“Maybe, just maybe, humanity is worth saving”: Stu Jones and Gareth Worthington interviewed

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Stu Jones and Gareth Worthington are authors of It Takes Death to Reach a Star (2018) and In the Shadow of a Valiant Moon (2020) — fast-paced, action-packed, post-apocalyptic thrillers set in the 23rd century — as well as various solo works. It Takes Death to Reach a Star was a Dragon Award Finalist, a Cygnus Award First Place Ribbon recipient, an IPPY Award Winner, a New York Book Festival Sci-Fi Award Winner, and a Feathered Quill Gold Award Winner. Vector caught up with Stu and Gareth to ask them about their collaboration …

In the Shadow of a Valiant Moon is out early next year, is that right? Tell us a little bit about it. 

Gareth: Moon — as Stu and I refer to it — is the sequel to It Takes Death to Reach a Star. It’s set four years after the events in Star. Star was dark, but Moon is darker. Even the team at Boilermaker Entertainment — they’re the ones we’re working with to bring this series to the screen — commented on how much darker it is, compared with the first book. 

Stu: And yet, even with all the bleakness and despair, there is this central thread of hope. Just the flicker of an idea that maybe, just maybe, humanity is worth saving. 

Lads, why so bleak?

Gareth: Stu and I are realists. In most stories, after a dictator is overthrown the world is bright and new again. But that rarely happens in real life. When a dictatorship is overthrown, chaos often ensues in the power vacuum. New potential despots come to the fore. The point of Moon was to show the despair and chaos, and that in the midst of it all needs to be a flame of hope.

I’m looking at one of the early reviews. The reviewer comments, “while It Takes Death to Reach a Star emphasized the importance of honest communication between us humans, regardless of our religion or social class or physical qualities, In the Shadow of a Valiant Moon hammers home the message that hope is the force that will keep one alive through all that sard.” Would you agree?

Gareth: Absolutely. I think so. Stu put it nicely in one of his passages:

The monk leans close, whispering to the flame with gentle breaths, coaxing the sparks to live again. A small finger of fire takes hold on the moss bed. Rebirth. Renewal. The light begins again, feeble but growing. It knows nothing else, only the perpetual act of pressing back against the darkness. That is its only purpose. It knows not of the endless cold in which it exists and will never overcome.

Stu: Of course, another reason this book is so dark is fans asked for more Vedmak. More Vedmak is what they got.

Okay. Arguably, it’s not actually that bleak a setting. I mean, you’ve allowed a whole one city to survive.

Yes, we used a combination of world war and an antibacterial-resistant plague to wipe out most of humanity. Survivors are forced to seek refuge in a single place, Etyom, believed to provide some protection from the disease. The story explores how — due to widening socio-economic classes, access to healthcare, and a shift toward transhumanism — humanity eventually splits into essentially two species. There are the Graciles, who are strong, beautiful, probably genetically and technologically engineered. There are the Robusts, who eke out an existence, surviving as humans always have.

You made up ‘sard,’ yes? If so, is there any particular reason for that sound? I am a fan of speculative swearing. 

Stu: Actually, it’s not made up. One of the nuances of the world we created was a return by the population to old practices following the global collapse of modern society. One of the ways we showed this evolution was in the use of antiquated terms such as Damnation. Sard (according to some sources) was the original f-word, originating at some point in 10th century England. There are translations of biblical text from that era that essentially say “Thou shalt not sard another man’s wife.” We took this old school swear word and ran with it.

Excellent, I am a fan of old school swearing too. So what really made you go, “Sard! Tarnation! Zwounds! Smeg! Frell! Karabast!”? Let me rephrase. What was the biggest challenge in writing the sequel?

Gareth: Definitely upping the ante. Star had such a climactic ending, with cosmic forces at play. We were like: how the hell do we make book two better?

Stu: I agree. When we realized a sequel was happening and we were going to have to up the ante on Star, there was a moment of total bewilderment. Somehow, I think we pulled it off.

I’m interested in how the two of you organised the writing process itself.

Stu: Did you say “organize”? That’s funny. I think I understood the heart and soul of this series at the beginning, but beyond that? I had no idea what I was jumping off into. Most of the time I was just as surprised at what happened in our story as our readers typically are. I know that sounds strange coming from the content creator but it’s true.

Gareth: The first book was also a huge learning process for us both. One because we had never co-written a book before, and two because we had never written in first person, present tense before. I actually pursued Stu for a year before we even started. 

Pursued?

Gareth: I had this embryonic idea I wanted to explore: the God-shaped hole. As a scientist and an atheist, there comes a point in my understanding of the world where the evidence runs out and I’m left with the concept: it must be God. I wanted to explore that from two points of view, atheism and faith. I knew Stu to be a man of faith, as well as an awesome author unafraid to tackle difficult issues.

Stu: Gareth is a bit more organized than I am and I tend to be a very in the moment designer of character and scene. It’s the same way I operate as a long time SWAT guy – develop a basic plan then rock and roll. Too much deliberation on minutiae early on spoils the surprise and puts your story in a box. I want the characters to surprise me with something unanticipated that leaves me wondering how in the world they’re going to get out of this one.

