I really wanted to interview Leah Petersen (www.leahpetersen.com) as I absolutely love her trilogy The Physics of Falling. Perhaps I had a selfish motive (I really wanted some answers about her work and how she created it), but I hope you all enjoy the interview. Leah is a fabulous writer and has been kind enough to answer too many questions. But I digress. Below is the interview.
K. Andrew Turner: Before we start, I wanted to ask some basic questions about your life and writing. First, where did you grow up? Has that influenced your writing?
Leah Petersen: I grew up in a small town in the South, in a very religious family. If that influenced my writing it was as a rebellion against the social norms and attitudes I was raised with and among. I think a lot of my stories are creating worlds for myself that I wish I lived in, not the ones I’ve ever come close to knowing.
KAT: I think we as writers tend to do that. I know I do! So which authors have most influenced your work?
LP: I always hate this question because it’s so hard to say. I read so much all my life that I often forget who and what I’ve already read, though they all leave their mark in some way. I’d say Anne McCaffrey was the author I was most devoted to. Her character-centric science fiction worlds were places I went back to again and again. Other than that, almost everything I read was science fiction or fantasy, and all those different ways of looking at how the world might be certainly influenced everything I’ve written since.
KAT: Oh no! I often have a hard time with that question also. What are your current projects?
LP: I’ve just decided to abandon a fairly ambitious fantasy world, multiple POVs, that I’ve been trying to put together for six months. I’ve learned a lot from the process, part of which is that this type of novel is not my strength. I’ve started on a new project that goes right back to my core strengths and the things I love about being a writer. In short, it’s a character-centric book that follows one young man and will almost certainly include a handsome love interest for him as well. It’s a fantasy novel and I’m setting it in time and place that draws a lot from ancient South American cultures.
KAT: Sounds amazing! I can’t wait to get my hands on it. You mentioned abandoning a long project. What else has been the hardest part about writing for you?
LP: Discipline, I think. I tend to do everything in extremes, and writing is one of them. I’ll go months not writing a word then write half a novel in a few weekends. And I’m not a planner, I like to run with tragic characters and emotion and let the story develop around them. That works to a point, and more in some situations than others. But if I want to take my writing farther and deeper, I’m finding a lot of bad habits I have to break because of those things.
KAT: We may be more alike than I thought. I do the same, even with reading binges. What is the best moment in your writing career thus far?
LP: Fighting Gravity being released into the world. There are a million other times that were wonderful, and I’ve met many great people, but none of that would have happened if Fighting Gravity had never been published.
KAT: Ah, now here we are. What inspired you to write your first book, Fighting Gravity?
LP: I don’t know if “inspired” is the right word so much as “drove.” I had recently been diagnosed with bipolar disorder after a pretty dramatic few months and a hard splat at the bottom. I was an emotional mess. Following the character from a random dream I’d had became an obsession, and I’d written Fighting Gravity from beginning to end in my head before I ever set a word on paper. I’d always written in my head and in bursts of inspiration that I never completed, (see above answer about lacking discipline.) But something about the emotional place I was in made it impossible for me to let the story go, and once I’d done all the hard work of writing it, it seemed silly not to type it up and make it real.
KAT: Well, I’m glad you did. I’ve had characters come to me in dreams as well, but probably not that strongly. I wanted to talk about your main character, Jacob Dawes. He’s a fascinating character, and I think we all identify with him. In your first book, you mention “torturing” him. What is the background on Jacob? How did he mature from early drafts to how we see him today?
LP: The dream I had which spawned him was about a kid who got taken from his parents and sent to a special school because he was a genius. The poignancy of his pain and confusion and powerlessness resonated long after I woke up. He started out so young that in many ways he ended up torturing himself. He had everything working against him and had a pretty pessimistic view of the world, for good reasons, and he survived on anger and physics. In a setting that treated him like a commodity and not a child, it was almost impossible for him not to exacerbate any struggles he was presented with and full-out make trouble for himself out of sheer bull-headedness. He matured not in genuinely becoming chronologically older but in lessons learned from the people around him who didn’t give up on him even when everything he was doing practically begged them to.
KAT: That’s a solid answer, and I think brings up some important issues about how we treat others. Your work focuses a lot on class struggle and poverty, anger management, learning to trust, and of course, love, romance and family. How do these themes play out in your writing? Were you drawn consciously to them?
LP: The themes that come out in my books are both by accident and design because they are things that I care about in real life. (Which I imagine is the way it works for all writers.) I’ve never approached any story with the intent to make a certain point, or address a theme, but the things on my mind and that are important to me are going to be the things I end up putting in my worlds and placing in front of my characters as either barriers or salvation.
KAT: Interesting, sometimes I set out with a theme or idea. That doesn’t seem to get me far though. I’ll have to try it your way. One thing that’s so awesome about your book is that, especially in the third one, Impact Velocity, you have a really big realization for a character that all people are essentially the same. Why do you feel is this so important to teach readers?
LP: I think failure to understand that is at the core of all that we do that hurts ourselves or others. In every situation where someone is struggling or being harmed, it’s because a person with power over them considers them “other.”
KAT: Exactly, we’ve become, in some ways, immune to the idea that “others” aren’t supposed to be treated differently. Speaking of which, we talked briefly on twitter about the sexuality of your characters and how you viewed their world. There is a lot going on in the media today about representation, and I think you’ve managed to do really well in your world. Can you tell me about your thoughts on representation in science fiction and fantasy, and how you worked in ethnicity, color, gender and sexuality?
LP: This is basically an extension of the last answer, about all people having the same intrinsic value. There’s no inherent worth to one culture, race, sex, gender, all have their strengths and weaknesses. It’s a terribly lopsided, limiting, and ultimately weaker world if you forget that there’s a vast array of experiences and points of view. And I had zero interest in simply placing characters in a world that has been written ad infinitum.
KAT: Breaking the mold! And I’m glad, as I really love the world you’ve created. It’s so real on the page and I’m sure you had to cut out a lot. Is there “missing footage” from the books that you wish was there? Any scenes you want to write or have thought about to expand this world?
LP: I don’t think there’s any “missing footage” really that I could pull out and it would illuminate the world any more than what stayed in through the editing process. It’s hard to say, though, because like any world or story, there are lots of things I “know” about it that didn’t make it explicitly into the books but that were there in the writing of it. That’s true of everything, though, there’s always so much more underneath than anyone will ever see.
KAT: Lastly, and this is just curiosity, are you working on or plan to work on more in this universe?
LP: I’m fairly confident I’m finished with the universe of Fighting Gravity. If I ever go back to it, I think it will be on an entirely different planet with unconnected characters that fit into the Empire of this series but are their own world with their own history.
KAT: Please do! That would be awesome. Maybe some short stories?
LP: I don’t expect so. For me it’s always about the characters and, as you know, the Physics of Falling series follows Jake’s life from beginning to end. Of course, I reserve the privilege to change my mind, but it’s not there right now.
KAT: Thank you for your time!
LP: Of course, thank you for having me.
Leah Petersen lives in North Carolina manipulating numbers by day and the universe by night. She prides herself on being able to hold a book with her feet so she can knit while reading. She’s still working on knitting while writing. Leah is the author of the Physics of Falling series: Fighting Gravity, Cascade Effect, and Impact Velocity. She has also published short fiction including “Skin Deep,” co-authored with Gabrielle Harbowy, in the anthology Carbide Tipped Pens, edited by Ben Bova and Eric Choi. You can find her on her website at http://www.leahpetersen.com, on Twitter @LeahPetersen, and on Facebook, http://www.facebook.com/LeahPetersenAuthor.