Today I’m chatting with fellow Angry Robot author, Amber Royer! Amber is from Texas and she writes fun science fiction involving chocolate, aliens, lovesick AIs, time travel, and more. So let’s find out more about her, shall we?
Amber, how did you come to be a writer? Was it always something you were interested in or did you fall into it?
I’ve always wanted to be a writer. I can remember my fourth grade teacher telling me I had talent and thinking, wow, that is something you can really do as a career. Though probably not quite in those terms. And I obviously had no idea how difficult it is to become a novelist. I joined my first pro writer’s group when I was still in high school. So I basically grew up thinking critting and querying were just things you did, so I didn’t develop the shyness about the process so many people seem to have. I learned a lot of things wrong, took a few things too literally, but I kept learning. I tried to give up writing a time or two over the years, when publication seemed like an impossible dream and writing just for myself seemed like an impractical use of time. But I realized later, after I’d started writing again because I couldn’t help myself, that writing is a positive coping mechanism that was helping me combat stress and process difficult and uncomfortable emotions. So even if my books had never found an audience, I honestly believe I would still be writing regularly.
What were your favourite books/films/shows growing up? What kick-started your creativity?
I loved animal stories, like Runaway Ralph and Misty of Chincoteague and The Black Stallion.
I also loved spunky girl protags, starting with Ramona Quimbly Age 8. But there was also The Secret Garden and the Bridge to Terabithia and Little Women and a Little Princess and A Wrinkle in Time.
Even as a kid, I was fond of science fiction. Some of the sci-fi I read also played into the animal stories kick, like Star Dog (by A.M. Ligtner), Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nymh. I was also already a fan of comic sci-fi. I couldn’t get enough of things like Bruce Coville’s I was a Sixth Grade Alien series.
My brother (who is five years older) was into role playing games, and we played a lot of invention games involving action figures and Hotwheels. There was often a narrative element involved. It was a challenge that pushed me beyond my own age group linguistically.
You recently released your debut novel, FREE CHOCOLATE. What an eye-catching book title! Was that intentional or a fluke that turned into a marketing gold mine?
I figured Free Chocolate would make for an attention-catching title. When I hand sell the book, I go with, “And then the aliens landed, and they took samples of commodities, but they missed chocolate and now chocolate is basically the most important thing in the galaxy.” (From Earth’s point of view, anyway.)
And most of the time, the response I get is, “Isn’t it already?”
I’d heard a lot as an unpublished author about how you never get the title you intend for a book, but Free Chocolate worked on several levels, and Angry Robot “got” what I was trying to do with it.
It also allows for me to show off my book to people who aren’t traditional science fiction fans. Because there’s so much about actual chocolate botany and production, I’ve had the opportunity to read at the Dallas Chocolate Festival and to make friends with local chocolatiers, who have in turn helped me to establish myself as a chocolate expert.
For the new project I’m working on, I’m trying to think carefully about how to make it have wider appeal.
Speaking of FREE CHOCOLATE, can you tell us a bit about the book and what inspired you to write it?
See the above, “And then the aliens land . . . “ Once chocolate becomes Earth’s only commodity, there’s a global war over it, and in the aftermath, it becomes illegal to take unfermented cacao beans off planet. Bo, our protag, commits treason when she decides to steal a cacao pod and share it with an alien race. She believes that doing so will keep her planet from descending into another war. I wanted to tell a complex story where there wasn’t an easy answer as to who is in the right and which course will bring peace.
I’d read an article about the history of coffee, and this whole story about how coffee made its way to Europe (the guy who smuggled the contraband seedlings onto a boat was nearly thrown overboard after the boat foundered and water started running short and they found out he was sharing his water ration with a couple of plants.) So I bled the story forward. The aliens show up, try coffee, like it, and buy seedlings on the Internet. By the time Earthlings figure out what’s happened, there’s a company called StarTrucks delivering java beans from planet to planet on the far side of the galaxy.
Into the middle of this I drop Bo, a failed telenovela actress turned culinary arts student, who is in love with a Krom, the same alien race who had initiated the First Contact. I also wanted to tell a story about two people who care about each other despite personal failings, misunderstandings and ignorance of each other’s cultures. Love is never easy, and I make part of Bo’s arc in the first book, understanding what love really means.
You’ve just released the sequel, PURE CHOCOLATE. Congratulations! What can readers expect from this new title?
