Sunday, 17 November 2013

Interview with Zachary Bonelli, author of Voyage Embarkation

Laura: I would like to welcome Zachary Bonelli, author of Voyage Embarkation to trips down imagination road! I’ve been reviewing, and loving, Zach’s serial since June, and with the upcoming release of the final episode, Ludo, I’ve asked if he could answer some questions! So, please tell us a little about yourself?

Zachary: Hi Laura. Thanks for having me on your blog. And thanks for reading and reviewing Voyage Embarkation! I’m glad you like it and I hope your readers do too.

A little bit about myself… Well, I’m an Illinois native. I grew up in a small town. I always knew I wanted to explore the world, Asia and Japan in particular. I majored in German and English Lit in college, and once I graduated, I found my way to both Europe and Asia. I took a teaching job in Japan for two years. And I had a much briefer teaching gig in Thailand, too.

Nowadays, I live in Seattle, Washington. I write computer code by day and fiction by night.

The Voyage series has been brewing for a long time. It started when I was still in high school. It’s gone through countless drafts. This is the first time it’s felt “right.”

L: Which is your favourite world that you created in Voyage Embarkation and why?

Z: In Embarkation, my hands down favourite world is Glinn.

I’ll have to back up a bit to tell how this particular episode came into existence. When I first started writing Voyage way back in high school, it was a single stream of episodes. There were no divisions into books like now—Embarkation, Windbound, etc. I imagined it only as a single book.

By the time I was living in Japan, it was clear that Kal’s story was too long for a single book. A draft of all of Voyage at that point was around 1500 pages, depending on how you counted it. A lot of episodes conflicted with one another at that stage in its development.

At the time I didn’t know what to do about it. It wasn’t until two years ago that I made the decision to start writing Voyage again, this time in five distinct books. Each one ends with some signficant event in the big Voyage arc.

I also made the decision that each of the books would have the same number of episodes: fourteen. Episodes that “transferred” from the original drafts into Embarkation were Setting Sail, Longing, Tria, Norselands, Unpossible, Requiescence and Ludo (all heavily modified and rewritten, of course).

I got a lot of traction thinking about foreshadowing. What kind of personality does Kal have? What’s he going to face later in the series? How can I start to build that now?

I let all those questions rumble through my mind, and from those imaginings, Just a Game, Corporeal, Duality, Nanogen, Liberty and Taboo were born.

I was left with an episode-sized hole sitting between Duality and Nanogen. Something to happen before Ludo pulls his Aynsz stunt, but after all the base development I wanted Kal to have.

One weekend, about two years ago, I visited Seattle’s Frye Art Museum with my family. The featured artist had created clay sculptures of all these stocky little humanoid people, many of whom were cracked and broken. Their interior was all wood in the shape of a skeleton and rope and plaster filled in the rest.

The most amazing scene though was this towering wooden statue with its arms full of sparkling stones. A procession of the clay people and clay animal figures stood at its feet, seeming to follow it.

That exhibition set my imagination on fire, and I immediately conjured up the world of clay called Glinn. But how did it get that way? Kal certainly wouldn’t go there on purpose, not with the way his grid was formed. Or could he?

When I first decided to have fourteen episodes in a book, this of course left me with many gaps. I am strongly opposed to “filler” episodes. I want each episode to serve a purpose in the bigger story, not be a number to meet a quota.

I am so happy that I left room for Benevolence. It’s exactly the challenge Kal needed at that point in the novel to give him some humility for his upcoming confrontation with Ludo. And I love social justice and ethics stories, so the fact that it got to be one of those was icing on the cake.

The last great perk—writing dialog for the Benefactor was loads of fun. I’ll take any excuse to ham it up.

L: Did you have the whole serial mapped out from the beginning or have you made changes as you went along?

Z: So, like I said above, Voyage is really one story that I’ve broken up into parts. It consists of five novel-sized movements of fourteen episodes each.

Embarkation is released, to be followed by Windbound, Adrift, Wake, and Tempest.

So, the quick answer is yes. The whole story is “planned.” Sort of.

The major events of the remaining books are set in stone. Those will definitely not change. But the details are very fluid.

I’ve got a vague outline of each episode in the entire series. I say “vague” because it’s really just a notecard with a single high concept on it—one or two sentences that tell me the general thrust of the episode.

At the time of this writing, all the episodes of Adrift (book three) have a more specific outline written. I’ve gone through and thought about all of the worlds and all the characters on those worlds and come up with the skeleton of a story. More of a true outline.

Also, at the time of this writing, all the episodes of Windbound have a rough draft. I’ve actually got the whole second book sitting on my computer waiting for edits.

I’m a big fan of foreshadowing and of showing the reader details that they don’t have the context to understand the significance of early on, but which become clear as the bigger story is revealed. Embarkation is loaded with that stuff. Knowing the big story in advance has helped me make the story richer.

L: Do you think that there are many similarities between you and your main character, Kal?

Z: Definitely. I’ve already admitted that I started this in high school. At that point, Kal was just a proxy for me.

Writers eventually learn to tease themselves apart from their characters, though you never completely get rid of the link. There’s something of me in all my characters, even the villains. In Ludo’s case, especially the villain.

For Kal, what has remained similar to me is that we’re both swimmers and both programmers. We’re both obsessed with right and wrong, and our hearts break when we see people suffering.

Kal is more athletic than I am and much more sociable when he actually gets around people. But in his case, I’ve artificially dampened his social development by sending him to Felis when he was twelve.

