Interview with Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

Posted by Goodreads on October 12, 2015
Separately they've already created expansive, absorbing worlds—Jay Kristoff in his Japanese-inspired steampunk fantasy series, The Lotus War, and Amie Kaufman in her New York Times bestselling sci-fi/fantasy series, Starbound, cowritten with Meagan Spooner. Together they have masterminded a genre-bending new story shape in this month's Illuminae, the first book of The Illuminae Files trilogy. Set more than 500 years in the future, it centers on two exes who are caught in the middle of an interplanetary war between rival megacorporations. Kaufman and Kristoff tell the story through hacked documents—thus the "files" in the series name—which include medical reports, emails, military data, and more.

The Australian cowriters, both residents of Melbourne, started the book as a no-holds-barred lark, writing mostly for the joy of it, not sure whether a book with this unconventional format would ever be picked up by publishers. Lucky for us, it was. Read on for their answers to your questions about working together, inspirations, and space travel!

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Jodie: If the characters from the Starbound [and The Lotus War] series were to meet those from your new book, Illuminae, who do you think would get along well and who wouldn't?

Oh wow, that would be madness. Well, Tarver Merendsen and Jubilee Chase from Starbound would get on great with Ezra Mason and Jimmy McNulty because, hey, they're all soldiers. They'd have plenty to discuss! Lilac LaRoux would probably get on with Corporal Charles Dorian—they could talk opera and be fancy—though secretly she'd want to hang out with the spanner monkeys and check out the ship's wiring. Flynn Cormac's the philosopher of the bunch…he'd definitely want to talk to AIDAN, the artificial intelligence, though we're not sure they'd always agree…

From The Lotus War series, Yukiko would get on like a house on fire with our heroine, Kady—they both know a lot about losing people you love and fighting on anyway. Buruu (is anyone else loving imagining a thunder tiger chilling in space?) would hang out with AIDAN because there's a certain bluntness to both their approaches…it would be amazing watching them try and convince each other of their points of view. Though honestly, Buruu would probably just end up trying to eat AIDAN. We're not sure how well that'd work out :P

Maddy: What made you decide to create a book that was written in messages and pictures? What was your inspiration?

We knew from the start that we wanted to write a book made up of emails, to try something different and push the idea of what a book could be. But we quickly started to realize that we didn't have to limit ourselves to just one format. We asked ourselves why Kady and Ezra had to communicate via email instead of in person. "Well," we decided, "they'll be on two separate spaceships." Why? Planet invasion! And they're still being chased! Plagues! Mad computers! AAAAAAAAA...

The plot and the format were created at the same time, which is why they're both so closely linked. Without spoiling anything, there's a narrative reason why these files look the way they do, and the novel in your hands—the actual object itself—is part of the mystery. If that makes sense.


Whitney: When you began writing Illuminae, did you start in a traditional format, or did you go into the project knowing you wanted to do something more experimental?

We knew from the beginning that we wanted to be experimental, but we didn't realize just how experimental this book was going to be until we were under way. The format really began taking us in strange directions when AIDAN, the artificial intelligence, stepped up as a narrator. Very quickly we realized AIDAN wasn't just going to be a computer. It was going to be a character in its own right, with a completely unique way of telling the reader what was happening—partly because it has an utterly inhuman way of looking at the universe and partly because it's taken one too many missiles to the brainmeats.

Katherine: Would you please describe your collaboration process on Illuminae?

To be completely honest, we mostly brainstorm at the pub. Jay drinks, Amie eats chips, and we talk until the plot starts to come together. We usually plot about a hundred pages in advance (with maybe a loose idea of where we're heading), and we divide up the writing according to which character seems best suited to narrate a particular event. As for dividing up the characters themselves, we start with one protagonist each—Jay took Ezra, and Amie took Kady—and from there the rest of the cast just came to life as they were needed. There are a lot of differences between writing together and writing separately (see the next question for more!), but if you pick the right partner, it's actually surprising how smoothly you can work together. It's SO much fun opening the document to find out what your characters were up to while they were in your coauthor's hands!

