In the ’Cosm Podcast S1 Ep2: Space opera galore, worldbuilding, and character development with Stephen Graham King

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Transcript

ID: Cait and Stephen Graham King on Zoom during the recording of this podcast episode.

Intro: Hi and welcome to In the ’Cosm. I’m your host, Canadian speculative fiction author Cait Gordon. I’ve started this podcast so I can chat with authors and other creatives I simply fangirl over. I hope you enjoy diving into my microcosm and feel inspired to seek out the works of these amazing humans.

Cait Gordon: Hi, I’m Cait Gordon, and today, I’m thrilled to be chatting with Canadian speculative fiction author, painter, and photographer, Stephen Graham King. Stephen is the author of the nonfiction work, Just Breathe: My Journey Through Cancer and Back, and the space opera series, The Maverick Heart Cycle, which began with Soul’s Blood, then Gatecrasher, and A Congress of Ships. The latest in the series, Ghost Light Burn, will be published later this year by Renaissance press. He is also a contributing blogger on the Spoonie Authors Network, and has appeared in world-building panels at Can*Con, and RenVCon. Welcome, Stephen!

Stephen Graham King: Hello! It’s so nice to be here.

Cait Gordon: It’s lovely to have you here, and thank you for agreeing to do this. I am a fangirl of yours.

Stephen Graham King: [Laughs] I will take that—happily!

Cait Gordon: So, it’s great to have you in my ’Cosm, and for people in the audience, Stephen and I chat regularly. We have a mutual fondness of space opera and probably also drag queens, but for the purpose of this podcast, we’re going to focus on space opera and Stephen, what about space opera as a genre really appeals to you?

Stephen Graham King: Well, it’s interesting, I realized fairly recently that one of my earliest memories is being three years old and sitting on the living room floor with my two closest sisters in age and watching first-run Star Trek, and then later on, when it came on afternoon syndication, it was on right when I got home from school, so I would watch it every day. And I think space opera, for me, hits this this perfect sweet spot. Because I developed very early this fondness for just the trappings of it, like spaceships and lasers and aliens and different planets and different cultures. I loved all of that. But I find space opera has… has some… adventure to it, and it has this sort of like, grand sweeping kind of feel to it, if it’s done right. And while I love hard science fiction, I’ve also found that sometimes hard science fiction loses track of character and subtleties of world, and it’s focused so much on the details of the science, which can be fascinating, but I find that space opera when done right will give you an insight into who the people are and what is going on in this big sweeping adventure. And I and I like that sort of unapologetic heroism about it. That it’s, it’s aspirational, I think, in that it’s people who, for whatever reason, are seeking to do the right thing.

Cait Gordon: Yes, exactly. Yeah.

Stephen Graham King: Yeah. So I think that’s kind of the sort of the trappings, the humanity, the adventure of it, and that sort of positive, hopeful, forward-looking type of thing that isn’t so concerned with its being rooted in science that it can lose track of all of those grander bigger themes.

Cait Gordon: And you know, it’s interesting because this leads beautifully into my next question. So, as you know, I’m a massive fan of the Maverick Heart Cycle. And there’s actually not many authors that I follow their work, like I just can’t wait to the next book comes out, so it’s a very big compliment to you that I’m always waiting for the next Maverick Heart Cycle to come out. So, yes, I started with Soul’s Blood, and I was hooked. I’ve always felt that your proficiency at worldbuilding is the thing that hit me really hard about your work. I’m blown away by—your books aren’t merely technical manuals, even though you do think a lot about the technologies. In Soul’s Blood, you had this organic society versus this techno wonder world, but you also crafted characters that we all relate to. And I, you know, you kind of touched upon this, and I just wanted to ask again is crafting the personalities just as important to you as the technology and the other aspects of worldbuilding.

