Debut Author Snapshot: J. Patrick Black

Posted by Goodreads on September 6, 2016

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Are we alone in the universe? It's a question both scientists and writers have been trying to answer for centuries. But if you read J. Patrick Black's Ninth City Burning, you might start asking a different question: How do we stay alone in the universe?

Black's debut novel is a gripping work of science fiction with strong parallels to pillars of the genre like Starship Troopers and Ender's Game. It's "first contact" with a fantastical twist—or two. Five hundred years ago, an alien invasion turned entire cities into dust. Now a ragtag group of soldiers and nomads must become heroes—and face seemingly insurmountable odds—to pull humanity back from the brink of annihilation. Their only hope? A strange force (a type of magic, if you will) that can alter the fabric of the universe. The aliens thought they were the only ones who could wield it. They thought wrong.

Black tells Goodreads how he built his future Earth, what books inspired his vision, and why his fiction always "has a lot of booze in it."

Goodreads: The world of Ninth City Burning has its roots in one unforgettable Valentine's Day ("on the old Western Calendar"), when an alien race first attacked Earth. What inspired your vision of first contact? Was the choice of day at all a nod to Valentine Wiggin in Ender's Game?

"While the setting of Ninth City Burning is decidedly futuristic, there are also echoes of other eras in Earth's history—Ancient Rome, for example, and the Napoleonic Wars." (Vive L'Empereur by Edouard Detaille source)
J. Patrick Black: One of the experiences I wanted to bring to this novel was the sense of encountering something truly foreign to our understanding of the universe and the way it works, something genuinely and utterly "other." The invasion that sets off the events of Ninth City Burning isn't about territorial disputes or clashing ideologies—it's a wholesale revision of reality, and what makes the invaders so alien goes beyond their point of origin. The laws of physics, at least as we understand them, simply cease to apply in their presence, and their motives are unknown because they've never made any attempts at communication. One way I thought people might try to conceptualize such an unknowable enemy would be by grounding it in our own recognizable, relatable world—if only by name.

I brainstormed a big list of ideas, things I thought people might use as a point of reference when reasonable description and explanation had failed, and the notion of a specific date was what stuck. It's one way we have of labeling events that seem otherwise meaningless or absurd. Choosing Valentine's Day felt right for a lot of reasons, but the connection to Ender's Game was one of the biggest. Orson Scott Card's classic was among my first encounters with science fiction growing up, and it's had a huge influence on the way I see the genre. Early versions of this novel were filled with little references like that—there was a character named for William Mandella from The Forever War, for example—but I ended up removing most of them because they were beginning to feel distracting. That wink to Valentine Wiggin was one of the few I kept; I thought it would make a reader smile without breaking the momentum of the story.

"I snapped this (sort of blurry) picture of stunt planes over Lake Michigan when they appeared unexpectedly just after sunset. I think they'd been at an air show somewhere nearby, then decided to come and buzz the beach. It made me wonder how these noisy machines, trailing smoke and fire and performing showy aerial acrobatics, would look to someone who had no idea such things could exist."
GR: You've worked as a bartender, a small-town lawyer, and a costumed theme park character. What were you able to take from those jobs and put into your writing?

JPB: For me, a great fringe benefit of working a lot of different jobs has been a varied awareness of the way occupation frames one's perceptions. Law school involves a very specific kind of mental training entirely separate from memorizing statutes and court decisions. You learn to approach a situation with an eye toward the legal issues involved, and that outlook has a way of seeping into the way you see the world generally. Anyone who's found themselves in conversation with a group of lawyers will know what I mean—it's like they're speaking their own language. But I think something similar can be said of almost any profession: It cultivates a specific way of seeing, of seeking and processing information.

My job as a lawyer was to pull apart a given case into its most basic pieces, then evaluate each of those pieces for legal merit. It was almost entirely analytical. Being a bartender was a swing toward the other side of the spectrum; it was much more about dealing with people, and the choices I made relied far more heavily on intuition. In the same way, other people would interact with me differently depending on the role I happened to be playing at the time: lawyers and bartenders each hold their own special kind of authority. A costumed character, meanwhile, completely subsumes the person inside (especially when the costume comes with a mask, as mine did). I was the Red Power Ranger, replete with gigantic plastic head, and it was an education to see how people reacted to someone simultaneously so conspicuous and anonymous—for one thing, I had to watch out for the low blow even more than I did as a lawyer.

