Catching up with . . . Patty Jansen

Today I’m kicking off a new feature. I’ve met a lot of wonderful writers in the last four years, many of whom have become friends, in addition to being active in the field of Science Fiction & Fantasy. Rather than just post occasional links or put up occasional mentions, I decided it would be much more productive — and enjoyable — to catch up with these people in the form of an author interview. Hence, catching up with…!

Today’s featured author is Patty Jansen:

Patty Jansen lives in Sydney, Australia, where she spends most of her time writing Science Fiction and Fantasy. She publishes in both traditional and indie venues. Her story “This Peaceful State of War” placed first in the second quarter of the 27th annual Writers of the Future contest. Her futuristic space travel story “Survival in Shades of Orange” will appear in Analog Science Fiction and Fact magazine. Her space opera novel Ambassador will be published in 2013 by Ticonderoga Publications.

Her novels (available at ebook venues, such as the Kindle store) include Watcher’s Web (soft SF), The Far Horizon (SF for younger readers), Charlotte’s Army (military SF) and the Icefire Trilogy Fire & Ice, Dust & Rain and Blood & Tears (post-apocalyptic steampunk fantasy).

Patty is on Twitter (@pattyjansen), Facebook, LinkedIn, goodreads, LibraryThing, google+ and blogs at Must Use Bigger Elephants.

QUESTION: You’re one of a string of Australian Science Fiction writers to have come through the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future contest in the last three years. What was it like for you as an Australian to be thrust into the carnival of Hollywood?

PATTY: You want the honest answer or the politically-correct one? Ah. I thought so.

Well, after having been warned by many of the idiocy of Hollywood, I expected… something idiotic. I did not expect a suburban landscape that’s in fact far less busy and crazy than central Sydney. Or even North Sydney, where they will gouge you $29 per hour for parking.

I found it laid-back, and amusing, but at no point in time did I feel threatened by the busy-ness or the idiocy of it all.

Except maybe once. I got up at seven to go for breakfast the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, and found my way out the back door of the Roosevelt barred by bouffy security guards in black. With guns. Guns are not allowed on streets in Australia, except when police carry them, and police are usually few and far in between. Never had I encountered twenty security guards in black in considerable state of agitation informing me that “We have a situation, Ma’am.”

And the “situation”?

Across the road from the hotel, there was a little old lady with a shopping trolley shouting at some invisible demon. She wasn’t violent. She was much too old to do anyone any harm if she wanted, which she didn’t. She just stood there, under a shop awning, shouting. And this “situation” clearly required twenty agitated guys in black.

Because they had a “situation”, right?

Clearly, job prospects in the US are excellent if you’re a security guard. Even when sitting and writing my 24-hour story in a small shopping precinct next to the ASI building, I noticed two, continuously watching me with my eeevil computer.

So yeah, what’s mad about the US? The fact that no one seems to be able to move without the watchful eye of at least one guy in black with a gun. I’m not entirely sure what the big evil is that they were supposed to protect us from, but I suspect it’s less scary than the guys themselves.

Oh, and they have NO sense of humour. That and an Australian mindset do not a happy combination make.

I am told that it’s not like that everywhere. I shall be looking forward to testing that statement for myself next time I visit the US.

Brad’s note: I certainly hope Patty’s able to sample the U.S. beyond the often bizarre and ludicrous buffet known as Hollywood Boulevard, or Los Angeles for that matter. It’s a big country, composed of 50 little countries.

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QUESTION: You’re also a trained and degreed scientist. Do you think science fiction in either the United States or the anglosphere as a whole does justice to the sciences as practiced in fact? What can a serious science fiction writer do better, when approaching his or her material?

PATTY: Out of all the genres I’ve read where science comes up, science fiction does the best job at accurately portraying the lives of those who work in the field. I suppose that might have something to do with the fact that many science fiction writers are either practicing or past scientists, and the knowledge rubs off on those who are not.

I don’t think you’d call yourself a serious science fiction writer if you have a poor grasp of science.

Then again, there is the debate about what is science fiction. Some people would like to restrict it to hard SF, but that is too restrictive for me, because in doing so, it leaves a number of interesting and enjoyable books without a genre. That is, unless the label Futuristic Fantasy takes off.

Yet again, Futuristic Fantasy (representative of the category: Star Wars) could benefit from having more accurate science applied. This is the type of science fiction that gets made into movies. People who read these books and watch these movies are not hardcore SF readers. In terms of SF, these works are entry-level, and I think there is a dire need for entry-level SF that stays within the confines of reasonably believable science. Why? Because it will increase the general public’s awareness and appreciation of science.

