Sarah Pinsker: On Reviving the Set-Aside Story

Award-winning novelist Sarah Pinsker discusses how she picked up and put down a story over many years which would eventually become her latest release, We Are Satellites.
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Sarah Pinsker's Nebula and Sturgeon Award-winning short fiction has appeared in Asimov's and F&SF, as well as numerous other magazines, anthologies, and translation markets. She is a singer/songwriter who has toured behind three albums on various independent labels. Her first collection, Sooner or Later Everything Falls Into the Sea, was released in early 2019 by Small Beer Press. A Song for a New Day was her first novel. She lives with her wife in Baltimore, Maryland.

Sarah Pinsker

Sarah Pinsker

In this post, Pinsker discusses how she picked up and put down a story over many years which would eventually become her latest release, We Are Satellites, and much more!

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Name: Sarah Pinsker
Literary agent: Kim-Mei Kirtland (HMLA)
Book title: We Are Satellites
Publisher: Berkley
Release date: May 11, 2021
Genre: Science fiction
Elevator pitch for the book: One family and the Black Mirror-esque technology that divides them.
Previous titles by the author: A Song for a New Day (Berkley, 2019); Sooner or Later Everything Falls into the Sea (Small Beer Press, 2019)

We Are Satellites by Sarah Pinsker

We Are Satellites by Sarah Pinsker

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What prompted you to write this book?

About 10 years ago, I drove past an intersection that has a private boys' school on one side and a public school on the other. The boys' school cross country team was out running, and they streamed across the middle of the street while we waited at the red light, dashing between cars. One boy tripped and another caught him and steadied him without even looking over.

My job at the time involved finding information and resources for people with epilepsy and developmental disabilities, and we also organized an annual symposium for epileptologists (neurologists who specialize in epilepsy). One of the doctors that year spoke about research on brain implants with the potential to treat seizures, and mentioned how one of the technologies had proved to be useful for Parkinson's but not for epilepsy. That got me thinking about the possibility of an implant that didn't do what it was intended to do but was instead discovered to have a commercial application that excluded the people it was originally developed to help.

Somehow those two things—a scene and a scenario—coalesced on a single-family dealing with the same issue from a number of perspectives: one who thinks he needs a Pilot implant to keep up, one who wants one, one who medically can't get one even if she had wanted it, and one who chooses not to get it. I also loved the idea of writing a story about a queer family that wasn't about queerness itself.

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How long did it take to go from idea to publication? 

It took about 11 years, though, for a lot of those years, it was in the back of my mind percolating. I didn't want to get it wrong. I started gathering information from neurologist friends about where I could put the brain implant to make it do what I wanted, and what I could realistically expect it to do. The idea itself only changed a little, from a flashier implant to something that was closer to something that could be hypothetically real.

Then I started writing individual short stories about the family and other people affected by the implant. Those were published in various anthologies: Fierce Family (Crossed Genres, 2014); The Future Embodied (Simian Publishing, 2014); Accessing the Future (Future Fire Publishing, 2015). I would think about it, write a story, put it aside again. I think the first version was told entirely from Val's point of view, and the second was told entirely from her daughter's point of view, but neither felt right. It took me a long time to see the shape of the larger whole, and that I needed to tell it through all four family members, and that the main character was the family itself.

Most of the anchors stayed the same through the whole process. The four family members have always been the four family members. I think the only thing that changed about them was that Julie originally worked as an accountant before I realized what I could do with her working for a politician. I guess the end changed a few times as well, as I got to know them better and to understand where their personal arcs needed to take them.

Were there any surprises or learning moments in the publishing process for this title? 

I'm usually very much a discovery writer, and because of that, I had never written an outline before. This was the second book on my Berkley contract, and the contract mandated an outline for this book. I grumbled and grumbled to myself about how that wasn't the way I worked, but in the end, I discovered it was really useful. I had reached a point that felt like an eternal middle, without fully understanding where I needed to go, like treading water in the center of a lake to get my bearings but struggling without my glasses on.

I did a reverse outline for the part that I'd already written, and in doing that, I finally sorted out where everything needed to go so I could sketch the rest. The outline helped me figure out which shore I was headed for and start swimming in the right direction again.

I don't think I'm fully converted—I'm writing without an outline again on my next novel now—but I'm willing to accept that it's a sometimes-useful tool, not a torture device. Once I got past that, the publishing process went pretty smoothly, or as smoothly as things go during a pandemic.

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Were there any surprises in the writing process for this book?

I mentioned that it took me a long time to figure out that I needed to use all four family members' points of view, but I resisted that for a long time. I tried one, then two, then three perspectives, and the whole time I kept avoiding writing from the point of view of David, the son, whose Pilot implant does not work as he expects it to. I was intimidated by the idea of trying to represent his thought process on the page.

When I finally forced myself to write his perspective, his voice just flowed. He had so much to say, and it was tremendously fun to try to capture it. That was the piece that had been missing for so long, and once I figured out how to convey his twisting thought process, everything else fell into place.

What do you hope readers will get out of your book?

I mostly hope they'll fall for this family, in all its complicated glory. They'll get a chance to see a story about a queer family that isn't about coming out or homophobia, and to see Sophie's epilepsy as simply part of her life. If they take away some information about the path that medical devices take to market in the US, that would make me happy too. Weigh all the information before letting Elon Musk put an implant in your head!

Sarah Pinsker: On Reviving the Set-Aside Story

If you could share one piece of advice with other authors, what would it be?

If you have an idea that you believe in, don't give up on it! Sometimes we have ideas we don't yet have the skills to write. Some stories arrive intact, and some of them need time to develop. Novels are like soup. It's okay to put them on the back burner to simmer and develop flavors while you cook other stuff, and return when you're ready. They'll be richer for the time you spent away, and the skills you learned in the process of writing other things.

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