Con†Stellation XXXV: Horologium (The Clock)
13–15 October 2017——Huntsville, Alabama
|GoH: Mary Robinette Kowal||Artist GoH: David O. Miller||MC: Toni Weisskopf|
The final Con†Stellation is over 🙁
We will be transforming this into a history site
Please bear with us as that transition will take some time
Mike Kennedy: Before we get started on the interview proper, I should probably mention we’ve known each other a few years.
Stephanie Osborn: Just a few. Just a few.
MK: And we won’t, either one of us, speculate on how long.
SO: No, we’d probably better not. (laughs)
MK: And I should probably mention—I’ve told you but the readers don’t know—that I’m not really all that familiar with your work.
MK: I did read the samples you sent me and some more besides.
SO: I hope you enjoyed them.
MK: I did. I did. But you’ll have to carry that part of the load for both of us.
MK: So, you have a pretty extensive scientific and technical background. Could you tell us a little bit about whether that influenced your decision to become an author.
SO: My scientific and technical background was influenced by science fiction. And yes, that [in turn] influenced me in terms of writing. When I was a kid (and this will kind of give away my age anyway) there were two things that happened when I was relatively small. One was this TV series called Star Trek—I am just barely old enough to have seen it in its original run. And I was a smart-enough kid to understand it when I was watching it, for the most part. Around the same time we had the Apollo 1 fire. Those two things were the catalyst. I looked at one and said, “This is where we are,” and I looked at the other and said, “This is where we could go.” And these guys were willing to die to help push us forward to where we could go. I decided I wanted to help with that. I wanted to work in the space program, so I looked at the degree(s) I thought would be useful to me to get there. By the time it was said and done I had graduate and undergraduate degrees in astronomy, physics, chemistry, and mathematics. I kinda-sorta didn’t mean to do that, but I had professors telling me, “If you just take this sequence over here you can pick up a major in this; if you take this course over here you can pick up a minor in that.” So, I did. Then I wound up working in the space program for quite some few years. I had always enjoyed writing—I started off writing poetry in elementary school. When I started working, I got too busy for that but somewhere along the way I realized, “I need a creative outlet; I need to go back to writing.” They say, “Write what you know,” so I did. The first novel I wrote turned into my first published novel Burnout: The mystery of Space Shuttle STS-281 which turned out to predict what happened to Space Shuttle Columbia in a certain measure. The difference is that the Burnout scenario was sabotage as opposed to Columbia’s real-life scenario being our dumb bad luck.
MK: Well, there were some bad decisions [relating to the external tank bipod foam design] too.
SO: Without doubt, but the same bad decisions had been made on other missions and they got away with it [for a long time]. So, on this particular one, just bad luck. Unfortunately, there was also a friend of mine onboard, so that was kind of the beginning of the end of that career for me. A few years later I wound up getting out of the program entirely.
MK: So, were you NASA, or a contractor, or what?
SO: I was a contractor, not a civil servant. I also did some DoD space work. So, yeah, I had over a 20-year career in civilian and military space in one way or another.
MK: So [for you] it’s circular—the science fiction and the science that you watched as a child influenced your career choice in terms of working with the space program…
MK: …and that fed into…
SO: My writing—yes, very much so. Sometimes I’ll kick back and write some fantasy—some urban fantasy or some space opera—and I even have a children’s fantasy out, but what I tend to write leans in the direction of or comes down just flatly on the hard science fiction side of the house. Even when I’m writing space opera I occasionally have to remind myself, “It’s OK, I don’t have to explain everything.” (laughs) “I can throw something in that’s way out there if I want to.”
SO: That’s fine.
MK: …how long have you lived in Huntsville?
SO: Oh geez, we moved to Huntsville a couple of months before the Challenger disaster, so that would be the first part of December 1985. So, 30-ish years.
MK: So, you’ve been here a long time (not as long as me, by the way). Has Huntsville…
SO: Well, I’ve lived here longer than I’ve lived anywhere else, including the house I grew up in.
MK: As have I. Has Huntsville itself—not the work, but the people, the city, the zeitgeist—has it influenced your writing?
SO: Yeah, I think it has, because I find myself looking around me at the people I know to get inspiration for characters. And occasionally I do Tuckerize people. I have a brand-new series out called Division One, and it’s my take on those guys who show up at UFO sightings and alien abductions to make the evidence go away. One of the characters—who grew up in Huntsville (or, rather, just outside of Huntsville)—a couple of books down the road is a Tuckerization of Travis Taylor…
SO: …with his full permission. But it turns out he’s really not from around here, if you get my drift. (laughs loudly)
MK: I think indeed I do. And, knowing Travis (not as well as you do, but fairly well) I can see why you would think that.
SO: Well, I told him what I was going to do and he thought it sounded like an absolute hoot. I really need to, I guess, run [the as-written scene] by him and make sure he’s cool with it but I think he’ll get a kick out of it.
MK: A little bit of a left turn here: one of the stories of yours I did read was StarSong…
SO: Yes, that’s my children’s book.
