Exclusive Interview: Owen Lach on his queer sci-fi novel Founder’s Mercy “I imagine a future where you can be queer or trans & it won’t matter”

Owen Lach is a screenwriter and playwright whose debut novel Founder’s Mercy (out now) is a queer sci-fi adventure set in a world where sexuality and gender are not questioned, instead the characters deal with other more world-changing issues. The Queer Review’s Chad Armstrong caught up with him to discuss Founder’s Mercy and find out what’s next for the writer.

Chad Armstrong, The Queer Review: Congratulations on Founder’s Mercy, I had a great time with it. Tell us a bit about the story to bring our readers up to speed.

Owen Lach: “Thanks so much! I’m really excited to see Founder’s Mercy out in the wild. It’s a queer, young adult sci-fi thriller about a teenage boy and his best friend who live in an oppressive city on a colony world 500 years after it was settled. It’s a queer coming-of-age story filled with all sorts of sci-fi adventure thrills set in a really unique environment.”

The lead character Adan is surrounded by more stereotypical ‘alpha’ characters, but he’s quick to make decisions and take action; he manages to be both an underdog and a leader. What was it about Adan that made him a good protagonist for you?

“There’s a lot of me in Adan. I never thought I’d be able to write a novel at all, let alone a good one but Founder’s Mercy is proof that I was wrong. Adan deals with that same lack of self-confidence and agency, but he’s also impulsive, like a lot of people his age. When he’s suddenly placed in a position where he can make a difference and his decisions matter, Adan finds that confidence he never knew was there. I think Adan grew out of all those times I found myself in a situation I wished I had the power to change things and the dreams of what I’d do if I could.”

How long has the story been with you? The plotting and world-building feel solid and well planned out. I felt very confident that I wasn’t going to bump on any oddities that would take me out of the story, like anachronistic dialogue or vague environments.

“I’m glad to hear you had that confidence in me. The desire to write a story like Founder’s Mercy has been with me for a long time, but the actual story came together pretty quickly. I’ve been a sci-fi and fantasy fan since I was a kid, and I’ve always played around with different scenarios in my head. So I approached the creative process like I did when I used to DM D&D campaigns back in the day. I created the world, settings, and details before writing the story. I made a lot of notes.”

You give Adan a lot of relationship dynamics in the book that keep evolving. One of the things I liked a”was that Adan and Bo’s friendship was clearly platonic, this wasn’t about Adan being in love with his best friend, but their love is real and strong, like siblings. Were you consciously trying to create healthy queer/straight relationships?

“As a queer person who doesn’t have the benefit of strong family relationships, I’m a firm believer in the importance of found family. It probably sounds corny, but I’m also a firm believer in the power of love. I love my partner, I love my friends, and some of the strongest love I’ve felt has been platonic love for my friends. It wasn’t something that I ever had as a teenager, so I gave it to Adan.”

Speaking of relationships that evolve, it’s clear Adan has mixed emotions about Commander Sala, at least initially. She’s a strong woman who effectively saves his life, but she also uses and discards people. Is it bad that I kinda like her?

“You should absolutely like Sala because she’s a fantastic character who had to use that charisma and her determination to achieve her goals. She’s not your typical, mustache-twirling villain. Nobody in the book is a two-dimensional character. The heroes have flaws, and the villains have their moments of grace. One of my favorite lines in the book is when Adan talks with Jenra about how he appreciates that Sala doesn’t pretend she’s not a villain. You’ve got to respect someone who knows themself that well, right?”

“I’ve always had a soft spot for strong, complicated characters like Sala. A couple of her inspirations were Noomi Rapace’s Lisbeth Salander and Cate Blanchett’s Hela. Both were very determined people who were perhaps a bit misunderstood, and both were willing to do whatever it took to achieve their goals.”

What interested you in the theme of technological collapse and the idea of society taking a step back to less advanced status quo? It reminded me of Chariot of the Gods, but if we, ourselves, were the advanced, god-like visitors.

“I’ve always been interested in dystopian fiction, but living in this day and age makes some of the dystopian tropes in books I’ve read seem a little dated and out of touch. So, I needed a setting that was plausible but far enough removed from today’s society to be possible. That’s where Neska comes in. From the colonists’ perspective, they’ve got this ideal garden world that’s a total blank slate. But then things go very wrong. The Bolvar Union is one group’s reaction to their circumstances, but people have been living on Neska for five centuries, so Adan will experience other examples too.”

The Bolvar Union is repressive but not necessarily evil, they seem very progressive with gender and sexuality. Was it important for you to make this world out of shades of grey rather than print things as very black and white?

“It was. I have to imagine a future where you can be queer or trans and it won’t matter. So that was my baseline. The colony was settled by people who didn’t bring some of today’s issues with them. So their reactions to their circumstances just wouldn’t include reverting to racism, sexism, or homophobia. Why would they, if they didn’t exist anymore? Their problem was disappearing technology and the scarcity of resources that came from that. It felt like one natural reaction would be to categorize people by something more practical, like talent and ability.”

YA fiction has been particularly receptive to queer stories, why do you think that is?

“The great part of writing for younger readers is knowing that they’re not going to get as bogged down in the heteronormative patriarchal traditions that older readers have come to expect. With Founder’s Mercy, I felt freer to combine and explore ideas that I don’t think would go over as well with an older audience. Like having an oppressive society that doesn’t marginalize people over race, gender, or sexuality; or having a future society where people don’t automatically assume someone’s gender based on their appearance. I read another sci-fi story last year like that, and I thought: Ooh, I want to do that!”

Tell us a little bit about yourself, where are you based? What makes up your media diet?

“I live in Seattle, Washington in the US. I watch a lot of different things. I love Drag Race and other creative competition shows like Project Runway and Great British Bake Off. I also watch a lot of sci-fi and fantasy shows, including anime and animated stuff. Some of my recent live action faves are Star Trek: Discovery, The Mandalorian, and Wheel of Time. I just watched Arcane for a second time – that show is so good! Right now, I’m finishing up the second season of DOTA: Dragon’s Blood. I like gaming. At the moment, I’m playing Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart. I really loved Ghost of Tsushima – I still have a soft spot for Jin. I’m also totally looking forward to Horizon: Forbidden West.”

What’s your background as a writer and what drove you to want to be a novelist?

“I’ve always loved writing. I’ve been journaling off and on forever. I love to create and tell stories. I’ve mainly worked in communications, writing ad copy, press releases, and blog posts, and worked as a freelance journalism. Before I started writing my first book, my prior experience writing fiction was screenplays and theater scripts. I finished a screenplay in early 2020 for a project that got totally derailed by the pandemic, but I knew I still had stories to tell. I pitched the idea for a queer, sci-fi YA novel, and it became Founder’s Mercy. As soon as I started writing it, I knew I was hooked. It was fun and I can’t wait to do it again!”

Which authors and novels have influenced your own writing?

“That’s a tough one to answer. I’m a big fan of Octavia Butler, Terry Pratchett, and N.K. Jemisin, but I’m such a visual writer so I’d have to say my biggest influences are Guillermo del Toro, Luc Besson, Sofia Coppola, and Marjane Satrapi. Each of those filmmakers wrote the script for one or more movies that really touched me.”

What’s your favourite piece of LGBTQ+ culture or a person who identifies as LGBTQ+; someone or something that’s had an impact on you and resonated with you over the years?

“When I was younger I watched the British movie Beautiful Thing and it had such a profound effect on me. The story felt so real to me, watching the struggles of two working-class young people reconcile both their sexuality and their feelings for one another.”

What can we expect from the second book in the series?

“There’s still a lot more of Neska for us to discover and explore, including the other major settlement, Port Abarra. Adan and his group have set themselves a pretty lofty goal to reach, trying to find and follow a 500-year-old trail, so Adan’s world is going to get a whole lot bigger.”

By Chad Armstrong

Founder’s Mercy is on sale now.

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