By Gary Kriss
It’s what some might call an “improbable pairing.”
She’s a self-described “hopeless nerd, science geek, history buff, major foodie” who “writes things” and is also able to balance a spoon on her nose while cross-eyed.
He’s a recovering drug addict, a telepath of the highest order, disgraced among his own kind and racked with guilt, who has been using his abilities to help cops solve homicides, a job he’s on the verge of losing.
She was the one who initiated the relationship and she’s the one determined to keep it going, a resolve in keeping with the Winston Churchill quote she favors as her motto: “Never give up. Never, never, never, never, never give up.”
And she hasn’t. Last month the world discovered that the two are still a hot item when Penguin/Putnam released SHARP, Alex Hughes’s second book in her Mindspace Investigations series featuring flawed, yet fascinating telepath Adam Ward. The first book, CLEAN, was published last year to critical acclaim for the author who’s about to turn thirty.
“I tried to write SHARP to stand alone as much as possible,” Hughes says, although she admits that “the series will be more enjoyable if you read CLEAN first, as you’ll understand Adam’s character arc a bit better.”
The action takes place in a future Atlanta, Georgia, (Hughes’s home city) just a few weeks after CLEAN ends. Sixty years earlier the world had been ravished by the Tech Wars. Only the intervention of the Telepath Guild prevented total destruction, although the extreme measures it used left a deep distrust between telepaths and “normals.” Although technology has been severely restricted, parts for illegal Tech are being hijacked all over the city and one of Adam’s former Tech Bureau students has been found dead. Meanwhile, budget cuts threaten Adam’s employment. “It’s a tough week for Adam,” Hughes noted, “and it’s about to get worse.”
However, Adam’s travails in SHARP will only add to the enjoyment of a certain type of reader. “If you like cop shows, urban fantasy, and/or cool science moments, you’ll like this book,” Hughes predicts.
The inspiration for the series resulted from Hughes’s encounter with a legendary science fiction writer and an equally legendary work. “I had just read a book by Joan D. Vinge called CATSPAW, which is about a tortured telepath making his way in a futuristic cyberpunk world, and I wanted to write something like that,” Hughes explains. “I’d grown up on cop shows, so naturally my hero had to be a detective.”
While she appreciates the extensive canon of fiction about telepathy, Hughes says that her use of telepathy is different “because it’s based on a lot of the same physics that determines the rest of the universe” and cites as an example the Inverse Square Law.
“Unless something strange and quantum is going on, all known forces in the universe get weaker as they get farther apart in a very predictable way,” she explains. “I think telepathy would work the same way, and if the human mind makes waves that interact with each other, there will be a Mindspace in which they interact. The echoes of that interaction might stay in a place for days—which would be useful in solving crimes, wouldn’t it?”
Which brings up the question of where Hughes stands on telepathy. Although she doesn’t know anybody who possesses her protagonist’s special talents, she doesn’t rule out the possibility that such people exist.
“The world is bigger and wider than any of us could ever understand,” Hughes says. “Most of us have experienced the chill down your spine when you enter someplace you don’t want to stay, or have looked up with the feeling that someone is watching us only to find someone is. I’ve known people who seem to know more than they should, and people whose dreams seem to come to pass in the real world. But telepathy such as I’m describing in my books? I’ve never met anyone who could do anything that big and consistent. But who knows? Like I said, there are more things out there than our dreamt of in our philosophies. It’s fun to write about.”
But Hughes did draw of personal knowledge for one critical component of Adam’s character—his addiction. “A friend of mine was struggling to recover from anorexia, and her daily struggle with temptation and making better choices really touched me,” Hughes says. “I knew I wanted to write about it, but I also knew for the story I was considering I would need an addiction that was easier to understand.”
And Adam also reflects one of Hughes’s own particular preferences. “I love flawed characters!” she proclaims. But character of all sorts is especially important to Hughes. It is, as she says, “why I as a reader read.” Not surprising then that she puts “a little piece of myself into almost every character I write, and I pull from other people and characters and friends as well.” Ultimately, however, she holds that “for a character to feel real, he or she has to start taking on a life of his or her own.”
This happened, for example, with Isabella Cherabino, the homicide detective Adam works with. “Cherabino was originally blond and Irish until she informed me that an Irish cop was much too much cliché and she was much too serious to be blonde,” Hughes says. Not surprisingly, Cherabino also happens to be flawed, which makes for an interesting dynamic with Adam.
