Clay Gilbert has been thinking about aliens, vampires, and people from the future since he was four and he channeled these thoughts into stories. He published his first story at the age of 13, and has been publishing tales since. The project that has demanded most of his attention is the novel series, Children of Evohe. This series includes Annah and the Children of Evohe, Annah and the Exiles, and Annah and the Gates of Grace. Despite being incredibly busy, Gilbert allowed me to interview him about his career and work.
Nicholas Yanes: Growing up, what books did you enjoy reading? Are there any that you still revisit?
Clay Gilbert: I was an omnivorous reader as a kid, and I still am. I primarily enjoy science-fiction, fantasy and horror fiction, and those were my areas of choice growing up, too. But I was also raised with a healthy appreciation for the classics, reinforced by school, including my eventual graduate studies. I would say I love Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, and Dan Simmons (among many others) as much as I enjoy Herman Melville and Shakespeare. I’d say Moby Dick by Melville is my favorite book in the English language, but King’s The Stand is on my favorites list as well, in addition to Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine, which I reread every year. I also revisit Lord of the Rings every few years.
Yanes: When did you know that you wanted to publish stories for a living?
Gilbert: I started reading and writing very, very early. I wrote the first thing I think you could call a ‘short story’ when I was four years old (I know, because it has my age scribbled on it). It was about a boy and a robot—yes, I was into science fiction even then. I sold my first short story (a different one, naturally) to Scholastic Magazine for $25 in 1984, when I was thirteen years old. Basically, as soon as I could comprehend that real people actually wrote stories, and that ‘writer’ was a job people would pay other people to do, that’s what I wanted to do.
Yanes: You have an M.A. from Auburn University and an M.F.A. from University of South Carolina. How do you think these educational experiences improved you as a writer?
Gilbert: I think my long, long tenure as what some might term a ‘professional student’ exposed me to many different authors and works I might not have found on my own, and a varied reading palette is an essential tool for a developing author. Also, hopefully we’re all always developing. Also, my M.F.A. program gave me a period of what in the music realm is called ‘woodshedding time’—intensive time to focus on writing and be around other people who were passionate about writing and doing a lot of it. My vampire novel, Dark Road to Paradise, was written as my M.F.A. thesis. As a former teacher myself, I think education is very valuable. But in terms of development as a writer, you can know all the theory in the world, but if you don’t apply it to writing, and writing a lot, it isn’t going to help you.
Yanes: On this note, as someone who has produced fiction and analyzed fiction, what do you think many literary scholars get wrong when examining stories?
Gilbert: I think being aware of authorial intent, as much as is possible from research, is an important component of literary analysis. With the study of some works, this isn’t possible, but many times it is. I’m not a fan of leaving all interpretation of a work up to what, in my M.A. program (previous to my M.F.A.), would have been called ‘reader reception theory.’ But as an author, I would certainly not say that how my fans and readers feel about my work is irrelevant. Long story short, I think it’s important to understand the roots of a story, but it’s not the be-all and end-all for interpretation. There’s room for everyone who reads one of my books to take away his or her own meaning, regardless of the catalysts that sparked its initial composition, for me.
Yanes: A project that is currently demanding your attention is Children of Evohe. What was the inspiration for this series?
Gilbert: The first novel in the Children of Evohe series, Annah, recently retitled and republished as Annah and the Children of Evohe, began as all my stories do, with a character—an eighteen-year-old girl named Annah, from a distant planet called Evohe, and the disabilities and differences of opinion that set her apart from the rest of the people in the community where she lived. Not only does she have physical disabilities, but Annah asks questions the people around her don’t want asked, she has goals and plans her people see as impractical or even inconvenient, and when a man from Earth crash lands on Evohe and is near-death, Annah sees no reason she shouldn’t help to heal him, even though she knows her people would say it’s the last thing she should do. And the relationship that evolves between Annah and the human Gary Holder—one of the very race that had tried to destroy Evohe a hundred years before—changes things for both of them, and both their races. ‘Inspiration’-wise—well, I know what it’s like to grow up with disabilities and discrimination, myself, so I drew on that for Annah’s background as well as for Holder (he, like me, is hydrocephalic). I also drew some inspiration from a relationship or two in my own life, too.
