Thursday, May 31, 2012

Author Interview: Patrick Chiles author of Perigee: A Techno-Thriller with a Touch of SciFi

PerigeeOur interview today is with Patrick Chiles the author of Perigee (4.1 stars on 39 reviews). Perigee falls into both the techno-thriller and SciFi genres. Before the interview a quick book description: Stranded in orbit, with no way home before the air runs out… At hypersonic speed, Polaris AeroSpace has become the premium choice for rapid travel around the world. When a veteran crew is marooned after a series of baffling malfunctions, they must try to stay alive knowing that help may never arrive.
While they struggle with dwindling life support and increasingly desperate passengers, their colleagues scramble to mount an audacious rescue. Racing against time, they will face shocking betrayals in a fight to save their friends.
As they unravel a web of industrial espionage, the truth will reveal itself to be worse than imagined. And one man will discover that escape may demand a terrible sacrifice. PERIGEE opens the next chapter in air and space travel, where ordinary people must sometimes accomplish extraordinary things.

Author Interview with Patrick Chiles

1. What was unique about the setting of the book and how did it enhance or take away from the story?
A lot of readers might label Perigee sci-fi because much of the action is in space, but I consider it to be more of a techno-thriller. It’s unique in that it’s set in the very near future and focuses on private industry operating in space instead of government agencies.
Okay, perhaps that’s not terribly unique, but it’s fair to say it’s a perspective which hasn’t been used often enough (Heinlein and Bova excepted). I envisioned it as more of a 21st-century Airport than anything else, which hopefully makes it more approachable for the average reader who might not typically pick up a book like this.
2. What specific themes did the author emphasize throughout the novel? What do you think he or she is trying to get across to the reader?
I wanted to put the reader in the cockpit, in the passenger cabin, in the control center, and show them that all of this fantastic stuff is being experienced by normal people. No superheroes, no Captain Kirks – just tell a good story about extraordinary things happening to ordinary people, and show how they deal with it all. One day we may be able to experience suborbital travel like in Perigee, which seems a lot less incredible than it did just ten years ago.
3. Do the characters seem real and believable? Can you relate to their predicaments? To what extent do they remind you of yourself or someone you know?

