Today I talk with Skye Yvonne, author of the YA novel Astraethea, the first book in a planned series. She’s also known online as Laila Winters. You can find her on Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, Amazon, and her website. – Tucker Lieberman
T.L.: You provide a lot of sensory detail about this world. It seems like a place that the reader could step into. Do you ever feel yourself immersed in this imaginary place?
S.Y.: Astraethea is a world I see so clearly in my own mind that it’s hard not to become immersed in it. I think for any author, it’s almost impossible to not lose themselves in the worlds that they create—that’s the fun part about creating them. If we can’t dive into our own worlds and immerse ourselves in what we’ve built, then we can’t expect our readers to, either.
T.L.: What’s the significance—for us, as readers interpreting the story—of fighting people from Earth? How did you decide to take that perspective?
S.Y.: I love this question because in the very first draft of Astraethea, there was no conflict between the Astraetheans and the Earthlings. The humans truly did come to Astraethea seeking refuge, and Selene initially granted it to them. During revisions, though, I felt that Astraethea was lacking any true conflict beyond unrest and dissent between Selene’s councilors.
I scrapped the entire first draft of the book, and the second, and started fresh on the third. As far as the humans are concerned and conflict aside, Valor and Zaegan became the reason for their significance. They represent different sides of humanity: Valor the best, and Zaegan the worst.
Val ultimately causes the most turmoil at the very end of the book, but he doesn’t come out of it unscathed. His struggles and redemption in book two are important, both symbolically and for his character arc.
That, and if humans ever discovered extraterrestrial life, I’d imagine we’d be brazen enough to go storming in and disrupt whatever peace they might have.
T.L.: I noticed themes of loyalty and persistence. Is there a virtue that feels especially important to you in this story?
S.Y.: Given the betrayal on the very last page of the book, loyalty is especially important throughout the story. The characters are all deeply loyal to one another; Caly is so willing to rush into battle alongside her brother just to have his back that she nearly gets herself killed. Valor goes against his own morals and does the one thing he swore he’d never do just to protect the only friend he has. Loyalty is a core part of who they all are, except for Zaegan who’s loyal to no one but himself.
T.L.: Did you read any stories with LGBT characters when you were a teenager?
S.Y.: Unfortunately, no. Not only were stories featuring LGBT characters relatively unheard of when I was a kid, but I was also very, very deep in the closet. I did read a lot of LGBT fanfiction in secret, though, and writing an LGBT fic was how I first started experimenting with the idea that maybe I truly was in some self-imposed closet.
T.L.: Within the story, you don’t use the word “lesbian” to describe the relationship between the Queen and the Warrior. Is there a reason for that?
S.Y.: There was no reason, no. In their world, society views love and sexuality in a very different way. The prejudices and homophobia that people have here on Earth don’t exist on Astraethea; it’s not taboo or even unheard of for people of the same sex (or of any combination of gender, including our favorite non-binary Kodoreans) to love one another. Because it’s so widely accepted, I doubt there’s even a word in the Astraethean language that describes it or that can be used to self-identify one’s sexuality.
If Caly and Selene were to come to Earth and discover that there were people who disapproved of their relationship simply because they’re both female, I think they would be very, very confused. And Caly might stab them.
Spoiler: there’s a scene in book two where Valor refers to Caly as a lesbian (because for readers who enjoyed book one, who’s not waiting for this confrontation?), and she asks him what ‘lesbian’ even means.
S.Y.: I’m just the author—my characters do what they want, and I simply write it down. Astraethea took so many unexpected turns that it nearly gave me whiplash. The biggest turn, I think, is that in the first two drafts of the Astraethea, Valor’s character didn’t exist. He was always the one who pulled that trigger in the end, but I decided to add his POV throughout the book during one of my final revisions. Val ended up becoming one of my favorite characters, and I hope that by giving him a name, my readers enjoyed him and his story just as much as I did.
T.L.: What other space travel or fantasy stories do you enjoy?
S.Y.: I actually don’t read a lot of sci-fi, and Astraethea likely suffered a bit because of that. YA fantasy is more up my alley; give me magic and fairies and mythical creatures and I am one happy girl.
