Essa Hansen “…As will be no surprise, I love the new frontiers! I love science fiction ideas that stretch my understanding or that make me think critically about my own nature and the cosmos I live in. Most often, these stories are set in universes different than our own, but I also love when weirdness is shown on Earth and comments on the limitations of our understanding of what is “natural” or known….”
Essa Hansen, whose debut novel Nophek Gloss, a science fiction space opera and the first novel in her The Graven series, debuts at the end of 2020, and is already making many reviewers “best of 2020” lists. We got the great opportunity to chat with her about writing, Nophek Gloss, Falconry, and sound design at Skywalker Sound.
GDM: First off, tell me a little about yourself. You have one of the coolest jobs out there, aside from being a writer, by working with Skywalker Sound. You also have one of the coolest hobbies, being a falconer. How did you end up working for Skywalker Sound, and how did you start working with falcons?
I stumbled on sound design while trying to figure out how to mesh too many interests into one career: storytelling, composing music, psychoacoustics, linguistics, cognitive sciences, and…a lot more. I loved science but still gravitated toward the arts more than academia. Sound for film seemed like the perfect blend of technical and artistic, plus storytelling. I attended an intense 12-month program at the Vancouver Film School, learning all things audio, and was snatched up by Skywalker Sound out of graduation. I’ve been there ever since—almost twelve years now!
I always thought falconry was so cool, and as a kid I had a brief experience rehabilitating a young grounded Cooper’s Hawk, but I didn’t have the resources to pursue it until years later. In California, a falconry license requires a two-year apprenticeship among other hurdles, but once I got started, I found an awesome community of fellow bird nerds. I’d love to get back into falconry and hunting soon, but it’s an art/sport that takes a great deal of time and attention. With an animal involved, you can’t just set things aside when you get too busy!
GDM: You work in two creative fields simultaneously, one as a sound engineer and a writer. Are their aspects of the creative creation process that overlap, and are their parts that are very different creatively.
Both fields focus on story, immersion, and sensory information. Sound editing can be treated like language or music, sounds strung together like words into syntax that conveys meaning and emotion. I spend a lot of time rearranging sounds, moving them in time, and layering them, just like I would with word choices, phrasing, or ordering in writing.
The technical execution of this creativity is very different—not just the software and hardware, but the process. Writing might be dynamic but it all happens very contained with a few pieces of software (I use Scrivener). With sound design, I’m all over the place. I might be out in the field with recording equipment collecting raw sounds, or at my workstation with plugins turning those sounds into weird things, or at a mixing console blending a scene together. Both jobs feel equally dynamic to me, but in different ways.
GDM: When you were writing Nophek Gloss as part of the world-building, did you start matching sounds to characters, ships, and places? Do you have an idea what a Nophek sounds like?
I definitely have sounds in my head for specific things, like the nophek, but they came up organically rather than through conscious world-building. It can be helpful to tag particular sounds or colors to something to make it recognizable, such as the Azura’s singing when she flies, or the blue masks of the Casthen—those were definitely intentional. I think even when I’m not describing a sound specifically, I tend to use sound-related words to describe visuals, feel, or motion–that’s just a reflex of my film sound design brain!
GDM: Having talked to you a bit and read up on your interests, you seem like someone steeped in science fiction. Your novel Nophek Gloss reads like a love letter to all the science fiction lovers out there, myself included. What parts of the science fiction genre do you love? What aspects of it do you gravitate towards?
As will be no surprise, I love the new frontiers! I love science fiction ideas that stretch my understanding or that make me think critically about my own nature and the cosmos I live in. Most often, these stories are set in universes different than our own, but I also love when weirdness is shown on Earth and comments on the limitations of our understanding of what is “natural” or known.
Funny enough, I read more fantasy than science fiction in my younger years, but all of my studies during that same time were in sciences and technical fields. I think this is what ended up making my fiction feel a bit unusual in the genre while still appealing firmly to genre fans. It’s steeped in the same loves but isn’t emerging from the usual classic source material.