Stephen Graham King: Very much so. Writing for me has always been distilled down to three things: who are they, what happens to them, and how does it affect them? And those three things sort of—worldbuilding is kind of in each of those steps because it’s about who they are, it is about the world they inhabit, and how it affects them and how it shapes their lives, but it’s also about the things that happen to them. And it’s also about the culture that they’re in, and how they react, so there’s this sort of sense of, like you said, that I want the people to be relatable. I want them to be at least somewhat aspirational because they always very much reflect my desire to be able to do all of those adventurous things and and sweep in and and write the wrongs. Whether it’s, you know, you’re on the left side of the law or not, you’re doing what’s right. So there’s that sense of the—you can write something that is interesting in terms of the story, but I think you have to, if not always like the characters, you have to understand them. [Cait makes sound of agreement] You have to get a feel for why they’re doing what they’re doing, what is going on with them, what it means to them to do the things that they’re doing in the book, to take the action in these situations, and to work at that in terms of the world is great, but worlds affect the people that are in them.

Cait Gordon: Right.

Stephen Graham King: And the people that are in them affect the world around them. So, so it’s really important I think to acknowledge that worldbuilding isn’t just “the buildings are really tall,” that it’s about, you know, what are the social mores, what are the cultures, what are the people, how do they feel, do they have hobbies, do they do they screw things up, do they make smartass remarks, are they really quiet, or you know. So it’s important I think to build your world into the characters as much as you build the characters into the world.

Cait Gordon: Yeah, exactly. And you know, something else I want people to really know about your works is that you have LGBTQIA representation in your works. But you do something a little unique with this representation than I’ve seen in—well, even in my own works. Like for you, acceptance is the norm. Can you just talk about that a little bit?

Stephen Graham King: Yeah, see, way back in the dawn of time when the very first version of Soul’s Blood was written, it was very much a feeling of not having seen queer people in science fiction, and that sensation of, “Well, we get to go to the future, too!” So, it was an intentional thing to to write that, and I think somewhere along the line… Well, you know what happened? I sent a copy of a very early draft to a science fiction writer in Edmonton named Candas Jane Dorsey, and she was kind enough to give me some feedback and take me up for lunch when I was in the city, and one of her notes was that in that early draft, one of the characters fathers didn’t like the fact he was gay, and she just looked at me and said, “Really?” [Cait laughs] “Really? You know, “We’ve traveled to the stars, and we haven’t left that behind?” And that was a turning point because from then on, I made it a conscious choice and built it into the foundation of the series that queer is never the problem.

Cait Gordon: Yes.

Stephen Graham King: People can be greedy, they can be violent, they can be short-sighted. But the prejudice is just not there. And that’s partially influenced by a film that I saw called Big Eden, which is this delightful queer indie film from the year 2000, and it’s about a man, a queer man who’s been living in New York, going back to his hometown in Montana. This little tiny town—

Cait Gordon: Okay!

Stephen Graham King: And the director and writer said, we are going to go at this as if that is not the issue, AIDS is not an issue, homophobia is not an issue, that is not the problem. The conflict comes from the characters and their personality traits and their flaws and all of that, but nothing… it’s not an issue in terms of queerness, and that was something that I kind of took on board, and made that choice that that was never going to be where the conflict stemmed from.

Cait Gordon: That’s fantastic, and I’m sure there’s so many readers who appreciate that or who will appreciate that when they start reading after they listen to this podcast [Stephen laughs] and look this fella up! One more question that I want to ask you regarding worldbuilding. We were just talking before this started that I kind of accidentally roped you into a panel about accessibility and world building, and you’ve started to integrate that more into The Maverick Heart Cycle. I’m especially seeing disability representation even stronger in your upcoming Ghost Light Burn. So, again, is that something that you find is important to the narrative?

Stephen Graham King: It is, and like a lot of choices that I’ve made in the novels, sometimes they’re not the initial choice, but they are something that I realized afterwards. And with Ghost Light Burn what had happened was, I did something awful to a character in A Congress of Ships. And, you know, had a nice technological hand-wavy, you know, “Hey, we can fix this medically because our technology is so great.” And I wrote the first draft of Ghost Light Burn as if that was it. They fixed him medically, and he was fine. And it was one of those things that came to me later on and that sort of, as I as I was looking at it again, that there was an opportunity there, partially because I deal with some recurrent pain issues myself due to, you know, extensive surgeries, many years ago, that it would be more interesting if they saved him, and they gave him his limbs back, but that wasn’t perfect.

