Interview with Helen Stringer, author of YA science fiction novel Paradigm

Yesterday, I reviewed Paradigm by Helen Stringer, which I loved. Really. You should click over to the link and read my review. (After reading this post, of course.) 🙂 Today, I have the privilege of interviewing Helen about Paradigm, her other projects, and her life.

Where did the initial idea for Paradigm come from?

Helen: It actually started life as a couple of science fiction films I made years ago. They were space operas and not particularly good, but I always liked the characters of Sam and Alma and couldn’t really let them go. Then I started thinking about all the dire warnings that we are getting: climate change, water shortages, the dangers of dependency on too few energy sources (as well as the dangers inherent in extracting some of those sources), and the threat to our health through the overuse of antibiotics. Then, of course, there’s the fact that we are finding ourselves more and more in a “surveilled” society, where we’re watched and our activities, both virtual and real, logged and saved. The world of Paradigm is really one in which everything that we are being told COULD happen already has.

Did you do any scientific research, or did the science-y bits come straight out of your head?

Helen: TONS of research! My father is a prominent scientist, so I wouldn’t have dared make it up! He is quite ill now, but when I first started working on it he came up with some of the acronyms – the world of science would be lost without them. Molecular Universal Tertiary Hyperspatial Analogicon is his, as is Devastation Engineering and Tactical Havoc. I also read everything I could about current opinions on all kinds of things, from climate change and energy to superbugs. Of course, there is a lot of imagination in the book as well, but it was important to me that it was built on a strong scientific base. Readers can tell when something is totally imaginary and it can take them out of the story if something is wrong. However, if the basic science is correct, they’ll come along for the ride with the other stuff.

Did you ever own a red GTO?

Helen: I wish! I did spend ages looking for the right vehicle for Sam, though. I knew it had to be a muscle car, so I started going to car shows to see what I liked. My first car was a third or fourth-hand 1970 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme, which I really loved, so I’ve always liked that profile. Once I clapped eyes on a GTO, I knew that was the right car for the book. I had to do research on that too, of course. I took lots of interior and exterior photographs, and also had help from the technical expert for the ’68 GTO at a Florida GTO club. He was the person who came up with a way for Sam to temporarily disable the car (which I won’t reveal here!).

I have ridden in one, but that was just last Sunday while we were shooting the last bits of the book trailer. An actual real red ’68 GTO, loaned to us by the man who had lovingly restored it after it had been found sitting in a field for over 20 years…with the windows open! It was enormously kind of him and yes, I got a ride!


Please tell us a bit about Paradigm‘s publishing journey, and why you decided to self-publish.

Helen: When I started working on it, I knew I wanted to do something for older readers, and at first my agent loved it. Right up to the 100 page mark. Then she decided she didn’t like where it was going and sent me a list of comments. I finished a rewrite but by that time she was no longer my agent. Fine, I thought, I’ll just get another agent. And that’s when it happened. Agents would read the book, tell me how much they loved it and then decline to represent it because “publishers are locked into the idea that boys over the age of 12 don’t read,” and Paradigm has a male protagonist. I suspect the sound of my jaw hitting the floor registered on the Richter scale. At first I thought it couldn’t be true, but I kept hearing the same thing again and again.

At one point I was asked, in all seriousness, if I would change Sam to Samantha.

There are two main reasons why I didn’t knuckle under and obey. The first, and most obvious, is that even if interest in reading can fall as some boys get older, responding to it by simply not publishing books that they would like is ludicrous. The only thing achieved is to make the statement a self-fulfilling prophecy. But the fact is that lots of boys love reading and to choose to ignore them is irresponsible. I had been under the impression that part of a publisher’s remit was to create new readers, not ignore entire genders. The second is that the statement also implies that girls won’t read books with male leads. Let’s think about that for a moment: publishers are implying that young women are so superficial and self-involved that they only want to read about themselves.

Now, at this point, you could be forgiven for thinking that I’d written some testosterone-laden story of alpha-males battling for survival. But I didn’t. There are actual female characters. Alma is a Maori warrior, for goodness’ sake!

Anyway, persistent as I am, there finally came a point when I realized I was banging my head against the wall. That left me with two options: give up or self-publish.

I elected to self-publish, but wanted to be sure that the fact that I would not have an editor wouldn’t effect the quality of the writing, or of the final product. The first thing I did was get people involved on Facebook. I soon had a loyal core of beta-readers who read draft after draft, finding errors, commenting on plot points…and, mostly importantly, helping me to excise all the Britishisms that kept creeping in! (As Alma is from New Zealand , I do allow her to use a few British expressions, though.)

After nine drafts, Paradigm was ready. But I wanted to be sure that the final book looked perfect, so I taught myself Adobe InDesign and researched book fonts and styles. I had a concept for the cover, but lacked the skills to execute it well enough, so I was helped by a photographer friend and another who is a design whiz. A few proofs and tweaks later, and the final product was ready. So now I’m just crossing my fingers and hoping the publishers were wrong!

While I love the fact that Paradigm stands very well on its own, the story also leaves room for a sequel. Do you envision this as the first in a series? If so, are you working on book two?

Helen: I didn’t see it as a series, but people have started asking about a second book, which in turn has made me start having ideas about things that I didn’t fully resolve. I really like Sam and Alma and am thinking about catching up with them on the East coast…or what’s left of it.

Can you tell us about any other writing projects you have in the works?

Helen: I’ve been working on a project called The Gloaming that I actually started writing at the same time as Spellbinder. It’s paranormal science fiction aimed at adults and has some of the same elements as Spellbinder, though it’s much darker. It’s also a screenplay, not a book. I went to film school and worked in the film and television industry for years, so it’s not really such a leap. I set it aside when Spellbinder was purchased, but recently returned to it.

