What do you get when you mix spaceships, pirates, and a healthy dose of livestock? Today we’re going to find out as we talk to Ethan Freckleton and J.R. Frontera, authors of the hilarious Starship Ass series.
The first book, Starship Ass: Of Donkeys, Gods, and Space Pirates, kicks off the unlikely chronicles of inseparable companions, Harry and Buddy. No, but seriously, Harry and Buddy are literally inseparable. You see, Buddy is a run-of-the-mill donkey, and Harry is a symbiotic alien tick burrowed into his spinal cord and driving him like a puppet.
And if that sounds like your brand of insanity, you are going to love this book. Let’s scan Ethan and J.R. into the Author Interview Airlock.
|Area of Existence:|
|Bellingham, Washington, USA|
|Favorite Sci-Fi Book:|
|Foundation by Isaac Asimov (How dare you ask for just one?)|
|Favorite Sci-Fi Movie/TV:|
|Star Wars. No, E.T. No, Explorers. No, Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan. No, The Matrix. No, District 9. No, argh!|
|Animal you would most like to inhabit as a symbiotic life form:|
|Whale (Hmm, but which? The Sperm whale has the biggest brain, but the Blue whale has the biggest *#$#@. And yet the Beaked whale can dive the deepest… Hrm.)|
|Area of Existence:|
|Oak Grove, Missouri, USA|
|Favorite Sci-Fi Book:|
|WOW that is difficult. Going with what came to mind first, which is Dune by Frank Herbert … but that could just be because we are currently rewatching the Dune mini-series right now… still, I’ll just go with it! (I agree with Ethan, how DARE you ask for just one?)|
|Favorite Sci-Fi Movie/TV:|
|Star Wars, for sure (Original trilogy, of course). As for favorite sci-fi TV show, that’s more difficult. Firefly? Stargate: SG-1? Dark Matter? All fantastic!|
|Animal you would most like to inhabit as a symbiotic life form:|
|As a little girl I always dreamed of becoming a horse. Then when I got older I realized that would actually really suck to be a horse. But maybe it wouldn’t suck to be a unicorn… maybe I should be a unicorn, instead!|
Marcus: I have to admit, the first time I saw the cover for Starship Ass, I snorted hot tea out my nose. What was the inspiration for this story?
Ethan Freckleton: Ouch, really? Well let me tell you, cause this story is just about as hot as your tea. As oft happens, one morning I was taking a shower…
J.R. and I met at a writer’s conference in late 2017, where we heard a presentation by sci-fi author M.D. Cooper on Facebook Ads for Authors. Cooper shared that her best-performing ad of all-time was the looming backside of a spaceship. “Starship ass” was her term for it.
Now, back to that shower… For some reason, a couple months after the conference, a blurb for Starship Ass locked into place. I shared it, as a joke, on the conference Facebook page. The rest I blame on J.R..
J.R. Frontera: Well, that will teach you to be putting out “joke blurbs,” won’t it? Haha!
Yes, so… Ethan put out the blurb, apparently as a joke, although he did not actually say in the post that it was meant as just a joke. He put it out as, “Hey I got this idea, here’s the blurb! Hahaha isn’t it ridiculous?”
I kind of knew him, since we had met at the 20Books Vegas conference, and when I read the blurb, I immediately wanted to read the book it belonged to. Like, it was a “I must have this and read this” reaction.
So I commented on Ethan’s post that he should absolutely write that book because I really wanted to read it. (And we all know the Universe revolves around me, so obviously that one comment would convince him to write the thing!) To which he replied that he’d write it… if I co-wrote it with him.
Apparently this was his plan to not have to write the book, as he figured I would decline the offer and that would be that.
J.R.: Unfortunately for Ethan, his plan spectacularly backfired when I said, “Sure!” And, well, the rest is history!
Starting off as practically strangers, what was your collaborative process like as co-writers? How did you share the creative process and the work that goes with it?
Ethan: Once we decided we were going to do this thing, we were still busy with other projects. So we gave ourselves several months to gather notes and kick ideas back and forth. By the time we got around to outlining the first book, we had character profiles for pretty much the entire cast. We even gave them all emotional wounds and their own secrets.