Cait Gordon: Yeah, yeah.

Stephen Graham King: That there was still some recurrence issues because that was kind of, it’s kind of an extension of what I’ve experienced myself in that I got my life, and I got my leg, but I still don’t—I’m still not perfect. There’s still, you know… the technology could do so much, but not everything. And I thought that was an interesting thing to get to go into, and and I will honestly say between knowing you, knowing other writers who work with disabilities who have written for the Spoonie Authors Network that I’ve learned from in terms of acknowledging the depth of my own disability. That was, like, “Ah, this is… yeah this is the way I could do it!” And another, the other thing that I was really happy with was, there was a character he was —he appeared in a couple of scenes. He wasn’t major, but there. I had been at a panel at Can*Con, and one of the panelists was Deaf and was talking about, you know, not seeing that represented and not seeing assistive technology. And, as I was writing I thought, “Wait a minute. There is this piece of technology that I’ve created that could be used in a certain way…”

Cait Gordon: Right!

Stephen Graham King: “…as an assistive device.” So, it made perfect sense to take this character, who otherwise was just a guy, and turn him into an opportunity to demonstrate that not only have these technologies advanced, they have advanced in terms of becoming assistive devices as well.

Cait Gordon: Yes, exactly. I mean here on Earth, we have people living their lives, using all kinds of accommodations, so why not have Spoonies innnn spaaaaace? [Laughs]

Stephen Graham King: Exactly!

Cait Gordon: Yeah.

Stephen Graham King: And that came—there’s a character in what is eventually going to be the next book, who uses powerchair. And so I spoke to someone who is a powerchair user and said, “Look, this is what I’m thinking of doing,” and got some feedback to go, “Okay yeah you’re right, the character is the character, not a disabled character, not a powerchair using character—the character is the character.” And their point in the story is to do—to fulfill their role in the resolution of the plot, not to be an example or anything like that.

Cait Gordon: Yes, exactly. Exactly. I always say if I inspire you, I really hope it’s just organically and not just because I’m a disabled person.

Stephen Graham King: Yes, exactly.

Cait Gordon: So, another thing: This is my official third question. I just like asking you questions in between because it’s fun [Stephen laughs]. But one thing that I think has kept me coming back to your Maverick Heart Cycle series is that the theme and the feel of each book is a little different, and Ghost Light Burn was actually a heist story, and I just wanted to know is that intentional? Do you want each book to kind of have its own type of feel, almost like a subgenre mashed with the space opera?

Stephen Graham King: Yeah, there’s, there’s a couple of things that—I mean I wrote Soul’s Blood and for the longest time, couldn’t find a home for it. And so, Gatecrasher came about as sort of a well, “If I can’t introduce the characters that way, I’ll introduce them this way.” And then there were different characters, and that was—so it became a different feel to that story. And then when I was writing A Congress of Ships, it was, yeah there is sort of a conscious thing that each story should have a different feel.

Cait Gordon: Yeah,

Stephen Graham King: I mean, it’s obviously the same kinds of things these, you know, group of characters get up to their necks in ridiculous trouble and have to save the day and be fantastic. [Cait laughs] But, but, so you always know you’re reading a Maverick Heart book, but you’re gonna get a slightly different experience. And I’ve always looked at it as as there’s some kind of hints in them that connects to our world.

Cait Gordon: Right.

Stephen Graham King: Because in Soul’s Blood, it was a very, very, very, very, very science fictional future version of something like the Middle East conflict where two cultures are so different, and have such strong rooted reasons to not trust each other and dislike each other that resolving the conflict is difficult. Then Gatecrasher was kind of about corporate greed. What an evil corporation would would do to maintain their position.

Cait Gordon: Right.

Stephen Graham King: And then, congress of ships became a bit about refugees, because that was around the time when that was such a concern, becoming such a big concern in so many countries around the world, were refugees. So there’s always this sort of thing that connects directly to the, to the real world, which I think is important. And another thing is, I kind of look at it as my own personal playground, that I can play in whatever trope I want to. If I want to do, if I want to do wormholes, great, I want to do alternate dimensions, great. If I want to do aliens, great. It’s this—often it’s a conscious decision of, “Okay. What am I going to play with now?” How can I bring this this very science fiction space opera trope into this series, in hopefully an interesting way that keeps a reader interested in in knowing more about the characters.

