Author PJ Haarsma talks to SFX about his young adult SF book projects

We recently blogged about a scheme called Kids Need To Read being run in America by author PJ Haarsma and his actor friend Nathan Fillion. The Softwire, a young adult SF book in a series by Haarsma, is at the core of this, and we spoke to the author this week about the project and the universe he’s created.

SFX: Tell us a little bit about Orbis and the universe of The Softwire. What's the inspiration behind it?
PJ Haarsma:
"Something happened to me when I was a kid. I was 11 or 12, if I remember correctly. I found something near my parents’ cottage, something that I couldn’t explain. This event ignited a curiosity within me that I have never been able to let go and from it grew the entire universe of my books. I save this story for the kids I meet at schools, the ones who promise to read The Softwire. I only share the details of the event with them."

SFX: Without giving too much away, of course, can you summarise the key elements first book for our readers?
PJH:
"The story is about a group of children who are orphaned in outer space and sold as slaves to the Citizens on the Rings of Orbis – four planet-like rings around a wormhole. When the children arrive it is discovered that the one boy, JT, is a softwire. He has the ability to enter any computer with just his mind. On the rings, where the kids are sent to work, one massive computer controls the entire system. The fact that this slave can get inside it at will makes him very valuable, very dangerous. It drives the Citizens crazy and they connive, conspire and even kill to own JT and his sister."

SFX: Through the various websites and games, the universe is bigger than the book The Softwire itself. What's the thinking behind that? How will it continue to grow as a phenomenon?
PJH:
"I have so much story to tell within The Softwire that it’s impossible to contain all of it between the pages of a few books. I also love the idea of allowing people to discover the universe through other forms of media and then have them go and explore to see what else I’ve created about the characters they love. As each new book arrives, the online game ( www.ringsoforbis.com ) will expand to add one ring and four new planets. The game has several story lines I never even touched in the book: the civil war on Krig, the genocide on Palk, the expansion of the Belarans... I have these stories all fleshed out and they’re really exciting."

"I’ve also finished the script for the first comic book that takes one character from The Softwire and one from the game. The comic book explores what happens on the Rings of Orbis right before the kids arrive. I’m talking with people in Japan about a manga series and a television show about the rings. Stephan Martiniere and I are planning an illustrated book about the War of Ten Thousand Rotations. The book takes place 2000 years before the first Softwire novel and chronicles the conflict between the Keepers and Neewalkers over control of the Rings of Orbis. I’m getting ready for the first art show with Marisa Grieco’s OIO Key art based on the OIO philosophy and we’ve started a series of collectable cards for the game using her art. We also have an OIO philosophy book on the way that we’re working on right now. It’s a big, big universe."

SFX: How many books to you envisage there will be in the series? What's next for the series - can you give us any teasers about future events?
PJH:
"There are four Softwire books that take place on the Rings of Orbis. I’m currently working on the fourth novel now. I envision seven more after the children’s work rule ends but I have not tried to sell this series yet."

"The next book, which comes out 25 March 2008, is now titled Betrayal on Orbis 2. I’m really proud of this book. I think my writing has gotten better. I owe it to my editor Sarah Ketchersid, though. She really worked to develop my writing and I feel it’s evident in Betrayal. A lot happens in book two and JT learns some details about his past that simply don’t make sense to him. We will also be forced to say goodbye to someone very close to JT. That’s all I can say."

SFX: You came to writing quite late in life - had you always wanted to write, or was it something that you didn't discover until you were older?
PJH:
"I was horrible in English. It was my worst subject, in fact I still can’t spell. I remember trying to bribe my English teacher in high school for a better mark because it was pulling my grade point average down. I was all about science. I wanted to be a doctor; or rather my parents wanted me to be a doctor. I did have an artistic side though. It was always trying to poke out either through music or art. It was that side of me that began to write. Letting go of the rigged, business part of me has been a very hard process. I’m still doing it - but now I’m the happiest when I’m writing."

