An Interview with Essa Hansen

Nophek Gloss

Essa Hansen, whose debut novel Nophek Gloss, a science fiction space opera and the first novel in her The Graven series, debuts at the end of 2020, and is already making many reviewers “best of 2020” lists. We got the great opportunity to chat with her about writing, Nophek Gloss, Falconry, and sound design at Skywalker Sound.

GDM: First off, tell me a little about yourself. You have one of the coolest jobs out there, aside from being a writer, by working with Skywalker Sound. You also have one of the coolest hobbies, being a falconer. How did you end up working for Skywalker Sound, and how did you start working with falcons?

essa hansenI stumbled on sound design while trying to figure out how to mesh too many interests into one career: storytelling, composing music, psychoacoustics, linguistics, cognitive sciences, and…a lot more. I loved science but still gravitated toward the arts more than academia. Sound for film seemed like the perfect blend of technical and artistic, plus storytelling. I attended an intense 12-month program at the Vancouver Film School, learning all things audio, and was snatched up by Skywalker Sound out of graduation. I’ve been there ever since—almost twelve years now!

I always thought falconry was so cool, and as a kid I had a brief experience rehabilitating a young grounded Cooper’s Hawk, but I didn’t have the resources to pursue it until years later. In California, a falconry license requires a two-year apprenticeship among other hurdles, but once I got started, I found an awesome community of fellow bird nerds. I’d love to get back into falconry and hunting soon, but it’s an art/sport that takes a great deal of time and attention. With an animal involved, you can’t just set things aside when you get too busy!

GDM: You work in two creative fields simultaneously, one as a sound engineer and a writer. Are their aspects of the creative creation process that overlap, and are their parts that are very different creatively

Both fields focus on story, immersion, and sensory information. Sound editing can be treated like language or music, sounds strung together like words into syntax that conveys meaning and emotion. I spend a lot of time rearranging sounds, moving them in time, and layering them, just like I would with word choices, phrasing, or ordering in writing.

The technical execution of this creativity is very different—not just the software and hardware, but the process. Writing might be dynamic but it all happens very contained with a few pieces of software (I use Scrivener). With sound design, I’m all over the place. I might be out in the field with recording equipment collecting raw sounds, or at my workstation with plugins turning those sounds into weird things, or at a mixing console blending a scene together. Both jobs feel equally dynamic to me, but in different ways.

GDM: When you were writing Nophek Gloss as part of the world-building, did you start matching sounds to characters, ships, and places? Do you have an idea what a Nophek sounds like?

I definitely have sounds in my head for specific things, like the nophek, but they came up organically rather than through conscious world-building. It can be helpful to tag particular sounds or colors to something to make it recognizable, such as the Azura’s singing when she flies, or the blue masks of the Casthen—those were definitely intentional. I think even when I’m not describing a sound specifically, I tend to use sound-related words to describe visuals, feel, or motion–that’s just a reflex of my film sound design brain! 

GDM: Having talked to you a bit and read up on your interests, you seem like someone steeped in science fiction. Your novel Nophek Gloss reads like a love letter to all the science fiction lovers out there, myself included. What parts of the science fiction genre do you love? What aspects of it do you gravitate towards?

As will be no surprise, I love the new frontiers! I love science fiction ideas that stretch my understanding or that make me think critically about my own nature and the cosmos I live in. Most often, these stories are set in universes different than our own, but I also love when weirdness is shown on Earth and comments on the limitations of our understanding of what is “natural” or known.

Funny enough, I read more fantasy than science fiction in my younger years, but all of my studies during that same time were in sciences and technical fields. I think this is what ended up making my fiction feel a bit unusual in the genre while still appealing firmly to genre fans. It’s steeped in the same loves but isn’t emerging from the usual classic source material.

Nophek Gloss