Friday, July 9, 2021

Lena Nguyen Interview - We Have Always Been Here


Photo Content from Lena Nguyen

The daughter of Vietnamese immigrants, Lena Nguyen lives with her partner in the alien desert of Arizona. She received her MFA in fiction from Cornell University, where she also taught courses in English, writing, and zombies. Her science fiction and fantasy have won several accolades, and she was a Writers of the Future finalist. When not writing, Lena enjoys editing and game development. We Have Always Been Here is her debut novel.

      
  


When/how did you realize you had a creative dream or calling to fulfill?
I started writing from a pretty young age—I remember being ten years old, lying in bed, awake past my bedtime and thinking about a book I’d read, and suddenly being seized with the urge to write my own story! I wasn’t supposed to be up, so I remember grabbing a newspaper (the comics section) out of the wastebasket by my bed and writing on it, completely in the dark, as if I were possessed by the words and simply blindly writing them without actually being able to see or read them. It kind of felt as if something were speaking through me, rather than I was creating something by myself. When I read what I had written in the morning, I was enthralled and lit with a fire to write more… it was at that point that I decided I was going to be an author!

Tell us your most rewarding experience since being published.
Well, my book isn’t technically out yet, so I think the bulk of the thrills and fulfillment are still yet to come! So far, though, my most rewarding experience has been the act of selling the book at all. I worked for a couple years on the manuscript, and that time just writing and rewriting by yourself can be so insular and solitary. No one else is reading the book (except for my significant other, who I feel is morally obligated to tell me it’s the greatest thing he’s ever read), so you’re not really getting any perspective on whether it’s actually good or publishable or interesting. You’re kind of just left to finish it and pray. It’s only when you’ve turned it in to your agent, who then sends it to the publisher, that you really find out if this thing you’ve been working on is what you think it is. And then it gets bought, and you’re told, yes, it’s really, actually good and publishable and interesting, and that’s such an awesome feeling!

I also think seeing some of the advance reviews for the book that really get it—like, in a way that’s more articulate than how even I would explain it—has been wildly fulfilling. It just feels really good to know that there are people out there who are getting the message that you’ve spent so long radioing out, and who are interpreting the signal in ways that both surprise and delight you!

What is the best piece of advice you ever received from another author?
To change the title of my book. It was originally Biophilia, and a fellow author told me very bluntly that that name was truly awful and instead suggested its current name, which is a line in the book’s first chapter. I think they altered the course of my career, then and there!

In your newest book; WE HAVE ALWAYS BEEN HERE, can you tell my Book Nerd community a little about it.
So WE HAVE ALWAYS BEEN HERE is a science fiction thriller mixed with claustrophobic, quantum space horror and lots of themes about AI and androids. It follows an Asian-American psychologist, Dr. Grace Park, as she’s assigned to the Deucalion, a ship headed to an icy, remote planet called Eos to evaluate it for human colonization purposes. Park has been raised by androids on a post-apocalyptic, green Earth, so she’s very awkward and reserved: she “gets” androids, but she struggles to connect with people and is sort of weirded out by unpredictable human reactions, which is why she became a psychologist in the first place—to try and bridge that gap and understand people better.

However, her personality and her general affinity for androids makes her something of a pariah on her ship: the other human crewmembers find her strange, so Park is pretty much left by herself on the entire journey to the planet Eos.

But when the other humans aboard the ship start experiencing strange nightmares and identical delusions, and her android friends begin to defy orders and disappear for hours at a time, Park is left to try and tackle this terrifying mystery on her own. And she has to hurry, because the disease is spreading rapidly. And with the ship’s communications locked and the Deucalion stranded by a radiation storm, Park is truly on her own, with no idea who her true allies or enemies are—and time is running out.

Fans of movies like Alien, Deus Ex, Event Horizon, and I, Robot will probably like this story!

What do you hope for readers to be thinking when they read your novel?
Mostly, I hope the readers will fall in love with the android characters the same way I did, and develop the same attachments to them that Park does. They are very weird and sweet and stupid in their own ways, and I find them very charming. I’m hoping readers will feel the same way, and in seeing them in that light, I hope we can find fresh ways to examine our relationships to AI and machines, especially machines and robots intended to be our “friends”!