Writing fiction and armed law enforcement make an extremely intriguing analogy. I might like to interrogate that more some day. But for now, can you tell us a bit more about the nuts and bolts of your collaboration? Did you formally divide up the labour, or was it more loose?

Gareth: When we finally decided to be brave and start writing, we agreed that it needed to be told in first person present tense. People tried to talk us out of it. But we knew it had to be done this way. Eight awards later, we believe we were right, and our agents and publisher are very happy.

The fact we did it first person made the writing slightly easier, because Stu wrote Mila’s chapters and I wrote Demitri’s. In this way, the reader really does get two truly different points of view. I wouldn’t know what was going on in Stu’s chapters until he showed me. It was exciting and motivating to read his work, and learn about how Mila saw our world. I hope Stu felt the same.

That sounds like a fun way of writing. If it works well, your collaborator also becomes your first riveted reader, avid for the next instalment.

Stu: And beyond that, communication is key. Working with another writer is not for the faint of heart. If I had to guess based on the trials of or experience, I’d wager not many pairings are very successful. Ego has to go on the back burner and what’s best for the story has to come first. That requires honesty and a willingness to compromise.

Gareth: Honesty is key. We both dislike fluff and nonsense. If it felt cheesy, we’d just say so and it got dropped. We have similar writing styles in that we like a lot of pace and action. Stu and I both have very busy jobs and we don’t often have time for the more meandering books. Not that those aren’t sometimes great, but we work with the time we have. So that helped a lot. 

Stu: I think Gareth and I knew from the start that — being from different worlds and holding different beliefs ourselves — we were going to have to be completely transparent with each other if the project was going to work in any capacity. In the process, we ended up forging a great working relationship as well as friendship. 

But despite those commonalities, do you also feel like each of you bring different things to the writing process? If so, what? And feel free to disagree.

Gareth: For me, Stu brings so much life to his work. His imagination is awesome. Whereas I look to science for my inspiration, Stu is able to dream it up. Some of the things he came up with for Etyom, the little details — like the drink Krig, or the Monk’s moonshine Dreamy Clouds — just made the whole world more real. I actually l find it hard to write solo projects now.

Stu: Funny thing is, I don’t think there’s any disagreement here. We both jumped into the mix with both feet not knowing if it was going to be a total disaster, and somehow landed on the same page. Our characters in the story are a representation of this process — of taking a chance on someone who’s different from you knowing it could blow up in your face while hoping for the best.

As far as what makes us different — Gareth’s scientific mind is incredible. I get by in science fiction by having a basic functional understanding of many of these complex scientific theories we’ve been working with. Gareth would tell you the same because he’s humble like that, but the truth is, he’s brilliant. He brings a level of detail and scientific know how to what we do that astounds me.

OK, this is something you’ve already touched on. Can you talk about the role of religion in your work? Interpreting ‘religion’ any way you like.

Gareth: This is a huge central piece to our work. The story is based on hard science, and it folds in faith and spirituality to make readers consider what they think they know. We’ve actually documented our research and thinking quite extensively online. 

Etyom represents a microcosm of all walks of life, and all religions. Unlike many stories where the downtrodden all pull together easily, our Robusts band together in enclaves based on skin color and similar world views – just as we so often do in real life. There is in-fighting, black market trading, and all manner of deceit. It is kept this was by the Graciles.

When my character, Demitri (a Gracile), sees the world, it is through the eyes of the privileged and as an atheist. Stu’s character, Mila (a Robust) survives through her faith and belief in something bigger than herself. The intersect for them both is the voice in Demitri’s head: Vedmak. Demitri believes himself to have dissociative identify disorder, while Mila sees Vedmak as a demon. 

The twist comes when neither are correct. Vedmak’s true nature blurs the lines between science and religion. Of course, we also researched a lot of quantum biology and exotic physics for the book – but we don’t want to spoil it and tell you why. You’ll have to read.

Stu, did I miss something?

Stu: In the realm of science fiction, the topic of faith has become something of a dirty word. Like, how dare you talk about the concept of human faith in the unknown in your story? Is this really such an ugly thing? To see the frailty of the world and desire something better, something unspoiled? I wanted this to be one of the underpinnings of our story, but not as a shove-it-down-your-throat excuse to preach. 

What was more important to us was to counterbalance Mila’s faith, with Demitri’s more practical scientifically minded approach. The result is an opportunity to approach some very difficult human questions from two different perspectives. We wanted our reader to chew on these difficult concepts, decide for themselves, and maybe at some point come to the realization that we’re just viewing two sides of the same human coin, and we’re all stuck on this rock together.

Okay, you’ve mentioned Demetri and Mila. Talk to us more about characterization. How do you approach writing character?

Stu: As I mentioned before, organization is not my strong suit. I approach character creation from a highly organic perspective. I create the bones of the character, the foundations, some backstory, a few relationships and then I set them free into the world I’ve created. I sort of feel like I don’t control them beyond that point. I’m simply observing and recording the journey. Any given character needs the room to grow, develop, and make terrible life altering decisions, just like the rest of us in the real world do. That, to me, is the process that truly brings a character to life.

