Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Interview: Valerie Valdes

Valerie Valdes lives in an elaborate meme palace with her husband and kids, where she writes, copyedits, and moonlights as a muse. She enjoys crafting handmade bespoke artisanal curses and telling her friends how amazing they are. She is a graduate of Viable Paradise and her debut novel Chilling Effect was released by Harper Voyager in September 2019. Join her in opining about books, video games, and parenting on Twitter @valerievaldes.

Congratulations on your debut and the starred review from Library Journal for Chilling Effect! How does it feel to have your first novel out after having short stories and poems published?

It’s pretty amazing! I know some folks labor over poems and short fiction for almost as long as a novel, but I write those more quickly, so I’m slightly less emotionally attached to them once I send them out into the world. Only slightly, though. Writing a novel is a much longer journey for me, following the same characters and inhabiting the same setting for years, as opposed to weeks or months. Editing is a greater challenge as well, because instead of keeping a dozen or so pages in my head at a time, I’m trying to remember phrasing I might have used on page ten so I don’t repeat it on page four hundred. And then the querying, and going on submission, and if you sell the book, you have to edit it repeatedly again . . . There’s a sheer stubborn persistence required of novel writing that is honed in poetry and short fiction, and to finally reach the culmination of those efforts is intensely rewarding.

In Chilling Effect, Cuban-descended spaceship captain Eva Innocente has to rescue her sister from a shadowy syndicate called The Fridge. On top of that, she has to deflect the advances of a douchey galactic emperor. Oh, and there are psychic space cats! What was the inspiration for the novel?

Inspiration is a kind of hoarding habit, I think, so this came together from a lot of places. One of the main sources was the #YesAllWomen movement that gained prominence a few years ago; there was a lot of pushback from people trying to deflect or minimize the issues being raised, so I wanted to tell a story about a woman dealing with a fairly standard situation in a novel way. How it plays out is, sadly, only slightly exaggerated given the many examples of stalking, doxxing, and harassment that continue to happen today.

To all of that, I added my entire childhood experience of books, games, and movies, and let my imagination play. Mass Effect in particular was a huge influence, which is immediately obvious once you start reading, but I wanted to tell a story about the Han Solo of that world instead of the Commander Shepard. The psychic cats, well . . . I mean, all cats are probably psychic, so that’s hardly a stretch, but they’re based on my cats.

Let’s talk about Mass Effect, because you pitched the novel as The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet meets Mass Effect. There are touches of Final Fantasy in it, too. What are some of your favorite aspects of these games?

Oh no! You’ve asked me to talk about Mass Effect! I hope you brought a snack.

The characters of Mass Effect are the biggest draw for me, much as I love exploring the incredibly rich setting and having the chance to pretend—for two games, anyway—that galaxy-spanning problems can have hopeful, positive outcomes. BioWare’s writers and designers do an amazing job of creating people with deep backgrounds and complex needs and desires, and you get to hang out with them and sometimes have Shepard smooch them (Shakarian 4 lyfe), and that’s awesome. You share in their highs and lows, you get to help them achieve their goals—sometimes in ways they didn’t want or expect—and you forge these found families that follow you through fire and death to find whatever peace can exist in tough times. Even just talking to random NPCs at the Citadel can be a delightful experience, and so many small moments pay off later in ways you never expected. The thrill of running around the Citadel in a dress and heels with just a pistol while hundreds of goons try to take you down is transcendent. The humor is also great, and I wanted to carry that over into my work as well.

My Final Fantasy (and Chrono Trigger, and other JRPG) engagement is a bit different inasmuch as the conversations and interactions with characters aren’t quite as deep, mainly due to technological constraints. When you start with the first game, the characters are essentially blank slates, and it’s the NPCs who bring more nuance to the world, but that changes over time until you end up with the ensemble casts we all know and love. But there is still an intensity of experience there, because you’re assembling these groups of people to save the world from ancient evils or nihilists or twisted visionaries. The stakes are high, often on a personal level as well as a collective one, and sometimes you have to cope with massive failures and hope you can come back to win in the end. I love that persistence and the collaborative nature of it, that no one person has to do it all alone, and that working together is the best way to succeed.

