Clay Gilbert discusses Knoxville, Covid, and his latest novel Islands of Light

"...The world of the book is mainly a result of the idea of a civilization embodied in a single City, a stitched-together combination of the ancient and the very new—a physical symbol of new life growing out of the roots of the old..."
Islands of Light

Clay Gilbert has returned to ScifiPulse to discuss his latest novel Islands of Light. As a creative who has been thinking of aliens, vampires, and people from the future since he was a child, Gilbert always has fascinating insights into writing fiction.

To learn more about Gilbert, you can check out his homepage, add him on Facebook, and follow him on Twitter at @ClayGilbert1.

Nicholas Yanes: I last talked to you in June 2019 about Pearl. How has life been for you?

Clay Gilbert: Well, it started off well enough this year, and then the COVID-19 pandemic sort of knocked things off the rails.  Hope 2021 looks a lot better.  I had five novels planned for this year, including the sequel to Pearl, called Pearl of the Shadows, which I’m currently working on.  At least one of the five was published this year, and that’s Islands of Light.

Yanes: I just realized that I’ve never asked you about life in Knoxville. What is the writing community like there?

Gilbert: It’s interesting that although I lived in Knoxville from 1976 until I graduated high school in 1989, and then moved back here in 2005, I really view myself as someone who’s from here (as in, it’s certainly my hometown), but I formed my identity as a writer mostly away from here, and brought it back with me.  As such, I’ve never really participated in the local writing scene all that much.  Another dimension to this, I think, is that I’m a speculative-fiction writer, an area that doesn’t seem very well-represented in the activities of the writing community here.  I’ve been to a couple of meetings of the Knoxville Writers Guild, and I’ve met people from here—including other writers—during my travels out of town to appear at conventions in other cities.  There definitely is a local writing community, but it doesn’t, on the whole, seem to cater to people who write the sort of things I do—and that’s okay.

Yanes: Additionally, do you feel your current location is a hindrance or benefit to your writing career? In other words, do you think you’d have a different career if you were located near New York City or other cites with major publishers?

Gilbert: It would be different to some extent, I’m sure, but my books have all dealt with stories and characters removed enough from the conventional expectations of horror, science-fiction and fantasy that I think I probably would have ended up as I have, anyway—a  novelist whose work is published by a small press, because small presses generally still allow more freedom from formula and standard genre stereotypes.  I’ve been told by some of my fans that they don’t usually read horror or SF, but that they enjoy reading my work, because my books are character-driven, and feature people who are easy to relate to, even if the trappings around them may seem outlandish.

Yanes: A while ago I posted a piece about how Covid has impacted people tell stories. How has this pandemic impacted the way you craft stories?

Gilbert: I started working on Islands of Light in December of 2019, and it was already a continuation of a book I’d written earlier, so the pandemic’s impact on that novel was minimal.  But I’ve been surprised at the degree to which my current project, Pearl of the Shadows, has, under the influence of COVID-19, become a story about tribalism, xenophobia, the consequences of hate, and the healing power of stories—none of which I really planned on. I find that the best things happen, sometimes, when we don’t plan them, and that good things very often blossom out of adversity.

Yanes: Your latest book is Islands of Light. What was the inspiration for this tale?

Gilbert: Islands is a sequel to a book I wrote when I was seventeen, which didn’t get published until I was forty-two, and had been, of course, heavily edited and rewritten in that time, but which was still the first long-form piece of fiction that I wasn’t embarrassed by, even in its earliest, roughest form.  That was a YA dystopian book called Eternity, a novel I’ve characterized as “George Orwell’s 1984 meets S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders.” Eternity is about a teenage boy who leads a rebellion (comprised mostly of young people) against a theocratic faction called the Providers, who rule over a city which is one of the last, if not the last, surviving outposts of humanity following a global war whose origins are largely lost to myth.  Following the rebellion’s success in the war, Eternity and his friends find themselves in charge of the City, wondering what’s next, and determined that they would do things better than the Providers had.

Eternity was well-received, both when it was published in 2013, and when it was re-published by Dark Moon Press in 2017.  Its characters had continued to live in my imagination over the years, and from 1989, when I initially completed Eternity, until the summer of 2019,  I periodically thought about writing a sequel to it, and what shape that story might take.

I always thought any followup to Eternity would have to deal with one question in particular: “So we won the war—now what?”  That’s a real-world question, too, and even when the settings are outlandish, I like my stories to reflect everyday concerns.

The more time elapsed between Eternity and the writing of any potential sequel, the more I considered what kind of story it would be, and in what time-frame it would take place.

Once I firmly committed to the idea of writing a sequel, after the publication of Dark Moon Press’ edition of Eternity in 2017, I briefly toyed with the idea of having the sequel take place only a few years after the events of the original book.  Then I thought again.

Eternity was basically me, when I was seventeen—well, me transplanted to the far future, and set down in a city made entirely of black glass.  So writing a second story about him as a teenager, or even in his early twenties, when I was in my late forties, didn’t seem right.

So, Islands of Light takes place thirty years after the events of Eternity, and focuses on Eternity’s seventeen-year-old daughter, Piper, her three best friends, all children of central characters from the first book (who appear in supporting roles in ISLANDS), who find themselves wondering what it was all for, and if revolution really accomplishes anything besides power changing hands.

