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Clark Thomas Carlton Interview
Clark Thomas Carlton writes with amazing perception and a gift for details Ė especially in the smallest of things. His new book Prophets of the Ghost Ants is incredible.
When did you first discover speculative fiction and how did it affect you?
One of the first books I remember reading and re-reading was Lost Race of Mars and I gushed about it in my oral book report in the fourth grade. It was about a brother and sister who move with their parents to a new town. The town is very far away, a colony on the planet Mars, where they are rejected as newcomers and accused of not pulling their weight. Later, the boy and girl are lost in a dust storm and take refuge in a cave where they meet the last Martians who were thought to be extinct. At first the boy and girl are considered liars and are humiliated when they canít prove contact but eventually they are hailed as heroes. It wasnít a scientific premise by any means but the story was effective because the author captured the drama of being an outsider in a new town. Like the best speculative fiction, it was an allegory.
What are your three favorite books and/or authors and why?
Itís a real mental battle to decide on three but first place goes to Salingerís Catcher in the Rye. One of the many things I love about this book is its honesty. So many of the books that speak to me are confessional. Salinger has admitted that the story is autobiographical and he paints a portrait of himself which is vulnerable, embarrassing and very, very funny. As a young man, I identified with Holden Caulfieldís world view, his loathing for people who are inauthentic. At the same time, Holden is someone who loves to deceive people and feel superior to them in the process, essentially being a phoney . The book is so rich in terms of themes and discussion points but at its essence itís the story of a young man who has a deep reluctance to leave childhood and assume the persona of an adult. Holden likes to [bamboozle] people, to make stuff up, and as a future writer I identified with that.
Frank Herbertís Dune is often called science-fiction, but Speculative is a better description. The amazing, intricate world of that series is not scientifically possible but itís the expression of inner human truths. The religion of the world of Dune is a mish-mash of the worldís great religions and in their re-combining, Herbert displays an understanding of the recurring universal myths common to all cultures, an understanding of the psychology of religion. It would be a mistake to buy into the world of Dune as a possible future in terms of mystic space travel, bodily transformation and magic powers due to the ingestion of spice . Itís better to look at his narrative as a reflection of our past and our present, and of the instincts that drive us to repeat our history. Herbert created a modern, conscious myth by which we can compare our world and see it anew.
Perfume by Patrick Suskind is an amazing work of Speculative fiction that is also a great allegory. Without spoiling it for those who have not read it, the outrageous ending is a real lapse in credibility, even for a work of speculative fiction, but it captures a larger truth about the nature of class struggle. My sense of smell was forever heightened after reading this book which astonished me with its depiction of someone whose nose is so sensitive he can sniff how much change you have in your pocket. While it is unpleasant, even disgusting, to read about the crimes of a serial killer, the author conveys the inner world of an outsider, an alien so completely alone in his differentness that he has no morality. It was very interesting to learn that Suskind is himself a fiercely reclusive man and he projected that into a character who is the ultimate loner.
What is the hardest part of writing speculative fiction? How do you cope with that?
For my own work, I had to establish a consistency of scale when I decided to depict the human race as having devolved to the size of insects, and to smaller insects at that. I had to see the world from the perspective of these very tiny people and try and incorporate as much of the physics of this smaller world while still making it relatable to our own. For instance, this is a world where no one would ever pour water from a pitcher. They would have to slice water from a bulging drop. I had to limit the technology and tools of this world to things derived from plants, insects and minerals as people so tiny would never be able to use fire to manufacture metals.
What are you working on now?
I am working with a German publisher on the first translation of Prophets of the Ghost Ants into another language. Other than Perfume, one of my other favorites of Alternate fiction is Michael Endeís Never Ending Story , also a German novel. Perhaps these German authors have had an influence on me and so my work appeals to German readers. I am also working on an illustrated version of Ghost Ants with a spectacular artist named Moz Chops aka Paul Phippens. He has created an astonishing graphic novel titled Salsa Invertebraxa which is the Sistine Chapel of insect art.
My most recent project is a synth-pop/disco/rap opera about Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon and a love affair that goes wrong. The songs have been written and are being arranged and we hope to have a recording of them this year. My depiction of Nebuchadnezzar is of someone very much like Donald Trump, a man with a lot of money and power that no one really likes.
Every speculative fiction writer specializes in something - universes,
creatures, languages, technology, magic, etc. What are your specialties?
I wanted to create a world where tiny humans are intertwined with the insect world, ants in particular. That is a premise rooted in fantasy and not science, but I wanted some science in it and did extensive reading about insects and other arthropods. I understood that if humans were just a few millimeters tall they would not survive by battling insects which could easily overcome and devour them. Tiny humans would survive only by becoming the parasites of insects -- they would have to deceive insects and mimic them in order to infiltrate and exploit them. One of the alternate titles for my book was Human Parasites of Ants.
