Ash Gray is a dragon with minuscule spectacles perched on her nose, living in a wonderfully dank, musty cave far away in an alternate universe. She types her stories with gigantic claws on a ridiculously small typewriter before sending them through a membrane and into your dimension for your enjoyment.
Why storytelling? What made you yearn to tell a good story, and how long was this story within you before it came out?
As a child, I lived a very lonely existence. Not just lonely but isolated from the people around me. Reading was one way out of that. As I grew up, life became lonelier, and making up my own imaginary people was even better than escaping with someone else’s.
I really loved stories like Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland, so the first novel I wrote was that type of story and I wrote it in high school. My friend was sick in the hospital and she was dying and I didn’t know what else to do to cope, so I wrote a novel. I think I was fifteen. About two years later, it turned out my “friend” actually hated me and was only pretending to be my friend . . . so I wrote more novels. Ha.
Without giving any spoilers, what is your favorite thing about this book?
My favorite thing about A Time of Darkness: Time’s Arrow was my feeble attempt to take a common trope – adult male mentor, child daughter surrogate – and flip its skirt up.
There is this appalling idea that men can not be great parents, so we often see this trope in fiction where an adult male figure has adopted a female child, and this is supposed to be endearing because men aren’t great parents. That’s pretty crappy. Men can be fantastic parents and women are not inherently better at it because we are born with breasts (so there is no excuse to abandon your kids with you ex-wife under the premise that she is “supposed” to do the parenting anyway).
I wanted to take this trope and flip it by actually having Neferre, the main character of the first book, be a bad mother. First, she tells really awful stories. In the opening chapter, Cricket wants a bedtime story and Neferre tells her scary stuff that keeps her awake. Then we have Neferre being so brutally over-protective that she draws blood on another kid who hurt Cricket (they were just scratches but still – blood). Then we have her endangering Cricket’s life so she can go off to play hero. And I would have taken it further than that (in fact, I wish I did).
The point of it is, women are not genetically predisposed to raise children and the “mother instinct” thing is bull. Also, men are not incapable of being good parents and there is no reason for them to not play an active part in raising their own kids. So we don’t need tropes like Alice and the Mad Hatter, Elizabeth and Drop Dead Fred, Yuna and Kimahri, Bert with Jane and Michael, Dorothy and the Scarecrow, Mr. Tumnus and Lucy . . .
We don’t need these surrogate father/ surrogate daughter tropes to prove that men are good parents (again, the only reason the pairings I mentioned are endearing is because it’s commonly believed men aren’t good parents). Men being capable of being good parents and women not being expected to automatically be good parents should be common knowledge. Because men and women are both just people. Our gender has nothing to do with our parenting skills.
Basically, I mocked an ongoing trope I’m sick of by having Neferre, a female character, clumsily attempt motherhood and screw up. And I wish I’d taken it a bit further.
What character from your book fills you with hope?
None of my characters fill me with hope. In fact, most of the time I feel hopeless. I usually write a character and think to myself “Bah, no one is going to identify with her.” A lot of my characters fall into categories that face bigotry from the reading public. If my character isn’t queer then she’s brown or she’s disabled or she’s something else people can’t seem to grasp because they are too close-minded to step outside of themselves and see themselves in a character who doesn’t resemble them. That is the unfortunate world we live in. People are that separated. So when someone does identify with one of my characters, that is what gives me hope. Not the character itself but the fact that someone recognized the humanity in them.
What character from your work frightens you, makes you feel dirty to write?
In my novella The Seaglass Stair, my character Wareska is a shapeshifter. There’s one paragraph about how she nearly had sex with another animal while in animal form but escaped at the last minute. It was supposed to be funny, but I realized people might not take it that way, so I recently removed it completely from the story. I am actually doing revisions of the entire story right now where I remove some things and move other things to footnotes.
So yeah. Definitely Wareska and the other characters like her (though I never have a problem writing villains, they’re fun no matter how evil). I write a lot of shapeshifters who do weird crap, and I worry that people might misinterpret some things for bestiality.
Your main character walks into a bar. What happens?
Every time Morganith from The Thieves of Nottica walks into a bar, she gets in a fight with someone. If it’s not because she used to be a Crow (villainous henchman) then it’s because she’s a half-demon and isn’t allowed in the bar (sometimes, she doesn’t always pass for human). Whether she wins or loses these fights, the end result is that someone gets hurt. When she wins, she usually walks out through a sea of groaning bodies on the floor.
What is the most fascinating thing about your main character?