The story is about Alex, the ghostly echo of Alexander Solomon, who has been in a vegetative state for nearly 30 years. The man in the bed has aged, but Alex is the same age he was at the time of the accident, and for all those 30 years he’s been trapped in the room. The man in the bed isn’t actually dead, so Alex isn’t actually a proper ghost. He just sits and waits for the man that used to be him to die so that he can escape.

But the man in the bed doesn’t die. Something enters his body, takes it over, and the old man wakes up. A side effect of this is that Alex becomes fully corporeal. So now there are two of him, only one isn’t. Alex runs and soon discovers something else – he can see ghosts. Not airy, see-through, guide-me-to-the-light ghosts, but solid and real as the living. Only nobody else can see them. Which is disconcerting, but okay because Alex is going to need all the help he can get if he’s going to find out what is inside his old body and what exactly it is planning.

My favorite character in The Gloaming is Veronica Sternwood, the ghost of a woman who was murdered in 1944. She’s very dry and funny (think Lauren Bacall) and she and Alex have a great relationship.

In keeping with my newly discovered love of independence, I have decided to make it into a web series and plan on a Kickstarter campaign to help fund it. We’ll see how that goes!

On Facebook, you often post about living in “the barn” and your various wildlife visitors. I’ve always been intrigued; can you tell us a little bit about what brought you from England to California, and what your home is like?

Helen: My parents were the first ones to move to the US. My dad came here to work for the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI – I told you scientists liked acronyms!), in Palo Alto. My sister and I were just starting college and were in a rock band, so we stayed behind. I had always been interested in writing and film and decided that I wanted to pursue a career in the film business, which can mean only one thing: California! I moved out here and began taking classes at De Anza College in Cupertino, which had an excellent film program. My films won a few awards and one of them got me accepted at the American Film Instutute’s Center for Advanced Film Studies as a Directing Fellow. As I mentioned before, I had made a few science fiction films while at De Anza, as well as a Western version of a Christmas Carol, called A Fistful of Holly (that one won a national award and was eventually bought by CBS, though they didn’t make it), but the film that won me a place at the AFI was called “Alas, My Love,” and was based on Robert Browning’s poem “Porphyria’s Lover.” I had studied his poems in high school in England and always loved that one. If you don’t know it, it’s about a poor young man who has been having an affair with a wealthy woman and strangles her with her own hair when she tells him it’s over.

Anyway, I’m meandering off the point! I lived in Los Angeles for a number of years, but moved back up to Northern California when it became clear that my father was becoming ill. He was later diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease. My parents live in a small craftsman-style house which has a fairly large barn in the back yard. It’s quite a nice barn, with sprung floors installed by an earlier owner who ran a ballet school. I moved my four-poster bed, desk and bookcases in and made myself at home. It’s a bit chilly in the winter, but really lovely at this time of year. I also have various cats (I used to foster litters that needed bottle-raising and there was always one I wanted to keep!), who spend most of their time lounging around in the back garden. Local wildlife stops by quite frequently as well. There is a small opossum, which is rather pretty (for an opossum) but keeps hiding in the barn and then frantically trying to get out at around 2am. When it gets stuck, I have to prop the door open so it can leave. This, in turn, brings in the raccoons. At first there was just one, but she recently turned up with FIVE babies. I love watching them, though I always take care to keep a safe distance.


What do you miss most about England ?

Helen: My sister and her family. My nephew just turned 13 and I feel like I am missing his childhood, but we always get on really well whenever we see each other. There is only 15 months difference between my sister and I, so we have always been very close. This was helped by the fact that we are completely different: I’m quite tall with red hair, she is 5′ 2″ and dark; I’m a writer, she is a microbiologist and musician. We share a love of reading, turned up noses, and fits of giggles. A few years ago she and her husband left Liverpool and started a brewery near the Cumbrian town of Ulverston. It’s called Stringer’s Beer, and has won multiple awards — I’m looking forward to the day they start selling it here!

I also miss my favorite places. I grew up in Liverpool, which is a wonderful city with a tremendously active cultural life and wonderful museums. Wales is not far from Liverpool, and I LOVE visiting the north of the country whenever I am home. The landscape is wild and beautiful and there are castles everywhere. History was one of my first loves and in Britain you’re just surrounded by it.

Having said that, I love American history too, particularly the Gold Rush era in California .

What do you like most about living in the US?

Helen: The thing that struck me when I first came here was the air of possibility. A feeling that anything was possible if you try. Things don’t always work out that way, but it creates an atmosphere of optimism that is really wonderful. The other thing that I noticed when I first came was how friendly everyone was. I still feel that way, even though the country is going to through a period of divisiveness (if the news media are to be believed), it always seems to me that when you actually meet people, even those with views on some issues that are diametrically opposed to yours, there is still common ground, shared interests, hopes and desires.

I enjoy going back to the UK to visit, but I also look forward to returning to the US and my barn and finding out what’s been happening in my friends’ lives — including the ones I’ve never actually met.

Thanks, Helen, for answering all my nosy questions! Now, to all of my readers, click on the link at the top of the post, and read my review of Paradigm. Hopefully it will make you want to read it for yourself!

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3 Responses to Interview with Helen Stringer, author of YA science fiction novel Paradigm

  1. Denise Z says:

    Thank you for sharing with us today – love the reminder of all the possibilities and just keep going.

  2. Pingback: The Sunday Salon – July 28, 2013 | BOOKS AND MOVIES