Featured Author · Spotlight Interview

Featured Author: Ash Gray

Wednesday Spotlight

Shh: Can you tell us a little about yourself and your background?

AG: Whenever I’m asked this, I usually go into the I-am-really-a-dragon routine, because I hate talking about myself. And I hate talking about myself because I’ve had a crappy life and I’m sure bringing it up would just bring people down. I can’t even tell you where I grew up because I didn’t grow up in any one place.

Since I’m feeling broody this morning, I’ll share something real and not dragon bullcrap.

Just know that I was born loving stories out of the womb. And that’s not some cliché. My romance with novels began before I could read. My mother read to me every single night, even before I could talk, and I was constantly in front of the tv, and I only looked at things that had actual stories (and maybe the occasional Looney Tunes). I loved stories so much, that I had taught myself to read by the time I was three just because I wanted to be able to access those books without asking an adult to read to me. No one taught me. Not on purpose anyway. So how surprised were they when we were driving down the street and I kept blurting out what every street sign said – no matter how vulgar. I mean, I was three.

My mother told me this story the other day of how I taught myself to walk and actually walked early too. (This is remarkable because I was born with crooked legs and had to wear leg braces on them for a while – yeah, like Forrest Gump.) I was so eager to be in the world. It was like I didn’t even understand I’d only just got there. I also didn’t understand that the world was not for me but for someone else, and that I would spend the rest of my life on the outside looking in, trying to be valued as a human being and acknowledged. Of course, it took several more years to understand that.

Shh: What inspired you to write?

AG: I never wanted to write. When I was a kid, I didn’t yet understand that I was a blind dork with a bad back condition who would never play sports. I wanted to play soccer and tap dance and be a ballerina. People were astonished by how fast I could run. But the older I got, the more my nerdness caught up with me, the further I retreated into books.

Even then, it still never crossed my mind that I could or should write my own stories. I’m not sure who would have read them anyway. I was on my own a lot. Then when I was twelve, my aunt passed away. My mother, who has a degree in journalism and thus values writing highly, handed me a journal and told me to write as a catharsis. She believed writing would help me process what was happening in ways that she couldn’t.

So I wrote. And a bit over twenty years later, I’m still writing.

Shh: What inspired your novel?

AG: Since The Prince of Qorlec is what I’m working on right now (and having a friggin ball, I might add) I guess it’s the series I’ll talk about in this interview.

I was inspired to write book one Project Mothership when I realized how much I loved science fiction and that I should really, really be writing more of it. I came to this realization one evening when I was rewatching the first Men in Black film with Will Smith for the umpteenth time. I started thinking to myself, “Dammit, this is the sort of stuff I love and want to see more of, so why not create it?”

I grew up with movies like Men in Black and Alien and Terminator and even Mars Attacks! I didn’t realize it at the time – I mean, of course, I wouldn’t, I was a kid – but I was very, very lucky to have these science fiction films where people like me were on the screen depicted as human beings and not offensive and harmful stereotypes and caricatures.

It’s easy to get bogged down by negativity and feel like the world is a dark, dark place where you are not welcome and do not want to be – in fact, I feel this way every day, or else I wouldn’t write. But there is evidence that people are at least trying to be decent human beings. I’m not gonna hand out cookies or pat anyone on the back for that because we should all be trying to be good to one another every day anyway. But it’s still great to look back at my childhood and realize how damned lucky I was.

Basically, I realized I wanted to write the things I love, and I love humorous science fiction that is fun and silly and still manages to express some deep and profound truth, even in a lighthearted way. Or sometimes not. We don’t always need to philosophize about pancakes in every dang thing. So I sat down and wrote Project Mothership, which is the story of the last princess of an alien planet who was planted as a fetus inside a human woman so that she could escape the invading aliens who wished to take over her planet Qorlec.

The first book is really funny and lighthearted with some poignant moments here and there. I like to describe it as a cross between Men in Black and Terminator, except the aliens are the good ones (because me love aliens) and the FBI aka men in black and the robots/terminators are the evil ones trying to capture Quinn, the princess of Qorlec.

And because I adore action heroes in science fiction, I’ve always got at least one female action hero, who smokes cigarettes constantly and is sarcastic and tough and wields some kind of big gun. In The Thieves of Nottica, we’ve got Morganith as the action hero. In Project Mothership, it’s Zita, who I enjoy writing so much, I actually brought her back one book earlier than I originally planned. So she’s actually in the second book and meets up with Quinn again. I like to think of her as a cross between Bruce Willis in the Fifth Element (or, hell, Die Hard) and Linda Hamilton in Terminator. The difference between Zita and Sarah Connor is that Zita keeps her humanity. Even though she’s a soldier who’s supposed to be hard and cold, she never goes over the edge. She actually winds up being the person who keeps other soldiers (such as Quinn’s borderline psychotic aunt) from going off the deep-end.

