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Interview With an Author: Becky Chambers

Daryl M., Librarian, West Valley Regional Branch Library,
Author Becky Chambers and her latest novel, A Psalm for the Wild-Built
Author Becky Chambers and her latest novel, A Psalm for the Wild-Built

Becky Chambers is a science fiction author based in Northern California. She is best known for her Hugo Award-winning Wayfarers series. Her books have also been nominated for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the Locus Award, and the Women's Prize for Fiction, among others. She has a background in performing arts and grew up in a family heavily involved in space science. She spends her free time playing video and tabletop games, keeping bees, and looking through her telescope. Having hopped around the world a bit, she’s now back in her home state, where she lives with her wife. She hopes to see Earth from orbit one day. Her latest novella is A Psalm for the Wild-Built and she recently talked about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.

What was your inspiration for A Psalm for the Wild-Built ?

So many different bits and pieces went into Psalm. A lifelong love of robots. A strong itch to write something solarpunk. Growing up in Los Angeles and living in the woodsy middle of nowhere now. Lapsed Catholicism. Road trips with my wife. Studio Ghibli movies. A bone to pick with the idea that technology and nature are fundamentally at odds. A soft spot for tea, farms, cob houses, bugs, green roofs, and overgrown buildings. A desire to write something that serves as pure comfort for an adult audience.

Are Sibling Dex, Splendid Speckled Mosscap, or any of the other characters in the novella inspired by or based on specific individuals?

Dex and Mosscap both are, but their origins are top secret, I’m afraid.

How did the novella evolve and change as you wrote and revised it? Are there any characters or scenes that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?

Dex’s profession changed quite a bit from my original concept. I initially imagined them as a farmer, then they shifted into a person with a traveling seed library. In both of those early iterations, I saw Dex as someone with a real affinity for the Pangan gods, and eventually, it just made sense to make that connection as intimate as possible. When Dex became Sibling Dex, that’s when the whole story really came together.

As for cut scenes, any darlings I killed were killed for good reason. No regrets.

What was your inspiration for the Sacred Six?

The Sacred Six had to fit two criteria: it had to be a religion that I could see myself following, and I didn’t want it to feel overtly supernatural. Pangan religion is a very tangible sort of faith. Each god is the face of either an undeniable force of nature or a foundational part of the human experience. They don’t perform miracles or influence people beyond a glimmer of inspiration or a gentle coincidence. They certainly don’t talk to people, and if you want help, you better be able to help yourself.

Do you have a favorite tea (or, if naming one is too difficult, maybe a top five)?

I’m the only writer I know who doesn’t like caffeine, so everything in my tea box is herbal (unless I can find a really good decaf). Peppermint is my staple during the workday. I drink a lot of rooibos, too, and am sometimes in a mood where only ginger will do. I often have a cup of chicory tea with milk before bedtime, alongside something sweet. It scratches the coffee itch nicely.

A Psalm for the Wild-Built is listed as a “Monk and Robot Book.” Is this the beginning of a new series? Will it be like The Wayfarers series, with tangentially related stories within the same universe? Or will we be reading more stories about Dex & Mosscap?

Unlike Wayfarers, the Monk and Robot books will just be focused on Dex and Mosscap’s story.

All of your work is undeniably positive (in spite of often dealing with difficult/challenging circumstances). Have you found it difficult to maintain that outlook while writing in the midst of a global pandemic?

Honestly? Yes. But difficult as writing was during 2020, I’ve always stuck to the same basic ground rule: I write the stories that I need to hear. The harder things in my own life are, the more likely I am to lean into writing about people who grow and heal. My mood and mindset rarely match what’s on the page. I believe in hopeful futures, wholeheartedly, but there are a lot of days when I’m writing in defiance of myself as much as anything else.

What’s currently on your nightstand?

A wake-up light alarm clock, a snake plant, and a bottle of hand lotion. But if you’re asking about what I’m reading, I just started Upright Women Wanted by Sarah Gailey. I tend to read in my living room or in my office, not so much in bed.

Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?

Ursula K. Le Guin
Margaret Atwood
J.R.R. Tolkien
Octavia Butler
Carl Sagan

What was your favorite book when you were a child?

The Hobbit.

Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?

There were a few collections of queer short stories and essays that remained carefully buried in the bottom of my backpack when I was in high school. I didn’t come out until after I left home, but I was desperate to find a mirror for myself and devoured what little I could find at the library.

What is a book you've faked reading?

Yes, and I’m not going to say what it is because I still feel super guilty that I got an A on the essay for it. I just listened really well to the discussions in class.

Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?

None come to mind, I’m afraid.

Is there a book that changed your life?

The Left Hand of Darkness. I wouldn’t be having this chat with you if I hadn’t read that. It’s the book that took me from being a fan of science fiction to wanting to write it myself.

Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?

If I’m totally honest, I can’t think of one! Taste is subjective, and I’d have to know who I was recommending what to.

Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?

Lilith’s Brood by Octavia Butler. It’s three books, technically, and they blew my mind so hard.

What is the last piece of art (music, movies, tv, more traditional art forms) that you've experienced or that has impacted you?

Hades, by Supergiant Games. Video games are art, one hundred percent, and Hades got me and my friends through the latter end of 2020. Aside from it being a gorgeously designed game from top to bottom, it was a constant source of conversation. We traded fanart, we talked strategy, we gushed about the soundtrack. It was a real bright point in a long winter.

What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?

If money and logistics are no object, I’d want to rent a house or some cabins by a mountain lake, and have a super cozy party with my friends from all over the world. There’d be a fancy barbecue, and colorful drinks, and a big bonfire at the end.

What is the question that you’re always hoping you’ll be asked, but never have been? What is your answer?

I’m forever waiting for somebody to ask me, “would you like to meet this Giant Pacific Octopus?” And my answer is yes, yes, I would.

What are you working on now?

I’m just getting started on a new novel. It’s science fiction, it’s very alien, it’s unrelated to any of my other works, and that is all I can say about it right now.

Book cover for A Psalm for the Wild-Built
A Psalm for the Wild-Built
Chambers, Becky

In A Psalm for the Wild-Built, Becky Chambers, the award-winning author of The Wayfarers series, returns with a quiet novella that is quirky, thoughtful, and hopeful. Chambers uses the moon of Panga, an Earth like moon, and its inhabitants, biological and artificial, to explore not only Earth’s past, but also a future we would be lucky to achieve.

Chambers also explores some of the “big questions” that we all ponder. For that purpose, she has created a fascinating pair of characters: Sibling Dex, a self-declared and self-taught tea monk who is looking for more from their existence, and Splendid Speckled Mosscap, the first robot to venture into human habitations in centuries. Together, they are perfectly suited to debate and explore these “big questions” of life (both theirs and ours).

A Psalm for the Wild-Built is beautiful, thought provoking, and unrelentingly optimistic.