“In 2118, the first daring mission to another star, Tau Ceti, twelve light years away is launched. Tom Hites and Harry Cosgrove command the Starship Endeavour on an epic journey to solve the Fermi Paradox.” We’ve talked to Ralph Kern, the author of Endeavour.
Can you tell us a bit about your new novel, Endeavour?
Endeavour, at its heart, tells three intertwined stories. The first is what I believe to be a neglected part of SF lore – humanity taking its first steps outside of the solar system. The second strand is exploring the mystery of the Fermi paradox which I will sum up as asking: Where are all the aliens? As Endeavour explores first Tau Ceti, and then deeper into space they begin to discover the relics of the races that have come before, and it becomes a case of ‘Where are they now and what happened to them?’ The third strand is that due to their manner of star travel, each time Endeavour returns home, humanity has moved on and evolved. Steadily the characters feel more and more out of touch with the world. Underpinning all this is the fact that I have ensured that all the technology used has some basis in current day research and the worlds they discover and explore, where possible are actual real discovered exo planets. This has led to the book being lauded for its scientific accuracy by many of my reviewers. This book also provides the first part of my Sleeping Gods novels, which together will provide a future history describing the next thousand years or so. It can be read as a stand-alone, as will the next one and satisfactorily so, but if the reader wants more from this series, in the next few weeks, they will get it when Erebus is released.
Can you give us some insight into your main characters?
The characters are essentially astronauts of a direct training linage to our current ones. They have been chosen through an exhaustive selection process and, while they know their actions will be remembered, have that sense of humility and professionalism shown by the likes of Armstrong, Shepherd and Gagarin. The three main characters, Harry, Tom and Karen provide the trio who each bring something to the table as leaders of the expedition. Harry, the captain of Endeavour, a slight sense of professional cockiness which, I might add Michael Kramer really captures in the audio book, Tom, the mission commander a thoroughness which is needed when they are far from home and Karen, the doctor and chief scientist, provides a compromise between those two attitudes and whose analytical abilities are needed to help make sense of what they find.
What goals might you have set for yourself when writing Endeavour and how do you feel about the end result?
My goal initially was a simple one. I had a story, and I wanted to tell it. Since Tickety Boo Publishing approached and adopted me, it has become far more than that. Not only do I want to tell my story, but tell it with a quality a reader would expect, should demand and which would stand proud on anyone’s book shelf.
For those not familiar with it can you explain The Fermi Paradox?
The Fermi Paradox, is something that has fascinated me since I first read Stephen Baxter’s Manifold series nearly 20 years ago. One of the physicists who worked on the first nuclear weapons, a chap called Enrico Fermi asked ‘Where is everyone.’ He did say it in a slightly wordy way, but that is the summary. He was asking, alien life should be obvious everywhere we look, whether that is by us accidentally eavesdropping on the alien equivalent of a soap opera to seeing signs of massive engineering works like Dyson spheres and other mega structures. We don’t. Why is that? There are many many theories out there which could answer it, from the religious, to some kind of killer robots out there making sure life is kept down to the simple fact that life can only evolve on Earth. Hopefully, readers will think the answer I present in Endeavour is a satisfying one to this intriguing mystery.
What is it with the Science Fiction genre you find fascinating?
I love the sheer imagination that is shown by SF authors especially those that add a sense of mystery to their stories. Alastair Reynolds is especially good at this. He throws the reader an interesting conundrum, then provides a fascinating solution. I also love it when the author balances it with a sense of realism, making me believe that this may be the future that awaits us. Sometimes that is a bright, hopeful one, sometimes not, but what really nails it is when I actually believe that may be our future.
Endeavour has also been released as an audiobook narrated by Michael Kramer. How did that come about?
Endeavour was listed, as most books are, on Good Reads where I also hold a profile. One day I just had a message appear in my inbox from Tantor Media asking if the audio rights were available. That started a dialogue going and before I knew it, it was being recorded by the fantastic Michael Kramer. It was a very hands off thing, and the slickness and quickness of the process was amazing. I have just received my example CDs and am listening to it for the first time and it’s strange to see Michael bring the characters alive. Harry is a particular delight. The way he is read really brings out his character, and even a few quirks to him that I never even considered – yet work perfectly.
How did you start writing? Was there a particular book or moment in your life that spurned you on?
When I was at university I studied Aerospace technology, and while I did enjoy it, a summer work placement with the European Space Agency helping to design a satellite made me realize that it would be a career spent working on a very small part of one of these spectacular projects – essentially being a cog in a very impressive machine. After much soul searching, I decided it wasn’t for me. At about that time, 24 came out, and as silly as it sounds, that made me want to be cop, so I signed up. That left a big hole – I still wanted to have a part in space exploration, no matter how small. Writing a novel about it helped to fill that gap. So New Year’s day, 2013 I started Endeavour and have been writing ever since. I would love to say there was a single catalyst, but there wasn’t beyond a New Year’s resolution and the makings of what I thought would be a fascinating story.
Who or what has influenced your writing, and in what way?
My influences include the greats of the SF writing such as Clarke, Baxter and Reynolds, but I also combine that with my own experiences. While I’m patently not an astronaut or such a thing, my work as a Police Officer has helped me understand how people deal with stressful situations where, to be blunt, the buck stops with them. There’s no way you can just hold your hands up and say ‘Forget it, I’ll put it off until tomorrow.’ You have to deal with things there and then. That kind of attitude I’ve translated across to my characters who often have to deal with a situation, using their training and a healthy dose of problem solving.
Have you ever struggled between what you would like to happen to a character and what you considered more sensible to occur? Can you tell us when and what did you do at last?
