“Actions and reactions and ripple effects”: an interview with Valerie Valdes

Chilling Effect cover

Chilling Effect, Valerie Valdes’s resplendent debut novel, was published last month in the UK by Orbit. It’s an action-packed space opera bursting with wit and wacky hijinks. Liz Lutgendorff caught up with Valerie Valdes to spill the space tea …

Right from the start, Chilling Effect throws you into the deep end. Was that a deliberate choice?

I do usually prefer novels that approach their stories through immersion rather than exposition. I like to create context while something is happening, rather than trying to explain everything up front. That’s how I tend to build my worlds as well: by having things be introduced as the character thinks about them or interacts with them, a very tight POV that can mean some things aren’t immediately clear and some readers will be frustrated by the lack of explicit description. 

It can be a difficult approach to manage because you want the reader to be engaged, and sometimes starting on action or dialogue means the whole thing is occurring in a void and they have no reason to care about what’s happening yet. But also the first chapter, “Save the Cats”, is an allusion to the technique where you get the audience to empathize with your main character by having them do something noble like … save a cat! So I was not only beginning with as much immersion as I could manage, but also joking about the method usually used to get the buy-in from audiences.

That makes sense. Chilling Effect is filled with great worldbuilding, and a lot of action and intrigue, but it’s also very funny and silly! Did you worry about how silly you could be? Or did you leave that your editor if you went too far?

At the point where I started writing this book, I’d spent years trying to write “serious” sci-fi and fantasy and horror stories, because that seemed like the most important thing I could do with my time and energy. The world is a mess, and we need thoughtful fiction to help us find a way to deal with our problems meaningfully, both externally and internally. But as important as catharsis is, as important as it is to engage with contemporary issues, I think it’s also important to imagine a future where humanity has more or less transcended some of those problems. 

Which can be risky too, right?

Sure. It can feel like erasure, which is harmful, but I hope it gives people a refuge from the micro-aggressions and even some larger traumas they have to engage with on a daily basis. That isn’t to say this book is free of triggers, because there are absolutely a few content warnings that apply, but I gave myself permission to be as absolutely silly as I wanted, while trying to keep an eye on ways the silliness could be leveraged to good purpose. I’m no Terry Pratchett, but his approach to satire informed a lot of my choices and preferences, the ways in which I tried to be funny while not entirely ignoring the real world manifestations of the issues I raised. And I definitely did rely on my beta readers and agent and editors to step in if I went too far.

You have some pretty awful men in the novel, which I very much enjoyed as they are just dealt with in delightful ways. “Well, actually” guy, Miles Erck — was he based on Twitter pop culture?

He definitely was. The original working title of the short story that became this novel was “Yes All Women, Not All Aliens” because I was watching that movement occur online and it led me to think of the ways women have to navigate the world every day, and how, sadly, that may be one of the things that never disappears even in the distant future. So Miles is a manifestation of mansplaining, in the most extreme way. I actually call his expression “resting punchface” in the sequel.

He was so very punchable!

But I think the awfulness isn’t limited to men, and the ways in which they’re awful vary because that’s how people are, and certainly I have at least two very excellent men in the story, whom I love dearly.

They were lovely! But more about the terrible ones. The other awful man (or … alien) was Glorious Apotheosis. First, that name, amazing. What’s the story behind it?

I remember workshopping that name with friends, but I wanted something that showcased the utterly bombastic nature of some people’s opinions of themselves, which can be reinforced culturally. There’s also historical precedent for powerful figures being treated as gods despite their personal qualities, so I was playing with that a bit as well. And certainly there are contemporary celebrities with huge followings who think they’re the second coming, which is its own brand of worship.

I think that also answers my second question of why have such a tenacious dirtbag! 

Right, there are a lot of tenacious dirtbags out there with more power and privilege than they likely deserve, and this was a way of exploring that notion.

Cool. I kind of loved to hate him? So the dirtbags are matched by a lovely cast of characters, all wonderfully diverse in their own ways. How did you approach building your crew? 

I knew from the start that I wanted a group of people who were different from each other, but who had grown into a family unit because of or in spite of those differences, people who had their own histories and traumas and were building a new life together that would transcend their pasts. I wanted a main character who was more of a scoundrel than a hero, someone who had done bad deeds and was trying to become a better person, because I think many of us have things we wish we hadn’t done and are trying to figure out how to atone or change even if forgiveness isn’t an option. 

