Please Welcome…L.B. Graham
(*Originally posted September 2009)
What a joy to have Christian speculative fiction novelist L.B. Graham as our interview guest this month here at WhereTheMapEnds.
The first time I encountered the name L.B. Graham was several years ago at a CBA convention (back when it was still called that). I was walking the aisles of this enormous convention center, looking at the wares from nearly all the Christian publishing companies in North America.
I remember walking past this one very small booth and stopping dead in my tracks. The novels on display there caught my eye like nothing else I’d seen in the whole show. These were fantasy novels illustrated by someone whose work I recognized instantly: famed D&D illustrator Larry Elmore.
What’s this? How did these ABA/secular novels get in here? No…wait…these are Christian fantasy novels? Okay, who is this publisher and who is this author?
It ended up being P&R Publishing and L.B. Graham, respectively. I talked the arm off the poor P&R rep at the booth and then had to go my way. But I never forgot that.
Now it’s cool to be able to have L.B. Graham here as our interview guest.
L.B. is the author of the five-volume Binding of the Blade fantasy series with P&R. The first book in the series, Beyond the Summerland, was a finalist in the visionary category in the Christy Awards.
In October of 2008 L.B. was part of the 8-author Fantasy Fiction Tour, which toured around the country doing book signings and fellowshipping as only fellow lovers of Christian speculative fiction can.
So without further ado, here’s the interview.
WhereTheMapEnds: Catch us up with you. What have you been up to lately?
L.B. Graham: With the publication of All My Holy Mountain in 2008, The Binding of the Blade was finally complete. I’ve been working on a variety of projects since then, but as yet, none of them is under contract. Most of those ideas wouldn’t be considered speculative fiction, but a few of them are, and I’m pretty open to doing more work in the speculative fiction area or to transitioning more toward contemporary fiction, whichever door opens.
WhereTheMapEnds: What is your favorite speculative novel of all time (Christian or secular) and why is that your favorite?
L.B. Graham: Choosing The Lord of the Rings here seems to be cheating—like choosing “Jesus” if someone asked you the classic, “If you could have dinner with one person from history, who would it be?” question. So I’m going to suggest a few favorites, since picking one is pretty hard for me.
OK, I’m going to recommend 3 Sci-Fi classics for people who don’t know about them or who simply haven’t gotten there yet, and I should note that none of these are by Christians.
Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy is amazing. Yes, he wrote 4 books related to the original trilogy later, and they’re interesting enough, but the first three are great.
I’m also a big Ray Bradbury fan, so I strongly recommend The Martian Chronicles, from about the same era as Foundation. When I still taught American Literature, I always used The Martian Chronicles as an intro to the Sci-Fi genre and as a glimpse of the fears sparked by the atomic age.
Lastly, I have to recommend a more recent book, Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game. It’s one of my favorite books to read and re-read. I just don’t get tired of following Ender to Battle School and beyond.
As a footnote, since I didn’t recommend any books by a Christian author and since we’re talking speculative fiction, which is broader than just traditional fantasy and sci-fi, I want to commend the novels of Charles Williams to your readers.
They’re like nothing else I’ve ever read, a fantastic journey into the spiritual thriller genre. They are a bit challenging, so I recommend getting the book The Novels of Charles Williams by Tom Howard as a companion volume for your journey.
You may not need it, but I certainly would have been a little lost without it. It’s a strange but wondrous journey, so enjoy.
WhereTheMapEnds: What made you want to write Christian speculative fiction?
L.B. Graham: Very simply, it was the realization that J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis were dead and gone, and as much as I loved and revered them, they were no longer going to be writing Christian speculative fiction.
I believe speculative fiction is here to stay, and I knew that if Christians abandoned the genre, it wouldn’t go away, it would simply be thoroughly secular. As my recommendations above show, I don’t really mind reading a great book by a non-believer, but I still thought it would be a shame if the Church abandoned this great avenue for reaching kids and adults in creative, fantastical ways.
So, not at all sure that I was up to the challenge, I decided to try my own hand at creating a fantasy world that told a great story and communicated truth about this world too. I’ll let my readers judge if I succeeded in doing those things in The Binding of the Blade.
WhereTheMapEnds: How would you characterize the current state of Christian speculative fiction writing and/or publishing?
L.B. Graham: On the one hand, the fact that there is a speculative presence at all in CBA is good news. The prejudice against it was pretty strong for a while, and it remains strong in too many quarters. So, just the fact that in the last few years more publishers have taken the risk to put out speculative fiction at all is great.
On the other hand, I’m afraid that the quality of Christian speculative fiction these days is pretty inconsistent, and the presence of speculative fiction in Christian bookstores is pretty sparse. If you look at all the shelf space dedicated to fantasy and sci-fi in a place like Borders or Barnes & Noble, and then you look at the few titles that might get shelved in your local Christian Bookstore, it is clear there’s a long way to go before Christian spec fiction really establishes itself as a force to be reckoned with.
WhereTheMapEnds: And if you look at Tips 16-18 you’ll understand not only why I think that is but why I don’t see it changing anytime soon. What have you seen that encourages you about Christian speculative fiction writing and/or publishing?
L.B. Graham: As I said above, I’m glad it seems to be a growing field, even if there is a long way to go.
