Children of Atlas is the first in the Atlas Cycle series and is where Julian Reeves lives a relatively comfortable life as a newspaper reporter in his dome city on the outer ring of the massive space station Atlas. A chance encounter with a hired assassin will dispel any notion that he lived in a civilized city and force him to flee into the wilds of the inner ring of the space station where he was born.
Assassins in space are the topic for today’s interview with Dustin Porta, which makes me inordinately excited. Dustin, thanks for sitting down to chat with me today, and because I’m really thrilled to talk about assassins in space let’s get straight down to business. Where did you get the idea to explore the darker side of life in supposedly civilised space colonies?
It started almost as a joke.
*Laughs* That’s awesome.
I wanted to take as many of my favorite science fiction tropes as I could and throw them into one story. Then I had a character. Julian he was wiry and a little nervous and bookish, sort of an Icabod Crane type, not your typical hero character. Then I added a foil Sebastian who was exaggeration in every way, gigantic, verbose, pedantic, and somehow still very capable in this dangerous world. It was over the top from the very beginning and then, somehow, all of that crazy, created a new normal, and it gelled together.
I’m guessing that because it stated its life as a less serious project you probably didn’t invest must time in researching anything when you started. Did that change as you went on?
I did a little reading within the genre, but not too much. Instead I went back to my old favorites for inspiration. There was a lot of research into different forms of artificial gravity, whether antique radios would work in space, nanobots, how long foodstuffs could last if we made them better, but all of those things only helped to build the world, and worked behind the scenes. The nice thing about destroying all of these cultures is I didn’t have to work too hard to imagine a new society based on scraps of Americana, and shreds of other world cultures. I like to use little cultural markers to differentiate between peoples, but since this is a post-globalization society, and also post apocalyptic, I didn’t lean into stereotypes and tried to write people as just people.
As you were writing people as ‘just people’ did you pull aspects from your own life, or the lives of the people around you?
I draw a lot on classic stories that I’ve loved, classic literature, folk tales. Wizard of Oz was a big influence on the adventure aspect of the book. I’m obviously not from some post apocalyptic wilderness, but I’m a country boy sometimes, so I can understand how some characters feel out of place in these new dome cities. I keep the relationships between characters simple. They’re young, dumb, and make a lot of mistakes.
*Laughs* Who doesn’t at some stage!
I think I know that feeling. Other characters are fairly well educated, and worldly, but rather than try to make everything they say correct, I remember that the smarter someone gets, the more they tend to exaggerate. So, yes, there is a lot of experience that went into it, but the real, believability of the characters comes when I undermine them just a little.
Was it easy to get to that nugget of believably, or flash of undermining easily? And how does it work?
I usually start with one line, something that they said that shows how they think differently than the others. I’m also a fan of naming, and the funny thing about Atlas is that most everyone has a terrible name. They are living in a broken world full of scraps of the past, advertisements, slogans, ancient signs and superstitions. I find myself apologizing for the dumb names all the time. Julian, Marker, Spanner, Dis, Kelvin, Boto. But the names often come to reveal something deeper about that character, where they come from, and how they look at the world.
Do you think that your book would translate all of these differing character perspectives to the screen well?
I don’t think you could make a movie out of this book without losing something. It would be too dark, without the humor, or too absurd/funny without any of the gravity or seriousness. I’d like to see it, but I can’t imagine it myself. The books are for me.
Fair enough, books can never be directly translated to the screen with 100% accuracy, so I can understand that you’d rather leave it with the books. Would you be more interested in seeing your characters come to life instead? Would you be up for meeting them all at a cast party?
If there was a cast party, I don’t think most of the characters would be invited. Julian, the main character, and his friend Kate are both too uptight to be any fun. Dis wouldn’t know what to do with himself. Sebastian would be the life of the party and Betrix would cut loose and dance. Kelv would try to sit in the corner and Dade would egg him on and force him to mingle and make inappropriate comments.
So, it would probably be a bit of an odd party, but I’m sure it wouldn’t be the worst party ever! Other than getting the chance to meet and hang out with all of your characters, what did you find was the most important element that you want readers to take from your novel?
Post apocalyptic bums me out. I can’t stand it. All of that loss and they never really get past it. What ever happened to things getting better? But you look at fantasy, all of our favorite stories are post apocalyptic. The Lord of the Rings for one. Dragonlance is another favorite, there was a great cataclysm. Even in the Wheel of Time, there was not one, but many successive breakings of the world, and each time, the past became mythology, and what was lost created a foundation for the story that really needed to be told. That is the true, untapped potential of post apocalyptic science fiction. And in the science fiction genre you have Shadowrun, you have Dune and the war against the machines, you have another machine war in The Matrix, and the war against the aliens in Enders Game almost qualifies. Mad Max and Waterworld are great, but they dwell on the destruction, which makes for a great hack and slash story, but falls short of something epic.
So did you find any personal satisfaction writing in similar genres to all of those aforementioned works that are less than optimistic?
In a world as large as this it is rewarding to see all the pieces start to come together. Loose threads from the beginning of the first book might not come into play until book two or three and when they finally do, the payoff is big. Watching characters grow and change. Characters who seem to have it all together will unravel, others who don’t really understand their purpose, come to be more important than they ever realized. Book one gives us small changes, Julian loses his faith, Sebastian turns out not to be so bad. Betrix is another character who starts out thinking that she is strong, then loses her “superpowers” early on and has to come to terms with her own mortality for a second time.
