I have had the opportunity to work with many authors over the years of being Editor-in-Chief at Moon Books Publishing and doing freelance self publishing mentorship on Upwork but I’ve never run across someone as unique and uniquely talented as South African science fiction author Christina Engela. Christina is seemingly an unquenchable font of creativity and positivity who never ceases to amaze me with how much of her heart she puts into her work, or how invaluable of a partner she has become in running Moon Books Publishing. Christina is more than that though, she has become a close friend and cohort. So now, I get to interview her to see just what makes her tick.
Let’s find out what that is together.
Christina, I have long been a fan of your work! Thank you for this opportunity to interview you!
Brandon, the pleasure is all mine! Thank you for asking!
Let’s start off with an easy question, tell us about yourself and how you got started writing.
For the last 48 years I’ve been an inmate of the city of Port Elizabeth on the South East Coast of South Africa. It’s rather fondly called “P.E.” by its residents, and a few years ago a local radio D.J. was nearly lynched for referring to it as “the armpit of South Africa”! P.E. was twinned with Chicago because our city happens to be the center (hub, actually) of South Africa’s auto-industry — and it’s also known as “the windy city”, which could be why a lot of birds seem to be flying backwards around here. That said, it’s a place with an unhealthy obsession with apples and penguins — and its mascot is the Jack-ass penguin, which should give you some idea of what I have to deal with on a daily basis!
Quirky circumstances aside, as a child I played at the feet of my parents who were both writers as well. Dad wrote stories of the African veldt, and Mom wrote poetry in English and Afrikaans. I used to listen to Dad’s short stories that were dramatized on the radio. From the very beginning I wanted to be a writer like my parents! I remember as a toddler, before I learned to write, I used to write “stories” with a wax crayon!
As I got older, I quickly developed a reputation for writing good compositions at school, the only thing I needed to find was a genre I was interested in! That turned out out to be sci-fi — and in my final year of high school I created what was to be the first of my series. The years since have been a continuous process of refinement, growth and improvement.
Being a native of South Africa, do you have any insights based on where you live and were brought up that our readers would benefit from?
There’s an old saying here that goes “Africa is a tough country”, which (although not quite accurate since it’s a continent) implies that South Africans are tough people, and I totally agree. All the political nonsense and distractions (and there are many) aside, we’re not easily defeated by obstacles or hard times. We improvise, we innovate and we entrepreneur. We laugh in the face of danger and we make fun of our misfortune and hardship. Our outlook on life gives us strength and sees us through. We may have politicians who try to divide us with their party political nonsense, we may look different and have nine official languages and many more cultures, religions and creeds, but when it comes to the crunch, in general South Africans stand together — almost as if to piss off the naysayers! Mostly we’re cynical yet hopeful, faithful but not too gullible, and we like to call out bullshit when we recognize it.
I’ve always thought the reason why South Africans and Australians are so competitive with each other is because we recognize so much of each other as familiar. In terms of overall culture, I think we’re a lot alike!
While I do try to write characters and circumstances that could be familiar to readers from anywhere, I have to admit that I based a lot of the characters and locations in the Quantum Series on my local experiences! The most common setting — Atro City — is loosely based on my home city of Port Elizabeth. Both are coastal cities with smaller outlying towns, both have bays and rivers. Lupini Square is inspired by Market Square of Port Elizabeth, although they’re not really physically or visually alike! Both have harbors and both have very prominent tourist industries. Unlike PE, Atro City has a suspension bridge very reminiscent of Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco. The characters living on Deanna are the descendents of tough colonists who arrived on this new world and turned it into the thriving young Terran colony it became.
Society on Deanna is very diverse. Not only are there diverse Human residents who were born on Deanna and lived there all their lives, there are also Humans who’d moved there from other planets in the Terran Empire, not to mention the visitors there on business, the tourists, and the wanderers who simply hang around a while. Adding their distinctive flavor to the stewing pot, are the assorted aliens who have made Deanna their home too, living alongside the Humans. Fred the Arborian for example, who arrived on Deanna with Cindy-Mei Winter is a walking, talking potted plant with a talent for blending in — that’s when he’s not causing people to walk into things or closely examine the labes of whatever beverage they’re consuming — er, and for beating the you-know-what out of people who annoy him. The Ruminarii are represented by Mark who is an illegal alien being sheltered inside the Grauffis sisters basement, and the ubiquitous Jim’waians have small cafes and businesses all over town.
