On the surface, Nicole Kornher-Stace’s new illustrated novel Jillian Vs. Parasite Planet (hardcover, Kindle, audiobook) sounds like it’s a middle-grade sci-fi adventure story. But as she and illustrator Scott Brown explain in the following email interview, the story is a bit deep, and thus may also appeal to people in grades 22, 34, 47…
Illustration Credits: Nicole Kornher-Stace by Elizabeth Story; Scott Brown by Scott Brown
To start, Nicole, what is Jillian Vs. Parasite Planet about, and when and where is it set?
Nicole: It takes place partly on Earth. and partly on an exoplanet orbiting a binary star system that we see from here as part of Ursa Major. The year is 2113, and the day is Take Your Kid To Work Day — which was the brilliant idea of my amazing agent Kate McKean when I was stuck trying to figure out a plausible reason why Jillian’s parents would think it was a good idea to take her into deep space with them — and Jillian’s parents are materials acquisitions surveyors in search of rare components for green tech for use back on Earth. The planet they go to has already been explored and deemed safe, but the last crew that went out there was six weeks ago, and things have changed a little in the meantime…
Where did you get the idea for Jillian Vs. Parasite Planet and how, if at all, did that idea evolve as you wrote this story?
Nicole: This might sound a little weird, as it’s a kids’ book, but I’ve always wanted to write something with mind-control parasites. That kind of kicked around in the back of my mind for a while, as loose ideas do, until it glommed onto a few other loose ideas (I wanted to write a sentient A.I. nanobot swarm, I wanted to do something that indulged my space nerdery, I wanted to write a kid with anxiety whose anxiety was depicted as something beyond “shyness,” etc.) and all of a sudden I had a book. This is how my process usually works, and usually it doesn’t really change much after all those seemingly-random components finally decide to spontaneously combine. It’s the waiting for them to do it that is absolutely the worst.
So, is there a reason why you made Jillian 11-years-old as opposed to 8 or 16 or 35?
Nicole: Because my kid was 11 at the time. He’s got severe anxiety, and I was tired of seeing anxiety being depicted in media as being “the shy kid.” It goes so far beyond that. My kid’s anxiety never manifests as shyness or social anxiety. Instead, he gets very frustrated / irritable, will zone out, get cold sweats, will ask the same question over and over and over, etc. So I wanted to provide a teensy bit of representation of the way anxiety really is for him, in the hopes it would help him and other kids who deal with similar. And, with enough representation, maybe parents and teachers will get better at recognizing it in their own kids, and kids (and adults!) will get better at recognizing it in themselves, and be better equipped to take steps to deal with it.
And is there a reason it’s called Jillian Vs. Parasite Planet as opposed to Jillian Vs. The Parasite Planet or Jillian And The Parasite Planet?
Nicole: You were probably expecting a more intelligent answer than this, but I just thought it sounded better, and nobody stopped me, so… Now that I think of it, “nobody stopped me, so…” is my writing career in a nutshell. Apologies to anyone who expected better of me.
Jillian Vs. Parasite Planet sounds like it’s a sci-fi adventure story. Is that how you’d describe it?
Nicole: Oh, that’s absolutely what it is! I’m told it has horror elements too (what with the mind-control parasites) but neither my kid nor I think that’s really accurate. It’s certainly an order of magnitude less horror-adjacent than, say, the Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark series, which were catnip to me at 11, despite me being a highly sensitive and easily terrified child.
Oh, and I’m also told it’s funny, which is funny to me, because I never thought of myself as a humor writer, especially not for children. My sense of humor is way too dry and contains way too much cursing.
Jillian Vs. Parasite Planet has also been called a young adult novel. But is it a book for 11-year-olds or is it a book for anyone 11 on up? Y’know, like someone who’s 53 but young at heart…
Nicole: Pretty much everything I write is an adventure story in one way or another, and I think they’re all age-appropriate for anyone who wants to read them. My Archivist Wasp books were published as YA but have received many comments about how they’re “not typical YA,” and I’m pretty sure most of my readers for those have been adults, so who knows. I think all books should be fair game to anyone. I was reading golden-age sci-fi in fourth grade and I read kids’ books now in my 30s, so I’m probably a bad person to ask. Jillian is being published as middle-grade novel, but it’s full of real science and space travel and high stakes and just generally stuff that I hope readers of all ages will find interesting.
Jillian Vs. Parasite Planet is your fourth novel…
Nicole: It’s actually my fifth. I wrote my first novel, Desideria when I was 18; it was published in the early 2000s and four people have heard of it and one of them is my mom.
Oh, sorry. Anyway, Jillian Vs. Parasite Planet is your fifth novel after 2008’s Desideria, 2015’s Archivist Wasp, the sequel to Wasp, 2018’s Latchkey, and Firebreak, which came out earlier this year [and about which she and I did this previous interview]. Are there any writers, or specific stories, that had a big influence on Jillian Vs. Parasite Planet but not on anything else you’ve written?
