A big welcome today to Carolyn Hill, the author of Beneath the Skin.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your writing? How long have you been writing for, and what inspired you to start writing?
Some of my earliest, most vivid memories are of telling myself stories: arranging plastic horses in thundering herds across the couch and describing to myself over and over in excruciating detail how I would live alone in an apple tree. If I really loved something I’d read or seen on TV, I’d revise the story in my head, changing the ending or inserting myself into it as one of the characters or as an entirely new character that I made up. When I was in fifth grade my father gave me a manual typewriter, which I pounded gleefully, churning out “newspapers” and “spy manuals” for friends. By high school, I was writing full-on stories and the beginnings of strange novels. A teacher told me then that I’d grow up to be a writer; I told him no, I was going to be an astronaut.
At university I didn’t have time to write fiction—but every school break, I’d hit The Other Change of Hobbit (the local science fiction and fantasy store) for a hefty stack of novels to inhale. And the first thing I did after I got my degree was clear out the academic muck in my brain by writing a novel about aliens that look like people-sized rats. And then I kept on writing fiction. My short stories tend to be fantasy or magical realism, inspired by a dream or an image or a writing exercise. My novels tend to be science fiction, often with a strong romantic component (inspired by binge-reading romance novels, whose pleasures I discovered shortly after writing the alien rat novel).
The universe in which Beneath the Skin takes place is one in which I’ve set several other novels, including a young adult space opera. That universe grew in my mind organically over the decades, morphing and changing with my interests, but it’s rooted in concerns about the environment that I developed during a decade as a Girl Scout and concerns about social injustice that were sown in my years at UC Berkeley.
Writing fiction simply feels good. It feel right. It feels as if writing is what I am meant to do. Not to put money on the table, but to feel … whole.
Can you tell us about your new release? What inspired you to write it?
Beneath the Skin is a romance, of course, and love is its inspiration. But the novel also explores identity–directly, in Riven’s ability to shapechange into people, and indirectly, in Aleta’s struggle to decide who she is once she is no longer drugged. And as I wrote it, it became an unexpected meditation on how to deal with cataclysmic problems in my own life: run away and protect myself? shelter in place? actively resist?
Love and identity are intertwined, aren’t they? The longing to be loved, the longing to love, to be known and know oneself, loved and loving.
At the very beginning of the writing process, while I was contemplating the tangled intersections of power and family and identity and love, one image came strongly to mind: Marlon Brando in the opening scene of Godfather, when Bonasera comes to Vita Corleone during Connie’s wedding to ask for justice for his daughter. I pay conscious tribute to that image during the first chapter of Beneath the Skin.
Are there any genres you prefer to write and if so, why? What book do you wish that you had written?
I love to write science fiction and fantasy, and I enjoy combining both with romance, because that’s what I love to read.
What book do I wish I had written? Wow, okay, just one …. In science fiction, there’s a book that I’ve returned to many times over the years, one that contains strong strains of romance and fantasy: Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. That novel touches me on so many levels, satisfying my love of romance (albeit unconventional), folklore, and thorough worldbuilding, all delivered in prose that sings as it conveys the nuances of alien culture. The book reveals much about what it is to be human as it questions our presumptions about gender and our fear of the Other. And the ending breaks my heart.
Are there any characters that you write, that are based on you, or people you know?
Oh, yes. Many! For example Bead’s Pickle, a young adult science fiction novel in the same universe as Beneath the Skin, is based on my experience managing a fast-food restaurant during a two-year break from college. Wild times, wild people, all became a band of teenage misfits and runaways aboard an aging starship, who hatch a scheme to save their new home by contacting a mysterious race of dangerously eccentric aliens.
Are there people in your life that annoy you, and you write into your books?
Annoying, harmful people make good fodder when I’m thinking about villains. Thinking about real people helps me avoid the error of creating one-dimensional villains, because the annoying or harmful people I know are complex, multidimensional individuals, and I understand in part what makes them who they are and do what they do.
In a larger sense, the villains in my books tend to be annoying—no, that word is too benign, so let’s go with Evil—institutions and systems (economic, legal, political, and so on). These systems shape the individuals who play villainous roles in my writing.
If you could have any superpower or magical ability, what would it be and why? What would you do with it? And yes world domination is an acceptable answer.
For decades, I have pondered this question carefully (as well as considered that other best-decided-well-beforehand question about what three magic wishes I’d make)!
