We recently had the honor of talking with and interviewing Olivia A. Cole, a poet, author, and vocal activist on sites such as the Huffington Post as well as her own blog and Twitter page. Her first book, Panther in the Hive, is now available through Amazon and stars a black female protagonist trying to survive in the post-apocalyptic land that was once Chicago, adding to the much-needed diversity in modern fiction.
Girls in Capes: What is it that drew you to the sci-fi genre?
Olivia A. Cole: I love to imagine other worlds. I’m not always sure I belong in this one, so I enjoy reading stories from alternate realities. Therefore when it came to writing a novel, I naturally gravitated to sci-fi. Most of my favorite authors write in sci-fi or speculative genres—Octavia Butler and Margaret Atwood, for example—and I really enjoy the freedom I find there in character development and world-building.
GiC: How much research did you do for Panther in the Hive? Did you do it beforehand or while you were writing?
OC: A lot of my research for Panther in the Hive occurred before I started writing the book—and even before the idea of the book was conceived. My undergraduate degree focused heavily on social issues (racism, sexism, gentrification, healthcare, corporations, etc.) so when it came to writing the book, a lot of that information found its way into the pages on its own. It was a natural process.
GiC: I know from your (totally awesome) blog that you write a lot about racism, sexism, inequality, etc. I also know from reading the comments (and my own personal experience) that more often than not, talking about these topics usually results in a resounding “get over it” or “it’s not a big deal, calm down” from some readers. Does that ever discourage you or does that just make you want to write more on these topics to try and educate others?
OC: Thank you for reading my blog! Nasty blog comments from racists (or racism-deniers) never discourage me. They may make me question humanity for a moment or two, but they never make me consider giving up. I will say that I have gotten some pretty unfriendly emails warning me not to take up too much space as a white woman writing about the issues of people of color, and those are the emails that give me pause, not because of their anger, but because they’re right. It’s important that I stay in my lane and not overstep when blogging about these things, and sometimes those emails are a reminder to pause and assess my privilege. While some of those reminders don’t feel particularly good, they’re still important and I make a point of paying attention, even when it hurts.
GiC: I saw you funded the publication for Panther in the Hive on IndieGoGo. How did you go about promoting the campaign and getting funding for it? What made you decide to self-publish instead of going the “traditional” route?
OC: I promoted the campaign for Panther in the Hive entirely with social media. I had built a fairly supportive following with Twitter, Facebook, and my blog when the campaign launched in January and we managed to raise $8,000 in 30 days. It wasn’t easy and I would probably never do it again! But it was an incredible experience.
I self-published because I was turned down again and again by traditional publishers and was told “the writing is great, but the book just isn’t for me.” I eventually began to wonder if that language was code: it was often implied that the book wouldn’t be able to find a place in the mainstream. Yet the positive reviews on Amazon continue to grow and I meet more and more people who are reading the book and love it. A woman recognized me in the gym last week out of the blue and told me she loved Panther. So I think I made the right decision.
GiC: Do you hear from your readers much? What kinds of things do they say?
OC: I hear from readers all the time, and it’s always the best part of my day. The thing I hear most often is “I wish Tasha Lockett was my best friend. She is the one I would want on my side in the apocalypse.” What I also hear a lot is, “Finally: a black female protagonist in a post-apocalyptic book.” I’m certainly not the first to feature a non-white heroine, but I think Panther in the Hive is unique in the way it blends women’s fiction and sci-fi, which I think a lot of readers appreciate—including men. I get the feeling that people really enjoy the fact that it’s a fast-paced story but still delves into the inner-life of the heroine. I also hear “This should be a movie!” all the time, and that always makes me laugh. They’re right!
GiC: Where did you come up with the title for the book?
OC: That was the hardest part! I had a few different options—some of them terrible—and I actually crowd-sourced the final title as well. I asked Facebook which of four titles they liked the most, and Panther in the Hive was the most popular. It’s actually a very simple title: it describes the scenario of the book from beginning to end. A ferocious being in dangerous territory.
GiC: When did you decide to become a writer, or more specifically, to write a full-length book, since you were already writing before Panther in the Hive was published?
OC: I was a poetry and fiction writer before I was a blogger. I don’t know why I stopped, but I got far away from fiction for awhile and focused on non-fiction: articles and things. Then one day in 2010 I was standing in the kitchen chopping chicken or peppers or something…and I started dreaming. The story started coming really quickly. I knew within five minutes that it would be my first novel. And a year and a half later, it was.
GiC: Is there a certain type of scene that’s harder for you to write than others?
OC: Certainly love. I find it very difficult. Writing action or description comes easily, but love? I think we all experience love in so many different ways, that it’s hard for me to write it for a character without it being either my own experience or a cliché. I was lucky to not have to face it in Panther in the Hive, but the sequel is a different story…
GiC: If you could have been the original author of any book, what would it have been and why?
OC: Ha! That’s a hard question to answer. Am I blasphemer if I say the Bible? There are so many things I’d like to amend or clarify. A lot of lives could have been saved.
GiC: Are you working on anything at the moment, either an upcoming article/blog post or another book?
OC: Oh, yes. So many things. I’m currently working on the sequel to Panther in the Hive, as well as a young adult fantasy series and a joint project with two other authors about hip-hop and high school. An article too, about social media and sexual assault.
GiC: Are there any new authors that you’ve started reading that really capture your interest?
OC: Jesmyn Ward. She’s not “new,” but she’s new to me as of this year and I’m now reading Salvage the Bones and adoring it. Also Long Division by Kiese Laymon, also not a “new author” but one I learned of this year. Both brilliant.
GiC: What was the hardest part of writing Panther in the Hive?
OC: Stopping. The book is 470 pages long and that’s after I cut 100 pages out. I’m not necessarily an over-writer, but there was so much of Tasha Lockett and her family and history that I wanted to be in there. I had to trim a lot of it. But I’m glad that there will be room to learn more about her in the sequel. She’s more than just a young woman kicking ass in the cybertronic apocalypse. She is a person and she has a story.
Gabby Taub, the Fantasy Reviewer at Girls in Capes, is a recent graduate of New York University. She enjoys reading, writing, watching TV, and spending time getting lost among the bookshelves at Strand Bookstore.