The second episode of the Spoonie Authors Podcast is here! This week features space opera author Stephen Graham King!
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TRANSCRIPT BELOW VIDEO
Transcripts done by CJ Clougherty, @PadfootPGH
Dianna: Hello and welcome to the Spoonie Authors Podcast: a podcast where we explore a different disabled authors stories each week. I’m your host, Dianna Gunn, and joining us today is Stephen Graham King. Stephen Graham King is a writer, photographer, and disabled cancer survivor. He’s currently working on the fourth book of his space opera series The Maverick Heart Cycle. Hello Stephen!
Stephen: Hello, Dianna! Lovely to be here!
Dianna: It is lovely to have you! I’m very excited, and I’m very excited to hear more about your work. So let’s start there: tell us more about The Maverick Heart Cycle.
Stephen: Um, a friend of mine called it a cross between Killjoys and Firefly, only it’s queer.
Dianna: Which are admittedly, two of my favorite shows. So you’ve got me hook line and sinker.
Stephen: *laughs* I’ve been a lover of space opera since I was like tiny, and it was one of the things – uh – not seing queer people represented in that genre for so many years, it just … I wanted to write something where the queer people weren’t the sidekicks, or the funny best friend, or even worse the victim, where they were the people who were the heroes. So the -the smart-ass pilot is pansexual, and the tech genius is gay, and there’s polyamorous people and trans people in there, and they’re all the important parts of the story. They’re the ones who get involved in the situations and who, uh, end up saving the day. So it was kind of a – something – it’s been with me. I started writing the first one years ago, it was probably close to twenty-five/thirty years I started the first draft.
Stephen: Years and years and years until I grew to the point where I could do the story and the characters justice. And so three books are out now. I finished the first draft of the fourth, and I literally have about a couple thousand words of the fifth. So – um- they keep having stories that they want me to tell! So I feel I have to.
Dianna: Well that sounds amazing to me! Can you tell us a bit more about some of the things that your characters face? Some of the actual stories within the books?
Stephen: The first one came out of actually – I had this weird dream. And it was these two men who had history from many years prior, and a relationship had ended with difficulty for them. One of them contacted the other and said “I need your help, this terrible thing is happening”. So the first story involved that, and it became a story about two very different cultures that are kind of…they have their own ingrained reasons for disliking and not trusting each other, and our heros getting involved with that conflict because of this years ago relationship and unresolved feelings between two men. The second one became a little bit more of a straight up techno thriller, sort of a bit of Ocean’s Eleven. One of my friends jokingly called it How to Steal a Wormhole. *laughs* So that became a little bit more of a different kind of a story and it introduced a new character who has gone on into the consecutive books as well. So the third one was a continuation a year or so later we get another adventure and characters from the first book come back. It’s a really fun playground to play in.
Dianna: Sounds like a great, great adventure, my goodness. Twenty five years, I’m like, your book is almost as old as me. Um *laughs* so, in The Maverick Heart Cycle, one of your major characters because partway – ahem – *laughs* words are hard, folks. I don’t know why I do this for a living. Um. In The Maverick Heart Cycle, one of your major characters becomes disabled part way through. Why did you choose to explore this storyline?
Stephen: Well it – it started out as a case of: in the books that I was writing, I sort of needed something terrible to happen, and – and then somebody needed needed to be hurt, and I think I needed to show that the stakes were serious. And initially I just kind of envisioned it as: it’s the far future, we have all this amazing technology, everything will be fine! It will just be fixed! And then when I came back to it in the next book, the first draft had it be just: well he’s fixed, and other than you know some PTSD type things he’s physically fine. But when I went back and read it it didn’t feel like – it didn’t feel right. It felt like it needed – there needed to be something more. And I sort of dove into myself because I have, after some major surgery on my leg many years ago, I kind of have a little bit of peripheral neuropathy in one of my feet.
Dianna: What does that mean?
Stephen: It’s sort of a weird sensation. One of the doctors describes it as a painful numbness, if that makes sense?
Dianna: Oh no!
Stephen: It’s – there’s a bit of reduced sensation, but at the same time when the weather is really hot or really humid it feels almost like pressure on it.