T.L.: What is most satisfying to you about the Astraethea saga?
S.Y.: Perhaps it makes me a bit vain, but I’m pretty satisfied that Astraethea has been well-received amongst my readers. I self-published the book after 40 rejections (though I received a revise & resubmit offer last month), and I was so afraid that the book was going to fail because I didn’t have the money or resources that are ultimately needed to make a self-published novel successful. And by no means is Astraethea “successful,” but it’s done better than I ever anticipated. It warms my heart knowing that people enjoy what I refer to as my “space gays.”
On a less arrogant note, I’m pretty satisfied with where the series is headed! I’m focusing on the R&R right now in hopes that the agent might pick it up, but I’m excited to start working on the second book. There’s a storm brewing in the human camp, Caly, in a downwards spiral, is far more reckless than usual, and Selene’s character will be a bit different going forward. I’ll also be introducing some new characters and I’m excited for readers to meet them.
T.L.: Who do you want your story to reach? What do you hope they’ll take away?
S.Y.: The only thing I’ve ever wanted is for people to read my books and know that they’re not alone; that it’s okay if you’re a lesbian, bisexual, gay, pan, poly, trans, non-binary, etc. LGBT representation in literature is something I wish I’d been exposed to as a teenager, and because I didn’t have it, I want to give it. Until I started seeing LGBT characters portrayed both in lit and in the media, I wasn’t comfortable coming out. If my writing can help just one person, in any way, I’ve personally succeed as an author.
T.L.: What lessons have your characters taught you?
S.Y.: My initial reaction to this question was, “Don’t take a sword into a gun fight.” But despite a few setbacks, Caly and Atreo are pretty lethal with their swords and so this might not be a good takeaway.
Every character has taught me something different. Caly taught me perseverance and unwavering loyalty. Atreo taught me to think and act rationally in tough situations. As she often leans on Eleon, Selene has taught me that it’s okay to lean on friends and family for support. On the flip side, Valor has helped teach me that family doesn’t always mean blood; it’s the family that you make for yourself that matters most. Andromeda taught me that I really wish I had a prehensile tail that I could use to knock sense into whoever annoys me.
Mailhot, who is from Seabird Island Band, transcribes her experience with a psychiatric hospitalization. She shares what mental illness means to her:
“I am sick or possessed. The spirits used to possess the people. We called it ‘Indian sick,’ and it was the first illness to be accounted for. It begins with want, with taking, and ends with a silence that hurts and makes us beg. There were stories about the cures and causes. Women tried to eat soapberries, or nothing, and talked about how we all had it coming. When the first children died it was too late to stop talking. … The only thing, the right thing — the thing that brought about our immunity — was the knowledge that something instinctual would carry us back. The awareness that our ancestors were watching was vital.” (p. 15)
So much happens in these few sentences. “I am sick” gives us the simplest possible assessment of the situation on the ground, the assessment likely to be understood by the greatest number of people. She immediately grounds it culturally: “the spirits used to possess the people” is a mythological narrative, followed by “we called it ‘Indian sick'” which is a lesson on language and history, then “it begins with want, with taking” which is about how those particular sufferers experienced this sickness. “When the first children died” is a memorial to those who were lost. Then, the faith in redemption: “something instinctual would carry us back.” What is happening now will become part of all of this history: “our ancestors were watching.”
This small book accomplishes a lot. This is a lesson in how to describe those patches that are very nearly unexplainable.
“So we were still caged inside the Ada, with the grainy memory of charcoal coating the back of her throat. She was more isolated than ever and we were chafing at still being flesh, so the only thing left to do was hunt. If we were trapped in a body, then we would do bodily things. We painted the Ada’s mouth and lined her eyes with night, and we went out with Asụghara on a long and relaxed leash.”
The physical world, especially the human body in relation to it, and Ada’s body in particular within this novel, is called an “oath.” It serves as a reminder that spirits belong in the spirit world; hence, it is a promise made to those spirits who have stopped in and bound themselves to the physical world only for a time.
