Welcome to The Debut Club interview series! Sweet Sixteener Kali Wallace recently spoke to Fearless Fifteener Romina Russell about her YA Science Fiction/Fantasy debut novel, ZODIAC (December 9, 2014 from Razorbill).
Romina Russell (pen name for Romina Garber) is a Los Angeles based author who originally hails from Buenos Aires, Argentina. As a teen, Romina landed her first writing gig—College She Wrote, a weekly Sunday column for the Miami Herald that was later picked up for national syndication—and she hasn’t stopped writing since. When she’s not working on a YA novel, Romina can be found producing movie trailers, taking photographs, or daydreaming about buying a new drum set. She is a graduate of Harvard College and a Virgo to the core.
In a galaxy where your sign determines which planet you call home, Rho, the young Guardian of Cancer, must find a way to unite the divided Houses of the Zodiac before an ancient evil destroys them all.
When a violent blast strikes the moons of Cancer, sending its ocean planet off-kilter and killing thousands of citizens—including its beloved Guardian—Rho is more surprised than anyone when she is named the House’s new leader. But, as a true Cancrian who loves her home fiercely and will protect her people no matter what, Rho accepts. But who will believe anything this young novice says? Whom can Rho trust in a universe defined by differences? And how can she convince twelve worlds to unite as one Zodiac?
Kali: Congratulations on the release of ZODIAC! The world you’ve created is so rich and complex, combining fantastical elements with a pretty high-concept science fictional setting built around the Houses of the Zodiac as your central premise. So I’m curious about your world-building process.
Romina: Thank you! No matter where I set a story—our planet or a new one—I like to get the world-building handled before I move on to anything else. That’s because we aren’t born into the world, we’re born from it (Alan Watts said it better)—so we’re shaped and at times even trapped/defined by the circumstances we’re birthed into (our genetics, our nationality, our parents, our community, socioeconomic status, etc), and it’s often our life’s struggle to carve out an identity that’s of our own making. I think this should also be true of fictional characters if they’re to really resonate with readers.
For ZODIAC, I first created a “world bible” with descriptions of the thirteen different planetary systems (the scientific makeup of the constellation, what the people are like personally and physically, the culture, the government, technology, etc), and a timeline that tracked the galaxy’s evolution since the original Earthlings arrived to today, before I started writing the actual manuscript. Most of these details can be explored on ZODIAC’s website, www.zodiacbooks.com.
Kali: And somewhat related to that: It’s not a technical sci fi book by any means, but there are obviously a lot of science fiction concepts in play–you’ve got space travel, a wide variety of planets and cities, dark matter and artificial intelligence and all kinds of other fun things. How much research did you do as you were writing?
Romina: Believe it or not, the bulk of my research had to do with the Zodiac signs! I knew absolutely no astrology when I first started working on this book—I only knew that I was a Virgo, and we’re supposed to be OCD, nitpicky, controlling, fussy, perfectionists, and a bunch of other words that may or may not have, at one time or another, been used to describe me. Now, though, I’m all about the signs. I’ll catch myself saying things like, “You’re pretty smart—are you a Capricorn?”
Kali: I’d love to have you say a little bit about your main character. Rho is a sixteen-year-old girl who, in a very short time, watches a horrific tragedy devastate her home world and is put unexpectedly into a position of immense responsibility. How did you go about creating a character who has to be both a believable teenage girl and a leader of great importance?
Romina: I thought a lot about Rho’s identity when I was crafting her character, and I think the best way to describe her is with a HUNGER GAMES reference: Rho is more Prim than Katniss. She’s gentle, somewhat sheltered, not really a fighter—except that unlike Prim, Rho doesn’t have a Katniss to volunteer for her. She must become a fighter. To that end, there were three main factors that helped shape Rho’s characterization for me:
- Rho comes from a world unlike our own. House Cancer is managed by the Matriarchy, the eldest mothers of the House’s twelve founding families. It’s a society run by women, where a husband takes his wife’s name, and where women run the government and household. So Rho wouldn’t have the same outlook on gender roles as we do—the sociological issues of being a woman on Cancer would be completely different from the ones we face in most Earthling societies, and that would color her worldview.