Gareth: I draw a lot on myself or people in my life for characters. I had a … colorful … upbringing. Vedmak for instance at the core is my father. He used psychological abuse to keep you in place. I used this for Vedmak. Demitri is the self-doubting part of me – when you feel you just don’t fit. It’s funny because in my debut novel, Children of the Fifth Sun, the protagonist, Kelly Graham, is very much based on my bravado and ability to fool the world I’m confident. 

Worldbuilding is something SFF writers and fans talk about constantly, but I’m not always sure they’re talking about the same thing. What does worldbuilding mean to you guys? How did you approach it?

Stu: I approach world building in the same way I approach character development. You have to have the bones to start so you have an understanding of what you’re dealing with. Outside of that, I let it run wild. If it’s plausible within the world we’ve created, then anything within that guiding framework is possible.

Gareth: Being a scientist, I approach worldbuilding this way. I strive for realism. For instance, in Star the Gracile world — while richer than the Robust environment — would still be resource strapped. So, they have concentrated on certain things, and not others. They also recycle, or Ax, their people at a certain age to conserve resources. For me it has to make sense. 

Do you ever encounter tensions between worldbuilding and plotting? 

Stu: Worldbuilding is vital. The world you create as a storyteller has to be vivid and real and believable. It requires great detail to be effective. That said, nothing should get in the way of the story, not even your beautiful world. This is where some science fiction writers go off the rails in my opinion. As a writer you cannot sacrifice the pacing of your story in favor of descriptive prose, and it doesn’t take pages and pages to tell your reader how the abundant emerald ferns that populate your unspoiled jungle paradise cascade in the wind. Make it colorful and get on with the story.

Gareth: What Stu said. Give the reader enough so they can imagine it and fill in the gaps with their mind, then move on. Story is king. 

Let’s talk literary influences.

Stu: I know we would both say H.G. Wells, one of the godfathers of modern science fiction, heavily influenced us both early on. The Time Machine specifically has a direct link to this series, as it also deals with the concept of a great division of the human race driving an unavoidable conflict. Aside from that, our work together has been compared to the dark dystopias of Phillip K. Dick, which is truly an honor.

Stu: He knows me well. Wells. Hands down.

Okay: you are magically transported to Etyom tomorrow. What’s the first thing you do? And/or, fast forward one week: where are you now?

Stu: Find Mila and the resistance, pledge my allegiance and make fast friends, and get my tail kicked in a sparring session with Master Ghofaun. I’d probably also tackle a bottle of Dreamy Clouds while I was at it.

Gareth: Make a run for Vel. If you read both books, you’ll see why …

Has anything surprised you about the reception of Star?

Gareth: Star and Moon are divisive. That wasn’t a surprise. We knew they would be going in. We pull no punches and throw very real issues into our book. We have had people say it needs trigger warnings. We have had people tell us we had no right to put certain topics in the book at all – self-harm, rape, racism – as we surely couldn’t know what we are talking about. The thing is, Stu is a SWAT police officer in Alabama. I grew up in an abusive home in the middle of the bad neighborhood in the UK. We absolutely know what we are talking about. 

Something that can get lost, when we consider how an author’s lived experience grounds their writing and its reception, is that it’s not just about access to knowledge. That’s important, but it’s also about the presumed solidarities of that author. But definitely, the relationship of lived experience to what you’re automatically entitled to write about, as well as what you’re entitled to figure out how to write about, is a complex set of issues. Do you want to be more specific about criticism you’ve received?

Gareth: Well, my favorite negative review is just a couple of lines, which described it as “thinly veiled modern religious strife disguised as a sci-fi novel,” obviously unaware that sci-fi and religion have always been entwined, and that sci-fi has always reflected on contemporary issues. Of course, many more people read it and loved it, and have said all kinds of gratifying things. 

Stu: As Gareth said, we knew it would be divisive among readers due to touching on some uncomfortable topics. But what we really didn’t expect was such a positive response from the professional literary world. Judges on awards panels have invariably reviewed it very positively. We have won eight awards now, I think, including being a Dragon Award Finalist, a Cygnus Award First Place Ribbon recipient, an IPPY Award Winner and a Feathered Quill Gold Award Winner. The Feathered Quill judges comments were exceptionally nice — “transfixed from beginning to end.” This has all translated into Hollywood taking an interest, and Gareth and I are beside ourselves with excitement over the fact that the guys at Boilermaker Entertainment are working their butts off to get this into your screens.

What else does the future hold?

Stu: For us? We’re just getting started.

Gareth: Yeah, we’re starting a new project together in a month or two and we have another one that’s so complex we both agreed we need a year to figure out the execution … but in the meantime, there is some cool stuff coming. Our publisher teamed up with Jean Book Nerd, who works a lot with Tor, to fill her new subscription book boxes with books. My debut novel is featured in September’s box, and Star hardback will be in a box this coming Spring.

Where can readers find out about that?

Head on over to www.jeanbooknerd.com to check the boxes out.

Gareth and Stu, thanks so much.

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