An Interview with Derek Künsken

    Derek Künsken first took readers to Venus in the novelette ‘Persephone Descending’, and in THE HOUSE OF STYX and THE HOUSE OF SAINTS (forthcoming), he returns to those acid clouds for what a saga of fallen angels and hardening hearts.

    I spoke to Derek Künsken online on 30 March 2021.


    INTERVIEWER

    Starting off with THE HOUSE OF STYX, which has been serialized in ANALOG, and then the audiobook came out in 2020, and I think the ebook came out at the same time. And now the hardback is coming out. So, an interesting publishing schedule with that one.


    KÜNSKEN

    Yeah. THE QUANTUM MAGICIAN was a lot simpler. So the way it works is, ANALOG is one of the oldest running English language magazines in the world. And it used to serialise novels quite a bit. And now they do, I think, one a year. And we had sold the rights of THE QUANTUM MAGICIAN to Solaris. And then we held back the serial rights and we sold those to ANALOG. And so it actually came out in ANALOG first. And then the same thing happened with THE HOUSE OF STYX and everything was going according to schedule, and then COVID hit. And then we had to decide, do we release the hardback in August or not, because there was going to be a big glut of books released in the summer. So then my publisher had a bit of a think about it and they said, yeah, know what, maybe we should put this out when there’s going to be less books on the market. So my publisher decided to dodge that, so they put out the ebook and the audio, but the hardback is now coming out in May.


    INTERVIEWER

    It’s a great audiobook, I enjoyed it. I had a chat with Gary Gibson who told me he almost exclusively listens to audiobooks.


    KÜNSKEN

    Me too. There’s no time to fit actual reading into my life because if I could sit and read, the time could be better spent sitting and writing. And between work and raising a child and writing and all of that it’s a way of jamming fiction into your commute. And when I’m doing dishes or something, I’ll put on an audiobook, or when I’m cooking and get a few minutes of reading while I’m getting something else done.


    INTERVIEWER

    And THE HOUSE OF STYX is read wonderfully and also gave me much more of a feeling of the pronunciation of certain things than I would otherwise have had.


    KÜNSKEN

    It was really important to me that the pronunciation was Québécois because that was part of the political system. When I made that known to Penguin Random House UK, who does the audio stuff for Rebellion, they found several Canadian readers. And the one we ended up going with, Justine Eyre, actually lives just across the river here in Ottawa. And yeah, she’s a fabulous reader and had no trouble at all doing the authentic Québécois, which so much was what I was aiming for.


    INTERVIEWER

    In the dedication of THE HOUSE OF STYX, are you write that you are ‘rooted in river and field and forest and village with your Québécois ancestors’, and a big theme of THE HOUSE OF STYX is this resilience, and overcoming the environment of Venus, and the characters testing themselves against the planet. How does your ancestry and your relationship with your past relate to the story you’re telling in THE HOUSE OF STYX?


    KÜNSKEN

    So, THE HOUSE OF STYX is the second time I’ve been to Venus, the first time was in ‘Persephone Descending’. And I was writing my a novelette for ANALOG and it was set in the clouds of Venus and the story wasn’t coming together. There was something missing. And I was looking for metaphors or something, some sort of character touch. And at the same time, as I was writing it, there were some political conversations going on in Quebec about immigration, that immigrants should be like us and it should be melting pot, and we shouldn’t have more immigrants. And so the public dialogue was corrosive in some ways. And I realized that we had not been that far away from, I think at the time we still had a separatist government in Quebec. And I put those things together and I found they naturally went with the acidity of the sulfuric acid in the Venusian atmosphere. This political xenophobia that was being expressed in some elements of Quebec society fit really well. So basically I took the separatists, I said, okay, they got a separate Quebec. Then they went to the stars. And they found the only place left for them was Venus. And they colonise in this leap of hubris, taking with them some cultural strengths, but also cultural insecurities that I think were, are, part of not just our culture, but Canadian culture. And so, you know they say, write what you know, and you do that. But my life is so boring that it’d be difficult to make anything out of what I know, but the fact is I have a great deal of love for Quebec and I’m 10th generation Acadian Quebec on my mother’s side. And it’s just very meaningful to me. And in ‘Persephone Descending’ I was looking for a metaphor that would work with the story and it turned out I just needed to add Québécois and everything worked together. And then when I went to THE HOUSE OF STYX and I was expanding the whole novel, then it really let me dig into my feelings about the rural Québécois history of my family and just the names and the attitudes and the, as you say, the resilience of the people and the strength of the people, as well as their foibles.


