I’ve had the pleasure of reviewing two projects by Nicholas Conley, so I jumped at the chance to pick his brain about his latest novel. Intraterrestrial was a wild ride, and you can find my review of it here.
Adam Helios is a bully magnet without many friends. When he starts hearing a voice that claims to come from the stars, he fears he’s losing his mind, so he withdraws even further. On the way home from a meeting at the school, he and his parents are involved in a horrible car crash. With his skull cracked open, Adam’s consciousness is abducted by the alien who has been speaking to him for months.
After surviving the wreck with only minor scratches, Camille Helios must deal with her guilt over the accident that left her husband badly injured and her son in a coma. When the doctor suggests letting Adam go, Camille refuses to stop fighting for her son’s life.
Lost among galaxies, Adam must use his imagination to forge a path home before his body dies on the operating table. But even if he does return to Earth, he may end up locked inside a damaged brain forever.
The premise of this book revolves around traumatic brain injury (TBI). Can you tell us about your interest in this topic?
So as with my previous novel, Pale Highway, the inspiration for this book came from my years of working in the long-term care unit of a nursing and rehabilitation home, where I cared for people with many health conditions. When I started writing Intraterrestrial, probably my biggest goal was to always make sure that the main character — Adam — is in the driver’s seat from start to finish: he’s always the central protagonist, never just a supporting character in his own story. It was extremely important, I think, to show that Adam’s TBI doesn’t make him into a plot device. Both before and after the accident, he’s a real person, with the same sorts of hopes, dreams, fears, thoughts, and feelings of anyone else.
I also wanted to explore the painful family dynamics that are caused by accidents like this one, which I saw all too often when I was working in that field. When a kid gets thrust into the medical system, their parents have to be intimately involved in every step of the process, and those parents have an insane amount of pressure (and expectations) placed on their every decision. There are no easy answers, I think, so I felt like it was important to look deeply into the pained humanity behind every person in this narrative — Adam, his parents, the medical professionals — to see each person honestly, openly, as human beings instead of caricatures.
It’s obvious that a lot of medical research went into this novel. What’s the coolest thing you learned that may or may not have made it into the finished product?
Honestly, it always blows me away just how mindblowingly complex the human brain is. So much of who we are, how we make decisions, what we’re good or bad at… it’s all housed in this one little place, and that’s just amazing to me. I feel like I could write a million books about different aspects of how the brain functions!
What were some of your inspirations for the vivid imagery of Adam’s journey in this novel?
Well, since the core idea of the “aliens” is that they aren’t sensory beings, and thus Adam’s imagination is “drawing” shapes of them for his mind to perceive, the first thing I wanted to do was tap into the mind of this 13-year-old kid, and figure out what sort of images his subconscious would create. Where is Adam getting his ideas? How would he interpret aliens?
I didn’t think Adam would imagine them as little green men. Kids are way more creative than that, you know? But what would Adam see, feel, and experience? The answer, naturally, came from his interests. Adam is a kid who loves researching outer space, so things like supernovas, rings, planets, and so on are extremely important to him, even when the back of his mind reimagines them in more magical forms. Adam’s also a comic book geek, so I figured his interpretation of the aliens would be seen through the lens of someone who reads Marvel comics, and thus sees the world in terms of good and evil, bright and dark, et cetera.
So when Adam encounters “good” aliens, like the Optimist, he sees them as superheroes — because as a kid who reads comics, that’s how he perceives the idea of virtue. With the “bad” aliens, on the other hand, I tried to draw upon the subconscious fears of a preteen boy, who is just getting old enough for pessimistic fears about adulthood to creep into his nightmares.
Not a lot of “strong female characters” get to be strong because they are mothers. Was Camille inspired by any fictional mothers?
I have to admit, Camille is probably my favorite character in the novel. Honestly, I admire her. Sure, she’s rough around the edges, but she’s also exactly the sort of person you’d want defending you in an emergency situation: she’s a living force of nature, thrust forward by an undying love for her family, and a willingness to break down any wall that stands in her way. She never gives up, will always protect someone she cares about, even when the weight of the world is against her.
While I wouldn’t say anyone directly inspired Camille, the qualities that I admire about her are the same qualities I admire about real-life parents who experience these same sorts of painful situations. Having your child go through a catastrophic accident is a heavy weight to bear, and it’s made even harder because people have so many expectations about what you’re supposed to do, how you’re supposed to talk, who you’re supposed to be. A person in Camille’s position has to be constantly on guard, always ready to defend their child, but also knowing when to somehow relax. It’s hard. Unbelievably hard. And people who’ve been through that — or are going through it now — deserve an immense amount of respect and compassion.
What projects are you working on now?
Right now, my big focus is on Intraterrestrial. That said, there is another novel I’ve been working on for a few years, on and off, which I’m excited to get back to work on at some point. I’ve also considered the idea of putting out a novella/novelette sometime before my next book, as I did with Clay Tongue. There are a few other projects floating around as well, in various stages. I stay busy!
And finally, leave us with a short excerpt that shows why people should read Intraterrestrial!
The boy in the bathroom mirror had a purple shiner for a left eye,and oddly enough, the boy was him.
Adam Helios couldn’t believe it. He’d made it to thirteen years, never having been in a fight before. Sure, he’d talked back when other kids teased him badly enough, but that was all for show. The second that hands balled into fists, he always made excuses and ran to the bus, the next class, or somewhere safe.He was too scrawny to get into fights even though he might as well have had a target painted on his forehead: he was a glasses-wearing bookworm, a science nerd with a soft voice, a foreign kid in a milk-white small town. Fate seemed to have decided that he should be the world’s most obvious bully magnet, so he dodged trouble at every opportunity.
Not anymore. Adam was standing on shaky legs in the Ottanga Junior High bathroom. Just two weeks before, in that same spot, he’d been spat at, pushed around, and teased to the point of tears. He straightened his back, trying to look tough for himself, but he still shivered at the messy puddle of emotions inside him.
The new Adam who was looking back at him from the mirror was a stranger. Part of him liked that. The old Adam, the Adam he recognized, was a loser.At the same time, though, his stomach churned at the thought of his parents sitting there in Principal Hamer’s office at that very moment, fighting over him.
He ran cold water over his face, burning his bruised eye and feeling the dampness soak into his sweaty pores.He wasn’t ready to go back to the principal’s office. He’d fled from there because of a pit of guilt in his stomach, pretending he needed a bathroom break, scurrying down hallways that had emptied hours before, and finding solitude. However, fear rather than guilt made him stay—fear of the mysterious twitching inside his brain, a damp light behind his eyes that he didn’t understand.
The Star Voice had spoken to him again.His ears were still ringing. Adam looked into the reflection of his eyes, and the trembling cadence of the Star Voice sent chills down his spine.
“Don’t be afraid,” the Star Voice said. “The transition will be pain, and then the next stage shall begin.”