Stephen: So it’s just a bit of nerve damage from the surgery that I’ve always felt to varying degrees depending on the conditions around me. And – and I know several people who deal with different types of disability and chronic pain situations, and listening to them and listening to my own body and what it told me about what I’ve gone through to a lesser degree that it seemed like a sensible logical thing that this would be a consequence of what this character had gone through. That it would be something that would affect them and would have ramifications, but at the same time wouldn’t be so severe that the person couldn’t function anymore. They could still run around and do drama and adventures and all that sort of thing, but they would be more weight and more consequence to what they’ve gone through. It felt like there needed to be more, even though there is wonderful technology, there was – still it wasn’t perfect. It allowed me to add a little bit more to the story and little bit more weight to the story.
Dianna: Yeah, that’s an important thing. I think that especially when you are writing a series that is several books long it can, if nobody gets seriously injured it can start to feel like there are no stakes. Um, I can think of many, many TV shows where it’s like fulfilling because it – it’s a great way to turn your brain off, but you just know that nobody’s going to get seriously hurt and you know there are no stakes. Especially shows of a certain era.*laughs*
Stephen: My friends and I used to joke about Star Trek and the reset button that you’d go through this entire episode of a dramatic story, and at the end everything’s back as it was at the beginning.
Stephen: And – and it’s fun when you get to do something like write more stories about the same group of characters. You get to show how their lives progress, and how they change, and other circumstances change. And – and this was just another one of those things to look at and go: ok this thing happened, there’s more to it than that.
Stephen: We can’t just switch it off.
Dianna: Yeah. I think that Star Trek really does fall into that trap a lot. Um – they seem to have this thing where the only thing that ever actually changes in anyone’s lives is that some of the people become romantically involved. *laughs* And sometimes you know they will have a storyline that seems like it’s going to have far-reaching impact and that somebody gets seriously hurt, but everything’s fine in the next episode because they fix everything.
Stephen: It’s interesting. I mean I find – I find it’s really hard for me now to watch Next Generation for that very reason. I can watch Deep Space Nine because I think Deep Space Nine was better, something in the beginning of the season has an effect later on. They’re doing a much better job of that now with the newer incarnations with like Discovery and what little I’ve seen of Picard. I think they understand that now, because storytelling has changed since DS9 and Voyager were in their time. We have other types of shows that dealt more seriously with serialized storytelling and longer character arcs, and that sort of thing, so. The new series understands that that’s a thing now.
Dianna: I think that expectation of arcs like that in books, in book series, but more so now. Because all of the media that we are consuming has that kind of framework. So that’s really important to consider. And also if the disability is made worse by the weather, that would make it really convenient if you just spend all your time on a spaceship, right?
Stephen: Yeah! “What do you mean I have to go outside? I’m staying in here” *laughs*
Dianna: Love it. So I have found, even when writing about even my own experience, I learn so much from the characters I’m writing. What have you learned from writing this disability journey for your character, and how does that reflect on pulling on your own experience as a disabled person?
Stephen: You know, it’s interesting. Even though I’ve lived with this for oh, 20 years now, there’s always been a part of me that when I often look at the possibilities of disability storytelling as “Well, how can they do that? How could they do that? They have a disability, how can they have that and do X? How can they do Y?” and fallen into that pattern of thinking that a person with a disability just could not do those things, as opposed to that there would be accommodations and technologies. There are ways around it.
I’m reading a series right now where two of the main characters who were the pilots of the ship basically have these little egg-shaped conveyance vehicles because something terrible happened many years before, they are important to the story and they do what they do, but they’re just not ones that go out onto the planets. They’re the ones that fly the ship and have the ideas, and all that. Understanding the ways that you can write to that, rather than shy away from it, if that makes any sense? That there are ways that people with disabilities can be worked into the stories. One of my favorite things (it wasn’t an overly great movie) Alien Resurrection but where they had the character in the wheelchair and I spent the entire film thinking they were going to get it, and everyone died around them. But they were fine! I got to the end and I was thrilled that the little dude in a little motorized wheelchair with the built-in guns and everything made it to the end of the film.
There are ways that you can write around it, right? Not even around it, but to it, with the accessibility and accommodation devices that can become an important part of how a character functions.