WhereTheMapEnds: What have you seen that discourages or frustrates you about Christian speculative fiction writing and/or publishing?
L.B. Graham: One of the things that frustrates me about Christian speculative fiction is really symptomatic of Christian fiction as a whole. I think a lot of it is moralistic, trying to set itself apart from mainstream fiction primarily in terms of the behavior of the people in the book. I get the sense that a lot of writers are implying in their work, “See, these books are ‘Christian’ because there’s a more biblical morality at play in the story.”
Now don’t get me wrong, it is good to show in our stories that we live in a moral universe, and that sin is ultimately destructive behavior. However, Christianity isn’t the only religion that espouses a high moral code, and it is precisely the fact that our good works can’t save us that not only shows us that we need a savior but sets our beliefs off from the rest of the religious world.
Since I believe that Christianity is good news for sinful and broken people, I don’t necessarily freak out when I read fiction about people who are sinful and broken in obvious and even devastating ways. To me, too much Christian fiction feels sanitized, as though Christian readers are too fragile to read about the brokenness in the world and survive. I wish that wasn’t the case.
I wrote a pretty controversial blog post about this topic awhile back. It caused quite a stir. Check out “More than Moralism” here.
WhereTheMapEnds: This is a terrific point, L.B. Even if we allow that many Christian novelists are called to write to a Christian audience, we should still be dealing realistically with sin. Nobody is helped by Christians claiming to all walk more or less perfectly. What does that say about me when I go back to my house and act in ways utterly contrary to that?
Given all that, I think I can guess the answer to my next question, but here it goes anyway. What would you like to see changed regarding Christian speculative fiction writing and/or publishing?
L.B. Graham: Specific to Christian speculative fiction, I wish someone would take notice of the need for titles for older readers. There’s a gaping hole, even in the little that is out there, in terms of serious fantasy and scifi for older readers.
Even The Binding of the Blade, which I’d intended as an epic or high fantasy series, was marketed as YA. I think that was a mistake. There is, of course, a place for YA fantasy, but if you look at all those shelves I mentioned above in Borders, a lot of the books there are big, fat books intended for adult fantasy fans.
The Christian market needs to wise up that if it doesn’t start putting out some quality epic fantasy fiction, then all these kids we’re reaching now with the recent run of semi-successful YA spec fiction books are going to be out of luck when they hit college. Either they’ll stop reading it or they’ll go to Borders and get secular books from there, because CBA certainly isn’t putting much out for them.
WhereTheMapEnds: Another great point. This is why I say that this generation coming up is going to be the one that saves us, in terms of Christian speculative fiction. Just as professional soccer was kind of ho-hum in America before the soccer mom era, but now is much bigger, so it will be with Christian speculative fiction. Kids grow up on it, so they want it all their lives.
I think you’re right that many of these young people, when they mature, will turn to secular speculative fiction just for lack of an alternative (though of course I’m doing my bit to fill that niche with Marcher Lord Press).
But others will simply start making the changes they want to see. These kids will grow up and take leadership positions at Christian publishing companies. They’ll take these companies in new directions. Or (more likely) they’ll form their own publishing companies that meet the need. Then the traditional houses will see it and go, “Wow, we should probably do more fantasy now, huh?” It may be too late for them by then, though.
What do you think Christian speculative fiction writing and/or publishing will look like in three years? Five years? Ten years?
L.B. Graham: I have no idea. I think it will survive, but I’m not terribly encouraged that things are going to change a whole lot. CBA seems pretty content to churn out books geared toward a pretty narrow range of interests. It’s safe and predictable and doesn’t cause controversies among those who regard all things fantastical as “of the devil.” I realize that might sound strong, but, sadly, I think it is true.
WhereTheMapEnds: What advice would you give to someone who aspires to write and publish Christian speculative fiction?
L.B. Graham: I think it is a high and noble calling, but right now it is a tough sell. Work hard and write well, and hopefully you will get your chance to tell your story.
Personally, I wish I’d tried harder to get a contract in the ABA [ed: secular publishing], where there may be bias against writing from a Christian perspective, but there is no real debate about the value and place of speculative fiction. It might be that the only way CBA opens their arms wider to accept speculative fiction is if some Christians succeed in the ABA first.
WhereTheMapEnds: What’s a cool speculative story idea you’ve had lately?
L.B. Graham: One of the projects I’ve been developing is a spec fiction idea. It is essentially fantasy, but it does have elements that are reminiscent of sci-fi too. Since it isn’t under contract, I probably should be vague, but here are 3 of the defining elements of this concept:
* Technology. I’ve tried to develop a non-petroleum-based technology system so the world can feel futuristic in some ways even though the story is basically fantasy, which most people associate with the past more than the future. I think there are some pretty cool ideas there, but we’ll see.
* Global. Most epic fantasies, like LOTR or even bigger ones like The Wheel of Time, seem to take place on single continents, even if very large. I liked the idea of having a story move across a “globe,” where the settings could vary in wildly different ways.
* Apocalyptic. I envision the last book or so having a really apocalyptic feel, as the world undergoes some seriously catastrophic events. That should be fun to write, should I ever get there.
That’s All for This Time
Another great interview in the books. Thanks again to L.B for spending some time with us. Be sure to visit him online!