Exclusive Interview: “Dead Silence” Author S.A. Barnes

 

One of the things that made the movie Alien so scary was that Ripley and her crewmates were not soldiers or scientists or in any way prepared to take on a hostile invader, they were space truckers. Which is just one of many things they have in common with the crew of the LINA, the small beacon-repair vessel at the center of S.A. Barnes’ sci-fi space horror novel Dead Silence (hardcover, Kindle, audiobook). But what’s interesting is that — in the following email interview, in which Barnes discusses what inspired and influenced this novel — she actually says it was Aliens not Alien that had the biggest influence on this scary story.

S.A. Barnes Dead Silence

Photo Credit: Mila Duboyski

 

Let’s start with a plot overview: What is Dead Silence about, and when and where does it take place?

Dead Silence is the story of a beacon-repair crew, about to lose their jobs, when they stumble across a famously missing luxury space-liner and decide to attempt to claim it as salvage. It does not go well.

It’s also, though, a story about what it means to be in charge, to hold other lives in your hands, and to be uncertain whether you trust yourself…or anyone else.

It’s set in 2149, and it takes place in space, on board the small beacon-repair vessel LINA and then on the long-lost Aurora. There’s also a portion set in the Peace And Harmony Rehabilitation Tower — a mandatory care facility for the damaged and broken Verux employees — on Earth in what’s left of Florida.

Where did you get the idea for Dead Silence?

I honestly have no idea where the idea came from. I think it came from several pieces melded together. I’ve been obsessed with the tragedy of the Titanic my whole life, and I think some of that shows up in here. I’ve always found shipwrecks both fascinating and horribly sad in terms of the loss of life.

But there’s also the element of an abandoned space. To me, the most frightening places are where there are signs of life, signs of people, but no people themselves. The loaf of bread in the oven in Pompeii, the lone jacket hanging in the Eilean Mor lighthouse, that teacup sitting upright on the ocean floor. What happened to the people who last touched those items?

I also very much wanted to explore what it means to be uncertain of your own perceptions of reality, to have others pointing out that your version of “real” doesn’t match theirs.

And how, if at all, did that original idea change as you wrote this story?

It took me starting the story about six or seven different times to find the right way in. It’s like starting a complicated dance — you need to set off on the right foot or the whole thing is off-kilter. When I started initially, I thought it might be a dual-POV. I’ve written several books like that. In this case, I thought Reed might be a POV character. It started with him being sent on an assignment to interview an employee — Claire — who was making up wild stories about her experiences in space. But I couldn’t get that version off the ground. And now I know why. It’s Claire’s story, not his. At the time, I didn’t know that. I’m very much a panster (one who writes by the seat of her pants) so for me, trial and error plays a large role in writing, especially at the beginning of a book.

So is there a reason why it takes place on a cruise ship as opposed to a battleship or cargo ship or even a space station, maybe one that’s just a floating casino…IN SPAAAAAAAAACE!!!!?

Aside from my Titanic obsession?

Right, of course….

I think there’s something haunting about luxury lost. The creepiest haunted houses are always the big, looming Victorians, right? The ones that were once beautiful and expensive, with their intricate molding and gorgeous doors…that are now falling down or covered in mold. I think it’s the contrast. Plus, I’ll be honest, I knew I wanted main characters who were everyday people, just trying to make enough to take care of their families and their needs. The ridiculous wealth on display in the Aurora made for an interesting counterpoint and acted as a sufficient motivator, in terms of the salvage claim.

And there is a casino on the Aurora. It’s just not the whole ship. And that’s probably on me. I love Vegas for people-watching, but not a huge fan of the casinos themselves.

Aside from taking place somewhere that has buffets and terrible magicians, how else do you think Dead Silence is different from other stories we’ve seen of haunted spaceships?

I think it’s the combination of the type of ship and who is doing the exploring / salvaging. As I mentioned before, it was important to me that the people who find this ship are exactly those who would never be able to afford to buy a ticket and experience the benefits directly. And it’s what the Aurora is / was. She’s not just a cruise ship, she is the cruise ship. We do not have buffets (except maybe for the crew). We have personal chefs and private dining, you know? It’s the fantasy — What would you do if you had so much money to spare?  — distorted into a living nightmare.

