Elaine Chao holds many titles, including martial arts instructor, engineer, and musician. Recently, she added science fiction author to her titles with a contribution to Interspecies, a new co-authored science fiction epic. She works for Adobe and is a regular contributor to Adobe’s Creative Cloud Blog.
In this interview, Chao sat down with the Kōsa Team and discussed creating alien words, how martial arts informs writing, working with creative teams, artistic collaboration, the yin and yang in her science fiction story, and much more.
Kōsa Team: Elaine, you’re an engineer, martial arts instructor, musician, writer, and more. You stated in one of your blog posts that you’re “a multi-disciplinary creative.” What does this mean to you?
Elaine Chao: The word “creative” was coined some five years ago to describe an artist, or someone who defines themselves by their creative skill or passion. This resonates a lot with me, as I express myself creatively in multiple avenues: storytelling, music, and design. Personally, I define the difference between a creative and a hobbyist as their approach to craft, or the active and willing practice of making things.
KT: In your story, “Underground Intelligence,” your protagonist Ān-tíng is a multi-skilled and multilingual badass warrior resisting alien rule and enslavement. What or who was your inspiration for this character? How did you develop her?
EC: I’ve always been drawn to strong female characters, and I felt that this particular story would have a yin and yang were it narrated from a woman’s perspective. Ān-tíng lives in a place of contrasts: Anshahar and English, defiantly independent and yet closely intertwined, subjugated and yet free. In the same way, the story itself contains young and old, male and female, alien and human. Over time, I’ve begun to see that such contrasts, when done subtly, are a deeper exploration of what it means not only to exist in this world, but to truly live.
I wouldn’t call her a warrior, though: she’s a highly technical analyst with some field skills. I dislike creating impossible characters, as they’re unrelatable. Humans are often complex, flawed beings, and modern storytelling (especially in film) has shifted from relying on tropes to exploring the flaws in humanity. Literature has done that for centuries, and pop culture has finally caught up.
As for the inspiration for the character, I found myself wondering what a society that was both alien and human would feel like, and realized that I already knew. Growing up and living in the San Francisco Bay Area has given me experiences of living both as a majority and a minority in the midst of a wealth of cultural influences. As a community, we’ve had to explore what it looks like to live in a non-homogenous society; we often observe the shifts in power and the cycle of disenfranchisement. Having lived it and experienced it, it was only natural to write from a more personal understanding of the conflict that arises from inequity and cultural differences.
From a development perspective, Ān-tíng more or less came out fully formed, though her relationship with Nate developed over time. The editing process caused me to essentially increase the saturation of the story (to borrow from a photography concept), bringing out shades of emotions instead of living in a world of action and understatement.
KT: One of your many important contributions to the inlari story universe was the concept of inyata. Can you explain this concept and how it’s used in the different stories?
EC: The concept of inyata actually changed over time. It was a little unformed in my first draft, but it really crystallized after Dana, one of my co-authors, used the term in her story and told me how she was using it. In one of my massive rewrites, I incorporated her definition: of soul’s purpose. It elevated it from merely interest and passion into a spiritual plane, which sat just right with me.
In “Underground Intelligence,” Shirrah Opkith, an elderly inlari researcher, seeks to understand whether or not humans have the capability to hold inyata. In his mind, the ability to have a soul’s purpose elevated them to inlari status. This struggle resonates with the global history of the black diaspora, where many slave owners thought of their slaves as beasts and not humans like themselves, or even within classed societies, such as those in feudal systems. His struggle to understand whether or not humans were equal to inlari is his motivation to seek out a human Resistance fighter.
Similarly, Quinette wonders if she’s found her inyata in Zet and comes to the realization that humans could hold a soul’s purpose. Her realization comes almost accidentally through the course of events in her journey.
KT: What was it like to write a story for a universe you did not fully create from the ground up?
EC: Actually, right in my wheelhouse. I cut my writing teeth in online interactive storytelling in a well-known fictional universe. There was a canon of what the world was like, but the focus was on the story of how the characters interacted and how they overcame obstacles together. Writing in the world of the inlari was just a different set of rules.
KT: Not only was each author responsible for their own story, but they were also responsible for adhering to a continuity and timeline that related to the counterpart stories. What were the challenges of working this way? How did you overcome these hurdles?
EC: Continuity was only a problem when the story bible, our source document for organizing the collaboration, was ambiguous, or where one story didn’t follow the bible closely enough. I remember checking inlari biology in the first version of the bible, describing Opkith’s eyes in one way, and then having to change it later when someone contradicted it. These inconsistencies led to a fair number of discussions about how to reconcile these differences. Eventually, my three co-authors sat down with the story bible and reworked it.
I’ll fully admit to relying on my interactive storytelling roots and waiting to read late drafts of all three of the other stories before my massive rewrite, where I basically scrapped everything and wrote from scratch. It made for better continuity when I highlighted what I wanted to link in from the other stories and had the flexibility to do so. Thankfully, my story was short and could be rewritten in a couple of days.
