It’s been five days and counting since I finished Essa Hansen’s Nophek Gloss, and I still can’t get it off my mind! Before I even sat down to write my 5-star review of this brilliant debut novel, I went out on a limb and contacted Essa for a blog interview, and she was kind enough to agree! Check out my interview with Essa below, where we talk all things glossy, #SciFiMonth and #NaNoWriMo.
Caiden’s planet is destroyed. His family gone. And, his only hope for survival is a crew of misfit aliens and a mysterious ship that seems to have a soul and a universe of its own. Together they will show him that the universe is much bigger, much more advanced, and much more mysterious than Caiden had ever imagined. But the universe hides dangers as well, and soon Caiden has his own plans.
He vows to do anything it takes to get revenge on the slavers who murdered his people and took away his home. To destroy their regime, he must infiltrate and dismantle them from the inside, or die trying.
Hi, Essa! Thanks so much for agreeing to take part in this interview for #SciFiMonth, and congratulations on your debut novel! How are you feeling with your book birthday fast approaching?
Essa Hansen: Thanks for including me in #SciFiMonth, I love that this just happens to be my debut month! It’s been an exciting and exhausting whirlwind keeping up with promotion and seeing early reviews emerge. There are no in-person events this year but I’m looking forward to popping into a bookstore on launch day to see my book on the shelf.
What has the journey to publishing been like for you?
EH: I’ve been writing since I was a kid, for my own enjoyment and at a meandering pace. It was only within the last five years that I decided to pursue publishing, which forced me to buckle down and really learn better craft! I found the new challenge invigorating. There was also much more to learn that I hadn’t expected: gaining writer friends, learning the business side of books, becoming more comfortable with self promotion, and learning my process as well as strengths and weaknesses.
Aside from being a novelist, you have quite the skills repertoire! Would you mind sharing a little about your other work and interests?
EH: I have too many hobbies and too little time! In my day job, I’m a sound designer and sound effects editor for film, which often means creating unique sounds for sci-fi and fantasy elements that don’t exist in our world. I also practice Japanese swordsmanship, am a licensed falconer, ride horses, and have a slew of other interests that I’d love to fit back in once someone invents technology to extend the hours in the day: archery (maybe even on horseback), playing piano, composing music, cooking, digital art, and all kinds of crafts, not to mention outdoor activities.
The prologue of Nophek Gloss is vividly aural, and your prose throughout really appeals to all five senses. Was that a conscious choice, or is sound now a natural part of your creative process?
EH: I do sometimes remind myself to “check in” with my character’s sensory environment, or to replace an obvious visual description with a more emotional alternative sense. But overall, I naturally write vivid prose and have to tone it back during edits! I am hypersensitive and synesthetic, plus my sound design work makes my mind keen about not just sound but material qualities, environment, and movement. I especially enjoy the challenge of bringing unusual experiences to life through the five senses—stuff like crossing between universes, getting whipped clean in a high tech shower, or linking neurally with a starship in flight.
What was the idea that first inspired you to write this book?
EH: As best I can remember, it built up sequentially: first the idea of a multiverse of nested bubble universes with varying physics, then the idea of a ship that could make a protective universe of its own and traverse hostile universes within the safety of its own world, then the main character whose backstory brought up a whole bunch of economic and moral conundrums to explore.
The book is about revenge, but more so about Caiden struggling with his trauma and grief. Did you always intend to write about these themes, or did they evolve from the character?
EH: They definitely evolved from the character, propelled from the initial trauma he’s involved in and the setup of his world, plus his personality that drives him to deal with it all in a self-destructive way.
Is there a message you hope readers will take away from your novel?
EH: Since Caiden grows toward adulthood as the story progresses, I wanted to insert as many life lessons and important reflections as I could, given to him by his adult crew. Even if he isn’t able to absorb them, he needs to hear these affirmations about self worth and evolution, social responsibilities, being aware of forms of self-harm or harmful self-dialogue, being open-minded and avoiding discriminating judgement. Sometimes it’s just a single line, but I hope these ideas spark more critical thinking for the reader.
Your bubble multiverse is such a unique and mesmerising setting. Is it sci-fi, fantasy, or are labels overrated?
EH: I started my draft with rigorous science, but gradually realized that it was both slowing me down from the story I wanted to tell and wasn’t connected to the sense of wonder that my early readers were responding to. I shifted to lean into the science fantasy feeling more—inspired by real sciences, but expanded into a unique context. I tried to balance my stranger ideas with genre conventions and familiar frameworks so the story didn’t end up confusing. Since some readers have called the book “hard science fiction” and others have commented on the trippy weirdness of it, I think I found a good balance between scientific and fantastical!
One fantastic aspect of the NG universe is the sheer diversity of species. How did you devise all of their unique traits?
