Let’s start with an introduction: Who is S.K. Dunstall?
S.K. Dunstall is the pen name for Sherylyn and Karen Dunstall, sisters who live in Melbourne, Australia.
We’ve told stories ever since we can remember. At first, we wrote individually, but even back then we always dipped into each other’s stories to edit them. We gradually came to realize that the stories we worked on together were better than the ones we worked on alone, and were a lot more fun to write.
Your latest novel, Alliance, is published by Ace. The second in your Linesman series, it looks rather interesting: How would you introduce the series to a new reader, and what can fans expect from the second book?
Linesman is classic space opera, although our protagonist, Ean, might not quite be your classic space opera hero. It’s character-based, lighthearted action/adventure with some fun moments.
The Linesman series is about a guy who repairs the lines on spaceships. ‘Lines’ are alien technology, discovered by humans five hundred years prior, and they enable faster-than-light travel, instantaneous communication and a whole slew of other things. Unfortunately for humans, when they discovered the technology there weren’t any aliens around to tell them how to use it, so they’ve worked out what they can. And to be honest, they think they know all about the lines by now. Of course, they don’t.
In book one, another alien spaceship arrives, right at the time when the two main political powers are about to go to war. Our protagonist, linesman Ean Lambert, gets caught up in the discovery of the ship, and in the war.
In Alliance, Ean Lambert is now the leading linesman for the newly-formed New Alliance government. He teams up with Captain Selma Kari Wang as they put together a crew for one of the alien ships. The New Alliance and Gate Union/Redmond are officially at war now and Gate Union will do anything to get their hands on one of the ships, or failing that, on Ean Lambert.
What inspired you to write the novel and series? And where do you draw your inspiration from in general?
A lot of our inspiration comes from talking things out. A sentence, a phrase, a chance remark, something in the news that appeals to one of us. One of the best things about co-writing is that you have two people passionate about the same thing, able to toss ideas off each other. Something one of us says will trigger a response from the other. “That might work.” “What if?” “Yes, and suppose that as a result…”
The ideas sit in our subconscious until somehow they connect. Connect a couple of ideas and a story starts to emerge.
The inspiration for the Linesman series came from us seeing how someone reacted to what was, at the time, unknown technology for them. (A computer mouse, back when the Apple Mac first came out.) They tried to use it, and got it wrong, which generated snickers and contempt from the people demonstrating the technology. That idea sat until we read an article about an old medical treatment, looked down on now as almost barbaric, that ended up saving someone’s foot. We thought, hmm, old technology, new technology, what if…?
Alliance came out of the first book. In book one we’d established a dependency between captains and their ships. Captains stayed with their ship until they died, or were forced out by retirement. So what happened if their ship died before they did? How did they cope?
And we had line seven’s story to tell.
How were you introduced to genre fiction?
It feels like we have always read genre. You could say that Karen’s baby teeth were sharpened on science fiction — Andre Norton, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Alan E Nourse. And quite a few non-fiction science books as well. Sherylyn’s early reading included Australian stories, crime, school books, action books. All were genre. Our favourite TV shows were Dr Who, Blakes 7, and Xena.
Plus we do like action movies. So our writing was always going to end up science fiction and/or fantasy with action.
We love stories that give us a place to escape to, new worlds to explore, new characters we love.
How do you like being a writer and working within the publishing industry?
We love it.
Right now we are learning so much from our agent and editor, both of whom are so good and have a similar vision to ours. They give so much insight, and we are all working together to get the best book possible.
And it’s the best feeling to have a book out there, published, and have these great readers who take the time to reach out and tell you what they feel about your characters.
Do you have any specific working, writing, researching practices?
As far as the research goes, it’s just-in-time. We look it up while we’re writing the story. Mostly specific items we need to know — how far apart do ships need to be? Which part of the brain recognizes music? What do we know about handedness?
As for the writing, we talk a lot. If you count up the hours, we probably talk about a story as much as we write it.
There are two other key working habits that we really like to do — reading aloud and weasel words.
Reading aloud. Because there are two of us we can read the story out loud to hear what it sounds like. It’s amazing what you pick up aurally that you miss when you’re reading. We do this close to the end of the story, when the storyline itself is settled.
Another important thing we have is a list of key words. We call them weasel words, even though technically that’s the wrong term. These are the unnecessary adjectives, pet words, passive words, and everything we know we should clean out. (Tip for newbie writers: making this list was the smartest thing we did. We highly recommend you make your own.) We go through the story at various stages through the writing process looking for these words. It really helps clean up the writing.
When did you realize you wanted to be an author, and what was your first foray into writing? Do you still look back on it fondly?
As kids, even in primary school, we were always telling and writing stories. Sherylyn’s first writing submission memory was in grade five at primary school where she entered a story she had written into the school fete ‘hobbies’ category. She was then so embarrassed as everyone else had creative options, she snuck into the room and withdrew the story before the judging.
Karen never stopped writing and does not remember when it wasn’t something that she did.
We are typical writers and have the proverbial trunk of under-the-bed books, a surprising number of them finished. Looking back on our old stories, some of them are poorly written, but there are still some great ideas in them.
What’s your opinion of the genre today, and where do you see your work fitting into it?
Both of us really love where our genre is at today.
Sure, not all of it is written media, but science fiction and fantasy seem to be on the ascendant. It’s also becoming more accepted in the mainstream.
And look what’s coming out of it: Anne Leckie, N.K. Jemsin, Paolo Bacagalupi, Joe Abercrombie, John Scalzi, Brandon Sanderson, and so many others we haven’t named. Amazing stuff. Even Star Wars reinvented itself and turned out an excellent story last time around.
There are some serious ideas, great worlds and truly memorable characters coming out right now.
We’re also pleased to see more upbeat SFF. They’re the stories we love to read, and the type we love to write. We feel we’re well positioned for a lighter, more fun, version of speculative fiction.
Do you have any other projects in the pipeline, and what are you working on at the moment?
Right now we’re working on the edits for Confluence, book three in the Linesman series.
That’s our last book under contract, so we don’t know what happens after that. Obviously what happens next depends on what our agent can sell.
In the Linesman world we have one story at second draft stage and another partially completed, both with different main characters. That is, not Ean Lambert.
We also have a totally different story (still science fiction) that we both love and can’t wait to get back to.
What are you reading at the moment (fiction, non-fiction)?
We have just finished Winter by Marissa Meyer, the final book in the Lunar Chronicles series. We both took a day off editing to read it. Sherylyn also just re-read Tanya Huff’s Confederation of Valor.
What’s something readers might be surprised to learn about you?
Hard question. Sherylyn plays computer games, but hasn’t played anything more taxing than Runescape since we started writing Linesman. Karen doesn’t play computer games at all.
We don’t agree on everything.
What are you most looking forward to in the next twelve months?
Other than a holiday? We both love cruising, so maybe a cruise. Maybe even a writing cruise, like Writing Excuses, for we’ve a lot to learn still. Or something closer to home if we can’t get the time off work.
Bookwise, getting a completely new book written. We both love to see a story unfold and get really caught up in the whole process of creation and editing and making a story come together.
S.K. Dunstall’s Linesman and Alliance are published by Ace Books, and are out now. For more on the authors’ books and writing, be sure to check out their website, and follow them on Twitter and Goodreads.