Like ordinary South Africans, Deannans are used to weird things happening; a bunch of warlike aliens landing at the spaceport to start their invasion and conquest of Deana — and instead of the people of Atro City fleeing in terror, the residents grab anything resembling a weapon on the way out the door and head over to meet them; the small moon called Ding that falls down occasionally and gets put back by the space tugs of the Tourism Office — this is taken as perfectly normal and all in a day’s work; Albrecht who runs his little Continental cafe on Lupini Square (which is really circular) and puts on a fake Italian accent because he thinks his customers like it, sells Hot Stuff Blend — the most dangerous coffee in the known universe and which is best drunk standing up; and a bunch of skinheads staging a coup and starting the Deannan Uncivil War, and ultimately getting their asses kicked, all fall into that category!
Your stories tend to have LGBT themes and characters in them, what is your background with LGBT?
Someone once advised me to write about things I know well, and the LGBT community is something I’m very familiar with because I’m part of it! I’m transgender and married to a wonderful woman I first met eleven years ago. After spending most of my life trying to fit in and struggling to accept and understand myself, I finally came out in 2000. After that, while dealing with my transition from living a male life, I quietly tried to mind my own business and simply dealt with the usual expected drama, rejection and bigotry from friends, family and co-workers. Over-all, things went fairly well — I kept my job, even though surprisingly, I was still in the army at the time! I suppose you could say that for a while, I was an inspiration to closeted LGBT members of the military at that time — at least, the ones who approached me said so!
I finalized my transition in January of 2010, and set about having the life I’d always longed for! I only became an activist for LGBTI civil rights in 2008, when a rising tide of homophobia raised its ugly head in journalism and the big mainstream LGBT advocacy bodies who claimed to represent the LGBT community at that time, remained completely silent. I got involved with a bunch of independent activists from around the country, and we formed a new activist group called SA GLAAD (SA Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation). At around the same time, I also joined a local LGBT association in Port Elizabeth, the Eastern Cape Gay & Lesbian Association (ECGLA) in February 2009. Working together, we led the fight for LGBT equality in South Africa for quite a few years after that. I retired from ECGLA in late 2011 after bringing the first ever Pride to my city, on a high point. I’d spent the last 5 years attending meetings several nights a week and managing two organizations — and in that time I’d achieved a lot that I was proud of, but I’d also neglected my personal life — and my writing. I’ve been focusing on my writing again since then, and I retired completely from organized activism in 2018. Sad to say, ECGLA and SA GLAAD are no more, both faded out shortly after my departure.
You have been in the military. What was that like?
Yes, I’ve been working for the military since 1992. It didn’t start out as voluntary, back in the early 1990s South Africa still had conscription, so I was essentially forced into it right after high school.
Being confused about who I was as a teen (I was still 18 when I arrived at basic training) the army was initially a traumatic experience for me. I had come from a career police, teaching and military family, so I was under a lot of pressure to not only “make the best of it”, but also to excel. I was honest when answering the question forms we were all given, and as it turned out, a bit too honest! I had a pretty hard time at the hands of my squad mates and instructors, not only because I was an English-speaker (a “rooinek”) but also because I was confused about my sexuality and identified as gay at the time — which painted a huge target on my back. I persevered though, and after basic, was transferred to a large base in my home town. During my year’s national service I did very well — I was sent on two courses, and later also promoted to lance-corporal. I was promoted again in 1994, to Corporal.
Although I intensely disliked army life at first, I learned a lot from the experience! For the first time I was away from home, essentially on my own, and able to get an idea of who I was inside. Unfortunately, the military had ways of forcing their own rigid definitions and limitations down on me, smothering that newfound hope of expressing myself. It was ultimately an exercise in growth and development!
I couldn’t wait for my year in servitude to end though, but the economy in South Africa was deteriorating even as far back as 1992. None of my school friends who were also in the army at that time seemed to have any prospects for employment after the army, and following my mother’s advice, I decided to apply to stay on for a short term contract. Fortunately I was seen as a hard, precise worker (who was very good at translating Afrikaans and English) and easily found support. I’d started out in the Ordinance Services Corps (OSC) which is essentially a logistic environment. Later on I transferred into the Signals environment.
In 1999, shortly before my coming out, I got my A+ through Comptia and became a computer and LAN support technician. Economically things didn’t change for the better, and so I basically stayed on, renewing contracts as required. As things stand, I’ve been glad I did. Let it not be said that I don’t have staying power! In 2009, some three years after completing my transition, I demilitarized and accepted a civilian post. The fact that I spent a good number of years presenting courses to teach adults to use a computer for the very first time, proves that I have patience!
I’ve learned a lot from my thirty years of exposure to a diverse military environment, one that’s changed dramatically in a lot of ways — and it’s given me so much story material to draw on! Lots and lots of things have happened to and around me over the years — across the spectrum of human emotion — and it all serves to enrich my writing when it comes to describing a character, or their experiences, or mannerisms — anecdotes and so on!
Your DIY projects are amazing. Tell us about how you got started doing crafty projects.
