Making Physics Sexy Again: An Interview With Olivie Blake
I haven’t been reading as much lately for a variety of reasons, but one of the books that I read this year and enjoyed was The Atlas Six by Olivie Blake. The story of an elite secret society that chooses six initiates, then forces them all to decide who gets eliminated. This book captivated me from the very beginning. So I was thrilled to get the chance to speak to Blake at San Diego Comic-Con.
The Geekiary: If you weren’t the author of this book, how would you recommend this book to a friend?
Olivie Blake: I mean, my first answer is going to be like, “Well, in my opinion…” I mean, ok, so I think of it as a psychological thriller. Like, to me, it happens to be a psychological thriller in a fantasy setting […] Different fantasy books have rules. And so I think initially, when you pick this book up, it feels like it’s breaking those rules, because it’s super character driven. There’s a lot of interiority. Again, I’m describing as the author because I don’t know how not to be.
[If] you like being inside the mind of someone who is maybe not your normal person. I guess if you’re one of those really nosy readers, which I am, where you really want to know, like, what’s going on in someone’s head. Like, when are they lying? When are they telling the truth? Why are they making those decisions? Then this is your book.
TG: I really like how […] we see inside the different characters’ heads, as opposed to just staying in one person the whole time, because then you’re trying to figure out everybody’s motives and everything. I really enjoyed that.
OB: I like to think that everybody is their own unreliable narrator. So there is technically no objective point of view in this book, and the audience kind of has to make up their mind about what they think is happening.
TG: Can you talk a little bit about how you came up with the idea and developed it?
OB: Actually, initially, I wrote this book in a very different style. It was like a portal fantasy, more like a boarding school book. And there was a bad guy, and everybody came together to defeat the villain. And I was just like, this is not very interesting to me. This isn’t where my head is currently.
I feel like, when you look at the world, it’s very hard to identify the villains now. And so I wanted to write a book from that perspective. In what ways are we our own villains? How can we look at power as something that’s almost objectively bad, or objectively corrupting? And then, you know, then the nosy part of me was like, also, what would it be like to be trapped in this house and have this dark academia setting? Libraries make everything a little bit sexier.
So how can we give it this sort of, like, dark knowledge feeling while also being very much rooted in the people? So I came up with the elimination twist while I was driving. You know, it always comes to me in moments of tedium.
But mostly, I’m mostly a pantser. It’s mostly, sit down. This is the character we haven’t heard from in a while. What are they thinking about? And then that will kind of lead me into who would the next most interesting person be? So it’s a very mood-driven book.
TG: I actually had a question about if you were a plotter or a pantser. There’s a lot of moving parts and characters, and the whole elimination thing comes in. And I was like, “Oh, now it’s interesting.” And then you get to the end, and there’s a twist even on that. Did you have the basic beats in mind? Or was it all just, like, coming to you while you’re driving?
OB: So I started as a fanfiction author, and I’m the episodic type of fanfiction writer. You sit down, you write something and, like, “Oops, that’s where we are now.” So just keep going with it.
I’m a little bit of a reformed pantser in that I have encountered the saggy middle problems a few too many times. So I started doing a very skeletal outline, like, here’s where an event has to happen, action has to pick up here. I don’t know what that action will be. We’ll find out when we get there.
And then as we arrived at a new act, I would have to reevaluate. What have we done so far? I like to keep tabs on what the audience’s heart is doing. You know, maybe it’s been fluttering for too long, let’s make it race and stuff like that. It’s definitely very responsive to what I imagined the audience to be. I feel like the reader is always the invisible person in the chair next to me that’s like, “Meh, we’ve been here for too long. Let’s do something else.”
TG: This is not a question I had but you mentioned it. What did you write fanfic for? Because I read a lot of it.
OB: I’ve written a fair amount. I no longer write Harry Potter fanfiction. I don’t want to engage with that source material.
TG: Same. Yeah, I don’t even wear- I had so much Harry Potter merch. I can’t even wear the stuff I already own because it’s like tainted now.
OB: It is. It is. And that’s the thing, you know? When you’re playing with someone’s brain and with their thoughts, and then to find out where those thoughts are coming from, it’s alarming. But in recent years I’ve written like supernatural Jane Austen. So I did like fairy queen from hell Emma. I did a Rebecca fanfic. So it’s just kind of like whatever.