What are some other favorite video games of yours? And what do you look for in video games?

I’ll talk about Dragon Age as much as, if not more than, Mass Effect if you get me started, for pretty much all the same reasons. I think those games do an amazing job of dealing with the complexity and unreliability of historical narrative as well, playing with your expectations and subverting them at key moments. I know I’m in the minority when I say I might love Dragon Age 2 the most, but the narrative of a refugee fleeing war and having to carve out a new life, piece by piece, far from home in a hostile place resonated really strongly with me. It also felt the least epic in some ways, because instead of wandering Thedas and assembling an army to combat an ancient evil, or trying to build a powerful new faction to deal with enormous humanitarian and diplomatic crises between warring groups and countries, you’re struggling to hold one city together as your immediate family falls apart. The outcome of that has ripple effects, but even as Hawke is crowned Champion of Kirkwall, it always feels like they’re a little out of their element, trying to keep their head above water instead of swimming confidently toward their destiny, and I love that.

I also love most of the Legend of Zelda games, despite some of the inherent problematic or goofy tropes like ye olde princess saving. Much like Final Fantasy, they bring both new and familiar characters into worlds that share similarities while also being their own cohesive and distinct settings. Stuff like Fallout and Horizon Zero Dawn is also great, but post-apoc stories are growing harder for me to handle, as our real world feels like it’s trending towards darkness. Even so, I love that those games can be played as helpers, where you go around making hard lives a little easier for people, which is optimistic and hopeful instead of bleak and harsh. And on the humor side, the Monkey Island games were always fun, taking the best parts of point-and-click puzzlers and making them absurd. Insult sword-fighting FTW!

It’s virtually impossible to mention all the games I’ve loved growing up, because I played a lot of them, but I definitely gravitate toward interesting characters and worlds, and I like an element of strategy or puzzle-solving.

Would you consider yourself part of a new or growing generation of writers inspired by video games and similar media outside of literature?

Definitely. Consciously or subconsciously, you are what you eat, and as more people consume those kinds of media, it’s almost impossible to keep them out of the books and stories we tell. There’s also a depth and complexity to narrative and character in some games, especially most modern ones, that they didn’t always have back when they were focused more narrowly on the gameplay experience, and I think that captures our imaginations in different ways. It’s not that people couldn’t create meaningful bonds with Tetris or Q*bert or Pac-Man, but it’s easier to achieve pathos and empathy with Mario or Samus, and that’s magnified once you get into contemporary triple-A stuff.

I also grew up with the other side of this, which is books that let you make choices about how they play out. Choose Your Own Adventure narratives were gamified stories, some of them simple branching options and some with stats you were supposed to track like an RPG. It’s an easy leap from that to interactive novels, with or without graphics, and from that to a more robust gameplay experience that merges puzzles or farming or pewpew with dialogue and plot-altering decisions. Not to mention stuff like D&D, Shadowrun, Vampire, Call of Cthulhu . . . I’ve heard more than one person joke that writing is essentially playing a tabletop RPG by yourself, and there’s truth in that.

If I’m being a little cynical, I would say the attraction to games stems at least partially from a desire to have some control in a world that increasingly feels like it’s spiraling into chaos. You get a quest, you finish the quest, you get a reward; clear parameters and a sense of accomplishment, hooray! But that would suggest there’s some mythical time when people had more agency in their lives, and I don’t think that’s true. Maybe it’s just more of a Big Mood now, compounded by social media and the ease with which we can be bombarded by all the ills of the world.

You’re a graduate of the Viable Paradise workshop. What was your experience like there and how did it help shape your novel?