MK: …and I noticed—I can’t really call it an undercurrent because it was right there on the surface—a fairly strong religious or spiritual tone.
MK: Has that appeared in any of your other work?
SO: Probably not to such a great extent—that particular children’s book is a fantasy and it was inspired by two things: by Native American myth and culture (which is very spiritual), and Tolkien. If you paid attention you could probably notice a few Tolkien influences especially in the turns of phrase. Of course, Tolkien was also fairly religious.
MK: Oh, yes.
SO: Most people don’t realize, but I’m a licensed minister. So yes, I have my own specific theological beliefs. [The spirituality in StarSong] was intended to be a gentle sort of thing; but yeah, it’s there.
MK: You’ve written both short and long fiction as well as some nonfiction.
MK: The short fiction has been as short as a short story, and the long fiction has been as long as—how many novels—a half-dozen or so [in a series]?
SO: Yeah, right now the Displaced Detective series has six novels in it.
MK: So that’s a fairly wide range—is it the material that determines the length or do you actually have a preference?
SO: It depends on the story—sometimes a story can be told in a very short amount of time and sometimes there’s so much going on that I can’t tell it in one book. It has to be a series. So it depends—it depends on the characters and the plot. “The Bunker” was a short story—I told it in about 3,000 words. For the Displaced Detective series, I just put out the sixth [novel] this past fall. The Division One series looks like going on for eight or nine books. It just depends.
MK: Eight or nine books amounts to how many words?
SO: Oh geez, each book runs on average about 100,000 to 110,000 words. It can be as short as 80,000 or as long as 120 [to] 125,000.
MK: So half a million to a million [words for a series]…
SO: Yeah, yeah, somewhere in there.
MK: So 3,000 to 1,000,000…
SO: Yeah, right. So, like I said, it just depends on the type of story.
MK: Speaking of type of story…
MK: You seem to combine genres a lot.
SO: The world seems to combine genres a lot. Yeah, I do.
MK: Is there something particular about that that interests you?
SO: Well, my two principal genres are science fiction and mystery. That’s where I got my handle “The Interstellar Woman of Mystery.” It was a combination of a podcast host and a fan. The podcast host liked to nickname his guests and he came up with “International Woman of Mystery” and one of the fans in the chatroom said, “No, no, no, no, no…she writes science fiction and mystery, and it has to be ‘Interstellar’…you’re not thinking big enough.” And it stuck, so I live with it. But yeah, those are my two favorite genres to read, and always have been. My take on trying to write —I make no claim to being a trained literary artist but my philosophy has always been that I want to make the situations and characters as “real life” as possible. And real life doesn’t stop at one genre or another. So, my stories have science fiction elements; they have mystery elements. They’ll have elements of romance. They’ll have action-adventure. Thriller. Whatever is appropriate to the situation and the story.
SO: Yeah, I know; it’s a pain in the butt to get them into the bookstores, because they never know what to do with them.
MK: And occasionally you’ll get that unenlightened reader who thinks you have to be purist.
SO: Yes, and I’ve encountered that.
MK: And the occasional unenlightened [usually] male who is afraid of “romance cooties.”
SO: Oh heavens above, “You put romance in my science fiction novel!” Yes, I did. Are you married? “Well, yes.” Do you occasionally bring your wife flowers on Valentine’s Day? “Well, that or chocolate.” OK, then, what are you complaining about?
MK: That’s OK you don’t have to [can’t] please everybody.
SO: Well, no. Just pleasing enough people to be able to make a living helps. (laughs loudly)
MK: So, since you brought up money…not exactly my next question, but close. Tell us something about your path to [getting published]. What do you think so-called indie publishing or self publishing vs. small press vs. traditional large press?
SO: I’ve done some of “all of the above.” I have books with Baen, I have books with small presses, and I’ve put out books indie. There’s something to be said for all of them. I don’t come down hard on one side or another. I will say that I am glad that I started with a traditional press. Most of my initial work was done with a small press called Twilight Times Books. It’s actually one of the largest of the small presses. I learned a lot from talking with the publisher. Basically, I’m a sponge. If I’m doing something I want to learn as much as I can about it. I would ask her “Why are we doing it this way? How does this work? What’s the sequence—what should I expect?” I basically picked her brain. Bless her heart, she was friendly and she and I are friends to this day. And she answered my questions to the best of her ability. So, I learned a lot. Whenever I would work with a different publisher I would do something similar. “How are y’all doing this particular sequence of events? And why is yours different from what I’ve already encountered?” I would learn each time. So now [that] I’ve started [publishing] some of my work as indie, that has really helped immensely because now I understand the ins and outs of the business. I can handle it a little bit better. I know what to expect; I know what to ask for. I know the sort of thing I should be doing. So, it’s actually proved quite useful. I really don’t understand how somebody coming in makes the decision to go indie right off the bat. That’s gotta be difficult, because you don’t know how the system works.
MK: I suppose that Amazon—what do they call their indie publishing arm?
SO: [There’s] KDP—Kindle Direct Publishing [for ebooks] and CreateSpace, which is the print arm.
MK: Do they provide any guidance at all, or are you still pretty much on your own?
