Riley Redgate is an author originally from North Carolina, now based in Chicago. She is the author of four Young Adult novels, including Noteworthy, which was named a Best Teen Book by Kirkus Reviews and the New York Public Library, and Final Draft, a Bank Street Best Children’s Book of the Year. Her newest novel, Alone Out Here, follows a group of young people who escape the planet’s destruction on a spaceship and find themselves alone in the vastness of space. It was published in April of 2022 by Disney-Hyperion.
NW: This is a science fiction book, but a huge amount of the driving action is around more political conflict than sci-fi. What was your research process like, for both the scientific and the political aspects of this story?
RR: I think the first thing to note is that this book is pretty far from hard sci-fi. It’s a lot more interested in the social fallout of the scenario than it is in the sort of nitty-gritty details of the sci-fi world building. I wanted to create a scenario that people could hold in their minds and then, from there, turn more to the human questions of the setup. But that said, there were three sort of main fronts for my research, which would be: everything surrounding space travel; everything surrounding apocalyptic disaster scenarios, and climate; and then, as you mentioned, the geopolitics.
I guess I’ll start there; the geopolitical situation is… odd. The book is sort of about these cycles of violence, and how we end up reenacting the same kinds of violence on each other in the same kinds of ways. I wanted to take recognizable elements from the present day and from recent history that people could latch onto and be like, “Oh, these are tensions I recognize from right now that are still kind of being perpetuated into the future.” I was doing a lot of research into which countries are comfortable and uncomfortable with each other, and which of these rivalries have lasted many centuries, and which seem to run the deepest. It is an international cast, and I think I was running the risk of turning characters into, like, proxies for their countries, which I wanted to avoid because I didn’t want it to be pure allegory.
In terms of the space and climate research… I’m sure that scientists will have all sorts of issues, a lot of, “Oh, come on!” if they pick up the book. I spent a lot of hours reading about, for instance, all the various types of propulsion energy that could be used to power a ship almost indefinitely. I chose, as the main driver, a kind of solar sail, with the implication that there have been great leaps in the efficiency of that technology between now and 2072. All of this stuff having to do with a massive space fleet, it assumes that there will be massive strides forward in space production, in a way that I’m not certain will ever happen but, y’know [laughs].
RR: It’s the choice that I made. And my choices in terms of the climate science were less to provide a concrete climate allegory, because the book… if it were about that, the book would kind of be letting people off the hook, because the trigger is a volcanic eruption, and that’s not something people can control. But in terms of plot mechanics, yeah, I was hunting for something that had a specific trigger, which would then lead to a long fallout. My choice was probably more influenced by plot hunts than I would really like. But we do what we must.
NW: I was actually wondering about this. One thing I know that you and I share are some pretty significant climate anxieties.
RR: Oh, yeah.
NW: As you said, the inciting incident of this story feels not so directly man-made. But still, I was wondering if any of the research for or writing of this book mingled at all with your preexisting thoughts and fears?
RR: Oh yeah, my preexisting thoughts and fears [laughs]. I don’t know. I’m trying to chart it, because it was such a long writing process. The tone of the book is supposed to be pretty mixed. So it is supposed to be about violence and loss, but to me the heart of the book is more fundamentally about the kind of wistfulness that people still feel for beautiful things, and the things that we can see ourselves losing but have very little power to stop. And I think probably, in terms of climate, all of it does sort of align with my feelings—like, I’ll look at all these amazing things that are sort of withering up, that we’re leaving by the wayside. And I use this “we” very generously, because I do think most people I know are conscientious, and try to do things that are maximally helpful to the environment. And yet there’s this sense of things being so completely out of our hands due to things like corporate interest, government gridlock. I think the central mood and theme of the book is feeling like things are out of your grasp, and that you’re doing your best but you can’t change the arc of things. And that is very much my feeling towards the climate, but it’s why I also think that the helplessness feeling of a volcanic eruption didn’t bother me as much. Because it’s not a one-to-one climate allegory, but honestly, to your everyday person, that is how it can feel.
Sorry, that was a depressing answer.
NW: I mean, I’m asking the depressing questions up front, which is my fault—
RR: No, it’s a depressing book. It kind of is [laughs].
