Sue-Ellen Holmes, Australian author of several science-fiction and urban-fantasy novels for young adults is with us today. Sue is different from most authors. She is very shy, humble, but she writes about outspoken, passionate heroines who would fight for justice.
Hello Sue, lovely to have a neighbour stopping by J It was so entertaining your book BRINK. Would you be so kind to give readers its one-sentence synopsis?
In the near future where the intellect rules and science offers civilisation’s only salvation, a mad-man bio-terrorist is determined to purge the planet of its human stain and the only one standing in his way is defiant hyper-immune girl called Io, whose ridiculed physical gifts may just give her the upper fist.
How real are your characters?
Well it’s really important to create characters with the full range of human emotions, complexity and depth, but whether I succeed or not is for the reader to judge. Often what’s in your head is not always transcribed well on the page no matter how hard you try because real people are actually quite confusing and their motivations are often obscure. I have a Psych degree, but as in life, I find that’s no help at all. As you can tell, I’m good at nailing confusion!
You’re good at building the characters! Who or what inspired you to write this book?
I’m a Neuroscientist, so many aspects of the physical world fascinate me. If I had my time over, I think I’d specialise in bacteria and viruses—they’re such perfectly nasty little suckers. So, it was only natural that I wrote about something I’m very interested in. Also, many people write about catastrophe in retrospect and I thought it would be fun to see an extinction event as it unfolds. BRINK was actually the first full length novel I attempted and it’s ten years old now. Unfortunately, if I’d had the skills back then to clean up the story and edit it to a higher standard, I might have beaten the current slew of dystopian/post-apocalyptics flooding the market. Still, despite the poor timing, it’s a far better story now that I’ve practiced and schooled myself in the art of writing and I’m grateful for the delay.
The catastrophe is well detailed. When did you first know you just had to write?
I’ve been writing creatively since primary school—poetry and short stories—but didn’t attempt a full length novel until I was an adult. Now writing’s like breathing and I can’t imagine a day without it. I resent anything that interferes, such as mortgage-paying jobs and maintaining personal hygiene. All of my jobs involve either academic writing or educational writing, so I guess it’s always been deep in my bones.
How long did it take you to write Brink?
The writing process is very quick for me, it’s the editing and fine tuning that takes a long time. I finished an entire re-write of the first version of BRINK for a contest (ABNA 2011) in four frenzied days. It’s taken months since to fine-tune.
How did you come up with the title?
I wanted a word that represented not only the visual image of teetering on a cliff, but also one that auditorily came to a screeching halt. I spent a long time messing around with crappy titles, until BRINK finally hit me.
What is your favourite phrase in Brink?
“They’ll come” because it encapsulates a particularly unexpected instance of treachery and provides a bit of a cliff-hanger in a book that is mostly stand-alone.
Who would you say have been the most influential authors in your life? What is it that really strikes you about their work?
The list evolves, as there have been so many. I know it’s cliché for fantasy writers, but I love Tolkien or any author who can transport the reader to a place that, although utterly strange and unreal, seems likely (of course, J K Rowling). Dr Seuss is the earliest genius I remember encountering. Everything he’s done is just so gleeful, yet also imparts a subtle, valuable message. I read Dune when I was quite young and even though it necessitated a dictionary and periods of extensive confusion, I just loved the grand scope of that series, the tantalising possibility of it all. At the moment, I’m enjoying Laini Taylor and her exciting new spin on angel mythology. It sounds harsh, but I cherish any writer who can effortlessly keep me turning pages. Currently, I put so many potentially good YA stories down unread due to boredom and it’s such a shame.
What story would you like to share about the joy, challenge, or hardship of writing?
I’m a fairly solitary creature so the great stretches of time alone writing don’t bother me, as it does some people. Besides, I’m surrounded by the characters I conjure on the page. It’s when I’m forced to venture outside the comfortable sphere of my study, even in virtual realms that I find being an author testing. Discoverability is something I’ve struggled with and failed miserably to master—letting the target reader know you’re actually there. And reaching teens is not the easiest in reality, let alone across the world wide web. Plus, if you’re not determined to overcome the self-doubt, the lack of financial reward, the constant rejection and less than glowing opinions, forget about it. So in essence, real thick-skinned writers never give up!
But getting immersed in your writing is a wondrous adventure and a reward in itself, right? Who gives you the most encouragement? Why is that important to you?
Selling the odd book tends to give me an enduring high… My family, while not effusive in their encouragement, are stoically non-critical of my crazy dream to work full-time as an author. They weather the tears and gin-abuse with eye-rolling fortitude. My adorable long-suffering husband no longer bothers to compete with the computer for attention and now sleeps with his surfboard. It doesn’t matter how much external validation you get, if you don’t ‘back’ yourself nothing anyone can say will make a difference—which is supremely ironic given this entire career choice is about the subjective opinion of others. Go figure…
Sounds rather like my long suffering, accepting family! What are you working on right now? Tell us your latest news.
I’m attempting to work on completing the trilogies for each of the novels I’ve published on my website http://www.unrealya.com . Unfortunately, I’ve a few rather annoying jobs that eat up far too much time, so the endeavour is patchy at best. And I’m toiling to complete a space opera that is my own personal favourite, Able Unwilling.
You’re very creative and courageous! Do you see writing as a career or distraction? Why?
A career, without doubt, because it’s the thing I most love doing (except in my pesky day jobs, which are the true distractions!). You know that old adage ‘do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life’? It’s true. Now, if I could just make enough/any money as an idle, gin-swilling, hammock-swinging writer…
And we can’t possibly give to readers something that we can’t love. How much do you have in common with your protag?
