Controversy. It gets people talking and let’s face it: it’s free publicity. I remember reading Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy when I was younger and I was genuinely baffled by the varied response toward it. I found the storyline to be utterly unique and downright brilliant, and yet, there was this outrage toward the series for being “atheist” in plot, which many people found offensive.
With my own debut novel, Ultraxenopia, I’ve had quite a number of readers mention that certain parts made them feel squeamish (long story short, the protagonist suffers from a rare disease which can have some pretty horrific side effects). While I felt bad for making those readers uncomfortable, I was also extremely pleased that something I wrote had affected someone in some noticeable way.
When I set out to write Ultraxenopia, I knew it wouldn’t be a happy-go-lucky book. I knew it would be dark, gritty, and downright brutal at times because that’s what dystopia is—a grim future where characters manage to find something in the darkness to hang on to and fight for. And yet, suffice it to say, as both a writer and a reader, the darkness is what intrigues me more. I wanted something real, something controversial, that would make people think about the relevance it holds not only to history but to modern day. There’s this paranoia of where the world is heading and the extent of the control governments have over their people, and I wanted to reflect that in the most extreme way possible. To make the story relevant to what the world is faced with today, it also deals heavily with the very real threat of terrorism.
However, the most controversial subject in the book isn’t the police state government or the terrorism aspect, it’s the distressing topic of human experimentation. I notice fairly often on social media, people petitioning scientific testing on animals and some individuals go so far as to put up exhibits where those same experiments are performed on human volunteers, simply to shock the viewer with the savagery these unwilling subjects are put through. What people probably don’t realize is that human experimentation has happened in our history. During World War II, the Japanese conducted such experimentation when developing biological and chemical warfare—an absolutely terrifying and lethal war crime carried out in a location known as Unit-731. So, why would I want to put something so grim and at times, disturbing in my novel? To shock people. To make them think outside the box. One reader even said, “In books about supernatural powers they normally come without a cost – or at least without pain. Rethinking that was well… good thinking.”
I suppose my point in all of this is to write whatever story you find inside of you. No matter how dark. No matter how “squeamish” it may make readers. At the end of the day, you have to get people talking and one of the best ways to do that is to surprise them. And who knows, you may just find that what you were afraid may offend people, is actually the very thing that draws them to you.
M. A. PHIPPS is an American author who currently resides in the picturesque English West Country with her husband, daughter, and their Jack Russell, Milo. A lover of the written word, it has always been her dream to become a published author, and it is her hope to expand into multiple genres of fiction. When she isn’t writing, you can find her counting down the days until the new season of Game of Thrones.
Q. Where are you from? Does the area you live in influence you writing?
I was born and raised in Massachusetts, however, I’ve lived in the UK for the past seven years. I moved here to finish my undergraduate degree and then ended up settling in England. I know that living in the UK has definitely affected my writing as the set-up of the London Tube system is what inspired the layout of the city where my debut series takes place. In terms of language, I sometimes worry that my living in England for this long will start to show through in the way I write, but I’m trying to remain as American as possible.
Q. Tell us your latest news??
My debut novel, Ultraxenopia, just released on the 19th and it reached international bestseller status on that very day! Two days on and it’s still doing well and sitting on the bestsellers list in multiple categories.
Q. When and why did you begin writing? What inspired you to write your first book?
I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember, although only seriously for the last five or so years (when I finally had time to). My debut novel, Ultraxenopia, was inspired by George Orwell’s 1984 and the haunting premise of a Big Brother type society. It was also inspired by events in history such as the reign of Nazi Germany and the human experimentation conducted by the Japanese during World War II.
Q. What book(s) / author(s) have influenced your life and writing?
Well, I mentioned Orwell for Ultraxenopia but Philip Pullman actually influenced the first ever novel I wrote, which is a YA fantasy. It’s not so much his writing that influenced me but rather his fearless execution of religious undertones. I found it inspiring considering how easily it stirred up controversy for being “athiest.” It reminded me to never be afraid to write what comes to me because sometimes the most controversial books are among the best.
Q. Tell us about your characters and how they came to be? Have they been in your head for a long time?
The setting for Ultraxenopia and the general plot had been in my head since I was a teenager, but it was about five years ago that the protagonist finally jumped into my head. She barged in without warning, when I saw a singer named Winter on one of the TVs at the local gym. Then she was there: my book’s heroine, Wynter. She’s the sort of character that starts out quite timid and uncertain but grows as the story develops until she’s quite strong in her own right—not necessarily physically, but she shows bravery in spite of her hardships. I, for one, believe that strength and bravery can only exist if you have a certain degree of fear and I think she’s a great example of that.