NW: Actually, that leads very well into my next question. Because, yes, it is a depressing book. But in a lot of ways I think that feeling is very earned, and very appropriate, given the myriad of pressing and heavy topics that it touches on. It is, also, a Young Adult novel, and it’s coming from Disney-Hyperion. Was it ever difficult for you to give these characters their appropriate, real grief while keeping your audience in mind?
RR: I think YA spans the gamut. Like, just even within the range of young adult apocalyptic fiction you have books that are more grounded, books that are more speculative. I think honestly the tougher thing for this book was balancing it between tones. It’s partially a more pulpy, commercial thriller, and it’s partially more interested in a lot of introspection and rumination. So, I would say my awareness was not so much towards target audience, or massaging the book’s ideas to fit target audience, but more trying to strike a balance with tone where the book’s thriller elements weren’t getting derailed and the momentum wasn’t getting stopped by those introspective aspects, and also that those introspective aspects had completed through lines and weren’t disrupted by the thriller aspects.
NW: To backtrack a tiny bit: we’ve talked a little bit about how you very intentionally were putting much more emphasis on these social and political and human-to-human conflicts as driving forces, rather than the issues of climate, or space-faring sci-fi. A few years back, when you first told me about this project, the way you very, very quickly explained it to me was, quote, “Lord of the Flies in space.”
RR: [Laughs]. Yes, yes.
NW: Which I think is a great shorthand. But one of the things about Lord of the Flies is that Henry Golding… wait, is that who wrote it?
RR: William Golding.
NW: William Golding, thank you. Oh, Henry Golding might have been… Princess Bride?
RR: Henry Golding is the star of Crazy Rich Asians.
NW: Oh, then who wrote… Okay, William Goldman wrote Princess Bride. There’s too many people. God, I’m glad I’m the one who gets to write this up and edit out the bad parts.
RR: Please leave that in, I am begging you.
NW: We’ll see how the word count is. So, William Golding. One of the things about Lord of the Flies is that he very intentionally picked all these characters who were upper class, wealthy British school boys, and there was a lot of social commentary in that. The group of young people in your book who find themselves on the Lazarus spaceship are from a much more diverse spread—in many aspects—as compared to a group of boys all from the same school. But all of them shared, on Earth, some sort of social or political importance, usually because of who their parents were. Following the same thread as Lord of the Flies, do you think the sort of political issues that wind up emerging on the Lazarus over the course of the story still would have happened if this was a group of people who had no affiliation whatsoever with any political powers back on Earth?
RR: Ooh, I don’t know, that’s a tough question. Because… so, in the Golding, all of the main characters being from a single “region” leads the reader to think, “Okay, this is about this group of people, and is commenting on what this group of people are like.” I would say that Alone Out Here’s approach to that is less a comment on how people of social and financial privilege might act, but more meant to be a comment on the fact that individuals are, when they’re growing up, given the idea that they should be able to effect individual change. I think it’s easier to show this with people whose parents are in positions of power, because then they can be like, “Well, I’m related to an actual change maker—why can I still not make change?” From a narrative perspective, it’s a lot easier to get that theme of powerlessness across when power is just within your grasp. And Leigh is the closest thing there is a trained politician, but she isn’t really a diplomat, she isn’t really completely clued in on how to build a government. But because the characters all sort of have that background, my hope is for the readers to draw that line from these kids to their families; their families are the ones actively going at it on Earth, trying to build peace. And then you wonder in what ways these kids’ experiences grate against, or mirror, their families’.
NW: So, this is a bit more big-picture. We keep reading and writing and telling stories about the end of the world—
RR: Oh, yeah.
NW: And you can look at writers like Octavia Butler, or N.K. Jemisin. Or, you know, Emily St. John Mandel: you showed me Station Eleven six years ago when I was nineteen; you’ve got an epigraph from it in Alone Out Here. And, actually, this is sort of similar to one of the questions I asked Emily St. John Mandel when I spoke with her—
RR: Oh my god.
NW: What do you make of the fact that we’re living in a time right now where people keep seeking out these end-of-the-world stories, or even keep wanting to tell these stories themselves?
