How Berkley Author Kali Wallace Blends Science with Fiction

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Berkley author Kali Wallace has had a lifelong passion for science and storytelling, both shining through brilliantly in her new novel, SALVATION DAY, released on Tuesday, July 9. Robert J. Sawyer, a Hugo Award Winner and fellow Berkley author, praised her book as “one of the major science-fiction debuts of 2019.” In this incredibly fast-paced, claustrophobic thriller, a lethal virus is awoken on an abandoned spaceship set in a universe where humanity has been forced to rebuild after near extinction.

Wallace studied geology and earned a PhD in geophysics before she realized she enjoyed inventing imaginary worlds more than she liked researching the real one. She is the author of the young adult novels Shallow Graves and The Memory Trees and the middle grade fantasy City of Islands. Her short fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, F&SF, Asimov’s,, and other speculative fiction magazines. After spending most of her life in Colorado, she now lives in Southern California.

In this “Meet Our Author” interview, Wallace talks about writing to appeal to readers across age groups, the importance of diversity, and merging science with stories to create SALVATION DAY.

SALVATION DAY is your first adult novel. How did your writing process for this one differ from your previous works in young adult fiction?

There wasn’t any difference in my writing process, because most of the differences come down to the details of each story, not the process for how the story comes about. I didn’t exactly set out to write something more adult than what I’ve written previously. It made sense for the main characters to be a bit older than teenagers, but they are still quite young, being in their early twenties. So the perspectives I was working with weren’t all that different from the teens I had written before. (Early twentysomethings aren’t very different from teenagers, but don’t tell them that. They hate it!)

The bigger difference was between the middle grade book I had published right before writing SALVATION DAY. Even though MG fiction can and should–and often does!–deal with very serious and difficult themes, because the lives of children are full of serious and difficult problems, there was a hard limit to how much darkness and horror I feel comfortable putting in a book that was supposed to be a fun, welcoming, magical tale for kids. It was a very different experience to go from writing children’s fantasy to writing SALVATION DAY–which is, after all, about a literal spaceship full of literal corpses, so it’s safe to say I did not heed any limits for darkness or horror. Quite frankly, when writing a sci-fi thriller with horror elements, worrying about frightening readers away with the darkness was the very last thing on my mind.

Your cast of characters is quite diverse. Since you spent your graduate studies researching Himalayan mountain-building and Indian earthquakes, in what ways did these cultural experiences influence your novel?

I spent most of my time as a PhD student working with scientists from all over the world, including doing extensive field work with several Chinese and Indian seismologists and geophysicists. So, to me, the world of science and research has never been one that is predominantly white or entirely male. That view, still so common in a lot of media, simply does not represent reality. There are scientists working all over the world, and it was important to me to portray a future in which that continues to be true.

Also, for a story that takes place a future that has been through devastating wars and catastrophes and still somehow managed to survive, it seemed like it would be a particularly egregious choice to make a monochromatic, heteronormative, homogeneous society in the aftermath of that. That’s not the kind of world I want to build in my fiction, because that’s not the kind of world I want to build for humankind’s future.

How often do you draw from your scientific background and merge it with your creative writing? Does that left and right brain balance fuel the creative process, or do you find that academic writing has created habits that are hard to break?

I was writing fiction long before I was a scientist–I’ve been scribbling stories since I was about seven years old–so I had all my bad writing habits long before I went into the sciences! I do think that studying the sciences has only made me a better writer, but perhaps not in the obvious ways one might expect.

While I do use my scientific background to put science in my stories–I thought an awful lot about gravity and orbital mechanics to figure out where to put my spaceships in SALVATION DAY–what I find more common is how I still tend to look at the world as a scientist. Having a science background makes it easier for me to figure out what questions I need to ask and answer, even if I’m jumping into fields I have no experience in (such as rocket science, epidemiology, economics, etc.). Identifying what we don’t know when we start out is a valuable tool for scientists and writers, and one that I think all writers ought to embrace when they feel themselves overwhelmed or intimidated by the prospect of writing science in their stories. You don’t need a physics background to write science fiction. You just need to be willing to ask questions and eager to play with the answers.

Studying the physical and natural sciences trains one to see the world as a complex collection of systems, where everything that happens is connected to countless other things. I think this shows up when I’m problem-solving in writing, because when I run into a wall, I actually enjoy the process of pulling at every thread and every examining every possibility to find out what could happen. On a different level, one that’s perhaps a bit harder to define, I think my deep love and understanding of the natural world and its physical processes means that the natural world is always present in my work. Even in a book like SALVATION DAY, which takes place in an entirely artificial environment, the realities of the natural world (and what it means for humans to be detached from that) are part of the characters and their stories.

What advice do you have for young writers interested in the world of speculative fiction?

Write a lot. Read a lot. Find what you love and embrace it. There are a lot of people in the world of science fiction and fantasy who want to tell you what to read and how to read and how to write and how not to write, because it is a big, messy, long-standing literary community full of very opinionated people. It’s worth listening to what people who have been in SFF for a long time have to say, because about once a year some literary writer unfamiliar with speculative fiction will blunder around claiming to be the very first to do something that, in fact, SFF writers have been doing all along. But knowing the history of the genre is not the same thing as letting it define your path. You get to choose your own path.

Read widely and read generously, with an open heart and an open mind. That doesn’t mean read uncritically–it’s okay to keep thinking about why stories do and don’t work for you, or how what they say is helpful or harmful. But don’t get caught up in looking for flaws to the point where reading becomes a chore. Let yourself love stories, and learn from the stories you love. Read stories written by people like you and unlike you, with shared experiences and experiences you cannot even comprehend. Dig down past the old white men who still populate too many SFF recommended reading lists to find all the other writers out there.

Write what speaks to your heart. Your own experience is so vitally important in your storytelling, even if you are writing about spaceships, or dragons, or wizards, or cyborgs. Especially if you are writing about those things, because speculative fiction is still fiction about humanity, and your humanity is what will make your stories unique and beautiful. If what you want to write is something dense and obscure and esoteric, so be it. If it’s something flighty and silly and full of absurdism, so be it. If it’s both, go for it. There will be external pressures and expectations trying to force your writing in one direction or another later, so take advantage of the freedom that comes with being new to writing, or new to a specific genre or field. Write what you want to write, what makes you happy, what satisfies your cravings, and don’t worry what the world thinks of it.

Posted: July 9, 2019