I’m thrilled to present something a little different today: an interview with fantastic new indie sci-fi author Kate Sheeran Swed. Her first book, Parting Shadows comes out today, and it’s marvelous.
Parting Shadows is the first book in the Toccata System series, a trio of novellas which are all inspired by classic literature — but with Kate’s own unique spin.
I truly loved Parting Shadows. The characters were complex and fascinating, and the setting was rich and deep. Even though we only get a glimpse of the overall universe in this book, I got the sense that we’re barely scratching the surface. I can’t wait to explore more of the Toccata System as the series goes on.
If you’re a fan of science fiction that combines fast-paced plots with beautifully-imagined characters and lovely prose, definitely pick up Parting Shadows.
And at $0.99 for the novella right now, it’s a total steal.
Read on to learn how Kate takes inspiration from classic literature for her sci-fi books, how she incorporates travel into her writing, and more.
Parting Shadows (Toccata System Book 1)
Raised by a heartsick AI, she’s programmed to kill. And desperate to flee.
After growing up on an isolated space station, Astra dreams of solid ground. But with an AI guardian plugged into her head–and her nervous system–it’s not like she’s flush with choices. In fact, she’s got just one: use her training to carry out the rogue AI’s revenge. Her first mission? Assassination.
When her target flashes a jamming device that would guarantee her escape from the AI’s grasp, Astra sets out to steal it. But the AI’s plans are more dangerous than she suspected. Corrupted by heartbreak, the wayward computer is determined to infect the star system with a new order of digital tyranny.
Astra’s been raised to care for no one but herself. Now she’ll have to decide if she’s willing to trade the star system’s freedom for her own.
Parting Shadows is a far-future take on Estella Havisham’s journey in Great Expectations, and the first installment in Kate Sheeran Swed’s Toccata System novella trilogy.
Interview with Kate Sheeran Swed
What draws you to writing science fiction?
I actually started writing fantasy, but about the time I wrote my superhero novel (which I’m going to be putting out next year), I started reading more about space. There’s something so mystical about it!
It’s beautiful, but it’s also so dangerous. From here, I’m always looking up at the moon and staring at the stars. I read that Andrew Chaikin book, A Man on the Moon, and I was amazed that we got to the moon when we barely had computers. And when you think about how dangerous it is — I don’t know. It just mystifies me.
And I’m terrified of it! I would never want to go up to space, so I guess that ambiguity between my feelings of being so fascinated and so scared at the same time is what interests me.
The second book in the Toccata System Series starts with Claire standing on the spaceship and just being like, “I’m in a tin can — there’s a really thin wall between me and space, and I hate space.”
You also take a lot of inspiration from the classics, which I love. The inspiration for Parting Shadows was Great Expectations. Can you talk a bit about how that came about? I’m especially curious about how you made the leap from Great Expectations to a heartsick AI, which was brilliant.
The heartsick AI was what made me decide to write the story. Great Expectations is one of my favorite books ever, so I was thinking of writing a novella from Estella’s point of view. I was writing stream of consciousness and picturing this old lady in the Satis House and the creepy wedding feast, and I thought what if Estella’s being raised by a heartsick AI instead of this broken-hearted woman?
What was one of the toughest parts of transcribing the story of Great Expectations into space?
Each of the three books of the Tocatta System Series are inspired by the classics, and for me it’s always how much do I want to stick with the original idea of the story, and how much do I want to leave it? With Parting Shadows, I leave it pretty fast.
I also was trying to decide if Henry, who is the Pip character, was even going to have a benefactor? In Great Expectations his benefactor is not Miss Havisham, but in this book I decided that had to be SATIS.
I’m sorry if from spoiling that, but it’s a 19th-century novel.
That’s okay. Bad English major confession time, I’ve not actually read Great Expectations. But you can definitely spoil the 19th century novel for me.
[Laughs] I feel like you know pretty early on that Pip’s benefactor is not Miss Havisham. So I played with the idea of it in Parting Shadows.
Generally, I decide to leave the classic story as soon as my story become its own. The story decides where it’s going to go. With Parting Shadows I kept the themes, while also trying to let it be it’s own thing — because I wanted it to ultimately be my story.
I do that more and more as the series goes on. Parting Shadows has a little more connection to Great Expectations, and Phantom Song is inspired by Phantom of the Opera. But by the time I get to Darkening Heaven, it just kind of waves at Treasure Island as it sails by.
In your bio you talk about all the places you’ve traveled around the world. Do you bring any of that to your stories? If so, how?
I feel like Iceland comes in a lot. If I’m ever trying to describe a rugged landscape, or the most beautiful landscape, Iceland comes in.
But a lot of the time it’s more a feeling of travel, the experience of travel. rather than knowing which specific building might affect a scene. But when I was writing Phantom Song, the second book in the series, I definitely included a bit of Paris. The original Phantom of the Opera is set in Paris, so I drew on things like the Versailles.
Do you often sneak in little references like that in things you write?
Oh, definitely. I sneak in a lot of things, like references to pop culture — you’ll see some references to Marvel movies especially. There’s a Princess Bride reference in one of the books. I try to nod to some of my favorites because it makes me happy to do that. I don’t know if anyone else would ever notice it.
With all your traveling, have you traveled someplace specifically for your writing, or as a literary pilgrimage?
I have been to Charles Dickens house in London, twice. And I have a little silver Charles Dickens from the house. He sits and watches me write — next to Princess Leia.
Those are some good patron saints.
Yes! I also have my little Marvel characters up there, but Princess Leia and Charles Dickens are my favorite.
I like to visit literary people’s homes. In Paris we went by Picasso’s house, and I studied abroad in Lancaster, England, which is up in Lakes District, where Beatrix Potter lived. I also went out to Yorkshire to James Herriot’s veterinary office. It’s a really cool museum, and I stayed in this bed-and-breakfast that actually had little hotel rooms attached to a tavern. I felt like I was in a fantasy novel!
What do you get out of the experience of visiting literary people’s homes?
For James Herriot, that was really neat because he writes about the exact place you’re standing. With Dickens, he’s one of my heroes. So the idea that he was here, that this person was there. . . . The history of it really resonates with me.
Is there anything you’d tell “last year Kate” about how your experience publishing Parting Shadows has been?
I would say, “It can happen.”
I was looking at my Amazon Author Central page today, and I was like, I have book covers for two out of three of the books that I was just thinking about last year. I had a draft of Parting Shadows at this time last year, but the other two were just ideas.
Now Phantom Song is almost finished. And I have an outline of Darkening Heaven. And I have two short stories that go along with it.
So I guess I would say to Past Kate, “Those books will be out there. You just have to do the work.”
I’m thrilled that I decided to do this, and it feels like the right thing for me. I’m really happy.
Grab your copy of Parting Shadows here: