Hello Mixed-Up Filers!
Have to start by saying that I was excited about this interview! For those who don’t know, I’m a huge fan of Lost in Space, both the original program, and the Netflix Reboot. So, when I was given the opportunity to read Kevin Emerson’s Lost in Space novel, Return to Yesterday, I jumped at the chance. Loved the book and am thrilled to be able to interview the author, Kevin Emerson!
JR: Hi, Kevin and thanks for joining us today!
KE: Thank you! Happy to be here.
JR: First off, can you tell us a little bit about how this came about? Were you approached to do the tie-in?
KE: I was approached by the editor at Little Brown. She was looking for a middle grade sci-fi writer and she saw my 2017 novel LAST DAY ON MARS (the first in the Chronicle of the Dark Star trilogy, all of which are now out) and thought it was a good fit. Once I watched the show, I totally agreed! And then we talked and found that we shared the same sci-fi and storytelling tastes.
JR: Will you be involved with further books in the series?
KE: Yes! In fact, I’ve already written a second book which comes out in May! It takes place between seasons 1 and 2, and is less time-travely and more spooky and mysterious. We’ve even talked about the possibility of a 3rd book but at the moment it is dependent on whether the series gets picked up for a 3rd season.
JR: I hope so, I really enjoy the series, and loved the book! Now, can you tell us a little bit about Return to Yesterday?
KE: It’s a fast-paced Back to the Future style time travel adventure. I guess more like Back to the Future Part II, where seemingly mundane actions lead to a dangerous alternate timeline. It has some Dr. Who and Next Generation influences as well. The story centers on Will Robinson and his Robot, and what happens when they discover a mysterious portal inside a cave on the planet where they’re stranded in Season 1. The portal can transport you across spacetime to almost any where and when of your choosing. Which is irresistible to a kid who misses Earth…. Penny and Judy, Will’s older sisters, also play a big part in the story, both in causing the timeline dilemma, and in solving it.
JR: How much freedom were you given to do a book based on established characters? Did you have to get approval on all the plot points?
KE: I did have to get approval, but I was given almost total freedom to come up with a story idea. There were really only two rules. First, the story had to take place within season 1, but obviously couldn’t affect the characters or the story. The trick there is that Season 1 is almost nonstop action and takes place over just a few weeks. The other rule was that the story needed to center on Will and the Robot. Now, if you’ve watched Season 1, you know that the Robot is not always around, so I had to find a window of time when they were both together, and when there was actually a stretch long enough to have a book-length adventure. I pretty quickly realized I needed some sort of plot that allowed time to be stretched. The show producers did suggest some ideas, one of which was for the characters to find ancient alien artifacts in a cave. I liked the idea of Will and the Robot exploring caves. Because the planet they’re stranded on has a bit of a Land of the Lost vibe, I thought of what kind of strange technology they could find in the caves, and it came together. WHY that technology is there is one of my favorite plot points of the book, but I don’t want to spoil it. 😉
It was a similar process with the second book, by the way. In that case, I got to read the shooting scripts for Season 2 over the summer, to find a suitable story spot. That was very cool!
JR: That’s amazing. So jealous that you got to read scripts ahead of time! And yes, I can see a Land of the Lost vibe, which by the way, is one of my faves as well. Can you tell us a little bit about your writing journey getting to this point?
KE: Return to Yesterday is my 20th book. I published my first book in 2008 (I was 34), after about six years of seriously pursuing children’s and YA fiction. Before that, I taught science at a K-8 school, which was how I got turned on to kids books. During those six years, I wrote 3 manuscripts, all of which I sent out, and all of which accumulated many rejections (and one brief agent, and one finalist in a Random House first novel contest, and a bunch of nice feedback and connections). I left teaching halfway through, did various part time work in education, and spent as much time as I could writing. Finally, that third novel got me an agent, and became my first novel, Carlos is Gonna Get It (Arthur Levine Books 2008). I’ve always been interested in a variety of genres, so over the years I’ve worked with a bunch of different editors and publishing houses. I’ve been fortunate to be able to write and sell books and pay the rent doing it, not that it’s always been smooth sailing. I will say that LAST DAY ON MARS and its sequels are my bestselling books to date (and I think my best), so I feel like I’m in a good place. I’m grateful to have this career and that it’s going to continue, at least for a few more books.
