Nicole lives in Canberra, Australia (I've always wanted to visit) with her husband and their pets. She is a translator, mature-age student, bibliophile, Trekkie, podcaster, atheist, and a future laboratory technician. You can read much more about her at clfornax.com, but let's take a quick look at Fornax Rising before we get into the interview:
Life in the early twentieth century isn't easy for women, especially if that woman is an outspoken, intelligent, headstrong, augmented amputee with prosthetic technology that is the envy of armies. Enter Cassandra Leigh Fornax. Daughter of the shipping magnate John Fornax, Cassandra has had a harder life than most young people of her social standing. After a tragic childhood accident leaves her an amputee, Cassandra's uncle and engineer, Philip Fornax, builds her a revolutionary prosthesis which replaces the hand she lost. As Cassandra begins to make her own decisions about her future, she finds that her domineering father intends her to live a radically different life. She emancipates herself loudly and publicly at her eighteenth birthday party, scandalising her parents and putting paid to her father's scheme. When Philip receives an offer to work in an airship factory in Germany, Cassandra follows him so she can put some distance between herself and her father. As the threat of war looms over Europe, the German army has the talented engineer's most advanced creation firmly in its sights. Cassandra had hoped to leave her troubles behind when she left Britain, but finds they have just begun.
I'll definitely be slipping Fornax Rising into my TBR pile but, in the meantime, let's chat a bit with Nicole.
♥ Thanks so much for stopping by, Nicole. For those who may be new to your writing, and who haven't yet checked out your latest release, please tell us a little about yourself.
I'm Nicole Ross. I was born in Germany and moved to Australia with my parents when I was ten years old. I've always loved playing with language: I'm a professional translator, an avid reader, and have been on the creative and academic sides of the writing fence. My first novel, Fornax Rising, which is a Steampunk coming-of-age story was released as an e-book on Amazon and Smashwords this week, with the paperback to come by the end of this month.
♥ The journey from 'aspiring' to 'accomplished' can be a long one, even in the era of small presses and digital publishing. When did you begin writing, and how did you feel when you first saw your work in print?
I started writing after we moved to Australia – creative writing and journaling was part of the English curriculum in the schools I attended. My English skills weren’t great in the first two years, but I became a more confident writer as I became a more fluent English speaker. Writing was something I enjoyed, but was mostly kept confined to class assignments – creative writing and essays. I did try to think up a science fiction story when I was twelve years old, but after sitting back and looking at the story critically, I decided to scrap it.
It’s a strange feeling seeing your work in print – I feel a mix of accomplishment and apprehension, and it also feels a little anti-climactic. Accomplishment because I finally finished a major project, which also feels anti-climactic because it’s over, and what’s next? Apprehension comes into it because I don’t know how readers will react. This is how I felt when I picked up the bound copies of my Honours dissertation, and when I received the print proof of Fornax Rising in the post. The paperback version will be out later in June, 2011.
♥ That's really interesting - I hadn't thought beyond the accomplishment to the apprehension, but it makes perfect sense. With Fornax Rising, did you deliberately choose the steampunk genre because there's something specific that draws you to it, something you feel it offers that other genres don't, or was it just 'right' for the story you wanted to tell?
I'm part of the Steampunk community and was still quite new to Steampunk when I started work on Fornax Rising. Writing in a setting where things are mostly the same (though with some notable differences) was a way to explore the genre and have fun with it. The concept of a recently industrialised society with an array of technological possibilities appealed to me, and it was also a contrast to my usual science-fiction tastes (I'm a Trekkie). The idea of looking back and think about technology that might have been presented something new and interesting to think about. So, initially, Steampunk definitely offered something I hadn't seen in other genres. Over time, it grew into a "must-have" setting. As I wrote, I was also reading books by other Steampunk authors, and noticed that the idea of having a character with a prosthesis wasn't the most original. I tried to think of a way to change Cassandra, but it would have ruined the story I wanted to tell. If I'd made changes, she wouldn't have been the character I'd grown fond of, and the story of her life would have been very different.
♥ I love the Trekkie/Steampunk contrast! How do you find your past influence your writing? Are you conscious of relating the story to your own experiences?
My past influences my writing to a degree. The main character, Cassandra, and I have quite a bit in common: we love science (although she prefers engineering and I prefer biology), we’re loners, we’re usually on the blunt end of the honest scale, we've butted heads with our parents, and we both use prosthetic devices (mine are implanted). I’ve also given her two of my core values – I’m an atheist and child free by choice, and thought it was more honest for me to write what I know (on the other hand, maybe that shows a lack of imagination). I felt quite out of my depth when I wrote the scenes between the young Cassandra and her parents, because I had a difficult time imagining how her parents would relate to her.
