Interviewed by Katharine Eliska Kimbriel
When you meet Kristine Smith at a convention, you may do a double-take at the name tag. Because sometimes she is Kristine Smith, and sometimes she is Alex Gordon.
Kris Smith knows about changing your face and your place, and when to remain true to yourself. She was born in the Northeast, grew up in the South, and settled in the Midwest. After twenty-six years in pharmaceutical R&D, she currently writes full time, spinning SF novels as Smith and supernatural thrillers as Gordon
She will admit to a deep attachment to her dog, and has been known to name her trucks. Gardening and cooking keeps her sane and lets her weave her stories of action and psychological terror. History has taught her that no good deed goes unpunished, but she keeps trying.
Book View Cafe is proud to bring out a new edition of her Jani Kilian Chronicles, starting with Code of Conduct. Please welcome the always interesting, always entertaining Kristine Smith to our cooperative. You’ll also find her over at her evolving web site, kristine-smith.com.
1) Back in our misty past, I remember us discussing pH of stomach acid and all the other possible changes alien DNA might make in a human being. Where did you start with the world of Jani? Was it the paper Readers—the aliens? The mutating definition of honor? Did your biochemistry history lead you to Jani’s world?
Wandering back through the mists of memory here, too. Trying not to dwell too much on the fact that I first started noodling with the ideas that led to Code way back in the late 70’s.
The Janiverse began with the character. I imagined this woman, not young, who had been through the wars both literally and figuratively. How did conflict shape her? How did she shape the conflict? What made her different? I first started thinking about her in college, but never got as far as plotting the tale. The writing bug didn’t bite in earnest until the early 90’s. I took a novel writing course, and spent the next six years learning to tell a story while at the same time figuring out how to tell Jani Kilian’s story. So many garbage drafts—at least three or four. I would finish one, then close that file and immediately open a new one.
The paper system came about when I wondered how reliable electronic transmissions and forms of computing would be a hundred or so years from now. I assumed that devices could be readily hacked or blocked. If so, how could one do business across a series of far-flung worlds connected by a system of wormholes? How would you prove ownership of something or take control of land or a company? Could paper make a comeback? Engineered paper, embedded with biological markers, embossed with special foils, printed with traceable inks, all of which, when verified, would serve to prove that you were who you claimed to be, or had the right to a job or to take possession of something. These documents would be beautiful items, almost works of art, desirable in and of themselves. People would want them as well as need them, which could help the system work.
So who could validate these documents? They’d have to be trained, trustworthy individuals. Documents examiners, equipped with specialized devices that could read the chips, verify the composition of the inks, etc. Of course, no system is perfect. When humans are involved, the possibility of chicanery will always exist.
Making Jani a documents examiner instead of infantry or other combat personnel was a conscious decision. She is essentially a paper pusher, forced to take actions she should never have had to take. She was never trained to be the sharp end of the spear. That was something she had to learn.
2) What kind of research was necessary to build the DNA changes suggested in the Kilian Chronicles? Did you change course at any point in the series—did something happen in a book that made you decide on a change in direction for the next novel?
I didn’t dig into the genetic changes themselves so much as the reasons for them, the idea that living on an alien world, however much it was terraformed, being exposed to the food grown there, the air, the microbes, could initiate physical changes. These changes would be very gradual, but there would be ways to speed up the process if one were so inclined.
Much of my research involved digging into the effects of augmentation—how the procedure could be done, what adverse effects could present over time. Poured over neurology texts. Talked to a brain researcher.
At some point during the writing of the second (Rules of Conflict) or third book (Law of Survival), I realized that whether she liked it or not, Jani could never fade into the background. Because of who and what she was, and what she was becoming, she would be dragged kicking and screaming into the forefront, and need to deal with other peoples’ fears and expectations. She would have to become a leader, a position for which she wasn’t ideally suited. She had to learn. She will always have a lot to learn.
3) Jani’s tale weaves through five books. Will there be more Jani Kilian novels?
I’m up to my neck in other projects now—I also write supernatural thrillers as Alex Gordon—but never say never. I am planning at least one novella, which I hope to publish in the first half of 2016. And there is another story involving Lucien Pascal that I thought might work as a novella, but which could easily blow up into something bigger. Lucien has problems. So many problems….