Cait Gordon: And what are the tropes that you love?

Stephen Graham King: Ohhhhh, oh so many. Found family is a big one for me. And that’s very significant in these books because that’s what they are. Yeah, I don’t know, I don’t honestly know how to answer that because there are so many, and I see things that I just think, “Oh, that would be cool. I want to, I want to play in that playground.” [Cait laughs.] So, the aliens, kind of, they came in, in a way that felt like, yeah, this is what I want to do and the alternate dimensions was because I really wanted to bring characters from a different story in, and connect them together. So there’s, there’s so many things like technology and the change that happens [Cait murmurs in agreement], and how people deal with relationships like everybody in these books has complicated relationships because I have always had complicated relationships.

Cait Gordon: [Laughs] A little bit of own-voice stuff there!

Stephen Graham King: [Laughs] Very much so. So, they tend to reflect something that is going on in my consciousness, and I find I tend to be kind of like a sponge… that things will just influence from wherever. One of the things that we’re talking about worldbuilding in, when I was writing Ghost Light Burn. Initially, it took place in an asteroid field.

Cait Gordon: Okay.

Stephen Graham King: An asteroid field.

Cait Gordon: Yeah.

Stephen Graham King: They needed rocks, they needed metal of an asteroid field. But I was watching an episode of Star Wars Rebels, and there was an episode that took place in a planet that was all shattered and coming apart. And that was like, there it is. That one image that they used as just a backdrop gave me this whole other interesting way to, to look at that and to talk, and to introduce nuances of, you know, some of the ethical considerations of breaking apart a planet and mining it, you know. So, it made everything that little bit richer, and so many things just come from some random place that I’m watching or reading or, you know, talking to another person, you’ll go, “Oh that’s, that’s, I gotta file that away,” because that’s something that can add an interesting layer underneath it at some point.

Cait Gordon: Yeah, exactly. And it’s funny you mentioned Star Wars Rebels, which you totally hooked me into like so bad [Stephen laughs] that I had to make my own Sabine doll [he laughs again]. I mean I took a lot to make that thing [he laughs again] during a pandemic with my crafts—whatever I had [they both laugh]. So, let’s just geek out a little bit. Tell me the different kinds of series and books that you’d like, that, you know, that you have—I mean, I know you love Rebels. What other things do you like?

Stephen Graham King: I am… I’m a diehard Star Trek and Star Wars fan. To varying degrees, there have always been, you know, incarnations that I’ve liked more or less, and thought have been more or less successful. But series, oh so many, like if it’s, if it’s science fiction, I will probably give it a chance.

Cait Gordon: Yeah.

Stephen Graham King: So, going back to when I was a kid, all of the Gerry Anderson things like UFO and Space 1999 and Thunderbirds, all of that. Um, Buck Rogers, Battlestar Galactica. If it was there, I would watch it and the newer stuff I found has been excellent, so things like Firefly and The Expanse and Killjoys. There’s been so much that is this sort of new kind of storytelling, and I’ve seen the change from things like Star Trek Next Generation which was very much, “This is an episode. When the episode is over, it’s forgotten,” to, you know, Babylon 5 and Deep Space Nine, which were serialized storytelling and things kept going. And then you get numerous series in the 2000s, where the pieces all sort of build on top of each other, and every episode connects in some way and so you get individual stories that also add up to something bigger. [Cait makes sound of agreement] Book-wise, I had—I was making a list. [Laughter] I love… recently the things I’ve loved the most have been the Becky Chambers. I’m so excited, there’s a new one coming in February. Her Wayfarers series is, is fantastic. Tim Pratt’s Axiom trilogy was great. And again, queer characters, super queer-positive universe, found family—

Cait Gordon: Nice.

