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: A writer and professional freelance editor, Michelle Browne lives in Lethbridge, AB with her partners-in-crime and their cats. She is currently working on the next books in her series, other people’s manuscripts, knitting, jewelry-making, and drinking as much tea as humanly possible.
Thanks so much, Michelle, for joining me!
J. Scott Coatsworth: When did you know you wanted to write, and when did you discover that you were good at it?
Michelle Patricia Browne: Honestly, I sort of thought I was a late bloomer, because the writing bug didn’t bite me until about seventh grade. My first story was a (very subtextually horny, but ostensibly chaste) romance involving an oceanographer and a mermaid; the young man abandoned his dull life above the waves to follow his true love. I eventually turned the ten-page short story into a thirty-page novella, which I still have somewhere in my collection of journals. The next thing I sat down to write was a novel called Synchronicity, which I finished in about ninth grade. I’m actually still planning to (totally rewrite, for the third time) a story based on Synchronicity.
JSC: If you could sit down with one other writer, living or dead, who would you choose, and what would you ask them?
MPB: I’d be strongly tempted by either Margaret Atwood or Neil Gaiman. Atwood is maybe a little stiff, so I’m not sure she’d be a great lunch companion, but I’ve heard very good things about Gaiman. Honestly, I just want to sit down with him and have lunch. I don’t even have any particular questions – for one thing, he’s reasonably prolific on Tumblr, and a lot of questions I’ve had have been answered in his posts on there.
Actually, I think I’d love to sit down with my mentor, Clarence Young, some day – and the only thing I’d ask him was how the pie is at the restaurant. (Good cobbler and pie are a religion. The man takes pie seriously.) I hope to make that happen at some point!
JSC: What do you do when you get writer’s block?
MPB: Lately, I either switch to a different project or go knit or make some jewelry. Switching between projects has improved my productivity like crazy! I used to worry about it, but I find that it helps me keep momentum up. Does it help me actually finish things? Uncertain, but it does help me with projects that I’m stuck on. I just returned to something I’ve been struggling with for like a year and a half, and I figured out some huge plot stuff this very weekend, so it looks like this method has promise.
JSC: What do you do if you get a brilliant idea at a bad time?
MPB: I keep a journal with me, in my purse, at all times. I take notes in point form with my marker pen – I love writing with felt-tips; the Pentel Tradio is my fave, but I also enjoy the Pilot felt tip – and then type ‘em up in the doc when I get home.
JSC: Are there underrepresented groups or ideas featured if your book? If so, discuss them.
MPB: Writing aggressively diverse ensemble casts is one of my favourite things. In The Meaning Wars, neither of the leads are straight; one is poly; multiple characters have mental health or physical impairments/issues; and most of them are non-white. Obviously, that can sometimes involve a lot of extra research just to get little details right, but I do the best I can and try not to be appropriative.
I particularly love Afrofuturism and African-American fiction and music, so I really enjoy writing Black characters who represent a variety of experiences – especially letting them be vulnerable, queer, and honestly, giving them nice things. For instance, in the future of the Meaning Wars universe, Black haircare products are available at the equivalent of truck stop convenience stores. They’re just easy to get and abundant.
Obviously, I’ve had a lot of Black writers that I look up to lighting the way here – I particularly recommend Apex nonfiction editor Clarence Young’s works. Writing under the name Zigzag Claybourne, his book The Brothers Jetstream was massively influential. I also recommend Black Canadian author C L Polk, who recently released the bittersweet Even Though I Knew the End, Afro-Canadian author Minister Faust’s Coyote Kings of the Space Age Bachelor Pad, or Brown Girl in the Ring by Caribbean-Canadian author Nalo Hopkinson. Tananarive Due, Stephen Barnes, Nnendi Okorafor, Milton Davis, or of course, N K Jemisin are also great recs for anyone looking to check out the brilliant world of Black speculative fiction.