    INTERVIEWER

    You mentioned your ancestry being 10th generation on your mother’s side, and on your father’s side you’re second or third generation German?


    KÜNSKEN

    He was, I don’t know how you count that. But anyway, he was born in Germany and I was born in Canada. So that’s first generation Canadian.


    INTERVIEWER

    Okay, there you go. I’m never exactly sure how to count those first and second generations. So, you made a comment in one interview about how there was a contrast between those two sides of the family. And I wonder if the contrast between the two sides also informed this very family-centric story.


    KÜNSKEN

    So, the thing is, I still go back every year to my mother’s native village. And in fact, I even own a cottage out there. And I spend every summer, two, three weeks — as many as I can afford. And so I see my extended family and it’s a weird experience. You go into the village and I keep telling my son you’re basically related to half the village. And I was standing on a bridge over a little fishing river, a small one, and some guy came up, it was an old guy Probably early eighties sort of thing. And we just started talking and the way you talk, they’re like, who are you? And I introduced myself with my grandfather’s name. You just go back in your genealogy. And it turned out he was my mother’s cousin. And that happened to me three times, I think last year, just in the course of talking, as you go back by generation, you find out who you are and how you’re related to everybody else. And it’s a funny sort of thing, but it gives a sense of belonging. And on my father’s side, I don’t think I feel a lot of rootedness because he came from Germany. He set up camp in a small town in Ontario. If I was a time traveller and I went back to 1959, there would be nobody of my family in that town. Like zero. It’s not like Marty McFly and I could go back and meet my grandparents. There’d be literally nobody. And both my parents are still in that small town and when they pass, those are my last ties to that town. I have friends there and I went to school there. But the reasons you go back are becoming few and far between. Whereas in the village in Gaspésie and Quebec I’m going to keep going there forever because it feels very rooted for me. And that was one of the things I played against in THE HOUSE OF STYX, because you have people seeking some sort of rootedness. And how can you, when you have this sort of separation from your environment, you can never experience the environment without a space suit or without looking through glass or whatever. Venus actively was trying to burn them up with acid or heat or pressure. And they’re politically cut off as well. To take the metaphor further, which is that a lot of Quebec for a long time was politically and economically controlled through Ottawa or from London, England. And so you had a sort of colonial experience in Quebec, and I wanted to give a bit of that flavor in THE HOUSE OF STYX because it is part of my family’s past.


    INTERVIEWER

    I asked about the other side of the family because I saw this idea of immigrants bringing over trades. And I think that there were a couple of moments in THE HOUSE OF STYX where there’s a sense that expertise is important. The father in your novel has brought across skills, and the skills are what got him to Venus. And so you have that immigrant mentality that you bring across something you can do, and being able to do that sets you off on this new life, which I think is interesting.


    KÜNSKEN

    Says somebody who has lived in China a lot and is now living in Poland. You’re living the immigrant experience.


    INTERVIEWER

    [LAUGHS] There is that, right. There was an interesting point in the book where one of the characters is talking about sound and how things sound different, because of the pressure of the Venusian atmosphere. The whole quality of even the things you hear is different. I thought that was a wonderful image. Because as you say, when you move from country to country, and certainly as I lived in China, I know that you do find that differences resonate, and certain things stand out. That whole immigrant story is quite intriguing to me.


    KÜNSKEN

    It’s interesting that you say that. And I think there are things that I put in on purpose and there are things that people who read it will interpret, which I think gets back to the idea that the final writer of any story is the reader, and their interpretation, what they pull out from it. And there’s definitely an immigrant element to it, but the thing is the elements you’re seeing, you’re matching with your experience, which makes for a different book than what somebody else would read. And I always find that to be fascinating. How in the end I’m the second last writer and the last writer is the reader.


    INTERVIEWER

    Right. We construct the text, deconstruct and reconstruct. I completely agree. Something else I saw was the way you balance between the social aspects and the scientific worldbuilding and the strong personal stories. When you’re drafting, do you find it difficult to pull it all together, or does it just flow?


