Interview with Joel Shepherd
Wednesday, November 14, 2007
Hailing from Australia, it took a while before Joel Shepherd’s novels found a publisher for the US and other international markets, but thanks to Pyr Books, “Crossover” & “Breakaway” are now available and readers are starting to take notice of the author. With “Killswitch”, the concluding volume in the Cassandra Kresnovtrilogy set for a November 30, 2007 release, I thought it would be timely to find out a little bit more about Mr. Shepherd. So thank you Jill for making the interview happen, Joel of course for his cooperation, and read on for info about Mr. Shepherd’s new fantasy series, future science fiction projects, who would be the perfect actress to play Cassandra Kresnov and plenty more!
Q: You’re an Australian writer whose first three novels (Crossover,Breakaway, Killswitch) have been available in your homeland for awhile now and only recently are being published in other countries with “Killswitch” scheduled for a November 30, 2007 US release. Could you tell us how you ended up with Pyr Books as your North American/UK publisher and what kind of reaction your books have received outside of Australia so far?
Joel: When “Crossover” first came out, it was rejected by pretty much everyone in the US and UK. The general gist of the rejections was ‘we’re not really sure where to put this’, because it has elements of cyberpunk, military, espionage, political thriller, etc. So it languished for a few years until Pyr came along, andLou Anders basically said ‘who cares where you classify it so long as it’s good?’ And so far “Crossover” and “Breakaway” have done great, good sales, good critical response, the works. I’m really pleased with it.
Q: What are your thoughts on the fantasy/science fiction book scene in Australia compared to the US?
Joel: Well I’m not really familiar enough with the US scene to compare the two. But in Australia, fantasy does great, SF has struggled, but both seem to be improving lately. I’ve been around some bookstores recently (with the release of ‘Sasha: A Trial of Blood and Steel’ in Australia) and a common refrain was that SF and Fantasy both have been on the up, sales wise.
Q: According to your biography your first manuscript was short-listed for the George Turner Prize in 1998. What was that about and are we ever going to see it in print?
Joel: Not in that version. I’d be a bit embarrassed since my writing wasn’t up to standard then. But in a future version, sure…maybe in a few years.
Q: Since your Cassandra Kresnov novels have been completed for a few years now, let’s reflect. What was the most challenging part about writing the series, the easiest, and if you could go back and change anything, what would it be and why?
Joel: The most challenging part was simply coming up with an interesting, comprehensible plot. My plots tend to be a little complex, so making them all work logically wasn’t as easy for me back then (it’s easier for me now, everything improves with experience). The easiest bit was the characters; they’re strong enough that they tended to write themselves. If I could change anything…possibly I could do a few things differently with plotting, but not much. I haven’t thought about it much.
Q: In other interviews you mentioned how you wanted to play around with certain stereotypes in the Kresnov books, such as the ‘android cliché’, making your leads female, and I also liked how the futuristic setting was utopian rather than the much more common dystopian backdrop and how you made Cassandra accountable for her actions. Were there any other tropes that you were trying to break down in the series?
Joel: Not really. Though I’m not sure I’d describe the series as utopian, more just as not dystopian. I think the trend of human progress has been generally to the positive, with some nasty hiccups, and I don’t expect that to change. I also think some of the attraction of dystopian worlds is that a lot of writers either aren’t interested in politics, or can’t see a way to use it excitingly in their plots. Dystopian worlds usually preclude politics as we understand it…so it’s a bit of a cop out.
Q: Politics, religion and ethnic diversity all play an important role in the series. How much of this comes from your own life and what do these elements bring to your books?
Joel: They’re more personal interests than anything. I’m not religious as such (though not irreligious either) but I am very interested in how civilization works, and you can’t make a statement about any of that if you don’t have some understanding of religion, politics and ethnicity. Like I said above, I think a lot of SF dodges a lack of knowledge or interest in these matters by constructing dystopian worlds where all of these elements have been eliminated, or rendered trivial. Thus, I’d say what they bring to my books is relevance to today’s world. In some ways, I guess the politics of the ‘League’ in theCassandra Kresnov series is a bit of a dig at this SF notion that none of these things will matter in the future anyway. No matter how hard people may try to make it so, through advanced technology and social engineering, these social dynamics are incredibly resilient, and attempts to remove them either futile, or destined to turn into something nasty and oppressive.
Q: How do you feel about “Killswitch” compared to the other two Kresnov novels, and does the book completely close out the series or might we see Cassandra again, or at least further adventures set in the same universe?
Joel: We may see Cassandra again, or stories set in the same universe, I’m not sure yet. Not for a while though. I think “Killswitch” is the best of the three, and most Australian readers who’ve read the lot seem to agree with me.
Q: Your new project is a four-volume fantasy series called A Trial of Blood & Steel, book one (Sasha) of which was released in Australia July 2007 via Hachette Livre, and I believe you’re close to or have finished the third novel. You explain HERE why you ‘switched’ to fantasy, but could you tell us a bit more about the actual plot, what fantasy tropes you’re trying to avoid with the series, and when readers outside of Australia might see the book?
Joel: I’m not sure when readers outside Australia will see it — over a year away, but hopefully less than two. The plot’s a little complex for quick synopsis here, but basically, on the grandest scale, it’s about civilization, and the conflicts between varying kinds. On the smaller scale, it’s about Sasha, a girl who was once a princess of the warlike land of Lenayin, but who left her family as a child to train with Kessligh, former Lenay commander of armies, and a member of the Nasi-Keth, a human movement based upon the teachings of the mysterious serrin of far awaySaalshen. Sasha ends up with many conflicting loyalties, and has to pick her way through various wars, struggles and terrible choices.
