I am huge fan of John Connolly’s work, and his new SF with Jennifer Ridyard, CONQUEST, is pretty awesome, so I’m thrilled to have them on the blog for a chat about the book, and more! Please give them both a very warm welcome!
I absolutely LOVED Conquest and can’t wait for the next book! What made you decide to collaborate on an SF book?
JOHN: I think we had both always loved sci-fi, but the initial idea was mine. I wanted to write about the first alien female to turn 16 on Earth after an invasion, I suppose because it seemed like alienation squared: the natural difficulties all teenagers face, but compounded by being an absolute outsider among a race that hates her. But, quite frankly, I have no business knowing anything about 16-year-old girls, alien or otherwise, so it seemed a good idea to bring in Jennie, who has been a journalist for two decades and has a book of her own under submission.
I also think that we both wanted to write sci-fi with a very female emphasis. It’s unfortunate, but science fiction still has a whiff of maledom about it, fairly or unfairly. We wanted to address that issue, and rectify the imbalance a little.
JENNIE: Thank you so much! Delighted you loved CONQUEST, and am very pleased to chat.
As for your question, well, quite simply John asked me… He was really worried about asking me too, and got himself in complete knots about doing so. I thought he was going to request something dreadful, possibly requiring dungeons and gadgets, but when he said he’d like my help to write a book about the first alien born on earth following the invasion, I was delighted, and rather honoured too. I don’t know why he thought I’d be cross. I think I’d have collaborated on just about anything because he’s a brilliant, experienced writer (though don’t tell him I said so) but this was a particular pleasure as I was intrigued by the vague shadow of a SF story that he revealed. And yes, it’s such a boy-dominated genre, and females do get squeezed out. Too often, female-centric SF is classified vaguely as fantasy, presumably to move it away from the Lycra, multi-boobed, laser-gun connotations.
I loved how Syl was very conflicted, since as an Illyri, she has loyalty to her kind, but she’s also very much an Earth girl. What do you love most about her, and what was the best part of writing her character?
JOHN: I think it was the fact that she ended up so torn, and understood that she was a child of two worlds. For me there was also an element of an angry, unhappy teenage girl suddenly discovering that she had the ability to lash out at her tormentors. There’s something about the rage of children that I find fascinating.
JENNIE: I like that Syl is angry and flawed. I don’t think she’s always likeable, but I do think her motivations are pretty clear. I particularly love her moral strength and incorruptibility. If she believes something is right she is prepared to fight for it, even when walking away would be much easier. This sense of justice can be one of the most admirable but also frustrating things about teenagers.
What kind of research was done for the novel?
JOHN: My interest in science is already pretty apparent from the Samuel Johnson books, and it extended further with this book. I’m curious about the physics of the future – medicine, weaponry, power, robotics – so I was reading Michio Kaku and Ray Kurzweil, and something of that fed into my parts of the book. Otherwise, a lot of it was just recalling how I felt as a teenager, combined with the realization that I still had a lot of that teenager inside me.
JENNIE: John set me homework: he asked me to watch a 1970s film set in the highlands – The Thirty Nine Steps – so I’d get an idea of the chase. I had to watch it a few times because I kept falling asleep…
I reread my favourite childhood SF classic, John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids, which is also set on earth, albeit in a reimagined dystopian future, and also has strong female characters.
Will you tell us a little more about the writing process for Conquest, how your collaboration worked, and what you think you each brought to the narrative?
JOHN: It was difficult – far more difficult than I thought it would be. We’re both fairly strong-minded, and it really was a labor of love for each of us. I gave Jennie the initial chapters and the outline, then went off to do publicity for the Parker books. In the beginning there was a misunderstanding about the age group that I, in particular, was aiming for, so Jennie maybe wrote a little younger than I did. I then had a go at redressing that, handed it back to her, and she revised it again.
I think she brought a very acute sense of how teenagers think and speak and feel. I brought a little of the darkness to it.
