Indie Zone: Talking with J.B. Rockwell

Indie Zone J.B. Rockwell

jbrockwellJ.B. Rockwell is a New Englander, which is important to note because it means she’s (a) hard-headed, (b) frequently stubborn, and (c) prone to fits of snarky sarcasticness. As a kid she subsisted on a steady diet of fairy tales, folklore, mythology augmented by generous helpings of science fiction and fantasy. As a quasi-adult she dreamed of being the next Indian Jones and even pursued (and earned!) a degree in anthropology. Unfortunately, those dreams of being an archaeologist didn’t quite work out. Through a series of twists and turns (involving cats, a marriage, and a SCUBA certification, amongst other things) she ended up working in IT for the U.S. Coast Guard and now writes the types of books she used to read. Not a bad ending for an Indiana Jones wannabe… J.B.’s sci-fi novel SERENGETI (published by Severed Press) made its debut in February 2016, with the sequel, DARK AND STARS, due out in December 2016. Website:

Talking with J.B. Rockwell

S&S:  What was the first sci-fi book you read that made an impression on you? What about the first movie?

J.B. Rockwell (JBR): As a kid, all my sci-fi influences came from my father and his collection of books. He had lots of them and I used to walk up and down the bookshelves admiring spines and covers. I can’t say that I remember every book of his that I read and which order I read them in but two that come to mind are Ursula Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness (which, as I kid, I think I only half understood) and David Brin’s The Uplift Wars. I liked that second one because it had spacefaring dolphins piloting a ship filled with water. That’s cool. Really cool. As for movies, I’d have to go with the original Star Wars, which came out when I was just a wee tot and I’m pretty sure I later saw when it was re-released in the theaters. That movie was huge for the time and certainly a huge influence for young, little me.

S&S: We’re planning on reading Left Hand of Darkness next year for our Decades of Sci-Fi Challenge! I’ve only read The Lathe of Heaven by her, but I loved it.


S&S: What is so appealing about your chosen genre? (In other words, why should someone start reading sci-fi?)

JBR: I think it’s the freedom and the endless possibilities. When people think sci-fi, they tend to think hard science or space wars (both good things, by the way) but sci-fi has so much more variety than that. Sci-fi is spaceships and robots and far-flung planets, aliens and spacestations and all sorts of cool toys! Basically, with sci-fi, if you can dream it, you can have it. Even a trashy, schmexy romance (in space!) if that floats your boat. What you don’t have is the boundaries and limitations of the boring, hum-drum existence we experience here on present day Earth. Sci-fi dreams big and delivers big—that’s why you should read it.


S&S: Do any of your stories ever come from dreams or nightmares that you’ve had?

JBR: Not so much from dreams or nightmares (mostly those are about kittens, finding kittens and losing) but I definitely have thoughts of varied (and sometimes dubious) quality right before I drift to sleep. If I’m awake enough, I’ll scribble a line or three down in my little notebook and see if they lead anywhere. I’m pretty sure that’s how SERENGETI came to be. It definitely started as a scribbled line in my notebook, anyway, though I can’t remember now if that was a ‘half asleep’ scribble or a ‘random thought generated while running’ scribble.


S&S: Not counting publication, what do you think was the most difficult part of writing it?

JBR: Writing it! Seriously, when I start writing a book I usually only have a few ideas of what will happen so I’m always worried about whether I’ll be able to come up with a long enough (and interesting enough) storyline without throwing in a lot of useless padding. I’m not much of a plotter—I just write one chapter at a time and when I move on from a scene I sort of sit back and think, ‘Alright, brain. What happens next?’ Then my brain gets angry and starts whining about me being a lazy ass writer and it doing all the work and somehow I end up eating half a pound of chocolate before taking a nap…


S&S: So, from start to final daft, how long did it take you to write this one?

JBR: Something on the order of two years. I worked on other projects during that time, though, so it wasn’t two solid, unending years of effort. I wrote a draft and walked away. Edited that draft a couple of times and walked away. Betaed and edited, queried and subbed and entered contests, and edited some more based on feedback from everything before I finally got an agent who finally sold SERENGETI to Severed Press.


S&S: If you could partner with a famous author in your genre for a collaborative work, who would you pick and why?

JBR: Oh man. That’s a tough one. On the one hand, it would be an amazing experience to work with a big name author I really respect, like Elizabeth Bear or C.J. Cherryh or Stephen King. On the other hand, that’s terrifying because those are really big names and I’m just a little fish. I’d love to partner with one of my Inkbot writer friends (the Inkbots are my writer group—an awesomely creative and supportive contingent of writers who’ve helped me immensely with my writing over the years) or one of the newer big names in sci-fi. Someone like Becky Chambers, or V.E. Schwab, or Jen Williams.


