Interview with Alex White (AUGUST KITKO AND THE MECHAS FROM SPACE)

I had the opportunity to review Alex White’s August Kitko and the Mechas from Space for Fantasy Book Critic back in July when their new novel released from Orbit Books. Orbit and and Alex graciously agreed to an interview, and I’m excited to present their wonderful answers here below. If you haven’t gotten August Kitko and the Mechas from Space yet, you can check out my review at the link above to read more about it (including the official synopsis), and you can also read a FREE preview of the novel’s first chapter at Orbit Books.

photo credit: Renee White

I believe the creative start of your Salvagers series was initially focused on the just the first novel of it, A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe, as opposed to mapped ideas for the entire trilogy. Did August Kitko and the Mechas from Space start similarly, or were you working out all three movements of the Starmetal Symphony right from the start?

It’s actually a little of both! I don’t plot too deeply, except for the book I’m directly working on. I need to keep ideas in mind and set things up in the first books for later, but the realities of writing always change the plot for me. If I try too hard to plot the whole series, I just end up throwing a bunch of work away because of cascading changes from book one. Instead, the sequels are maybe a paragraph of intent each, whereas the first book has a 40-page synopsis.

I am, however, a plotter. I like to know everything about the book I’m about to write, even if I’m going to change it all when I get there.

How do you think your writing (or the process) has changed over time with experience (if at all)? Do you feel you write now with more confidence, or thrill at diving into new ideas or territory?

It has gotten a lot harder, honestly. The more you know, the more pitfalls you see. Gone are the days where I could crank through 3,000 words in an hour, replaced with agonizing over the tiniest details. One thing has remained, though—I believe that a writer should always be uncomfortable. You need to push yourself to go places you’ve never been, and you must do the work to make it authentic.

I’ve gotten better at story development, though! I have a lot of different creative processes and games I use when I’m planning books, mostly using sticky notes. I find that visualizing data in unique ways (emotional resonance over time, actor swimlanes, etc.) can bring a ton of insight into the plotting process. It also helps me reinforce the themes and make sure I sew up all the holes. My basement walls are so covered up with notes that it looks like I’m hunting a serial killer.

So much of writing is editing. I know you’ve enjoyed fantastic partnerships with your editors, but is there anything you’ve found challenging in that process, or have you found yourself giving more pushback to suggestions of changes over time?

A long time ago, one of my favorite editors confided in my agent that she was worried she was steamrolling me with changes. He replied that I’m easy to work with–if you don’t change the ethos of my book. I don’t personally care what shirt color someone has, or even what their name is half the time. Those aren’t core details. Hell, I’ve rewritten major plotlines on edits.

However, I’ve had editors push back on things like gender identity, claiming the inclusion of nonbinary persons would be “too political,” or that a sexual harasser didn’t deserve condemnation. Those people discovered a new side of our relationship. I’m not a pushover, and I’m not above dragging something out for the right reasons.

At the end of the day, an editor is there to protect you. Their job is to make your book amazing and sellable. If I’m going to buck an edit, I’m going to have agonized over it for days. When that happens, I’m always polite, but it’s my name going on the book. It will conform to my standards of quality.

I actually first discovered your writing with the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine tie-in novel Revenant, and you’ve written two novels set in the Alien franchise. How did those opportunities come about, and if there’s one piece of advice you’ve learned from writing in existing universes, what would it be?

I got into tie-in writing because I was afraid that my debut novel, Every Mountain Made Low, would flop. When an editor is considering hiring you, they look at sales, first. There are plenty of debut authors who never get another shot because they failed a six-figure advance. Tie-in fiction is a great insurance policy against that because of the built-in fanbase.

As far as writing for tie-ins, I have an article in Grimdark Magazine about it, but my main piece of advice is this: Fans have already seen the movie/TV show/game/comic. They’re buying your tie-in because they want more, but you can’t simply deliver what they’ve seen before. The goal is to capture the way they felt the first time they experienced the franchise. I think people miss that part sometimes, and try to write another episode, as opposed to an experience.

Music is obviously a huge creative outlet in your life as well, and you’ve composed music inspired by your fiction. Does it also go the opposite direction, or during times of writing/composing do you find the two interplaying back and forth in any unexpected ways?

Oh, my, yes. I was never able to compose music before I started imagining a story to go with it. On a broader scale, my other interests all impact one another. I learn about writing from user experience and vice versa. I learn about photography from storytelling. One of the biggest lessons I’ve taken from having diverse interests is that the more you know about everything, the more you know about everything. It’s good to get deep knowledge, but nothing compares to being a generalist.

