The Big Idea: Catherine Asaro

Finally! An author brave enough to give an answer to The Question all writers get! The author: Catherine Asaro. Her newest book: The Vanished Seas. Her answer? Read on!


“Where do you get your ideas?”

The dreaded question. It’s also a good one, deserving a good answer. Unfortunately, I never have a good response. The best I can muster is, “I don’t know.” Ideas percolate in my brain like in an old-fashioned coffee maker, and I can’t say what happens before the coffee pours out, rich and fragrant.

So I imagined the Undercity, where part of The Vanished Seas takes place. The Undercity exists in the ancient ruins beneath the City of Cries. The wealthy citizens of Cries consider it a slum, a place sparsely populated by drug-dealers, the homeless, and the elusive Black Mark, an illegal casino that entices the Cries glitterati.

However, the Undercity is far different than outsiders imagine. Isolated for thousands of years, her people evolved their own civilization, an achingly beautiful culture, yet one that can also crush the soul, with poverty and grace existing side-by-side, light and darkness, the violence of life combined with exquisite arts.

Outsiders can never find the true Undercity. The extraordinary ruins where her people hide spread for many square kilometers under a desert called the Vanished Sea. Although some back and forth exists with the outside world, no one can enter who doesn’t belong. If outsiders venture into the ruins without an invitation, they’re lucky to make it out alive.

In some ways, the Undercity offers a darker version of the Camelot legends, with its tales of a shining place that no longer exists, having vanished into the mists of history. My intrigued readers wanted to know where those ideas came from. I’d never have found an answer if I hadn’t become involved in a seemingly unconnected and far more mundane task, helping to write the Wikipedia entry for my high school.

I attended John F. Kennedy High in Richmond, California not far from Berkeley and Oakland. People often describe JFK as inner-city and urban. I’ve never felt easy with those words. It’s true that the school lies within walking distance of downtown Richmond, with its attractive public library and county buildings, but mostly residential areas surround the school. Is that urban? Inner-city? What do those words even mean? I’d suggest they are a code that implies a primarily minority enrollment, lower income levels, and a higher crime rate.

JFK also once ranked among the top public high schools in California. In its earliest years, it offered a model of what an urban public school could become at its best. Harvard came to recruit. Athletes won scholarships. Graduates became state district attorneys, celebrated musicians, scientists, doctors, NPR correspondents, and authors. Richard Mitchell, the first Black student to rank among the top speakers in the National Forensics League, became City Planning Director for Richmond. Judy Tyrus rose to stardom in the Dance Theatre of Harlem. The lawyer Christopher Darden of OJ Simpson fame attended JFK. Salim Akil, a co-producer of the show Black Lightning, graduated from Kennedy.

Many considered JFK a model for successful integration, with a student body back then about half Black and half other races, primarily White, Hispanic, and Asian. The school also pursued an innovative approach to teaching, with flexible scheduling similar to a college. That isn’t to say JFK had no problems; violence, drugs, racial tensions, and crimes exacted their toll, and the price we paid for that toll also lives in my memories. Yet that went hand-in-hand with an enthusiastic young faculty and a vibrant student body.

But what makes Kennedy even more distinctive—what has spurred articles and an entire masters thesis on the school—is how over the course of forty years it went from being a flagship of the California public education system to one of the worst schools in the state.

The changes at Kennedy arose from a perfect storm of disasters, starting with the unintended consequences of the Serrano legal rulings for California education, followed by the ravages of Proposition 13, the loss of industry in Richmond, and shifts in district policies. The decline was gradual but inexorable. In recent years, JFK has rebounded, as the school district climbs out of a slump that lasted decades.

Knowles Adkisson at the Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism explores the reality of the school in his 2018 masters thesis titled Kennedy High School: Fall of an Educational Camelot. Many people refer to the early decades at JFK as the Camelot years, evoking the term used to describe the administration of President Kennedy, the school’s namesake, and also the song lyrics from the musical of the same name: “Don’t let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief, shining moment that was known as Camelot.”

Is it true that for one brief moment, an inner-city public school defied the stereotypes and shone like a star? I would argue the magic never left; it still exists, often unseen by the outside world. You may not find the true soul of the community if you don’t know the city; you risk your safety if you go looking in places where you don’t belong. But the beauty thrives.

