Fonda Lee here. Today I’m excited to be interviewing Joshua David Bellin on the release of his debut YA science fiction novel, SURVIVAL COLONY NINE. I had the pleasure of advance reading the book, and it is a gripping post-apocalyptic thriller that had me flipping the pages well into the night. Here’s the skinny:
Querry Genn is in trouble.
He can’t remember anything before the last six months. And Querry needs to remember. Otherwise he’s dead weight to the other members of Survival Colony 9, one of the groups formed after a brutal war ravaged the earth. And now the Skaldi have come to scavenge what is left of humanity. No one knows what the Skaldi are, or why they’re here, just that they can impersonate humans, taking their form before shedding the corpse like a skin.
Desperate to prove himself after the accident that stole his memory, Querry is both protected and tormented by the colony’s authoritarian commander, his father. The only person he can talk to is the beautiful Korah, but even with her, he can’t shake the feeling that something is desperately wrong. And that his missing memories are at the very center of it.
Fonda Lee: Josh, congratulations on your debut! Tell us about what inspired you to write SURVIVAL COLONY NINE.
Joshua David Bellin: Thanks, Fonda! And congratulations to the Fearless Fifteeners as you begin your own journey to publication!
SURVIVAL COLONY 9 has two primary sources: a story idea I jotted down years ago about a teen with memory loss, and a much more recent dream I had that provided me the novel’s desert setting and the idea of the human groups—the survival colonies—that had lived through a time of catastrophic loss. But in another respect, my inspiration was my own children, thanks to whom I rediscovered my love of YA. My daughter was twelve when I started writing my book, and she was the first to read a few pages and encourage me to keep writing.
FL: Querry’s story takes place in a desperately bleak future. I swear I could feel the baking sun on my skin and the dust in my eyes the whole time I was reading. What led you to create this world, and do you think there’s something particularly appealing to you about post-apocalyptic settings?
JDB: The dream I mentioned a moment ago gave me the broad outlines of my novel’s world. But I had to make it convincing, and I felt there was no way to do that without making it bleak. It’s a world where human society has just about crumbled due to war and climate catastrophe, and where not only the material culture of the past but the memory of the past has been swept away. So in a sense, all the characters are like my narrator, Querry Genn, a fourteen-year-old with amnesia: they’re all traumatized, all coping with horrific loss. But they’re also all survivors, which means they have a reserve of strength that enables them to go on.
I can’t pin down the one thing that led me to create such a world, but I do know I’ve long been fascinated by Holocaust narratives, with their twin, conflicted imperatives to remember and to forget. I have relatives who escaped the Nazi genocide, and I’ve taught students who survived the Rwandan genocide. Such subjects might seem a bit heavy for YA science fiction, but I believe YA—and science fiction—have an obligation to wrestle with difficult truths
FL: Although SURVIVAL COLONY NINE features a menacing exterior threat in the form of the Skaldi, what stuck with me are the human relationships in the colony, and how the dire circumstances bring out the best and worst in people. There is a “marooned on an island together” dynamic going on here. Tell us a bit about how you developed your cast of characters. Were any of them inspired by real or fictional people?
JDB: I’ve always felt that the best monsters represent our own internal conflicts. Anyone can throw a lion’s head on a snake’s body and call it a monster—but if it doesn’t tell us anything about the inner struggles of the human characters, it seems kind of pointless to me.
So in SURVIVAL COLONY 9, I thought of the Skaldi as an external manifestation of what threatens the colony internally: malice, suspicion, loss of faith in each other. I wanted to create a human society that was incredibly fragile, a society that’s lived through horrors and is still living with horrors that could cause them to turn against each other at a moment’s notice. So I was determined to create characters who were complex, conflicted, haunted by personal demons—not simple “good guys” and “bad guys.” Laman Genn, the colony’s commander, is an example: he’s strong, capable, charismatic, caring—but he’s also domineering, deaf to criticism, and capable of making terrible mistakes. And it’s when those cracks appear that the Skaldi are able to infiltrate the colony.
Whether Laman or any of the other characters is based on real or fictional people is a question I never thought about. In Laman’s case, I would say I probably modeled him on the father in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road—except I thought McCarthy’s father-figure was a bit idealized. I wanted to create a father whose best quality—his protectiveness—could also become his worst.
FL: Tell us about your journey as an author. What was the path to publication like for you?
