A Conversation with Stephen Graham King by Gavin Atlas

Stephen Graham King is the author of the new science fiction novel, Chasing Cold, (Hadley Rille Books) as well as the memoir, Just Breathe: My Journey through Cancer and Back.  His short fiction has been published in the anthologies Desolate Places, Ruins Metropolis and North of Infinity II.  He currently lives in Toronto.

Hi, Stephen!  Thank you so much for doing this interview.   First, could you tell us about your background and what first sparked your interest in writing and specifically, writing science fiction?   

I took an incredible creative writing class in high school that was one of those perfect combinations of teacher and students. It was just a small group of invited kids who were all completely different, a group that would never have mingled otherwise, and we studied all of these different forms and shared our work in a completely supportive environment.

As for science fiction, that love has been a part of my life as long as I can remember. I recall seeing the original run of Star Trek when I was no more than three or so, and some of the first books I remember reading were the Venus and Caspak books of Edgar Rice Burroughs. Science fiction has been there my whole life.

I’ve read that Chasing Cold has been considered by a reviewer as “old fashioned” although he added, because of this, your book would have appeal to fans of Golden Age science fiction.  How do you feel about that assessment?  What films, books, or TV shows (if any) do you feel you drew upon most in this story?

I am fine with that assessment. I love space opera, always have. It’s what I grew up reading and watching. I grew up on Star Trek, Star Wars and The Fifth Element. Things like Firefly and Babylon 5 show just how good space opera can be if it’s done right.  Despite his flaws, I love Robert Heinlein. Writers like Arthur C. Clarke, Vonda McIntyre and Diane Duane. People for whom it’s all about the story and where it can take you. I’ve even held on to my lifelong love of comics in all their forms.

My work has always been strongly influenced by that. What I’ve tried to do in my writing, and especially with this book, is integrate that style with a specific queer slant. I wanted to write the kind of stories that didn’t exist when I was growing up: fun, exciting stories with gay men at the centre.  Chasing Cold turned out to be a bit more contemplative, because it drew on own experiences of leaving a city that I’d lived in most of my life. A real experience was changed into an unreal one.

I’ve noticed that same sex attraction is handled with the same degree of acceptance as heterosexual attraction on Frostbite, the home planet of your main character, Rogan Tyso.  How do you feel about the ease (or difficulty) of combining gay characters and space opera?  Did the “queer content” have any effect on how easy it was to find a publisher? 

I think we’re working towards making a world where who we love is irrelevant to our worth as human beings; where we are judged on our actions and our character. So, I wanted that to be intrinsic to the stories I told. Take homophobia out of the mix. Assume that what we are struggling for will come to pass and sexuality won’t matter except to those directly involved in the sex. The wonderful thing about writing SF is getting to write the worlds you want. And whatever chaos may ensue, in my universes, sexuality isn’t a factor.

As to how difficult it was to find a publisher, I think, at its heart, the science fiction community is more open to these ideas, to alternative sexualities. You can go back to writers like Samuel R. Delany, Joanna Russ and Ursula K. Leguin who were incorporating “alternative” sexuality into their work when I was young. Which was a long time ago!

I did have a previous publication relationship with Hadley Rille Books, as they published the short story that Chasing Cold is based on. And both Eric T. Reynolds, Hadley Rille’s publisher, and Rob Darnell, the assistant editor who read it first, saw and loved the story as a story, which is what I hoped for. It wasn’t “Gay science fiction”, it was a good story that happened to be about a gay character.

Could you tell us about what went into forming Rogan’s character?   What aspects do you like best about him? 

Because the story is somewhat based on an experience I had, Rogan is the stand in for me, I guess. He’s a bit of a loner, a bit of a pragmatist, but with real friends that he loves, and yet simultaneously feels a bit removed from. He’s also someone I’d like to be more like. When he sees this amazing opportunity, he knows that he has to take it. He isn’t afraid to go out into the unknown and see what’s there. I always overthink things, and it takes me much longer to make big life decisions that it takes him.

