…in this lengthy interview I did with the National Fantasy Fan Federation, a very serious group of folks. The interview touches on my background as well as my writing process, with a focus on my Chthulhu, Amalgamated humorous fantasy series. I was pleased with the results as Mr. Thiel, the editor of Ionisphere, made me look smarter than I am.
And below: the interview!
AUTHOR INTERVIEW: Roy M. Griffis
Roy Griffis is a very outgoing writer, as may be found by visiting his site at https://roygriffis.com . He has a Facebook page as well, titled ROY GRIFFIS, STORYTELLER, which is well worth a visit. His email address is [email protected] . His writings are highly individualistic, ranging from the studious to the riotous. As an interviewee for the Fan-Pro Coordinating Bureau, he is ideal, having the attitudes both of a fan and a pro.
IO: I note that these Cthulhu novels are humorous, which distinguishes them from H.P. Lovecraft’s work. Why did you decide to take a humorous approach to the mythos?
RG: To be honest, it was less a decision than a need. I’d been working for several years on my By the Hands of Men historical fiction series (six volumes, about 500,000 words), while raising a family and commuting for my job. In addition, I was doing a lot of research to make this read authentically, which also took a lot of time.
So while finishing the last book in that series (Ringside at the Circus of the Fallen), a great deal of the details of my life changed. During that time, my wife and I moved from Southern California to a small town in Texas. I started work with a new company—and yes, the cliché is both wise and true, “Don’t quit your day job, at least until the movie money shows up”—while my wife and I were renovating an older farmhouse we had purchased.
That last task turned out to be a hell of a lot of work. The back half of the house was constructed in 1937, while the front half turned out to be an old Baptist church that was built, based on the old rough planks nailed with iron spikes and not steel nails, some time between 1860 and 1880. Since this is going to be my last home (I’ve moved way too much in my life), we made it the house we wanted, doing as much of the work as we could ourselves.
After two years of almost constant labor in the evening and weekends, we moved in on Labor Day, 2019. I’d finished Ringside and people were starting to notice it, which was great. But I was exhausted from the move, the renno, the new workplace, and all the rest.
Then at the end of that month, my first high school girlfriend, Sandy, died unexpectedly. She was my first love, my first and forever fan. She had been a chef, traveled a lot, and then returned to Nebraska to be near her family. As I was in the Coast Guard and then a single father for a while, we had only seen each other once in the past thirty years or so. But we’d always stayed in touch. I’d send her drafts of my novels and she was always excited to hear about any modest success I’d achieved (screenwriting awards or slowly processing toward a “real” writing career).
But like the rest of us, she had her own demons and battles which she didn’t share with me. Having a little experience with addiction myself, I understand how shame can compel a person to keep those “failures” to themselves, which only feeds the cycle. So her death was completely unexpected to me, and as more about her last years (of near poverty and mental health struggles) became known to me, the more wrenching her loss became.
A kind person, talented pianist and artist, undone by genetics (her mother was schizophrenic) and childhood abuse, none of which was her fault, and all of which conspired to lead to lonely death. I suppose you can understand this kind of wrecked me in many ways. The ugliness and unfairness of it. The loss of her…I mean, she was one month younger than me. I expected to know one of my oldest friends for another twenty years.
Then my mom died about six months later.
For a full year, I couldn’t write a damn thing.
Finally in October of 2019, after months of pushing that immense Sisyphean cube of grief up a hill, I found myself ready to write again.
I had at least two series ideas, but they felt heavy to me, and with the loss of those two very important women from my life (but not my heart), I couldn’t do anything serious. Not Book Seven of By the Hands of Men, which readers were asking me about. And not the two series I’d conceived of early in our move to Texas.
But I had this wacky scene I’d scribbled down one afternoon at work. I had been reviewing resumes and I LinkedIn profiles for candidates when I’d noticed a pattern, almost a corporate trope. In this case, it turned out that everyone was “a thought leader”. They were an “inspiring manager and..” or “motivated team player and…” or “I am a thought leader in Interpretive Tap Dancing and Tibetan Scat Singing”.
