Interview With S.Z. Attwell, Bestselling Science Fiction Author
I met S.Z. Attwell on Twitter a year ago. She is a fantastic person, and lately we connected via Mastodon over an article by Katrina Paulson about vision and the benefits of green light. We ended up having a very interesting conversation about how our senses come into play when imagining a story that we're writing.
Immediately, I wanted to know more about S.Z. Attwell, the author or Aestus. What better way than an author interview?
That, of course... and reading her amazing two-book series, Aestus.
I was enthralled from the first page of Aestus, tumbling down the scorching depths of S.Z. Attwell's riveting storytelling. Aestus is a cool, thrilling tale!
An underground city, built centuries ago to ride out the devastating heat. A society under attack. And a young solar engineer whose skills may be the key to saving her city… if she doesn’t get herself killed first.
Interview With S.Z. Attwell, Bestselling Science Fiction Author
S.Z. Attwell, please tell me about yourself. How did you come to live on this planet? How (and why) did you become the writer you are today?
Hello! I am, in no particular order, an author, an amateur photographer, a Bostonian originally from the West, a (sort of) country girl in the city, a Muslim, a science writer, an archer (I dislike that word but anyway, yes, I do archery), an extrovert, a huge nerd, a big fan of good tea/coffee, and I could go on.
I have always loved reading and writing. When I was very small I made up stories; I eventually had a stack of yellow legal pads in my room and would try to write novels, starting around 13 or so.
What books have influenced you the most? What are you currently reading?
I’m limiting this to “writing” (vs. life), and specifically fiction, because that’s already a fairly disparate collection. I’m also terrible at coming up with lists of books.
A list, not in order:
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (coming-of-age) and The Witch of Blackbird Pond (historical fiction, romance).
Hugely formative: Little Women. I am very, very similar to Jo March in a lot of ways.
Various mystery books/series (from the Mandie books as a kid to Sherlock Holmes as I got older).
I was really fascinated by the book Running Out of Time when I was younger. The idea of the world not being what you think it was - that was probably my first introduction to dystopian fiction.
1984. I don’t care if it’s cliche. That novel was phenomenal.
Spy novels. They can be really fun and I like action movies.
Not exactly books, but I have to say I’ve learned a lot about writing from TV series, especially foreign series (Turkish dramas, kdramas).
(Again, this is definitely a partial list.)
Currently reading? Let me check. The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival by John Vaillant. (Very, very gory from what I’ve read so far, fair warning. But also super fascinating. And nonfiction. I love adventure writing.)
Do you see the science fiction genre as important and popular at the moment, and why? How do you see the future of the genre?
I have to admit, I’ve barely read or watched much sci-fi compared to what other sci-fi authors seem to have. I remember being amazed by much of Ender’s Game, and I enjoyed the occasional movie for making me think about speculative-fiction concepts (hello, GATTACA). I have always really enjoyed stories focusing on the alien/similar as showing something about humanity. And I enjoy a lot about action films (Aliens, case in point). But from a well-read perspective, I honestly am not very qualified to speak on this.
From a more general perspective, though, I can try. Important? Yes. Sci-fi and spec-fic often tap into our collective fears, preoccupations, etc. and help us explore those ideas, as well as our understanding of ourselves (I’m partly thinking of Octavia Butler and Ursula Le Guin). Sci-fi/spec-fic also help us think through the ethics of a whole range of things, from Probably Really Poor Choices that Sound Cool (flying cars) to how we could realistically colonize parts of our solar system, as well as what any kind of first contact might look like (I’m almost equally interested in the human dynamics of that - who gets to interact with the alien[s], and why, and what does that mean on all sorts of levels?). Sci-fi also potentially affects technological development in the real world (military, medical, etc.).
Again, given that I am not particularly well-read in sci-fi, I can’t really begin to speculate on the direction that science fiction is heading, but I hope authors will keep the human element (re: society/culture/power structures/ethics) firmly in view.
What does your writing process look like? (Please feel free to approach this in any way you like: plot vs character, planning vs discovery, routine, writing environment, writing quirks, etc.)
I often start with some kind of idea/concept and/or a main character (MC). In the past, I would build an entire outline or just start writing and run out of steam/not know where to go or how to get from point A to point B; now, I build a rough outline and let the character’s actions/reactions to circumstances drive the plot (I’ve learned that the characters’ actions are effectively the plot, barring some external factors). Characters, for me, are the key - if I finish a book and can’t tell you about any of them, that’s bad, even if the story was fantastic.
