Let me start off today by making it clear that Malcolm is not only a fellow Vanilla Heart author, he is also a dear friend of mine. That in no way affected what I asked him, and I don’t believe it affected how he answered my questions. Even if he were not a dear friend, I would highly recommend his books, especially The Sun Singer and his most recent book, Sarabande. I, too, am a former journalist; we learn to set aside our personal feelings to get to the heart of the story. I believe I have done that here, chatting with Malcolm. I hope by the time you finish reading this, you’ll want to check out his books, because they are fabulous.
You started off your writing career as a journalist and a technical writer. As a former journalist myself, I know how hard it is to change from writing “just the facts, ma’am” to being able to write wildly creative fantasy, as you do in both The Sun Singer and Sarabande. How were you able to turn off that part of your brain that allowed you to write only news stories so that your creative imagination could take over?
I seem to be able to adapt to multiple styles and formats rather automatically. Perhaps this is similar to people who can sit down at the piano and switch from Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” to Chopin’s Polonaise in A-Flat Major without missing a beat.
Ooh, I like that analogy! That explains a lot.
Yes; I “hear” the cadence of each writing style inside my head whether it’s a grant application, a news release or a novel.
The Sun Singer was inspired by a statue by the same name at Allerton Park in Monticello, Illinois. I’ve been fortunate enough to visit Allerton, and it is indeed inspiring—but I was in my forties when I first saw The Sun Singer. You were quite a young boy, were you not? What was it about that statue that stuck with you for so many decades and inspired you to write your novel?
All of the mythic statuary in the park played into the experience. I was at an age where I knew little about myths or sculpture. As you know, the Sun Singer is huge, so with the sun shining on it where it stood rather alone in a meadow, it made quite an impression—psychic, almost. A violent thunderstorm rolled through the park as we were getting our things together to leave after dark. Watching out the car window, the centaur, fu dogs and other statues seemed to be moving when they came in and out of view with the lightning flashes.
That would be terrifying for a child!
That experience morphed into nightmares later about being chased by the statues, or beasts like the statues, with the exception of the Sun Singer. As a writer, it was easy to imagine taking this one step further into fantasy and magic.
Both The Sun Singer and Sarabande (as well as your nonfiction, historical short, Bears: Where They Fought) take place at least partly in Glacier National Park. I know you worked there as a young man. How did your experience working in the park influence your writing about it? How difficult did you find it to change the park into an alternate world, as it is in parts of the novels?
I “see” and “feel” magic—or psychic impressions—everywhere, so it’s easy to write about the streams and mountains in Glacier Park’s Swiftcurrent Valley as it is in our science and technology world or as it might be in Pyrrha’s alternate universe of magic and “old religion” focus. For years, I intended to live near the park. Since it’s my favorite place, I set the novel there because I knew no place better.
As much as I enjoy reading about Glacier’s beauty in your books, you write so well about our natural world, I’d love to read anything you might write about other places of natural beauty. If you could travel to, and set a story in, any other place of exquisite wonder and beauty on the planet, where would it be? What draws you to that locale?
If I could travel anywhere, I would go to K2 (Chogori), the world’s second highest mountain, in the Karakoram Range along the Pakistan/China border and climb up at least to the base camp level and just breathe in the thin air and the wonderment. I grew up reading books about the first Mt. Everest climbs and then later began reading about the other peaks that were the focus of so many expeditions. Such mountains speak to me, perhaps in a manner similar to other people hearing messages in jazz or the blues or certain artists’ paintings. David Ward, my protagonist, in Garden of Heaven: an Odyssey, climbs K2 and then writes a novel about it called Chogori of the Winds. He did what I dreamt about doing.
I love the roles animals play in your books, especially Sikimí, the black Friesian stallion who can fly. What a magnificent creature he is! How does your own relationship with animals affect your writing? Do you think you could write as well about animals if you didn’t have a special relationship of some sort with them?
In many ways, my characters are living out the life I expected to lead. I have always loved mountains and horses. Perhaps it’s because I remember the family moving from Oregon to north Florida when I was six, and how sad it made me feel to leave—and how upset I was, even in grade school, to learn that the move wasn’t just a temporary change. The west draws me like a magnet. The animals I use are often my own totem animals or those that I’ve seen often and feel comfortable talking about.
In Sarabande, a coyote plays a prominent role. Did you consider using any other animal to play coyote’s role, like a raven, or snake? Why was coyote chosen?
Coyote just showed up. I intentionally mentioned her during a healing ceremony in the first part of the book. I had no idea she planned to become a strong character later in the story. Sikimí (the black horse) and Raven first showed up in The Sun Singer and had also strong roles in Garden of Heaven: an Odyssey. I personally like coyotes as animals and as tricksters in native mythologies, so perhaps I invited her into Sarabande subconsciously.
There is a spiritual element to both The Sun Singer and Sarabande that is just beautiful, and reminds me very much of my personal spiritual beliefs and practices. How do your own spiritual beliefs and practices affect what and how you write?
