Author Interview: RoAnna Sylver

I am so excited to share an interview with RoAnna Sylver, author of Chameleon Moon and The Lifeline Signal. We’ll be talking about RoAnna’s books, how to write inclusive stories, and hope in dystopias. Enjoy!

33623041Can you tell us a little bit about your book?
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Definitely. The Lifeline Signal is the second in my series, Chameleon Moon, a SFF/dystopian story about a quarantined, burning city full of people with beautiful, powerful, weird superhuman abilities. It’s also about survival, not just for the dystopian harsh circumstances, but marginalized people living, helping one another and generally being awesome – instead of suffering/dying for shock or ‘inspiration.’ (It’s ownvoices/based on lived experience in a lot of ways, and I write largely because I want to feel included/welcome/celebrated in the stories I read, and want others to feel the same.)
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This is the first book I’ve written with xie/xir pronouns, especially for a main character. Some very important people have used they/them, and that returns in this book, but I so badly want to see more nonbinary and agender inclusion, for myself and everyone else who needs it. So writing Shiloh, and xir certainty/belief in xirself and xir nonbinary identity, how important that is, having the right gender pronouns and a community that understands/celebrates you – that felt incredible. I hope it makes readers feel good too.
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Book 2 is a perspective shift, and I’m starting to bring a much larger story – and I honestly hope I can pull it off. Parole was only the beginning. Now we’ll get a look at the world outside Parole’s literal bubble… and find that it’s not the ‘normal’ utopia everyone inside imagines. There’s a huge poisonous wasteland stretching across the US, the Tartarus Zone, full of shapeshifting ghosts and their mysteries, and the same Eye in the Sky threat as before.
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This time we join three teenagers as they meet in their dreams – thanks to their old friend Gabriel – and set off on a motorcycle road trip, racing to get some super important data (and a pancreas-in-a-jar…) to Parole. You might know Annie already from the short stories, and remember Shiloh’s name coming up in Runtime. I’d tell you about the third, but he’s a walking spoiler and I can’t take the Chance. (Ha.) They’ll meet old friends and new… and just like Book 1, everything is connected. I can’t wait to show you how.
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You’ve remarked that your stories are unusually hopeful dystopian novels. Why did you decide focus on hope in this usually grim genre?
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The simple answer is I like dystopian fiction. And science fiction/fantasy. (Chameleon Moon has been described as ‘science fantasy,’ which I like.) But I don’t always feel welcome in it. There’s a lot of trends and conventions I don’t enjoy – such as insistently grimdark themes, excessive ‘grittiness’ in the name of realism, and marginalized people disproportionately suffering/dying to inspire largely non-marginalized main characters who go on to be heroes.
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Forget that. We’re heroes already.
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And we don’t need more horribly frightening, hopeless looks at the future. It’s grim enough right now. Writing hopeful dystopia, for me, is a way to acknowledge the often-terrifying, brutal reality of the world right now – while saying no, it does not need to remain this way. It will not. We will not disappear. We will be there, and we will save one another.
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Relatedly, there was lately a conversation on Twitter about why authors choose to make their characters suffer. How would you describe your decisions on the matter?
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Ha, that was a good one – and you can read my whole thread here.
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Basically, I tend to think of it in terms of Good Pain and Bad Pain, and while the line might be subtle, it’s very clear once you’re feeling it. From the thread:
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Bad Pain – what we mostly get in mainstream fiction/media; marginalized char torture porn, awful things happen for no reason/bc Realistic.
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Good Pain: Catharsis. Struggles that directly (or eventually) precede resolution, healing, growth. Necessary mourning. Respect for IRL pain.
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‘Bad pain’ is hopelessness. Characters – especially marginalized ones – being subjected to disproportionate agony in the name of advancing a story, or just because. Torture-porn is definitely bad pain. Tragic gays. Dead trans people. Just dwelling on the agony of someone’s life to the point where it feels like a punishment, or if this is the only way a writer knows how to develop a marginalized character. (It comes with the assumption of well, aren’t their lives awful? Don’t they hate they hate themselves? Or shouldn’t they? This is just ‘realistic.’) Even dying in a noble sacrifice, or their death/suffering inspiring the main (usually not-marginalized) character, so even in death they’re defined by others, not themself.
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‘Bad pain’ feels personal. It feels like it says ‘you and characters like you are never going to be happy or safe.’ Above all, it does not have the chance for recovery or healing. As above, hopeless.
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‘Good pain’ is different. It’s cathartic – pain for a purpose. It’s raw, it’s an honest expression of being wounded, which is required for healing to occur. Good pain is not random death or overblown suffering. It’s personal as well and can hit very hard – but it’s a purging of poison. I’ve heard it described as “vomiting glass.” It can be awful. But you need to get the toxic substance out of your system before you can recover.
