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, Charon Dunn and Sally Smith:
Charon Dunn has experience with a great many things, including deposition summaries, videogaming, forensics, databases, bunny rabbits, fortune telling, secretly sabotaging Oxford commas, multiple flavors of fandom and music. She lives with a massive Ragdoll named The Big Kahuna, whom some believe is the largest cat in San Francisco. Keep track of her at CharonDunnTheBlog@Blogspot.com.
Sally Smith is an editor and writer (fiction and non-fiction) who has been active in fandom for way too long. Her motto is “Oxford Comma 4 LYFE”. She lives in the San Francisco metro area with her husband and cats. Find her on Facebook as “Sally Smith — Editor and Writer”.
Thanks so much, Charon and Sally, for joining me!
J. Scott Coatsworth: What was your first published work? Tell me a little about it.
Charon Dunn: Sieging Manganela was the first one I finished. I had been wrestling with the Sonny Knight trilogy for years, and I kept rewriting it but I couldn’t seem to finish it. Finally during NaNoWriMo I wrote a flashback story about the event that kicks off Sonny Knight’s story, about a war between bioenhanced supersoldiers and reclusive nerds with drones. It came out far more grim and violent than I wanted, and inspired me toward the kind of loopy optimism I’ve been trying to achieve ever since.
Sally Smith. This is it! Other than fanzines, back in the day when they actually came out on paper and I’d get light-headed from the Liquid Paper and rubber cement as I was pasting it up.
I have edited a number of things (including Charon’s previous work). I was going to only edit this one, but she made me co-writer instead. I beta-read for authors, including the fabulous Mary Robinette Kowal.
JSC: What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever done in the name of research?
CD: I spent serious bucks and four hours of CalTrain going to a concert by SuperM, a K-Pop supergroup, as part of my research for boy bands and their fans, which also features prominently in my last book. Although it was a total impulse, it turned out to be my very last live music experience before Covid19 shut everything down, and I imprinted so hard on SuperM that I ended up going full K-Pop stan, and then I had to learn Hangeul just to sort my playlists.
SS: I don’t think there’s anything that weird I’ve ever done. Stanning Monsta X is a perfectly normal thing to do, even if you’re not writing a book featuring a boy group. I recommend their all-English album “All About Luv” if you don’t know about K-pop.
JSC: Do you use a pseudonym? If so, why? If not, why not?
CD: Charon Dunn started out as a pen name, but once I started getting checks in that name I formally changed it. I pronounce it like “Sharon” but most people mangle it. On social media I use my nickname, Lani, which is short for my middle name, Leilani. I figured, hey, only four letters, maybe people will be able to pronounce this one (but no, now they call me “Laney”).
SS: This is my real name. If I was using a pseudonym, I’d have picked something more interesting! I’ve never written or edited anything under a pseudonym. I want people to know it’s me.
JSC: If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?
CD: You are something they will eventually call “autistic.” It’s not a bad thing to be, but it carries a stigma, and it’s probably behind the reason you want to write campy love stories set on dinosaur planets versus, say, literary fiction. In my timeline I didn’t finish a novel until I was in my 50’s because I was doing mental backflips trying to fake being normal enough to write what neurotypicals consider to be proper books. If you ignore all those ideas about proper books and just let your freak flag fly, maybe your timeline will be more productive.
SS: I pretty much write now like I did then. The earliest long work I can recall was about a girl traveling cross-country with her horse, and this book is about a girl traveling cross-country with dinosaurs. So maybe I’d tell young me to use cooler animals.
JSC: Are there underrepresented groups or ideas featured if your book? If so, discuss them.
CD: Initially I wanted to write a book about a girl going from zero to hero. At some point I decided to make her Black, because there’s always room for Black people even in stories that aren’t specifically about them being Black. Rhonda’s story happens in a galaxy far, far away. Her supporting cast includes a devastatingly handsome half-East Asian guy, a brave and heroic gay Desi who is also devastatingly handsome, a dark-skinned doctor, a double-amputee and cyborg with solar-generating tattoos, a blonde who competes in both martial arts and beauty contests, a robot, some human villains, a grumpy spinosaurus, some singing raptors, thousands of internet users with passionate opinions about music, evil space aliens with tentacles, and a wide variety of dinosaurs.
The biggest underrepresented idea? Dinosaur stories are for everyone – including girls. Not just old white guys who still subscribe to that malarkey about alpha wolves. Girls, gay folks, boy bands and their fans, large people, digitized people – all kinds of people.
Also … the scientific record says dinosaurs had feathers. Not many movies are saying that. Yet. We think they should catch up.
SS:. Racism isn’t a thing in this future, but we have what in our terms are Black girls and women. Hot East Asian and South Asian boys, some of whom are gay. A Pacific Islander amputee/cyborg, a chunky redhead girl hacker, and a tough blonde who can both kick your butt and clothe it in couture.
Rhonda’s a farm girl, because we’re still going to want real food in the future. But she’s not a hick. She’s used to working with bots, socializing on the internet, and she’s very smart, and clever at reasoning logically.
JSC: Who has been your favorite character to write and why?
CD: I am in love with Sebastian Rose, teen idol and member of boy band Park Picnic. I feel like I’m giving away spoilers to even discuss him, because part of the story has to do with Rhonda’s crush on his stage persona, and how she comforts herself in terrifying situations by imagining him being right there beside her, full of encouragement and love songs. Then she meets him and he’s a little bit different in person.
