Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff are the co-authors of The Illuminae Files, a YA sci-fi space opera trilogy like nothing you have seen before (literally, The Illuminae Files reinvents what YA fiction can look like).
Illuminae (the first in the trilogy) topped the New York Times best seller list, and won both the 2016 Inky Award and the Australian Book Industry Awards (Book of the Year for Older Children). Gemina, the second in the trilogy, debuted at #3 on the New York Times in October 2016.
Both Amie and Jay have published other successful YA trilogies. Amie is the co-author of The Starbound Trilogy (with Megan Spooner), and Jay is the author of The Lotus War trilogy, as well as the new Nevernight Chronicles.
You can also check out these behind the scenes videos of the podcast being recorded.
- A. S. Patric, winner of the 2016 Miles Franklin Award, was also influenced heavily by the science fiction he read in his formative years (even though he does not write within the genre).
- Graeme Simsion, another successful writer who does not write science fiction, nevertheless cites the same science fiction influences as Jay and Amie.
- Amie’s favourite book from childhood is The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper, and she is currently reading And I Darken by Kiersten White.
- Beaumaris Books is Amie’s local bookstore.
- Amie started reading science fiction by reading Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke and Robert A. Heinlein, and she knows about Science Fiction Grand Masters (yes, they are a thing).
- Amie also has a writing partnership with Megan Spooner for The Starbound Trilogy.
- Jay loves old school Star Trek, and by that he means the originals written by Gene Roddenberry.
- Jay read the science fiction greats, including Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Series, Frank Herbert’s Dune Chronicles, Piers Anthony, William Gibson, and Philip K. Dick.
- Jay is also reading And I Darken by Kiersten White and has read Slash’s autobiography. He also mentions Abbadon’s Gate by James S. A. Corey, House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski and Night Film by Marisha Pessl.
- Jay and Amie watched Commander Chris Hadfield’s NASA videos filmed in space.
- Jay mentions the literary theory there are only seven stories… If you want to explore that idea, look up The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker.
- And of course, Jay recommends all things Stephen King.
Nic Brasch: Welcome to The Garret. Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff are the biggest thing in Australian literature right now. Technically, they’re writing YA - Young Adult Fiction. But their Illuminae Files series is a brilliant, ground-breaking piece of YA science fiction. Amie and Jay call it Space Opera. I just call it great writing. It’s writing that forces you to forget about the labels and just lose yourself in the story. Their first two books, Illuminae and Gemina are out now, and readers around the world are anxiously awaiting for the finale. It’s my absolute privilege to welcome Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff to The Garret.
Amie Kaufman: Thanks for having us.
Jay Kristoff: Thank you.
Nic: I’m going to start. We’re going to go back a bit because as writers our style and our genres are all influenced by what we’ve read, and what we read. I’m going to start with you Amie. What were you reading and who were you reading when you were 10, when you were 20 and now?
Amie: Gee, good question. When I was 10, I discovered what is still my all-time favourite book, ‘The Dark is Rising’ by Susan Cooper. My primary school librarian told me that is was her desert island book, and I then by coincidence a week later was given my first ever book voucher. So I took it down to my local bookstore, which is still my local bookstore.
Nic: The one in Beaumaris.
Amie: The one in Beaumaris, yep. That was definitely one of my career highlights, seeing my book in their window, because that was the bookshop of my childhood. And, and I loved it. It was a book about an ordinary boy who ended up living, having these magical experiences but still in our world. And I think what fascinated me about that was the idea that I was in the ordinary world and yet I could still have this kind of magical experience.
Amie: And I then moved from that to science fiction, which is kind of weird as neither of my parents read science fiction at all, so I’ve got this big collection of second-hand books that came from… that I picked up for 10 cents. And they’re all out of order and I’d be reading the fourth book in a totally adult science fiction series and somehow making sense of it. But I think one of the reasons that I then went to that was because although I loved reading fantasy, I wanted something that could happen to me. And I was realising that science fiction was a thing that could happen to me, because you know, science.
Nic: Wow, okay.
Amie: So, by the time I was 20 I was reading piles of science fiction. I was reading a lot of like the old-school stuff, and I was beginning to wish that there was more modern stuff.
Nic: So who do you mean by ‘the old-school stuff’?
Amie: Lots of Asimov and Clarke and Heinlein. You know, stuff that, the stuff that’s the foundation of what we write today. And I think I was beginning to notice that there were not many ladies in these books, which was beginning to bother me. Because again if you’re looking for stuff that can really happen to you it helps if you feature as a character.
Nic: And not a lot of them were written by women either.
Amie: Not a lot of them written by women. So I was big into Anne McCaffrey, who was the first ever woman to make the New York Times Best Seller list for a science fiction book. She was the first ever women ever to be named a Science Fiction Grand Master. And I was reading piles of her books, which would then actually lead me into the world of fan fiction. And that’s how I met my first collaborator, and how I started doing a lot of the writing that I did.
Nic: Science fiction still remains your predominant genre for reading?
Amie: Yeah, I do. I read a lot of science fiction these days. I read a lot of fantasy. I read… Most of it is YA, but not all. And I also read a lot of romance as well these days.
Nic: Jay, what about you?
Jay: When I was 10 I was reading Stephen King, which probably says a lot about me and the way I turned out in the end. My mother used to take us grocery shopping and there was a newsagent right next door to the grocery store. And she would drop me off while she went in and did the grocery shopping and I would walk down the book aisle. This was in the eighties – because I’m pretty old – and Stephen King was kind of King back then – pardon the pun – and he had his own whole rack in the bookstore and I would sit down in front of the Stephen King books and pick one up from the shelf and sit there in the aisle and read it. And the owner, I wish I knew this guy’s name as I would thank him now, because he never once questioned me or told me that this wasn’t a library, this is a bookstore.