“Adam and Cherabino are two broken people who are both attracted to each other and pushed apart by each other’s flaws,” Hughes says. “Cherabino has very real intimacy issues, which Adam as a telepath isn’t set up to respect. He grew up in a society in which a certain surface section of your mind is considered public and fair game, and she considers even a read of her emotions to be a violation of her boundaries. But they’re both highly competent people who work very well together, and the concept of justice to which Cherabino has devoted her life provides the structure that Adam needs to reclaim his life. He also makes getting that justice a lot easier for the victim’s families, which Cherabino greatly appreciates. The combination of all of this makes for a push-pull relationship that can be a little exhausting for both.”
It also can create some welcome plot points for Hughes. “I had to learn to plot, and to take out downtime, and it’s something I still have to work on,” she notes. Despite acknowledging that, when well done, character and plot “should work flawlessly together,” she states that “if I’m going to pick one, it’s character.” Indeed, Hughes monitors herself, aware that “if you let me go, I’ll create interesting character moments and growth all day” at the expense of plot.
And how does she handle that other tricky component, setting? “Setting in a way is like a character all its own,” she says. “My emphasis on city as character is probably why many readers of urban fantasy like my books, as urban fantasy also has that emphasis on city as character. Setting and geography also matter very much when it comes to what happens. But, it has to be subordinate. You can tell a great story with great characters in a generic setting, but a great setting where no one matters and nothing happens will be a hard sell.”
That’s hardly the case in SHARP where many people matter, where a lot happens and where Hughes follows the best writing advice she ever received. Referring to the dictum of screenwriters—arrive late and leave early—she offers: “Start the scene at the last possible moment when it makes sense, such as after the fight has begun, and leave right when the point was made, such as when the thing was said that couldn’t be taken back. This will emphasize the important bits and impel the reader’s mind forward. Generally, travel time to and fro places is wasted time and should be cut.”
“Also, slowdown in your important pivotal moments and give more detail,” she adds. “This makes it seem more important and more intense. Real violence is, apparently, fast and often meaningless, but in fiction it needs to slow down enough to see and be something that comes to a resolution and meaning. That’s what readers look for in those big moments.”
Hughes also has some definite views on matters other than writing, including technology, which figures so prominently in SHARP.
“I’m an odd duck sometimes when it comes to my attitude toward technology, and some of that is reflected in the books, Hughes says. She cites a number of things she loves that technology makes possible such as “being able to mark up a manuscript the editor sent me this morning, and send it back tonight,” free video chats, cars, airplanes, excellent preventative medicine and “cool gadgets and things to make my life easier.” But she also says that “I know too much about human nature to think all of this will be good,” noting that “cyberbullies and secret surveillance are just the beginning.” And she adds that “even if we as a society manage to work through the privacy implications of a lot of this, I worry about the safety issues.” Hughes is also concerned about technology in the hands of those with bad intentions” and about “this culture we’ve made of constant connectivity,” which she feels “hurts our ability to focus.”
Terming technology “a tool, an accelerator,” which, for now at least is still controlled by humans, Hughes stresses that “it’s important as we move on that we mold the tools into something that more easily gets us good results and not allow the tool to mold us into something less than we can be.”
“Humans are still capable of great things, with or without technology,” she states. “We should pursue that greatness more.”
For her part, Hughes will continue to pursue her relationship with Adam. She’s currently in the middle of working on the third book in the series. She has a total of nine “sketched out in general terms,” but says “my creative process is loose enough that the arc could end up as eight or ten if needed.”
And will she be able to sustain her exclusive relationship with Adam that long or will he succumb to the attractions of the also damaged Cherabino?
“I know how the relationship is going to play out over the next few books,” Hughes says of Adam’s involvement with the other woman, “but I don’t know about the final answer. I guess we’ll find out together.”
Alex has written since early childhood, and loves great stories in any form including scifi, fantasy, and mystery. Over the years, she has lived in many neighborhoods of the sprawling metro Atlanta area, including Decatur, the neighborhood on which Clean is centered. Her work is dark, complex, action-filled and a little funny. Her Mindspace Investigations series has been called “A fun blend of Chinatown and Blade Runner” by James Knapp, and Publisher’s Weekly called her “a writer to watch.”
When not writing you can find Alex in the kitchen cooking gourmet Italian food, watching hours of police procedural dramas, and humming to delightfully obscure music.
To learn more about Alex, please visit her website.