I don’t mind any tropes, fantasy or otherwise, so I don’t want to sound like I’m avoiding it because I think I’m too good for it or something. Tropes can be terrific if done well. But in fantasy, they’re not really my thing for what I write, so I’ve created a world with no magic and very few fantastical occurrences — prophecies, grand destinies and the like. I’ve always thought realism contained far greater potential for drama, wonder and pathos than magical fantasy anyhow.
Q: Interesting. So after the fantasy series, you mentioned writing science fiction again. What kind of ideas do you hope to explore?
Joel: I have a stand alone SF novel partially written that’s just basically a great fun shoot-em-up. It’s a fun idea with lots of action, probably the least ‘intellectual’ and most plain fun thing I’ve done. Hey, I’m allowed to have fun.
After that, I’ve a deep space SF series concept in mind. Quite hard science this time, I’ll have to do some research.
Q: How does your most recent work compare to your earliest published books and what improvements as a writer have you made? In what ways would you like to get better?
Joel: Probably when you stop improving as a writer, it’s time to stop writing… My plotting has certainly improved, as has exposition — the hardest thing to master, I think, conveying large amounts of information without info-dumping on the reader. My latter work is similar to the earlier work in the same way I think all of my work will be similar, in that it’s interested in the same kinds of broader issues, and just tackles them in different ways. I couldn’t say how specifically I’d like to get better. I think writing is such an organic, unpredictable process, it’s very hard to figure out in advance how things might be better or worse.
Q: In college you studied both film & television. In what areas exactly were you studying and have you ever thought about writing for film or television? What about writing a comic book, plotting a videogame, etc.?
Joel: I have played around with movie scripts. I have some friends here in Adelaide who formed a small film company called ‘Heavily Armed Productions’ who specialize in SF–I’ve written a short for them, helped them with another, and am currently working on a feature. I’ve no idea if any of them will actually be produced, but it’s fun to do, doesn’t take much time (compared to novels) and is great practice — in novels, there’s lots of time to get to the point, so writers can become lazy, and meander around for pages. In film, you have to cram in as much action and information as possible in the shortest amount of space. Always a good skill for novelists to practice.
Q: Staying on this train of thought, what about adapting your Kresnov books. Has there been any interest or anything optioned for adaptation (of any kind), and if so, can you give us some details?
Joel: Oh there’s been interest, but not from anyone big enough to make it happen.
Q: Let’s fantasize for a bit then. How would you like to see Cassandra Kresnov adapted?
Joel: I’m not really familiar enough with comics and videogames to comment there… although I think Cassandra would be hard to put into a videogame because she’s so damn dangerous everything would need to be in extreme slow motion for players to keep up.
But films…ha, who doesn’t fantasize? The only actress I’ve seen who might be able to play Cassandra is Katee Sackhoff (Battlestar Galactica, Bionic Woman). There may be others, but not that I’ve seen — she’s not a character or physical type you see a lot of in Hollywood. There’s more options for Vanessa Rice because the whole idea for her is someone who looks sweet and delicate but in personality is neither. Natalie Portman jumps out as a possibility…maybe she’d enjoy the chance to be cast against type. Ari Ruben ISAdam Goldberg, the character was actually partly inspired by him, in looks and mannerisms.
Writers…oh, anyone who’s worked on HBO TV dramas. All the best writers seem to be there these days. Directors…anyone who doesn’t fall for the recent trap of directing SF movies like music videoclips. It’s a story, not a collection of high intensity images.
Q: I really like the covers for your Kresnov books. Very stylish… Who came up with the design and did you have any input with the artwork? Additionally, what do you feel about cover art as a whole, how important it is in selling a book, how speculative fiction covers are considered generic, the difference between international & stateside covers, et cetera?
Joel: Well the artist Stephan Martiniere does pretty much what he likes, but Lou Anders had some input. I had almost no input, and considering the results, I’m perfectly happy with that — there’s something comforting in not having the publisher asking you what you’d like in the cover, because that makes you worry they’re not sure what they’re doing. With guys like Stephan and Lou running it, I’m very relaxed because I know I’ll like it.
Covers matter a lot in selling a book. Humans are visual animals, it would be extraordinary if it weren’t important. I’m not sure covers being ‘generic’ matters too much — Star Wars movie posters are pretty generic, and that didn’t hurt. It’s better for a cover to be good and generic, than bad and non-generic. Quality counts most. I think Pyr has been a leader in improving the quality of stateside covers lately.
Q: The Internet is becoming more and more influential in everyday life. How important is the Internet to you and how much of an impact do you think the Internet will have for publishers/authors in the future?
Joel: The Internet’s important to me simply in that I’m interested in so many different things, and the Internet makes it all available to me. I think one of the main things the Internet’s done for authors is that it makes their books easier to find. It also connects literature into other forms of entertainment — so a forum of videogamers might learn about your books when one member comments about them, or a forum of moviegoers, or sports fans, etc. The Internet helps to draw books into general conversation, and thus makes them more relevant to people who otherwise might not read much, if at all. Maybe that’s why sales lately seem to have been going up, because there are lots of people out there who love SF and Fantasy in other mediums (movies, TV, games) but not in books, and it takes the Internet to help them make the connection. Maybe.
Q: What is the one question that no one ever asks you, but you wish they did, and how would you respond to it?
Joel: Well Scarlet Johanssen hasn’t asked me to sleep with her yet. I feel I might respond in the affirmative.
Q: LOL. So what books have really impressed you lately?
Joel: I’m embarrassed to say my reading’s been so slack lately, I can’t really say. Ask me again when my degree’s finished. Mostly I’m reading non-fiction now.
Q: Ahh, I see. Well good luck with that and is there anything else you’d like to say?
Joel: Like this isn’t enough???
Interview by Robert