The Big Idea: Ramsey Hootman
Writer Ramsey Hootman grew up loving one literary genre but writing in an entirely different one for her debut novel Courting Greta. But don’t think that doesn’t mean her first literary love wasn’t an influence anyway. She’s here to explain how it was.
I first read The Martian Chronicles at age 12. This glorious, mind-expanding gateway drug lured me away from the kid’s section and into the clutches of Heinlein, Asimov, Bova—our library was a bit outdated when it came to SF, forcing me to cut my teeth on the classics.
As I aged, my reading horizons expanded. These days my addiction is best sated by the hard SF of Iain M. Banks and Vernor Vinge, but I’ve also come to adore the character-centric space opera of Lois McMaster Bujold and the hyrbid weirdness of China Mieville. I majored in English because words were my strength, but I attended a technical university and satisfied my GE requirements with physics, astronomy, and aviation.
So when I, a lifelong science fiction fan, finally became a novelist myself, the genre of my debut title was obviously… um…
Well, not quite. Courting Greta breaks too many genre conventions to be considered straight-up romance, so it’s technically just contemporary fiction. But the heart of the book is undeniably a story about two people negotiating the rough terrain of a very awkward relationship. Maybe even doing what you’d call falling in love.
How does a SF addict write a love story? Not very well, according to the pile of agent rejections detailing why no editor in his or her right mind would consider my book. The only point of view character was male (a big no-no), the story was “too unconventional,” and, to quote one rejection in particular, my characters needed to be “more conventionally attractive.”.
Approaching a problem from a completely different angle, however, is often what it takes to produce something unique and innovative. In an echo of that rejection, Library Journal’s recent starred review of Courting Greta called the story original, refreshing, and – surprise! – “unconventional.”
So… how does a SF addict write a love story? Accidentally. I started not with a romance, but with a character – someone I wasn’t seeing anywhere outside my own favorite genre. Samuel is the kind of guy who’d feel totally comfortable running a LAN party or a D&D table. Not your cool retro hipster geek, but a genuine computer nerd. Totally 1337, but not so hot on the interpersonal skills. There are a lot of books written for this kind of guy, particularly in SFF, but none that I knew of written about him. At least, not in a contemporary real-world setting.
Of course, “geek” is more of a class than a character attribute, so to be more specific: Samuel Cooke is a snarky programmer whose world consists of his apartment, his office, and a computer screen. At least until something prompts him to take up his crutches (he has spina bifida) and venture into the real world. He’s bitter, self-centered, and painfully conscious of how pathetic his life looks to everyone else.
Sam has a couple of antagonists, the biggest one being himself, but what he needed was a foil. Not just someone to draw him out of his defensive shell, but to really get under his skin and provoke him to actions he’d normally never consider. This person would ideally be his opposite: domineering, physical, action-oriented.
It’s probably pretty cliche that the first person that popped into my head was my junior high gym coach. You know the guy I’m talking about; perhaps you even spent a few semesters trying to avoid his disapproving bark. Except that in my case, he was a she. Hmm. Now that was interesting. To make the situation even more dire, let’s say she’s a conservative Christian. Older. Bigger. Stronger. He would be all words, she’d be all action. The strong and silent type.
And just like that, I discovered something I love even more than a good science fiction yarn: a serious challenge. In fact, the reason I love hard SF so much is because it forces me to stretch just beyond the bounds of my own understanding. Which, for better or worse, is why it’s a genre I’m unlikely to tackle. Writing it would require knowing just enough to spoil the magic.
Writing Courting Greta, however, was a different kind of challenge altogether. Trying to put Samuel and Greta in a relationship that didn’t stretch the bounds of credibility meant learning to understand and empathize with both characters, as different as they were from each other – and from myself. Over ten years (yes, I said ten) I rewrote the entire manuscript several times. The climax, which seems so essential now, didn’t even come into being until a couple of months before I landed my agent. Throughout the process, it was never a question of how to fit them together so much as whether it was possible at all.
So. How does a SF addict write a love story? Quite a bit like writing science fiction, I suppose: extrapolating from what I knew of the world to speculate about the unknown. In what situation, under what circumstances, might I behave like my gym teacher? Giving her the benefit of the doubt on all counts, what would her motivations be? From Sam’s perspective, what on earth would he see in Greta? Could those qualities be magnified? I established a set of parameters – physical and emotional – and then launched my explorers toward a new horizon.
And like any good SF yarn, the best part is not the destination, but the possibilities explored along the way.