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Interview With an Author: Sylvain Neuvel

Daryl M., Librarian, West Valley Regional Branch Library,
Author Sylvain Neuvel and his latest novel, A History of What Comes Next
Author Sylvain Neuvel and his latest novel, A History of What Comes Next. Photo credit: James Andrew Rosen

Sylvain Neuvel is the author of The Themis Files trilogy and the novella The Test. Soon to be a feature film starring John Boyega and directed by Gavin Hood. He has taught linguistics in India and worked as a software engineer in Montreal. He is also a certified translator, though he wishes he were an astronaut. His girlfriend would have him believe that he has too many toys, so he writes about aliens and giant robots as a blatant excuse to build action figures; for his son, of course. His latest novel is A History of What Comes Next, the first book in the forthcoming Take Them to the Stars trilogy, and he recently talked about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.

What was your inspiration for A History of What Comes Next?

I like stories that span a fair amount of time. The Themis Files series takes place over 20 years, but I wanted more. I wanted characters that could exist at basically any time in history. That meant they had to be immortal, which I didn’t want to do, or something else had to be at play. I read about the various ways living things reproduce and I came across the Amazon Molly, a fish that lives in Texas, all-female, that basically clones itself by passing all its genes to its daughters. I thought it was perfect. That meant I could have characters who were all different, who lived and died like everyone else, but who also shared something no matter when they were born.

Are Mia, Sarah, or any of the other characters in the novel (excluding those based on historical figures) inspired by or based on specific individuals?

Not really, no. I had a fairly clear idea of Mia and Sarah’s personality right from the start and I’m sure there are bits of them that come from people I know or have read about but there was no conscious decision to base them on anyone in particular.

How did the novel 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?

I’ve put so much work into that book, and there were things I moved or changed along the way but nothing significant was dropped in the process. It might have to do with the fact that it follows actual historical events from beginning to end.

In the “Further Reading” section at the end of the novel, you state that you knew little about the space race and/or rocket science prior to this project. How long did it take you to do the necessary research and then write A History of What Comes Next?

I don’t think I want to know J Enough for another Ph.D., probably. I spent a month or two mostly doing research at the beginning but, even while writing, I spend a ridiculous amount of time finding and learning new things. To be fair, I spend forever researching things in all my books. This time I probably had more to read but it was easier to find. There’s been a ton written about World War II and the space race.

What was the most interesting or surprising thing that you learned during your research?

There are a thousand things. The way von Braun escapes Germany is wild and some details would sound too far-fetched if they weren’t real. As far as “interesting” goes, early climate science is amazing because some of the concepts are simple enough for me to understand them, like looking at air bubbles in old ice.

A History of What Comes Next is the first of the Take Them to the Stars novel. Do you know how many books will follow in the series? When can readers expect the second entry in the series?

There are three. Each book follows one generation, so Mia is the mother in the second book, and so on. The second book is very different. I wanted each book to reflect the era and this one takes place in the seventies and early eighties. There’s much more levity.

What’s currently on your nightstand?

I’m in between books at the moment but I’m anxiously waiting for my copy of Forget Me Not by Alexandra Oliva to arrive.

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

Favorite is too hard. Most influential, I’d have to say Michael Crichton. I think the books we read at a young age are the ones that affect us the most. We didn’t have much money when I was young, and I would buy whatever mass market was on sale on the front table. That usually meant French translations of things like Ludlum, le Carré, Clancy, Crichton.

What was your favorite book when you were a child?

Well, as a child, child, I really liked the Choose Your Own Adventure books. A bit older, I’d say Les Liaisons Dangereuses . That one really knocked my socks off. That and The Andromeda Strain.

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

Nothing comes to mind. They did buy most of them, so…

What is a book you've faked reading?

I never faked reading it, but I tried reading À la recherche du temps perdu by Proust a hundred times. I never made it far.

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

Oh, tons. The Martian is one. The original cover (not the movie tie-in) is fantastic. What Big Teeth by Rose Szabo releases at the same time as my novel and it has the most amazing cover. I want it.

Is there a book that changed your life?

Certain books thought me more things about writing than others but the one book that literally changed my life is Sleeping Giants. I started writing that book for fun and ended up with a new career.

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

The Steerswoman,by Rosemary Kirstein. The title character applies the scientific method to turn her fantasy world into a science fiction world. It’s fascinating and beautifully written. The Lesson, by Cadwell Turnbull, should also be on everyone’s shelves.

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

Not really. There are too many new books to read. It’s like traveling. There are plenty of places I loved and would go back to, but I prefer to discover new ones.

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

It’s not the last, and it’s been more than a year (I’m not sure the last year counts, though), but we went to Japan in 2019 and visited the Ghibli Museum. It’s the best museum I’ve ever seen. I love Studio Ghibli movies but the original art is absolutely breathtaking.

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

That’s just cruel. Right now, I only dream of having a beer with friends, one friend, anywhere. I do miss conventions a lot. Meeting readers and writer friends. That wonderful feeling when you walk through the hotel lobby and bump into people you know.

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

Can you walk me through your entire toy collection? I can’t answer in writing, of course. You’d need to come over but you’re very welcome to do so when the pandemic ends. We have good beer.

What are you working on now?

The next two books in the Take Then to the Stars series. When I’m done, I’ll take a few weeks and work on the Samurai Stormtrooper costume I started ages ago. It’s going to be awesome.

Book cover for A History of What Comes Next
A History of What Comes Next
Neuvel, Sylvain