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Back from a short hiatus, Women in Science Fiction is up and running! To start us off again is Jennifer Ellis, joining me from her skier’s paradise in British Columbia. Jennifer writes Fantasy and Science Fiction, and sometimes blends the two to create rich worlds which I know you are going to love. To say thank you to all of you for reading this post, Jennifer is giving away THREE copies of A Pair of Docks (ebooks – Science Fantasy) to be chosen randomly from people who comment on this post.
Also, if you want a free short story from Jennifer, just Sign up for her Newsletter: http://jenniferellis.ca/mailing-list-signup
P.K. Tyler – You write contemporary fiction for middle graders and young adults, often with dystopic elements. Can you explain what dystopic fiction is for readers who aren’t familiar?
Jennifer Ellis – To me it is fiction that explores a future world in which things are not as we hope they might be, where some of the worst of our fears in terms of climate change, economic collapse, war, oppression or state control have come to fruition. These novels can be viewed as warnings with regard to things we should not let happen, but dystopian settings allow writers to create worlds in which the stakes are always high, which makes for exciting stories. Some of my favorite examples include The Hunger Games, The Handmaid’s Tale, and The Road. 1984 strongly shaped my sense of dystopian fiction (and scared the wits out of me). I like to write kinder dystopias though, or just incorporate a few dystopic elements. There are many things that could realistically happen that would make our future less bright or comfortable than the present. I think about those things lots and like to include some of them in my fiction. But I don’t like books that are too gloomy, so I am judicious in picking what might go awry.
PKT – Your fiction is usually for younger audiences, what makes a great middle grade book, and how is it different from a young adult book?
JE – My Derivatives of Displacement series is upper middle grade, edging into YA, and is meant to appeal to adults as well. Most of my younger readers are in grades 5 through 8. Great middle grade fiction should incorporate many of the things that great fiction in general should include, such as complex characters, conflict, and an exciting plot. But middle grade fiction tends to be more earnest than YA fiction with characters who are more innocent, fewer darker themes, pets as key players, and perhaps more opportunity for humor. I think there is a sweetness to great middle grade books, but at the same time they shouldn’t talk down to kids or be too simple. Great middle grade books still incorporate bad villians and difficult situations to be dealt with, but things tend to get resolved happily. YA fiction tends to be edgier and darker and can deal with more controversial subject matter.
PKT – You have a background as an environmental researcher, do environmental themes crop up in your writing? If so how, and do these themes also have a moral context in your stories?
JE – Yes, they crop up a lot. In the Shadows of the Mosquito Constellation, my adult dystopian fiction has a lot of climate change themes in it, and Confessions of a Failed Environmentalist is all about those conflicts we all face when we’re trying to do the right thing for the environment but still really love bacon, leather boots and holidays in Mexico. In Reversal, my Apocalypse Weird novel, I have the four horsemen of the environmental apocalypse, and they are bad, but they also provide comic relief. The environmental themes in my middle grade series are more subtle. The series is about being able to see your possible future using magic stones that my characters find in the woods. Some of the futures are less than bright from an environmental perspective, so some themes such as climate change and overdevelopment get touched on in my novels, but not in a preachy kind of way. The environment is important to me, so I naturally include it, but I try not to take too moral a stance on it. In my work and in my life, I’m very much about sustainability and balancing environmental, economic and social needs, not just focusing on the environment.
PKT – You’ve written about women in the writing industry a few times on your blog: We found your commentary on whether or not women writes can have it all really interesting. Has your journey to becoming an author also as allowed you to have that garden, volunteering in the community and home cooked meals?
JE – Yes and no. I still work at a fairly demanding day job half time. So when you add in writing, I estimate I work one and a half time or more. But I work from home, and my hours are flexible in terms of when I do them, which means that sometimes I do them at 11:30 pm. Eating is really important to me, so I still always serve home cooked meals every night. I manage to exercise most days or I would go nuts. I also parent my kids of course, with all the driving around to activities, helping with homework, housecleaning and laundry that involves. My mother had a long-term illness as well, so I did a fair bit of caretaking until she passed away. I do still plant a garden every year, but I definitely don’t have time to pamper it, so I have both great successes and failures on the gardening front. I haven’t been able to volunteer much at all since starting down the publishing road. Overall, I still manage to keep most things mostly under control on the home front, and only feel like I’m going to crack up some of the time, but I have no free time at all. If someone mentions a movie or TV show that has been popular in the last seven years, I have no idea what they’re talking about. I hope some day to be able to be able to write full time and watch Downton Abbey, but I’m not holding my breath.
PKT – Further to that last question, how has having multiple commitments like consulting gigs affected your writing for better or worse?
JE – It’s a bit of both. They definitely take away the time and headspace I have to focus on my writing. I can’t write as many words in a day, and I have to write them faster. But I am exposed to lots of interesting things through my work, and they sometimes play into my writing. We already talked about how the environment has come into my writing. Right now I am working in the healthcare industry and am learning so much that I am sure will factor into future novels. My work also gives me a lot of confidence and positive feedback regarding my abilities, whereas writing is more variable. We all have those days or weeks where sales slump, and the occasional bad review and that can make me start to doubt myself as a writer. My work life can help remind me that I am a valued professional and that helps restore my confidence as a writer as well.
