A Conversation with Clay Gilbert

Welcome back to any readers I have after that obnoxiously long hiatus … Our radio silence was for a good reason. We recently moved the entire Traveling Circus and Menagerie from one coast to the other, and have finally gotten settled in. I wanted to share an interview with author Clay Gilbert, who has been quite patient with me as I pulled myself and my interview list together. His a recent release, Cassie’s Song (Tales of the Night-Kind Book Two A Modern Vampire Novel), came out June 8. It’s the second in a series that gives a unique take on vampire fiction. I invited him here to talk about the series, as well as a little bit about writing in general. I highly recommend you pick up a copy of the first book, Dark Road to Paradise, and check it out.

And now, without further ado or excuse, a conversation with Clay Gilbert!

Q (Infamous Scribbler): First, can you provide a short bio/insight into your writing career? 

A (Clay Gilbert): Sure.  I’ve always loved stories; I was reading and writing at a very early age.  I wrote my first short story—I’m not sure what else to call something that’s only five page long other than ‘short’—when I was four.  I know I was four because, at the time, I was in the habit of putting my age along with my name on the story. It was a science-fiction story.  I don’t remember the title.  I do remember the title of another one I wrote when I was thirteen; another sci-fi story called “The Computer Conspiracy”, about a shy, outcast boy who finds a way to live inside his computer.  Scholastic Magazine liked that one; they paid me $25 for it and published it.  From the time I realized writing was something some people did for a job, the way my father went off to his office every day, that was the job I wanted to have.  Pretty much everything I did in my life from that first sale to Scholastic, through two master’s degrees and a handful of other publications, was setting the stage for finally getting my first novel published in 2013, even though I took some other professional side-roads along the way.  Writing was a goal I never really let go of.

Q: In your novel, you tackle a number of weighty issues, from topics such as living with HIV to issues of adhering to the unspoken rules of a tribe or in-group, and the consequences that result from transgressing those rules. Are these themes that you sat down to consciously write about? How did you develop them? Where might we see them go in the next book?

 A: I’ve always loved vampire novels and vampire movies, and I had toyed with the idea of writing my own spin on the genre.  I began working on Dark Road to Paradise in the early Nineties, using some characters I’d come up with for the live action role playing campaign of “Vampire: the Masquerade” I was playing in downtown Auburn,  Alabama, once a week with some friends.  One of the things that concerns me as a person and as an author is the experience of life as an outsider, or life on the fringes of mainstream acceptance.  That certainly was a conscious concern in Dark Road, but it was also something I grew up with.  I was born with hydrocephalus, and growing up with that experience taught me what it was like to be pushed to the fringes.  It’s hard to be that one kid who doesn’t participate in gym class because his parents are afraid (and rightly so) that he might injure his head, or to be someone who people slow their cars down on the road to ask ‘why’s your head so big’?   True story.

Cassie’s health concerns are different, but they came both from wanting to explore my own experiences as an outsider and the empathy I felt for the lack of understanding I saw HIV patients being treated with in the late Eighties and early Nineties.  Finally, there was the historical fact that Dark Road was begun before any of the “Twilight” books were published, and a romance between a mortal girl and a vampire wasn’t all that common in fiction at the time.  Perhaps even more significantly, I recognized that somehow, there had never been another vampire novel focusing on HIV/AIDS in an actual, literal way, as the central concern of a story–and there still really hasn’t, even now, in 2018.  As for where the themes of Dark Road end up going in the next book, Cassie’s Song—Cassie grew up not really feeling like she had the freedom to make her own choices or live her own life.  What will it be like for her to have that freedom?  I think that’ll be as fun for readers to find out as it was for me.

Q: You’ve published a number of books in a variety of spec fic genres. What draws you to creating other worlds? What are some aspects of worldbuilding that you find essential when writing in these genres?  