I recently wrote a Killers musical. It’s technically all original characters, but it’s like a jukebox musical. I described it as Mamma Mia, but with three possible murderers instead of three possible fathers. So, yeah, fanfiction is the joy part. And let’s not worry about making it marketable.
Actually, the Rebecca one, because I was watching the adaptation, and I was like, they didn’t fill in as many holes here as I would have wanted. Like, psychologically, I’m missing what’s going on in Maxim’s head. So I wrote it. It’s an exercise in hubris, really. I could fix this!
TG: Exactly. It’s just like, “I don’t like that decision. We’re gonna change that.”
OB: Exactly. […] I think that the best fanfiction source material is something that you love, but also disagree with. I could fix this. I love it enough to want to exist and know everything there is to know about it. But also tweak it to make it my thing.
TG: What kind of research did you do to write this? Because on the surface, it seems very like, “Oh, magic!”, but it’s really, really rooted more in science than in magic. I’m not a very scientific person. So I would not even know where to begin to look into stuff like that.
OB: So my husband is a high school physics teacher.
TG: Oh, well, that helps.
OB: A lot of what we have in our house is, you know, there’s physics books just lying around. And when I was coming at this, dark academia wasn’t such a thing yet. Like, it wasn’t something you would point to and say, “Dark academia!” Even though it was in the zeitgeist. So I knew I wanted to do something that felt like The Secret History.
But I felt like those books are always literature or art driven, you know. If there were villains, it’s great. It’s theater. There’s a lot of, like, Faustian bargains and stuff always comes in through the arts. But what about the sciences? And especially physics has that really strong overlap with pathology and just the general wondering about the world, and it doesn’t get romanticized as much. Or, well, it really was, it doesn’t get the sexy treatment very often.
But I was like, but it is sexy. There’s something very sexy about that much power. And the laws of physics are- the actual math and physics obviously, very complicated, but the basic rules of physics feel magical. So I started there. Definitely read quite a bit of philosophy and psychology. A lot of, like, primordial mythology. So, yeah, lots of reading.
TG: Without spoiling too much, obviously, what can readers expect to see in the next book? And if you need to be vague, you can be as vague as you need to be.
OB: The big thing is alliances shifting. With six of them, hexagons are like a pretty strong shape in nature. And six people, that’s a strong foundation. And then you take one away and things wobble. I love comparing this to- Did you watch Parks and Rec? When Jerry retires and someone’s like, “Someone’s got to be the new Jerry.” I love that. Like, you’ve taken away an element of what makes them what they are. So what are they now?
Obviously in a slightly less comic – there is some comedy – way, how has this changed the team, so to speak? And especially, I’ve almost ripped the stakes away like, you know, the magic trick of pulling the tablecloth out from under them. And they’re all kind of destabilized by it.
So we come into this book in a very destabilized place and where they go from there. I think watching the pieces settle is very interesting. If you were interested in the way that the pieces settled in the first book, you will also be interested in how they resettle in the second book.
TG: If you were chosen for the Alexandrian society, what would your ability be?
OB: I think the metaphysical appeals to me the most, so probably empathy or telepathy. I feel like telepathy [feeds] into that nosiness. Yeah, a little bit more. I don’t want to be responsible for people’s feelings. People often ask me what’s wrong with Callum, like as a human being. And I’m like, you know, it’s like that emotional labor. Who wants to carry all that around? If you could just poke into what people are thinking, that’s different.
TG: Do you have any other dark academia recs?
OB: I love Catherine House by Elizabeth Thomas. I think it’s amazing and a little bit weird. I like all my books to have a little bit of a weird element. So Catherine House, Bunny by Mona Awad, Plain Bad Heroines by Emily Danforth. But, yeah, there’s a lot. And I’m really excited to read Babel by R.F. Kuang. So lots coming, too, that’s exciting.
The Atlas Six by Olivie Blake is published by Tor Books and is currently available wherever books are sold. The next book in the series, The Atlas Paradox, will be released on October 25, 2022.
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Author: Jamie Sugah
Jamie has a BA in English with a focus in creative writing from The Ohio State University. She self-published her first novel, The Perils of Long Hair on a Windy Day, which is available through Amazon. She is currently an archivist and lives in New York City with her demon ninja vampire cat. She covers television, books, movies, anime, and conventions in the NYC area.
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