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Lindsay Ellis Takes on Alternate History in Debut Novel ‘Axiom’s End’

Writing and producing a feature-length video essay on the now infamous 2019 film adaption of the long-running broadway musical Cats may seem like a cry for help to some, but to Lindsay Ellis, it’s just another day at the office. The Hugo Award-nominated media critic has made a living out of insightfully analysing pop culture, whether it be through the many video essays on her popular YouTube channel, which has covered everything from Mel Brooks’s The Producers to Michael Bay’s Transformers, or as the host of PBS’s literature focused-web series “It’s Lit!”

It’s this keen grasp of media analysis that inspired Ellis’s latest project; her debut science fiction novel Axiom’s End. The first in a brand new series, Axiom’s End, which is out July 21st, blends extraterrestrial intrigue with the paranoia and frosted tips of the mid 2000’s. I sat down with Ellis to discuss the novel’s unique alternate history setting, the publishing process and how to stay creative during the ongoing pandemic.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

UIC Radio: Can you give us a short synopsis of what Axiom’s End is about?

Lindsay Ellis: At the risk of sounding really pretentious, I don’t really like synopsising it because I think it sounds really bad on paper [Laughter]. It’s just like the second you see the word “government” I just tap out. I usually just say like: “it’s got aliens in it, [and] it takes place in 2007. There’s no Shane Dawson, no Jeffery Star. YouTube isn’t even mentioned.

Photo by Sarah Winters

I find that early 00’s setting fascinating because of how specific it is. What about the 2000s Bush era interests you? Why did you choose to set the book during that time?

Part of it was because I wrote the first version [of the book] back in 2013 [and] 2014, but it wasn’t until Trump got elected that I started to revisit it. You know how kinda like most books that are modern take place in the vague “now?” Like, maybe they don’t have a date attached to them, but you just kind of assume that it takes place in the present day and that’s what it had been. But then Trump got elected and it doesn’t make any f*cking sense anymore. This has been kind of a joke on Twitter forever but it’s just like, everything is ridiculous, dequorum is gone.

There’s a scandal that happens in the book that’s kind of a big deal, and I think people are so used to interpersonal scandals and sex scandals that idea of scandal centered around hiding something as momentous as first contact would be a big deal. [It] is almost kind of alien to people in the age of Trump. So it had to be a period piece. 

You bring up a really good point. A 2007 scandal is so different from a 2020 scandal. The difference is practically night and day, which is interesting because it’s only a 13 year time jump.

I remember it well [Laughter]!

It’s weird to hear 2007 as a period piece. We got Transformers that year.

[It] used to be my joke that the only reason to remember 2007 was because it was the year Transformers came out and, in my opinion, did change the film industry quite a bit, but we don’t need to get into that.

Since this is a first contact story, I assume that you’re pretty well versed in other first contact media. The film Arrival is a good example. How have these past films and novels influenced your book, and how have you deviated from the formula?

Honestly I guess influence-wise it’s muchmore 90s stuff. What I was sort of going for was the structure of these 80s and 90s adventure movies with the tone of post-9/11 seriousness. Not hyper serious like Steven Spieberg’s War of the Worlds, but kind of a blend of the two is fundamentally what it is. Because I think that it’s interesting that this whole genre of first contact changed radically after 9/11 and everything is very artsy and serious. I really like Arrival, but I guess like Arrival is the Contact of its generation, but better.

There’s certainly a gratuity there because some of my favorite movies of my teenage-hood are Independance Day and Men in Black. And I’m extremely fond of Spielberg’s War of the Worlds… I wanted to get in on that, but I wanted to do it in a way where it’s like: “we spend half the book talking about linguistics!”

Which is fun!

It’s funny because I originally conceived of it before Arrival came out, but it does end up having a lot in common with [Arrival] in that way. I almost like to think of it as a really serious Invader Zim.

Going back to our discussion on setting, we’re living in an almost completely different country than we were in January and early February. Does that at all change the meaning of the book?

Kind of… I didn’t think there was going to be a recesscession before it came out. Because sort of one of the background noise things is this idea that I thought was kind of funny and worth building on which was that we know in the real world that the 2008 recession was going to happen no matter what. But in this universe, it’s sort of like the groups of conspiracy theorists get kick-started by being like: “oh, the government did this on purpose, [or] the aliens did it.”

It’s a weird challenge of trying to create a universe that is different enough from the world that we live in that it feels like going somewhere else, and in this case I worry that it’s not going to be. I worry that it’s going to be too familiar.

That honestly has been a challenge, trying to create an alternate version of America that feels threatening to the reader, but the one that we’re living in is uh… quite bad.

One of the major points in your “How to get a Book Deal in Ten Years or Less” video is that you wanted to avoid self-publishing in favor of a more traditional roadmap through the major publishers. Has that changed for you at all?

There’s kind of a culture war between traditionally published and self published people, and there’s a lot of discussion about how much of people not being able to get in the door has to do with their talent and how much has to do with maybe they’re being discriminated against, or maybe they are just writing in a genre that isn’t in demand right now. It’s kind of impossible to really tell.

Having done both, and I know people who have gone from traditional publishing to self publishing after having been screwed over by the industry, [but] I struggle to imagine wanting to self publish. Because traditional publishing, even though you kind of get less in royalties, it confers way more advantages. Not to mention that just having professionals going over it, [and] making sure things are correct.

I’m always interested in people’s creative process, so how do you normally tackle your writing?

I think in terms of [narrative] structure first, and [then] fill in the more character oriented things later. But I’ll spend a lot of time sort of thinking on it and stewing on it and then I’ll write an outline. And then once I get an outline I’m generally a really fast writer. The first draft of the second book Truth of the Divine, which is out in October of next year, is about 150,000 words so it’s longer than the first one substantially and I wrote it in about three months. 

A lot of my friends, myself included, have found it hard to stay productive during the pandemic. It seems odd considering the free time we now all have. How has it affected your ability to create content, if at all?

I feel like a big part of it is the fact that we aren’t socializing like we used to. You stop using language and your ability to use words diminishes. And since this is an art form built on words, your ability to write prose is diminished. On top of that yeah, it’s been a real struggle to not just create, but even to read other people’s books. It’s been like pulling teeth.

Right! Does that feeling bleed into the process for your YouTube channel?

A little bit. The problem I’ve always had with that is me being in charge and not having anybody to overlord over me and give me deadlines and tell me what to do has always been a real challenge. That’s always been a real problem, and now it’s an even bigger problem because finding the motivation not only for myself but for the people who work for me and delegating and giving instructions… It’s hard on a good day.

Photo courtesy of Macmillan Publishing

Axiom’s End releases on July 21st and can be found wherever books are sold. You can find the full list of dates for Ellis’s upcoming virtual book tour here.


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