A: ‘Worldbuilding’ is something I find myself speaking about on Con panels a lot, as I guess kind of makes sense for an author of speculative fiction.  And this may be an unpopular opinion, but in talking with younger writers, and particularly with would-be writers, I find that ‘worldbuilding’ is the thing that bogs down beginning genre writers most of all.  For me, characters are most important.  I care about the people in my stories first and foremost.  Once I know who they are, they can tell me about the world they live in.  Everyone does this thing called writing differently, but I’ve seen people spend so long on building the world of their story that they end up having no idea what the story is, or who it happens to.  People in a story are just like people in our world—they don’t live in a vacuum; they have histories, fears, hopes, likes and dislikes—but if you find out about the people in your story first, knowing about them will supply everything else you need.  That’s what happened when I started writing about an eighteen-year-old girl named Annah in the book which became Annah and the Children of Evohe.  I didn’t spend any time thinking about the world of Evohe in advance; instead, I got to know Annah as best I could, from her upbringing as someone whose odd opinions and obvious birth defects got her ostracized in her small community, to her claustrophobia, dislike for raw fish, and love of music.  She filled in the rest of her world for me.  I would advise aspiring writers to build their stories around the people in them, not the world they take place in.

Q: You have an MFA from the University of South Carolina; academia also plays a part in your novel, as well as your professional career. What are some of the insights into writing that going through a program like an MFA provides? What are some of the advantages? As a professor, how have you communicated some of those lessons to your students?

 A: I wouldn’t undo the time I spent in academia, although I don’t teach anymore, and haven’t done that since I became a full-time author in 2015.  I will say, though, that I find snobbery toward genre fiction to be alive and well in the academic arena.  Dark Road to Paradise was my MFA thesis, and it was a real struggle to convince the professor who eventually became my thesis advisor that there was any literary merit to a story with vampires in it.  I feel that any kind of story, whether it has vampires or aliens in it, or features people who could live across the street, must be rooted in human concerns to have any weight to it. I’m not interested in writing purely escapist fiction with no relation to the real world.  I’ve always found that the imaginative distance a writer gains in the genres of speculative fiction provides a great lens for focusing on the best and worst that the ‘real world’ has to offer, and enables an author to suggest ways that things might be made better.  As far as advice to my students, or to aspiring writers–if you have a dream, go for it.  Don’t compromise. Don’t settle.  And don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do it.

 Q: What is some of the best writing advice you’ve received? What’s some of the worst? 

A: Stephen King advised me, when I met him when I was thirteen, that he tried for ten pages every day.  I adopted that, and I still follow that.  Ten pages a day adds up fast.  Ray Bradbury added to that when I met him three years later, by advising me that it was important to be regular about writing—do it every day, in the same place, at the same time.  I still follow that advice as well.  Worst writing advice?  Whatever that was, I’ve forgotten it already.

Q: What can your readers expect to see coming up next? 

A: I’ve got an urban fantasy novel coming out real soon called The Kind Book One: The Golden Road.  It and its sequel, Terrapin and Back Again, comprise a two-part story mythologizing my own experiences following the Grateful Dead on tour during my college years, although the band in the book is called Coventina’s Well.  It also has a little to do with the value of myth in culture and history, and hopefully has as much fun in it as ‘meaning.’  I’ve also got a fourth Children of Evohe novel coming out called Annah and the Arrow, a third Night-Kind novel called Heartsblood planned for next year, and also next year, a standalone monster novel set in East Tennessee called Pearl.  I like to stay busy.

Q: Anything to add?

A: If you want to be a writer, remember this: you can do it, if you have the drive and put in the time.  Don’t wait for ‘inspiration’ to come; make it come to you.  There’s no such thing as writer’s block; that’s an excuse people make for not doing their job.  Just imagine if you had a stopped-up toilet, and the guy you called told you he couldn’t fix it because he had ‘plumber’s block’ that day.  You wouldn’t stand for it.  Don’t let yourself get away with anything like that as a writer, either.


Check out Clay Gilbert online at Amazon Goodreads.


