Hullo, J Tullos Hennig here, one of DSP Publications’ genre authors, temporarily taking the interviewer reins from Carole Cummings. There is something akin to kismet in my being the one to put Carole in the Genre Talk hotseat, since I sort of talked her into the gig in the first place. Because I knew she’d be bloody brilliant at it—almost as good as she is at telling a damn-fine story.
But before we get on with the interview, let’s have a glimpse of Carole’s latest damn-fine story:
Blue on Black: Kimolijah Adani—Class 2 gridTech, beloved brother, most promising student the Academy’s ever been privileged to call their own, genius mechanical gridstream engineer, brilliantly pioneering inventor… and dead man. But that’s what happens when a whiz kid messes with dynamic crystals and, apparently, comes to the attention of Baron Petra Stanslo. Young and brilliant and killed for his revolutionary designs, Kimolijah Adani had been set to change the world with his impossible train that runs on nothing more than gridstream locked in a crystal that shouldn’t even be possible but nonetheless works.
Bas is convinced the notoriously covetous and corrupt Stanslo had something to do with Kimolijah Adani’s tragic and suspicious death. A Directorate Tracker, Bas has finally managed to catch the scent of Kimolijah Adani’s killer, and it leads right into Stanslo’s little desert barony. For almost three years, Bas has been trying to find a way into Stanslo’s Bridge, and now that he’s finally made it, “shock” is too small a word for what—or, rather, whom—he finds there.
Jen: So, Carole, it sounds like you’ve all the marks of a fine Speculative tale in Blue on Black. What draws you to write in that genre?
Carole: Well, Speculative Fiction is a genre that’s pretty inclusive—SciFi, Fantasy, Paranormal, Steampunk… pretty much anything that relies on the incredible, the impossible, the extraordinary. Spec Fic uses things that aren’t found in our world—magic, alternate technologies, alternate races—and other fantastical elements in storytelling, wherein the fantastical elements themselves are part of the actual story and setting, not merely sidenotes or plot devices. That generally equals a lot of worldbuilding, which is probably the main component of Spec Fic that initially reeled me in and still keeps me coming back. It’s eye-opening and really quite fascinating to read about imagined worlds with completely different beings, histories, sociologies, religions, geographies, etc. To create such worlds and characters, and still maintain a reader’s ability to identify with it all, is a skill that’s beautiful to me to witness. It’s the sameness and the difference—I can relate to the sameness and be challenged by the difference. I think it’s helped me over the years to cultivate my empathy and to make me an open-minded person who’s willing to see all sides and take individual history into account when forming opinions.
Jen: This book focuses upon a dyadic between two male characters, and your previous releases do as well. I imagine the burning question is: why?
Carole: God, you have no idea how often I get that question, which is why I always ask it on Genre Talk, so authors can have a place to point and say, “here, go look there and don’t ask me again”. And I actually sometimes kind of wish I could write things that would contribute to the dearth of female heroes in today’s literature. But that right there is the reason, and though I do have some personal rationale for why I write what I do, the broader motivations are societal.
I was born into one of the first generations that told women we were equal, that we could demand equal treatment and equal pay, and that we didn’t always have to be the princess or the damsel. We could be the hero too. But at the same time, as a voracious reader, the reading material available to me had not yet caught up with that concept. It still hasn’t caught up. So in my preferred reading genre—Spec Fic, natch—I was still seeing only male heroes. John Carter, Frodo and Aragorn, Roland Deschain, Arthur and Merlin, all of the protagonists written by Bradbury and Asimov and Vonnegut, etc. And since that was all I was given, and since there were no female characters with whom I could identify in those works, I eventually learned to identify with the bolder, more forthright characteristics of the male protagonists. Having also been somewhat rough-and-tumble as a child, and having been surrounded by brothers and male cousins, and having been gifted with the kind of observation skills necessary to write characters in general, I felt like I understood men more than I understood women. So that’s what I started writing. It’s also why I don’t fit in with the Romance presses—my stories are more in line with most mainstream Spec Fic stories, with the exception of the fact that the love interest of the male protagonist also happens to be a male protagonist.
Jen: I understand what you’re saying, believe me! Let’s expand a bit more into the society—and story—in Blue on Black.
Carole: It’s… hard to describe. Kind of Fantasy, kind of SciFi, kind of Steampunk… it’s an amalgam. I like to call it Cowboys and Tesla Trains (thank you Jen, *wink wink*) because though it’s a tongue-in-cheek description, it’s also kind of accurate. I also like to call it BoB because it was a very difficult story for me to write and it sometimes made me feel better to say BoB is being a bastard today.
