Interview with S.K. Dunstall
With the recent release of STARS UNCHARTED, we asked author(s) S.K. Dunstall if we could ask a few questions. They graciously answered.
Elitist Book Reviews: S.K. Dunstall actually stands for a sister-writing duo. We think that’s pretty awesome. Please introduce yourself to our readers.
Sherylyn: Thank you for having us. I’m Sherylyn, the ‘S’ part of the name.
Karen: And I’m the ‘K’. Karen. We both live in Melbourne, Australia. As you noted, we are sisters.
Sherylyn: Some people think the Dunstall part is a made-up name. It’s not. It’s our real surname.
EBR: Tell us a little about your writing history and how you came to be published authors?
K: We always told and wrote stories. Originally, we wrote separately. Sherylyn was my sounding board, and my first reader, and vice-versa. We critiqued each other heavily.
S: So much so that one day another of our sisters (we come from a big family) who was listening to one of our discussions, told me off for being mean to Karen.
K: We told each other our ideas — pitched to each other. You don’t want us to pitch to you even now, because we’re still terrible at it. We used each other to generate ideas. Usually, the ideas appealed to one or the other of us, but not both.
S: As was bound to happen, one day, we both loved the same idea. Dilemma. What to do? So we both wrote a first chapter. I loved some of Karen’s ideas, and she liked some of mine, so we combined them, and wrote a second chapter, and then a third, and a fourth, and more. This story was so much better written, and more interesting, than our individual stories. More fun to write, too.
K: As for how we came to be published authors. We followed the standard traditional publishing route. We wrote a book we thought was good enough to be published. We sent out query letters to agents we would like to represent us. We got an agent (Caitlin Blasdell, of Liza Dawson Agency). She reviewed it, sent it back. We made changes, sent it back. We went back and forth until Caitlin thought it ready to submit.
S: It went through more revisions based on feedback from the editors she submitted it to, until finally Anne Sowards, from Ace Books (Penguin Random House) picked it up. Both Caitlin and Anne are wonderful to work with.
S: To use a cliché, the rest is history. We have three books in the Linesman universe: LINESMAN (EBR Review), ALLIANCE (EBR Review), and CONFLUENCE (EBR Review). And we have one book in a new universe, STARS UNCHARTED (EBR Review), with a second due later this year. And so many ideas for more.
EBR: How does the writing process work for you? Is it very different than writing solo? How do you utilize each others’ writing strengths? And overcome weaknesses?
K: Our process has changed over time. We’ve refined it from those early days where we combined chapters. Nowadays, one of us writes a draft, the other follows along behind editing. They clean the story up, fill in the spots that say things like [battle goes here] or [emotional moment needed].
S: We talk a lot. It’s more collaborative than writing solo and a lot more fun. We also pick up issues — in general — before we finish a draft, not afterwards, so there are fewer major rewrites. Mostly.
K: Let’s not talk about STARS BEYOND (to be released late 2019) here, which has been rewritten three times and is a totally different book from either of the first two we wrote.
S: Karen is very character driven. She writes great characters, and I tell her when they suck.
K: Sherylyn is a better editor, writes better action scenes, and puts more emotion in. She tends to over-embellish, I under-embellish. We meet in the middle. It’s a good balance.
S: Having two writers should make writing a story faster, but it doesn’t. The first draft is often rougher than our individual stories were. The book is written through conversation, then put onto paper, and you have two writers arguing/discussion situations that we have to agree on. Our policy is that if one truly doesn’t like something, we need to find something we both do like.
EBR: Why do you write Science Fiction? What are your influences and favorite authors?
S: We write what we love to read, the movies we like to see. We love character-driven stories, we love the possibilities of future. We like escapism, to take us away from the real world. We like a mystery. Spec fic appeals.
K: We grew up on science fiction, fantasy, and mystery.
S: Some our favourite authors include Anne McCaffrey, Diana Wynne Jones, Robin Hobb.
K: Yes, and Vernor Vinge. And the newer ones coming up. Ann Leckie. I can’t really call Martha Wells new, can I? But I love Murderbot.
S: There are so many authors whose work we love. It’s difficult to choose only one or two, so these are the ones that first came to mind, and in the field that we write.
EBR: Are there current trends in Science Fiction that excites you?
K: Space opera seems to be having a resurgence, which is great.
S: I love that a lot of science fiction nowadays is character-driven. The books I really enjoy, both reading and writing, are based on character, no matter what genre.
K: Which makes it more accessible to a wider range of readers. It may only be a perception, but for the first time in a while I feel the genre is picking up new readers, rather than stagnating.
S: More humor.