SO: Oh, pretty much all of ’em [independent publishing services], you’re pretty much on your own. They’ll all give you a “handbook,” usually as a PDF/Acrobat file that you’re expected to read and figure out and that may or may not answer your questions. Right now the Division One series is being put out indie with some friends’ help. And that’s actually going fairly well, but the particular print and distribution company that we’re using—some of their stuff is not immediately intuitive. That has proven a little difficult at times to weed our way through all of that. But we’re managing, and, yeah, we learned from the first book and there are things we’re going to do differently on the second book. And hopefully we’ll learn some more on that one.
MK: No matter what method you use to get to press, you’ve still got to promote it.
MK: You do a lot of the promotion yourself…
SO: Oh, that’s true regardless of whether you’re going indie, or small press, or big press these days—unless you’re one of the really, really big names…
MK: Unless you’re a blockbuster.
MK: So, tell us about promoting you own work. Do you go to conventions for instance?
SO: I do. I go to conventions every chance I get. That said, at a certain point you’ve got to start looking—is this a convention you’re attending regularly? Are you getting enough back from it to justify the expense? So those are things you have to weigh in the balance and occasionally I have to say, “Well, I can’t go to this convention every time,” or “I’m going to have to cut this convention out even though I enjoy it because I’m not getting good response. My sales don’t bump as a result of my appearances there. It’s not justifying itself.” Once in a while I enjoy a con so much I just say, “To heck with it, I’m goin’ anyway.”
MK: Of course if it’s a local convention…
SO: Oh, I do.
MK: [That’s] Con†Stellation www.con-stellation.org for the readers.
SO: And I have enjoyed it for lo these many years.
MK: And we’ve enjoyed having you. Of course, it’s a lot easier decision to go to a local convention…
SO: Oh, sure.
MK: …or to one where you can drive in a few hours…
MK: …as opposed to getting on an airplane and flying out of the most expensive city in the nation [for air travel; according to some surveys].
SO: Oh really, I did not know that.
MK: It may not hold that distinction this year, but in many years Huntsville…
SO: That explains a lot. (laughs) Yes, and in fact I’m going to do that very thing later this year. ConCarolinas has invited me to be their Science Guest of Honor, so they’ll be flying me in for that. So yes, I do a little of all of it.
MK: When you do go to conventions what’s your favorite thing to do there?
SO: Oh wow. Meet people…It depends on the panels they put me on. Some of the panels can be a real hoot. If you get the right combination of panelists and a good topic then things can get really crazy really fast. And that can be fun. I love looking at costumes—well, you guys have had me as a Masquerade judge…
SO: …in years past. And I’ve done that for other conventions too. In fact, years ago I used to do a little bit of [costuming] myself, but these days—oh geez—I’ve got the back end of the car full of books and then my husband (who’s an award-winning magician) usually brings along his magic equipment and balloon sculpture equipment. And then we’ve got luggage and there’s just no room left over for costuming. There’s nowhere to stuff it.
MK: Yeah, a hoop skirt takes up a little bit of room.
SO: They do, they most definitely do. And, you know, frankly a corset is not a lot better. I mean, you can fold it flat (gestures) but there’s only so much flat you can fold—because of the boning and stuff in there.
Mike Kennedy: Since you’ve mentioned your husband…
Stephanie Osborn: Yes.
MK: …you’ve had him work for you. He’s done the illustrations for [some of] your books.
MK: How’s that?
SO: That actually started off with my very first book, Burnout, because once I signed the contract with Twilight Times I decided, “I need a website.” So I did a little scouting around and found myself a host[ing company], and I started constructing this website. Mind, OK, this was back before they had a whole bunch of templates available. I learned html coding expressly to be able to build my own website, all right?
SO: So in that regard it was kinda fortunate I had taken some computer programming courses back in the day at college. But, I picked up on it fairly quickly and I built a reasonable website, but it looked bland and I said, “I need some graphics. I need some cool looking artwork. Honey, can you gen me up a couple of pieces of artwork?” So he did. The first one he did was based on Burnout, and he titled it Matchstick. So I put it up on my website. It looked really cool…then my publisher saw it and she was like, “Wow, that is cool. Can he do that as a wraparound cover?”
MK: The readers of course don’t know that illustration is his day job.
SO: Correct. He’s a graphic artist with the same government contractor I used to work for. So, yeah, that’s his day job; then his second job is magician and balloon artist; and the half job is graphic art for books. Yeah, he stays as busy as I do, if not busier. So she commissioned him to do a wraparound cover for that first book. So, the next thing we know she’s commissioning him to do cover art not only for my books but for some of her other authors as well. Then, some other small publishers started using him. Let’s see, it used to be Kerlak Publishing and now it’s Dark Oak Press—they’ve changed names over the years. They do the Dreams of Steam steampunk anthology series. They have like half a dozen books out in that series and he’s done the cover for every one of them.
MK: Ah, I didn’t know that.