I certainly hope they do. There are people all around us that you might not give a second thought to who accomplish remarkable things through the normal grind of their jobs. And we don’t realize it until they do something noteworthy, like ditching a passenger jet in the Hudson River or stopping a nuclear meltdown. When those real-life dramas do happen, it’s never limited to the one or two people the news tells us about. You’ll always find a boatload of others behind the scenes…think Apollo 13.
4. How do characters change or evolve throughout the course of the story? What events trigger such changes?
I think all of them are depicted as people just living life until something happens to directly threaten them. Each evolves differently out of the same incident by virtue of their individual backgrounds and personal struggles.
Ryan Hunter is a natural leader who’s been relegated to a junior role by seniority. He’s not resentful of that, but it forces him to tamp down a take-charge personality which he deals with through sarcastic humor. He’s eventually forced to set that aside.
Audrey Wilkes’ first day on the job left her feeling responsible for a horrific accident that killed three astronauts, and she’s questioned her abilities ever since. She’s inadvertently thrust into a position that challenges this confidence problem head-on, which may be the key to saving everyone.
Penny Stratton is struggling with a tumultuous second marriage, which her job as a pilot makes much harder. She’s stubbornly put up spiritual and emotional walls which she is forced to confront when her late husband’s best friend is commanding the spaceplane that’s stranded in orbit.
Art Hammond has spent his entire life in aerospace and has revolutionized passenger space travel. He’s bold, brash, and business-savvy – but like many engineers he can be myopic, which leaves him vulnerable to others with their own agendas.
Crisis reveals a person’s true nature and that person may react differently simply because of timing – suppose you just received terrible news about a loved one. How might that affect your judgment if you find yourself in a life or death situation soon after? Or what if you’re not only about to lose a close friend, but an entire business that you built from the ground up? And what if you thought it might be on purpose?
5. In what ways do the events in the books reveal evidence of the author’s world view?
I’m enthusiastic about private spaceflight – it’s time for the government to get out of the way and let commercial ventures take over. In NASA’s glory days, spaceflight was really a research and technology-demonstration program, which is a proper role for government: investigate things which we think will be useful but are currently out of the reach of private business.
The technology is well-enough understood now that it can be readily improved upon privately, and that is in fact happening right now. Look at what SpaceX accomplished last week – they’re not the only ones either, just the first. We’re finally ready to transition from a space program mindset to a space industry. It’s hard on all the former Shuttle employees (I’m an airline guy – I understand layoffs), but within a few years there may well be more spaceflight jobs than in the past.
6. Did certain parts of the book make you uncomfortable? If so, why did you feel that way? Did this lead to a new understanding or awareness of some aspect of your life you might not have thought about before?
Oh yeah…
There’s an underlying thread with one character’s faith and how that informs his actions. It’s very subtle until it becomes important later in the story. My struggle was over how to weave that in without coming off as preachy – there had to be a way to make an unequivocal statement about his beliefs while not being smarmy. In the end it’s just part of his personality and the only way his actions make any sense.
By the same token plenty of people cuss, smoke and drink. They’re all part of this story. An airline control center can be an unbelievable pressure cooker – sometimes people get mad and vent, myself included.
It all became easier after I found similar character struggles in Preston & Child’s Brimstone and Ralph Peters’ The War After Armageddon. They showed me ways to put a stake in that ground without coming off as a TV preacher, and I’m convinced that readers will appreciate it regardless of their worldview.
7. Was there a basis for your story? A previous experience? Something else?
SpaceShip One and Virgin Galactic. Respectively, they are the first privately funded spacecraft and the first passenger spaceline. Virgin’s eventual goal is point-to-point suborbital passenger service: think New York to Tokyo in two hours, above the atmosphere.
Once the technology is mastered, it actually makes a lot of sense. If enough customers have already shown they’re willing to pay 200 grand a ticket, then how many more would happily pay for a suborbital flight that actually took them somewhere? There have been independent market studies that suggest it could be a pretty big number.
8. What research did you have to perform to back up your story? Any research which really opened your eyes or gave you new respect for a topic or profession?
The research was substantial, but it’s in a field I’m interested in so it wasn’t like work or something. I’ve always been a voracious reader of anything about 1960’s NASA, and knew some people inside the space agency and at some major aircraft manufacturers.
The more I dug into this topic, the more I became convinced that if we desire speed then suborbital spaceflight could eventually make more sense than supersonic airliners. All of the serious technological and economic challenges with supersonic flight involve the immense drag and sonic booms. So just take all that off the table by accelerating out of the atmosphere to cruise even faster through space to your destination. The trick will be developing an air-breathing rocket that can provide the boost and airliner-level control in the lower atmosphere. Not impossible, but we ain’t there yet.
9. What is your method for writing a book? A certain amount of hours every day? A certain routine? Are you character/story builder or an outliner or some other method?
I’m a character/story builder first. A rough outline comes from that, just enough to understand what needs to happen in each chapter. Once the characters and story are firmly worked out in my head, the scenes have a way of creating themselves. When everything’s clicking, it’s like I’m transcribing a movie in my head.
With a family and a day job, there’s not much time for daily writing. I actually get a lot done over lunch breaks – just fire up the laptop and sketch out a rough sequence for each scene. That makes it easier to get the serious writing done on my days off: build the skeleton during the week, and put meat on the bones over the weekend. So far it’s working well.
10. How do you get past writers block or distractions like the internet?
Good question, as I’m experiencing far more of that now than I ever did with Perigee. The rough outlining I just talked about has helped. If I’ve roughed out a structure and maybe a few key lines of dialogue, then it’s much easier to get my head into the story later.
Regarding the internet, I find it’s best to just not even open the browser. It helps that I intentionally do most of my writing on a netbook that’s slow enough to make web surfing downright painful.
11. Favorite book from childhood.
Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea. And that one about the kid with the purple crayon – it inspired me such that I drew all over my Mom’s kitchen with a purple crayon. Once.
12. What’s on your desk? Can you see your desk? Describe what you see when you look around.
An HP all-in-one computer. A bill organizer. A box with our iPods and an assorted spaghetti mix of USB cables and headphones. A folder with the notes I’m supposed to be using to create the next book.
A cat, sometimes, who competes with the dog for attention when I’m trying to write.
And dust. Lots of dust. We need to clean our ductwork.
Follow on Twitter: @patrickchiles

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