Phoebe North Talks About Her New YA Novel "Starbreak," Writing, Parenting, Faith -- And Sexy Plants

I continue to be fascinated with questions and issues that form the core of the "Starglass" duology: feminism, identity, trauma, religion, heroism. And girls -- messy, complicated, real, and dynamic girls.

Jul 14, 2014 at 5:00pm | Leave a comment

Last year, I was totally into Phoebe North's "Starglass," a tale of a Jewish generation ship working its way through space towards a planet to settle after the destruction of Earth -- only to discover once they get there that the planet is already occupied. There's queerness, young love, and an exploration of what happens to religious faith after hundreds of years in space, and now, "Starbreak," the sequel, is out. 

If "Starglass" was all about space, "Starbreak" is all about what happens when you land and encounter an utterly alien culture on a planet that very much isn't interested in having you there. The novel reminds me strongly of Mary Doria Russel's "The Sparrow," in which huge cultural differences between indigenous people and visitors from Earth become the source of explosive tensions. 

In "Starbreak," our heroine Terra sets foot on a new planet, meets the alien boy who's been haunting her dreams, and discovers that Vadix isn't quite like your regular human boy.

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I had a chat with Phoebe about juggling new parenthood with writing, feminist science fiction, and the role of faith in speculative fiction. 

xoJane: You have a tiny human now! I totally admire writers who are able to work through pregnancy, delivery, and childrearing. How is the balance of work and motherhood going for you?

Phoebe North: I love that you asked this! Questions of work/life balance have been foremost on my mind as I've navigated early parenthood. It took me a long time to even give myself permission to reproduce; despite a lifelong fascination with both children and children's culture and media, I often said I was too busy making books to make babies. It wasn't until I read a quote by Ursula Le Guin ("The idea that you need an ivory tower to write in, that if you have babies you can’t have books, that artists are somehow exempt from the dirty work of life -- rubbish") that I began to give myself permission to pursue the endeavor of motherhood. But even during my pregnancy, I felt torn in several directions. I was a miserable, grumpy pregnant woman, but felt pressure to push myself creatively to write "while I still could." In the process, I made myself very, very unhappy.

But then my good friend Rachel Hartman, amazing mother and author of "Seraphina," sent me an e-mail. A beautiful, life-changing e-mail. I wish I could quote the whole thing, but that would be strange. She said this to me:

Any time I've felt like I had to buckle down and cowgirl up (to quote a popular source), it has come at a cost, and there are so many exciting ways to pay: with my health, physical and mental; with my relationships, marital and parental; with my love of and enthusiasm for writing; with my art itself. I'm not saying one can't make good art under duress -- one certainly can! -- but that any place you're overdrawn comes back atcha with interest. I do not have secret offshore accounts full of energy or love or renewal; once I've used it up, I have to borrow at usurious rates...Living isn't wasted. Taking time to breathe, slowing down, isn't wasted. A small person will have grown five years in your presence, and that isn't wasted at all. It takes time to refill the well. THERE IS NO SHAME IN TAKING TIME. Tend your garden. Nothing is ever wasted...I want you to feel free to go any direction you choose. You might fall crazy in love with that baby; it happens. I want you to know you can put down the work and be Mom for a while if you need to.

Initially, as someone who had absorbed quite a bit of advice about "leaning in" (a philosophy that seems to me to benefit corporations more than it does either individuals or society as a whole), I bristled. But then Molly arrived, and it was like the entirety of my being had been rearranged. This isn't to say that I've given up writing, because writing remains as intrinsic to myself as my freckles, or the fact that I'm now a mother. But I'm patient with myself and with my family, kind in ways I never would have been before. I write less, but still steadily, passionately. But some days I shower instead, and some days, like today, I take a nap with my baby on the sofa, and I don't feel guilty or resentful. That time is important and not wasted at all. Because she's truly the most amazing person I've ever met, and I'd rather be money-poor and life-rich.

Generally, the women I know who balance motherhood and work -- and that's pretty much every mother I've ever met -- are endlessly an inspiration. Every woman must navigate these questions for herself, and in her own way. My editor is a mother, and my agent, and they're amazing women, moms, citizens, workers. More than anything, my feminism has been deepened by motherhood. Having a child, and a daughter, at that, has forced me to acknowledge that women are amazing. So, so amazing.

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xoJane: I totally pitch your books as "Jews…in spaaaaaaace!" but matters of faith get way more complicated in "Starbreak." One think I loved about "Starglass" was the depiction of what might happen to Jewish practices and beliefs after hundreds of years in space -- in "Starbreak," we're confronting a form of fundamentalism, plus a totally different belief system on Zehava. How does faith play into the larger framework of speculative fiction?

Phoebe North: I pitch it that way, too! "Jews in space meets 'My So-Called Life'" is how my husband sells it, which is pretty brilliant.

But you're right to say that religion is complicated in "Starbreak," where the diluted (and consciously manipulated) diaspora Judaism of the ship's inhabitants starts to become fractured. We have Rachel's newly reawakened Zionism; we have the deep religious faith of rebels like Jachin. And that's not even mentioning the polytheism of the aliens, or Terra's own strong Agnosticism.