I took the first three chapters of this novel to Viable Paradise, and the feedback and support I got there were invaluable. When I applied, I had been wrestling with the usual bugbears of self-doubt and I had almost trunked the novel entirely, despite the best efforts of friends who believed in me. One of them suggested VP because they had done it and found it a life-changing experience, so I decided to give it a try. As excellent as the instructors were, as beautiful as the location was and as intense as the sessions and critique groups were, the absolute best and most important thing that happened was that I left that island with a crew of new friends for life. I learned so much about writing, relearned things I already knew in different ways, but honestly I would do it all over again just for the chance to spend more time with my classmates. Seriously a case of “the real VP was the friends I made along the way.” Even after the workshop ended, we’ve stayed close and I speak to many of them on a daily basis.

Chilling Effect started off originally as a short story that friends of yours encouraged you to expand into a novel. What did the short story look like?

The short story more or less slid directly into the book with some details added or changed. It was tightly focused on Eva’s experience being hit on at a bar after a job gone wrong, and how the jerk she rejects goes absolutely, wildly over the top in his reaction. The same crew members were there, and the same nascent love story, as well as the mysterious black box and its extremely vital contents. No psychic cats, though, sadly. Those came later.

Very important question now before we get to the other ones. Those psychic cats. They’re just so cute and so funny. And they’re in spaaaaaaaaace! Where did this wacky idea come from?

I wish I could remember, apart from needing to have Eva and her crew start from a place where a delivery job had gone wrong. I know that once I decided it would be cats, there had to be something Extra about them, and the notion of emotional support animals and cat cafes was right there waiting to be tweaked. Cats are practically psychic anyway; mine always know when I need a cuddle, especially if I’m sick. I also reworked the opening a couple of times before finally settling on the loose Alien homage, because I found the notion hilarious. Sometimes you have to write the thing that makes you laugh and hope other people will join in.

You mentioned in a podcast interview that you like putting elements of real life in secondary world fantasy. Do you apply the same approach to writing fun, fast-paced space opera like this, and if so, what elements of real life made it into Chilling Effect?

Coffee. Even if it’s not on the page, assume Eva stops for coffee at least twice a day, sometimes more. I also know that food is a big deal in a lot of SFF stories, but while I mention it in my book, a lot of what they eat is cheap and portable because it’s the kind of stuff I ate when I was a poor college student working multiple jobs. Even fancy replicator tech can only get you so far.

Because this is the future, I tried to take some current tech and project it forward, so another thing I have is comm units that are basically advanced smartphones, often but not always implanted. So many of us today are already stuck to our phones and computers, and it seemed reasonable to expect that even if we managed to get beyond the increasingly exploitative notion that we need to be accessible 24/7, when people are cruising all over the universe they would want a way to stay connected to each other. So there are calls, and q-mails, and MMORPGs, and streaming media . . . all those trappings of modern life in the Wired.

Eva’s ship is called La Sirena Negra. What’s the story behind the name?

Someone mentioned that you never see black mermaids in media, which is sadly true, though plenty of amazing art is out there if you want to do a little digging. That comment stuck with me, and when it came time to name the ship, this felt right. It also relates to the notion that there are a lot of black Cubans, but people focus on their skin color rather than their ethnicity, and their identities can easily get erased. I’m white-passing, so I wouldn’t presume to know their experience, but I see it happen and I think it’s trashy.

You said that with Chilling Effect you wanted “to write about a character whose culture and experiences were aligned with yours, in a story where she could have adventures that didn’t revolve around her identity.” I was wondering if you could tell us more about this, especially as it speaks to the #ownvoices movement and what the general audiences (read: white) expect of it. Are you referring to what general readers (read: white) expect of the #ownvoices movement?

