Catherine Gracey

Interview: Stephanie Osborn

In American, Author on November 1, 2012 at 9:00 am

When your daughter tells you that she isn’t sure if she should pursue arts or science, hand her one of Stephanie Osborn’s books and start saving for higher education. The former rocket scientist has brought her scientific knowledge to her novels, including Burnout, Extraction Point, and the Displaced Detective series. While a lot of us would be jealous about this American’s ability to have not one but two dream careers, it hasn’t all been easy, as Stephanie explained while answering my questions.

1)   What is something you do in your professional or artistic life that you think is really cool?

I am often a guest at science fiction conventions where, due to my background, I end up getting to meet the really big names and sit down and talk to them on a more or less level playing field. People like Howard Tayler, Jerry Pournelle, Sarah Hoyt, John Ringo, Lois McMaster Bujold and Travis Taylor. Most of the time we are sitting around telling funny stories but occasionally we brainstorm together or discuss writing techniques or even crazy-wild technology and theory.

2)   How did you come to be in the career position you are currently in?

I’ve always written, from the time I was in elementary school. I wrote fiction and plays all the way through school, and was accepted into the undergraduate honors program at my university partly on the basis of my writing ability. I had a book manuscript in the hands of my writing mentor, Travis S. Taylor (of One Day On Mars, the Looking Glass series, and Rocket City Rednecks fame) that I’d started some time earlier based on some work-related conversations, and it involved the deliberate sabotage of a Space Shuttle and the ensuing investigation and cover-up. It was hard to write, because it was about just what my job was about preventing – a space disaster.

Anyway I finally got a first draft finished and to him to critique, when the Columbia went down with a friend of mine aboard. And the scenario for the disaster that I used was what happened to Columbia, basically, with the main exception being accident vs. sabotage. That took a little bit of dealing-with, because your head plays games with you on something like that. But Travis convinced me it was worth publishing and not to scrap it, which I seriously considered.

And as time passed after the accident I realized it was time for me to leave the business; the disaster and losing a friend had done something to me, something I don’t think has healed completely to this day. So I left the civilian and military space business and threw my eggs into the basket of writing fiction. (And occasionally popular science books.)

3)   What is something from your personal life that you are very proud of?

I will never, EVER, regret the fact that I worked as a payload flight controller for Space Shuttle and later the International Space Station. I am very proud of that work.

But maybe that’s not the kind of “personal life” you mean. I am very proud of my husband, Darrell, who is a very talented man, very gifted, gentle, strong, loving, wise, and protective. If you’ve seen all of my books, you’ve seen a number of examples of his work, because he does most of my cover art. He’s also an award-winning magician and balloon artist, known as “Doc” Osborn to his fans and at science fiction conventions. He’s definitely a keeper, and I’m glad I had the good sense to see it when we met in college.

4)   What is a personality trait you possess that other people might not notice?

I’m actually very shy and sensitive. Most of my close friends realize the sensitive part, but other than immediate family, not too many people realize that I’m shy. In fact, some people don’t believe it. But early on, I had to develop a public persona, like acting a role, in order to get used to being in front of people. Eventually that public persona became a part of me, and now it’s just a facet of my personality. I click into it when I’m in public, and shift gears when I’m at home. It’s the difference between standard cruising and afterburners, really. Or first gear versus overdrive.

I’ve taken the Myers-Briggs personality tests several times and I generally score just barely borderline extrovert on those tests. As time has gone on, it’s moved a little more to the extrovert side, but I suspect in my younger years, I landed on the introvert side. So the development and incorporation of this persona into my personality has helped a lot.

But it still takes a toll on me. I do come home from conventions and need to rest for a day or two, and simply be in the quiet of my home. (And Elrond Half-Siamese, the cat that owns my husband and me, helps by sleeping on my feet or in my lap and purring. If I’m not careful, I end up sleeping with him!)

5)   If you could change just one thing about the world, what would it be and why would you change it?

That’s kind of like the question for beauty pageants where the contestant always answers, “World peace,” isn’t it? (There is a grin on my face at this point.) I don’t know offhand. I’d like for people to be kinder to each other, to have some common sense and courtesy. To think before they act. And I realize I’m talking about myself on all of that, too.