SFX: In your opinion, what big things are going on in young adult fiction right now?
PJH:
"Coming to grips with reality. I only see a few people in publishing embracing the purchasing habits and lifestyles of young adult readers. I hear the industry complaining that people don’t read anymore, especially boys (which tells me they’ve never seen a teenage boy pouring over a video game manual or cheat code magazine). It’s a crutch they use instead of thinking outside of the box to get new readers. They tell me, ‘You can’t get kids away from video games, television or movies.’ Of course you can’t. Those industries market directly to their audiences and they do it very well often using products that were in the hands of some publishing houses to begin with! Publishers are going to argue that there is not enough profit to do so but they have to figure out a way. That means that some people are going to have to try and fail. If they don’t, I see a gloomy future for books."

"I have 20 years of advertising experience and I am very passionate about this. I have many ideas but unfortunately my rants have been falling upon deaf ears. I’ve recently started a creative group that meets monthly to discuss these sorts of issues. Our group is comprised of senior advertising executives from major firms who are bursting with revolutionary ideas but have been stifled by narrow-minded, crowd-following clients. We get together simply as an outlet for our ideas. Maybe we’ll come up with something. I’ve got my fingers crossed."

SFX: Why did you embark on the Kids Need To Read project? What's the aim and why did it particularly appeal to you?
PJH:
"Well two things happened to me at the same time. A group of individuals who call themselves Nathan Nation were writing to my publisher to convince them to have Nathan Fillion finish his audio recording of The Softwire. Problem was that although Candlewick holds the rights, they don’t do the actual production. They simply sell those rights to someone who does."

"At the same time I was touring schools in and around Toronto, Ontario, including many inner city schools. Most kids had never even heard of The Softwire but after my presentation I had kids following me into the parking lot begging for a book. They complained their parents were too poor to buy it for them. That’s tough. You just want to give every kid a book in a situation like that. My presentation really ignites a kid’s innate passion to read. There’s just something about outer space and aliens and the hero concept that sets them on fire. The video game and all the imagery helps too, I’m sure. But I would also see librarians scrambling to find money to buy a copy for the library once they saw their students’ reactions. They simply weren’t expecting it and they simply don’t have the budget to buy new books. I wanted to see if I could do something about this."

"I had met Nathan years ago when I could kick his butt playing Halo. (Yes Nathan, as much as you try to forget it there was a day when you used to lose.) Anyway, I was discussing my experiences with Nathan and we decided to see if Nathan Nation was willing to direct their energies into a project that would buy copies of the book for schools and libraries in need. Nathan loved the concept and so did NN. They are a great bunch of fans that truly have a positive community agenda."

"At Kids Need to Read we sell packages of The Softwire signed by Nathan and I. We include the audio chapters, an OIO Talisman, some swag and collectible art cards. I use the profits to buy books for schools and libraries. It’s been very successful so far and now we’re looking to including other authors. You can read more about it at www.kidsneedtoread.org ."

SFX: How does being a father influence your creativity?
PJH:
"I am amazed at how kids try to get into the flow with whatever they do. If you ever watch a kid at play they really commit to the moment. I believe, as we get older it is harder and harder for adults to do this yet it is one of the most enjoyable ways to live life. There is a great book by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi simply titled ‘Flow’ that talks about this process. When you write, at least in my case, there is a lot of distraction and it can be difficult - if not impossible - to slip into the flow. Watching my daughter, Skylar, has taught me that it is still possible to do it and it has reminded me that it is a much more enjoyable way of life."

SFX: What sort of feedback have you had from young readers so far?
PJH:
"The feedback that I love comes from both kids and adults. I get lots of emails from readers telling me that they’ve never finished a book before but they finished The Softwire. I also get teachers who tell me they can’t get a certain kid to read anything but they found him reading The Softwire at recess. I love those emails. The Softwire seems to have this great connection with reluctant readers. I also get parents who tell me they love it that their kids need a book to play a video game but of course my most favourite response is when a kid tells me The Softwire is the greatest book he’s ever read."


Thanks to PJ Haarsma for taking the time to talk to us. The first book in the Softwire series is available in the UK from Amazon . You can read more from Nathan Fillion here (or here , from our recent Fannish Inquisition feature).