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Adding To The Gumbo Mix:
Charles R. Saunders
interviewed by Amy Harlib
Charles R. Saunders, a Canadian-resident writer of African descent currently working in journalism and nonfiction writing - back in the 1980s, wrote a trilogy of heroic fantasies (published by DAW) and scattered, uncollected short stories set in a pre-colonial, magical Africa of rich detail and cultural verisimilitude. These tales, mostly focused on a Conan-inspired hero named Imaro, were vivid, thrilling, complex and ethnically unique in the sword and sorcery subgenre. The briefer works and the seminal trilogy: Imaro (1981), The Quest For Cush (1984), and The Trail Of Bohu (1985), were a breath of fresh air and an inspiration to those looking for a refreshing new take on heroic fantasy adventure, especially readers of colour. Alas, due to the vagaries of the publishing world, Saunders' books went out of print and his output declined to handful of yarns since, two most notably found in the readily available, recent pair of Dark Matter anthologies of African-American science fiction and fantasy. I was fortunate to be able to interview Saunders by e-mail.
As a black fantasy and science fiction writer, you are part of a small, dare I say it,
select but thankfully rapidly growing group of individuals in a field dominated by people
of Euro-American background. How did you discover SF and fantasy books and what was it
about them that made you decide to write in the genre yourself?
I read my first SF book when I was about 12 years old. That would have been in 1958. I cannot remember the title of that book now, but I know it was by Andre Norton and it was about a post-nuclear-holocaust Earth in which mutations ran rampant. The hero had a mutated Siamese cat that was the size of a cougar. That's what really turned me on to the genre, and throughout junior high and high school, I read hard SF - Heinlein, Hal Clement, Murray Leinster, and so on - as well as the more adventuresome 'planet stories', pulp-ish type stuff, which was pure escapism. I didn't pay much attention to the identity of the authors back then; it was the content that appealed to me because of the way it stretched my imagination. And when Ballantine and Ace brought back Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan and Mars books, I lapped those up, too. That would have been in the early 1960s, when the Civil Rights Movement was at its height. So the Burroughs' books weren't all that 'escapist', because the racism in the Tarzan books made me uncomfortable even as I enjoyed the scope of the author's imagination. At that time, though, I never thought about writing in the genre myself. I wasn't one of these wunderkinds who start writing publishable fiction in their teens.
Another influence that was at the back of my mind for a long time was a comicbook series called Brothers Of The Spear. I first came into contact with it as a child during the 1950s, when I read Tarzan comicbooks. The Tarzan part was crudely drawn, and Africans were depicted in a stereotypical way. But, Brothers Of The Spear, was beautifully drawn by an artist named Russ Manning, and it showed blacks and whites as equals. That made a deep impression on me, but it was only later that it influenced my work. Around 1966 or so, Lancer Books reissued Robert E. Howard's Conan stories, with those breathtaking Frank Frazetta covers. Once I started reading those books, I was hooked! Of course, I still read the hard- and New Wave SF. But fantasy appealed to something deeper in me - the soul of the storyteller, perhaps.
It was when I discovered fantasy that I also discovered that I wanted to be a storyteller - a griot, although I hadn't yet discovered that term. I soon would, though. I spent my university days at a historically black college in Pennsylvania, Lincoln. I started in 1964 and graduated in 1968. Seldom has so much changed during a four-year period. So much was going on, from three-piece suits and processed hair to Afros and dashikis. From integration to Black Power... From non-violent demonstrations to riots in the streets... From punching somebody for calling you black to shouting 'Black is beautiful!' Lincoln had a lot of students from Africa at the time, and I learned a great deal from them. I started reading more about the history and culture of Africa. And I began to realise that in the SF and fantasy genre, blacks were, with only few exceptions, either left out or depicted in racist and stereotypic ways. I had a choice: I could either stop reading SF and fantasy, or try to do something about my dissatisfaction with it by writing my own stories and trying to get them published. I chose the latter course. I was crazy enough to think I could break into what was essentially a white genre - at the time, I didn't know Chip Delany was black, even though I'd read, and enjoyed, his work. That fact wasn't exactly advertised back then.
