“We were passing some shipyards around Philly, and I was thinking about what my dream story to write would be. I’ve had a lifelong love of the sea, of water, of sea life, and I cautiously paired it with my lifelong love of science fiction. I looked out at the monstrous cargo ships in the harbors and pictured monsters along with them, defending them from pirate attacks,” said Skrutskie.
After eight more days spent pacing around the house, building an outline of the two-book series, Skrutskie’s protagonist, Cas, and her story had begun to take shape.
In The Abyss Surrounds Us, Cas Leung has spent her entire childhood learning how to train Reckoners – genetically-engineered beasts raised to defend ships as they cross the pirate-infested NeoPacific. But when the pirate queen Santa Elena captures Cas and orders her to train an illegally obtained Reckoner pup to fight for the pirates, against it’s creators, Cas finds her worldview shaken and her loyalties tested.
Part-piratical adventure story and part-kaiju science fiction, The Abyss Surrounds Us is packed full of technical details on everything from seafaring to monster rearing. But for Skrutskie, the daughter of two astronomers, bringing Cas Leung’s world to the page felt instinctive.
“In a way, the research for this book is something I’ve been working on for my entire life. I grew up in a scientific household and so some parts of the book are scientific knowledge I’ve had ingrained in me from an early age. Between the ages of nine and thirteen, I was convinced it was my destiny to study whales as a cetologist. I read voraciously, absorbed everything I could about large marine life, and got my SCUBA certification at the tender age of twelve. That gave me another component of the research that built this story. Even stuff like my study of computer science in college ended up in the text in its own little way,” said Skrutskie.
During her imprisonment, Cas finds herself falling for another young girl aboard Santa Elena’s ship – her captor’s protégé. There’s been a renewed effort to speak out about consent and unhealthy relationships in young adult literature recently, and while many authors might side-step the issues involved in a forbidden love story, Skrutskie was determined to acknowledge the power imbalance between her protagonist and her love interest.
“As I worked out exactly how Cas and Swift’s feelings for each other would evolve, I knew it would be downright irresponsible of me to throw them at each other without consciously acknowledging that one of them is a captive and one of them is her guard,” said Skrutskie.
“I didn’t want to romanticize something viciously, insidiously, and really brutally unhealthy. So I made sure Cas was conscious of the power systems that surrounded her. I made her draw lines and hold them, even when her willpower gets tested.”
Early readers have already begun to quote the words Cas and Swift use to acknowledge the unequal nature of their circumstances, and Skrutskie finds it “super encouraging” to see people responding to that aspect of the romance.
When I ask if there’s anything Skrutskie would like her readers to know, she tells me that the title of the novel comes from a translation of a Wisława Szymborska poem called Autotomy “about sea cucumbers and carving yourself up to survive”.
“I loved the resonance of the words and their meaning in the context of the poem. So I stuck them onto the book when I got ready to query, figuring that it would get changed eventually—actually expecting it to get changed,” said Skrutskie.
It did not get changed.