Stephen Graham King: All of the things that that I really really like. Alex White’s Salvagers trilogy; I’ve read two of those, really enjoyed them. Again, found family, adventurous crew of a starship off doing cool things. Murderbot diaries by Martha Wells.

Cait Gordon: I have to read that.

Stephen Graham King: Oh they’re amazing.

Cait Gordon: I have to read that!

Stephen Graham King: It’s—the character is basically a cyborg that is a security drone. But at some point, it figures out how to hack its own programming [Cait laughs]. Basically it likes watching TV [Cait cracks up]. It just wants to be able to watch more TV and be left alone, do the job. And so it becomes autonomous and becomes self-aware and keeps getting in these adventures but it’s almost… You can almost kind of read it a bit like, like that, like it’s on the spectrum because it kind of doesn’t know how to deal with people and doesn’t really want to even though it kind of figures that it should help them because they’re in trouble but doesn’t really know how to relate to anything and doesn’t know how to deal with sarcasm or humor or affection or any of that stuff. So it’s, it’s interesting. And it’s funny because this character is so effortlessly  humorous. Because of this very specific perspective that it has.

Cait Gordon: I just feel like this robot and could be really good friends [laughs].

Stephen Graham King: You have to watch—the first like, four three or four are novellas, so they’re short and easy to get through.

Cait Gordon: Nice.

Stephen Graham King: And it’s only when you get to the later ones that there’s a full-length novel and I think that’s another one that’s coming—there’s a new one in February or March coming as well.

Cait Gordon: When I was interviewing Jameson Wolf, because I’ve had a hard time concentrating on reading because of the pandemic and “gestures at everything,” we were talking about how, like, novels are great, but short works are also great as well. And it sounds like even what you’re saying about this series, right? I mean are there, are there other shorter works novellas that you also like?

Stephen Graham King: I don’t tend to think about it. It just—it’s the work that attracts me, not necessarily the length. I have… reading has been one of the things that I’ve been using to cope with the last year I read a ton of things, because I still had the focus to do it.

Cait Gordon: Yeah .

Stephen Graham King: And I made the point of arranging so that I had time. So I set aside time in my day to do it. So yeah, there, I tend not to do shorter things. Novellas, yes. I’ve read a couple by Aliette de Bodard, like she’s French and Vietnamese, that’s her heritage. So that the world is very inflected with, you know, Asian cultural touchstones in this futuristic type of narrative, and they’re great. And the ones I have read have been novella length. So they’ve been shorter and really interesting because they are very specific in terms of, of how they’re written and what they’re written about.

Cait Gordon: I’m going to have to like, listen to this and write down the names of everything that you said [Stephen laughs], because it all sounds fascinating, you know, expand my world. I’m gonna just veer off because I can’t believe it but we’re heading closer to the finish line.

Stephen Graham King: I know!

Cait Gordon: It’s unbelievable! I want to go to another place. I want people to know that you’re an artist.

Stephen Graham King: Ah!

Cait Gordon: You paint—I’m looking at a painting behind your head. I loved your painting of the classic Wonder Woman. But one of the things that you were doing before the pandemic was your photography. You do a lot of black and white photography or, or photos that are predominantly grayscale but maybe with a hint of colour. And, um, what about photography appeals to you what why does that medium hit you?

Stephen Graham King: Well, it started one day when I realized that I was carrying around my phone in my pocket, which had a really amazing camera in it. And I think it was a couple of years ago, it was a winter day and it, we had fresh snow that morning as I was going to work. And I just I stopped and got off the street, got like a block or two early, and I was going by—there’s a park and a church, and there were all these things and it was just okay, click, click, click snapping things and I started doing that all the time, and eventually last year, I actually invested in an actual camera, and would take it out. What I like doing is street photography. So something—and what I like about it is the immediacy of it. That it’s not so much stop pose, arrange lighting, you know, it’s not that it’s very much see a thing, snap the thing. And so there’s this kind of sense of having to recognize it, having to recognize the composition and the lighting and the energy and the movement of people going around and recognizing it right away and just grabbing it. So it’s this combination of intention and accident.

Cait Gordon: Yeah, yeah.

