Interview: Jason M. Hough

RD: Congrats on your debut novel.  I have to say I thought I wasn’t a fan of post apocalyptic dystopian stories, but you convinced me otherwise.  The world building is fantastic and the characters are strongly drawn, authentic and realistic.  Along with the plot it all works to pull the reader in.  You’re a 3-D artist and game designer.  Did this experience help you in writing?

JMH: Absolutely!  The 3-D artist experience has helped me in a lot of ways, some of them unexpected.  I learned how to describe visuals to people before I went through to the trouble of modeling and rendering them, which of course helped me to write such things.  But it also helped in more subtle ways, like giving me a solid understanding of how light interacts with objects, how to compose an interesting image, and things like that.

As for game design, that helped me most in the upfront planning.  A game design document is very similar to a book outline (and all the ancillary stuff like character sketches, maps, and so on).

Making games also helped prep me for the publication process.  Working with editors, marketing, even lawyers — it can be overwhelming, so having been through it a bunch of times (even in a different medium) gave me a good idea of what to expect.

RD: How did you conceive the whole idea of the plague, and the world it created: the aura, the subs, the immunes?

JMH: The plague actually crept in late in the world building process.  The original idea just had the mystery of the space elevator arriving.  I realized pretty quickly that this, while interesting, didn’t provide enough momentum to the story.  There needed to be more tension.  We had this space elevator that we could use, or not, no big deal.  I wanted to force humanity to use it, indeed to *need* it.

The plague aspect was perfect for this, and I became enamored with the other aspect it brought: tying two genres together in a very tangible way.

RD: Well, it was pretty inspired.

All your characters are memorable, but of course Skyler is the standout.  He’s believable, a true hero, yet he has his weaknesses — for example, he got the captain’s job by default and neither he nor the crew are sure that he’s up to it.  What was your process in his character creation?  And the other characters?  Were they carved in stone or did they take on a life of their own?

JMH: Skyler is a character I came up with years ago, for a different story.  I have a friend from the Netherlands who is obsessed with aircraft, helicopters mostly, and he was sort of the original spark.  But of course all good heroes have a weakness, and one of the themes I wanted to explore in DARWIN was leadership in all it’s different guises.  There’s a stark contrast between Skyler, Neil Platz, and Russell Blackfield in terms of how they handle their roles.

Also, Skyler is immune, someone who can leave the city at will if he chooses.  So, I thought it would be interesting to have him take over the role of captain from someone who did leave, so that this option would always be looming somewhere in the back of Skyler’s head.

RD: I have to say you write females very well, and have some strong females in this book.  How was it writing your females?  Difficult, natural or somewhere inbetween?

JMH: Thanks for that.  I guess I have to say it was natural, because I never really thought about it while writing.  They’re all just people to me, and I think I had more trouble writing Russell or Neil than Tania or Samantha.

There is one scene, which I don’t want to spoil, but it takes place in a shower and could have been horribly horribly lame.  I was positive Del Rey would ask me to remove it or something, but it turns out to be one of the examples of my editor showed to others at the Publisher to prove my writing chops.   Up until then I didn’t really have any idea how well I was writing females, and their reaction really gave me the confidence to just keep doing what I was doing and not worry about it.

RD: I remember that scene.  Speaking as a female, it was a very true scene.  

So Neil Platz is an interesting character.  I felt I couldn’t quite pin down what side he was on or if he was just on his own side.  I thought that was clever.  Was that your intention when you wrote him?

JMH: It’s interesting you say that because one thing that surprised me when I started working with my agent is an offhand comment she made.  It was something like: “…and you’ve crafted a great villain in Neil Platz.”  He’s sort of the hidden bad guy in the story.  Everyone gets so focused on Russell because he’s such a huge asshole, but Neil’s arguably the one who did the most damage.  But that wasn’t really my intention when I wrote him.  He was just a father figure to Tania, as well as an immensely powerful man trying to control a situation beyond his ability to do so.

It seems to me that people get into such powerful positions, or amass the kind of wealth he has, make a lot of enemies and tough decisions along the, so I wanted to make sure he had his demons.

RD: Well, I kept going back and forth between he’s good; he’s bad and finally settled on ambiguous.

JMH: Yeah, for sure.  He’s honestly trying to set things right, but he also can’t quite escape from his ingrained profit-motive mentality.

RD: Russell Blackfield, as a reader you just love to hate this guy, yet he’s not a caricature villain.  What was unique to writing Blackfield.

JMH: He was difficult to write, but also a lot of fun.  I basically just tried to imagine what I’d do in any given situation, and then had him do the opposite.  I actually had to tone him down in the editorial process with Del Rey.  He did a few things in the earlier draft that were just too ugly, and probably over the top.

In the end though I really had fun with his mantra of “vary the pattern”, this ingrained facet to his personality that being predictable was just about the worst thing someone could do.  It made writing him not only fun but also an adventure even for me.

RD: Vary the pattern was a smart idea, and definitely added dimension to Russell.  As a bad character, he really works.

So, the science in DARWIN: it is definitely believable.  How much research did you find you had to do?

JMH: I took some advice from a writing instructor named Robert McKee: do just enough research to write the story, and no more.  His reasoning is that there is too much of a temptation, if you’re an expert on the topic at hand, to show off a bit.  You want to put  in all these great things you know, and there’s a few problems with that.  It can kill the pace and it can lose readers.  My goal all along was to write accessible science fiction, ala John Scalzi, so I tried to avoid making the book all about the science of space elevators.  Still, I didn’t want it to be movie physics either, so I did “just enough” to get things mostly right.

RD: With 97 ratings and 73 reviews, The Darwin Elevator is rating very high on Goodreads.  That’s got to feel good.  There’s also a fair amount of comparing you to Joss Whedon.  How does that make you feel?

JMH: Well, we’re both redheads, so it makes sense.  Gingers are awesome.  Or the spawn of Satan, depending on who you ask.

But honestly, it feels…weird.  I can’t even imagine myself being mentioned in the same sentence, much less favorably, to Joss.  It’s very gratifying and yet intimidating at the same time.

RD: How exciting is this experience of having your debut novel published?

JMH: It’s a numbing kind of excitement!  The whole thing has been surreal.  Exciting, sure, but also such a huge amount of work that I rarely have time to just sit back and say “wow, it’s actually happening”.

RD: So any plans after the Dire Earth series?

JMH: At the moment I’m writing some Dire Earth short stories to help promote the books.  One is up on TOR.com now, and introduces Skyler.  The others all introduce a different character, set when the plague first spreads.

After that, I’m going to work on something entirely different until some sales figures for Dire Earth come in, which will help the publisher decide if they want more books.

RD: Dire Earth certainly deserves success.  You’ve created a memorable story with great characters.

Finally, last question: anything else you’d like to share?

JMH: Yes!  First, thank you so much for having me on the site.  This was fun!

Second, since I have the stage, I thought I’d give a shout out to two writer friends who have books out around the same time as mine.  Mike Underwood’s “Celebromancy”, and Michael J. Martinez with “The Daedalus Incident”.

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We’d like to thank Jason for taking the time to answer our questions and for writing such a fun book. If you’d like to find out more about Jason M. Hough or if you just want to stay up to date with his latest book releases, you can check out his  website Jason M. Hough and you can follow him on Twitter @JasonMHough

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  1. […] I recently chatted with Jason about the process of writing The Darwin Elevator and releasing a first novel.  You can read the non-spoiler interview here. […]

  2. […] can read our interview with Jason M. Hough here and our review of The Darwin Elevator […]


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