RR: Hm. One of my thoughts would be that we often come to fiction for a sense of comprehension, if not closure. I mean, at the very least we want to feel as if there is a structure, there is a map, that there is a plan of sorts implemented by the author. I think it can feel, yeah, maybe just a tad reassuring—to see apocalyptic events encased in a novel form. Because it’s more approachable than the various feelings of impending doom that a lot of people have been experiencing. I think from my personal perspective I find it comforting to see form brought to catastrophe. Because formlessness is an unsettling thing to feel that we all swim around in. And obviously novels about formlessness exist, and it’s an interesting theme, the breakage of structure and such. But when it comes to the apocalyptic novel, I think that it can feel good to see someone treating those things as narrative, because it makes the feelings maybe more digestible.
I don’t want to say something as simplistic as, “People are looking for comfort in books,” because not everyone goes to literature for comfort. And, you know, of the many, many people who have engaged with Station Eleven, for example, obviously not all of those people are there to feel comforted. But I do feel that there is something to being able to take a problem or feeling that overwhelms you in real life, and then, first of all, having someone else examine it—hopefully in a way you can empathize with—and then being able to close the book on it. In a very literal sense. It’s something we’re not afforded the ability to do in actual life. So maybe there’s something to the feeling of closing the book of apocalypse and setting it aside, because you’ve reached the end. That’s a feeling I would love to experience in real life.
NW: Like a sort of healthy compartmentalization, almost?
RR: Yeah! Yes, right. Compartmentalization is definitely the vibe I was going for. But it’s also interesting because, you know, what we experience in fiction does reach its tendrils out into our actual lives in so many ways. I mean, honestly, Station Eleven impacted me so hugely, it did give me that feeling of increased safeness and coherence, just in terms of looking at the world around me and seeing it in different ways. So that’s something that’s both a feeling that the book imparted onto me, but then still something I experience on a day-to-day level, like it has impacted my psychology.
NW: So, like, compartmentalization but you take something away from it as well.
RR: Yeah—like a little gift box.
NW: A little, “Here, I’ve packaged this for you.”
RR: [Laughs]. Yes, Emily St. John Mandel is like, “Thanks for reading my book, here’s better mental health for the rest of your life.”
NW: Changing gears a bit: you and I met in school, at Kenyon College. Do you think there’s one piece of advice, or one lesson you learned at Kenyon, which has stuck with you more than anything else?
RR: Maybe the one thing I most held onto is the idea that you don’t have to form yourself to whatever writing culture you perceive as predominant. At Kenyon, I actually struggled with a lot of feelings of un-seriousness, because there was always an emphasis on literary fiction. And I definitely don’t think this is a Kenyon-specific thing; I’m pretty sure across all academia, the emphasis of study is on capital-L Literature. I can only speak from my own experience as someone who’s very interested in all forms of commercial fiction, which is that I, in my little heart, squirreled away these feelings of not being serious, these feelings of inadequacy, the judgment of the perceived tastemakers of the community. If you’re writing for an audience, you want to feel as if it’s meaningful, you want to feel as if it’s being taken seriously and being met on its level. You do not want to feel as if your work, by its inherent nature, is a punchline. And there’s a lot of derision for Young Adult fiction specifically, but more broadly for commercial fiction, and especially in historically female-consumed genres. And probably the most valuable thing I learned over all is that I didn’t have to immerse myself in the particular culture, or form my particular interests, towards others. And that I could continue to write what interested me. Learning to separate your own interests away from those feelings of, “I should be more like this, I should be more like that”—that’s going to be valuable forever. And not just in writing.
NW: I also wanted to ask you something about writing in general. I think writing, or the idea of being “a person who writes” has a reputation of being a pretty solitary thing. But a few years ago, you introduced me to what I still feel is probably the most beneficial and productive writing practice that I’ve ever learned about. And I’ve found that a lot of other people don’t seem to know about it. So I was wondering, would you mind briefly explaining what word sprints are, and how to do them?