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I write a lot of pain. Hopefully it’s good. Because that’s a huge way in which we heal.
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Your work is perhaps the most inclusive I’ve ever read. What precautions do you take when writing characters whose marginalizations you don’t share?
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(THIS TURNED OUT A LOT MORE DETAILED THAN EXPECTED. TL;DR: LISTEN LISTEN LISTEN, RESPECT/BOOST VOICES, AND IN GENERAL DON’T BE A DOUCHE.)
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Oh wow. Thank you first of all. (The fact mine is unusual at all is proof that we need more inclusive media, honestly.) Secondly, I am by no means an authority on writing diversely, or in fact writing outside my lane at all, because by definition I don’t know what it’s like to live with marginalizations or identities I don’t share. If I write a diverse cast, it’s because that diversity exists in the world – and often not nearly enough in mainstream fiction. That is realism. Diversity is realism.
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And I want to show that everyone is welcome here. These stories are meant to resist the idea that we are doomed, or that we are alone or unloved – and hope is for everyone. They might even be fun, and that’s for everyone too.
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But yes, precautions. They’re incredibly important, because while the potential for good is there, the potential to do more damage to already-vulnerable people is even more present. Again, I’m not an authority, but I do have some thoughts/things I try to do. It kind of goes directly with how to be a good ally/person in general. You can’t be a good writer unless you are.
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  • First, do no harm. For real. Writers should have this rule just as much as doctors. (Neither of them seem to follow it enough, though.)
  • Listen. That is the most important thing. Pay attention and have compassion. Real compassion, not the desire to be a savior or collect ally points. (Note that I don’t say ‘empathy,’ because first of all, not everyone’s brain actually works like this and low-empathy people are awesome too, and second of all, that implies actually knowing where someone is coming from/what they’re feeling – and here by definition, you can’t.)
  • The people you’re writing are real. Get to know some. Seriously, if you don’t know anybody of the group you’re trying to write, none of your friends or acquaintances even, that might be a sign. Actually meet/talk to someone before you try to write them.
  • …It should go without saying (IT DOESN’T, THO, APPARENTLY) that pretending you want to get to know/be friends with someone solely for, idek, ‘research purposes,’ or even get a free sensitivity read, is really freaking nasty and kind of very creepy. People aren’t Google or your personal education-squad, or an alien specimen to be studied. Don’t use them like they are.
  • When I say ‘listen,’ I mean in person hopefully but also the internet. Blogs/twitter. Books they’ve written. If someone’s talking to you personally about their life, what’s hard, what they want, pay attention.
  • Read/watch things they create! Nobody is ever going to tell someone’s story better than they will! (You/me included!)
  • BOOST THE THINGS THEY CREATE! Amplify voices! If you have a platform, use it for sharing/boosting them!
  • Think hard about why you are writing this story. If it’s because you want to show what a good person you are, or how enlightened, or that you’re going to be the one who saves marginalized communities from their plight, or tell their story to the world… no. (Unless you belong to that group. But then it’s OwnVoices!)
  • Shut up, sit down, and listen some more. You learn nothing if you’re talking over.
  • Just don’t talk over. In general. Don’t think you are ‘giving a voice’ or speaking for marginalized communities – we/they are speaking loud and clear, and don’t need to be spoken for
  • So… once again – listen.
  • Don’t think for one moment you know everything. Or anything really. I certainly don’t. (I don’t even know everything about writing my marginalizations, like I don’t know how every disabled person lives/feels, I only know my individual experience!)
  • If someone criticizes something you write, be thankful. Seriously. Thank them. If someone takes the time to speak up and expends the energy to teach you anything, which they do not have to do, this is a gift. Even if their words are angry, because they’ve been hurt! Especially then! So you’re going to what?
  • L I S T E N.
  • Appreciate the opportunity to suck less and do better.
  • Then do better.
  • But don’t get so worried about messing up that you never try at all. (Admittedly, I worry a lot. I have a hardcore anxiety disorder, and it’s kind of hard to separate that from legit concern sometimes.)
  • Or blow it up into a huge terrifying thing – like, this is weirdly othering. The phrase “we’re all human” is used in such crappy ways 99% of the time. But marginalized people aren’t weird aliens or mythical creatures. (Even if many writers in fact seem to have an easier time writing aliens than a human different from them…) They’re people. They have emotions and dreams and fears and annoyances and favorite foods just like you do.
  • Obsessing over ‘how do I write ___’ kind of means you’ve stopped seeing the individual person, and started seeing them as either a monolith, or hopelessly alien. (Do you think your identity is the ‘default,’ and they’re the aberration? I hope not.)
