A Conversation between Creatives: Ada Hoffmann and R.B. Lemberg

Ada Hoffmann (they/them)

        R.B. Lemberg (they/them).

Hello and welcome everyone to a very special blog post! Today, we are thrilled to be hosting two talented and acclaimed authors in conversation: Ada Hoffmann, author of The Outside trilogy, and R.B. Lemberg, author of The Unbalancing as part of the Birdverse series. They’re here to chat about Ada’s latest book, The Infinite, which is the final novel in the trilogy! Read on to learn about Ada’s planning processes, the trials and tribulations of AI, characters and more!

R.B. Lemberg: I am so excited about The Infinite, and so happy (although also a bit sad) to have the completed trilogy! Congratulations – plotting, writing, and publishing a trilogy is a huge accomplishment, and I’d like to start by asking you about your planning process. The books work so great together, yet each has a somewhat different emphasis and approach to developing its themes. In terms of plot, did you plan all three in advance, or did you have more of a general idea how things will develop over the course of all three books? What about the moral and philosophical trends you develop throughout the novels? 

Ada Hoffmann: Thank you so much, R.B.! In terms of planning a story, my approach has two parts. When I am starting out, I spend a while mulling over how the book feels to me. Ideas for characters and dramatic scenes will appear, and I’ll gradually string those together into an outline listing the story’s plot and its main events. Then I’ll work from the outline to start writing the draft. I consider myself a “plantser,” because the outline is indispensible for me, but it also leaves a lot of room for discovery during the drafting process.

I am a slow drafter and I find that a lot of the deep emotional work in a book happens during that drafting process. I always find myself surprised by how the characters develop as I move them through the plot events, and by the underlying themes that emerge. Often a few subplots or specific plot events will turn out differently because of this, although the broad plot arc stays more or less the same. In any story worth telling, I find that there are things I unconsciously wanted to work through and talk about, and I don’t even know what most of them are until I’m partway through the draft, watching them unfold.

For The Fallen and The Infinite, I wrote the plot outlines for both books together. But then I wrote the drafts one at a time, and finished revising one book before even starting to draft the other. So you can probably see the result of that workflow when you read the books. The outward events and main conflicts in both books are very closely tied together, but emotionally and thematically, things kept unfolding over time as I worked on one and then the other, in a way that was organically influenced by what was going on in the world and in my life as well as what seeds were obviously planted in the books that came before. There are character moments in The Infinite that I had planned almost from the very beginning, but there are also character and thematic moments, even ending moments, that I didn’t realize needed to be there until very late in the process.

RBL: I am very interested in the queer/neurodivergent/disabled found family aspect which really shines in the trilogy. Without spoilering (for those readers who are yet to immerse themselves in the books), could you talk a bit about how you balanced the communal and found family aspects of the novels with Yasira’s pivotal role?

AH: It’s funny, because the found family aspect of the trilogy is one of those aspects that really snuck up on me. In real life I have ambivalent feelings about found family – I think it’s a fine idea, but I have seen so many situations where people sort of leap into calling themselves a family without really considering what that means to them, what their expectations are, what old familial wounds they are carrying into this new situation unaddressed. In my personal life nowadays, I’m very cautious about these kinds of things, and really about the idea of community in general. So it surprised me to see such a strong found family element cropping up in the second and third book, without any of this real-life cynicism, and to see readers responding to that so strongly.

And it was something that simply emerged out of practical considerations. In The Outside, without spoilers, Yasira finds out that there are several other people who have had an experience similar to hers. It’s a very minor part of The Outside and she only meets one of these people, but it’s made clear that there are more. And moreover, these people are currently not in a very good situation. So when I was putting together the ending of The Outside, I realized that we had to follow up about this group of people. We can’t just leave them in their bad situation and forget about them; Yasira needs to do something to help them, even if it’s only a minor part of what she’s actually doing at the end of the book.

Then I asked myself, if Yasira does get these people out of their bad situation, what will they want to do next? I could have just had them all go home, but it struck me that actually most of them would want to do the same things as Yasira. There’s not a lot of safe places for them to go, and there’s reasons why they would care very deeply about the outcome of what Yasira is doing. So I had them find Yasira, and I had Yasira welcome them in, and boom, I had a fractious little neurodivergent found family on my hands, all of them living and working together imperfectly but the best that they can.

So, with regards to balancing the found family’s role vs Yasira’s role as a bit of a chosen one – that wasn’t a conflict I had planned on needing to solve, but it was something I thought about. I have read a lot about how we need fewer chosen ones and more collective action, and I knew it would be unsatisfying if everyone else in the book just stood around while Yasira did her thing, but I also knew that Yasira needed to go through a particular transformation which was important to me, and which ultimately only she could go through. My own beliefs on the matter of chosen ones are not necessarily settled, and I don’t really know what a perfect balance between those two narrative needs should look like – it’s not the kind of thing I could write a manifesto about how to do. I just kind of put the characters on the page and made sure they each had something to contribute, and then I let it play out. Yasira ends up doing something that no one else in the book would be able to do, but it wouldn’t have been possible without the concerted efforts and support of everyone else who’s there with her.

