Sleeper Protocol is a fun and fascinating sci-fi adventure set in future America and future Australia. My review can be found here. I caught up recently with the author, Kevin Ikenberry, and fired some questions at him about writing, about himself and about his debut novel…
Pete: What are the origins of Sleeper Protocol?
Kevin: I first wrote Sleeper Protocol as a short story entitled “Walkabout.” It was about 8,000 words and focused on a particularly dystopian scene where my characters “leave” civilization and enter the frontier that’s become the central United States. When I sat down to outline the book, I crafted an opening where the protagonist wakes up on the shores of Sydney Harbor at a place called Mrs. McQuarrie’s Chair. I spent three and a half weeks in Australia when I was seventeen and I tell people all the time that I left a piece of my heart there.
Having this book begin and end in Australia just felt right, so to speak. As for experiences, there are a ton of them in this book that I’ve tried to write in. Living in Colorado and hiking frequently gave rise to a lot of the narrative. Near the end, the action takes place in Tennessee where I call home (even after not living there in almost twenty-five years.). Where the culmination of the journey comes together is at my family’s “ancestral” home. We call it “The Farm”and I remember tearing up the first time I wrote that scene and the following one as well.
The concept of him piecing together his memory from experiences is the critical element to the story – so bringing a lot of my own experiences into his point of view was challenging, but a lot of fun.
Pete: Why are you a writer?
Kevin: I can tell you that I am not one of those folks who say they wanted to be a writer their whole life. I wanted (and still would go tomorrow!) to be an astronaut. My decision to start writing science fiction in 2009 came, in large part, from my extensive background in space science education. Through teaching, I’ve been able to share my love for space with kids of all ages. Writing science fiction seems like a natural progression of that love. The idea that I could write stories and potentially novels seemed very far out there when I started, but now I know that I enjoy telling stories and I can’t see not writing. When I first had a character start talking to me, I had no idea what to do other than start to write. With the help of a great instructor, I found great friends and mentors as I delved into writing. I’m glad that I did.
Pete: What was the greatest hurdle to overcome in completing this project?
Kevin: I finished the original first draft of Sleeper Protocol in mid 2013 and decided to let it sit in the drawer for a few months before I went back to the manuscript. After a rewrite pass in September 2013, I decided to focus on a couple of other projects with the intent that I would return to Sleeper Protocol in March for a final polish and submittal. That’s when life got in the way.
In February 2014, I nearly died from an infection that attacked the skin on my right leg, shut down my kidneys, and put my heart in serious condition. After ten days in the hospital, I went home for a prolonged at-home care period. This should have been a blessing – a writer always wants more time to write and I had all I could handle. The problem was that I couldn’t write. I could barely do anything besides look out the window and try to come to grips with what had happened. After a couple of weeks, I reached out to Clarkesworld editor Neil Clarke who survived a massive heart attack three and a half years ago. Neil’s friendship and advice helped me get back to writing. In May of 2014, I started that final polish on Sleeper Protocol for submittal. Without Neil’s counsel and my team of beta readers, I might not have been able to make that happen.
Pete: As a writer, with a full time job and a family, how do you manage to get the work done?
Kevin: In all honesty, there are a lot of late nights. Being a night owl when it comes to writing is a good thing. After our kids go to bed, I have the chance to work on my writing. Some times are better than others, but it’s just a question of dedication. There are so many people who say “I could write a book if I just had time.” My response to them is to get busy writing. The only way I’m able to tell stories is to sit down and get them out of my head. It’s a question of dedication and discipline. If the story matters that much to you, you’ll find a way to get it down on paper or into the computer. That’s what I focus on. If you really want to do something, nothing can stop you.
Pete: What tips from your road to publication can you offer other writers?
Kevin: Sleeper Protocol had a contract offered on it from a different publisher before Red Adept Publishing signed it. I turned down that contract because I’d taken the time to consult with mentors. My biggest tip to anyone who will listen is simply to reach out to someone else if you don’t understand something. I know it’s not easy to do so, but in my experience, I’ve never had someone that I reached out to completely reject me. Writers, as a unit, understand that we are all in this together and everyone I’ve ever approached is willing to share their experiences. In this particular case, I had two NYT bestselling authors review the contract because it didn’t seem right to me, and it wasn’t right. Because I was brave enough to reach out, and they took the time to look over a bad contract, I saved myself a lot of trouble. If you don’t know – ask. Ask me, ask some one in your writing group, post a question on social media – there are a lot of people who’ve learned their lessons who will make sure you don’t have to do the same.
Pete: With which of your characters do you most connect? Least connect?
Kevin: Obviously, Kieran and I are very similar and while you might think that was very easy to write, there were times it was very difficult to put myself out of the equation and tell the story from the perspective of this character who is a lot like me but not me at the same time. Likewise, I can honestly tell you that writing from Berkeley’s perspective was very challenging. Connecting to my characters was really easy, mainly because they’d been talking to me for a couple of months before I started writing the original draft. All of them changed through the course of the drafts. Making connect to the reader is my greatest hope – I think I’ve done that.
Pete: What is your favorite book of 2015 and why?
Kevin: This is such a difficult question because I am very behind on my reading lists. I will say this, the best two I’ve read so far are Clockwork Lives by Kevin J. Anderson and Neil Peart and The Martian by Andy Weir. Clockwork Lives is a beautiful sequel to the novel (and Rush album) Clockwork Angels. The attention to detail in the book is amazing, especially the print layout and design. It’s a beautiful book. The Martian is everything a space geek like me loves, and Mark Watney is a great character. Andy Weir’s ability to create a thrilling story around the actual science that will get humans to Mars (and live there) is astounding.
Pete: Favourite paragraph from Sleeper Protocol?
Kevin: From Chapter Six…
I landed in Perth after sunset, following an “in-flight delay for orbital debris mitigation,” whatever that meant. The bright side was that instead of circling out over the ocean or something, we flew three complete orbits around the Earth. Given what I remembered about my childhood and wanting to travel in space, I should have been thrilled. By my standards, or those from my time, I was an astronaut. The reality was that I dozed for most of the trip. The view of Earth from orbit met every expectation, but the tranquility of it lulled me to sleep after just a few minutes. Because of the late arrival, I caught the last maglev train to Esperance and stepped out of the terminus to a pitch- black night and torrential rain. The briny smell of the ocean floated on the strong breeze, and it made me smile. The lights of the modest town lay below me, down a slope of no more than a few hundred feet, and its warmth filled me. There were no buildings taller than a few stories and not much light compared to downtown Sydney, which was at once disconcerting and comforting. Lightning flashed out to sea and lit the rough, curving coastline for a split second. All of it was perfect. I wondered what it meant to feel so at peace in a place that I’d never seen in my life. I could be happy here. I walked in the rain without a jacket, and my coveralls were soaked through in a matter of minutes. Finding food and dry clothing would be high priorities eventually but not yet. The cool rain hammered my skin and washed the last bit of the Integration Center’s smell from my clothes.
Pete: What’s next for Kevin Ikenberry?
Kevin: I’ve just concluded the first draft of Vendetta Protocol, the sequel to Sleeper Protocol. While I’m letting it rest, I’m gearing up for the release of my military science fiction novel Runs In The Family from Strigidae Publishing in the spring of 2016. I have another novel in discussions right now with my publisher. I’m working on a variety of projects and staying very busy. Hopefully, I’ll just keep on writing stories. That’s the plan.
Learn more about Sleeper Protocol here.