2021 Debuts author J.S. Dewes is knee-deep (or higher!) in publishing mania. Still on cloud nine from the release of her debut novel, The Last Watch (April 2021), J.S. had the thrill of seeing the second in the series—The Exiled Fleet—launch last week. And don’t worry, fans . . . the series isn’t finished yet! Her debut was listed as a “Most Anticipated Book for April 2021” by Bookish, Geek Tyrant, Nerd Daily, and SFF 180, and the second book has already started picking up praise as well, including an excellent review from Publisher’s Weekly (which landed the book as a PW pick) and Library Journal. A creative at heart, J.S. has so many irons in the fire, I’m grateful she took the time to thoughtfully answer my questions!
Christina: Your sophomore novel, The Exiled Fleet, just launched on August 17, and it continues the “fast-paced science fiction action adventure” you began in The Last Watch. What is it about science fiction that draws you to it? What do you feel it can do that another genre cannot?
J.S.: Excited to be here today, Christina, thank you for having me!
There’s so much fun to be had with every genre, but I think what I love most about science fiction is the sheer potential. As both a reader and writer, I find myself drawn to sprawling, high-concept adventures, and sci-fi lends itself to those kinds of stories in a unique way.
Though the same could be said for fantasy in a lot of ways, a key feature I love about sci-fi is how the technology and science can allow for a more direct reflection of our modern world. Readers can use these familiar-yet-different elements to draw lines between where we are now, and where the story has taken humanity—for good or ill. And whether the story remains optimistic or takes a darker more foreboding path, I think this can be a really important exercise in seeing the forest for the trees, helping us to think about how our actions today might impact those who come after.
Which sounds super serious, haha—but as with anything in fiction, it’s a balancing act. For example, by pushing The Last Watch’s setting to the far future and the literal edge of the universe, I set the stage for some pretty wild, “out there” expectations, so in turn I made sure to keep the characters, their histories, and their relationships grounded and relatable to ensure the reader always has a “thread” back to our reality to keep hold of.
J.S.: It definitely arose organically! I’m a discovery writer at heart, and when I started drafting The Last Watch back in 2016, I had no preconceived notions of where it might lead. It was the second novel I’d ever written, so I was still very much finding my footing as an author.
I’ve since learned that I like to see what an individual novel has to say for itself before I try and conceptualize it as anything longer. As a “concept-up” writer, I typically let the idea and characters inform what’s needed by the plot and setting, in order to best support the story as a whole. Which means I typically layer details in very slowly, often starting drafts with little to no worldbuilding.
It became apparent about halfway through drafting The Last Watch that there was the potential for a much bigger story to tell, though it wasn’t until I wrote the final chapter that I knew for sure that this setting and these characters were begging for more. As I worked through revisions, I made sure to strengthen those series threads, and then again when I worked with my editor—especially since at that point I knew there would at least be two installments!
I think keeping that more “contained” worldbuilding mindset helped me to ensure each novel contains its own, conclusive story. Both The Last Watch and The Exiled Fleet have their own distinct plots, character arcs, and conclusions, and though both have plenty of threads left open to chew over and wonder about, there are no major cliffhangers. (That said, they’re still very much sequential—though you can certainly try, I would recommend reading The Last Watch prior to The Exiled Fleet for the full experience!)
Christina: The book that started it all, The Last Watch, released in April and has garnered excellent reviews. Are you nervous at all about the release of the second installment? How has the release of this second book differed from that of the first?
J.S.: Honestly, releasing the second installment just four months after the first has barely given me time to even consider being nervous, haha! But really, the whole thing has been an absolutely whirlwind, and I feel so lucky to have had such a fantastic debut experience.
That said, I did have some pretty bad anxiety leading up to the launch of The Last Watch, but it was entirely performance and imposters syndrome-related, and not rooted in nerves regarding the books’ receptions. Which may sound a bit pompous, haha—but I assure you, it’s not about blind confidence so much as reckless optimism. I wrote this story from the very bottom of my max-level, sci-fi nerd heart, and I just know there’s a readership out there for it, and I’m so excited to share it with them. (And that’s where I have my absolutely fantastic and supportive publishing team to thank, all of whom have worked tirelessly to ensure The Last Watch and The Exiled Fleet find their way into the hands of readers!)
Though the publishing experience for the two books has kind of felt one in the same, I think the bigger difference for me has been in regards to my personal journey from a writing perspective. The The Last Watch took five years to go from first words to publication, and The Exiled Fleet was only two. The Exiled Fleet was also the first book I wrote under contract, my first sequel, and the first book I had to write a synopsis for prior to drafting—which was a major departure from my process and a huge learning experience! (In a good way!)
Christina: The opening of the first chapter of The Last Watch is memorable (and humorous) and allows us to get a glimpse of Cavalon Mercer’s (one of the protagonists) vulnerabilities. The Exiled Fleet also begins with a memorable line and dives right into the action. How do you decide where to begin a story? Is that something that comes to you early on or later in your writing process?