PKT – The cover designs of your work are both enchanting and intriguing. How important do you think having a good cover is, particularly in the genre and age group your write for? Feel free to pimp your cover artist too!
JE – Thanks so much. A good cover is really important. I remember as a teenager coveting the books that had attractive covers, and even now, I will often look at covers that I love over and over while I am reading a book. I won’t go as far as to say that I won’t buy a book if I don’t like the cover, but it is a factor. Covers play a lot into the images you form in your mind and hold in association with a book. It’s important that those images be the ones that you want them to be. It’s also important that the cover convey the tone and genre of the book. For me, having whimsical but beautiful covers is essential. Whenever I have a new cover done, my designer, Andrew Brown of Design for Writers, asks me to send him ten of my favorite covers in the genre in which I am writing, so he can get an idea of my aesthetic. I also have to fill in detailed questions regarding my vision the cover. I love spending time looking at covers and deciding which ones are my faves. Great covers are like little works of art.
PKT – What advice would you give to young readers who think they might want to be an author like you someday?
JE – Ugh that is a tough one. There are days when I think it is the best job in the world and days when I think it is the worst. It is frustrating and exhilarating at the same time, and often on the same day. It requires dogged determination and an absolute commitment to getting the words down every day, or almost every day, but there those perfect moments of serendipity when everything in your plot ends up where it is supposed to be. Reading widely and with attention to structure when you are young helps to build that sense of what a novel is, what has to happen when, what makes a great story, and where the magic comes in. Picking a backup career that has flexible hours and allows you to work at home and control your time really helps too.
PKT – You write with elements of time travel, witchcraft, and science. How do you keep new series fresh and exciting for readers that have read your other works?
JE – In all of my novels, I focus on creating complex plots with lots of twists and turns. They are all different and hopefully surprising, and that is one of the way I hope I keep my writing fresh, and will continue to do so as I develop new series. I also try to keep my characters quirky and real, with unique interests and obsessions.
PKT – You have multiple series out. Can you quickly tell us about them and what makes them unique?
JE – My main series is the Derivatives of Displacement series for middle grade to adult readers about the intersection of science and magic. In A Pair of Docks, the first novel in the series, twins Abbey and Caleb and their brother Simon discover a set of stones that takes them to what appears to be the future. But of course stones that let you see the future would be very useful, and someone is using them to nefarious ends. The kids get drawn into the adventure along with their neighbor Mark, who has Asperger’s and loves maps. Abbey is a science geek, and it’s possible that all four of my main characters might be witches, so there is a lot of fun to be had. The Derivatives of Displacement is the only series I have going right now. I am halfway through writing book four and I hope to have book five out by the end of 2016. My other books are all stand alones for adults with the potential to become series. I’ve been requested many times for a sequel and a prequel to my dystopian novel In the Shadows of the Mosquito Constellation, and I will probably write a sequel in 2017. It is set on an a communal farm, beset by raiders, refugees and illness, and explores our moral obligations to each other in a world turned upside down by economic collapse.
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PKT – You have to fight in a big battle. Do you choose dragons or witches?
JE – Witches, of course, but I do have plans for a series about dragons.
PKT – The world is ending, do you choose science or magic?
JE – Magic
PKT – If you could teleport anywhere in the world right now, where would you go?
JE – Hawaii
PKT – Name one great thing and one terrible thing about being a time traveller.
JE – Great – All the knowledge you could acquire. Terrible – The decisions you would have to make with all that knowledge
PKT – Do you dream in color or black and white?
JE – Color
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About Jennifer Ellis
Photo by Carmen Adams FRESHPhotography
I write contemporary action-adventure middle grade and adult fiction with a dystopic edge. Somewhere along the line I seem to have acquired a PhD in Geography and have spent many years researching climate change, global food security and alternative energy. Sometimes this comes into my writing. Sometimes it doesn’t. I write about things that matter to me, but in the end it’s all about the story.
I also live in a beautiful snowy ski town in BC, join too many book clubs, ski whenever possible, run, and hang with my kids. Given my background as an environmental researcher, much of my writing has an environmental theme.
I have been known to read tarot cards and spring surprise walks on unsuspecting neighbourhood dogs. I’ve wanted to be a writer since I first read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and did not want to come out of the wardrobe.
I learn best by organizing and writing out what I have found, so I share it here to help other learning writers, and also to remind me what I have already researched and attempted to understand as I have a frightful habit of forgetting!
You can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
And remember – Jennifer is giving away THREE copies of A Pair of Docks to be chosen randomly from people who comment on this post.
Also, if you want a free short story from Jennifer, just Sign up for her Newsletter on her website! http://jenniferellis.ca/mailing-list-signup