Clay Gilbert has been thinking about aliens, vampires, and people from the future since he was four and he channeled these thoughts into stories. I last interviewed him about his books, The Kind and Cassie’s Song. It has been nearly a year and Gilbert is set to soon release another book. This one being called Pearl: A Monster Story – to be published by Dark Moon Press in July. Wanting to learn more about Pearl and Gilbert’s evolution as a writer, I was able to interview him again for ScifiPulse.
Yanes: I last interviewed you in July 2018. Even though it has only been less than a year, how has life gone for you? Any cool updates? Have any meddling kids stopped your criminal enterprise?
Clay Gilbert: Everything’s been going well. Just working, as always. Funny you should ask that last question…there’s definitely been a kid in the middle of the enterprise, lately. I think she’s helped, more than meddled, though.
Yanes: On this note, what was it about Pearl: A Monster Story that inspired you to tell this as its own novel? What’s the book about?
Gilbert: I grew up loving monsters. Since I was born in 1971, the monsters I first came to know were of the Universal and Hammer Films variety: Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, the Creature from the Black Lagoon; those folks. I also enjoyed Godzilla and King Kong a lot, and of course Freddy and Jason. But the classic monsters, and especially the idea of misunderstood monsters like Kong or Frankenstein, really stuck with me.
I wanted to one day write my own story where the only reason the ‘monster’ was a monster at all was that she was out of her element, and that she was misunderstood. I thought to myself, what could be more easily misunderstood than a ‘monster’ who is also a child?
Pearl came out of that. She’s ten years old; at the point the reader meets her she’s lived all but one year of her life in an isolated lab in the Smoky Mountains. She doesn’t know where she came from. She has dark brown skin, curly black hair, silver eyes, sharp teeth (all of them, not just two), and sharp, claw-like toenails and fingernails. She’s fast, and smart—she reads on a late-high-school/early college level before she’s even eleven years old. She also loves puzzles, country music, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, comic books, cartoons and monster movies. She talks with an accent my editor called a ‘hick’ accent, because someone who talked like that worked in the lab when Pearl was tiny, and spent a lot of time with Pearl when she was first learning to talk. So Pearl is a book about a rather extraordinary child growing up, trying to find out who she is, and trying to come to terms with what she is, and the real meaning of this word ‘monster’ that gets thrown around a lot. And also, how you can be different—even different in the ways Pearl is—and still live in community with other people.
Once she gets away from the lab—and that’s not too big a spoiler, since even the book jacket will tell you that much happens—she meets a writer named Matt Chandler, who becomes a father-figure to her. Matt’s had people take chances on him at points when he needed it, and he becomes willing, over time, to be Pearl’s family, since whoever her real family is, they don’t seem to be around.
Or are they? Muahahahaha…you’ll have to read and find out.
Yanes: Your upcoming book, Pearl: A Monster Story, is part of a series called The Mountain-Walker Saga. What was the inspiration for The Mountain-Walker Saga?
Gilbert: Honestly, realizing that Pearl’s story was going to take more than one book to tell. As much as it’s ‘a monster story’, it’s also about a little girl who doesn’t know anything about who she really is, where she’s from or what she wants to do with her life finding answers to some of those questions, finding a family, and finding some kind of a future. That ended up taking an arc of three books, and who knows, there may be a fourth book that follows on from this first arc of three. This first book, Pearl: A Monster Story, introduces readers to Pearl and Matt Chandler, the writer whose path crosses with hers; the second book, Pearl of the Shadows, finds Pearl confronting some unresolved issues from her past and finding answers to her own questions about where she came from, and the third book, Pearl of the Mountains, will see her moving forward and forging her own path with the support of Matt and who knows, perhaps people from her past she didn’t expect to hear from. It’s a coming-of-age story about a young girl’s search for belonging—and it’s got adventure, horror, fantasy, mysteries, magic and monsters in it. It’s something ages fourteen to one hundred will enjoy, I hope. It’s the first book I’ve ever intentionally written with a young-adult audience in mind, but adult-adults will enjoy it too.
Yanes: This story is set in east Tennessee. What was it about this area’s landscapes and history that appealed to you?
Gilbert: Well, I grew up here, before moving away to go to college, and then grad school. I left in the fall of 1989, and didn’t live here full time again until 2005. I’ve been here ever since. I love the Tennessee Valley area, where my hometown of Knoxville is situated, and I love the sense that the region has of being sort of a collision spot between science—the wisdom of man if you will—and the older, passed-down wisdom of ancestral folklore that you’ll find if you scratch the surface, or go up into the Smokies mountains and ask some of the people whose whole families have lived in the mountains for centuries. It’s a place where there’s still a sense of people taking care of one another, I think, and hopefully that’s something that carried over into this book. It’s also a place of sublime natural beauty.
Yanes: While doing research on eastern Tennessee, did any real-world histories or folklore surprise you?