I work from a basic outline but I am open to changes as I go - and sometimes I have little choice. For example, in Aestus, Book 1: The City, I wasn’t planning to have more than the MC and her…assistant, for lack of a better word. Then I needed her to be in the hospital, and I needed a way to extend those scenes convincingly. Aha, I thought. A friend who visits her. But I needed to give him more of an actual role in the larger plot, so I made him a Patrol commander. And thus Gavin Tskoulis, one of the most important characters in the series, was introduced - and rather than ripples in a pond, it was like dropping a boulder into my plot puddle. I had to rewrite just about everything I’d thought of so far. To be honest, two of the most important characters started out as semi-filler, which I find so, so amazing.
Filler, speaking of, is where I find some of my best scenes/character interaction. At one point, one of the characters is kidnapped and others have to go after them - I was prepared to quickly sketch some scenes, but ended up really loving the extended search and think it’s some of my best writing. This is not always the case, but I’ve learned that filler can be used to further the story in its own way - small character asides, etc.
I’ve written a whole blog post about this, but I stick to a few major rules as much as I can: the video game map/POV-focus rule(s) and the microwave rule. For the former, I try not to introduce anything from the point of view (POV) of someone that the reader hasn't already met. That way the reader’s knowledge of the fictional world slowly expands along with the characters’ understanding of what’s going on. Re: microwave, I don’t talk about tech in detail unless it’s relevant to the character (I tend to “see” my stories in my head and almost experience them, as if I’m in VR). Would you wax eloquent about your microwave when describing your kitchen? Unless it’s on fire, probably not. You probably wouldn’t even notice it was there, despite it being objectively really amazing technology.
So - concept/character(s), general outline, and start to write and let the plot build naturally based on the characters’ understandings of the situation and their wants/needs/fears/etc. (with a few external factors thrown in). Filler can be your friend. Change can be (very, very) good. And sketch lightly, revealing from the characters’ POVs. (I don’t do first-person or really anything other than close third-person unless necessary. Personal preference.)
Also, strong black tea + chocolate is my writing fuel of choice. Cafe = environment of choice. Dabble = software of choice at the moment (I used to use Wavemaker but I didn’t like the update). Writing quirks? None, except that I hyperfocus and get into “the Zone” and don’t really sleep much when I’m on a writing jag. I love it, but it can be a lot.
What is the best and/or hardest part of the writing process?
Getting “into the character’s head.” It can be super easy (Gavin) or super super difficult (Jossey, the MC, at times). Sometimes the same character (Caspar) can feel correct or off depending on the sentence. Which is extremely frustrating.
What are you most proud of in your writing journey so far? (No matter how small or big!)
Most proud of, thank God:
Being admitted to the SFWA (Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers Association). This is one of the major professional organizations for writers and I consider this a huge accomplishment and a professional validation of my work (especially as a self-published author!).
The time that IHeartSci-fi reviewed my book and called it “...at the level of…Dune” (I just about keeled over). He then went on to similarly compare book 2 to Dune. There have been other reviews, but that one - for a fledgling sci-fi author, that was mind-blowing.
Becoming a bestselling author (as a self-published debut author! Without (almost any) ads!). I had a lot of support, of course, and a lot of helpful resources, but definitely not the trad publishing machine, and I went through a lot of trial and error and effort to get here.
Honestly, just people loving my books/characters. Demanding to know (you know who you are, hahaha) when “books 3-7” are coming out. Etc. And the community support! (You all know who you are - thank you.) I am so thankful that I have found such an amazing community. Examples: A longtime author telling me she was proud of me, a friend saying very very nice things about my work in her book acknowledgements, the unsolicited amazing support from so so many people, the friend who gleefully sent me a bunch of videos/images from the book’s location and told me I’d gotten the feeling of the place right…there are more. As you can see, I remember and cherish as much of it as possible.
In your opinion, what’s the measure of a successful writer?
I think that depends on the person. I think the most objective measure, outside of awards (not all of which are open to indie authors), is probably how much readers love your work. Royalties/sales are another measure. Membership in the SFWA, for example, indicates to me that an author has sold enough books to meet a benchmark for commercial success. That all said, commercial success (bestseller status, royalties, etc.) can tell you how well a book has done in that sense, but for me, at the risk of sounding cliche, true success is writing something that has a significant (positive) impact.
Do you favour traditional publishing, or self-publishing?
I’ve traditionally published flash fiction and would do so again. Regarding novels, both types of publishing have their advantages and disadvantages. I would love to work with a traditional publisher, but I don’t know how comfortable I am with the advance-and-earn-out model, and I really didn’t want to hand over creative control or deal with the querying process/its often-very-long timeline(s). I admittedly had some misconceptions about the process when I went into all this, which I cleared up with an agent friend (too late), but now - with more knowledge in hand - I still prefer self-publishing.