Now if I could expand that question past the atmospheric boundaries of our planet, I’d say I’d love to have superluminal travel capability. I want to get out there and explore, and I’ve got some friends who want to go too. I think we could crew a starship nicely, my friends and I. Seriously. Neuroscientists, aerospace engineers, physicists, and the like? Yeah, I think we could handle it.

6)   If you could give a young person one piece of advice, what would it be?

Read. Reading is one of the most important things we can do. Reading is a form of communication that transcends time. The same tales that were told millenia ago, the same themes, the same lessons to be learned, are often the best tales that are being told today. For instance: Right now we have two television series and a film franchise – Elementary, Sherlock, and Sherlock Holmes, respectively – that are based on stories a century or more old, and yet they hold up even in new settings. One of my own series is a collection of Sherlock Holmes tales, the Displaced Detective series, begun well before I’d ever heard of the new movies and television series. And Conan Doyle’s central themes themselves are older than he. Reading these stories can tell us about the ancients, about our ancestors, about ourselves, about our children’s children’s children. It worries me sometimes when I hear younger people declare, sometimes with pride, that they don’t read. Because there was a time, not so very long ago, when the very ability to read was a coveted thing.

7)   What is something that you would like to do in your life that you haven’t done yet?

Gone into space. I fully intended to become an astronaut. I planned my entire education around that goal. In fact my first job upon moving to Huntsville, Alabama, was as an astronomer on a defence sensor project. I was also a payload specialist candidate for the prototype flight on the Shuttle. Unfortunately the Challenger disaster grounded the Fleet indefinitely, and that prototype never got built.

By the time I was in a position to formally apply to the astronaut corps, I had developed a couple of chronic medical conditions which would have washed me out in the physicals. So I never got to go up.

8)   What is something that you have sworn to never do again?

Smoking. I deliberately set out to learn to smoke a pipe in order to write Holmes. I got pretty good at it, too, and I learned very quickly how to handle one, how it fits in the hand, how to light it, clean it, how it soothes and lightly tranquilizes. In a matter of about two weeks I had it down. What I didn’t like was that it left a taste in my mouth like I’d been licking an ashtray.

So I asked some friends for advice. The universal response was to drink some sort of alcoholic beverage after, as a solvent to wash away the residue in my mouth. (In retrospect, this was probably not a healthy response unless I intended to spit out the stuff.) Cuing off the Victorian habit of a smoke and a drink of whisky or brandy after dinner, I tried exactly that. What I didn’t know, but learned later, was that tobacco “potentiates” (increases the effect of) any other drug with which it is used. I do not like the sensation of being drunk; I like having full use of my faculties too much. But this was the only time in my life I have ever been so drunk I threw up. And it is not something I ever want to do again. I have a nice collection of pipes, mostly for the aesthetics, but I have never smoked tobacco since.

9)   If you could break one personal habit, what would it be?

Procrastination. Because it really… just… you know… lemme think about this a while…

10)   If you could take up a new hobby or learn a new skill, what would it be and why?

That’s hard to say. Because if I really take a notion to do something, I usually manage to do it some way, at least sufficient to satisfy my curiosity. I kinda think I’d like to learn how to use power tools, because then maybe I could help out Travis on his TV show. I never really had occasion to learn before now.

11)   Is there anything from you that we should be looking out for in the future?

Well, I’m working on the sequel to Burnout; the fourth Cresperian Saga book; the fifth, sixth, and seventh Displaced Detective books. I am looking for a home for the first book in the Adventures of Aemelia Gearheart steampunk series; it’s with a publisher now, being reviewed, and I’m hoping they like it. We are still pushing for the Burnout movie. There’s a trilogy I’m working on also, but it’s a little too soon to talk about it, I think. I have a lot of irons in the fire.

More immediately, Book 4 of the Displaced Detective series, The Case of the Cosmological Killer: Endings and Beginnings, comes out November 15, as does A New American Space Plan, with Travis S. Taylor.

Thank you, Stephanie, for taking the time to answer my questions. If you would like to know more about Stephanie and her books, you can find out more at her website.

Next Week: Selah Janel

  1. I enjoyed the interview.

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