In a current WIP, I’m also working on my first Indigenous (Siksika Blackfoot) PoV character, who is Two-Spirit/nonbinary. I’m planning to do a lot of research to represent them properly, including paid interviews and paid sensitivity readers. Rebecca Roanhorse and contemporary fiction writer Christina Berry are my Indigenous recs, but I have more reading to do in this area!
JSC: Are you a plotter or a pantser?
MPB: Setting aside the artificiality of the distinction, I used to be a pantser, but I’ve evolved into a plotter. I plot my books when my brain is sparkling with ideas and excitement, and when I have the itch to write later, I go back and actually do the grindy bits of turning point-form notes into a first draft. I just found a new method of plotting things, and it’s working amazingly well for one of my WIPs. So if you’re not sure what your method is, keep experimenting!
JSC: Where do you like to write?
MPB: Mostly in my little corner near the kitchen, at my cozy desk sandwiched between my shelf of knitting supplies and my many jars of beading supplies – but I also write super well when I’m on the road. That’s right – I bring my laptop in the car and type! I’m a passenger, because I can’t drive, so whenever there’s a long drive, I often settle in and see what I can produce.
JSC: What were your goals and intentions in The Meaning Wars, and how well do you feel you achieved them?
MPB: I really just wanted to wrap up the storyline I started with my first published work eleven years ago. I didn’t know And the Stars Will Sing would turn into a full-length series – especially not when I first penned it in eleventh grade! – but after readers mentioned they thought it might be in the same universe as an (ostensibly) separate short story collection, I couldn’t resist. I had to figure out how the dark, dystopian universe of one world could be connected to the cheerful, bright Star Trek-inspired world of the first, but years – and many revisions – helped me figure out the connections. That’s how Crystal and Sarah, my two protagonists, ended up as best friends.
I sort of wish I’d either stuck with more experimental formats for the next three books that explored and wrapped up the overarching storyline, or that I could somehow convert the first two books into a more conventional medium, just because I’ve had a couple readers dislike the different styles. But ultimately, I’m really satisfied with how the story came out, and I love where I left things. It’s a little bittersweet, but even with some of the bumps and the extremely variable lengths of the stories, I feel such a sense of accomplishment at finishing my first series.
JSC: What qualities do you and your characters share? How much are you like them, or how different are they from you?
MPB: I often sprinkle in bits of myself amongst characters – tiny personal details and traits; things I like; jewelry I own (or want to own), clothes. Sometimes I do pick things that are the opposite of my own inclinations for spice, too. But in general, I try to make characters their own, consistent people – even though I know that there’s a bit of myself in all the characters, even the nasty ones, because that’s just how creativity works. We are not as separate from our inner worlds as we might like to think, so I don’t bother being too objective. But I do try to have some level of empathy for all of them – even though I definitely have my favourite characters.
Going back to the jewelry thing, I sometimes make replicas of jewelry or clothes that my characters would or do own, or write things I’ve made into a story. For my last release, The Meaning Wars Complete Omnibus, I did a special giveaway featuring replicas of the necklace the major antagonist wears! It was an agate bead resembling the planet Jupiter on a long chain – a simple pendant, but striking. I always loved when Scholastic book catalog books came with various trinkets, so I can’t resist offering my readers the same delightful feeling whenever I do a giveaway.
JSC: What food fuels your writing?
MPB: I’m a tea-powered organism. I do work from home as a freelance editor (coming up on ten years this September!) so that means I get access to as much tea as I can drink. I’m a big fan of orange pekoe and Ceylons, but I also like a nice Keekamun or assam. English breakfast is great too, and I’ll never kick out a flavoured Earl Grey Cream, either! I sometimes get in the mood for matcha or chai as well, but my usual drinks are definitely various kinds of black tea.
JSC: What are you working on now, and what’s coming out next? Tell us about it!