TEN REASONS TO READ WE HAVE ALWAYS BEEN HERE
  • 1. It’s a science fiction thriller set on a spaceship, a la Alien, Life, or Gravity, and touches on the logistics of setting up a human colony on an alien planet. Also, space is truly the scariest frontier.
  • 2. It’s got loveable, complex, unique, and memorable characters—many of them androids, which makes it even more fun.
  • 3. It’s got a weird, extremely unlikely, kind of ambiguous love triangle going on! I love those!
  • 4. Some of the chapters are told in the form of video transcripts, like transcriptions of “found footage” told in a unique format. They’re a lot of rip-roaring fun as they explore the unfolding story of two miners stranded together with their exploration robot, but they can also very eerie!
  • 5. I guarantee the mystery will keep you guessing until the final pages.
  • 6. The book features a diverse cast, especially with plenty of Asian characters, including the main character herself!
  • 7. The heroine is smart, capable, and never makes dumb decisions like people in horror media sometimes do. If someone’s chasing her with an axe, she knows what’s up and isn’t going to get herself trapped!
  • 8. The book has a unique spin on the apocalypse: it details an Earth that has been overtaken by plants reacting to an excess of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere!
  • 9. The story explores theories dabbling in quantum physics, panpsychism, and the nature of artificial intelligence in accessible and easy-to-understand ways.
  • 10. There are tense, nail-biting sequences, awe-inspiring epic scenes, and pensive, sedate memories and dreams—it’s all there!
What was the most surprising thing you learned in creating Dr. Grace Park?
I think the most surprising thing I learned in developing Park was how to write a protagonist so completely different from myself. Park is very introverted, paranoid, and awkward around other people—I like to think I’m not like that at all (haha), so the fact that I was capable of getting into the headspace of such a radically different character surprised me. There were moments when I was questioning my own personality, like, If this comes so naturally to me, am I actually like this? Overall, it was a very unique journey in writing her, and it really pushed me out of my comfort zone at the time! I’m very glad she turned out the way she has, though!

You have the chance to give one piece of advice to your readers. What would it be?
You can never truly control what others do, and especially what they feel (and, for writers, how others interpret and react to your work). You can only control what you do, and you can’t spend too much time worrying about controlling or preempting anyone else!

If you could introduce one of your characters to any character from another book, who would it be and why?
Hmmm, this is a good question! I think I would love to see Park introduced to Mr. Darcy from Pride and Prejudice. Not only is he dreamy, but it would be really funny to see how she (awkward, introverted, paranoid) would interact with him (awkward, introverted, arrogant). Could have lots of sexual tension or lots of animosity—or both!

What was the single worst distraction that kept you from writing this book?
Does my own perfectionism count? I completely rewrote the manuscript for this book five times because I just wasn’t satisfied with how the plot was going… It felt like I would consistently get to 70% of the plot, think with sudden loathing, No, no, no, this is all wrong, and then scrap it all and start over again from scratch. That was awful!

If you could go back in time to one point in your life, where would you go?
I think I would go back to my junior summer of college, when I was studying abroad in Greece and Italy. That’s where I met my significant other, and some of my absolute closest friends. I had the time of my life, just traveling and eating and experiencing without a care in the world… Hopefully if I went back now, I’d get some more writing done, but even if I didn’t, it would still be fun!

Where did you go on your first airplane ride?
I’m told I was a very young infant when I first got on a plane (a very quiet, docile baby who people didn’t even realize was there, my mother brags), and I think we would have been headed to Canada to visit our family at that time. The first plane ride I actually remember was to Cancun with my parents when I was probably around three or four!

What is one unique thing are you afraid of?
I can’t stand squiggly things: eels, earthworms, centipedes… even jellyfish! I don’t know if it’s the wiggly movement that unnerves me, or if all of those things just happen to be terrifying and gross, but I can’t stand any of them!

What is your most memorable travel experience?
I think it would be the same as the time I would travel back to—studying abroad in Italy and Greece!

Your Favorite Quotes/Scenes from WE HAVE ALWAYS BEEN HERE
This is a snippet of one of my favorite scenes from the book. It takes place in a chapter flashing back to when Park, the protagonist, was a teenager, dealing with a boy at school who might have had a crush on her (the “Dataran” name mentioned in the scene). She’s going through all sorts of confusing changes and feelings, and she wants her android chaperone/bodyguard, Glenn, to help her figure stuff out—but, of course, he’s an android, so he does a horrible job at it. (As an additional note, telling him “I understand” is her way of getting him to shut up, like telling Siri to “stop playing music.”) Here’s a little excerpt of that scene below:

Glenn rapped softly on the door. “I have finished preparing dinner,” he said when she gave him permission to come in. He paused in the threshold, regarded her standing in front of the black-flecked little mirror.

“May I ask what you are doing?” he asked. “I’d like to understand.”

She turned to him. “Glenn,” she said. “How do you see me?”

“I have optical sensors that operate on ultrasonic piezo actuators—”

“No,” Park said. “I mean, when you look at me—what do you see?”

Glenn blinked; his expression was unreadable. “I see you,” he said.

“But what am I? To you?”

“You are you,” Glenn said calmly. “There is nothing else. I’m sorry. I don’t understand.”

Park sighed. “I know,” she told him, resigned. “Never mind. I don’t know what I mean.”

She sat down with him for dinner. But the muggy heat had chased away her appetite; the thought of food made her a little queasy, like chocolate cake in a sauna. When Glenn put a plate of fish fingers—50% real fish! boasted the advertisements—in front of her, Park could feel her face flattening out in distaste.

“Something’s bothering you,” Glenn said, observing her. He had internal sensors to monitor the temperature of the room, but he didn’t feel it, per se: androids of his make had coolant running through their systems to prevent overheating. He was always at the perfect temperature.

“It’s hot,” Park said. “We’ve used up our air-conditioning rations for this month, so—”

“I apologize,” Glenn said. His eyes were cool and impassive. “I should have noticed you were uncomfortable. I’ll see what I can do.”

