It’s time for another Indie Interview, and this week, Ash Gray stopped by to talk about her fantasy novels, her inspiration, and what inspired her to keep writing.
Ash Gray is a dragon with minuscule spectacles perched on her nose, living in a wonderfully dank, musty cave far away in an alternate universe. She types her stories with gigantic claws on a ridiculously small typewriter before sending them through a membrane and into your dimension for your enjoyment.
Hi, Ash. Welcome to Read A Lot.
Q: Had you always planned on becoming a published author?
A: No. I’ve been asked this question before, and it leaves me wondering if other people always knew they wanted to write. I have always loved stories, yes. I was a bookworm out of the womb.
I still have very fond memories of Story Time in the Sacramento library. When I was five, the place seemed huge and the towering bookshelves endless, like I was in some magical athenaeum. I have loved reading since I was three, but did I ever want to write my own stories? No. I didn’t believe I could ever be published. If I hadn’t published my own stories, I doubt they’d ever see print. People like me do not have the privilege of dreaming of being successful fantasy authors. Because people like me very seldom get to be.
Q: What inspired you to write your novels?
A: What inspired me to finally write was tragedy. I’ve always been a very quiet person. I’m more a listener than someone who shares my feelings with others. I once knew this woman who told me I was always fixing everyone else’s problems except my own.
When two of my family members died almost within the same year, my mother knew I wasn’t going to talk about it, and because she was grieving, she knew she could not be there to listen, so she gave me a journal to write about it. That was when I started writing my first novels. I believe I was twelve. You usually hear writers say “I’ve been writing since I was six!!!” Not me. As I said above, it wasn’t my intention to be writer. It just happened.
Q: What made you choose the fantasy genre?
A: I’m an escapist. Most escapists are naturally people who are having crappy lives and need to escape from them. For me, the greatest escape is fantasy fiction. Elves, dragons, mermaids, there’s nothing further from reality. I could explain why I was an escapist, but I already look mad enough as it is. So I will refrain.
Q: What are your books about?
A: My books, whether fantasy or science fiction or even erotic romance, are all about the human condition. Every single book explores in some way, shape, or form what it means to be alive, what it means to be a good person, and why we exist, as well as a healthy dosage of themes surrounding fate, destiny, and questions of morality.
The Thieves of Nottica examines social and economic oppression – things that still go on to this day. The “demons” are actually aliens who live on a planet that’s been invaded by humans, who have proceeded to dominate and oppress them for centuries. And not only are demons oppressed but robots are practically slaves. The book questions whether humans have the capacity to one day learn to treat other sentient creatures with decency.
It’s a deliberate criticism of racism and sexism and homophobia and institutionalized racism and institutionalized sexism and all the other isms and phobias that still, still exist. And it leaves me wondering if people who read the book “get” that. Or maybe they do get that and it’s the reason why they stopped reading (the book is sitting quietly on a few goodreads shelves).
All that being said, I did make some attempt to keep the book light-hearted and humorous. It’s not meant to preach or lecture. It’s an examination of the inequalities that are still going on today. The book shines a light on things we would all rather ignore.
Now. Someone may ask me “Well, how do you expect the humans to end the social and economic oppression of the demons? Give up their riches and go live in the filthy slums to prove they aren’t racist?”
No. That’s not what equality is. Change begins with teaching the new generation to treat people who are different from them as beings of worth, with decency, kindness, and respect. It’s too late for us. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks. We’ve already been indoctrinated.
But we can teach our children to treat people like people and not stereotypes or caricatures or inferiors. I guarantee that if more people were hired for jobs based solely on their merit instead of turned away on the basis of skin tone alone, there would be less crime from their communities. Yet we make certain groups into criminals and wonder why there is crime. We deny certain groups education and wonder why they are uneducated. We deny certain groups the resources to feed themselves nutritious foods and wonder why they have health problems, why they have high rates of mental illness, why they steal to survive.
The Keymasters in The Thieves of Nottica are thieves in the first place because society sucks.
Now, I’m not pretending people don’t have choices. Some people just choose to be criminals and there is no one else to blame. But some people really don’t have choice. The only way for a demon or a robot to live free in the world of Nottica is for them to become criminals. And that’s exactly what the Keymasters do, loudly and defiantly.
The book is a direct defiance of class systems, of oppression, of categories and gender roles. That’s what it’s about.
Since I’ve taken several paragraphs to answer this question (ha . . .) I will get off my soap box, end my impassioned ranting, and try to keep my other answers relatively short. (I’ll try, anyway)
Q: Did you find it easiest to write with a schedule or with no time restrictions?
