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Our Books, Our Shelves: J.S. Dewes and Karen Osborne in Conversation

J.S. Dewes and Karen Osborne In Conversation

Jenny: Why hello, Karen! Should we start this off by blind-writing each other’s introductions based solely on social media encounters and meeting once in the Before Times? Seems normal, right? I’ll go first:

Karen Osborne lives in Baltimore (Boston?? In the general direction of the Eastern Seaboard??) with a husband, a cute baby, and a cat named after the kid from E.T.. She loves Star Trek, The Sims, plays the fiddle, and has worked as a journalist and videographer. Karen is the author of The Memory War duology which includes Architects of Memory and Engines of Oblivion, out now from Tor Books! Our publisher! Karen survived debuting TWO books in a pandemic, and I will be forever impressed by that fact. Welcome, Karen!

Karen: Two books! In a pandemic! Someday when I’m an old crone at the convention bar, I’ll have stories to tell. And you’re right—I’m currently living in the amazing city of Baltimore, but I’ve only been to Boston twice.

My turn! The fabulous J.S. Dewes is the author of The Divide series, which includes The Last Watch and The Exiled Fleet, which I expect to read as soon as it hits the shelves. When not writing, she is a cinematographer with extensive experience in nearly every kind of production, from films to commercials, and is part of the crew that lights presidents and presidential candidates for official appearances. She loves Mass Effect, has an adorable cat named Ember, and the cutest dogs on Instagram. She might actually be a Spectre in her spare time.

Jenny: That’s classified; I have no comment at this time.

Karen: I knew it! Okay, I’m just going to start right off with the gushing. The Last Watch is everything I love about space opera: a deep, fathomless mystery to be solved, a ragtag crew forced to save the galaxy, and, of course, the lovable asshole in the center of it all, Cavalon Mercer. He’s a walking inciting incident, having literally nuked his own noble family’s project before his arrival on the Argus, and his arc from there is delightful. What was your favorite part about writing from Cavalon’s perspective?

Jenny: Okay but I reserve the right to also gush, because I just finished Engines of Oblivion and whoooo boy, do we have some Things to discuss, Osborne. But I digress. For now.

Oh Cavalon, my sweet disaster prince. He’s an utter joy to write, such anxiety, much sarcasm. I think a large part of the fun with Cavalon is that there’s nowhere to go but up. He already hit rock bottom, dug down a few more meters for good measure, and is still digging his heels in at the beginning of the book. Of course, a lot of the credit for his eventual course correction goes to my other POV character, Adequin Rake. She’s really the cosmic balance to Cavalon’s chaos vibes.

But Adequin’s got her own set of less overt but equally deep-seated issues, one of which works as a great segue: blind devotion to a neglectful institution.

In The Memory War series, your main big bad corporation Aurora Intergalactic reminds me a lot of Fallout’s Vault-Tec in the “plaster on a smile and say things in an upbeat manner and no one will notice they’re getting screwed” kind of way, and it’s wonderful. In Engines, I found it utterly fascinating to see Natalie Chan’s internal monologue as she surfaces from her own indoctrination. What were you looking to achieve in telling Engines from Natalie’s point of view?

Karen: Shifting the point-of-view character halfway through a series is a pretty big gamble, but I knew pretty early that the sequel had to be Natalie’s story. Everyone else on Twenty-Five comes to some kind of steady peace with their role in what goes down. But Natalie’s not ready. She still has trauma from the war with the Vai. She’s locked into her trauma responses and the lies she wants to be true. Because of this, she makes violent, dangerous, and significant choices in the back half of Architects of Memory that have consequences for every single character on every side of the corporate game. I love consequences. Consequences are writer catnip.

So, Natalie’s story. I’ve pulled myself out of abusive jobs and environments, and my realizations came slowly, just like Natalie’s. I wanted so much to believe that the stories into which I’d sunk so much energy were true and good for me, when in reality they were killing me. Finding somewhere to belong? A mission to believe in? That’s deep, ancient magic. Getting out is hard. It requires you to rewire your brain, and change takes time. The “lightbulb moment” comes only after a ton of work. It’s not simple and it’s not kind and it’s not quick, but it’s necessary. I wanted to spend the book chronicling what that process looked like for Natalie. I hope that it’s helpful to others who might find themselves in the same situation.

Which makes me love Adequin even more than ever, because she’s deep in this process, too. But she doesn’t have a lot of time to figure it out, right?

Jenny: No, she really doesn’t! I remember my editor (our editor! Hi Jen!) once noting (I’m paraphrasing), “The bulk of this takes place over the course of less than 30 hours? When do they sleep??”

Karen: I think she said the same exact thing about Architects, which takes place over a couple of days. (She notices everything.) What was your answer?