I wanted to give the first book away free during my blog tour just to get people interested in the series. I actually plan to make it permafree once I’ve written at least four books in. I feel like it’s the series I’m going to be focusing the most on in the year to come simply because I love writing it so much.

Shh: What draws you to this genre?

AG: I’ll answer the last two questions together. The genre is science fiction > action adventure. Well, the first two are. The first two books are very action-packed, with crashing spaceships and chase sequences and people suddenly kissing as the fire and smoke are rising (just kidding on that last part).

In the first two books, Quinn is very young, so she’s not sitting around brooding about the universe. She’s got a mission in every book, and it’s not until she gets older that she starts slowing down to look around and smell the daisies. In the first book, she’s just trying to escape the zonbiri, amphibian aliens who are trying to conquer Qorlec, her home planet. In the second book, she’s trying to protect Earth from the zonbiri, who are at it again trying to make humans into mutant soldiers for their war efforts. In the third book, she trains as a warrior and learns what it means to be entirian, her species.

The third book is more quiet and reflective because this is Quinn learning and growing up and falling in love. It’s normally the sort of thing that would be skipped over in a montage if it were a movie, but I plan to use the third book to nerd-out and expand the lore and explore who the entirian actually are. So far in the second book, they are presented as a militant, cut-throat society, where their men are actually oppressed because of a physical disadvantage. They are not presented in a flattering light – which is supposed to be a sort of twist because these are the victims of an invasion by a brutal and more technologically advanced planet. Book three explores this and attempts to make the entirian more sympathetic while still showing they have flaws.

Shh: How did you develop your plot and your characters?

AG: This is a difficult question to answer because I don’t really have a process. I made this guest post recently talking about how to build a character with a character sheet, but in reality, I haven’t used a character sheet in years. I think the point of the character sheet is sort of like training wheels for when you’re just learning – though it can also serve to organize messy thoughts about a character. It has its uses.

As far as Project Mothership is concerned, I just sat down and started writing it one day. Rose was originally a cynical, sarcastic woman (which is why she tells Zita she has no gods), but I realized I hated that, and I went back and made her more soft and sweet. I don’t know why. It’s just the direction I chose to take.

The plot is half inspired by real accounts of alien activity and the young adult science fiction series Invasion America, in which a half-alien prince protects America from his uncle’s planned invasion. I actually didn’t do this on purpose. In fact, I didn’t realize how similar my story was to Invasion America until I found myself thinking one day of how sad I was when the series was cancelled. I remember reading the book that was loosely based on the show and being so miffed that the books were never continued. I guess in a way, I was subconsciously continuing David Carter’s story with my character Quinn Carmichael.

But at the same time, the stories are almost nothing alike. It’s their basic elements – lost prince/princess, fighting the alien invasion, human mother, whacked out aunt/uncle – that are similar.

Shh: What inspired your protagonist?

AG: Quinn’s story was inspired by a documentary I saw once of an alien abduction. Anyone who’s seen the documentary would read my book and instantly realize what I was retelling. I don’t feel like Quinn herself was inspired by anything, not even David Carter. Unlike David, Quinn doesn’t rely on a family heirloom to win her battles. I always thought David Carter needed to lose his handy-dandy glove at least for a while just to prove that he was a capable hero without it (and he did lose it for a while a couple times, but it still wasn’t convincing enough for me).

I’ve been playing with the idea of giving Quinn some alien weapon to defeat the zonbiri, but in the first couple books, she will be fighting without that weapon, just to show what she’s made of to the audience and that it’s her that has the strength, not some alien magic voodoo.

Shh: What inspired your antagonist?

AG: General Phorott hasn’t even made a real appearance in the books yet (I’m still writing toward that part). I can’t say what inspired him right now because right now he is just a name.

The villain of The Harvest, book two of the series, is a scientist named Dr Zorgone who is completely emotionless and cold and casually shoots his own colleagues mid-sentence. He’s been fun to write. He wasn’t inspired by anything that I’m aware of. I just wrote him (and snickered the whole time).

A lot of the villains in this series wound up being male because zonbiri women are so oppressed on planet Kahz, they can’t even progress to a point where they have enough power to be influential villains. But I’ve been playing with the idea of some self-loathing female minions who actually like the patriarchal power structure.

Shh: What was the hardest part to write in the book?

AG: The scenes with Oliver, Rose’s husband. And I think it’s because, after I’d written the first draft of Project Mothership, I went back and realized that Oliver was based on a real person. This was not something I did on purpose, but I’m not going to go back and change it now. Oliver stays. And . . . ha. I guess his inspiration is still on my mind. But you never forget the first person you loved. Even if they didn’t love you back.

