Debunking myths on genetics and DNA

Monday, March 17, 2014

Speculative fiction writer Susan Kaye Quinn talks about science, writing, and how she took control of her writing career

I'm really excited about my guest today. Being a scientist myself, I find that (1) there's not enough science out there; (2) the little you do find is rarely accurate. I don't know if you ever noticed, but Dan Brown put a blob of antimatter in a small canister that fit into a helicopter. In real life it would take magnets the size of a building to keep that amount of anti-matter from annihilating (of course, real life is boring while fiction is not).

All this to say that I get very excited when I find a real scientist writer!

Susan Kaye Quinn is a speculative fiction writer and a rocket scientist. Yes, you read that right. Susan has a bunch of engineering degrees (B.S. Aerospace Engineering, M.S. Mechanical Engineering, Ph.D. in Environmental Engineering) and when she was wearing her "rocket scientist" hat, she got to design aircraft engines and study global warming. How cool is that?

I got in touch with Susan after reading her non-fiction book Indie Author Survival Guide, which Autumn recommended after hearing about my own adventures in the publishing world. And Autumn was right: this book was a mind opener for me. I'll write more about this in a future post, but for now all I'll say is that I found my own experience so many times in that book that I almost cried. And when I was done reading the Indie Author Survival Guide, I went back to Susan's website and browsed her incredible body of work, which includes: the young adult science fiction trilogy The Mindjack, the adult future-noir serial Debt Collector, the middle grade fantasy Faery Swap, and her latest work, the first book in an East Indian steampunk fantasy romance, Dharian Affairs.

Wow! The best part is of course that Susan infuses her books with lots of fun, scientific concepts. The Faery Swap, for example, features the most famous equation of all: E=mc^2. I'm half way through reading Faery Swap and I've already recommended it to all my friends with school-aged kids.

Welcome to CHIMERAS, Susan!

EEG: Besides being an aerospace, mechanical, and environmental engineer, you worked for NASA and the National Center for Atmospheric Research, where you "designed aircraft engines and studied global warming" -- were all these concepts and projects already tickling your imagination, giving you ideas for new stories, or was it only later on that you started writing?

SKQ: I started writing about 5 years ago, well after I stopped working in engineering (and stayed home with my three boys). So the stories came later, but my science work gave me a rich background of experiences that definitely inform my stories. Things like getting airsick-worthy glider lessons from a world-class test-pilot. And designing low-emissions aircraft engines for GE, which involved climbing around testing chambers and turning wrenches as well as running high end computer analyses. And living just outside NASA Langley for nine months in a tiny apartment away from home, finishing my Ph.D. research on the effect of aircraft particulates at high altitudes on global warming simulations. All the tech work was great fun, but now I invent with words instead‚ and love every minute of it.

EEG: Your young adult science fiction trilogy Mindjack is a 2012 top 5 "Best Indie Book" finalist -- congratulations!
Sixteen-year-old Kira Moore is a zero, someone who can't read thoughts or be read by others. Zeros are outcasts who can't be trusted, leaving her no chance with Raf, a regular mindreader and the best friend she secretly loves. When she accidentally controls Raf's mind and nearly kills him, Kira tries to hide her frightening new ability from her family and an increasingly suspicious Raf. But lies tangle around her, and she's dragged deep into a hidden world of mindjackers, where being forced to mind control everyone she loves is just the beginning of the deadly choices before her.
It's quite challenging to write about a world based on telepathic powers: what was the idea that originally inspired your story? And what did you find most challenging when writing/outlining the story?

SKQ: The original story spark came from a single image that popped into my head as I was trying to sleep: a girl who couldn't read minds in a classroom filled with mindreaders. She was achingly isolated and the room was deathly silent. That's literally all I started with, but I couldn't get it out of my head! The hard part came in writing a story where spoken language was rarely used. I thought, "How am I going to write an entire book in italics??" Fortunately, the mindjackers came along in my story and insisted on speaking aloud -- because jacking into someone's head just to talk was a bit rude.

EEG: After reading (and loving) your Indie Author Survival Guide I feel compelled to ask you to tell the readers of CHIMERAS a bit of how you turned to indie publishing instead of traditional publishing.

