Graham writes diamond-hard Science Fiction, mythopoeic Fantasy and unearthly Horror. He is a past professor of chemistry, and current consulting industrial research chemist. As "Doctor Carus", he is also an award-winning historical re-enactor and columnist with the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA), with a special interest in alchemy and other medieval science & technology. As a longtime SF lit, film & gaming fan, he has served as panelist and moderator on various topics at conventions. His first professional story appeared in the anthology "Sword & Mythos" in May 2014. A novel is in progress. You can find more about Graham at http://fiction.grahamjdarling.com/.
Interview by Christel Bodenbender
Graham, your short story "Jon Carver of Barzoon, You Misunderstood" just achieved Best Short Fiction of 2014 – Honourable Mention in Apex Magazine. How do you feel about publishing your first story and the recognition it received?
I was delighted and gratified to see it published at all, particularly in so honourable a venue as the Kickstarted “Sword & Mythos” from Innsmouth Free Press. I was also pleased to hear that some have read and enjoyed it, including critics like Apex's Charlotte Ashley, who included it in her list of 20 recommended short stories out of the 500 she read in 2014. That was a bit startling, but very encouraging for a new author.
Can you tell us more about the story?
It's very short, so I can't say much without spoiling it for those who haven't read it yet, which would be sad; or going on longer than the story itself, which would be silly. Plus, I believe stories should generally stand on their own, as I hope this one does. But I think it's safe to say that those who've liked it might also enjoy a swashbuckling SF sub-genre called Sword & Planet; and vice-versa. Not to mention Norse cosmogeny, with a touch of the tentacle. It may have a marketing problem, though, in that the reader might be unable to decide (as I couldn't) whether the feelings it invokes are Wonder or Horror. Though that's normal for the common human condition to which it also alludes – or so I'm led to understand.
You write with a good dose of humour and keen sense for technical and social details. What sources of inspiration and experiences do you draw on when you write?
Laughter is the explosive recognition of a new concept. This is why infants are always laughing – when they aren't crying at their frustrations, intellectual or otherwise. The same's true for scientists, “mad” or otherwise, though not always visibly – we must keep up appearances, after all. Thus, as a scientist by training and profession, not only can I draw on natural phenomena and technologies themselves (actual or extrapolated) for my stories, but also on how I've seen them reflected more or less firsthand in myself and my colleagues, and in the several cultures I move in (including SF fandom) or have travelled through. And second hand, of course, through books, television, movies, roleplaying games and historical re-enactments about things distant or past, or that never were, or that yet might be.
Also, dreams. “Jon Carver” began as a few striking images from a dream, which I arranged, with some new ideas and some themes I had been thinking about, onto a coherent plot like beads on a string. This time, most of the actual language came last of all. Elsewhere I might start with snatches of conversation, or a bit of nice-sounding prose, from which or towards which I further build. Sometimes the process seems like constructing a house from the roof down, but you have to start somewhere, and work with what you've got.
What was your first encounter with the speculative fiction genre and what do these early experiences still mean to you?
Lewis Caroll's “Alice in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking Glass” come to mind – the first novels I ever read, and which as a child I knew by heart (I'll still recite “The Walrus and the Carpenter” at the drop of a hat). It still impresses me how logic was the author's life, yet he taught it so playfully. And how extreme yet casual were his fantastical conceits. And how he incorporated the commonalities of the surrounding Age into his fiction, so that his satirical versions of then-common poems are today still known and loved where the originals have fallen into obscurity. And the puns.
When you are reading out aloud, you carefully bring to life the characters and the narrative by drawing on different voices. How did you develop your reading skills for performing in front of an audience?
Talking aloud in different voices is something I do anyway alone as I write, to help me better visualize my characters, so I might as well in public. Also I think it helps listeners better follow a story when they don't have the text before their eyes, with its format cues and opportunities for pause and backtracking. Naturally I know the text also has to work on its own, since the living author usually isn't around to show a reader how it's “supposed” to sound – but I still think reading out loud tells me whether the style and the voice fit together; whether one flows naturally from the other. And gives me other feedback, such as when I read “Jon Carver” to an audience at the VCON Book Launch last October: when I pronounced the last word, I heard dead silence for two heartbeats, then the whole audience exhale as one. That is something to aim for, I think.
Certainly I was read to enough as a child, and my dad often told me long stories of his own improvising. I also did some stage acting in school, and carried those skills forward as a gamemaster and historical demonstrator and performer. As a professor, I got regular practice at injecting passion and meaning into my lectures to students and colleagues. And as a lector at my church I get to be the voice of God, together with an epic cast of shepherds, kings, prophets, apostles, tricksters, warriors, lovers, philosophers, necromancers, jurists, widows, wonder-workers and angels (and the occasional dragon), with signs and messages to rouse a chosen people from complacency or despair. As you can perhaps imagine, this task carries a special incentive to do vocal justice to the text.
You are currently working on a novel. Do you enjoy writing a longer piece of fiction in contrast to the creative burst of short stories?
I started work on the novel before the stories. Switching back and forth between them keeps me from going stale on either, and gives me the repeated and ongoing satisfaction of actually seeing stuff finished and being read. If a short story's like building a house, a novel's like erecting a cathedral, single-handed (though I appreciate the friends on whom I've been testing it, who gently point out where one of the columns looks a little shaky, or an arch has been installed upside-down). Both house and cathedral have many elements in common, and equally deserve to be well-built; but a cathedral is more than a big house, and I still look forward to the second kind of accomplishment, now that I've experienced the first.
Tell us more about your future projects?
Various spinoffs from the current novel, including a fuller-scale Planetary Romance and a non-fiction Manifesto as written by one of its characters. More short stories, including a series set in a future Solar System with some original spacefaring technologies and their unusual implications; an urban fantasy modelled on medieval legend; several hard SF-Horror (there's no Horror like Science Horror, I always say – technological plausibility makes it all the more disturbing, and in the extreme it can even prove useful as prophecy or cautionary tale); eventually to be collected into a themed anthology.