Your work refreshingly reflects your African heritage in settings and characters. How difficult was it for you to get it published professionally? What was your process in inventing the parallel magical African world of your Imaro trilogy? How much of this alternate version of Africa exists in notes and sketches and outlines, etc?
It wasn't as hard to get published, as it was to stay published. I'll get to that latter part later. My first story, which was about a character named Imaro, whom I specifically created as the brother who could kick Tarzan's ass, was published in 1974, in a fanzine called Dark Fantasy. The zine was published by Gene Day, an artist who went on to draw Star Wars for Marvel Comics before his untimely death in 1982. The issue of Dark Fantasy with the Imaro story found its way to Lin Carter, who included it in his first Year's Best Fantasy stories collection, published by DAW in 1975. Imagine that - my first story makes a Year's Best collection! That, of course, brought my work to the attention of DAW publisher Donald A. Wollheim, who eventually suggested that I turn my Imaro stories into a novel. I did, and DAW published it in 1981, along with two more Imaro novels in 1984 and 1985. So I didn't go through a long string of rejections before I got published professionally. That didn't happen until after I got published.
As for how I created Imaro's world. I followed the same formula that Robert E. Howard used to create Conan's Hyborian Age. I read a lot of African history, anthropology, and folklore, and talked to many Africans. I took real historical places and transmuted them into places on a parallel Earth in which magic works and African societies developed in different ways. As I look back, I see that I may have emulated Howard a little too much. I used too many real place names in my Imaro stories. Even so, though, I was doing something brand-new back then, and it was exciting to me even when I had no idea the stories would ever get published. I don't keep notes on my African background. Instead, I've accumulated a private library of books and magazines about Africa, and whenever I visit a university library, I always go to the DT and GN sections. There's a cornucopia of background information there. Of course, the wheat has to be separated from the chaff, but sometimes there is valuable information even in the chaff. Everything I absorb goes into a constantly simmering gumbo in my imagination and, when I write, I dip a ladle into that gumbo, and I'm always surprised at what comes out. It's usually a 'what-if', as in 'what if the Zulus and Masai were neighbours?' or 'what if the chemosit, a mythical monster of Mali, were real?' or 'what if an African group had domesticated the Cape buffalo and used it for warfare?'
After the Imaro trilogy was published in the early 1980s, along with a few notable and wondrous short stories such as Gimmile's Songs reprinted in the acclaimed Dark Matter anthology, you effectively disappeared from the genre scene for many years. Some fans even feared you were deceased! What was the cause of this hiatus in your SF and fantasy writing and what prompted your long awaited and welcome return? What were you doing in the interim?
It really blows my mind to think that some people believed I was dead! But then, I guess I really did vanish completely from the SF/fantasy radar screen. Not because I wanted to, but because DAW Books pulled the trapdoor out from under me. This is something of a long story, so please bear with me. When DAW agreed to publish the first Imaro novel, I was walking on clouds. However, when I saw the proof of the cover they intended to put on it, I came crashing back down to Earth. The cover copy included the phrase: "The Epic Novel of a Black Tarzan," and the cover artist, Ken Kelly, depicted Imaro as Tarzan with a suntan. Of course, I was outraged. Imaro was created to be an antidote to Tarzan, not a clone. But this was a marketing gimmick. DAW was gambling that readers' curiosity about a 'Black Tarzan' would induce them to buy the book. And maybe that's what would have happened. But we'll never know, because when the people who handle the estate of Edgar Rice Burroughs found out about the 'Black Tarzan' ploy, they threatened to sue DAW if my book came out with Tarzan's name on its cover. This happened right before the book was scheduled to hit the stands, in October 1981. DAW had to pull the book before it was ever released and reprint it with new covers that didn't include Tarzan's name. Already, I was costing them money. The release date of the book was delayed by a month, and a lot of bookstores just didn't pick it up. Sales were not good. Then, it took me two years to complete the second Imaro novel. By that time, the first one was off the shelves, and the sales were even poorer. I managed to write the third one much faster, but by then the writing was on the wall. By the way, I loved the covers of the second two books, which were done by Jim Gurney, who went on to fame with Dinotopia. Anyway, by the time I had written the fourth Imaro novel, and part of a fifth, DAW decided to drop the series because of poor sales. None of the books made back their advance, and sales steadily declined with each novel. Blue Jay Books wanted to pick up the series, but the company folded before anything could come of their interest. Other publishers didn't want to touch what they perceived to be a failed series of books.