Jay: So I’d sit there and read Stephen King novels and at the end of the hour my mother would come back and pick me up and I would take the bus ticket out of my pocket and rip off a tiny piece of it and stick in the page at the point where I was reading and take my copy – because it was my copy, even though I never paid for it – and hide it at the back of the stack so no one would come in the intervening week and buy my copy so then when I came back next week I’d reach to the back of the stack and pick up where I left off reading.
Nic: Fast forward a couple of decades, you’re now going into bookshops and putting your book that you’ve written at the front rather than the back.
Jay: That’s exactly right. I’ve done that a couple of times.
Nic: Haven’t we all.
Jay: So yeah, Stephen King was where I started. When I was 20 I was in a band, I was living in a band house and my drummer was a huge science fiction fan. I’d read a lot of sci-fi when I was younger –
Nic: Sorry, a drummer who can read?
Jay: Yeah, I know
Nic: That’s amazing.
Jay: He was a rare one. But I had a couple of really huge gaps in my repertoire. I’d never read Asimov, for example, so he turned me on to the Foundation Series. He turned me on to Robert Heinlein again. I’d never read Dune by Frank Herbert. He turned me on to that, and that led me down the rabbit hole to the Dune Series. So yeah, again it was kind of Golden Age science fiction that I hadn’t picked up.
Jay: I fell in love with sci-fi pretty early. I switched from fantasy to sci-fi when I was pretty young, but I grew up reading Piers Anthony and William Gibson and Philip K. Dick, so I had a couple of gaps in my collection that my drummer Pat turned me on to and took me back to science fiction. And nowadays I tend to read as broadly as I can. I do read a lot of YA, but I find if you read solely within your genre you start to sound like everyone in your genre.
Amie: Yeah. You end up cooking with the same ingredients as everyone else, if that’s all you ever put in.
Jay: Yeah, I try and read as widely as I can. I’m reading a book called Abaddon’s Gate at the moment by James S. A. Corey, which is part of the Expanse Series. I’m reading Slash’s autobiography. And I’m also reading a book called And I Darken by Kiersten White, which is a YA book. It’s a gender-flipped Vlad Dracul. Vlad reimagined as a young girl in the court of the Ottoman Sultan rather than a young boy. So that’s kind of a wide political drama almost. It’s fantastic. I’m loving it.
Amie: Yeah, I’m reading that at the moment as well. It’s like a shopping list of the things you’d think would not be commercially successful, and it’s smashing it.
Jay: It’s not at all what I thought it was when I had it described to me. I think it’s unlike any YA book I’ve ever read. Its deeply… It’s a political drama like nothing out there on the shelves. But it’s fantastic.
Nic: Well, you’ve travelled the same journey. Fantasy, science fiction. I can see how and why you’re collaborating. How and when did you meet?
Amie: We actually met because of US tax paperwork. A friend in America once said to me the reason there’s not a lot of comedy about the IRS is that in order to be able to satirise something you have to be able to exaggerate it, and it is already as bad as you can possibly imagine it being.
Nic: You probably also need to understand it, and it’s probably almost impossible to understand, so how can you satirise anything that you can’t understand?
Amie: Oh my goodness. Look, I had to ring them the other day about a tax problem that I’ve been trying to figure out since 2011. And they literally answer the phone by saying, ‘how may I attempt to help you today’.
Amie: Like they already know they probably can’t but they’re willing to give it a crack.
Nic: So, Donald Trump’s right. I mean, you just don’t pay so that you don’t have to bother with the paperwork and administration.
Jay: It’s no wonder he’s been able to get away with it for so many years.
Jay: He’s openly admitting it and still not getting prosecuted for it.
Amie: Yeah. So we met because I was attempting to fill out paperwork to get something called an Individual Tax Identification Tax Number, without which you cannot get you money from America. It just sits there waiting for you, which is absolutely no concern to the IRS whatsoever.
Amie: One of my best friends at work said, ‘hang on a minute I’ve heard these exact same screams of anguish just recently. My friend did this.’ And so he gave me Jay’s email address, and I sent Jay a begging email saying, ‘I will buy you brunch’. I didn’t know at the time that bacon will literally get him to do anything, so, ‘I will buy you brunch if you teach me how to fill this thing out’ is how we met.
Jay: We just started hanging out every month or so. We’d get together for brunch because we were both newbie authors in Melbourne. We didn’t really have a peer group that we knew locally. And so we’d get together and just talk shop. You know, we were both on the verge of being published and would ask questions: ‘My editor keeps using this term, and she’s used it so many times that if I ask now what it means that’s embarrassing so can you tell me what it means.’
Nic: That’s right, so between the two of you, you could go and look it up somewhere.
Amie and Jay: Pretty much.
Jay: So we’d just get together and talk shop. We did that for about six months, and one day Amie came in and said that she’d had a dream that we wrote a book together. She couldn’t remember what the dream was about, but she remembered that is was in email format.
Jay: And we started booting around the idea, and that was the genesis of the entire book.
Nic: That’s fantastic.
Amie: It was just for fun.
Amie: If we did that, what would it be?
Nic: Well, dreams come true.
Jay: Yeah, I mean, we were both working on other series at the same time so it was something that we did… It was purely for fun. You know, we very quickly arrived at the conclusion that the book was just too weird for any publisher to pick up. It was going to be too expensive to produce, and too difficult.
Amie: Yeah, and that wasn’t us having false modesty or whatever. We just thought that this is going to have very high production costs because the pages are different and it’s going to have very high design costs. So just to be realistic, there’s no reason any publisher would pick this up.
Nic: It’s a very brave move by a publisher, because it is an extraordinary book, format-wise.
Jay: It was always going to go one of two ways. It could’ve just been too crazy for anyone to touch, or just crazy enough that everyone mistook it for genius, and us for talented.
Nic: That’s right, and as long as they believe that you’ll keep going. Riding the wave.