Popular movies that take the gong for “best science”? Maybe there should be an award for this at the Oscars:

Moon

Avatar

See also Stephen Baxter’s book on the science of Avatar. They took some liberties, but the science was pretty solid on the whole, much more so than — for example — Star Trek. Red matter, anyone?

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QUESTION: In your own writing, what are some of the steps you take to ensure accurate science? Do you believe it’s occasionally okay to “bend the rules” for the sake of telling a good story?

PATTY: On the Analog forum, when that still operated (if anyone in the know is reading this, I would really appreciate if it came back), it was agreed that as hard SF writer, you’re allowed one get out of jail card. Many writers use this on FTL travel, because it is needed to simply let the story happen.

If you write space opera, the constraints are less rigid. FTL travel is more or less a given in space opera, and so are aliens.

If I’m writing a piece of hard SF and I strike a subject I know little about, invariably my first source is Wikipedia. I’ll read the general and any specialised nested entries, and then will hunt down the references. Through my past work, I have become highly suspicious of second-hand quotes. It is so easy for a subsequent reader to unintentionally misinterpret the original meaning of the discussion section in a scientific paper. This is not a reflection of poor science, but of the fact that spectacular-sounding quotes without context have a tendency to take on a life of their own.

Hence, I have a veritable stack of very scientific references on different aspects of astronomy. I do not have a degree in astrophysics. Spot the problem?

I have also purchased a heap of books on subjects I’ve used in my fiction. The problem is again that the books are aggregates of past research, not necessarily performed by the author, so they are second-hand collations. Especially the more popular books repeat the same bits of information over and over again. If you collate the more outspoken quotes of scientific papers into a book, you have a perfect showcase for science performed, right? Well-uhm — no, because often those quotes come from the discussion section of the paper and are fairly speculative. Taken without context, one could collate an argument entirely quoted from scientific papers, that there is life on Mars. You have to be careful with this sort of stuff, especially on the big, unvetted internet.

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QUESTION: What’s the Australian science fiction scene like? Do you get a chance to mix and mingle with people like Sean Williams much, or is everyone too geographically scattered?

PATTY: Australia is huge, and the SFF writers I see face-to-face on a remotely regular basis number exactly… zero.
I live in a part of Sydney that is an effective cultural wasteland, populated as it is with bankers, stockbrokers and doctors. A number of writers, including [Writers of the Future] vol. 28 winner Nick Tchan, live on the city fringes, but last time I went anywhere near where he lives, it took me three hours to drive there. Sean lives… in Adelaide, which is a good two days’ drive from here.

The country is bigger than the US, and the cities are far apart. There is not much in between. We come together at major cons, but for example the five-hour flight to Perth is a serious impediment to us from the east coast visiting and vice versa.

One thing you will notice about the Australian SFF scene and that is the abundance of writers of horror. Fantasy is a good second and SF comes way down the list. Hard SF… uhm. Greg Egan. That’s about it. He doesn’t even live in Australia anymore.

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QUESTION: With your recent sale to Analog Science Fiction and Fact, what changes did you have to make to the story to make it fit with Stanley Schmidt’s requirements? Did you know when you wrote it, as your 24 hour story for Writers of the Future, that it would be a strong candidate for Analog?

PATTY: When I wrote this story, it had Analog all over it. I really wanted to sell something there. When I finished the story, it was about 5,000 words. I knew I had some notes at home which were needed to fill out the unusual setting, so I added those, cut the beginning a bit and sent it off.
I have made very few changes since having the story accepted. Stan asked me a few questions, which I answered, and I added a sentence or two to make one or two things a bit clearer.

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QUESTION: Can you please talk a bit about your overall writing philosophy: what goals do you have, what’s your “mission” with your stories [if any!] and what kinds of stories do you find yourself writing most of? Near-term, far-term, space-based, et cetera.

PATTY: I have been most successful in my writing of space-based hard SF, or hard SF-edged space opera. I love writing both these genres. All four pro sales have been hard SF. My upcoming novel (Ambassador, with local SFF publisher Ticonderoga Publications) is space opera with a fairly hard edge. OK, there is FTL travel (almost a prerequisite for space opera), but there is a fair bit of real science in the background, especially atmospheric science. Even the FTL travel has an explanation. My as-yet-unsold non-winning finalist WOTF story deals with this.