Yanes: An element of this story is a ritual called ‘Chautauqua.’ This is a word with a lot of meaning and history to it. Why did you select it? Were there other terms you were considering for this ritual?

Gilbert: I first came across the term chautauqua in Robert Pirsig’s philosophical novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, an amazing book I’d definitely recommend.  Historically, the term describes a cultutral movement that thrived in America from the late nineteenth century through the 1920s.  It eventualy came to involve traveling exhibitions that, according to the Wikipedia entry on the movement, “brought entertainment and culture for the whole community, with speakers, teachers, musicians, showmen, preachers, and specialists of the day.”

In Pirsig’s book, he appropriates the term as a framework for a book-length lesson on the philosophy of values, and, by applying motorcycle parts and maintenance as a metaphor for his musings on values, he re-incorporates the component of travel that’s inherent in the original concept as it appears in American history.

In Eternity, the title character, who would grow up to be Piper’s father, underwent his own unplanned journey of travel and self-discovery, which, by the time Islands takes place, has become a formalized coming-of-age ritual for the City’s adolescents when they turn seventeen, because that’s how Eternity was when he had his own adventure.

Although I don’t mention Pirsig’s book by name in the novel, it’s made clear that, just as he modified the historical meaning of chautauqua for his own purposes, that’s what Piper’s culture has done as well:  Here’s how she thinks about it: “Chautauqua was a found-word; a relic of the old world, long gone now, picked up, polished off, and made into something new.  Whatever the word had meant once, now it meant traveling-lesson; it was what everyone called the trip you took to find the name that was waiting for you on the other side.”

Yanes: Your stories always have great world building. How did you set about developing the world of Islands of Light?

Gilbert: The City in which Islands takes place was already established in Eternity, and although both books are rooted in the dystopian tradition of 1984 and stories of that kind, there’s nothing specific drawn from any of those, really.  The world of the book is mainly a result of the idea of a civilization embodied in a single City, a stitched-together combination of the ancient and the very new—a physical symbol of new life growing out of the roots of the old.

As far as my main character in Islands, I didn’t want Piper being some kind of big heroine or figurehead for a revolutionary movement, mainly because her father had already been that in the first book, but also because in recent years, young-adult post-apocalyptic fiction has been filled with figures like that, perhaps most notably in the form of Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games.  I think Piper’s much more of an everyday person than Katniss, despite her war-hero parents.  I did enjoy Hunger Games, and I think people who liked that series will enjoy this, but I didn’t have any interest in using it as a template for what I was doing.

Islands of Light

Yanes: Reflecting on Islands of Light, is there a line of dialogue or a passage that you are particularly proud of as a wordsmith?

Gilbert: Here’s a bit I’m partial to.  In this bit, Piper’s getting dressed to go to school, and there are clues about the second-hand, reconstructed nature of the post-apocalyptic world she lives in, both in the clothes she chooses and in her thoughts about things she’s seen.

“She’d found a black, short-sleeved shirt at the same shop, a shirt the Children of Memory must have scavenged from somewhere old.  WHO, it read, with the white letters encircling a target, in a font that made the word look like it’d been scrawled by one of the paint-taggers with their spraycans out in the Gardens of Glass, the place her dad told her had been called Govsec once, short for Government Sector, back before the Towers at the heart of the City had fallen, and its unseen leaders with them.”

Yanes: When people finish reading Islands of Light, what do you hope they take away from the experience?

Gilbert: I hope the book stands fairly well on its own, as a story about how differences between groups of people can be addressed without anyone having to give up who they are.  I hope the book shows how one generation can forge its own path without forgetting where they came from.  And I hope it provides an example of one way to do a sequel.

If I’ve done my job right, readers who have never even heard of Eternity should be able to enjoy Islands of Light, and then go back and read the first book if they want to.  I also think the central story arc of Islands–which is mainly Piper’s coming to terms with her father’s legacy, her own identity, and what she has to offer the world—is fairly complete.  But there are unanswered questions regarding a faction inside the City still loyal to the government of the Providers, and how they’ll be dealt with.  Therefore, a third book, Cities of Memory, will be on the way in 2021 or 2022.

Yanes: Finally, what else are you working on that fans can look forward to?

Gilbert: I’ve got quite a few books in the pipeline.  First is Pearl of the Shadows, the second book in my Mountain-Walker Saga; after that, there’s Heartsblood, the third in my Tales of the Night-Kind vampire series.  Following that, there’s a fifth book in my SF series Children of Evohe, titled Annah and the God-Builders.  And after all of that, a YA fantasy novel called Cat Mandu.

By the way, here are purchase links for both Islands of Light and Eternity, though, like I said before, you don’t have to read the book I wrote about Piper’s dad first in order to understand the things she and her friends go through in Islands. 

Remember, you can learn more about Gilbert by checking out his homepage, adding him on Facebook, and following him on Twitter at @ClayGilbert1.

And remember to follow me on twitter @NicholasYanes, and to follow Scifipulse on twitter at @SciFiPulse and on facebook.

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