Nic: Before we talk about how you approach things and the craft, let’s talk a little bit about science fiction as obviously it’s so important to you all. Do you think science fiction is about the future, or is it about the now? I mean, when you’re thinking about it, are you trying to incorporate today’s world into the future or are you really trying to foresee the future?
Jay: We’re both huge OG ‘Star Trek’ fans, like old-school Gene Roddenberry. If you look at a lot of those earlier episodes they are analogies for problems that existed in the present tense. You know, if there’s an episode about green people being unfair to blue people, that it is still at its heart a story about racism. So the great thing about original ‘Star Trek’ and a lot of those great old-school science fiction stories was that they were talking about the present tense in the context the future, so you can divorce yourself a little bit from the emotions and the immediacy of the problem and view it in a more analytical, broader sense. That’s what great sci-fi does to us, for us.
Amie: Yeah, it does. It helps us zoom out. So by taking questions and throwing them into the future… And when you’re looking at space opera, like we do, putting them on a grand scale it allows you to ask really complicated questions, as well. A lot of the time you’re a good way into the discussion of that question before you even realise that’s what’s being discussed. And that’s great because you’ve already started to form sympathies and ask questions, and do it in a way that you’d not do it if you were discussing that question today.
Nic: I guess format-wise you’ve sort of traversed the two worlds format-wise, because even though it’s set 500 years in the future you’re using the technology of the present: the emails, the briefing papers and all that sort of stuff. I mean if we go back 500 years and look at technology, things have changed a hell of a lot, and they will in the next 500, so you’re doing that same thing.
Amie: Absolutely, because none of us speaking here and no one listening can imagine what the world will be like in 500 years. I think our tiny minds would explode. So…
Jay: There is a great scene. One of my favourite books in the world is Neuromancer by William Gibson. There’s a great scene in that where Case is walking through an airport, and all the pay phones in the airport ring simultaneously. The thing is there’s no such thing as pay phones in airports anymore; everyone’s carrying their phones in their pocket. That book was written in 1984, I think, so even though it’s a seminal work of science fiction and it was quite visionary in the way in which it looked at computer technology and the internet was going to revolutionise the world, there are still some basic things it gets dramatically wrong.
Amie: Yeah, think of the famous first sentence…
Jay: Yeah, exactly.
Amie and Jay: ‘The sky was the colour of a television tuned to a dead channel.’
Jay: Back in the 80s when you tuned your television to a dead channel it was grey, it was static. But nowadays with digital TV –
Nic: There is no such thing as a dead channel.
Jay: Well, it’s blue. So you read the opening sentence of Neuromancer now and it’s saying that the sky is blue. Fantastic, thanks William.
Nic: I always… When I try and think about the pace of technology I often think back to the Seinfeld episodes and I go, ‘my goodness, they didn’t have social media.’ Yet we still think of it as reasonably up to date.
Nic: They didn’t have social media. They didn’t have mobile phones. What they could’ve done what that sort of stuff. I mean, even that wasn’t around really, or not in common use.
Amie: Exactly. But the thing is the questions remain the same. And so, one of the choices we have to make in writing science fiction is embracing the fact that we are getting what the future will be like wrong, and one of the challenges of writing science fiction is that they are inventing stuff as fast as you can possibly imagine or write it yourself. So that being the case, you just have to accept that okay, email won’t look like email but that’s all we’re going to use because that’s what we can understand.
Nic: Sure. How important is, if it is at all, a mythology in your work and an understanding of ancient mythology or stories? Does that play any part at all in the conception of ideas, or as you go along, plot points, character points… in any way, shape or form?
Amie: It certainly does for me. We’ve never talked about this. I’ll be interested to see what Jay says.
Amie: I mean my very first book, These Broken Stars, actually came out of Orpheus and Eurydice. It was us asking ourselves the question, ‘what would’ve happened if Orpheus had had enough faith to lead her out of the underworld after all? What would it have taken for him to be able to not look back and get her all the way to safety?’ So, I love looking at stuff like that for inspiration. And I think, I would say a lot of the stuff we write references modern-day mythology, or more recent mythology. There’s so many shout-outs in our book to stuff that’s influenced us.
Jay: Yeah, also in terms of shouting back to antiquity, a lot of the space ships are named after people who were... the military ships were named after famous generals, the science vessels after famous scientists. As far as mythology having an influence on my science fiction work, I haven’t really examined that question. It’s a really good one. You’ve put me on the spot.
Jay: I mean, if literary theory is to be believed, there’s really only seven or eight stories ever told. They just take on different shapes and forms, and mythology tackled all seven of those shapes and forms already, so storytelling from the past influences every storyteller in the modern sense.
Nic: Sure, we could debate that for hours. Get into the Jungian and Freudian…
Jay: That’d be a really boring podcast that none would listen too.
Nic and Jay: (Laughter)
Nic: I don’t know if it’s controversial, but the most important part of a science fiction story is the world. How do you go about creating, or how did you go about creating this world in which your stories exist in the Illuminae Files?
Amie: Oh my goodness, so much research. And more research than either of us I think understood.
Jay: It's fun research though.
Amie: And we were game to do it. But it becomes this really interesting symbiosis where you do research in order to build the world, but then the research starts to influence to plot as well, as you begin to realise how things would unfold because science demands they happen in a certain way.
Jay: I mean the basic structure of the universe is the way we see the future of humanity and space exploration going. The universe in the Illuminae Files is largely controlled by corporations, there’s an overarching government authority but corporations are largely countries unto themselves. They have their own territories, they have their own armies, they have their own governments and they are operating with virtual impunity across the universal scale. There’s a government agency that tries to keep them in check, but they’re basically operating with autonomy.