In addition, part of the larger pattern of Annah’s journey has to do with her eventual role as a spiritual leader for her people, something that, I hope, hearkens back to classic favorites of mine like Frank Herbert’s Dune and Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. I wanted, though, to explore the ‘messiah figure’ archetype without the layers of cynicism and irony that Herbert infused it with, as much as I love Dune, and I wanted Annah to be more relatable than Valentine Michael Smith in Stranger. Also, it struck me that of all the messiah figures in fiction, almost none of them are female. One final inspiration: Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. I’ve often described Annah and the Children of Evohe, the first novel, as Jane Eyre in space.
Yanes: When people finish reading Children of Evohe, what do you hope that they take away from it?
Gilbert: Well, I hope they find it an engaging and enjoyable read, first of all. I hope that they like the characters—the ones they’re supposed to like, anyway—and find them understandable and relatable. Story wise, I hope the books make them think about all the difficulties we sometimes have in understanding people who we see as different from ourselves. If a story like Annah’s can point out that we are all more alike than we are different, then I’ve done my job, to some extent. I also hope people find Annah’s story inspiring. She’s someone who has a dream and doesn’t let herself be held back from making it come true. I think that’s a message we could stand to have around in our current culture.
I also hope the series speaks to and for people with disabilities. ‘Disabled’ is a term that could apply to many of the characters in the series. ‘Differently abled’ is a term I like more. Annah, Holder, and their friends are all stronger than they appear from the outside, and yet, their challenges are real. I think, in stories and in life, conflicts, flaws and complexities make us stronger.
Yanes: Children of Evohe has a fascinating back story and internal-mythology to it. How did you go about developing these narrative elements?
Gilbert: In addition to being a lifelong fan of science-fiction and fantasy, I’ve also done a lot of study of myth, religion and theology. I’ve read and studied the Bible and other religious texts extensively. One way in which this informs the world of Children of Evohe is that Annah’s world, Evohe, is in some respects an Edenic world—its people don’t wear clothes, because they see no sinfulness or corruption in the naked body, or in physical processes, including sexuality. But Annah’s people are also divided against themselves.
There is the notion of Shaping—using one’s creative talents to consciously change one’s world—and the faith that grows out of this. On Evohe, there’s quite a schism between Shapers and non-Shapers. Annah wants to show her people that this doesn’t need to be the case, as this kind of division has caused her world a lot of pain. How she does this is unique to her, in many ways, but it also echoes the larger savior-narratives throughout human culture, particularly and not coincidentally, the story of Jesus (although other patterns can be seen as well).
Yanes: With three novels written under the Children of Evohe banner, which character do you think took on a life of their own? Also, is there a moment of in the series that you truly loved writing the most?
Gilbert: Well, I think all characters take on a life of their own, really. That’s enough material for a whole separate interview. I know Annah certainly had ideas of how things were going to go that were different from mine at a few points. But her way was always better. There’s a character in Book Three, Annah and the Gates of Grace, named Rynn Handel. She’s a cyborg—part-human, part-computer—who runs an underground planetary prison. I grew quite fond of Rynn, and I’m currently writing a book, called The Conversationalist, that doesn’t have Annah in it at all. That book will touch on what happened to Rynn before and after her involvement in Gates of Grace. I think the end of Gates of Grace, might have been the most fun to write, also because it was very challenging, both emotionally and in terms of writing challenges.
Yanes: What are your long term goals for Children of Evohe? Would you like to see it adapted into another medium or create new sequels for it?
Gilbert: Currently, the Evohe books are under development by producer Joel Eisenberg and his company Council Tree Productions as a television series. I’ve been involved in that process through putting together a series bible, conceptualizing the look of the characters (in collaboration with an artist friend of mine) and writing the pilot script. Television is a new world to me, and it’s an exciting process. I’m looking forward to seeing Annah and her friends on television one day.
Yanes: Finally, what are some projects that you are working on that people can look forward to?
Gilbert: As I mentioned previously, there’s Rynn’s book, The Conversationalist, which if all goes well, should see print next year, along with a standalone urban fantasy novel called The Kind that I’m mostly done with at this point, a second vampire novel called Cassie’s Song, and a fourth Evohe novel called Annah and the Arrow. And of course, there’s the exciting prospect of the TV series. I do like to stay busy!