Robyn Bennis’s debut novel is The Guns Above, which blends steampunk, airships, and some of the saltiest dialogue we’ve read so far this year. Marion and I agreed that it’s a tremendously fun book, and today Robyn stops by Fantasy Literature to talk about her path to publication and her abiding love of a classic sci-fi television series.
We’ve got one copy of The Guns Above to give away to a random commenter, too!
My path to publication is the most exciting and unlikely story you’ll ever hear. It is a tale of action, intrigue, guile, glorious successes, crushing setbacks, and even more intrigue. It all started on a cold winter day in New York City. Daring hail and freezing winds, I scaled the outside of the Flatiron Building, hanging precariously over 5th Avenue from suckers attached to my hands and knees. With the only copy of my handwritten manuscript clenched in my teeth, I had just reached the Tor offices on the 14th floor when, without warning, a hawk swooped down to attack.
Not buying that? It was the hawk, wasn’t it? The hawk might have been too much.
Okay, okay. I suppose there is something notable about my path to publication, but it isn’t the path itself. It’s the fact that I got on it in the first place.
You see, I have never been one to submit my fiction. Over the course of over twenty years, I wrote dozens of short stories, one epic novel, and more fragments of novels than I care to put a number to, but I never submitted any of them. They were mine, and I was okay with them staying mine. I didn’t crave the jet-setting, opulent, glamorous life of a published writer. (Mind you, now that I really am published, I’ve discovered that these crazy notions about a writer’s lifestyle are absolutely true in every respect.)
When I finished The Guns Above and began to reread it, however, I knew that this was something else entirely. This was a story that wanted out, and it wanted out more than I wanted to keep it in. It seemed a star-crossed book, however, for it had me as its owner and sovereign, I was frankly too afraid to query it.
Now, this is the point in a Greek tragedy when I would give the story over to a crone or my most trusted advisor, counting on them to destroy it. Thankfully for me, I’m too well-read to fall for that. Instead, I consigned my story to oblivion in the surest way I knew, a way that would guarantee I’d never, ever think of it again: I started to think about the next story.
And yet, even as I brainstormed new ideas, The Guns Above whispered to me from a folder on my hard drive. “You know you want this,” it said, in a voice as deep and seductive as Idris Elba’s.
Now, this would be the point in a television show where some outside event would lead to an epiphany that convinced me to get over my anxiety issues and put my story out there. On a sitcom, I’d have a chance encounter with an author I’d been mooning over in the first act (but had never mentioned in any previous episode.) On a prestige drama, I’d nearly die in an explosion and/or zombie attack, and the experience would convince me to take life by the horns. On an hour-long soap, the wise mentor character would tell me a story about missed opportunities that, in hindsight, would turn out to be mostly filler.
But if I have to draw on television to explain my experience, I would appeal to Quantum Leap, because I don’t have a clue what drove me onto my publication path. The time I spent querying agents is a blur, my memory of it Swiss cheese. All I know is that I solicited the advice of several beta readers, made revisions, then submitted to forty individually researched agents. I don’t know what possessed me to do this. No submissions over the course of years of writing, and then forty in two months. It had to be Sam, right?
Soon, I was finding a mix of rejections and requests for manuscripts in my inbox. Some of the rejections were encouraging as to the writing, but pessimistic as to the genre. It seemed that, due to some high profile duds, I’d picked the wrong time to try to sell a steampunk story. But that’s always the way on Quantum Leap, isn’t it? Sam never leaps into a pilot a few hours before he takes off on a doomed flight through the Bermuda Triangle, when a simple act of sabotage could cancel the flight entirely. He doesn’t leap into the guy who’s actually abusing the chimpanzees, so he can end the program with a pen-stroke. No, the cosmic force in control of Sam’s leaps always does its best to be a huge pain in the ass, and decades of syndication haven’t changed its tendencies.
I don’t blame that cosmic force, though. As a writer, I appreciate the need for drama more than most people. I also don’t blame the agents who rejected me, even though some of them seemed to think that novel revision works like the Fairy Godmother’s wand in Cinderella. Which is to say, there was a palpable sense that some of them were chasing market trends a little too closely. “I loved this story!” they might write. “But the genre is a problem. Can you rework it so, instead of being steampunk, it’s about a gorilla who sells drugs to pay for chemotherapy?”
Unreasonable, perhaps, but you can’t deny that gorillas and meth are both hot right now (RIP Harambe, RIP Walter White.)
Finally, my manuscript crossed the desk of someone who heard its siren’s whisper. Paul Lucas at Janklow and Nesbit agreed to represent me. He saw the book that everyone loved behind the genre that everyone recoiled from like vampires from garlic. Within months, he sold it to the amazing Diana Pho, at Tor.
So now I have a rockstar agent, one of the best editors working in sf/f today, and a book that came out this week. And it all happened on perhaps the most usual path to publication imaginable.
Usual, except for the intervention of a cosmic force, obviously.
Robyn Bennis lives in Mountain View, California, where she works in biotech but dreams of airships.
Dr. Sam Becket never returned home.
Thank you, Ms. Bennis, for stopping by! Readers, comment below for a chance to win a copy of The Guns Above! U.S. or Canada-based addresses only, please.