Sebastian is the only character I’ve written whose voice I can hear inside my head, possibly because he’s a singer with a distinctive voice. Possibly also because I put a lot of work into constructing his character compared to most, researching idols from David Cassidy to Taemin. Sebastian occasionally pops up out of the blue to offer his opinions on music I’m playing, or just act as a comforting imaginary presence, the same as he was to Rhonda. During the pandemic I spent fourteen months isolating myself from humanity, and he’d occasionally remind me to calm myself down with things like comfort food, ibuprofen, and hot showers. He’s taking a major role in the sequel as he pursues a solo career. That doesn’t mean he’s going to stop being obnoxious, but it does mean he’ll get some better clothes.
SS: Rhonda, because she’s a genuinely good person. She gets along with all sorts of people and is great at team building and consensus-building. She does have some bad moments, because she’s a 16 year old girl on a planet full of things that want to eat her, but she’s very brave and smart and generally level-headed.
I didn’t like her nannybot, Maripop, at first, but I did as the book went on. Turns out a fussbudget with a big database is good to have when you’re marooned.
JSC: As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
CD: I wanted to be a paleontologist and study creatures from the past. I never got the degree, but I did finally research and write a dinosaur novel.
SS: I wanted to be an astronaut, but I turned out to be woefully nearsighted and third semester calculus broke my brain, so now I write about outer space.
JSC: What pets are currently on your keyboard, and what are their names? Pictures?
CD: The Big Kahuna is much too large to fit on my keyboard. He is a Ragdoll cat, named after a character in Gidget:
SS: That would be George, the world’s stupidest tuxedo cat. He’s 16 pounds of neurotic glutton:
JSC: What are some day jobs that you have held? If any of them impacted your writing, share an example.
CD: I’m not a lawyer, but I have an extensive background enabling them in various capacities, including lots of trial work. So I have a lot of specialized knowledge in how things can go wrong. One of the most important things my career has taught me is the importance of succinct, clear narrative. Let the characters deal with emotions and opinions; the writer’s job is to just tell the story.
SS: I worked for a few months at the artificial intelligence lab at the Stanford University Medical School. It clued me in on medical jargon, AI jargon, dealing with deadlines, smart people of all ages, and how difficult it is to get young nerds into suits when the money men are coming. Also I met a Nobel Prize winner. Some of that came in handy here.
JSC: Star Trek or Star Wars? Why?
CD: For several years I had a serious addiction to an online multiplayer game called Star Wars Galaxies where I simulated living in the Star Wars universe as various characters including a dark jedi, a Twi’lek doctor, a Mandalorian armor dealer, and an Ithorian lady who ran a diner. In contrast, I never felt like the Star Trek universe had any roles I could see myself playing.
SS: I started out with original Star Trek, and I’ve been to Trek cons. I haven’t gotten into the more recent shows. But (looks around room) I gotta go with Star Wars just by the amount of merchandise, clothing, and fanzines I own.
And now for Charon’s and Sally’s latest book: Rhonda Wray: Raptor Wrangler:
Rhonda Wray: Raptor Wrangler is about a teenage girl who was innocently trying to listen to some live music … her favorite boy band happened to be playing a festival on a dinosaur planet … when bad things suddenly happened. Now she and her trusty robot are all alone in the wilderness, picking up survival skills and looking for her favorite singer, Sebastian Rose, just in case he needs to be rescued.
As she approached the meadow, she could see large shapes moving around, and as she got closer she saw they were two-legged dinosaurs, colored the same greenish-gold as the grass that surrounded them. Besides the stream they had a pond, where even more of them were wallowing near the banks eating vegetation.
Rhonda cheered up when she saw them eating plants. They wouldn’t eat her. Plus they’d distract anything that might be interested in eating her.
That didn’t necessarily mean they were safe to be around. An angry bull might trample and gore you even if it didn’t plan to eat you. A flock of geese would mess with humans for the sheer fun of it.
When she got closer, she could see bright red crests on their heads, and bright patches of reddish orange on their cheeks. Their tails were striped in bands of orange and tan. The biggest ones were the size of cars and moved on all fours, but there were also quite a few small ones toddling on their hind legs. The perimeter of the meadow was marked with their dung – big crumbly balls that resembled horse poop and didn’t have much scent. She was pretty sure they were lambeosaurs, but didn’t want to ask Maripop.
A bright flash lying in the mud caught Rhonda’s eyes. She dashed over to it, hoping she had found the fooder, but instead it was a shard of something with a pebbly texture. Not a hide, and not something from a plant.
There was another shard a short distance away. This one was larger, and curved.
It wasn’t until Rhonda’s next find – most of an empty oval made of the same kind of substance – that her mind made the connection. These were eggs.
Her stomach growled.
Maripop pronounced the eggs nutritious and non-toxic. She also pointed out a few food plants in the immediate vicinity – potatoes, a starchy white fruit that reminded Rhonda of cauliflower, some extremely tart citrus things, edible greens.
Rhonda heaped together a pile of sticks and kindling and built herself a roaring fire. She tucked the food directly into the embers, since she lacked a cooking pot, except for the greens and citrus. She ate a few mouthfuls of each, very carefully, chasing them with water.
Then she waited. Her stomach was so empty she could almost feel her spine on the other side of it.
Rhonda was normally a little bit thick, with strong arm and leg muscles. Her time in space had erased most of her body fat, and her muscles had been toned more lately through yoga and aerobic dancing than from hauling feed buckets and bot parts. She had no reserves. Any lost weight was coming directly out of her muscle mass.
When it seemed her belly was inclined to accept the food, Rhonda finished her salad. It would have been better with dressing, and a table, with a tablecloth. In a room far away, where you could just pick up the phone and order a fork if you didn’t have one, like the big city hotel rooms. With screens. And air conditioning. And sweet-smelling lotion for your skin, and a bathtub full of bubbles.