The Fantastical Five with Willow Croft and P.A. Cornell

Welcome to the first-ever “Fantastical Five” interview with speculative fiction author P.A. Cornell. Since this is the science fiction version (it also comes in fantasy flavour), we’ve taken our tea out to the far reaches of space!

P.A. Cornell (She/Her) is an award-winning, Chilean-Canadian, speculative fiction author who was raised on a steady diet of books. When she was five years old she learned where all these books were coming from and decided then and there that writing was the path for her. She penned her first speculative story as a third-grade assignment: a science fiction piece about shape-shifting aliens. Over three decades later, she still has this story, which she keeps in her writing desk to remind her of how far she’s come.

Despite her early interest in fiction, her first publications were in non-fiction as a journalist and copy editor in Toronto, Canada. Since 2016, she’s dedicated herself to writing science fiction, fantasy, and horror full time. Her stories have appeared, or are forthcoming, in multiple genre magazines and anthologies, including Flame Tree Press’s Gothic Fantasy series, ZNB Presents, and Apex Magazine, to name a few. Her short story, “Splits,” first published in Cossmass Infinities, went on to win the 2022 Short Works Prize for Fiction. That same year she also published her debut science fiction novella, Lost Cargo, through Mocha Memoirs Press.

An avid collector of joyful moments, when not writing she can be found reading, drinking various varieties of tea in ridiculous quantities, building Lego sets (check out some of her builds on Instagram), hiking, making felt art, and watching movies, among other things. She also enjoys travel and hopes to do more of it in the future.

Cornell is a 2002 graduate of the Odyssey writing workshop, and full member of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers Association. She has lived in six cities across two continents but currently lives in Ontario, Canada in a home she shares with her husband, three kids, and two cats. The cats are named after two of her characters: “Jax” and “Rebel.” (Bonus points for anyone able to name the stories they appear in.)

Twitter/Instagram/Facebook: @CornellWriter

All purchase links and information for my novella, Lost Cargo:

Willow Croft: “Oh no, we accidentally altered the timeline!” How do you keep track of your characters, your plot, and key events in your book? What sort of outlining and other preparation goes into keeping your story on track?

P.A. Cornell: I never quite know how to answer this question because it varies greatly from project to project. I write a lot of short fiction, where it’s less of an issue and I don’t do a lot of outlining if any. But for long-form fiction, like my novella, Lost Cargo, there was quite a bit of outlining and having to keep track of multiple characters. For characters it mostly comes down to lists for me. I have their names, of course, but any other information that’s mentioned about them in the story gets included too, either in the planning stage or as I write (because I don’t necessarily pre-plan every detail). That goes hand-in-hand with the plot because I generally start with a loose outline that describes what’ll happen in each scene, and to that I’ll add the characters that are involved, including who’s point of view we’re in if that changes throughout the book. I also note how a particular scene affects each character—in particular the MC—to ensure they’re changing through their arc. That all said, I’m also largely a discovery writer so my outline is always pretty loose and as things change or get added I just keep track of that as I go.

Willow Croft: “Full Speed Ahead!” What sort of technology (or lack thereof) do you create for your books? How do you research new advancements that could help propel your story through the far reaches of time and space?

P.A. Cornell: Again, that really depends on the story. In Lost Cargo there is some technology. For instance, one of the characters is an artificial intelligence. The story also begins with an accident on a spaceship, so there are things like that. In general I don’t necessarily spend a lot of time explaining the technology I include in my stories unless it’s important to the plot. Science fiction readers are familiar with a lot of the basic technology you’ll see in the genre and they’re willing to accept that because they understand it, at least in a general way. I’m not usually writing hard SF so I don’t think my readers expect me to get into too much detail in that sense. When I do need to explain things though, it does require research, especially if it’s grounded in existing technology. That usually starts with the Internet but can take other forms depending on the information I need. Even when I completely make something up, I like to base it on what we know today, which gives it a sense of the real. Like you can imagine that a present-day piece of tech evolved into what you’re reading in my story. Since I’m not an expert in technology that does require at least some research—at least enough to make it sound plausible. One of the things I researched for Lost Cargo, was the method NASA used for dropping Mars rovers onto the planet surface without damaging them. I used this as inspiration for the way the landing pod in my story is supposed to work—of course things don’t necessarily go as planned for my characters.

