Thursday, December 4, 2014

Interview with SF author Jennifer Foehner Wells, all around cool lady and author of FLUENCY!

Sorry for the lack of posts! I have fallen down a writing hole. BUT, I have emerged blinking from my cave because the absolutely wonderful Jennifer Foehner Wells, author of the smash hit first contact Science Fiction novel FLUENCY (and hopefully many sequels to come), gave into my pestering and graciously answered some questions for my blog! Hooray!

For those of you who haven't yet read the book yet, FLUENCY (which is only $3.99 right now!) is a super fun, classic SciFi novel about a NASA mission to make first contact with a mysterious, seemingly abandoned alien ship floating in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Our main character is a civilian linguist who gets drafted to come along and help decipher any alien writing, and the whole story is just really exciting, creepy, edge-of-your-seat fun. I enjoyed it a lot, and I hope after reading this interview, you'll be ready to give it a try as well!

Now, *pause to put on jaunty interviewer cap*, on to the interview!

RA: Let's start with the super shallow question: YOUR COVER IS GORGEOUS! It was the first thing I noticed about your book and I'm super jealous. Can you tell us more about it and why you decided to go with a "space" shot instead of something more character or action oriented?

JFW: There’s an interesting story there. At the midpoint of drafting FLUENCY, I was already thinking ahead to how I was going to indie publish it. I’d been looking for artists on DeviantArt, and contacted one or two, but nothing had actually gelled into existence. One day I was looking at the National Geographic website and saw some gorgeous space art. I kept coming back to it. The art was just STUNNING. It contained a credit, so I googled the artist.

I figured he must be a professional if Nat Geo was using him. I found his email address and shot him a brief email, outlining what my project was about. I asked him if he did book covers. He did. He seemed to be intrigued by the premise of my book.

I asked him how much he would charge. When he told me, I felt defeated. I couldn’t afford it. At first I just let it hang like that. Then about 48 hours later, I decided to be polite and I sent a note saying that I would keep his name and come calling when I had made some money at writing. He replied, asking what I could pay. I named the largest sum I could manage that I hoped wouldn't insult him (I was a stay-at-home mother at the time, out of the workforce for a decade—I was using my family’s savings—at the time this felt INCREDIBLY RISKY).

Miraculously, he agreed to that sum, and a few months later, I had the painting you see on the cover. The artist’s name is Stephan Martiniere. He has done covers for many SFF greats like Sanderson, Stross, Heinlein and many others. His career has been simply amazing. Shortly after FLUENCY came out, I got to watch Guardians of the Galaxy, which Martiniere had done concept art for. (I mean…WOW!!!!)


Ignorance, as they say, is bliss. I would never have presumed to ask him to do it, if I had known these details about him.

That was such a lucky break for me. Having great cover art is so important. People become enchanted by that first, and then read the blurb and reviews before deciding if they want to buy. So, that was pretty darn helpful.

As far as choosing what to depict on the cover—that’s interesting too. Because I never considered anything other than the ship I’d imagined in my head. I sent Martiniere the passage in chapter 1 that describes the ship and I told him the Providence could look something like SpaceX’s Dragon or the (at that time) defunct Orion capsule. He took that and went with it. There was no back and forth. He sent me a final and I squeed and bowed and chanted “I’m not worthy. I’m not worthy.”

RA: Wow. That might just be my new favorite cover story of all time! Not gonna lie, your cover was the reason I clicked on your book (I know, I know, shallow), but I was drawn to the pretty purple spaceship. Now that I know there's a story behind it, I love it even more!

Another thing that really drew me to FLUENCY was your decision to use NASA instead of making something up. I felt it really grounded the book in our world, which did amazing things for the first contact aspects of the story. What made you decide to set the book in the realistic near future as opposed to something more fantastic?

JFW: When I set out to imagine the premise and outline of FLUENCY, I thought about the elements that personally appealed to me in the SF that I loved. Most of my favorite SF was not set in the far future, but set in contemporary times, happening to average people. That made the fish-out-of-water element that much more visceral and evoked a wonderful “it could be me” sense that I wanted to be a part of my own work. It grounds the story and also allowed me to jump right in without having to explain a how a culture and society were set up—I would leave that kind of development for the aliens I would use in the story.

RA: I also really liked your heroine, Dr. Jane Holloway. I can't think of another book I've read in any genre where a linguist took center stage. How did you decide on her profession? Do you perhaps have secret linguist origins? Also, will she go all Ellen Ripley on us in book 2? 