So often it feels like anyone from a marginalized group who wants to write has to perform their culture as opposed to just inhabiting it, or put their pain on display in order to succeed in the industry. I’ve been told things along the lines of, “The protagonist’s ethnicity wasn’t justified by the story,” which suggests there is an implicit default protagonist option and that any deviation from it must be explained to the satisfaction of the reader, or that there’s insufficient window dressing to properly exoticize the plot or setting so that the character can feel like they belong there. It reeks of literary segregation, and I’m not here for it.

The dangerous flip side of this approach is erasure, because people from marginalized groups absolutely do have different experiences from people in the majority. But I think it’s fair for escapist fiction to be for everyone, and it can be a relief to pretend for a little while that maybe someday, somewhere, we can just exist and do cool stuff without carrying the constant burdens of real-life oppression. I also think it’s good for general audiences to see this stuff, so their notion of that default protagonist option gets shaken up. Otherwise, we get actors typecast or pushed out of roles that would be perfectly suitable for anyone, because “general audiences” can’t fathom the notion that nonwhite people can be action heroes or romantic leads.

And Eva is both action hero and romantic lead here. Part of the narrative tension hinges on her tendency to lie to her crew. At one point, she even says that “a good lie should be almost true anyway.” Tell us a little about why this is her MO, because when crew members of hers like Pink call her on it, they are so not happy to find out they have a captain they feel they can’t trust.

I feel like for all that humans of varying cultures tend to prize honesty as a virtue and hold up lying as a huge violation of trust and loyalty, people lie absolutely all the time in big and little ways, to themselves and to others. I consider myself a lawful good person overall, and even I sometimes find myself telling “white” lies for a variety of reasons that, at the time, I believe to be good ones. But are they? Are there ever truly good reasons, and if so, what do they look like?

So I wanted to take a person whose morals had been more questionable and problematic when they were younger, but who had turned that around and was trying to be Good, and explore what would happen if they were placed in a position where that growth and ethical tensile strength were tested. Because this is a story about family, notions of trust and loyalty were foremost in my mind, and having someone choose to betray trust with some people she loved in order to be loyal to others was really compelling to me. I also wanted to consider how someone comes back from that kind of violation; trust is one of those things that, if broken, can be nearly impossible to mend depending on the circumstances, and justifiably so.

One of the people she loves is Vakar, her engineer. He’s quennian, one of the many alien species in the book, whose moods are conveyed by his scents. You tweeted about why you keep writing love stories between humans and non-humans and added a gif from Gargoyles. I was wondering if Eva and Vakar’s relationship inspired was by Gargoyles.

Until I made that tweet, I probably would have said it was inspired by Mass Effect almost exclusively, but I had the sudden realization that Teen Valerie imprinted hard on Gargoyles and had been iterating that ever since in many ways. Goliath is a character with a deep, tragic backstory, a leader taken out of his territory and dumped into a place where he has to both continue leading and maintain secrecy for the safety of his clan, which chafes because it feels sneaky, like lying. His loyalty is unimpeachable and he implicitly trusts those around him, only to have that trust repeatedly violated with harsh consequences. But he’s also a little old-fashioned, out of sync with the modern era, philosophical and charming and very protective of those he loves, sometimes to his detriment. There’s a lot of his intelligence, loyalty and protectiveness in Vakar, as well as the kinds of cute miscommunications that can occur between disparate cultures.

Elisa is one of the strongest women characters ever written, in my opinion, and I love how she struggles to help Goliath and the other Gargoyles navigate their new life without succumbing to typical New York cynicism. She’s a cop, but in the Sam Vimes way, the kind who genuinely wants to help people and believes a badge is a shield rather than a bludgeon. It’s a good parallel for Goliath in that they are both protectors, so they gravitate towards each other because of that, among other things. She’s more street smart than book smart, firmly anchored to her world such that the existence of nonhumans and magic is something that both shocks her and that she takes in stride because, like a true New Yorker, she’s seen it all. That world-weariness manifests in Eva for sure, but also the desire to find joy and hope in a universe that can often feel cold and uncaring. Elisa takes this lost family under her wing and they become her family, too, even as she is forced to lie about their existence to her other friends and family, so that tension comes into my story as well.