Something about the term itself struck me as fatuous trendy babble (but that’s just me). And as I can’t stop my mind from wandering after these odd thoughts, I found myself wondering what description could someone put in their bio that was more pretentious and have less useful content than that one was a “thought leader”. A phrase leapt into my mind. “The blithering excrescences from beyond the stars”. Well, when you put it that way, the next question is, “Who would this individual work for?” The answer for anyone with the faintest exposure to old school pulp magazines was obvious. This would be a minion of Cthulhu.
That alignment of Cthulhu and a corporate environment (which is its own special kind of torment) led me to another realization. Any organization needs an administrative staff. Somebody has to cut the paychecks, approve travel vouchers, buy paper clips and so on. Who would do that for the Cthulhu Corporation?
Of course, it would be Shoggoths.
So to answer your original question…I had to write humorously. First, because my broken heart wouldn’t bear anything else, and second, the idea was so completely ludicrous that it wouldn’t support being told any other way.
IO: What guidelines do you follow in your going over of Cthulhu? Is much of what you’re writing in these volumes based upon Lovecraft’s delineations, or do you follow other writings about Cthulhu, or both?
RG: Very few guidelines. After a bit of research, I decided to hew closer to Lovecraft (minus the regrettable racism and fear of girly bits). Howard Phillips created the paradigm of Elder Things and Dark Gods and so on. I know HP and his homies had fun killing each other off in stories they created within the mythos back in the 20s and 30s, but I certainly didn’t want to infringe on other people’s work and creative contributions.
So I decided to use his deranged framework, but come at it from a different angle. I’d reference his original creations, but outside of them, create my own.
IO: What liberties have you taken in departing from followers of the Cthulhu mythos?
RG: I suppose one could point to the whole “Not taking it very seriously” aspect of the three novels I’ve written in the series so far.
IO: What effect are you wanting to have on readers with the Cthulhu volumes?
RG: Time for a true confession: I suspect one of the reasons I don’t have a “real” career is that I don’t write the same kind of book over and over. That would be boring for me, and my readers, I suspect.
One way I keep myself engaged is by setting a creative challenge with a project. For instance, when I began By the Hands of Men, I decided I was going to write as if the novel were composed and published contemporaneously with the events of the story. That means, basically, no skin, nor boinking, no wildly graphic violence, and very little profanity. That approach seems to have worked to really take the reader into the world.
With CTHULHU, AMALGAMATED, my goal was to create something that honored HPL’s vision, but opened it up from an entirely new perspective. And along with that, why not a funny “Thing Out of the Dark Waters Beyond the Edge of the Sane Universe” book that is also just a good old fun read?
IO: What screenwriting have you done? What brought you the screenwriting award?
RG: I loved books and movies ever since I was a kid. Books were a great escape for an awkward, lost, lonely kid who felt like a stranger wherever he went (that would be me to whom I’m referring, by the way). They were the first magic I’d ever experienced that wasn’t a counterfeit.
Movies, though, were magic of a different kind. I loved the way a good film could enrapture a crowd of five hundred strangers, take them on the same emotional journey. It seemed like the closest thing we could get to a shared dream.
Of course I wanted to do that. After the Coast Guard and college, I ended up in Hollywood for about a year. My story is so common it’s a cliché. I was a member of the Writers Guild for about a year. Sold a TV Movie to Fox, which promptly turned around and fired the VP who’d bought the project, and in the process said project was trashed. I wrote a very well-received screenplay that “almost sold” (again, a typical experience).
Well, at the point the payment for my unproduced teleplay ran out, I had to get real. I was a divorced dad with shared custody of a three-year-old. If it was just me alone, I could have lived in a station wagon at the beach, been a part-time barista and written movies on the side.
