Anne Corlett on Writing The Space Between the Stars

We talked to author Anne Corlett about her debut novel and how Firefly helped inspire her to write character-driven, "low-tech" sci-fi.

This article contains spoilers for The Space Between the Stars.

The Space Between the Stars is one of my favorite books of the summer. One part post-apocalyptic found family adventure, one part thoughtful exporation of trauma and grief, The Space Between the Stars is a refreshingly intimate and hopeful spin on the end-of-the-world narrative.

I had a chance to ask author Anne Corlett about the inspiration for and process of writing her debut novel. Here’s what she had to tell me, via email, about how The Space Between the Starscame to be, whether or not she’s a Firefly fan, and the reactions she’s gotten to the science fiction book so far…

How did the idea for The Space Between the Stars begin? Did it start with the science fiction elements or Jamie’s journey? Or are the two indistinguishable?

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The original idea was very much about the journey. I’m from the northeast of England originally and we go up to Northumberland a couple of times a year to see family. We were staying in Beadnell, just down the coast from Lindisfarne, and I went for an evening walk on the beach.

It’s one of the most spectacular stretches of coastline in the country, and I suddenly wondered how it would feel to climb the dunes and get that first glimpse of the sea after an impossibly long journey. The sci-fi side of things came in response to the need for Jamie to start off so far away from home that she would have to face the possibility of never actually getting there at all.

For me, the relationship between Jamie and Rena was the most fascinating dynamic in the book. Jamie’s struggle to empathize with Rena was particularly compelling, especially given the things they had in common. Was Rena always the antagonist of the story?

She was certainly antagonistic from the start, but I didn’t originally envisage her having such a key role in the plot. That grew naturally as I worked through some of the themes in the book — religion, fertility, genetics, etc. Her blinkered belief in a divine plan made her the ideal lightning rod for those issues.

Another favorite element of the book is the found family Jamie creates. How did you decide on who would travel with Jamie? Were there ever more people on Callan’s ship who didn’t make the final draft of the book?

The characters came into life quite organically, in response to the needs of the plot and the particular characteristics of the various themes I wanted to explore. And, yes, there was someone who didn’t make the final draft. In fact, he didn’t even make it through the first draft.

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His name was Davy and Jamie and the others rescued him from a locked cell in a juvenile offenders’ institution on their second planetary stop-off. I quite liked him, but I found it difficult to write a convincing character arc for him without resorting to some fairly trite repentance and redemption mechanisms. I also realised that his sole purpose in the story was to die dramatically! He went into a cabin on the ship and never came out again, and I ploughed on without him.

Towards the end of the story, I had what I thought was a vacancy for a character who loomed up in an alleyway and conveyed some bad news. Davy was reincarnated as Alec, but, again, it didn’t really seem proportional to introduce a whole character for the purpose of looming. Alec was abandoned. There was a final incarnation as Ciaran who the characters encountered in a vegetable garden, but he really had no purpose at all. Not even looming.

The romance in The Space Between the Stars is wonderfully understated. Did you think a lot about the balance between Jamie’s romantic relationships and non-romantic relationships when writing this book? It feels like there is a less complex version of this story that relies, perhaps too heavily, on love/intimacy as defined by romance.

I didn’t initially intend to have any romance between Jamie and Callan. I knew from very early on that I didn’t want this to be a story with all the loose ends neatly resolved, and everyone paired off. I wanted a sense of life going on, and the end of the book being entirely incidental to that.

The tension between the two of them caught me a little by surprise, but once it was there, it was impossible to ignore. I was always more interested in the different ways of relating to other people than in romance per se.

I like that your post-apocalyptic setting is neither a utopia nor a dystopia, but something in between. Were you actively trying to avoid falling too heavily into one of those two categories?

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I wanted it to be a recognizable future version of our world. I often read dystopian fiction and wonder how the human race got from here to there. I wanted this to be set in a future in which we are still in the relatively early stages of spreading out across the stars, and for some of our contemporary issues and moral dilemmas to be present in a new form.

So few science fiction stories directly explore female-centric topics like miscarriage in any meaningful way. Why did you think it was important to tell this story within the science fiction genre?