My current work in progress, Uncharted has my characters having to deal with many situations that progressively get more and more desperate. While I don’t want to give spoilers, the temptation to give them some kind of deus ex machine or knight in shining armor was definitely there. Sadly for me in some cases, I have resisted this. My thought processes for how they would react to situations starts from the basis of – What information do they have available to them plus what would their training dictate they do combined with a flavor of which way their personality would make them turn. In Uncharted’s case, that does lead to a couple of tragic situations as they misread a situation, or simply they have no precedent and just have to do the best they can with the hand they’ve been dealt. But this, I feel, leads to making a story more interesting. It means the character acts in a believable way that doesn’t rely on fortuitous events to get them out of trouble. Sometimes, that doesn’t end so well for them though.
What would you say are the main advantages and disadvantages of self-publishing against being published?
My first release of Endeavour was purely Self Published, and mostly I chose that route as I never envisaged myself as becoming a professional author. I would be beholden to no one beyond my readers and my own diary. I had very low expectations of sales as there is a stigma associated with self-publishing and I was as surprised as anyone when the novel started to take off. Before I knew it I was selling over a 100 books a day. The reviews were positive with the caveat that many said I should consider getting an editor. At around that time, Tickety Boo, a small publisher approached me and presented a package which included getting a developmental edit done by Ian Sales, a BFSA award winning author and then getting the whole thing fully edited by Jennifer Carson whose thoroughness and attention to detail was mind blowing. There were a number of other perks such as a new cover and breaking into paper and hard back to sweeten the deal. Needless to say, after a short round of negotiation, my answer was a resounding yes. We all put in a lot of hard work and we have come out with this definitive release of Endeavour which I believe stands proud as a professionally polished work. There are, of course advantages and disadvantages to both ways but I firmly believe the model will change for publishers in the not too distant future. Instead of accepting submissions, publishers will allow the readers themselves to sift the slush pile and support those authors that have proven to sell in the realms of SP before, basically, making them offers they can’t refuse. Hugh Howey, Andy Weir and EL James are all, whether one likes their books or not, amazing and inspirational examples of this process as work.
How do you go about the marketing aspect and especially related to your online presence? Anything you’ve seen work better than other things?
I’ll be honest, when I self-published, I didn’t market at all. What I did find was as my sales improved, I would find Endeavour on the ‘customers also bought’ pages of several very successful books. Once that happened sales rocketed. I would say that authors need to know they are not in competition with each other. They should forge links and push others books as much, if not more so, than their own. Every time a reader buys both, then you increase your standing by a little bit and more of those links are created or reinforced and you will find your book on more of those ‘also bought’ lists. As a happy by product, the networking that creates is invaluable. Take Jacob Cooper, the author of the fantastic Dying Lands Chronicles who introduced me to this website, and quid pro quo, I can give him a shout out on this interview. Read his stuff and listen to his audio books – they’re awesome, and I say this as an SF man!
For your own reading, do you prefer ebooks or traditional paper/hard back books?
Personally, I prefer Ebooks. This comes down, I suspect, to the fact I’m one of those people that hates lots of clutter. There are also lots of other advantages, I love being able to have a quick scan through the first few pages, they’re never out of stock and what’s more from the small and self-published crowd there are an amazing amount of affordable diamonds in the rough to discover.
What kind of books do you read, any favourite authors?
I have quite a wide variety of tastes – sci fi is a huge one, obviously. I tend to prefer the ones that have an element of a mystery to them. Dan Simmons, Alastair Reynolds, Jack McDevitt, Stephen Baxter and, the late, great Arthur C Clarke are main stays for me. Beyond Sci Fi, as I’m quite active in the SFF community at the moment, I am learning to appreciate a well put together fantasy. Technothrillers are also something I enjoy and a good example can be both entertaining, yet sometimes frightening about what could happen in the world.
What do you do when you’re not writing, any hobbies?
I’m a bit of a hobby horse, I’m quite into my fitness, I tend to take part in mid-distance running races and I’m active in my local running club. I always tend to have one of those home work out programs on the go. At the moment I’m back into Insanity which is brutally punishing me! I love Scuba diving, and go whenever I can, there is something truly awe inspiring about exploring a shipwreck deep underwater. Other than that, I’m quite active in a local group for professionals in my home city. The pretense is to meet other like-minded people. In reality it normally devolves to going partying and eating lots of nice food… hence the need for those home workouts!
What’s next, what are you working on now?
Writing wise, I have two projects on the go. The first is Erebus, which is a sidequel to Endeavour, taking place over much of the same wide time period, but following a different set of characters as they struggle to unveil a seeming terrorist plot that has ramifications for the whole of humanity. It is a slightly different style than Endeavour, combining policing in the future with a deep sense of mystery. One of the things I wanted to do was show normal people living and working in this future world rather than the elite astronauts of Endeavour. My beta readers have been incredibly positive and love where the Sleeping Gods series is going. This is currently in with my editor, and hopefully it will be turned around very soon.
My other project is following a different tangent and I’m mid-way through my first draft. Currently the working title is Uncharted. It is set in contemporary times and follows a cruise liner which is somehow lost and unable to find home. They have to contend with dwindling supplies, fuel and hope while trying to establish just where they are, what has happened to them and how they are going to get home. It is very much an action/thriller/mystery with hints of Science Fiction in it rather than the more regular type of SF such as Endeavour and Erebus. While I never like to draw comparisons, Lost would come close, although I like to think I have a nice tight plot arc that will thoroughly satisfy a reader. I am quietly pleased with how it’s turning out and my muse is demanding at least a couple of thousand words a day, so it’s moving quickly!
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Interview by Dag Rambraut – SFFWorld.com © 2015