Anyway, it’s a story mainly about control and the kinds of people who want it, the kinds of people who have it, why they would seek it and what they would do with it. It’s not a pretty story, and I’m told some of the concepts might be triggery for some, but I feel like it says some important things about abusive situations, about what kinds of people might get caught up in one (anyone), what they’ll do to survive it (anything), and where the limits might hide (if there are any). It challenges what we would think of as “normal” and “healthy”, and shows us people who may function outside of those narrow parameters, but who should not be judged by them.
Jen: And Blue on Black is being published through DSP Publications, Dreamspinner Press’s imprint for nonromance genre novels. You’ve already talked some about the relationship in Blue on Black; what makes this novel a better fit for genre Spec Fic as opposed to genre Romance?
Carole: Basically, because I just don’t write romance. I never have. And I’ve tried! And while I like a good romance as much as the next person, my interests lie in characterization and watching a different world develop, in discovering what the characters are like and where they came from, watching them interact with their world and finding the similarities and differences in how we interact with our own. I love the possibilities of Spec Fic, and character-driven stories are like good wine for me. And since I write what I like to read, my stories—in this case Blue on Black—tend more toward exploring those possibilities and finding out whether or not the two protagonists will grow together during that exploration. That means the relationship takes a backseat to plot and worldbuilding and character development, which pretty much disqualifies it as a romance.
DSP Publications was a bloody godsend for me, because I often found myself disheartened by comments and reviews that basically said WTF, what’s all this worldbuilding doing in my Romance? and now I at least have the comfort of knowing that if that’s not what they were looking for, it’s their own fault for not paying attention to what my publisher is all about. ;)
Jen: It sounds as though the evolution of Blue on Black has its own story. Share some of that, if you would; give us a peek into some earlier concepts. Did it always resemble the present story? Was it always Blue on Black, or did it morph from something else entirely?
Carole: Augh. This story snuck up behind me, thunked me on the head and dragged me to my laptop, and by the time I realized what it was and where it was going, it already had me chained to the keyboard and wouldn’t let me put it down. This never ever happens to me, but it quite literally jumped me in a dream with the image of Bas up on top of a train (Karl Urban in Priest may or may not have had something to do with that image), with wild currents of electricity whipping around him and something sinister waiting at the end of the tracks. The rest is unending research into Tesla and his genius, and my own wild imagination, all peppered liberally with whinging and dragging my feet. (Did I mention this story was really hard to write?)
Jen: Though it doesn’t sound as though you found it hard to settle that Blue on Black was to centre on a relationship between two men. Out of all the excellent reasons to explore that dynamic, which ones played a necessary part here?
Carole: All of the stories that come to me these days involve the M/M dynamic, for the reasons stated above, but I think this one in particular needed it because a woman caught in the situation in which one of the protagonists finds himself would likely be, sadly, judged harshly and unfairly (and I’ll be interested to see how the character Mari is received). That’s all I’m going to say on that because a) more would be spoilery, and b) I don’t want to get into some kind of MRA –vs– SJW kerfuffle (though that’s admittedly highly unlikely in this genre and in this particular venue, but still).
As a general comment on M/M as a genre, and why Blue on Black is now a part of it, I think my participation is necessary because every story that features love between two people of the same sex—or someone of color, or someone with a disability, or someone whose “normal” is not your “normal” or my “normal”—is another tick in the advocacy column, another step toward acceptance and equality. It opens eyes and opens discussion. And I like to think I’m contributing to that in my own small ways.
Jen: In your opinion, what is the best trend you’re seeing in Spec Fic publishing today?
Carole: The best trend, I think, is the increased selection of reading material brought about by the advent of small presses. I have been unimpressed for a couple decades now by most of what’s coming out of the bigger NY publishers, and small presses are starting to assuage my unhappiness at getting less and less of what I want to read. Small presses so far are welcoming a lot of what the bigger presses turn their noses up at, and that’s awesome for me, because I want my stories, damn it!
Jen: So then, it also begs the question: what of the worst trend?
Carole: The whole “shorter is better” thing that’s been taking over every genre lately and treating character development like it’s some kind of superfluous indulgence. That says an event can’t be an interior revelation but must be some kind of physical exploit, and action can’t be an intense conversation but must be a car chase or a gunfight. It discounts nuance, it devalues subtext, it forfeits depth and caters to short attention spans. Spec Fic is supposed to challenge readers, not kowtow to them. Intricate plots, in-depth character development, immersive worldbuilding—I want it all, and I’m not getting much of it these days, though the small presses are making it easier to find now.