From there, I wanted her to have a best friend whose job was healing, but who was herself trying to grow and change and be better, someone more strong and stable while still being a flawed person. And then I thought about people in my life, their own positive and negative qualities, and the characters that really resonated with me in fiction, the different archetypes and tropes that are often explored and how I could reconcile those with the real people I knew and the real lives they’ve lived. 

Then it was about finding a good mix of personalities and the jobs they would reasonably be filling on a small cargo ship, and what kinds of antagonists would be working against them in their travels across the universe. Some characters were cut as I edited, some were changed, and eventually this was how it all settled.

So are you a meticulous plotter, or do you just write and see what happens? Chilling Effect has a few mysteries at its heart. Who are The Fridge? Why did they kidnap Eva’s sister? How did you think about making those big reveals? 

I’m a plotter all the way! Or an architect, to use alternate terminology, though not to the degree that some folks are (they might be termed engineers instead, I suppose). Maybe I’m a landscape architect? (Accidentally typed “architext” there, whoops!)

“Architext” is a good alternative word for “author.”

Lol, yeah. A builder of words! Anyway, I usually come into my writing with a fairly detailed outline, then spend a month or so drafting half the book, then take a look at what I have and figure out whether the parts are all working and whether things need to be changed. I try to structure where reveals occur and how they’re delivered, because I think that’s important in terms of keeping readers engaged; you need enough bread crumbs that they’ll follow you, but not so many that they get filled up too soon, or so few that they wander off. But no plan survives contact with the enemy, as the saying goes, so that’s what the editing process is for. Beta readers are also a great help, since the way things come across in your brain and the way other people process them can be very different. Having others ask questions and point out things you’ve missed or over-explained lets you modify as needed so the final product runs smoothly.

I guess that goes for worldbuilding too? One thing that I really liked was some of the slang you introduced (“we’ll pass through that gate when we reach it”). It made a counterpoint to some of the more established concepts (from ships to gates to nanites). Did you think much about how many established sci-fi concepts you relied on to world-build?

I think a lot about everything, sometimes to a point where I have to step back and start writing instead of getting mired in the planning work! But one of my favorite things to do is just that: figure out the ways certain idioms would potentially change as the world changes, or how similar concepts would develop in a secondary world that has similarities to ours but also key differences. Slang and swear words are some of the most effective and efficient tools for conveying character and world, and some of the most fun. I also enjoy playing with tropes and also thinking through how previously imagined tech might evolve or be used in different ways than the original creators intended. 

As technology changes and new tech is developed every day, there are always actions and reactions and ripple effects that mean the tech gets used and abused in ways that were never intended. People sometimes like to separate science fiction into “hard” and “soft” as if there’s a clear line and little overlap. But the people who use and create tech, the societies they live in and how those societies change, inform and influence the tech itself in ways that can’t be made discrete. And that, in turn, affects the language people use to describe the world around them and their own interiority.

How did you pick what aspects of Earth culture would survive? It reminded me a bit of the relationship with my ancestry, which is mainly food based. So even though Eva and I had different cultural backgrounds, it really resonated for me with that aspect of being far away (time- and distance-wise), but still being important to an individual …

I would say a lot survived that didn’t make it onto the page because of the way I handle worldbuilding. Which is a kind of cop-out because if it’s not on the page then it basically doesn’t count! But that said, I tried to think about what elements of human culture are most important to us, the kinds of things that have already survived through geographic shifts and colonialism and immigration and changes in technology. Food is one of them, definitely, but I also wanted to acknowledge how even basics like food can be a challenge to obtain, especially when you’re one minor species operating on a huge universal field. Clothing is another cultural aspect that defines us; style and fashion can change quickly, even as certain things remain relatively static, but it’s a huge indicator of class and social status. Traditions are another, be they religious or cultural or specific to smaller groups like families or hobbyists or fandoms, and even things like sports made sense to bring forward somehow while considering how different tastes and technologies might affect them.

Cool. I found it very humanising (humanity-ising?) in a way that it made it a very accessible world. The big space opera-y-ness of it didn’t feel overwhelming. 

Right. Even back in Pompeii, people were writing dirty graffiti on the walls. Humans change, but there are always things we bring with us wherever we go.

