Recently I had the opportunity to listen to Amie Kaufman (The Illuminae Files, the Starbound trilogy, the Unearthed trilogy) speak at the Auckland Writers Festival. She’s the co-author of Illuminae.
It’s become a hobby of mine to get more people reading her work, which is wonderfully out of this world and so socially relevant at the same time.
I’m a high school English teacher and I’ve noticed a huge problem at my school. Teenagers have a tough time finding books that interest them. They usually choose the ones that have been made into movies. As a result, most books sit untouched in the library while a few highly desirable books have waiting lists ten teenagers long. It’s made me appreciate the need for a wide range of exciting young adult fiction to suit the tastes of all of these students.
That’s one of the great things about YA author Amie Kaufman. She’s a prolific writer, with a preference for science fiction. I always send my reluctant readers to her books. Her work is fast paced, imaginative, and exciting. She writes about deadly zombie viruses in space and epic love affairs that develop against a backdrop of the most desperate, hopeless situations you could ever imagine. There are explosions and space wars and kisses and surviving against all odds. Reading her work feels like watching a movie. I tell students - “If you’re not into it by the end of the first chapter, you can stop reading.” They never do.
Writing science fiction
Listening to her speak, it’s obvious why Kaufman became a writer. She described a memory of when she was eight or nine and had to keep convincing the rest of her school that she had adventures every night on Enid Blyton’s The Faraway Tree. She was caught once, by a teacher. She had to stand up in front of everyone at the school assembly and admit she’d been lying. Afterwards, she told everyone that she’d had to deny everything because adults weren’t allowed to know about the Faraway Tree or the magic would disappear. She told the story with exuberance and had me giggling throughout. She’s a born storyteller.
After proving her sci-fi nerdiness by quoting lines and lines of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy off the top of her head, she described the scientific research that goes on behind the scenes of each of her books. “It’s amazing what scientists will just tell you if you ask.”
She and her writing partner Jay Kristoff (The Lotus War, The Nevernight Chronicle) even had the opportunity to visit NASA to figure out the mechanics of some of the space fighting they were writing about. There was a bizarre moment when they overheard some of the workers exclaiming to each other, “it’s so cool - real authors!” to which she involuntarily shouted, “Shut up, you’re rocket scientists!”
Kaufman’s management of the co-writing process is something I’ve often wondered about – I love writing but I ultimately chose teaching overwriting so that I could work with people.
Kaufman really encouraged collaboration. She writes mostly with two other authors, Jay Kristoff (The Illuminae Files) and Meagan Spooner (Starbound).
She also pointed out that you get a lot of quality feedback instantly when someone else is working on the same book as you. I think that sounds wonderful - I’m so often in the situation when I’m writing something, thinking does any of this make sense?
“Collaborating is wonderful because it takes you places that you don’t expect to go. That’s the beauty of it.” Anywhere that you see an instant message conversation in Illuminae is Kaufman and Kristoff improvising a conversation. They’ll map out a few key bits of information they need to get through and figure out where the conversation should land, but other than that, they fly by the seat of their pants. It sounded like a lot fun.
Diversity in fiction shouldn’t be the issue that it is
The topic of diversity in the world of literature inevitably came up and things got serious quickly – clearly this is an issue dear to her heart.
“What I would love for the future would be for us to not be having a conversation about diversity and gender because we don’t need to. But we certainly need to right now.”
She talked about her experience being a woman author in the world of science fiction. “Both our names are on the book… but only one of us gets emails suggesting that maybe they didn’t write the book and are along for the ride.”
“I get these delightful emails telling me to get my lady parts out of science fiction... It’s distressing for both of us… obviously, I don’t love the implication that I didn’t write my books… and I can’t let [Jay] see the email addresses anymore because he wants to fight them. The thing is that these men (and it’s always men) are undertaking to speak on his behalf, things that he obviously doesn’t believe.”
“The best response is to continue writing bestsellers and do your thing.”
She also brought cultural and sexual diversity into the conversation. “We did focus hard on making sure Illuminae was very diverse.” There’s one part of Illuminae where thousands of people die (that’s not a spoiler because it happens all the time in Kaufman’s work). They put together a memorial wall with photos and names of the deceased. In these lists, they made sure they had names from a range of different cultures in accordance with different naming conventions. They also made families where all members were one gender because they wanted to indicate that there were same sex marriages. Kaufman received encouragement from fans (“I’ve never seen a name from my culture in a book before!”) which has made her want to lean further into inclusivity.
I so admired Kaufman’s attitude toward this issue. She divulged a bit about the limitations of her work and the difficulty of changing such an ingrained set of expectations, but she kept coming back to one thing: while she can’t portray every culture or life story, there’s a lot that she can do to make her stories more diverse.
She left me feeling inspired. Maybe I can tell stories worth listening to. Maybe I can get more books like Kaufman’s into the hands of reluctant readers. Maybe I can try co-writing, maybe I can include a few more diverse stories. Maybe I can do anything.