I have to tread very carefully here, but Kal and my childhood’s are similar in many ways. One big difference is that I wanted to imagine a future Earth free of the homophobia that left me scared and dejected for most of my young adult life. There are some other similarities and differences, but I’ll talk about that more as the series progresses.

L: Do you enjoy swimming like Kal?

Z: Definitely. I made a conscious decision to let Kal retain my enjoyment of swimming, even as I teased him apart from myself over the years.

L: Many of the worlds that Kal visits have reservations about advanced technology, do you think that this could be something we face in the future?

Z: Sooner or later, yes.

I feel that modern Western culture has basically arrived at the following conclusion: “Well, many problems our technology has created so far have been fixed by more technology. So, we should assume that every problem has a technological solution and keep doing whatever we want with technology. Everything will be fine.” I think this is a very dangerous and foolhardy attitude.

Usually, religion is invoked as the only counter argument—the idea that there’s a deity who doesn’t want us interfering with “his” realm more than we already are, and so we should exercise technological restraint.

I don’t think you need a deity, though. We’ve got enough science telling us that we’re approaching a tipping point we may not be able to recover from. Yet we go on guzzling oil and pumping carbon dioxide into our atmosphere because, hey, some new technology will just save the day in the end, right?

This attitude is going to bite us eventually. It might take a while. It might take a hundred or a thousand more years. But if we persist in this attitude, I believe it will bite us back hard.

L: What would you do if you could have a mind clone like Tria?

Z: Constantly beg for alone time. Oh, did I mention that Kal’s way less introverted than I am?

I’m an only child who always wanted a sibling though, so the Anders brothers let me imagine what that would be like.

L: Who picks which part of the story gets turned into the artwork for each episode?

Z: That depends.

Sometimes I have a very clear vision for what I want the illustration to look like (Longing, Duality, Benevolence, Ludo).

Most of the time I have some vague inkling of what I want, and I describe that, but leave all the details up to Aubry (Setting Sail, Just a Game, Nanogen, All Hallow’s).

And then there are times when I have absolutely no clue what the illustration should be, and Aubry will get little input from me, besides reading the episode, of course (Corporeal, Norselands, Unpossible).

Now that I look at that list, it seems like a simplification. There’s a lot of collaboration, on both the writing and art side. Aubry’s contributed edits to all of Embarkation, so she’s very familiar with the stories when she does the illustration work. We talk a lot about the illustrations in advance, too.

It even goes the other way sometimes. Tria’s argyle sweater is the best example of that. Aubry put him in an argyle sweater for the cover of Embarkation. I never wrote that. But she and my whole writing group insist that Tria’s the kind of guy who’d wear an argyle sweater. So now it’s in the text.

L: Which is your favourite piece of artwork that has been drawn for Voyage Embarkation? (And is there any chance that you could include it so that I can put it in this post!)

Z: This piece is called “Hot Times,” and it’s from Duality.

You’ve just unwittingly given me the opportunity to tell one of my favourite stories.

So, I’ve always known that I wanted Voyage to have illustrations. I think we made a big mistake as a culture when we decided that illustrations were only for picture books. Back in the nineteenth century, illustrations were a sign that a novel was of a higher calibre. I’ve always wanted them for Voyage.

But, I can’t draw.

I’m hopeless. I had a high school teacher try to tell me that art was all skill and had nothing to do with talent. My experience has proven otherwise.

One day, I was sitting at writing group talking to Aubry. We knew each other fairly well at that point. I’d put maybe three or four episodes of Embarkation through group.

Not knowing she had an artistic background, I mentioned that I’d always wanted to have Voyage illustrated, and one image in particular really stuck out for me as something that begged to visualized—Kal’s first kiss with Rko surrounded by the nanite forcefield bubble, lava churning all around them.

To my astonishment, Aubry pulled out a sketchpad and drew Kal and Rko on the spot.

I think I sputtered something like, “Uh, can we formalize this arrangement?”

Needless to say, we did.

L: What can we expect from you next?

Z: Insomnium’s currently underway. That’s a single serialized novel at twelve episodes total. It’s a bizarre mix of sci-fi and fantasy set partly in Seattle of 2089, but mostly in the freakish City of Nowhere. It contains tie-in references to Voyage.

Kal and Tria will continue their adventures when Windbound episodes begin releasing in March of 2014! Check out the Voyage Windbound website(url: for the release schedule.

L: If you could invite any fictional character(s) to a dinner party, who would it be and why?

Z: I’d invite Milo, Tock and the Humbug from The Phantom Tollbooth. Mostly so I could have a chance to thank them for helping my find my own Rhyme and Reason.

Thank you for agreeing to be interviewed by me, and for allowing me to read Voyage Embarkation!

 Below I've included buy links and links to my reviews. 

Links for stalking...I mean following, Zachary Bonelli! 

Links for following Voyage Embarkation

For Buying Voyage Embarkation: 

My Reviews: 
Episode 1: Setting Sail 
Episode 2: Longing 
Episode 3: Just a Game
Episode 4: Tria 
Episode 5: Corporeal 
Episode 6: Norselands
Episode 7: Duality
Episode 8: Benevolence
Episode 9: Nanogen
Episode 10: Unpossible
Episode 11: Requiescence 
Episode 12: Liberty 
Episode 13: Taboo
Episode 13.5: All Hallow's
Episode 14: Ludo - Coming Thursday!