With Before Mars (paperback, Kindle), science fiction writer Emma Newman is continuing to explore the fictional universe she created with 2015’s Planetfall and continued a year later with After Atlas. But in the following email interview, Newman explains why, unlike a lot of sci-fi series, her novels are not only stand-alone stories, but can actually be read in whatever order you chose.
Photo Credit: Lou Abercrombie
To begin, what is Before Mars about, and how does it connect, both narratively and chronologically, to the other books in the Planetfall series,Planetfall and After Atlas?
Before Mars is a psychological thriller set on Mars, the third science fiction novel set in the Planetfall universe, and like the previous two it is a stand-alone novel; they can be read in any order. The protagonist, Anna Kubrin, is a geologist and painter whose Martian landscapes have come to the attention of a billionaire who owns a research base on Mars. He sends her there to paint, but soon after she arrives things feel odd. The more Anna finds out about the base and the people there, the more she suspects that her assignment isn’t as simple as she was led to believe. But is she caught up in an elaborate corporate conspiracy, or is she actually losing her mind?
It is set at about the same time as After Atlas, and about twenty years after Planetfall. There are a couple of characters that cross over from After Atlas into Before Mars, but neither of them are main characters, so you can read Before Mars first without any problem. As for how they connect narratively…well, I think the less I say about that the better.
Where did you get the idea for Before Mars, and how different is the finished book from that initial concept?
I can’t remember the exact moment, to be honest. I think that when I wrote one of the scenes in After Atlas that mentions the base on Mars, some part of my brain started tinkering away on it before I realized. I knew I wanted it to be a psychological thriller, I knew it was going to be set on the Mars base and who owned that base, the rest grew out organically.
Anna Kubrin suffers from post-partum depression. In figuring out how to present that in Before Mars, did you do research, did you ask a friend who suffered from it, or did you base your depiction on the way it’s been depicted in other novels or movies?
Well, the majority of the research I did was experiencing it myself after the birth of my son. I drew upon my personal experience a great deal, though the other complicating factors that contributed to why Anna suffers from it were very different from my own. Over the years since I recovered I have also spoken to lots of other mothers who have experienced it.
Post-partum depression manifests in many different ways, with differing severity, so the portrayal of Anna’s experience is only a tiny fraction of what I could write about. By drawing on my own memories, I knew that I could write something truthful, even though it may differ vastly from how others have experienced it.
As for why I wrote that into the character, well, I don’t see it enough in the fiction I consume, to be honest. I wanted to write a complex character who is a fundamentally decent person but also a mother and someone who really struggled with that. Too often mothers are simply erased from the story — how many mothers have died so fictional heroes can be motivated or have tragic backstories or be forced to find their path in a harsh world? — or are portrayed in a very limited series of stereotypes. I wanted to have a mother who was not the Victorian ideal of soft and caring and selfless, nor utterly monstrous.
Before Mars is a science fiction novel, but is there a subgenre of sci-fi, or a combination of them, that describes the book better?
I would describe it as a sci-fi psychological thriller, but I’m just the author. I’ve written things in the past only to be told it’s a certain sub-genre that I’ve never heard of before, so I’d be interested to know how others categorize it.
Are there any writers, or specific novels, that were a big influence on Before Mars, but not on Planetfall and/or After Atlas?
I feel kind of terrible saying this but…no.
How about non-literary influences; are there any movies, TV shows, or video games that had a big impact on Before Mars?
To be honest, my brain doesn’t tend to directly link one or even a few things with a book I’m writing. Instead, I think every single thing I read, watch, experience, play through, and listen to gets added to my internal compost heap, rots down, and then sprouts up mushrooms that turn into books.
And this, I promise, will be my last influence question. You do narration for audio books. How did narrating other people’s audiobooks influence Before Mars?
I’ve been narrating for a few years now, and there are two ways it has influenced my work: the first is that I really pay attention to the way characters talk. I always read my first drafts aloud to my husband, so I can get a sense of whether the dialogue sounds like people actually talking to each other. The second is that unless it is particularly critical to the character, I will not give them a regional accent.
Interesting. Now, Before Mars is part of your Planetfall series, but it’s also a stand-alone novel. Why did you decide to make it, and the other books in this series, one-off stories?
Because the books I wrote immediately before Planetfallwere the first three novels of a five-book series that needed to be read in order for the story and characters to work [her Split Worlds urban fantasy series of Between Two Thords, Any Other Name, All Is Fair, A Little Knowledge, and All Good Things]. I needed a break from writing a narrative arc that spanned several novels and I didn’t want the stress of worrying about whether the first books would sell well enough for me to be able to finish the story I had in my head. Luckily enough I did get to write all five of that other series, and have all of them published, but it was stressful.
It’s also really nice not having to urge people to start with a particular novel.
As you said, people can read Before Mars before Planetfall or After Atlas. But having said that, I assume you’d get more out of Before Mars if you read it third, right?
I think the experience of whichever book you read second or third could be affected by which ones you’ve read previously, but not necessarily in a bad way.
So what are your plans going forward for the Planetfall series? Are you going to continue writing stand-alone novels, is there a larger plan in place, are you going to give up and write a cupcake cookbook instead…?
I would be the worst person in the world to write a cookbook, believe me.
I am currently writing the fourth novel in the Planetfall universe. I know which book I am going to write after that, in a different genre, and then…well, it depends on how Before Mars does, I guess, and whether my publishers want me to write more.
Now that I’ve had a break from writing sequential books, I am missing the challenge of writing large scale stories with a linear narrative, so I wouldn’t be surprised if I dip my toe back into a trilogy in the future.
Earlier I asked if any movies, TV shows, or video games had inspired Before Mars. But has there been any interest in turning it, or the Planetfall series, into a movie, show, or game?
There has been a little bit of interest, but nothing that has actually turned into anything concrete.
I think all three would work best as movies, with perhaps After Atlas being the most accessible to a wider, non-sci-fi focused audience as it is a murder mystery.
If that happened, who would you like them to cast in the main roles?
I find it pretty much impossible to come up with potential actors as my brain simply doesn’t work that way. These novels are very close first-person POV, so I spend all my time getting deep inside their heads, making the shift in perspective to looking at them from the outside and deciding who could best play them in a film so difficult. So if I was lucky enough to see them turned into films, I would step back and leave it to the people who are skilled at casting to handle it.
The only thing I would absolutely insist upon is that the roles of Ren from Planetfall and Carl from After Atlas are not whitewashed. I could not handle that at all.
Finally, if someone’s read and enjoyed Before Mars, they should obviously read Planetfall and After Atlas as well. But once they’ve read all three, what would you suggest they read next and why?
If they haven’t already, I would suggest The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. It is one of my all-time favorite novels and is the kind of sci-fi I love; focused on characters, giving rich psychological explorations of their personalities and motivations, alongside an awesome first contact story.