K: More science fiction from non-English speaking countries. Extrapolating some of the current scientific themes: climate change, biotechnology, privacy, AIs, nanotechnology. I mean, the topics were always there, but there’s some exciting books coming out about these topics nowadays.
EBR: In the Linesman series you write about “lines” that are used to control ships; it’s an alien technology that makes it possible for ships to travel faster and further than any technology than humans could have developed. The books explore this fascinating concept with mind-blowing revelations as the series progresses. How did you come up with the idea for the lines? How much of this concept drove the story? What kinds of problems, if any, did this concept present for your story?
K: The basic idea behind LINESMAN is how, as we get more advanced, we lose a lot of knowledge thatis valuable and could be useful, but it gets discarded because it doesn’t fit with current thinking. It was a small step from there to what happens if we didn’t even have that knowledge to start with. For example, if we picked it up from an alien ship and found a use for it, but it wasn’t how aliens used that technology.
S: We wanted a character who had learned a different way. Kids pick things up intuitively — the way they can pick up multiple languages, for example. In our story, the only ‘people’ teaching Ean about the lines before he went to House of Rigel were the lines themselves.
S: This was the concept behind the story, and what drove it, really. The lines worked for us, so we didn’t have any real issues with the concept. We can imagine something like this being possible.
K: A big issue with humans going out into space is travelling faster than light. You have to solve that if you want travel between worlds. In LINESMAN, humans took an alien solution: the lines.
EBR: Are there plans to return to the Linesman universe?
K: Definitely. We have two stories in the Linesman universe, not Ean-centred, that we’re working on now. Note, our agent hasn’t seen either of these yet.
S: We’d also like to write more Ean books. He hasn’t come across the aliens yet, and that’s essential for closure, we think.
EBR: Your most recent release, STARS UNCHARTED is about a universe where humans are among the stars, and it takes places mostly on ships in space. There are body modders, powerful companies that control the legal zone, and other exciting concepts. What ignited the idea for this book?
K: Like LINESMAN this idea came from a ‘what if’ question. In many science fiction books and movies, an injured person is scanned and diagnosed or goes into a machine and comes out fixed. How does that affect the role of a doctor moving forward? Do they still undergo years of medical training just to let a machine service their patient? And if all your health problems can be fixed by a machine, what’s left? Cosmetic surgery.
K: The companies in control scenario came about by thinking about who can afford to go into space and exploit it? Governments can’t. Mining the asteroid belt for valuable minerals is unlikely to be done by governments. It will more likely be companies.
EBR: In STARS UNCHARTED your main characters Nika and Josune are experienced and intelligent women who must use their wits to survive what seems like insurmountable obstacles. Was there a model you drew from for these characters? If we ever got the opportunity to meet you, would we see a little of Nika and Josune in you? Did one of you focus on writing one character or did you merge your writing efforts? (We only ask because we thought their PoV narratives were admirably distinct.)
S: We wish. Sadly, you won’t see Josune or Nika in us.
K: There was no model. We like strong women in stories. We like women who control their own lives.
S: The one thing we did base on someone we knew — and not the character, just the behaviour of the character — was a person in a domestic violence situation. She was a strong woman, someone you would have expected could walk away from an abusive situation, but she couldn’t.
K: Our writing merges. We sometimes overwrite what the other person has written. Nothing is set until it has been read and approved by the other, and checked again. Many drafts.
S: One of the reasons Nika’s and Josune may be distinct is because we’d written three major drafts of Nika’s story before we added Josune. She came very late.
K: The story only really came alive when Josune arrived. That was fun. It was like having a new story to write.
EBR: What’s next in the STARS UNCHARTED universe? Is the any crossover with the Linesman universe?
S: Next is STARS BEYOND, which is due out on 22 October this year. It follows what happens next to the crew of The Road.
K: As for a crossover with the Linesman universe? No. We considered it, but it doesn’t fit. The stories use different technology for faster than light travel. It’s a whole different political structure. The histories don’t fit.
EBR: One of our favorite things about your books is that we can give them to younger audiences without worrying about content (and they’re engaging and thought-provoking writing at the same time). Is that a happy coincidence or is it intentional?
K: It’s a happy coincidence. We write what we like to read. We read middle grade, young adult, and across the adult range. One of Sherlyn’s favourite series, in fact, is John Flanagan’s Ranger’s Apprentice series, which is for the young adult/middle grade age group.
S: We want stories we wouldn’t be uncomfortable to show our family.
EBR: Thanks so much for chatting with us! We appreciate your time. Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know?
S: Only to say thank you to everyone who for reads our books, and we love it when you reach out and let us know what you think.
S: Also, all scientific bloopers are ours. We apologise for them. We do our best to make sure our science is possible, but sometimes, we may get things wrong.
K: Thank you for having us.