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Interview with Evan Graham: On Crowdfunded Publishing and Writing Hard Science Fiction

Today, as part of Writing Bloc’s Author Interview Series, Evan Graham is here with us! We’re going to talk about Tantalus Depths and Proteus, his two upcoming sci-fi novels, as well as his journey with crowdfunded publishing.

Welcome Evan. Your book Tantalus Depths is currently in production, and you are also in the middle of a crowdfunding campaign for another book, Proteus. Can you tell us a little bit about the stories? 

They’re both science fiction thrillers set in the same universe, but the stories are set most of a century and several thousand light-years apart, and they deal with very different themes.

Tantalus Depths is about a small survey expedition to the planet Tantalus 13 that goes immediately off the rails when they discover it isn’t a planet at all, but a planet-sized artificial structure built and abandoned by an alien civilization thousands of years ago. Curiosity gets the better of the crew, and they take it upon themselves to explore the interior of this impossible structure, but the secrets it holds may spell the doom of not just the crew, but all of mankind. Adding to the danger is SCARAB: the self-constructing, artificially intelligent mining facility that arrived on Tantalus 13 two years before the crew. SCARAB is hiding secrets of its own; secrets it seems willing to kill to protect.

Proteus is a science-fiction adaptation of Shakespeare’s Richard III. It’s set on a colossal multi-generational colony ship that’s just passed the halfway mark on its 150-year journey to establish a new colony on the distant planet Bella Rosa. Our protagonist is Jacob Sicarius, a cyborg veteran destined to be the leader of the new colony: a destiny that is stolen from him when his cryonic stasis pod is sabotaged. He awakens from stasis to find that the fourth-generation crew of the ship have fallen into mutiny, with half the crew dedicated to continuing the mission and the other half determined to turn the ship around and return to Earth. With his AI combat implant making him a literal killing machine, Jacob sets out to wipe out the mutineers and preserve the mission, even if it costs him his mind and soul.

You successfully crowdfunded Tantalus Depths, selling over 750 backer copies before production began. What did this crowdfunding process look like for you, and why did you chose to go this way for publication?

Crowdfunding Tantalus Depths was, without question, the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It took me farther outside my comfort zone than I’ve ever been by forcing me to beg friends, family, and complete strangers to invest in a project that none of them would ever care about as much as I would. It was such a long road; I experienced every kind of setback imaginable. Campaigning became a full-time job; at one point I was putting in 16 hour days where I did nothing but bug people for pre-orders. It was worth it, though, and through that experience I learned I had way more people in my life who I could count on than I’d ever realized before. Some of my biggest supporters ended up being people I hadn’t spoken to in years, who I never would have thought would be willing to invest so much in my dream.

I went with Inkshares initially because they were hosting a contest that was a really good fit for Tantalus Depths. I didn’t end up winning that contest, but I did come in the top five, and by that point I’d already gathered enough orders that pushing through to the end goal just made sense. I definitely didn’t realize what I was getting myself into at the time, but even if I had, I would have preferred going through all that to the even more soul-crushing work of pursuing traditional publishing. It’s one of the hardest industries for an outsider to break into. I once went to a literary agency’s website to send in a query, then turned right around and left when I saw “Agents typically receive 500 queries a week and only follow up on ten. No repeat submissions.”

When you’re up against that, you’re completely at the mercy of luck. No matter how good of an author you are, there’s no way you can guarantee an agent’s going to see the quality in your writing when you only have one shot to get a five-page excerpt noticed among 500 others. At least with Inkshares, I knew if I could put in the effort, I would reap the reward. So I did.

Tantalus Depths and Proteus are both characterized as Hard Science Fiction. For those who may not know, what are some of the differences between Science Fiction and Hard Science Fiction?

Science fiction comes in all kinds of subgenres. You can really combine just about any other genre with science fiction and get a great story out of it. That’s one of the things I like about it; its versatility. All those different subgenres are going to fit into one of two categories, though: “hard” or “soft” science fiction. The only real difference is how much the story actively tries to stay scientifically accurate.

Soft sci-fi doesn’t try very hard to follow real scientific laws and principles, if at all. Usually the “science” element just isn’t that important to the story it’s trying to tell. It has more in common with the fantasy genre, in many ways, just with a sci-fi flavor to it. You’ll see aliens and robots and laser guns and the like, but most of what you see wouldn’t hold up in science class. Doctor Who is a prime example of soft sci-fi.

