In 2014, Analog readers were introduced to Derek Künsken’s writing with “Persephone Descending,” set in the acid clouds of Venus. In our March/April issue [on sale now], Derek takes us back to that “undeniably hellish” planet with part one of The House of Styx. Read on to learn more about the hellishness of Venus, Derek’s history as an author, and what other projects he’s working on now.
Analog Editor: How did this novel germinate?
DK: Venus has always fascinated me, and I was struggling with a Venus-based hard biology novelette in 2013 on my way to the Nebulas Conference. While I was there, I met Trevor Quachri, who had worked on a number of my Asimov’s stories while he was the managing editor for both magazines. As the new editor of Analog, he mentioned that he was looking for more hard SF that was based in biology. I told him about my novelette, and he asked me to send it to him, and it appeared as in 2014 as “Persephone Descending.” It seemed popular with the readers, and I had more stories I wanted to tell about the Québécois colonistes in the clouds of Venus. After I wrote my novels The Quantum Magician (which was set in the same universe as “Persephone Descending” and was serialized in Analog) and The Quantum Garden, I decided it was time to write my Godfather story set in the acid clouds. I wanted to show the origins of the Congregate, which is the big imperial heavy in The Quantum Magician, but even more than that, I wanted to write a hard science fictional family saga featuring the culture of my maternal roots.
AE: How did the title for this piece come to you?
DK: Venus is undeniably hellish. Startlingly so. And given the kind of political alliances I wanted to build and where they were located in the Stygian depths, The House of Styx felt right.
AE: What is your history with Analog?
DK: I collected a lot of rejections from editor Stanley Schmidt, but I never stopped submitting. When Trevor Quachri took over, I was pleased to sell him a novelette (“Persephone Descending”), my first novel (The Quantum Magician), and then my third novel (The House of Styx). I’m unbelievably proud that Analog has serialized two novels. The thought of being in the same magazine as the first publication of Dune or Ender’s Game or Mission of Gravity is humbling.
AE: How did you break into writing?
DK: Between the ages of 15 and 30, I wrote two unpublishable novels. And when I turned 30, I realized whatever I was doing wasn’t working, so I started trying to read and write short stories. The short story form did not come naturally to me, but I now prefer short fiction for my reading and novel-length for my writing. When I was 35, I sold my first story (“Tidal Maneuvers”) to On Spec, a very, very hard SF story cobbled together from ideas I got while reading Stephen Gilette’s World-Building. My second story (“Beneath Sunlit Shallows”) sold to Sheila Williams at Asimov’s a year later. I wasn’t able to sell consistently until I’d turned 40. Getting an agent a few years later—and the publication of my first novel—completed my breaking-in process, I think.
AE: What inspired you to start writing?
DK: I don’t know what started me writing. I would be easier if I didn’t. As soon as I learned to read and write in English (grade two), I started writing down my own stories. I wrote my first complete book, which was a rip-off of Thundarr the Barbarian and Empire Strikes Back, and which was published with thirty-some-odd copies by my grade four teacher. I just need to, and only stop if life is a little or a lot chaotic.
Find out which sub-genres you like and don’t like. Dissect the stories. Figure out why the plots work. Why the character arcs work. Why you stuck with some stories and not with others. Which settings and science fictional ideas have you most excited. Steal every writerly tool and technique you notice. Write more stories.
AE: What other projects are you currently working on?
DK: My book publisher, Solaris Books, has signed me for a sequel to The Quantum Garden and a sequel to The House of Styx, as well as a novella set in the same universe. So I’m very pleased with my novel career so far, and my short fiction continues to be published when I have the chance or am commissioned to write some.
I’m also working on an ongoing scifi webcomic called Briarworld with Argentinian artist Wendy Muldon. I’ve actually been trying to break into comics for a while. Markosia Press has published a couple of my short comic stories in the anthologies, including a luchador gorilla story in FLIP 1 and a horror-comedy in FLIP 2. And I’m working with a freelance editor right now on a larger ongoing scifi gangster story I’d like to take to one of the big creator-owned comic companies.
AE: What is the weirdest research rabbit-hole that working on a story has led you down?
DK: I think everything about Venus is a research rabbit hole. Lead and bismuth snow on highland peaks? Broiling temperatures that evaporate sulfuric acid rain before it gets within 30 km of the surface? Hexagonal polar storms and weird washerboard wind rollers? Rock rendered super-stiff due to the extreme lack of water on Venus? All of that is just the tip of the hellberg, and I’m writing a science fact article that will hopefully follow the last installment of The House of Styx.
AE: Do you have any advice for up-and-coming writers?
DK: Definitely. And I wish someone would have told me this when I started writing seriously at age 15. Start with short fiction. You can do a beginning-middle-end sequence in two months, and if it is rejected, you’ve only lost one to two months. Repeat. And read widely. Read a lot of year’s best anthologies. Find out which sub-genres you like and don’t like. Dissect the stories. Figure out why the plots work. Why the character arcs work. Why you stuck with some stories and not with others. Which settings and science fictional ideas have you most excited. Steal every writerly tool and technique you notice. Write more stories. Find other writers at your level and set up critiquing groups. Critique each other’s stories. My own stories started selling consistently after I’d read about 500 short stories, which isn’t actually a lot, considering short stories average 10-15 pages each. I have more than a dozen short stories that never sold, and those were all good for learning.
AE: Many of our Analog authors are interested in science. Do you have any scientific background, and does it impact your fiction?
DK: I did a Masters Degree in Biology (Molecular Biology). This helps me think about life and aliens, but much more basically, my courses in ecology and especially trophic levels were especially useful to building living alien worlds. Richard Dawkins’ The Blind Watchmaker is a master class in evolution, accessible to non-biologists, and it influenced my understanding of how the forces of evolution would act on every alien everywhere. So, I might have a bit of a head-start on building aliens and the future descendants of humanity, which I explore a lot in The Quantum Magician.
AE: How can our readers follow you and your writing?
DK: I tweet from @derekkunsken in the snowy wastes of Canada (well, they’re snowy now . . .). I blog about comic books and the comic industry every two weeks at http://www.blackgate.com. Writing-wise, the events of my first novel, The Quantum Magician, occur about 250 years after the events in The House of Styx. The Quantum Magician and its sequel, The Quantum Garden are available everywhere via The Quantum Magician and The Quantum Garden. I also write a retro-futuristic, Flash Gordon-esque young adult jet-pack adventure webcomic called Briarworld available to read for free at http://www.bitly.com/briarworld. Check it out or show your kids!