RR: Oh, word sprints! So, it’s basically an adaptation of the Pomodoro technique, which is short, concentrated bursts of work, interspersed with periods of rest. So—especially for those of us who may have an Internet-afflicted attention span—it can be a great way to compartmentalize and structure a larger block of time, so that you’re not intermittently drifting into and out of a Word doc, or going to social media sites, or anything like that. And then also to do that with a friend or a fellow writer helps to alleviate those solitary feelings you mentioned. It keeps you accountable, and it’s also fun. Because at the end of the sprint period—at the end of the fifteen or twenty minutes where you write as many words as you can, however many that may be—then you can check in with the other people. So that’s the basic structure of the word sprint: find a friend, set a timer for a length of time that both of you feel is achievable and concentrated, and then compare word counts at the end, if that’s something that you find useful. I’ve become a lot slower over the years, so I might be a little less focused on the word count comparison, if sprinting in the future. But yeah—helps with accountability, helps with structure, and it’s fun!
NW: Okay, my final questions are probably the most important. What have you been reading recently? And what are some books or writers that have been all-time influences on you, either on your work or on you as a person?
RR: Oh, let me open up my dedicated Book Library Excel spreadsheet.
NW: Hell yes.
RR: Okay… I recently reread the Winternight trilogy, by Katherine Arden, which is just a phenomenal kind of wintry, historical Russian fantasy, set at the collision of a world that was dedicated to the Old Russian gods and the intrusion—that’s a loaded word, but yeah, intrusion—of Christianity. I think that world is just perfect, it’s fantastic. And I recently read a book called Lobizona, by Romina Garber, and that’s a YA about a girl and her mother who are undocumented immigrants in Miami. It’s magical realist at the beginning, and then turns into a full-fledged fantasy novel, based a lot on Argentine myth. I loved that book. And I also pretty recently reread Never Let Me Go, which—you know. You know what that book’s going to do to you when you open it, and then it does. I’ve read three of Ishiguro’s novels—Remains of the Day, Never Let Me Go, and Klara and the Sun—and I’m an absolute fanatic about all of them.
In terms of long-term influences, hm… I think easier to answer as a person than as a writer—I often feel like I can’t identify where my writing fits into anything at any time. I think Sally Rooney has to be up there; Ishiguro is up there. Let’s see… I love these sorts of questions because the instant they arise, I’ve suddenly never read a book. This is why the Excel sheet is helpful [laughs]. I’m looking at it now, and… Yes, okay, Austen, the best satirist of all time. Zadie Smith, obviously. George R. R. Martin—
NW: What are you sorting the list by?
RR: Oh, by rating. My secret sheet has all of my ratings. Oh, Patrick Ness, of course, very formative. And then kind of more recently, Doris Lessing and Elena Ferrante. I’ve only read the one novel by Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook, but—I mean, what a book. And on the same sort of level, Susan Choi, I’ve only read her novel Trust Exercise but it absolutely floored me.
NW: Wasn’t The Golden Notebook the one they had in Normal People? Like, it’s the book that Connell picks up from Marianne’s bookshelf?
RR: …maybe [laughs]. I may have come to it because there’s a throwaway line in Normal People where Connell says—and I think this might be near-verbatim—he’s going to college and he says he could tell them he’s read The Golden Notebook and, “It’s true, he has read it.” And I was like, “Well…”
NW: [Laughs]. Well, if it’s good enough for Connell.
RR: Yeah, so that’s how I came to that. Anyway—Neil Gaiman was a big one for me growing up, just a big inspiration. I tend to love Leigh Bardugo’s Young Adult books, and Maggie Stiefvater’s, I think she’s a phenomenal writer. I’d like to read more Ann Patchett; what I’ve read from her I’ve really liked. And I’m looking out eagerly for what Julie Buntin writes next, she wrote Marlena. Gillian Flynn, I’ve read her entire bibliography, and I need her to write another book.
I feel as if there’s no unifying feature to the books that I like, or the authors whose brains spark mine. I’ll read anything as long as I enjoy it—and as long as it’s fictional. I have such struggles with nonfiction, but I’m trying to be better.
NATHAN WINER is a graduate of Kenyon College, currently working as an Editorial Intern at Tin House Books and as a tutor in the Chicago area. His work has appeared in MAYDAY Magazine and The Cleveland Review of Books.