Hard sci-fi does try to stay within the realm of the theoretically possible. It’s more grounded, more realistic. You’ll see things that don’t exist in the real world, but most of them are going to be logical progressions of technology we already have, or involve scientific concepts we mostly understand. It takes a lot of research to do hard sci-fi well, and it can also be tricky to make it still seem interesting and not seem like it’s spilling out of a textbook, but if it’s done well, it lends a degree of realism that makes the reader feel like these things could really happen someday, which I love. The Martian is a solid example of hard sci-fi.

How realistic are your books?

I strive for as much realism as possible. It’s not easy, and it requires a lot of research. You have to spend a lot of time learning new things, especially if you’re like me and don’t have a natural gift for the physical sciences, but that’s part of what I like about it. I like having to learn new things, and I enjoy the satisfaction of strengthening my storytelling with newfound knowledge.

That being said, I definitely cheat. I’ve got made-up, entirely unscientific McGuffins in the shared universe of Tantalus Depths and Proteus. Faster-than-light space travel is possible, for instance, though I have very strict rules about what it can and can’t do. There isn’t a real scientific principle that allows for this, but I’ve chosen to give myself the ability to break that rule in order to tell the kinds of stories I want to tell; namely, in order to give the characters in my stories the ability to travel to other worlds we’d never be able to reach with conventional science.

Which of your books took you the most time to write?

Definitely Proteus. I first came up with that one almost eight years ago, and I’ve been fussing with it on and off the entire time. I’d probably still have it on the back burner of my brain if I hadn’t finally taken the plunge with Tantalus Depths and finally started my career as an author.

Do you invent new vocabulary words to use in your book or resort to the existing ones? 

I invent them on an as-needed basis, but I try to keep them as plausible as I can. Since I’m going the hard sci-fi route with these books, I try to name things in a way that feels true to reality. There are no aliens in these stories who speak fictional languages, so I can’t just call a new planet “Zalaprax” or something else entirely made-up. Instead, I look at how we name things right now, and extrapolate how that might be done in the future. We often name stars and celestial bodies after famous astronomers, so I named some of the planets I mention after real or fictional people who could conceivably be important enough to earn that honor, like Hayden, Showalter, and Tahani. We also name celestial bodies after characters from mythology, which I show with planets like Tantalus 13, Atropos, and Buyan. I try to draw from many cultures, so I’ve pulled from Greek, Hindu, and even Slavic mythology.

As far as technology goes, I try to keep that as real as possible. If there’s a real-world term for the thing I’m trying to create, I use it. I am constantly amazed by the sorts of ideas the scientific community comes up with. Some of the real theoretical science out there is wilder than anything I could ever come up with. I love integrating those cutting-edge theories into my writing, though. My favorite so far is SCARAB: the Self-Constructing Autonomous Resource Acquisition Base who serves as the villain in Tantalus Depths. It’s a hyper-intelligent AI that’s designed to build itself using the resources available to it. Science already has a name for that kind of robot: a Von Neumann probe. Ironically, the real concept of a Von Neumann probe is so over-the-top amazing that I had to tone back its capabilities for SCARAB. Reality is just too crazy to fit in fiction sometimes.

Tell us a little bit about your writing process. Do you aim to complete a set number of pages or words each day?

Oh gosh, I wish I had a writing process. I’m the last person anyone should go to for writing advice. I am a chronic procrastinator, but I’m also obsessive about my work, so I often go for days without writing anything, getting more and more stressed and feeling more and more guilty the longer I go without putting words down. Then, when I can’t handle the guilt anymore, I’ll sit down and write for eight straight hours.

I don’t recommend that method to anyone, but I’ve managed to harness my mania and make it work for me.

I think that’s the best thing any writer can do: figure out your own strengths and your own weaknesses, and tailor your writing process to use both of them to keep you productive. As long as you make steady progress toward your goal and put down writing you can be proud of, it doesn’t matter what method you use.

Tell us a little bit about the world building that went into Tantalus Depths and Proteus, and what that process was like for you.

