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Important Strangers:
A Conversation with Becky Chambers

Becky Chambers grew up outside Los Angeles “in a family heavily involved in space science”—her father worked in aerospace engineering, her mother worked as an astrobiology educator. Her mother loved genre fiction, so Chambers was reading and watching SFF shows before she’d started school. Despite the prevalence of the sciences in her family, she moved to the SF Bay Area to study theater at the University of San Francisco.

After years working in theater, she became a freelance writer. She crowdfunded debut novel The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet via Kickstarter in 2012, and in 2015 the book was republished by Hodder & Stoughton and Harper Voyager. The genre community immediately took notice: The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet received critical acclaim for its fresh take on space opera, worldbuilding, characters, and positive leanings; moreover, it was a Kitschies, Arthur C. Clarke, and British Fantasy Award finalist. Beyond the genre community, the first Wayfarers book landed on the Women’s Prize long list. Chambers continued the Wayfarers books with A Closed and Common Orbit in 2016 and Record of a Spaceborn Few in 2018. Both books garnered nods and nominations, and collectively all three books won the 2019 Hugo Award for Best Series.

In 2019, her publishers released To Be Taught, if Fortunate, a harder SF standalone novella, unrelated to the Wayfarers universe. True to form, the novella was short listed for Locus, BSFA, and Hugo awards. The final installment in the Wayfarers books, The Galaxy, and the Ground Within, is due in April 2021. A new solarpunk series with Tordotcom Publishing is also due to begin in July, starting with A Psalm for the Wild-Built.

Becky Chambers lives in California with her wife. During the pandemic, she’s spent much of her time “on my couch like everybody else, and have spent the winter screaming toward a deadline (I made it), playing Hades as if it were my second job, and going absolutely ham with a years-long TTRPG campaign.”

author photo

You originally crowdfunded your debut novel, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, on Kickstarter back in 2012. With book four coming out, as well as a few other projects, do you feel like your writing has changed in important ways since that first novel?

I’m always trying to grow and change in my writing. I never want to find myself treading water. The joy for me is in choosing something specific to tinker with or improve upon. It’s hard for me to critique my own work, but I would say that overall, I’ve gotten more precise with my words, and less afraid of failed experiments. I also don’t wander into the weeds as much as I did at the start. At first, the question was just “can I write a book?” Turns out, I can! Now, the never-ending task is, “do that again, but better.” I wouldn’t want it any other way.

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet came out with Harper Voyager and Hodder & Stoughton in 2015 and landed a number of awards nominations. Your work has continued to receive nominations and nods every year since then. Does the recognition drive you? Or does it have a different kind of impact on your process?

This might sound ungrateful, but I can’t say it affects my day-to-day process that much. I’m incredibly humbled by the recognition my work has received, and in the moments when I get that news, it means a great deal. But in terms of my every day, I am my own worst critic at all times. It’s helpful when I remember that I have proof that I’m not a hack sitting on my mantlepiece, but nine times out of ten, I’m too busy cussing at whatever project I’m working on.

Are there important ways in which the series changed from your original vision of the work? Did The Galaxy, and the Ground Within change much from conception to final copy?

The biggest change in the series has been me. I was twenty years old when I first started building the Wayfarers universe; I’ll be thirty-six this year. I think differently, I write differently. My creative interests have evolved. When I wrote The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (finished when I was twenty-eight, for those keeping score), I was rooted in this idea of wanting to make a classic space opera setting in which I could flip the script on whose stories mattered.

Nowadays, I’m hungry to push the foundational boundaries harder, and to keep challenging my own assumptions about what’s essential to the genre. There are things I would have done differently with the Wayfarers universe if I’d created it today, and that was one of the big feelings I anchored myself to while writing The Galaxy, and the Ground Within. I felt like I was having the last word in a conversation with my twenty-something self. The Long Way was me then; Galaxy is me now.

As for the conception of the book itself, I don’t outline, so I haven’t had a manuscript yet that hasn’t changed a ton from beginning to end. I think this one may have shifted the most out of all four of them, though. I was going through my original brainstorming notes for it the other day, and the end product is completely unrecognizable next to them. I really had to feel this one out as I went along.

I feel like the heart of The Galaxy, and the Ground Within is in thrusting individuals together who are very different and forcing them to negotiate those differences. What are the advantages of telling this story in space, with a cast of aliens trapped on an isolated world, as opposed to a set of humans on an island at sea, or at an oasis in the desert?

With Wayfarers, I never want the reader to forget that these small stories are happening against the backdrop of a very big universe. I try to make that juxtaposition feel as ever-present as I can. I want to tap into that quintessential Carl Sagan concept of people being insignificant and wonderful simultaneously. Telling an intimate story like this with wormholes and galactic parliaments just over your shoulder makes that job all the easier.

This is a less fancy answer, but I also just really, really love writing aliens. There’s nothing I have more fun with than mixing up a bunch of cultural and biological differences, and then blending them all together.

Like other books in the series, this is a character-focused book. What are the keys to drawing compelling characters?

For me, it’s all about the little details. Everyday habits tell you everything you need to know about a character. What do they eat for breakfast? What kinds of entertainment do they like? Do they swear, and if so, under what circumstances? Once you’ve got a general feel for what their deal is, then you can start exploring how they get along with everybody else. That’s when you properly understand who they are. I also think it’s important to let characters be messy. I do not necessarily like or agree with everything every POV character does on the page. I think it’d be boring if I did.

What was the most challenging aspect of writing The Galaxy, and the Ground Within?