“With a force like ours, we dragged other things along — a pact, bits of bone, an igneous rock, worn-out velveteen, a strip of human hide tying it all together. This compound object is called the iyi-ụwa, the oath of the world. It is a promise we made when we were free and floating, before we entered the Ada. The oath says that we will come back, that we will not stay in this world, that we are loyal to the other side. When spirits like us are put inside flesh, this oath becomes a real object, one that functions as a bridge. It is usually buried or hidden because it is the way back, if you understand that the doorway is death.”
Emezi has achieved something special in their book. This is a powerful way of speaking about gender, personality, embodiment, culture, authenticity and fidelity to oneself, and the conflicting emotions and inner forces that pull us. Their website: akwaeke.com
Conspiracy theories lost their place in fiction as the 21st century approached, says Alan Glynn in his Vulture article last week. First, it no longer seemed “shocking that those in power might be bad actors.” Second, Internet-fueled “information overload led to a sort of heat death of what we know and understand, a point of entropy at which, if a conspiracy theorist believed one theory — chemtrails, say — they would most likely believe all of them: the moon landings, fluoridation, Waco, Lady Diana, the New World Order, WT7, take your pick.” This excess meant that “conspiracy theory itself had become a devalued currency.”
Conspiracy theories today, he says, are “customized to achieve desired political outcomes and then injected into the news stream via social media,” thus being “weaponized in the most cynical and partisan way.” So: “The new challenge is to catch them at it — to identify the truth of any given situation, to back it up with evidence, and to inoculate that evidence against the twin viruses of perception management and narrative bias.”
Powerful people always lie — there’s no problem with that premise for a novel. But, in such a fictional world, we should ask whether there’s any drama in watching ordinary people try to speak truth to power. Put another way: Does the novel hold out any hope that truth-tellers can win?
Need a half-marathon playlist? Here’s a couple hours of music to get you there. Organized by beats per minute (bpm) from slowest to fastest so you can gradually speed up.
Exercise relieves stress, clears the head, and can make opportunities for creative breakthroughs.
90 bpm “Kyrie” Mr. Mister | Amazon | iTunes
95 bpm “Water Under the Bridge” Adele | Amazon | iTunes
98 bpm “I Want You Back” Michael Jackson | Amazon | iTunes
103 bpm “Something Just Like This” The Chainsmokers | Amazon | iTunes
117 bpm “Billie Jean” Michael Jackson | Amazon | iTunes
120 bpm “Oh Sherrie” Journey | Amazon | iTunes
125 bpm “High On You” Survivor | Amazon | iTunes
128 bpm “Born to Hand Jive” Sha Na Na | Amazon | iTunes
128 bpm “Shut Up And Dance” WALK THE MOON | Amazon | iTunes
130 bpm “Jump” Van Halen | Amazon | iTunes
131 bpm “Invisible Touch” Genesis | Amazon | iTunes
133 bpm “If I Had My Way” Peter Paul and Mary | Amazon | iTunes
133 bpm “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” The Charlie Daniels Band | Amazon | iTunes
133 bpm “Boom Boom” Rye Rye | Amazon | iTunes
136 bpm “I Am Free” New Life Worship | Amazon | iTunes
136 bpm “No Air” Jordin Sparks | Amazon | iTunes
141 bpm “The East Wind” Gord Downie & The Country Of Miracles | Amazon | iTunes
141 bpm “Generals and Majors” XTC | Amazon | iTunes
144 bpm “Written In Blood” She Wants Revenge | Amazon | iTunes
147 bpm “Born to Run” Bruce Springsteen | Amazon | iTunes
148 bpm “Bottle of Smoke” The Pogues | Amazon | iTunes
149 bpm “Heartbeat Song” Kelly Clarkson | Amazon | iTunes
150 bpm “Only If You Run” Julian Plenti | Amazon | iTunes
150 bpm “Bang Bang” Jessie J, Ariana Grande, Nicki Minaj| Amazon | iTunes
153 bpm “The Promise” Within Temptation | Amazon
