I spoke with Curtis C. Chen about his hilarious sci-fi spy thriller, Waypoint Kangaroo.

You can watch the interview here:

https://youtu.be/ZnNlsKd0qe0

Jessie Kwak  

Hey, everybody. Today we are talking with Curtis C. Chen. Once the Silicon Valley software engineer courtesy Chen now writes stories and runs puzzle games near Portland, Oregon. He’s the author of the Kangaroo series of funny science fiction, spy thrillers and the lead writer for Realms Echo Park podcast. And today we’re going to be talking about the Kangaroo Series, which Curtis recently got his rights back to and is now releasing as author editions. And so these are some of my favorite books. I really have enjoyed these books. And so one of the things I’m really excited to talk to Curtis about is how we are or how we’re gonna get more Kangaroo books now that he’s kind of rights back. So, Curtis, welcome. Yeah.

Curtis C. Chen  

All right, Hi Jesse. Thanks for inviting me here.

Jessie Kwak 

Yeah, so just tell us a little bit about the Kangaroo series, and what were some of your influences? And what can readers expect out of those books?

Curtis C. Chen  

Sure. So the first book is Waypoint Kangaroo, you can see here, so that’s the original hardcover, and then this is the paperback of the re-release that’s coming out this month, and the ebook will be out, February 20th. And you can preorder it in some places. And then, you know, after it’s up, it’ll be hopefully everywhere. Libraries also, all that good stuff. Yeah, so the Kangaroos Series. It’s really built around the, the main character whose codename is Kangaroo. And he’s a spy, because he has a unique superpower in this world where he can open a portal into an empty, parallel universe, which they know that for science reasons, that don’t really figure into the main story. But the point is, he can open this, you know, floating hole and just hide stuff in there. But inside the hole looks like deep space, there’s no air and there’s no light, no heat, no gravity. So if you want to throw a living thing in there, there should be protected somewhat. Otherwise, they’ll eventually, you know, freeze and or suffocate, and it’s not a good time. But if you’re talking about, you know, objects, and you can basically hide them and just smuggle things into or out of different places. So that’s why he’s a spy, but because he knows that he’s, you know, special in that way– he knows he can get away with a lot of stuff. So his personality is very snarky. And that’s where a lot of the, the humor comes from. So they’re funny science fiction, spy thrillers. But mostly they read like spy thrillers and the science fiction part is because in the future and their spaceships and he has these, he has some sort of biotech implants that help them do other things as a spy. So yeah, mainly, I just wanted to have fun with the idea of, you know, what if, you know this person had this superpower, and then they were a spy, and they had to do all this other stuff, but maybe didn’t like doing some of it? And then wasn’t the best at some of the other parts of the spying thing? Yeah. So, So I had two of the books published previously. And I’ve gotten the right back so books one and two will be reissued in ebook and paperback this spring and then I’m working on book three and hoping to get that out later this year. And then I have drafts of books four and five that still need a lot of work, but, but they exist in terms of like, I kind of know what direction the series is headed in. So that’s good, because that is informing how I’m doing the re-releases, and doing book three, and all that.

Jessie Kwak  

Are you making any like edits or changes to the original books, as part of that? I know when I wrote, like the Bulari Saga, I wrote book one and put it out. And then by the time I got to book five, I was like, man, there’s a few things that I would have changed, I would have said differently, like, just a few phrases, or a few, like, tiny details that I’m like, No, I’m stuck here.

