Today I am very excited because my guest is an author whose book Broken Slate (mature YA SF) I loved – welcome Kelly Jennings!
Chrystalla: Hi and welcome to my blog! Why don’t you tell us a few words about yourself first?
Kelly: I’m a writer and teacher in Northwest Arkansas. I’ve traveled the country, teaching and writing, camping and hiking. I like to walk around in mountains. I like to look at rocks. I’ve got two dogs, a cat, a husband, and a kid. We’re all writers, (the humans are all writers!), which makes for a quiet if occasionally grumpy household. You don’t want to be around here when we all have writer’s block.
Chrystalla: What genre(s) do you write and why?
I spent a lot of time thinking I had to write literary fiction if I wanted to be a real writer. But finally I came to my senses. A writer can only write the writer’s own stories. I write science fiction because that’s the writing I love. I read nearly everything, and I love a lot of different kinds of books, but the only books and stories I want to write – care deeply about writing – are science fiction stories.
Chrystalla: So true! I do believe also that one should write what one loves, not what one must. 🙂 What can you tell us about your writing projects and recent releases?
Kelly: My latest novel – oh, okay, my only published novel so far – is Broken Slate. It’s meant to be a prequel in the series I am calling Martin’s War.
I plan five books in the Martin’s War series – Triple Junction, the opening book, is nearly finished; On Through the Night is in its first draft. Riding The Scree and The Drift are the third and fourth books; I have only vague plans for the final book in the series at this point. Altogether, these books will track the story of a slave revolt leading to a Revolution on Julian, a planet 43 jump points from Earth.
Broken Slate introduces the main character, Martin Eduardo, and the culture of Julian just before the Revolution. Among other things, in this book, I attempt to answer a question that sometimes seems so mystifying from this end of history – why don’t slaves rebel? Why don’t the oppressed rise up? Why did the Jews walk into the camps? That question. Obviously the oppressed outnumber their oppressors, sometimes enormously so. Why go down so meekly?
The actual answer, as I’ve found through research, is that the oppressed did not go down meekly. The history we get taught in school and the true history (and I know, hah, what a shock) are often yards apart. The Jews didn’t walk into the camps – there was lots of resistance, and lots of it was successful resistance. The American slaves didn’t accept their fate. Everyone knows about Nat Turner, and I suppose plenty of people even know about Haiti now, but who knows about Gaspar Yanga? Or Zumbi Dos Palmares? Even the unsuccessful resistance is important: it demonstrates that the narrative of the meek victims is a convenient fable.
On the other hand, it is true that resistance is difficult. What makes it difficult is what I explore in Broken Slate. How is it that a relatively small group of oppressors (the famed 1%) can control a large group of oppressed? (We are many, they are few, Shelley famously pointed out, so how do they keep us under the boots so successfully?) In Broken Slate, through Martin’s eyes, I look at that question; and also at how the oppressed can come to resistance.
Other writing projects – ha, well: My kid asked me recently, “Why is everything you write about the revolution?” “Shut up, that’s why,” I told her.
I’m afraid that it is the truth. I’ve got a story coming out with Strange Horizons, “In the Cold,” in January. It looks like it’s not about the revolution, but of course it is. And I’m working on another short story right now, “Buddha’s Wings,” for an Arkansas anthology, which I thought wasn’t going about the revolution; but yeah. It’s about the revolution too.
Chrystalla: I just loved Broken Slate so much, I hope you will continue writing about that revolution at least! Can you give us an excerpt from your latest release?
Kelly: This is from Broken Slate: Martin is riding home on a monorail in the contract labor car, listening to the other contract laborers telling stories.
“Outside, the contracts were telling stories – the sorts of stories that did get told whenever cots got together, low-voiced, muted: a half dozen field cots had run from an estate in the West Country timber yards, been caught by Labor Security helos and though they had fought – they had armed themselves with thieved cutters, retooled so that they would fire short bursts, an inept kind of plasma gun, risky, but better than nothing: every cot knew how to do that to a cutter, much good it did them, since Security had to get with a few meters for that weapon to be useful – been captured, three of them still alive, and dragged back to their estate, where, as was the usual practice, the runaways were put on their knees by the flagpole, shot in the back of the head, and their bodies burned.
After that a cook told another story, about a cook she had heard of, in the Bragg Mountains, who had slipped a poison in the food of her holder’s family, killed all of them, four children, holder, holder’s wife, that fast, the physician didn’t have time to arrive. “It was because the holder had been raping her,” the cook said, “every night, that’s what I hear. Labor Security came in on helos, but before they could tank her, or even get hold of her, Lord Holders in the town got her.” The cook paused dramatically.
Martin didn’t really need to hear how this story ended. The rest of the truck was waiting, though, their eyes wide.
“Didn’t bother shooting her. Dragged her through the town,” the cook said. “Yelling names at her, howling. Poured the coal oil over her and set her alight still alive.”
Gasps and curses through the truck.
“After, they tore her body apart and carried bits away. That’s what I heard.”
Other contracts had other stories, this contract attacking his boss in the field, this holder and what had happened here. Martin didn’t exactly want to listen, but it was hard not to. Only a few stories got told about those who made to the mountains and might be mounting a resistance. Martin never knew whether to believe in these contracts or not. Certainly Julian Security acted like they were actually up there. Certainly the few times Deja had taken him along to the Julian Parliament, Parliament acted as though the Contract Revolution was real. But Martin knew better than anyone how paranoid and delusional Republic politics could be.”
Chrystalla: What gave you the idea for this book?
Kelly: Ooh, good question. Looking back, I see three real seeds. One was reading C.L.R. James’ The Black Jacobians. This is just a great book, the story of the slave revolt in Haiti. It’s wonderfully written, for one thing, and it gave me an understanding of history like no other book I’ve ever read has done. I kept thinking as I read this, wow, this would make a great novel. So that was one bit.