153 bpm “Sex On Fire” Kings of Leon | Amazon | iTunes
153 bpm “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” Queen | Amazon | iTunes
160 bpm “Greased Lightnin’” John Travolta | Amazon | iTunes
160 bpm “Zephyrus” Bloc Party | Amazon | iTunes
160 bpm “What I Like About You” The Romantics | Amazon | iTunes
163 bpm “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” Wham! | Amazon | iTunes
167 bpm “To Mistiko Mou Na Vris (I Can’t Help It)” Ivi Adamou| Amazon | iTunes
167 bpm “Georgia On My Mind” Ray Charles | Amazon | iTunes
169 bpm “Take On Me” A-Ha | Amazon | iTunes
170 bpm “Frei Zu Sein” In Extremo | Amazon
170 bpm “The Middle” Great Northern | Amazon | iTunes
170 bpm “I Like You So Much Better When You’re Naked” Ida Maria | Amazon | iTunes
174 bpm “Man or Animal” Audioslave | Amazon | iTunes
174 bpm “Unstoppable” Sia | Amazon | iTunes
174 bpm “Change My Life” Ashes Remain | Amazon | iTunes
175 bpm “Attack Of The Ghost Riders” The Asteroids Galaxy Tour | Amazon | iTunes
176 bpm “Another Girl Another Planet” Blink-182 | Amazon | iTunes
176 bpm “Masai” Elli Kokkinou | Amazon | iTunes
176 bpm “Good Fight” Unspoken | Amazon | iTunes
176 bpm “I Am Yours” The Afters | Amazon | iTunes
In “The Falsification Mindset: How to Change Your Own Mind,” Mike Sturm explains why a belief system or theory should state “what specific evidence would prove it wrong.” For one thing, as proposed by Karl Popper, the theory isn’t scientific unless you do this. It’s also a useful exercise for making good life choices, even if you’re not a scientist. Contemplating the conditions under which you’d admit your own wrongness, Sturm writes, makes you explicitly state what you believe, realize that you could be mistaken, and commit to changing your mind if you’re proven wrong. This can spare you from making big mistakes.
I wonder how writers might use this insight in fiction. A fictional story as a whole, of course, is false. Still, the details of the story need to hang together consistently, and the insertion of certain details can spoil the story by introducing inconsistencies into its narrative. Other details may interfere with the insight or moral that the writer is trying to convey. Still other details may make the story seem implausible, absurdist, or nonsensical.
It may be wise for a novelist to divine ahead of time at least some of the words that simply will not work out within their tale. I don’t know what this process would be called. “Falsificationism” isn’t right, because the wrong details don’t falsify the fiction; the fiction is already false. “Parasitism” may be closer, because a wrong detail is like an invading organism that drains energy from the story. The writer or any given reader may be unaware of the parasite. Regardless of whether anyone notices it consciously, the parasite can injure or even kill the story. It may be a valuable exercise, therefore, for a writer to list the potential parasites that could threaten their story.
Image: Live Tetragnatha montana parasitized by Acrodactyla quadrisculpta larva. Digitally altered, based on a photo that appeared in Biodiversity Data Journal in 2013 and is available on Wikimedia Commons (Creative Commons 3.0 license).
While Vicki Kaufmann’s mother suffered from mixed dementia, Kaufmann learned about the challenges of caregiving. She knows that caregivers want to research medical facts and also to let themselves feel empathy for the person who is sick. In this memoir, she aims to provide caregivers a new perspective on what they do. Caregiving can be, as she puts it, “a pathway to new levels of grace, courage, creativity, and love.”
Elegy for Mom: A Memoir of Family Caregiving, Alzheimer’s, and Devotion was published by Middle River Press in 2015. You can purchase it through Kaufmann’s website Caregiver Families. It is also available on Amazon.
AlzAuthors features the work of over 160 authors writing about Alzheimer’s, including books of non-fiction and fiction. Here’s five more books!