GDM: I can see that with the story. It has elements of hard science fiction, space opera, and fantasy, especially with how you handled some of the creatures. Read any good fantasy books lately?
I have, and it’s a 2020 release that may appeal to your readers! The book is Under The Lesser Moon, a grimdark fantasy by debut author Shelly Campbell, launched recently from Mythos & Ink Publishing. She’s created a brutal Stone Age type world, intimate and dangerous, packed with lore and religion that’s lost its way over time. Similar to Nophek Gloss, it focuses deeply on character (I love the protagonist, Akrist), with many heartwarming and heartbreaking moments. Shelly’s writing is lush and sensory like mine, and she’s done something with her dragons that I’ve never seen before.
GDM: Nophek Gloss is releasing on November 17th, 2020; how long has this book been in the making, and what has the writing and publishing process looked like for you?
I began working on Nophek Gloss around the end of 2016, I believe, but for a long time the actual draft only existed as the first few chapters—a prologue? a short story?—while I worked on other projects. I didn’t expect it to become a novel, but a year later, it expanded. My main manuscript was still something different, so Nophek Gloss’s draft meandered, stalled for a while, then picked up again in earnest. When I finally polished it and queried literary agents in summer 2018, it got me an offer of representation quickly. The publishing deal after that took quite a lot longer to manifest, but I feel it found the perfect home!
GDM: How did you create the character Caiden? Was there a specific inspiration that helped you shape him?
My characters tend to crop up organically without drawing from other influences. Or you could say they’re inspired from a starting kernel of traits or concept and grown from there. Originally I imagined Caiden older: already in possession of his starship and having lived in the multiverse for a while, adventurous and a magnet for danger. When developing his backstory, I immediately had the idea of this agrarian world where he grew up without ever seeing the sky. At the same time, I had the twisty concept of the farmers becoming feed for the beasts that they were raising feed for. Once I got my young protagonist through the traumatic culmination of that situation, the scars it left in him and the special ship he’d crawled into to be his grave—before rescue—stamped in the person he would grow up to be as the story progressed.
GDM: What were the most fun and most painful scenes to write in Nophek Gloss?
Any scene with En in it turns out fun to write! Other than that, I enjoy writing the scenes that have a big sense of wonder, like showing off new technology or environment. There’s a fun challenge in trying to describe these things, and I feel like I’m experiencing the thing fresh too as it takes form on the page, outside of my mind. Has anyone tried to describe being inside the core of a star before?
The most painful scenes to write are spoilers…but what also comes to mind are the many quiet moments where Caiden is wrestling internally: he really, really wants to make the right choice and heal and reach out and accept the love of his new family, but his guilt and low self-worth and complicated sense of justice is just that much stronger, so he turns himself away.
GDM: Caiden’s journey is painful. The grief he experiences is like raw nerves sparking with pain. Did you have his arc decided when you started writing the novel, or did it develop organically?
At the start, I had the beginning plot events and one image at the very end of the novel, which I feel made for a nice bookend of symbolism. The events in between developed organically. I built Caiden’s arc out from his initial grief, too large to overcome, which he’s constantly trying to grow to contain. At the same time he’s focusing himself on the much more manageable idea of revenge, while also discovering his identity and wrestling through where he belongs in this new world—or if he belongs in it at all. This whole combo could never be a gentle journey.
GDM: One of the aspects that I thought was incredible about Nophek Gloss was the level of creation and imagination you used when character and world-building. You stepped outside many of the typical characterizations we find in science fiction, i.e., humanoid and breathes air. Was that a conscious choice or your imagination running wild?
Both! I’m always wanting to seek something new in the genre, as I find that sense of discovery exciting as a writer, which hopefully makes it exciting for the reader as well. I did use familiar frameworks—like some humanoid aliens and familiar technology—as tools to balance out the harder-to-grasp elements, but when I spot an opportunity to insert something new, I let my imagination spin its wheels outside of the box until I hit on something that feels cool and multifaceted.
