Welcome to my weekly Author Spotlight. I’ve asked a bunch of my author friends to answer a set of interview questions, and to share their latest work.
Today: I grew up in South Florida, exploring local beaches and coral reefs, watching space launches, and devouring science fiction novels. I earned a Master’s degree in Zoology from the University of Queensland (Australia), and worked in fisheries science, pharmaceutical science and virology. For thirty-five years I taught high school and college classes in biology, chemistry, environmental science and biotechnology. Having retired from my day jobs, I write and enjoy life.
When I’m not writing, I spend my time walking with my husband, bike riding, camping, visiting with my adult children, and playing with our attention-demanding cats.
Thanks so much, Ann, for joining me!
J. Scott Coatsworth: How would you describe your writing style/genre?
Ann McNicol: I grew up reading hard science fiction. That is, science fiction that worked toward plausibility, and I’m firmly rooted in that genre. I write YA hard science fiction. Some of my readers have argued with me on that, saying they are adults, and they like my books, so it can’t be YA. I say to them a good story should be accessible to many age groups, but I want it to speak to today’s youngsters.
A fellow writer recently asked me if use “dictation”, and I said no. I told him I think at the keyboard, and for me it’s a lot like drawing or painting, just using words. I’ve been told my writing is very visual. I think it comes because I really do try to paint a series of pictures in the reader’s mind.
JSC: What was your first published work? Tell me a little about it.
AM: Charlie’s Story; First Contact. The story is set in 2045, Samantha is a fourteen-year-old girl living with her scientist parents on an island off the coast of Georgia. The world is deep in climate crisis with ocean levels rising, swallowing up island after island. Samantha is obsessed with the ocean and spends her time exploring the reef surrounding her island.
Her reef is composed of genetically modified corals designed to survive in warmer oceans. She encounters an octopus one day, one who seems to be attempting to communicate with her. The story dives into an exploration of the species intelligence, and the quest to save the planet.
I like to think the story is a balance between concern about ecological devastation and hope. The book focuses on the scientific communities’ endless efforts to reverse climate change, so it is not a dystopian, post-apocalyptic novel. But it doesn’t sidestep the challenges humanity will face soon.
JSC: What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever done in the name of research?
AM: Okay, when I was young, I was a certified scuba diver, but that was like a million years ago. So much of the Charlie’s story saga is set on coral reefs and involves scuba diving that I felt I needed a refresher course. I mean, aside from taking the class a very long time ago and not remembering it, SCUBA diving has evolved and changed. So, at the age of 69 I took a SCUBA class and recertified.
JSC: Do you reward yourself for writing, or punish yourself for failing to do so? How?
AM: When I finished the first book, I had a launch party. It was a blast. I hired a Tiki Hut pontoon boat and provided party treats with an ocean and octopus theme. We had so much fun I definitely plan a “launch party” for when the second book goes live (May 25th, 2023).
When I punish myself I sulk.
JSC: Are you a full-time or part-time writer? How does that affect your writing?
AM: I am very fortunate to be retired with a pension. So, I am a full-time writer. I’m really in the beginning stage, but I’m publishing book two of Charlie’s story (The Nest) May 25th and hope to publish book 3 (Tentacles) in July 2023.
JSC: Are you a plotter or a pantser?
AM: I’m a pantser. I write the story as the characters act them out. They make the observations and decisions, and I record everything as the story unfolds.
JSC: What does success mean to you?
AM: Success is a book that I’m happy with. One that I can pick up and read any part of it and smile. I want to feel that the elements came together to make a beautiful whole. I need to feel proud when I hit “Publish”.
JSC: How did you choose the topic for this book?
AM: I’m an unabashed nerd. I was reading an article in Discovery magazine about the use of probiotics to help corals cope with abnormally warm ocean waters, a treatment developed to battle coral bleaching. I was also teaching a class in biotechnology and somehow, the idea crystallized about the use of genetic engineering to help corals survive climate change. Knowing that most science developments have unintentional consequences, two came to mind, and intertwined into this story. The first potential consequence was an expansion of coral reefs into waters where they never existed. The second related consequence was the development of new “evolutionary hotspots”, areas of intense competition in the new complex environments pushing the evolution of new species. In this story, we see the evolution of a sentient octopus’ species. “Home grown aliens,” if you will.
JSC: What are some day jobs that you have held? If any of them impacted your writing, share an example.
AM: I’ve worked of NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), for NIH (National Institutes of Health), as a summer camp counselor at a marine science summer camp, as a lifeguard, and as a science teacher (Biotechnology, Chemistry, Environmental Science, Evolution). Every single one of my day jobs has provided context for my writing. There are some advantages to being old.
JSC: What are you working on now, and what’s coming out next? Tell us about it!
AM: The Nest (Charlie’s Story; Book Two) is available for pre-order. It is awaiting final proof reading and will be released May 25. I’m currently working on Tentacles; Charlie’s Story Book Three. I have a tentative release date of July 11. (That’s so I can have a “launch party” on my birthday.)
And now for Ann’s latest book: The Nest:
Two years after her first encounter with the race of intelligent octopuses, Samantha and Charlie have become integral players in the alliance seeking to stem climate change and alleviate the ecological crises threatening the reefs. Samantha, no longer a timid teenager, is now studying at Georgia Tech and acting as humanity’s representative and ambassador to the community of octopuses. Meanwhile, Charlie, Samantha’s octopus companion and confidante, has made strides in his position within the Nest.
When poachers capture Charlie, everything is at risk. Will political infighting and greed doom both species?
As we headed out from the beach, nothing seemed less likely than a monster storm. The temperature was a comfortable 240 C, there was a gentle breeze, and the sun was shining. But, history was full of times when coastal communities had been devastated without warning. That was before satellite images and storm tracking made the early warning system effective. I knew a day like today could turn terrifyingly nasty. My heart was beating way too fast, all from my overactive imagination. I had to stop this. The projections had the storm landing days from now! We had at least twenty-four hours before it could get nasty. We have time.
But Jerry and I still had to be back for the evacuation before five. I picked up my pace even though we would damage the coral we stepped on. Most of this coral would be wiped out in the storm, so any damage would be inconsequential in the long run. Jerry matched my pace, trying not to grimace when he stepped on coral.
We walked silently, and I missed Jerry asking questions about the fish or invertebrates. He understood there was no time for chatting or investigating cool stuff. We came to the lagoon site, and as I expected, there wasn’t any sign of an Elder. We waited five minutes, and I moved to continue our walk to the crest. Jerry didn’t look happy; he knew we were supposed to turn around if no one was at the lagoon site.
“Samantha, are you sure we should do this? Mom and Dr. Kelly wanted us to check the lagoon site and go home if they weren’t there.”
I checked my watch. We had been pushing hard and had only used twenty minutes to get to the lagoon. “We’re 15 minutes from the crest site. We have time, and without warning, we might lose the Nest. I’m not turning around.”
“I’m not either, but I’m worried. I think the wind is picking up.”
Was it? I paused for a minute and made myself pay attention. The sun was still bright and warm, but Jerry was right; the breeze was no longer gentle.