Curtis C. Chen  

Yeah, yeah, no very, very minor things that, like, if you already have, you know, the hardcover, there’s no need to buy the new one. And putting in like, a little bit of new material, but, you know, get the, get the ebook fromthe library, or whatever. And I’ll probably end up putting something online. Like I have a Patreon that I don’t do enough with, and then I have I’m gonna need to other promotional stuff, as the books are coming out, so yeah, but I think I kind of felt like you did when I went back, you know, after I got the rights back, and I decided to do the rerelease, myself and I, went and I looked at the text, and I’m like, okay, like I knew there were a couple of things I wanted to clean up in terms of like, I wrote the first book, and then wrote the second book, and then realize some of the things were inconsistent, mostly because it’s like it says science fiction its the future, I have, like some future slang terms, and just vocabulary that I was using inconsistently in some places. So this was an opportunity to go back and clean that up. But you know, it doesn’t change the story at all. And I didn’t want to make any major, major changes to, you know, the plot of the story, or how things sort of unfolded because I felt like, you know, I was pretty happy with the books when they first came out. And mostly, it’s a matter of, you know, just very light copy editing, in those terms, but then, you know, it’s also been helpful because you’re looking at books one and two, and sort of getting back into the mindset of this particular character, because books one and two are all first person. So it’s very much you’re stuck in Kangaroo’s head, and it’s kind of all from his point of view, and how he’s interpreting what’s happening in his world. So that’s helped me you know, get back into that, that way of thinking, to, you know, finish revising book three, and then work on four and five, and figure out how to sort of open up the world a little more at this point, now that I have the opportunity.

Jessie Kwak  

I know one of the one of the reasons I love the books is because I well, I love anything that’s like sci-fi mash up with other genres specifically, like you know, crime or thriller, spy thrope thrillers, things like that. But then you’ve also got like, the superhero hero element. How hard was it to balance the Sci Fi tropes, the superhero tropes, the the spy thriller tropes?

Curtis C. Chen  

Yeah, I mean, first of all, thank you for that. Really glad you enjoyed the book. And I’m glad that, you know, a number of people have enjoyed them and have asked about, you know, when, when, or more coming and so I’m happy to be able to tell the people now that there will definitely be more and like, it’s all, it’s all on me now. Like, you don’t have to worry about trying to get the publisher to do something, which is sort of good news and bad news for me, but that’s kind of that’s, that’s a separate discussion. Yeah, so. So for me, you know, with the first book when I, you know, I wanted to, you know, work with a publisher at that point. And so, you know, I burned, it, got an agent, and then work with the agent to, like, take it out to different, different places on submission. And then after we signed the contract, and it was a two book deal, working with the editor on you know, sort of making the book the best it could be. And so initially, when it was just me working on and working on specifically the query letter excuse me, I did have a lot of those sort of, I wouldn’t say necessarily doubts, but just sort of like trying to figure out exactly how do I pitch this in terms of you know having a short you know, you know, little thing I could tell someone like this is a story this is why it’s interesting. This is why the character is cool or whatever, it’s like do I talk about the superpower first I’d heard about the science fiction or the space stuff first and like where I landed is you know, the, this the the pocket, which is what he calls a superpower, which is codenamed Kangaroo like it’s all it all makes sense in my head. I felt like that was the most unique thing about this because and again, because it’s all first person It’s so much centered around his particular personality and point of view. So that’s like the, the thing I opened the pitch with, and then I get into, you know, the fact that he’s a spy. And because he’s a spy in the future, they’re spaceships and then the problems are sort of on a different scale than just you know, if you’re running around one planet, in in the first book is really a spoiler because it’s in the it’s, is that it’s all promo stuff that we’ve done is like, you know, he is on this cruise spaceship that’s going from Earth to Mars. So it’s, you know, it’s kind of like a cruise ship like window now on the ocean, but because in space, like different stuff can happen. And so I had fun with that, because I read a lot of science fiction growing up. So I really wanted to be able to play with some of those things. Like, there’s no artificial gravity in this one. So kind of like if people are familiar with the expanse, or if the idea that you’re, you have a really efficient engine, so you can sort of be running it all the time and accelerating to make, you know, the illusion of gravity. And I know, that’s not I know, it’s not a real thing. So don’t ask me, it’s fine. It’s, it’s science fiction, you’re gonna have to  get over it. It’s, and it’s space opera, like, you know, a lot of people sort of hear about, if I, you know, when, when I was taking the first book out initially, and I would describe it, and a lot of people thought it sounds like hard science fiction. And I feel like it’s a little more space opera-y because I kind of hand wave a lot of stuff, and especially this, the pocket superpower, like, that’s just flat-out magic, because I don’t explain it all. You know, I kind of say, you know, they’re still in the, in the story world, you know, they’ve got, you know, scientists working with the government, who have been like, trying to figure out how it works, and like, they test him. And they do like, all these annoying experiments on him, because they don’t understand why he’s the only one who can do this. And they, you know, ideally, now that they know that this is a thing that’s possible in the world, like, you know, it’d be great if they could, like, make a machine. So anyone could, you know, have this pocket superpower, but, but they haven’t figured it out yet. And so that’s just kind of magic. Like, and that’s sort of the superhero pilotage, like, you know, you know, how can the superhero fly or whatever? And why are they— Well, no, it’s just, we’re just saying that that’s the thing they can do, and we’re not gonna explain it, we’re just gonna move on with the story. Because that allows the story to, you know, have all these different other elements. So, yeah, so, you know, I guess my answer to that is just, you know, and I thought it’d be cool. And, and as I was writing, you know, the first book, especially, it was like, you know, okay, he’s going to be able to do this. But then where’s the limit? So that it can’t like things can’t be too easy all the time. And so, you know, as I’m doing the later books, in some sense, I’m stuck with what I made up initially, it’s like, okay, well, this thing can happen in the world, but this thing can’t happen. So that’s sort of where I have to start keeping track of things. And, you know, if someone out there wants to start a fan Wiki, that would be great for me, 

