Backlist Bonanza offers a look at books published more than two years ago that are worth a read or a re-read! Alexandra Duncan joins us today to talk about her 2014 book Salvage and its 2015 companion Sound. These harrowing sci-fi novels explore themes of family, agency, and rebellion.
In Salvage, Ava is a teenage girl living aboard the male-dominated deep space merchant ship Parastrata. She is the captain’s daughter, which allows her limited freedom and a certain status in the Parastrata’s rigid society—but that doesn’t mean she can read or write or even withstand the forces of gravity. When Ava learns she is to be traded in marriage to another merchant ship, she hopes for the best but is met instead by betrayal and banishment. Taking her fate into her own hands, Ava flees to the Gyre, a floating continent of garbage and scrap on a post-climate change Earth. There, she escapes near-death and begins to learn the true meaning of family while discovering her own inner strength.
Salvage and Sound are described as YA feminist sci-fi. Could you tell us more about what inspired you to write these books? How does the futuristic setting help you explore feminism and other contemporary issues?
I’m a feminist, but I didn’t always think of myself that way. Growing up, I was a preacher’s kid in a mainline Protestant church in the rural South. We were fairly progressive as far as churches went for that time and place, but that meant someone played guitar during church services, not that we were aware of gender equality issues. I thought gender discrimination was a thing of the past.
When I went to college, read more widely, met more people, and got more experience in the working world, I started to realize that my worldview as a child and teenager in the church had been very limited. Some of the things I thought were normal turned out to be deeply messed up. And further, I realized the issues feminism raises are inextricably tied with all forms of equality, be it racial, religious, or related to gender identity and sexual orientation. You can’t seek equality in one quarter without seeking it everywhere, for everyone. Audre Lorde says it best, “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even if her shackles are very different from my own. I am not free as long as one person of Color remains chained. Nor is anyone of you.”
That line comes from her 1981 speech, “The Uses of Anger,” where Lorde challenges her listeners to channel their anger into a creative force for good. Salvage and Sound are my attempts to do that. I’ve tried to interweave issues that I’ve faced personally, like Ava’s realization in Salvage that the things she’s been raised to believe were created to control her, with broader social issues, like the difficulties Ava faces as an undocumented immigrant on Earth. I use science fiction primarily because that’s the language that speaks to me and also because the genre has a history of tackling difficult philosophical and social questions. For example, one of my favorite books is Ursula LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, which explores gender identity and sexuality in an interesting and humanizing way, but through a science fictional lens. I also think it can help readers think about issues in a fresh way if you remove them from a familiar social context. For example, I hope seeing Ava trying to find a safe place on Earth will help people view immigration in a new light and spark empathy for people in similar situations in our own country and time.
How does it feel to look back on stories you wrote years ago? Has your perspective on these books evolved with time?
When I read my older books, I see things I could have done better in a technical sense, but I still love them. All of my books have been labors of love, and they all contain a piece of me as I was and as I understood the world at the time I wrote them. I think that means that as time goes on and my understanding of life evolves, I’ll likely see things I could have done better. But hopefully, I’ll still be writing and can apply those lessons to newer books.
How have readers responded to Salvage and Sound? Does the response of readers impact you as a writer?
Absolutely! The writing world is tough, and kind words from readers are what make me want to keep going. There is one instance of a reader reaching out that I hold especially close to my heart. A Haitian reader wrote to say how much it meant to her to see Miyole, the heroine of my book Sound who has Haitian ancestry, on the page, and how the lullaby Miyole remembers her mother singing brought back the reader’s own memories. That’s the best compliment I can possibly imagine. The whole reason we write is to have a moment of connection and understanding with another person through the page. When that happens, it’s magical.
Salvage covers a lot of ground (and space!), from Ava’s very constricted life aboard the Parastrata to her discovery of a much broader range of human experience on Earth. How did you go about building the world of these books, both in terms of the physical geography and the cultural landscape?
