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AUTHOR INTERVIEW: Essa Hansen
"I get to watch a universe develop, characters evolve, mysteries bubble up and solve, puzzles lock into place. Writing feels like many activities in one, to me."
Essa Hansen writes science fiction and fantasy that draws on her love of the natural world. She grew up in wild areas of California and the Canadian Rocky Mountains, worked on ranches, trained horses, practiced Japanese swordsmanship and archery, and is a licensed falconer. She works for Skywalker Sound as a sound designer for sci-fi and fantasy feature films such as Big Hero 6, Doctor Strange, Avengers: Endgame, and Pixar’s Onward. Essa lives with her cat Soki in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Tell me about a recent work you released - a short story, a poem, a book, a game. What one work of yours do you hope readers will go out and read today? What's it about?
A good intro to my work is my short story, “Save, Salve, Shelter,” in the Jan/Feb 2020 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. It’s set on a near-future Earth ruined by environmental change and disease. The human population is evacuating to a Mars colony, buying passage by collecting DNA from as many unique animal corpses as possible, to recreate later. The protagonist, Pasha, can’t help but also collect the surviving baby creatures she finds during her trek, hoping to bring them along on the next shuttle. She’s continually turned away, but continues to try, and the journey is slowly transforming both her and her salvaged creatures.
The story is dark and warm and strange, with quiet prose attentive to cadence, white space, and sensory detail—one of my favorite things to write. It also encapsulates many of the same themes and tone as my novels: compassion, justice, fighting for those who can’t fight for themselves, against insurmountable odds. What sort of person takes on the pain of such a fight? Why do they choose self-sacrifice when others say the fight isn’t worth it?
What do you enjoy most about writing?
I’ve been making up stories and imaginary worlds since I can remember, it feels built-in now. I enjoy the exhilaration of exploring other worlds in a more active way than as just a reader. I get to watch a universe develop, characters evolve, mysteries bubble up and solve, puzzles lock into place. Writing feels like many activities in one, to me, which I think is what makes it so satisfying.
I specifically enjoy writing as a format because of the processing time it gives me for language to flow out of my brain in the right structure and word choices. In writing, I can counter-balance many of the frustrations of my everyday life where communication doesn’t slot into place, misunderstandings aren’t solved so easily, characters don’t state themselves clearly, and I can’t pare down my sensory world to a manageable and pleasing form. Gaining time and thereby control is a nice feeling.
What is most difficult for you about writing?
My understanding of my own neurodivergence has brought some challenges of my writing into relief, the biggest of which is clarity. The way the story flows naturally onto the page for me—or the way I extrapolate my experiences—is often too dense or abstract. One of my big tasks during edits is to reshape my prose to fit my intentions for an audience.
Tell me about a special interest of yours. Have you found yourself incorporating your special interests into your fiction?
It seems like all my special interests have fed into my fiction in some way, even if I don’t consciously mean them to. For example, I realized belatedly that the starship piloting system I’d designed for my space opera novel was both like playing an instrument or orchestrating, and also like horseback riding, a whole-body interface with a separate mechanical-organic system.
I spent my teen years studying both esoteric sciences, spiritual systems, and fields like quantum mechanics, chaos theory, systems theory, cognitive sciences, mathematics. I branched out widely, including philosophy and mythology, propelled by the thrill of unifying different theories at an abstract level, which only made me want to absorb more to fill in the gaps. As a result, a lot of my science fiction and fantasy veers metaphysical and into the strangeness of time and malleability of reality.
Have you had trouble with the publishing industry because of being autistic, and/or because of being marginalized in another way?
Self-promotion has been one of the bigger challenges for me. An author is a public figure, which means navigating brand and social media presence in a way that many of us autistics already have to manage our social performative masks. The same difficulties and energy drains apply.
I debuted during the 2020 pandemic, which removed in-person events while increasing audio/video events. I had to experiment a lot to try to gauge how I function the smoothest: questions ahead of time or conversational, script to follow, no script but sparse notes, or no notes at all, and is audio-only better or worse than seeing a face? I haven’t found a good answer yet, but I did realize the need to carefully schedule my responsibilities to build in recovery time and maintain executive functioning. I learned to ask for clearer information and expectations ahead of time, rather than assuming these would be provided.
I hope you’re all enjoying this reviews series so far! We’ve got many more interviews with autistic authors still to come.
Meanwhile, just FYI: THE OUTSIDE’s Kindle edition has been on sale this week for just 99 cents.