The main character, Neferre from A Time of Darkness: Time’s Arrow is actually a dragon and doesn’t know it or realize it. It’s not mentioned in the blurb and is a side part of the plot because it’s not really important. She’s not the only dragon shapeshifter in existence, after all. But it’s easily the most interesting thing about her because it glares through her personality. She’s aggressive, has a short temper, is strong and protective, and she’s obsessed with treasure – or at least one coin that she keeps in her boot. Her over-protectiveness of the other main character – a child named Cricket – often leads her into trouble with sobering, if not dire, consequences.
If I were stuck in a room with your main character, what would we be doing?
If you were stuck in a room with Parmida the wild princess from “Unicorn Blood” in my short story collection Tales of Talithia, she would shoot arrows at your face. Of course, the arrows would miss and hit the wall. She wouldn’t be shooting to kill, after all. Just to annoy you or make you mad, likely because she would be angry with me for writing her into a small room so that I could answer this question. Parmida is a woman of the forest, who roams around in furs and skins and lives off the land and bathes in the springs. She would hate me for locking her up.
When you are writing, tell me about the emotions that are running through you and what it takes to work alongside them.
I have never written anything so truly intense that it makes me emotional or makes it difficult to keep writing. Not yet. I’m surprised when people say they got anything out of my stories aside from comedy, to be honest. I love to laugh, so I love cracking jokes, even inside the narrative. The Thieves of Nottica is an especially humorous tale, one where you are supposed to laugh with the turn of every other page – that’s subjective, of course. Not everyone will find my corny self funny.
Everyone has at least one specific challenge that holds them back. What is that challenge in your work and how do you overcome it?
Self-doubt. And I don’t overcome it. Still working that bit out.
I’ve always wanted to write epic fantasy stories about elves and dragons and giants and be like the writers of that genre who I admire. I don’t quite feel as if I’ll ever get there. I started writing the Time of Darkness series back in 2014 or 2015 and I stopped for years because it’s an epic fantasy series and I just don’t think I have what it takes to pull that kind of series off. It didn’t help that every agent I shopped the first book to turned it down.
You’re going to go back and visit yourself when you first started writing, at whatever age it was, and you can give yourself one piece of advice. What would it be?
I wouldn’t give her any advice. There is nothing I can do to help that poor girl. And everything she needed to know, she eventually learned. Or else I wouldn’t be here.
Let’s talk about tools. Do you have a word processor that you would tell us to use? Is there a certain computer that has become your favorite? What do you look for in a keyboard? What would you absolutely have to have if you were to sit down and write your next book?
When I was a kid, back before it was common to for everyone to own a computer, I used my mother’s old word processor – which was basically an electronic typewriter. I would sit there for hours and hours in my room, writing stories and pretending I was off on adventures fighting pirates and riding dragons (I really loved pirates back then). Now I always write on a laptop. Nothing special about it, it’s just the most convenient tool for a writer. You have MS Word, the internet, and something small you can fold up and put away when you’re through. It’s perfect. Without my laptop, I’d just write longhand until I could get a laptop again.
What piece of art, that is not writing, moves you?
Van Gogh’s Starry Night. His painting was my desktop background for quite a while, just so I could be able to stare at it while I was working. Van Gogh and I have a lot in common, I think. He lived a very lonely existence of suffering and anguish, and because of the time period he lived in, there was nothing to ease his suffering except his work. If there had been medicine to help him, he would have painted so many more beautiful things. Instead, he was able to give us only a few small treasures. That is heartbreaking.
What’s the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen?
People being kind to one another. People of all races and genders and sexualities just coming together and being kind and loving each other and not using their differences as some excuse to be nasty or mean or to pretend that some people are inherently superior to others.
We are diverse because nature is diverse. We don’t see tropical birds pecking owls and telling them they’re inferior because they are built for a different sort of environment. And yet human beings do this all the time. For me, it’s so rare to see people getting along and treating people with basic respect that it’s beautiful when I do see it.
In a novel that I’m writing right now (a sci-fi novel about an alien), the theme is that basic human decency is something we must all learn. It isn’t something we’re born with but a learned behavior, just as racism and sexism is something people learn. It’s sad, but it’s true. The animals have more decency for each other than us, and yet we consider ourselves “superior” to them. I’ll never forget the story of the tortoise who took care of the hippo during Hurricane Katrina. Didn’t matter that the hippo was different from the tortoise, the tortoise befriended and cared for it.
We could all learn from that.
Ash Gray online: