Born in Ontario, author R.S. Penney has spent most of his life fighting for the little guy in some form or another, from advocating for the poor and minority rights to campaigning for environmental sustainability. During his twenties, Penny wrote several novels, but threw them all out because they weren’t, in his opinion, good enough for public consumption. But with each subsequent manuscript, his writing skills improved.
Two years ago, Penney received an offer from a traditional publishing house, but opted instead to independently release his debut novel, Symbiosis. A unique blending of Star Trek and Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, Symbiosis tells the story of Anna Lenai, an officer of the law from the far reaches of space who, while pursuing a criminal, stumbles upon Earth. She befriends a young man named Jack Hunter and, together, the pair must fight side-by-side to complete her mission with the fate of the galaxy at stake.
What was your childhood like, and how did it shape who you are today?
My childhood was hellish. I don’t want to go too deep into details but there was a lot of bullying and cruelty. I’m not entirely sure how it shaped me. I’d like to believe that I would be the person that I am regardless of my history. I’ve seen many young men who have endured similar trials – both in person and on the Internet – and in many ways, they have become the very thing they hate. So consumed with their own pain that they lash out at others who dare to suggest that they suffer as well.
There are things that shape all of us: genetics, environment, upbringing. But I think it’s a mistake to see humans as purely mechanistic. To assume that the product of my genes and my experiences meant that at any given moment, there was only one choice I could have made. We always have a choice, even if we don’t fully understand it.
Growing up, who were your biggest creative influences?
In terms of storytelling? Probably J. Michael Stracynski. I know he writes television and not novels, but with Babylon 5, he did something truly amazing. He created a show with a complex plot that slowly expanded. I knew I wanted to do that. In the first few Keepers books, the main conflict will happen mainly in the background and will come slowly into the foreground as the series continues.
What aspects of the writing process did you struggle with the most when you were first starting out, and how did you overcome those struggles?
I think I struggle with perfectionism. I’m a Discovery Writer, which is a fancy term for someone who makes it up as he goes along. That’s not to say I don’t have a plan for what needs to happen. I know the general trajectory of the series, but I’m always adapting. My characters are always surprising me, and I weave those surprises into the narrative.
There’s really no cure for perfectionism. At some point, you will hit a wall of exhaustion, a moment where you realize you just can’t tweak this scene anymore. When that happens, you have to do the bravest thing you’ll ever do in your literary career; you have to submit that scene for public approval. Then you wince and and cringe and hope the response isn’t too harsh. When you do that a few times and discover it’s not as bad as you had feared, you get used to it.
What inspired the story of Symbiosis and the Justice Keepers saga?
When I was sixteen, I thought I was going to write epic fantasy in the tradition of Robert Jordan and Tad Williams and all those people. Then, I realized I didn’t have the stomach for it. One day, I hit on idea. “What if aliens were already living among us, but they looked like us so we couldn’t even tell?”
I decided to take the characters from the fantasy novels that I had thrown out and rework them into people who lived in a modern day setting. There were many more steps along the way, but eventually I ended up with Symbiosis.
What was your process for creating the world in which Symbiosis takes place?
I’ve always been fascinated by the rationalizations people come up with for obvious injustice, and I’ve always believed that humans are capable of much more than what we currently do. Racism, sexism, ableism, transphobia, religious bigotry: these things don’t have to exist. They’re not endemic facets of the human condition. We don’t have to have an economy that trashes our ecosystem. We don’t have to live in a world where one billion people starve.
I wanted to contrast modern-day Earth with something better, to show people what is possible. Leyria is meant to be a world where people have decided to roll up their sleeves and tackle these problems rather than simply saying “There are some things you’ll never change.” Which is not to say that there aren’t many brave people fighting the good fight in our world. I have endless respect for environmentalists, for feminists, for those who advocate for the disabled. But I think we can agree that those people are a minority. It seems to me that, in Western societies, the general populace is quite willing to shrug and say “It’s not my problem.”
Leyria is a world where most people stopped saying that. I wanted it to be a contrast, to show people what was possible. On the flip side, Ragnos is what you get when a world surrenders to its apathy. With that planet, I wanted to show people just how bad bad can be.
We have a choice. We don’t have to live in a society with a growing pile of social problems. It’s up to us to decide if we’re willing to work together to make a difference.
What were your reasons for shunning traditional publishing and instead releasing Symbiosis on your own?
When I was a teenager, I came up with something of a life motto. “If you can’t win by playing their game, then don’t play it.” Honestly, if I were to go the traditional route, it would mean sending copies of the manuscript to agents, hoping one of them even bothered to read it and wrote back to me.
Believe it or not, I did just that with another novel that I wrote three years ago. I got a response from a small Canadian publisher; they were interested in the book, but the contract they offered was very predatory. Now, I can’t get too deep into the specifics for legal reasons, but my lawyer recommended against taking the offer, and the publisher was not willing to amend some of the more troublesome clauses. So I turned down the offer.
At that point, I had two choices. I could either go back to square one and hope someone would notice my work. Or I could try to put my work where I knew people would see it. I chose the latter.
What’s the best book you’ve read recently?
The best? Oh boy. That’s a tough one. I’d recommend checking out the Emissary by Kristal Shaff. It’s got a fascinating magic system, great characters, fun dialogue and a truly interesting story.
If you could change one thing about the world or society, what would it be?
That’s kind of an unanswerable question because many of the social problems we have are interrelated and caused by underlying systemic issues. For example, racism isn’t just racism. Socioeconomic inequality that disproportionately favours white people and marginalizes people of colour is one of the major factors that gives rise to racist attitudes among white people. There’s actually a name for this line of thinking; it’s called Intersectionality.
I’m tempted to say that I would like to fix global warming because that issue will result in the destruction of our civilization if left unchecked, but global warming is caused by the same structural problems that give rise to socioeconomic inequality and hence to racism. If you really want to understand this more, I recommend checking out my blog.
If you could craft the perfect sandwich, what would be on it?
I’m trying to eat more veggies due to the environmental problems caused by factory farming (and the cruelty to the animals). So… maybe a veggie burger.
What are you working on next?
Friction, the next book in the Justice Keepers saga, should be out in a few months. Stay tuned.