When we got down to writing, we’d take turns; J.R. would write a day, then I’d write, back and forth on Google Docs. I also took ownership of the overall outline as it developed, which meant keeping updated notes for J.R. so that she knew where the story was going next, especially when we started to deviate from the original plan.
J.R.: A lot of times, when I tell other authors how we wrote this book, they look at me like I’m crazy. I guess they figure it would be difficult to just pick up where another writer left off and continue the story for a few pages, only to drop it for a day or two and then come back to it in a whole new spot again, and end up with a cohesive whole when it’s all over with. But it was actually a really fun way to do it, and it worked really well for us.
I think having so much time to prep and plan before we actually started writing helped a lot. Ethan and I were absolutely on the same page by that point, and we could very seamlessly continue on where the other left off. We’d also lightly edit each other’s pages before resuming our part of the writing again, so I also think that helped to kind of mesh our writing styles together so it was indistinguishable who wrote which part.
And, since the series was Ethan’s brainchild, I let him start off the first book to set the tone, and then I followed from there and endeavored to match that tone. I’ve had a decade’s worth of practice writing fanfiction… so I’m pretty good at matching already established story tones, lol.
In fact, the tone is one of the things I like most about the Starship Ass universe. We live a world where comedy is often cynical, but these books are so positive and sincere. Even though it’s a story about space pirates, the characters are all warm and likable, especially Harry, who is so innocent and endlessly optimistic.
Ethan: Thank you for saying so!
J.R.: That’s actually one of my favorite things about that series as well!
Ethan: Though I can assure you that it’s no thanks to J.R.
Ethan: She has a vicious trigger-finger when it comes to the written word.
J.R.: … Okay, yeah, actually that’s true.
Ethan: I think we always knew that Harry would have a bit in common with Donkey from Shrek, although if possible, I think Harry turned out the more sweet of the two. Maybe he’s just more considerate.
J.R.: To be honest, I don’t think we really ever discussed the tone of the series directly. As we developed the characters and story arcs, it just became apparent this series would be much more light-hearted than my standard fare.
There were a few instances here and there it could have gone darker, and I do believe I tried to take it that way a time or two (Seems I can’t help myself, it’s like a magnetic pull or something…. yikes!) but Ethan would always steer things back toward the fun romp this series was really supposed to be, haha.
It was a nice break for me, though, to do something fun and silly for once. Like a palate cleanser, almost. And I also think it really helped me not take myself so seriously as an author, which, interestingly enough, seemed to open the floodgates for all the projects that came after.
Let’s talk about those other projects. Most of the books on your author page look more serious than this sci-fi comedy romp. J.R., would it be safe to say your Legacy of Lucky Logan series skews darker than Starship Ass?
J.R.: Oh boy. Yes. So The Legacy of Lucky Logan series is a bit darker than the Starship Ass series. …. Okay so it’s a lot darker than the Starship Ass series.
Overall it’s just quite a bit different and explores some rather dark concepts. I meant for the Lucky Logan series to get fairly dark from the beginning, whereas, of course, we had the opposite intent for Harry and company. I suppose they are similar though in that I allowed myself to just entirely have fun with both of them.
For Starship Ass, I was having fun writing an absolutely ridiculous storyline with a naive talking donkey and I think one of my favorite bad guys I’ve ever written in Hawke, just because he’s so clueless, he was a blast to write. And with the Lucky Logan series, I packed almost all of my favorite story tropes into one book… and then put all the rest that wouldn’t fit into book one into the subsequent books.
As I mentioned before, the Starship Ass series helped me stop taking myself so seriously as an author. So when I started the Lucky Logan series, I didn’t worry about it being some kind of literary masterpiece or having any kind of deep message (which I had been doing with previous WIPs, and is probably also why I hadn’t yet published a full-length novel). I just wrote it to have fun. I wrote it purely and absolutely for ME, with no thoughts of other readers for it at all. As a result, I do believe it’s a better novel than any I’d written up to that point, and it was certainly MUCH easier and MUCH more fun to write as well (and, you know, bonus… I actually finished and published it).
Now that I’m into that series, I can see a theme emerging, sure… but I think it really helped to not have that weight bogging it all down from the beginning.
Same question for you, Ethan. How dark is your upcoming Banhammer Chronicles series compared to Starship Ass?
