Clay Gilbert has been thinking about aliens, vampires, and people from the future since he was four and he channeled these thoughts into stories. He is returning to ScifiPulse so that I can interview him for a fourth time about his career and his books, The Kind and Cassie’s Song.
Nicholas Yanes: We’re now on our fourth interview. How should we celebrate our tenth? Dinner and movie, fight club, illegal gambling?
Clay Gilbert: You know, I really appreciate you and SciFiPulse for continuing to have me back. And hey, if we keep talking like this, maybe one day there could be a book: Oh, No, Not You Again: The Gilbert-Yanes Dialogues.
Yanes: Two of your books, The Kind and Cassie’s Song, were recently published. Before we talk about them, could you take a moment to describe your schedule for writing? Additionally, do you have any suggestions for how writers can remain undistracted when writing?
Gilbert: I get up every day, make my coffee, look at the news to stay a bit connected to the outside world, check e-mail, and then spend 8-10 hours, sometimes more, writing whatever the current project is. Before starting the day’s writing work, I check to make sure there aren’t other things on my schedule, like interviews, and that I don’t have any important unanswered email that needs replying to right away.
Writing is my favorite thing in the world to do anyway, so it’s not hard to stay undistracted. I don’t answer the phone when I’m writing, and I usually turn off notifications on Facebook Messenger. I live alone, besides my cat and pet snake, so that helps with distractions as well. I would suggest for those people who have families that they establish boundaries with their family members—i.e. ‘when my office door is closed, don’t disturb me unless it’s an emergency.’ Setting specific work hours is good for you and the people who live with you. Also, it’s good to get up from the desk at least once every couple of hours. Blood clots in the legs are a real and dangerous thing.
Yanes: On this note, authors need to learn how to market themselves and their books in order to become successful. How do you approach the business side of being a writer?
Gilbert: Networking is crucially important. Subscribe to Facebook groups designed to help writers promote their work. Start a mailing list for readers and fans. Listen to those who have done this thing longer than you have, particularly the ones who have been more successful at it. I’m still very much on the learning curve with marketing and the business, and I know plenty of people who are far more financially successful than I am at this whole thing, and I try my best to learn from them. View other authors not as competition, but as a support group. I’m not writing to compete with other writers. I’m writing to tell the stories I have to tell. Other writers are family; they’re brothers and sisters-in-arms in the same daily struggle. I support them, encourage them, and try to learn from them, and I hope that they’ll do the same for me.
Get comfortable with doing interviews, in print, live at conventions, on radio, and on television. It’s helpful if you have a friendly journalist who doesn’t mind interviewing you when you have something new out to promote. Even if that journalist probably wonders how in the world you write so much! Appreciate people—the ones who do things for you, and even those who don’t. Writing is about communication. In a real sense, it’s a people business. The writer’s craft may be solitary, but we as writers are constantly in dialogue with the larger human community—or we should be.
Yanes: You live in Knoxville, Tennessee area. What is the writing community like there?
Gilbert: There is a local authors guild that meets periodically, and I’ve been to a few of their functions; readings and such. But most of my work habits and my identity as a writer were formed in the ten years I was away from Knoxville, in college and in grad school, and so I tend to be kind of solitary in my working habits. I probably network and socialize with other authors more online and, during the year, on the convention circuit, than I do at home in Knoxville, but there is a solid literary community in town, that’s for sure.
Yanes: The Kind and Cassie’s Song are in the same fictional universe, but are clearly their own stories. What steps have you taken to keep your stories linked but allowing them to stand on their own?
Gilbert: Here’s the thing—when you get right down to it, all of my books are connected, in one way or another. In The Kind, one of the characters mentions having heard rumors of ‘vampires in the crowd’ at the Altamont rock festival in California in 1969, a reference to an event that happened in the first book of my Night-Kind vampire series, Dark Road to Paradise. The two books so far of the Conversationalist science fiction series refer to characters and events in the Children of Evohe series, and Rynn Handel, the cyborg girl who is the female protagonist of the series, first appeared in book three of the Evohe series.
I’ve drawn a lot of my writing habits from Stephen King—my striving to write ten pages a day at least, working for 8-10 hours a day, the importance of reading a lot—and it’s also fascinated me how most of his books connect. So, early on, I began doing that myself. Nonetheless, there is a sense of individual identity within each of the series or subsets found within my work. The vampire books don’t feel like my science fiction books, and even the Conversationalist books don’t feel like the Evohe books, even though both are science fiction series, and my YA dystopia Eternity doesn’t feel like either of those. The Conversationalist books are typically quirkier and have more humor. The two books of The Kind, being urban fantasy and also very heavily autobiographical, have yet another separate feel to them, although they are in some ways connected to the others. What separates one book from another, or one series of books from another, is the people they are about; the characters in the stories. In my work, everything—tone, plot, world—all flows out of the people in the stories. And that makes it easy to tell them apart, in the end.
Yanes: The two books of The Kind – the currently-available The Golden Road, and the second book, due in the fall and titled To Terrapin and Back Again – are inspired by the Grateful Dead. What is it about their music that resonates with you, and how did you get the idea to write a book around that particular inspiration?
Gilbert: I’ve been a Deadhead since 1985, and between 1985 and the death of the band’s lead vocalist and guitarist Jerry Garcia in 1995, I spent a good bit of time following the band on tour and seeing live shows, as most Deadheads do. I saw the band thirty-one times, which might sound like a lot, but really isn’t, compared to some people.
Most of my touring years coincided with college and grad school, but my earliest years of seeing the Dead live centered around my first two years of college, spent at Oxford College in Oxford, Georgia. Oxford was the original campus of Emory, before the University moved to Atlanta, and the Oxford campus still serves as a freshman and sophomore-only division of Emory. For whatever reason—maybe it’s the school’s skeleton mascot, Dooley—Oxford has a large Deadhead population. And I loved my years there.