I think one of the biggest influences on Jillian is just straight-up my love of science, which I got from my molecular biologist dad. I love learning about space and weird biology and artificial intelligences and green tech and all of that kinda squashed together in my brain somewhere and became this book.
That said, I’ve always loved survival stories, and my kid does, too. When he was Jillian’s age, Hatchet by Gary Paulsen was his favorite book, so one of my aims with Jillian was to write a kind of Hatchet…In Spaaaaace. (My agent thought of pitching it as The Martian for kids, which is also totally fair.)
What about non-literary influences; was Jillian Vs. Parasite Planet influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?
Nicole: Oh heck. I watch so many cartoons and play so many games I’m not even sure where to start. It’s hard for me to pinpoint specific influences off the top of my head because I tend to just cram everything into the soup and then see what bubbles up to the surface all clumped together.
Around the time I was drafting Jillian I played a video game called Limbo that has these worm-like things that drop onto your character’s head and hijack the controls to drive you toward water to drown. For what purpose it’s unclear, but I always assumed it was to complete its life cycle — there are parasites here on Earth that do very similar things to complete theirs, and some things that are way more bizarre — and that helped me really solidify the lifecycle of the parasites that Jillian encounters. Oh and I would be absolutely lying by omission if I didn’t say that some of SABRINA’s shapeshifting ability comes from Jake the dog from Adventure Time. Man, I love that show.
What about Calvin & Hobbs? The press materials I got from your publisher, Tachyon, calls Jillian, “…the most awesome, super brave astronaut since Spaceman Spiff.”
Nicole: Not overtly, but I still have all my copies of the Calvin & Hobbes books, and I reread them a lot as a kid (the comics were still serialized at the time, so I may have also cut all my favorites out of the newspaper and taped them up on my walls). If something lives in your head for over two decades, it’s probably going to be an influence whether you think it is or not.
Now, one of the interesting things about Jillian Vs. Parasite Planet is that it has some illustrations by Scott Brown. Whose decision was it to include illustrations?
Nicole: I’ve always wanted to get interior illustrations for one of my books, but since I’d never written a kids’ book before, it never really looked likely. For years though my mom has been telling me to write a kids’ book, and because I finally took this excellent advice, and ended up with a really great publisher, not only did I get interior illustrations but I got surprise interior illustrations, which are the best kind objectively. And not only that, but I got absolutely killer surprise interior illustrations. Scott’s style is just a perfect fit for the cartoony, comics-y feel of this book and I couldn’t be happier with what he came up with.
And whose idea was it to have Scott do the illustrations?
Nicole: I didn’t even know I was getting interior illustrations until way after I’d seen the cover and fell head-over-heels in love with the style. He just knocked it out of the park. It’s exactly what I would have asked for, had I had the sense to ask. So huge kudos to my publisher for reading my mind and knowing what the book looked like in my head and also to Scott for somehow translating all that into the visual. (I can’t even draw stick figures. It’s wizardry as far as I can tell.)
Now Scott, what was it about Jillian Vs. Parasite Planet that made you want to do illustrations for it?
Scott: I hadn’t illustrated a sci-fi book before Jillian, so I was really intrigued with the idea of working on one. But as excited as I was for a new challenge, I admit to feeling a little bit intimidated. Sci-fi usually calls for highly detailed and precise mechanical design and draftsmanship…and I tend to be loose with my designs. Heck, I don’t even own a ruler, don’t like ’em. But once I started reading the manuscript, I let go of that feeling intimidated nonsense. I loved what I was reading and feeling inspired.
Once you signed on, who decided how many illustrations of yours would be in Jillian Vs. Parasite Planet?
Scott: Tachyon Publishing decided on the number of illustrations for the book. I keep telling Nicole that I hope there’s a follow-up, and that I’m asked back to do twice as many illustrations the next time out.
Once the number of illustrations had been decided, who decided what they would be of, what part of Jillian Vs. Parasite Planet they’d cover?
Scott: Elizabeth Story, Tachyon’s lead designer, sent over a list of scenes that could make for some cool illustrations while being open to ideas from my end. I may have done one illustration that wasn’t on her list. She pretty much hit all the right notes with her suggestions.
So what artists do you think had the biggest influence on the drawings you did in Jillian Vs. Parasite Planet?
Scott: I’m a big admirer of the comic book writer / artist Paul Pope [Batman: Year 100], who creates these beautifully flowing, organic, almost malleable-looking robots and mechs and machinery. So I certainly tried to channel some of that inspired aesthetic for a couple of the illustrations.
Overall, though, I was just allowed to be myself and draw how I would naturally, which I suppose can be viewed as cartoony and stylized, being heavily influenced by artists such as Berkeley Breathed, Bill Sienkiewicz, Chuck Jones, and Simon Bisley.
So, how collaborative were you two when it came to the illustrations? Like, did you leave him to his own devices, Nicole, or did you micromanage him…what?
