Clark T. Carlton is a jack of several artistic trades. He is a successful writer who has crafted stories for novels, television shows, and films; talents he honed from studying English and Film at Boston University and UCLA as well as reading science fiction and fantasy classics. Carlton’s storytelling ability is also augmented by his work as a painter. One of Carlton’s recent projects is a fantasy series in which the first novel is Prophets of the Ghost Ants, a book that has been followed by The Prophet of the Termite God. Wanting to learn more about his career and The Prophet of the Termite God, I was able to interview Carlton for ScifiPulse.
Nicholas Yanes: Growing up, what were some stories you loved experiencing? Are there any you still enjoy revisiting?
Clark T. Carlton: Nicholas, first, thanks so much for having me here at Sci-fi Pulse!
My introduction to science fiction was a little paperback called Lost Race of Mars by Robert Silverberg and it was set in the year 2017. I read it over and over again and gave what I thought was a mesmerizing book report to the 4th grade. Jim and Sally are earthlings, the new kids on the planet, and they weren’t welcome on the Martian colony. Mars is a planet with a little bit of indigenous life and it’s known that there was once a race of ‘men’ because they left behind their mummies. Jim and Sally get lost and stumble into a cave and make friends with the last of the gray-skinned Martians. I reread it recently just for fun and it still has some magic. My first venture into adult science fiction was Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, about a human raised among aliens, which was appealing to me with its exploration of religious and messianic themes.
Yanes: When did you know you wanted to pursue a career as a professional writer? Was there a moment in which this goal crystalized for you?
Carlton: When I was 14, I had a record review published in a music magazine and it thrilled me to the gills. In high school, I won a couple of little contests for my poetry and short stories and I filled up the creative writing book. I wanted to be a writer since I was a teen l but I hadn’t lived much of a life. I had never been to war or grown up as the child of missionaries in China or traveled as a trapeze artist in a circus. Growing up in the comfort, safety and conformity of American suburbs, I longed for adventures and the exotic. Books and movies took me to places I wanted to go until I was old enough to explore. Experience was always going to be more important to me than owning stuff and to this day I make a conscious effort to keep breaking out of my bubble to refresh my perspective and have something to write about.
Yanes: As a fellow Floridian, do you ever feel that the essence of Florida is still following you?
Carlton: Yes, I do, but there is a different Florida for each of the millions who ever lived there. My first real adventure as a kid was the summer I spent in Fort Myers. My parents had been part of a disappearing rural life on the Gulf Coast. My father did not wear shoes until he was eight years old and his father was illiterate and signed his name with an x and kept his money stuffed under a mattress — that was stuff I’d only seen in movies. They raised cattle near a Seminole reservation and rode horses and threw lassoes and ate a terrapin called cooter. My mother’s father grew cotton and had sharecroppers before he settled his family in Fort Myers. That’s astonishing and a little embarrassing to me but it’s a reminder that Florida was as deep as the Deep South could get before World War II.
When I visited my Florida cousins, most of them were living in modern tract housing, but I had an uncle that hunted deer and ate them and he had a pet raccoon at his shotgun house. I remember my aunt doing laundry in a tub on the front porch that had a hand crank to ring out the moisture. My relatives identified as southerners and called me a “Yankee boy” and most were mired in some deep rooted racism. My cousins used to play Civil War with blue and gray plastic soldiers and the Confederacy always won.
That summer, I attended a Baptist church a few times with my grandmother. Above the pulpit, there was a staircase to something like a little pool where the baptisms took place. I got a dose of “hell fire and brimstone” sermons and remember sweating as an angry, red-faced preacher shook a finger and described at length how sinners would burn in flames for an eternity. That was deeply frightening and scared me in the way it was intended. My exposure to that old time religion was limited but it left something of a scar and it inspired passages in both Ghost Ants and Termite God. I think preaching about eternal burning in fire to a vulnerable young mind is nothing less than child abuse.
That same summer I got to see Miami. I was taken with its splashy architecture, its crowds and its Latin population. I liked how Latin-Americans dressed and wore their hair and how they seemed to be dancing when they walked.
What I liked about Florida was that it was semitropical and had interesting plant and wildlife. I remember my grandmother’s porch very well and watching the daily afternoon rain. Her porch was home to a lot of fascinating bugs including huge orb weaving spiders as well as solifugae or what she called camel spiders. The bugs I hated with a passion were the mosquitoes. I remember working at my uncle’s tree nursery and having to wear long sleeved shirts and pants in the humid summer. My skin stank of citronella which gave me a headache. Sometimes we drove into swarms of what my relatives called “mosquito hawks” which were dragonflies that splat against the windshield. In the world of Antasy, mosquitoes are still around, still hated, and they are deadly because if they “bite” you and you are only a tenth of an inch tall, they will suck out all your blood.
Yanes: You have worked in various mediums. How do you approach each medium differently when developing an idea?
Carlton: It all starts with feelings, with the need to express something. Then it’s a matter of figuring out what medium will best express it: a play, a screenplay, a novel, a song etc.
Yanes: Your recent novel is The Prophet of the Termite God. What was the inspiration for this story? Specifically, why did you want to tell a grand epic story on the scale of using ants?