Thank you! Well, I’ve always loved making things with my hands! I also look at it as a challenge — how can I best solve this need or shortcoming? Besides, I needed to save money rather than hiring people to do things for me that I figured I could do myself! It started years ago, in my early twenties, when I started tinkering on cars — my mom’s old Golf and my first Beetle! Then there were the odd shelves that needed putting up… then I had to make the shelves first before putting them up and so on. It sort of just became an interest from there.
I only started recording what I did with my phone when that sort of tech became available, and only later thought “well, what if I shared these on a blog?” So I created my “Innovation DIY” blog, and for about a year a local paper featured my articles in a weekend column “DIY On A Dime”. The rest as they say, is history!
You are a very prolific writer, not only releasing books but doing blog posts. What drives you to write so much and where can people read the various blog posts that you write?
Terry Pratchett once said that writing is the most fun anyone could have by themselves, and I really resonate with that! Back in the day though — when I really started seriously writing — it was the mid 1980’s. I was still in high school and PC’s were still in their infancy.
I used to do it old-school, with paper and a pen, and writer’s cramp and little callouses from tightly clutching my pen was an everyday occurrence! Once I’d written a first draft by hand, I would then rewrite the entire manuscript again in a second draft, improving or editing it as I went along… sometimes my mother, who worked as a typist, would type the final version for me on an electronic typewriter!
Writing on a PC is so much better now, and faster — and it makes writing and editing far less of a physical burden! I only got my first real useful computer in about 1999, and even then I only started to write my books digitally in 2003, when I retyped my existing manuscripts over in Word! In 2005 I saw firsthand just how much better working on a PC was, when I wrote the first drafts of three stories in just three months!
I write whenever I have the time and energy to, and I have to say it’s always been more than a hobby, it’s been something of a compulsion — to the point where I even feel guilty if I don’t write! The trouble is, I often work myself to the point of exhaustion, and then I have to rest a while to recover my strength and inspiration.
My blogging came about originally when I started putting out my thoughts about LGBTI persecution. “Sour Grapes: The Fruit Of Ignorance”, a Blogspot blog, came about in 2009 and there are 509 posts on there from 2009 until recently. A lot of those articles still get regular views, with many also reshared by other advocacy blogs and organizations over the years, such as “SexGenderBody” and Wayne Besen’s “Truth Wins Out”.
I also have a couple of other blog sites for different topics, such as “Innovation D.I.Y.” (https://innovationdiy.christinaengela.com/) where I share my DIY articles, and “Our Ghost Encounters” (https://www.ourghostencounters.christinaengela.com/) where my wife Wendy and I record our personal paranormal experiences in journal format. Like many authors I’ve also got an author website which also has a blog where I share my latest news and releases and so on! It’s a different sort of writing, and the challenge there is to make it look interesting to the sort of people who might be your audience as a writer of fiction — and the last thing I want to do is bore anyone to death!
What are you currently working on?
I often work on more than one project at once! Last week I finished the first draft version of “Sentinel”, the fourth book in the Galaxii Series, and now I’m working on a few other things simultaneously; “The Song Of The Drillipede” which is part of a larger work, and “Underground Movement”, book 7 in the Quantum Series.
What would you like to work on in the future?
I still have a lot of stories in various stages of completion to finish! The current story-arc of the Quantum Series for example is right in the middle of the Deannan Uncivil War, and could take another three or four books before that matter is settled… then in Galaxii there are another two books waiting. That’s just how things stand for the foreseeable future, but after those are finished, I’d like to do some more stories in Panic! Horror In Space — I just had so much fun writing those! As you know I mainly write sci-fi, but I also have a fantasy novel part-way written, and then there’s another two I worked on while I was just out of high school that I need to completely rewrite!
With all the new audiobooks coming out for your Quantum series, I’d love to know what your inspiration for that series was!
That’s actually a very difficult question to answer — there wasn’t really a single inspiration for the series, but more like several. The first started out as a section of what was supposed to be a short story I started back in 1994 — the original part of what would eventually become the first book, “Black Sunrise”, the scene where I introduce Cindy-Mei and Fred. I can also confirm that it’s true that the inspiration for the planet Deanna and it’s two mad little moons came from the lyrics of the song “ramalama ding dong”! I also have a pretty warped and often dark sense of humor!
The awesome thing about Quantum’s setting, is that as a planet with the reputation for being the center of the galaxy as far as weirdness is concerned, almost anything could happen — while being almost entirely believable!
And finally, what are some places people can find you and your works online?
My author website & blog — https://christinaengela.com/
My Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/ChristinaEngelaAuthor
Moon Books: https://moonbooks.net/authors/christina-engela/
Barnes & Noble: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/s/christina+engela?_requestid=2972541