There’s a couple of things I’m working on, actually – one is a literary fiction/contemporary upmarket trilogy called Prairie Weather, which is actually set in my hometown. That’s a bit of a change from my SFF stuff, but I wanted to challenge myself.
I also have an exciting billionaire eldritch pirate romance that I’m working on with a coauthor. It’s got strong political and climate fiction themes, and like the Prairie Weather trilogy, we’re hoping to achieve traditional publication with it.
Finally, I’m trying to finish book 2 in the Nightmare Cycle series, for which book 1 came out a whopping ten years ago. Monsters and Fools is coming along nicely. I think it’s more sophisticated (and dark) than the first book, which is saying something for a book set underground, in a world covered in madness-inducing Dust! The Underlighters was my first full-length book, and it’s got a few flaws compared to my most recent work, but I’m glad to be getting back to the setting and writing the twisty, noir-inspired follow-up.
And now for Michelle’s new book: The Meaning Wars Omnibus:
Two best friends looking for love.
An oppressive interstellar government.
Adulthood has never been so stressful…
For the first time, all five books in The Meaning Wars are united as a complete collection. In this queer space opera featuring a diverse cast, a found family navigates the politics of revolution and freedom.
Join Crystal, a wormhole engineer, and Sarah, an English Literature graduate with a chip on her shoulder, as they try to find romance and friendship – while an oppressive interstellar government watches their every move.
As Crystal deals with her faltering marriage, Sarah makes risky career decisions – by doing what’s morally right. Running from the surveillance state of the Human Conglomerate, will the Interfederation’s multi-species alliance prove their salvation? A crew of old friends and a union of renegade space pirates may be their way out. But first, they have to save rebel icon Patience Ngouabi from arrest and certain torture – and make sure they all get out alive.
Fans of Ruthanna Emrys’ A Half-Built Garden and Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers series will love the cosy yet intense adventures of this crew of misfits fighting for political and social justice.
Even though he’d done this before, something in Sarah’s stomach flipped and twisted in pure, elemental fear as the distant stars and planets around her glimmered into view. The control panel, floor, and seats were solid, but the spiral arms of the Milky Way swirled in the distance, enfolding them.
There was another bump that sent the ship rolling sideways. A stray external gravitational field buffeting the ship? Had they bumped into something? Her guts felt like they wobbled along with it.
Paulo pointed to a colourful patch. “Crab Nebula,” he said, leaning over to Patience. “It’s all colourful because I have wavelength filters on. If you saw it with your naked eye, it would just be kinda greenish-blue an’ white.” He grinned. “Some of these ships were just over in that nebula, picking through shattered planets.”
“How far away from that is Kepler-62?”
“Isthra, the Yteran home star?” Paulo said, with just a hint of tartness. “About eight hundred light years apart, if I remember right. Oh, here we go.”
A massive, rather ugly hunk of metal sped towards them. It was designed for efficiency rather than beauty. Ships, crafts, and even small asteroids studded its surface like an errant blob of gum covered in gravel. Some were docked in ports, but some were clearly restrained in place with auxiliary chains, bolts, and levers.
The ship itself was massive, blob-shaped—clearly, it wasn’t designed to land or navigate the atmosphere of anything, and it didn’t need to be streamlined. But it was very large, at least a kilometre or two across, and had the scorched, weathered look of something that had encountered both heavy industrial use and bad luck.
She wasn’t sure what Paulo was looking for. How was he going to land on this thing, even with algorithms to help? Yet somehow, he had the practiced, relaxed body language of a man pulling into a familiar garage.
There was a thunk and a clang, and the entire ship shook again. Despite the lack of gravity, every bone in her body rattled. Then a few more clunks.
Patience gripped Sarah’s hand like it was the only thing holding her down. “What was that?” she squeaked.
There was a violent jerk that echoed through the whole ship.
“What was that?” Toby whispered.
Paulo coughed. “We’re not aligned with the dock properly. If the base ship goes through the wormhole without us being fully attached, we could go spinning sideways. That’s the good option.”