EH: I’m a big fan of stretching away from humanoid or bipedal species, but I knew I would need to keep some familiar ground under the reader’s feet initially, and also limit the number of focal species I put in. For unique traits, I usually start with one interesting function that I want to highlight, which ends up informing the species’ biology and culture. For example, Andalvians came from wanting a species with chromatophoric skin like Earth’s cephalopods, the cells acting like pixels that change pattern and color to represent their thoughts and emotions. Another species, vishkant, emerged from the idea of beings who change form involuntarily in response to outside observers, and struggle to create a personality of their own—their physical biology turned out vaporous and morphic to support this function.
Do you have a favourite character in Nophek Gloss or one that you relate to most?
EH: This question is an attack! Haha I can’t choose. I love Caiden’s heart of gold and his bad temper, throwing his entire life at wanting better for other people. I love old man Laythan because he thinks he’s so stalwart but still can’t admit his own soft spots. I love Panca because we share a sense-sea and there’s not one cruel bone in her body. I love Ksiñe because he’s misunderstood and violent and artistic and adores animals as much as I do. I love En because they emerged on the page fully-formed, easy and delightful to write—plus they’re the perfect mix of sweet and dangerous, and I wish I had such a die-hard companion in real life. I fell for Threi, too, for his unpredictable ways, but I’ll let the reader try to figure him out without me saying more.
Despite everything, I actually quite like Threi. Am I a horrible person?
EH: I answered your previous question without reading this one! So let’s unpack him! Threi ended up being another character who was surprisingly easy to write, asserting himself on the page with less work on my part. He’s jaded, intrigued by challenges, keeps some cards close to his chest but plays others suspiciously freely. I love morally grey characters and hard-to-figure-out characters with ambiguous loyalties. Threi is misunderstood and isolated in his own way, which makes his motivations knotty and interesting. I’m glad you found him compelling!
Nophek Gloss is an inclusive story with characters who are gender fluid and neurodiverse, and one of your beta readers described Caiden as ace-spec (asexual spectrum). Was this planned, and will it feature in the story?
EH: From the start, I wanted my multiverse to not only be diverse, but a place in which great diversity is normalized as part of everyday life and where, as one example, a character could be queer and live their life and their adventures without needing to perform their queerness. Even being “human” in the story—the word used as a familiar framework for the reader—encapsulates a broad spectrum of builds, shapes, skin tones, genders, and so on. I will continue to try my best to present such a world more clearly and mindfully, to steer readers away from default assumptions and to continue to uproot more of my own unconscious biases. The next books in the trilogy will have more neurodiverse characters, more alien species, and more LGBTQIA+ spectrum characters, in a world that I hope still feels very lived-in and supportive!
Since November is #SciFiMonth, could you tell us your favourite sci-fi novel, or do you have any reading recommendations?
EH: Since I get asked this a lot, I’m going to dig for an answer I haven’t given before. I’ll recommend checking out BIOMEGA, a Japanese graphic novel by Tsutomu Nihei. It’s cyberpunk/horror science fiction set in an austere megastructure, following an agent and his AI companion as they attempt to stop an alien infection spreading across the world—and okay, this isn’t a timely recommendation, given we’re still in the midst of a pandemic, but the world of BIOMEGA is very moody and atmospheric, with environments and action scenes that have huge scale and speed, and many pages that develop story and world without any dialogue at all.
Also being #NaNoWriMo, do you have a piece of advice, or lesson learned, that you can share with other writers?
EH: I’ve done NaNoWriMo a couple times, and found the energy of the community to be very motivating. This year, with book deadlines and day job overlapping, I (a slow writer) have had to complete multiple NaNoWriMo-level writing months in a row, so the challenge of it has lost some previous mystique for me personally! I would encourage writers to use NaNoWriMo as an opportunity to feel out how and when they work best, what their limits are, and what practices recharge them or refill inspiration. That insight is just as important as putting your butt in the chair and writing words.
What is your fondest memory of your writing/publishing journey?
EH: What’s stood out most is not one memory in particular but one instance that arises multiple times: when someone truly grasps what you were trying to do in your story. I got this hit when I spoke with my agent on the phone the first time to hear their offer of representation…and when I spoke with my editor the first time to hear her vision for the book…and when I would hear my story restated to me by someone else who had read it—in a discussion with me or a review—there’s a rush of “yes! what I’m trying to do is working!” Writing can be such an isolating practice, my fondest memories are of the work connecting with other people.
Finally, my most important question: When can we expect some more Graven goods, and can you tell us anything about the next instalment?
EH: I’m hard at work on the sequel, which releases in Fall 2021. It will reveal new dimensions and incorporeal consciousness, expose more about what the Graven are, and reveal the significance of the Azura as the story starts to build into a true multiversal conflict.
Essa Hansen is an author, swordswoman, and falconer. She is a sound designer for science fiction and fantasy films at Skywalker Sound, with credits in movies such as Dr. Strange and Avengers: Endgame.