Exclusive: Sci-fi author Essa Hansen tells us about writing Ethera Grave

Essa Hansen. Photo: Shawn Hansen
Essa Hansen. Photo: Shawn Hansen /

Earlier this year, Essa Hansen’s The Graven trilogy reached its triumphant conclusion with Ethera GraveThe Graven is a sweeping space opera series filled with spacefaring found families, breathtaking worlds, strange creatures and multiversal stakes. But this isn’t a multiverse you’ve seen before, with alternate versions of the same world. Instead, The Graven spans countless bubble universes, each with their own physics and flavor. Imagination is the name of the game in this series, and Hansen has it in spades.

In Ethera Grave, the multiverse faces a threat of cataclysmic proportions. It’s a mind-blowing series ender that delves deep into the metaphysics of Hansen’s multiverse and the nature of time. I reviewed Ethera Grave when it released over the summer, and it’s still haunting me.

Hansen stopped by Winter Is Coming to talk about creating the triumphant conclusion to The Graven, building imaginative science fiction worlds, how her process changed after releasing her debut novel during the start of the pandemic, and more. There are mild spoilers for The Graven below.

Essa Hansen. Photo: Shawn Hansen
Essa Hansen. Photo: Shawn Hansen /

DANIEL ROMAN: Hi Essa, thanks so much for taking the time to talk about The Graven and your work! Your novels are so imaginative and vast, so I’m curious: how would you describe this series for readers who may not be familiar?

ESSA HANSEN: Thank you for this opportunity to discuss the series! The Graven is science fiction that gets more metaphysical as the trilogy arcs in scope from the perspective of an isolated boy learning that a multiverse exists, to multiple players wrapped up in cosmic-level stakes that warp space and time. The world is composed of variously sized bubble-shaped universes stuck together and encapsulating one another in a vast foamlike structure, with each universe having a unique set of physics (the implications of this multiverse is one of my favorite parts). The world is full of diverse species and the narrative is focused on found family, deep platonic bonds, sensory immersion, and cinematic storytelling.

Readers have compared the series to Iain M. Banks’s inclusive world of The Culture, found family like Firefly, grey morality and big scope like Mass Effect, and character-driven sociopolitical complexity like The Expanse.

DR: Your first novel, Nophek Gloss, came out right at the start of the pandemic. I imagine you’ve had quite a ride with this series since then. How does it feel to be writing the end to this trilogy?

EH: Solidarity to my fellow 2020 pandemic debuts! That was the start of a string of bad timings for me and this series, and it was definitely a ride…but now and then, a reader would tell me that the book saved them or got them through the pandemic, and that made everything worth it. There’s a lot of trauma and burnout and insurmountable obstacles in The Graven, which often contains a validation or acknowledgement that the reader needs too.

I’m still waiting for a grounded sense of completion to kick in now that all three books are out in the world! I thought it would sink in when I could hold all three physical books in my hands, but I realized I’m still catching my breath: the deadlines were brutal (especially while working long, demanding day job hours as many authors must) and I did not have the entire story of the trilogy planned out when it sold, so the past several years has felt like a whirlwind trying to develop so much on the fly.

Nophek Gloss by Essa Hansen. Image courtesy of Orbit.
Nophek Gloss by Essa Hansen. Image courtesy of Orbit. /

DR: Along those lines, has your process evolved or changed at all from the time you wrote Nophek Gloss to writing Ethera Grave?

EH: I was much more of a “discovery writer” when I drafted Nophek Gloss, feeling my way through and letting the story unfold as I wrote it. I didn’t have a literary agent yet, so I had as much time as I wanted to tinker or ruminate or set it aside for a while. Once I was on contract for the trilogy, with limited revision time, limited critique partners available, and the story increasing in complexity, I knew I had to be planning as meticulously as I could if I was going to pull it off. Now with new projects I use the skills I gained to do a lot of structural plotting and character arc work before I dive into a draft, although I still discovery-write the scenes themselves because I love the immersion and surprise of feeling my way through a story.

DR: Getting into some details about Ethera Grave specifically, I wanted to ask about found families. You have multiple in this series, and you explore them with such depth and care. Can you talk a little bit about how you approached building the found families for The Graven?

EH: One goal I set out to tackle when I began Nophek Gloss was writing an ensemble cast, purely because I enjoy them as a reader/viewer/gamer and it felt like a new challenge that would level up my writing craft. At this point I didn’t realize how much I would fall in love with the family I was building…and since I hadn’t planned the trilogy from a bird’s eye view, I didn’t realize I would end up with more than one found family group.

I started with the very basic skeleton of a spaceship crew: I knew I needed a captain, a pilot, a mechanic, a medic, and some muscle. Since I was more of a discovery writer back then, I didn’t develop the crew extensively before I started drafting, but rather discovered who they were and how they fit together while writing, along with Caiden, the protagonist thrown into this family team. I really feel like that organic discovery ended up being the best way to get into this story.