A: I’ve never written within schedules or time restrictions, not until recently. I always write a book whenever I feel like it and however long it takes. And because I write multiple things, I always find myself hopping between novels.
It’s only recently that I started writing with deadlines in an attempt to sort of push myself. The result of that was pretty poor. My novella The Seaglass Stair was shoddy at best because of that (sorry to anyone who bought an old revision) but I’ve since revised it and the polished version should be live on Amazon whenever the system updates.
I still use deadlines, but now I don’t push myself as hard. Now I have the mentality of “if I make the deadline, I do; and if I don’t make the deadline, I don’t.” Now deadlines just serve to motivate me. My current novella that I’m writing and hoping to release soon is something I push myself to work on everyday. But if I don’t make the deadline, I’m not going to push myself to publish unedited work with the assumption that “no one will read it anyway so I have time to fix it later!” Now I know that people will read it and give me a poor review, ha ha.
Q: Can you choose a favourite character?
A: A favourite character of mine or a favourite character of another author? I’ll assume this is asking about my own characters and turn on Shameless Plug Mode.
Hmm. My favourite character that I’ve ever written . . . I actually had to look at my writing folder and I honestly can’t say any character I’ve written is a “favourite.” I haven’t written a favourite character yet. I don’t love any of my own characters that much.
As for the characters of other writers . . . I have always loved the train from The Little Engine That Could.
Q: Was there ever a point while you were writing when you wanted to give up?
A: Yes. I believe I gave up writing for an entire year with the declaration that I would never write again because I simply didn’t think I could. There were medical reasons involved. From 2011 to 2014 I was very ill and there were two instances where I nearly died.
People were also being very cruel to me. This included college professors, medical practitioners, people I was dating . . . these were people who were supposed to be helping me and uplifting me and instead they were kicking me while I was down. It was like a carrion feast for a select group of very ghoulish people.
I cried and said I couldn’t write anymore because the one thing that made me happy, I felt physically and mentally unable to do. Then the next year, I wrote a hugely long and rambling epic fantasy novel that was cruelly, viciously turned down by a very bigoted, very sarcastic literary agent (I plan to release that novel some time this year on Kindle), and that did nothing to encourage me.
The thing that finally made me write again was – believe it or not – my fan fictions. I’ve been a fan fiction writer for a little over ten years. In 2013, around the time I was ill and immediately after I vowed to stop writing things of my own, I was sick in bed and started a very long fan fiction. People loved it. I kept getting messages about how they started reading the fan fiction and couldn’t stop and how I almost got them in trouble at work.
I’m not sure how much of a compliment that is, though. I mean . . . it’s fan fiction. People were enamoured of someone else’s characters that I stuck my hands in like sock puppets. But they told me they loved the sad and beautiful (their words) voice that was behind those characters — remember, I had nearly died, so yeah I was sad. And little did I know I would nearly die again in 2014 the following year.
But receiving all those messages encouraged me to try writing my own stories again and to not give up, no matter how utterly hateful the world was. So I sat down and I wrote the first draft of Time’s Arrow: A Time of Darkness Book 1. I promptly abandoned the book as garbage for a few years, but the point is I tried.
I got back on the figurative horse.
Q: What is the worst part of the writing process for you?
A: Well, because I’m painfully aware of my own failings as a writer, the worst part is trying to overcome those failings.
For example, it used to be that I was really, really bad at exposition. Long rambling paragraphs about the history of magic cows are part and parcel to the epic fantasy genre, but I’ve since started shoving away all the most boring exposition into footnotes in my novels and it has vastly improved the flow of them.
I still have other problems I need to overcome, though. I’m not much of an action writer. I mean, I can describe action but I can not bring across the true peril the characters are in. In other words, I am not good at really scaring the audience. And I think it’s mostly because I don’t read much action fiction and I didn’t grow up reading it. It’s not in my blood.
Q: How much of your stories do you plan, or do you find it easier to make them up as you go along?
A: It used to be that I would always make up the stuff as I went along. When I was in college, I had this t-shirt that said “I make stuff up” because that’s exactly what I did. I jumped into the chaos and just wrote something, anything everyday.
Now that I’m older and have been whipped into line by college professors, I sometimes lapse into making outlines and planning out my story. So now, I usually know how the story is going to end and exactly what’s going to happen, even if I haven’t written yet. In this way, I can also guess the word count and length of a book before it’s finished.
I still love flying by the seat of my pants, though. So I don’t fill out my outlines too much.
Q: Do you have a favourite piece of writing advice?
