Please welcome Rivers Solomon to The Qwillery as part of the of the 2017 Debut Author Challenge Interviews. An Unkindness of Ghosts was published on October 3rd by Akashic Books.
TQ: Welcome to The Qwillery. When and why did you start writing?
Rivers: I’ve been writing stories since at least Kindergarten, I think, one of my earlier efforts winning some silly prize for first graders and put on display at a local mall. That type of encouragement made me keep at it, and I definitely learned to think of myself as a very writerly, literary sort of person. We all get tracked into things, don’t we? At varying points I left and came back, but in college I had a professor who was really amazing and made me believe I could actually make a go at doing it more professionally.
I wish that I could remember all the fanciful tales I concocted in my early elementary years, but they are lost to time, I’m afraid. I do remember a story from middle school I wrote about a kid who wakes up and it turns out that all along the Earth has been flat. Everybody’s talking about it at school and he feels left out, having not watched the news that morning. I distinctly recall he overhears a girl in the hallway say, “If even the Earth is flat, there’s no hope for my chest.”
TQ: Are you a plotter, a pantser or a hybrid?
Rivers: I am a bit of both, so a hybrid—but I suppose everyone’s a hybrid to some extent because it’s impossible to write purely using either method.
I’d say if forced to choose I’d go with plotter. I do not usually let the words take me where they will beyond a few scenes or maybe a few chapters. I like to write purposefully and with meaning. Characters tends develop in a pantsy-fashion. Subplots, too. But I start most projects I write with a sense of the arc.
TQ: What is the most challenging thing for you about writing?
Rivers: I deal with chronic illness, so finding the energy and will to keep at it is definitely difficult for me. Also, I’m quite a meticulous person, in the worst sense of the word, so I will spend hours on single phrases when writing a story. I’m not exaggerating at all. I can’t just let go of the language and get the story out, not matter how hard I try! All that is to say I’m a pretty slow writer unless I happen to catch a manic burst.
TQ: What has influenced / influences your writing?
Rivers: Is it cheating to answer, “the world”? I bet it is. Hmm, let’s narrow it down. I’m definitely heavily influenced by Black Diasporic peoples’ culture, language, food, and religion. Jewish thought and practice. Battlestar Galactica (2004). Star Trek, specifically The Original Series. All sorts of history, from all times and all places. I really love Ursula LeGuin and Zora Neale Hurston and Alice Walker. I think about The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison a lot. A whole lot. Protest movements, now and today. The Russian Revolution, the Black Panthers, the IRA. The Matrix! The aesthetic eye in that trilogy is just next level. Isn’t Zion so beautiful? I like to keep an open mind and let in as much as the world as I can (as much as feels safe to me). I hope people read my work and see the wide world seeping into it.
TQ: Tell us something about An Unkindness of Ghosts that is not found in the book description.
Rivers: There’s a small but present romance in the book that is deeply meaningful to me. There are lots of descriptions of food. There are comic books! There is humor, believe it or not, despite the heaviness of it all.
TQ: What inspired you to write An Unkindness of Ghosts? What appeals to you about writing Science Fiction?
Rivers: When I started it, it was definitely at a time when a lot of really awful things were getting a fair bit of media attention. Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown (and countless other names). I was thinking a lot about queerness and reproductive justice. I was thinking a lot about my ancestors because that’s just something I do sometimes. I’d recently read a poem by Kiki Petrosino called “Ancestors” that still speaks to me and haunts me occasionally. Maps were on my mind. The violence of borders. All of it kind of meshed together, I guess, and the seed of an idea was born. The story has changed so much since I first started it, but it has always been about a young woman who rebels in some way, either for her own safety or that of others.
As far as sci-fi, well I’ve always been quite fond of it. Mostly just because it’s inherently a bit wild and surreal! I’d typically rather read a story that had something strange in it, something different that I’m not likely to encounter in my own real life. I love make-believe. I’m one of those people who eats a bowl of porridge and imagines that they’re on the Nebuchadnezzar eating that protein goop from the Matrix. Head in the clouds, as they say.
TQ: What sort of research did you do for An Unkindness of Ghosts?