4) Do you think your “voice”, the thing that stamps your writing as uniquely yours, changes from book to book, story to story–or can you already see themes that reoccur in your work?
When I take a step back, I do see some of the same themes across genre. A woman faced with changes, decisions, a life she didn’t expect. The need to lead when it isn’t in her nature. I’m not sure whether these are autobiographical or explorations of fears and concerns for the future, but they’re there.
5) What have you learned from your own writing? To what concepts, intentional or not, do you think you’ve exposed your readers?
This feeds back into the previous question. I’ve learned that I build so much subconsciously—plot, character, theme. If I had to go back and consciously think of every piece and how they all interlock, I would freeze up.
That said, I have moved along the plotter-pantser spectrum and become more of a plotter over the years. I can write something resembling a decent synopsis and pretty much stick to it. Things change, yes. Characters. Motivations. But the overall story and many of the details survive. I find that reassuring because I think it means that over the years I have developed some writer sense of what makes a story, what fits and what doesn’t. I rewrite, yes—I think I will always be more of a rewriter than a writer. But I used to write 200 pages, and have the story grind to a halt to such a degree that I had to trash it all and start over. When I wrote Jericho, the next Alex Gordon book, that didn’t happen. I find this hugely reassuring. It hurts like hell to have to discard so much work. Now—and I really hope I’m not jinxing myself—I mentally sort much of this ahead of time.
6) In the past there has been a price for an abrupt change in the type of fiction a writer creates. You not only changed genres, you changed names. What was it about your first Alex Gordon novel that demanded such a huge upheaval in your writing?
I made the switch from far future SF to present day supernatural thriller, and the publisher wanted that clean break to indicate two very different types of books. Also, to be honest, it was also to reset the sales trail. New genre, new name, new writer. Clean slate.
Did it make a difference? I don’t know. After it came out that I was writing under a new name, some readers of my SF read Gideon, and enjoyed it. Others tried, and didn’t care for it. Despite the fact that underlying themes are similar, the characters, plots, and of course the settings are almost totally different. I can see that a reader who liked the Gideon books might not care for the Jani books, and vice versa. In the end, I think maintaining different names for different genres is sound reasoning, unless you’re such a huge name that everything including your grocery list is a guaranteed bestseller.
7) In Gideon and Jericho, you have discovered a bushel basket of nightmares for your readers. Was this an overwhelming connected tale you had to write through, or will there be more tales of Lauren Reardon?
I hope there will be more of Lauren Reardon. It may sound strange, but the world finally shook loose and came alive during the writing of Jericho. I can slip mentally into Lauren’s world as readily as I can into Jani’s, which for some time was not the case. Given the many flavors and possibilities that publishing today offers, I hope to be able to explore and expand on both worlds for a long time.
8) Is writing easier or harder doing it full time?
A little of both. It’s easier in that I no longer need to juggle vacation days. I can write during the day when I used to have to wait until the evenings, by which point I was worn out from the workday. I can plan better. “Okay, this is due on this date, so this is how much I have to do every day/week/month to reach that goal.”
But in some ways, it’s harder because having all day triggers activity in the Let’s Play Hooky area of the brain. Everything is a distraction. The lawn may need mowing. I need to drop by the grocery store for a few things. Days become these endless blocks of time, during which I can fiddle and muck about and still have hours and hours to actually do work. Except it doesn’t work that way. Instead, I look at the clock and swear loudly because it’s already 5pm and I haven’t written a blasted thing because I cleaned the bathroom/baked cookies/spent way too long on the internet. The discipline to set aside that block of late morning-early afternoon time to work and then to actually work is more difficult to develop than you might think.
9) Has writing taught you anything you didn’t expect?
That you never know all there is to know.
10) What is it about the Book View Cafe Cooperative that appeals to you? Why did you want to join forces with other professionals in the brave new world of fiction?
Self-publishing is a huge undertaking, whether you’re reissuing backlist or publishing new material. The granular level of decision-making, down to the fonts and text spacing in a print-on-demand edition. Starting from scratch with cover concepts. Choosing scene separators, the little windings that mark changes in scene or POV. Needing to find the expertise if you can’t do the job yourself. It’s daunting. I felt I needed some sort of support system. BVC offers so much in-house experience in multiple genres—you name a problem, someone has encountered it and dealt with it.
It’s a steep learning curve, but eventually I hope to learn enough so that I can pay back as well as forward.