I’m pleased to be hosting an interview with UK-based author and indie-publisher, Tim C. Taylor, in regard to one of his newest projects, Treasure of the Last Dragon.
Treasure of the Last Dragon is a fantasy short story collection aimed at middle-school aged kids and released of part of the Repository of the Imagination imprint.
Question: Let’s start with a question about crabs! Tim, the title story in “Last Dragon” features a foursome of mystery-solving kids. Except these “kids” aren’t kids in any human sense of the word. They are aliens who look like giant crustaceans. How did you come up with the crab-alien idea? And, in regard to the gang and their lovable sidekick Wagger (an amphibian, but people often assume that he’s a dog!), were you at all inspired by the Scooby Doo cartoon series?
Tim Taylor: I’m certainly no stranger to Scooby Doo, and my family and I have all enjoyed the recent Mystery Incorporated series. But the idea came from another series of books that features a gang of two boys, two girls and a dog: The Famous Five. They were written in the 40s and 50s, which makes them so old-fashioned that my son finds them fascinating. I was reading them to him at bedtime when I came up with the idea for Treasure. I had great fun hinting at the kind of old-fashioned language and slightly didactic narrator you find in the Famous Five series.
I was writing these stories purely for the pleasure of doing so, rather than to earn money. I guess I was writing the kind of story I would have enjoyed when I was a boy. So I had humans who are the yucky aliens, and there’s a teasing acknowledgement of The Hobbit, which we had just seen at the cinema. Why crabs? I wanted something that would react to the softness of human skin as being something weird, so I picked something with a tough shell.
Question: One theme that comes up a few times in your stories is that of reading minds or at least reading emotions. For example, the aforementioned Wagger has some power of telepathy, or the Quentin Repper story features a pixie that can read minds. Is that a theme that you have been thinking about and exploring lately?
Tim T.: Yes, you’re right. Psychic powers, and also forms of communication that are neither verbal nor to do with posture and gestures, are a key ingredient in a series of novels I’ve had planned or partially written for years. If you happened to find ten million dollars in the pocket of your spare jacket, Armand, and kindly posted that on to me because you’re such a nice guy, I would probably finish up what I’m working on and then get writing those novels. Some of that desire to write those novels leaks into my other writing.
Question: On a more sober note, two of the stories in particular, “The Green Tailor of Mermos-37” and “DIG!” deal with the complex, mature theme of ethnic cleansing, and the title story also involves the extinction of a sentient species. Obviously this type of thing has been a serious, ongoing tragedy of human history, but did you- at some point in your writing- become conscious of this theme? What was your thought process as you were writing?
Tim: Was I conscious of the theme? Absolutely. With writing for younger readers, when I’m touching on difficult topics, I always think carefully about whether I’m doing so in a way that I’m comfortable with. Same to some degree with writing for adults. With all these stories I was thinking back to my own childhood where I thrilled to the sense of wonder in books by Heinlein and Asimov, and the fantasy and science fiction comic, 2000AD.
There’s beauty and splendor to be found in the stars, but that beauty can be harsh, and the splendor tinged with tragedy. That’s probably what I would have written when I was about 11 if asked: ‘why do you read so much of that sci-fi stuff?’ That’s what I’m going for here.
“DIG!” is a tragic story, but there is hope too. There’s a powerful idea here of change, of renewal and rebirth on the wider scale, but (also) the loss experienced by individuals as part of the same process of change. Creative destruction, to borrow a term from economics, can make for uncomfortable reading but powerful stories. Again, it’s part of nature and I’m trying to write something that captures the sense of wonder at the universe, warts and all.
With “Mermos-37”, there’s a more knockabout, comedic feel, which hopefully counterbalances the almost throwaway comment at the end that this once proud people is eventually reduced to two perpetually warring individuals. I intended that the people of this world come across to the reader as silly fools to be laughed at. And of course, they are indeed silly, but while the ugly consequences of their foolishness is not something I dwell upon ,it is nonetheless clearly there to see. I think kids are perfectly capable of seeing both these facets to the story. I know when I was a kid, I resented reading books written down for children and started moving to adult science fiction from around the age of eleven. Mind you, I’ve never really stopped reading 2000AD comic, which either means the comic always took on mature themes, or that I’ve never really grown up. Or both.
Question: My favorite story, I have to admit, was the tale of Quentin Repper, “The Snot Wizard: a tale from St. Rushby’s Home for the Un-Parented”. I enjoyed the deft blending of comedy and adventure. How about you? They say it’s hard to pick a favorite child, but is there one story in the collection that you like more than the others?
