ARENA: An Interview with Holly Jennings

ARENA is the debut novel from Holly Jennings about a near future where video gamers are the new superstar athletes. ACE released the book today, and you can get it at Amazon, B&N, Kobo, and Google. Holly joined me recently, not only to make my Galaga score look minuscule, but also to talk about ARENA.



SG - You're a lifelong gamer. What inspired you to write ARENA?

HJ - The idea for ARENA came to me when I was watching a documentary about professional gamers and reading a book called Neuromancer. For anyone who doesn’t know, Neuromancer was one of the definitive books of science fiction and explored the idea of plugging your consciousness into a virtual matrix. Once I started thinking about competitive gaming in combination with fully-immersive virtual reality tech, I couldn't stop writing the book down.

SG - In the book, how does getting hurt or killed in-game affect players in real life?

HJ - Getting hurt or killed in-game has no effect physically on the player once they unplug from the game. However, it can alter their psychological perception of consequences. How can you accept real-world repercussions of your mistakes when, in the game, you can simply respawn?

SG - What can you tell us about Kali Ling?

HJ - She's something fierce. She's cocky, hotheaded, and deeply flawed, but also has a lot of passion. In ARENA, she's a female gamer competing in a brutal fighting game. She loves martial arts, video games, and most of all, coffee.

SG - When you think about it, 2054 isn't that far in the future. How has the world changed in ARENA?

HJ - In ARENA, the world isn't that different. It's much more tech-heavy. Virtual reality has revolutionized education, medical, and even sports. Thanks to the immense popularity of virtual gaming competitions, gamers have become celebrity athletes. They are the ones on the covers of tabloids and rolling up to the clubs in Maserati's (and yes, those still exist, too). This concept of gamers as being athletic and famous was something I really enjoyed writing about because of its play on current tropes.

SG - What advice would you have loved receiving as an aspiring author?

HJ - Write the book you want to write. Before ARENA, I was so concerned with what other people would think about my stories. What would my friends think of this? My family? The industry? Once I was able to let that go and just focus on the story I wanted to tell, my writing exploded. I wasn't afraid to go dark or color outside the lines. I really believe this is one of the biggest factors that led to publication. When agents and editors read the same concepts and stories all day, pushing the boundaries gets noticed.

SG - Favorite moment in ARENA?

HJ - Without giving away any spoilers, I especially like ending of ARENA. Kali's personality transforms quite a bit through the book, and this is where we see the culmination of that change.

SG - Favorite SFF trope?

HJ - Good question! Probably the lovable android and their quest for humanity, like Wall-E's search for love or Data's wish to become more human. I also enjoy when neo-noir is mixed in with science fiction or fantasy, like Blade Runner. That's definitely a close second favorite.


From the cover:

A fast-paced and gripping near-future science fiction debut about the gritty world of competitive gaming...
Every week, Kali Ling fights to the death on national TV. 
She’s died hundreds of times. And it never gets easier...
The RAGE tournaments—the Virtual Gaming League’s elite competition where the best gamers in the world compete in a no-holds-barred fight to the digital death. Every bloody kill is broadcast to millions. Every player is a modern gladiator—leading a life of ultimate fame, responsible only for entertaining the masses.
And though their weapons and armor are digital, the pain is real.
Chosen to be the first female captain in RAGE tournament history, Kali Ling is at the top of the world—until one of her teammates overdoses. Now, she must confront the truth about the tournament. Because it is much more than a game—and even in the real world, not everything is as it seems.
The VGL hides dark secrets. And the only way to change the rules is to fight from the inside...