What are some of the values you want your fans to take away from your novels?
Human beings are one family made up of seven billion people. We are inherently wired to see others that have varying racial and cultural adaptations as different or others . It is natural if regrettable that humans will always try to exploit or exterminate the others . That is a part of our biology, a part of how we evolved into the dominant mammalian species. Perfecting our species is impossible, but part of that process is acknowledging these impulses but not giving into them. Every civilization has their own version of Do unto others as you would have them do unto you and extending the notion of others to include all members of mankind is the beginning of a single universal nation dedicated to the wellbeing of all.
What are your professional and/or personal goals for the next decade?
Just as sharks must always keep swimming in order to survive, I am one of those people who must always be creating something in order to feel alive, to reconnect with the primal emotions of childhood. Every creative project is about discovery and rediscovery. When it comes to art that involves stories and ideas, I hope to connect with others while reinforcing the values of equality, compassion, and peace.
Since Speculative Fiction is often interwoven with spirituality (myths,
legends, science, etc), please describe your personal spiritual path and how it
is reflected in your writing.
One of the themes of my writing concerns the separate nature of morality from religion. Immorality and religion can be as connected as religion and morality. In practical terms, a personís individual religious beliefs or spirituality is unimportant. What is genuinely important is an individualís behavior. We should not be judged by what religious beliefs we hold or donít hold but by what we do. Atheists and religionists are both capable of performing great good and great evil. A person who is law abiding, loving, responsible and giving must be valued over the person who professes religious beliefs but gives little or nothing to the world and mistreats others or ignores their misfortunes.
Conventions -- do you attend? Which ones are your favorites? Describe your
costume/persona. What are your favorite activities (filking, panels, book
signings, gaming, etc.)? Do you have a memorable experience about a con?
I love meeting other writers and artists at Comic Con in San Diego. Although we always have much to talk about, there is much that is already expressed -- we have convened on an island in a river we are all navigating and it can be a good party.
Do you have a motto?
Be suspicious of praise and consider all criticism.
What advice and/or warnings do you have for burgeoning writers?
Writers must live. Writers must read. Most importantly, writers must write. The best writers surprise us. You must have something you passionately want to convey whether itís a moral, your amazement, your concern, your joy or sadness, etc. If youíve nothing you urgently want to express, you arenít a writer.
You canít tell a book by its cover; however, you must SELL a book by its
cover. Tell us about your book covers and how they came about.
The temptation for a novel set in an imaginary place is to try and squeeze an elaborate, panoramic depiction of that world onto the tiny canvass of a book cover. It seldom works. A simple intriguing image or clever graphic is like a key that unlocks the door to your elaborate world.
Do you follow specific blogs, tweets, or other column-type formats? Which
ones and why?
Itís important to partake of the wisdom of writers and other artists we admire, to learn from them. At the same time, itís easy to get caught up in the world of being caught up. In order to complete my own work, I canít read every novel or blog that tempts me.
How do you feel about movie conversions of books and novelizations of
Like most book lovers, I usually feel that the book was better but itís a mistake to think this way. A film based on a book needs to be judged as a separate work of art and faithfulness to the book should not be part of that criteria. Novels have certain advantages and so do films. A film can be disastrous if it veers too far from the spirit and intentions of a novel Ė a good example would be the movie version of Bonfire of the Vanities , an artistic and financial disaster. I loved David Lynchís version of Dune even though it strayed far afield of a novel that has complexities that can never be conveyed cinematically. I have seen some movies which I thought were vastly better than the book, that elaborated and improved on their plots and were more surprising in their story telling.
If one of your books becomes a movie, who would you want cast into which roles?
Cate Blanchette as Queen Polexima.
What was the oddest experience youíve had selling your books?
A woman sent me an email telling me she thought my book looked okay for her teenaged daughter to read because it had the word ďProphetsĒ in it. The woman started reading it, threw it in her fireplace, then threatened to give it a zero stars rating as a warning to others to stay away from my hooky-spooky ant book . She suggested I withdraw it from publication if I had any hope of escaping damnation. I thanked her for her concern but told her I held no such fear. She wrote back saying Christ was the only way to salvation and Godless books like mine were leading people to Hell, and that was a thought you should take to bed every nite (sic).
Do you belong to a writers group or any other support/hobby group? What, how long and why?
I have an unofficial group of friends who are writers and that means we are also readers. We are word junkies. Itís a habit that distresses us and has its frustrations, but itís an addiction so fulfilling we are never giving it up.
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