Also, I’m a sucker for power couples. Love them. Give me all the power couples. Back to back surrounded by their enemies and ready to kick ass together.

You said one of your jams is deconstructing tropes. The villain of the book is an intergalactic crime syndicate called The Fridge, a direct nod to the “Women Stuffed into the Fridge” trope. Tell us about why you wanted to deconstruct and subvert this trope in the space opera subgenre.

Fridging always frustrates me because of how it treats people as objects, to steal a line from Pratchett, so I wanted to explore that by essentially turning a trope into a literal antagonist. The main character is directly motivated to act by the kidnapping of her sister, but the way it manifests is an echo of the capitalist hellscape in which we are all embroiled to a greater or lesser extent, an apparently endless cycle of debt and loss of agency that is almost impossible to escape without enormous sacrifice. It seemed like a reasonable thing to tackle in space opera, which is intrinsically a little melodramatic in the way that millennials are typically accused of being, with small personal problems writ large against a vast interplanetary backdrop. And I think that’s part of the core of the fridging trope, that something arguably insignificant in the grand scheme of the universe will so fundamentally impact one person that they’re compelled to make drastic choices that can end up affecting many other people.

I asked Rebecca Roanhorse about how SFF written by women tends to be classified as young adult or middle grade fiction. On Twitter, you said Chilling Effect was mislabeled as YA when it was first announced and is still tagged as such by some users on Goodreads. Do you think it has more to deal with the fact that YA fiction embraces diverse and #ownvoices authors more so than adult/literary SFF, thus maintaining the white cishet status quo of adult/literary SFF? Do you think it’s synonymous with “diverse” lit?

I wish I had a definitive answer, but I would probably say it’s all of the above. I think SFF, especially the SF part, is historically perceived as a thing cishet white men write, despite the vast backlists that indicate otherwise. Many women wrote (and still write) under male or gender-neutral pen names because they rightfully expected that a lot of male readers would skip their books, and a lot of those women are also white and cishet. Meanwhile, YA and MG fiction have less of a stigma against women, and have some recent high-profile projects and books by and about marginalized people, such that despite the numbers still being slanted towards cishet white authors and protagonists, there’s a stronger aura of inclusivity and diversity being projected.

It becomes a bit like that brain teaser where you’re supposed to read out the names of colors, except the names are printed in different colors from the word itself, so you’ve got “blue” but it’s printed in red ink so you say “red” instead by accident. If most of the SF books you see written by women are YA/MG, especially most of the “diverse” books, you’re inclined to make assumptions.

What upcoming writing projects are in the works that you can tell us about?

Prime Deceptions, the sequel to Chilling Effect, should be coming out sometime next year. More psychic cats, more wacky hijinks, more video game and pop culture references, plus you get to meet Eva’s mom and find out exactly what the hell happened at Garilia.

I’m also working on a secondary-world fantasy novel that I pitched as Princess Bride meets Stardust with more cussing. Revenge, swords, magic, airships, dragons, prophecies, True Love, and way too many “your mom” jokes.

Sounds like fun! Is there anything else you’d like your readers to know about Chilling Effect?

It’s pretty funny! I mean, the psychic cats probably gave that away, but there are a lot of ridiculous characters and situations, so don’t go into this book expecting realism and serious business. On the SF hardness scale, this is basically unbaked merenguitos.

The book also has a lot of untranslated Spanish, so update your translator nanites for a fully immersive experience, or just take it easy and go with it. You can look it all up later, or ask me and I’ll tell you what “no jodas tanto” means.

Christian A. Coleman

Christian A. Coleman

Christian A. Coleman is a 2013 graduate of the Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers’ Workshop. He lives and writes in the Boston area. He tweets at @coleman_II.