Doing so in 2020. At first, I didn’t think lockdown would be difficult in a practical sense, because I already work at home and have been doing so for years. I’m well-equipped to stay inside at my desk all day. But it quickly hit me just how much of my work comes from what I draw from other people. I’m mostly an introvert, but I do have a social side, and so much of my fuel for this series in particular has come from being a sponge around others—listening to ambient conversations, people-watching, traveling, having mundane adventures with friends. The lack of that specific type of input, combined with the prolonged panic attack we are all still going through, made this one very hard to write.

What is the heart of this book for you, what is important about it to you, beyond the notes on the back cover?

Aside from the conversation with my younger self that I mentioned before, the crux of this book is the idea that someone you only knew for a few days can still be a person you have a profound connection to. I’ve spent a lot of time in the other books on unraveling many, many forms of families and friendships. Meaningful exchanges between strangers is the concept I wanted to stick with here—the people you barely know but will never forget.

Your new Monk & Robot series is coming up, beginning with A Psalm for the Wild-Built. What was the inspiration for this book, and how did the story develop?

I’ve had an itch for years to do something solarpunk, and Monk & Robot is me scratching it. I can’t say that there was one big “aha” moment with this one. It’s this jumbled mix of things I like (monks and robots, for a start) and little ideas that have been bugging me for a while. The theme I wanted to play with most is the relationship between technology and nature. These concepts are often presented as diametrically opposed, or mutually exclusive. I wanted to paint a little portrait of a world in which they coexist harmoniously, and I figured the best way to do that was to make two characters go for a walk through it.

Will fans who’ve loved your other works find the narrative and themes familiar? Or are there important differences between the new series and the work you’ve done before?

The setting is very different than others I’ve worked in; there are no spaceships in this one, for a start. It’s also worth mentioning that Monk & Robot falls squarely under the science fantasy umbrella. It’s the polar opposite of what I did in To Be Taught, if Fortunate, where building off of real science was the whole point. In A Psalm for the Wild-Built, there’s no magic or anything, but robots think, gods are real, and people live on a made-up moon called Panga, where they have always lived. My entire approach to how this world works can be summed up as “because I said so.” But as far as the themes and the flavors go, I think people who know my other work will find themselves in familiar territory.

There’s this passage from the beginning of the book, which starts, “All we have ever known is a life of human design . . . ” Is this a metaphor about resisting the control of mainstream culture and seeking individuality and freedom? Or is it just a cool paragraph without any intended meaning?

I love your take on it, but I was coming at it more from a perspective of the constructed world versus the natural world. I was born and raised in the unending suburbs of Los Angeles County, and though I’m well-versed in biology, it took me a long time to flip my brain around and truly grasp the understanding that our default world does not have roads or plumbing or buildings. Robots are, by definition, built to facilitate human needs. They work in factories, they follow schedules based on a clock, they build stuff that we invented. So, I decided to bust them out of that environment. The robots on Panga basically woke up and said, “We want to understand what the world looks like when there isn’t any trace of you in it.”

Narratives about robot or AI consciousness inevitably evoke thoughts of other stories that take on similar topics. Is this book (or the series as a whole) in conversation with or in response to any other works?

I can’t say that I had any specific works in mind as I wrote this one. I’ve always had an affinity for robots and AI, but I am not sure where that root comes from. I’m just fascinated by the idea of consciousness arising from technology, plain and simple. I can tell you that I didn’t want the robot in this book to go through the paces of having to learn what emotions are, or to be overly childlike. I have loved a lot of stories in which “robot learns feelings” is a central concept, but personally, I dislike the subtext there that emotion taints logic, or that logic restricts emotion. We can handle both, so why can’t a different kind of mind? See, now I’m on a tangent. This is what always happens when I start talking about robots. I just like them so much.

When Dex meets Mosscap, there’s this conversation that is light and humorous, but which also performs worldbuilding and character development duties. What is the key to pulling off this moment?

Very glad to hear that it works! Personally, I find it useful to read dialogue-heavy scenes aloud several times and tweak them word by word. If something feels awkward to say, or if an expository line sounds clunky, I poke at it until it comes across more naturally. Ultimately, I want my characters to talk the way people talk, and actually hearing what I’m writing down is my favorite tool for figuring out if I’m on the right track.

The other key part of writing scenes like this is asking myself what work the scene is performing for the story as a whole. Do we need to know everything that’s in here? Do new concepts come across clearly to someone who isn’t living in my head, or do I need to shore them up more? It’s just a matter of constantly taking the temperature of a scene as you go.

What are your favorite things about the main characters in A Psalm for the Wild-Built, and do you feel closer to any of them; that is, is there a character you relate to more than others?

Dex and Mosscap are both pieces of myself that I’ve run through multiple layers of filtering. I relate more to Dex, but I would like to be more like Mosscap on most days. Mosscap is better company, I think. In terms of the traits I gave them that make them their own people, I’m fond of Dex’s slightly weary attitude of “well, I guess this is happening now,” and I love writing Mosscap in an existential spin.

What is the heart of this book for you, what do you really want readers to know about it?

The heart of this book is comfort. I intended it as an escape, and hopefully that’s what it will provide. There is nothing in it that can hurt yo u. The POV character in this book makes tea as part of their profession, and that is exactly the vibe I wanted the story to have: something gentle and momentary and soothing that might make the rest of the day a touch easier to tackle.

What else do you have coming up that fans can look forward to?

I just handed in the sequel to A Psalm for the Wild-Built a few days ago. I don’t have a release date for it yet, but that’s on its way. I’m taking a few months now to lie fallow and focus on book launch stuff and chip away at my enormous to-be-read list, and then I’ll be diving into a brand-new novel set in a brand-new place.

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