Guang Ming Whitley is a prolific speculative fiction writer with several books to her name. She has written the serialized novel Essentia, her novel series the Future Trilogy, and several other works from non-fiction to horror. Guang Ming talks about her writing process, balancing writing and family life, and her love of world-building writers.
The Futures Trilogy novels, Peace Out, Basic Living, and Sanctuary, investigate the social issues of welfare and assisted suicide in a future America different from the one we know. What interests you about addressing these often controversial topics in your fiction?
When I wrote the Futures Trilogy, I was imagining a near future extrapolated from the present. To create a fully realized world, I had to address controversial social issues. The characters had to inhabit a world that felt real, and I couldn’t develop an American society in 2075 without considering the problems we currently face. We have medicine and technology extending quantity of life without quality of life. We have social safety nets wearing thin because they were not set up with current life expectancies in mind. We see a growing hostility toward the poor and the homeless. We have American individualism and the tension between personal responsibility and personal autonomy. So I had to ask myself what that would look like in an imagined future where pragmatism outpaces compassion.
Your novel Essentia, which follows a young girl who announces to her family she is an alien, was released in three parts. What was the process like writing this story and what were the challenges of releasing it as a serial?
A lot of my writing starts with the question “What if?” For Essentia, the question was “What if a child truly believed she was an alien?” This question was inspired by my children. At the time, my daughter had created seven worlds in different parts of her bedroom, and my son had decided he was Batman and was only going to wear a Batman costume. I wanted to explore what a family would do when faced with a child who had an unshakeable belief that was both outlandish and completely imagined.
Writing Essentia was a lot of fun because I was able to draw on my own experiences as a wife and mother to write about a family navigating their daughter’s belief that she’s an alien and subsequent Internet fame for her elaborate stories.
I experimented with the serial format because I often find myself bogged down in editing and rewrites. By publishing as a serial, I forced myself to move on. I also had encouragement from readers who were waiting for the next installment. It lit a fire under me to get to writing and push out the next installment.
In addition to your speculative fiction works, you have also written in the horror and literary genres, as well as a non-fiction book. How do these other styles of writing inform your speculative fiction novels?
I don’t think my writing style changes much between genres. My writing is always spare and to the point, relics of writing as both a scientist and an attorney. Lab reports and legal briefs are succinct and convey information. That’s my approach to writing. I like to move the plot along and not get bogged down in pretty prose.
What makes up a good writing session for you and what are your indispensable tools?
My indispensable tools are my laptop and Scrivener. Scrivener is an organizational program for writers where each chapter is a folder and each scene is a subfolder. You can title the folders, drag and drop folders, and view the folders in a cork board format. There are also sections for character cards and research that don’t compile into the final product, which can be put out in a variety of formats.
My day job is Chief Operating Officer of the Whitley household (four children and a husband), and I only have about two and half hours to myself each weekday. A good writing session happens when I can block out distractions, forget the laundry and cleaning up after breakfast and just write without stopping or editing as I go. Editing comes later, but for the first draft I just have to get the words out, good and bad.
What do you love to geek out about?
I totally geek out over authors who manage to create such fully-imagined worlds that you’re swept away by more than the plot. J.K. Rowling is an obvious example of an author with fantastic world-building, as is Brandon Sanderson. Less known, but my ultimate favorite, is Julian May. Her Saga of the Pliocene Exile is a quartet set 6 million years in the past, then she has the Galactic Milieu Trilogy set in the future that is both a sequel and a prequel to the Saga — characters in the Trilogy time travel to the past. May also wrote two books set in between the Saga and the Trilogy that further tie the two series together.
All together, it is nine books with past and present mixing and presenting a cohesive history and mythology that fully connects all of the books. It’s brilliant. I read them piecemeal in high school and college. My dad had a copy of Jack the Bodiless, the first book in the trilogy, and I tracked down the other two books. I didn’t learn about the Saga until I came across one of them in a used bookstore. Even then I didn’t realize they were connected to the trilogy until the third book when a familiar character appears. After I bought the Saga, I realized there were still two more books. I’ve reread the series in its entirety several times and each time have been astounded by how cohesive and rich May made her world.
In fact, writing this makes me want to reread the series again!
Thanks, Guang Ming!
//Images courtesy of Guang Ming Whitley.