SO: Yes, and the last couple of [covers] in the series they did as diptychs. They put out two books simultaneously—you put the books side-by-side with their covers touching and it makes one complete image. It’s really kinda cool. But he does stuff like that all the time. Whenever I do indie stuff, I tell him, “This is what it’s about, gen me something up.” Invariably it comes out really, really cool. I watch him…you know, I can’t draw a straight line with a ruler. I’m serious—either the ruler will slip or my thumb will get in the way. I’m not joking here. So watching him do his artwork is just amazing to me. To see him point, click; point, click; point, click; point, click; and then suddenly here’s this gorgeous image—and, I’m like, “I don’t get how his brain woooorks.” I tell people I draw pictures with words. That’s the best I can do.
MK: We talked, a minute ago, about money.
MK: I’m not going to ask you about money…
MK: …but I am going to ask you what (makes air quotes) “success” means to you as an author.
SO: There’s a couple of different kinds of success, I would have to say. One [of them] I’ve, to an extent, already achieved. I am published, I’m traditionally published, I have a fan base (not nearly big enough to suit me, which we’ll get into that in a minute when I discuss a different kind of success). I am actually a full-fledged professional active member in several different author guilds—Romance Writers of America, Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime (which is a mystery author’s organization), International Thriller Writers, and some other things like that. So, yeah, I’m quite happy with all of that. There’s a different kind of success and that is financial success. I’m still working on that one. I have a fan base—it is small but dedicated. But right now it’s not big enough to help me pay the bills. I would really, really like to see my fan base grow. I’m not looking to be a regular on the New York Times bestseller list (although I’d be thrilled if it happened!). I’m not holding my breath, and it’s not really even a goal. My goal is [that] I want to be financially successful—to bring in enough with my royalties that I’m helping my husband pay the bills. Remember, he’s got those two and a half jobs, all right? That is the success I’m still waiting to achieve and I’m working on it really, really hard. One kind of success, yes, I’ve achieved and I’m happy about that, but the other kind I’m still working on. Make sense?
SO: All right
MK: We talked about your early love of science fiction (or at least some science fiction).
SO: What I could get my hands on. I was actually kind of limited as a kid, we lived out in the country—there was one library in town and it was on the opposite end of town from anywhere we went. So if it wasn’t in the school library—and there wasn’t that much in the way of science fiction in the school library—I oftentimes didn’t have access to it.
MK: Yeah, I went through a big library phase. When I was in what was called then junior high school and high school the town library was on my way home on the occasions that I walked home (which wasn’t that often; it was a pretty long walk). I read everything they had [in the sf section] which, like you said, wasn’t that much.
SO: Yeah, yeah, I was kind of the same way. But, again, I didn’t have access to the city library because I grew up in the country. You didn’t walk anywhere because it was too far to walk [so] if it wasn’t in the school library or in one of the bookstores…It’s like, “We have to go to the mall.” OK, Mom, I’m going to the bookstore. “OK, I’ll know where to find you, that’s cool.” If it wasn’t in the bookstore at the mall or in the school library it might as well have been invisible to me. There were just starting to be such things as science fiction conventions out there, but I didn’t know where they were and I didn’t have access to them.
MK: That actually slides right in to my next question.
SO: Oh, OK.
MK: While you were growing up, is there anything you could have done—as a child or as a young adult—that would make you a better writer today?
SO: Man, man… (reacts wonderingly, thinking)
MK: If you can think of something, would you have actually done it?
SO: I took all of my English courses; I took technical writing in college; I got into the honors program as an undergraduate based partly on my writing ability—but one thing I wish I had done (that simply never occurred to me to do) was to take a course on writing fiction. Everything was geared toward that [goal of ] working in the space program.
MK: Uh huh. You said you’d already been writing poetry.
SO: But poetry—yes, I’m one of those people who can write a sonnet. I could sit down here and knock off a sonnet, complete with the…
MK: I’m lucky to be able to get the right number of syllables in [a] haiku.
SO: That was never a problem for me. I understood the cadence and the rhythm and rhyme and the meter—but I think one of the things I regret is not having studied more of the structure of the story.
MK: The narrative of a poem—even a narrative poem…
MK: …which most poetry isn’t…
MK: …is very different from the narrative structure of…
SO: …of prose, yes. So, that’s something I kinda regret. I think it would make me a better—a tighter—writer today if I’d had that. As it is, with some of that, I’m kinda floundering a little: “OK, the story is taking me in this direction [but] maybe I should stay off over here.” (gestures right, then left) But then, I rarely have anybody complain if I take a slight detour in the plot. (chuckles) I don’t know, maybe I’m doing all right. I can’t help but think it might have made me a better writer.
MK: All right…
SO: But it’s something I wouldn’t have thought to do. If I could go back now and tell my younger self, “You should take this course,” I’d still have no guarantee I would have taken it…That’s really about the only thing I can think of is just to have learned more about the mechanics of storytelling. You know what I’m saying?
MK: Uh huh.
SO: Because a lot of [that] is—what I refer to as “osmosed” on the way. Just stuff I’ve picked up on. So, yeah. I think if I could have—I mean, I grew up way out in the country in Tennessee and I didn’t really have access to a lot of stuff. And I think if I could have gotten to some of those science fiction conventions and talked to some of the authors it probably would have done me some good.
MK: For those [readers] who don’t go to conventions, that’s one of the great things about most general-interest science fiction conventions—the authors or artists or whatever it is you’re interested in are more than willing to sit down and talk to you. Just talk [in general]; or talk specifically about how they do their thing…
SO: Yeah. (nods) I have these long email conversations between me and Jerry Pournelle: “Well, how should I have done this?” “Well, I would have recommended doing it this way.” I’m gradually trying to pick his brain—and some other established authors like that—and trying to learn a little bit more about how to structure my stories a little better. But that’s coming awfully late in the game for me.
MK: Let me ask you a different question now. I’ve read just a very small sample of your Displaced Detective series…
SO: Uh huh.
MK: …and I also read “The Bunker”…
SO: Uh huh.
MK: …both of which—well, the Displaced Detective [series] isn’t a Victorian story but it has Victoriana…
SO: Yes, very much so.
MK: …as well as, of course, “The Bunker”…
SO: Yes, which is steampunk, so it’s Victorian.
MK: So, is there something about Victoriana which calls to you?
SO: Oh, yes. When I was growing up, a lot of the books I could get to were classic literature of one sort or another; including a lot of stuff that was Victorian-era literature. Oh geez, Dracula, Frankenstein, all of the Sherlock Holmes novels, Jules Verne, H.G. Wells—all these guys. And I developed a certain fondness for the time period and for the style of writing. It’s really interesting because occasionally an editor will come back and say, “You use too many adverbs.” And I’m like, “No I don’t. I just write in a Victorian style.” Because they used adverbs and weren’t afraid to use them. And they’re a perfectly legitimate part of grammar…
MK: Last time I looked.
SO: Last time I looked, yes. So, it’s something I’m fond of. But it’s not in fashion to use adverbs these days. It’s really funny—the school library had a great big huge compendium of all the collected Sherlock Holmes stories.
MK: Which I never read as a child, but I did just about a year […] ago read the entire set of the stories.
SO: I wagged that [collection of stories] around for the bulk of an entire school year, reading my way through them. It’s really kinda funny because I would go home at night and I’d finish my homework and I’d pull this out and start reading. I would read until Mom said it was supper time and I’d go eat supper, then come back and pick it up, and start reading again until it was bedtime. I would come up for air and discover that I was speaking with a Victorian West End accent, because I was hearing the characters in my head. And to this day, when I write, it’s like inverting the process. I’m hearing and seeing it in my head and I’m just transcribing it into the computer. And, yeah, sometimes I come out and I’m speaking Victorian West End English.
MK: Did you start writing the Displaced Detective [series]—one of the main characters being Sherlock Holmes…
SO: Sherlock Holmes, yeah.
MK: …in the modern era.
MK: Did you start writing those before or after the fairly recent Holmes revival?
SO: Long before, actually. I had the first several books written before there was ever any scuttlebutt about doing that. Now, I didn’t get them published until after. But, yeah, I had them written long before. I had an idea one day—I refer to ideas for stories as plot bunnies. This particular plot bunny bit me in the butt and would not let go of me until I sat down and wrote it. The concept was…
MK: (makes fang motion with fingers)
SO: Yes, yes, kinda like that vicious bunny from the Monty Python movie. Dang, they’ll bite you in the butt and they won’t let go. And the concept was—I had actually just read an anthology of Sherlock Holmes science fiction. I thought, “That was really cool and this is something I can do,” because I read that big compendium cover to cover while I was in school. I’m a Sherlock Holmes fan. I can quote big long passages. And I thought, “Well, wouldn’t it be cool, though, if I could come up with a way to write Sherlock Holmes science fiction with modern science.”
MK: Your take on it is certainly different from…
SO: From, yeah, anybody else’s.
MK: …because you have Sherlock Holmes from…
SO: The Victorian era.
MK: …the Victorian era in the modern world.
SO: Right, I yank him from an alternate reality’s Victorian era and dump him down in the modern day. I wangled it so that in his particular version of events—which is not Doyle’s version—he can’t go back. He’s yanked from the climactic moment at Reichenbach Falls and it is presumed that he and Moriarty are both dead. So he can’t go back. [“Before” this version of Holmes is taken from his reality, his fate had been to actually die there.]
MK: And Doyle wasn’t around to revive him, so to speak [as the author did when he resumed writing Holmes stories and explained away the character’s apparent death]. And if readers of this haven’t read the Sherlock Holmes stories, go do so. They’re available [in the] public domain…
MK: …download them from somewhere and read them.
SO: Yep. I have two different compendiums: one on my Kindle-for-laptop app and one on my Kindle-for-phone app. I also, years ago—once I got married and settled and everything—found a copy of that great big print compendium and bought it. It sits on my bookshelf, too. So, I sat down, the plot bunny bit, and I started to write this story. The rough draft of this story came in at 215,000 words.
MK: More than your typical novel.
SO: The average novel in science fiction or mystery genres runs about 100,000 words. So that’s the equivalent of two novels, and I wrote it in two months. And then started on the next story.