♥ From what I've seen of Fornax Rising, you have imagination to spare, so I definitely don't see a lack of it in Cassandra! Do you have a schedule or a routine to your writing? Is there a time and place that you must write, or do you let the words flow as they demand?
When I started work on what became Fornax Rising, I initially let the story flow whenever I had a new idea. If I had a month off from writing because there was nothing to say, I started to feel guilty, so I’d open the file and see where I could make additions or changes. At the start of this year, I set myself a publication deadline of July 2011. I’m going back to school next month and wanted to avoid juggling full-time work, part-time study and finishing the novel. The funny thing is, I’ve already made a start on the sequel to Fornax Rising, so I’ll be working on it whenever I can catch a break. It will probably be a long time coming given my other commitments.
♥ Do you have a soundtrack to your writing, a particular style of music or other background noise that keeps you in the mood, or do you require quiet solitude?
It varies. Sometimes I want silence, and other times I'll listen to music. My musical taste is pretty eclectic - I love old school punk, Australian rock, classic rock, electronica, big beat and darkwave, to name just a few styles. I've also been listening to the soundtracks for the Portal games quite a bit in the last few weeks. Heck, I even like a couple of Lady Gaga songs.
♥ For some authors, it's coming up with a title, and for others it's writing that first paragraph - what do you find is the most difficult aspect of writing?
The original title for Fornax Rising was just going to be Fornax. Then I googled "Fornax" and found out that it's not a very distinctive name - there companies, products and even a graphic novel with the same name. I decided I needed something that stands out more. It took quite a while to come up with the final title, and I think it reflects the plot and Cassandra's personality well. She frees herself and doesn't let things get her down.
The other thing I found difficult to write was the synopsis. Marketing isn't something that comes naturally to me, so there were quite a few rewrites. I showed the drafts to others along the way and asked, "does this blurb draw you in? Would you read this story?" I knew I had it right when the answer was, "yes it does, and yes I would."
♥ Very true - first impressions are everything, and a good blurb can make a book. Is there a favourite quote or scene from your work that you feel particularly fond of? Something that reminds you of why writing is important to you?
I wouldn't say I'm fond of this scene, but I cried when I wrote and revised it. It's the chapter where Cassandra finds out that her beloved grandfather had died. She'd never lost someone who was dear to her before, and the grief hits her hard. I think everyone would be able to identify with that part of the story, and it's important to me that my characters and their lives are believable, and that readers can relate to them.
♥ When you're not writing (or reading), what are some of the hobbies and passions that keep you happy?
I'm about to start making a career change - going back to school to study bio medicine, with the view to becoming a laboratory technician. I became interested in science, particularly complex systems evolution, poisons, and diseases, during my mid-twenties. I'm thrilled that I'm finally at a point where I'm able to go back to school, and my boss supports this move even though it ultimately means that I'll move on.
I'm also active in the skeptical community, as a regular at the local Skeptics in the Pub meet, and as a contributor to the Rational Capital podcast. I value critical thinking and the importance of challenging claims which are spurious or seem too good to be true. Cults are my number one skeptical bug bear - groups which prey on vulnerable people so they can exploit them for the group's ends. So shining a spotlight on the hypocritical nature of cults has been a major focus of my contributions to the podcast.
I love animals and have a German Shepherd and a spotted python. My dog is elderly now, so he needs a lot of TLC and I make sure that he's comfortable, healthy and happy. It's winter in Australia at the moment, so my snake is (sort of) hibernating. I say "sort of" because pythons are pretty lazy, so it's hard to tell the difference.
♥ Hmm, I think I'll be sitting down for some podcasts this weekend. Is there a particular author who has influenced or inspired your writing? Somebody who either made you want to write in the first place, or who refreshes your literary batteries?
My husband Luke is the one who encouraged me to start writing. We'd come back from the cinema and I said wistfully, "I wish I were imaginative enough to come up with an entertaining story." We'd watched Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland - the movie's merits (or lack thereof) aside, I expected to be entertained and wasn't disappointed. Luke's reply was, "well, have a try! Come up with a character now!" That's how Cassandra came to be.
I really enjoy authors who bend the Steampunk genre. I find Michael Pryor inspiring (Aussie writer, author of The Laws of Magic series, among others). His work isn't strictly Steampunk, but rather blends technology and magic - magic is one of the sciences in his alternate universe. Another author I love for originality is Scott Westerfeld and his Leviathan series. It's set in an alternate universe where the First World War has just broken out. On one side are the Germans with their war machines of steel. On the other, the British with their augmented animals - a meeting of organic and mechanic. I just finished reading Hour of Need, the final book in The Laws of Magic series and I'm eagerly awaiting Goliath, the final installment of the Leviathan series.