Jenny: A genuinely bemused, “Uh, they…don’t.”

Because for me it was never in question—not because I didn’t realize how much in-world time passed, but because it was both intentional and an unremarkable length of time to push yourself to, based on my adult life experience. It’s just hour 21 of working on set and the producers bring in cold gas station pizza for third meal and you’re ready to flip the crafty table and walk out, but you’re also feeling hyper in sync with your crew (you’re surviving this together, after all) and you pull off the most beautiful shot of the night, so you can’t be mad, but you’re also really, really tired. And that’s without the adrenaline of saving the universe to help keep you awake.

Karen: Oh, yeah. I’ve been chasing that absolute hyperfocus for years, especially when I was filming weddings for a living. That was a rush. It’s the fifteenth hour of a wedding, you’ve been taping since six in the morning, you haven’t eaten, you’re the grip and the director and the second AD all wrapped into one, but you NAIL that shot you know the client wants and you feel like an absolute GOD.

Kinda like writing.

Jenny: Very much so. We both come from a background in an industry that, despite its outward glamor, has a lot of failings when it comes to work conditions, hours, physical demands, and work/life balance. Like a non-union set on triple overtime, Natalie gets a slew of intense situations and information thrown at her in the latter half of Engines, and to her credit she keeps it together extremely well. I get the impression that’s in no small part due to the fortitude she’s gained from the terrible things she’s been made to see and do at the behest of her corporation. And I relate to that…so hard.

…In a sick twist of irony, have our toxic work environments and abusive jobs prepared us to be strong enough to leave them or fight back?

Karen: Absolutely. Honestly, now that I’m older and I know what I’m worth, I’m unlikely to voluntarily enter into a bad situation again. Life is just too damn short. But that’s not always easy to figure out, or else all of us would be living the dream. Like Adequin Rake, who certainly isn’t.

Jenny: Certainly not. Sometimes it takes those dire circumstances to wake us up and make us realize we’re missing out on the short amount of time we’re given. That’s definitely the case in The Last Watch. Though the Sentinels’ mistreatment is something that’s been simmering in the back of Adequin’s mind for years, her stagnancy at this far-flung post has stifled any potential progress in realizing it. She can’t see past the walls of her ship and across the 100 million light-year expanse back to reality and civilization, so she has no perspective through which to see how bad it is.

Luckily, Adequin has the unapologetic practical insight of her second-in-command to…I’d call it hand-holding, but it’s quite a bit more blunt than that. Let’s say guide her. He’s been aware of the Legion’s BS for years, and is more than happy to shove Rake into the light.

Just like in real life, sometimes we need communities or companions to help us surmount what’s thrown at us. Does Natalie have anyone like that?

Karen: Natalie does have people in her life, but the choices they’ve made in life put themselves at odds with her own moral code, and they’re not always her allies or friends. (Who really is, when the system incentivizes you to use other people to get ahead?) Since Natalie has suffered memory loss, she’s always questioning who she is and where she stands. She spends a lot of time with Reva Sharma, who in any other world would be a mentor character to Natalie, but here allows her to really understand which lines she wouldn’t cross—and Emerson Ward, her new boyfriend. He’s the guy you meet on Tinder that you like a lot until he opens his mouth about his politics.

And I guess there is one character that is really close to Natalie, who really is her ally, someone who calls her on the carpet and comforts her and stands up for her in a way that no one has ever done before. You know who that is.

Jenny: *evil_grin.gif*

Karen: Oh, yes. And writing that character was one of my favorite parts of the book.

Jenny: I could tell—it was so fun to read.

Karen: I planned it years ago. I was cackling while I wrote that payoff. Such fun. So many evil grins. What are the moments about writing that make you cackle in delight?

Jenny: Oh, so many! I adore everything about the ideation and drafting process. It’s such an incredible rush when everything starts to click together.

The Last Watch was the second book I ever wrote, and I “discovery wrote” the entire thing. I had no idea what I was doing, but setups, payoffs, twists—it’s all an instinctual part of the storytelling process, and I’m delighted every time I stumble on something new my brain sets up to crush readers’ hearts and souls. I mean…for readers to enjoy. :)

(For the record, I don’t think I could ever pull that off again for an entire book. As I get more experience, I’ve learned how to harness my brain’s Chaotic Neutral energy and occasionally, you know, PLAN. It’s a work in progress.)

Karen: When you spend as much time as we do thinking about the world in terms of how you see it through a camera lens, it’s only natural that you write that way, too. Would you agree? The Memory War has always been a very visual story for me. I see Natalie framed against the massive battle where she has to go EVA. I see Tribulation.

