Recently, 2017 debut author Mary Taranta sat down with Sweet Sixteener Emily Skrutskie to talk about Emily’s debut YA science fiction, THE ABYSS SURROUNDS US (Flux, February 8, 2016).
Seventeen-year-old Cas Leung has spent her whole life training sea monsters to defend ships from pirates. When pirates kidnap her and force her to rear a beast of their own, Cas must decide whether taking vengeance on her captors is worth becoming even more monstrous than the pup she’s raising.
About the author: Emily Skrutskie was born in Massachusetts, grown in Virginia, and forged in the mountains of Colorado. She was raised by astronomers in the same way that some people are raised by wolves, which has instilled her with a deep love of science fiction and all things futuristic. She recently graduated from Cornell University, where she studied film, game design, and computer science. You can find Emily online at http://skrutskie.com, or follow her on twitter @ https://twitter.com/skrutskie
Mary: THE ABYSS SURROUNDS US is set in a NeoPacific ocean one hundred years in the future, with enough history and science to back up its evolution. Did setting the book in a real world location hinder or help your worldbuilding process? What were some problems you ran into as you developed the world, or conversely, what worked out perfectly?
Emily: Having a real world setting was actually a huge help. Instead of growing a world from scratch, I just had to fill in a chunk of history on top of something that already existed. So sea levels rose and nations fractured into smaller nations. Artificial islands and floating cities grew in the unclaimed territory of the NeoPacific, and so did piracy. And genetically engineered sea monsters were created to fight the pirates.
My biggest problem was biology. I wanted to be a marine biologist when I was a kid, and I felt like I owed it to Smaller Me to get the science right. But when you’re working with monsters at the sheer scale of Reckoners, there’s only so much you can do. In the book, it’s mentioned that a species of especially hardy genetically engineered whales, known as neocetes, was created to be a food source for the oceans’ Reckoner population. But of course, those neocetes have to feed on something, which has to feed on something, and so on. I had a projected plankton bloom as part of the worldbuilding, but it never made it onto the page. So at a certain point in the story, you kinda have to turn off your brain and let there be monsters.
Mary: In TASU, your protagonist Cassandra makes choices that may not always be heroic, while the antagonist Santa Elena is not always a villain. While the result makes for great reading, did you ever worry that you were pushing them too far into “the gray zone” of morality for your audience while you were writing?
Emily: Absolutely. It was a really careful balancing act for both characters. In an earlier draft, Santa Elena killed all of the passengers aboard the Nereid save for Cas. It made for great drama, but my agent and editor rightfully noted that if I was going to end up pushing Santa Elena into a grey area, leading off with her murdering over a thousand people was going to be a hard thing to counter.
Likewise, Cas has the burden of the POV, which means the reader always needs to understand her choices, even if they don’t agree with what she’s doing. I actually kept a side document during my revision process where I wrote out the logic that motivated Cas through each decision in each chapter and made sure what I had on the page reflected that logic.
Mary: You were a senior in college when you were offered a two-book deal for TASU, which means you wrote the book while still taking classes. How did you balance writing with school/other obligations? How long did it take for you to finish the first draft of TASU?
Emily: For me, the key to writing in college was consistency. I picked a word count goal and stuck to it. For TASU, I started by saying “Okay, I’m writing 200 words of this book a day.” Which is barely anything—that’s like half a page! But I kept with it and always made time for a little writing each day. Some days I exceeded the goal by a lot, others I was frantically throwing words on the page for ten minutes at 2AM. But all of those days added up. I started writing TASU at the beginning of the spring semester of my junior year, and I finished at the end of the semester.
Mary: Writing is often about revision. Can you share any scenes or characters that were in your first draft and subsequently got cut or significantly changed? Similarly, is there anything that’s been untouched from the very beginning?
I’m a tragic underwriter, so most of my revisions process involves putting things in rather than taking things out. The scene where Cas talks to a former Southern States senator aboard the Nereid was literally a sentence in the first draft of the book, and Chapter 17 in its entirety didn’t exist at first. There’s only one scene I can think of that got slimmed down between drafts—originally, there was a heftier introduction to Santa Elena’s lackeys, the teens training to take her place as captain someday. It involved Cas sizing each of them up, and it slowed down the pace in that section of story, so it got slashed.
As far as stuff that’s stayed the same, the evolution of Swift and Cas’s relationship is probably the least revised part of the story. That stayed exactly as planned from the first draft, and it was always the story’s emotional heart.
Lightning round questions!
Who was the first character you created for TASU?
The story was always Cas Leung’s legend from the start.
If you had to pick one song to embody the overall mood of your novel, what would it be?
Black River, by Wolf Gang
Do you have any pets (genetically modified or not) of your own?
Who’s your favorite fictional villain?
Sunshine or rain?
Morning person or night owl?
I do my best work in the morning and my best play at night.
About the Interviewer: Mary Taranta grew up in rural Ohio but now lives in Central Florida with her husband, two cats, and library cards in two counties. Her debut YA fantasy Until Our Blood Runs Clean is forthcoming from Margaret K. McElderry books Summer 2017.