Interview with Jack Heath

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Jack's latest novel Replica is a thrilling and thought-provoking sci-fi novel (with a super creepy cover - check it out) about a robotic replica assuming a teenage girl's life. My review is forthcoming! In the meantime, I had a chat with Jack about writing Replica, potential sequels, writerly regrets and the benefits/pitfalls of having a replica (I'm currently manufacturing Clone Steph/Steph 2.0 to write my novels for me while I eat cheese toasties and read sci-fi novels*).

I'm interested in the process of writing Replica, which is science fiction in a way that's very much based in our reality. What were your sources of inspiration? Was there a lengthy research process before you started writing? Was it difficult to decide what real-life technology to include, and where to embellish? (It seems a novel weighted towards real-life technology, but then that's the magic of fiction: things that sound real versus things that exist are often entirely different.)
Jack: I usually start with something preposterous – time travel, thief who can walk through walls, et cetera – and then try to include as much real-life science as possible to make it convincing. In this instance, I didn't even have to set the book in the future. It is possible, today, for a teenager to build a mechanical duplicate of herself, thanks to 3D-printing, open source artificial intelligence software and other real-world developments. But fooling her friends and family with the duplicate is another story. I think in real life, Chloe 2's cover would be blown as soon as she opened her mouth. Still, in ten years, who knows?

Your first novel was published when you were a teenager, so you've been writing professionally for almost a decade. Has your writing process or style evolved with subsequent novels? Is there anything you wish you could go back and change about earlier novels?
Jack: I used to structure my books around action scenes – the plot was just a series of flimsy excuses to get Ashley Arthur from one explosion to the next. These days I usually focus on realisations; each chapter reveals a little more of the truth to the main character, and plants some more misleading clues for later revelations. (If that sounds dull, rest assured that I still cram in as falls-from-great-heights as I can.) I also focus much less on how things look, and much more on how they feel. But the only thing I'd change about my earlier books – leaving aside the fact that some were not profitable and arguably shouldn't have been written – is that Agent Six has a slightly preachy monologue at the end of The Lab which now makes me wince.

Replica features lesbian characters without that being the central focus of the plot, which I think is awesome - and realistic (as realistic as a novel about robotic replicas can be). Was that a conscious choice you made, and what inspired it?
Jack: The lesbian element actually started out as a plot consideration. If one of the characters had been a boy and the other a girl, readers would immediately suspect they had a romantic past. (In the immortal words of Avril Lavigne, "Can I make it any more obvious?") Making both characters female kept the suspense going a little longer. At first, that was my only goal, but later a copy editor mentioned how thrilled she was to see such a positive gay relationship in a sci-fi YA novel. It hadn't occurred to me that for most LGBT protagonists in YA books, the main conflict was a struggle with identity and acceptance, rather than a struggle with, for example, teams of ruthless soldiers with high-tech weaponry. (Of course, Replica is all about identity too, but Chloe's sexual orientation is the least of her worries.) After that, I tried to make her relationship even more prevalent and positive, so readers would get something which was otherwise missing from the genre.

You've written two series and a couple of stand-alone novels: Do you prefer one over the other? It is easier to write novels with characters and settings already established, a familiar world? Is there any possibility of a follow-up to Replica?Jack: I spend so much time on plot and sensation that world-building and character development are usually left by the wayside in the first draft. They're often still pretty bare in the published version. I love writing sequels, because I know the characters better, and I have a more solid sense of the world they inhabit. I don't have to spend so long wondering, "What would Chloe do in this situation?" because I've seen how she coped with similar ones. Having said all that, I'm not good at writing series – just sequels. I always take it one book at a time. I'm really keen to write Replica 2: The Replicationing – I have a new story for Chloe to find her way through, a new cast of characters for her to meet and a new setting for her to get lost in – but I can only do it if Replica 1 is a success. You could argue that a book has value even if no-one reads it (a tree falling in the woods type debate) but as I mentioned, I've spent too much of my life writing sequels to books which didn't sell.

Replica is set in Canberra, and I'm not familiar with particularly many YA novels set there: Is there any particular reason you chose Canberra? What do you think it offers as a setting that makes it unique to other Australian cities?
Jack: I've travelled extensively, but Canberra is the city I know best. I went to primary school, high school and university in this town. Setting a book here feels natural to me, but with Replica, I thought it would feel natural to other people, too. Canberra is a small town, so characters can bump into one another unexpectedly without the coincidence feeling forced. The political/espionage side of the plot, meanwhile, would feel forced if it took place anywhere else in Australia. Having said all that, the language has been sanitised for the UK market and then resanitised for the USA market. In the construction site scene, a UK copy editor circled "bobcat" and wrote in the margin, "Is that an Australian native animal?" So while Canberrans will find a few familiar landmarks, no-one from outside the ACT will feel like they've had a holiday here after reading the book.

Imagining if a replica of yourself was created. Would you be able to peacefully coexist with a robot walking around with your face? Would that be an awesome prospect or a terrifying one? (I imagine a replica of myself would be a great friend, but maybe that's the sort of thinking that would result in my replica killing me and assuming my identity.)
Jack: How easily I could coexist with a replica would depend entirely on his temperament. If it were much like mine, we wouldn't get on. I'd think he was a selfish, lazy nincompoop. But if he were happy to go out and do school visits, TV appearances, radio interviews, book signings and so on – while I stayed home and wrote – it would be a beautiful friendship. Jackbot could be my public face, while I became a recluse. (In fact, Replica came about partly because I was overwhelmed with my life, and I wished I had someone to take over for a while.)


You can read a preview of Replica and find out more about the novel at

*The first Jack Heath novel I read was Third Transmission five years ago (here's the review, as written by baby fifteen-year-old Steph - I have been keeping this blog a long time, it seems) which was stellar but sadly seems to be no longer in print. THIS OFFENDS ME. In keeping with the themes of Third Transmission, I should perhaps travel back in time and prevent it from going out of print. Maybe I should just send the clone through time, instead, in case all my atoms are destroyed or something. Time travel: it's pretty dangerous.
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