The Chosen Twelve: Interview with author James Breakwell

Author James Breakwell tells us about his sci-fi comedy The Chosen Twelve and why he always knew that the story would start with God in a coffee maker…

The last moon-based interstellar colony ship is down to its final batch of humans after the robots in charge unhelpfully deleted the rest in James Breakwell’s The Chosen Twleve. But rebooting a species and training them for the arduous task of colonisation isn’t easy – especially when the planet below is filled with killer super-intelligent kangaroos. Also, there are only twelve seats on the shuttle and there are 22 humans left in existance. Who will be picked and who will survive?

The Chosen Twelve is author James Breakwell’s (pictured above) first fiction novel (his previous works have comically detailed parenthood, having four girls all under the age of eleven). We spoke to him about choosing genre as his first fiction novel, his writing process and… his favourite Star Trek captain!

Was there a lightning bulb moment for when you first came up with the idea for The Chosen Twelve?

There wasn’t a lightning bolt moment but this is the idea that’s been bouncing around my head for years. I’ve been doing this comedy writing, and I always thought, wouldn’t it be cool to write a sci-fi book someday? And this is the story that started forming in my head. I went viral on Twitter and I built up these followings. I started writing book after book and I broke into the parenting sphere, where I never intended to be in the first place. After so many books, I thought, why don’t I give this a try? So I wrote out the story and I was a little bit scared of it because non-fiction is kind of easy to write – every chapter is a standalone little kingdom. You’re like, ‘here’s a funny idea, let’s write a chapter about that’. Then at the end you’re like, ‘what order do I want to put these in? Does it even matter?!’ [haha].

But with a narrative book, I was like, ‘oh no, I’ve got to probably have a plan. This sounds great in my head, but is this even gonna make sense?’

I wrote an outline and then I narrated the whole thing out voice to text, just straight through. That first draft came out super quick. I would say maybe three weeks, just talking into my phone. Then when I went through to edit it, it’s kind of shocking how little changed. It pretty much remained fundamentally the same from that first narrated draft to the final product, just, much less terrible!

What made you choose a sci-fi novel as the genre for your first fiction novel?

I read widely. I say read… some people don’t consider this reading… I listen to audiobooks constantly. There are two genres I do. I do history –  the drama is amazing in history because everybody who dies really dies. The stakes are super high. Then the other thing is science fiction. With my comedy writing, it’s specifically focused on kids and parenting. Science fiction is just wide open. You can do anything. Now the way it is… I ended up writing about kids again, but kids are part of life! So it was great to spread out artistically and do something fun and different.

Growing up, I was a huge Star Wars fan and then in adulthood, one of my goals was to watch all the Star Trek episodes and I did it, My wife and I over about a million dinners in a row worked our way through the entire Star Trek series. All the different captains. So I’ve always loved science fiction. I just think there’s something really special about it. I love the freedom of it too.

So, who’s your favourite Star Trek captain?

You know what, this is going to be controversial. I think Captain Archer is the best captain of Enterprise. It was the only series that was ever cancelled but man he’s a captain’s captain. I love him. And I love the Picard. Those are my two big ones.

Of the 22 children in The Chosen Twelve, do you have a favourite?

When you said that I thought you were asking about my personal children! I want to end up in a good nursing home someday…

I’m kind of partial to them all. I tried to make it morally ambiguous. You can argue for any of the characters that their approach is right. Is it right for humans to decide their own fate? Is it right for robots to decide because humans already had their shot? Is it right that you should only be concerned about survival or should you be concerned about expansion and conquest?

At first, when I started writing the book, I thought maybe I was going to be the Gamma character. But as I went, he was so indecisive, and I’m kind of the opposite of that. I’m decisive to my own detriment, so he’s really not me. I definitely side with Delta more than with any of them. She airs a little bit too much towards ‘might makes right’ for my taste, but I think she’s probably my favourite character. Overall, she’s the most fun and if I get to the point where I can write sequels, I’ve really got some cool places that I can take her…

They all have very different personalities, how did you map out the characteristics of each child?

[It was] my biggest concern starting this! I’m not George R R Martin. He’s got these 500-page books and hundreds of characters to keep track of. If I was going to have 12 seats, I had to have more than 12 kids. So when I was doing the math, I was like ‘man, I’m gonna end up with a lot of characters. I’ve really got to sort this out!’