Io is head-strong, highly strung and anti-authoritarian, while I am as meek as a lamb. <I read this aloud and assorted family members were on the floor in tears of hilarity. I admit to being slightly miffed at the implication I am in any way oppositional. I am so not!> Okay, so maybe Io and I share some character traits. But she is also elegant and athletic, the opposite of clumsy old me (her abilities are wishful thinking on my part, perhaps).
I could see you when I was reading her 🙂 What are your hobbies?
Writing, painting, writing, running, writing, reading, writing, surfing (sort of, see comment above)… Oh, and that elusive past-time of doing absolutely nothing for a stretch longer than thirty seconds. Not to mention shamelessly embarrassing my adolescent children at every opportunity.
What is your other profession? When do you find the time to write?
I’m a Neuroscientist by trade, but am working as a monkey-slave running research for several sets of doctors at the moment. Squeezing time out of the day is the biggest challenge right now and writing is relegated to the weekend, much to my irritation. This means I’ve been working seven days a week now for two and a half years. My body is frozen in the seated position, which makes jogging particularly challenging (and fairly awkward).
Sue, come tell us a bit about who or what matters to you.
My husband and my children are the world. They provide me with that other essential ingredient in a life worth living: laughter (even if it’s often at my expense).
Wonderful family! 🙂 Now, how has your published work influenced others and their attitude towards you?
I’d have to say it’s barely made a ripple to the exchanges I have with others. In the beginning, I had too many friends apologising for ‘not getting around’ to reading my stuff, which just made everyone fidget and stare at the floor. Unless I morph into Stephanie Meyer overnight and people beg me for a profound sound-bite (and despite what people think of her technique, that woman is a brilliant example of connecting with her target audience. I’d take tips from her any day), I’ll be sticking to my ‘keep quiet and don’t startle the nervous/apathetic/guilty associate’ approach. Clearly, self-promotion is not my forte.
What one thing is important for your readers/audience to know about you? Why?
I work my bum off to avoid boring readers… I study television and movies to see how tension is maintained, strive to first and foremost write entertaining adventure stories where the protagonist struggles to prevail, much like everyday life, only bigger, harder and in much weirder places, usually with a generous helping of the supernatural or technology or my friend ‘the germ’. Boredom is the enemy of good story-telling.
Any tips for us on reading and/or writing?
If I were to offer tips on writing technique, the underlying inference seems to be that I am somehow an expert, which I do not feel is true. There is always something more to learn about writing. Reading good books is the best thing an aspiring writer can do—find examples that you love and try to discern why they push your buttons, what you admire. See if you can somehow emulate them with your very own twist. The best I can suggest is to keep writing and endure—never give-up on yourself. Oh, and remember when receiving criticism that planet earth would be a very boring place if we all liked the same things. Even Harry Potter got a one star now and then. So, have a laugh and go in search of a large gin to toast the honest effort.
What you’d like people to know about you apart from the questions above?
That I sing like a nightingale, am exceptional at ballet, have an IQ to rival Hawking and speak ancient Hebrew at parties just for the smart-arsed hell of it… I harbour a secret desire to be a dark avenger and right society’s wrongs ala Dexter Morgan, only a little less messy as I’m averse to doing housework. Well, Ia, you didn’t specify it had to be true (except for that last part)!
Hahahahaha… you forget to mention your sense of humour!
It’s been fun Sue, good luck with all these marvelous books, thanks again for coming!
Readers, I hope you have enjoyed meeting Sue. And now my review of BRINK, here it goes:
Book title: Brink
ASIN: B007DMWZXS, 306 pages
Author: Sue-Ellen Holmes
The year isn’t clear, but BRINK takes place in the future when science dominates our earth. This first book in the Maverick trilogy is the story of 17-year-old Io Calypso, originally of Maverick Institute of Advance Thought. Here intellectual brilliance and obedience are the most valued assets, but alas, rebellious Io is a freedom-craving girl with physical gifts and a penchant for rock climbing instead.
On the day Io gets into trouble for challenging Maverick’s constrictive rules, a mad bio-terrorist places humankind at the brink of extinction by permanently covering the land with hazardous pollution and deadly disease. To survive, Io and 14 other survivors must take refuge in a shielded subsurface pod, protected from harm. Io loses her entire family in the disaster, except her grandmother. Or so she believes as she grieves.
Concerns for her grandmother’s health cause Io to sneak back to Maverick, their former luxurious home, one year later. Unexpectedly, impossibly, she encounters a surprise survivor, and learns that the disaster which she had thought was an accident was actually a sabotage staged by a devious and dangerous enemy, and that more survivors exist. Is her beloved brother Iz among them?
Enter Io’s pod members, geniuses who have shielded the deviant girl from the truth for her own “good”. At the head is her bossy, crafty grandma; at her side is Wim—an over-protective friend; around her is an assortment of interesting characters who now must back Io as this tough girl embarks on her lethal mission to free Iz from the clutch of menacing evil.
BRINK is a gripping dystopian science fiction that will delight smarter readers. Io is of your typical teen-against-the-world variety, but she has an extra-ordinary immune system and splendid determination. Sue-Ellen Holmes plays the early events by flipping the present and the past back and forth. These frequent flips wouldn’t allow me to lose myself in the mood of the scenes at the beginning, but once the story flows Io’s adventures through dangers are carefully plotted and original, the catastrophe and treacherous grounds vividly detailed, the descriptions imaginative, and the narration at times chilling.