Writer Wednesday: Stark Holborn

Stark Holborn is the author of Nunslinger – the first ever digital serial published by Hodder & Stoughton – as well as the Triggernometry series and new space opera, Ten Low. As well as writing about westerns for Pornokitsch and Screen Queens, Stark works as a games writer and is currently a lead writer on the SF-noir detective game Shadows of Doubt.

Stark Holborn. Photo courtesy of the author.

I was lucky enough to have Holborn stop by the site today for a chat about Ten Low, that new space opera (I love space operas!) recently published by Titan Books.

First, the blurb…

Ten Low (her name is her sentence) is an ex-army medic, one of many convicts eking out a living at the universe’s edge. She’s desperate to escape her memories of the interstellar war, and the crimes she committed. Trouble, however, seems to follow wherever she goes. One night, attempting to atone for her sins, she pulls a teenage girl – the sole survivor – from the wreck of a spaceship. But Gabriella Ortiz is no ordinary girl. The result of a military genetics programme, she is a decorated Army General from the opposing side of the war to Ten. Worse, Ten realises the crash was an assassination attempt, and that someone wants Ortiz dead…

Although at odds in every way, the pair strike an uneasy deal to smuggle the General offworld. Their road won’t be easy: they must cross the moon’s lawless wastes, facing military hit squads, bandits and the one-eyed leader of an all-female road gang, in a frantic race to get the General to safety. But something else waits in the darkness at the universe’s edge. Something that threatens to reveal Ten’s worst nightmare: the truth of who she really is and what she is running from.

Cover art by Julia Lloyd at Titan.

And now, the questions…

I love to know about the places in a story, the ways that setting isn’t just a location but a character in its own right, influencing the rest of the story. Tell me about the world of Ten Low?

Ten Low is in many ways a space-western, and so includes a mash-up of high and low tech. The book is set on the desert moon of Factus at the very edge of a star system. Factus is a wind-swept, hardscrabble place neglected by the system’s authorities, and so the objects, foods and vehicles had to reflect that. For example, it made sense that people would try to grow things that thrive in arid climates – like agave – and so forms of mescal are popular. Wildlife, too: instead of cattle, people farm snakes and use vultures and buzzards as work animals. Insects are prized as both entertainment and food; in a place where there’s little amusement, a beetle fight can be an exciting thing.

Since the story takes place in the aftermath of a system-wide war, there’s a lot of army surplus floating around, from vehicles to clothing. Of course, this is frequently stolen, sold on the black market and otherwise subverted by the local population. One of the moon’s gangs – the G’hals – make it their business to ‘customise’ ex-army uniforms in the most colourful and mocking ways possible.

If you were stuck on Factus for a day, where would you spend it?

Probably Malady Falco’s bar, in the frontier town of Landfall Five. Falco is a smuggler, gang boss and all-round sharp businesswoman. Her bar is probably the most hospitable place on Factus – if you’re on the right side of her. There’s augmented oxygen, a decent supply of coveted “airtight” goods, like tinned peaches, and the best benzene for miles, so if you didn’t get into a fight, you’d probably have a good time.

What makes Ten Low different from your other work?

This is my first published leap into science fiction, and so it was both a joy and a challenge to be working in a world of my own creation. A joy, because I got to cut loose creatively, a challenge because some things – like orbital mechanics, as my editor painstakingly reminded me – can’t just be hand-waved away.

It’s similar to my previous work in the sense that there are certain tropes I’m always trying to subvert in my fiction. I wanted a female-led adventure that doesn’t focus on female trauma; I wanted a world with dystopian elements that’s nevertheless more inclusive in terms of gender identities. I wanted a space-opera where the ruling authorities are negligent and overextended rather than simply evil; a war where no one was right and where there are no easy answers to what happened in the past. I wanted to write a setting that’s apocalyptic but also vibrant, that doesn’t just revel in its grimness, but shows complex people trying to live and thrive despite the universe around them.

If that was the joy of writing this novel, what was the hard part?

Ten Low began as a NaNoWriMo project: I’d recently had a not-great experience with a publisher, so this was in some ways a fuck-it-I’ll-do-what-I-want book. I wrote the first 40-50k in a month – fast and dirty – and it was such a freeing experience. When it came time to turning those words into a full novel, I encountered a few potholes. I’ve been used to writing novellas in the past; my first big novel Nunslinger is in fact twelve serialised novellas stuck together. Same goes for my newer series, Triggernometry. So I will admit that I got stuck about two thirds of the way through this book. After weeks of floundering I became so desperate I resorted to augury – which is apt, seeing as ideas of fate, free will and chance are a major theme – and started randomly stabbing at words while flipping through a dictionary. I’m horrified to say it worked. At least, I think it gave my imagination permission to run wild again, and break through the mental blocks I’d set up for myself. After that, I finished the book in a matter of weeks.

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

“Words are a skin to keep fear within the body, and they have no bodies, have no fear.”

… yeah, I’m gonna need to read more. Don’t you?

You can learn more about Holborn online at https://starkholborn.com/ or on Twitter at twitter.com/starkholborn. You can also sign up for Holborn’s mailing list (here: https://starkholborn.com/factus/) to get a  free copy of Snake Eyes, a short story set in the Ten Low universe!

If you’re in the US, we’d love it if you could order Ten Low from Forbidden Planet at https://forbiddenplanet.com/317911-ten-low/. In the UK, check out the Bookshop at https://uk.bookshop.org/books/ten-low/9781789096620. In Australia/NZ, you can buy Ten Low through Mighty Ape at https://www.mightyape.co.nz/product/ten-low/34019856. You can also buy it through your local indie bookshop, or wherever books are sold.

And hey… if you like my work, my Writer Wednesday interviews, my art, or you just like me (thank you!) please consider subscribing to my Patreon at https://www.patreon.com/CarrieCuinn?fan_landing=true. Even $1 a month helps me keep doing what I’m doing.

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