J.S.: Though I typically jump around quite a bit as I’m drafting, I do always try to start writing the story from the very beginning. I like having that strong foundation to work from to ensure I’m on the right track with things!
As far as how I decide where to begin, for The Last Watch the answer is…I didn’t really?? The day I started drafting, I sat down at my picnic table with the concept “the universe is collapsing!” in my brain, and just started putting words down. That opening line is what came out. I have absolutely no good explanation for what my brain was thinking, haha. Throughout revisions the events stayed the same, but the subtext evolved from surface-level discomfort of being somewhere new and foreign, into becoming a showcase for Cavalon’s knee-jerk, fight/flight reactions, which like you said, exposes his fears and vulnerabilities.
For The Exiled Fleet, I knew I had set myself…maybe not a high bar, but a specific bar, haha. Basically, I knew I needed to start with some shocking words, in a scene that placed Cavalon knee-deep in frustration once again, questioning himself and his worthiness. And considering the daunting task he’s been made to undertake, it was pretty easy for me to imagine exactly where he should be and what he should be doing in that moment!
In sci-fi and fantasy especially, with so much setting and worldbuilding to accomplish, it can be really difficult to determine how to begin a story. To keep myself on track early on, I always remind myself to stay laser-focused on characterization and reader expectations. I always make sure my opening scenes (for each POV character) accomplish three things: 1) that they establish sympathy for the character, 2) that they showcase the principle “hook” of the novel (be it concept, setting, character, etc.), and 3) that they set tonal expectations (will there be humor, romance, blood & guts, swearing, etc.). Once all that’s established, it’s so much easier to immerse in the character’s voice and plow brazenly forward into the action and drama knowing those important elements have been set up!
Christina: You have gone on record as stating that you performed extensive research for this series that included physics (“in pretty much every flavor”) and math (“so much math”). With a degree in film, did you find the research daunting? A challenge? Something you looked forward to? Did you find anything surprising?
J.S.: So much math!
One of the things a background in film production prepares you for (the practical experience more so than the degree), is versatility. On indie sets especially, you have to be a jack-of-all-trades to survive—and the more you can prove your agility, the more likely you are to get rehired.
I’ve worked on a variety of projects from local commercials to documentaries to feature films since I was eighteen, and filled almost every single pre-production, production, and post-production role at least once, if not dozens of times. With that varied of a work experience, it’s second-nature for me to take challenges head on, and I typically equate “daunting” with “fun.” Even when a lot of math is involved!
I think the thing that has and continues to surprise me most when it comes to sci-fi research, is how little we really know about the universe. There’s a lot we think we know, or probably-kind-of-almost-for-sure know, but there’s WHOLE lot more theories and probablys going on than I expected to find, haha.
And though having no solid answers can sometimes be frustrating, it can also be really freeing—and inspiring. That gets back into what I love about the genre as a whole, when there’s wiggle room to take a concept and make it your own, while still keeping it rooted in an accepted scientific or technological framework.
Christina: You have two dogs and a cat, and your Instagram pictures of them are just precious. What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned from any of them? Do they inform your writing at all?
J.S.: Is it too dramatic to say they taught me how to love??
I’m kidding but also, not really kidding. They bring me such joy throughout the day—especially since the dreaded March of 2020, as I’ve been working from home since. Now I can’t imagine leaving the house for eight plust hours a day—how did I survive without them following me around, snoring at my feet, and licking at my elbows all day every day??
In addition to unconditional love, they also help me remember to keep active, whether it’s through dog walks or even just hanging out in the yard. Activity is something that’s all too easy to let slip as authors, when we so often have day jobs and other responsibilities on top of writing, and it’s something I really need in order to stay in my best, most productive mindset.
Though I wouldn’t say they inform my writing, they’re absolutely essential to my emotional and mental health. I don’t know what I would do without my three fur balls!
Christina: What’s literary success look like to you?
J.S.: Phew, great question! For me, it’s all about happy readers. (Not pandering, I swear!)
I read and consume media primarily for entertainment, and I want to write and create media for that same purpose. Every story has layers, and some may be more literary or scholarly than others, but I’m the first to admit that I’m in this first and foremost for entertainment.
If I’m making someone feel a thing—hopefully primarily good things, but sometimes sad or angry or morally gray things—then I’m doing something right. Though I don’t read reviews as I believe those are reader-only spaces, I cherish every email, DM, Tweet, and comment I receive from excited readers who just want to share their enthusiasm for The Last Watch or The Exiled Fleet.
I feel so lucky to already have such an enthusiastic base of support for The Divide series as I launch into my writing career!
Thanks to J.S. for agreeing to this interview! If you know of an author who’d like to be featured in an interview (or you are an author who would like to be featured), feel free to leave a comment or email me via my contact page.