Interview: Elizabeth Bonesteel

Elizabeth Bonesteel is the author of Breach of Containment, just out from HarperCollins. Breach of Containment is the third book in her Central Corps SF trilogy (The Cold Between, Remnants of Trust, and Breach of Containment).

Did you have a playlist for Breach of Containment? (I usually ask writers this question, but you are the first to have already answered the question. I notice that you have playlists for The Cold Between and Remnants of Trust, as well as a theme song for The Cold Between on your Website.

I’ll confess I tend to use publication dates as an excuse to throw playlists together, just because it’s fun to do. I don’t usually listen to music while I’m writing, but on the occasions I do, I go for instrumental stuff, usually trance or deep house. I listened to Nick Warren’s Renaissance Part 4 a lot while writing Breach; it’s got a nice mix of melodic stuff and general weirdness. Weird trance stuff is great for the imagination!

There are two more conventional songs that come to mind that fit thematically with Breach, and they’ll both be on the playlist: Snow Patrol’s “This Isn’t Everything You Are” (yes, I am shamelessly sentimental), and KT Tunstall’s “Uummannaq Song.”

The theme song for The Cold Between was written by Richard Tunley, who’s been my writing buddy for years, and is a phenomenal musician on top of everything else. All of his work is astonishing, and when he put that together for me I was absolutely floored. It’s a beautiful piece, and it captures an aspect of that book just perfectly.

Breach of Containment is the third book in a trilogy that you began with The Cold Between, followed by Remnants of Trust. When you first submitted The Cold Between, how much of the succeeding books did you have plotted?

When the book went on sub with publishers, it was pitched as having “series potential” — I’d started Remnants, but only just, because I was wary of getting into a sequel for a book I might not be able to sell. When we started getting responses, editors started asking about my plans for what happened next, so I had to give them what were essentially my high-level notes for the longer story arc. Which worried me a little! I can look at The Cold Between and see the seeds of all of it, but at the time there was a lot I didn’t yet have set in stone. In retrospect, I suspect what was most important to them was that I had more ideas than what was in the one finished book.

Were there any surprises for you as you wrote Breach of Containment? Character developments or plot twists that you didn’t expect?

One of my characters — Dallas, who we meet in the prologue — ends up with a much bigger role in the story than I’d intended. After a couple of drafts, it became clear to me I needed another POV character, and because Dallas was already alive in my head, they were the obvious choice. In retrospect I wish I’d have thought of the idea earlier; I grew quite fond of Dallas, and I would have liked to spend more time with them than I was able to in the end.

As to the plot — more than once I’ve had a small plot point grow and wind itself inextricably into the rest of the story, and that’s what happened here. And I can’t tell you what that plot point is! (I’m not trying to be coy — Breach is a tough book to talk about without spoilers.) But it’s a wonderful experience for me as a writer when that happens. Generally it means the book has taken on a life of its own, and it gets much easier to write after that.

What’s your writing process like?

When I first come up with a story, the characters and the universe grow together. I start with one scene, and I think about how my characters get to this point, and where they’ll go afterward. At some point a beginning and an ending emerge. From that a few interim milestones evolve naturally, and somewhere in all of that mess I start writing it down.

I usually use the NaNoWriMo-sanctioned “start at the beginning and write to the end without stopping” method, with one difference: I always write the end, or a scene near the end. The ending of Remnants was written almost immediately after the prologue; that particular scene was always very clear in my head. With Breach, it wasn’t the ending, but a scene close to the end. Having a fixed destination makes it much easier for me to stay on track.

Occasionally I’ll do a little outlining, but never more than two or three chapters ahead. When I revise, I’ll outline the current draft so I can see repetition and continuity errors. But I can’t outline the whole thing ahead of time — too many details change while I’m composing.

What’s your writing environment like (your work area and tools of choice)?