Jenny: Hard same. Visual considerations take precedence over pretty much everything for me, though typically not descriptions so much as the blocking of scenes. It’s a part of my brain I just can’t shut off, typically to my own detriment. (Bless my critique partners and their unending patience when I take an entire paragraph to describe exactly how someone sits down in a chair.)

Karen: As cinematographers, we’re so used to making every single motion in a scene count, that it bleeds over to our writing. And that can sometimes be absolutely brilliant, too. When I read your book, I saw the Divide coming for us in howling vantablack, I heard the crushing metal of the ship, I saw Adequin’s face when she realizes that…oops. Spoilers.

I guess it’s kind of a writer joke at this point that we’re all waiting for our prestige Netflix miniseries, but…it wouldn’t be a terrible idea, right?

Jenny: Oh not at all, and The Memory War would make a great one. There are so many things in both Architects and Engines that I’d love to see translated to screen, almost all of which are spoilers, but let’s just say, uh…certain colorful weapons, certain vessels near certain mysterious nebulas, and certain…endgame technology.

Karen: I had to write a book that was so delightfully intricate we can’t even talk about the coolest stuff, huh. That’s very me. Good job, Karen.

Jenny: Now that your duology is complete (!!!) and you’re moving on to your next project, how do you think the Everything comprising the century of 2016-2020 has affected the kinds of stories you plan to tell moving forward?

Karen: Oh, God, the Everything. One of the things that’s absolutely wacky about the time in which we’re living is that I feel far more connected to everyone at the same time I feel utterly disconnected. I have a couple comorbidities for COVID and am one of those pandemic moms you hear about, so I’ve been holed up in my house with my family for this entire year. I walked into the grocery store for the first time in six months the other day and everyone had these same haunted eyes behind their masks, and it was this massive influx of color and sound and, holy crap, there were so many people, and this chore that was absolutely normal only a year ago was suddenly this huge, scary task that sapped all of my energy. At the same time, though, I would lock eyes with neighbors and strangers and feel like I knew them, knew exactly what they were going through. All of a sudden, we have a commonality that we’ve never had before, and for every person that yelled or cut in line there was a person being more kind, more polite, more considerate. I think we’re all learning more about humanity through this experience.

This whole experience has just a change in how I see the world, the things I notice, the things I value, and all of that, of course, gets dumped straight into my fiction. It’s been really interesting drilling down into the small movements of life, into families and relationships and the more claustrophobic, quiet elements that I always avoided before. We’re all haunted. We’re all trying our best. I’m writing things I never would have considered before, and I guess I have to thank 2020 and 2021 for that.

How has the Everything changed The Divide for you? Because, if I recall correctly, you have another book to go. Is being in a collapsed world helping you write your collapsed world?

Jenny: I wouldn’t say it’s been helpful, *nervous laughter*, but it has been…thought-provoking? (Between the bouts of existential dread, of course.) Thankfully, I’d already finished drafting The Last Watch’s sequel about a month before Everything started, so I only had to suffer through the editing phases during. But it’s definitely caused me to further examine certain elements of my worldbuilding—in particular how traumatic events shape societies.

I think in the wake of Everything, I’ll definitely be looking at that “shared societal trauma” aspect in a whole different light than I did when I first started writing the series. Really, I don’t think we’ll be able to fully process and understand the effects of all this for a long while, once we have the benefit of some perspective. (At least we can remember the Before Times, unlike my poor characters.) As science fiction writers, we’re definitely in an interesting and strange position where with every passing day, less and less of what we write is actually “fiction.”

As weird (and sometimes frustrating) as that can be, at the same time, I kind of love it. It forces us to push the envelope even farther, really dig into the meat of things, and that’s where sci-fi always shines its brightest.

Karen: I love it, too. It’s such a delightful challenge, especially for those of us who wrestle with the future for a living. No more shortcuts. No more easy path. We know now that simply dropping the truth on the airwaves won’t make lasting change. We know now how people react to The Big Lie and to very real and existential threats. We know now how people really function in the dystopias we used to dream up, because we’re really living in one now. All of that means that we, as writers, have to do the real work, the hard work, and the honest work.

And I can’t wait.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

J. S. DEWES has a Bachelor of Arts in Film from Columbia College Chicago, and has written scripts for award-winning films, which have screened at San Diego Comic-Con and dozens of film festivals across the nation. The Last Watch is her first novel. Visit her online or on Twitter (@jsdewes).

KAREN OSBORNE is a speculative fiction writer and visual storyteller living in Baltimore. She is a Nebula finalist and graduate of Viable Paradise as well the Clarion Writers’ Workshop. Osborne has won awards for her news & opinion writing, and her short fiction appears in Uncanny, Fireside, Escape Pod, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and more. Architects of Memory is her debut sf novel. Visit her online or on Twitter (@karenthology).

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