Ethan: This is a tough one to answer. Since COVID-19, I’ve been struggling to get into the character and have kind of hit a brick wall motivating to get the first full novel done. The inspiration isn’t SO much darker. Similar to Starship Ass, the premise started as an indie author in-joke.
For a spell of time, our peers started getting smacked down with the Amazon “ban hammer,” deleting author accounts wholesale for violating terms of service. That included a very high-profile LitRPG author. There’s more to it, but once I had the vision for a book cover and a title, I really wanted to write it.
By the way, coming up with series based on in-jokes for a small community is a bad business model and I don’t recommend it at all!
Speaking of in-jokes, the Starship Ass books have a ton of Star Trek references. Which version of Star Trek you consider to be the best?
Ethan: Best to watch or best to satirize? If the latter: all of them! We definitely land right in the middle of The Next Generation and Deep Space: Nine. If you read our books, it won’t take you long to figure that out.
J.R.: I thought it was pretty funny that the Star Trek Ethan thought would fit best for this series [Deep Space Nine] was the ONE Star Trek I’d never seen! Hah! But I managed, through some quick Google researching, to understand it well enough for our purposes, I think.
I’d also watched ALL of the original series and ALL of The Next Generation and most of Voyager, plus more recently there was Picard and Discovery, so I had pretty good knowledge of all the good Trek stuff we could satirize, and it was lots of fun! My personal favorite of all I’ve watched though still has to be The Next Generation. But Voyager has a special place in my heart as well, since that’s the one I’d watch as a kid at my grandparents’ lake house, so there’s lots of great memories associated with it!
In the Starship Ass series, the protagonist is a symbiotic tick who lives inside the host body of a donkey—the titular ass. (And my twelve-year-old self thanks you for giving me a legitimate opportunity to use that phrase.)
I’m no ungulate expert, but it seems you two went pretty far down the biological rabbit hole when it came to Harry’s host and his unique health issues. Especially in book two, there’s a very specific and unique turn. How did that come about?
J.R.: Unfortunately… from real life! When I read over the scene Ethan had written about Buddy eating a bunch of pizza at a starship gas station, being somewhat of a horse expert myself, my first thought was, “Oh no. That can’t be good for the donkey host at all!” So I did some quick research on donkey digestive systems compared to horses and found donkeys are actually more prone to an ailment called laminitis than horses are, even, if their diet isn’t properly maintained.
At the time, this was forefront of my mind because one of our horses was actually going through a really bad bout of laminitis, and although my mom spent a lot of money trying to save her, ultimately she had to be put down. I mentioned to Ethan that Buddy would probably suffer some consequences from the pizza and Slurpee eating, and Ethan suggested we just go ahead and work that into the plot. Which we did, and I think it really ended up working well!
What do you think is the best thing about writing sci-fi comedy? What advice do you have for writers who want to get started in the genre?
Ethan: Oh, it’s such fun to write (and come up with titles for). And where else can you get away with doing your own book covers like we did? A word of warning – comedy sci-fi may have singular heroes we all know, but that’s quite possibly because it’s much easier to mess up than straight sci-fi. Or it really is that niche.
Amazon has a “humorous science fiction” category on its store, but you’re lucky if one-in-ten of those is actually a comedy. And it turns out that military sci-fi readers don’t have much of a sense of humor… or maybe it’s because we’re making fun of them! I’m not sure. Either way, our readers are quirky people with unique personalities and awesome taste!
J.R.: I think the best thing about writing comedy sci-fi is just the fact that you don’t have to worry so much about every little thing. You can get away with more “handwavium” as they say. There’s less stress about getting the science right, and less focus on the science overall, really. In fact, you can even poke fun at the “science” in sci-fi with sci-fi comedy, and poke fun at a lot of the tropes, which is what we did, and we had great fun with it.
As far as advice… boy, that’s a hard one. I feel like to give advice, I’d have to actually know what I was doing when it came to comedy sci-fi, haha. I’d never actually written humor before, but for me personally, the scenes I found the most funny were those that were influenced by real life events. For example, the crew stops at a starship gas station, and the pump asks them a million questions before they can finally fuel up. And the endless ads were fun to come up with. I think a lot of good humor relies on drawing from real life. So I guess my advice would be… always be looking for the humor in your life… you’ll get some good material!