MK: Were you writing, or were you channeling?
SO: Ah, you know what? I’m not really sure. Arguably I might have been channeling. I might have been writing what was going on in an alternate reality someplace. Sometimes that’s what it feels like. But yeah, and that series has been in immense amount of fun to write. Not everybody enjoys it. Those who are what I regard as “old-guard Holmesians” have a tendency to really hate it because I did some things they object to. One is that I yanked Holmes from Victorian London and another is that I allow him to actually care about people. He does get involved with the key scientist of the project that brought him to the modern day; who happens to be female. She also turns out to be his parallel, so I played some games with that—that was kinda fun. I actually have them laughing about it at one point, it’s like, “OK, as many times as Watson accused me of being egotistical, and you’re telling me that I [spoiler redacted].” (laughs loudly) I’m not above having some fun with it and I always…
MK: You just gave a major plot spoiler, you know.
SO: Well, yeah, OK. True.
MK: That’s OK, I’ll leave it out.
Stephanie Osborn: But yeah, that was one of the big objections from the purists about the series is, “How dare I have Holmes [spoiler redacted],” when Doyle had all of the evidence there that it was completely possible, it’s just that he never found anybody that he considered worthwhile to deal with.
MK: Having read the stories relatively recently I’ll have to agree with you on that point, that it was possible.
SO: Yeah. So, I’ve had an immensely good time with that series and there’s still at least one more book that I’d like to—actually that I’ve already written—and several more ideas for books that I would like to write in the series.
MK: Which may or may not come to fruition.
SO: May not come to fruition, it just depends. Right now I’m focusing on the Division One series. I’m working with a friend who is functioning as my business manager and we have a very, very aggressive, very ambitious, schedule planned for that series. I’m hoping to get four books in that series out this year. Yes, I’m keeping really, really busy.
MK: Four novels in one year.
SO: Yes. Four novels in that series…
MK: Not unusual if your name was Asimov, otherwise…
SO: Um, I’m getting there. The four books are all written—I’m just working on getting them ready for publication. And then I’ve got a couple of more books in the wings for other things, that I’m looking at putting out as well.
MK: All right, since you talked about Holmes [spoiler redacted]…
SO: Uh, huh.
MK: …since that cat is out of the bag…
SO: Yeah. I think it’s been out of the bag for a while.
MK: Well, it isn’t if you haven’t started the series. Though by chapter 3—or if not that, chapter 4—of [the first book] it was pretty clear you were headed in that direction.
SO: Well, like I said, real world. That happens to people, you know?
MK: So, you’ve got arguably one of the most iconic male characters…
SO: Uh huh.
MK: …in the history of literature.
SO: Uh huh.
MK: And he’s stacked up against a totally unknown female character…
MK: …started from scratch.
MK: This isn’t intended as a criticism—actually it is a criticism, but it’s criticism of all writing, not of your writing…
MK: A lot of writers—especially in science fiction and fantasy [it seems]—have trouble writing female characters (no matter whether [the author is] female or male) who have agency. Who are able to act and not just be acted upon.
SO: Uh huh.
MK: How’s that been in your work?
SO: It’s really interesting because I think that I write strong, independent female characters. That said, how the reader views it seems to depend on what the reader brings to the table. I can’t imagine any character stronger than a character that can stand up to Holmes and say, “You screwed this one up, you might want to look again.” Which she does on several occasions. And yet I’ve had people claim that she’s a weak character. And I’m like, “What book were you reading because it wasn’t the one I wrote.”
MK: All fiction is a collaboration between the author and the reader.
SO: True, but I still don’t understand where they could possibly have gotten that. I put female characters in so many of my books as main characters. And, almost invariably I get accused of every one of them being a “Mary Sue". And not a one of them is me. In fact, if anything, the “Mary Sue” that I wrote would have been in my first novel, Burnout, because if you take the two protagonists—which are both male (“Crash” Murphy and Dr. Mike Anders)…”Crash” Murphy was a retired flight director for [the Space] Shuttle and Mike Anders was a PhD research astrophysicist—combine them, flip the gender, it’s me. It’s pure me. And I know that; and I did that deliberately. That’s the “Mary Sue.” None of the female characters I wrote are “Mary Sues,” but invariably every one of them—somebody somewhere accuses me, “Oh, that’s just really you. You wrote yourself into the story.” No. Do I use facets of myself in characterization? Yes, I do. But I use that for the male characters as well. I met my husband when we both auditioned for and were cast in a play. I’ve done community theater off and on for years.
MK: I did that in a “previous life”—not on stage, I was always backstage.
