The writer everyone has their eyes on, S.B. Divya, a rising star in the world of fantasy and science fiction. Divya’s debut work ‘Runtime’ received a Nebula Award nomination, one of the most prestigious awards for science fiction and fantasy. ‘Runtime’ has also been approached for film rights by producer John Sacchi (known for Conan the Barbarian).
A part-time engineer, Divya is also a co-editor and host on the science fiction podcast ‘Escape Pod’, which received a Hugo Award nomination in 2018.
Zorba Books recently had the honour of speaking with the author on a range of topics, including reading the Ramayana and Jataka in childhood, diversity in cinema, and the best advice for aspiring writers.
There’s been a rise in popularity of science fiction and fantasy written by people of South Asian descent. Why do you think this change is happening only now?
I think there are two major factors. One is the internet and the rise of digital information. It’s much easier and less costly now for people in different parts of the world to send manuscripts to publishers. That increases their chances of being published and read.
The second is a shift in attitudes. The Western world is making an effort to include non-Western voices, including South Asians and immigrants to Western countries. Science fiction and fantasy have been dominated by European ideas and characters. Global voices bring new perspectives to the genre.
What do you think about the relationship between fandom and sci-fi culture?
Historically, fandom started somewhat “underground,” but now that fiction dominates the pop-culture, events like ComicCon have become large and mainstream. I’m all in favor of this, and I hope the genre continues to grow.
I went to ComicCon for a few years, but I wasn’t heavily involved in the science fiction fandom world until I entered it as a professional. It’s been interesting to see it from both sides.
Was your career as an engineer influenced by your love for science fiction? Tell us a little about these two different parts of your life.
My original major was physics with a minor in astronomy, which was partly inspired by science fiction. I was an avid reader and movie-goer in the genre, and then I did a school project on the life cycle of stars when I was 13 that inspired me to pursue astrophysics.
My move to engineering had more to do with practical life and nothing to do with science fiction, but it has helped with getting technical details and inspiration for my stories. I love using my background knowledge to dive deep into research for stories.
Publishing can be quite intimidating for someone who has just written their first work. Did you face any specific challenges while on the way to being published?
I took a long break (about 15 or 20 years!) between writing my first story and resuming it as a career, but my biggest challenge has been making time in my life to write. Initially, I carved out an hour every night after my daughter and husband went to bed to work on my fiction. Balancing family, engineering work (which I still do part-time), my writing, and my editorial work at ‘Escape Pod’ continues to be my biggest challenge in general.
For any new writer looking to get published, I’d say the best lesson to learn is to submit your work early and often. Obviously not so early that you’re unhappy with the story, but don’t polish one piece forever, and don’t wait for that piece to sell before writing, revising, and sending off the next story.
Was there ever a time, when you had an idea for a story but hard facts got in the way of your imagination?
Not so far. I can usually find a way to adapt the plot or story circumstances to fit the facts. My favorite stories are fundamentally about the human condition, and whether they explore the future or a new technology or a fantasy world, the underlying truth that’s presented is independent of the setting. The details of what’s plausible are fun to research and invent (at least they are for me!), but they shouldn’t be an element that makes or breaks the story.
For example, in “Microbiota and the Masses: A Love Story,” I wanted the main character to engineer an archaea (a type of single-cell organism) to clean up a polluted lake in Bangalore. After consulting an actual scientist in the field, I learned that archaea cannot function in fresh water, so I had to change the organism to an engineered bacteria, but it didn’t affect the outcome of the story.
The nice thing about science fiction is you can use “handwavium” to solve your technical difficulties. The writer can wave their hands and make the story interesting enough that the reader forgives or overlooks any factual errors. The easiest example of this is the Star Wars franchise, where a whole litany of natural laws are broken, and not one fan cares.
Before your novella Runtime was released, you submitted several essays and short stories to magazines. Do you have any advice on how to sustain writing as a part of one’s life?
Some of the sustenance has to come from within. I have always had a drive to write, and I would journal or blog in the years that I didn’t write fiction. If I go too long without writing, I get depressed and cranky.