Let’s take a step back. You’ve published poetry and short stories, and now Chilling Effect is your first novel. Can you tell us a little about your journey? How did you originally get into writing?

I’m one of those “always been a writer” types: wrote my first short story when I was in first grade (about six years old), and kept writing on and off thereafter. We had a county fair that I used to enter my poetry in every year because I loved getting ribbons! But it wasn’t until college that I started seriously considering publication, and it wasn’t until years after graduating that I pursued it deliberately. It’s a tough ride and takes a lot of tenacity, and I didn’t mature and develop that as quickly as some other writers. 

I wrote a poetry thesis in college, and for a while poetry was really where I devoted my attention. Then I started participating in National Novel Writing Month, as a way of getting back to my fiction roots. I caught the bug and kept writing half a novel or so every year since then. In between I worked on some poetry as well as short fiction, and gradually gained the confidence to start submitting to magazines. Different online writing communities spurred me on. I can’t emphasize enough how helpful it was to have peers going through the same troubles, so we could all cheer each other on along the way.

You’re a Viable Paradise alumni, right? What was that like?

Viable Paradise was an amazing experience that I cannot recommend enough, if you’re the kind of person who thrives on community engagement and professional lectures and so on. You travel to this island by ferry and spend a whole week doing nothing but reading and writing and critiquing and hearing brilliant writers and publishers talk about craft and the industry, while occasionally wandering through lovely gardens and along a rugged seashore. 

What was the best thing you learned? What advice would you give to those considering that kind of thing?

I feel like I learned a lot of valuable writing tips, and ways to think about my own work and my process, but honestly the best thing I gained from it were the colleagues, now friends, who attended with me. That old joke about the “friendships you made along the way” is so true. My crew is absolutely there for me, and I’m there for them, and we keep each other afloat whenever this journey becomes difficult.

It sounds amazing, even if you just want to hang out! 

It really is. For those who want to attend a similar workshop, I’d say to do it if you can manage, but if not then there are other options to find your people out there.

In an earlier interview, you talked about Mass Effect, and described your novel as telling the story about the Han Solo of that world rather than the Commander Shepard. As I can’t resist a good gaming reference — what kind of game would Chilling Effect be? Open World, Rails, First Person Shooter? Lego Chilling Effect, so you can swap in and out different playable characters?

I’d love for a Chilling Effect game to be an RPG like Mass Effect, open world-ish with lots of good character interaction and the occasional shoot-out. Maybe space battles instead of Mako exploration, though! A Lego game would also be rad, or a JRPG. But I do think the key component would be the notion of playing someone who is on the outskirts of the “real” action, who nonetheless has to deal with the ripple effects of choices being made by people who have more wide-reaching agency. And they end up being a bigger part of the outcome than they intended, because even when it feels like we as individuals can’t make a difference, there’s always something we can do to affect change beyond our own lives.

FINAL QUESTION! You’ve briefly mentioned it already, but can you tell us anything else about the sequel? Will we find out more about the intrepid crew? I hope there’s the occasional appearance of a psychic cat? 👀

The sequel is called Prime Deceptions, and it should be out later this year. Trying to keep the spoilers to a minimum: it picks up about six months after Chilling Effect ends, following the crew of La Sirena Negra as they hassle The Fridge and keep picking up odd jobs where they can. They’re tasked with finding a missing scientist who’s the key to stopping a big mystery threat, and along the way Captain Eva Innocente has to deal with more of her ugly past. There are new worlds to explore, new enemies to deal with, old enemies who won’t go away, and definitely more psychic cat shenanigans—especially from Mala, who makes a total nuisance of herself repeatedly! And if you think Eva’s dad is a handful, wait until you meet her mother…

It sounds amazing! I look forward to it! Thank you for your time today!

And thank you!


Valerie Valdes’ work has been published in Nightmare Magazine, Uncanny Magazine, SHE WALKS IN SHADOWS, and TIME TRAVEL SHORT STORIES. She is a graduate of the Viable Paradise workshop and lives in Georgia with her husband and children. Join her in opining about books, BioWare games, and robots in disguise on Twitter: @valerievaldes.

Liz Lutgendorff has a PhD in modern British history and during the day works in digital international development. By night, she likes to read graphic novels, science fiction, history books and play video games. She lives in London with her partner and tweets a lot: @sillypunk

 

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