Adkisson’s thesis traces the history of JFK—and it hurt to read those words. I remembered how we believed our generation stood witness to a new age of tolerance and equality. Together all of us, black, brown, and white, could solve the problems of the world and usher in a brighter future.

So yeah, we were naïve.

But we weren’t wrong. The push-back we’re seeing now in the country echoes a backlash against those dreams of past generations. It isn’t that society hasn’t made progress, but that the progress terrifies some. Yet change never stops. Attempts to turn back the clock ultimately fail.

Did I think about all this as I wrote The Vanished Seas? No. If not for the Wiki article, I wouldn’t have recalled it at all. The Undercity is an original creation, a fantastical place immersed in science fiction.

And yet…

I see my childhood interwoven with that world. I didn’t grow up in poverty; I came from a middle class family. Many of us at the school did, despite the implications of words like inner-city. Even so, I lived a markedly different youth compared to that enjoyed by the kids I met at UCLA, students from places like Beverly Hills and Pacific Palisades. When I went to Harvard for graduate school, I felt the weight of its traditions. I loved being a student at both schools, and I’m grateful for the doors that my degrees opened. But I felt a certain distance. It wasn’t only that in the late 1970s, I was often the only woman in my graduate physics and math classes. I also discovered my peers couldn’t relate to my background. Although I didn’t consciously stop talking about it, I realized as I put together this essay that it’s the first time I’ve written about my experiences at Kennedy.

I grieve the contrast of today’s world with the glowing idealism we carried as teens. But I also feel hope. Dreams like Camelot never truly vanish. They live within our communities, within every person who dares step outside the boundaries of their life to strive for a better world.

We’ll find our way to that shining place. I’ve always believed it, because I’ve seen how even our darkest hours can give birth to miracles.


The Vanished Seas: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter. Subscribe to her Patreon.

16 Comments on “The Big Idea: Catherine Asaro”

  1. Catherine, I’ve been SO LOOKING forward to your new book! Your world is rich and fascinating; it’s interesting how it relates to your past and your remarkable school. I’ll be thinking of that as I read THE VANISHED SEAS.

    As to the question of where writers get their ideas, I once read that Stephen King would answer ‘from a little mail order shop in Toledo.’ (These days I suppose it would be ) My answer is that I have a storyteller’s brain, which I can’t explain, only be grateful for. Stories are everywhere; creativity is seeing them and making something of them.

  2. Thanks. I was blessed to live briefly in the Bay Area, during which time the only mentions I heard of Richmond made it sound like a hellscape. I knew there had to be more to the story.

    Though a Baen book, this cover is a dead ringer for the Tor mm pb aesthetic circa 1988-1993. I’m nostalgia-jonesing real bad.

    This sounds intriguing; you made a sale.

  3. My personal opinion is that nearly everyone gets ideas. They come from being curious, asking questions, and thinking for yourself. It’s what you do with them that counts. Just getting an idea is the easy part. Transforming the ideas into art requires skill, talent, tenacity, and a great deal of hard work.

  4. A very favorite author, have read everything by her and can’t wait to get a hold of this one. Science and romance!

  5. Having read the first two books of this series (and other Skolian novels), I pre-ordered this last year and received it on Tuesday. Devoured it at once. It did not disappoint. A wonderful mix of hard SF, “psi,” and mystery. I love Major Bhajaan and the bridge she builds between the elite city-dwellers and the dwellers of the Undercity.

  6. Where do ideas come from? It helps to be a fathead, that is, to have a lot of myelin (fat) coating your axons to speed along “messages” between disparate parts of the brain. Novel (ha-ha) connections we are not aware of until they become conscious.

  7. Where do ideas come from? Sometimes it’s a single word that somehow does something in your head, sometimes it’s two simple objects or thoughts ‘colliding’, and sometimes you just have to shrug and mutter, ‘Hell if I know’.
    I remember I once wrote a novella I was quite pleased with. It was funny but ended in darkness. A year or so later I woke up with the sentence, ‘Nobody had told the elephant you’re not allowed to do U-turns (on Bergen Street*)’ and in that moment I saw almost all of a follow-up novella – and I’d never once thought of revisiting that first novella (world), because I really considered it done. The second novella became part two of a longer story and when I was almost done editing that I realised it needed one finishing touch, a very short third part, or coda.
    It may be one of the best things I wrote and I have still no idea what happened that day I woke up with that elephant in my bed, or head.

