Jeff Whelan, author of the science fiction comedy novel Space Orville, which is tomorrow's Book Feature. Jeff was born near Chicago and did his growing up in the smallish town of DeKalb, Illinois. Taking time to travel with a carnival in his teens and spending a good part of his 20s living and working in San Francisco, Jeff returned to DeKalb and found himself settling down and starting a family. After 20 happy and fulfilling years in the field of special education, Jeff became a happy and fulfilled stay-at-home parent. Once both children became full-time schoolers, Jeff returned to work by day as a special education paraprofessional and remains, by night, a home-based medical transcriptionist.
Michael K. Rose: What role do you believe speculative fiction plays in society?
Jeff Whelan: A fascinating question. Consider this: What if the inscriptions and paintings that some claim were evidence of extraterrestrial visitations were not that at all but were, rather, the earliest forms of speculative fiction? Perhaps humans have been writing or drawing about the possibilities of the infinite and the probability of life elsewhere since they first noticed the stars. After all, what is speculation? It is wonder. It is questioning. It is asking "what if?" and "why not?" Ancient mythologies offered explanations about the course of the sun through the heavens and the changing of the seasons. Was that not a form of speculative fiction?
I believe that speculative fiction plays a vital role in advancing the collective imagination of a society or culture. It encourages us to dream beyond the confines of our own experience, to offer up the possibilities of that which seems improbable and make it plausible. And as the ideas expounded by speculative fiction take hold in that collective imagination, the thoughts of a society can move forward to the point where new discoveries are made, new possibilities explored, that were once only dreamed of. Consider Jules Verne's From the Earth to the Moon (1867), H.G. Wells's When the Sleeper Wakes (1899) or Stanislaw Lem's Return from the Stars (1961). While perhaps not the first, these stories contained early, speculative examples of space flight, DVD players and e-books that are now a part of our reality. And what is the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy but a glorified, intergalactic iPad?
It is speculative fiction that inspires such new ideas, such innovation. Without it, we might still be rubbing sticks together to make fire.
MKR: Why do you write in this genre?
JW: Plainly speaking, it's just a great deal of fun. Granted, my brand of speculative fiction leans toward the humorous and the bizarre, but I get a greater sense of freedom in writing speculatively; if it's set in the future or an alternate reality or another layer of the multiverse, all bets are off. I can create as fantastic a world as I wish with as many outrageously imaginative ideas as I can because it's speculative and that's what it's supposed to be.
MKR: How did you come up with the idea for Space Orville?
JW: I was a senior in high school when Space Orville blossomed in my head. I was part of a creative writing class that would meet weekly to share and critique our poems and short stories. One week, after dinking around with a couple of rather lame poems that were going nowhere, I wrote the words "Space Orville" at the top of a page. Hmm, I thought. I was, at that time, an avid reader of Douglas Adams, Kurt Vonnegut and Hunter S. Thompson. I also carried a passion for Dr. Seuss, Monty Python and Doctor Who. Given all those variables, what flew out of my head at that time came as no surprise. I had a teenage protagonist immersed in bizarre situations beyond his control in a world populated by outrageous beings and somewhat bossy adults. There was hardly a shred of reality to it which made it practically my life story.
Of course, this early draft was barely coherent and was only the seed of what the novel became. Nevertheless, my classmates loved it. Even our advisor was amused, although a bit perplexed.
I could never quite escape Space Orville's world, however, and I would occasionally extend the story inspired by new situations or by conversations with others that led to new ideas. Nearly 18 years later, as part of an adult creative writing course, I decided to dust that original story off and see if I could actually make something of it. A couple of years and some 88,000 words later, my incoherent, adolescent ramblings had grown into a full-blown manuscript.
MKR: What was your biggest challenge in writing it?
JW: Taking those incoherent ramblings and hammering them into a linear story line. This got much easier as the story went on. I wanted to keep as many of those original ideas, concepts and characters as I could but they needed someplace to be, something to do and, most importantly, a reason to do it. Having survived my own adolescence, I felt I had a better handle on Space Orville emotionally as well as a deeper understanding of his motivations. The original story was not much but a collection of twisted circumstances and situations; it lacked an understanding of the characters that populated it. That vital knowledge didn’t come to me until I was an adult. All the playful nonsense in the world wouldn’t help the story if the characters didn't make sense. Once I understood my characters and their motivations, I found I could make more sense of their situations. So, character first, plot second. Once I got there, the story took on a life of its own.
MKR: What are you working on now?
JW: A sequel to Space Orville is beckoning to me, although it is still in the planning phase. The end of the first book left the option to continue and I would like to. The working title is "Methuselah's Cradle" and it concerns the nature of time, how it affects us and what choices we face as time turns around us and turns us around. Love? Devotion? Personal gain? The good of humankind? Revenge? Common themes, to be sure, but wrapped up in Space Orville's universe, I hope to make something entertaining out of it.
Beyond that, some time ago I wrote an autobiographical short story called "Greyhound" about the time I left home and wound up in Miami with $80 in my pocket, no personal contacts and no idea what I was going to do. "Greyhound," posted on my blog, is about the night I left town. Readers of that piece have been clamoring for more and I'm feeling obliged to let them know what happened after that.
MKR: Jeff, thank you so much for this opportunity. Readers, Jeff can be stalked over at his blog and via Facebook and Twitter. Go here for links to purchase Space Orville.