What I believe doesn’t have the name of a sect, system, or religion attached to it. The spiritual nature of people, animals, plants, landforms, bodies of water, etc. is basic, I think, to what they are and what they are about. The symbols and metaphors I use in the books are a convenient way of communicating the “inner life of the world;” the archetypes for ways of being are so deeply engraved within us, that when I use a symbol such as “moon” or “light,” I know that people already have a feeling about it and will, I hope, resonate with the numinous side of the world in the story. The Huna (Hawaiian mysticism) belief that there is nothing that is not God, is very close to what I feel.
Let’s switch focus here. You’re also the author of the book, Jock Stewart and the Missing Sea of Fire. That book should come with a warning label: “Do not drink beverages of any kind while reading this book,” or some such thing. I nearly spewed coffee or Diet Coke on more than one occasion reading it, because it is hysterically funny! You are a gifted satirist. Is this a natural talent, or did you have to work hard to develop it?
My father and middle brother stunned the family senseless with an unending barrage of puns while I was growing up. So, I had to learn the craft. Those who know me in real life see me doing the same thing without really intending to be doing it. That is, it’s natural to me to see double meanings, symbols, and “what if?” questions about everything. In a way, it feels like I’m seeing colors others aren’t seeing because the multiple meanings of a word or phrase are so obvious to me that I can’t help but think of dark/humorous/sarcastic interpretations of the most innocent and mundane things I read or hear in conversation.
Tell the truth: are you Jock Stewart? Or perhaps I should ask, is Jock Stewart you?
In my novels, I am essentially the David Ward character; he’s the protagonist in Garden of Heaven: an Odyssey, my randomly autobiographical, magical realism novel. I see David/Malcolm as like Dr. Jekyll and Malcolm/Jock as rather like a beautifully and expediently warped Mr. Hyde. David/Malcolm reels the world too strongly and uses Jock Stewart as a defense, a way of pushing it away when it becomes too much.
The Sun Singer and Sarabande are fantasy realism; Jock Stewart and the Missing Sea of Fire is both a mystery and a satire. What led you to write in these genres? Would you want to write a book in a different genre, such as historical fiction, or suspense?
I don’t understand the whole genre thing and see those labels as something pasted onto a short story or a novel from the outside. I know that genres have morphed into minor religions, each with gods, goddesses, dogmas, sins, rituals, heavens and hells. When I look at the guidelines for magazines and publishers with a rabid focus on a genre or sub-genre, my eyes glaze over. Obviously, a lot of writers have written some great stuff by consciously adhering to genre rules and regs. But just thinking of such things makes me feel like I’m in a straightjacket. I simply see a story that looks and feels compelling to me without a clue whether it’s in one genre or another. Based on how others see my writing, my comfort area is contemporary fantasy and magical realism—or so I hear.
What are the last three books you’ve read? What are you currently reading? What are the next three books on your “to read” pile? And what led you to choose these books?
First up on my “to be read” pile is Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, followed by Donald T. Williams’ collected poems in, Stars Through the Clouds and Lisa Mantchev’s Perchance to Dream. Right now, I’m reading Beth Sorensen’s romantic mystery Divorcing a Dead Man, the second in her Thomas Hall Series. I recently read The Help, Unbroken: World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption and The Tiger’s Wife.
What draws you to a book? What must it have to maintain your interest? Are you one of those people who, once he’s started reading, feels he has to finish a book, or will you toss one aside if it fails to meet your expectations?
The characters, plot, and setting must draw me into a world that feels just as real as our own whether it’s Stephen Donaldson’s epic fantasy series, The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, Lisa See’s historical novel, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, or Stieg Larsson’s popular murder mystery trilogy that began with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. These novels have little in common except for compelling stories and characters; I am drawn in by a wide variety of fiction except for occult, erotica, steamy romances, and detective stories.
What do you like to do when you aren’t writing? (And don’t say “Mow the lawn.” We’re Facebook friends, and I know better.)
I read a lot. Surprised? When we can, Lesa and I like to hike the trails along the Blue Ridge Parkway between Mt. Mitchell and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We also enjoy the trails and settings of Asheville’s Biltmore Estate. Here in Jefferson, Georgia, I was active on the Historic Preservation Commission, chairing it for three years. I also mow the lawn.
What’s next for you? Is there another spin-off from The Sun Singer in you? I, for one, would sure love to read such a book.
I’d like to see how readers respond to Sarabande before writing another novel in that series. My inclination would be to continue that storyline by having the grandfather character from The Sun Singer return to the mountains.
Did you hear that, readers? He needs you to respond favorably to Sarabande before he writes another novel in that series. I have pretty discriminating taste in books, and I can tell you: The Sun Singer and Sarabande are fabulous books. Please, please read them!
Now, where were we? Oh, yes: where can readers find you on the Internet?
I can be found at my website as well as my Malcolm’s Round Table blog. My books are available in multiple e-book formats on Smashwords, on Amazon as trade paperback and Kindle, on Barnes & Noble as trade paperback and Nook, and at other online resellers such as Powell’s.
Thank you, Malcolm!
I had a good time stopping by for a chat, Smoky.