Willow Croft: “Hey, look, a terraformed planet. Just in the nick of time!” Where do you find inspiration for the world-building included in your books or stories? Are there certain settings that intrigue you the most?

P.A. Cornell: Our own humble little planet is a huge source of inspiration. Some of the settings in my stories are taken from places I love on Earth that I’ve either visited in person or have seen through images others have taken. For example, the cactus flowers I describe in Lost Cargo, when my characters are climbing down a cliffside, are based on real flowers I saw as a kid living in Chile. I’m also a huge fan of deserts, so I’ve written several stories set in deserts or at least desolate areas. That brings me to Mars—the ultimate desert—and a planet I’ve always been fascinated by. Like Earth, it has inspired me to set some stories there, like my short story, “El Bordado,” which is coming out in April in Flame Tree Publishing’s Immigrant Sci-Fi anthology. As for other elements of world-building, again these are generally inspired by the real world. Often, in this genre at least, I’m inspired by real science. I might read about a new discovery or theory and let my imagination take it from there. Really, anything can serve as inspiration for a story world. In my own work there’s always a link to reality though.

Willow Croft: “I think someone’s aboard the ship!” Do you have go-to life forms (whether biological, robotic/android, a yet-unknown extraterrestrial, or any other characters) that you tend to populate your book’s key locations with?

P.A. Cornell: I’m a sucker for robots and aliens, both as a writer and a reader. I grew up with so much science fiction that featured them both, and I do tend to include them quite a bit in my fiction. They just make it really fun for me because you have to try to put yourself in this non-human perspective and imagine how they might see or interact with the world. The A.I. in Lost Cargo isn’t technically a robot but the two are related, of course, and the moon on which the story takes place is full of aliens; some harmless, and some that are very much not. The main plot of that story involves the characters having to navigate an extra-terrestrial environment in order to reach safety, so I had a lot of fun populating the place with “aliens” of all kinds. These range from huge, dinosaur-like monsters (as one reader described them), to semi-sentient trees that can “walk” around and change locations when they want to.

Willow Croft: “Everything’s wonderful here on Planet X! / Everything’s terrible on Planet X!” Are you more drawn to books set in dystopian societies or on dystopian planets, or do you prefer to explore the more hopeful, utopian side to science fiction? What appeals to you about the subgenres to sci-fi that you write (and read!) in?

P.A. Cornell: I don’t know that I have a preference. I love both dark and hopeful stories, and everything in between. I feel like real life runs the gamut of emotions and situations and I feel fiction should do the same. I guess it comes down to my mood which one I choose at any given moment. There was a period where I was writing a lot of dark stuff, so I challenged myself to write something more uplifting and hopeful just for variety, but both kinds of stories appeal to me and I certainly haven’t stopped writing darker stories. I have one called “The Body Remembers,” also coming out in April in Dark Matter’s Monstrous Futures anthology, and it’s one of the darkest stories I’ve ever written. I don’t think I’ve ever put so many content warnings on a manuscript before. But I love that story and I’m so glad those editors did too. I’m really looking forward to seeing it published. And then just this week I wrote a really hopeful and sweet story. I haven’t yet started sending that one out on submission, but I will soon. Both of them are among my favorite stories I’ve written, and yet they couldn’t be more different. In Lost Cargo I went mostly darker with some of the themes and the situation they’re in, but there are also some really hopeful moments. I give my characters opportunities to feel all kinds of different emotions as they make their way through the plot points.

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