A look at “Accessing the Future” …

About a week or so ago, I found myself at the Accessing the Future Indiegogo Campaign Web site, reading about this speculative fiction anthology, which aims to “explor[e] disability & the intersectionality of race, class, gender & sexuality.” The campaign, which has currently raised 73 percent of its $4,000 goal, not only will publish an anthology that addresses this topic, but also wants to do so in a way that will fairly compensate all the contributors to the project. Both of these aspects I can very much get behind.

As part of the campaign, the publishers arranged a blog hop, with a certain set of questions that create a lens for bloggers and writers to turn on their own current works. I’ll admit, this was a little uncomfortable for me. I write a lot of action and adventure, with characters who look an awful lot like my abled self. But in the spirit of self-examination, and getting the word out about the project, I decided to participate. The first part of the blog hop is an interview with Djibril al-Ayad and Kathryn Allan, the co-editors. I’m going to step aside and let them tell you about the project, but before I do, I encourage you to visit the site and contribute. Not only is it an excellent project, but they have some great contributor rewards as well! And now, without further ado…

Infamous Scribbler: Please introduce yourselves and explain your involvement with the project.

Djibril al-Ayad: I am the publisher of The Future Fire magazine of social-political speculative fiction and a series of associated anthologies under the umbrella of Futurefire.net Publishing. My background is as a scholar studying history and academic technologies, and although there’s no direct connection between working with speculative fiction and deciphering ancient magical texts, I do feel a parallel in concerns about how the world and its truths are reflected in our more fantastickal representations of it. I am running the Accessing the Future fundraiser, and will co-edit the stories in the anthology with Kathryn.

Kathryn Allan: I split my time between running Academic Editing Canada (my editing & coaching business), and pursuing independent scholarship in science fiction and disability studies. I edited an academic collection of essays, Disability in Science Fiction: Representations of Technology as Cure (2013, Palgrave Macmillan), am the inaugural Le Guin Feminist Science Fiction Fellow, and my writing appears in both scholarly and popular venues. I’ve been wanting to edit a disability-themed SF anthology for many years, and after getting to know Djibril through my involvement with The Future Fire (as Reader and Associate Editor), I knew I found my ideal co-editor and publisher. I pitched the anthology idea to him at the start of the year, and here we are now!

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IS: How did the idea for this particular themed anthology come about?

DA: Both of the anthologies we’ve published over the last couple of years, We See a Different Frontier (postcolonial-themed stories) and Outlaw Bodies (for which Kathryn wrote a critical afterword) addressed a range of issues, including not only race, gender, sexuality and class, but also able-body privilege and disability. When Kathryn, who is a scholar of disability and science fiction, joined the TFF magazine editorial team, she immediately suggested that our next anthology should address this issue, and I jumped at the idea.

IS: On the crowdfunding page, you list several questions you hope stories will address. I would like to ask your personal perspectives on the last question—what do you think an accessible future looks like?

DA: The first thing it looks like is accepting. This is a social-SF question, rather than a techno-cyberpunk portrayal. By this I mean that an accessible future is one in which social attitudes strive to make more roles in society fully accessible (than one in which technology makes the “problem” of disability go away). As a result of these enlightened social attitudes, of course, technology might be deployed to make our world more accessible to people with a variety of abilities and needs.

KA: In my idealized vision of an accessible future, ALL people have equal access to employment opportunities, health care, community support, and whatever technological aides and devices they require to live as they want to live. An accessible future means respecting an individual’s right to present themselves as they desire—and for society to accept them as they are. This means we will need to do away with binary understandings of ability/disability, male/female, and so on. People exist on a spectrum of ability, gender, sexuality… I want the future to reflect that complex variety of experience and knowledge.

IS: Follow-Up—What might be our path from here to there?

DA: Same answer: accepting. We need to stop defining people with disabilities as less “normal” than able-bodied people; we need to stop measuring people’s worth by what we contribute to a capitalist society (we all have lives worth living in our own right!); we need to stop using economic austerity as an excuse to demonize and vilify people with disabilities as a drain on the system. I’m not saying SF will be the path to these changes, but we can certainly play our part by not contributing to the eugenicist, othering and fear-mongering instincts of popular scientists, entertainers and politicians in our society.