The Memory Keeper by Jessica Bryan
Jessica Bryan is a caregiver and author of four books. In this book, she describes coping with her mother’s advanced Alzheimer’s Disease as her mother’s memories disappear in the haze of dementia. What is raw and sad is also humorous and candid. She shares how she overcomes anger and frustration, and her words act as suggestions for others undergoing the same ordeal. She writes, “I hold the memories of this beautiful woman who is disappearing thought by thought, sentence by sentence and memory by memory. I want to remember the moments we have left, the good and the bad times, the laughter and the tears. I am the memory keeper.”
Somebody Stole My Iron: A Family Memoir of Dementia by Vicki Tapia
Faced with caring for both parents after their dual diagnosis, author Vicki Tapia watched helplessly as her mom and dad both descended into the rabbit hole of dementia/Alzheimer’s disease. Her memoir, Somebody Stole My Iron, weaves their family’s struggle into an engaging story, filled with humor and pathos. The narrative offers an honest and heartfelt glimpse into the ups and downs of life with memory loss and provides readers useful information and tips for coping. “I wrote my story to offer hope to others whose lives have been intimately affected by this dreadful disease,” she explains, “to reassure them that they’re not alone.”
Alzheimer’s Daughter by Jean Lee
Both of Jean Lee’s parents were diagnosed on the same day. Published in 2015, this memoir has over a hundred reviews on Amazon and was voted #5 in the best selling books about Alzheimer’s by Book Authority.
This poetic memoir is about Jay Artale’s mother’s journey with Alzheimer’s. It’s a collection of 39 poems with a peppering of wry humor to destigmatize the impact of dementia.
My Two Elaines: Learning, Coping, and Surviving as an Alzheimer’s Caregiver by Martin J. Schreiber and Cathy Breitenbucher
Former governor of Wisconsin Marty Schreiber has seen his beloved wife, Elaine, gradually transform from the woman who gracefully entertained in the Executive Residence to one who no longer recognizes him as her husband. In My Two Elaines: Learning, Coping, and Surviving as an Alzheimer’s Caregiver, Marty candidly counsels those taking on this caregiving role. With patience, adaptability, and even a sense of humor, Marty shows how love continues for his Second Elaine. My Two Elaines was named a Best Caregiving Book of both 2017 and 2018 by Caring.com. Marty has also reached thousands of Alzheimer’s caregivers at more than 300 presentations around the country since November 2016.
Image at top: Based on a 2012 photograph of an elder Selkup woman in Krasnoselkup, Yamal. Photograph by Aleksandr Popov. Wikimedia Commons.
AlzAuthors features the work of over 160 authors writing about Alzheimer’s, including books of non-fiction and fiction.
Here’s just three of them! These three books are all available in both paperback and Kindle eBook editions. If you subscribe to Kindle Unlimited, you can read the eBook for free.
Motherhood: Lost and Found by Ann Campanella
This memoir, the author explains to me, “tells the story of my mother’s descent into Alzheimer’s when I was in my early 30s and struggling through a series of miscarriages as I was trying to become a mom myself. I live on a horse farm, so horses are the backdrop of the story. My thoroughbred Crimson, a grandson of Secretariat, helped carry me through this difficult period of my life. I was honored to have my memoir named ‘One of the best Alzheimer’s memoirs of All Time’ by Book Authority.”
Finding Joy In Alzheimer’s: New Hope for Caregivers by Marie Marley, PhD and Daniel C. Potts, MD, with a foreword by Maria Shriver
The authors explain the importance of overcoming denial, accepting difficult situations, and finding hope, and they express their opinion about the role of spirituality. They provide tips for interacting with people with Alzheimer’s.
Forgotten Secrets (the first volume in the Singing River series) by Robin Perini
This fictional thriller features a crime witnessed by a person with Alzheimer’s.
Image at top: Based on a photograph c. 1900 of an elderly couple in Hampton, Virginia. Frances Benjamin Johnston Collection (Library of Congress). Wikimedia Commons.
“A brief, galloping memoir of mental illness, containing unflinching observations and unorthodox positions on Judaism, atheism, gender, weight loss, madness, and butterflies. With color illustrations by the author.”