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What else. What practical?
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  • Sensitivity readers. “Specialized beta readers” if you prefer. They are awesome. Hire them. Love and respect them. (LISTEN to them!) Pay them if they have rates. If they don’t, do something else nice for them – a lot I know write themselves, so maybe do a read-trade, maybe they need help with an identity/experience you have and they don’t. Thank them.
  • Just try not to be a douche. In general. If someone says ‘hey this is harmful and/or a douche thing you did,’ listen and don’t do that thing again. It’s a lot less complicated than anyone seems to think.
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What… else…
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  • OK this is a weird distinction, and again, you can’t really do this without knowing people from the group, but try not to think of it as writing about them? Like, the experience of being them. You can’t know, you’re outside.
  • Instead… wow, words are hard. It’s like, you write it FOR them, but not for them.
  • As in, you’re not ‘speaking for,’ or writing for, or trying to save them, because they don’t need that, and it’s gross.
  • But write it for them in the sense of… what would make them happy? If someone picks up your book and opens it, what would make them smile and feel less alone or scared or discouraged? (It is discouraging, seeing untrue or hurtful versions of yourself everywhere. It’s exhausting.)
  • Again, LISTEN. What do they most want to see, or not want to see? (Believe me, the answers are out there, you usually don’t even have to ask, they/we’re saying them all day long.)
  • Think about your own marginalizations/identities, what would you want to see? How would you want to feel? How would you want to find yourself in a story? Included? Not just accepted or ‘tolerated,’ but loved? Shown for exactly how multidimensional, amazing, and important you are? Start from there. It’s a good feeling. Give it to someone else, if you can.
  • Like hope, it’s for everyone.
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…WOW I’M SORRY THAT WAS SUCH A HUGE THING. I’ve just never actually written that thought process out before, so. Now I have.
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What was your favorite part of The Lifeline Signal to write?
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Relating everything back to Book 1, learning how these new friends are connected to old ones. Keeping the mystery strings from getting untangled, and showing that everything is absolutely connected, even if we can’t see it at first.
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And whenever emotions run high, which is a lot. Especially Rowan and Jay’s conflict over Regan’s loyalty (and the brief time we see him ‘in person’), meeting Indra’s family, Annie and the very special pancreas jar… and the climactic storm. I loved showing more of Radio Angel’s actual thoughts and feelings. Which were surprisingly cathartic, tbh.
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…On the happier side, I really liked Shiloh helping Indra with his magic tricks. And the karaoke bit. (Some things are simply meant to be~) And his attempted ace/aro card pun, with Annie being completely literal and ‘ok for real what are you saying to me right now’ because somehow I am both of them at once.
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Do you have any advice for fellow indie authors?
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You don’t have to do it alone. That was the biggest lie/misconception I had getting into this. My publisher going under was terrifying. Trying to re-invent and relaunch a series by myself was even more.
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Except that I wasn’t by myself. I had the support and help and love from an amazing community, and these books were in no way mine alone. Wonderfully talented fellow writers, editors, artists, designers, named in my book credits/acknowledgements or not (check them out, tho!) – working together, we’re better than we ever could be alone. Find people you trust, who you like to work with, and who make you feel brave and excited. Help them when they need it too. Then do awesome things together.
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What are your current creative projects?
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Well, this hasn’t been formally announced… so you heard it here first. 😀
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I will be taking a break from Chameleon Moon to work on something super important to me, and very exciting. Less superpowers. Exact same amount of inclusion, hope vs. despair, trauma vs. healing… and Complicated Polyamory Webs.
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More vampires.
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In my first venture with the amazing Kraken Collective (see above, awesome people I love to work with, who make me feel brave!), I’ll be writing two serial stories about poly vampires in Portland OR, punk rock, magic, opera lesbians, witches, tarot cards, awesome harlequin mask aesthetics, ace/aro/agender/nonbinary/queerplatonic/trans/disabled folks kicking ass and surviving, even if they are technically dead/undead at the time…
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Stake Sauce, and Death Masquerade.
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Both of those titles are puns, yes. It’s me writing them.
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And I think it’s gonna be fun. ❤
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THANK YOU so much!
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RoAnna SylverRoAnna Sylver is passionate about stories that give hope, healing and even fun for LGBT, disabled and other marginalized people, and thinks we need a lot more. Aside from writing oddly optimistic dystopia books, RoAnna is a blogger, artist, singer, voice actor, and Verified Creator on Moviepilot.com.

RoAnna lives with family and a small snorking dog near Portland, OR, and probably spends too much time playing videogames. The next adventure RoAnna would like is a nap in a pile of bunnies.

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