But couldn’t do that to a little kid. They need and deserve good food, shelter, health insurance, toys for Christmas, hot water, and all that kind of stuff.
Also, I was over the Hollywood “death of a thousand notes”. That is, you write your guts out on a movie script you think is entertaining and you believe is worthwhile, only to have your work turned over to a group of twenty-five year old MBAs at the production companies for their input and they will come back to you with notes on what is good and what needs work. I recall the person who read a script of mine set in the Korean War, and said, in all seriousness, “We can’t move forward with this until I check and see if it’s okay if the North Koreans are the bad guys.” I was well brought up enough to not blurt out my thought, which was a largely unprintable version of “You do know who we were fighting in the Korean War, don’t you?”
So I moved on from Hollywood and got a job in IT so I could support my son and not be a burden to society myself. However, I kept writing, eventually drifting into novels.
Much like my novel career, my screenplays were all over the place:
SINS OF THE FUHRER (about a hunt for clues to the location of hidden Nazi gold)
TRAITOR OF THE LIVING (Merchant Seaman hunts for the rapacious female vampire who killed his wife)
PHALLACIES, a coming of (middle) age story—about being semi-young, dumb, and trying not to stay that way.
And a few others.
The screenwriting award was from the Smashcut Independent Film Festival. Mid-stream, the organizers got approval from legendary screenwriter John Milius to name the writing award after him. The screenplay was called “Cold Day in Hell”, and it was in “Elevator pitch-speak,” THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE MEETS THE GREAT ESCAPE.
IO: What brought you to write By the Hands of Man books?
RG: All of my writing (plays, movies, short stories, novels) begins as a question, typically something along the lines of “What if…” or “How come…” or “Why did they do that?” often in response to something I’ve heard or read.
For instance, two different questions were the genesis of “Cold Day in Hell”. One was a random news clipping from the 80s revealing a secret 1953 Congressional Hearing about the fact the Russians were taking US POWs out of Korea and back to the USSR. My brain said, “”Damn, those POWs must have known they were on a one way trip. What the hell would they do about that?” That, along with another question, sparked the story.
As for By the Hands of Men, the first seed was planted in the 80s when an older English lady who was working a community theatre play (one of mine, as it happened) relayed to me some terrible stories from her grandfather, who had fought in the Great War. On hearing those, I asked myself “How could someone be around that and not do something about it?”
So, I began to story. When I write prose, I have a beginning—the infamous inciting incident—and I have an ending. I start writing, and write until I get to the end. In this case, I thought the story would be told in a single book.
I was mistaken.
IO: How would you explain the name of the series? What sort of material is covered?
RG: The name of the series is the essential theme of the books, if not my entire writing career. It refers to the way the characters learn that the Hands of Men can make a Heaven or a Hell of this world, and further, that the choice of the destination we create is up to us.
That theme is one reason I have nothing but loathing for the nihilistic “life is terrible, people are awful, and we should just give up” kinds of literature that are so popular in elevated academic circles. Unless your ass is chained to the wall of a North Korean prison, an individual has a lot of control over his own life…if only they have courage to assume that responsibility and are willing to pay the price to achieve their honorable dreams.
IO: What histories do these books cover?
RG: It’s a saga that begins in a field hospital in France in 1917. It covers two decades and several continents, along with the Russian Civil War, life in pre-war Shanghai, Paris between the wars, the Congo and South Africa, Depression era America, and concludes in Los Angeles in the mid-1930s.
IO: What is to be found in the volume called The Big Bang?
RG: that is my first professionally published novel, Book One of The Lonesome George Chronicles. It’s an alternative history novel that imagines (there’s that “What if…”, again) what would have happened to America if our religio-pathic jihad-loving enemies got their act together and hit the nation with a series of coordinated attacks. It’s a bit of apocalypse lit, as about 75% of the world’s population dies in the resulting wars and societal collapse that result.