Shh: What was your favourite part of your book to write?

AG: All the crazy chases and fight scenes. I can’t say because it’s a spoiler, but the scene in Project Mothership with Zita in the car and the FBI agent who tries to run up on her? I liked that.

Shh: Are you a full time or a part-time writer? If part-time, what do you do besides write?

AG: I’m a full-time writer, but I still do other things. I used to think I could paint. I also used to sew little teddy bears and make dolls. I was thinking one day I might start giving away teddy bears and dolls as swag for my books. If only I had enough talent to make dolls of my characters. That would be so cool.

Shh: What are you currently reading?

AG: I’ve decided to start reading, even more, science fiction. If I’m going to write it, I should be learning from my masters. So – after angrily trading in some copies of Constantine’s work – I grabbed some Isaac Asimov and am currently reading I, Robot. I’m still trying to get my hands on more Ursula K. Le Guin. I live down the street from two privately owned bookstores with huge amounts of books. It’s only a matter of time before I’ve got more science fiction on my shelves alongside the epic fantasy.

Shh: Who would you say are your favourite authors?

AG: I don’t know anymore. When people ask me that, I draw a blank. It’s because I just came from being an English Lit major, where I learned that most of my favorite authors are actually jerks, and even after earning my degree, I’m still learning that the ones with the greatest talent are some kind of bigot in some horribly twisted and disturbing way.

The authors I grew up loving, who haven’t let me down yet (or can’t because they’re dead) are Daphne du Maurier, Clive Barker, Ursula K. Le Guin, Dostoevsky, Herman Melville, Shirley Jackson, Mercedes Lackey and I’m sure there are more but I can’t think of them.

Shh: How about your favourite books? What would be your top 5?

AG: The Idiot by Dostoevsky, the story of a pure and good soul corrupted by a dark world.

Frankenstein was brilliant. And yes, misogynists. Mary Shelley – a woman – wrote it all by her onesy. And she didn’t “try too hard” and she didn’t write it to prove anything because – gasp! – women write books because we love to, not to impress men. Our lives don’t revolve around you!

Moby Dick is often blasted for its encyclopedic nature, but there are some truly beautiful passages. One of my favorites: “Our souls are like those orphans whose mothers die in bearing them: the secret of our paternity lies within their graves, and we must go there to learn it.” In other words, we can not know about death or “god” or an afterlife until we’ve died and it’s arrogant to pretend we do know. These words became more significant for me when I had a near-death experience and saw the light. Yeah. The whole trip.

Ursula K. Le Guin is amazing and I love A Wizard of Earthsea. My book The Seaglass Stair is heavily influenced by it.

Hmm. Let’s see. One more book . . . It would probably have to be The Thief of Always by Clive Barker, who is the king of horror and fantasy to me and always will be — unless he – like my other favorite authors – does something to prove he is anything less than a decent person and then I will have to sadly abandon him. So far, so good.

I abandon authors who are toxic because, more often than not, their venom is aimed at people like me and I can’t support authors who express hatred for me. May seem illogical to some people – amazingly enough – but to me, it makes perfect sense not to worship people whose bigotry contributes to systematically hurting me socially and economically. Yes, words have that power. You can’t be a writer and not understand that. So while everyone else is free to “separate the artist from the art” I can not.

Shh: What are your future projects, if any?

AG: After I finish my two series A Time of Darkness and The Prince of Qorlec, I plan on writing several spin-off books based on my short story collection Tales of Talithia. I might even start on it as I’m writing the other series because the spin-off books will all be standalone but based on the same world.

And because I’ve been actively trying to enter the publishing world for ten years, I have an entire pile of old novels that still need to be published. So polishing, revising, and rewriting those will be future projects too.

Shh: What is your preferred method for readers to get in touch with you and your books?

AG: I am always lurking in the rafters of Goodreads, so if you want something from me, the best way to call the dragon out of the cave without getting singed is to contact me through my Goodreads. I’ll get your message in an email and get back to you. You can also access my Amazon page from there and download all my books through that.

Shh: Do you have any advice for aspiring authors? 

AG: Avoid eating people with bone marrow disease. Oh wait, you said “authors” not “dragons.” (Good advice for dragon’s, take note dragon readers out there! – Shh, I am Reading.)

I usually shy away from giving people advice because who the hell am I? I’m just some self-published slushpile reject. But here’s the best advice I can give.

If you want to develop your skill as a writer, read. Read for hours and hours every single day if you can. And read good things. Things that are written well. Things that are freaking fantastic. It’s the easiest and most inexpensive way to learn. In fact, it’s the best way to learn. All the best writers were readers first. Why? Because they learned from the masters.

Connect with Ash

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