“The good option?” Sarah squeaked.
“The bad option potentially involves getting stuck in the wormhole or hit by the ship. Try not to think about it.”
A terrified silence descended over the cabin.
Paulo’s forehead beaded with sweat as he concentrated. Automated error messages droned through the cabin as he tried to latch, then failed to lock again.
“Wormhole entrance in three minutes. All ships must now be secured for transport. Failure to clear the area may result in unintended spatial dislocation or damage.”
Sarah heard Toby trying to steady his breathing. Suddenly, his eyes shot open. “Maria, play ‘Mas Que Nada’ by Ben Jorge.”
Cheerful bossa nova music and playful horns filled the cabin. Paulo smiled, his shoulders relaxing immediately. He tapped a few screens, tracing his fingers in patterns to guide the ship’s locking mechanisms into the right configuration.
“Positioning achieved,” cooed the Maria Negra.
Paulo wiped the flesh part of his forehead in relief as he turned back to them. “Good thinking, with the music,” he said to Toby, dipping his chin in a nod. “Calmed me down just enough.”
Toby gave him a weak smile. “Happy to help. Happier to not be splattered.”
Sarah let out a nervous giggle.
Another stream of more irritable-sounding chirrups and stridulations came over the comm. Paulo replied with a long, somewhat mournful croon. “She’s not thrilled with me for taking so long,” he said, clearing his throat. “But hey, we’re latched. Everyone, get ready.”
Patience’s hand relaxed a little. “So we’re safe?”
Paulo leaned back in his seat, grinning like a madman, and spread his arms in a stretch—then unclipped himself. Sarah watched as he paddled through the air, reaching for handholds and nooks and crannies to make his way over to the sink. He pulled down a shallow, strangely-shaped pot and a container of matcha tablets, along with a ball-case whisk. Setting the water to boil, he extricated a set of narrow, flexible cups. “Safe-ish. Here. They’re capillary, but be careful with how you suck ‘em up. Tea’ll still be hot.” When the tea was done, he inserted a long needle-like spout to fill the sleeve cups.
Patience was still white-knuckling her chair, and hadn’t unclipped. “How can you drink tea at a time like this?” she whispered.
“We’re in the flow field of this ship an’ clamped on. Very secure. Ah, have a look at that, we’re going through the hole.” He smiled and toasted as the ship manoeuvred through a massive tube—no, a ring, she realised.
Sarah glanced from side to side. She could only barely see the edges of the tunnel. How massive was it?
“Stable holes like this are what my friend Crystal builds,” Sarah said to Patience.
Paulo floated over with effortless grace. “Takes a lot to keep these things open an’ make sure they don’t just rip elsewhere.” He zoomed out the field of view so they could see it. It had to be hundreds or even thousands of kilometres wide.
“So, what would happen if that went wrong?” questioned Patience, clutching her sleeve of matcha.
“Something like a fly stuck to a bullet train getting flung against the wall of a tunnel,” said Paulo casually.
Toby choked on his tea.
“Exactly. That’s why I focused on doing it right, an’ not on what happens if it goes wrong.” Paulo lifted his sleeve of tea in a toast.
The ship moved into the ring, carrying them with it—and the stars outside began to stretch. Scintillating patterns danced across the star-covered walls. They reminded Sarah of the nebula colours, but different somehow. Between the lack of gravity and the twisting, whirling colours, it reminded her of the times when she’d done mushrooms—but instead of her body and mind becoming strange, it was the world around them. Liminal iridescence spread around the pinpoint stars, rippled, and twisted.
A planet revealed itself, magnificent brown, gold, and sepia rings surrounding the gold and yellow swirls of a gas giant planet.
Sarah pointed, grinning. “It looks like Saturn back home, in the Sol System!”
The lights twisted again, dancing around the room. She suddenly noticed how dark it was. Paulo must have done that on purpose, she thought. She glanced over at him.