The secondary characters tumbled into my head after her but I had little inspirations that helped with their arrival. For the leading male, Ezra—that was the name my husband and I were going to name our child if she had been a boy. Jenner was based off the actor Jim Sturgess who is just adorable (and loveably British) and Rai was actually named after my favorite character from the show Sailor Moon which I loved as a child. I can’t really tell you where the antagonist, Dr. Richter, came from. He pretty much just rose up from a very dark and disturbed part of my mind.
Q. What motivates you to write?
Music is my muse. I listen to a lot of instrumental music, particularly film scores, and I find it really easy to get inspiration from them, which then makes me itch to write. My brain never really shuts off and I feel almost anxious if I don’t get my ideas down on paper, so I’m fairly easily motivated.
Q. What is the hardest part of writing?
I think the hardest part is ensuring that you reveal the right amount of information to the reader. Sometimes it’s easy to not reveal enough because as a writer, the story is already in our heads, and therefore we feel the path the character takes is obvious. Other times, it’s easy to reveal too much and not leave enough up to the reader to discover for themselves. Finding that balance is the most challenging but also most exciting part of writing.
Q. Did you learn anything from writing your book and what was it?
To have more confidence in myself. There were times when I wondered if I was meant to do this or if I was good enough to break into the industry, but all those fears and doubts have been put to rest. I realized that I’m right to trust my gut and to never be afraid to ask for help and advice from those who know more than me.
Q. Where do you get your ideas?
I actually suffer from insomnia which leads to some pretty vivid dreams when I do actually get the opportunity to sleep. Most of my ideas either come from my dreams or they pop into my head when listening to music.
Q. What does your family think of your writing?
They’re immensely proud and supportive. They always seem so surprised by my ideas and stunned that my brain has the capacity to do something like this.
Q. What is the best advice you would give to inspiring authors?
Hire a good editor. They are your lifeline. Promote, promote, promote. And never be afraid to ask for advice. We all start at the bottom and I wouldn’t have been able to achieve a successful release if it hadn’t been for the other authors who so generously gave me advice and pointed me in the right direction.
Q. What book(s) are you reading now?
I’m currently reading The Selection trilogy by Kiera Cass. I’m nearly finished the second book in the series, but I’m rather disappointed with it. I enjoyed the first one, however, this particular sequel seems a bit jarring and all over the place with characters behaving in ways that seem to contradict the personalities Cass established for them in the first book.
“Her blood type,” she whispers in a hushed voice to the man. “It’s . . . changing.”
I may not know much about science, or anything medical having to do with the human body, but I know enough to be fairly certain that what she’s saying isn’t possible. Not naturally at least.
I gape at the man, but he doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t even seem to react to this news. His eyes simply follow the code for a while, his fingers rubbing his chin as if deep in thought.
When the process is finally complete, the sphere stops spinning and sinks back to the desktop, landing with a soft thud against the glass surface. Within seconds of touching down, the metal shifts until it’s once again nothing more than a silver bowl filled with blood.
The man straightens up, but his hand remains planted on his chin. Everyone in the room watches him in silence, as if waiting for him to speak.
“Fascinating,” is all he says.
Without warning, he looks over at me, and my heart rate increases when his lips curl into a smile. For some reason, his expression is unnerving.
He begins to move toward me, his footsteps echoing off the floor—the sound growing louder as the distance between us shrinks. His gaze never leaves mine.
Stopping just in front of me, he flashes a kind smile. “Hello, Wynter,” he murmurs. “My name is Dr. Richter. I’ll be taking care of you.”
Taking care of me?
“Why am I here?” I breathe. My voice is shaky, and the dryness in my throat is apparent in each raspy word. “What are you going to do to me?”
“Shh, hush now,” he whispers. “All of your questions will be answered in time.”
He smiles once again, only breaking eye contact with me to glance down at his hand. I follow his gaze, the fear re-emerging when I see him pull a syringe from the depths of his coat pocket. His eyes flash back to mine, and I know he can sense my fear as well as the piercing screams tightly lodged in my throat.
“But for now,” he croons as he injects the syringe into one of the tubes in my right arm, “you must sleep.”
He takes a step away from me, that disconcerting expression still plastered across his face. I try to say something, but I can barely get out a single word before I feel the effects of the liquid as it enters my system. It rushes through me like a cold chill.
I want to fight against it, but it’s hopeless.
As the drowsiness returns to pull me under yet again, the doctor’s smile is all I can see.
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