It used to be the ability to heal with no negative consequences to myself or others. But I’m tired of that self-sacrificing attitude.
I want teleportation! The ability to accurately teleport myself and a half ton of whatever I touched and intended to teleport with me, any distance within our solar system, without having first been to that destination, and without harming anyone or anything I do not specifically consent to harm. This is clearly a practical superpower that would save me from having to drive for an hour and a half just to travel 30 miles in snarled San Francisco Bay Area traffic.
But I have two other reasons for wanting to teleport (as stipulated–no harm, half a ton, etc.). This way, I’d be able to go to other planets and moons and asteroids and take stuff that people need to use in colonizing or exploring space. Some people might object that in traveling instaneously from point A to point B, I will miss the delight of the travel itself. But no, I’ve an answer for that: teleportation will allow me to fly. How fly? A rapid succession of extremely short microburst teleports from point A to point B will be equivalent to flying—sort of like blinking, the eyes will fill in anything missed in during the microburst transit.
(Thank you for asking!)
If you had access to a time machine just once, is there anything you’d go back and change? Either on a personal level or an historical event?
Yes. I would go back and listen to what my first cat was saying when she peed on my bed.
If you were stranded on a desert island, what three things (or people) would you want there with you?
You mean besides potable water, nutritious food, and protective shelter? This question stresses me out. I wouldn’t want anyone else to suffer being stranded on a desert island.
What are your writing and personal goals for 2017 and beyond?
Keep writing and don’t let the day job get in the way! I have three different novels in various stages of completion and would like to find out what happens in one, fix what happens in another, and decide whether I can cope with what has to happen in the third.
Personally, I’d like to help ensure that my mother and father and sister are as happy and healthy as can be, now that our parents have gotten on in age.
What are you working on at present? Would you like to share a snippet?
Beneath the Skin is actually the second (chronologically, not publication order) in a trilogy about the Faraway shapeshifters, so Riven’s backstory is shaped in part by the events of that first novel, which tells the story of how Verilyn Beau Astra (who appears in Beneath the Skin as a sympathetic character) crash-landed on Faraway, met her husband, and came to protect the shapeshifters’ secret existence. I’m not yet satisfied with the draft of this book, so I need to revisit it.
The third book will tell the story of Verilyn’s daughter, Cera Felice (another minor character in BtS), who falls in love with a most difficult object of affection. My editor advises me not to say this, but what the heck: when Cera Felice meets him, he’s a rock. Yes: GRANITE, quartz, that sort of thing. Hard-headed. Metaphor much?
A third project is unrelated to Beneath the Skin. It’s a novel that straddles several genres (science fiction, fantasy, horror), set in present-day Northern California, near Mt. Shasta. There’s some minor romance between several characters, MM as well as MF.
Are you a cat person or a dog person? Can you tell us about your pets?
Yeow? Meow. Purr purr purr purr purr.
Aleta Graham is a healer and empath, abilities that make her a useful pawn for the Dagarro family, who have addicted her to the drug known as Sand in order to keep her submissive. But Aleta is determined to overcome the influence of the drug, and make a desperate bid for freedom — even knowing that the penalty for disloyalty to the family is death.
Riven is a shapechanger, a computer genius, a spy sent by the government to destroy the power of the Dagarro. By taking on multiple identities he becomes at once Aleta’s dearest friend and most feared enemy. But in growing closer to Aleta, Riven imperils her, himself, and his mission.
The drug was wearing off. Aleta Graham’s head ached and her hands shook as she leaned against a pair of diamond-studded urns embedded in the ballroom’s wall. She fought the drug’s deadening effect and focused on one clear fact: she must escape, now, while they were all preoccupied with Joanna’s wedding.
Aleta peered out from behind the enormous porcelain vase that shielded her from the wedding guests. Joanna was waltzing across the low-friction floor in the arms of her groom. Above the dance floor, the orchestra wheeled in the air, bows sawing across strings, drums booming, cymbals chiming. The music rattled Aleta’s nerves.
She craned her aching neck and stared up, past the orchestra, her burning gaze following the inwardly sloping walls of the ballroom. Each wall was formed of gold and platinum bricks, covered with precious containers of various sizes and shapes: fine art and irreplaceable antiquities, all useless now, set permanently in the metal, an extravagant display of the Dagarro Family’s wealth. Five stories above, beyond a clear ceiling, lay the airless moon’s surface and the void of space.
Withdrawal sank talons deep into Aleta’s chest. She gasped and bent double. Dear God, she wanted . . .