Another was, back in 2003/2004, all over the internet, Far-Right blogs, guys that are eventually going to become Tea-Party members, were arguing about the For-Profit Prisons being built in Texas and Arizona. I keep reading comments about how prisoners ought to be rented out, how they ought to have to work for their food and board. This is during one of the biggest expansions of prisons in our history, mind you, people being sent to prison for ten years or twenty years because they’re smoking crack, not because of any violent crime they’ve done.
And then I read Douglas Blackmon’s Slavery by Another Name, which is about how the South kept the system of slavery going by work farms and prison farms – by convicting black men and women for ridiculous crimes or no crimes at all, the crime of vagrancy or back talk or nothing, just some white guy saying this black guy had committed a crime, and then the black guy would be sentenced to twenty years and rented to a mine or a road crew and worked to death – and bam, there it was. I started writing.
Chrystalla: What is special about this book for you – what sets it apart?
Kelly: When I started writing, I said what would be special about this book was that it would be the story of a successful slave revolt. Now I know that’s not so, that many of them succeeded. Maybe I’m bringing that point to the forefront, for one thing.
Another difference, though, is that this narrative, this revolution, comes from the point of view of the oppressed, the slaves themselves. My main character, Martin, was a deckhand as a kid – he had his first job at age six – and has been a miner and a quarry worker. In Broken Slate, a number of aristocratic characters play significant roles; in later books, as we move further into the revolt, the slaves will be even more prominent.
Another difference: my main character, Martin, is a bisexual; on Julian, that’s not a big deal.
On Julian, sexual taboos have to do with class. For anyone who is not a wealthy property owner and a legal citizen, sex is legally restricted. Children are not citizens, so they are restricted from access to sex. Contract labor are not citizens. Both free labor and Service class are citizens; they are allowed sex, but this gets complicated: free labor and Service class are meant to have sex only insofar as they can legally support the products (children) of their sexually activity. So there’s a whole category of legal (and moral) code on Julian having to do with illegal sex. Having sex before you’re an adult is illegal sex, which will get you convicted into contract labor; having more children than you can support will get you, and your children, convicted into contract labor.
So being gay is perfectly okay, both for Lord Holders and for cots like Martin. It’s being poor and having babies that’s a crime – literally, and morally. (Rich people get to have all the babies they want, obviously.)
Chrystalla: Amazing, all the research, and we the readers see the tip of the iceberg as it were. But it also explains why we are able to immerse ourselves so completely in your world, you really created it in so much detail. Tell us, do you have a favorite scene in the book?
Kelly: Good question! I have several. One I really like, though, is a scene in which Martin is shoveling snow in the Bourbon Mountains. He’s gone with his contract holder, Deja Lord Strauss, to do research at a university there, but a giant blizzard snows them in. Anyway, he’s shoveling snow and he talks to two contract labor kids, boys about 12 years old, kids who have come up in an orphanage, and don’t really know anything about how to act. We get to see Martin being a leader and a teacher for the first time – it’s a foreshadowing of a role he’s going to take on in later books.
Chrystalla: What kind of research did you do for this story?
Kelly: Tons. Endless research. I’m still doing it. I had to build not just Julian, but the worlds Julian came from, and the Pirian culture and the Free Merchant culture Martin came from, and the culture all of these cultures came from – the notion is that some disaster happens a couple hundred years from now which renders all of the Earth uninhabitable except for Oceania, over there by Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines, maybe Malaysia, maybe Japan, some of India. And so these are the areas that survive to launch into space (some handwaving here) and colonize the Core planets.
Lots of my research, then, is into what sorts of food, what language, what mythic backgrounds, would come with the people who go outward into space. It’s been 1500 years, so I’m assuming lots of cultural blending; also I’m assuming refugees from other places on the planet did reach the inhabited zone; also, I’m assuming Earth does recover, eventually.
Other research was into slave revolts, slave cultures, slave narratives, resistance narratives, histories of revolutions, of resistance, of guerilla wars, about tactics – I used to joke that probably Homeland Security has a file on me, just from my Google Searches and Interlibrary loans alone.
Linguistic research: I want the dialects to work. Obviously we’re going to have several different dialects and levels of dialects on Julian, and that’s before we bring the Pirians onto the planet, as we do in Triple Junction. So we’ve got the different dialects spoken by the different Lord Holders – your East Country holder, your Far North County Holder, your University of Durbin Holder, so on – and then you have your Service class diction, and your free labor speaker, and your field cot dialect and your North Country miner contract: they all speak different dialects. I’m not sure I succeed in demonstrating this in the books, but I’m working at it.
Chrystalla: I must say, all this makes me so impatient to read the next book in the series! I do hope it will be released soon! Kelly, what advice do you have for other authors?
Kelly: Write what you care about. Read what you write about – and read everything else, too, certainly. Read everything you can get your hands on. Read bad fiction as well as good fiction – the bad stuff can teach you more than the good stuff, sometimes. Read non-fiction as well as fiction. Listen to fiction as well as reading it.
Write every day. Write a lot – at least 1000 words a day, more if you can. (I can’t, usually.) Revise, revise, revise. Send your writing out. Submit, submit, submit (your writing – don’t submit to the oppressors!). You’ll get rejected, but that’s part of the job. Send it out again. Join a writers’ group if you can. I currently belong to an excellent group; we meet once a month. They’re so wonderful I can’t tell you.
Chrystalla: Thank you for being here today! Where can people learn more about you and your writing (links)?
Kelly: I have a blog (http://delagar.blogspot.com/) and a group blog (http://www.fansci.org/). Read more there!
Get Kelly’s book “Broken Slate” here – links to all retailers.