Let’s start with an introduction: Who is Sam Peters?
Sam Peters is a writer and a… something else that is kind of hard to pin down exactly but right now is somewhere on the boundaries of a mathematician or a physicist (except not the sort who actually pushes the boundaries of anything new) and an engineer (except not the sort who actually makes anything). The sort of technology middleman who might have ended up on the Golgafrincham second ship if real physicists and real engineers ever actually got together. Right now Sam is something of an expert on Fast Fourier Transforms, which should have everyone zoning out right about now so unless you want to discuss the Cooley-Tukey algorithm and optimization of the Split Radix method let’s talk about something else, quick!
Your debut novel, From Darkest Skies, will be published by Gollancz in April. It looks rather fabulous: How would you introduce it to a potential reader? Is it part of a series?
I’d call it a Science Fiction thriller wrapped around a love story. It’s partly Keon’s search for the truth about what happened to his missing wife Alysha and partly about him coming to terms with her loss and the consequences of where his grief has taken him – the recreation of Alysha as a simulacrum wrapped around an Artificial Intelligence. Keon and Alysha were basically spooks so the truth he’s looking for turns out to be a lot more complicated than he first thinks. A lot more complicated and a lot more dangerous.
I’m not sure whether series or serial is the right description but it’s definitely one of those. From Darkest Skies closes its case – by the end Keon knows why Alysha did what she did and has done what needs to be done. The next story is a new case with the same characters: a deep cover spy once controlled by Alysha comes in from the cold but doesn’t know who to trust; someone shoots an eminent scientist in the head three hours after his death; and all as the Magenta Institute is about to finally break in to the wreck of an old spaceship locked under the Antarctic ice and discover whether or not it has dead aliens aboard. On a personal level, Keon has to deal with the consequences of creating the simalcrum of his wife while they both try and work out what her existence means to.
What inspired you to write the novel? And where do you draw your inspiration from in general?
It’s not really a case of one source of inspiration anyway, but sometimes I find that it’s only after writing that I get to see what it was really about. For all its SF trappings, for all its twisty thriller plotting, underneath lies a story about love, loss and grief. Writing about someone struggling to cope with losing a person they loved was perhaps my own way of dealing with exactly the same thing. In part. Why did that sort of story end up wrapped in an SF conspiracy thriller? Partly for practical reasons, I suppose, because that’s where I have enough track record for people to take a chance on me as a novelist; but partly because it was the right setting for the person I lost from my life. The would have appreciated it, both the SF and a good thriller.
I find inspiration comes from a lot of places all at once. Plotlines come from all over the place, little snippets of ideas that come on a daily basis and slowly stick together. I get them all the time and if you want a tip, read or watch any story and after the first five or ten minutes imagine the coolest way it might go. You might be right or you might not – if you’re not then you’ve got yourself the basis for a story of your own. After a while as that collection of ideas grows I find that some fade, some shout for attention and some want to stick together. It really can come from anything. Much the same goes for characters too – anyone, real or fiction who catches your attention, try and nail why they catch your attention. Don’t look for the truth, look for speculation. That will automatically lead you to what interests you, I think.
Theme is a different matter though. I think themes – for me – come from somewhere much more personal. I frequently don’t know what the theme of something will be before I start to write it and yet by the end, there it is. Somewhere deep something needed to come out. Usually, at the end, I can look back and see what it was and why. Usually.
How were you introduced to genre fiction?
When is genre not genre? I think I’d have to say Watership Down when I was about ten. The Hobbit a little later, and then Arthur C. Clark.
How do you like being a writer and working within the publishing industry?
Those are two quite different questions. I both love and hate being a writer. I love it because I I love to tell stories and being paid to do something you’d choose to do anyway is just the bomb. I hate it because I can’t stop. I think the best I’ve managed in the last five years was three weeks. I don’t have a good *reason* to write for a lot of that time but I still had to do it.
Working within the publishing industry as opposed to what? It’s certainly different from other writing professions. As a journalist or a TV writer (and film is much the same I think) you have people peering over your shoulder all the time. You don’t have such complete creative control. Time deadlines are short, you need to produce the next draft in a matter of days or weeks, you get notes from editors and producers and all manner of people wanting to stick their oar in. you have to pay attention to those notes too and accept and address a lot of them and sometimes those notes are useful to making your story better and sometimes they’re not and sometimes they seem to actively undermine the whole point of the story you thought you were telling. Novel writing is different. The buck stops with you. No one peers over your shoulder. You have to manage your own time over the course of a year. If you slack then you can’t make it up with a few days of frantic working. And I can tell you this – however annoying it can be having someone peering over your shoulder all the time, I don’t half miss it when it’s not there. As far as I can tell the publishing industry very much leaves its authors to sink or swim on their own. There’s pros and cons to that.
Do you have any specific working, writing, researching practices?
I spent ages over this question trying to find a clever answer… but no, not really. Write a lot, write when you can, do something every day, always have several stories on the go in different forms and do whatever it takes to force out that first draft. Keep Google and Wikipedia handy. Those are my working practices.
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?