So I basically broke into, what are the roles? Who’s going to lead the factions? And then I worked my way backwards from that and filled in all the roles. It would have been cool to give every character their own backstory but the book would have been three times as long.

At one point, my editor said I needed to flesh out some of these characters to make people care about them more and just from that one statement I went from an 80,000 word book to a 90,000 word book! Just adding a background to characters, fleshing them out, adds so much that you’ve kind of got to find that balance. It’s like, how much of this is going to be the plot actually moving forward and how much of this is going to be us standing still?

So I actually made a big glossary for myself of each character; who they were, which side they were on, and whether or not they die in the story. Just to avoid dead characters coming back to life! Doing all of that was really helpful in that first draft. I started having to highlight them with certain colours and as I glanced down, I’d be like, ‘oh, nope, they’re dead’.

The children are physically twelve years old, but they’ve actually lived for over 60 years. How did you go about creating the voices of children who are essentially pensioners?

That one was kind of tricky because they’re children physically, but mentally they’re old. They’re burned out, but at the same time, they don’t necessarily think of themselves as old and burned out. So the inspiration for their entire stasis, just the stuckness they feel in this kind of quagmire of never ending school, was inspired by my own experience at a Catholic school.

I went to Catholic school, kindergarten through college, and from third grade through my senior year, I was with the same group of 40 kids. When we went to high school like 20 more came in. My graduating class was just under 60. So I was with these kids, day after day for hours at a time for years on end. And when we got to the end of that, we all just went our separate ways and never talked to each other again.

How can you spend that much time with this small group of people and still not really know anything about each other and not be that close? That’s very much what these kids are experiencing. I think sometimes that closeness of proximity does not create closeness of emotions or closeness of affection, or any of those other things. They’re definitely going through that. The stuckness they experience in their life was very personal for me and that’s where the voice came from.

Oh, boy, what if my Catholic school experience had extended for another five decades? What would that have been like for me, and that’s who these kids are…?!

The Chosen Twelve

Dion, the world the children are trying to get to, is incredibly deadly with consistent lightning storms and smart aggressive kangaroos just to name a few dangers! How did you go about creating that world?

When I started coming up with the idea for this whole thing, the idea never started on the moon. The idea started on the planet where I think they would be in maybe 1000 years from now. Where you’ve got this small group of people who live forever now in charge of a much larger group that doesn’t.

Then I had to take a step back and they say, ‘wait a minute, how did they end up down there?’ So rather than writing that book, and then going back and hoping I got approved for a prequel, I actually went back and started at the beginning. Which I think is something a tonne of authors wish they could go back and do. So I was very fortunate in that.

So what does it look like with the last humans trapped on this island with a limited number of them in charge? What are the characteristics of that? I pictured it as a very grassy place, there’s almost no metal. There’s only 12 of them who have swords, and these are the leaders, the ones with immortality, and they’re kind of based around sheep. But why is it like that? Well, there can’t be trees. Why can’t there be trees? Well because of the lightning, obviously. It is kind of step by step. Why do they need to be armed? Why do they need to watch their livestock so closely? Because things come out of the water. Why can’t they cross the water?

So I started with they’re trapped, why, and work my way backwards and I ended up creating this truly awful place where now these poor kids have to go.

And why the intelligent killer kangaroos?

Kangaroos are fascinating and terrifying for me! I have never seen a kangaroo face to face outside of the zoo and even then I might have only seen wallabies [haha] but I’ve certainly seen them on TV and YouTube.

But when you look at them, they look so close to being sentient. You swear you’re looking at an alien species that knows as much as you. Where they can stand as tall as a grown man… There’s that one kangaroo that went viral that was just so strong. He’s got giant muscles. He looks like he’s on steroids. And I just look at these things and I think, ‘what if they were just a little bit smarter? What if they were a little more dexterous?’

