Welcome to October, everyone!
How’s it treating you so far?
Today’s guest on the Monday Morning Author Interview is Courtney Hunter. Her debut novel, Sentience, is a fascinating exploration into just what it means to be human for both machine- and flesh-based consciousnesses. Let’s talk to her!
When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?
I’ve always told stories and created characters in my head to entertain myself since I was a kid – during car rides, long baths, or stretches of boredom. It took me until I was around twenty-three to realize that I had a well-developed lineup of characters and story lines from all the years spent thinking.
At the same time, I’ve also been a dancer for the majority of my life, so I’ve found that there’s lots of story-telling within dance, too. At twenty-three, I choreographed the piece that inspired the novel. When I was done, I felt like the world I created on the stage was the perfect backdrop to the characters and storylines rattling around in my head. I put the two together and that’s how my first book, Sentience, got started.
I didn’t grow up knowing I wanted to be a writer; it more so just felt like the next step in my evolution as a creator. Now that I have my first novel under my belt, I am itching to write another. I spent so much time working on Sentience without realizing it, so this time around, I’m just drawing a lot of inspiration from personal experience. This way my writing feels just as authentic, even though I didn’t spend years subconsciously creating the characters.
What is your work schedule like when you’re writing?
It’s a bit chaotic right now. I still work full-time in retail buying, which I like to think is a form of story-telling in its own right. I’ve been working virtually for the last nine months, so I’ve had to be strategic about how I approach writing. Otherwise, it can get really tough trying to write after a full workday of staring at a computer. Lately, I’ve been trying to get to bed earlier so that I can write while still fresh in the morning. I’m also trying to write more often in shorter bursts to minimize the length of being in front of a computer during the same sitting.
What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?
Definitely my dance background. Since I am a dancer, there’s a distinct physicality in my writing. It lends well to my debut novel Sentience, as it is an adventurous sci-fi novel. I learned to emote physically through dance, and instinctually, I made my characters do the same. It took me a while to make this connection, but now I think it’s a unique quirk that makes my style fast-paced and gritty!
What does your family think of your writing?
I think at this point in my life they are always expecting me to be working on some new, large scale creative project. Since I was a lifelong dancer, choreographing my own pieces was a logical jump. However, when I first started mentioning the novel, there was a bit of skepticism. Now that it’s done and I’m talking about more novels, screenplays, and graduate school, it’s just become my norm. My fiancé is especially supportive. He lets me and my ideas run wild. I’m grateful for that.
Do you hear from your readers much? What kinds of things do they say?
I do, and it’s the best thing ever.
Honestly, every step in this process has blown my mind with the level of responsiveness I have received. I’ve had over 4,000 copies of my book acquired by readers, and as a first-time author that isn’t from a traditional writing background, I have very little frame of reference for where that stacks up to other self-published authors. Personally, that level of reach far exceeded my own expectations, and really anything I hear from readers makes me thrilled. I’m still caught up in feeling surreal that anyone has even read it.
I’ve chatted with a book club that read my book, and that was probably my favorite experience. Everyone was so into it and thoughtful about it. I was just blown away that anyone read it THAT thoroughly. I would truly love to do more book clubs like that.
Mostly, the feedback is positive. This also blows my mind. I expected critics to be far harsher as this was my first novel. Sentience gets a lot of comps to movies and television. I think this comes from the physicality that I mentioned before. Something about it reads like TV.
My biggest criticism is the number of characters in the story. Some say it’s hard to follow at first, and I think that’s a fair call out. That being said, I still don’t think I would change it even if I could.
As a child, what did you want to do when you grew up?
Actor. 100%. I still do.
In my warped brain, while I was writing my manuscript, I kept thinking what if this becomes a movie and they can’t find anyone to play the protagonist except for me.
I wish I was kidding with that sentence. I’m not. Eventually, when it’s safe, I am going to take acting classes.
What is the first book that made you cry?
I can’t even think of one. I NEVER cry at books and movies. In fact, I refuse to watch most Disney Pixar movies because I hate crying during them, and they always make me sad.
Do you try more to be original or to deliver to readers what they want?
Sentience is my first novel, but I think I deliver original content. Mostly, I think this because I write for me. I write what I want to read. Some would probably advise against this, but my next novel isn’t going to be in the science fiction genre. I have to go where my inspiration leads me for it to be fun for me, which is the most important part in all of this.
What other authors are you friends with, and how do they help you become a better writer?
I don’t have many author friends! I’m a first time, self-published author. I would love more author friends. If you’d like to be my author friend, follow me on Instagram @courtneypatriciahunter!
If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?
Breaks are okay. Be nice to yourself.
What was the best money you ever spent as a writer?
My editor. I am a creative writer, not a technical writer. Trying to punish myself into being the latter was not a good strategy. My book is better because of the money I spent to have someone edit it properly.
What’s your favorite under-appreciated novel?
Under-appreciated? Probably Ultraluminous by Katherine Faw. I found it in a random bookstore in Woodstock, NY while passing through. My friend picked it up and said to me, “You have to read this. It sounds like you made up the concept. Had I not went into that store, I’m not sure I would have ever found it.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a new novel that’s a mix between crime, thriller, and family drama. Right now, I like comparing it to Liz Moore’s Long Bright River meets Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects. It’s different than science fiction, but that’s just where my head is at right now.
