Vermilion Sunrise, a YA science fiction story, is Lydia P. Brownlow’s debut novel. Growing up in Louisville, she was a bookworm who loved science. It’s not surprising that her first foray into writing was in the science fiction genre, but it wasn’t a straight line from one to the other. I spoke with Lydia about her life and her writing process.
Discovering you were into science and loved reading growing up, I find it interesting you made the pivot to law school. Why didn’t you pursue anything related to science?
I don’t know. I kept science as a hobby and a side interest and certainly science fiction. Essentially, there were things about history and political science classes I took that were interesting. I thought I would try law school, because you can’t do everything.
You also taught after finishing school. Did you teach all grades, such as middle and high school as well as college?
I taught as an adjunct professor at a college in Mississippi, and I taught law students both in Texas and Massachusetts. Then, eighth, tenth and twelfth grades in Louisville.
Did you retire from teaching to start writing?
Yes. I retired from teaching to figure out what I might try next. I always wanted to write a book. I had four story ideas in my head, so I started writing each one seeing which might work. One of those was a young adult novel, and I just kept coming back to that one. It was my favorite. I actually finished a full draft. By then I really loved my teenage characters. So I kept working at it. It’s changed a lot since the first draft, but I kept working at it trying to find a way to tell their story. In the process, I realized I was starting a series. I’m working on a sequel right now and working on another stand-alone book. I think at that point, it was right after [my} kids left the house, and I had [spent] over a decade surrounded by teenagers at my job and at home. Honestly, I missed that positive energy. I sort poured that into this book as a kind of a way to bring teenagers back into my life.
Do you find that science fiction is the genre that speaks to you most as a writer, or do you see yourself branching out and writing other forms of fiction?
It’s not what I originally thought I would write when I first sat down. So far, all the ones that have taken off and become something I’m interested in enough to invest the time to turn it from ideas into something published have all been science fiction. I’m really intrigued by the idea of how science fiction lets us look at the idea. I don’t know some ethical ideas about science. Science is often what can we do, and science fiction often asks, ‘What should we do?’ And I think I love those questions, and I kind of like getting those out there. So I won’t be surprised. The ideas I have jettisoned, and the ones that I will never finish, are not science fiction. And I read a huge variety of genres. I love historical fiction; I doubt I will ever write in that genre. I’m not sure why, but science fiction seems to be driving my writing.
When I think of science and science fiction, I make the leap to space. Is astronomy the area of science you were most interested in? Or is it broader than that?
Certainly astronomy and physics are areas I was always interested in, but also lots of things having to do with biology. I’m a gardener now, and that’s opened a lot of avenues. I’ve explored different kinds of organic gardening, and that’s taken me down some rabbit holes. I’m also really interested in the ocean and water use. So I’ve definitely explored those when writing this novel and the sequel that I’m working on. I’ve gotten very invested in the dark sky movement about light pollution. So I’ve been reading a lot about that too.
When you were writing this book, what is the weirdest rabbit hole that you ended up going down?
Probably astrobiology, which is a term I didn’t know until I started writing this book. It’s the idea of how much scientists are learning about what life might look like elsewhere by examining the extreme forms of life here on Earth. So what survives deep under the ocean or in icy spots where we still find life; what are the limits of that life?
What was the most surprising thing that you learned or experienced while writing the book?
What I didn’t expect is I’m 58 years old, and I learned so much about myself writing, even though it’s obviously not at all autobiographical. I’ve never been to another planet. There’s not a single character in the book who’s modeled after me, or even much like me in any way. I learned so much about myself because as I went back through revisions, I could see there were themes that kept cropping up, even without me realizing. For example, the important role that grandparents play, comes up in places; that was true for my childhood. It was true for my kids’ childhood, and it’s something I believe in. That one surprised me. I originally set the book on a snow-covered mountainous planet, and that wasn’t working at all. When I changed the setting to a water covered planet, with an island setting, they had to deal with the ocean – that worked really well because I’ve always been a swimmer. I grew up swimming at Lakeside Swim Club. The swimming, I knew of course, that’s important to me. I never thought about it that way. So just all these little things that come up, the kinds of friendships I wrote about…I realized I was highlighting certain kinds of friendships and it dawned on me, those are the friendships that have always been most important to me my whole life. There’s a lot of self awareness that came from writing something that is as far removed from my own life as possible. That was a huge surprise to me.