KT: What are the essential ingredients for successful creative collaborations?
EC: Respect, communication, honesty, tact, and selflessness. When conflicts come, these will allow a team to really function as a unit. Having the skills to be able to respect others’ opinions and state your own in a constructive way will help the team to arrive a solution that is best for the project, even if it’s inconvenient for individuals.
Honesty, tact, and respect really go hand in hand with effective communication. I know there were times when I reached out about project deadlines. For instance, there was one time I asked about a project deadline that had passed, as I had been expecting an update. Instead of jumping on MJ, the project coordinator, I casually inquired about the status, expecting that there would be a reasonable answer at his convenience. I always try to give each individual the benefit of the doubt and assume that all of the team members have the best of intentions. It makes for more positive interactions and a great team experience.
I guess the last thing to say here is the willingness to empathize and extend grace to people when they fail to meet deadlines or expectations. Life happens, especially when you have young children or are reliant on external services, and you can either get mad or understand that the kids are going to get sick or relatives are going to unexpectedly drop by or someone is struggling with the death of a close friend. These things happen, and they affect performance. Making the individual contributor feel supported through their process gives them the security to deliver a quality product, and I think it’s important that the entire collaborative team feel like they are working together.
KT: How important is a “growth mindset” when participating in a project like Interspecies?
EC: Incredibly important. With a collaboration like Interspecies, you have to walk in with the best that you have, but you can’t really expect that you’re done as soon as you submit. Treating the cyclone of feedback as an opportunity to grow sets you up for a different emotional response to criticism. Feedback isn’t personal; it’s focused on making your work as good as it can be.
Coming to this realization after multiple drafts of “Underground Intelligence” gave me a different mindset about receiving feedback on my written work. I’ve done a fair bit of blogging for Adobe since I submitted my first draft, and each article is closely read by three or four people. I complimented one reviewer for his thorough review and excellent suggestions, and he told me he was cringing, expecting backlash for being so thorough. I recognized the value of his feedback and had no emotional reaction to his suggestions besides pleasure that someone was helping me make the piece stand out.
KT: Most solo writers find working in a shared universe vastly different from doing solo work. What were some of the differences and similarities to other projects you’ve worked on?
EC: My experience writing has drifted from solo work to shared universe and back. Recently (over the past five years), I’ve been working on solo long form work, which is a completely new form of writing for me. This shared universe work was very familiar to me, so it wasn’t much of a stretch.
KT: How important is a positive attitude to completing a project like this? How do you deal with “negative self-talk” when faced with an unexpected draft or project delay?
EC: A positive attitude is critical to making things succeed. Did I expect eight drafts of “Underground Intelligence?” Honestly, no. Did I learn a lot in the process? Yes. I learned what it meant to go through multiple editing cycles, learned more about myself as a writer, and approached each draft as an opportunity to hone my craft. This was the first time I had attempted approaching a story arc in so few words. (For reference, my last two novels clocked in their first rough drafts at 115k and 125k words, respectively.)
I don’t think I had a ton of negative self-talk with this project. I had very little control over the project schedule or decisions about the project, so I simply parked myself in the back seat and enjoyed the scenery. And, when I could, I helped the drivers navigate decisions and supported them through the difficulties of getting the publication out the door.
KT: Martial arts is a big part of your life. Does this physical discipline lend itself to creativity in writing? How so? And what lessons from martial arts translate to your writing process?
EC: The physical discipline definitely helps with the overall discipline of writing as a craft. When you do something for pleasure, you participate in fits and spurts when you feel like it. When you’re training, you go even when you don’t feel like it, because you know the long term benefits outweigh the short term pain.
Having the discipline of martial arts helped me to do things like schedule my writing sessions, evaluate my schedule and give realistic expectations, and work during my peak energy hours to be most efficient.
The greatest lesson, though, is how to take feedback. You don’t know feedback until you have four black belts telling you that your kick is wrong (for four different reasons). And when your feedback is about your body and what you’re doing with it, it’s hugely personal. Taking feedback about a story I had written that wasn’t super personal? Easy in comparison.
KT: What inspired you to submit to the Interspecies team? What made you want to work on a shared universe project like this?
EC: Actually, it was a combination of personal connection and a desire to get my work out into the world. I had met Dana in a casual writer’s group five or six years ago, when I was working on my first full sci-fi novel. I guess I impressed her enough, because she invited me to submit to the Interspecies project. My philosophy at that time was: “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.” I knocked on the door, but was okay with not getting in. There were other opportunities… after all, I had a novel to shop around. (Yeah, that kind of took a back burner.)
The shared universe project was something I knew I could rock, so I didn’t have any trepidation about joining the anthology.