This pretty well put me into a funk. Maybe the time wasn't right for Afrocentric fantasy, I thought. Maybe my books didn't reach the right audience. Or, maybe they just weren't all that good. At any rate, my enthusiasm for dealing with publishers had pretty well waned, and I went into other things. I never did stop writing during my hiatus. I tried screenwriting, and had a couple of scripts produced as videos that were so bad I won't even name them. I also had a couple of radio plays produced, and I went into journalism. For 11 years, I wrote a weekly opinion column, largely centred on black issues in Nova Scotia, where I live now. Nova Scotia is a province in the eastern part of Canada. Its black community is largely descended from African-Americans who went over to the British side during the Revolutionary War and the war of 1812, and were given freedom and land in Nova Scotia after those wars ended. That was kind of a pre-Underground Railroad 'underground railroad' not many people outside of Canada know about. I wrote four nonfiction books about the Nova Scotia black community, including a collection of my columns. But you know, that gumbo in my imagination just wouldn't stop bubbling. Eventually, I developed an idea for another African fantasy series. This time, I wouldn't just be emulating Robert E. Howard; I would be re-inventing Charles R. Saunders. So I started writing a new novel that grew slowly, in the midst of all the other things I was doing. I didn't really know what I was going to do with it; just that I was going to write it and see what happened. Then, in 1999, Sheree Thomas sleuthed me out at the newspaper at which I work, and told me about Dark Matter, about which I became greatly enthusiastic. She ended up reprinting one of my old stories, and a new essay I wrote about blacks in science fiction and fantasy. This brought me back to the attention of fans I never knew I had. The rest, I hope, will be the future. I can't really hold a grudge against DAW for dropping me back in 1985. They took a chance on publishing an unknown writer with a new idea, and it just didn't pan out commercially. It took me a long time to realise that, but now I have, and I'm moving on.
Please describe a day in the life of Charles Saunders: how you schedule your writing; your writing techniques; how you research your stories; your favourite writers and sources of inspiration.
I'm basically a commuter. My 'day job' is on the nightshift at the copydesk of a daily newspaper. So I 'commute' between my job and my writing. Generally, I do my creative writing in the morning, 'decompress' in the afternoon, and go to my job at night. Some mornings, I write longhand; others, I rewrite and revise on the computer. For me, a good word-processing program is the greatest rewriting and revision tool yet invented. I have found, though, that my initial thoughts flow more freely when I write longhand. As for research, I'm always adding to the gumbo and ladling up more of the mix. The Internet has opened up more research possibilities, and it's a great supplement to my private library.
My favourite writers in the SF/ fantasy/ horror field, in no particular order and just off the top of my head: Nalo Hopkinson, Octavia Butler, Steven Barnes, Stephen King, Tanith Lee, Harry Turtledove, and Charles de Lint, who is not only a favourite writer, but has been a friend for more than 20 years. The late Karl Edward Wagner was also a favourite, and also a friend. And I can't forget Joe Lansdale, either, although his writing is much more mainstream these days. And, of course, Chip Delany. And there will always be a place in my heart for good old Robert E. Howard, even though he is not my model anymore.