Any master of an art has lessons applicable to mastering other arts. I think it’s important to watch demonstrations of skill and ask, “How can I apply this to my creative body?”

Could there be any August Kitko and the Mechas from Space inspired numbers to come, and what instruments would they involve?

There’s already a theme song, actually! It’s called Burn Down the Stars, and I wrote it for the audiobook. I spent the entire time I was writing the novel to practice just the piano part, then I used Ableton Live to sequence an entire orchestra for backup.

If I had more time, I’d love to do a whole album exploring the interplay of American pop, djent, bhangra and jazz. There is no doubt in my mind that a movie produced from this book would have an absolutely killer soundtrack.

How would you characterize ‘subversive’ writing, and what kinds of power do you hope that your fiction might have in that regard for readers, or in your outlook on things?

People are wired to exclude information that doesn’t sync with their worldview. It’s one of the reasons that debate rarely changes anyone’s minds. Stories, however, are magical because they skate beneath your psychological defenses. They place you in the situation and ask you to empathize with people whose views you might rather dismiss. You get to live the experiences you’d rather not accept.

To me, this means calling into question the basic premises of our society and analyzing the systems for bias and abuse. A great story should suck you in, then make you profoundly uncomfortable with the status quo. And—not to put too fine a point on it—stories without this amount of heart are just useless fluff. No truth equals no stakes and a love of the prevailing authority. Throw it all in the trash.

I realized that one common element to August Kitko and the Mechas from Space and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Reventnant may be the theme of consent/control in organismal pairings. There’s the human-mecha ones in August Kitko, and that biological level of symbiosis so central to Jadzia Dax’s identity and story. Is this a theme you have consciously turned to with particular interest throughout all of your work, through different directions?

As a trans person, the depersonalization of one’s form is constantly on my mind. A lot of us are consumed by society, both through fetishistic desire and bigoted derision. We’re expected to perform certain roles to be allowed to comingle with the “normal” people, but our very bodies are liabilities in the public space. Having your own identity while trying to reconcile the unwanted, even alien, standards of civilization can be quite a trip. I’m sure this feeling stretches beyond transness, and a lot of people can identify.

In the broader sense, consent is constantly on my mind because the violence done to characters is usually beyond their control. What’s interesting is how it unfolds in various contexts beyond organisms. It comes into play when discussing the role of sentient androids (though I hate the “robot rights” discourse), but also the grander application of political and economic systems. We’re all in nonconsensual relationships with our workplaces, banks and medical providers, just so we can survive and participate in society.

Staying on that subject of symbiosis in a way… Have you ever had a collaborative writing experience with another author; do you think that coauthoring a novel would work with your style and personality or would you have to run away from that prospect?

It would have to be a special circumstance, conceived as a coworking project from the start. If there are boundaries, I can do it. I’ve participated in writers’ rooms, for example, and have every intention of doing more in Hollywood. That means that I must be a good collaborator.

With novels, I do think it’s harder than scripts. Long form is closer to my heart, and a place I use to express my inner self. I think it would be tough to team up. I don’t even let friends suggest plot points to me. A quick aside, how the hell does anyone decide to plagiarize something? My ego would not be able to handle someone else’s work powering my story.

Is there any chance of you writing something outside of the science fiction/fantasy realms, like the crime genre, historical or contemporary?

Absolutely. I hope to have a long, fruitful career where I get to prove my range and continuously work in new territory. I read a lot outside of speculative fiction, and I’ve always wanted to write a historical crime novel.

What would be your favorite board game and your favorite whiskey? Are board game – whiskey pairings a thing?

Let’s go with Agricola, plus a long-sipping Islay whiskey, like a Laphroaig. I could probably drain a whole bottle in the course of a game (back when I could still process alcohol). Nowadays, I’d probably pair some kind of intoxicant, but I’m not sure I have a specific one in mind…

And finally, to circle things back to August Kitko and the Mechas from Space, what can you say about the upcoming movements of the Starmetal Symphony? In particular, will the next volumes be in a different key, tempo, or style?

The ground game in every volume will be completely different. Every single book, something is going to happen that changes everything—usually at the beginning. I won’t give you the whole picture. Suffice to say, if you thought the first book was strange, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

Thanks again to Alex White for taking part in this interview, and to Angela Man from Orbit in helping make it possible! If you haven’t yet, please be sure to check out August Kitko and the Mechas from Space and their other work.

Cover design by Lisa Marie Pompilio; Illustration by Ben Zweifel

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