Escape, she must focus on that. She wanted to escape. While Joanna smiled in the arms of her beloved under the watchful eyes of Dagarro Family security, Aleta trembled and struggled not to scream. She straightened her spine, took one step, then another, and slipped out from behind the urn into the shadows between two marble sarcophagi.
The music changed, and guests poured onto the dance floor in a rainbow of glittersilk gowns and light-washed haute couture. Aleta slid deeper into the shadows, until she could no longer see the security guards. Her wrist itched—a maddening, distracting, incessant itch. She scratched furtively beneath her formal glove. The itch grew worse. She yanked the glove off. Her arm spasmed, and the glove slipped to the floor.
Something moved behind her in the darkest shadows: a man’s figure. Melting? Changing?
Aleta blinked, trying to shake off the hallucination.
Softly, gently, the glove was placed back in her hand.
The fingers of the man who had returned the glove clamped over her velvet sleeve, pushing the fabric up her arm. Looming above her, he studied the fading blue spiderweb of lines that streaked her pale wrist.
She trembled again, this time in fear.
Dark on dark he was, dressed all in light-swallowing black silk except for a glowstone earring whose incandescence stained half his jaw a bloody red. The angles of his face were as sharp as the glint in his obsidian eyes.
He lifted his gaze and met her own. One sculpted black brow rose.
Aleta squared her chin.
Carefully, without touching her skin, he ran a forefinger above the drug’s lingering blue trace at her wrist. “A web not of your own making,” he stated. One heartbeat, two, then Darcavon dropped her arm.
“Trituros wants you,” he said, and stepped past her. As he strode toward the dance floor, light from the cascading candleplants glinted off his tightly bound black hair.
Aleta stood, stunned. Darcavon had seen that she was fighting the drug the family used to enslave her, yet he hadn’t called the guards.
It made no sense. The Darcavon she had always so carefully avoided was a perfect creature of the Family Dagarro, as ruthless as Trituros Dagarro himself, advancing in the household ranks with the cold inexorability of a glacier, intent—so rumor had it—on becoming seneschal.
Her hands shook. He must be setting her up for some later, unguessable purpose of his own.
Pulling the glove securely over her hand and wrist, Aleta peeked around the end of the sarcophagus. The closest guard was looking in her direction. Linked to the family’s security net, the guard knew that Trituros wanted her and that she should leave the ballroom and head toward the patriarch’s office.
She cursed silently to herself and stepped out from behind the sarcophagus. The mouths of the vases buried beneath the clear floor gaped up at her in silent warning. She must be careful—very very careful—or Trituros would know that the drug was wearing off.
The man who would be seneschal turned and watched Aleta walk toward the arched doorway. Had she seen him change shape? After long years of planning and preparation, had he ruined everything because he had needed a few brief moments to be himself?
He noticed the slight hesitation in the empath’s step as she neared the door guard, and he noted the squaring of her shoulders as she continued past.
The pad of his finger tingled where it had almost caressed her flesh. She had skin as white and cool as purest marble, and eyes as green as ancient jade, lit from within by a fire he’d not seen before in her glance. The family and its drug were banking that fire, enslaving her to their own ends.
But he had ends of his own.
And he would be seneschal, no matter the cost.
About The Author
Born and raised in the heart of Silicon Valley, I developed an abiding sense of wonder and a fondness for heroic geeks.
By the age of eleven, I was reading all the science fiction I could lay my hands on at the local library, and, because they were shelved together, I was also reading all the fantasy books. Genre-straddling works by Andre Norton gave me the impression that everything I was reading belonged on one wonderful spectrum of imagination and possibility. Andrew Lang’s fairy books (in all their colorful editions) left me with the equally strong impression that Beauty and the Beast is the yummiest folktale ever.
I entered university a chemistry major intending to become an astronaut who would rocket into a brave new future, and I left (or, rather, never left) with a doctoral degree in rhetoric, a dissertation on James G. Frazer’s twelve-volume encyclopedia of magic, science, and religion, and a job teaching writing at the University of California, Berkeley.
And now I write my own science fictional variants of Beauty and the Beast, exploring the romance of the alien, the metaphorical beast in every man, even in the handiest of techno-geeks.
When I’m not writing, teaching, or reading, I’m quilting, playing board games, or hurling heavy objects into the air above my head. Or I’m sitting on the couch, eating almond M&Ms and daydreaming about life amongst the stars.