S&S: What was the subject of the first story you ever wrote?

JBR: A dragon. Well, an Ice Dragon, specifically, who fell in love with a fox. I like dragons, you see. And foxes. A lot.


S&S: What’s the most constructive criticism you’ve ever been given?

JBR: ‘Too much!’ I’ve gotten that several times from writer friends who’ve betaed my work and it’s always a good reminder to simplify and avoid dragging out a scene. Sometimes it’s hard to tell when you’re over-explaining, or when your book desperately needs a diet.

S&S: I can think of a few authors who need to learn how to tell when their book needs a diet. Sounds like you’ve got a great group you work with!


S&S: Fancast the first three characters that pop into your head from your book for us. 

JBR: I went with Gina Torres for Serengeti (Serengeti’s actually a spaceship, but when I was writing her character, I always heard Gina Torres’ voice in my head…also, she kicks ass), Karl Urban as Serengeti’s captain, Henricksen (he fits the gruff but loveable and ruggedly handsome mold quite well) and Ellen Page (who I love-love-love!) as Finlay, who’s one of the crew. She doesn’t quite look like Finlay as I’ve described the character in the book but she certainly has the attitude.


S&S: Do you have a favorite line from this book (that won’t spoil anything?)

JBR: Ack. I’m terrible at the ‘pick a favorite’ game, and I always panic when someone asks me to pick out one of my own sections of writing because I scan the doc and think ‘this is all crap!’.  That said, I settled on two small passages (I violated the one line rule and went with a short paragraph in both cases). I don’t think either is particularly spoilery, but…fair warning if you haven’t read the book!


“Humans craved planets, fought endless wars over rock and dirt and vegetation, but Serengeti cared nothing for those balls of water and soil. All she’d ever wanted was the stars. To explore the universe and drink in the endless black.”


“And there she slipped to sleep—peacefully this time, dreaming her dreams of days gone by. No fire this time, no destruction. Just Henricksen swapping pithy bits of wisdom, keeping Serengeti company in the dark.”


S&S: Do you consciously try to work in social commentary in your pieces?

JBR: Ha! No, definitely not. Things slip in—how could they not?—but this deep well is more of a shallow pool. I’m more Deep thoughts by Jack Handy than social commentary by big brain. I greatly admire those who really, truly are deep thinkers, but I find that the more I try to consciously include symbolism, themes and social commentary, the more wooden and fake it feels. So, I just let my mind slip things in here and there when I’m not paying attention and go with it.

S&S: I’m a “shallow pool” when it comes to my reading. Perfectly described!


S&S: What’s your writing routine like?

JBR: Chaotic. As I said before, I’m not a plotter—I’m just not good at it. Sitting down and trying to plot a book seriously stresses me out and I usually find a million ways to sidetrack myself and not actually do it. So, in the grand tradition of ‘fake it to make it’, I pants my way to success! Once I do start writing, though, I’m pretty disciplined and focused. I hate stopping before a chapter is finished so I typically write for as long as it takes to work the chapter through to the end. Same with editing—I guess I like to follow threads.


S&S: How much of you is in your main character?

JBR: Well, she’s a spaceship so…probably not a lot. That said, Serengeti is a sentient AI, which means she has her own personality—a very strong personality, by the way—and even learns to feel, in an AI-ish sort of way. So, I’m not sure there’s a lot of me in her—except the snarkiness that comes out once in a while—it’s more like Serengeti represents a lot of the things I’d like to be. She’s innovative and inventive and never gets up, even when the chips are down.


S&S: Will there be more of Serengeti in the future?

JBR: Great question! Thanks for asking! And, yes! Severed Press signed me up for a sequel that’s due out in December 2016—that’s more Serengeti right around the corner and just in time for the holidays!

serengeti by J.B. Rockwell

It was supposed to be an easy job: find the Dark Star Revolution Starships, destroy them, and go home. But a booby-trapped vessel decimates the Meridian Alliance fleet, leaving Serengeti-a Valkyrie class warship with a sentient AI brain-on her own; wrecked and abandoned in an empty expanse of space. On the edge of total failure, Serengeti thinks only of her crew. She herds the survivors into a lifeboat, intending to sling them into space. But the escape pod sticks in her belly, locking the cryogenically frozen crew inside. Then a scavenger ship arrives to pick Serengeti’s bones clean. Her engines dead, her guns long silenced, Serengeti and her last two robots must find a way to fight the scavengers off and save the crew trapped inside her.

Check out Serengeti by J.B. Rockwell on Goodreads.

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