First you look at the cover and sigh blissfully.
Beautiful huh? Then you read the caption. “A suspenseful sci-fi escapade plucks two children out of the ocean for a thrilling adventure.” Middle grade science fiction? Awesome! And then you read it and you get sucked into a fantastical world filled with mythical and technological creatures, and all you can say is WOW!
I think I went around saying WOW for an hour after finishing it. So I’m very excited and happy to invite Jenn Reese to the Inkpot today to talk about her brand new middle grade novel, Above World.
Ello – Jenn, welcome to the Inkpot! I’m totally in awe of this fantastical world that you’ve created! The Kampii that turn into mermaids, the Aviar that are winged people, the Equians who are horse people, etc. It’s like you took the best of the myths and added a scientific twist to it. How did this idea come to you?
JR – Hi, Ello! Thanks for the enthusiastic welcome -- I’m thrilled to be here! The basic idea behind Above World came from a brainstorming session. I was trying to write a story set in space and asked myself who might make a good spaceship captain. The answer that immediately came to me was “A mermaid!” She’d be used to maneuvering in all directions. That’s what gave me the idea to combine mythology with science fiction.
Ello – And what an unusual mermaid! Aluna is a strong, impulsive, kind-hearted, and brave protagonist. I love that she is clearly the leader and a warrior without having to become masculine. Were you modeling her after anyone in particular? What was the story behind how she came to being?
JR – I’ve been studying martial arts for over 10 years, and one my goals as a writer is to engender that passion in others – especially girls and women. So I knew at the start that I wanted Aluna to be a fighter. She isn’t modeled after anyone specific, except maybe the girl I wish I’d been…. the one who is brave enough to follow her heart and defy her father, regardless of the consequences. I think girls are so often taught to be polite, to think carefully before they say or do anything, and to strive to be well liked. I wanted a heroine who did none of those things. Writing her was freeing.
Ello – I love that! Now I was really intrigued at how you set out the different worlds. The Kampii just want to shut themselves away and hide from the rest of the world. And then there is their polar opposite. The Aviars, a world of strong, powerful women. Is there any wonder that they were my favorites? They were like Amazons with wings. How did you come about these different attributes? What was the thinking behind these different cultures?
JR – As a little girl, I loved learning about other cultures -- particularly their mythologies. This dovetailed nicely with my obsession with Dungeons & Dragons, wherein every fantastical race has its own societal rules, deities, history, and philosophies. I used to create new races all the time for fun. In fact, one of the races in Above World (the centaur-like Equian) is based off a race I created for a D&D game I ran in college (the Minrabi Horsemen). I am utterly in love with the world-building involved in creating societies. And for the record, yes – the Aviars were inspired by the Amazons. I just couldn’t resist.
Ello – What fabulously diverse characters you have here! Two water folks, an air creature, and a desert rider, except they can change into mermaids, birdpeople and centaurs. But for all the rivalry among these groups, the kids have no problems befriending each other. I thought that was a powerful message.
JR – One of the most important themes for me – in life, not just in writing – is that of “created family.” Sometimes we don’t get so lucky with our blood relatives, and it’s the special people we meet during our lives that become our true family. I wish I’d known that as a kid, and I’m thrilled that this message is coming through.
Ello – I love that you didn’t limit yourself to the myths when you created your world and your characters. Tell us about how you came up with your Deepfell and Upgrader characters?
JR – When I was first researching mermaids and how to make them scientifically viable, I decided that they’d have to live in fairly shallow water in order to survive the water pressure and cold and still look mostly human. Which made me wonder… what if you wanted to live deeper? You’d have to deal with greater pressure and intense cold, for starters. You’d have to give up more of what makes you human.
The Upgraders stem from my fascination with body modification. People do some wild, wonderful things to themselves even now, and in the future, these modifications are just going to get more and more extreme. (From grotesque to glorious, I hope!) Although the Upgraders in book one are mostly working for the villain, I personally love body modification as a form of self-expression, and don’t see technology as inherently bad.
