Essa Hansen grew up in beautifully wild areas of California, from the coastal foothills to the Sierra Nevada mountains around Yosemite, before migrating north to the Canadian Rocky Mountains. She has ranched bison and sheep, trained horses, practiced Japanese swordsmanship and archery, and is a licensed falconer. She works for Skywalker Sound as a sound designer for science fiction and fantasy feature films such as Big Hero 6, Doctor Strange, Avengers: Endgame, and Pixar's Onward. Essa lives with her British Shorthair cat Soki in the San Francisco Bay Area. She's the author of the amazingly imaginative space opera 'Nophek Gloss' that completely blew my mind. I knew the author of that book must be an interesting, intelligent and unusual person, and I was super excited when she agreed to this interview.
Q: What stood out to me while reading ‘Nophek Gloss’ was your vivid and wildly original imagination when it came to world-building and the creatures populating the multiverse. Do you think there was anything in your life that influenced your imagination and made you so creative?
A: I grew up in an environment that supported creative expression of all kinds, surrounded by artists and musicians, encouraged to experiment and “make believe,” while living in beautiful locations with nature to explore. I feel like that made up for living mostly in remote areas with very limited resources in other respects (libraries, community, classes, internet, etc.), and pushed me toward internal, imaginative thinking.
Q: Your characters go through a lot of painful experiences in Nophek Gloss. Is writing these intense scenes a way to process some of your own emotions or a means to create a compelling character? What do you feel when you’re writing such scenes?
A: It’s a bit of both. I’m following the character through his harrowing experiences rather than trying to express my own on the page, but my personal experiences can color his journey in ways that make it feel deeper and add verisimilitude. The story is not a mirror, but has resonance with aspects of myself to varying degrees, and the hope is that it will resonate with readers in their own way even if it’s not a mirror to them either. In a way, the writing process for these scenes feels like transmuting my specific strong emotions into a more universal energy then crystallizing that in the story as something different and specific.
Q: I’ve noticed that some characters formed meaningful relationships with animals, whether it was Ksiñe and his whipkin or Caiden and nophek. Those are intelligent creatures and contact with them is healing for the characters. Is that based on your relationship with animals? You have a cat, and I can see some parallels with the whipkin here. You’re also a falconer, and I wonder whether it means building a special bond and understanding with a wild bird (not unlike a wild nophek). What is it like?
A: You have it exactly right—I’ve always loved animals and found them easy to understand and build rapport with. I grew up with pets and on ranches with livestock, I rode and trained horses for a decade, and I’ve trained raptors as a falconer. Animals can be a powerful way to dig into themes of fear—animal as predator, as the unknown, unpredictable—while also able to give characters comfort and open them up in ways they might not with other humans. There’s a communication barrier that asks us to communicate nonverbally on an emotional or instinctual level, or in body language and space, more present and aware of the world around us.
I also wanted to use animals as a means of decentering humans and bringing up questions of subjective/relative valuation. It’s a common human default to value plants and animals as lesser than humans: less valuable, less intelligent, less integral. In this story world, that’s not always the case.
Some story elements are inspired by animal training but might not appear so to a reader! For example, the starship flight system is designed after dressage horseback riding where the musculoskeletal system of animal and rider become one system with a steady energy circuit between them. When the relationship is at a high level, physical signals like shifts of weight or muscle tension become so minute it feels as if the rider merely thinks about an action and the horse has already performed it. I wanted a similar type of immediate, almost subconscious system for Caiden and the Azura.
Q: This is fascinating! I loved the flight system you've created and would have never guessed what it was based on. I also really enjoyed the descriptions of the food that Ksiñe made. He was clearly passionate about cooking. I loved how you depicted tastes and textures. Are you a foodie as well? Do you enjoy cooking and discovering tastes?
A: I love cooking and eating, though I’ve sadly done less of both this past year during the pandemic. I have a sensitive palate so tastes are a whole experience, and a sci-fi or fantasy world is such a fun opportunity to play with materials and tastes, to recreate familiar things in a new way.
Food can nonverbally show culture, community, bonding, healing and care, as well as underline conflict or lack. I see it as a form of communication.
Physiological, psychological, and emotional well-being is a huge theme in the novel, and Caiden’s nourishment or lack thereof represents where he’s at on this shifting scale. There were several more eating/drinking scenes that had to get cut from the novel! Otherwise I could have shown not only different foods but the culture around dining, the traditions and implements, and how food accommodates nonhuman species as well.
Q: I found the idea of Graven genes making people obedient and loving quite intriguing. Is it based on anything in the real world?
