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LJ Cohen has been a friend of mine for a few years now. Back when I was reviewing book, I was lucky enough to read her novel The Between which is a fantasy title and thoroughly enjoyed it. Usually I’m kind of a snob and get annoyed by anything with “Fae” but her work was so amazing that I got over myself and really loved the story she wove. My daughter Ninja has read that book a few times now. Recently, I discovered she has a sci-fi series and Oh My Wow am I excited to share it with you!
PK Tyler: You’re a member of Broad Universe, can you tell us more about that, and how it’s help you or other writers?
LJ Cohen: Broad Universe is an organization supporting women writing in SF, fantasy, horror, slipstream – anything you’d put under the broad umbrella of Speculative Fiction. We comprise writers published by large mainstream publishers, small publishers, and indies and have members all over the US and abroad.
What I love about Broad Universe is that it allows for and encourages networking and support in an industry that is rarely kind to creators. On a pragmatic level, Broad Universe has allowed me access to sell my books in the dealers rooms at industry cons such as Arisia, Boskone, Readercon, and Balticon and I get to hang out with amazing, talented, and knowledgeable fellow ‘broads’ in the process. The organization also puts together Rapidfire Readings at cons, where members get to read from works in progress and introduce a new audience to their writing. Broad Universe also has a NetGalley account, where members have discounted access to getting their work to reviewers. (Non-members can also access this program.)
In addition, my fellow ‘broads’ have been supportive in getting the word out about book launches and in offering me guest space on their blogs.
It’s truly a pay-it-forward organization and I’m proud to be a member.
PKT: Science fiction uses imaginative concepts such as futuristic science, technology, space or time travel to name a few. What concepts do your books use?
LJC: Since the Halcyone Space books take place in a near future where we have colonized space, the stories utilize space travel, both through interstitial space (‘local’ roads) and via wormholes (‘expressways’). Wormhole travel required extremely sophisticated computers, so I created a universe in which AIs were developed about 50 years before the start of the series.
Some of my characters use neural implant devices that allow them to communicate directly with computers. This is tech that is based on some actual cutting edge research with neural feedback control of prosthetic devices.
Computer coding/hacking is a concept that is used in the Halcyone Space books and I used my experience in writing computer programs (albeit long out of date!) to imagine how someone might use holographic displays and kinesthetic input to code.
My background is in physical therapy and rehabilitation and I’ve long been fascinated by neurology and brain function, so I incorporated research into how music can be used to communicate with a damaged brain into how Barre communicates with the damaged AI.
I also use the ansible – a trope in SF for real-time instantaneous communication through vast distances in space.
PKT: When writing, are your plot elements backed up with theoretical science, or do you do any research around how some of your concepts like wormholes might work in the ‘real’ world?
LJC: I try to find places where current science can be pushed into my imaginings of the future. Where I employed the most ‘handwavium’ (a writer’s favorite isotope!) is in wormhole travel. I am no theoretical physicist and while I do read as widely as I can about advances in the field, I don’t have the background to understand more than the most superficial of levels.
However, I did read a fascinating study of temporal logic/reasoning in the brain of people with schizophrenia that posited the voices such people experience may very well be their own internal voices only experienced out of phase from the sensory events or thoughts that triggered them. That ended up getting woven into the concept of jump-sickness – a malady common in early wormhole pilots, before the AIs were able to stabilize temporal shielding.
Many of my other plot elements are based on/extrapolated from current science and I do explore a lot of ‘rabbit holes’ during the writing. (Did you know NASA did experiments on soldering in zero g?)
PKT: Where do you draw the line between science fiction and fantasy?
LJC: That’s a tough one. I’m a long time Doctor Who fan and while it’s about travel through time and space and therefore should live solidly in the SF camp, it’s also very much an extended fairy tale, with rip-van-winkle elements and monsters. I’m happy not to draw lines and just enjoy good work with speculative elements. Truly, I’m a sucker for well drawn characters, regardless of what you call the genre.
PKT: Your book Dreadnought and Shuttle features a lead woman character. Can you tell us more about her, and why you feel it was important to have strong female leads in your book?
LJC: Dev is one of my favorite characters in the Halcyone Space world. (Though, to be fair, I’d probably say that about all the characters at one time or another!) She is resourceful, resilient, and determined. Part of that is her basic personality, part due to her upbringing as a marginalized person in one of the permanent settlements that sprung up following the loss of all the coastal cities due to sea level rise.
Almost all the other lead characters in the series were spacers and until we meet Dev, we have little sense of what life is like back on Earth. She was created initially to be a foil for Micah. And initially, she appears to be his opposite. Micah is wealthy and enjoyed a privileged upbringing. Dev spent her life struggling to get by and earned a scholarship to Uni. Micah has lived off planet, in diplomatic postings. Dev grew up in a settlement and has never left the solar system. Micah was an only child and isolated. Dev was the youngest of four.
But once she appeared on the page, she took on a life of her own and her backstory became relevant and crucial to the universe of Halcyone Space.
All the Halcyone Space books are ensemble stories. Dreadnought And Shuttle has six point of view characters, three male and three female. However, each of the books focuses more fully on one character who takes a more prominent role in the story. For Derelict, that character was Ro. For Ithaka Rising, it was Barre (and to some extent, his brother Jem). In Dreadnought And Shuttle, Dev takes the lead.
