Author Interview – Simon Petrie

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You might remember that back in August 2017 I told you about a space mystery than I really enjoyed. Now I have a follow up post about the author, Simon Petrie. I asked him about the story, set on one of Saturn’s moons, about his main character, and about his writing process.

Simon, where did you get the inspiration for this story?

I’ve written quite a lot of SF stories set on Titan; Matters Arising is the tenth and also the longest. I’ve always been interested in the mixture of SF and mystery, and I fancied the idea of making one of my Titan stories a mystery. Matters Arising was the result. It started, I suppose, with the image of a person deliberately breaching their own spacesuit, and then I needed to answer for myself the question of why someone might feel compelled to do such a thing. Once I had that answer, the story almost wrote itself.
I’m not always kind to my characters, and there’s a certain satisfaction to be had in giving a character an imaginative death. The idea of someone dying from a ruptured spacesuit is, I suppose, one of SF’s tropes, but such events in fiction usually dwell on the fatal and grotesque effects of exposure to vacuum. A ‘spacesuit containment failure’ on Titan, with its thick, cold, poisonous atmosphere, would be quite a different kind of horrible death, and I wanted to write that.

Where did you get the title of the story and the name – Guerline Scarfe – for your detective?

The title, Matters Arising from the Identification of the Body, suggested itself as the sort of dry, longwinded title that a bureaucrat would use to disguise something unpleasant. In my mind’s eye, it was the title Guerline gave to her report on the incident. And it has at least a double meaning in the context of the story – I’m always a sucker for a double meaning, so once I’d realised that, the title was fixed.
Guerline Scarfe’s name fell together somewhat haphazardly. I collect names – both first names and family names – that seem interesting and somewhat unusual, and try to find intriguing combinations. In this case, I had her surname sorted well before her first name. I actually wrote the first draft with a very different first name for her, but then decided it was too similar to the name of the main character in another Titan story; and since I couldn’t be sure she wouldn’t meet this other character in a new story, I figured I should change her name before it was set in stone.

This story is set in the solar system. If you had a chance, would you travel in space? Would you live in space?

I’d quite like to live in space, in a colony on the Moon or an asteroid or on Titan, but I’m actually not mad keen about travelling through space – even if I passed the physical for spaceflight (which I suspect I wouldn’t), there’s a lot that can go wrong with rocketry and I’m a somewhat anxious traveller. I’m still profoundly envious of those who do get to spend time in space, even if (at the moment) that seems to mean only low Earth orbit.
(And, while still Earthbound, I console myself with the thought that zero-gravity plumbing is not for the faint of heart.)

How long do you think it will be until we send humans off our planet again? What country do you think will do it first?

I’m pretty useless at predictions like this, but I think it’ll be between ten and fifteen years before we see humans on the Moon again. As to who manages it, my three guesses would be India, China, or a corporation like SpaceX.

How long have you been writing? Is this your first book finished?

I’ve been writing fiction seriously for eleven years now, but there had also been spells of writing quite a long way further back than that. Matters Arising isn’t my first book, but it’s the first of my books that’s only one story – I have a couple of SF short story collections out (Rare Unsigned Copy and Difficult Second Album), as well as a novella double (Flight 404 / The Hunt for Red Leicester). All of those are out through Peggy Bright Books, but a lot of my short fiction has appeared in various magazines or websites before that.

What’s been your biggest writing challenge? How did you overcome it or deal with it?

My biggest writing challenge has been finishing a novel, and I haven’t yet overcome that. I’ve written several novellas and lots of short stories, and my written work is getting longer. Matters Arising is my longest story yet, and its follow-up is looking to be longer than that.
Of writing challenges I have met, most of it has been a matter of having confidence in my ability to write, and learning from feedback – whether from my longsuffering editor, Edwina Harvey, or from my colleagues in the Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild, who provide awesome (constructive) criticism.

What writers do you look to for inspiration?

I suppose for Matters Arising, my main inspirations would be Kim Stanley Robinson, whose ‘Mars’ trilogy pretty much sets the benchmark for solar-system-based SF, and writers like Isaac Asimov and Larry Niven who pioneered the SF/detective subgenre. (I’m really looking forward to Alastair Reynolds’ new SF/detective novel, too, which is due out in a couple of months.) But I’m trying to absorb some of the techniques of Scandinavian crime writers, who I’ve been reading a lot of lately; and other SF writers that have influenced me at one time or another are Douglas Adams (as well as my ‘serious’ stuff, I also write a fair bit of humorous SF, and I think The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a strong influence there), Iain M Banks, Lois McMaster Bujold, and Amy Thompson.

What’s your favorite space movie?

I would’ve been ten or eleven when I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey, which has a perplexing storyline but incredibly realistic space scenes; I enjoyed the original Star Wars; I’m a fan of the first two Alien movies; I was quite impressed by Gravity; and I quite liked The Martian (though I think the book is better than the movie). I don’t think I could pick a favourite out of those.

Will there be more in this series? What are you working on right now?

Yes, there’s definitely more in the ‘Guerline Scarfe’ series, and the next one (which is called A Reappraisal of the Circumstances Resulting in Death) should be out around the middle of 2018. Other than that, there are a couple of Titan short stories I’m trying to finish off, a new ‘Gordon Mamon’ (humorous space-elevator mystery) story, and a novella about human colonisation of an interstellar cloud. There’s no shortage of things to write, it’s just a matter of organising myself …

What would you like readers to take from this story?

That human nature doesn’t change in a different environment, although the consequences might be different.

What advice would you give writers?

Know when to break the rules.
Read widely across different genres, and read deeply in the genre you want to write in.
Write what you want to, not what you think publishers want.
Find a writers’ group, and learn to recognise and accept constructive criticism.
Try to learn from rejection, and don’t get discouraged.

How can readers best stay in touch with you?

I’m pretty backward when it comes to social media, so probably the best way is to use the ‘contact’ page on my WordPress site.

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