Thank you! The characters from the first book keep arcing in this one, as Bo starts to uncover new layers to some of the secrets surrounding the First Contact War. She also discovers that the company that controls chocolate on Earth has been adding an addictive substance to their products – just as she has to go to an alien planet for a diplomatic mission.
You spent several years as a youth librarian and now teach creative writing to both teens and adults. Have you learned anything from these fields that you’ve been able to apply to your writing? Or vice versa?
I definitely learn from my students. I think you learn more from critiquing someone else’s work than from any other process. You can look at your own work all day and not see the mistakes you’re making – but you’ll spot them right away in someone else’s manuscripts. And then realize when you’re making the same mistakes.
I also had to do a lot of research to put together my courses. I teach continuing education, which means we focus on the practical, and I was trying to figure out a way to help certain students who were having trouble creating characters that felt like real people, so I started delving into the psychology of story. I wound up designing an entire 5-week course on character attachment, character agency, empathy, pathos and catharsis. I learned a ton from doing this, and was able to more effectively structure my own writing for emotional impact.
Being a librarian taught me a lot about the book industry. Buying books means reading a lot of review magazines, and library school itself requires a lot of reading. Because I was a youth librarian, I read all the Newbery and Caldicot winners. The books I write are not intended for children (though Chocoverse books are appropriate for roughly 8th grade and up.) So how was all that reading useful? 32-page picture books break storytelling down into a format that is easy to understand. They wear their mechanics out in the open – but those mechanics have to be sound, because kids are fickle readers. These books have to focus on a single plot arc, and develop characters vividly with a minimum of words. I learned a TON from that.
You’ve also self-published two cookbooks with your husband. Can you tell us a little bit about these and how they came about?
We used to do a lot with the local herb society. At the time, I was doing presentations for them, and I wound up getting offered the opportunity to lecture about a number of cruises for Royal Caribbean. On board the first cruise, I realized that everyone who was performing/presenting had some kind of product they were selling as a momento of their performance. Even the ex-Olympic Gymnast had a work-out video (at least I’m pretty sure that’s what it was). I realized I needed a book to establish me as an expert. The first cookbook we wrote was all about combining herbs with chocolate, which led to me doing a lot of research on chocolate and taking a tour of a cacao plantation in Samana, Dominican Republic. Which led indirectly to the idea for the Chocoverse. I’d read that article on coffee, then we’d tasted cacao pulp straight off the tree, we put together the cookbook, then NaNoWrimo happened again, and I needed something fun to write 50K about . . . .
The cookbooks are currently out of print . . . . but a number of people have asked for the choco-cookbook, since people keep telling me that my novels make them hungry. So we’ve revised and expanded There are Herbs in My Chocolate, and we will be re-releasing it later this summer (still as a self-pub project). There will be a pre-order button up soon, but we didn’t want to cut into the publicity for Pure Chocolate. All I’m going to say now is: Grilled Chicken Satay with White Chocolate Thai-Style Peanut Sauce. Chartreuse-Infused Black Forest Cake. Herbed Pumpkin Ravioli with Cocoa Brown Butter. Hungry yet?
If you weren’t a writer, what would your dream job be? Do you have a secret passion we don’t know about?
I used to think I wanted to run a bed and breakfast. It sounded so picturesque – and hey, it always sounds amazing in the cozy mysteries. But at some point, I realized how difficult it would be to work with sometimes-irresponsible guests. And I realized I just wanted to make breakfast. For like ten people. A couple of times a week. Which isn’t practical.
No, I’d still be doing something with writing and/or books in some way. If nothing else, I’d be a blogger. Possibly a travel blogger, visiting cool bed and breakfasts in out-of-the way places and making cool videos and taking all the photographs and writing articles full of travel tips. I love exploring new places, trying new things.
What’s the one piece of advice you wish someone had told you when starting your writing career? What do you know now, that you wished you knew then?
Revise until it gleams. I started young, and was told I had raw talent. So I was turning out manuscripts and submitting them while they were still raw and unrefined. I kept getting smiley faces on my work instead of useful crit. You only get one chance with each agent or editor, or if you’re self-pubbing, one chance to get initial positive reviews. Don’t rush it. You’ll just wind up frustrated and feeling like you need to crank out a new piece, which you’ll put out there too soon again. That’s not permission to procrastinate. You need to put in the work, finish the manuscript, get feedback and polish it. And THEN submit or release.
What can we expect from you next?
I’m about mid-way through writing Chocoverse 3, and I’m about done revising a new project involving time travel.
Fantastic! Thanks for you time, Amber.
Readers, if you’d like to know more about Amber and her books, check out these links: