Collaborators by Deborah J. Ross

Deborah J. Ross. Click on pic to go to her blog.

Recently, I had the opportunity to interview Deborah about her latest book. Here are the results of that interview. (Now go buy the book!)

What prompted you to write this book?

I lived the better part of 1991 in Lyons, France, and I was repeatedly struck by how history permeated every aspect. Some buildings showed damage from cannon balls during the French Revolution. Plaques marked places where citizens were executed by the Nazis or Jewish families were deported. After visiting the tiny Musée de la Résistance, I became interested in how many varied ways the French responded to the German occupation. Some protested from the very beginning for religious or ethical reasons, but others went along, whether from fear or apathy or entrenched anti-Semitism, or simply because the war did not affect them personally. Yet others more sought to exploit the situation for personal power or financial gain. Some became active only when their own personal lives were affected.

I knew then that I had to tell this story. Because I’m not a writer of history or historical fiction, but of science fiction and fantasy, I would tell it in the genre I know. I would set my tale on an alien planet, in an alien city . . . but one that I love even as I had come to love Lyons.

How did you develop the motivations of the main characters?

The central inspiration for Collaborators – that individuals respond in a variety of complex and contradictory ways to a situation of occupation and resistance – immediately suggested many types of characters: the rebel, the idealist, the opportunist, the political player, the merchant willing to sell to anyone if the profit is high enough, sadist who exploits the powerlessness of others for his own gratification, the ambitious person who doesn’t care who his allies are, the negotiator, the peace-maker, the patriot.

One of the first characters to speak to me arose from an unexpected source. I never knew either of my paternal grandparents, for both had perished in the lawlessness and pogroms in the Ukraine shortly after the first World War. My father told me about  how his mother ran a bookstore that was the center of intellectual (and revolutionary!) thought in their village, how when that village was destroyed, she kept her two children alive as they wandered the countryside for two years, going from one cousin’s house to another but never staying very long. He spoke of her courage, her idealism, and her unfailing love. Some piece of her, or her-as-remembered, stayed with me, and I wondered if I could create a character with that strength and devotion to her children. I began to write about Hayke, who opens the book as he lies in a field with his two children, gazing up at the stars and wondering what these star-people might be like. Hayke had other ideas about what his life was like besides merely following in my grandmother’s footsteps, and everything changed once it became clear to me that the alien race – the Bandari – were gender-fluid. Hayke, like my grandmother, was a widow (using the term generically to include both sexes), and one of his children was born of his own body, but the other of his dead spouse’s, and he told me he felt an especial tenderness for the latter child.

Even though the ground action takes place in an area roughly the size of Western Europe and most of the characters live or come from Chacarre, I didn’t want all the national territories to be the same. I wanted differences in language, dress, attitudes toward authority, etc., between Chacarre and its rival, Erlind, and also within Chacarre itself. Every once in a while, a new character would surprise me, like Na-chee-nal with his “barbarian” vigor and his smelly woolen vest, or Lexis, the dangerously repressed academic poet.

The Terrans presented a different challenge because they were more homogeneous than the Bandari. They inhabit a single spacecraft and although there is a natural division between crew and scientific personnel, for the most part their goals are shared and their hierarchies are well-defined. Left unchecked, that’s a recipe for boring, so I added some friction, a few divergent motives, a highly stressed environment . . . and into this walked Dr. Vera Eisenstein, eccentric genius. Most of the inspiration for her character came from the women engineers and physicists I’d gotten to know (thank you, Society of Women Engineers!) with a touch of Dr. Richard Feynmann thrown in. She doesn’t play by anyone’s rules, she cares far more about science than diplomacy, she’s simply too good at what she does to disregard, and her mind never stays still. I had a ball cooping her up in the infirmary and watching what kind of trouble she’d get into, but I didn’t realize at first that she would become a pivotal character, one capable of acting for the greatest good despite the depth of her loss. I’d been thinking about her passion in terms of science, not in terms of her capacity for love nor in terms of her ruthless commitment to understanding everything she sees around her, whether it is a problem in laser spectroscopy or alien psychology or the nature of her own grief.