SKQ: I pursued traditional publishing for a while -- I published with a small press, queried/shelved a middle grade novel, and then queried Open Minds, the book that I would eventually pull from agents to self-pub. When I went indie in late 2011, it was just starting to go mainstream. I watched these authors take control of their writing careers, forging their own paths, and I realized, "That is so ME." I've had great success with it, but even more importantly, it liberated what and how I write, and what projects I consider taking on and why. The freedom of indie just can't be overstated. For example, today I'm taking a smidgen of time between projects to write a flash-fiction piece for a friend's charity anthology. Later, I'll publish it myself. I'll likely give it away for free, as an entry into one of my other series. That's just a small example of the kind of things I can easily say "yes!" to because I have the freedom to create and publish whatever I like.

EEG: Let's talk about science and editors. I had a very similar experience to yours: one editor, in fact, read the whole book to the end (I know she did because she had comments on the ending) and then told me that "I can't acquire everything I love" ... Does it mean that to publishers science equals non-salable? Is science forbidden from ever getting into fiction because they believe it throws readers off?

SKQ: I just queried the one middle grade book, while it sounds like your experience is more extensive. Steven Hawking (I think?) famously said he was told by publishers that one equation in a book would halve the sales, so yes, I believe the bias is there and it's stronger in children's books, partly because editors take less chances with those overall. And this is precisely where indie books can fill the gap. As one of my fellow MG SF authors

Dale: "Indie authors create books just as exciting and polished as the big publishers produce, but we don't have the overhead, so we can fill in the gaps."

This is so true, and honestly, I don't think a lot of industry types would even disagree with this now. They know they can't publish everything (for whatever their biased reasons are about what they think can sell and can't). I wish indie had a better way to reach MG readers (it's still a tough slog), but I also think that day is coming. For now, it's great that these books are simply AVAILABLE.

EEGI totally agree. We have the means to make it happen. The Internet is a great tool, if used wisely. I like what you said in your email, "there's more of us [scientist writers] than I ever suspected." Don't you think that, contrary to popular belief, it takes a lot of creativity to be a good scientist?

SKQ: I think it takes creativity to be a good scientist (even more to be a great one) -- but I think the nature of science (and engineering and, really, just the normal machinations of life) tends to quash creativity. I believe everyone is creative by nature, so I don't think people who are drawn to the sciences or engineering are less creative to start out. But I do believe that some of the very detail-oriented work that is required in science tends to make it difficult to step back and take the more creative leaps. And I don't think we teach creativity to science types -- one can argue we don't teach creativity at all, but it does need room and encouragement for expression. There's a fascinating look at this phenomenon with Candle problem -- a cognitive test that shows how the initial setup of the problem is presented has a huge effect on the ability of people to perceive the solution to the problem. The highly creative top 10% will see the creative solution no matter how it's presented; but the other 90% can be induced to think more creatively just by rearranging the setup, i.e. pulling them out of the details of a solution to see the broader picture. The nature of technical work is to live in the details, so I think tech types have to stretch differently to really bring creativity into their work. But those are exactly the kind of knowledge workers we need going forward in this fast-evolving world! Which is one reason I'm so passionate about encouraging children (my own, and through my writing) to be creative in all things.

EEG: This brings me to my next question. Being myself a mathematician by training, I love what you did with your book "Faery Swap": folding math into fiction (and getting kids excited about math) is another very challenging task, and again, you pull it off beautifully. You are not only teaching math and how useful it is, but you are also spreading out a very important message: that a lot of creativity goes into math and science. What inspired you to write this book? Did you plan to have the math folded into the story, or did it just happen as you were writing it?

SKQ: I planned for Faery Swap to be entirely fantasy and magick! Somehow Einstein's theory of relativity and dimensional travel showed up. I just shrugged my shoulders and gave in to the idea that everything I write will have some kind of science elements in it! But once the book was written, I realized the deeper message that it was communicating (Knowledge is Power when Math is Magick), and I thought it would be a great message to bring into the classroom. So I worked with a teacher-friend to create some Common Core aligned teaching materials plus a virtual author visit video talking about the power of equations (in the story and in real life), as well as a jazzy book trailer to get kids excited about the adventure in the story. Stories are an ancient and sneaky way to deliver important information about life -- to kids and grownups alike. I hope that some of my love for math and creativity will rub off on the kids who read Faery Swap.

Thanks so much for being with us today, Susan. Susan has just released her last novel, Third Daughter, the first in the Dharian Affairs series, and is already hard at work on the second book. Find out more about her incredible body of work by visiting her at

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