When I was coming of age and reading SF&F, it actively annoyed me that there were so few female characters who weren’t prizes, victims, or passive love interests. There were almost no spec fic stories in those years where the female character was the hero. The notable exception was A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. I read that book when I was eleven. I’m now fifty-two and it still resonates with me. Meg Murry wasn’t perfect. She wasn’t the pretty girl or the party girl or anyone’s victim or prize. She was the hero of the story and her mom was a scientist in a time when women were either teachers or secretaries if they worked outside the home at all. There were male characters in that story who were also fully realized and not presented as a caricature of toxic masculinity.
I write the characters I write because it’s important that we keep moving forward and depict individuals of all races, backgrounds, genders, and sexuality as part of our future. We are better than the tired stereotypes and representation is important. It certainly was to an eleven-year-old me.
PKT: Good books, and especially good science fiction, allow us to extend our belief systems and hone into new worlds of possibility. Can you tell us how you make your characters come alive for readers? Do they have illnesses and troubles like us mortals, or are they superhuman?
LJC: Each of us has character traits that have both positive and negative aspects. Depending on the context (and the day of the week!) I am either determined or stubborn. They are both sides of the same coin and can lead to either positive or negative outcomes. When I create characters, I strive to see the strengths and weaknesses that can emerge from the same traits. Barre has a great deal of humility, but he can also fall into insecurity and self-doubt. Jem is enthusiastic and if not tempered by patience, his enthusiasm can lead to recklessness. Ro definitely suffers from the same determined/stubborn characteristics that I have, though that’s pretty much where the resemblance between us ends.
Ultimately, it’s a character’s flaws and struggles that help them come alive in the reader’s mind. And each of my characters definitely has something they struggle with. Ro struggles with the fear that she’s unloveable, so she sublimates her need for human contact in her work, and in the process nearly loses the tenuous relationship she has with Nomi.
Jem sustains a closed head trauma at the end of book 1. He has a significant brain injury that disables him and his attempt to deal with it is what drives the entire plot of book 2. I’ve worked with individuals with TBI (traumatic brain injury) and wanted to show a realistic view of what it’s like to walk around with an invisible disability. I also didn’t want to provide any magical healing solutions for him, but show how he integrates his impairments into his life.
A lot of my characters have experienced trauma in their lives; some physical, some emotional. Even Halcyone (the AI that runs the ship) essentially has PTSD. Some of them have better coping skills than others, some are more resilient. It seemed realistic to portray the future as having significant stressors rooted in our common experiences of survival, regardless of setting.
PKT: We noticed that Dreadnought and Shuttle comes out in June – tell us a bit about writing this novel. What was the process, and how long did it take, and what was it like when release day finally came?
LJC: I released Dreadnought And Shuttle on June 1, 2016. I started drafting it in July of 2015. It represents my eleventh completed novel (though several will never make it off my hard drive. . . ). Over the years, my process has shifted some, but at least for the past four or five novels, it’s been fairly consistent. I typically start a new project in the summer and do initial brainstorming on paper. I call that process my version of writer’s Clue, but instead of Colonel Mustard in the drawing room with poison, I have a character in a setting with a problem.
I start out writing a big-picture ‘logline’ for the project and while it might change, it does help guide the first steps.
I don’t outline formally, but do structure the beginning, middle, and end, again, all in big-picture view.
When I’m drafting, I work chronologically, with a writing goal of 1K a day or an average of 5K a week. Even with some less productive weeks than others, I’m able to go from initial idea to finished draft in approximately 6 months. I send the project to beta readers and do the revision based on their feedback. Then it goes to the editor after which I do my final revision pass before sending it back to the editor for a proofing pass.
When release day finally came, I was exhausted and relieved. By the time I’m in production mode – about a month before release – I’m thoroughly sick of the project and just want it out of my hands. Once it starts selling and getting reviews, I can be excited about it again, happy that it’s completed the loop from writer to reader.
PKT: Can you tell us about any upcoming works that you’re working on?
I’m a bit at loose ends right now, as I have several projects I’m juggling and trying to sort out which ones to focus on first. I’ve started the initial brainstorming for Halcyone Space book 4 and I’m drafting an outline/proposal for a choose your own text-based adventure game based on my Changeling’s Choice fantasy series. Later in the year, I’ll be working on a collaborative novel with writer Rick Wayne that’s a cyberpunk/noir/thriller.
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PKT: Star Wars, Star Trek, or Dr. Who?
LJC: Doctor Who
PKT: Would you rather live in outer-space, or under the ocean?
LJC: Outer Space
PKT: Coffee, tea, or something completely different?
LJC: Single malt scotch? And coffee!
PKT: Cats or dogs?
PKT: Planes, trains or automobiles?
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About LJ Cohen
LJ Cohen is a novelist, poet, blogger, ceramics artist, and relentless optimist. After almost twenty-five years as a physical therapist, LJ now uses her anatomical knowledge and myriad clinical skills to injure characters in her science fiction and fantasy novels. She lives in the Boston area with her family, two dogs, and the occasional international student. DREADNOUGHT AND SHUTTLE (book 3 of the SF/Space Opera series Halcyone Space), is her sixth novel. LJ is a member of SFWA, Broad Universe, and the Independent Publishers of New England.
Find out more about LJ here: http://www.ljcohen.net/
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LJ Cohen is offering one commenter an ebook of their choice from her catalogue!