A lot of things happen on Earth between now and the time these books take place in. Earth goes through a near apocalypse called the Corsica Event at the hands of a Rogue AI towards the end of the 21st century, wrecking the global economy  and leading to a period of rebuilding that lasts about 80 years. Resource depletion and overpopulation have forced humanity to colonize new worlds in order to survive. AIs are heavily regulated to keep another cataclysm from happening. New technology arose as a result of the Corsica Event has given us the ability to travel faster than light, so we’re exploring areas of the universe we never thought we’d reach thanks to technology we don’t really understand.

Establishing all that world building in both books has been tricky, since they both take place so far from Earth. They’re still affected by what’s been going on at home. I try to establish a lot of that backstory in offhand, in-character dialogue whenever possible. I like to avoid info dumps whenever I can, because I want this universe to feel like a place where people live and work and establish relationships, rather than a series of encyclopedia entries. The universe in these stories doesn’t look much like ours, but I try to make the people feel like folks you’d meet anywhere, and I want to give the reader the idea that they could step into this world and fit in.

Not that they should, mind you. This universe is a dark and dangerous place. I sure wouldn’t want to live there.

Which writer’s work do you believe most resembles your work?

I feel a kinship between my stories and James S. A. Corey’s The Expanse series. It’s also a hard sci-fi setting, full of intrigue and conflict , where humanity would be its own greatest enemy if the universe didn’t have such dark and deadly tricks hidden up its sleeve. If anyone likes the parts of The Expanse that deal with mysterious remnants of an alien civilization that pose a deadly threat to the survival of mankind, they’ll like Tantalus Depths. If anyone likes the parts of The Expanse that deal with warfare and corruption and conspiracy in a sci-fi setting, they’ll definitely like Proteus.

All books say that characters are fictional, but are they really all made up, or do you base them on people you have known in your own life? 

I try to give my characters unique personalities, but I definitely draw on what I know in order to do that. I’ll take a particular personality quirk I’ve seen in someone I know, or someone famous, and I’ll attach it to a character I’m developing, but I never use more than one or two from the same source. I never set out to make a character a clone of someone else.

I have extensive experience and education in theatre, which has proven to be an incredibly useful tool when it comes to character creation. When you portray a character on the stage, you learn how to think inside that character’s world. You see what drives them, what affects them, what they want and what they’re willing to do to get it. I apply the same lessons I’ve learned as an actor to my writing, making sure every character has a unique, true-seeming personality, definitive goals, and character-specific tactics they’ll utilize to get to those goals.

And my favorite question – if you were given the opportunity to join a book club with your favorite authors, dead or alive, who would you want to become a part of the club?

Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Jim Butcher, H.G. Wells, Timothy Zahn, Oscar Wilde, and William Shakespeare. Although, if I was in a book club with all of them, I’d never get any writing done. I’d spend the rest of my life fanboying over everything they were working on.

Where does the crowdfunding campaign for Proteus stand right now, and what can people do to help?

Currently, Proteus is very close to the 500 pre-orders mark, and we have until the end of August to reach 750 pre-orders. We’re about two-thirds of the way there, which is very encouraging, but we still have a lot of ground to cover.

The main thing people can do to support Proteus is simply to pre-order a copy, but word-of-mouth publicity is also invaluable. Anyone who’s a fan of grim and bloody military science fiction, or anyone who likes the idea of a science-fiction adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays, should find plenty in Proteus to enjoy.

Also, Tantalus Depths still doesn’t have a release date, but we’re about to go into copy edits, so it won’t be much longer until that one launches. Pre-orders are live for that one as well.

What is your preferred method for readers to get in touch with or follow you (website, blog, Facebook, Goodreads, etc.) and links?

I haven’t set up an author website yet, but that’s one of the many things I’m currently working on. Meanwhile, my main social media platform is my author page on Facebook, which you can get to here.

I also have a Twitter and a Youtube channel. Both have been inactive for a while, but as we get closer to launching Tantalus Depths I plan to put out a lot more content on all my platforms.

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Jacqui Castle
Jacqui Castle is a professional freelance writer and first-time novelist, living and writing in the Blue Ridge Mountains near Asheville, North Carolina. Jacqui's debut book, The Seclusion, was named one of Kirkus Reviews' "Best Science Fiction Books of September 2018" and is now available at all major retailers.
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