I also suggest that a person set aside some time every day, even as little as 30 minutes, to do something related to writing. It doesn’t have to be putting words down. It could be research or editing or reading or listening to a podcast about writing. The point is to form a habit so that you don’t have to think about, “When will I find time to write today?”
With limited opportunities to write, I found that short stories were more manageable to produce. They also let me explore the craft and learn faster than by working on a novel.
Was there a role played by your family and cultural background in your love for science fiction?
The initial role was in my father urging me to try reading science fiction (though he wasn’t a fan himself; he got the suggestion from a colleague). Luckily for me, I loved the very first book that my school librarian put in my hand (The Green Book by Jill Patton Walsh), and I took off on my own after that. I wasn’t a big fan of medieval-European fantasy, though. Instead, I enjoyed mythology, including Hindu epics like the Ramayana and folk-tales like Jataka, as well as stories from other cultures, like ancient Egypt and Sumeria.
‘Runtime’ has been optioned for film and television adaptation. Congratulations! When we talk about more diversity in cinema and television, do you think sci-fi and speculative fiction could play a big role?
Thank you, and yes! Especially after how well movies like Black Panther and Hidden Figures have done (though the latter is based on history). In Hollywood, the original Star Trek broke new ground by having a diverse cast of characters. Newer shows like the latest Star Trek (Discovery), or The Expanse are doing well at representing a more diverse future, too. I’d love to see that attitude permeate the big screen more.
Speculative fiction provides a fertile ground to explore societies that look and behave differently from our own. Bringing those ideas to large audiences via film could change the course of the future.
A lot of people associate science fiction and speculative fiction with a dark future, especially with the popularity of Black Mirror. What do you think about this generalization?
It makes me sad, honestly. I’m not one to shy away from the dark side of human nature, but I am fundamentally a realist. I find that a dystopia is as implausible as a utopia and while I understand its function, I would like to see a more balanced representation of what technology can do for (or to) society. Some reviews of Runtime have called it dystopic, and that always leaves me wondering what they think of the world we live in right now. The social aspects of the book exist in history or present reality.
This is one reason why my work at ‘Escape Pod’ means so much to me. As an editor, I get to influence what kinds of stories our audience hears or reads, and luckily my co-editor, Mur Lafferty, also wants to present a well-rounded selection of science fiction.
There are a lot of online apps which provide book and movie recommendations. Do you have any personal favorites which do not receive mainstream attention?
In the world of science fiction, I really enjoyed the movies Primer and Moon. For books, I’m a big fan of Joan D. Vinge, Linda Nagata, Kameron Hurley, and Yoon Ha Lee. They’ve all been nominated or won major awards, but they don’t get as much attention as I wish. For anyone looking to discover newer authors in science fiction, I would point them at the major award ballots (you can find full listings on Wikipedia).
Outside of the genre, I really enjoyed Queen of Katwe, based on the real-life story of Ugandan chess prodigy Phiona Mutesi. It reminded me of some of the same themes I touch on in Runtime. And for books, I have to admit that I don’t read much outside of science fiction and fantasy other than classics, and those are all fairly well-known.
We aim for our interviews to be an encouraging read for aspiring writers. Is there something that you wish you had known early on in your writing career?
Hah, I feel like I am still early in my career, at least compared to my two decades of engineering, but here are two major lessons I’ve already learned: 1) persistence pays off; and 2) there are many pathways to success.
I’ve seen other writers push through years of not getting published or having their publisher stop buying their work or launching a self-publishing career before they found financial success. Keeping at it out of love for the work means giving yourself more opportunities to succeed. If you stop writing, or if you never submit your work (whether to a traditional house or Amazon), I can guarantee that you won’t get published. For any other situation, no one knows when that breakthrough will happen.
In the week before I got the acceptance for Runtime, I bet another writer money that I wouldn’t publish another story for the rest of the year. It was August. I was in the dumps. This still happens to me at least once a year, by the way. The other struggle for me is that, unlike my work in engineering, you don’t build on seniority as an author. There are no promotions or raises. There’s only the next story, and it may or may not sell due to a variety of factors, which brings me full circle to: keep writing. Keep submitting. You never know when or where success will find you.