I love worldbuilding. It’s one of my favorite parts of both writing and reading. The particulars of the world you live in change everything about how you interact with it and other people, from what you eat to the metaphors you use to describe things. Both Salvage and Sound take place in the future, but on Earth and in the surrounding solar system. A lot of research, both intentional and accidental, went into the settings.
By “accidental research,” I mean that I read a lot of books, listen to a lot of podcasts, and watch a lot of documentaries about science, nature, and sociology for fun. (I’m a very exciting person, I know.) When something interesting pops up, my imagination starts to run wild, and it usually ends up in a book. For example, the Gyre in Salvage is based on a real phenomenon in the Pacific Ocean called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and Enceladus in Sound is a real moon orbiting Saturn. It really has a liquid ocean beneath a crust of ice and a cryovolcano that erupts ice on its south pole. What would it be like to live there? I think. What else would have changed to make living there possible or necessary?
I also research specific aspects of my books intentionally. For example, the branch of Ava’s family on Earth in Salvage turns out to be from India, and a good part of the book takes place in Mumbai. I watched tons of movies and documentaries set in India in general and Mumbai in particular, read both fiction and non-fiction books in that setting, looked at the geography and how it might change in a world where global warming has caused sea levels to rise, and looked up slang terms specific to Mumbai, among dozens of other pieces of research. I try to balance imagining what the future could be like with respect for the existing people and cultures I write about.
Has your approach to writing changed since these books? If so, in what ways? If not, what has stayed the same?
I’m always trying to improve my writing, because I think when we stop trying to get better, our writing dies. For example, when I wasn’t on deadline last year, I started working through Ursula LeGuin’s wonderful book of writing exercises, Steering the Craft. It taught me so much!
The biggest change for me, though, has been learning how to write on a deadline. When you’re writing your first book, you most likely don’t have an agent, an editor, or a book deal. You’re only beholden to yourself, so you can take all the time you want to rewrite, polish, and get feedback from your beta readers. When you start working with other people, though, you have to work with specific deadlines and take their schedules into consideration. I’ve always worked in the same basic way—I know who my main character is, what the central conflict or conceit is, and roughly how I’d like the book to end. Beyond that, I figure things out as I go. It’s not the most efficient process, but it’s what works for me. So, I had to figure out how to marry that process with the necessary time constraints of the publishing world (and also my day job as a librarian).
What have you worked on since these books? Can you share any details about your current project(s)?
My latest book, Blight, came out in August of 2017. It’s a near-future eco-thriller about a girl living in a world where corporations have taken the place of governments. When a deadly blight gets released on the compound where she lives, she has to take to the road with a boy who is her sworn enemy.
My next book, The Ember Days, will be a dark historical fantasy about witches in Jazz-Age Charleston. I don’t yet know when it will be released, but it’s in my editor’s hands.
Do you have any advice for new writers on the twists and turns that a career in publishing can take?
Try not to let your success as a writer define you as a person. We all want to be the author whose debut hits the bestseller list, but for most of us, it’s more realistic to focus on building a career over a long period of time. I know spectacularly talented authors and delightful, hardworking people who have done all the “right” things and knew all the “right” people, yet haven’t had commercial or critical success. That doesn’t mean their books weren’t worthwhile. There is so little about the publishing world you can control. Just write the best book you can and try to take joy in the process.
Who do you hope will find these books?
I’d love it if people who generally don’t like science fiction found Salvage and Sound. When people think of the genre, sometimes they think of cold, overlong descriptions of spaceships and futuristic wars that fetishize violence. Science fiction can be warm and human. It’s a broad genre that can tell an intimate, personal story or a sweeping adventure that crosses the galaxy. It’s been a genre dominated by men for so long that many women tend to avoid it, but I’d love it if those people gave it a try and it opened up a new range of stories for them to enjoy.
What else would you like readers to know about Salvage and Sound?
Although the books share some characters, Sound isn’t a direct sequel to Salvage. There are some extra things you’ll notice if you read Salvage first, but you can read each one on its own.