JENNIE: Hah! What happened at the beginning certainly wasn’t great for the old ego. He gave me the first few chapters and a synopsis, I handed him 70 000 words – the first draft – when I’d completed it, and he threw it up in the air and said: “Who are you writing for?”
Then he took it away and reworked it, then gave it back to me for a turn, and slowly we built it up while shaving away (hopefully) the bits that were distinctly him or me, until it was seamless. We never sat down and worked on it together, but instead worked separately, and at different times. When I had it, he didn’t; when he had it, I didn’t.
He brought the science bits, the concept, the outline, the lyricism and much of the darkness. I brought rather a lot of conversation, and (I hope) some humanising touches.
Worldbuilding was a huge part of this novel, for both the Earth under its new rule, and also establishing a rich background for the Illyri. What are a few of your favorite literary “worlds”?
JOHN: I love P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves & Wooster novels. I don’t think I could like anyone who didn’t. I’m also a fan of Terry Pratchett, who has done something wonderful with Discworld.
JENNIE: My favourite created worlds are probably those of Philip Pullman: the His Dark Materials series is superlative, and exquisitely executed. I couldn’t recommend it highly enough.
I also loved (as a child) Enid Blyton’s brilliant, raucous Faraway Tree series, with its ever-changing worlds on clouds above the magical tree. I’m also a fan of Narnia, the land behind a wardrobe, in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, by CS Lewis. The rest of his books flagged a bit, or got bogged down in preachiness, but that one was perfect.
What are a few of your favorite SF titles?
JOHN: The Chrysalids by John Wyndham; The Forever War by Joe Haldeman; The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells; Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury; The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams; The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester; Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut.
JENNIE: John and I bonded over The Chrysalids (one of my favourite childhood books), and I also loved The Day of the Triffids, another classic by John Wyndham.
More recently, I borrowed The Hunger Games from my sons and thought Suzanne Collins had done a remarkable job.
What would you like to see readers take away from Conquest?
JOHN: A sense of the moral complexity of the universe, and the necessity to try and do what is right rather than what is easy.
JENNIE: The thrill of a cracking read, and a head full of wonder and imaginings! And hopefully a lust for reading. Not a lot to ask, right…?
Conquest ended on some shockers, and left a ton of stuff to be explored in the next installment! Will you give us a bit of a teaser for the next book?
JOHN: It’s called EMPIRE. We’re writing it at the moment, but it sees Paul and Syl follow different paths to the same revelation: the nature of the real threat facing both humanity and the Illyri. I haven’t read Jennie’s sections yet, though, and she hasn’t read mine, but we each have an idea of what the other is doing. I think it’ll probably be a pacier book than CONQUEST. A lot of the set-up and backstory was done in that book. Now we’re into the meat of the thing.
JENNIE: Meia is back! Woohoo!
What’s next up for each of you?
JOHN: Well, I have the new Parker book, THE WOLF IN WINTER, out in the UK in April and the US in October, and once I’ve finished work on EMPIRE I’ll return to Parker.
JENNIE: When we’ve both finished our sections of EMPIRE, I’m going to get the first crack at weaving them together, which is daunting but terribly exciting. When EMPIRE is done, I’ll start thinking about the next one in the series, but in the interim it’ll be back to copywriting for me. Hey, it’s not the worst way to pay the bills!
Earth is no longer ours. . . .
It is ruled by the Illyri, a beautiful, civilized, yet ruthless alien species. But humankind has not given up the fight, and Paul Kerr is one of a new generation of young Resistance leaders waging war on the invaders.
Syl Hellais is the first of the Illyri to be born on Earth. Trapped inside the walls of her father’s stronghold, hated by the humans, she longs to escape.
But on her sixteenth birthday, Syl’s life is about to change forever. She will become an outcast, an enemy of her people, for daring to save the life of one human: Paul Kerr. Only together do they have a chance of saving each other, and the planet they both call home.
For there is a greater darkness behind the Illyri conquest of Earth, and the real invasion has not yet even begun. . . .