Probably if you look hard enough there’s a critique of an extreme two-tiered society, the haves and the have-nots, but I leave that to readers to determine.

It sounds like Dead Silence is a horror sci-fi space opera story. Is that how you see it?

Hmm… When I think space opera, I think of galactic politics, ships engaging in battle with laser cannons over territories or control. This is more space horror. A horror story unique to the setting of space. And while there are implications for the larger world, in terms of the events that leading up to the story and after, it’s really more just about these five people stuck on this ship. Basically, I wanted to write a haunted house in space. Because on Earth, if you walk into a haunted house, you can always flee…or at least try to. In space, you’ve got nowhere to go. You can’t just walk away.

You’ve written nearly a dozen novels in various genres. Are there any writers, or specific stories, that had a particularly big influence on Dead Silence but not on anything else you’ve written?

It’s been pointed out to me that I write about death and ghosts a lot. However, this was my first attempt at writing something that I intended to be scary. So I deliberately focused on the things I find creepiest. That meant revisiting the horror novels and movies I’ve loved over the years. I grew up reading Stephen King — who didn’t?  — and I think he is just master at taking these primal fears we all have and turning them into something truly horrifying. For example, in my opinion, he is the absolute best at creepy children. I had nightmares for weeks after reading Pet Sematary in high school. So, when I was writing about Claire’s encounters with Becca, I drew on those memories of the book and my own fears after it.

How about non-literary influences; was Dead Silence influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games? Because whenever someone says “haunted spaceship,” I immediately think of the movie Event Horizon and the first Dead Space game.

Funnily enough, the original title for the book was Dead Space, but I’d never heard of the game or played it before. Now, it comes up quite frequently, as I’m sure you can imagine.

And Kali Wallace put out a sci-fi thriller called Dead Space just last year.

Dead Silence was heavily influenced by my love of Titanic, both the movie and the ship itself, Event Horizon (absolutely!), the classic Ghost Ship (starring the always excellent Julianna Margulies) and Aliens. Aliens is probably the largest influence. You can, I hope, see that in the opening scene where Claire is being interrogated about her experiences by her employer. Also, I was very much intrigued by the idea of a woman forced to revisit the worst experience of her life, both literally and figuratively, and not be believed. I feel like that’s very relatable and incredibly frustrating — very much an homage to Ripley at the start of Aliens.

Scary sci-fi novels are sometimes stand-alone stories and sometimes they’re just the beginning. What is Dead Silence?

It is a stand-alone novel. I certainly imagine that there are more stories to tell in this world, with some of these characters, but I think those are better left for readers to fill in. Plus, whenever you have a series, that means you have to un-do any type of resolution you’ve reached by the end of book one at the start of book two. Or leave it on a cliffhanger. And neither of those seemed like an appealing option.

Earlier I asked if Dead Silence had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games. But to flip things around, do you think Dead Silence could itself work as a movie, show, or game?

Yes, I definitely think it could work as a movie, or possibly one of those limited series events. I’m not sure it’s well-suited to multiple seasons, so likely not a traditional show. And for the same reason, I’m not sure it would work as a game. Once you’ve played and won (a.k.a. survived), it’s over — if that makes sense.

If someone wanted to adapt Dead Silence into a movie or TV show, who would you want them to cast as Claire and her coworkers?

So, I have a habit of “casting” people in my head when I’m writing. Just so I can more easily imagine them moving about the story.

That said, I know nothing about actual casting and how all that works.

The two that were always clearest in my head were Claire and Voller. Voller was written specifically with [Haven‘s] Eric Balfour in mind. (I love him and I think he has just the right level of snark and charm for Voller.) And Claire is always Eliza Taylor in my mind, probably influenced by seeing her as Clarke in The 100.

S.A. Barnes Dead Silence

Finally, if someone enjoys Dead Silence, which of your other novels would you suggest they read next and why that one?

That’s a tricky one as it kind of depends on what they enjoy about it. If you like the science fiction aspect. and you’re open to YA, check out The Project Paper Doll series — The Rules, The Hunt, The Trials — by my pen name Stacey Kade. It’s about a girl who is an experiment developed from alien DNA recovered after the Roswell crash in 1947.

 

 

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