Writer Wednesday: Karen Osborne

Karen Osborne. Photo courtesy of the author.

Karen Osborne is a writer, visual storyteller and violinist. She is the author of Architects of Memory and Engines of Oblivion from Tor Books. Her short fiction appears in UncannyFireside, Escape Pod, Robot Dinosaurs, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. She is a member of the DC/MD-based Homespun Ceilidh Band, emcees the Charm City Spec reading series, and once won a major event filmmaking award for taping a Klingon wedding. You can find her on Twitter at @karenthology and on the web at www.karenosborne.com.

Cover art for Engines of Oblivion, by artist Mike Heath.

The Memory War is author Karen Osborne’s lightning-fast science fiction action and adventure tale of a civilization devastated by first contact. In a corporate future where citizenship is a debt paid before it’s earned, terminally-ill salvage pilot Ash Jackson, sardonic ordnance engineer Natalie Chan and practical captain Kate Keller fight to build a future for themselves amid the wreckage of a catastrophic war against the alien Vai. When their crew discovers a genocidal secret on a ravaged colony planet, Ash and Natalie are drawn into a conspiracy that threatens to turn Ash into a living weapon—endangering Kate’s life, Natalie’s humanity, and the existence of memory itself.

Without context, what’s one of your favorite sentences in the book?

“War is science.”

If your book includes a real place on Earth, how does your version of it differ from reality?

The main character of Engines of Oblivion, the ordnance engineer Natalie Chan, grew up in Albany, New York—specifically, in and around the Empire State Plaza, which is this amazing brutalist masterpiece built on the bones of a murdered neighborhood, all white marble and tall skyscrapers surrounded by crumbling churches and rowhouses.

The Plaza was always in my imagination as a kid; we were always going to plays at the Egg, or to the museum there, or to play in an orchestra festival on the underground concourse, or to see the fireworks on Independence Day. I also lived within a stone’s throw of the Plaza for years after graduating from college. I always felt it would be a fun place to film a zombie apocalypse.

Empire State Plaza, Albany, NY

The most amazing thing about the Plaza is that people no longer think about the buildings that were there before Rockefeller razed the place—in fact, I didn’t even know the name of the neighborhood until I was nearly thirty, even though people that actually lived there are still very much alive and kicking. I even worked for a newspaper that was once headquartered there. (This is, incidentally, why I buy the fact that ordinary people think of the Jedi as mythical in Star Wars—revisionist history is a hell of a drug.)

The Plaza is visited primarily in Natalie’s thoughts and memories of growing up in a hacker cult, so I imagine they have an equally mythic feel to them, that they’re still as windy and sterile as they were in my day, that blackening clouds swirl around Rockefeller’s so-called masterpiece. The people live in the concourse below, with the hacker cult’s workings in the skyscrapers where the government used to be, even some robot-competition arena battles in what used to be the reflecting pool. In my story, Natalie’s people have finally reclaimed Nighttown and the Gut.

The original neighborhood that the Empire State Plaza now squats upon.

(In addition, some of the planet names and company names in the Architects world are based off of “drowned towns” in the Catskills—towns that, just like the Gut, were destroyed completely when their valleys were flooded to support the growing water needs of New York City. If you think this sounds like commentary on what we sacrifice for the sake of progress, you might be right.)

Would you be happy living in your story? Would you survive it?

I would not be happy, and I would not survive. Not at all! I’m a squishy, heart-on-my-sleeve creative with an anxiety problem and a passion for left-leaning social policies. I can write internecine corporate and military-style politics—but living it myself would be another deal entirely. You have to actively cut out parts of yourself to climb the executive ranks in Aurora Company, and that’s hard for me to do. I’m a lot like Tilly from Star Trek Discovery—like she said, “I love feeling feelings.”

That’s not to say that it’s hell for everyone. Aurora is one of the spacebound corporations that actually survived the Vai war, and they did so by supporting their colonies, building strong ships and supply lines, and keeping their people happy and loyal by keeping them alive as much as they could. If I were in a situation like Natalie’s, where I had to leave Earth (and everyone will have to leave Earth in the Architectsverse eventually, thank you climate change), I’d probably hedge my bets and choose Aurora.

What was the hardest thing about taking your book from an idea to the finished product?

The fun thing about writing your debut is that you can take as long as you want to do it. You can dither and dawdle and take the time to make it absolutely perfect.

The second book is an entirely different experience. It’s written on contract, drafted and revised within months. It’s much harder. You just write, do not pass go, do not collect $200. You may or may not get beta readers (I owe mine a deep debt, as they all read the novel and gave me feedback within a month of receiving it). My compositional style used to include a lot of “discovery writing,” which doesn’t work when you have a tight deadline. So you have to stick your courage to the synopsis, trust yourself, and write.

On top of all of that, I was pregnant when I began writing Engines of Oblivion. My amazing daughter was born at word 75k of the draft, and I took less than two weeks of recovery time before I launched straight back into work on the book while taking care of my baby. I was exhausted. I ended up having to rewrite a lot of the second half of the book because I wasn’t getting any sleep at all and that was showing in my grammar.

The whole process was incredibly difficult and very fun. I’m really proud of myself for getting it done, though, because I proved to myself that I can do the hard things that scare me. I can write through exhaustion, I can write through doubt, I can write through pandemic parenting. God bless the hard times for teaching that to me.

What makes this book different from anything else you’ve done?

Natalie is partially based on a very old, very beloved character I played in #broken_dagger, a text-based free-form IRC roleplaying game in the mid-aughts which really felt less like a “game” and more like writing a novel with my best friends. Writing Natalie felt like fire in my fingers, like getting back to those amazing nights where I’d be text-fighting dragons and writing medieval politics until three in the morning, mainlining coffee and enjoying myself the entire time.