    KÜNSKEN

    I think sometimes you’re in the zone when you’re writing, and you just start putting in stuff and it becomes very easy. And sometimes you’re drafting and you’re getting 300 words an hour or something. And that happens too. I think the scientific stuff gets me excited and there’s this whole sense of wonder piece to it. And I’m just sense of wonder junkie. I’m loving this, I’m loving what I’m creating and it’s all good. The detailed pieces, like on the culture I think to some extent it’s a little bit of the same thing, because if I become bored while I’m writing I just am not interested in writing anymore. I always have to be interested in the story. And if on several rereads, I’m still intrigued and want to know more, then probably I want to leave those in.


    INTERVIEWER

    Are you quite self critical? I saw you say on Twitter that you don’t read back your draft straight away, because there’s a loop where you read it, and you think it’s terrible.


    KÜNSKEN

    There are a few friends I know who write perfect first draft, but nobody likes them. [LAUGHS] And no it’s that when I was learning to write a little more speedily in 2005 or 2004, I was trying to NaNoWriMo and I had bought the book by the guy who invented it, and he was saying, don’t look back because it will sap your confidence. So I stick to that rule because it works. The rule is, well, it’s not a real rule. It’s a technique. And I don’t look back until I write the end unless I really need to. I don’t meaningfully re-read it until I have basically a three-quarters or nine-tenths draft. And then it’s interesting. It’s an awful thing.


    INTERVIEWER

    Do you have beta readers?


    KÜNSKEN

    I’ve relied on my writer’s group for a while, plus a few extra friends for some stuff. But lately I’m under contract for a few books before I’ve even written them, which is a weird experience. So for those, I basically give them to my agent now and other beta readers don’t see them. THE HOUSE OF STYX I gave to a couple of people. I gave it to a storm chaser. I gave it to a writer friend of mine whose opinion I really trust.


    INTERVIEWER

    A storm chaser?


    KÜNSKEN

    Yes. I know a storm chaser from conventions in Canada?


    INTERVIEWER

    What is a storm chaser?


    KÜNSKEN

    An idiot. [LAUGHS] You know, those guys who get into trucks and film themselves


    INTERVIEWER

    Okay, okay. I thought it was figurative. I thought it was someone who looks for storms, pronlems, in your book or something.


    KÜNSKEN

    Yeah. Anyways, so it’s @StormhunterTWN and he’s a wonderful guy, but just, he’s like, —I’m standing in the middle of the snow now. And boy, this is terrible out here. It’s it’s a category five and everybody’s driven away, but we’re sitting in this parking lot garage because nothing’s gonna tear down a parking garage because it’s cement. Whoa. Look at that go! And he was reading [THE HOUSE OF STYX] in a volcano. Another one of the dumb things he did was, he went down into a volcano and he brought his Kindle with the copy of THE HOUSE OF STYX. And so there’s this picture on Twitter somewhere of him bringing THE HOUSE OF STYX down into the volcano. So chalk that up to the category of dumb jobs you can have. I think we ultimately did an interview about it at one point. But I was pleased to see that the most part, I had gotten the meteorology right.


    INTERVIEWER

    The worldbuilding in THE HOUSE OF STYX is very rich. The detail is very vivid. And as I mentioned before, I think it’s held together by the other elements, but the science itself, that sense of wonder, is there. And of course you wrote an essay in ANALOG about the science. I liked the essay. I thought it was really cool. And I realized that there were even more books that I need to buy, but I can’t right now. So, the worldbuilding: there’s planetary geology, there’s atmospheric science, there’s meteorology. And material science becomes important at certain points, and engineering. How long were you researching everything for this and how did you keep it in check. I was very impressed.


    KÜNSKEN

    Thank you so much. So I did a master’s degree in molecular biology and I normally read science anyway. So I’ve always enjoyed reading about extremophiles, which are those bacteria or eukaryotes that can live in really hot places, really cold places, really salty places, really acidy places. And so what I like to do is try and see what kind of life have we got in the extremophiles here. And can I think of any way to scale it up? And there’s lots of ways to scale it up, and essentially [in THE HOUSE OF STYX] the life on Venus is thermophilic and it’s acidophilic and I just basically took the kinds of bacterias we have here, and I just extrapolated up with these plant things. And what would we have in an ecosystem where buoyancy would be important. I don’t think that took a lot of research. Whereas the US Geological Survey has very accurate maps of Venus. And I always wanted to have the exact names of the places. Like the readers is never going to look up, —Oh, where is…


    INTERVIEWER

    But they do, because this is what I did with Kim Stanley Robinson. I’d be pouring over Mars maps and things. And so for THE HOUSE OF STYX, before I read your essay in ANALOG, I found the map of the Diana Chasma because I was thinking, —Okay, so this Diana Chasma is like Olympus Mons, it’s so impressive it has to be real, he can’t have made it up.


    KÜNSKEN

    And that’s the thing, I didn’t need to make any of it up. I am a big fan of stealing whatever from mother nature. And I had a couple of books on Venus downstairs that I had read a decade and a half ago just because I’ve always been interested in Venus more than Mars. And I’ve always been looking for some way to put a story there. And Venus is so crazy, the way it turns a little bit backwards, the way it’s tilted on its axis basically, or the way the winds are faster than the planetary rotation itself and are probably responsible for the rotation.


    INTERVIEWER

    I had no idea about that. There’s some kind of hypothesis that the winds started the planet rotating.


    KÜNSKEN

    When I was writing ’Persephone Descending’ and THE HOUSE OF STYX, I had not found that theory. And so the best science thought that Venus turns very slowly backwards, which means that it’s basically got a 177 degree axial tilt, or something like that. Anyway, the whole planet is turned upside down. Whereas this other theory makes a lot more sense, which is that there’s some kind of tidal lock that happened because Venus is very close to the sun. So tidal locks are more likely. And then for some reason, the atmosphere itself, which was still spinning pushed against this, these mountain ranges, which is absurd, like how can you have wind so strong. Venus is so weird that you only need to read a couple of things about it. And then you’ve got more than enough stuff that you’re going to write a science fiction novel, and really the only science fiction is that they’re there.


    INTERVIEWER

    You turn this Venusian atmosophere, the layers of the clouds, into a biological cornucopia. How hard was it to come up with that framework of lifeforms?


    KÜNSKEN

    I took an ecology course in third year and I took probably a freshwater ecology course also in third year. And the trick to it is, the more living things you’ve got in it, the healthier it is, because you’ve got all sorts of feedback loops that work that way. So the thing is, you’ve got rainforests where you have plants that never touch the ground. Those are epiphytes. They grow off of other trees and things. And all you need are your primary producers. So that’ll be the things that make their own food. And then you have things that eat those. But in my world, I didn’t really make carnivores. And really it’s a plant place and it’s not intelligent, but it does have primary producers and it has living things that live off the primary producers. And so it’s an abbreviated ecosystem, but I think it’s like the ecosystem we might’ve had for a long time in the oceans before there were animals that came along and ate other things.


    INTERVIEWER

    And are we going to see more of that abbreviated ecosystem THE HOUSE OF SAINTS?


    KÜNSKEN

    Yes, absolutely. THE HOUSE OF STYX and THE HOUSE OF SAINTS for me is like THE GODFATHER one and THE GODFATHER PART II. The whole arc of the family is described in the two VENUS ASCENDING books.


    INTERVIEWER

    I was going to ask about THE GODFATHER and also SONS OF ANARCHY.


    KÜNSKEN

    Everybody has views of THE GODFATHER, but it’s a brilliant movie. And I think one of the things people say about it is that it’s the greatest depiction in cinema of the hardening heart, right? It’s the fallen angel sort of thing. And it’s about family gone wrong. And in SONS OF ANARCHY, I absolutely love SONS OF ANARCHY in terms of the character work. It’s absolutely brilliant. You have these characters who are just so well-described and one of the things I think I learned from SONS OF ANARCHY was the tragedy of unintended consequences, right? Because there are so many people who are trying to do the right thing, or what they consider to be the right thing, but they just get it wrong, or they want the wrong thing, or they don’t trust the right person. And there are so many unintended consequences in there that I like. It’s breathtaking and heartbreaking to watch at times. And then occasionally funny, I think JUSTIFIED is another one I’d put up there with SONS OF ANARCHY. And BATTLESTAR GALACTICA. They are dramas that are about action and they’re cool and at the same time they’re deep character stories as well. They’re character studies in some ways.