- Cancrians are nurturers, and as Guardian, Rho is the optimal Cancrian—so her basic nature and greatest strength is her ability to love people and look after them. At her core, she is a selfless and compassionate soul.
- Finally, Rho is someone who was forced to grow up early, to know too much too soon. Her mom started obsessively training her to be a star reader when Rho was four, and she didn’t get to play with kids her own age until she turned seven—the same year her mom abandoned them. At age twelve, she left her beloved ocean planet to live on the moon, a sacrifice she made to make things easier on her dad and not because it was something she wanted for herself. And then, two chapters into ZODIAC, her whole world blows up.
I think these three factors arm Rho with a special brand of maturity, selflessness, and talent that make her a budding leader with great potential and a complicated teenage character who’s a lot of fun to watch grow.
Kali: You’ve been writing for a long time, but this is your first novel. What was it about ZODIAC that made you know it was the one you wanted to send out into the world?
Romina: The stars decided it for me! When I landed the ZODIAC deal, I was shopping another manuscript around—a YA I’ve been working on since college. When Razorbill offered me a contract for ZODIAC, I set that other book aside and focused completely on Rho’s journey, though I do plan to return to my eight-year-old manuscript in the very near future.
Kali: What has your experience as a debut author been like so far? Any surprises or unexpected challenges in the process?
Romina: It’s been a total dream to see my words in print and hear from readers who’ve connected with Rho’s story. I think the biggest surprise has been how much of myself I’ve had to put out there to promote the book. What attracted me to writing in the first place was the anonymity of it—you could be anyone, anywhere, writing anything. Except that’s not the case at all—I’ve spoken at conferences, on podcasts, video interviews, etc…it’s been a lot of fun, and I’ve met some fascinating people and faced some of my own fears in the process. But my favorite part of the whole experience is when I get to sit down at my laptop and continue chronicling Rho’s adventures.
Kali: And finally, ZODIAC gives us such a vast, original world filled with so many possibilities, and the ending has definitely left me wanting more. Can we expect more in the future for Rho and her story? Do you have other novels in the works?
Romina: Thank you and absolutely! I’m in the midst of revising the sequel now, and I’m so excited to share more details about the next stage in Rho’s journey—but I figure I should probably give readers a chance to meet her first.
Ten Lightning Round Questions:
If you had a spaceship, what would you call it?
I’m pretty partial to Hysan’s ship, Equinox (though I prefer the shortened ‘Nox).
What were you reading when you were sixteen?
Jorge Luis Borges. I was (and remain) obsessed with him.
Where do like to you write?
Anywhere, as long as there’s an iced latte in it for me.
What do you listen to while writing?
Doesn’t matter as long as I can eventually tune it out.
Are you a planner or a pantser?
Star Wars or Star Trek?
Oddest job you’ve ever had?
You get to revive three dead authors for a party. Who do you invite?
Edith Wharton, Charles Dickens, Jorge Luis Borges.
Now you get to have one imaginary creature for a pet. What is it?
A pocket pig. They abound on planet Tierre of House Capricorn. But more about them in ZODIAC #2…
Robot uprising or zombie apocalypse?
Find out more at ZODIAC’s website, www.zodiacbooks.com.
About the Interviewer:
Kali Wallace studied geophysics before she realized she enjoyed inventing imaginary worlds more than she liked researching the real one. After a lifetime in Colorado, she decided on a whim to trade the mountains for the beach and now lives in Southern California. Her short fiction has appeared in numerous magazines, including Clarkesworld, F&SF, Asimov’s, Lightspeed, and Tor.com. In her YA literary horror debut, SHALLOW GRAVES (HarperCollins/Katherine Tegen Books, Winter 2016), a murdered teenage girl is resurrected as an undead creature with dangerous powers, and she must find a way to reconcile memories of her old, normal life with the magical underworld to which she now belongs, a world populated by monsters from international folklore as well as the people who hunt them.