Interview with Author Jaine Fenn

Posted by Edwin H Rydberg

At this year’s Eastercon, Illustrious 2011 in Birmingham, I was fortunate to meet and speak with Jaine Fenn, author of the Hidden Empire science fiction series. Even better, she’s agreed to answer some questions about her books, her writing and what it’s like to be a newly professional author.

I understand the fourth book in your Hidden Empire series is due out in the fall. Could you tell us a bit about the series?

It’s far future Science Fiction featuring both action and intrigue. I write character rather than idea based SF, though I try to keep my science and technology consistent and accurate, even if I do sometimes break Clarke’s Third Law. Each novel is intended to stand alone, although there are common characters and the stories link into the overall plot.

What inspired you to write the Hidden Empire series?

The series grew out of the first book, ‘Principles of Angels’. [ed. incidentally, I love that title] That book was a long time in the writing, because unlike a lot of writers learning the craft, I didn’t write multiple novels until I got one right, I wrote the same novel until I got that particular one right. I knew this was the story I wanted to tell. While I was working out how to tell it, I had all sorts of related ‘what if’ moments, blossoming out from the original idea, some of which turned into short stories in their own right, others of which were noted down for future use.

How many books are you aiming for in the Hidden Empire series?

Nine. Probably.

Without giving too much away, did you have any specific goals in mind for each book (other than telling a great story), and how do you see them fitting in to the overall arc of the story?

I’m now writing the fifth book and I’ve found that the way a given novel fits into my ongoing plot has changed with each book. ‘Principles of Angels’ and ‘Consorts of Heaven’ introduced some of the main characters and gave a surface view of the background. ‘Guardians of Paradise’ brought strands from the first two novels together and threw in some new elements, as well setting up for major conflict later. ‘Bringer of Light’ develops an aspect of the universe only hinted at in earlier books, and ups the stakes somewhat.

You’re relatively new to being published, which is to say, you’ve ascended to the brotherhood of published authors within the last five years. What’s it like? Is it everything you hoped for, or should the rest of us dreamers give up now?

(I’ll take ‘brotherhood’ to include sisters in this context, despite women still being a minority in SF.) ‘Going pro’ is great: you no longer have to bribe or beg people to read your stories! And it allows you to justify writing when you should probably be cleaning the house/visiting relatives/getting some exercise. However, being a professional writer is also difficult, because you are part of a business; you have to become more hard-nosed and realistic about your writing, and you have to write even when you’d rather be cleaning the house etc.

Would you share with us a bit about your path to publish-hood? How long have you been writing? What were some of the highs and lows along the way?

I’ve always written stories and I assumed I’d be a writer when I grew up. Unfortunately I didn’t exactly apply myself to the task. I finally knuckled down to learn the craft in my thirties, a process whose starting point was an excellent week-long workshop for aspiring SF writers called ‘One Step Beyond’, run by Liz Holliday. Having finally put in the required effort I began to sell short stories, though it was a few years later before I managed to put the right manuscript on the right editor’s desk at the right time and so get a book deal. There was plenty of rejection, and occasional bouts of dejection, along the way.

Which author(s) were your greatest influence?

This is always a tricky question; in some ways you’d get a more useful answer asking a critic or reviewer, as they’ll spot the influences, while I just use them. Writers I admire include Ursula le Guin, Iain M Banks, Mary Gentle, Tim Powers, Charles Stross and Neal Stephenson. I should also confess to still working through some residual cyberpunk influences, especially the cynical yet glitzy variety pushed by William Gibson; hey, it’s not my fault, I grew up in the 80s.

Which author would you most like to meet?

One of the great things about hanging around in SF fandom for so long is that I’ve met many of my idols. I would like to meet Ursula le Guin, even though I suspect I’d just stutter incoherently about how much I admire her.

Something that many people are wondering, I’m sure. Now that you’re published, can you support yourself by writing, or do you still have a day job? And if you have a day job, how do you find the time to write?

Even on a book-a-year deal with a major publisher, you need extra income. A lot of authors get writing-related gigs (reviewing, journalism etc) but I still have a mundane day-job. Annoyingly, this means I can only meet writing deadlines by the ritual sacrifice of large swathes of social life.

I understand you are a member of a writing group? Could you tell us a little about that? How your group got started, how many members you have, do they all write the same genre, how useful do you find it, are any other members published?

I’m actually in two writing groups, though one meets infrequently and has a strong social element. Both groups grew out of the ‘One Step Beyond’ course, so we are all genre writers, which is ideal. The main group, Tripod, was so called because it was founded by three of us in Woking, just opposite where the Martians landed. Both groups have up to eight members (not everyone makes every meeting), which is probably the upper limit for a group which actually practises critiquing, rather than just sharing their writing non-critically. Several of those in my writing groups have a good track record with short story publications (Vaughan Stanger, for instance) but I’m currently the only one lucky enough to have a book deal.

Would you recommend joining a writing group?

Definitely. Nothing improves your writing like comprehensive and honest feedback. I’m very lucky to be in groups where we’re all at a similar level and all have the same ultimate goal: to improve our writing.

Many authors have found writing courses like Milford, Clarion West and Odyssey to be valuable experiences for honing their craft. Have you attended any of these and if so, did you find them to be useful? What was the biggest lesson you learned?

I’ve attended several Milfords, but not been to any of the American courses. Clarion was something I seriously considered but at the time when my writing would most have benefited I wasn’t sure I could have handled a course that long and intense. Milford is very good for giving you perspective on your work, because you critique a wide variety of stories, and receive a wide range of feedback; I’ve always come away having learnt something I didn’t know about my own writing (usually something I need to fix).

As a traditionally-published author, is self promotion an important part of your work, or does your publisher/agent handle it?

A bit of each. It’s great to have professional publicists on your side; they can get me (or more importantly my books) into places where I’d otherwise have no connection. Gollancz has an excellent publicity department, and they make sure review copies go to the right people, and put me forward for signings and to write articles or contribute to blogs. However, some of the work is still down to me: obviously I need to maintain a web presence between book releases, and I do much of the organisation for my book launches, because I hold them at a local independent bookshop who I have a long-standing relationship with.

How much time per week do you typically spend on self-promotion?

Not as much as I should. I’d like to be able to engage more with fans (and potential fans), and to run events like book giveaways, but I simply don’t have the time.

How important would you consider an author’s website to be?

Every author needs one. As for how best to utilise your website, that’s a subject I can’t claim to be an authority on, as mine is pretty basic [ed.].

How valuable do you find genre conventions as a both a writer and a fan?

They’re fun, in either role. And useful too: my book deal came about as a direct result of being on a panel at a convention.

Which conventions/events do you regularly attend and which would you really like to attend if given the chance (in UK or elsewhere)?

I was an SF fan for many years before I was an SF pro, so I’ve been to a lot of Eastercons. I’ve been to every Worldcon that’s been held in Europe in the last 25 years, but not a Eurocon, so I’d like to get to one of those. And I’d like to attend an American Worldcon.

What is next for you once book four comes out?

I’m currently hard at work on ‘Queen of Nowhere’, the fifth Hidden Empire book. After that I’m hoping to write a novel (or possibly two) set outside of the series, though in the same universe, before returning to finish of the story I’ve started.

On behalf of Utility Fog Press and all our readers, I’d like to thank Jaine for taking time out of her busy schedule to talk with us. I’m looking forward to the next installment in the Hidden Empire. All the best.