Jay: The heart of the story is a conflict between two of those corporations. That’s probably us talking about the way government is defunding space exploration and in all likelihood, the first craft to land on Mars will be owned by a company rather than a government. That’s just the way we probably see the future heading. But that’s informed by again that old classic science fiction of Philip K. Dick and William Gibson, the idea of the mega-corporations that’s been around since the early 80s, if not before. That’s a logical extension of that thought.
Amie: Yeah, I think writers have been worrying about it for generations now. The research for this thing was intense, and involved a lot of doctors, psychologists, police, hackers – the astrophysicist that we worked with gave us more than anyone else. I think her first read-through of the book yielded 25 pages of detailed notes.
Jay: A lot of our ideas about science fiction, as with anyone, it’s informed by Hollywood, it’s informed by big spectacle movies. And Hollywood tends to sacrifice fact for spectacle, so we had a few of our illusions blown by our astrophysicist when she explained ‘gravity doesn’t work that way’ and ‘fire doesn’t work that way in space.’
Nic: So, that was her role? To tell you what could be realistic and what couldn’t realistic?
Jay: Definitely. While we understood the central conceit of the novel is probably not going to be happening 500 years from now – we probably won’t be talking via email. We might be talking telepathically, who knows? We might not exist 500 years from now, but the laws of physics aren’t going to change in that time. It was very important for us to get the science of our science fiction correct. So to that end, we had our astrophysicist sit down and explain to us the way in which a nuclear explosion would work in space, the way gravity interacts, the way a disease could be – this was our doctor – could be transmitted and mutate in a sealed environment.
Amie: Our doctor took entirely too much pleasure in designing that, I should add.
Nic: The book would’ve be finished much earlier if it hadn’t been so interesting and exciting.
Amie: Sure, but we wanted everything to be either provable or plausible. Obviously we can’t prove all of it yet, If we could we’d be in a spaceship right now. But we wanted… nothing in there that you could shoot down yet, based on current science.
Nic: It’s one of things… When writing fiction if at any point your reader doesn’t believe something, you’ve lost their trust in you as a writer. So it’s critical that you get everything, as you say, either plausible or possible.
Jay: Some of the fact, the way space works, is fascinating. We sat down and watched all of Commander Chris Hadfield’s videos from the ISS. He has a great one where he just talks to camera and shows what it’s like to brush your teeth in zero gravity. This completely mundane task that we do twice a day, hopefully if you want to keep your dentist happy, is made more difficult by a factor of hundreds simply because gravity doesn’t exist. The idea that even tiny, little things can be made extraordinarily interesting in a different context was something that drove the novel.
Jay: There was a great experiment in the 70s where, as part of US space exploration, where a scientist got exposed to vacuum accidentally. They said it was accidentally anyway, but maybe they just didn’t like the guy and pushed him in to see what would happen to him. But he got exposed to vacuum for a 30 second period. By dint of vacuum, you’ll lose consciousness after 15 seconds as all of the oxygen gets sucked out of your body, but this scientist said the last thing he remembered before he lost consciousness was the saliva on his tongue beginning to boil. That’s because there’s no air pressure in vacuum, and when there’s no air pressure the boiling point of liquids gets drastically reduced and so the radiant temperature of his body was enough to boil the spit in his mouth and the fluid on the surface of his eyes. That’s freaky and amazing, and that’s real. You don’t have to delve into the realm of science fiction to find incredible facts like that. So yeah, that scene made it into our book.
Nic: I’m going to have to thank you today for giving me an excuse for the next time I walk out of the house with toothpaste on my chin, I’ll just blame gravity letting me down.
Jay: Yeah, blame Commander Chris.
Nic: Let’s get onto the craft of writing. You’ve both written individually. But you collaborate. Now collaborating is so rare in the world of literature. It’s very common in TV writing, in film writing, and also in children writing, with illustrators and authors. But it’s very rare both in Young Adult and the world of literature. How does a collaboration work? Do you give yourselves particular characters or plot points? How do you guys work?
Amie: It’s so interesting, because when I speak to other authors and I say that I collaborate, by far the most common response is that they physically recoil and say some version of ‘I could never…’ in a slightly scandalised voice. And when I say, ‘why?’, they say, ‘I could never give up control. What if they were wrong?’.
Amie: And it’s so interesting because I think for us collaboration is about the opportunity to create something that’s much greater than the sum of its parts. A lot of it is about choosing the right person. Because if you choose the right person to start with… Jay once said, and I think he was right, that it’s a bit like getting married. If you choose the right person, staying married is a lot easier. Everything you do impacts on each other creatively, professionally, reputationally, even personally.
Amie: So you need to learn how to handle a creative relationship and also a personal relationship as well because we work together every single day so we have to learn how to read each other’s moods – when’s a good time to say something and when’s a good time not to say something. Once you’ve got that dynamic of that worked out, the stuff like dividing up who’s going to write which bit, or brainstorming together becomes very easy and flows very naturally, I think.
Jay: Yeah, I think the most important thing is to understand even though you may have different thoughts about how to get to the end of the story, you’re both trying to make the story as good as it could possibly be. You’re both on the same team. Once you’ve reached that realisation, it’s pretty easy to put ego aside.
Jay: The notion that ‘this is going to be my part and that’s going to be your part… The book is going to be ours’. It’s that old cliché that there is no ‘I’ in ‘team’. Once you realise that then it becomes very easy to overcome the little hurdles that you find along the way. I mean, Amie and I have never had a huge disagreement to date. I’m sure when it happens it’s going to be terrifying in its scope and it’ll probably be over the most ridiculous thing like the placement of a comma or something like that. But yeah, we find it pretty easy to step outside ourselves when we reach impasse.
Nic: Do you own particular characters?
Jay: We do, yeah. In terms of the mechanics of it, what we do… we’ll sit down together, physically usually, as it’s easier to bounce ideas back and forth face to face. We usually go to a pub. Amie doesn’t drink but she watches me drink.