Caiden is navigating trauma and a new, gigantic world, and relies on the guidance of the crew. This combination of ignorant protagonist and experienced crew allowed me to explain things and slowly introduce Caiden and the reader to a complicated setting. I also chose to use the found family model of throwing one new person into an existing group because I love when a breaking of symmetry (the crew’s clashing opinions of Caiden) in a functional system forces unexpected change, even resulting in a higher level of stability.

In Azura Ghost, we get a second point-of-view character with her own found family who have bonded through survival. Due to delicate biology, the group could lose one another at any time, which makes their bonds simultaneously more tentative and much deeper. Contrary to Caiden’s family system, their differences of opinion could cause real breaks in the unit.

In Ethera Grave, the two found families are smashed together to deal with truly cosmic stakes. Entire populations…entire universes are on the line. The characters struggle to handle their personal fealties and whether it’s right to prioritize loved ones over the rest of the world. What sacrifices are too much, too far?

Azura Ghost by Essa Hansen. Image courtesy of Orbit.
Azura Ghost by Essa Hansen. Image courtesy of Orbit. /

DR: I need to ask about Threi and Caiden. These two characters have had a very long and complex arc together, which culminated in some really interesting ways in the final novel. Can you talk some about how you developed their relationship? Did you always know where it was heading?

EH: Their relationship was completely organic! Threi was originally a minor part in Nophek Gloss, but since the main villain of that book is so broad and inaccessible for so much of it, I needed a proxy antagonist to be interacting with Caiden directly throughout. That was Threi, and he ended up stealing the stage. Being a proxy for a bigger antagonist also allowed him to occupy a grey area morally and personally, and seamlessly cross the boundary back and forth between enemy and ally. That ambiguity became the core of Threi and Caiden’s relationship as Threi is more and more formative in Caiden’s development…which itself is an oscillation between healing and further trauma.

Threi was always intended as the foil that represents what Caiden could become if he lets his morals slip too far or lets his powers get to his head. In that way, there are a lot of similarities between the two men. As the story carried on, I could feel a sort of awful fated magnetism between them, keeping them circling in that space between allies and enemies, right and wrong, heroes and monsters. So while I didn’t know where their dysfunctional relationship was headed in its endgame, I knew it would always have those tense, complicated trust issues at the center. Threi finally getting his own point of view in Ethera Grave also made the arc finale fun, as we finally get in his head to see what his real, evolving feelings are and how Caiden’s perspective of him has been incomplete.

DR: One thing I’ve really loved about The Graven is how emotionally intelligent and inclusive the series is. That extends from the worldbuilding to the characters and how they interact with each other and the multiverse, as well as their specific traumas and preferences. I was wondering if you could talk a little about how you approached this, both on the small and large scale?

EH: I’m finding this question strangely hard to answer in a granular way, and I think that’s because I can’t imagine writing something that doesn’t involve that depth of emotion and diversity. My story ideas all come from character first, and the plot emerges from that journey. I’m engaged by exploring and trying to capture difficult emotions, and transformations, which often means not being afraid to make the worst happen and see how characters handle it. In fiction and in real life, I want to trust that we can not only emerge on the other side of shadow, but be transformed in ways that open up new possibilities and depths. We grow by surviving, over and over. A critique partner recently characterized my brand as broken characters who have to break themselves more and more in order to heal and to repair their world.

On the small scale, my favorite scenes to write are the quiet, intimate ones. The aftermath. The processing. The tense reunions. This means not being afraid to slow down and make space for raw details, for micro-tension, and for third-level emotions. I try to avoid the obvious surface emotions and dig into the deeper layers of not just how my characters are feeling, but where that feeling comes from.

Ethera Grave by Essa Hansen. Image courtesy of Orbit.
Ethera Grave by Essa Hansen. Image courtesy of Orbit. /

DR: There are some wild action scenes in Ethera Grave! What’s your approach to writing action, and were there any specific influences that helped with the world-shattering set pieces for the book?

EH: I’m always attempting to do something fresh in each action scene. If I’ve already used a particular setting or weapon or circumstance, it’s boring and I scrap it! Fight scenes easily start to feel repetitive or lose urgency. Since Ethera Grave had to top two previous books of big action set pieces, a lot of the action involves new dimensions: memories, warped reality, messed-up physics, time, spiritual substrates.

I focus a lot on the environment when I’m blocking out action beats. What interesting features can I utilize? Can I move the characters through the space to keep the action interesting and to add a sense of progress? A fight scene might be more exciting if it’s also a chase. I also consider how the environment can change, whether that’s weather, geology, or architecture—what can I break?

For more novelty and cool factor, I try to invent weapons, armors, and other tech that I haven’t used before. I also injure my characters…a bit too much…but that’s another way to change the tension point of the action, add challenge, and enhance a sense of progress.

As for influences, I get a lot of inspiration from artwork and nature, and often it’s a little detail I’ll see that unfolds into a larger idea in my head—sometimes literally scaling something small into building size or landscape size. I’m also influenced by the sound work I do in sci-fi and fantasy films for my day job, where I’m editing sound to action scenes and paying attention to a sense of rhythm, dynamics, environment, and novelty. The medium is different but the same skills apply to prose.