GDM: I noticed, that goes along with the original question regarding world-building, is your attention to detail out food, flavor, texture, consistency, and who was cooking it. It seemed like food became a character in itself. I view food as a pathway to understanding another culture. Everyone eats, and there are deeply ingrained traditions about how someone eats, what kind of food, and why. Is this why food description was so essential and beautifully detailed, as a means of connection to the different cultures?
Exactly—food says so much about culture, is a way of sharing culture, and nonverbally shows bonding or conflict. This is why we have the phrase “breaking bread together.” Caiden is officially inducted into his new family and home by sharing a meal: gathered together, the crew’s feelings mingle and you really see where they match up or butt heads.
At the same time, each of these foods is a new experience for Caiden, who grew up with no sense of the ritual of cooking and eating, nor any strong sense of family. He had a “parental unit” designed to train him, and bland ration blocks designed for optimal nutrition. I not only got to describe some luscious new things, but the crew gathering and mixing cultures over a meal became a support net for Caiden, and the offering of food became a symbol of extending care. The crew’s gastronomer, Ksiñe, likely won’t verbally say he likes you, but he’ll feed you or worry over your nutrition as a sign of affection.
From another angle, physical wellbeing is a big element in the story, and whether Caiden is being “nourished” or not relates directly to his psychological and emotional nourishment/wellbeing.
GDM: The characters of Nophek Gloss are inclusive and boundless. I loved that in the Nophek Gloss universe, the possibilities for sex, gender, self-expression, and being neurodivergent are limitless. Can you talk a bit about that?
From the start I really wanted to try to create a world where diversity is the norm and there is no “typical.” To me, that just makes sense in a multiverse that is physically so vast and variable. I visualize the “humans” to span a wide spectrum of being, from sex and gender, to skin tone, build, and neurotype. One character comments that, “With so much variety, species haven’t homogenized, but technology has.” I liked this idea that it’s technology which has had to adapt creatively to accommodate everyone and make inclusion and accessibility more possible.
The fact that inclusivity and diversity is normal means that it often doesn’t get made a point of in the narrative, but neither do the characters need to perform their identities. They’re allowed to live their lives and adventures as accepted beings.
GDM: I think this last part is a compelling idea. It is not enough to have included characters that are “atypical” because there is no typical. They are beyond that; there is no need to point out differences because it just is beings living their lives. I think science fiction is moving in an amazing direction regarding being inclusive, but Nophek Gloss is one of the first books that I have read recently that made it seem effortless. In preparation for writing neurodiverse characters in Nophek, did you research how your characters would react to stimuli? As someone who has neurodiverse family members, I found your descriptions of being overstimulated spot on. Was sound something you connected to because of your experience working with sound?
I’m also thrilled to see more diverse SFF and diverse voices being represented! I feel that’s one of the biggest changes in the genre from when I was reading in my youth.
In terms of the sensory elements, I’m autistic and a synesthete (primarily with sound, which cross-wires to other senses), so some of the neurodiversity and stimuli reaction in the story is from lived experience. Of course, every neurodiverse individual will have a unique experience, so I won’t be representing everyone accurately with these characters, but it’s definitely one manifestation of a non-neurotypical way of being. The sequel will have an autistic POV character, so I’ll really get to illustrate a unique sensory world on the page. I’m excited to have “no holds barred” in that respect.
GDM: Besides your new release of Nophek Gloss, I read your short story, “Save, Salve, Shelter” in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. I felt like Nophek Gloss expounded on many of the ideas in “Save, Salve, Shelter.” Creatures are worthwhile to save, even though they may look different, and life is what we make of it. Did you write “Save, Salve, Shelter” and Nophek Gloss concurrently? Or did one lead you into the other?