What is the best animal and why is it the cat?

The most amazing pet I’ve ever had was a retired seeing eye German Shepherd Dog. Tajji’s lineage had been bred (for 40+ years) for the kind of bonding, intelligence, and self-reliance necessary to do this difficult work. She’d served for 8 years, a long time for a guide dog, and her mental health had suffered.  When we communicated to her that she was now free to sniff and romp and play, things she was never allowed to do in harness, and that we could “read” her body language and respond to her emotional needs, her joy was boundless. We had her for only 2 ½ years, but every day with this super-smart, human-focused dog was a gift.

How does setting this story on another planet help or hinder you as a writer?

Collaborators is an occupation-and-resistance story, which at its heart is about the uses and abuses of power. In order to talk about power, I had to talk about gender. Rather than delve into 20th Century human gender politics (I wrote the book mostly in 1992-95) I chose to create a gender-fluid alien race to pit against the assumptions humans make. I wanted to create a resonance between the tensions arising from First Contact and those arising from gender expectations. What if the native race did not divide themselves into male and female? How would that work – biologically? romantically? socially? politically? How would it affect the division of labor? child-rearing? How many ways would Terrans misinterpret a race for whom every other age-appropriate person is a potential lover? Or, in a life-paired couple, each partner equally likely to engender or gestate a child? Maybe by the time we achieve interstellar space flight, we’ll have evolved beyond sexism. One can only hope.

At what point in writing a book do you feel like you want to pack it all in?

I don’t think that’s ever happened to me since I began writing novels on a pro level. Oh, back in the early ‘90s. I sell mostly on proposal now, so having to write a synopsis weeds out a lot of haring off after dead ends. I’ve learned to identify when I’ve gone astray (before having to revise a piece 5 or 12 times), which is the most likely source of frustration. Even with an outline, there is so much to discover. That uncovering of the deeper story is the source of so much delight. That’s more likely to happen as I get further into the story, and I always look forward to it.

Electric or gas stove? Why?

I used to think gas, but after having survived the 2020 California wildfires, I’m not a big fan of flames. The newer electric ranges are just fine, thank you, even if I don’t entirely trust the smooth-topped kind.

What’s the most important thing for people to understand about developing the skills needed to write a novel?

Be gentle with yourself. This is a marathon, not a sprint. It’s a feat of cognitive dexterity to hold 500 pages of plot, character, and theme in your head all at once, so find out whatever helps — a notebook, flow charts, diagrams, scene-by-scene outline (not a bad strategy for revision, by the way). If you write 5 pages or 5 words a day, be sure you write them well, and with heart.

What was your first sale and how did that change things for you?

I’d submitted Jaydium to DAW about a year and a half before I lived in France (see above). When I returned, after having written every day and not seen clients at all, I took a leap in deciding to officially switch careers. The economy was in a recession and it was a very scary thing to do. Three months later, DAW made me an offer. The universe was telling me I’d made the right choice. Since then I’ve found myself in the position of needing a full time day job but have never stopped writing.

Click on the cover image to go to the Amazon page to make your purchase.

Do Shirts Go in the Woods?

We all know the old saw about bears, but what about shirts? Turns out our shirts work well while you’re setting up camp, hiking in the wilderness, or packing all your things back to for the return to civilization. Shirt quantities are not limited, but you should still get yours today!

The Wraith Shirt
Ghost Mimi Shirt
Everybody’s on Team Kevin!

Shirts available on the teespring store.

Merch!

I have set up a teespring store. It’s in its initial stages, but I have a few things up already.

Get Phantom Force and Marella Sands merch today!

Featherfall Event

Tickets are now available for my event at the St. Louis Fringe Festival. The event will take place on August 18, 5:30 p.m.

FEATHERFALL – Get tickets here!

Perfection

The third book in the alternate history series is now available on Amazon!

