From the Women’s Prize Archives.
Ahead of next week’s 2016 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist announcement, we caught up with brilliant 2016 longlisted author Becky Chambers to talk self-publishing, Ursula K. Le Guin and how exactly she comes up with the inspiration behind all of the amazing alien species in The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet.
TLWTASAP was initially a self-published novel, part-funded by a Kickstarter campaign, did you ever dream it would do so well?
Not in a million years. I sold enough of the self-published version to break even on the cover art, and folks seemed to like what they read. I was happy with that much. Everything that’s happened over the past year still feels bonkers. A good kind of bonkers, but bonkers nonetheless.
Your book is filled with many vivid, fully-imagined alien species – where do you get your inspiration from?
I get a lot of my foundational bits from science books, nature shows, and internet rabbit holes. I learn about some animal I find particularly cool, and I ask myself how those traits would play out in a species with intelligence and cultural complexity on par with our own. Aandrisk society, for example, partly grew out of me wondering how egg-laying would affect ideas about family and childhood. Biology and anthropology are areas I’m keenly interested in, so I enjoy playing with those things. Our home planet has such a marvelous spread of diversity in species and culture. Life in the galaxy at large has got to look the same.
Do you have a particular place where you like to write?
Home, mainly. I like being able to grab snacks and take catnaps and pace without people looking at me weird. That said, I wrote The Long Way in lots of places. The preliminary world-building stuff I did mostly in airports, or behind the bar I tended for a while. During the last couple months of editing, I rented a reading room at a university library, so that I could buckle down undistracted. Generally, though, I like having creature comforts on hand.
Which writers inspired you whilst writing the book?
I’m not even remotely in the same sphere as Ursula K. Le Guin, but her work is what made me want to write science fiction in the first place. Her books inspired me to aim for aliens that felt alien, and showed me that quiet stories can be every bit as compelling as the louder ones (I love the louder ones, too, though, don’t get me wrong). I also kept John Scalzi in mind. I think he does an excellent job of writing books that appeal to veteran sci-fi fans while being accessible to newcomers. That was one of my goals as well. And though this isn’t on the literary side of things, 90s-era Star Trek was a huge, huge influence on me. I wouldn’t be doing this interview right now if it wasn’t for that army of writers.
What are you working on now?
I’ve just started revisions for A Closed and Common Orbit, which is a sequel of sorts for The Long Way. It’s not a direct sequel — it’s not the same crew or the same ship, and it does stand on its own in a relative way. But it follows two characters that leave the Wayfarer late in the first book, so you do have to read that one first to understand who these people are and why they’re together (not to mention how all the aliens operate). It’s a very different book, both in structure and story, but I love being back in that setting. It’s definitely my jam.