Because of this, I got to experience a “flow state” a lot more than I normally do, especially while writing these novels. There is a lot of tricky, intricate plotting in in the shadows of the narrative, dealing less with things that I can put directly on the page and more with things that the characters have forgotten, and lining all those unsaid parts up so they make sense to the reader understands what’s going on doesn’t lend itself well to “flow state.” So writing this book felt like coming home, like I’d broken some sort of chain and leveled up some. It was delightful, and I want that experience again.

What special research/skills/information did you have that specifically influenced how you wrote this story?

This book is all computers and neuroscience and war, and I’m not an expert on any of it, so that took a lot of research. But I am an expert on feelings and trying not to die, and I think that counts, too, right?

Ash’s illness in Architects of Memory was based off my experience dealing with deep vein thrombosis and a clotting disorder, as well as my related frustration with the sick and twisted state of American healthcare and insurance coverage. In 2006, I broke a bone, developed a DVT, and nearly died, mostly because a bunch of doctors told me I was “too young” to have one and I nearly waited too long to go to the ER.

One thing they don’t tell you in the hospital when you’re being diagnosed with your brand-new clotting disorder is that it’s going to mess up your composure as well as your plans. The knowledge that one surgery, one pregnancy, one broken bone can lead to a clot that can go to your lungs or brain and kill you in an instant is a sword of Damocles you can’t really ever escape. I call that feeling a “timebomb in my blood,” and that feeling is the cornerstone for both books in the Memory War. How does living like that change your daily life? Your goals? Your hopes? Your dreams?

What will readers learn about you as a person from reading this book?

I’m afraid of this question. I’m definitely a happy-go-lucky extrovert, but Engines of Oblivion can get dark and emotional and violent, and sometimes it’s discordant for people to watch me bubble about at a party or a con or at church and then read about the terrible things I do to my poor characters. And they can be terrible.

But that’s the great thing about fiction. You can explore the own multitudes that live inside yourself. You remind yourself, and others, that people are complicated inside.

I’m a bit of an expert in regret. I’ve made a lot of career choices that seemed like great ideas at the time that all ended up being less than fantastic, and that’s okay. One of the things that Natalie discovers in this novel is that the stories you tell yourself to make yourself feel better aren’t always the stories that are true. It’s a hard lesson, but one we all get to learn, if we’re lucky.

Anything more and I get into spoiler territory.

Which character could only have been written by you and why?

Natalie’s from upstate New York, just like me. Upstate isn’t just a place you live; it’s a way of seeing the world. Upstate has its own culture, does its own thing, understands itself, isolates itself and is proud of it. I’ve never quite seen upstate culture repeated anywhere else I’ve lived, and I get homesick all the time for the leaves turning, the Adirondack air, the in-jokes, the landmarks, the festivals and fairs and gatherings, even the strange comfort of the deep snow that arrives every year. I like to joke that I can tell a band or singer from upstate from just a verse or two. (I’ve never been wrong.)

Obviously, Natalie never had a milkshake from Stewarts or followed Phish to SPAC or stopped by Tahou’s for a garbage plate, but like anyone who grew up somewhere between Kingston and Plattsburgh, she hangs on to what was despite the desire to move forward and she tells herself that everything is fine when it’s not. Growing up, we spend our lives trying to get out of our tiny upstate towns, trying to get to the lights of New York or LA or literally anywhere brighter. By the time you’re thirty, you’re watching your friends come back and buy houses in the towns where they were born, because upstate remains home in a way nothing else is. It’s hard to explain. Upstate is chrome and rot, and Natalie understands that. It gives her a view of the world that her bosses don’t have.

Chrome and rot, decay and hope; that’s the psychological place you occupy if you’re from where I’m from, no matter what where you go.

What needed to change about your life in order to make this book possible?

I developed an anxiety disorder because of medical trauma I had when I was younger, and sometimes it’s hard to get over my thoughts that everything is going to go wrong in order to concentrate on how things are going to go right. My mom calls it “awfulizing,” and I’m quite good at it.

The issue regarding putting your own trauma into the book you’re writing is that you have to do some pretty hard work on dealing with that trauma in order to get your book finished on deadline. For me, that meant finally connecting with therapists and obtaining anti-anxiety medication, which meant admitting that I’m not entirelycperfect (and, as we all know, sometimes that’s the toughest part of all).

It turns out that therapy was the best thing I could have done for myself, and I’d actually recommend it to any writer, even if you think you don’t need it. It’s been incredibly useful to help me keep my head screwed on straight during my two launches, both of which took place in the darkest days of the pandemic.

Getting deep into your own motivations helps you understand how your characters function. And the happiness and coping skills that come out of it aren’t so bad, either. You do maintenance on your car, your house, and your body; don’t forget to book some maintenance for your brain, as well.

If you could pick one room to spend a day in, from one place in your story, where is it and why?

I don’t think any of the locations in Engines of Oblivion are going to be quite comfortable; there’s a lot of fuss and gunfire, and if you aren’t crashing a spaceship, you’re trying to survive in an underground warren or spaceship innards full of… well, I really don’t want to spoil it.

However, there’s actually a delightful party scene that occurs towards the end of the book; it’s a wild fete put on by the Auroran executive class, and it’s kind of a cross between a Roman banquet, a night on a beach in Ibiza, and a celebrity wedding. Delicious, expensive food, the best wine, dancing under fairy lights and stars, silk on your skin, doing all that insidious social politics with the other members of the one percent. It’s a fun time—if you’re gorgeous and powerful enough to get an invite.

You can buy Osborne’s books from the publisher, here: https://us.macmillan.com/series/thememorywar

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