Baton Rouge is the most alien place agent Delilah Thorn has ever been. Everything from the local cuisine to the alligators to the French-speaking populace works to keep her off-balance. Thorn is surrounded by potential enemies, a religion she does not understand, and deceit. Can she succeed in sorting through the conflicting information to understand why Louisiana has begun closing its death camps and has started to forge its own way independent of the rest of the Confederacy?Dane Rook has finally been cleared to go into the field full-time. Though it means time away from his personal life, he is excited to get back to what he does best, this time in a place he’s never before visited: Louisiana. He is to be back-up to his old partner, Delilah Thorn. But forces conspire to keep them apart and his mission appears to be over before it even begins.The bayous hold many secrets, and their waters are deep and dark. Can Rook find Thorn, and together, can they determine who is friend, who is foe, and do their part to support those trying to bring Louisiana out of the darkness?

St. Louis Fringe Festival

The St. Louis Fringe Festival, has moved online for 2020, its ninth year. One of my short stories, Featherfall, which is available in the anthology Restless Bones, will be featured during the festival.

More details to come as the time gets closer. What I can say for now is that the festival will run from August 16-23. A fundraiser will be held on July 25. Keep an eye open for more details!

Tarsal Tunnel

So I’ve been diagnosed with a couple of things this year I didn’t even know were things, such as fructose intolerance and tarsal tunnel syndrome.

Fructose intolerance is like lactose intolerance only it’s a different sugar your body doesn’t process correctly. On the good side, it means I can now eat ice cream again provided I make sure to buy the stuff that only has milk, cream, sugar, and eggs in it. But it means I’m to avoid anything high in fructose, which includes a few foods I like, such as orange juice, watermelons, and peas. And basically anything that says “corn syrup” on the label.

Testing for fructose intolerance means drinking a solution of fructose and water, then blowing into a test tube every 30 minutes for 3 hours. The amount of trace gases in your exhalations let the lab know whether or not you are digesting the fructose. I also got to do that for sucrose but that came back normal.

But then comes the tarsal tunnel diagnosis. I have been having lots of pain and numbness in my feet and have seen a couple other podiatrists, but the one I’m seeing now seems much more on the ball. She did some evaluation in our initial consult, then ordered things like x-rays and nerve conduction studies, and then told me I’d need surgery.

We did the right foot last Friday and will do the left one later in the summer. According to her, usually there’s just a little band she has to snip to release the nerve, but in my foot, there were adhesions “all the way up.” I take that to mean all the way to the ankle joint. She said the adhesions were very fibrous and thick and sounded like celery when she cut through them.

Here’s a couple of things about this doctor: when she showed up before surgery to speak to me, she was wearing a t-shirt that said, “In my defense, it was a full moon and I was left unsupervised.” Also, she apparently draws cartoons on her patients. Surgeons generally make a mark on whatever body part they’re going to operate on, but she goes a bit farther. After she’d drawn on my foot, I asked her if she’d signed it and she said yes. You can see the remains of the cartoon in this photo.

Incision looking good; the surgeon said she was happy to see it “wrinkly.” I assume she meant it wasn’t swollen. Two weeks to go, though, before I can put any weight on it.

YouTube Subscribers

So I’ve finally cracked 150 subscribers (it’s only taken 6 months!). Let’s keep going and get to 200 by the end of summer, ok?

If there’s anything you’d like to see on the channel, let me know. Right now, I’m just putting up stuff that interests me because I have no other opinions to consult. But what interests you? More movie reviews? More writing advice? More short stories? Comment on the channel or email me your thoughts. And thanks for your support!

More stuff is on the way!

The online store will shortly have a lot more things in it – here’s the pile of stuff waiting their closeups. Bracelets, anklets, necklaces, and ornaments – more are on the way.

New House Resident

Rosemary (“Rosie”) is our newest adoptee. Once she gets through quarantine, she can join the other rats in the big cage. She is still such a little thing!