KT: In your instructive blog post on lessons learned from working on Interspecies, you mention how important it is to stick to your creative vision. How can authors do this effectively?
EC: I’m still learning this process, but the biggest takeaway for me was to learn to say “no.” I had a bucket for hard grammar (e.g. subject-verb agreement), a bucket for phrasing opinions, and a bucket for overarching pacing and scope. Any piece of feedback could affect multiple buckets, and I remember bravely evaluating one subjective piece of feedback and thinking to myself that while something might be grammatically incorrect, it had a rhythm and pacing that I couldn’t ignore. And sometimes, you have to dig for the real problem to address it in your way, not the way your editor suggested.
KT: What advice can you offer other authors before embarking on a collaborative shared universe project?
EC: We have a saying in my martial arts club when we’re working on various sparring rounds: “Check your ego at the door.” By keeping a ‘project focus,‘ you can take the focus off yourself and lower the emotional stakes.
KT: As an engineer at Adobe, you work collaboratively on diverse projects. What advice can you give writers who seek collaborations? What should they avoid?
EC: I have to say that my experience in working in large and small teams at Adobe applied directly to this project. All of the teamwork skills I’d developed during my software career, from not casting blame to project planning and interpersonal relationships, were called upon during the course of the project.
I think the only piece of advice I would give is that getting the right people is key to a successful collaboration. I remember one manager telling me, “If they’re smart and hard-working, I can teach them everything else.” I wrote a blog post about great teams a year and a half ago. In it, I said: “Some of the best groups I participated in while in school were ones where all of us were equals. We split the work evenly and trusted that the other people would carry their respective loads to the level of quality that we expected out of ourselves. The outcome was almost always better than what we could have done by ourselves.”
As a contributor to Interspecies, I didn’t have control over who was on the team, but I made sure to bring myself, not just my work, to the collaboration.
KT: What are the signs of a healthy team?
EC: Honesty, vulnerability, grace, and laughter. In some way, teams are a microcosm of community. Being in relationship with one another and being able to work together is a very special thing. But it’s those moments when one person jokes about his dog’s farts or that long conversation about how to solve a problem that build relationships. When your team is willing to put in effort and acknowledge its failings, it’s on the road to becoming an organism that lives and breathes and produces.
KT: You write about creativity for Adobe’s Creative Cloud blog. Describe what the Interspecies project taught you or reinforced for you about creativity?
EC: It really reinforced the thought that creativity is more than just inspiration or simply putting words on the page or playing music. It’s process: rehearsal, outtakes, line edits, bad cuts, good cuts, analysis, and reevaluation. It’s also practice: everyone starts out with rough drafts… some rougher than others.
It’s also community: both in the creation and the launch processes. As a team, we evaluated each other’s work, suggested fixes, and, more importantly, highlighted passages that we loved in each other’s work. Celebrating with each other and pointing out where things really worked made us stronger as an anthology.
Quite frankly, I’ve also been really touched by the community’s support in launching this book. From Piers Anthony and other established authors taking the time to read the anthology to our friends and family who celebrated the accomplishment… and even random strangers from the Internet who have reviewed the book; we’ve had a huge community rally around us.
KT: What solo creative writing projects can we expect from you in the future?
EC: Now that Interspecies is out, I’m beginning to reevaluate my first sci-fi trilogy. I’ve learned a ton from the experience of publishing with Interspecies, and I think it’s time to begin shopping it around and the harder work of maturing it into a compelling piece of work.
KT: Thanks so much for answering our questions. We look forward to what’s next for you as an author.
Elaine Chao is obsessed with a number of things, including languages, storytelling, martial arts, music, geeking out, psychology, software, event management, design, and her two cats. At any given point in time, you can find her doing two out of ten in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Interspecies was in the top ten bestselling science fiction anthologies on Amazon’s bestseller list upon its release. It’s received rave reviews on Goodreads and Amazon from early readers and Keith West, reviewer atAdventure Fantastic and Futures Past and Present, said “Interspecies is a solid science fiction anthology that provides entertaining reading for a thinking person and sets a high bar. . . . These are writers to watch.” The book was featured in Venture Galleries’ Book of the Moment Club, and Piers Anthony, New York Times Bestselling Author of the Xanth Series, said these are “hard-hitting stories about a grim future world. . . . I found the exploration mind-stretching . . .” Interspecies is now available on Amazon.
Fifty years after first contact with the inlari, war ravaged the Earth, leaving New Zealand and Australia the victors and survivors, but at a devastating cost. As human and inlari factions compete against each other in the struggle for power and resources, some seek zealotry and dominance. Others strive for peace and unity — and with them, hope still lives.
Kōsa Press presents four inter-connected stories of transformation, survival, and the eternal search for meaning and purpose in a turbulent world. Can inlari and humans alike bridge the gap created by their prejudices? Or will one species forever rule the other?