Today we have the honour of interviewing Stephen Graham King.
He's been writing since his mid-twenties, but has only been publishing since 2006 when his cancer memoir came out. He writes Queer space opera, adventure/heist novels with a group of Queer heroes.
-Stephen, what first attracted you to the genre?
One of my first memories is being 3 or 4 and sitting on the living room floor with my sisters watching first run Star Trek. And I imprinted on it, I think. If there was a show involving space or the future, I watched it. And I read anything I could get my hands on in the genre. So it was kind of natural that when I started writing stories of my own, they would be SF. And then later, when I was in university, there was this explosion of Queer indie cinema in the mid Eighties. I came to a place where I wanted to write Queer futures, Queer heroes having adventures like the ones I had always loved growing up.
-Who were your favourite authors at the time?
I loved Diane Duane, Vonda N. McIntyre, writers that entered the scene doing Star Trek novels, and then writing their own stories. There was a story by a Trans writer named Rachel Pollack called Second Generation that blew my mind. It was about young people that could change their physical sex just by taking a pill. And, of course, I loved the great masters for their imagination and the worlds they made. Arthur C. Clarke. Robert Heinlein.
-How has the genre developed since then?
I think the world of Speculative Fiction has only gotten wider and ever more inclusive since then. Old school SF has a rep for being driven by plot but being thin on character. And that has definitely fallen by the wayside now. Character and nuance have become an integral part of SF storytelling. We see so many more types of characters. Writers include sexuality, identity, disability, race. So many more kinds of stories being told, rooted in so many more traditions and identities than simply straight, cisgendered, white male.
-Name three of your favourite books, and why they are your top picks.
The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster. I still have the copy I bought from the Scholastic Book Fair as a kid, and it still resonates with me to this day. It’s witty and erudite, but so imaginative, gentle, and thoughtful. Friday, by Robert Heinlein. Like many male authors of that generation, Heinlein was problematic. And some of that is present in this book. But it has a ripping good story in a fascinating future. But more importantly, to me at least, it’s a beautiful story about finding your place in the world, finding the people that will love and accept you for who you are. And I’m going to cheat on the third and say the four Wayfarers books by Becky Chambers. Chambers writes with such kindness. Her stories are are always full of love and generosity and tenderness for the human condition, even when the characters aren’t even human.
-Are you a plotter or a pantser?
Definitely a mix. Whenever I start a new project, I have a file full of notes where I keep track of all the random ideas I have for scenes and characters. And I often write to a final line or dialogue or sentence. But along the way, I just let things come to me, let the story lead me where it needs to go. I tend to trust my instincts when it comes to putting a story together. So, I do a lot of thinking about what I think the germ of the story is, start to plan, but then let it fly when the time comes.
-What's your biggest pet peeve?
Lack of intellectual curiosity. People who don’t look around at the world and think “What can I learn? What can this situation teach me?” I love to learn new things. I consume a lot of media, fiction and non, just to keep my fires burning. I will often hear about a book or movie or documentary and think, “Oh, that sounds interesting. I want to know more about that.” I’m always really turned off by people who are so certain they have the right answer all the time.
-What are your two favourite virtues in a character?
Oooh, tough one. Since I write mostly zippy, almost caper stories, I suppose I’d say sense of adventure and generosity. I try to write my characters as people who want to do the right thing. Even when it’s hard. And they take care of each other along the way.
-What is your idea of happiness?
Being okay where you are. It doesn’t mean you can’t want and work for more or for something different. But that feeling of “I’m here. I’ve done what I can. I’ve done the best I could with my privilege and my circumstances and my brain chemistry. And it’s not bad at all.” I realized a long time ago that no matter how hard I tried, I was never going to get to do all the things I would have liked to. So, I do what I can and relish the neat little surprises that come my way. And just try to be the best person I can be.
-What are your ideal writing conditions?
Before the pandemic, I was dedicated to writing in cafes. Glad Day Bookshop here in Toronto is a favourite. I’m easily distractable and if I’m home surrounded by my stuff, I can get pulled off track. But in a café or bar or something, I can just look up, see people and things and life occurring around me and take it in for a second, and then go back to work. Making that adjustment to finding a new way or working was hard. But I managed to find ways to work at home. I do timed writing sprints. I have a playlist of movie soundtracks, which I find is excellent for me, as the music is designed to tell story, but without words.
-What are some of your hobbies?
