We spoke to Becky Chambers, the author of the award-nominated science fiction novel The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and its stand-alone sequel, A Closed & Common Orbit. She also writes nonfiction essays and short stories, which can be found in various places around the internet. Having lived in Scotland and Iceland, she is currently back in her home state of California. She can be found online at otherscribbles.com and @beckysaysrawr.
1. What do you think of the term ‘hybrid writer’, and do you identify with it at all?
I think it’s very cool and makes me sound like some kind of genetic experiment, which I’m down with. I’d say I’m technically a hybrid writer, since I’ve done both self-publishing and the traditional route, but I’m not sure it’s as genuine a fit for me as for others who do both in equal measure. Traditional publishing suits me very well, and I don’t have any upcoming work that I intend to publish on my own. But that may change down the road. I’m very comfy leaving the door open for another self-published project.
2. How did your interest in space science develop? And more specifically your interest in science fiction writing?
Space science I absorbed through osmosis. My mom teaches astrobiology, my dad’s a retired aerospace engineer, my grandfather worked on Apollo. That was just the environment I grew up in. But I was never pushed in that direction. I was always encouraged to explore any field that interested me. Space is just too wonderful to ignore. I couldn’t help but pick up that torch.
As for writing science fiction, there were constant spaceships on TV all through my childhood, and I’ve always loved to write. But it wasn’t until high school that the two finally got smooshed together. I had a very smart teacher who handed me a copy of The Left Hand of Darkness, and it blew my mind wide open. I fell totally in love. That was it for me.
3. You used to live in Iceland. What was that like and has it inspired some of your work?
Iceland’s a second home to me. My in-laws are all there, as are a number of good friends. It is cold and small and beautiful. There are things about it that make me completely insane, and things I think the world could learn a lot from. Living there was a huge influence on my work. I wrote The Long Way from my tiny apartment in Reykjavik, so all the bits about homesickness and cultural misunderstandings and struggling with language were things I pulled straight out of my chest. I’m back in my home state now, but I am different than I was when I left, and I always will be. Some of that entered into A Closed and Common Orbit as well, though in rather different ways. Both Pepper and Sidra are trying to make themselves fit into cultures they weren’t born into. And the book I’m working on now has a sort of expat character that I’m coming at from a different angle than the others. I deal a lot with outsiders. I guess that’s a quality I understand well.
4. What influenced your decision to self-publish and how did that lead to you becoming traditionally published?
I knew from the get-go that traditional publishing would probably be the best fit for me. I did a lot of research into both paths, and I didn’t – and still don’t – have the confidence in self-promotion and marketing that you really need in order to be successful at self-pub. But I funded my writing time for The Long Way via Kickstarter, and when my first go at traditional publishing didn’t work out, I felt I owed it to my backers to give them the book they helped make. Self-publishing was just the right thing to do then, and I learned a lot from that experience. I’m really glad I did it.
Getting from there to traditional publishing was dumb luck more than anything. I met my now-editor at a party at Worldcon in 2014. We recently discovered that we each remember a totally different version of how that evening went, which I find very funny. But the Rashomon effect aside, a few months later she got in touch with me, after having read the book. She asked if traditionally publishing The Long Way was something that interested me. I said yes. I’m really glad I did that, too.
5. What inspired The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet? Do you see yourself in any of the characters?
I grew up with space opera – Star Trek, Star Wars, all that good stuff – but I never saw myself as one of the heroes. I wanted to know what it would be like for an ordinary person to live in an intergalactic future. So I decided to build a space opera and flip the camera around. Instead of focusing on the heroes, we’d focus on the characters walking through the spaceport, the people just trying to get through another day. All the big political and military stuff, that’d be in the background, just like it is for most of us in the real world. We’re aware of big things happening, but we’re more focused on our families, our jobs, what we’re having for lunch. In doing that, I wanted to make the reader feel like a future in space was something accessible, something they could easily imagine themselves within. Space belongs to everybody. I wanted to make a story that underlined that.
There’s a bit of me in all of my characters, though I’m not always conscious of who gets which piece. When I started working on this story back in 2006, I was most like Rosemary, all big-eyed and eager. I think I’ve got more in common with Ashby now. I just want to do good work, take care of my family and be comfy. I’d like to be more like Sissix, but that hasn’t happened yet.
6. What are your three favourite books of all-time, fiction or non-fiction?
The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, Changing Planes by Ursula K. Le Guin and Contact by Carl Sagan.