In this universe, mankind is basically eking out an existence on nearly uninhabitable planets with names like Frostbite, Dustbowl, and Hellhole thanks to a powerful and violent alien race, the Flense.   I think “flense” is the word used to describe skinning a seal or whale.   Are there any underlying meanings to your depiction of the Flense and their treatment of humans?

You hit it right on the head. The Flense were an idea that I came up with before the novel, before the short story, even. All I knew was their name, and that was all I needed to know, initially. The name suggested the darkness behind them, that they weren’t benevolent or aiding mankind in any way. So the idea just sat in the back of my brain for a while. Then, when I was writing “Nor Winter’s Cold” for the anthology, Desolate Places, the story required a reason why humans were no longer living on comfortable worlds. I needed a reason for them to be hiding and struggling on worlds like Frostbite. And that idea that had been sitting in the back of my mind came forward and inserted itself neatly into place. Writing the novel gave me the chance to explore the idea in a bit more depth, even though I wanted to maintain the mystery somewhat.

What were your favorite parts of writing Chasing Cold and what were the biggest obstacles?  What advice, if any, would you give to beginning writers trying to write science fiction or space opera now?  

Writing the first draft was so easy. No project has ever come so easily to me. Every time I sat down to work on the project, the words just came. The ideas kept flowing, I had an outline early on, even had a draft of the last couple of paragraphs. I doubt I will ever have such an easy time of a first draft again. My next novel is certainly not coming as easily.

I have a bit of an artsy fartsy mentality about being a writer. My advice would be to write the stories you want to read. Don’t try to write to fit a market or the latest trend. Trends are mysterious and can end as quickly as they come. Write what’s true and natural for you, even if it isn’t in vogue. Also, work at the craft. Take constructive, healthy comment and criticism and learn from it. Do everything you have to do to make your writing the best it can be. And for everything you write, ask yourself these three questions: Who are your characters? What happens to them? And how does it affect them?  That, to me, is what good writing is all about.

Are there any recent works of speculative fiction works that you’d recommend?

I loved Daniel H. Wilson’s Robopocalypse. It was an exciting exploration of an end of the world scenario, but you could easily see the roots of the conflict in our present day world.

I also really enjoyed The Hunger Games trilogy. I thought that for a young adult series it had a nice hard edge to it and a lead character that always remained borderline unlikeable, and yet very real in her responses to her situation.

I’m currently reading Jasper Fforde’s One of Our Thursdays is Missing, his latest Thursday Next novel. It’s not really spec fic, more of a fantasy, but he has an amazing imagination and the universe he’s created is so absolutely specific and unique. There’s nothing anywhere quite like it.

Let’s say there’s an expedition to a new planet that will need terraforming, construction, laws, and so forth, and you’re in charge of making it a great place to live.  What would your version of paradise look like?

It needs to be temperate enough for hot men to wear very little clothing. I have my priorities.  And it needs to have enough resources and land to stave off some of the basic conflicts, at least for a while. I’d want there to be laws that protect everyone, not just the rich or the white or the straight. And everyone would be taken care of. There would be no worries that anyone would go without or go hungry. Everyone would be fed and clothed and would contribute to the work that makes that happen. Beyond that, people could play sports or make art or make babies, as long as they are committed to helping their brothers and sisters stay healthy and happy.

What are you looking forward to, both as far as writing projects and life in general?

I have a new novel on the go, called Blind Luck. It’s a bit more adventure oriented than Chasing Cold, more like the type of book I was writing before. I have an outline and know where it’s headed, and now that Chasing Cold is out there in the world, it’s time to get back at that and move it along again. I’d also like to revisit the two unpublished novels I have patiently waiting for me. They have evolved as I have evolved, and I’d like to bring some of the lessons I learned from this book and the improved writing skills to bear and make them better; see if I can’t find an audience for them as well.

Thanks so much, Stephen!

You are most welcome. Anyone who knows me will tell you how much I love to talk. It’s great to be able to sit and share thoughts about this book and writing in general.

Learn more about Stephen and his books at stephengrahamking.com

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