Wednesday, May 1, 2024

Q&A with Janet Stilson




Janet Stilson is the author of the new novel Universe of Lost Messages. She also has written the novel The Juice. Also a journalist, she lives in New York City.


Q: What inspired you to write Universe of Lost Messages, and how did you create your characters Izzie and Tristan?


A: Two of my favorite topics! Glad you asked.


A few years back, I had a recurring situation that drove me bananas. Some important email messages were automatically routed to my junk mail folder, and it took me a while to find them. It was a lesson learned the hard way. (Check the darned spam folder more often!) And it also sparked a little fantasy—kind of a personal joke.


I imagined a place in the upper stratosphere where missing messages were all trapped—junk mail, really important missives, and everything in between. Eventually, that idea became a seed for the novel.


The Universe of Lost Messages is a virtual place of infinite size that looks like a cosmos. Only it’s orange, and instead of stars and planets, it contains holographic messages encased in bubble-like globes. A few of those missing messages could impact everyone on Earth, and they have life-or-death consequences for the characters who are desperately trying to find them.


Another inspiration for the novel came from my work as a journalist. When I’m not writing fiction, I report on the media industry. And a lot of my interviews with execs in big media companies has related to what they’re planning for the future—new shows, new technology, new ways of enticing advertisers.


In a sense, those conversations “wired” me to imagine what entertainment and information will be like further out in time. I started to think about how media companies might influence the way we all think or behave, even more than they already do.


Those imaginings led to my first book, The Juice, and now the second book in the series, Universe of Lost Messages, which is a stand-alone. (In other words, you don’t need to read The Juice first).  

A key aspect of both books are so-called Charismites: people who are endowed with extraordinary powers of charm. They become powerful tools of persuasion when they make certain suggestions during media appearances.


That leads me to the second part of your question: about Izzie and Tristan, who are both Charismites. If you think about the charm factor of the most popular celebrities alive today, and then imagine their magnetic pull if that charisma was amped up to a much greater degree, then you have an idea of these two. They can get anybody to do almost anything.


Some of my work in creating Izzie and Tristan involved thinking about their parents’ dilemma. If you’re raising someone so delightful and potentially dangerous, what the heck do you do?


Izzie and Tristan’s parents decided to keep them isolated. That didn’t work so well with Izzie, because she’s rebellious and pretty reckless—although also very sweet at times and a talented performer. In fact, she turned into a megastar musician and actress.

On the other hand, Tristan was quite happy to be isolated. His parents kept him in a 75-acre biodome in upstate New York, which is filled with wildlife. And he’s a real nature boy. Because they don’t understand each other, Izzie and Tristan never got along.


Their worlds exploded when they were abducted by a mysterious, power-hungry organization. They were forced into 24/7 prison isolation together. And it became really clear that if they were ever going to figure out how to escape, they had to work together.


Q: How did you create the world in which the story takes place?


A: I imagined what it would be like to walk the halls of big media companies by recalling my experiences visiting executives in the past. I also looked into advanced versions of humanoids, underwater exploration, space travel, and camouflage.


One of the characters is a former opera diva, Nadia. Her career ended abruptly, and she’s a tyrannical mess. I was fortunate to speak with some opera singers about their world to enrich my understanding of who Nadia is.


I also was in touch with experts at NASA about asteroids and am fortunate to have a cousin who could give me a reality check about email message transmissions.


Q: The writer Jonathan Oliver said of the book, “This is a terrific thriller but it’s also a deeply incisive political novel, holding up a mirror to our celebrity-obsessed culture.” What do you think of that description?


A: I am extremely flattered. It is just about everything I was hoping to achieve.


Q: What do you hope readers take away from the story?


A: First and foremost, I hope they are entertained. The book is filled with humor, romance, mystery, and suspense. It’s not heavy-handed with the underlying themes related to society and politics. At least, I don’t think it is.


However, if it also makes people think a little more about the disinformation in our world today, and where media might be headed, that would be a cherry on my proverbial sundae.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m writing some short stories. It’s a great way to test drive different story ideas, figure out if they can go the distance of a full novel, or if they’re better in a more compact form. Right now, I think one of those storylines could transfer over to Book 3 in The Charismite series. It’s now in the planning stages.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: The book is a lot better than it might have been thanks to the generosity of trusted readers who gave me early feedback—and also those who helped me with research. I appreciate them all immensely.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Janet Stilson.

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