Jay: About drink number 5 is usually where we start to do work and the magic starts to happen. We’ll plot about 100 pages in advance as a general rule. We’ve found if we plot any further than that, the story changes in the telling of it. So if we go any deeper than 100 pages it tends to be wasted work as the story will change over the course of those 100 pages.
Amie: We want to be able to surprise each other. So say, once we’ve done those 100 pages and divided them up and I go away to write my scene, if I have some crazy, great idea I don’t want to have to think, ‘oh, but we’ve plotted out all 500 pages and if I do this the ripples will destroy the rest of the outline’. You want to be able to play with it and experiment it, and send it over and say, ‘hey, what if we did this? It didn’t actually show up until I was actually trying to make it happen’. So the 100 pages just means that’s fine, you’ve got that freedom, you’re not restrained from doing something great just because it’s going to create more work.
Jay: Once we have those 100 pages down we’ll break them down into scenes. From those scenes, we’ll assign POV’s and then we write based on POV. So we’ll each have a main character, and we’ll divide up the secondary characters amongst ourselves. Sometimes we step into each other’s shoes, in terms of those secondary’s in particular. Then we draw it all up in a Google doc and colour code it for our convenience. And away we go.
Nic: Deadlines must be very, very important. Do you both have the same sort of attitude to deadlines?
Amie: We take them pretty seriously. Partly as well because we’re both working on three different series at once, and so if either of us misses a deadline, the ripple effect doesn’t just impact us. It impacts the person we’re writing with, and also potentially other editors and other people. You know, I think in any line of work it’s never a great idea to say to one person, ‘well I didn’t get the thing done for you because I was too busy doing it for someone else’. You know, ‘I can’t come out on a date with you because I was with my other boyfriend.’ So we both take it pretty seriously. We both work pretty hard to hit them.
Nic: When you’re working on three different things at once, do you work on one thing for the whole day? Is each day different, one day you might do two or three different things, or is one day all about one thing? How does that work?
Jay: I tend to break it down into as large blocks as I possibly can. Sometimes edits will step in. For example, I’m drafting the second book of my Nevernight Series at the moment, and I know I’m going to be drafting that and honing that until the end of the year. So ideally you break the year up into blocks of two to three months at a stretch, and you work on one project. It’s pretty difficult to jump in and out day to day. Sometimes it’s necessary, but your pace tends to slow. You need to bring yourself back into the headspace of the book that you were working on last week. So for example, edits on Book 3 of lluminae dropped on us last week, and so I’ve spent the last couple of days re-reading that draft and getting my head back into that space because I was working on a completely different series. It tends to take a little while to acclimatise.
Amie: Yeah, like here’s an inefficiency every time you change over from one project to another. You start working straight away, but you don’t get up to full speed and full inspiration. When I’m drafting, it really helps to have whole days at a time. To the point where I’ll take all the admin that I have to do and cluster it into one day of the week, then ignore I for the other four. But editing, I find, I do better in half day blocks anyway. So I will tend to… Because there is a lot of admin flying (especially around this time of year with books coming out), I will tend to do emails in the morning while the brain wakes up, and then edit all afternoon.
Nic: Do you feel the need to write a big book. I mean, young adult science fiction in this day and age, it seems that size really matters. Do you sit down and go god, this book needs to be 600 – 700 pages, or does it just come naturally? That’s how the way it is, because you’ve created this world you are going to tell a long story. I pick these books up and it’s like going to the gym. They’re not small and they seem to get bigger and bigger.
Amie: They’re not small.
Nic: Is that something that you did deliberately because you think that the market wants that, or is it just a consequence of what you’re doing?
Amie: It’s just how long the story was.
Jay: Yeah, it wasn’t intentional at all.
Amie: No. I think fantasy and science fiction will tend to be longer that contemporary work because you need to do world building, and that just takes up extra words. I just finished revising a middle-grade book I’m working on. The first draft was 55,000 words, which is exactly what my editor asked for. But when the edits came back and she talked about the need to do a lot more world building, the thing that went back to her was 70,000 words. Where the extra 15,000 words are coming out, I don’t know, but that’s the next edits problem.
Amie: With this first one, it was 599 pages. It literally hit the point where when we were saying to our editor that we wanted to have a blank page and then the acknowledgements – so we literally didn’t want the page of the acknowledgements facing the last page of the book because we wanted to create that sense of a beat of silence after the book finished, without the big blow on the end and then ‘I’d like to thank my Mum’ on the next thought – and they were literally saying to us, ‘only if you can get rid of the double-page spread.’ Of course, Book 2 is 670 pages, and Book 3 is looking to be 700, so….
Nic: That’s interesting, about that moment’s thought after the end. It’s like you’ve enjoyed a TV show and then you just want to soak in the credits and the music, and the announcement for the next show comes in… ‘Tomorrow, on “The Bachelor”’. You need that pause. It never occurred to me, and as you said that I remembered being irritated sometimes irritated finishing something and then you’ve got the acknowledgements… and you’re taken out of the world that you’ve loved for days, weeks, months, or sometimes in my case, a year, and you’re taken out of it so quickly.
Amie: You need that moment where you sort of just close the book and then put it down and stare into space and think, ‘whoa, what just happened there’, without diving straight into the next thing.
Nic: Right. It might be important to the proofreader to know who the proofreader was, but as the reader you don’t need to know that straight away.
Amie: No, and I mean, in a book like that we had more people to thank than usual, but we wanted to make sure that the story finished and then the next thing began.
Nic: In terms of writing process, every writer has that feeling – well I shouldn’t generalise, most writers have that feeling at some point when you are writing your book – ‘if I could stop now, I would. This is driving me mad’. Was there a moment in any of your books that you felt like, ‘I shouldn’t have started this.’ Or have you been lucky enough to have never experienced that?
