Jennifer L. Holm Talks with Roger

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In her first science fiction novel, The Lion of Mars, esteemed author of historical fiction (Our Only May Amelia, Turtle in Paradise, Sunny Side Up and sequels, Full of Beans) and graphic novels (Babymouse and Squish) Jennifer L. Holm took some lessons from the past to write about the future, while all the while the present was catching up to her, see below.

Roger Sutton: This is the first science fiction novel you’ve written. What possessed you?

Jennifer L. Holm: I know, this is very “off-brand.” My poor editors. I don’t make it easy for the marketing department. I grew up in a family of boys — four brothers and my dad — and there was always science fiction in the house. My husband is a huge fan of space — he applied to be an astronaut, and we talk about science a lot. So, it has been kicking around my head for years, but it kind of gelled in the last decade or so. My first book, Our Only May Amelia, was about my Finnish-American family in Washington State. As I started thinking about what their lives were like, and talking to my family about it, they honestly may as well have gone to Mars when they left Finland. They never returned. It was a one-way trip, which is true for so many immigrants.

After my father died, I started to learn more about his career. He’d been in the Navy and was a fighter pilot in the Korean War. I was never all that interested in it as a kid, but he was a really great pilot. A lot of the first astronauts came out of that same era — Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong, and John Glenn were all Korean War pilots. It suddenly seemed possible that my dad could have become an astronaut, too. Going back to my Finnish family — when they arrived in America it was obviously very difficult, and I started thinking of their experience as being parallel to living on Mars. Instead of settling Mars in a high-tech, shiny way — a glass-encased bubble on the surface — I thought the technology would get us there, but living there would be more akin to what it had been like for my family. Nobody knows what’s going to happen, and it probably will be a one-way trip. Even though you’re there because of the high-tech, everyday life will be consumed with low-tech issues. You’re going to have to learn to farm, a forgotten skill in this country. For survival, you’ll have to learn to be a handyman. When I was growing up, my dad could fix and make pretty much anything, because he had grown up on a farm. And of course — being on Mars would be very dangerous, but it was also very dangerous being a farmer in the early part of the last century. One of my father’s favorite cousins got blown up when they were clearing land. People died left and right.

I also thought about what community would be like. In America people settled into their own little pods. My great-grandfather came over in the 1800s. He brought over his siblings and cousins, and they all settled in this one little town where they all spoke Finnish. I figured it would be very similar on Mars, too.

RS: Well, and the reason for the isolation of your group on Mars was both personal and political.

JLH: In small towns, feuds can last for decades over personal things, and that could also be the case there. One of the NASA pilots who read the manuscript said the story was so accurate in terms of the settlements falling out with each other. He had been to Antarctica a bunch of times, and that had happened with different groups there. They stopped talking to each other. It’s so competitive. Somebody got angry. Tempers were always high.

RS: It really can have consequences, as you show.

JLH: It’s a whole new world. Who’s going to rule it? That’ll be up in the air.

RS: So to speak. I mean, everybody is underground.

JLH: When I started writing, I thought it would take place on the surface. But while doing research, I got really involved with the Mars Society — it’s almost like SCBWI for Mars. Scientists, NASA, SpaceX, and civilian space enthusiasts get together and talk about solving problems. At one of the conferences I spoke with an engineer — he’s not going to design the spaceship, but he’s like, “How are we going to practically live on Mars?” One of the ideas is to go in the lava tubes — because there are already caves underground, why don’t we plop a little inflatable settlement into the lava tube? What I wanted to show in the book is that part of living on Mars is you need people who can unclog the toilet, fix electrical things, run a farm, and all the practical tasks.

RS: And that’s what Sai was looking for in selecting the people who would go. He didn’t just pick uh, space cadets.

JLH: Exactly. He picked people who could run things, who could fix things. And of course the cook is the most important person, for morale, which my father always said. When you’re on a ship, it’s all about your belly.

RS: What do you think you’d be good at doing?

JLH: I am not good at fixing things. And I’m not a good cook. I could probably be a decent Meems — I could be a mother figure and do some rudimentary medical treatment, maybe.

RS: I like Bell’s job of cleaning out the filters, where he just gets to walk around, kind of like a mailman. I could do that. Was it fun to think up what it might be like up there?