A: No. I’m the last person to give advice and I barely follow the advice of other writers. There is, however, one piece of advice that I love and try to follow. It has been leaping between various successful writers for quite some time – who all pretend they’re the first one to have said it — and the advice is to always, always finish what you write. Even if it’s garbage. Even if you hate it.
Most writers say you should do this just to learn something from your mistakes, and that’s true. But I also do it because it cuts my work load in half later. If I’m working on another novel and I need a good word for a made up language or a good name or a good location, I can copy/paste it from an old crappy story of mine and improve upon the garbage I wrote before.
I keep everything I write for this reason, no matter how appallingly bad. The Seaglass Stair was a horrendous book I wrote fifteen years ago. I’ve refurbished it like an old car and am selling it on Amazon. Some of it’s horrendous roots still bleed through, but it’s a decent escapist fantasy now. Decent, anyway. Again, I apologize if you borrowed/read/bought the old revision.
Q: Where can people learn more about your books?
A. My blog. It’s a place where I rant about my books on occasion, between whining about book covers and ever-shifting Amazon policies.
Q: What have you learned since you started writing?
A: I wish I could say that I learned something cheesy and profound . . . like “Never give up!”
Well, I mentioned that I’ve been writing fan fiction for over ten years. I’ve also been sharing my original work online, and I learned a great deal from my readers.
I learned that readers always interpret your work based solely on their own perceptions and their own experiences. Kind of like your written word is a work of art. No one is ever going to really see your characters and your world and your perspective through your eyes, no matter how many times you hold out your hand and invite them.
Each reader makes the journey their own. And even if they are going on that journey with you, you are just a guide escorting them through your mind. You can’t tell them how to interpret what they see.
I mean, you can. But there’s no point. People will always see exactly what they want to see, not what’s really there. Seeing what you want to see or what you’re taught to see is the very reason prejudice (and I’m not simply talking about racism but all forms of hatred) thrives. But people seem built to do that.
I once wrote a male gay character about ten years ago, and this one reader argued with me for years that the character had to be bisexual just because he slept with a woman once. There was no telling this person they could not have their dream of a bisexual character, even if I meant for the man to be one hundred percent gay. Even if the man was forced into a situation where we he was pressured to marry a woman to please his parents – oh no, he was bi to this reader and always would be just because he didn’t hate his wife and remained friends with her.
Long rambling short, I learned that I am just a guide. When my readers step into my world, they can decide how to interpret it. All I can do is present the story and say “Here, go have fun.”
What they can’t do is tell me what I meant to say or what my original intentions were (or how my characters look). But that’s a whole other argument.
Q: What’s next for you?
A: I intend to keep writing. And promoting. And blogging. And writing. I intend to keep telling stories and hopefully getting better.
I intend to keep moving forward and hopefully stop looking back.
Thieves of Nottica is available on Amazon here.
“Scanning,” Lisa repeated. “Scanning Complete.” Her eyes clicked, turning golden again as the red mesh of light dissipated. Beams of yellow light reached from her eyes instead, creating a circular spotlight that glared over the trees directly in front of them. The creature came faster, Lisa’s glowing eyes having pinpointed their location for it.
“Well?” Morganith demanded of Lisa.
A tree somewhere fell with a groan in the darkness. The four of them leapt as it slammed down, shaking the world in a riot of dust.
“What is it?!” Hari begged.
“It is . . .” began Lisa, but she needn’t have finished. A giant mechanical frog rolled out of the darkness and into Lisa’s light; round, blank eyes gleaming like yellow headlights as it came to a smooth, rattling stop. Rigg glanced beyond it and could see it had trampled its eager way to them, leaving a path of destruction its wake. In place of legs, it had been fitted with the rolling tracks of a tank. Its rusty metal body was peeling with green paint, and its great, wide, toothless mouth was open to reveal a red synthetic tongue. Its yellow throat, made of withered cloth, ballooned out when it croaked, regarding them with the greedy, hungry expression of a predator.
Hari took a stumbling step back, pushing her welding goggles back from her eyes to regard the creature in disbelief. “You gotta be kiddin’ me,” she said. “Who would waste their scrap makin’ somethin’ like this?”
“You?” Morganith suggested.
“Proto-Frog Unit 365,” said Lisa factually. “Prototype Age: One Hundred and Nine. Designated Perimeter: Purva Forest. Function: To Cull The Population Of Wild Spiders –”
“Hmm. That makes sense, actually,” said Hari, shrugging contently.
The proto-frog gave a croaking, creaking scream, raising the hairs on Rigg’s neck.
“Great, things make sense,” said Morganith sarcastically. “Now that Hari’s comfortable, can we fight for our lives?”