How have the characters developed from this first novel to the novel that you are currently working on?
I’m just wrapping up Cast in Sand. It’s not the third in the series, but it is my third in the Atlas world. It takes place around the same time as the first two books and stars a woman named Edwina, lost love to Sebastian. When she appears at the very end of book two, she is very different than how Sebastian describes her, darker, more dangerous. Cast in Sand is the first in what I hope will be a collection of stories about her body-jumping exploits throughout the larger world of Atlas. At the same time as providing a little background on Edwina, they are helping to give a sense of the immensity and grand scale of this universe.
What keeps you coming back to explore each of these tales within this universe?
I write because it makes me happy. A lot of my reading and writing, I do for myself. My personal writing is a little dry. I’m a big fan of poetry, of the great transcendentalist writers of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. I like the great short story writers, stories that deal with the human experience, nature, and have an element of mysticism to them. Science Fiction is different, it’s a way of connecting with people on a different level. We don’t have to get too heavy or deep, we build characters that feel real, a world that is alive, and we explore the way that world works and learn about the real world in the process. Sometimes it lets us approach issues that would be too difficult to talk about if they took place in the real world. But I also like puzzles, and writing is a great big puzzle.
You know in almost 200 interviews I don’t think I’ve had a writer describe writing as solving a big puzzle. How do you attack the writing puzzle? Do you start with the edge and corner pieces to give you some structure so you know the basic outline, or do you just work all over the place?
I like a scene that speaks for itself. I will write a chapter, not necessarily the first or the last, that means something. I’ll write a few more like this. When I have a cast of characters, and a collection of scenarios, I find the common thread. From there I plot out a story, from beginning to end. Book one tripped me up a little. I wound up starting a few story lines that carry over into the second book. But yes, I know where everything is going. Nothing is ever set in stone. Sometimes something happens that changes the course of things. If it is meaningful, I keep it, and change the outline instead.
Are there any practices or rituals even that you use to get you in puzzle solving mode?
I have a soundtrack, also snacks and writing spots that help me to write. These lead into the story. When I’m in flow, and into the story enough that I don’t need anything to hold my attention, distractions are switched off, and I focus in on the difficult parts.
What’s some of the music on your writing soundtrack?
I have an eclectic mix, I like traditional Chinese folk music, Mississippi blues, reggae, and a little rap. The important thing is that I play the same songs from week to week, and new music gets worked into the playlist gradually so it’s not to distracting. Other times I’ll turn on some white noise. Right now, a Pennsylvania artist from a while back. Mad Conductor is experimental hip-hop with reggae sounds. The beats are catchy and the lyrics are just bizarre enough to match the tone of what I’m writing.
*Laughs* I like that you match the bizarreness of your beats to the bizarreness of your writing. Out of curiosity I’m wondering if your day job or previous occupations have influenced this daringness to explore the offbeat?
I was a painter for a while, sold art in galleries along the Gulf coast, in New Orleans and Mobile. I still do it but slowed down quite a bit when I started writing full time. That has helped me a lot with the creative process. I was also very into sailing and crewed on schooners, lived on a boat for a while. A lot of the themes of classic sailing literature make it into my stories. Some of the early chapters were even written at sea. The mood and ambiance of being isolated in space, the feeling of being adrift and at the mercy of the elements, and maybe a bit of the lunacy that comes from sailors and maritime characters makes it into the writing.
I really hope that some of that lunacy has made it into your writing. The world needs more lunacy from the waves and nature rather from created lunacy from civilisation. Now speaking of lunacy, let’s move on to the wild, wonderful and sometimes wacky quick fire question round where I want to see just how much silliness exists in your life. Let’s kick it off with: Are you a valuable asset on a quiz team?
Only if the questions are very random and obscure. I’m terrible with sports so, my teams usually don’t win.
The random and obscure questions are the best ones to win. What is your zodiac sign?
Gemini. I’m sure it helps with writing all sorts of different types of people with different worldviews. I also wrote a two-headed character, I’m sure that has something to do with being a Gemini.
Speaking of characters from the fantastic, if you invented a monster what would it look like and what would you call it?
My first imaginary monster was a flying Venus flytrap that carried a lump of dirt around to grow roots in. I was four or five years old. There are drawings and everything.
*Laughs* I totally want to see one of those! Are you introvert or extrovert?
Have you ever danced in the rain?
I’ve rain-danced to make it rain. Does that count?
It counts double if you actually managed to make it rain! If you ruled your own country, who would you get to write the national anthem?
Are you left or right handed?
What’s the most unusual name you’ve ever come across?
Torstein is my favorite, because it is related to my name.
Using a little relational tie-in. Nice work. What is your favourite flavor of ice-cream?
I’ve never had that one, but I really really hope that it is as awesome as it sounds. And finally, if you could breed two animals together to defy the laws of nature what new animal would you create?
The world needs manticores.
I wholeheartedly agree with that point. Bring on the manticores! And if we can’t bring forth the manticores, hopefully the audience will be content with picking up a copy of ‘Children of the Atlas’. Dustin, thanks for making me laugh in today’s tête-à-tête and I wish you all the best of luck and amusement returning to the Atlas cycle universe.
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