Gilbert: This book isn’t a vampire book, but at a certain point, I was looking into local Appalachian/Smoky Mountain monster lore, and came across an Appalachian vampire called an apotamkin. That came in handy. Also utilized the Smoky Mountain ghost town of Elkmont as a setting for something that happens in the book, and found a way to intertwine the real history of the town with the invented history of the race of people Pearl comes from.
Yanes: Pearl and Matthew Chandler are fantastic characters. Where did they come from? Specifically, are they based on people you know or other famous characters?
Gilbert: Matt Chandler, I guess, is sort of an alternate-universe me. I never lived on the West Coast or went to law school, but my parents did urge me to think about law when I was in college. Like me, Matt had a stroke; also, like me, Matt’s a writer, and also like me, Matt had a religious conversion in his forties. I never had a little monster girl show up on my doorstep—well, since I’m writing this book, maybe I did. The imagination’s kind of like a doorstep, I guess.
Pearl, well, like some of the other people in my stories, she showed up in a dream I had one night, back when this book, and the whole Mountain-Walker Saga, was just filed under ‘sympathetic monster story’ in my brain. She’s very much herself, and isn’t based on anybody, honestly. I think there might be some crossover appeal between the audience of the TV show Stranger Things and this novel, but Pearl is not the sort of girl who will ever be able to assimilate into society the way Eleven does on that show; there will never be any going to school with other kids for her, for reasons that will be clear when you read the book.
Yanes: As you were developing these characters and plot points, was there one that took on a life of their own?
Gilbert: I think in our past chats, Nick, we’ve talked a little bit about how I work as a writer. I don’t plot things out in advance; I take dictation from my characters, and then clean up the rough edges and sharpen the focus in revisions and rewrites. In that sense, they all take on lives of their own. If they didn’t, I wouldn’t bother writing about them. When Pearl first showed up in a dream I had more than a year ago, I didn’t know much about her. I knew she had dark skin and hair, silver eyes, sharp fingernails and toenails, and a mouth full of shiny, sharp teeth. I knew that, despite all that, she seemed like a normal kid. I knew that she was ten years old, and that she’d grown up in a lab somewhere in the Smoky Mountains, but I didn’t know if she was the product of some kind of genetic engineering, like the cyborg girl Rynn Handel in my Conversationalist novels, or if her story was stranger than that. Finding out was a big part of the journey.
Yanes: Thinking back on the time you spent writing Pearl: A Monster Story as well as plotting out future novels, how do you think this experience helped you improve as a writer?
Gilbert: I think every writer finds himself or herself facing particular challenges with certain projects. There are a few books of mine I could point to as examples of my having to grow in my craft in order to tell the story that was set before me. Annah and the Children of Evohe, the first book in my Children of Evohe series, was an example of this. It was the first book I’d written from a female perspective, and that was challenging. It seemed to awaken a different approach to storytelling for me, because since then, most of my stories have been told through the eyes of main characters who are female. Pearl isn’t an exception to that, but it is exceptional in two other ways. This book is not set in some far future or on another planet. It takes place on our Earth, just a few years in the future (in 2024), and it’s set in East Tennessee, not an alien civilization.
All of that made it challenging. It was also challenging because it’s the first book I’ve ever written told largely from the perspective of a child. That was sometimes really tough. Pearl’s a smart kid, but she’s not some kind of miniature sage. I wasn’t interested in writing her as a miniaturized adult. So, finding the balance between making her a believable, smart kid, yet still allowing her to be a kid, kept me on my toes throughout this whole process. This has been one of the toughest books I’ve had to write in my life, but I think it turned out well. Readers can judge for themselves beginning in the early part of July.
Yanes: When people finish reading Pearl: A Monster Story, what do you hope they take away from it?
Gilbert: I always hope people enjoy meeting the people in my stories, and the journeys they go on with them. I hope Pearl’s story, and her relationship with Matt, conveys a sense that even people who are in some ways very, very different can learn from one another, and that family can mean more than just blood ties. Also, that being ‘monstrous’ on the outside (in some ways) doesn’t have to make you a monster on the inside. I felt like my editor on this project fell in love with little Pearl along the way, and I hope my readers will too.
Yanes: Finally, what else are you working on that people can look forward to?
Gilbert: You know me, Nick; always busy. The second book of the Mountain-Walker Saga, Pearl of the Shadows, should be coming this year. Also, the second book of my urban-fantasy saga The Kind; that one’s titled To Terrapin and Back Again. Right now, I’m working on a dystopian YA book called Islands of Light, which is a sequel to an older novel of mine called Eternity. Before the end of the year, there will also be Annah and the God-Builders, the fifth novel in my Children of Evohe series. Next year, there will be another Pearl book—Pearl of the Mountain.
Thanks as always for chatting with me, Nick, and I wish you the best in all of your endeavors as well.