He was floating with his limbs outstretched, just taking in the sights around him. He looked relaxed, even reverent—clearly enjoying himself.
“I guess you don’t get space sick, huh?” he said, making eye contact with Sarah.
Sarah grinned in delight. “I guess not. This is amazing. It’s so beautiful!”
“I think I’m gonna hurl,” Toby said faintly. He put his head between his hands, breathing slowly.
Sarah reached over, grabbing a vomit envelope for him, and held it out. He clutched it, closing his eyes tight, but didn’t open it yet.
“This looks even stranger than it feels. How long till we’re out of the wormhole?” muttered Patience, still wild-eyed.
“Eh, couple more seconds. But it’ll be an hour or two before we can unclip an’ I can turn the gravity back on. Gotta get some distance between us an’ the officials.”
A chatter of Coronite language burst from the comms, and he replied swiftly in a crooning song.
Sarah unclipped herself at last and started to move around. Shimmering colours twisted around them again, now pale and pastel. Tiny points of light and fog spread across one wall, representing the view outside.
“Star nursery,” Paulo said, pointing to it. “Beautiful.”
Sarah floated over and examined it, then zoomed in—but it flicked away. Ribbons of stars cascaded around them, unknown constellations flicking past faster than she could make them out. She still tried to watch for familiar shapes, especially when a slow, wide pulsation stretched space out around them, but it was too hard to follow. Crystal could totally do it, she thought, regretting her lack of expertise for a moment.
Toby and Patience glanced across the cockpit at each other. “How can you be so calm?” Patience asked.
Sarah shrugged. “It’s that or existential terror. And my leg doesn’t hurt near as much when I’m weightless.” She swam towards the floor, then up towards the ceiling, grinning, and did a somersault. “C’mon.”
In his cage, looking somewhat confused, Boo was clinging to the bars.
Patience glanced timidly at the enormous cargo freighter that spanned on either side of the little ship, then back at Sarah. “All right, fine.” She unclipped herself, but kept clutching the chair, her eyes closed.
Sarah swam over and reached for her hand. “I got you. Do you trust me?”
Patience took a deep breath. “Yes, but even if I didn’t, it’s a bit late now.” She slowly lifted her other hand from the armrest, and Sarah took it. Guiding her up and out of the chair, she pulled Patience through the cockpit and into the empty space in the ship. Paulo moved towards the back, hovering near the ceiling in the storage area.
Stars still pulsed and danced around them, a hundred thousand worlds—many empty, some speckled with life—flicking past as they travelled.
“Why can’t we turn the gravity on?” Toby whimpered.
“Math reasons. It would fuck with the ship we’re attached to, basically. An’ right now, our weight is being counted as negligible space-junk. With the ship set to low-power mode, we register on scans as a hunk of metal. An’ it won’t attract other foreign objects to the ship. C’mon, you’ve felt the gravity turn off before,” Paulo said, paddling towards him in the cockpit.
“Yeah, but this is more terrifying.”
“Bein’ scared of it won’t make it safer.”
Sarah had extricated Patience from the co-pilot seat. They floated in the middle of the room, holding hands.
“Open your eyes,” Sarah whispered. She pointed to the viewscreen on the largest wall.
Patience took a deep breath, and did.
“It’s like being out there,” Sarah said, grinning at her.
Finally, Patience grinned back. Letting go of one of her hands, she tried to roll—and her eyebrows shot up to her hairline as she realised there was nothing to stop her from moving. “Toby, come on!” she said excitedly. “It’s not so bad.”
“Nope,” he said, the words coming through gritted teeth. “I’m going to close my eyes and read a book against my eyelids until this is over.”
Sarah couldn’t help it; she giggled. Patience looked back at her and took a step against the floor, then pushed up to the ceiling. “Oof!”
Paulo stretched out across the front of the cockpit, legs crossed and one arm tucked behind his head. “See?” he called back to Sarah. “Now you get it.”