Jessie Kwak Oh, my gosh– Same.

Curtis C. Chen if you just noticed, even just like a list of names, like people places. Yeah, I got some of it already. And, and the really cool thing when it with books one and two, when I was working with the publisher, they had a copy editor who went through and actually, like, made a list of things. And because they also did the audiobooks, it was sort of like, okay, here all the weird names. Is there any pronunciation notes you want to give to the narrator sort of thing?

Jessie Kwak  

Yeah, my editor did that too. And so like, she’s got an ongoing document with every new copy, edit, she, like updates it, and it’s got all the names, all the places, it is an invaluable document for me. But I still, like make up random things that she’s like, No, no, you already said this two books ago, this is what you said. Yeah. Thank you for catching that for me. Yeah.

Curtis C. Chen  

And I think that’s the so I’m having to learn a lot of new stuff about doing the Indie publishing. And stuff. And so, you know, it’s it’s nice to have some more control over some elements, but I’m still working with other people. So I feel like, you know, the stuff I did before where I was, you know, I was working with different kinds of people, but it was still very much a collaborative process. And so now two different, slightly different kinds of collaboration. But I feel like a lot of the skills I developed early on and even before that, when I had a day job, and he had to work with people in an office, like, you know, figuring out how to tell someone’s like, well, I don’t really want this, I want that, but in a way because you’re like, I don’t want to, you know, maybe I was initially kind of upset when I first saw the feedback but I’m going to sit on it for a day. And then I’m going to write back to my editor and say, Yeah, I’m gonna delete the how dare you email and say, you know, write the better email, which is going to, you know, not just be good for that initial whatever the immediate issue is, but to foster a better like long term working relationship, right. So like, I’ve been working with the cover artist a lot. And so I have a lot of questions for her about like, because I’m kind of leaning on her. As you know, she’s an indie author herself. And she’s done a ton of covers for different people. And she does really great work, as you can see here. And we’ve talked about, like, you know, I, I know this, this is going to be a series. So I want all the series covers to look similar, but what are the elements, we’re going to change each time? So they are clearly different books? And then, you know, how much can we do like this or that thing with putting the different levels together? So she has been really great in terms of, you know, having a good back and forth where she’s like, you know, these are the things that I usually do, and this is what I recommend, and then I will tell her like, okay, you know, this sort of rough calm, like, looks good. But actually, now that I see it, can we change this one thing? And then she’ll come back like, Okay, well, I changed this one thing. And here are three different options I thought would work. But which one do you like best? So? Yeah, so all that stuff has been? You know, it’s been educational in a good way.

Jessie Kwak  

I’m curious if I guess to set this up. I recently had an audiobook done of my very first novel, which is a rsupernatural thriller. And I, as I was listening through it, I hadn’t read it in years. And there were a couple of moments that I was like, there was a moment that I gave myself chills, because I’d forgotten that I’d done like a certain thing. That would be very spoilery. So I won’t say what it is. But are there any, like non spoilery, like moments that you had as you were rereading these and be like, Oh, my gosh, good job, me. Good job. Past artist.

Curtis C. Chen  

Yeah, definitely. You know, I went, I went through all of, you know, the first book in that, you know, in the pipeline now for the full release. Yeah, there were definitely places where I’m, like, you know, sort of both good and bad, right? Like, they’re definitely the good, it’s like, oh, yeah, like that, you know, that part worked really well, like in terms of, you know, you know, how the story came out, and how I was able to set up something and then pay it off. And then, you know, there’s some that were not so good, where I’m like, Yeah, I probably write that differently now, but I’m not going to change it. Because it’s not one of the things we’re like, you know, it’s clearly inconsistent, or, you know, it’s something that’s going to affect this, the, you know, the ongoing series in terms of continuity. And, yeah, and I kind of consider your, it’s a snapshot of, you know, that moment when I was that writer at that time, and, you know, and I’m going to write, you know, more of these and I have written other things in the meantime. And so I’m, like, you know, I, I feel like, it’s, it’s a good representation of the story that I wanted to tell at that point. And, you know, the later books in the series are going to represent, you know, how I feel about, you know, that particular story world and those characters at that later point in time, and I think that’s, you know, as a reader, I feel like that’s, you know, when I’ve read other series, I feel like, that’s an important and interesting thing to observe, you know, to see, like, you know, the the author start out with these ideas, but then as they went forward, and you know, some of these things change over, they realize, you know, but I wanted to actually do this differently, it seems like, so I didn’t, I didn’t want to, and also, like, I didn’t want to, like there was nothing that I was really, really unhappy with, when the first two books came out. So I didn’t go in feeling like you know, oh, I really need to fix like this huge thing, like, you know, the ending is not right, or whatever or like, like both of the books, the first two books are gonna have new prologues, but they’re not really necessary They’re just the actually–they were online only sort of as a different promotional thing. That involves puzzles. It’s not important. But I figured, you know, just put them in the books and then they’ll and then that sort of, you know, so the new, the paperback and ebook, The author’s editions, sort of have, you know, all of those specific ventures sort of all packaged together, in a sense, so, so I feel pretty good about that. Sorry I hope I answered your question.

Jessie Kwak

Oh yeah, no, this because this prologues they were accessible if people solved the puzzle in the cover of the book, right? 

Curtis C. Chen  19:53

Yeah,so that was an idea I had, which I like, oh, it’d be cool because I, you know, not as much anymore but He used to do a lot of different puzzle hunt stuff, which people are familiar with escape rooms, it’s kind of stuff you might see in an escape room where you have to decode something or find a hidden message. So in the, you know, so, and this was like, this was a whole process with the original cover designer, to I’m like, you know, can we hide a little message in here? Because they did the design of the spacesuit and then this background? And I’m like, oh, that kind of looks like a code. So can I actually actually do like a real code for real in the middle here? Yes. So as I ended up, going back and forth a little bit, to make sure like, I didn’t want to make their lives too difficult. And so you can see a new design kind of carries through the sort of circle idea in the astronaut upside down thing. But the new cover doesn’t have any kind of puzzle in it. Because it became clear that like, very, very few people care about that. And I’m happy I was able to do that for those two people the first time around. And it was fun for me to do. But like, you know, there are more important things I have to worry abou now. So yeah, but the the online puzzle stuff is still up there if anyone wants to go look at it. And yeah, and in the in the book, it tells you there’s going to be a link to exactly where you would go if you wanted to play with that.

Jessie Kwak  

Awesome. Yeah, that was one of the I think earliest besides the write-in at the Vancouver Liibrary. We’re where we met, I think puzzle, the puzzle pint events, literally as things that we that least like my husband and I did, involving you, which was very fun. They were very funny. Still going on, right? 

Curtis C. Chen  

Yep,they’re still going on. They’re back in person in those places now. And yep. In all, lots of cities all over the US and around the world. If you go to puzzledpint.com, you can find out about it. And it is puzzled. With a D. We recently found out there’s a another website with a similar domain, which is not, not us. So, I’m one of the original, like founders of the event. And then when we became a nonprofit, I was the president for a while of the nonprofit. But yeah, puzzle planet.com or.org. I think, I think we talked about and now I’m board anymore. But we had talked about whether we wanted to transition away from the.com. Because initially, this is a whole other long story. But I think we just have like.com and.org And maybe .net. Don’t quote me on that. But yeah, so it’s, yeah, so that was, you know, it’s still really cool to see that continuing. And, you know, more people getting interested in it all the. And yeah, if you’re, if you’ve ever done the escape room, or you’ve ever been curious about sort of like hidden message or decoding puzzles, all the archives are online on the website. It’s all Creative Commons. So yeah, go check it out.

Jessie Kwak 

Yeah, it was, it was super fun. And it was like, like, there’s definitely a learning curve, like a real steep short one. But it’s very short. And once you like, Oh, this is what we’re doing. You like your brain wraps around it. And you’re like, okay, all right. I can I can figure this out.

Curtis C. Chen  

Yeah, that was definitely part of the sorry, this is just about the puzzle. But when we started, it was like, you know, a bunch of us have done a lot of puzzle events. Before that. We wanted something that was beginner friendly, where it would be an easy way for new people to sort of enter the community and start to understand, you know, what exactly this activity was, and why it would be fun to do it. And so yeah, with the original covers, I was kind of something I wanted to sort of try to do there too. But like I said, it became clear like there’s a, like when people go to books, like there’s a very different experience of reading a book rather than, you know, something that is the more interactive like a puzzle. And that is in it is it may be as challenging and demanding in different ways, right? Like, you know, having to solve the puzzle, and get a specific, it’s rounded versus a book is, you know, can be a more subjective thing where, you know, you read the story, you understand what happened in the story, but then sort of, you know, emotionally how you feel about what happened or like sort of the different elements that call to use specifically as a reader might be different than someone else. You read the same book. And I think that’s, you know, like when we when I do a book club or something, that’s one of the interesting things that comes in outside, we all read the same book, but everyone sort of comes back and has different thoughts and feelings about it. And that’s where the, you know, the fun of the discussion comes.

Jessie Kwak  

So bringing it back to the books. 

Curtis C. Chen  

Yeah, thank you. 

Jessie Kwak  

And and the kind of the fact that we now get Kangaroo books, more Kangaroo books in the series, what can readers expect from the expanded Kangaroo universe?

Curtis C. Chen  

Yeah, so I guess this is, so this is not really a spoiler. I will say. And this may be more interesting to any writers who might be listening, because, like I said, the first, the first two books, I guess this is also a warning to people. The first two books are written in first person present tense, which I know some people don’t like. But it was a very specific choice. And again, it goes back to sort of my idea of who the character is and how they view the world. And for me, it just felt like the right voice the whole time, like, you know, it was very, very immediate, in present tense, and I wanted to be first person, because it was very much about Kangaroo and how he’s feeling about these things that are happening to him. Right. And he’s, you know, I don’t specify his age, but he’s a very young character, also. So so some people sort of read it and thought it, it felt a little more young adulty. I think because of the first person present tense, you see that a lot of things ever since the Hunger Games, I think. And that’s, you know, for good reason, right? Like when you’re teenagers, like, everything’s happening right now. And it’s all about me. So, so one specific thing is that people can look forward to starting with Book Three, which I’m working on now is that there are going to be more points of view. And this is something that I started doing with other stories and other things I was working on, after these two books came out. So some of the some of the realms stuff. And then some of the other like short fiction and other different writing projects was writing things from different points of view. And because the books wanted to buy, establish that Kangaroo, like he has a support team around him, so there are people that he’s working with all the time. So like he has, like, a physician, and then like an equipment officer. So those will be able to figure pretty prominently in both of the first two books. And going into Book Three, I’d set up a new situation where they were going to have the opportunity to do more stuff, while they were not with Kangaroo, so it looks wanting to because all first person, like there’s stuff happening off screen that he doesn’t know about. And therefore the reader doesn’t know about until after, you know, certain things happen. Like, you know, the bad guys are doing stuff, or like other good guys are doing stuff to help him. But we can’t see that because it’s just Kangaroo’s point of view. And so look through that, that’d be fun to bring in other kinds of perspectives. So there’s, there’s definitely more of that. So you learn a little more about those characters when they’re not with Kangaroo. And actually, in the, in the author’s edition of Book One, the prologue, which was previously online with the puzzle on is actually third person from a different character’s point of view. So your your, if you get the new editions, you’re already going to see a little bit of that. And that was something that came later I was working on, and thinking about how the series would go forward. Like in the first book, I think the first person worked really well, because it also made parts of it feel like a mystery, because Kangaroo was trying to figure out what’s happening and like, the reader doesn’t know either. So we’re kind of picking up clues along with him, in a book two  it as our finding became a little more difficult to juggle, because it’s sort of a thing that, like I took advantage of in some ways and had to fight against in other places where it’s like, you know, I know I can hide things just because Kangaroo won’t see it. But then I can explain certain things because Kangaroo can’t see it in this moment. So it’s got to come later or earlier or in some other way. So, so starting with book three, and I think that’s back to your question of, you know, how is the story world expanding? I feel like, at least for me writing it that feels like a really interesting way to open up the world just, you know, other people’s perspectives on what is happening and not just Kangaroos because, you know, we we’ve established his very specific personality first two books and now starting with three, and it’s also sort of thematically something to do with Book Three is like, what does he think other people think is happening here and not just not just sort of the facts of the situation, just sort of how how they feel about it, and how they’re going to deal with it.

Jessie Kwak  

Nice, so that’s fun, because you’ve got some really, really fun side characters. So I’m excited to see more from their points of view.

Curtis C. Chen  

Mmhmm. Yeah, and what specific impetus was that, for that was, so there’s a character called Oliver who was the equipment officer. So he sort of like Q in the James Bond series, where he’s the guy who makes all the gadgets and knows about the science and technology side of it, because Kangaroo is like, too impatient to learn any of that. So at some point, I wrote a short story, just about, it was a prequel to the whole series about how Oliver got recruited into the spy agency and how he, you know, he wasn’t told about Kangaroo’s superpower, but he kind of figured out on his own. So it’s like, it was a more heavily science fictiony story. In terms of lightning, you know, talking about exactly what the pocket universe looks like, and how would, how would he be able to deduce all that? And that was all centered around Oliver’s character. And so I’m not sure if that’s going to fit in one of the one of the books necessarily, it’s an anthology of space opera stories right now. So Infinite stars, Dark Frontiers, I think there’s the title. Yeah, and, and that, you know, I felt like that worked out really well. So I think writing that story sort of made me feel even more that putting third-person perspective into the actual novels themselves was going to work.

Jessie Kwak  

Well, awesome. So I’m super excited that you’re getting these books back out in the world, that you’re getting new books in the series. And I posted a photo of my bookshelf in a couple of newsletters ago, and your two Kangaroo books were in there with several other books. And a couple of people were like, what is that? But what are those, I can’t find them, they’re not on Amazon, I was like, Hold on, I’m

Curtis C. Chen  

Nope, yeah, they’re coming back. I’m coming back. So I’m really happy, I’m able to do the RE release. And, you know, I, you know, I had, you know, overall a really good experience with the publisher previously. But, you know, at this point, I’m really glad that, you know, in the initial contract, it was very clear when I could request rights reversion, so but there’s no problem about it. Also, that the whole, you know, the whole indie publishing landscape and support system and community is there that, you know, it was, you know, relatively easy I think to like figure out the production aspects and also to like, talk to people and get advice on all these different things like editing and you know, cover art and, and how to set prices on things and how am I going to promote it and all that stuff? Yeah. 

Jessie Kwak  

Awesome. Well, where can people find you and these books online?

Curtis C. Chen  

Easiest way? Yeah, is if you just go to my website here at curtinchen.com. That’s and then yeah, there’s lots of links there to click on. So you can get a list of all the all the stuff I’ve published, you know, short stories, stuff that’s online, you can read for free. And these two books Yeah, and events I’m going to be at coming up.

Jessie Kwak  

Excellent. 

Curtis C. Chen

I’m gonna see you soon at an event aren’t I, Jessie?

Jessie Kwak  

Yes. At the other Alchemy Summit, which I think will be going on when this either when this video No, I’ll get the video up before but I’m sending out a newsletter that Friday that will be linking to this video. So hi, anyone who sees it that day of Curtis and I are hanging out

Curtis C. Chen  

in Portland, come on down. 

Jessie Kwak 

Yeah, absolutely. Well, sweet. Thank you so much for taking the time to chat and talk to me.

Curtis C. Chen  

Yeah no, thank you for setting this up.