JFW: Dr. Jane Holloway is NOT Ripley. I love Ripley and what she did for women in popular media, but Jane is not ever going to be that kind of badass warrior. She will remain a clumsy intellectual that gets more and more adept, I think, but never ninja-like.

By the end of FLUENCY Jane was overwhelmed and withdrawing, trying to appear to be strong for her peers, but inside we could see through her interaction with Ei’Brai that she was very scared. You will continue to see that kind of inner truth and vulnerability from her as she struggles to cope with her new role.

And also, Jane is not ME. I’m much more like Alan Bergen, actually, in attitude and…erm…sailor-speak. :P

I don’t have secret linguistic origins. I studied biology, actually. But I do love language, especially Latin. And English. Duh. : )

There were several reasons why I chose to write about a linguist. One inspiration was Daniel Jackson of the Stargate franchise. I loved that character with an embarrassing level of fangirliness. I’d already written some Stargate fan fiction about another linguist I invented (so I already had linguists on the brain). Then, when I was in the earliest planning stages of FLUENCY, I heard a piece about Dr. Dan Everett on NPR. I was immediately intrigued by his story and googled him for more info.
I found this article in the New Yorker and read it over and over. It struck me like a blow to the head that I needed a linguist in my story. After all, how did we expect to be able to communicate with aliens? Everett was talking about first contact with remote tribes and I realized that what he was describing—a monolingual field situation--was very similar to what first contact with an alien race would be like.
Everett is one of those very gifted people who can learn languages easily. I’d heard of people like him before and they’d always intrigued me. (Especially after my own maladroit attempts at communicating in Spanish when I lived in Costa Rica during college.) It turns out they are very rare and many people do not believe they are real. Which seems silly. We hear of math and musical savants all the time. Why not a language savant?
I decided to take elements of Everett’s story and ascribe them to Jane. So, basically, the language superpower, the trip to the Amazon, and pulling a canoe upriver while stricken with malaria—those all actually happened to Everett. The rest was my imagination.

RA: I absolutely love that! The whole "how do you communicate with zero common ground" angle was one of my favorites of the book. Also, YAY for Stargate fans! I was always a Sam Carter/Jack shipper myself. (What can I say? I love a no-nonsense lady and her badass commander trying to be professionals while dealing with UST.)

Speaking of UST, as we are both ladies who write SF with romantic elements, let's talk about luuuuuv. Did you always plan to mix the softer feelings with your hard SF, or did it just sort of happen? Also, how have readers reacted to the mix? I know for my Devi books, it was a love or hate deal with almost no middle ground. Has this been the same for you?

JFW: First, let me say that, yes, I planned the romantic subplot in this novel from the beginning. It was always part of the plan from the earliest conception of the work.

Yes, Rachel, it has been the same for me. I don’t understand the controversy here. Nearly every major motion picture and television show, SF or not, contains romantic elements. People in all walks of life become attracted to each other, enamored of each other, all the freaking time…um…daily.

It’s a pretty major element of the human condition. Throughout history, so much of our art—poetry, paintings, music, has been devoted to exploring, understanding and celebrating attraction, lust, and love. CONNECTING with another human being, on a deep and spiritual level, loving that person, body and soul, is something nearly every human craves. Why, then, is it problematic in this particular genre?

I think a better question is this: why does most SF deny the existence of this natural aspect of human interaction? Or: Why is sex used in some SF as a commodity instead of as a connection? Or: Why is rape trivialized so much in fiction? Or: Why does a romantic subplot make a book “girly” and unworthy?

The answers to all of these questions lie in patriarchy, acculturation, entitlement, and hubris. I refuse to kowtow to these elements. Carol Shields said, “Write the book you want to read, the one you cannot find.” That’s all I did. I’ll learn all I can from criticism of my work, but this is one area where I will not bend.

*lifts the mighty hammer of feminism and hoists it to my back*
Next question. . .

100% AGREE!


(gathers her composure)

Ahem, let's move on to the inevitable shop talk. Can't be two writers talking without shop talk, can we? Now, as anyone who's cruised the genre lists on Amazon in the last month knows, FLUENCY is doing amazingly well! I'm betting it's a combination of your lovely cover, smart price, interesting blurb, and great opening pages followed by a good story. Other than those obvious beauties, though, can you tell us anything else about what you did to make FLUENCY such a break out hit? I mean, other than write a super awesome and unique SF book?

JFW: Well, I really think that my awesome Twitter following helped out. I’ve been following SF fans on Twitter for about three years now. Twitter is so much fun and I have started so many wonderful friendships there. The ability to find and connect with a very specific subset of people that share the same interests is the most amazing thing!

So, the day I announced that my book was up…well, tons of people bought it. Then the amazon algorithms took over and it got very visible. Amazon seems to favor new authors that are selling well. The Almighty Zon does like its unicorns.

I never expected any of this. It’s been a complete surprise and such a whirlwind. I feel very blessed to have done so well right out of the gate. I’m determined to keep my foot in the door and help as many SF writers through as I can. I answer questions daily across social media platforms about what I do, and how I’ve done this and I never hold back if I think I can help. I’m not in competition with anyone else. Readers read lots of books and if they like yours, they may like mine, and the next person’s as well. We are competing, not with each other, but with candy crush and flappy bird.

RA: Very true. I've had almost the same experience with Nice Dragons, though to a lesser degree. Congratulations again on your success! You deserve it. It's like I keep telling people: write a good book, give it a good cover and blurb, and good things will happen.

And while we're on the subject, let's talk publishing! We're always interested in the sausage making side of things here on Pretentious Title, so can you tell us a bit about how FLUENCY came to be? And on that same note, do you have any wise words for other SF authors who'd like to follow in your footsteps?

JFW: I initially planned to self-publish. When my local SF writing group read FLUENCY, a couple of members pulled me aside and told me that I would be selling myself short if I didn’t try traditional publishing. So, I decided to give it a try.

I did some Twitter pitch competitions, some blog contests and also submitted some queries. But the process was so demoralizing. Either I wasn’t even acknowledged as having submitted or FLUENCY was rejected (I bet some of those agents and presses are kicking themselves now!) and I just got fed up and decided to go forward with my original plan. That was the right decision for me.

It had taken a year to write the first draft of FLUENCY. I took another year to get some distance from my own prose and then to revise it. In the meantime I worked on another novel (now on hold for the moment—a superhero origin story called Druid). After I had completed all the revisions that I and my writing group thought the book needed, I hired a proofreader. Then I spent a month learning how to format and publish the book.

My wisest words for other writers:

Write every day.

Follow your gut and your own interests, not a trend.

Get lots of eyes on your work, but don’t ask for how to fix anything—ask for a reader’s reactions to it, in order to gauge if you’re getting the responses that you intended. Ask for feedback on things that were confusing, on sentences that tripped them up, on places where they felt strong feelings.

Be patient with yourself. Don’t race to publish or to submit queries. Relax. Let your work sit on a shelf for a while—as long as you can bear. Go back to it with fresh eyes and work to trim it, hone it, enhance it. I don’t subscribe to this idea that self-pubbed authors need to release a gazillion books to succeed. You need to release GOOD books to succeed. Produce the best you are capable of.

Join a serious writers group—down to earth (not pretentious) but with high standards. Hold yourself and others to high standards in the kindest and most encouraging way possible.

Read about your craft. My favorite book about writing is: Story Engineering by Larry Brooks.

Keep writing. The more words you have under your belt, the better those words get.

If you decide to go indie: INVEST. Invest in your work by hiring good, professional support: cover artists, formatters and editors. It will make a world of difference in the quality you provide your readers. That matters.

RA: That is all excellent advice! Jennifer, thank you so much for taking the time to come onto my blog. I am absolutely delighted to see more female authors in my favorite genre (Devi was getting a little lonely). I might cackle manically over your success every time I see someone implying that hard SF books, especially hard SF books written by women, "don't sell." We're all in this boat together, and I for one am delighted to have you aboard! I hope you continue to write great books for years to come.

I hope you all enjoyed the interview, and if you haven't already, don't forget to check out FLUENCY! I'll be back soon with more actual writing posts. Until then, I remain your terrible orange font user,



Unknown said...

Thank you, Rachel, for another awesome post! I just picked up Jennifer's book on both Amazon and Audible. So glad you and others are paving the way for romance in hardcore SciFi. It just makes sense!

Anonymous said...

This interview was great and I'm looking forward to reading Fluency!

Though if you're looking for other speculative fiction with a linguist as center stage, not actually hard SF -- Lindsay Buroker's "Encrypted" stars a linguist who has to deal with futuristic alien culture/stuff/language in a steampunk world! Tikaya's a wonderful character.

Jennavier Gilbert said...

I picked up Fluency when it was on sale but I still haven't read it yet. This interview makes me even more excited!

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