KA: What Djibril said. Plus, getting comfortable talking about disability, whether that involves visible physical disabilities or invisible mental health issues. It’s essential that people understand that we create disability as a society: our governments, medical institutions and social communities create barriers to access.

IS: To a spec fic fan (which I am) this seems like the perfect genre to engage this question. For those who might not be as familiar with spec fic, what elements of the genre in particular lend themselves to exploration of the theme?

DA: Well, on the one hand all fiction, regardless of genre, is the “literature of the imagination”; any fictional world is a consensual illusion filtered by the shared perceptual filters of the author and reader. And a lot of science fiction is more reactionary and establishment-reinforcing than “literary” novels. We can do beautiful things with speculative fiction; it’s a genre in which we’re allowed to dream, to show the world as it should be, to let story and metaphor blur into one another. But it doesn’t happen automatically, and we can’t afford to be cocky. (Just look at the criticisms of historical accuracy in fantasy faced by people who write women warriors and rulers and people of color in European history.)

But yes, ever since I started reading science fiction, I devoured stories like Le Guin’s Word for World is Forest and Left Hand of Darkness that were overtly political and gender bending; Moorcock’s bisexual assassin in the Jerry Cornelius series. I came across alien species with mores and behaviors very different from what we’re allowed to admit in ourselves. I visited utopian societies that eschewed nuclear families and binary genders. Safe in the realm of the unreal, I learned not to be afraid of people and communities that fell outside of the tyrannical norms we’re used to. I think that’s the magic that speculative fiction allows us to work with: not the unreal, but perhaps the unfamiliar.

KA: I’d also add that SF is an effective mirror of the society in which we live today. Because SF is set in the future (however far or near), writers can more easily criticize our politics and culture by imagining the potential consequences of our actions and attitudes today. SF acts as both an early warning system and as a test ground for new ideas.

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IS: Once the crowdfunding campaign is concluded on 16 September, what are the next steps?

DA: Immediately the fundraiser is over, once we know how much money we have raised and how much we can therefore afford to pay for fiction (we’re aiming for $7000 which will allow us to pay 6¢/word, the generally accepted “professional” rate), we will open the anthology to submissions of short fiction. We want to make sure the CFS is as visible as possible, in literary as well as genre circles, especially outside of the community we already know about, so we’ll be pushing outside of our comfort zones there. We expect to be reading stories for 2-3 months, and hope to have a final table of contents by the end of the year.

IS: Are there stories you don’t want to necessarily see submitted? If so, what are you not looking for?

DA: Oh, absolutely! We obviously don’t want to see stories in which a poor, pitiful person with disabilities is miraculously “cured” by some combination of magical future technology, the benevolence of a rich and powerful individual/corporation/government, or personal willpower and genius. We don’t want to see stories where disability is made “not to matter” by the mortification of the flesh through cyberspace or transhumanism. We don’t want to see stories about freaks or crippled veterans or socially inept neuroatypical people who exist only to draw pity, to entertain, or to be an “inspiration” to assumed able-bodied readers.

Actually, beyond the obvious, it’s pretty hard to pin down the line between a good story about people with disability and a bad one. What will make the difference is sensitivity, awareness (or experience) of the issues and conditions, and of course the instinct of deeply intersectional thinking: the understanding that injustices and marginalizations such as sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, and ableism do not act in isolation, but in various combinations of exacerbation of one another. A story that handles disabilities issues and characters wonderfully, but in the process vilifies a specific culture or another marginalized social group, would not be welcome at all.

IS: Anything to add?

KA: We are also running a blog hop that anyone—writers and readers—can take part in. The goal is to get as many people engaging with the conversation about disability in SF as possible. Check out our home post here for details: http://djibrilalayad.blogspot.ca/2014/08/blog-hop-accessing-future-fiction.html

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IS Final note: Please head over to the campaign page and contribute before September 16! And if you can’t contribute, please click and share widely to spread the news. Thanks!