Scott: Micromanaged is putting it lightly. For instance, I had to redraw a clasp on a boot two dozen times.
No, no, I jest. Personally, I felt a real sense of freedom, encouragement, excitement from everyone involved. Certainly one of the best experiences I’ve had illustrating a book.
Nicole: In retrospect, I’m actually really glad I didn’t even know this was happening until it was done because I would have been freaking out. I’m not a micromanager at all, but what I absolutely am is extremely curious. If you’ve ever seen the movie Short Circuit, the scene where Number Five is speed-reading encyclopedias going “INPUT. INPUT.” is what the inside of my head looks like 24/7/365, except on leap years when it’s 366. So honestly I’m better off not knowing. And this ended up being one of those extremely rare events where the exact thing you wanted lands right at your feet with zero work or fretting or overthinking from you. Sweet.
Now, Nicole, as a character-centric sci-fi adventure story, it seems like Jillian Vs. Parasite Planet could be the first of many books. And Scott certainly hopes so. Is that the plan?
Nicole: I. Um. Have something of a history of writing books that I think are stand-alones but then the characters have other ideas and get pushy and then out of nowhere there are more books. So…I guess that’s up to my publisher. I’m absolutely down to write more of Jillian and SABRINA’s adventures as long as Scott is down to illustrate them.
Nicole, as I mentioned earlier, you also recently published another novel called Firebreak. What is that novel about, and when and where does it take place?
Nicole: Firebreak takes place in the northeastern U.S. in the year 2134 in a city torn apart by corporate civil war. I wanted to write a kind of anti-Ready Player One (all the gaming and fandom, none of the ’80s references and misogyny and with a rather different goal than corporate takeover) but tonally it’s more like Black Mirror. It’s about the future equivalent of a gig economy Twitch streamer’s radicalization from obedient consumer-citizen to anti-corporate activist. It’s also about an obsessive platonic friendcrush, because I have literally never seen one in a book and wanted to make one happen. My career niche seems to be writing platonic relationships with all the weight and gravity typically reserved for romantic ones in fiction, and I will write those relationships forever. In adventure stories. Because adventure stories rock.
Firebreak sounds like it’s a cyberpunk sci-fi story. Is that a good assessment or do you have a better one?
Nicole: That’s a very solid assessment. I’ve read and watched a lot of cyberpunk that felt like, under all the aesthetic, the plot itself was trying to uphold the status quo of the oppressive system in some way, and I wanted to do something different. So this is cyberpunk about overthrowing corporate overlords for the common good. It’s also about a pair of women gamers because they need more love in fiction. And by love I mean “accurate representation” and “not being relegated to some male protagonist’s romantic / sexual interest.” I’ve been a gamer my whole life, and while it shows obliquely in some of my other books (Archivist Wasp, for instance, has a structure that many have recognized as being influenced by video games) I wanted an excuse to really double down.
It also sounds like Firebreak is not meant for 11-year-olds.
Nicole: If you don’t mind your 11-year-old reading some swear words, it’s totally fine. There’s no real gore to speak of, and my protagonist is asexual and aromantic so there’s no graphic sex (or any sex, or any romance for that matter). Plenty of cursing though. But honestly, it’s nothing an 11-year-old hasn’t heard a million times already. It’s an extremely wholesome story about friendship and unlikely alliances and standing up for basic human rights in a corporate-owned police state. Also: gaming. Also: mech fights. I did warn you I tend to shove a lot of things together into books.
So did you write Jillian Vs. Parasite Planet and Firebreak either at the same time or back-to-back?
Nicole: Back-to-back, actually! I’m going to let you in on a tiny secret here, and this is the first time I’m mentioning this in public: while Jillian takes place about 20 years before Firebreak, they partially share a setting, and there are Easter eggs of various sizes in both of them and in let’s say a few other things I’ve written. Maybe the three people who end up reading the whole body of my writing (hi, mom!) will catch on to some of them. I hope they find them amusing.
Finally, I always like to end my book interviews with some recommendations. So, Nicole, if someone enjoys Jillian Vs. Parasite Planet, what sci-fi adventure novel of someone else’s would you suggest they read next? And Scott, same question for you, except in your case can you please recommend a book that uses illustrations in a similar way.
Nicole: I…actually haven’t found too many sci-fi books aimed at kids. I’d love to read more. I can however wholeheartedly recommend Sal & Gabi Break The Universe and Sal & Gabi Fix The Universe by Carlos Hernandez. They’re heartwarming and quirky and full of friendship and family and genuinely hilarious.
Scott: A lot of the time when I do an illustration, even double-page spreads, I try not to frame it. I try to just let the composition roll and do its thing, hoping that the designer will roll and move the text along the edge of the drawing and not just shrink the art and drop it into the middle of some invisible box. Two books that I love that have that nice page design are The Graveyard Book and Fortunately The Milk, both written by Neil Gaiman, with illustrations by Dave McKean and Skottie Young, respectfully.