The series follows the social, civil, and political breakdown of our nation, as other groups attempt to opportunistically kick the USA when we’re down. It’s told in a bit of a Roshomon style, from many differing viewpoints: a famous Hollywood actor, a former insurance adjuster turned guerrilla fighter against the Caliban (local patios for “the California Taliban”), a Congressional aide, the last elected President of the United States, and others.
Book One is followed by “The Fire This Time” and “The Broken Return”.
IO: You don’t like nihilism—I was rather interrupted in my thoughts by this comment, as I was waiting to ask if your tendency in writing is to be critical of mankind’s endeavors. I’ll ask anyway, are the doings of man subject to great criticism from your viewpoint?
RG: Let me put it this way: there is no good thing that we humans can’t misuse. When Guttenberg got his printing press operational, the first thing they printed was the Bible. I’d bet the next thing off the presses was a “Live Nude Nuns” magazine or something.
So, if I have criticisms, it would be less about man’s doings than what man does with what he has done. Not to get excessively theological, but it is a fallen world. But we don’t have to stay there, grubbing in the dirt. If we choose, we can stand upright and do amazing things. (See the life of Dr. Ben Carson…his mother was a mentally ill single parent, but she made the kinds of choices that produced a visionary surgeon who changed people’s lives.)
But here’s the rub, as they say. Those kind of choices take effort; they have, in economic terms, “costs”. Water runs downhill for a reason. It’s the easiest thing in the world. And to me, nihilism is a choice…the easy one. If there’s no point to attempting to do anything different, look at all the energy you saved.
There are an infinite number of events taking place in any one moment of time. Reality becomes what you pay attention to and what you choose to do about what you are seeing.
IO: What is your view of the literary realms of fantasy and science fiction? Are those major interests of yours? Do you regard yourself as a fan, or great appreciator, of these forms of writing?
RG: I started as a fan of the stories and creativity. Ray Bradbury’s magical realism (back before it was even an approved literary term), Heinlein’s stuff up to STARSHIP TROOPERS, almost anything by Edgar Rice Burroughs, and so on were tremendous escapes for me as a teenager who felt like a teenager everywhere.
I certainly gained a great respect for writers who can craft a tale that is so immersive that I feel like I’m living the story. Those are, in fact, the kinds of novels I try to write myself, and thus I guess I’ll never really escape my pulp roots.
Fantasy and Science Fiction aren’t major interests of mine, exactly, since most of my reading these days is research of one kind or another. When I do want a break from non-fiction, I am very likely to pick up something decidedly not realistic, be it MONSTER HUNTER, THE MOTE IN GOD’S EYE, SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES, or even WATERSHIP DOWN. Again, there are works that are gripping and very emotionally immersive, with a great deal of imagination behind them, as well. I love stories that surprise me and move me, regardless of the genre of topic. Those works that do take me on that kind of journey have my respect, admiration, and gratitude.
IO: Do you have any concluding remarks about the writing scene, about science fiction writing, and about the literary and publishing world in general? And is there anything you would like to say to readers of this interview?
RG: I’m a story guy, to be honest. I love a compelling story. I don’t read for the “beauty” of the language, or the symbolism, or ham-fisted agit-prop. I want to know what happens to characters I care about. Literature, in many ways, seems to have gotten away from the idea of a “ripping yarn”, preferring to gore safely well-gored shibboleths, and rarely having the courage to confront the current social and cultural power structures. And the stories are all too often infantile as well as dull.
The publishing world was always a crap shoot, and traditional publishing appears to be even more incredibly clannish and secret society-ish in terms of only letting the “right sorts” in the door. Learn how to self-publish. You may not make much money, but, let’s face it, most of us were doing this for free long before we tried to make it or get our foot in the door or whichever cliché works for you.
With self-publishing, you will be telling the stories you want to tell, and you might find that there are people, complete strangers, who tell you your story is the best one they’ve ever read. As I said, don’t quit your day job, but give people a chance to find your good and decent and honorable work. Don’t write things that diminish your readers, but create art that uplifts and ennobles.