Dianna: I would say it’s almost taking that that original question of “how could they do this” and just reframing it. Instead of asking it with disbelief, asking it like “no, really, how could they do this?” and treating it as a problem solving thing.
Stephen: Yeah, exactly.
Dianna: That’s amazing. Did you find that this experience of writing a disabled character, especially someone whose disability is similar to your own, did you find that cathartic? Or that that otherwise helped you process some of your own experiences?
Stephen: I – yes and no. I mean it like I’ve been living with this for a long time, and I often forget how long it has been. But it was freeing to sort of … it allowed me to look at my own life, and sort of think “of course, the things that you handle during the day: getting up and down the stairs. Or – or – or getting to and from, or when it’s icy outside” that – that I had been kind of doing a bunch of these things already just not with a laser in my hand. It was just a day to day thing, and appreciation of what I’ve managed to do in the interim. Maybe I’m not doing that super heroic thing, but – but living with discomfort and disability and weakness and having to come up with how to do things on a day to day basis that you don’t think about while you’re doing them because you’re too busy. You’ve got to go to work and get up the street and down the street and so it’s nice to frame it as: this is a character who is – in a former life was a super high-tech con man who used to to steal from nasty rich people, and then thinking how how can he still do that, and how does that what are ways that it does affect how he does what he does, and what are the ways that it’s not important.
So it’s been interesting to look at from that sort of normalcy point of view that it’s just this is how he functions and has learned to function. And letting him have emotional scars over it, letting him have days when he’s like “this is shitty, I don’t like this, but at the same time I still got to get up, and I still got to do my work, and I still got to go about my day” So it’s been interesting sort of examining that because I’ve never, other than a book that I wrote about my own experiences, this is the first time I’ve written a character in that way and then examined it through someone else’s eyes.
Dianna: Yeah, I think that makes a lot of sense. It’s a really useful exercise, I think it’s really useful looking at it from outside yourself. It can be really helpful. And can be a really fascinating mental exercise to consider.
Stephen: Yeah. Exactly.
Dianna: And I must say: high tech con man who used to steal from all of the evil rich people, I’m just falling more and more in love with this series! *laughs* And I haven’t even started reading it yet! Sounds amazing! *laughs* Um – and I will also say that I appreciate your reference to Killjoys, because I think that is one of the most underrated shows that existed last decade.
Stephen: I just started watching it again from the beginning, and I am halfway through season two, and it’s funny: because I was watching it in bits and pieces, only on – as it aired, now I’m seeing all the things that were fruit in the late seasons, seeded all the way back at the beginning.
Dianna: All the way back to the first episode, yeah!
Stephen: Everything is all there! And that’s the kind of thing that I like. I was writing my own stuff before, and it didn’t really affect what I was writing, at the same time when it came on I was like “That’s it!”. That’s the kind of punchy, snappy dialogue feel I’ve always gone for in my own work. There is also the fact that those characters really care about each other!
Dianna: Oh goodness, yes!The friendship – the pure friendship between Dutch and Johnny is one of the most beautiful friendships I’ve ever seen. Especially for a friendship between a man and a woman, because traditional media so often turns those into romances, whether it makes sense or not. I’m so glad that Killjoys absolutely never never goes there. *laughs*
Stephen: I know! There’s a new show on this season called All Rise, which is a courtroom drama. One of my old friends from university is actually in the writers room, so I started watching it for that. And the fact that the lead is Simone Missack who played Misty Knight in the Marvel Netflix shows. Their main character is this woman who has just become a judge, and the DA who is her friend. And it never goes beyond that. It never goes there. There’s never a whiff of sexual tension or hidden desire or anything. They’re just buddies and always talking to each other about each other’s problems. There’s never anything even remotely romantic between them. And it was so refreshing to see that because we always get that will they/won’t they, somebody gets crushed, you know? Just let them be friends! For once!
Dianna: yeah, absolutely. I will have to check that out. I don’t normally watch things that aren’t some kind of sci-fi/ fantasy, but I will take a look at that and see how it goes. So let’s reel things back into the conversation at hand. How would you like to see disability representation change? Specifically in the next 5 years or so, but also just, you know over the trajectory of time?