If human beings are going to go to this awful planet that’s so hard to survive and it’s our last shot, what would they need as an ally? It’s like ‘okay, kangaroos can travel entire distances. They live in Australia, which is just so barren, where everything’s already trying to kill you.’ I thought, well, they really have a lot of the characteristics you’re looking for. Now let’s go one step beyond that. Let’s make them smart. Let’s make it so they can work together. What would that be like when they’re working for humans? And what would that be like when they’re working against humans? That’s really exciting as well. So if I do ever get to write more books, I would love to write how that meeting finally plays out between humans and super kangaroos…

Is there any element of the novel you’re particularly fond of?

I had a lot of fun writing the fire pit scenes, where they all come together. I spend the whole book talking about how these kids don’t care about each other, how they’re all separate. But there are times when they come together for these meetings. That’s where the characters’ personalities get to come out. Right before everything goes wrong, there’s that scene where Omega, who always comes in last, who is surely not going to make it on the lander, all of a sudden, he’s there and all the red flags are coming up that they’re not all going to get on the lander, that the machines are lying to them once again, and he is still a true believer.

He really wants to believe and when they finally see how badly he wants it, they come around. Okay, man, we’ll humour you. We’ll say that we’re gonna make this. That whole scene was heartbreaking for me, but at the same time, it shows you what’s really behind it, the emotions that go into it. I’ve certainly been on the other end of that, where I’ve been falling short, where I haven’t been picked. I’ve been on the outside looking in. So here’s this kid who’s always been on the outside looking in, and he has his chance to make it, so writing that was pretty poignant for me.

Was the book always going to be a comedy?

I’ve never really written anything that was 100% serious and I don’t think I want to. When I started writing in the first place, I started writing because I enjoyed the humour aspect of it. I hate writing term papers. I hate researching things. I don’t like doing things like that because it’s just so dry. So humour is definitely a part of that.

There are parts of the book that probably I find funny, that nobody else did, but they really amused me. The whole idea of God in the coffeemaker just tickled me to no end. Long before I set it down on paper, I knew that was how the book was going to start, with just that one line. That one idea. I wasn’t sure what God and the coffee maker was going to do, but I knew he was going to be there and he was going to be the starting point!

I love being able to inject humour and personality into that. If I had to write just a straight-up sci-fi thriller or space opera, I don’t know if I could do it. I think all of my books will probably always have at least some of that humour in them!

What is it about sci-fi that appeals to you as a writer and a reader?

I think every other genre has constraints. If you read a fantasy book, you’re going to have elves and magic and all of that. If you have romance, you’re going to have certain things based on the real world. But science fiction, I really think is the broadest genre of all. It can really cover anything. It can cover the world two weeks from now, when we’ve got slightly more advanced apps, it can cover the world 10,000 years from now when everybody’s dead and there are 22 kids on a moon base somewhere! There’s no way to know where the book is going to go. And the twists can be just incredible.

I’ve been a big fan of John Scalzi now for a while. There’s a book where everybody’s immortal, and if you die, you basically just respawn in a different spot, and that was a twist. I bought his book having no idea what was going to happen!

Another one that probably isn’t considered science fiction, but I think of it as science fiction, is Groundhog Day. That was my single greatest movie viewing experience of all time. I was in college coming back from a track meet. I was exhausted. I just wanted to go home and go to bed. I didn’t care what was on TV and on the bus, on this tiny TV, somebody put on Groundhog Day, which I had never heard of before. It starts playing out like a typical rom com and I’m like ‘okay, whatever’ and then all of a sudden, there’s a time loop. And it’s a hilarious time loop and he stuck in it. I still think it’s one of the best movies ever made. But that’s science fiction that’s bending the rules of space and time and working the way through it. So it’s a versatile genre that can do anything and in the right circumstances, appeal to anyone.

What do you want for readers to take away from The Chosen Twelve?

I think I’ve succeeded if they question: What does success really mean for the human race? Does success mean that there are 10 billion humans? Does success mean that there are 100 people left but they’re happy and healthy and they live for a long time? Does success mean that humans step aside and let other species have their shots because we’ve messed up things so badly?

I think that we default to the idea that survival is the ultimate good and we are kind of the apex of all life. I don’t know if that’s necessarily the case and that’s kind of the core struggle of the book. When it really comes down to it. What do we derive our morality from, and is our survival and morality the same thing?

The Chosen Twelve is out now from Rebellion. Order your copy here and read our review here. Main image credit: Van Deman Photography.