After these events concluded in my life, I spent seven months writing this thirty-page memoir. Every word has been scrubbed over and over. If these topics interest you, and if you want a short, emotionally intense, true story, then grab a copy of Bad Fire. This is what I have to offer at this time. Thanks for your support.
In her essay “Horror Lives in the Body” (Electric Lit, Oct. 10, 2018), Megan Pillow Davis identifies similarities between horror films and camp more generally. Both are “highly stylized and highly artificial. Horror consistently sports a veneer of low light and screeching violins. It’s populated by screaming women and the destroyed bodies of people of color.” These “orgiastic excesses are only matched by pornography,” and indeed, as she quotes director Edgar Wright, horror mimics pornography in having “some kind of splat every 20 minutes.”
In giving so much attention to physical detail, horror “moves beyond the bounds of visual and auditory fear and into the kinetic.” Here lies one of its strengths.
“This is more than just the fight-or-flight response. It’s about the way that the movements in horror echo in our bodies and how we listen to them. The shocks and jumps we experience while watching a horror movie are adrenaline, but they also signal an awakening of our own traumatic experiences, experiences that we are then compelled to relive. This makes the genre, and our bodies under its influence, something akin to a living archive of human trauma, a collection of bodily and psychological horrors, the things that we can often see coming but ultimately cannot escape.”
The horror genre then becomes emotional, Davis writes, as it “infuses violence with a cocktail of other muddled emotions that”—by contrast—”action movies frequently treat in isolation.”
This is important for writers to think about. A story does not only create new memories. It can connect people with the memories already stored in their bodies. In doing so, it is possible to awaken powerful emotions and teach about the strength needed to get through them.
“What is so scary about not being believed? Is it the humiliation? The degradation? Having to confront all the things wrong with you that make you unbelievable?” Wendy Heard poses these questions rhetorically in her CrimeReads essay “On Mental Health, Disbelief, and the Psychological Thriller.” “Yes” to all of these proposals. Not being believed is humiliating and degrading, and it casts an uncomfortable spotlight onto one’s self-consciousness. That is why the condition of not-being-believed fits well into thrillers.
From the real world, Heard says, “we know the criteria of belief.” Before a woman can even be believed by others, she is expected to achieve some impossible balance in her presentation. She must be smiling, warm, and convey assertiveness but not appear “frivolous,” not reveal her “actual interiority,” and not “actually assert” herself. She must also maintain her appearance in a conventionally beautiful way without leaning toward either a “prudish” or “whorish” side. If she doesn’t do this, her claims about important matters (especially about threats to herself) are likely to be dismissed.
The writer Megan Pillow Davis describes her own sexual harassment and attempted rape by a coworker while she was working as a bartender:
“I bolted from the truck and into the bar. There were at least ten people from work inside, and I started toward my manager, Paul. But what could I say? That Daniel showed me his dick? I knew from the cant of his smile, the lilt of his voice, the way his hand gripped his shaft and stroked it that he was angling for a blow job or sex, but there was no way I could prove that. Everybody loved Daniel, and Daniel would make the whole thing out to be a joke. Nothing he’d said was actually a come-on. I wasn’t as popular as he was. No one would believe me.”
Eventually, she says, her coworker “was arrested after a half dozen women at the restaurant accused him of harassment and assault.” In this case, the criterion of belief by the authorities (whether restaurant management or law enforcement) was hearing the same report from multiple people. No individual woman on her own met the criterion to be believed.
Each of us likes to believe that we are rational individuals and that we believe other people’s claims largely on the merits of the claims and not on some spurious basis. What really happens, though, is that so often we are persuaded (or turned off) by something about the speaker’s identity and the exact type of presentation and charisma we expect from them because of our own stereotypes and prejudices. If we aren’t willing to provisionally accept someone’s claim—that is, to treat the speaker as someone who deserves to be believed—how can we proceed to fairly evaluate the truth of the claim?
Fiction writers should consider how their characters interact with each other. Part of this is assessing the “criteria of belief,” to use Heard’s term. Who is predisposed to believe whom? Who expects to be believed, and who fears not being believed? Why? And what comes to pass as a result?