Let’s start with an introduction: Who is TJ Berry?
I write science fiction, fantasy, and horror from Seattle. I’m originally from the New York City area, so I have a lot of opinions on the subject of pizza. I’m a survivor of the 2016 six-week Clarion West Writer’s Workshop — also known as sci-fi summer camp. In a previous life, I owned a bakery, and one of my enduring skills is whipping up a batch of cookie dough from scratch in under three minutes. That comes in handy more often than you’d imagine.
Your next novel, Five Unicorn Flush, will be published by Angry Robot in May. The sequel to Space Unicorn Blues, how would you introduce it to a potential reader?
Five Unicorn Flush picks up after the magical Bala have disappeared from the universe and the authoritarian Reason regime has devolved into chaos. All of the cheap labor and magical faster-than-light fuel that humans exploited to fuel their intergalactic expansion are gone. One angry man, Cowboy Jim Bryant, has decided to take the last remaining faster-than-light warship and hunt down the Bala and return them to captivity. His former partner and current nemesis, Captain Jenny Perata, is hot on his tail, keen on stopping him.
And what can fans of the first book expect from this sequel?
This book has more of what readers loved about Space Unicorn Blues — more “Jenny Perata” rescues (which never go well), more larger-than-life space battles, and more of the wry con-woman Ricky Tang. And, as a bonus to all this intergalactic adventuring, there’s the cutest little unlikely love story tucked into the novel.
What inspired you to write the novel and series? And where do you draw your inspiration from in general?
The series sprang forth as a fully-formed idea one night after a tense little exchange with my husband, who said I would sell more stories if I made them “less weird.” He meant well, but to spite him I vowed to write the weirdest book I could imagine — unicorns in space, their horns powering faster-than-light starships carved out of astroids, and staffed by families of dwarves living in the walls. The book was bizarre and fun… and to my surprise I sold it.
How were you introduced to genre fiction?
It was a complete accident. My mother had tossed a paperback book into the kitchen trash in disgust. Curious, ten-year-old me dug it out and started reading. It was a Stephen King novel — pretty sure it was Cujo — I was terrified, but also hooked on genre fiction forever.
How do you like being a writer and working within the publishing industry?
I’ve always wished for the opportunity to do what I love and what I’m good at, and at the same time get paid for it. So many people don’t get the chance to follow their dream — I’m incredibly grateful. I’m the public face that goes with the book, but there are a dozen people behind the scenes who also work just as hard to make a simple story into a tangible book. All of them help me produce the best work possible.
Do you have any specific working, writing, researching practices?
I love process! One example is that I intentionally draft quickly and revise slowly. My goal is to get what I call the “zero draft” written down in the shortest amount of time possible. In that iteration of a book, anything goes. I write out of order, add and subtract characters, test out tenses, and try out the most far-fetched premises. It becomes clear very quickly which scenes are a joy to write and which are a slog. This is how I find the heart of the story and the “voice” of a book. I take that bizarre and disjointed draft and outline it, distilling it down to a coherent story arc.
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?
My first attempt at writing fiction was in grade school — I’d become smitten with Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books and I started writing them new adventures. I guess you could call it early fanfiction. I think I did a pretty good job for a fourth grader, but I didn’t entertain serious ideas about being a writer until I was much older and disillusioned with my career at the time.
What’s your opinion of the genre today, and where do you see your work fitting into it?
I am so in love with the shimmering array of genre stories out in the world today. If you can dream it, someone is writing it. There are so many diverse stories and own voices stories that are thoughtful, exciting, and full of adventure. It feels as if we’re in a renaissance of speculative fiction. As someone who grew up reading Asimov, Anthony, and Hubbard, I’m familiar with where our genre has been. I see my work in conversation with those older stories in the canon, building on those early ideas about “what could be” and bringing a sense of fun to the future while still ensuring that new points of view are being heard.
Do you have any other projects in the pipeline, and what are you working on at the moment?
There’s always another book to be written and one more story to tell. In my next novel, I’m bringing the scope of the story down from the interstellar to the intensely personal. It’s quite a challenge to go from writing battle scenes in orbit to marinating in the thoughts of one character for most of a novel. I always want the next thing I do to be a stretch, and this is definitely the hardest project I’ve taken on so far.
What are you reading at the moment (fiction, non-fiction)?
I was lucky enough to get an advance copy of Chuck Wendig’s Wanderers, which is just masterful in its storytelling. I’m also reading a few books on screenwriting. It’s not easy to make a living as a writer — the most successful colleagues I know have diversified into comics, television, films, and tie-ins. It’s not wise to have all of your career eggs in one basket.
If you could recommend only one novel or book to someone, what would it be?
Right now I’m on a Maria Semple reading kick. Her writing is fast, intense, and cinematic. A certain sparkling quality of her prose really resonates with me. All writers should read Today Will Be Different for a master class in “yes, and” storytelling and fast-paced plotting. Her work is heartfelt and fun.
What’s something readers might be surprised to learn about you?
I’m blushing to admit it, but I really don’t enjoy Tolkien’s work all that much. His writing style is just not my cup of tea. Though I do salute him for bringing elves, dwarves, and wizards to the forefront of fantasy so that I could use them in my own special way. My apologies to him, I guess.
What are you most looking forward to in the next twelve months?
The Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America is hosting Nebula weekend this May where professional genre writers gather for panels, events, and networking. This is my first year attending and I’m very excited to meet all of the incredible authors I’ve only communicated with online. SFWA is a great organization doing a lot of hard work for speculative writers.