I read a lot. Two hours a night, every night. Something I started during the pandemic. I love stories. Of all kinds. Songs, movies, books, comics. I have always been drawn to the telling of stories. At times in my life, I’ve drawn or painted. Nowadays, it’s black and white street photography. I love just capturing these fleeting instants of life without overthinking. You recognize something in the motion of people through the world, of people in relation to the environment they’re in and capture it as it happens. And you’re left with this record of a moment in time that will never come again.
-Where or when do you feel most inspired?
It is so random. It can be any time, at any place. I might be alone or with a friend. I find inspiration is random. I might learn a new thing or hear a mention of something I already kind of knew about, and that can trigger an idea for a new story or a new setting or a new character. I try to be a sponge, just taking in ideas and sensations at random, because I know that any one of them might percolate into something someday.
-What do you appreciate most in your friends?
Their laughter. Their ability to take joy in the smallest things and then share it outwards. Their ability to be silly. To be kind and generous with their time and their spirit. With their knowledge, wisdom, and experience.
-Where would you like to live?
I like where I am. I love Toronto. When I was a kid, it seemed like this magical, unattainable place that I would see on TV. Someplace I never imagined I would ever actually live. And now I’ve lived here longer than I’ve spent anywhere else. I know now I’m a city guy. I need lights and diversity and restaurants and museums and galleries. I need people around me and public transit. I just wish that it was more affordable. Rents are out of control in our cities and that’s something we as a society are going to have to address at some point. New ways of living, of designing housing, of laying out our cities. Recently, Iread The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs and Brave New Home by Diana Lind which were fascinating in how they approach cities and our living arrangements in them.
-Who are your greatest heroes/heroines?
I never know how to answer questions like this in the specific because it changes all the time. But I know the kinds of people who earn my respect and then keep it. People who give of themselves. Who work to make the world a better, more inclusive place. Whose ideas for changing the world are about all of us, not just one race or religion or orientation. People who go at life with joy and gusto, who find the thing they have to share with the world and then do, to the best of their ability. People who aren’t about façade but about heart, soul, and mind.
-If there was one recommendation you could give to authors starting out, what would it be?
Write the thing that you story you think is missing from the world, the story that burns inside you to be let out. The story that excites you. Writing is often a thankless, underpaid profession. You will toil away by yourself and then, you may never know how your work touched people. So, of you write because the actual process of putting a story together actually excites you and brings you joy, then you can better deal with trying to pay the bills and trying to find an agent and get published and all the other things that can get in the way. Love the act of writing in and of itself.
-What are the characteristics you believe make a great ‘genre’ story?
Imagination, obviously. The ability to craft worlds that sweep the readers up and take them on a journey. But also, heart. What do the events of the story mean to the people involved? I always fall back on three things: Who are they? What happens to them? And how does it affect them? Every story rests on those core questions.
-What is the title of your latest story?
My latest novel is Ghost Light Burn, which came out in April of this year. It’s the latest in my Maverick Heart Cycle, Book 4.
-Can you give us a synopsis of it?
It’s another adventure of a sentient starship and a crew of adventurers that just keep getting mixed up in huge, dangerous situations. They’re a group of characters that have been with me since I started writing many, many years ago. One of the characters is dealing with a new disability, navigating how they have changed, when a message from old friend leads them to a shattered planetary system that’s being mined for resources. There’s corruption going on and our heroes get pulled in to help when things all start to go horribly wrong.
-What sparked the underlying theme?
Well, a dear friend who is a big fan of the series said to me “Hey, what about Character X from Book 2. I’d love to see them again.” So, that was the germ of the idea. And then I saw or read something about ghost lights, which are an old tradition in theatres. And I wanted to explore changes that had happened to the disabled character, so all the elements just kept popping up until I had a story that I loved.
-Are you working on anything else at the moment, or have the germ of an idea for another story you’d like to titillate your audience with?
I finally managed to finish a draft of the next book in the series, called The Infinite Heist. I had only about a quarter of it done when the pandemic hit, and it was agony trying to adjust to things and keep moving. There were many fits and starts, but I finally got it done. I’m polishing it right now to get it ready to send in to my publisher. And I have also just begun work on another adventure for the characters called Into Thieves Rift. Very, very early days, but it started nudging me before I was even finished the last book, so I had to gently nudge it aside and just make notes until I was done.
-Once again, thank you very much for taking the time to answer these questions. I wish you all the best of luck in your writing endeavours!
If you enjoyed this interview, you will definitely love this one with writing couple Jen and Eric Desmarais:
Looking for more great science-fiction? Give Red Nexus by Benoit Chartier a try!