It’s always interesting when an author takes inspiration from their work life in writing their stories. Which is one reason why I got excited when, in the following email interview, author Mark Salzwedel explained that his new sci-fi space opera novel The Lever (paperback, Kindle) came out of his experiences working as a hypnotherapist and doing “research on genetic factors in sexual and gender orientation.”
Photo Credit: Allie B Photographs
To start, what is The Lever about, and when and where does it take place?
The Lever starts out sometime in the next century or two in Atlanta, Georgia, when the main character, Shonda Kinney, a reporter for an online news service, gets a tip from her private investigator friend that a couple of local young adults have been reported dead in space with no body, no autopsy, and all records of their existence erased. Shonda discovers that those two, plus others all over the world, similarly disappeared and erased shared recent treatment at genetic therapy clinics that appear to have been hacked to alter their treatment before they disappeared. A tip that one of the missing young people was sighted again on Mars takes her there to investigate. Not long after that, she meets others of the missing who all seem to have joined an all-homosexual division of the North American Army.
I don’t want to give away much more of the plot than that, but it does eventually place Shonda and 3 of the soldiers in a situation where their actions could doom humanity.
Where did you get the idea for The Lever, and how, if at all, did that idea evolve as you wrote it?
I used to work as a hypnotherapist, and part of my training was to understand how malleable human personality, feelings, and behaviors could be. I also did a lot of research on genetic factors in sexual and gender orientation. Those two experiences combined together to produce an erotic short story that just begged to become the first chapter in a novel.
Now, as you said, Shonda is a reporter. Why did you make her a reporter as opposed to a government official with regulatory oversight or some other kind of person?
When I write, I find it useful to have a character as curious as the reader and who is also as much in the dark about the mystery as the reader is. Being a government official or someone else with more detailed knowledge of the circumstances leaves me fewer chances to share exposition the reader will need.
In a similar vein, the reporter ends up focusing on three gay soldiers. What is the gender breakdown of the soldiers, and why did you decide to go with that as opposed to, say, three gay men or three gay women or three gender non-binaries or one of each? And why three, while we’re at it, as opposed to two or four?
Shonda and each of the 3 soldiers are POV characters, so more than 4 gets to be too unmanageable, and fewer doesn’t give me as many plot and exposition possibilities. Shonda is the outsider, a Black, older lesbian. One of the soldiers is also a lesbian, a young, rich Indian-American. The other two are gay men who were roommates who fell in love. The reason for making them all Kinsey 6s is critical to the plot.
It sounds like The Lever is a sci-fi space opera story. Is that how you’d describe it?
It is space opera for the most part. It has the drama inherent in the subgenre, but the characters are brought together by circumstance. They are not some established crew or group of colonists. I use it mostly as a way to explore ideas and expressions of abandonment and abduction, so in that sense it borders on being psychological sci-fi as well.
You said earlier that The Lever started out as an erotic short story. Is The Lever erotic as well?
Chapter 1 only changed slightly from the original short story with establishing a baseline of Roger’s life before his abduction. There are two other sex scenes in the novel, but they are more suggestive than explicit. I had a lot of world building to do to establish how Roger ended up in the situation I’d originally dropped him into. It ended up becoming more of an adventure or mystery that begins with Shonda’s investigation.
Now, The Lever is not your first novel, and you’ve had short stories published as well. Are there any writers or specific stories that had a particularly big influence on The Lever but not on anything else you’ve written?
I guess my biggest influence might have been all the novels of The Expanse I had finished reading just before starting The Lever. I finally gave myself permission to use multiple POVs that eventually tie together, but I don’t make the reader wait as long as the authors of The Expanse books do. The much larger realm of space they used also pushed me to try something more advanced than many of my previous stories, where the characters stayed in our solar system or only made their first forays outside it.
How about non-literary influences; was The Lever influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?
I suppose I utilized the concept of the Cylons from Battlestar Gallactica and various cyborg characters in comic books: DC’s Deadshot and Cyborg from the Teen Titans.
You also write poetry. Which suggest that you also read poetry. How do you think writing and reading poetry influenced The Lever, and are there any poets you think had a particularly big influence on this story?
Being a poet makes you more aware of the sound of a story, not just its ideas. I always read stories out loud to myself during my revision process, which influences me to make changes in the diction and meter of my sentences. I think I’ve gotten inspiration from the dark, depressing works of Sylvia Plath and the idyllic romanticism of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets From The Portuguese.
As you know, sci-fi space opera novels are sometimes stand-alone stories, and sometimes part of larger sagas. What is The Lever?
I have only ever thought of the possibility of writing a sequel when I come to the last chapter of a novel I’m writing. As in life, the ending of one story is always the beginning of another. In one unpublished novel, I went back and added Easter eggs for a possible sequel, and in the case of The Lever, I started to set up some of the background for a sequel in the epilogue. There is no obvious cliffhanger, but the fertile soil is there, if I want to use it.
Earlier I asked if The Lever had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games. But to turn things around, do you think The Lever could work as a movie, show, or game?
I think in very cinematic terms when I write, so I suppose the pacing is most easily adapted to a movie. The casting would be a little challenging, because the characters are of so many specific variations of age and body types, especially an action character who is a mid-40s, overweight Black lesbian, for example. There are a few sexual scenes that would be difficult to film and edit for a wide audience. The clouds of mini-drones, the bustling Martian domes, and the cyborg attachments might be a little challenging to recreate for film. Someone more creative than me would need to slice it up to make it a TV series or game.
I know you said casting would be challenging, but do you have any suggestions on that front?
Someone like Harry Shum, Jr. [Glee] could work for Ron Gao, but in that case, the detail of him being the tallest in the cast (at 5’11”) might have to be altered. Any number of young Indian actresses could play Clarissa Vaas, but she’d have to have a good American accent. Roger would be fine with any hunky young lead who can still play 25. I’m very open on how anyone would cast Shonda, but mid-40s and overweight are essential to the character.
So, is there anything else you think people interested in The Lever should know?
I really struggled a lot with making non-biological characters interesting, so please be patient in getting to know them. And although in this work of fiction, it makes it seem perhaps a little too easy to alter someone’s sexuality, please keep in mind that the actual development and expression of sexuality is an incredibly complex combination of genetic markers, signaling DNA, and environmental triggers.
Finally, if someone enjoys The Lever, what sci-fi space opera novel of someone else’s would you recommend they check out next?
One of my favorite stories was Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven’s The Mote In God’s Eye. That was a masterful tale of uniquely vexing aliens and difficult space travel that more directly inspired one of my earlier novels.