Jay: I mean, the great thing about co-authoring is that even when you’re having ‘that day’, and everyone does have ‘that day’, chances are your co-author isn’t. And so you can kind of feed off each other’s energy and enthusiasm. It becomes this positive feedback loop, where you’ll send away your piece and you might not be entirely happy with it but you co-author can build you up by their response. So, in terms of Illuminae, I don’t think we’ve had that experience yet, where we’ve felt totally in the reeds and lost.
Amie: And ‘what have we done?’, and ‘Do you think it’s too late to give the money back?’ and ‘what if we just move to Nepal, how long do you think it would take them to find us?’
Jay: I had that experience on Nevernight, the first Nevernight book when I was writing it last year. It would have been about January or February, I had hit a wall in the second act and I just couldn’t make it work. I was hating myself and hating the book, and I was thinking that I’d made a terrible mistake in selling this thing before I’d written it. That was because I’d had a definite idea of the way the book was supposed to end. Usually when I start writing a book I know what the big twist is, the ‘gotcha’ moment, and I’ll have an idea of what the ending is supposed to be, but I don’t really have an idea of how I’m going to get there. I’m a kind of ‘join-the-dotser’ in that sense. But I could not make Nevernight do what I wanted it to do. I couldn’t push it in the direction that it needed it to go in order for this ending to work. I beat myself up over it for about three weeks. In the end, I resolved that problem by throwing that end out and just letting the book do what it wanted to do, rather than what I was trying to force it to do. As soon as I made that decision, the book kind of wrote itself. Three weeks later the entire thing was done. So that was me doing away with my preconceptions of what it should be and just letting it be what it wanted to be.
Nic: Bit of ‘chicken and egg’ question, but which comes first – plot or character?
Amie: For me, generally speaking, it will be a world and a situation. Then I will think who in that world or situation has the most capacity to change or suffer pain or have a really interesting or unusual experience? So it tends to be situation, then the characters come along. But that said, with llluminae they really came along in parallel. Very much.
Jay: Yeah, I think for me it depends on the project. Nevernight started as a character, Illuminae started as a little bit of both. I guess we started there with the conceit that it was going to be alternative format, and from that we asked ourselves, ‘why?’ Why would these two characters be talking via email rather than walking up to each other and having a face to face conversation, and from that we came to the conclusion that they’d needed to be separated physically, and that they were going to be in space on two separate spaceships. So that concept and those characters kind of walked together in parallel in development.
Nic: Let’s move onto the first in the series, Illuminae. At what did you decide that Kady and Ezra should’ve split up on the morning when it all happened? That was genius. I just love the fact that not only have these two people been thrown together, but they’d split up as boyfriend and girlfriend on that same morning.
Amie: It’s super awkward, right? I mean, anyone that’s ever just broken up with someone, then had to go through with something you’ve committed or a place you’ve committed to be together…
Nic: It just makes the conflict so much better in the story. So is that how it came about, ‘how can we make this conflict better?’ Or was it after the seventh drink you think, ‘hey they break that morning, let’s give it a go!’
Amie: No, it came out pretty early.
Jay: Yeah, I think it was around the second or third iteration of the story we came across that thought. I think it was partially because of the way the format was dictating the way the story would be told, it was going to be difficult for us to have two characters meet and get to know each other, in the context of the story because they needed to be separated. Getting to know someone via email is a pretty difficult story to tell, and given the amount of world building and other structures we had to put in place and concepts we needed to introduce, we figured it would be better if they just knew each other. They didn’t need to go through the getting-to-know-you phase.
Jay: But the idea of them being broken and disliking each other, yeah, it was another source of conflict and it made richer and more granular to begin with it. It made them more interesting characters, at least to our minds, just to begin with.
Amie: Because they just literally physically had to be apart in order for there to be a reason for there to be an alternate format book and emails. But they also needed a pretty powerful motivation to get in touch, and that powerful motivation was going to have to be love or friendship. And I mean, it’s more fun if it’s love that’s gone terribly horribly wrong.
Nic: Absolutely. I thought it was absolutely wonderful. As of half an hour ago, I know know where the idea came from, but as I was reading it all I could think of was WikiLeaks. Did that have any impact on your inspiration or as you were going did you think about it? Before you went to bed were you dreaming that you read a story about WikiLeaks?
Amie: Look, I think you’re influenced by everything around you. We didn’t have particular conversations about WikiLeaks. But I think it’s probably not a coincidence that the book came about at a time when the world was very preoccupied with this idea of who gets to decide what information goes out into the public, and if we can’t trust the people we’ve traditionally let gate keep that, then who should we trust? And does it matter where the information comes from it information is relevant? Does it matter if people were hurt if the information needs to be shared? It’s a very public conversation at the moment. So although we didn’t particularly think ‘let’s write a book out of that’, I can’t help but think it must’ve been somewhere in the mix.
Nic: Did you goes as far as you did, with the format, the structure, the briefing papers and what have you, to make a statement or to stand out differently from what is often seen as predictability within sci-fi or young adult books. I mean, there is a certain predictability, and yours stands out in many ways, but certainly because of the format did you drive as far as you could as a reaction and to stand out?
Jay: I don’t that was the intent. We just wanted…
Amie: No. I think it’s a bit rough to say there’s predictability in YA. I have to say something to that. YA is incredibly smart and complex and varied, and full of extraordinary books that take me by surprise every day. But the thing is we didn’t think this book was going to sell, so we were not ever consciously thinking, ‘how are we going to make this more commercially viable?’ In fact, it was kind of the opposite.
Nic: Once it went to the publisher, did they come with ideas and go, or once you knew it would be accepted did you then think you could take it a bit further? ‘We could do this?’
Jay: We had an early conversation with our editor, where we floated the idea that we would have a schematic of one of the ships. You know, this was very early in the relationship and we were kind of testing the waters.