I write on my MacBook using Scrivener, although when I need to loosen up a little I’ll work in Pages (weirdly, it feels like less pressure). I use Word when I have to exchange files with someone; it’s an industry standard, and they’ve made some real improvements lately, but I’m never all that comfortable in it.

Usually I write in my living room, late morning into early afternoon. I’ll occasionally decamp to Barnes and Noble, especially if I need focus and am feeling like being at home is a distraction. (Also, there is espresso there.)

I loved reading your memories of seeing Star Wars in a theater as a kid. Do you plan to see Star Wars: The Last Jedi in a theater?

Ooo, that’s a hard question. I’m deeply skeptical of Star Wars movies these days, for no other reason than I’m still cranky about I–III and some of those “revisions” Lucas did to the original three films. I thought The Force Awakens was uneven, and I’m unconvinced that The Last Jedi is going to use the parts I liked rather than the parts I didn’t. On the other hand, I loved Rogue One, despite all of the coincidences and serendipitous single points of failure, and I love the idea of Old and Cynical Luke.

So yeah, probably. I may complain afterward, but they’ll suck that $15 out of me. And I’ll never stop loving the franchise.

What have you read lately (in the last year or so) that you really liked?

I’d say there are two that stuck out for me last year: one was Emmi Intarata’s The Weaver, which felt very Earthsea without actually ripping off Earthsea. It’s quiet and beautiful and moody, and one of the few books I can imagine reading over and over. It’s a really satisfying read.

The other was John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War, which of course is an older book, but I hadn’t sat down to read it until this year. Everyone always talks about how funny it is, and how vivid the worldbuilding, and both of those things are true. But when I finally opened it up, I was in tears by the third page. It’s a deeply sentimental story, and that comes through even with all the humor. I’m also fascinated by the structure of it — the first 2/3 of the book is essentially exposition, but it’s so good and so entertaining that you don’t even notice. It’s an example of doing everything you’re not supposed to do in a narrative and ending up with an amazing result.

Do you have any particular favorite books about writing?

I used to collect books on writing. The last one I remember reading was Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. I remember a section that pointed out reading books about writing was not actually writing, and I suppose I took that to heart! I do think it’s important, though, to be reminded that writing is a craft, a skill that you can hone and improve, whether you’ve been writing for decades or are just taking your first crack at it. I’ve got Stephen King’s On Writing on my TBR pile, so I may start collecting again.

Is there a question that you’ve never been asked that you’d really like to answer?

There was a wee bit of controversy around The Cold Between (the first book). In a few corners of the Internet (and one prominent blog), it somehow got tagged as a romance novel, and as a result there was some backlash since the story doesn’t resolve in a romance-genre-appropriate fashion. But nobody ever contacted me to discuss the issue. So I guess the question I’d like to answer is:

“What’s the deal with that romantic subplot, Liz?”

In my life, I’ve been in love with multiple people, but I only married one of them (the right one, of course). I wanted this book to include an important, healthy, loving relationship that was not destined to last forever, because relationships like that exist and are important to many people’s lives. And yes, that’s a spoiler, but I’m still surprised that readers can get through Chapter 3 and believe that these two people will somehow wind up together. To me the endgame of that aspect of the story is never a mystery.

None of this is particularly controversial, of course. Strong romantic subplots in SFF are legion. Had the book not been mis-genred here and there, I doubt anyone would have remarked on it at all. It does please me that Trey is a character people connect with; I have great affection for him myself. I left him in the right place at the end of that book. I know what he’s been up to since, and if it ever makes sense, I’ll write about him again.

What’s your favorite charity?

I’d probably say the SPLC or the ACLU, because unless people can be heard, it’s impossible to make changes in the world.

Elizabeth Bonesteel began making up stories at the age of five, in an attempt to battle insomnia. Thanks to a family connection to the space program, she has been reading science fiction since she was a child. She lives in central Massachusetts with her husband, daughter, and various cats. Elizabeth Bonesteel has a Website, and a blog. You can also find Elizabeth Bonesteel on Facebook and Twitter.  

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