Author Q&A: Alan Averill On The Beautiful land

Alan Averill's debut novel, The Beautiful Land, doesn't fit into any one genre. This time-travel adventure features a couple in love who must fend off a variety of monsters in order to keep time and space from being altered. (And yes, it is exactly as cool as it sounds!) Today we ask the author some questions about his newly released book, the complex story and how the novel came to be as a result of Averill winning the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award.

***

Your debut novel, The Beautiful Land, features a "timeline traveler" named Tak. Some have labeled this science fiction while others call it fantasy or horror. How do you describe your work?

Early on, when people asked what kind of book I was writing, I told them it was a science fiction-horror-adventure-love story. This usually ended with them looking at me strangely before slowly backing out of the room, so I eventually started saying it was a love story with time machines, which seemed to work much better.

I guess The Beautiful Land isn't a book that fits neatly into a genre box. Yeah, there are time machines (sci-fi), and a bunch of scary monsters (horror), and I suppose some fantasy (?), but at the core, it's a book about two incredibly flawed people who are desperately in love and doing whatever they have to do to save each other. A lot of my stuff is like this, actually — reality-based, character-driven stories that suddenly take these crazy U-turns and end up in left field.

What was the first kernel of inspiration for your novel?

It started with the thought of a guy trying to listen to Miles Davis while he killed himself and being annoyed that a phone is ringing. I have no idea where that came from — it just popped into my head one day while I was sitting in the car waiting for my wife to finish a half-marathon. But that guy ended up being Tak, and that scene became the opening chapter.

Once I realized I wanted to make a book out of this, I started throwing ideas at the wall. (This is my usual process when I write — tons of crazy ideas wrapped around a very small bit of actual planning.) The ones that ended up sticking were that he was a survival expert, he was going to work for a company that invented a time machine, and he was still in love with his best (and only) friend from high school. The rest of the novel fell into place pretty quickly after that.

Tak begins the book with a noose around his neck — he is committing suicide. What has led him to this place?

Tak is a guy who lives life at about nine hundred miles an hour. In the years before the suicide, he was working on a television show where he would go into the world's harshest environments and film himself as he tried to survive. But after a while, he comes to realize that there just isn't anything left to see — he's been up all the mountains, visited all the oceans — and that realization drains the excitement from his life.

Additionally, although he seems almost manically cheerful on the outside, he's actually a very lonely and broken man. He abandoned his family when he was 18, had a fractured relationship with his father, and never made any friends save for one girl named Samira Moheb. I think he sees people wandering through life trying very desperately to be happy and decides he wants no part of it. He'd rather see what's waiting for him behind the final door than spend the next fifty years rattling around in a mad search for something he'll never find.

Tak is known as a reality-star adventurer. What were some more of the illustrious experiences during his time in the limelight? Do any of them help on his newest mission to explore parallel timelines?

When Tak was 18, he left his parents and went on a kind of walkabout in the jungles of Papua New Guinea, surviving for a month on only his wits and luck. After coming back, he went to work for a tour group for a little while, shuffling rich people up and down mountains and into jungles so they could brag to their friends about how they'd done something cool. Then came the reality show, which was filmed in Japan and made him something of a star in that country. But eventually the show was cancelled and he ended up broke, which results in a lot of heavy drinking and his suicidal crisis of confidence.

All of this experience is the reason he gets hired by the Axon Corporation — the guys who invent the time machine. It's no good sending a guy through a time machine if he gets killed on the other side — they need someone who can come back and report what he's seen. Tak ends up being perfect for the job, because he's great at thinking on his feet and essentially fearless — at least when it comes to his own life.

Tak decides to take his best friend Samira with him on his journey. However, she is dealing with PTSD and severe trauma. Is she ready to jump timelines?

The last thing Samira Moheb should be doing is leaping around timelines and trying to save the world. After four tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, she's earned the right to lie around the house and eat chips for a year.

But in another way, she's incredibly well-suited for it, because she's smart and clever and quite brave in her own way. She also serves as a kind of moral compass for Tak, who ended up doing some really terrible things during the four years he worked for the Axon Corporation. There are two occasions in the book where Tak actually tries to abandon his plan to save the world and just run away, and she's the one who pulls him back on track.

At one point on their trip, Tak and Samira are hunted by an evil scientist, violent bird-like creatures and the Axon Corporation (the same people who sent them on the exploration). In your opinion, who (or what) should your characters be most scared of? 

So you know how most people have an irrational fear? Like, they're afraid of closets, or dryer lint, or spontaneous human combustion, or whatever? Well, mine is baby birds. Baby birds terrify the living crap out of me, and they always have. No idea why — it's just one of those nonsensical things that kick around in the back of my brain. And when I was in high school, I had this horrific dream about lying under a giant glass dome while a bunch of baby birds slammed themselves into it so they could break it open and eat me. Anyway, that's the reason I put the birds into the book — because I'm a jerk, and I wanted everyone else to share my irrational fear.

So, yeah. I'll vote for them.

If you had the power to visit parallel times, would you do it? What if your visit caused changes to our own time — would you still go?

Oh yeah. I mean, it would be a terrible idea, because I'm out of shape and have no tangible skills, so I'd probably last about thirty seconds before something went horribly wrong. But I'd totally go anyway. I've always wanted to go to strange places — space, deep-sea diving, volcanoes, etc. — and time travel would make me a seriously happy dude. ... At least until something killed me.

Not sure I'd still go if it changed stuff here, though. That never works out well.

The Beautiful Land won the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. Can you tell us a bit about your experience during that competition and how your contract with Ace came about.

I entered the ABNA on a whim after The Beautiful Land had been turned down by everyone and their brother. Then I chuckled a little bit and pretty much forgot about it, because I figured my chances of winning were about the same as my being on the cover of GQ. But as the months went by and I kept making the various rounds of cuts, it started to seem like it might actually happen. When I became a top-three finalist, it was this weird combination of joy and ... I don't know. Madness? Being a published author was a dream I'd been pursuing since I was a little kid, and I think I was waiting for the rug to be pulled out in one way or another.

But it wasn't. I won the thing, I made a stumbling speech that I totally do not remember, and Ace handed me a publishing contract inside a manila envelope. A year later, here I am. It's nuts.

Are you working on your next project? Can you tell us a little about it?

I've got two projects coming up this summer. First, I'll be localizing an as-of-yet unreleased videogame — but thanks to lawyers and NDAs, that's about all I can say on that front. I also just finished a second book, which will hopefully ignite a bidding war the likes of which we haven't seen since Princess Kate sold her baby pictures. (Did that happen yet? I'm a little behind on my royalty gossip.)

Don't want to say too much about the next novel, other than it involves a broken relationship, a haunted house, and a really, really terrible next-door neighbor. I might even find a way to cram more of my irrational fears into the thing. You just never know.

You can pick up a copy of The Beautiful Land, available now! And for more genre news and coverage, visit our Everything Science Fiction & Fantasy Page.