Assassin's Orbit?
John: I’ve done a lot of reading over
the years about space stations and mostly-realistic space combat. I also read a
lot of work by West African writers, since many of the characters have origins
from that part of Earth, both fiction and non-fiction, along with research into
both Ife and Islam.
TQ: Please tell us about the cover for Assassin's Orbit.
John: The cover does loosely depict
one of the space battles that occurs in the book, or part of it anyway.
TQ: In Assassin's Orbit who was the easiest character to write and why? The
hardest and why?
John: Of the three main protagonists,
Noo’s voice was the loudest in my head, which hopefully comes through in the
reading! As I mentioned earlier, she actually displaced another character to
become a principal POV.
Toiwa began as someone easy to write but became more challenging as the book
progressed. I know a lot of very competent professional women from my past
career in corporate life, and it was easy to borrow aspects of those people and
fold them into her character. Her journey, though was the one that most
surprised me while writing; she has to face a number of tough choices, and
making sure the way she acts when faced with those aligned with the moral code
I’d built for her required some work.
TQ: Does Assassin's Orbit touch on any social issues?
John: It does, but not necessarily by
conscious intent. I think any writer with a degree of empathy couldn’t help but
be affected by the deliberate cruelty and kleptocratic government of the Trump
administration, and there’s a certain faction in the book that I didn’t realize
matched that crowd and their followers until one of my beta readers pointed it
out to me. (And let’s be clear, they’re some of the bad guys.)
Buried within is also something I mentioned up above: that it’s not people
acting alone who make change, but rather people acting together. I don’t think
it’s ever explicitly called out in the book, but it’s a message I definitely
want people to get.
TQ: Which question about Assassin's Orbit do you wish someone would ask?
Ask it and answer it!
Q. “How many people has Noo slept with, anyway?”
A. She’d have to check her djinn, she’s lost count.
TQ: Give us one or two of your favorite non-spoilery quotes from
John: “Noo shot him anyway, just to
TQ: What's next?
John: We’ll see! My agent and I are
pitching a sequel to Rebellion, and if ASSASSIN’S ORBIT does well I hope to be
writing that. I have another project that I’ve been working on in the meantime
which we hope to be pitching later this year.
TQ: Thank you for joining us at The Qwillery.
John: Thank you for having me!
Solaris, July 20, 2021
Trade Paperback and eBook, 448 pages
Murder makes unlikely allies.
On the eve of the planet Ileri’s historic vote to join the Commonwealth, the
assassination of a government minister threatens to shatter everything.
Private investigator Noo Okereke and spy Meiko Ogawa join forces with police
chief Toiwa to investigate – and discover clues that point disturbingly
toward a threat humanity thought they had escaped.
John Appel volunteered to jump out of planes before he’d ever been in a
plane; his friends and family say this sums up his approach to life pretty well.
He writes science fiction and fantasy and the occasional tabletop RPG adventure.
A lifelong Marylander, he lives in the Baltimore suburbs with his wife and
children. He masquerades as a technology risk manager to pay the bills after two
decades as an information security pro. When not writing, rolling dice, or
keeping the bad guys at bay, he enjoys rum and swords, but not both at the same
time. John is a graduate of the Viable Paradise writing workshop.