Outside of the Steampunk genre, I love Erich Maria Remarque. His most famous novel is, of course, All Quiet on the Western Front, but my favourite novel of his is Arc de Triomphe. He told the stories of the everyman, the forgotten, and the outsider, and did it in honest, un-embellished language.
I'm not huge on horror or fantasy, but I love HP Lovecraft and Sergei Lukyanenko. Lovecraft was the master of scaring you with psychology - telling of unknown dangers and hinting at their sinister nature. Lovecraft sets the scene and then you scare yourself as your mind jumps to conclusions. Sergei Lukyanenko wrote The World of Watches series, which is dark fantasy - a fairy-tale setting in today's Moscow, where Light forces struggle for balance while the Dark tries to cause chaos. The lines between good and evil blur as leaders from both sides strike deals and manipulate events, and the protagonist experiences twists which nobody saw coming.
♥ I've had Sergei Lukyanenko's first Watch novel sitting on my shelf for a while now - I think it's about time I give it a read. When writing, do you ever consider how a reader or reviewer will react, or do you write solely for your own satisfaction?
It's a bit of both. One thing I want to avoid is have the reader think, "what a load of implausible piffle!" I wrote Fornax Rising as an exercise for my imagination (to see if I still had any left), and also as entertainment for others.
I've largely avoided swearing in Fornax Rising, because I don't know who will pick it up. My characters say "damn", "hell", and "bastard" a few times, but when they do swear they do so out of frustration, so it's not as though they're cursing like sailors just for the fun of it.
♥ What is the strangest or most surprising reaction to your work that you've ever encountered?
I haven't had a strange reaction yet, but the most surprising reaction came from my ex. We're still friends, and when I told him I was writing a novel, he said, "Oh, great! You're a good writer!" I'm not sure how he came to that conclusion because I "only" wrote my dissertation when we were together, and I don't think he read it.
♥ When you're looking to escape into a really good book (the kind that makes you miss appointments, forget about dinner, and stay up way too late), which authors do you generally reach for, and why?
I don't really have one author I reach for. Harry Potter is mind candy, no doubt about it. I gobbled up all the Harry books. The last book which really gripped me was Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. I finished it in a couple of hours. Bradbury's vision of a world where books (and their owners) are burned frightened me beyond reason, but I needed to know how it ended.
♥ I think Fahrenheit 451 is one of those novels that gets more frightening the older we get. Just for fun, who would you single out as your number one celebrity crush, and what would you like most to do with/to them?
It's a toss-up between Mr Spock and Captain Picard. I'd like Spock to teach me three-dimensional chess, and I want to hang out with Captain Picard in Ten Forward and have drinks by the window.
♥ If your book were being made into a movie, and you had total control over the production, who would you cast for the leading roles?
Cassandra - Carrie-Anne Moss
Phil - David Thewlis or Bill Murray
John - Hugo Weaving
Julia - Elisabeth Sladen
Christine - Sarah Chalke
Michael - Noel Fielding
Francis - Cillian Murphy
Irving - Patrick Stewart
Alfred - Matthew Lewis
Lanz - Christopher Eccleston
Osterwald - the late George C. Scott, if that were only possible!
♥ Wow, that's quite a cast . . . I really like it. Taking a step back from your work for a moment, if you could live a day in the world of someone else's story, whose would you choose, and why?
I'd like to spend a day in the universe of The World of Watches, to see magic and stratagems unfold, and to scheme. If I had to pick a character, it'd have to be Zavulon, the chief Dark One of Moscow.
♥ Okay, that definitely moves up the TBR pile now. You've talked a bit about being an atheist and and skeptic, and imbuing Cassandra with those beliefs, so I have to ask - is there a particular theme or message you're expecting readers to take away from your work?
When I finished Fornax Rising, the message "no man is an island" jumped out at me. Although Cassandra is a naturally tenacious character, she can't do the things she does in isolation.
Another message is that you should decide your own future and not allow others to dictate to you.
Thinking about it now, the other message is that true family are the people you choose yourself. We're not all blessed with a happy family and many of us have friends who are closer to us and more like family than our biological family.
♥ All good, positive messages. What can we look forward to from you next? Is there a project on the horizon that you're really excited about?
I've started work on The Fall of Melnax, which is the sequel to Fornax Rising. It's unlikely that Melnax will be finished in a hurry, what with my work schedule and school timetable, but I hope to snatch writing time where I can!
A huge "thank you" to Nicole Ross for stopping by. You can check her out on the web at clfornax.com, and you can already find Fornax Rising in Kindle format and other electronic formats (at Smashwords), with the paperback edition to follow soon.