SO: I’ve done that too. But, I used to have to create a character to portray it. A well-known actor by the name of Jeremy Brett, who, as far as I’m concerned [did] possibly the greatest portrayal of Sherlock Holmes, ever—he used to refer to it as “becoming the character.” You sit down and you work out how the character thinks; you work out a background for the character; the character’s reactions, moods—why do they get in these moods, what are the triggers to put them there…all these different aspects to what makes a person. And, you build the character from this. The way I used to do it was, I would look inside myself and find some facet of my own personality that was congruent with that character. That would be the foundation over which I would lay all the other layers of characterization. I do that today when I’m writing characters. That’s how I build characters—even the bad guys. There’s some aspect of me in even the villain, because that’s how I build characters. Now, is it an aspect of me that I particularly like? No, not usually. It’s really funny because in the Displaced Detective series not only is [the female lead] Skye Chadwick very definitely not me, I don’t really relate to her primarily in the series. She’s not the character I relate to—Holmes is. I’m on Facebook, and you get these little quizzes, “Which Literary Character Are You?” So, if I’m taking a break, sometimes that’ll be fun to play. Invariably, if Holmes was an option, Holmes was the answer I got. I was talking to a friend who’s a magazine editor and he said, “Well, of course. You are Sherlock Holmes. That is you; that is how you think. That is why you write the character as well as you do.” I said, “OK, then where does Skye Chadwick fit in?” He looked at me [and said], “It’s your husband.”
MK: Does he know that?
SO: My husband?
SO: Well, um, I’ve told him.
MK: …because he’ll know if he reads this article.
SO: I have mentioned it in front of him and he doesn’t bat an eyelash about it. That was the facepalm moment because I realized to a large extent [the magazine editor] was correct.
MK: To be fair, though, the few times that I’ve worked with [your husband] I found him pretty unflappable about anything.
SO: Yeah. He’s easygoing, easy to get along with—which is fortunate because I’m not always. (chuckles) And yeah, it usually takes a lot to flap him. (laughs) Which is probably the reason why we’ve been together as [long] as we have, because nothing I do flaps him. (laughs)
MK: You’ve done—am I correct?—mostly solo work, but you’ve also done some collaborations.
SO: Yes, I have.
MK: Did you like the collaborations? What are the plusses and minuses?
SO: The minuses—this is actually kind of a plus and a minus—you don’t have complete control of the work. But sometimes that’s a good thing, because if I get stuck—the most fun collaboration I’ve had to date has been with Travis Taylor. He travels a lot in the course of his job, and while we were working on Extraction Point!, I’d be working on something and I’d get a phone call from him. “Hey, Steph, how ya doin’?” Well, I’m doin’ fine. “Have you got a few minutes?” Yeah, I got a few minutes. “I’m sittin’ here in such-and-such airport on a layover, and I got to thinkin’ about the book—I had this idea and I wanted to run it by ya.” And the next thing I know it’s like, two, two-and-a-half hours later; my cellphone battery is starting to die; I’ve already grabbed my laptop and am frantically taking notes based on the brainstorming that we’re doing; and we’ve basically just written—for all intents and purposes—a chapter. So, yes, that’s a lot of fun. Not all authors work like that. So sometimes it’s a little bit more like pulling teeth to get stuff out of them. But when the collaboration is working well, it can be terrific—it can be an immense amount of fun—and the book will get finished in nothing flat. And, you think, “This was fun, this was not work.” (laughs loudly) “We’re getting paid to do this, wow!” So there is that. Then, when I’m doing it on my own—yes, I have complete creative control, but then also I have to come up with all the ideas on my own. Yeah, it has its plusses and minuses.
MK: Change of subject…
MK: …do you ever read for pleasure anymore, or every time you pick up a book or a magazine article does it always become research?
SO: I don’t read for pleasure nearly as much as I used to, because there’s something in me that drives me to write. And there’s also that in me that—see, I also do some freelance editing. That kinda started off when I developed a reputation for turning in some of the cleanest manuscripts in the business. And my publisher started asking me to edit other people’s manuscripts, It’s kind of interesting because if the book is not well edited it will throw me out of the story so fast. So, that can be a problem. But then I’m also thinking—excuse my French—“Well, damn, why didn’t I think of that? I could have written something like that.” Or, “Oh, now there’s an idea. I could go off and do something like this, but I would do it with this character instead.” And if it’s nonfiction, it’s like, “OK, this goes over here into the ‘got to remember this for the future story about’ pile.” So, yes, it’s very difficult for me to just kick back because I’m writing in the genres I enjoy reading the most.
MK: I imagine every time you pick a popular science article…
SO: Uh huh.
MK: …you have to wonder what this new thought on imaging black holes…
SO: Yes, yes. I have a couple of Facebook groups—one is purely a fan club, but the other one is called “Lady Osborn’s Pub.” It’s kind of a free-for-all. I don’t allow arguments or very little in the way of politics. Cute animals, that’s cool. Lots of science. I always let them know when I have a new book out, or when I have a book on sale, or whatever. But a lot of the discussion in Lady Osborn’s Pub is scientific in nature. Not infrequently I get ideas for things I could do from the articles they post in there. [Very recently] there was an article about a newly-discovered stellar system where there is a super-Jupiter—if you will—that is in orbit around the other star but it is at a ridiculous distance outside the protostellar disk—which is of course where the planets would be forming. So I’m thinking, “No, that’s not what we’ve got going here—what we’ve got going her is a brown dwarf. We’ve got a failed star. This should have been a binary star system.” I’m 99% certain that what that one is.