Rivers: I had various points where I spent a lot of time trying to figure out the exact theoretical science of everything, but then realized I didn’t care that much and I remembered my favorite kind of sci-fi tended to be more magical sci-fi. I read a bit about fusion reactors, and a friend of mine who studied physics helped me think about designs.
TQ: Please tell us about the cover for An Unkindness of Ghosts?
Rivers: The cover is the protagonist Aster’s likeness against a background of stars. I don’t know the artist, and now I feel terribly bad about the fact! That’s something I’m going to have to look up, and I’m certain I should know. We (me and the editor and design people at Akashic Books) had a fair bit of back and forth before we landed on the final design, and I think it conveys something central about the book: a woman on the edge, a woman torn, a woman at odds with her life and surroundings.
TQ: In An Unkindness of Ghosts who was the easiest character to write and why? The hardest and why?
Rivers: Giselle was the easiest to write because I think she has very few inhibitions. It was always easy to figure out what she might do because she’s the sort that generally does the first thing to come to mind. Aster and Theo, the other two main characters, are much more controlled, I think. They don’t always necessarily behave in consistent fashions because life is a puzzle, and they’re trying to figure out what’s the best move forward.
The hardest to write was a character called Aint Melusine, because I think older Black women are often written in really narrow and limiting ways. There are a few ‘types’ out there. Mammies, basically, or really matronly, kind women who love to cook and sing, and there often isn’t much more to them than that. I was hyper aware of making her feel full and complete and also very complicated. I’m not sure if I 100% achieved it but it was definitely something I worked hard to at least make a go at.
TQ: Why have you chosen to include or not chosen to include social issues in An Unkindness of Ghosts?
Rivers: I think social issues are just life, really, so including them is not really different than talking about the weather or the time of day or the year. There are certain populations who feel social issues more because they are more personally affected by them. Perhaps they themselves are the ‘social issues’ depending on point of view. But that seems like a cop out; we’re all wrapped up in it one way or another. For example, the unequal distribution of wealth and power is a social issue, but like, either you’re a person with a lot of wealth or you’re a person with not a lot of wealth, and whatever side of the coin you’re on, it’s a social issue and you play a part in it.
TQ: Which question about An Unkindness of Ghosts do you wish someone would ask? Ask it and answer it!
Rivers: I don’t necessarily have one question I wish people would ask, but of course I have a lot of random thoughts about the book that people will probably never think to ask about! Here’s one:
What is your favorite non-canon romantic pairing?
Theo and Giselle. They are such complete and utter opposites but I think they both have a very mystical and apocalyptic way of viewing the world that would lead them to shared interests and goals.
TQ: Give us one or two of your favorite non-spoilery quotes from An Unkindness of Ghosts.
There was an excitement coming from Giselle. She was standing on the edge of a new world and so ready to jump. How Lucifer felt upon leaving Heaven. He didn’t fall. He dove.
TQ: What's next?
Rivers: The world is wide open at the moment, and I’m on so many paths I really can’t say exactly where I will end up!
TQ: Thank you for joining us at The Qwillery.
An Unkindness of Ghosts
Akashic Books, October 3, 2017
Trade Paperback and eBook, 340 pages
Aster has little to offer folks in the way of rebuttal when they call her ogre and freak. She’s used to the names; she only wishes there was more truth to them. If she were truly a monster, she’d be powerful enough to tear down the walls around her until nothing remains of her world.
Aster lives in the lowdeck slums of the HSS Matilda, a space vessel organized much like the antebellum South. For generations, Matilda has ferried the last of humanity to a mythical Promised Land. On its way, the ship’s leaders have imposed harsh moral restrictions and deep indignities on dark-skinned sharecroppers like Aster. Embroiled in a grudge with a brutal overseer, Aster learns there may be a way to improve her lot—if she’s willing to sow the seeds of civil war.
RIVERS SOLOMON graduated from Stanford University with a degree in comparative studies in race and ethnicity and holds an MFA in fiction writing from the Michener Center for Writers. Though originally from the United States, they currently live in Cambridge, England, with their family. An Unkindness of Ghosts is their debut novel.