I think that science fiction allows for exploration of pretty much any topic. Wherever a story is set – and whenever it’s set – it’s always fundamentally about people doing what people do. And that includes characters who aren’t actually people! All writers are human, and we can only write within our own frame of reference — human senses, human emotions, human experiences.

I’ve seen some quite interesting fictional explorations of how non-human characters might differ from us — The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers springs to mind — but we can still only describe non-human minds and experiences by reference to our own understanding. I think that by taking a particular experience and transplanting it into a new, unfamiliar setting, you throw it into sharper relief.

The ending of your book is relatively hopeful. Was this always where you wanted to end? When you write, are you an outliner or a seat-of-your-pants writer?

As I mentioned above, I always knew I wanted that sense of continuation beyond the end of the book, and I knew that I wanted that potential future to be one with some hope. I did have the broad ending in my head right from the start.

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In terms of my writing style, I was always a pantser, but with The Space Between the Stars, I produced a long, detailed summary and actually managed to stick to it. Mostly!

Have there been reactions and/or readings of your book that surprise you?

I’ve had some really lovely responses, particularly regarding the relationship between Jamie and Finn, but I have been a little surprised at how angry some reviewers have been about the lack of “hard” sci-fi in the book. During the editing process, I did make a brief attempt to bring in a bit more science, but it was so out-of-keeping with the tone of the book that it was almost farcical. It essentially involved Jamie stopping what she was doing for regular internal musings about the nature of gravity or the history of space travel. I eventually realised that it just wasn’t going to work and deleted the whole lot!

This book is getting comparisons to Firefly (I definitely thought of the show when I was reading it — while loving that, unlike Firefly, The Space Between the Stars has such a female POV). Are you a fan of the show? Did you think of these similarities at all while you were writing?

I am a big Firefly fan — although I only discovered it about three years ago. It was one of those shows that had been on my radar, and I’d kept thinking I must get round to seeing what all the fuss was about, but somehow it took me a long time to actually sit down and watch it. It was a very bittersweet viewing process as I knew before I started that there was only ever going to be the one series.

It did inspire me, but not in the way that most readers might imagine. What it gave me was the confidence to write “low-tech” sci-fi. Firefly is all about the characters, with very little emphasis on the science. It’s a very recognizable world, and when I started watching it I had a bit of a lightbulb moment — it’s okay to just write a story about people. It doesn’t have to be about spaceships and aliens.

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I didn’t actually realize until very late in the writing process that I did have characters whose professions mirrored those in Firefly. The characters grew out of the needs of the plot and of the themes. I wanted to look at belief and religion, so Lowry came into being. I wanted to look at the judgements and expectations around women and their bodies. This gave rise to Mila.

Gracie was actually the character that worried me a little, because the female engineer seems to be a growing trend. Firefly and The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet being two examples. But then it occurred to me that to avoid portraying women who are engaged in traditionally “male” roles, in case it’s perceived as gimmicky or derivative, is actually perpetuating some of the traditional perceptions of women’s roles.

What books, TV shows, movies, or comic books are you a fan of right now?

I’m watching the new screen adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale and enjoying it. There is a lot of material that isn’t in the book, but while this is something that would usually irritate me, in this case I think it’s done particularly well. It’s not changing the story – it’s filling in some of the gaps and expanding on things that were only touched upon in the book.

I’m waiting looking forward to the next season of Game of Thrones. I have a theory as to where it’s going and I’m hoping to find out whether or not I’m right!

I got into The Walking Dead fairly recently and binge-watched seasons 1 to 7 in a matter of weeks. I like the way the zombies have almost become background noise – it’s very much about people versus people, and even the heroes have made morally questionable decisions over the course of the show.

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In terms of books, the author whose work I look forward to the most is probably John Connolly. He writes beautifully and his characters are compelling. I can’t remember how many books into the series we are now, but the quality has never tailed off. I hope there are many more installments to come. His short stories are also wonderful — short, understated and utterly chilling.

Read our full review of Anne Corlett’s debut science fiction novel. The Space Between the Stars is now available to buy via Amazon and Penguin Random House.