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Carolyn Hill, Beneath the Skin - interview

I'm joined this week by Carolyn Hill, author of the sf-romance, Beneath the Skin. I found it a really interesting take on the sf genre, leading with the characters, and jumped at the chance to ask Carolyn a few questions.  


 Both leads are challenging characters in their own right – did you have a preference writing either, or did any present difficult challenges?

The novel is told mostly from Aleta’s point of view, with occasional scenes told from Riven’s viewpoint.  In the initial draft, there wasn’t much of Riven’s view, because his shapeshifting was a secret that I was keeping from the reader as well as from Aleta, but as I revised the drafts, I decided that I wanted to let the reader know his secret long before Aleta figures it out.

Aleta doesn’t know who she is at first; she has been robbed of the adolescence during which most of us begin sorting out who we are and who we want to be.  But even though she doesn’t know herself, I knew her, so it was relatively easy to write from her viewpoint.  She is a person with a remarkable power:  to empathize, to heal empathically, but also to kill by the same means. She has been kept drugged and biddable to the machinations of her murderous, drug-running captors, and now she is searching for ways to free herself without becoming as evil as they are.

Riven was harder to write. I didn’t initially know what makes him tick, but it was clear to me that he knows who he is—that keeping track of himself is essential because, as a shapeshifter, he can be absolutely anyone and needs to keep holding onto the core of himself in order not to be overwhelmed by whatever guise he adopts.  When he loses that clear sense of himself later in the novel – when his attraction to Aleta chips away at that sense – the conflict between reality and illusion, between lies and truth, became quite interesting. 

My way into characters is usually through conflict.  The more complicated the conflict, the more interesting the characters become to me.  Who are you, at the end of the day, if you can read anyone’s emotions?  Who are you, at the end of the day, if you can wear anyone’s face?

The world you set the novel in is repressive – reminding me a little of Margaret Atwood in some ways. Was this a deliberate theme and if so, what did you hope to bring to the book with it?

The oppression is deliberate, yes, but I’ve been somewhat surprised that people have called the novel dystopic, because as I was writing, I felt I was reflecting current society  – corporate greed, the widening gap between the few ultra-rich and the rest of us, the misuse and temptations of power, the environmental disasters.  If that’s dystopic, then are we living in a dystopia?  An unsettling thought.

Perhaps another reason I don’t think of the setting as dystopic is that I’ve written three books in the same universe -- and that universe is a big place.  In those books, things aren’t as dire as they are in Beneath the Skin.  For example, one is a young adult novel, so although the characters are teenagers running from various forms of oppression, the setting (a fast food restaurant aboard a luxury liner that cruises the galaxy) is glitzy and goofy rather than grimy and grim, and the way they fend off the Bad Guys is kind of loopy.

Combining romance with sf must be difficult – did you worry about how the traditional sf audience would feel about the book, or did you write it with a different audience in mind?

I was aware that I was writing a book that doesn’t fit easily into a specific genre.  I’ve been reading science fiction and fantasy since I was young, far before I even knew that romance novels exist, but when I was a teenager, I stumbled across Anne McCaffrey’s Restoree, a science fiction novel that focuses unabashedly on a romance.  Restoree was the first truly “blended” genre work I read, and it pushed ALL the right buttons.  In Beneath the Skin, I write what I enjoy:  a central romance with a happy ending, set amongst the stars, which allows me to build entire future societies and play with spaceships and planets and aliens – to make the science fiction elements more than window-dressing for the romance, and to make the romance more than an emotional sub-plot in the science fiction.

If I were trying to reach an audience as enormous as those who read mainstream romance, maybe I’d be worried.  But I’m not bothered when people say that women—the primary audience for romance novels—don’t read science fiction; you and I, Jo, know that they do!

Your main character is enslaved by a drug, and forced to use her powers for her employers’ benefit. What did this bring to the novel, in terms of themes and feel.

Addiction is a major theme in the novel:  addiction to a drug, obviously, but also addiction to power, addiction to control, addiction to any substance that others use to manipulate us.  The main character is trying to figure out who she is and who she doesn’t want to be, and her unwilling addiction is a serious obstacle to her search.  She’s a healer who can’t heal herself, an empath who is uncertain of her own emotions –  and all too aware that the flipside of her ability to heal is the ability to kill, an ability that she is tempted to use.  Would it be wrong of her to kill her oppressors?  She wrestles with the question, tempted – as tempted as she is by the drug, which would end the need to wrestle, burying her under a fuzzy blanket of dependence.

Are you a reader as well as a writer? If so, what are you favourite books and/or influences?

I am a reader, yes!  I could burble on and on and on about science fiction and romance novels that have influenced my own writing, but I’ll just list a few.

When I was nine years old, I read the Scholastic Book Service edition of Alexander Key’s The Forgotten Door, and it impressed me deeply. When I reread it recently, I was surprised to find that it’s full of ethical themes that must have been stamped into my brain, because they show up in my own novels: in particular, the importance of resisting malicious authorities who oppress the little guy.

I mentioned earlier that Anne McCaffrey’s Restoree was the first romantic science fiction novel I read, way back in high school, well before I read any books marketed as romance. I was absolutely thrilled by the heroine being swept mysteriously away from Earth to wake up as a nurse to an apparent idiot who turns out to be the unwillingly drugged former planetary regent­-whom she rescues and to whom she unwittingly becomes married. Hmm—writing it out like this, I can see the influence that her novel had on Beneath the Skin!

Over the years I’ve enjoyed romantic science fiction series, such as Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan series, Steve Miller and Sharon Lee’s Liaden series, Catherine Asaro’s Saga of the Skolian Empire, and S.L. Viehl’s early Stardoc novels. The romance of the alien is strong in all of these, the characters learning to love despite deep differences and historical conflicts.

And then there’s Ursula K. Le Guin. I aspire unsuccessfully to write as beautifully as she does, with as much insight into the alien as she displays in The Left Hand of Darkness.

I’ve also been influenced by “regular” romance novels, ones without any science fiction elements.  I love Laura Kinsale’s historical romances; her heroes often have a secret medical or psychological malady that makes them less perfect than the usual Alpha Male, which pushes all the right buttons for me. I also enjoy older books by Georgette Heyer. Although I get a happy jolt from modern romances with fully fleshed sex scenes, I appreciate the mannered interplay in Heyer’s novels, turbulent emotions expressed in the smallest of signs: the touch of a gloved hand, a sigh, a glance. Beneath the Skin pays tribute to this, insofar as the sex scenes are “sweet” rather than spicy.

Then there are a whole slew of paranormal romances (including J.D. Robb’s Dallas series), which encouraged me to believe that there were readers like me who enjoy genre-crossing.  And I haven’t even mentioned all of the fantasy novels and fantasy-based paranormal romances (such as Rachel Caine’s Weather Wardens books).

Do you write full time or do you have another role? If so, what?

I wish I could write full time!  But no, I teach at the University of California, Berkeley:  reading and composition, written argument, and public speaking.

Any new material coming out in the future? What are you working at now?

I’m working on three things.  One is a revision of the first novel I wrote about shapeshifters, a romance that tells the story of how Verilyn Beau Astra, a secondary character in Beneath the Skin, crash-landed on  the shapeshifters’ home planet, discovered their existence, and ended up marrying a human who is responsible for keeping their existence secret.  The second is another book in the shapeshifter series, focusing on Verilyn’s daughter and a male shapeshifter on the shifters’ planet.  When she meets him, he’s in the form of a rock.  (Metaphor for initiailly incommunicative unyielding hero?  Yes.)  The third isn’t about shapeshifters and isn’t a romance; it’s a contemporary SFF novel set in present-day Northern California.

Your road to publication was an interesting one – would you care to share that journey and any lessons/advice learned from it?

Well, I don’t think I learned the lesson I should have learned.  I’ve written several novels and many short stories, but after the first decade of rejections, I stopped sending my work to publishers.  I kept writing, kept gathering feedback from writers groups, kept polishing my craft – but when a novel or short story collection was finished, I self-published it rather than submitting it anywhere.  The only reason Beneath the Skin is in print is that the editor, Teresa Edgerton, read it long ago in a writers group, remembered it fondly, and contacted me because she felt it is ideal for Venus Ascending, her new line of romantic science fiction and romantic fantasy novels. 

After Teresa contacted me, I took a fresh look at the book and decided it needed a different ending, which required a few changes to earlier scenes.  Teresa agreed, so I made those changes and turbo-charged the last several chapters.  The book is better for it! 

But what’s the lesson if you want to sell your work to a publisher?  Keep writing, of course.  Beyond that?  Join a writers group that includes talented writers and editors whose opinions you respect because one day, one of them may remember your work, and in the meantime, their feedback will be invaluable in polishing your skills.

Not a satisfactory lesson.  Not necessarily replicable.

Some people have asked whether self-publishing played a role in the publisher acquiring the novel.  The answer is “nope.”  Self-publishing neither brought in money nor garnered readers, and it certainly didn’t attract publishers.  For self-publishing to be effective, it has to include self-advertising – and I am abysmal at advertising myself or my work.  The one thing that self-publishing did was produce a tangible product that I could put on my bookshelf or hand to a potential reader, and in that way, it kept me going, gave me something to do with a novel or a collection of short stories other than file it away in the back of the closet.

What’s your favourite part of the writing process?

The first draft stage of actual writing is one of my favorite parts.  When I sit down and put my fingers to the keyboard and start typing, I feel as if all the parts of my brain are talking to one another, as if I am whole and complete and in touch with myself in a way I’m not at other times of my life.  I discover as I write – stuff comes alive, things I don’t intend occur, comparisons and contrasts I didn’t consciously plan become apparent.  My subconscious gets to speak.

The revision stage is also good.  That’s when I consider what my subconscious has said and done, when I corral and shape the material, and when I set my conscious mind to making clear what I have discovered in the first draft stage.


More about Carolyn can be found here: 

And Beneath The Skin can be found here: