Chris Panatier’s second novel, Stringers, releases on April 12. Publisher’s Weekly gave the book a starred review, and the American Library Association called it “a rip-roaring space adventure” and a “touching exploration of what sentient beings owe to one another.” The author himself says Stringers is “a heartfelt sci-fi vehicle for potty jokes.”
I’m a huge fan of both space opera and screwball humor, so Stringers has gone to the top of my TBR pile. Thanks to Chris for answering these questions!
Myna Chang: Give us a quick summary of Stringers. What’s the book about? What are the major themes?
Chris Panatier: Thank you so much for having me here to answer questions about writing. How wonderful.
Okay, Stringers. This is a nutso space opera about people who know crazy things they shouldn’t. They just know them. For our main character, Ben Sullivan, that knowledge includes animal procreation (mainly bug sex), antique watches, and the location of something called “The Chime.” Turns out, there are other folks like him (spoiler: they’re called “Stringers”) and we meet them in this story, we find out why they know these things, and even what the Chime is. Stringers are valuable for the information they have in their gray matter and are sought by bounty hunters. Naturally, Ben and his stoner best friend Patton, are abducted. Are they probed? Read and find out! (Yes)
Themes: friendship, the endless variations of life here on earth and the possibilities for it out there in the universe, amoral forces of destruction, the power of laughter, pickles, and happiness.
MC: What ignited this idea? How did you come up with so much quirky stuff?
Chris: The genesis of the idea occurred while I was daydreaming during a trial (lawyer by day). I wondered if there was a type of bug that fucked itself in the head. I googled this and turns out there are lots of animals engaged in head-fuckery. And then I thought to myself, “Chris, wouldn’t it be funny if someone just knew all this crazy stuff? Like, in detail, and there was no reason why?” I basically created Ben in that little reverie. The story mushroomed from there and ended up becoming a sprawling story. Most of all, I wanted to go big. Even if I failed.
MC: What’s your favorite bug?
Chris: Oh now you’ve got me playing favorites. Okay, it’s butterflies. They have the most gentle kisses and drink tears (this is absolutely true. The tears part. Not sure about the kisses, but that’s how I like to think about them).
MC: It seems like you had a lot of fun with this. Did you find the humor challenging to write? Did you ever worry you were taking it too far? Or maybe “too far” was your goal?
Chris: It was an absolute joy to write. I wanted to write humor on a number of levels, from potty, to slapstick, to some arguably high-brow, long-game laughs. I’ve always had a pretty strong funny bone, so the jokes were generally easy to write. The hard part was that I’m actually a pretty serious, broody, emotional person. I wanted this story to have a strong emotional component as well. So balancing the serious with the humor was a real challenge. Add to that, I wanted to include some hard sci-fi elements, and you’ve got a three body problem to try and solve.
MC: One of the blurbs for Stringers references the story’s “unconventional storytelling combined with poetic sentences.” Can you tell us about the form & craft of the story? How did you balance your graceful prose with the elements of humor? Is this a departure from your other stories?
Chris: It’s unconventional in that the main character’s brain talks shit to him via footnotes. I experimented with all sorts of ways to do this; i.e., keeping these comments in-line with parens or bold or something like that. Scalzi did this in Old Man’s War, but that was a brain implant and it was far less verbal than Ben’s brain. I ended up doing footnotes because it was truly the best form and each one is basically a punch line or another level of joke. Myself and my editor, Gemma Creffield, spent a lot of time vetting the best way to do it and decided to keep the footnotes. They actually add to the story and are like little gift-wrapped laughs most of the time.
Graceful prose is my darling. I’m a spec fiction writer and by no means a literary fiction talent, but if I can give the reader a few really gorgeous sentences or paint an emotional scene amid all the bug butts, I will. And they tend to hit harder that way. I’ll never be Jeff Vandermeer or Mary Doria Russell, or Justin Cronin, so if I can summon all of my powers for a beat and it pays off for the reader, I’m all for it.
MC: Do you have a favorite character or scene? Does any part of the story especially resonate with you? Was any part particularly difficult to write?
Chris: I like all of these characters for different reasons. The one who was the most fun to write is the flesh-construct bounty hunter called Aptat. Aptat is an awful person in a lot of ways—and of course, there’s a reason why they became who they are. But when they’re not being terrible, they’re a hilarious prick.
