Look, guys … I know I need to go grocery shopping. But, you know, it’s snowing. I have better (warmer) things to do. Besides, I can’t just let Dave handle things here. If I let Dave handle things, something will surely get burned down. Bit of a sociopath, Dave. Not like you lovely people. No, you’re here for some good old fashion fun. I can help!
I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing Eugene Cundiff, author of Songs of Earth: A Teller’s Tale. Cundiff used his Appalachian roots to spin a sci-fi tale with a western flavor.
Songs of Earth follows Elisheva Miller, a Teller’s Apprentice of New Harlan Camp. Never believing in Paradise, she sought little more from life than to serve her troubled people as the Tellers had done for generations, keeping alive their traditions and telling the tales of the Lunar Camps and the fallen Paradise of their Ancestors. But when the vast and ancient machines that bring rains to the Dust of Luna fail, Elisheva finds herself traveling into the abandoned cities of the architects of the Lunar Colonization. Her only hope is that these forlorn ruins hold a way to restore the terraforming network’s engines and return the rains to the Dust.
RJ: Growing up in the Appalachian foothills significantly influences your writing. Can you explain how that influence has lent a unique voice to your stories/writing style?
CUNDIFF: Appalachia is a region with a rich storytelling tradition, and a richer history. However, a great passion of mine is fighting against the popular representation of rural America in general, and life in my own particular slice of it—the old stereotypes of ignorance, inbreeding, and worse are fairly rife. That these sorts of portrayals are still considered acceptable is somewhat depressing, and they cover over the region’s many ills—opioid addiction, crushing poverty, ecological damage, and a pervasive sense of hopelessness. I was raised without ever feeling too much of the region’s miseries first-hand, but I was also brought into efforts to aid those less fortunate from a very early age. I’ve seen some of the worst of it but also the best of it—those succeeding in the face of their troubles, and using their success to help others in our old Kentucky home.
All of this does, as you mentioned, have an influence on my voice and style. I deal heavily in dystopian vistas and hard-luck heroes, for certain. But at the same time, I don’t endorse wallowing in doom and despair, or the idea that once things are broken they can’t be fixed. It won’t be an easy road, nor one that any one person can travel alone, but it’s there. We have a long, bloody fight ahead, but we can win it and earn a better future. That is, undeniably, a central theme of most everything I write, and it is inspired heavily by my Appalachian heritage.
RJ: The protagonist of your first novel, Songs of Earth, is Elisheva Miller. Can you tell us a little about why you chose a female protagonist and what types of obstacles you encountered to make her a believable character?
CUNDIFF: I’m a firm believer in the fact that there is a lack of female protagonists in science-fiction, but in Elisheva’s case that was not a central factor. We touched, above, on my Appalachian roots; Elisheva is a celebration of the Appalachian woman—and specifically my mother and grandmothers. My mother is a retired English teacher, and I spent a good deal of my childhood behind the scenes of public education. More than that, however, was the impression it made to see her previous students coming up to her in public to relate how she had influenced them.
I don’t think of things in terms of “obstacles in making a believable female character;” I think in terms of making a compelling character in general. We’re all people.
RJ: You describe Songs of Earth as a space-western. The description immediately brings to mind the cult-classic TV show Firefly. Did that show (or any other media, for that matter) have any influence on your writing in this specific subgenre?
CUNDIFF: Didn’t it just. I’m a loyal Browncoat, make no mistake! I’m actually quite the fan of the genre in general, but beyond that I’m quite the classic western fan as well. My father loves the genre (finding him new westerns for birthdays and holidays is always a challenge), and I was raised watching the classics with him. I’m a huge fan of Eastwood, particularly his more “weird west” pictures—High Plains Drifter and Pale Rider. The “space-western” genre also ties into what I sort of see as my brand, dealing with the pop culture of the 80s; if you’ve never heard of Adventures of the Galaxy Rangers, I’d highly recommend that to any of my fellow Browncoats.
RJ: Songs of Earth is set on the moon. Can you tell us how you went about building that world and what the hardest parts of the world-building process was?
CUNDIFF: The Dust was based heavily on the Appalachian cultural experience, as seen through a science-fiction lens. The fun—and yes, difficult—part was figuring out the effects life on the moon would have on a society in the long-term. Even if we discount the hand-waved elements (terraforming allowing for a shielded, breathable atmosphere, for example) we still are left with a few dramatic departures from Earth—the largest, of course, being that the moon has no rotation. There would be no days, nights, or seasons in the traditional sense. There was also other research—the number of people needed for a sustainable breeding population that would not be ruined by inbreeding-induced mutations, and other elements that I won’t get into as they involve some rather huge spoilers. Suffice to say, there was a fair amount of research needed!
RJ: You have a trilogy of books you’re working on: The Heirs of Babylon. Can you tell us anything about the series? The readers always love a good tease.
CUNDIFF: The Heirs of Babylon is my love-letter to the dystopian 1980s media, especially post-apocalyptic media. The trilogy is set in the ruins of New York City—the titular “Babylon”—circa 2027 CE, twenty years after the city was devastated by dirty bombs. The attack set off a chain of tragedies that lead to a brief, vicious nuclear World War III, and the fallout—figurative and literal alike—has nearly destroyed the United States. What remains of “old world” wealth and privilege hides itself away in fortified Preserves, while the world outside is ruled by gangs, doomsday cults, and rugged successor-states. It is into this world our heroes are thrust, a band of teenagers on the run from their homes both inside and outside the Preserves’ walls, all of them possessing psionic gifts of unknown origins. They’re not the only members of their new generation so endowed, and they’ll need every advantage they can get to survive gangland machinations and attacks by religious zealots who are convinced they are heralds of an oncoming Apocalypse—all while dealing with their own conflicting beliefs and desires.