RBL: These are amazing answers, thank you so much. In terms of putting characters on the page and letting them do their thing, I wanted to ask you about the process of thinking about and plotting your antagonists. I’ll be honest, I admire your villains/antagonists – not just a single person or power, but different, flawed people with their own motivations, agendas, and emotionally resonant storylines. Many queer readers tend to love villains more than we love heroes, perhaps because villains are so often queer-coded – although I’m not sure how this plays out in a book where most characters are explicitly queer! Can you talk a bit more about your process in creating these antagonists and thinking about their arcs? 

AH: I’m glad you admire my villains, because villains are often my favorite characters to write! Even though villains can be very larger-than-life, I feel there’s a sort of honesty in them. Villains can hold frightening feelings or thoughts that we would think twice about giving to a protagonist character, including things we need to understand about ourselves but are afraid to admit to. So I often empathize with villains quite strongly, even though I don’t approve of their actions.

There’s something to the idea that queers love villains because villains are queer-coded, but I think that, even more so, it’s the reverse. Queers are villain-coded! We get taught that our queerness makes us evil, often before we really have a word for our queerness at all. A lot of the queers I know, including myself, are chronically plagued by guilt and moral worry. And so, it can feel very cathartic to ask, “what if I was evil? What if I never felt guilty no matter what I did, or never let my guilt stop me – what would happen then?”

It’s been said that all villains think they’re the hero, but I don’t agree. I think plenty of villains know or suspect that they’re villains, but they keep going with their villainy anyway. Villains don’t necessarily think that their own actions are good actions – but they do always have some reason why those actions are what they want or need to do. So villains’ motives are pretty similar to the motives of any other character. There’s something they want or need, feel or believe, or something they’re running from; something that keeps them getting up in the morning and doing their particular brand of villainy. Once you know that about a character, you know what kinds of choices they’ll make.

RBL: One of the things I kept thinking about as I was reading the Outside books is how academia betrays us, and how mentor-student relations, even in best and more nurturing cases, can become corrosive within the wider systems of injustice involved in modern production of knowledge. I love how the Outside books take discovery outside of academic spaces and into the wider world. I wonder what you would see as sustainable models of knowledge production outside of academic hierarchies. Are they only available in times of crisis? 

AH: Oof, I wish I had a good answer to this question. I don’t have the faintest idea how to fix the production of knowledge in our culture. What’s happening in the Outside series, of course, is that there’s a disaster that changes the world, and there isn’t really a surviving university within that disaster’s bounds. So you have the Gods, who are studying the situation but keeping most of what they’ve learned to themselves, and you have ordinary humans who are muddling through and figuring everything out by trial and error – from “which of these eldritch plants are safe to eat?” to very abstract, mystical things.

I don’t go into detail, but there’s a mention of how people in the Chaos Zone write back and forth to each other, sharing mystical experiences they’ve had and trying to figure out what it means. And I think that’s a natural thing for humans to do, to try to sort through things together and figure them out. I picture it being a little bit like a long argument on an Internet forum. I’m not sure it’s any improvement on academic spaces, but I think it’s something humans will always find a way to do, regardless of circumstance.

RBL: I am not sure if you are tired of this question, and please feel free to skip if you do, but I wanted to ask about AI. You are a computer scientist and AI plays a huge role in the trilogy, and this is the moment everyone seems to be discussing ethical issues surrounding ChatGPT and Bing. Can you share how these discussions affected your thinking about the trilogy, if at all? Where do you see science fiction involving AI go from here?

AH: Oh, boy. Well, the big discussion around ChatGPT didn’t start until The Infinite was already written. Certainly ChatGPT and Bing are not at the level where they could SFnally take over the world – they make many basic factual mistakes, because they don’t really understand what a fact is, only what plausible written language looks like. But one of the things that the current furore has really driven home for me is that AI doesn’t need to be genuinely intelligent to cause problems.

I definitely think we will see a wave of stories by frustrated SF writers venting how they feel about the possibility of being replaced by a computer program trained on their own work, or venting their annoyance with techbro culture generally. As well as a wave of stories imagining more hopeful possibilities for these technologies. I think that there are legitimate uses for ChatGPT as something like a friendly brainstorming tool, for example. As with any big topical trend a lot of these stories will be very similar to each other, all picking the same low-hanging fruit, but some very creative, thought-provoking scenarios will emerge. (I loved S.L. Huang’s story “Murder By Pixel,” for instance, which is now up for a Nebula.) I hope we see some intelligent stories about content moderation, which is an ethical issue that I don’t see discussed quite as often as others.

Once this wave of stories crests, I don’t know what will happen next – by then, maybe AI events in the real world will already have progressed to somewhere that we couldn’t fully predict, or changed the industry in some other bizarre way. The recent closure of Clarkesworld due to AI submissions really worries me, and I don’t know if it’s a burst of excitement that will die back down, or if it’s only the beginning of a very bad trend.

RBL: Finally, can you please share what’s next for your writing? Are you working on new projects? I am eager to read anything you might write!

AH: Thank you! I’ve got a short story collection in the works, called RESURRECTIONS, which will be coming out in late 2023 from Apex Books, with an audio edition from recorded Books. I’m working on a couple of other book-length projects as well, both very different from the Outside series. Both are still in that slow drafting stage – so we’ll cross our fingers and see what happens. :)

RBL: Thank you so much for your insightful and thought-provoking responses! I am very much looking forward to your new work, and to more conversations about The Outside books.

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