"The imaginative process that went into Ninth City Burning was in part about taking the ideas that captivated me as a kid and reimagining them from the viewpoint of an adult. If magic suddenly became possible, what sorts of practical considerations would that entail? How would it affect the economy? Technology? Urban design? Unfortunately I didn't quite find a place for a wood-paneled station wagon like the one pictured here, along with my bygone self and sassy younger sister."
In Ninth City Burning, Earth's society is rigidly structured and stratified, a necessary outgrowth of the centuries-long war effort. I wanted to give the reader a wide diversity of viewpoints on the story, a panorama of the action and people involved. I think having approached my own world from such varied perspectives made a big difference when the time came to imagine how all these different characters would see theirs. Also, I've been told my fiction has a lot of booze in it—very possibly an influence of my bartending years.

GR: How did you go about researching and crafting a future so distant—and so literally alien—to us today?

JPB: It really came down to thinking through the details—and, often as not, writing through them. I began with a few sweeping alterations to the world as we know it, but once those were in place, I did my best to imagine a setting that would arise organically from those few changes. By the time the plot of Ninth City Burning begins, the upheaval of invasion has passed and human society has had some time to adjust to its new reality. Part of that reality is a mysterious force called "thelemity," a fundamental component of the universe unknown before the invasion but now a necessary facet of everyday life. From a certain perspective it looks a lot like magic, but people have begun to study it scientifically, and the understanding they've gleaned—however incomplete—drives the logic of this future world.

Working through the really broad strokes, the historical and societal trends that would follow from the liberties I'd taken with the nature of reality—that went relatively quickly; where I really had to stop and think was when it came time to design the lives my characters lived every day. The questions that required the most work to answer were the essentially human ones: How does a person go through life? What are their aspirations, their fears? What are their relationships like? Several of the consequences of this world I'd built ended up surprising me quite a bit, even as they seemed to follow naturally from the premises I had setting out—one, for example, was that the traditional family structure had ceased to exist for a large portion of society. That, in turn, affected the way this same society understood childhood and coming-of-age, what it meant to be an adult, and the responsibilities associated with each.

"The Porch of the Caryatids, part of the Erechtheion at the Acropolis of Athens. My first attempt at a novel (and my second and my third) was a historical epic set in Ancient Greece. It's never been published, but trying to reconstruct a bygone era on the printed page was some of the best practice I've had in the craft of worldbuilding, one of the most important skills in a speculative writer's toolbox."
GR: Ninth City Burning is drawing comparisons to the works of Robert A. Heinlein and Orson Scott Card. What other books influenced your writing style?

JPB: Just to name a few: Ursula K. Le Guin bears a lot of responsibility for drawing me into science fiction and fantasy; she's a master of both, and I can still remember reading A Wizard of Earthsea for the first time 20-plus years ago, just being totally swept away. I'm particularly drawn to stories that take chances or depart from the norms of their genre; I was very taken with the allusive, layered structure of Dan Simmons's Hyperion, and George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series really opened me up to what could be done with speculative fiction. The scope and fluency of style in David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas left me absolutely dizzy with admiration. The History of Love by Nicole Krauss has stayed with me for its depth and sincerity of voice.

GR: What's next for you as a writer?

JPB: Ninth City Burning is the first in a series, so book two is in the works right now, but I've also got a headful of more nebulous ideas gathering toward the critical point where they become actual stories. I'm slowly developing the concept for a novella a little more toward the magical realism end of the spectrum, and recently a conversation with a friend suggested a pretty interesting premise for a slow-burning crime novel. I'd love to do a graphic novel at some point—Neil Gaiman's The Sandman is another storytelling influence that belongs in the section above—but as my drawing skills are far from up to the task, that'll need to wait until I meet an artist willing to take me on.

"I tried to sneak little references to some of my favorite stories into Ninth City Burning, but only if I thought they were justified within the context of the story. There's a small salute to a certain famous school of witchcraft and wizardry pictured here; the photo is somewhat underexposed due to the inexperience of the photographer—me. That's right: I visited Hogwarts in person. (OK, fine. It was the Florida location, but whatever.)"

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