Friday, April 14, 2017

Exclusive Interview with J.A. Sutherland!

 Hey folks,

We've got a real treat today with J.A. Sutherland, author of the Alexis Carew series, stopping by to answer some questions about his ongoing series. For those unfamiliar with it, it is a series of books about the titular fifteen-year-old girl serving as a midshipman in the New London space navy.  A girl who, despite her age, ends up caught up in a massive interstellar war between feuding feudal powers and a system to reward the corrupt while punishing the honest. I only enjoy a few YA fiction novels but this has rapidly moved to the top of my list. You can read my review of the first book here.

 
1. So, tell my readers about the Alexis Carew series. What is it about and what separates it from other space sci-fi series?

I typically describe the series as, Space Opera with a very Age of Sail feel to it. Imagine Horatio Hornblower as a fifteen-year old girl in space, and you have the series. What separates it from other series, is that I made a conscious decision to go full-Hornblower – they say never to go full-Hornblower, but I did.

2. How would you describe your main character?

Alexis is the sort of leader that, I think, most people wish they had to follow. She brings out the best in her crews because she’s gained their trust and love. Conversely, the very things that drive that – her sense of duty to those who follow her and her faith in them – is one of the things that’s hardest for her, because the cost of what she has to ask of them is sometimes so high.

3. What inspired you to do a Horatio Hornblower-esque tale in space?

It was one of those where you’ve read everything that’s sort of like what you want to read, but you’re not quite satisfied yet? I’ve always loved both science fiction and Age of Sail fiction, and love the series that have combined those to some extent, especially with female leads. But having read it all, I still wanted more, so I figured there might be others who did too. Luckily I was right about that and the series has found a home with a lot of readers.

4. How do you respond to the fact there's another famous Age of Sail in Space series with a female protagonist [Honor Harrington by David Weber]? Do the comparisons bother you or do you think fans of one will like the other? I certainly love both (though Alexis is already ahead for various reasons).

I think there’s room for a number of series with similar themes in many genres. Aside from the Honorverse, there’re several others that are, basically, Royal Navy in space, and they all have their own take on the concept. Just like there’s room for Ryan, Reacher, and Bauer in the thriller genre (why are all the big thriller characters named Jack?), there’s room for lots of Age of Sail in Space series – and the great thing is that readers get to enjoy them all and find which they like best.

One of the differences is that Weber is exploring this massive, complex, interstellar political thing in the Honorverse, and he’s phenomenal at it – the detail is truly amazing. His Safehold series is another like that. But one of the things I love about the Age of Sail fiction is that it’s so concentrated on the characters. I mean, they’re historical novels, so you can’t do much with the geopolitics involved – the Nile and Trafalgar are going to happen and the way they did, you just insert your characters into them.

So what I’ve very deliberately done with Alexis’ story is to keep that feel. Other than a chapter or two at the beginning of Into the Dark, we’ve always followed Alexis. We’re in her head as the point of view, and that’s something I intend to keep throughout the series.

5. Was creating your space opera setting difficult? What were its inspirations? 

It wasn’t difficult, no. I’m a casual student of economics, so a lot of the universe is driven by that. I set the initial parameters: space travel requires hard, physical labor; travel’s expensive and cargo size is limited, but habitable planets are two-a-penny – then I asked what those incentives would drive people to do.

Once I had that it was just extrapolating what would occur. That there’d be a wide expansion with low-population worlds as different groups wanted elbow room, we’d have large gaps in tech on the colony worlds as their populations grew to exploit resources (modern factory equipment can’t be maintained when the nearest service center is months away), and what would a navy look like in those circumstances?

Today, even on a submarine, we have instant communication between a captain and higher authorities if something dire occurs. When a ship’s months or even a year away from a true authority and communications takes that long too, it changes the dynamics aboard ship. There’s a practical reason that captains in the Age of Sail were “sole master after God”.

6. Do you have a favorite character after Alexis? If so, who?

Avrel Dansby, without a doubt. In fact, he’s getting a spinoff series of novellas to tell his story more thoroughly. He’s a really interesting character, because of how his character arc runs. We meet him in Little Ships at sort of the midpoint of the arc, where he’s this former smuggler, pirate, and rogue – but the backstory of what got him into that makes him a more compelling empathetic character, which I’ve just barely touched on in the short story that tells it. But then, by the time he gets to Little Ships, he’s lost much of that – so he’s charming there, but not so empathetic, as he’s lost his mission a bit. 

7. Did getting all the naval terminology and tactics right require a lot of research and planning?

Thirty-plus years of reading every bit of Age of Sail fiction out there was my research, from Forrester to O’Brian to Pope and Lambdin. Multiple times reading, in some cases. So the terminology comes pretty naturally to me. The difficulty was translating some of it to a scifi setting without changing it too much – for instance, where would you put the masts on a spaceship and does that change the terminology?

Tactics are harder, because we’re dealing with three-dimensions. Luckily, all of Alexis’ actions to date have mostly been two-ship actions, so other than a roll or two, we’ve not seen much of the real tactics involved. It’s more complex than a typical space battle in my world, because in addition to the third dimension the captains have to deal with the wind direction and how that going “up” against the wind, for instance, impacts their ship’s speed and performance.

The typical points of sail (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Point_of_sail) are now on a globe, rather than a circle, so it becomes far more complex.

8. Would you classify Alexis Carew as a YA series or not?

The series, not, but the first few books, especially Into the Dark, do have a bit of a YA feel and it’s definitely a coming-of-age story for Alexis – even Mutineer is that, as well. But my intent for the series as a whole is to follow her career as she ages, so I’m not sure if that could be considered YA.

10. How has fan response been so far?

Phenomenal. Far beyond my expectations or hopes. When I first published Into the Dark, I told myself I’d be happy if it sold an average of one copy a day for the first year. So 350 thereabouts in the first year. Readers doubled that in the first month and I’m still flabbergasted.

I’m still constantly astounded by the reviews and, especially, the emails that I get from readers. I’ve had more than one that really touch me, because the series has gotten into some things like PTSD and I’ve heard from readers who really connected with Alexis and her experiences on a level that I never, ever expected.

11. Do you have a planned number of novels in the series?

Not a planned number, no. I’m going to follow Alexis’ career as far as I can. I always say that Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series ended when he died and they published the unfinished draft of his latest as simply 21. So I’ll either get to a natural stopping point of Alexis’ story or you’ll get something like that.  Of course, now I can never publish a book with a number for the title or everyone will think I’m dead …

12. What can we expect from you next?

Privateer, #5 in the series will be out this year – preorder starting in August or before, if I can manage it -- as well as an expanded version of Avrel Dansby’s origin story, that’ll be part of a multi-author boxset this summer. I also plan to release the first in a more traditional steampunk series called Of Dubious Intent (A Dark Artifice Novel) – That, hopefully this year as well.

Thanks to the many readers of the series, I am actively working my way towards quitting the day job and going full-time with the writing thing. It’s still a couple years away, but I can see it, and that will allow me to have a more productive schedule.

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