A: The only real world thing it draws on is the general idea of invisible influences such as pheromones and electromagnetism between creatures. There’s a wider parallel to the gravity of celestial bodies influencing one another, an inescapable, fundamental force inextricable from the fabric of spacetime. In the second book, Azura Ghost, this idea is explored in more detail and the Graven effect is literally called gravitas: a combination of the ideas of individual weight of bearing, and celestial mass, perhaps a nod to macrocosm and microcosm.
I wasn’t keen on the idea of mind control as an exerted, directed power, I was much more interested in playing with the concept of a passive and involuntary force that inspires harmonious connection. Rather than forcing someone to do your will, foster an affinity in which they are happy to execute your desire of their own volition. There’s an undertow theme of consent in the novel, which this power explores while raising ethical questions.
Q: Do you think humanity will travel the universe in the future?
A: That depends on how we deal with global climate and environmental issues. Science fiction often speculates exodus from Earth as a solution, but even though our technology and scientific understanding is propelling forward rapidly, I struggle to imagine we’ll have the means to convey a substantial human population off the planet before we succumb to the climate we’ve created. Given the lack of sociopolitical awareness of—let alone action around—Earth’s immediate peril, I’ve been finding it hard to think optimistically about this.
Q: Do you think we have a chance of encountering other intelligent life and finding some understanding with them?
A: The answer I find most interesting to the Fermi paradox is that intelligent life will or may have interacted with Earth’s life forms in ways we cannot detect. Alien life is so often conceived of as intelligent biological life that’s using spacecraft as humans might, but with so many spectrums of being available, conscious life could exist in domains or on a scale that we still struggle to measure with our current technology and perspective. A nonphysical alternative is most intriguing to me, which means perhaps beings have visited us or are constantly in communication range waiting for us to catch up.
Q: Which technologies from Nophek Gloss (or the books you’re working on now) would you like to exist in reality and why?
A: There’s some big tech that would be interesting to think about in Earth context, but when this question comes up my mind usually goes to practical everyday tech like the “scour,” an all-purpose, all-species chamber that cleans, eliminates waste, purges parasites, and does minor healing. It works on most inorganic materials as well. It’s not going to replace a nice hot shower just as a Star Trek replicator won’t replace the joys of cooking, but I like tech that adds ease and efficiency to aspects of human life that hasn’t dramatically advanced in a long time. It’s also fun to think about what other industries this sort of technology might simplify or advance. I love tech that has a ripple effect.
Q: In your interview with the civilianreader you said, “My day job is to make up sounds for mythical beasts, aliens, robots, magic, spaceships, and future technology.” This sounds really exciting! Can you tell us about a weird or unusual thing you’ve done for work recently?
A: One of the latest films I worked on was Disney’s Raya and the Last Dragon, which had a variety of fantasy creatures that were a blend of real life animal traits. That sort of design is a license to be creative with sound source! I had a lot of fun with baby Tuk Tuk, our heroine’s companion, who is a blend of pillbug and pug. For his voice, I could manipulate and layer a wide selection of sounds as long as they fit the character and emotion, so there’s some baby parrot, some kitten, baby wolf, racoon, insect, and seal.
Q: I’m very excited about your upcoming novel ‘Azura Ghost’! Is there anything you can and would like to share about it?
A: I’m excited to invite readers back into this world! There will be a new point-of-view character with a found family of her own, entangling with Caiden’s journey as he’s dragged into a budding multiversal war, facing new alliances and old betrayals. Caiden will be forced to face his origins once and for all while picking sides. We’ll finally learn the true nature of the Azura, get to know the Dynast governing faction of Unity, and start to explore the history of the ancient Graven civilization.
The new POV character has a “real” organic body and a synthetic cyborg-like machine body, and can move her consciousness between them through a fundamental dimension called the luminiferity. This multidimensionality will cast light on the Graven’s existence and aims, while her ability to be in two places will complicate things for both her and Caiden.
Q: I can't wait to read it! Changing the subject, what do you do for fun?
A: I have more interests that I have time for! My day job plus writing soaks up much of that time, but I get so much inspiration from non-work activities, I hope to balance time out for them.
Indoor hobbies: I enjoy cooking, reading, video games, playing piano. I’m happy both on the couch relaxing with media, or outdoors horseback riding, hiking, backpacking, camping. Several hobbies I adore but have had to set aside for now due to situation, like falconry, archery, and Japanese swordsmanship (kendo, iaido, and kenjutsu).
Q: What is the most challenging thing about being a writer for you?
A: Right now, as a debut author picked up with a trilogy on a tight release timeframe—pandemic notwithstanding—the deadlines have been most challenging. It chews away at development time that I would otherwise pour into the trilogy’s shape (especially since it wasn’t fleshed out as such when acquired), worldbuilding and scientific research, and extra revision.
Q: Thanks a lot for taking the time to answer these questions! <3
A: It’s lovely to have such fresh questions, thank you for asking and hosting them!