I had the idea that one day, I’d eventually create a story around my years at Oxford, and my love for the Dead. I didn’t want to bring the Grateful Dead itself into the story, because some people really don’t like the band, for reasons I can’t fathom, but I wanted both to write a love letter to the band and its community of fans while allowing readers who aren’t Deadheads to maybe see a little bit of what we think there is to love about them.
As far as the Dead’s music, I really think the appeal is that they contain just about every genre. The predominant motif is a combination of jazz and rock, but there’s an underlying foundation of folk, blues, country, bluegrass and even some forays into electronic music as well, so it’s a really rich musical feast for those willing to sit down at the table, and the Dead have been appreciated by other musicians from Miles Davis to Sammy Hagar, who once was Jerry Garcia’s next-door neighbor.
Yanes: So, is The Kind just a historical novel loosely based around the Grateful Dead and the Deadhead subculture, and inspired by your college years?
Gilbert: It is all of those things, certainly, but it’s not just those things. First of all, like I said, I wanted to create a fictional band for the novel, with their own catalog of songs. That band became Coventina’s Well, in the two books comprising the story of The Kind. The Well shares some of the Dead’s history—enough for Deadheads to get some smiles out of what they’re reading about the band in the story—but there are differences too, including, obviously, the band members’ names. And the two volumes are firmly in the urban fantasy genre.
While I do draw on my own experiences in all my fiction, and especially here, I also wanted to create a larger mythic structure that would provide a greater resonance for what was going on in the book than merely a couple of college kids falling in with a rock band and its community of fans.
Yanes: How did you pull that off?
Gilbert: I needed a reason for the tribe-like fans who followed the band to be doing that beyond just an attraction to the music, so I came up with the idea of a sister race to humanity, called Memory’s Children or, more simply, “The Kind”, who would live longer than humans (think the longer lifespans talked about in the Old Testament), have certain abilities they didn’t (such as the ability to feed off energy in nature and in music), and be tasked with cleaning up imbalances and disruptions in human history.
Adolescence is typically a time of awakening, anyway, and the two young people who are the main characters in the story, a boy named Aiden Kincaid and a girl named Avery Meadows, who are both fans of Coventina’s Well, discover they are also both a part of this ancient race called The Kind—and get drawn into an adventure they couldn’t have imagined, an adventure that, of course, involves the band and their music as well.
Yanes: It is clear that you are incredibly attached to the characters in Cassie’s Song and The Kind. Are there any characters that will be difficult for you to kill off or part ways with?
Gilbert: I find I get attached to most of my characters in one way or another. They’re each like people that come into my life with their own baggage, backgrounds and history. And sometimes, they come with a certain fate already attached. There’s a character in one of the two books you mentioned who came into my head very clearly, as if talking to me. And it was clear to me, in this particular case, that this person was going to die in the course of the story, as much as I hated that. Some stories carry more death, or the risk of death, with them than others. More people die in Cassie’s Song than in some of my books, but it’s a horror novel, and one of the things that genre does is provide a safe framework for an audience to confront death. It isn’t a surprise that the body count is higher. I’m always sorry to see someone go in one of my stories—unless they’re a person who’s done a lot of bad things and might deserve a bad fate themselves. But stories mirror the real world, I think—the best stories do. And so, death isn’t something that can be avoided completely, and it comes to good and bad people, alike. All that may sound like sidestepping, but, spoilers, you know.
Yanes: I have found that your stories tend to end on a somber and bittersweet note. Why do you feel it is important to leave your stories on this type of emotion?
Gilbert: Do I do that? Yes, I suppose I do. Sometimes I like to say that bittersweet is my favorite flavor, in terms of stories; the ones I like to read and the ones I watch, too. I want to be careful about an answer, here, because I am very definitely a ‘glass-half-full’ person, in terms of being optimistic. I see human nature as basically good, and I believe light ultimately prevails over darkness.
It’s a foundation of my Christian faith, after all, which I certainly hope echoes in all my work, even in the two vampire books. But I think even stories which draw heavily on the imagination must also draw heavily on the human condition, and I think the beauty in human life is the harmony between the good and bad, the light and darkness. I don’t want people to be depressed by my work, but I’d like there to be balance, too.
Yanes: When people finish reading The Kind and Cassie’s Song, what do you hope that they take away from these narratives?
Gilbert: I hope Cassie’s Song is appealing to people who enjoy vampire stories, of course, but I also hope that people relate to Cassie Cabot’s struggle for identity; her desire to find her own place in the world. It may seem an odd thing for a vampire, but she’s a young woman, too. Cassie’s story, I hope, shows that everyone, however marginalized they might be by the circumstances of their life, they have a meaningful contribution they can make to the world, as well.
As a writer and a fan of vampires, I also wanted to see if Cassie could find a way that the Night-Kind could give back to humans, and not just be parasites. I think she works that problem out pretty well—it’s up to readers to decide if they agree with me.
Yanes: Finally, what else are you working on that people can look forward to?
Gilbert: It’s been over a year since I finished writing the third of my Children of Evohe novels, Annah and the Gates of Grace. I miss Annah and writing about her. So, there’s a fourth novel in that series, titled Annah and the Arrow, which will be coming out this fall. I’m about to start working on it fairly soon. Also, the second part of The Kind, To Terrapin and Back Again, will be out in the fall. Next year, there will be a third vampire novel, Heartsblood, and a stand-alone monster novel about a special little girl named Pearl. I like to keep busy.
Thanks for talking to me again, Nick. I always appreciate it.