When I find a book or a series the size of a cinderblock, and the blurb gets me all a-quiver, and the writing makes me drool, I do a Snoopy-dance. I get visions of a lazy weekend (or even a week!) sinking into someone else’s world, getting to know some new characters and finding out everything about them so their reactions will be something that a) makes sense, and b) I can understand, if not empathize with. (Don’t slap a couple Elves into modern day NYC and call it Fantasy—tell me why those Elves are there, who they are, how their presence can make sense in this world and why it matters.) But the trend these days is toward “short and sweet” and cutting out character development and worldbuilding in favor of space battles and explosions. Publishing houses—even some of the smaller ones just coming up—don’t seem to want to make readers think, and a lot of readers will cut a bitch if you try to make them, and that’s a bloody shame, because that’s what Spec Fic is for! I don’t need to be dragged through a story behind a speeding train—I need to care about the characters, and if there is no time and there are no words spent on telling me why I should, there’s no real point for me. Today’s “tell it in 60K or less” means I don’t get many of the in-depth epics I grew up with, because authors aren’t allowed to elaborate unless they’re Stephen King or George R. R. Martin. And I miss my epics.
Jen: Me, too. Let’s go light a candle for them… and nurse a drink! But first I’d better do you proud, and be the proper interviewer, and share a bit from yours.
Because Blue on Black is epic-ly entertaining. Continue on, Fair Readers, and see for yourself. (And links available after the excerpt, natch.)
EXCERPT – BLUE ON BLACK: It doesn’t start like this:
See, the thing is, it isn’t supposed to go this way.
He’s a goddamned tracker, he’s a goddamned good tracker, better than anything else the Directorate’s got, and the swagger that comes with that has been earned a hundred times over, sometimes in blood, though, okay, let’s not get all maudlin and dramatic. The point is, he’s not supposed to be caught wrong-footed. And he’s certainly not supposed to be staring down eight barrels of a spin-cylinder street cannon in the back of a train station in godforsaken Harrowgate.
That’s supposed to be the agent’s job. Poor guy. Stupid fucking idiot.
“You Barstow?” the man with the gun asks. He’s tall and rangy, rough-looking and sallow-skinned, with patches of beard going wild and scraggly. It’s dark and Bas can’t see the rest of his face very well, just a stubbled sloping chin beneath the shadow cast by his wide-brimmed hat. He looks tough as rusty nails and just as pleasant.
Steam hugs the ground and wreaths the hem of the man’s long dirty coat, clings, and thickens the reek of dirt and sweat that wafts from the man every time he moves. Bas can even smell it through the fug of smoke and engine grease coming from the station, and all of it combined pricks at his eyes and makes them water.
There’s no cleaner, deeper sense of Tech beneath any of it—no thick, sundrop yellow mutters of “psyTech” hazing at the periphery of his vision and scattering something earthy on the back of his tongue; no blue edging that says “kineTech” and somehow tastes of wet cedar. Bas’s mind decides “nonTech” before his eyes bother to fully assess his current situation. Still, though, the gun—Bas can see that just fine.
“Who’s asking?” Bas says from his crouch. He’s somewhat pissed off, so it comes out a growl.
Smooth, Bas, he tells himself. Keep it smooth. He can still salvage this.
“I en’t playin’ games.” The housing of the barrels turns and a cylinder clicks into place. “Are you Barstow?”
Bas peers down at the agent’s body, blood still seeping in a rivulet from the knife in his throat, the heat catching the chill of the desert night and wisping steam. Aaron, Bas thinks. The guy’s name was Aaron.
Bas didn’t know him well. Hadn’t cared to get to know him. Just another Directorate agent who’d maybe gotten a little too cocky. It happens.
“Yeah,” says Bas. “Yeah, I’m Barstow.”
He isn’t. No one is, not really. It’s a cover, a standard one used by trackers when they need a ready-made thug reputation as an in with bands of thieves and murderers, and then that same cover is handed over to the agents along with the case once the tracker’s job is done.
Bas is a tracker, not an agent. Trackers track. They don’t do the set-them-up-then-take-them-down part. They do the sniffing out and the pointing, and then they let the agents take over.
Bas knows the Barstow cover well enough to fake it. He’s been Barstow plenty of times. Hell, he’d done most of the legwork on this particular case, and he’d done it as Barstow. And someone needs to get into Stanslo’s Bridge.
“Well, Barstow.” It sounds like a sneer. “Ye picked up a tail.”
About the Author: Carole Cummings lives with her husband and family in Pennsylvania, USA, where she spends her time trying to find time to write. Author of the Aisling and Wolf’s-own series, Carole is an avid reader of just about anything that’s written well and has good characters. She is a lifelong writer of the “movies” that run constantly in her head. Surprisingly, she does manage sleep in there somewhere, and though she is rumored to live on coffee and Pixy Stix™, no one has as yet suggested she might be more comfortable in a padded room. Well, not to her face.
Thanks for joining us. Next time on Genre Talk, Patricia Correll will be talking to us about Fantasy.