    *I added the street name later

  8. Exactly what I was searching for, after finishing Martha Wells’ latest! A new (to me) world to get lost in. A little embarrassed that I was unaware of this series and author…worse, that we are near contemporaries. But that’s a reason I’ve started reading this blog & comments. Looking forward to the journey. Thanks to all!

  9. I’ve never had a problem with the question “Where do your ideas come from?” The short answer is: everywhere. The slightly longer answer is: writers are like magpies, who collect shiny objects (people, places, things, speech acts, events) and use them to build beautiful, improbable structures (stories). A lengthier answer (one which I will not be able to do justice to here), goes something like: writers are trained to recognize the elements of a good story, and are constantly filing away details of anything in their environment that could someday be used towards the end of telling one.

    Coincidentally, I told my sister and nephew a story tonight that illustrates this point.

    I once belonged to a science fiction book club in Toronto. Each month, we would read a book and get together to discuss it. One month, the book listed on the club’s web site was The Dragons of Bagel by Michael Swanwick. I thought: That is an awesome title! I so want to read that book! Anybody familiar with Swanwick’s writing will know that the title was, in fact, a typo, that the name of his novel is actually The Dragons of Babel.

    Once I got over my disappointment, I realized that meant that the title was available for my own use. So, the first chapter of my second novel is called “The Dragon of the Bagel.” And, yes, it contains both a dragon (actually, several) and a delicatessen.

    I usually use this story to explain how an artist sees the world differently than a non-artist. The other members of the book club saw the typo and quickly dismissed it; I saw the typo and (eventually) saw an artistic opportunity. Being an artist means seeing the whole world as potential raw material for your art. The ideas come from everywhere.

  10. Brown Robin, that is what I hoped for, that my blog entry would help show the other side of the story. Thank you!

    It’s true Richmond has been viewed the way you describe. Near the turn of the millennium, it got so intense that people said the initials JFK for the high school meant “Jail For Kids.” The school district made the national news when they became one of the first ever to declare bankruptcy. It is improving now, thank goodness.

    I’ve wondered lately if the first Major Bhaajan book, Undercity, was a subconscious protest on my part to the idea the places of my youth were a hellscape. Sure, the Undercity is a fictional milieu that doesn’t have an analog on Earth. I called it Undercity because it’s under the City of Cries. That’s all I thought as I wrote the books. Yet now that it’s staring me in the face, how can I miss the similarity between Undercity and Innercity? I wonder if subconsciously the book was my silent protest, not to the word inner-city itself, but to the context our society inflicts on that word.

    It isn’t that inner-city necessarily implies anything untrue; JFK is a primarily minority enrollment school in a relatively lower income area with a higher crime rate compared to other places in the region. What always bothered me were the negative assumptions that often went with those facts, that those of us who came from such schools were somehow less in everything. Without setting out to do it, the character Major Bhaajan ends up revealing to the City of Cries, and indeed the overarching star-spanning civilization, that her people are so much more than pre-conceived notions, that the Undercity of her youth is a place of miracles as well as difficulty. If someone had asked me more than a year ago where that idea came from, I would have said I didn’t know.

    It means a lot to know you got what I wanted to say, especially since I’m just figuring it out myself.

  11. mjp624, Tsauro, and Nick thank you for the kind words on my work. And I love all the comments here, reading about how others have tackled the “how do I get my ideas” conundrum. It’s thoroughly cool!

  12. Robert Hagen, thank you. Are you by any chance Robert Hagen the astrobiologist interviewed by Michio Kaku about life in the universe? If so, I’ve been trying to figure out how to listen to that show. It looks excellent, and I’m always looking for discussions about life off of Earth (very useful for sf writers). But for some reason playback doesn’t seem to work on my computer.

  13. Wow. A collision of two of my worlds! I graduated from Kennedy about a decade after Catherine. I also didn’t realize how unique Kennedy was until years after I left.

  14. The Rosie the Riveter National Historic Park is in Richmond. Many people came to work in the shipyards for the WWII war effort. They built a strong community. Then they went through some tough times, but there have always been smart, creative people there. I wouldn’t ever count them out.

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