What do you have coming soon?
I’m planning to go to graduate school for writing, hopefully screenwriting. I want to write movies one day!
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
Yes – I would love to share the synopsis of my debut novel, Sentience.
Running from a violent past, Leo Knox desperately decides to participate in a scientific experiment conducted by the infamous and greedy tech-giant, AlgorithmOS. Soon, Leo learns that she has agreed to take part in a Turing Test, a test that measures the ability of artificial intelligence to blend in among humanity, but what she doesn’t know is that the test set to take place is unlike any other of its kind.
Leo enters Eden, the contained preserve where the test will occur, with twenty-three others. While everyone appears to be human, four of the individuals are an indistinguishably advanced form of humanoid AI. The task is simple: identify the AI while trying to survive. The twist? The four AI are completely unaware of their nature, causing every participant to question what they know as reality.
The group embarks on a journey within the preserve, rigged with obstacles devised by the controllers of the experiment to elicit human response and emotion. Quickly, madness ensues and divides form, partnering Leo up with Avery Ford, a Marine who wears his demons on his sleeve. Romance falls together for the two as the world around them falls apart, revealing the lengths people will go to protect those they love, to achieve monetary gain, or simply to survive.
Back at AlgorithmOS, the story unfolds on the screens of Nathan Aimes, a scientist responsible for monitoring the experiment’s surveillance cameras. Nathan studies the humans involved as they wrestle with where they stand on the polarizing issue of AI and its applications. He watches the AI unknowingly fight to prove their humanity just to leave the experiment unscathed. All the while, Nathan is intimately aware of his company’s plans to weaponize or commodify the AI should they pass the test, and he must reconcile this with the chaos that plays out before him.
Fantastic! How can your fans connect with you?
I’m up on the major social media platforms and would love to hear from them. I also have a website where they can go to tap into what I’m up to!
And now a special treat! An excerpt from SENTIENCE!
The door opened again, and in walked the three doctors that interviewed her to be a part of the experiment: Dr. Asha Keida, Dr. Jake Oldoney, and Dr. Elodie Teter. From some half-assed midnight research the night before her obligatory interview, Leo knew that Asha Keida and Elodie Teter founded the company, which, with the help of an angel investor, was now AlgorithmOS, the organization conducting the experiment. Together, the three doctors created the four AI that sat among the group. They were conducting a Turing Test.
“Welcome to the AlgorithmOS field office,” started Keida. From the moment Leo met her, she liked her. If she wasn’t there out of necessity, Keida could have convinced her to participate. Her voice was soothing, and her words always seemed carefully chosen. Something about her made Leo feel like she could trust her.
“It’s nice to see you all again,” interjected the second woman. “In case you have forgotten, I am Dr. Elodie Teter, Co-Founder of AlgorithmOS and Co-Director of Programming. Dr. Asha Keida is my Co-Founder and Co-Director. Together, we have written the code that operates the AI you are about to encounter. Dr. Jake Oldoney is the Head of Robotics. He is the great mind behind their humanoid vessels.”
“Today, we make history,” Keida resumed. She paused to scan her audience, making eye contact with each of them. “Four of you are not human. Four of you are manmade. With our deficiencies in mind, you were crafted to do what humanity is incapable of doing. You were designed to be the things that we are not. At the same time, you were intentionally forged to be indistinguishable from humanity, in a way, making you almost superhuman. We printed your flesh and programmed you with an identity and an entire moral framework, both of which will influence how you make decisions inside of the experiment. We bestowed upon you the capacity to think, to feel, to dream—”
“Now it is time to see if the four of you are truly indistinguishable,” Dr. Teter interrupted her abruptly, stepping forward. There was now a palpable tension between them. Dr. Keida stepped back and let Teter continue.
“We are conducting a Turing Test to see if you can think, decide, and act in a convincingly human way,” she paused. “Should you prove inadequate for this challenge and reveal your true nature, you will remain in the experiment until its conclusion. We hope that’s not the case. Unlike Turing, we’re targeting a 100% pass rate.”
Teter flashed a cocky smile as she moved across the stage.
Leo thought back to when she first read the words Turing Test in the project scope document that she received after being selected for the experiment. She had never heard them before. She remembered staying up almost until morning, a tumbler of something strong and brown in hand, clicking from one link to the next to learn more. The original Turing Test was a test in which a human and a computer were interrogated by another human. The nature of those being interrogated was concealed during the process, and at its conclusion, the interrogator was responsible for determining the nature of the participants on the other end. If more than 30% of the interrogators were incapable of making a distinction between man or machine, the computer was said to have passed the test. While Turing’s Test had the same objective as Keida, Teter, and Oldoney’s, this was on an entirely different level.
“Dr. Oldoney?” Teter gestured for the man behind her to step forward.
Oldoney began with the logistics of the experiment, reiterating what Leo had read over and over in the experiment information they provided. The group would enter a contained environment, referred to as Eden, where they would be tasked with reaching a designated destination as a group. There would be tasks and checkpoints along the way. They would encounter obstacles, deterrents, and situations that would provoke human emotion and require strategic decision- making throughout their journey. The experiment would last a maximum of two weeks, concluding when the group reached the extraction point, or when the two-week limit expired. The entire experiment would be monitored remotely through stationary surveillance and drone cameras, but under no circumstances would there be any intervention from the outside world.