I’m currently hoping for a Summer 2018 rapid-release on the trilogy.
RJ: You’ve mentioned that the Heirs of Babylon series was influenced by your love of 80’s dystopian films and media. Can you give us some examples of which films/media made the most memorable impact on you as writer and why?
CUNDIFF: Well, we obviously have the classics: Escape From New York and The Warriors. Anyone who reads the Babylon books will see the debts owed there! The Mad Max series is not touched on quite as much, but elements of the Babylon setting definitely owe their existence to the films. Visually, I have to give credit to Luis Royo’s works as a massive influence. And, of course, I must cite the Endworld series by David L. Robbins—more than bringing me fully into a love of post-apocalyptic stories, the series’ focus on the sort of rebuilding and development of new cultures that occurred after the end as humanity picked up its pieces became a core inspiration for Babylon. The Preserves owe a great deal to both Fallout and The Running Man (book and film alike) and, lack of zombies aside, Fiddler’s Green from George Romero’s Land of the Dead.
RJ: You’ve always been a storyteller. Before the release of Songs of Earth, were you more of a traditional oral storyteller than a writer or have you always jotted your ideas down?
CUNDIFF: A bit of both, in fact! My mother still has picture-albums of the stories I dictated to her before my own grasp of writing was reliable, but I began writing at an early age and I never really stopped. I would say I am more of an author, but the younger members of my extended families do occasionally beg for a story, of which I do have a fairly sizable repertoire.
Storytelling in that vein is as much performance as it is the story itself, and the increasingly rare brand of troubadour that was still relatively common in the hills during my youth had a definite mark on the Tellers of the Camps in Songs of Earth.
RJ: Is there a specific message you want to get across in your writing or do you write with the sole intent to entertain?
CUNDIFF: As I mentioned above, I do tend toward the theme of fighting the hard fight to make a better world, but I’m a firm believer in never sacrificing the story for a message. I want to entertain, but if that entertainment can bring a reader to a new horizon or inspire them to fight their own demons—or step in to help fight someone else’s when that poor soul needs a friend—then all the better.
RJ: When you aren’t writing, what do you do in your spare time?
CUNDIFF: I’m something of a “renaissance geek,” really. Reading is a big hobby, obviously, but I’m also fond of the occasional bit of gaming, both electronic and tabletop. Part and parcel with the storytelling bit is my collecting of folklore and ghost stories—I mentioned the storytelling traditions of the Appalachians above. I see it as something of a duty to preserve what I can of those tales. I spend a couple weekends each month helping to tend my grandparents. They’re both ninety, and recently celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary together. One of these days I expect their stories will end up the inspiration for a book.
I don’t get out much beyond that, as I do live in a bit of an isolated region. If this “novelist” business ever takes off, I would love to see a bit of the world—visit the UK and Ireland, a few other places—but for now it’s just life here on the farm with my kinfolk, three horses, and a small herd of cats.
RJ: What advice do you have for new authors?
CUNDIFF: I could make the joke about “run, run away as fast as you can” here, couldn’t I? But in all seriousness, being a novelist is a hard slog, often feels thankless, and even in this day and age of independent publishing it feels like the prospects of making a living at it are highly dubious. Cast aside the romantic notions in your head of what being a novelist is.
Now, for those who are left, who didn’t run screaming? You stayed because you’re like me—you hope to become authors because you can’t imagine being anything else. Hold onto that, because it will keep you going. Embrace your stories, don’t compare yourself to others, and take pride in your work. In a book I carried around for twenty years, Get That Novel Started (And Keep It Going Until It’s Finished), Donna Levin advises that you write ten minute a day, every day. No excuses, no cheat days. It doesn’t matter how little I get done (sometimes it might amount to no more than 100 words) or how mediocre the result is (that’s what edits and second and third drafts are for), I put in those ten minutes every day unless I’m between projects. Writers must write.
Beyond that very basic foundation, my advice is simple and, to some, might seem paradoxical: Take pride in your work, but understand you will never be happy with it. Indies have a wretched reputation for horrible quality grammar, spelling, punctuation, and so forth—and it is not always undeserved, sad to say. Have enough self-respect to run a spelling-and-grammar check and watch your homophones—a horde is a large group, a hoard is a large collection, and there are many pitfalls beyond that one example. It is hard enough to get eyes on your work, so the last thing you should want to do is turn away readers with slapdash writing quality! At the same time, however, acknowledge that to get anywhere as an author, you do have to get things released. You’re never going to be happy with your own work, but eventually you have to let your literary child out into the world and start work on another. Surround yourself with good people. The web is full of excellent writers’ groups. Those are your people. They can advise you on your mistakes, provide you with feedback, and offer you hard-won experience. Most of all, however, they can help pull you through the dark times—the bad reviews, the lack of reviews, the poor sales months.
And lastly? It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Keep fighting. This is what you were meant to do, so get out there and do it!