As for scenes that resonate: There’s a sequence very late in the story that delivers what should be an unexpected big reveal. It has a huge emotional punch for both of the characters involved, who never even meet. It’s one of the most delicate needle-threadings I’ve done to date and I’m really proud of it.
MC: How much research did you do? (I’m assuming you didn’t already know all those bug sex facts.)
Chris: Sad to say I had to learn all that stuff. That said, it was a lot of fun and really opened my eyes. Speaking of eyes, did you know that starfish aren’t actually fish and have eyes on the end of their little arms?
MC: Where does Stringers fall in the speculative canon?
Chris: I’ll get struck by lightning for mentioning these other stories alongside Stringers, but they’re at least illustrative. It fits somewhere on a square spectrum where one corner is the bonkers concepts and action of The Hitchhiker’s Guide and the oddball found family of The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, the lovely potty humor and word-paring brilliance of Hollow Kingdom, and the really well-plotted hard SF elements of The Expanse. I am not saying I’m them, just that Stringers is at least in the parking lot of those various ballparks.
MC: Stringers is your second novel with publisher Angry Robot. How did you initially hook up with them, and how has the relationship progressed? At what point did you sign with your agent?
Chris: I cherish every experience I’ve had, and hopefully will continue to have, with this publisher. I know I am so lucky that my introduction to publishing was with them and the people who make it go. After striking out with approximately ten thousand agents, I submitted The Phlebotomist to AR through their Open Doors submission period, where they allow unagented submissions. Three months later I found an offer from them in my junk email. Can you imagine that? Holy crap.
Shortly after The Phlebotomist came out in September of 2020 (pandemic debuts stand up!), AR invited me to pitch some ideas. That was when I was able to sign with my awesome agent Hannah Fergesen at KT Literary. We discussed what I had on the shelf. One story was something called Retrobeing, about a guy who thinks about bugs doing dirty stuff to each other that I’d begun three years prior. We pitched it and that’s what became Stringers.
MC: We have to talk about the cover art for Stringers. I’ve seen it described as “violently green.” I’m envisioning how it’s going to look on the shelf next to the screaming pink of your debut novel, The Phlebotomist. Tell us about the illustrations, color choices, and the process for designing these two stunning book covers. How much input did you have with your publisher?
Chris: Having the screaming pink of The Phlebotomist together with the facemelt green of Stringers was entirely intentional. Both choices were mine and the editors at AR were totally on board. I’m giving you a picture of them together. Totally edible.
I was given unusually high levels of input into these covers. I actually drew the heart on the cover of Phlebotomist and helped with the design concept for Stringers. Even though I know I drove Gemma and the design team nuts, they kept me involved every step of the way and I couldn’t be happier with how both books turned out. Eye candy.
MC: Your illustrations are distinct and gorgeous, from SFF magazine illustrations to album covers to that amazing coloring book. Tell us about your art. How did you get started?
Chris: Thank you! I’ve been drawing all my life but didn’t get serious until maybe 2010, when I really started to train myself to draw and paint things that look good and not shitty. It began with a few indie metal bands having me do their covers (I did those for free—a mistake, don’t ever give your art for free) and now I’m always working on something. I’ve done book covers for huge releases, indie releases, and self-pubs in addition to the albums. I love pairing art with music or a story.
MC: Have you considered doing graphic novels?
Chris: Yes. For about a minute. I cannot stand repetitive tasks of any kind, and the idea of drawing the same characters over and over again is kind of my idea of art Hell. Also—I’m too slow. I’m working on a set of game cards right now and it’s taking me forever. So I have massive respect for comic and graphic novel artists for churning out panel after panel of high-quality art. I would end up blasting myself into the sun.
MC: I have to ask at least one question about your debut novel, The Phlebotomist because it’s one of my favorites. This novel could be described as medical scifi, or a dystopian thriller, or a kick-ass action/adventure spree. So how did you settle on a grandmother as the protagonist? Did you have any challenges writing from Willa’s perspective? Did you have any similar thoughts when developing the characters in Stringers?
Chris: What a great question and I’m so glad you enjoyed The Phlebotomist. Age is one of those categories where we could use more representation. And this story was very conducive to having an older protagonist. Once I had the premise in mind, I spent two seconds envisioning teenage main characters, promptly washed my mouth out with ivermectin, and turned on my brain. I knew the book was about a world segregated by blood type. Naturally, a phlebotomist fit the bill as a protagonist. Most of the phlebotomists who have taken my blood were these ultra-sweet older women. And that was it.