Dark Matter also contains an important essay of yours, 'Why Blacks Should Read (And Write) Science Fiction'. Could you please summarise it briefly and whet the appetites of those reading this interview to seek it out? The message contained therein really defines the importance of fantastic fiction for people of every persuasion.
There is some history behind that essay. It is the sequel to one I wrote back in 1977, called 'Why Blacks Don't Read Science Fiction'. I wrote the first one in response to some comments made by SF writer Theodore Sturgeon, who wondered why it was that he saw so few blacks at SF conventions, and why it was that blacks did not seem to be taking advantage of the 'escape' that science fiction offered. My response was: "What escape?" At that time, there wasn't very much in SF for blacks to identify with or escape to, other than Lieutenant Uhura on Star Trek. Most of the 'people of colour' in SF were green, not black. Some of the portrayals of blacks in the genre were downright offensive, with Heinlein's Farnham's Freehold being one of the most egregious examples, with its depiction of futuristic blacks as hi-tech cannibals. There were, certainly, more positive portrayals, such as Ray Bradbury's short story, Way In The Middle Of The Air, about a black exodus to Mars. Also, around that time, Robert Silverberg came out with the novel Shadrach In The Furnace, which I highly recommend. But one really had to dig hard to find those kinds of examples. Otherwise, the genre was pretty much white-on-white-in-white. When Sheree Thomas brought Dark Matter to my attention, I asked her if she would like to reprint that essay, which, as it turns out, she had read. She liked that idea. But then, I realised that much had changed during the 20-odd years since I wrote 'Why Blacks Don't Read Science Fiction'. New black authors had appeared, and in the work of non-black authors, there was a greater diversity among their human characters as well as the aliens. My thinking had changed, so I suggested to Sheree that I ought to write an updated version of Why Blacks Don't... And that's where Why Blacks Should... came from.
As for the new essay's message: I don't believe that SF and fantasy are nothing more than fringe literary genres. I believe that science fiction is the folklore and mythology of our modern, technological society, and fantasy preserves the folklore and mythology of the past. Blacks have made significant contributions to modern culture - not just as athletes and entertainers, but in science and technology as well. We need to contribute to this culture's mythology and folklore because we are part of it, and it is part of us. If we do not define our own position in our culture's mythology, someone else will define it for us, and we probably won't like the way they do it.
What is your feeling about the Internet and its effect on publishing and the SF and fantasy field? Any plans to translate your work to other media such as films, TV, graphic novels, role-playing games? Any offers?
I think e-publishing is still in its infancy, and it will be a while before print gives way to pixels. In the near future, print and e-publishing will probably co-exist for a while. But I don't think there'll be a literary equivalent of Napster not for a while, anyway. Not until a computer is invented that one can curl up with. As for expanding my work beyond print; sure, I'm open to it. But for now, I want to concentrate on getting my work published again in book form. I don't want to start counting other chickens before the eggs are even laid yet.
What are you working on at the moment? What are your forthcoming projects?
Imaro is coming back! Night Shade Books will be publishing a revised version of the first Imaro novel in hardcover in February 2006!
The revision consists of a new novella I wrote to replace Slaves Of The Giant-Kings. 'Giant-Kings', made me uncomfortable because it turned out to be too close to the reality of the Rwanda genocide. For that reason, I didn't want to bring Imaro back, as I couldn't figure out a way to get around that problem. Finally, I did. The new story has Imaro meeting Tanisha under completely different circumstances. This affects subsequent events, so there will be other changes.
Night Shade will publish the other two previously published Imaro novels, which I am in the process of revising; along with the unpublished fourth one I told you about, and the fifth one. That means that eventually, the entire Imaro saga will be in print.
Thank you very much for answering these queries, Mr Saunders. The return of Imaro is terrific news sure to make many fans, especially this interviewer, ecstatic. And when the new Imaro books at last reach the stores, they are sure to win over numerous new enthusiasts!
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