With my SF, my aim is to entertain as well as educate and inspire. If I can help just a little bit in making space exploration cool again in the eyes of the general non-geek public, I will be happy.

But I also like writing fantasy. In my fantasy I like adding strange elements not normally encountered in the genre. My fantasy trilogy has magic that behaves more or less like nuclear radiation. There are also people without hearts, and giant eagles used as steeds. One of the characters is a meteorologist.

Although it’s all made up, I like there to be a logic that is based on science. Sometimes, that science is real. At other times, it is made up, but it still sounds like science.

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QUESTION: You’ve also done a significant amount of work on e-publishing. Do you think e-publishing is more important for Australian writers who want to reach out and tap the broad UK and American science fiction audiences? What are some of the lessons you’ve learned going through the processes of e-publishing?

PATTY: The great thing about e-publishing is that it makes no difference where you are and so it is a great leveler. Oh, wait, that is also true for traditional publishing. To be honest, being geographically isolated only matters when you need to see someone, or when you just want a chat with friends.

The most important lesson beginners should take away about e-publishing is that it does not make getting good sales any easier. If you’ve self-published something, you have not ‘published’ and you should not behave as such. It’s not a credit.

But that’s not to say it’s not fun. I’ve found it tremendously so. One thing self-publishing can do is to allow you to give out samples of your writing.

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QUESTION: Many aspiring writers around the world look to recent winners of the Writers of the Future Contest, as guides for break-in success. Can you tell these new and aspiring writers five good things you think helped you win, and five things you think new and aspiring writers can avoid, so as not to get bounced?

PATTY: For my own story:
1. Extensive worldbuilding
2. Buying a pair of titanium scissors
3. Research
4. Believing in your own work
5. Make sure the story ends strong

For submitting writers:
6. Send a story every quarter
7. Science Fiction does better than fantasy
8. Longer stories do better than shorter ones
9. Make sure the story has a strong speculative element
10. Make sure the story has a strong plot

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QUESTION: Who would you consider to be influential on your writing? Favorite authors? Any mentors?

PATTY: I would love to say that there isn’t any one person influential on my writing. I came into SF from a completely different angle as most people. I started writing from the science side of things. From the moment I knew there were other planets, I had characters living on them, and wrote stories about this, until I found out shock-horror, that other people also did this.

In addition, I am not a person who does fandom very well. I have a great aversion to hero-worship, and I guess that’s why I never did well in corporate environments. What the boss says — my arse!

That said, of course I do have a number of favourite authors and, non-surprisingly, they write fiction in styles I like to write myself. C.J. Cherryh, Stephen Baxter, Kim Stanley Robinson, our own Sean Williams are all writers whose work I love.

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QUESTION: What’s your general opinion of public science education, and overall public grasp of the sciences? Is part of the job of the science fiction writer to educate, as well as entertain?

PATTY: It seems to me that the vast majority of the general public is happy to stand on the shoulders of giants twiddling their iphones, without a care for how we got this far or an appreciation of the view. I don’t think this has ever been any different. It has only ever been a very small proportion of humanity that has made serious advances in science.

What I do fear, is that increasingly our connection with How Things Are Done is stretching thinner and thinner. It bothers me immensely that a lot of people don’t seem to have the foggiest understanding of how the equipment they use daily works, or how to do things when said equipment breaks down. People who can’t change the tyres on their car, check the battery or unclog the pump in the washing machine, or who can’t sew a pillow case or can’t knit or crochet. These people scare me.

I think science fiction has a duty to educate. Not just educate the actual science, but to educate how integral it is to our lives, and contemplate what life would be like without it.

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3 thoughts on “Catching up with . . . Patty Jansen

  1. Thanks, Patty! And thanks, Brad, for conducting and posting the interview!

    I would add “Contact” to your list of films that get the science right. Sadly, it’s a very short list.

  2. Yes, thanks! Great interview–oh, man, and you hit the nail on the head with the life-on-Mars-extrapolation. I actually had an editor tell me at one point that we’d found life on Mars, so therefore my story’s plot-point about not finding so much as a microbe in the solar system rested on ‘incorrect’ information. Needless to say I was a bit taken aback. I didn’t know how to respond. But, that was the day I learned editors aren’t infallible ;-). Always make sure you understand the science and discoveries to the best of your abilities before you use them–I try to hold to that as best I can.

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