Interview: Jack Skillingstead

LIFE ON THE PRESERVATION (UK)Jack Skillingstead’s SF novel Life on the Preservation has just come out from Solaris. The author, who won a writing competition sponsored by Stephen King in 2000, and was a finalist for the Sturgeon Award in 2004, has published more than thirty short stories in various publications and in an unusual form of interview to promote his novel, turned over the questioning to his Facebook friends…


So I spent four years writing and rewriting a novel called Life On The Preservation. Solaris Books is publishing it in North America and Great Britain.  LOTP is based on a short story that appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction back in 2006. The story was pretty successful in its own right.  It got picked up by a couple of Year’s Best anthologies, has been translated three times, and even attracted a whiff of Hollywood interest before subsiding beneath the waves.  The novel, though very different from the short story, begins from the same situational starting point: For unknown reasons, aliens scorch the Earth and only a handful of humans survive.  At the moment of world destruction, a dome appears over Seattle, trapping the city and its inhabitants in a one-day time loop. A teenage girl named Kylie, a survivor, penetrates the dome on a mission of destruction, but once inside she is beguiled by the illusion of a normal world. 

I thought it would be fun to ask my Facebook friends if they had any questions about the book, or the writing process that produced it.  Some of the questions were pretty good…


Did you or your editor decide that you needed to “tone down” or “make more obvious” your theme, and how did you deal with that? Deanna Hoak (copyeditor)

The subject of theme never came up. Clarity did arise, here and there. LOTP presents a potentially confusing timeline.

The world essentially ends on October 6, 2012. The Preservation time loop captures the day prior to world destruction, and for the residents of Seattle, it is always October 5, 2012.  Meanwhile, outside the dome, time passes normally.

For Kylie, who lives in what remains of her small town huddled in the shadow of the Olympic Mountains, it is 2013.

And just to make it more interesting, the book indulges the conceit that the loop-trapped inhabitants of Seattle are unknowingly connected via a space-time rift to their own sleeping minds a year before the attack.

So that’s 2013 / 2012 co-existing in present story time, plus 2011 eventually establishing a new story time narrative. By “story time” I’m talking about scenes that apparently occur now, unfolding the story as we are reading. Though written in the past tense, Story Time is the forward motion of now.

Since it took me something like four years to write this book, there were various lapses in the time logic. Jon Oliver, my editor, wanted to move the whole thing up to the current year, which made sense, since we are publishing in 2013.

There are themes in LOTP, but I am reluctant to discuss them here. I’d rather readers discover – or not discover – them on their own. Themes matter to writers, but most readers just want to get on with the story. As an editor, Jon helped me get on with it by pointing out logical inconsistencies.

LIFE ON THE PRESERVATION (US)What led you to begin the book where you did? Did you ever open with a different scene? What led you to change your mind? Elizabeth Bourne (writer)

Great question! Actually, three questions. Good stories should feel like they were already happening before the point at which the reader starts paying attention and go on happening after “The End.” They should feel like that, but as a practical matter the writer does have to decide where to start typing. The old saw is to begin with action. I did that in the short story, where I had very little time to establish the world and what was happening.

For the novel I modified the adage and said to myself, “Begin with something interesting that leads to action. Big action without context is a bore. So what’s ‘interesting?’”  That’s where the trouble starts. Literally. The first part of LOTP follows two distinct storylines. Kylie is outside in the devastated world; Ian is inside the Preservation, experiencing and re-experiencing the same day over and over again. In Part Two these characters meet. Each chapter is a scene, or sometimes more than one scene, but the chapters follow their own rules of rising action and tend to finish on a beat that encourages the reader to want more.

At least, that was the intent. I wasn’t cold blooded about any of this. I didn’t cobble together strategies for manipulating readers so that I could drag them through my book almost against their will. To sustain interest I explored my own heart for emotional cliffhangers and then tried to translate my discoveries into the novel I was writing. Of course, I was always terrified that what interested me wouldn’t interest anyone else. I think every writer experiences that fear. You simply write through it.

I opened Preservation with a number of different scenes, back when I was trying, stupidly, to write a “pure” adventure novel. None of them worked. They were movie openings. To get at the good stuff and find out what my novel was really about and what were the true points of interest I had to let go of pre-conceived ideas and plans and all that. What did I care about? Eventually I found out, and that’s where I started.

Why did you chose the protagonists? Do your characters “come to you,” or do you design them? Do your characters ever surprise you? If so, how?  Brenda Cooper (writer)

The glib answer is that the protagonists chose me. More accurately, I’d say the characters I needed in order to tell this story showed up as soon as I knew enough about what they might have to do. I don’t believe in consciously designing characters. I think writers are kind of like method actors.

For instance, there is a minor character with a couple of important things to do in the course of the novel’s first part. I could see him clearly in my mind’s eye. But to bring him alive I had to find some emotional resonance in myself that I shared in common with him. Otherwise, he was nothing much more than a cliché with a few lines to speak. He surprised me by being funnier, and scarier, than I anticipated.

Did you decide you needed to rework the importance of any characters as you went through? Why? also from Brenda Cooper.

Yes. Because of the way I write, this happens all the time. A perfect example from LOTP is the character of Charles Noble, the nominal “Curator” of the Seattle Preservation. For years of writing he was simply the “Curator”, an alien presence. And he never worked. That was probably because I didn’t know what my novel was really about. When I finally did know, than I also knew that the Curator needed a human avatar. I gave him one, getting all science-fictiony about it. The Curator begins presenting himself in the body of a sad and very lonely man who has died accidentally during an act of auto-erotic asphyxiation — this was the original Charles Noble.

To get to the description of the Curator inhabiting Noble’s corpse I started writing a little narrative background, keeping it brief. It was suppose to be a couple of almost disposable paragraphs. Instead I found myself fully engaged and deeply, emotionally interested. Toss-away descriptions like “..a sad and very lonely man…”  are completely useless. Everyone is, or was, an individual, even my guy hanging from the closet doweling. His life and death influence the Curator, who is also alienated (no pun intended) and living a life of estrangement.

Charles Noble stepped out of the background and into the heart of my story. In earlier drafts he was just some scary thing that had to be dealt with. I should have known all along.


Click here to order Life on the Preservation from





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