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  • Writer's pictureLee Murray

Lee Murray's NZ Speculative Fiction Show - Jean Gilbert

Welcome to Lee Murray’s New Zealand Speculative Fiction Show, an interview series featuring star acts from NZ’s science fiction, fantasy and horror community, including news, insights, and sneak-peeks of their latest performances.

Today my guest is much loved YA speculative writer, Jean Gilbert, a four-time winner of New Zealand’s Sir Julius Vogel Award and author of the time travel Vault Agency series from Rogue House Publishing. Hi Jean and welcome to the blog!

Hi, Lee. It’s good to be here. Thank you for inviting me.

Are we likely to see any more novels in the Vault series?

Funny you should ask that question. I’ve always had a forth story in mind for the Vault series. My fans keep asking for it. They want to know what happens to Tanner Holmes. He’s a favorite character of mine, too. Well, I do know that Tanner’s story isn’t finished. Neither is Sharra’s. I am keen to write it. However, as you know, it’s the problem of fitting it in somewhere. My fans will just have to be patient with me. Once I finish off some ongoing projects, I promise, I will write the story.

What was your favourite part of writing that series?

I love the idea of playing the game ‘what if.’ ‘What if I could go back in time; what would I fix in my life?’ There is much I would fix. But we can’t, can we. That kept playing through my mind. The Vault series is about fixing the past for the betterment of the future. The main character can fix the past of other people but not her own. How frustrating and unfair. I think we can all relate to that.

Another thing I loved about writing the series was the research involved. I wanted each time period to be authentic. I actually have a copy of a map of London from 1835. The streets, squares, and homes used in the book are taken from that map. For Portsmouth, I discovered an old photograph of the port from 1855. Same with Pompeii. The details of the bathhouse we find Sharra running through, every bath, murals and tile are as they were back then. The most challenging place to find information on was Alexandria because most of what’s left of the ancient city sits under water. However, I had more luck with the Library of Alexandria where a critical scene plays in the final book. I found the research fascinating. It was as much fun as writing the scenes.

For the past couple of years, you’ve been working on a top-secret film project. Any chance you can finally let us in on the secret?

Good try, Lee. My lips are still sealed. Tell you what, though, once I can freely talk about it, you will be the first to receive the juicy details.

Your award-winning YA novel Light in My Dark was written in collaboration with your son William Dresden. So how did that work? As his mother, surely you’re the boss in that arrangement? In what ways do your two skill sets complement each other?

When William had approached me about this project, I had my misgivings. I had never collaborated with another writer, let alone, with one of my children. However, William and I have shared the same love of creativity - writing in particular. The more we talked about the project, the more excited I became. One of the challenges was the long distance that separated us. One thing we had decided early on was that all three books had to be outlined for the collaboration to work. We decided beforehand who was writing what chapter and with what character. This helped move the project along because we didn’t have to wait for the other to write. Regular Skype calls were essential especially as the writing project progressed. We have finished the second book and will start the third later this year.

William comes from a screenwriting background. It is a different craft compared to writing a book. Less words means more. Description lines are limited to up to four. So, every word must be powerful. It took William several chapters under my guidance to understand the freedom of expression allowed in novel writing. In turn, William has introduced me to screenwriting and is teaching me the ropes. I think it is harder to write less when you are used to writing with freedom. Our combined skills and knowledge of the craft compliment our writig style as co-authors.

And yes; I may be his mother, but William is his own person. I respect his creative voice. He’s been writing far longer than I have and has earned several awards in the filming industry. It is a privilege and a pleasure to share this journey with him. It is a legacy to pass onto future generations.

You’re currently writing a non-fiction title about your experiences as a sufferer of face blindness or prosopagnosia. What exactly is face blindness? How does this impact on your understanding of character? Do you portray characters differently from other writers?

Face Blindness is where a person doesn’t have the connections in the brain to retrieve specific information – mostly facial recognition, names, and memories of people in general. It causes a disconnection with people. Face Blindness effects almost every part of my life. Family, friends, people in general. Fictional characters included.

I understand the nature of a character in the way a doctor understands how the body works. Evaluation and study. Logical assessments. The practicality of the function. Emotions, on the other hand, are sometimes a mystery to me and can be elusive in nature. Thus, I work extra hard to make sure my characters feel and are not some wooden figure. It is important to me that they come across as real people and are not tainted by my lack of understanding due to the disorder. Sometimes, I get jealous of my own characters because they get to experience life and relationships the way that I cannot because of my limitations.

But your novels are full of characters. Is it hard for you to keep track of them all?

Yes! I don’t remember anyone in real life or in the fictional world. I have learned to compensate for this deficiency by creating what I call ‘Character Bibles’ for each of my books. These bibles hold detailed information about each character: three pages on how they look from head to toe, four pages on how they behave or what makes them tick, an extensive backstory, and most importantly, a picture. I usually pick someone out from a magazine or from google images and go from there. I keep the bible next to me throughout the whole project and refer to it regularly. For example the color of their eyes, a habitual gesture or phrase, or even how tall or short they are. I am lost without my Character Bibles. Once a book is finished, I cannot recall what a character looked like at all. I struggle to remember even what they did, let alone, how they felt. That means, when I go back to write the next book in The Vault series, I will have to spend a good amount of time relearning everything about the characters including rereading the three books. It will be as if I’m meeting my characters for the first time. Weird, huh.

