06 May 2013

Interview: Christian Schoon (Zenn Scarlett)

Zenn Scarlett is a bright, determined, occasionally a-little-too-smart-for-her-own-good 17-year-old girl training hard to become an exoveterinarian. That means she’s specializing in the treatment of exotic alien life forms, mostly large and generally dangerous. Her novice year of training at the Ciscan Cloister Exovet Clinic on Mars will find her working with alien patients from whalehounds the size of a hay barn to a baby Kiran Sunkiller, a colossal floating creature that will grow up to carry a whole sky-city on its back.

But after a series of inexplicable animal escapes from the school and other near-disasters, the Cloister is in real danger of being shut down by a group of alien-hating officials. If that happens, Zenn knows only too well the grim fate awaiting the creatures she loves.

Now, she must unravel the baffling events plaguing her school, before someone is hurt or killed, before everything she cares about is ripped away from her and her family forever. To solve this mystery – and live to tell about it – Zenn will have to put her new exovet skills to work in ways she never imagined, and in the process learn just how powerful compassion and empathy can be.

Today I have the honor of sharing with you all an interview with author Christian Schoon, who wrote a rather fabulous sci-fi novel called Zenn Scarlett.  He was kind enough to satisfy my curiosity about his work:

It says in your biography that you’ve been “an unrepentant fan of science fiction and fantasy ever since discovering the tales of Edgar Rice Burroughs in the fifth grade.” Can you share with us some more of your favorites that inspired you?
Well, this could turn into a LOT of sharing… I’m indebted like crazy to all the authors who transported me mind and soul into their amazing worlds. But to pick a few, there are old-school masters like Bradbury, Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke, Dick, Poul Anderson (not to be confused with Frederik Pohl), LeGuin, E.A. van Vogt, childhood fave Andre Norton and the marvelous T.H. White. More recently, Pullman’s His Dark Materials series is top-of-list. And in the camp of more recent, just plain wicked-good reads, there’s Mike Mullins’ epic Ashfall series, Beth Revis’ Across the Universe journies, E.C. Myers’ twisty-good Fair Coin, Kim Curran’s Shift books, A.E. Rought’s horror-ific Broken and upcoming Tainted, Sean Cummings delightful Poltergeeks (some of these from my own fab publisher Strange Chemistry).
Zenn is an exovet and her tale is steeped in animal biology and alien ethics. How much of what went into Zennwas inspired by your 150-year-old Iowa farmstead armed with its horse herds, numerous cats, a dog, and three ferrets?
My farmstead was really Zenn’s birthplace. It was through working with, nursing-back-to-health and generally getting to know all our animals here that jump-started the book. I’d lived in Los Angeles for a decade and written scripts for a number of teen/tween genre TV shows, so that primed the idea-pump. Then, after moving back to the Midwest (where I grew up) and acquiring our mini-zoo, I also started volunteering with animal welfare groups in our area. That put me into close contact with rescued animals from horses and donkeys to black bears, mountain lions, emus, pythons, alligators and other needy critters. So, link that life experience with my deep-flowing sci fi nerdness and Zenn Scarlett is basically a logical end point.
How long did it take roughly, from the birth of the idea to having the manuscript sent off for printing, for Zenn Scarlett to be written?
Years. After the move from LA, I was still working full-time doing freelance writing for my entertainment industry clients, so when the idea for Zenn first surfaced, I really didn’t have the free time it needed to come to full form. But over time, Zenn nudged and poked at me until I realized I couldn’t ignore her any longer. I cut back on freelance stuff and dove into the world of the Ciscan Cloister Exoveterinary Clinic and training school on Mars. From that point, it probably took me about 18 months, still freelancing part-time, to finish the first draft.
I loved how Zenn Scarlett was rich with complex alien biological terms. How did the creation of those terms, figures, and aliens work? Did they simply come into existence as you were writing, or was it something you worked on extensively before bringing it into your writing?
I’m a writer who tends to go with first impulses. So, if I was at a scene that required a new character, creature, or exotic medical procedure, etc., I would give it a placeholder name, and when I went back to evaluate it, would end up sticking with my first thought. Not in every case, of course, but generally I went with my initial take; an exception might be one of the particularly complex medical bits about half-way through the book. Won’t get spoilery and discuss, but suffice to say that the Mag-genis machine took some thinking through.
Now that Zenn has had her first adventure, what can we expect in the ones to follow?
The sequel to Zenn Scarlett is well underway, and will be published early next year. Don’t want to spill too much, but we’ll be meeting an array of mind-boggling new alien species, visit some dangerous new places and see Zenn’s exovet skills tested beyond her wildest dreams (and fears).
How did you come to start writing? Is it something you’ve done since you were a kid or something you discovered later on?
My mom was an English teacher, and my sister was a big influence on showing me how very cool fiction and poetry were at young age. So, I’ve written stuff in a variety formats since grade school (plenty of it plenty bad in those early days… but I’m trying to get better….)
Out of all the aliens mentioned in Zenn Scarlett, which is your favorite?
I really like both Hamish, the sentient, eight-food beetle-like insectoid sexton at the cloister, and Katie, the little raccoon-sized, sign-language-speaking rikkaset who is Zenn’s close companion. It’s the idea of being able to communicate with a non-human species that appeals to me with these two beings.
What’s your writing environment like?
I write in my home office on a massive desk that I built out of thick, ancient planking scrounged from one of our barns. The office is in one room in our six bedroom, 1870s gingerbread-ornamented Victorian farmhouse on 11 acres of rolling Iowa countryside. I have lots of animal company rotating through to keep me company during the day.
And finally, what are three things readers may not know about your writing process?
I have a large, fully equipped costumes-and-alien-prosthetics closet in my office and dress up in authentic versions of the outfits and body-forms of whatever character I’m working on at the moment. OK, that’s a lie, but it would be fun to try sometime.

Let’s see… I almost always complete my novel-writing sessions for the day before noon; afternoons are for visiting blogs (like this one) or attending to farm/animal chores. I love being outside and working with my hands, so use the afternoon outdoorsy thing as a reward for putting in my time at the novel-doing.

I don’t have a word-count target when I write. I just go until some cog in my frontal lobes clicks into another little cog that activates a little neon sign reading “Done. Time to stop ‘cause all the good stuff for the day has been used up.”

And, I consume massive amounts of tea every morning; a special blend of English and Irish breakfast teas brewed to black, spoon-melting intensity. With a splash of milk, please.
You can find other loveliness on all the stops of the Zenn Scarlett blog tour.  Full list here.