I had just been through the devastating 2017 and 2018 California wildfires, so the apocalyptic imagery and emotional impact of that was still raw when “Save, Salve, Shelter” came about. Nophek Gloss was already written (but not yet sold) and in a holding pattern at this point. The themes were still kicking around in my heart for sure, and maybe at this point they live there now: environmental justice, compassion, fighting against bad odds and a huge opponent that seems insurmountable as one individual. Who would attempt such a fight? What pain is it worth? Who would throw in the towel, and when? Pasha and Caiden are fighters, even when everyone else would try to tell them the fight isn’t worth it. In their stories, they destroy themselves in different ways for what they believe is a cause worth all of their body, mind, and heart.
GDM: I think that the California fires, and in my case, this year’s Oregon fires will have a lasting impact on how we see the world. And keeping that in your mind, and part of the lense that you create stories through is a way to communicate with your readers. Whether it be Australia or the Pacific North West and California we are all being impacted by climate change. “Save, Salve, Shelter” seemed connected to environmental change and how it impacted creatures big and small. All creatures are worth saving. How did you get the idea to create Pasha as a cataloger?
Those horrific Australian fires were near their peak and in the forefront of media in January when my story released. Oregon and the Amazon and elsewhere caught fire this year, and it all feels like a new season here to stay.
As often happens with my ideas, the cataloguer aspect started small and grew from there. All creatures are valuable, but what is their value to a vast and impersonal organization? Their DNA. Not the spirit of them, not their flesh and feel, not their history. Not their lives, as Pasha discovers. My secondary concept was that transportation to Mars would be earned by cataloguing species. This seems noble on the surface, incentivizing saving the biodiversity of the Earth. But Pasha takes compassion literally, and through her view of this edict conflicting with how the organization executes it, I was able to explore more of those limitations of the definition of value.
GDM: What is next for you? Are you taking a break or diving into book 2?
I’m deep in Book 2 already, and starting to wrap my head around Book 3!
GDM: Ohhh. Anything juicy you can share?
The sequel will expand the scope to multiversal conflict, and expand the world into new dimensions of consciousness. We’ll dig deeper into the intentions of the ancient Graven and discover the true form and meaning of the Azura, Caiden’s special starship. I’m also excited that there’s a neurodiverse point-of-view character, a new found family, and some twisty four-way plot stuff going on.
GDM: Being that you have some love for science fiction, do you have a favorite book? And the most important and final question which franchise is your favorite, Star Trek, Star Wars, Firefly, or Battlestar Galactica?
Favorite book is too hard to say, but the last science fiction series to hook me and suck me straight through was The Southern Reach trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer. A friend first recommended it to me by saying, “This main character is you.” I was really drawn to the main character, and loved just about everything from the weirdness and layered mystery of it, to the intimate focus on how we perceive and interconnect with reality and the natural world.
Favorite franchise! I feel like this question is a trap! My first gut reaction is Star Trek, probably because my family watched The Next Generation when I was a growing up (then Voyager and some Deep Space Nine) and it remains my earliest memory of a science fiction franchise. But Firefly I watched in the last decade and it was on my mind when I was trying to figure out where to head with my initial seed idea of Nophek Gloss: managing an ensemble cast seemed like a great challenge I’d never tried before, I wanted to improve at dialogue and humor, and I also wanted to attempt something more commercial. My book turned out a lot more grim than Firefly, but I think you can still feel some of that early influence in the warmth of the crew dynamics.
GDM: The franchise question, “It’s a trap!” I noticed the same sort of spirit in Nophek Gloss as there was in Firefly. Obviously, vastly different characters and settings. But the same sort of interconnectedness and the found family dynamic is reminiscent of it. It was one of my favorite aspects of the story.
Thank you! Found family is one of my favorite tropes: the idea that we can be bonded together by aspects other than blood—whether it’s shared purpose or experience, mutual goals or mutual understanding. Caiden is wary of being worthy of family, and second-guesses his worth even as he’s trying his best—as I think a lot of us do—which I hope makes the iron-clad bonds he forms even more rewarding.
This interview was originally published in Grimdark Magazine Issue #25.