MK: It could be, though there’s a similar system—may or may not be the same one—that I read about recently; they simply don’t know what planets may be within the planetary disk…
SO: Right. But the disk is distorted.
MK: …if there’s something in there that’s really really big it could have kicked [the distant body] out [of the protostellar disk].
SO: It could have, but we’re talking about something that’s at least an order of magnitude bigger than Jupiter…
MK: Yeah, ten Jupiters is right at the lower limit of…
SO: Of brown dwarfs.
MK: …what might be a brown dwarf.
SO: Right, it is at the limit of brown dwarfs. So I’m seriously thinking this should have been a binary star system—and didn’t quite make it for whatever reason. But even the disk that should be where the stellar system’s planets are forming is being distorted by the gravity from this super Jupiter (is what they’re calling it). I think it’s a brown dwarf. That’s the sort of thing that one of these days I’m probably going to come up with a story for.
MK: Because, everything you read…
MK: …becomes research.
SO: Yes, everything I read is fodder for a story, somewhere.
MK: All right. Let’s say that you have just finished the sixth book, which you said you have…
MK: …in this one series.
SO: Uh huh.
MK: And your “brain is full.” You can’t cram another thing in—you’ve done all the reading; all the research; and you’re just tired.
SO: Yes, done that.
MK: What do you do to get away from it? What do you do to get away from the writing, and the research, and everything associated with it?
SO: I put the computer down, I put all books down, I grab my husband, and I say, “Let’s go do something. Let’s get out of the house.” I want to get away from the house—even if it’s nothing but a series of day trips. Because, when I’m writing, I’m absorbed in it. I’m there, I’m working, my head is in this other place. It’s not uncommon if I’ve got a real flow going with the writing for me to go for a week or longer and never stir my nose outside the door. So, when I’m finally done with it, I want to see something besides the four walls. If we can take a vacation and go do a theme park or something, so much the better.
MK: Are you a roller coaster person?
SO: I used to be. As I’m getting older I’m finding less and less—well, I’m having more and more joint problems. So, roller coasters, I love them still, but they don’t always like me so much. When I come off them and I’m hurting, it’s like, “Maybe I shouldn’t have done that.” So I’m starting to back off of them a little. That said, there are other things I can ride and I get a kick out of.
MK: Get out of the house.
MK: Get out of Huntsville.
SO: Not necessarily. Last summer when I finished writing the sixth Displaced Detective novel, I needed a break. “It’s to the publisher now, it will be a while before I get anything back from the editor. I need a break.” So we just started looking around for stuff to do in town. I discovered that there’s an animal refuge over east of Huntsville. Stuff like that. Just go do something. Go walk around the mall; window shop. Anything to get out of the house.
MK: Two final questions.
MK: One: Tell us about your online presence. Do you use social media or a blog or anything you want the readers to know about?
SO: My website is www.stephanie-osborn.com. I have a blog, but it’s kind of inactive right now because I’ve been spending so much time writing that I didn’t have any energy left to come up with blog material. I’m on Facebook (www.facebook.com/SFAuthorStephanieOsborn). I’m on Twitter as @WriterSteph. I’m on Google+ (plus.google.com/+StephanieOsborn). I’m on Linked In but I usually use that for just making business connections. If you want to get in touch with me those (Facebook, Twitter, Google+) are the three social media to do it in.
MK: And: Upcoming releases.
SO: [There’s] the next three books in the Division One series. The next book will be A Small Medium at Large (Division One #2) and that’s coming out next month [April 2017]. Then, hopefully in July, A Very UnCONventional Christmas (Division One #3). Yes, it takes place at a science fiction convention at Christmastime. It’s a fake one, called YuleCon, in New York. And yes, the agents wind up in the middle of this with a batch of aliens—a diplomatic corps from another stellar system [which] is using the convention as cover for diplomatic meetings. This is the one that Travis Taylor cameos in. Then the fourth [Division One book] will be called Tour de Force and that one should come out along about October, hopefully in time for Con†Stellation.
MK: Uh huh.
SO: And I’m looking at sometime this year—I have the first book of a steampunk series pretty much ready to go. The novel would be called The Bellerophon Club and the series would be called The Adventures of Amelia Gearhart. Yes, pun intended. So those are the books that I’m planning on putting out this year. There may be some others…
MK: Did I count as many as five books [including the first Division One novel]…
SO: This year, yes.
MK: …this year? All right.
SO: Yes. And I’m looking at starting to do them as audiobooks, too, beginning later this year.
MK: So you’ve been a busy girl.
SO: Yes I have. And I’ve got four more books planned the Division One series for next year—to be put out on a similar timetable. And I’m looking at writing a few more shorts and collecting all of my shorter works together—a lot of my fans want print books and the shorter stuff [is only available] as e-books.
MK: Uh huh.
SO: So I’m going to collect them all up; add a little bit to it to make it a decent size; and put out my own anthology, which would be called Eclectic Osborn.
MK: All right. Well, thank you.
SO: Thank you very much.
MK: We’ll call it done for the day.