DR: In addition to your writing, you’re also a sound designer who’s worked on huge Marvel projects like Doctor Strange, Black Widow and The Avengers: Infinity War. As part of this very cool job, you’ve taken live recordings of some incredible animals over the years. I was wondering if you had any favorite animal encounters, or ones which were especially influential on the many fascinating space animals which crop up in your novels?

EH: My favorite animal encounters have definitely been the big cats: tigers, lions, leopards, cougars, servals, lynxes. They are beautiful and intense, yet have the same sort of personalities and behaviors as housecats. Caiden’s nophek companion, C, has big cat (and big dog/wolf) kind of mannerisms and energy. I wanted to capture the combination of vicious and sweet that I’ve seen in so many of the big rescue felines.

DR: I know we can’t talk too much about this because of spoilers…but you did some really interesting things with time in Ethera Grave. I’m curious about how those scenes developed. Was it always your endgame for this series to incorporate these mind-bending temporal elements?

EH: The time thing that I pulled off is one of my favorite structures in speculative fiction, and when I realized I might get a chance to fit one in this book, I was determined to make it happen somehow.

Since I didn’t have time to plan the series thoroughly before diving into it, I went into Ethera Grave only knowing the handful of questions and coincidental connections still needing answers in order to wrap up the trilogy. The biggest was Azura, who is the backbone of this story and yet still mysterious through the first couple books. In each one, she takes on a new form and further definition, and I knew in the final book we would finally meet her for “real.” I also had Ethera, whose origins and aim needed fleshing out…and the mystery of Caiden’s own Gravenness. As I worked on those three elements, they ended up having one solution.

I also simply had the problem of an immensely powerful antagonist at the end of the series and was just as much at a loss over how to defeat it as the heroes are. I did a lot of work on the mechanics of space, time, universes, bodies, and spirits, to reach a solution immense enough to overcome such an antagonist. It took a lot of brainstorming to figure out how to make it feel logical, and a lot of structuring to pace it well enough in execution.

DR: What are you working on next? And do you think you’ll ever return to the world of The Graven?

EH: I’m getting ready to start pitching a standalone science fantasy novel that combines the expansive weirdness of Inception, the tranquil nature/body horror of Annihilation, the eco themes and complex villain of Final Fantasy VII, and Iain M. Banks’s inclusive world of The Culture. It has shapeshifters and an alien memory palace and of course a new weird animal companion.

I might not be able to spend much time with the characters of The Graven again—a sad thought—so there will definitely be some short stories or vignettes or little interludes eventually, which I can share with series fans. There is also some vague but exciting potential on the horizon with The Graven that I can’t say anything definitive about yet!

DR: One of my favorite scenes in Ethera Grave is when a certain group of characters share what planets they’d most like to visit in the multiverse. I’m curious, if you could visit anywhere in the multiverse, where would it be?

EH: I’m a little bummed I couldn’t show off even more interesting planets in the series! These poor characters never get a vacation.

I would want to visit Solthar, for its sheer beauty and spectacle. The partial holography of its landscape and weather makes impossibilities seem real, defying physics, inspiring artists and scientists. I’d love to see lightseep obsidian in person—I have a clear sense of it in my head, but I know my descriptions don’t do justice to what such a material would be like in real life and on the scale that Solthar has it.

DR: Last question! If you were able to adopt characters from other fantasy and sci-fi stories, from any medium, to build your own found family of characters to explore the wonders of the multiverse with, which characters would you choose?

EH: Oh wow, these kinds of questions always make me forget every character I’ve ever encountered, and I’ll undoubtedly recall the perfect answer a week from now when it’s too late. I feel like if I choose only my favorites, I definitely won’t be choosing a group that would actually all get along with one another, and that’s an essential part of found family!

DR: Essa, thank you again so much for talking today and congratulations on finishing The Graven trilogy!

EH: Thank you for your thoughtful, in-depth questions, they were brilliant! And thank you and all the other readers who have stuck with this trilogy from book to book—your enthusiasm and support went a long way to getting me through production on each of them.

Image courtesy of Orbit.
Image courtesy of Orbit. /

Orbit, the publisher of The Graven, is currently running a free event series with science fiction and fantasy authors titled “How to Write Your First SFF Novel.” If you enjoyed this interview with Essa Hansen, you can hear more from her during their “Creating Otherworldly Cultures” panel, along with Ann Leckie (Ancillary Justice), Suyi Davies Okungbowa (Son of the Storm) and Davinia Evans (Notorious Sorcerer).

“Creating Otherworldly Cultures” streams live this Friday, October 27 at 6:00 p.m. EST. You can register for it here. The panel is also recorded to make it accessible for those who can’t catch it live. You can find the full archive and schedule for Orbit’s “How to Write Your First SFF Novel” event series here.

All three books of Essa Hansen’s The Graven trilogy are available now, wherever books are sold.

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