“No,” Park said, sighing. She picked up a fish finger and nibbled on the end. “It’s not that. Never mind.”

“You’re not hot?”

“No, I am. But never mind.”

After dinner, she went through the media feeds to find a torrent of an old romantic film. The available selection confused her: what was the difference between Pretty Woman and Beautiful Girls? All of the images showed similar-looking actresses in similar close-ups, throwing their heads back and laughing at something invisible or off-screen. How to tell what was good? What even made a romantic filmstream good? The most amount of kissing per capita? Actors displaying the greatest amount of love? How did one measure that?

“Glenn,” she said. “I need your help.”

She was now sitting on their old, lumpy couch; he appeared over her shoulder. “Yes.”

Park tilted her console at him. “Pick one of these filmstreams. I don’t know what’s good.”

For a moment Glenn merely looked at the screen without expression. Then, when he looked at Park again, his eyes were unfocused a little, practically crossed: a robotic indication of extreme bafflement. A soft little click came from his head; then there was a furious processing, the smell of ozone suddenly blasting from him. “You want to watch this,” he said, carefully, without an inflection to indicate whether it was a question or a statement.

“Yes,” Park said, embarrassed.

“Are you feeling well?” Glenn asked. “This is highly unusual.”

“Yes,” Park said. “It’s just a change of pace.”

Glenn’s expression contorted: it was something between mystified and amused. Eventually they settled on using his random number generator to select a film; at Park’s invitation, Glenn sat down beside her with his knees at exact ninety-degree angles and his feet perfectly together. As the filmstream began, he said, “Are you still overheated?”

“A little,” Park said, and Glenn placed his chilled hand on the back of her neck, his thumb on the artery to cool her blood.

It wasn’t until later, when they’d struggled through ninety-two minutes of improbable run-ins and confusing verbal cues, that Park suddenly realized what had bothered her about Glenn’s comment earlier in the day. It came when the protagonist of the movie said, “I love you, but I have to let you go.”

“I don’t understand what’s going on,” Park said flatly.

“I don’t, either,” Glenn said. “This is beyond the scope of my experiential sub-processors.”

There it was, Park thought; her brain felt like it had suddenly flexed. He’d said something similar, about Dataran and jealousy: “I’ve never experienced that protocol.” Watching the two characters on the screen embrace, the music swelling around them as they melted with love, Park finally understood what it was about his comment that had troubled her so much. I’m no better than him, she thought. She had never experienced that protocol, either.

Out loud she said, “What is it like to kiss someone?” The two characters on screen were engrossed in the activity, their mouths making softly wet sounds as the movie came to a close.

“I wouldn’t know,” Glenn answered. “Having never done it before.”

There was a vague and innate knowledge within Park that, in any other circumstance—in a movie, perhaps—this would be her cue to do . . . something. Instead she said, feeling angry for no reason: “Well, of course you haven’t.”

Glenn pondered this for a while, all the way until the credits faded to black. His hand was still resting lightly around her neck. “Kissing,” he said, obviously pulling it from the data banks, “is a primate-exclusive behavior utilized to mediate feelings of attachment between pair-bonded individuals and to assess aspects of mate suitability.” He looked at her then, as if proud he could give her an answer.

“Yes,” Park told him, feeling as if she might cry. “Thank you. I understand.”


This psychological sci-fi thriller from a debut author follows one doctor who must discover the source of her crew's madness... or risk succumbing to it herself.

Misanthropic psychologist Dr. Grace Park is placed on the Deucalion, a survey ship headed to an icy planet in an unexplored galaxy. Her purpose is to observe the thirteen human crew members aboard the ship—all specialists in their own fields—as they assess the colonization potential of the planet, Eos. But frictions develop as Park befriends the androids of the ship, preferring their company over the baffling complexity of humans, while the rest of the crew treats them with suspicion and even outright hostility.

Shortly after landing, the crew finds themselves trapped on the ship by a radiation storm, with no means of communication or escape until it passes—and that's when things begin to fall apart. Park's patients are falling prey to waking nightmares of helpless, tongueless insanity. The androids are behaving strangely. There are no windows aboard the ship. Paranoia is closing in, and soon Park is forced to confront the fact that nothing—neither her crew, nor their mission, nor the mysterious Eos itself—is as it seems.

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9 comments:

  1. When I was in high school I worked as a landscaper for the school board in the summers. We'd drive all around Toronto in trucks to plant flowers and maintain the school grounds. Great group of hardworking, young guys, we had a blast every day.

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  2. I remember cleaning my aunt's house when I was a teenager.

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  3. I washed windows. Happy to keep cool by doing a messy, wet job.

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  4. My most memorable summer job was as a camp counselor for a church camp from my sister's friend. We had an organized pillow fight and one girl ended up with an asthma attack. We took her in the shower to help her breathe better. I discovered that pillow fights don't have rules anybody follows and that was the last one.

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  5. My favorite job was a day camp counselor the summer before I started college!

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  6. packing houses for my dads moving co.

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  7. "What's the most memorable summer job you've ever had?" Working in city parks as a teenager.

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  8. Babysitting my cousin's 3 kids to earn money for uniforms for entering nursing school

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