Stephen: I – I think mostly I just want to see more. It’s the same thing that I’ve always felt about queer representation in media of any kind. I just want more of it. More people writing more stories in more ways.I’d like to see – uh – disabled people in cozy mysteries. I’d like to see them in techno thrillers. I’d like to see them in courtroom dramas. I just want to see more people examine more ways of moving through the world when disabled, and how you deal with being in a courtroom or solving the murder of the person who lives down the street. I hope that more disabled writers write more stories, in more ways, and in more things. I don’t – I often don’t know what I want to see until I see it. You pick up a book and start reading and go “I’ve been waiting for this! No one’s ever written this before!”
And so there’s that: when you can see something that – that tells a story in a new way, where a disabled person can be accomplished, because the author knows that and comes from that. My usual advice for any writers is: write. Write what you think is missing. Write the thing that only you can tell, or that you need to tell, the story that is burning inside you. And I think there are all these amazing people who have all these amazing stories that they can tell about disabled people in any and all genres. And so I hope that we see a glut of them. I hope the jmarket fills with them. And not only because disabled people need their own stories, but abled people need to see those as well and understand what disability means, what disabled people can do and are capable of and how we move through the world, through our narratives, and through our own story.
Dianna: Can you unpack that last a bit? Why is it so important for abled people to see authentic disabled stories?
Stephen: I think because in a lot of ways abled people run the world. I think there are so many abled people who have access to control government budgets and building codes and laws that govern accessibility, and the the more people who aren’t confronted with a problem directly can see that it exists and that it effects people, then maybe they’ll understand what the ramifications of their decisions are going to be. You know if they vote against putting in a ramp or putting bathrooms on the main floor, they can actually understand what it means to people. With that understanding they can move forward in making those decisions in a wiser more compassionate way if they actually understand. And if we write the stories that they can understand, because they’re not just narratives about disability but really good stories as well, I think that’s how you get people.
You get people with stories. You get people with what it means, and how it happens, and how it affects people around them. I think that’s what people resonate with. We’ve had stories forever, they show us what people do and how they are. They show us the impact that people make. And so all of those things are there, and it’s partly for us to be able to look and go “cool, a disability narrative I can relate to”, but also to open the eyes of people who may not. My disability is a certain kind of thing; I still learn from people around me who’s disabilities present in different ways. Because that’s not something I ever thought of, because that’s not how my body works. So I need my eyes opened as well to other disabilities and other lives and other stories, and so I think does everybody. The more we learn about each other and why we do things, the more we understand each other, and the better people we are ultimately.
Dianna: Absolutely, and I follow a disabled Youtuber, Jessica Kellgren-Fozard, and something she said in one of her videos was that a lot of ableism is not intentional or spiteful at all: it’s based out of pure ignorance, because people just don’t actually understand the issues that disabled people face.
Stephen: That’s valid. If walking up a flight of stairs isn’t a problem for you, it’s the kind of thing you don’t think about because it’s just part of your day. It’s normal.
Stephen: And I’m sort of in the middle of that. I can walk up a flight of stairs, it takes me a little bit longer than other people and I look a little more awkward doing it, so it’s like do I or do I take the elevator? The more we break down the sort of notion that people are all the same, the more we break down that there are individual stories and responses and all of those things…the more that we do understand each other – I hate this sort of narrative of *baby voice* “All people are all the same ” or “No, we’re all different rather than: there’s a whole bunch of axis on which we are similar and different , and that changes with every interaction with every different person. I’m similar to this person in one way, different in another way, and that’s going to be different with each person around me. That’s another type of binary we need to break down, that “being different” thing when there are so many differences and similarities that manifest in many different ways.
Dianna: Absolutely. And there’s so many different types of disabilities, and every disabled person’s experience is different, even if they have the same disability as a person next to them.
Dianna: Well all right well that was a phenomenal conversation, thank you so much for joining us. Can you tell us more about where readers can find out more about you and your work?
Stephen: Best place to start is: stephengrahamking.com. Has little bits of extra writing, has videos, has news, has photography, has all my social media links there as well so if you want to find me start there! And by all means follow me wherever! I had a wonderful time, thank you!
Dianna: Awesome thank you so much for joining us.
Stephen: It has been a delight, thank you.