What about your colleagues? How do you maintain connections with people in the community/industry?

I bribe them with my famous chocolate cake! LOL. It is very yummy.

I’ve only recently become more vocal about having Face Blindness. I have systems in place that help me function. I keep lists of names and contact details. I will immediately write things down to refer to later, such as who I need to contact and why, or who to send a card to and why, etc. It helps me when others maintain contact with me through emails, texts, Skype, and social media. The more they are in front of me, the more likely I may remember them. The key word is ‘may.’ There is no guarantee. Though I will not know the face, I do recognize voices. So, keep talking to me.

With modern means of communication like emails and texting, the need for face to face conversation has dwindled. When we do get together, it will take me a few minutes of listening to the conversation to figure out who is who. I am very good at asking questions to help this process without others knowing what I am doing. It is a learned skill, and I use it daily.

Since I’ve been more vocal about Face Blindness, people will now immediately tell me their name and something that connects us like an event, an email, or a project. The voice and the event will be all that I need to place the person in my life. That has been very helpful and has made it easier for me to cope.

Come to think of it, you’re extremely active in the speculative community, as a committee member for SFFANZ, the coordinator for SpecFicNZ central, and also as a facilitator/editor for youngnzwriters. Why even bother? Why not just write? It’s not like you’re not busy enough.

I love giving back. It’s that simple. Yes, it is difficult to be with others when it is a constant struggle to remember who they are and where they fit in my life. But, I find great joy in helping other writers, whether experienced or fledglings. Sure, I’d love to stay tucked away somewhere with just my laptop and my Character Bibles, and yes, I am very busy. That would be very easy to do. But life is more than just about me. It is about the community. About sharing knowledge. And the joy that comes from creativity. I get back as much as I give. What more of a reason do I need?

If you had your own talk show, who would your first three guests be, and why?

This one is hard. Brain disorder – remember?! I don’t remember people! Are these current people? Umm… let me think. Okay…

1) Steven Moffat – screenwriter. He’s worked extensively on the Dr. Who series and the Sherlock series, both, as an insterest in the craft, I find well written.

2) Josh Whedon – director, screenwriter. For those of you who don’t know who he is, here is a list of some of his work: Firefly, Buffy the Vampire, Doll House, The Avengers. All great story telling. I love how Mr. Whedon can take multiple characters and create great interchanges without it feeling heavy or forced, and how he can mix humor with drama. I aspire to write like Mr. Whedon. I guess you could say that he is my inspiration.

3) And because he’s been in so much lately and has caught my attention: Benedict Cumberbatch – actor. I would like to delve into his mind on how he takes the script to the screen with such a profound understanding of the character. I know the foundation is a good script, but there is more to it than the words on the page.

I’m going to add a fictional character just because I can:

4) Dr Who – Time Lord. Think of the stories he could tell! I would never get bored.

You’re on the shuttle to settle on one of Saturn’s moons. What five books will you take with you, and why?

1) The Bible because it gives me strength and keeps surprising me each time I read it.

Phantom by Susan Kay because it reveals the complicated man behind the mask, all his faults and good points, and it makes me cry every time.

2) The Snow Queen by Joan D. Vinge because each character moves me, and the world and the story feel real though it’s science fiction. I get immersed and that is good reading.

3) Can I choose a series? No? Shame. I want to pick Anne McCaffrey’s the Dragon’s of Pern series. I can’t pick one. I have to take them all. I know it weighs more, but I’m willing to sacrifice something else… clothing, food. I love how Anne McCaffrey makes the dragons come alive, and her detail to worldbuilding is fantastic. I want a dragon too.

4) An extensive thesaurus. I know – boring. As a writer, I couldn’t leave home without one. And paper. Lots of paper. And a good pen. Can’t go wrong with the basics.

Hermoine lends you her timeturner. You only have an hour. Where will you go?

Upstate New York, 1975. I’d only stay a moment. Long enough to befriend my young self and give some advice. “‘See’ people with your ears and not your eyes. You’re not alone. Never stop writing. And FLOSS daily.” And then I’d hand her note with a few investment tips. LOL

Tell us about your current fiction project.

I have several writing projects going at the moment. I’m finishing up a science fiction television pilot based, funny enough, on time travel. William and I are doing the last editing run through The Gore Stones - the second book in the Beyond the Wall series. I’m also finishing up the first draft of a space cowboy novel. William and I have started collaborating on a science fiction television pilot set in a future New Zealand. Plus, I’m wrapping up the first draft of the Face Blindness non-fiction title. Wow! I am super busy!

You certainly are! Thanks for dropping by, Jean!

• Jean Gilbert – author, screenwriter, and editor. Genre of choice – science fiction. Novels: The Vault Agency series - Shifters, Ardus, The Vault. Beyond the Wall series - Light in My Dark. The Gore Stones – coming in November.


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