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.

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Check out Clay Gilbert online at Amazon Goodreads.