One of the best novels I read last year was S.G. Redling’s Flowertown. So I jumped at the chance to get an advance copy of Sheila’s latest book, Damocles. I just finished reading it, and I was not disappointed. Damocles is officially out today, so you can get your own copy now. As Meg, the linguist in Damocles, would say, “Trust me, you want/need this book. It’s very good/okay.” Here’s an interview I recently did with Sheila.
Your first novel, Flowertown, was published by Amazon’s mystery/thriller imprint, Thomas & Mercer. How did that come about?
Flowertown had a strange genesis. After trying and failing to get an earlier urban fantasy series published, I began a frustrating game of “It’s not you; it’s me (but it’s really you)” with a NY publisher over a much softer mystery series. Eventually – and with some effort – my agent pried the knife out of my hand, stared into my bloodshot eyes, and said “Sheila, screw the soft-boileds. Do what you do best – kill people.” Within three months, I’d killed several thousand Iowans and Flowertown was born. Then came a brief parade of editors telling me that my main character, the slatternly and rage-filled Ellie Cauley, was unlikable, unsellable, and unbelievable. (One editor actually said “Nobody is going to believe that a woman gets that burned out,” prompting me to wonder if said editor had ever actually met a woman.) Finally, Terry Goodman, senior editor with Thomas & Mercer and all-around brilliant Dark Overlord, fell in love with Ellie Cauley and six weeks after publication, Flowertown had sold over fifty thousand copies. Slatternly women everywhere were redeemed.
It’s hilarious to me that editors found Ellie “unlikable, unsellable, and unbelievable,” since the burnt-out, self-destructive hero is a staple of thrillers. Maybe you’d have had better luck if you named her “Eddie”…
For Damocles, you switched from thriller to science fiction. You know you’re not supposed to do that, right?
Yeah, there’s a certain liberation in ignorance, isn’t there? I wrote Damocles in the gap between signing the contract with T&M and the release of Flowertown. It’s a story that had been in my head forever. I had no idea how Flowertown was going to do but I worried that after release, I wouldn’t have the nerve to write it. I guess somewhere deep down I knew about that whole “don’t switch genres” thing. Hopefully, that concept will turn out to be a quaint 20th Century notion, like not wearing white after Labor Day, rather than a hard, fast rule.
As an author who is switching from humorous fantasy/sci-fi to thriller, I’m rooting for you.
The cover of Damocles was clearly modeled on the poster for the Paul VerHoeven movie Showgirls. Can you tell us about the inspiration Showgirls provided for Damocles?
As an author and artist, I feel it’s imperative to pay homage to the giants upon whose shoulders I stand. Attentive readers should also read with an eye for Gigli subtext.
Damocles is a novel about first contact with an alien race. What I found interesting is that the book focuses on something most novels of this sort downplay or even ignore entirely: the problem of communications between two races that share no cultural background. Why did you decide to focus on that aspect?
I’m fascinated by languages. I love to travel and a big part of preparing for each trip is to learn the basic phrases for polite interaction in each language. We rely so much on nuances and idioms, as well as a collective agreement on gestures, that it’s easy to underestimate the complexity of what it takes to understand each other. If you’ve ever found yourself lost in a foreign city, red-faced and out of luck due to falling for a damned false cognate, you’ll appreciate this even more.
What could be a better vehicle to really muck around in that complexity than in a first encounter between two completely isolated branches of humanity? Where would you start if you had absolutely nothing in common culturally? Once I put the premise in place, the enormity of the undertaking dawned on me. The characters couldn’t even presume to communicate yes and no, much less vaunted messages like the Prime Directive or To Serve Man. When I realized just how nitty-gritty I would need to get, I vacillated between ‘ain’t gonna pull this off’ despair and a full on linguistic nerdgasm.
For anyone interested in learning more about the structure and evolution of language, I highly recommend Guy Deutscher’s amazing, if dense, book “The Unfolding of Language – An Evolutionary Tour of Mankind’s Greatest Invention.”
In a very real sense, the humans are the “aliens” in this story. I particularly liked the way humans are described the way aliens are often depicted in popular culture: compared to the inhabitants of the planet Didet, they are graceful, quick-moving, delicate creatures with extremely long, flexible, spindly limbs. You really get a sense for the weirdness of the “aliens,” even though the aliens are actually human beings. Was that intentional?
And you just became my favorite reader! That is absolutely my favorite part about this story. I love alien encounter stories; I don’t care if the aliens are benign geniuses, unstoppable predators, or bacteria. I’ve always found myself wondering what we look like to them. I didn’t want to turn this into some sort of “Hooray for Earth” story or its opposite, some sort of “Teach us a lesson” thing. And as you pointed out, we’ve all grown up on the image of the spindly, weird, whispering, wet-eyed travelers from the stars. Well, what if that’s how we look? I’ll admit I had more fun than should be allowed running with this contrast and I intentionally avoided over-describing the Dideto physically. Hopefully their impressions of the Earthers strangeness will inform the reader.
What’s next? A horror novel? A romance? Maybe a humorous fantasy about a wise-cracking angel?
Ooh, I like the idea of that last one. Maybe something like Hermes Saunters? I’ll kick it around. Until then, I’m going back to thrillers for a while. In November, I’m releasing The Widow File with Thomas & Mercer, a taut (I hope) thriller about a data analyst caught in a very strange web by a charismatic hitman, and I’m in rewrites on the sequel, working title Redemption Key, set for release in early spring of next year. I also haven’t given up on the stories that started me on this path — a strange urban fantasy series about a culture hidden among our own. Plus I’m being teased by a hyper-violent action tale set in the hills of West Virginia. It’s noisy in my head.
For now though, I’m relaxing and catching up on my reading including (Shameless plug ahead!) the riotous quantum physics noir thriller, Schrodinger’s Gat. I’m also keeping my fingers crossed that folks who give Damocles a chance will find it very good/okay.