JLH: It was really fun writing in a new genre. I had no rules set in my head. I just really wanted to focus on what it would be like to be a kid and a family — they’re kind of their own foster family. But they’re just normal kids still. Getting into trouble, doing stupid things.

RS: Like that scene where Bell finds that box that says “Sai — Personal,” and he says, “I was curious, so I opened it.” Atta boy!

JLH: Every kid on the planet. At least in my house.

RS: Did you have preconceived notions about how a science fiction novel had to be?

JLH: My preconceived notion was that it had to have much shinier tech. I definitely didn’t do that — I deliberately went in the other direction.

RS: I noticed that you don’t spend much time explaining how things work, which science fiction can really get into the details of. It seems like what you instead were going for was plausibility in setting that would allow your characters to seem real.

JLH: Exactly. Part of the fun of high-tech science fiction, for enthusiasts, is describing future tech. That is definitely not where my strength lies; not an engineer. Everything in the book is grounded in science, like I try to do (with history) for my historical fiction. But with historical fiction, when I talk to experts or researchers, there’s generally an agreed-upon consensus of what it was like. “This is which shows were on the radio in the 1940s. That’s how they made food in the 1800s.” For the future, everybody’s still arguing about what it’s going to be.

RS: I don’t know if it was on purpose, but I definitely felt like I was in The Long Winter when the dust storm hit.

JLH: When I was pregnant, my husband and I lived in upstate New York, and we had a very long, snowy winter that year. We felt completely trapped, like in The Shining. Just the other day he said, “We’re still scarred by that, living in this isolated little town.” So yeah, I think I put a little of that angst into it.

RS: “[Jenni’s] not here, Mrs. Torrance.”

JLH: I know, right?

RS: Could you make a leap into the unknown, like Mars?

JLH: I could not, actually. My husband and I always have this conversation — he firmly would go to Mars and not look back, but I couldn’t do it. I would miss too much of the comforts of Earth. Also, I get motion sickness these days, so I wouldn’t survive the plane ride.

RS: The train between the colonies sounds like fun, though. I loved that.

JLH: The dust on Mars is not a windy dust, it’s light. People have been making underground tunnels for decades, for subways, so that would be a very simple thing for them to do.

RS: So, how did it feel when reality — spoiler alert, an epidemic — collided with your plot?

JLH: That was completely psychotic, I have to say. The book had already gone through the first round of copyedits. Then COVID hit, and the second pages came back from the copyeditor, and she kept saying, “I can’t believe this is actually happening.” The whole thing about the illness — that was kind of ripped from my reality. My late grandfather was in a nursing home at the end of his life; he lived a very long life, to 102. Every year, without fail, they would have to close the nursing home to visitors for about two months, February to March, because the flu would rip through and they didn’t want people bringing in germs. It showed me how that’s a very vulnerable population. So it was very weird when this all coalesced.

RS: I’m liking the isolation more than I thought I would, which maybe is not healthy, but nevertheless.

JLH: My husband’s happy as a clam. But my kids are going bonkers. It is somewhat similar to what happened in the book: the adults kind of go with the program and get used to it, but the kids are curious.

RS: What’s it like to have a world where you basically control everything? We know some very basic things about what it would be like to live on Mars — the atmosphere, distances, etc. But really, for this book, it’s whatever Jenni decides, given the limits of science, right?

JLH: It’s really hard — harder than writing historical fiction. You have this big blue ocean, and you can come up with whatever you want. What is nice about writing historical fiction or realism is you have boundaries. When you have that much freedom, it’s a little overwhelming.

RS: In historical fiction, you can’t contradict the record. You can write around it, but you can’t change the presidents.

JLH: Exactly. One of the scientists I talked to was thinking in terms of what big missions are going on now. She said, “I’d want to know what kind of experiments they’re doing, because we would be doing experiments every day.” But in my image of it, they’re just living there now. They’re officially settling the area, so they’re kind of over the experiments, probably, and just getting on, because they’re not coming home.

RS: Given the rapprochement among the communities, we could even see babies in a sequel.

JLH: Yes. I was also very influenced by the president of the Mars Society, Dr. Robert Zubrin, who wrote this famous book about Mars, The Case for Mars. He posits that we should try to settle Mars, but who knows if you can get couples to go to Mars? Who knows what’s going to happen?

RS: Who knows?

JLH: It won't be me.


Sponsored by

Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

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