Stephen Graham King: That I like and because it’s literally, you’ve created it in a second. In the time that it takes to click the shutter, you’ve created that. And so, when my attention span fails me that painting because you haven’t, you know, in my new apartment, there’s not really a place to do it all that well, and I don’t have the best light, so we got to figure all of these things and figure the colors and do all that other stuff that this kind of has been an artistic outlet that is very immediate and in the moment. So it’s just something that I can do to create and train myself.

Cait Gordon: Yeah, yeah.

Stephen Graham King: Train my eye to see things and see, like I said, street photography is all about, like, motion and movement and how are people moving through the world and where’s the fun coming from? It’s just getting that, that… telling this story in a in an instant.

Cait Gordon: Yes, that’s what I was going to ask you. Do you, even though it’s immediate, do you find it another form of storytelling?

Stephen Graham King: Very much so. Several people have said that my pictures always tell a story.

Cait Gordon: Mmhm!

Stephen Graham King: And, and that is, is accurate because it is that sort of moment in time?

Cait Gordon: Yeah.

Stephen Graham King: Because, you know, you see the tilt of someone’s head and how they’re walking. Is their head up, is their head down, are they looking at the sun, are they looking at the cars or they’re riding a bike. You know, are they standing in line outside the store waiting to get in? So there’s that instantaneous, there’s a thing right there in that moment that you can see. Or you can imagine that there’s a story going on. That person came from somewhere, and is going somewhere, but you’ve caught them just in that precise moment of the day.

Cait Gordon: Yeah, exactly.

Stephen Graham King: That’s an accidental kind of thing.

Cait Gordon: Very, very cool. I love your artwork. And I have to now go with my last question. Yeah, and this is one, this is a question I plan to ask everyone because it’s fun for me to learn these things as well and you’re my second victim [laughter]. Tell us a fun fact about yourself.

Stephen Graham King: Okay. Um, well I kind of have—the one is that I set off airport metal detectors [Cait cracks up] all the time, because I have various metal bits in my body and sure enough, every time you go through it, it’s like, “Yeah, it’s okay. Go ahead. [spoken in a sighing, relenting manner]” And the other one is that I, many, many years ago, was in the Canadian premiere of the play, Noises Off.

Cait Gordon: Oh my!

Stephen Graham King:  Which was a Broadway farce, was in Broadway, on Broadway, it was in the West End, and when Canada did it, it was this theater in the town I was living in and I was lucky enough—it was like only professional theater credits. And it was an amazing experience. We managed [to put up] this incredibly complicated farce in something like two weeks.

Cait Gordon: Oh my gosh!

Stephen Graham King: Two or three weeks; it was super fast and super crazy and it was the best experience. So, so yeah, I set off metal detectors and I was in a Canadian premiere of a farce, so there you go.

Cait Gordon: Is it okay if I find both those things equally awesome? [Laughter]

Stephen Graham King: I’ll take it, I’ll take it!

Cait Gordon: Okay, well, that’s all the time we have for today. Thank you so much for doing this. I really appreciate it.

Stephen Graham King: Thank you for inviting me. I had a wonderful time.

Cait Gordon: Excellent. It was great having you. Folks, you can learn more about all of Stephen’s work and where to connect with him on social media, by visiting his website, stephengrahamking.com.

Outro:   
Transcripts for In the ’Cosm are available at caitgordon.com. That’s C-A-I-T gordon dot com. Thanks for joining us. Take care, and stay safe.

(Transcribed by https://otter.ai, edited for clarity by Cait Gordon)
 


ID: Greyscale headshot of Cait Gordon, closeup, wearing a black shirt

Cait Gordon is a disability advocate who wants everyone to be wise and think of others as we battle COVID-19!

Cait is also the author of humorous space opera novels Life in the ’Cosm and The Stealth Lovers, and she is the co-editor of the Prix Aurora Award nominated anthology Nothing Without Us. When Cait’s not writing, she’s editing manuscripts and running The Spoonie Authors Network, a blog whose contributors manage disabilities and/or chronic conditions. Her latest new adventure is hosting the In the ’Cosm podcast, which is really an excuse to gush over authors she admires.

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