Tim: I had a blast writing the “Snot Wizard”. Yes, I’d pick that one too. I never meant it to be so long, but I enjoyed writing it so much that I kept on going.
I think when you become a parent, it makes you look again at your own childhood in a new light. Being a writer gives you an additional angle to revisit your schooldays and that’s me doing that through Quintus Repper. I never heard of a crypt below the library, but the library was a very old building so there could easily have been goblins lurking underneath.
And, yes, there really was a gardener called Arthur, and I was one of the lucky few welcome in his shed. I don’t know that he was a wizard but we played Dungeons & Dragons there a few times. Arthur would just watch as he nibbled on his ham and tomato rolls and drank his flask of coffee. Perhaps he didn’t feel the need to join in because he’d lived all that D&D life for real.
Question: Was there any story that was more difficult to write? Any particular one that challenged you or presented greater difficulty than the others?
Tim: “Treasure of the Last Dragon” was trickiest. It’s possibly because writing it was stop-start in the background while I was working on other tasks. It also has several narrative voices, which made me think a little.
Question: I once sat in a lecture given by Frederick Reiken, author of The Odd Sea and Day for Night, where he posited that even in third person perspective, authors create a narrative presence in the same way that actors create characters for themselves to play. In this case, Tim, you have literally created an entirely fictional narrator in the form of Crustias Scattermush, Senior Repositarian at the Galactic Repository of the Imagination. Where did the name and idea of Crustias come from?
Tim: I think Mr. Reiken is absolutely correct. I don’t think an author can help but establish a narrative presence, even when they try not to. Crustias fulfills many purposes. He provides a fun metanarrative that ties the stories together, and gives me opportunities to poke fun at his pompous grandstanding, hint at darker stories untold, and also add another opportunity to amplify some of the ideas in the story that proceeds his Repositarian’ s notes. For example, in the companion collection from Crustias (The Ultimate Green Energy) there’s a story about a planet deliberately ripped from its orbit by higher dimensional beings. Crustias ends by pointing out that the Andromeda galaxy is right now hurtling straight for us, as if it has been aimed. I love that sort of thing, and judging by my test readers, so do they.
I wrote these stories myself, channeling through Crustias. The original idea of Crustias, and possibly other repositorians, was that he would be a pseudonym with a consistent character to sit upon stories penned by a number of human authors. Sorry, what I meant to say, was that Crustias would supply the stories, but a variety of human writers would translate those stories into human languages.
The rudimentary idea for the Repository of Imagination came from my sorely missed friend, Gill Shutt, who referenced it in a book she wrote called Alien Legends. There she had a framing device for a story called “City of Khar”, where a man walks into a repository ‘shop’ in an alien bazaar and tells his story (about the city of Khar) in exchange for another story, a tale that appear later in Alien Legends. It was the idea that the stories linked in some way that excited me. Gill was very generous in letting me play with her creation, and I managed to sell her the idea of the repository being a connecting theme across all her stories in the collection, with brief notes at the end of each story. She did a wonderful job adding all the notes together after she thought the book had already finished the editing stage.
Alien Legends was trialed in a school in Wales. We gave acknowledgements to the children who helped out, but asked them not to use their real names. I invented the name Crustias in the style of some of the silly names the kids came up with.
Question: As a follow up, when you write children’s stories, do you ever imagine yourself to be Crustias?
Tim: I’m not sure I do. On the other hand, the repository notes I mentioned that Gill wrote for Alien Legends were not accredited to any individual in the Repository, but they certainly do sound as if Crustias wrote them. I guess that bring us back to Mr. Reiken’s point, that I can’t help but express a part of my experience and outlook when I write as Crustias, even though I don’t recognize myself in him.
Question: You have a young son yourself. As you craft your stories, do you find yourself ever writing to him or imagining how he might react to a certain story?
Tim: Absolutely. He’s a mature 7, so younger than the target audience but I certainly read him the stories and listen to his feedback. He’s very serious about telling me what he thinks I need to know. He doesn’t hold back either, a common phrase being: “I don’t want to hurt your feelings, Daddy, but I think the story would be better if…”
He has a Kindle Fire and often sets it reading the “Snot Wizard” to him at night after lights out. He listens to the other ones too but never “DIG!” He enjoys that story during the day, but says it’s too sad for bedtime, which I take as a great compliment.