This week I got to interview Canadian space-opera writer Stephen Graham King, author of The Maverick Heart Cycle series! Whoot!
(Please note that responses to my questions are minimally edited to preserve the integrity of the author’s answers.)
My introduction to you was when you wrote your first post for the SpAN. I remember reading it and thinking, “Holy schnikies, this is guy’s survived ALL THE THINGS!” Are there any words of wisdom you’d like to share with people facing or managing serious health challenges?
Forget positivity. Just chuck it out. You’re going to have days when all you want to do is cry and eat ice cream. You’ll have days when all you want to do is scream at the wall for hours. You’ll have days when you feel defeated. You have to honour those feelings and those moments, really be in them and let them happen naturally. Pretending you’re a brave little Disney elf who has no other feelings than your plucky, can do attitude won’t help you, because it’s dishonest. But you’ll also have days when you feel like you’re together and calm and in control and ready to kick the illness in the ass. Everything passes, the good days and the bad ones.
Which is not to say that you let yourself get stuck in those negative head spaces. I use the metaphor of going to an open house vs. moving in. When you go to an open house, you dig around in the cupboards and check the back of the closets and root around in the attic. But, at the end of it, you go home. You can’t take up residence in those bad days. Let them happen, and then go home.
Pretty much everyone I talked to about my experience having cancer would say something like, “Oh, I could never do what you did.” And that’s kind of ridiculous. I believe that we rise to the occasion, that we find the strength we need when we’re faced with a crisis and we learn more about what we’re capable of. Young me would never have imagined I would be able to face an illness like that and beat it. But here I am.
The Maverick’s Heart Cycle space opera series is your latest work. I loved Soul’s Blood and am looking forward to reading Gatecrasher. There will be a book three, too, right? Can you tell us what inspired you to write this series?
There will! I’m editing book three, which is called A Congress of Ships, right now. And, as to where it all initially came from, the idea came to me in a dream! No, really. I woke up one morning and remembered a dream I’d had the night before, where two men who had been lovers when they were young reunited after many years apart. I remembered the setting, a lavish pool on a patio, and I knew that there was a long, painful history between them. I also knew that there was some serious reason that the one had summoned the other, some devastating political conflict and how hard it was for him to reach out to someone from his past and actually ask for help. I’d had the name Lexa-Blue floating in my mind, as well as the desire to create a woman who was every inch the action hero. I’d seen a character in a comic with a neat facial scar and wanted to put that in. I had a bunch of random elements but with no structure or story, waiting to find a way to come together. And that dream, that one scene, was the jumping off point and after many, many, many rewrites, became Soul’s Blood, the first Maverick Heart book.
Why do you love writing in the space opera sub-genre of science fiction? (Because all the awesome authors do, of course.)
I love science fiction in general because of how it makes me see and think about the lines leading from our world to the future that might come. I love getting swept up in the imagination and grandeur of it, and I love the assumption that, no matter how much we screw things up, we have a future that could be amazing. And I’ve loved space opera specifically for the heroic journeys and the grand, almost operatic adventures that it offers. I love to see a hero do the right thing, even when it’s difficult and dangerous for them. And, on a purely superficial level, I just love tech and spaceships and ray-guns and all the trappings of SF and space opera. Writing gives me the opportunity to come up with all those tech trappings myself and envision futures I want to see.
One super cool thing in Soul’s Blood was reading the non-binary pronouns for the sentient ship and other AIs. How important is it to you to break the binary and other tropes we might find in science fiction?
Honestly, that was one of the very last changes I made to Soul’s Blood before finally submitting it. It was one of those bolt out of the blue moments. If humans had created Artificial Intelligence, why would they build in gender? What purpose would it serve? AI, and in Vrick’s case, Artificial Sentience, which is even further beyond simple AI, would be beings of intelligence, thought and action. What if gender just wasn’t a concern, and there were no preconceived notions about what character traits were “male” or “female?” What if it simply wasn’t part of their worldview or nature? How would people interact with them? How would they interact with binary humans? And since they had no gender, then they needed gender neutral pronouns, which I pieced together from information I found while researching the many options people use. I settle on ey (he/she), em (him/her) and es (his/hers). They sounded to me the most like the pronouns we actually use now. And I wanted something distinct, something that a new, young race would use to mark their identity specifically as their own. It literally was a final piece that just slid into place and allowed me to see the story in a whole new way.
Will there only be three books in The Maverick’s Heart Cycle series? If yes, do you know what you’ll be working on next?
I plan on writing stories with these characters as I can because I love spending time with them and exploring the universe they inhabit. And, as it happened, one of my friends commented to me that he really wanted to see a certain character from Gatecrasher again, one that doesn’t appear in A Congress of Ships, so I filed it away to think about and then had the beginnings of an idea. I’ve written all of about a page, and come up with a working title, Ghost Light Burn, and am now trying to grind through the nuts and bolts of creating a story. I don’t know if it will be this book or not, but I’d also like to put the Maverick Heart crew through a screwball comedy caper. So that might end up being book five.
Some other guy who is also an author shares a similar name to yours. Do you ever accidentally get his royalty cheques?
I wish. Oh, how I wish.
If you could spend a day with an author of your choosing, who would that be and why?
Ooooh, that’s a tough one. Armistead Maupin, maybe. The Tales of the City series was transformative for me. They meant so much to a little queer boy on the prairies in the eighties and nineties. Maybe Harper Lee, to talk about how she dealt with writing that one superb masterpiece. Science fiction-wise, probably Robert Heinlein. Reading his works and seeing how a man of his age and times had some very progressive views on people and sexuality. Whoever it is, I want to hear how they managed other commitments, what their process is like, how they think they’ve improved with time, what they think they still have to master. The whole writing process fascinates me, even though I’ve been doing it for years. I love to hear how other writers handle it.
When you’re not arranging the alphabet, you paint. Tell us a bit about that!
I find that my creative impulses only go in one direction. If I’m writing, I’m not painting. And if I’m painting, I’m not writing. But I enjoy expressing that part of me in a completely different way. Paint and colour are just a different way of telling stories, stirring an emotional response. My paintings tend to be super stylized and either abstract and full of bright colours and textures, or light and shade represented in tones of only one colour. Making something out of shape and colour is a very different challenge and I think it makes me a better writer as well.
Okay, it’s SHAMELESS PLUG TIME! How do we all get connected into your awesomeness and where can we buy your books?
I am online at stephengrahamking.com, which has some original writing and links to pics of my artwork. I’m on Facebook as stephenwritesbooks, on Twitter as @stephenwrites and on Instagram as stephengrahamking. My books are all available through any of the online booksellers and e-book platforms, and can be ordered through your favourite local bookstore! Buy them! BUY THEM ALL!!!
Born on the prairies, Stephen Graham King has since traded the big sky for the big city and now lives in Toronto. His first book, Just Breathe, tells the blunt, funny, and uncompromising story of his three-year battle with metastatic synovial sarcoma. Since then, his short fiction has appeared in the anthologies North of Infinity II (Pas de Deux), Desolate Places(Nor Winter’s Cold) and Ruins Metropolis (Burning Stone). His first space opera novel, Chasing Cold, was released in 2012, and the first book in the The Maverick Heart Cycle series, Soul’s Blood, came out in 2016. The second, Gatecrasher, was released in 2017. He is currently working on the next in the series, A Congress of Ships.
(Image: “Digital Lens Flare In Black Background Horizontal Frame” by vvadyab)