Ashleigh: Is it easier to write a book/series alone or with another person?

Easier! The joy of writing with someone else is that whenever you're stuck, there's someone right there with you to help you think your way out of the hole. There's always someone to suggest new and exciting twists on what you're writing, and of course there's the part where you get to read parts of the story that you didn't write yourself! It's almost a kind of magic—you send off the manuscript to your coauthor, and when it comes back to you a few days later, HEY, THERE'S MORE BOOK IN HERE!

Rachel: The year 2575 is a long time away. Did you find it hard to imagine what it would be like so far into the future, and why did you decide to choose that year in particular?

One of the things about writing science fiction is that technology is advancing so insanely quickly that by the time you're finished writing a book, it may well have overtaken you. There's just no way to keep up. We loved imagining what the future would be like, but we have no idea if we were right. The truth is, the future will look like something we can't even imagine yet. Which is kind of awesome.

As for why we chose the year we did, we asked ourselves how long we thought it might take for humanity to develop this level of space travel, develop the wormholes that would allow us to colonize the universe, and spread out to so many planets that an attack on one wouldn't be particularly notable. We ended up choosing 500 years with the help of an astrophysicist buddy of ours—who knows if we're right!

Mikayla: If you could have anyone in the world read your book, who would it be?

Aaaah, so hard! We can't choose just one. We'd like it to be read by a book club, consisting of Commander Chris Hadfield, whose work on the International Space Station totally inspired us, Joss Whedon, because Firefly, Hank Green, because he and his crew at SciShow Space were also incredible sources of space facts and trivia, and maybe Michael Fassbender because he should totally voice AIDAN in the ILLUMINAE movie. :)

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Ghadi: If you had to choose only one of your works to represent you, what would it be and why?

It would always be the latest one! We both try to get better with every single book we write, and each new book speaks to where we're at right now—what kind of questions are fascinating us. With Illuminae we wanted to explore the price people pay to get the truth out, and how far we'd go to save the people we love, and whether the end result justifies the means when you're on that blurry line between right and wrong.

Ella: What is your favorite part of the writing process? Meaning, creating characters, plot, writing dialogue/descriptions, etc.

This tends to vary from book to book, but for Illuminae our favorite part was writing the instant message conversations between Kady and Ezra, or the conversations between Kady and AIDAN. We'd start out with a loose goal: "Kady and Ezra have a fight here," and then ad lib, which meant we were always surprising each other with twists, or jokes, or punches right to the feels.

The brainstorming sessions at the pub are pretty fun, too. Just saying.

Aeva: Does it matter what age you are to publish a book?

It doesn't matter at ALL. You can be five (though, OK, we'd be impressed), 15, or 95. What matters is that you're telling a story you love and you believe in and that you want to share. So many people set themselves goals—I want to publish by the time I'm 20, I want a book out by the time I'm 30—and somehow feel they've failed if they don't reach it. What you control, above anything else, is which story you tell and how you tell it. Focus on that, and take your joy from doing it well!

Clodette: Do you really think that in the future we'll be able to travel through space like in the book's universe?

Well, Amie's an optimist who thinks we definitely will. Jay's a little concerned that humanity will wipe itself out before we get a chance. One thing we do know, though, is that the human race is ingenious, inventive, and unbelievably creative, especially when we're in danger. We're certainly doing our best to put ourselves in danger, the way we're treating our environment, and we hope very much that we'll be creative enough to find our way out of it—and to find our way to other worlds!

Wormhole travel is completely theoretical, of course, but the theories are being written by the smartest people on the planet. It's vital that we keep pushing our limits, keep funding scientific research and projects to explore space, reach Mars, spiral out farther. The Voyager probe reached the edges of our solar system last year—humans are officially interstellar explorers now. But we can't stop there.

An entire universe of stars is waiting for us if we have the courage and vision to reach for them.

Want more? Read Jay's inspirational blog post on the road to publication here.
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