JR: I read a lot of fascinating things on your website, http://www.kevinemerson.net/ such as you being in a band and moving around a lot, but the things that jumped out at me the most were some shared items we had. I also started as a science teacher, but with me, I didn’t know the first thing about science, and had to always struggle to stay one step ahead of the kids. So, how did you go from science to writing, and how much does your love of science influence the types of books you like to write?
KE: Hey that’s cool! I always wanted to be an author, but I didn’t love English classes, so in college I ended up majoring in Biology (specifically environmental science). I loved it, but when I graduated, I didn’t necessarily want to go to grad school. The teaching job was totally serendipitous. I’d moved to Boston after college to be in a band, and was working at an environmental science summer camp, where I met some parents from a school that was desperately seeking a science teacher. So I interviewed and got it. At first, I was in way over my head, but after the first year I found my footing and really loved the job.
I love thinking about science concepts, especially space and ecology, and I love talking about that stuff with kids, so it was natural to include a bit of science in my stories. Even when I’m not writing sci-fi, there are always little science bits and observations in there.
JR: This is perhaps the MOST important question of this interview. I also read we had another thing in common as kids. The love of the Choose Your Own Adventure books! How awesome were they? Yes, that’s a rhetorical question, but what was it about them that you loved?
KE: The first serious writing I ever did when I was a kid was fan fiction (Indiana Jones, James Bond), and part of that was based on reading Choose Your Own Adventure books. Basically, I wanted any way possible to feel like I was in the world of my favorite characters. I particularly loved books related to my favorite movies, I think not just because of the visual component, but because I’m very musical and I loved my adventures, whether in the backyard or with action figures or with a pencil and paper, to have a soundtrack. Choose Your Own Adventure books really made you feel like you were in the story.
JR: What’s your writing process like?
KE: Procrastinate, Panic, Type. No, it’s more like I ruminate on an idea for a while, (months to a few years, while I’m working on other things). Then I write up a basic short pitch, and the first real writing I do is to write a scene that happens in the middle of the story, so I can see all the characters acting and doing stuff without having to set it all up. I see how they interact, how they show their personalities in a scene, and I also get a sense for the rhythm and sounds and action of the story. Then I try to write a longer synopsis (to sell it to my agent and editor) and then I try to write the beginning. I use my synopsis as an outline, but it’s just a guide. My first draft is really my outline, because I learn so much scene-to-scene along the way.
JR: The procrastination part makes it sound like we have the same writing process. Have to ask, what’s your favorite book?
KE: The two books that I reread every couple years are The Golden Compass and Slaughterhouse Five. Sentence-by-sentence, I just adore those two stories.
JR: And your favorite movie?
KE: I have so many but the movie I quote the most in life is Raiders of the Lost Ark. Though Empire Strikes Back is maybe actually my favorite. Weirdly my favorite franchise is Alien even though I only like some of those movies. But I love that world, and the way that universe feels.
JR: We share many of the same favorites. Something people would be surprised to learn about you?
KE: Probably that I have pretty strong anxiety. Apparently, I come across as being laid back (to people who don’t know me well), but that’s just my stoic Swedish expression. I have to work pretty hard on mindfulness and keeping myself on schedule to not get overwhelmed.
JR: What are you working on next?
KE: As we speak, I’m on deadline for my next original middle grade novel. It’s a standalone, earth-bound sci-fi story with a heavy nod to The X-Files, however it exists in the same universe as my DARK STAR series. I don’t have a title for it yet, but it should be out in 2021, IF I get this draft done!
JR: You had me at X-Files, so you just sold a copy. How can people follow you on social media?
JR: I’m with you on that. Have to force myself there. Before we go, one last question. You appeared in a Swedish TV commercial! What for and how did that happen?
KE: Ha! Yes, that happened. So, back in 2010, a call went around the music circles that I’m part of looking for musicians who were in their mid-30’s and also “looked like insurance salesmen” (I kid you not). There has literally never been a more apt description for my game J . It was for this series of commercials for a Swedish insurance company that was filming in Seattle. They did three of them, and in each one, some person ran into trouble that needed an insurance company, and these guys in suits would arrive and immediately break into “Don’t You Worry Bout A Thing” by Stevie Wonder. I sang my version while standing in a foot of water in a flooded bakery set. They filmed us running through the streets downtown wearing suits (I still have the suit.) It was a surreal couple days. Really, it’s been a surreal career.
JR: And I’m now running to YouTube to look for your commercial!
That’s it for now Mixed-Up Filers. Thanks again to Kevin Emerson for taking the time to chat with us, and make sure you go out and get Lost in Space: Return to Yesterday!