Carlton: The Prophet of the Termite God is Book 2 of the Antasy series and follows Book 1, Prophets of the Ghost Ants. The world of my books is set in a distant future where humans have evolved to the size of insects and intertwined with their world. Different tribes of humans have parasitized different kinds of ants. I’ve put together two completely different species, ants and humans, as hosts and parasites, because in important ways, they are very much alike. Both ants and humans are inherently territorial and war-like. It’s a grand allegory rooted in the principles of evolutionary biology.
Yanes: You did a lot of research about ant colonies for this story. What were some facts you learned that completely took you by surprise? Was there one that you knew had to be in the story the moment you learned it?
Carlton: There are about 15,000 known kinds of ants and they are extraordinarily diverse in their survival traits, appearances, diets etc. I’m the most fascinated by leaf cutter ants which are farmers that cultivate fungus. Leaf cutters have the most complex caste system with members that work at very particular tasks like chewing leaves into soil or providing enzymes for digestion. But I was most astonished to learn about ants that enslave other kinds of ants. Marauding ants will raid colonies of other ant species then bring their eggs home to hatch and work as their slaves.
The humans in my world justify their rigid caste systems and the enslavement of other humans because they see it reflected in their ants’ behavior — it’s the natural way of the world, the way the gods created us. Present day humans have done the same thing by using passages in the Bible as a justification for the institution of slavery. Hindus have used the Book of Manu as a means of enforcing a rigid caste system based on race and skin color and the Koran accepts slavery as a normality — slavery was not outlawed in Saudi Arabia until 1962.
Yanes: The Prophet of the Termite God humanizes various insects. How did you find the right balance between allowing readers to empathize with insects while still keeping them distinctly non-human?
Carlton: The humans of this world have little or no attachment to any insects and see them as interchangeable and ultimately as food and useful products after they are slaughtered— much like many of us view cattle, pigs and horses. Insects are disposable commodities, draft animals and war beasts. The humans of this futurity may admire insects for their beauty or speed or ferociousness, but they know their insects would attack and kill them if given a chance. They are seen as the offered offspring of the insect deities which are humanized: Goddess Ant Queen, Lady Cricket, Lord Termite etc.
Yanes: Reflecting on the time you’ve spent developing this story, how do you think this project has improved you as a writer?
Carlton: Prophets of the Ghost Ants was a pretty successful indie book before it was acquired by Harper Collins. I had written a novelization of a movie before that, but had never worked with a fiction editor. David Pomerico, editor-in-chief at Voyager, went to work on the manuscript and it took almost a year to get it in shape. Amazingly, it wasn’t about the length of the novel but a matter of style. It went from third person omniscient to limited and David pushed me to share more of my characters’ interior responses — he didn’t mind that it would be longer! I was reluctant to do that since my training was as a screenwriter which is all about showing and not telling and keeping things concise. The process on Book 2 went much faster with my second editor, Kelly Lonesome. David had done a great job helping me shape my work and I was able to incorporate his teachings into the writing of my sequel.
Yanes: When people finish reading The Prophet of the Termite God, what do you hope they take away from it?
Carlton: The key word in the titles of my books is ‘prophet.’ No one’s god or goddess has ever chosen a human being to speak for him or her. We have to ask why God, a supposedly perfect entity, would choose the slow and unreliable means of prophecy, of choosing one person to pass along his messages which have taken centuries before they reach some of the people on our planet.
If God existed and wanted to tell us something, nothing would prevent him from speaking directly to all 7 billion of us in a way that wasn’t refutable. All too often, we abuse or distort or rely on the messages of so-called prophets whose moral systems are incomplete or questionable. At this very moment, we have men and women with claims to receiving messages from God but their real goals are power, fame and fortune. Prophets or believers in prophecies have encouraged the worst behaviors: wars of territorial aggression, the enslavement of others, sexual violence towards women, a demand for the submission of women to men and people of darker skin color to those with light.
Most world religions have been a means of encouraging universal brotherhood, of ending wars and of upholding a morality that values all humans, but religion has just as often been bent to justify our worst instincts, including religious intolerance. I hope that when people finish reading my books that they take away that we only have each other to rely on as we make progress as a species. And I hope they get the pleasure of indulging their violent impulses within the confines of a fantasy instead of acting them out in reality.
Yanes: Finally, what else are you working on that people can look forward to?
Carlton: I am working on the final book in this series, Book 3 of Antasy, The Ghost Ants of Gryllodesh. After that, I want to return to a pop opera about the building of The Hanging Gardens of Babylon set in 580s B.C.E. The music is all Eighties inspired: late stage disco, synth pop, New Wave, hair metal, some old school rap and House. It’s the story of Nebuchadnezzar, a ruthless tyrant, who falls in love with a princess from a green and mountainous land who hates Babylon because it’s hot and flat. To comfort her, he builds her an artificial mountain, one of the Seven Ancient Wonders, the Hanging Gardens. But Nebuchadnezzar makes the mistake of putting a handsome young Greek in charge of the project. Of course, I’ve got the Babylonian gods as some of the characters — I can’t leave religion out of anything I write.