I knew for a very long time that I wanted to make stories. I don’t think even now I mind how I make them. Whatever suits the audience I have to hand, I suppose. But I think the first big transformation was the discovery of role-playing games in the right way; and the right way for me was discovering them through a games master who wanted to tell a story. So it wasn’t just about club the monsters, grab the treasure, count the XP, move on to the next room, this was a story about me! I was part of telling it and I was living it and experiencing it and that was something truly amazing (not in any way hindered by being a socially awkward hormone-raddled teen who kind of wanted feels and soaring passions rather than fumbles in the dark and had no idea how to get them). I was always a big reader and mostly a reader of escapist stuff but this was something new and more intense. I was in the story. I was feeling it and I was it. It felt direct and less second-hand.
I think, looking back, that that was a one-off experience. My first solo adventure and it was a revelation. I wanted to have that again. I tried recreating the sensation by creating gaming stories for other people but they almost never followed the script I had in my head. I started to write the stories as they were supposed (in my head) to have happened. They were rubbish, I was rubbish and most of them were never finished but I think that was when I realised that I wanted to tell stories (not “be an author.” Never that, not then and not now. Tell stories. It’s a different thing).
Do I look back on it fondly? I suppose I do. Fond embarrassment.
What’s your opinion of the genre today, and where do you see your work fitting into it?
Science Fiction? On the screen I think it’s going from strength to strength. We have epic space fantasy in the form of Star Wars (although it would be nice if the one universe wasn’t so dominant) and possibly the Marvel and DC franchises depending on where you draw the line on what’s SF and what isn’t and then we have things like The Arrival and Ex Machina. On TV, the trend seems to be towards darker and grittier. I personally like that and if you’ve read From Darkest Skies and watched Bladerunner I’d like to think it’s clear they’re cut from the same cloth. I don’t know whether it’s just what I choose to watch but AI seems to be on the rise – or at least the blurring of boundaries between human and machine. Westworld, obviously. Altered Carbon too, I suspect (certainly that blurring lives in the book). If there’s a current trend then I think it’s an inward-looking one led by TV: SF that asks who are we and what does it meant to be human rather than the Star Trek-style of what marvels are out there and what could we become. FDS certainly fits into the former.
Books I’m not so sure. You probably know better than I do. I have the sense that SF is contracting and maybe losing its wilder edges to more commercial stories. I’d be very happy to be wrong about that.
Do you have any other projects in the pipeline, and what are you working on at the moment?
I’m under contract for three books, which I understand is fairly usual. All three are set on Magenta and were originally intended as standalone SF thrillers using the same cast of characters. I’m working on the third one at the moment. There’s also the possibility of a TV series based on From Darkest Skies so I’m putting work into that too, although it’s very early days so I’m not holding my breath. I don’t know whether the same applies to novels but a lot more TV shows flicker into early ideas of life than actually make it to the screen.
I’m also working on another TV show under a different name but I can’t say much about that at the moment except that it’s a historical mystery, has no SF in it at all and comes with the same caveat! Here’s another big distinction between writing novels and writing for the screen: you can do a hell of a lot of paid work writing for the screen and never see a single scene make the light of day!
What are you reading at the moment (fiction, non-fiction)?
I’m reading Stamping Butterflies by John Courtney Grimwood, The Fifteen Lies of Harry August by Claire North, Blackwing by Ed McDonald and Before They Are Hanged by Joe Abercrombie (which I somehow stopped reading the first time around and I have no idea why). The last non-fiction I read was SPQR by Mary Beard.
If you could recommend only one novel to someone, what would it be?
Dragon Queen. The most underrated fantasy novel of the last decade.
What’s something readers might be surprised to learn about you?
That I’d edit the Wikipedia page on the Split Radix method if I was allowed to but I’m not.
What are you most looking forward to in the next twelve months?
Realistically it might all come to nothing but I doubt anyone else is as excited about the prospect of FDS reaching the small screen than I am so: with my optimism hat on, a commission from Netflix!
Follow the Author: Goodreads, Twitter
From Darkest Skies is out now, published by Gollancz in the UK. You can read an excerpt form the novel here. Here’s the synopsis:
A high-concept science fiction thriller wrapped around a love story, a man’s search for the truth about his dead wife, and his relationship with the artificial intelligence he has built to replace her. Set in a future where the aliens came, waged war, and then vanished again, this is a striking new voice in science fiction.
After a five year sabbatical following the tragic death of his wife and fellow agent Alysha, Keon Rause returns to the distant colony world of Magenta to resume service with the Magentan Intelligence Service. With him he brings an artificial recreation of his wife’s personality, a simulacrum built from every digital trace she left behind. She has been constructed with one purpose — to discover the truth behind her own death — but Keon’s relationship with her has grown into something more, something frighteningly dependent, something that verges on love.
Cashing in old favours, Keon uses his return to the Service to take on a series of cases that allow him and the artificial Alysha to piece together his wife’s last days. His investigations lead him inexorably along the same paths Alysha followed five years earlier, to a sinister and deadly group with an unhealthy fascination for the unknowable alien Masters; but as the wider world of Magenta is threatened with an imminent crisis, Keon finds himself in a dilemma: do his duty and stand with his team to expose a villainous crime, or sacrifice them all for the truth about his wife?