Amie: We thought we were being so cheeky, didn’t we?
Jay: ‘Can we maybe have a picture of one of the spaceships?’ And our editor came back to us and said ‘well, there’s three spaceships in the book, isn’t there? Why don’t we have three?’ And that kind of set the tone for the relationship.
Amie: And it was on for young and old.
Nic: You thought, ‘wow this is great, we can go from here.’
Jay: Oh, ok. So it’s like that. From that point we got a little less gun-shy about asking.
Amie: We originally sold the book based off a 130-page sample. And Jay has a background in graphic design and advertising, and used to be an art director, so he actually mocked it up to look very much like it actually looks now in terms of the way the content was going to look. So, we started playing with those ideas really early. Again, partly we sort of this is a reason this is no one is going to want it. But we though, if you’re going to go down in flames, then really go down properly. But a lot of the design stuff was very much already in place before we realised that someone was actually going to publish the book.
Jay: I mean, in terms of our intent behind it, I think we really wanted to break the idea of what a book could be and do. We’re certainly not the first authors to do this. There’s a book called House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski, who did it very well. And there’s a book called Night Film by Marisha Pessl, which kind of plays with the idea of online communication. So we’re not breaking any new ground in that sense, but we wanted to push the envelope of what a book could be and do, and make the object itself part of the storytelling.
Jay: I think my favourite double page spread in the whole book is there’s a scene and Ezra’s in a fighter ship and he’s zeroing in on his target and the typography spirals around the page so you’re forced to physically turn the book in your hands to read the words on the page, you’re forced to interact with the book in a way that you’re not normally interacting.
Nic: As I was reading that I was reminded of the Charlie and Lola children’s picture books, where you literally have to turn the pages. I loved that.
Amie: Well, one of my favourite picture books is Press Here by Hervé Tullet, which is exactly the same thing. You have to shake the book and turn it over. The other thing we wanted to play with intent-wise was… readers are really smart, and readers are absolutely prepared to come to the party and make a lot of effort, but they’re not always given credit for that. So we wanted to write a book that you have to quite actively participate in. You’ve got to be noting what time are things happening, and when someone just contradicted someone, what’s the date stamp on that document, could they actually know that could be true or not true yet? We wanted people to puzzle-solving and problems-solving as they went, which they very much do.
Nic: The book’s been optioned for a film. Does that – probably not so much for the second but maybe for the third book – with that in the back of the mind does that change how you approach writing?
Amie: You can’t let it.
Jay: The reality is having your book optioned is the very first step in a very long hurdle race, and your film can fall over on any one of those hurdles. So it’s great in terms of raising the profile for the book, and it’s very exciting if it ever eventuates, but it’s not something you can spend any time thinking about by getting yourself fitted for your suit for premiere night. That’s probably going to be a waste of your time.
Nic: I hope you haven’t got your Oscar speech ready.
Jay: No, not yet. I will thank my mum, I’m sure, but that’s about as far as it goes.
Amie: Yeah. I mean, anything you do to alter the book, supposing something like that would happen, is probably just… You know when you see those roads and the road will continue on straight and there’ll be this weird little kink in it because there used to be a tree in it 100 years ago, but it’s not there now, now the road just curves for no reason, you end up with stuff like that. These little, weird things that happened in your book because you thought it would be a good set piece for a film that never existed, and it doesn’t really work with the book because you’re putting it in there because it would look great on screen. You know, you can’t compromise what the book is.
Nic: Sure. I just want to go back. Something that’s just occurred to me in terms of the collaboration. Any late-night texting? Do you suddenly get this great idea at 2am in the morning, or when you’re sitting around at 10pm or 11pm at night in the bar, Jay and you suddenly text, ‘I’ve got a great idea, we’ve got to do this or that?’
Jay: Yeah. I actually texted Amie about our next series. We’ve sold another series that is coming after we finish Illuminae. I think I Amie at 3am or 4am in the morning one Saturday night with just a thought.
Amie: Yeah, I’ve actually learned to… I don’t sleep with my phone in my room anymore, because despite us being in the same time-zone, we keep very different hours. He’s up all night, whereas I sleep at night. I've actually literally learned that my phone lives outside my bedroom door on the stairs, with the ringer turned all the way up in case there’s some kind of terrible emergency (I figure someone will phone not text if that happens), but I can’t have it near me because yeah, there’ll be text messages coming in the middle of the night. And I know if I hear it ding and it’s near me, I’ll reach for it. And then I’m lying there at 3am brainstorming.
Jay: Thinking about that idea.
Nic: Writing’s all about storytelling, and one of the best types of stories are jokes. I’m just wondering do you have a favourite joke that you’d like to share with us? Can you think of your favourite joke?
Jay: I’m really bad at remembering jokes. I can only remember two or three jokes ever. And one of them is actually in Gemina. It’s a joke by a British comedian named Dave Allen.
Nic: I used to love Dave Allen, with the four and a half fingers.
Jay: I don’t understand the way my brain works or why I remember this joke. I probably heard it when I was 11 years old, watching it on TV, and it stuck in my head and it’ll be there until the day that I die.
Nic: Can you tell us?
Jay: So there’s an American tourist. He walks into a British bar in the countryside, kind of ‘American Werewolf in London’ style on the moors, and there’s a few people around drinking Guinness. This guy walks up to the bar and he orders a Guinness. The bartender serves it up to him and he’s raising the glass to his lips, just about to drink it, and the bartender starts banging this bell that hangs over the bar and screams, ‘the wolves are coming, the wolves are coming, everyone needs to get down into the cellar’. So all these old fellas pack up their chess games and beer and they shuffle off down into this cellar, and the American tourist is looking around wondering, ‘what the hell is going on?’ And the bartender says, ‘sir, you must come down into the cellar.’ The American shrugs and says ‘okay.’ And he wanders downstairs.