Ello – So out of all the characters in Above World, I know that if I could be anyone, I would be an Aviar, hands down! I love the idea of flying and being a warrior. What about you?
JR – Don’t make me pick! I’ve always loved shapeshifting – it’s been my superpower of choice ever since I read T.H. White’s The Once and Future King as a kid, and Merlin turned young Arthur into all sorts of animals. Each race in Above World has a form that represents freedom to me. Freedom to swim like a dolphin, to fly like the birds, to run forever like a horse. I craved that so desperately as a little girl, and I still do as an adult. No, you can’t make choose. I want them all.
Ello – Sheesh, such an authorly answer! ;o) So I especially loved the training sequences where Aluna learned how to fight from the Aviars. She wasn’t learning how to fight from men, but from women warriors. Since you are a martial artist yourself, can you tell us how you work on your fighting sequences?
JR – I am incredibly lucky and get to train with several amazing martial artists, primarily Grand Master Carrie Ogawa-Wong and Master Phil Jennings of White Lotus Kung Fu. Over the years I’ve studied kung fu, tai chi, and traditional Chinese weapons such as staff, spear, and sword. Although I’m not particularly good at these things, I’ve learned enough theory and seen so many mind-blowing demonstrations that I can visualize and choreograph fight scenes in my head. I also watch a lot of documentaries and kung fu movies (the ones that don’t involve a lot of wires). Writing fight scenes is still very hard for me; I struggle to find the right words, the right details, and the best way to express character. But oh, how I love them!
Ello – I think you do an amazing job! What kind of research did you do for your book?
JR – As someone who does not particularly enjoy research, I mostly researched current science and cutting-edge scientific discoveries that might enable my various cultures to live in their respective harsh climates. Because Above World is set in the far future, I extrapolated wildly. At one point, I had pages and pages of notes on the biology of altitude sickness, as I was trying to see if a Kampii’s underwater breathing necklace would help its owner breathe in the high altitudes of the mountaintops. Science fiction is just fun.
Ello – I have to tell you that when I finished reading your book, I remember thinking very wistfully that I wish it had been available when I was a kid. It reminded me of my favorite childhood book, Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. They are very different books but they both gave me that wonderous feeling of reading something so very different and amazing. I felt like a kid again. What was your favorite books as a child?
JR – A Wrinkle in Time was a big one for me, too, as were The Westing Game, The Blue Sword, and the Narnia books. I consider The Twenty-One Balloons by William Pene Dubois to be the first science-based science fiction book I ever read, and a huge inspiration for me. In it, a man crash-lands on the island of Krakatoa. The people there have constructed a strange utopia with a fascinating culture that relies heavily on helium balloon-based technology. The author took a scientific concept and extrapolated it to create a world with an incredible sense of wonder. I want to do that, too.
Ello – Tell us a little bit about book 2, if you can.
JR – In book one, the heroes travel around and we see a little bit of a lot of cultures. In book two, I wanted to settle in and explore one culture in more depth, so prepare to head into the desert and meet the Equians.
Ello – Oh man, I want that NOW! Ok, this last question I ask all my interviewees so you shouldn’t be surprised! You are on a deserted island and meet a genie who can’t get you off the island but can fill one very large and magical suitcase with 10 of your favorite things. Assuming that food (not including sweets and luxury items) and clothing (loin cloth at the very least) is already taken care of, what would that suitcase contain?
JR – If the suitcase is magical enough to carry living things, then I’d fill it with my friends and my cats, although I suspect none of them would thank me for it. If not, I’d like a Moleskine notebook and my favorite Sharpie pen, my laptop, smartphone, and Nook, and an array of geeky t-shirts and jeans. I’d also like my kung fu weapons: my staff “Whisper,” my spear “Mr. Pointy,” and my sword “Blueberry.” Maybe with all that time to practice, I’ll actually get good.
Ello - Seriously, I love that last question! Authors have the weirdest answers! But in good ways! Thanks Jenn for joining us today and best of luck on your fantastic debut!