JDB: Long! Depending on how you look at it, I’ve been traveling this path for over thirty years, with my first completed novel (an epic fantasy) written when I was sixteen, and my first YA (a story about friendship and death) written two years later. I took a major detour to write academic prose after graduate school, and when I found my way back to fiction in 2008, I was in no way ready to tackle a novel-length project. Three years, many short stories, two unfinished novels, and one finished but unsalable novel after that, I completed SURVIVAL COLONY 9—and then had to educate myself about seeking an agent, writing a query and synopsis, and all that. I signed with one agent, parted ways with her when it turned out our vision for the novel didn’t match, conducted the search process again, found a wonderful advocate in Liza Fleissig of Liza Royce Agency, and went on submission. From there, it was a fairly speedy road to acceptance. But if anyone had told me at age sixteen that I might not publish my first novel until I was almost fifty, I probably would have stopped writing. Fortunately, no one did!
FL: I understand you are a huge fan of science fiction and fantasy books and films (*geek fistbump*). What are some books or films that had a big impact on you and perhaps influence or inform your writing?
JDB: Far too many to name, but let’s start with Tolkien’s works, which blew me away at age thirteen with the depth, complexity, and conviction of the imagined world. I’d also add Roger Zelazny’s Amber series, which is not only a brilliant fantasy but the first work I ever read with an amnesiac narrator. Throw in some of the classics of science fiction—Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds—and some great modern YA science fiction—Chris Howard’s Rootless, Paolo Bacigalupi’s Ship Breaker, Mindy McGinnis’s Not a Drop to Drink—and you’ve got me. If, that is, you also add classic monster and horror films, especially the masterpieces of Willis O’Brien (King Kong) and Ray Harryhausen (Jason and the Argonauts) and eighties-era creature features like Alien, The Thing, and The Fly. And wait, did I mention Star Wars?
Okay, I think I’ve proved my geek cred. We’ll talk more later.
FL: Yes, we will. There will be a sequel to SURVIVAL COLONY NINE, so I hear? Can you give us any hints as to what’s to come?
JDB: The sequel is titled SCAVENGER OF SOULS. (A friend of mine told me I should title it SURVIVAL COLONY 10, but I rejected that idea pretty quickly.) It’s the middle book of a planned three-book series, but as of this moment its publication date hasn’t been set. I’m kind of reluctant to say much about it lest I spoil the fun for those who haven’t read the first book, but I will say this: it’ll surprise readers of SURVIVAL COLONY 9. It’s a much bigger-canvas novel than its predecessor: Querry gets to see much more of his world, to encounter people with backgrounds and histories he had no awareness of, and to unravel huge secrets about his own and his people’s past. And the antagonists—well, let’s just say the Skaldi aren’t the only monsters in Querry’s world!
FL: And finally, as this community is fearless, we’d like to know something you’re afraid of and something you’re not afraid of.
JDB: I’ll give a writer’s answer to that. I’m not afraid of a lot of things writers typically fear: selling poorly, receiving negative reviews, being misunderstood. It seems to me publishing a novel is a rare enough privilege without worrying about junk you really have no control over. But I am afraid of writing becoming the only thing in my life. It seems to me that happens to some writers, especially with all the pressure to promote your current novel and to produce your next one. So I hope I can always find balance between writing and the rest of my life, and I hope I can always remember that no one ever said on their deathbed: “I wish I’d spent more time at the keyboard.”
Wise words for all us writers, Josh. Thanks for the interview and good luck with SURVIVAL COLONY NINE.
Joshua David Bellin has been writing novels since he was eight years old (though the first few were admittedly very short). He taught college for twenty years, wrote a bunch of books for college students, then decided to return to writing fiction. Survival Colony 9 is his first novel, but the sequel’s already in the works! Josh is represented by the fabulous Liza Fleissig of Liza Royce Agency.
Josh loves to read (mostly YA fantasy and science fiction), watch movies (again, mostly fantasy and sci-fi), and spend time in Nature (mostly catching frogs and toads). He is the self-proclaimed world’s worst singer, but plays a pretty mean air guitar.
Oh, yeah, and he likes monsters. Really scary monsters.
|Fonda Lee is an author and recovering corporate strategist who was born and raised in Calgary, Canada (land of hockey, rodeo, and oil reserves) and now lives with her family in Portland, Oregon (land of rain, hipsters, and Powell’s books). When she is not writing she can be found training in kung fu or searching out tasty breakfasts. Her debut upper YA science fiction novel, ZEROBOXER, will be published by Flux in Winter 2015. You can find Fonda at www.fondalee.com and on Twitter @fondajlee.|