    INTERVIEWER

    Another interesting aspect of THE HOUSE OF STYX is how people need to be very attuned to the environment. How well do you feel people today are plugged into the currents of the wind, nature, things like this?


    KÜNSKEN

    80% of people are urban. And I live in a small town outside of Ottawa and I’m still urban. I still live on a road and I can take the bike path to the grocery store and that sort of thing. In THE HOUSE OF STYX, things really are village size, right? You’ve got these villages of three or four thousand people, which is basically like my maternal village in Quebec. And then within the deeper clouds, you’ve got these people who are living off of the land and that’s really rural. So it’s almost like there are no urban centers or they’re just pretend urban centers in THE HOUSE OF STYX. And I think that’s a different thing than what we’ve got here. Like they’re not even close to the carrying capacity on Venus. And the thing is with Venus, the calculation for the carrying capacity would not be surface area because obviously we can’t live on the surface. But if you go to some altitude, let’s say 55 kilometers off the surface, then there’s a lot of space. And then what if you go 50 kilometers above the surface? Then you’ve got a whole other planet’s worth of surface. So you’ve the clouds, the depths of the clouds and the amount of buoyancy available is huge. So yeah you could do a lot of living. A lot of people could live there. There’s no shortage of space.


    INTERVIEWER

    Is there a chance that the VENUS ASCENDING series will expand beyond two novels? Or do you have a kind of clear sort of end point with the second book?


    KÜNSKEN

    Oh, I have a definite clear end point for that book. I was already under contract for five, which would have been three Quantum and two Venus. And then they came back and they said would I be interested in delivering two more hard sf novels or space opera novels, and my agent and I talked it out and I said, —I’ve only got one more in my head right now. Otherwise I’d have to come up with something from scratch. And I don’t know if I want to have that pressure. So she went back and just negotiated for one more novel, which is going to be the quantum temple. And that’s going to end the six books of the two series. And there may be more books in that universe, but the thing is, I don’t want to sign any contracts. I just don’t want to feel pressure. I want the writing to be fun. And I like right now I’m under contract and it’s good because I’ve got the ideas. I know what I want to write. And it’s just going to be a matter of me doing it, but that’s a relatively straightforward process, but to be under contract for something that like, I haven’t even thought of what the idea is going to be. I feel that would be a little more pressure and I might not enjoy that as much. I’d rather just come up with my ideas on my own. And then when I have something, I can always go back to them and see if they’re still interested.


    INTERVIEWER

    After you’ve cleared away the two cycles, are there any particular ideas that you’re excited to explore in shorter works?


    KÜNSKEN

    The thing is, I don’t think I have time for shorter work for quite a while. My bandwidth is not there. Like right now I’ve got to finish THE QUANTUM WAR the end of April and get it in. And then I’ve got to write THE HOUSE OF SAINTS in basically nine months while I’m working full-time. Then I’ve got to write THE QUANTUM TEMPLE in basically 12 months while editing THE HOUSE OF SAINTS. Then I’m done my contract, but I also have an epic fantasy that I’ve delivered to my agent and I think it’s good. And we’ve got to figure out when am I going to have time to edit it.


    INTERVIEWER

    Is there also the possibility of a short story collection from Solaris?


    KÜNSKEN

    They bought a bunch of my short stories. Not a bunch if a bunch is like five or something. I don’t even remember the number. I think it’s less than a half dozen. But anyway they bought some number of short stories for me that are all set in the same universe as THE QUANTUM EVOLUTION and the VENUS ASCENDING series. And they’re going to put that in the collection, but I don’t know what year. And I don’t think it’s this year. So if you’re waiting for it this year, you may be disappointed.


    INTERVIEWER

    Having a collected edition would be really good.


    KÜNSKEN

    Right, and finding some of those older stories is hard. You’ve got to go back and buy the actual issues of ASIMOV’S or ANALOG to get them.


    INTERVIEWER

    Right. I only got to hear ‘Persephone Descending’ because it was an audio on STARSHIP SOFA.


    KÜNSKEN

    You can always tweet @RebellionPub and say, —Hey, when does this collection come out?