Jay: They seal the cellar door shut, they wait down there for about twenty minutes. The bartenders says, ‘okay the wolves have gone, we can go back up.’ So everyone climbs back up into the pub. The American sits back down in his chair and his beer is gone. There’s just an empty glass there. Someone’s drunk his beer. He’s like ‘what the hell is this?’ So he orders another beer. The bartender pours it for him. He raises it to his lips and he’s just about to drink, and the bartender bangs on his bell again and says, ‘the wolves are coming, everyone needs to get down into the cellar’. So the old fellas pack up their chess games again and wander down into the cellar.
Jay: And the American, he’s a little bit weary about it at this point in time, but he figures, ‘I don’t want to offend the locals. I better obey the customs’. So he gets up off the chair and goes down into the cellar. Twenty minutes later, the bartender says ‘it’s safe, we can go back up now’. The American goes back up to his chair, sits down in it and his beer is gone again. He says, ‘right, these guys are having me. They’re taking me for a ride’. So he orders another beer, looks the bartender in the eye, raises the glass to his lips. He’s about to take a sip and the bartender starts banging on this bell again and says, ‘the wolves are coming, everyone’s got to get down into the cellar’.
Jay: So all the old fellas pack up and they go downstairs, and the American just sits there on the chair. The bartender says, ‘sir, you must come down into the cellar. The wolves are coming’. The American says, ‘nope. I’m going to stay here and drink my beer. You guys are taking me for a ride’. The bartender says, ‘sir, please for you own safety, you must come down into the cellar’. The American says, ‘no. I’m going to stay here and drink my beer, goddammit’. So after a little while, the bartender gives up. The American takes all responsibility for himself and the bartender goes down into the cellar, locks the door.
Jay: The American is sitting there in the empty pub, he raises the glass to his lips and has a sip and thinks, ‘these guys must think I’m an idiot’. Then the wolves come and they eat the American and they drink his beer.
Amie, Nic and Jay: (Laughter)
Jay: I’ve remembered that joke for like, 30 years. That’s the stupidest joke ever. I don’t know, it stuck in my head. That’s Dave Allen.
Amie: And the fact that that makes me laugh so hard that I can’t breathe is probably why we’re such good co-authors.
Nic: It must be.
Jay: So that joke is in Gemina.
Amie: It is in Gemina, yeah.
Nic: So that’s Act 2, that joke?
Jay: (Laughter) Yeah, that goes over 3 to 4 pages. There’s other stuff happening in the background. It’s kind of this hairy dog story that one soldier is telling to another while horrible things are happening. He’s not quite aware of what’s going on around him.
Nic: I love stories within stories.
Jay: We actually thank Dave Allen in the back of the book I think.
Amie: We do. We thought we should.
Nic: He doesn’t get many thanks these days.
Nic: What about you Amie? Do you have a favourite joke?
Amie: My favourite joke, much like Jay’s, makes people want to punch me out. But let’s do it anyway.
Amie: There are these two prawns and they’re best friends. And their names are James and Christian. James and Christian are having a very rough time of it, because a school of sharks have moved into the neighbourhood and have been eating their friends of late. And they decide that the only way to be safe is to live under this rock. So the two of them are living this terrible existence, hiding under this rock together. You know, wondering what will become of them?
Amie: One day James says to Christian, ‘I’ve had enough. This is no way to live. I’m going to sort this out’. And so he goes away on a quest to sort it out. He goes across the great beds of kelp and through the canyon and over the rocks and all the rest of it, and eventually he finds the Great Magical Cod. So he explains the situation to the Great Magical Cod, who says, ‘I very much respect the enormous journey you’ve undertaken and your desire to protect your friend. So I am going to help you. I’m going to turn you into a shark, so that you can defend your friend against the sharks’.
Amie: So he turns James into a shark and James swims back and yells, ‘Christian, Christian, I’m home.’ And Christian sticks his head out from under the rock and shouts, ‘Oh my God, you’re a shark. You’ve eaten James’ and goes straight back in again. And no matter what he does, he can’t get Christian to come out again.
Amie: So James thinks, ‘alright, I’ll find new friends’. So he tries very hard to find new friends. But the sharks know something’s up with him. He might look like a shark, but he’s not a shark, and they don’t want anything to do with him. He comes to realise over time that it actually would’ve been better to be living under a rock with his best friend than out-and-about and perfectly safe and all alone.
Amie: So he swims back to the Great Magical Cod,and he explains the story that he has learnt. And the Great Magical Cod says, ‘I respect the wisdom that you have gained, so I will turn you back into prawn’. So Great Magical Cod turns him back into a prawn. Back through the canyon, through the fields of kelp, all the rest of it, and he yells, ‘Christian, Christian, it’s me, James. I’m home’.
Amie: And Christian goes, ‘I’m not coming out. You’re a shark that ate James’. He goes, ‘no, no it’s okay. I found Cod. I’m a prawn again Christian’.
Amie, Nic and Jay: (Laughter)
Amie: Everyone is looking at me in horror.
Nic: I love that. Obviously, it’s got wordplay, so for writing it’s… I love that one.
Amie: It doesn’t work unless you draw it out and make people suffer.
Nic: Absolutely. Most jokes do. I just want to thank you both for giving us time on The Garret. It’s been lovely chatting to you.
Amie: Even after that?
Nic: Yes. You’ve been successful up until this point, with much more success to come. And I just want to thank you, wish you all the best. Your stuff is outstanding. So dynamic, so engaging, and I’d urge anyone to go and buy a copy and read anything you do.
Amie: Thanks for making us part of what’s going to be a very exciting podcast. We going to be listening to all the episodes to come.
Jay: It’s been amazing. Thank you so much for having us.
Nic: What a treat to spend time with Amie and Jay. They are doing amazing things, and they’re going to be around for a long, long time.