This religious diversity was important to me because it reflects the diversity I've encountered in the real world. Especially as a teenager, discussions of faith and belief were constant -- and I wasn't a particularly religious adolescent. But small people often grapple with big questions, and each teenager does this in a unique way. I wanted Terra's world to reflect that time when philosophical thought and reflection are important, and when discussions of belief are not only reserved for religious settings.

However, it's rare to find this degree of religious diversity and discussion in young adult speculative fiction. If religion is present, it's often straw man fundamentalism. Cautionary tales of religious extremism are important, but that wasn't the story I wanted to tell. And I didn't want to build a world where faith was absent, either, though that's often a road taken in YA. These worlds are safe -- they rarely offend. But they never struck me as particularly realistic, either.

xoJane: Sexy plants. Let's talk about it.

Phoebe North: Let's!

When I was a kid I loved imagining the possible diversity of outer space. I'm not talking about Vulcans or Klingons, but sentient hydrogen gas balloons and the like. I knew that extraterrestrial life, if it existed, was going to be far weirder than anything I ever cooked up. I wondered what it would be like to sit down and dine with a creature who looks and acts nothing like us, whose entire cultural frame of reference was so far afield from our own. I imagined that it would be disarming, unnerving, and peculiar -- at least until we became acclimated to this new life form.

I knew that I wanted Vadix, Terra's love interest, to be bipedal, but I also wanted his differences from her to be writ large. They had to be genetically incompatible, and his biology had to be strange. I wanted their relationship -- which seems entirely natural to Terra -- to unsettle outsiders, mirroring the ways that Terra homophobically reacted to the relationship between Koen and Van in the first book. I always thought that in a universe where strange new worlds are explored, and new people encountered -- and schtupped -- that alien/human miscegenation would be almost certainly viewed as queer.

And so we have sexy plant people, or at least one sexy plant person, personified in Vadix himself. This also tied in neatly with Terra's background as a botanist, of course, and all those overgrown flowers that appeared in her dreams in the first book. Honestly, I loved researching the science of the Xollu, and their companion species, the Ahadizhi. They're not just sentient alien plants, but sentient alien plants on an ice planet. What would be their energy requirements? How would they move, speak, or, yes, reproduce? The science isn't exactly possible (this is very soft sci-fi, after all). But it was fun to imagine.

Plus, this gave me the perfect license to reference Terry Bisson's terrific short story "They're Made Out of Meat." Because in a world where alien plants rule, meat people HAVE to seem absurd.

xoJane: Generation ships, interactions with the existing residents of foreign planets, and violent revolution are totally my jam -- how did you get into speculative fiction, and who were some of your formative influences?

Phoebe North: My dad was a Trekkie, my mom a huge fan of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Andre Norton, so I guess you could say it was in my blood. But I didn't go deep down the rabbit hole of speculative fiction until middle school, when a relative gave me a paper grocery sack full of Mercedes Lackey and Anne McCaffrey novels. Both of those authors left indelible marks on my work, and it was all cemented by my obsessions with various SF TV franchises: Star Trek, Alien Nation, Space Cases, Mission Genesis. I committed many acts of fanfic in middle school.

For Starglass and Starbreak specifically, I drew on my love of several more obscure SF works: Megan Lindholm's "Alien Earth," Katie Waitman's "The Merro Tree," and two licensed novels: "Sarek" by A. C. Crispin and "Alien Nation: Day of Descent" by Garfield and Judith Reese-Stevens. The latter tells the backstory of a population of alien refugees on Earth; in "Starbreak," I imagined the tables turned -- humans as the refugees.

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How can you not love this family. They are adorable.

xoJane: What kinds of upcoming projects do you have planned? Can you give us a peek into your latest book idea?

Phoebe North: Ooh, I'd love to share, but the truth is, I'm one of those authors who is always flush with ideas and I've jumped around quite a bit since finishing up "Starbreak." And this business is so unpredictable -- I've been on submission with projects I've loved, but failed to sell. So I'm really reluctant to jinx myself by talking up any specific book!

I can say this: I continue to be fascinated with questions and issues that form the core of the "Starglass" duology: feminism, identity, trauma, religion, heroism. And girls, messy, complicated, real, and dynamic girls.

xoJane: I'm always curious about what authors are reading and listening to; what's been on the shelf or in your ears lately?

Phoebe North: As always, I'm gobbling up plenty of YA speculative fiction. "Salvage" by Alexandra Duncan is on my nightstand, and I just finished (and loved) "Falls the Shadow" by Stefanie Gaither. I'm also reading lots and lots of non-fiction lately; since my daughter's home birth, I just can't get enough of midwife memoirs.

As for music, kid's stuff, mostly. Justin Roberts rocks my world.

xoJane: Finally, a key question for our readers: Cake, or pie?

Phoebe North: Pie! Blueberry, specifically.

"Starbreak" is out right now, but first pick up a copy of "Starglass" to catch up, if you haven't already read it!