Self-publishing takes a significant amount of work to get off the ground, but I really think that - for me - the creative control and the ability to get to know my readers/community far outweigh the upfront advantages of a professional marketing team. (I also honestly enjoy marketing, so there’s that.) I know someone from years ago who is a well-known YA author today, and the difference between her online experience (as I see it, anyway) and mine? I would not trade it. Being able to geek out and really connect over this project that I’ve put so much of my energy/time/feeling into? That’s worth so much to me. I’ve made some great friends in the meantime, and also would not trade them (!).
As for the people who claim that self-publishing is somehow “not real publishing,” I say let the professional associations and the demand created by readers decide. Those are the real arbiters in this discussion, in my opinion.
What is your approach to marketing your work? What would you recommend?
This could be a long, long answer - here’s a link.
Short version: authenticity and professionalism. 1. Your book is your product and it should be as good as you can possibly make it. 2. Your online image is your “brand” and you should always keep that in mind. 3. You are a person, and you should interact as a person, not as a salesperson. (Also, don’t DM people with random “buy my book” links. I’m sort of joking. But really, please don’t do that. It rarely ends well.)
What is the title of your current work in progress? What can you tell me about it?
Uh. Top-secret. I can tell you that my friend was very excited when I told her.
Tell me about your latest book. What inspired the idea for the story? What will readers take away from it?
Aestus, Book 1: The City and Book 2: The Colony were inspired by a miserably hot and humid summer day, with me standing in a bus tunnel getting more and more annoyed at public transit, thinking “If, God forbid, climate change gets worse, where are we supposed to go? North?” Then I started thinking, “What if this bus were coming to take me home…to an underground city?” By the time the bus arrived, I had a decent concept going. I went home and started writing. (The few chapters then just basically sat there until NaNoWriMo came around.)
Aestus is currently a duology, and can be read as complete. Here is the blurb (book 2 has massive spoilers on the back, so don’t look at it, use this one instead):
An underground city, built centuries ago to ride out the devastating heat. A society under attack. And a young solar engineer whose skills may be the key to saving her city… if she doesn’t get herself killed first. When Jossey was ten, the creatures of the aboveground took her brother and left her for dead, with horrible scars. Now, years later, she’s a successful solar engineer, working to keep her underground city’s power running, but she’s never really recovered. After she saves dozens of people during a second attack, she is offered a top-secret assignment as a field Engineer with Patrol, but fear prevents her from taking it…until Patrol finds bones near where her brother disappeared. She signs on and finds herself catapulted into a world that is far more dangerous, and requires far more of her, than she ever imagined. The creatures and the burning heat aboveground are not the only threats facing the City, and what she learns during her assignment could cost her her life: one of the greatest threats to the City may in fact lie within. With thousands of lives at stake, can she act in time? Aestus is an adult dystopian science-fiction series set centuries after climate change has ravaged much of Earth. An epic story of vengeance, power, shifting loyalties, and survival that looks at just how far people will go to protect what they love, brought to you by science writer S. Z. Attwell, Aestus paints a picture of a world in which far too little has changed.
My hope is that the series will get people to think - and feel - re: how terrifying climate change is… but, more importantly, how we as a society function - what upholds our status quo, what we choose not to see. This was a real attempt to sit down and think about how a city of this kind could realistically happen, how society would likely function, etc. (I even did my best to calculate the likely moon phases!) The series has its funny moments, and I love my characters, and yet it’s also what I hope is a relatively sophisticated look at humanity, from individuals to social organization. I tried, at least. It’s sci-fi, and it’s deeply dystopian. And epic adventure. And has a bit of romance. And espionage and all sorts of other things. But it’s also my attempt to write something that I felt was important to share.
to get deeper into your work, what should I read first and how may I find it?
I would start with Aestus 1 - do not (!) read the blurb for Aestus 2 unless you want half the series spoiled. Seriously. I tried and failed to make it spoiler-free. Aestus 1 can be found here.
Don’t let the books’ lengths scare you! They’re not long slogs. They’re very fast-paced and intense. Many people read each book within days. (Admittedly, they may not sleep that much, fair warning.) Here’s an excerpt if you want to read the first bit!
This wasn’t an answer to a question, but thank you so much for this opportunity! I hope you and others will read and love Aestus as much as I do.
(I also write silly stuff, like this flash fiction here. This was published by Space Cowboy Books/Simultaneous Times podcast.)
S. Z. Attwell is a bestselling science-fiction author as well as a sci-comm writer. She is a member of the SFWA (Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers Association) and her work has been featured in Simultaneous Times. The first book in her series Aestus was a 2021 finalist for the Kindle Book Award and a 2022 B.R.A.G. Medallion Honoree and is currently a Semifinalist in the SPSFC2. In her free time, she does photography and archery. She lives in the Boston area. Website Excerpt from Aestus, Book 1: The City Quick link (Book 1) (other options) Find S. Z. Attwell on social media at @szattwellauthor! (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok and Mastodon)