I certainly had to work to get the tone in place for Willa’s character. She’s a woman and a few decades my senior. So yes, there were challenges. But the main thing I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older is this: aside from physical differences, I’m no different than I was a decade or two earlier. With only one notable exception: how experience has shaped my perception and decision-making. So I put a substantial emphasis on Willa’s experience and how she was able to use her own history to solve problems in the present. She didn’t have to go out and learn how to shoot a bow and arrow.
With regard to your question on the characters for Stringers, I built them like I build all my characters—which is to say, slowly. I always try to start with a key motive for every character and build from there. I find that if their motives are clearly established, then they will make decisions as the plot unfolds that further flesh them out. I don’t like to walk into my story with fully developed characters, though I know that works for plenty of people.
MC: In addition to your novels, you’ve had success with flash and short stories. (Congrats on your recent Best of the Net nomination.) Does your process differ when working on shorter pieces? Do you try to write every day, or when the mood strikes? Do you have any writing rituals or rules? Goals?
Chris: Thank you! Short stories are a godsend and I try to write one anytime I get a compelling idea. Sometimes they work and sometimes they fizzle, but either way, I get to flex my prose muscle and even flirt with some literary style stuff. Short stories are lovely because they offer an alternative to the long grind of writing spec fic novels. Take a few days or weeks to write the story, and it’s done. Whether you publish it or not, you finished A Thing and it feels good.
I write every day because I really enjoy it. It is rare that I don’t get some words down in one way or another. Usually, I’m up at 5:00 a.m. and writing for 2-2.5 hours before my sparkler of a child is awake and climbing into my lap. I don’t keep word count or page goals. I’ve found that if I just work on it earnestly each day, I’ll have a book before too long.
That said, every now and then I don’t write because I need the brain space to problem solve plot issues or something. I cherish that time and my brain does too. I’ll read or do yard work and before you know it, the solution pops into my head.
MC: Have any authors or stories influenced your writing? What are your favorite stories and/or authors (books, movies, comics, whatever)? Do you write in the same genres you read?
Chris: I feel like my influences change based on what I’m writing, or reading or how I’m feeling. Right now authors like Jeff Vandermeer, Kira Jane Buxton, Chuck Wendig, Adrian Tchaikovsky, Caroline Hardaker, and Stephen Graham Jones, are doing work that blows my socks off. Next week it will be a different group. There are more good books than the days left I have to read them.
MC: Tell us about your day job. How do you balance that with your writing, art, and family?
Chris: I’ve been a practicing trial attorney for 20 years going after companies that hurt people (usually through some airborne pollutant). That’s slowed down some with the pandemic and I’ve had more time to do writing and all that. Traveling considerably less means more time with my wife and daughter. I’ll only ever have one of each and so I want to be there and do it right.
MC: What’s next for you?
Chris: The book that will destroy me. I’ve written it three times. Hopefully, this last attempt will be it. Think Monsters Inc., where the monsters are turpentine-drunk angels and instead of collecting screams, they eat the invisible exudate of religious worship; i.e., prayers. It’s a dark fantasy. If it works, it’ll be great. If it doesn’t, well, it’s thick. So could be a doorstop or blunt force weapon.
MC: Are there any questions you wish I’d asked? What else would you like to talk about?
Chris: Your questions were fantastic. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for taking your time to write such a thoughtful interview.
CHRIS PANATIER lives in Dallas, Texas, with his wife, daughter, and a fluctuating herd of animals resembling dogs (one is almost certainly a goat). He writes short stories and novels, “plays” the drums, and draws album covers for metal bands. As a lawyer, he goes after companies that poison people. Plays himself on Twitter @chrisjpanatier
MYNA CHANG (she/her) is the host of Electric Sheep SF. Her work has been selected for Flash Fiction America (Norton), Best Small Fictions, Best Indie Speculative Fiction, Daily Science Fiction, and MicroPodcast’s special science fiction edition. She has won the Lascaux Prize in Creative Nonfiction and the New Millennium Award in Flash Fiction. Connect with Myna on Twitter @MynaChang.
Cover design for STRINGERS is by Kieryn Tylor.
Cover design for THE PHLEBOTOMIST is by Glen Wilkins, with illustration by Chris Panatier.