Sunday, June 13, 2021

Patrick Chiles

Patrick Chiles has been fascinated by aircraft, rockets, and spaceflight ever since he was a child transfixed by the Apollo missions. How he ended up as an English major in college is still a mystery, though he managed to overcome this self-inflicted handicap to pursue a career in aviation operations and safety management.

He is a graduate of The Citadel, a Marine Corps veteran and a private pilot. In addition to his novels, he has written for magazines such as Smithsonian’s Air & Space. He currently resides in Tennessee with his wife and two lethargic dachshunds.

Chiles's new novel is Frontier.

My Q&A with the author:

How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

Hopefully a lot. People might immediately think of Star Trek and the “final frontier,” but when I was putting the story together I realized it actually was something of a frontier narrative. It’s about pushing outward, beyond humanity’s current reach, which makes certain other humans greedy. They want to reap the benefits from the risks others have taken. So what are the rules when people are beyond Earthbound jurisdictions? What right or claim does any one group have over anything? Does it all become a free-for-all, like the Wild West or high seas piracy?

What's in a name?

I put a fair amount of thought into character names, but not for any symbolism. It just has to feel right for the character. My main protagonist, Marshall Hunter, is the adult son of Ryan Hunter from my first two novels (Perigee and Farside). Marshall just sounded good to me when I first wrote him as a four-year-old, I wish there was something more profound for the grown-up Marshall but it’s about that simple! Plus it’s not a super common name so it makes the character stand out a bit more than “Bob” or something. Also I play guitar and like Marshall amps, so there’s that.

My Earthbound protagonist, Roberta McCall, came to me right away. To me, her name sounds like who she is: a whip-smart, gum-popping tough girl who loves what she does and isn’t afraid to take chances. She was fun to write.

One of the bad guys, Nick Lesko, took some thought. Does he sound like a sociopathic wannabe mobster to you? Because that’s what he is. He’s a mafia “fixer” who ended up rigging game machines for some Asian casino owners, and they call on him for the biggest “fix” of his life in Earth orbit. I blame this one on watching Goodfellas too many times on AMC. Sounds like he’d fit right in.

The Chinese characters were more difficult. Those took some research because I don’t speak the language and I was determined to not insult the reader with stereotypes. “Max” Jiang is an Americanized nickname for Maleko, which roughly translates as “Pledged to Mars.” That was perfect, as he’s off on a privately-financed mission to a flyby of the Red Planet.

How surprised would your teenage reader self be by your novel?

He’d only be surprised that it took me this long to get going. Anyone who knew me in childhood is probably not at all surprised that this is what I’m doing now. I used to try my hand at drawing comics and made up stories like this all the time. I’ve always been a space nerd and this is my way of experiencing things that I badly want to see in real life. I suppose it’s kind of a Walter Mitty existence.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

That’s a good one. It really depends on the story. My previous book, Frozen Orbit, came to me with clear visions of the opening and closing chapters. The connective tissue in between was the hard part. With Frontier, I knew where I wanted the story to go and what the major turning points would be, but the climax turned out to be nothing like what I’d planned. And I loved it that way, it was just so much better. It was a thrill to write.

I’d put Marshall and his crew into an impossible situation, worse than I’d planned, and it took some time to work through how he’d get them out of it. But once I did…boom. Those scenes just flew out of me in this exhilarating all-night rush and I couldn’t wait to get to the end. When you’re surprising yourself, that’s when you know you’re on to something.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

Oh, absolutely. I like to say I write to make the voices in my head shut up.

I think it’s necessary to have some of me in the major characters just because it’s easier to make them into more fully-formed people that way. But you have to work hard to keep those aspects separate, otherwise everyone’s speaking with the same voice. I’ve seen otherwise great stories become unreadable because every character sounds like the same person. I also draw from my close family members, namely my wife and sons. But they know that and they’re cool with it.

Antagonists are often drawn from people I’ve met throughout life who I just didn’t like very much. As the joke goes, “Don’t piss me off or I’ll put you in my next book.”

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

In this case, a project called Inspiration Mars that unfortunately never went anywhere. The original space tourist, Dennis Tito, had been pushing this idea to send two people on a manned flyby of Mars using a free-return orbit. Windows of opportunity come up about every 18 years or so for this. It would’ve been a 15-18 month trip with a close flyby around Mars, then back to Earth. This year’s window would’ve allowed a Venus flyby as well. He thought it could be done with a SpaceX Dragon type spacecraft paired with a couple of logistics modules for the living area and resources two people would need for that amount of time. There were some interesting studies done to support it, but in the end nobody was willing to pony up the money. It would’ve been a great proof of concept mission, but undeniably risky. I was fascinated with the idea and really wanted to write a story around it.

Another big influence is some of the current issues in the South China Sea. I extrapolate the kind of Chinese military expansion we see today, creating artificial islands for military bases, etc., out beyond Earth orbit. What kind of effect would that have on a nascent cislunar economy? What kind of steps should we be prepared to take to counter it? And what are the risks?

Otherwise, I pay close attention to how certain movies set up scenes and tell stories. When I’m really in the groove, writing is like I’m just transcribing the movie that’s playing out in my head.
Visit Patrick Chiles's website.

Coffee with a Canine: Patrick Chiles & Frankie and Beanie.

My Book, The Movie: Frontier.

The Page 69 Test: Frontier.

--Marshal Zeringue