Today, we talk with Charles R. Saunders, author of classic African sword-and-sorcery series, Imaro and Dossouye:
IFP: What inspired you to write stories set in Africa and employing African culture instead of the Usual European Default Setting seen in fantasy?
CS: Although I have nothing against the Usual European Default Setting, I knew there were other cultural traditions that would be fertile ground for fantasy stories. Also, some writers could not resist incorporating racial and ethnic stereotypes in the Usual Setting, and that bothered me, even though I knew that those authors were “products of their times.” I had done a lot of reading in African history, culture and mythology during the late 1960s and early 70s. As a product of my times, I believed that I could write stories in an African-inspired setting that could at least be the equivalent of stories in the Usual European Default Setting. Guess you can tell I like that term. I wish I had thought of it myself.
IFP: Why did you start writing heroic fantasy?
CS: Because heroic fantasy was my favourite genre at the time. When the Lancer editions of Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories were first published with those iconic covers by Frank Frazetta, I was hooked. If I was going to write anything at all, it would be heroic fantasy.
IFP: Tell us how you came to write about your two most popular characters: Imaro and Dossouye.
CS: When I saw how Howard had created his Hyborian Age by juxtaposing and modifying different cultures and historical periods of Europe, the Middle East, etc., I realized that the same thing could be done with the various cultures that have existed in the history of Africa. That was how I devised the settings for Imaro and Dossouye. As for the characters themselves, they sprang spontaneously from their settings. Or, at least, Imaro did. I always saw Imaro as the guy who could reclaim the Africa-of-the-imagination from Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan and other white jungle lords. Dossouye came about through a challenge laid down by editor Jessica Amanda Salmonson, who was compiling an anthology of Amazon stories for DAW Books in the late 1970s. The challenge was to create a black Amazon character. Dossouye was my answer to that challenge.
IFP: Have you noticed more diversity in speculative fiction now compared to when your first Imaro book was published?
CS: There is much more diversity now, even though the Usual European Default Setting continues to be predominant. Actually, there’s more diversity even within the Usual Setting. There’s more inclusion of non-European cultures and characters, depicted in non-stereotypical ways. A good example of this inclusion is David Anthony Durham’s novel, Acacia, which integrates European, Middle-Eastern and African elements.
IFP: What are your thoughts on the future of sword-and-sorcery?
CS: The future of the genre is in good hands, particularly those of Joe Abercrombie, author of The First Law trilogy. Paul Kearney and the late David Gemmell kept the genre alive during the lull that followed the waning of the Howard boom of the 1960s, 70s and 80s. Also, the line between heroic fantasy and epic fantasy is blurring. The multi-volume series of writers like Scott Bakker and Steven Erickson are as epic in scope as the oeuvre of J.R.R. Tolkein and Robert Jordan. Yet, they’re packed with the kind of slam-bang action a sword-and-sorcery buff craves.
IFP: If readers are interested in finding more diverse fantasy and sci-fi, what authors or novels should they read?
CS: Samuel R. Delany, Octavia Butler, Steven Barnes, Nalo Hopkinson, Tananarive Due, Milton Davis, Carole McDonnell, Minister Faust, Valjeanne Jeffers, Fumi Bankole, Shykia Bell, Brother G, and Edward Uzzle, among others. Also, Japanese manga and anime have added a great deal to the diversity of the field.
IFP: Your career went through a hiatus in the 90s. Could you tell us about what you were up to during this time and how you got back into writing sword-and-sorcery?
CS: I became involved in journalism during that time, as an opinion columnist, copy editor and, ultimately, editorial writer for a daily newspaper. I continued to write fiction, but publications were few and far between. In 2003, an Australian reader named Benjamin Szumskyj wote to me and suggested that I revive the Imaro series, which had been discontinued in the mid-1980s due to poor sales. I was reluctant at first, because one segment of the first Imaro novel bore too strong a resemblance to the Rwanda genocide, which happened years after I wrote the Imaro stories. Eventually, I decided to scrap that segment and rewrite the series, substituting a new and different segment for the one with which I no longer felt comfortable.
IFP: How do you think the Internet has affected the speculative genre? Do you think it has improved the diversity of writers and readers in the field? Has it made it any easier for writers outside of the “mainstream” to make a living in the genre?
CS: I remember when the Internet itself would have been a subject of speculative fiction. Its effect on the genre has been a kind of fiction-into-fact phenomenon. I think it’s opened people’s minds to a broader scope of possibilities. I believe the Internet has, indeed, improved the diversity of writers and readers in the field – at least those who have access to the World Wide Web. Concerning writers outside the mainstream, I don’t think the Internet has made it any easier to make a living in the genre. Only a few writers can make a living in these genres. They are the tiny tip of the iceberg. The rest of us are the bottom of the iceberg – the unseen mass beneath the surface. I will say, however, that the Internet has made it easier for writers to connect with readers, and it has broadened the dissemination of non-best-selling writers’ work, whether that work is good or not-so-good. Readers have so much more room for choice these days. But I don’t think that the majority of writers are going to get any richer.
IFP: What are your favourite authors or books?
CS: I read voraciously and voluminously. A list of my favourites would be very long, indeed. All the writers I mentioned above are among my favourites. The English Lit courses I took in high school and university convinced me that for the most part, the “classical” writers are more to be studied than enjoyed. Then again, I like Stephen King, but I also like H.P. Lovecraft. I like James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux novels, but also, I tore through just about all of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher thrillers. Tanith Lee and Ursula K. Le Guin are favourites. My old friend Joe R. Lansdale never fails to satisfy. Another friend, Canadian writer George Elliott Clarke, is a writer and poet whose work should be studied and enjoyed. For inspiration, there’s always The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom.
IFP: You mention that Lovecraft’s Elder Gods inspired the Demon Gods in Imaro. Could you tell us more about this?
CS: First, there was the idea that extra-dimensional beings are out to take over the Earth, using human agents as their willing cat’s paws. Second, there was Wilbur Whateley’s horrific transformation from human to alien form in “The Dunwich Horror”.
IFP: What artistic accomplishment are you most proud of in your life?
CS: Imaro. I believe he constituted a breakthrough in fantasy – he opened readers’ eyes to the possibility of a different way to portray Africa and Africans in the genre. I think he shattered some stereotypes, both literary and racial.
IFP: If you could be a Lovecraft/Howard/Mythos monster or other character, which one would you be?
CS: I have a good imagination. And I enjoy Lovecraft’s and Howard’s work, “product of their times” and all. But I cannot picture myself as any kind of character, human or otherwise, in either of their worlds. I’m not a product of that time.
IFP: What is your favourite Lovecraft/Howard/Mythos story?
CS: Sticking to Lovecraft, my choice would be At the Mountains of Madness. For me, that novella is the granddaddy of the hybridization of science fiction and horror. It’s the perfect blend of those two genres. Even today, the chill isn’t gone from the icy ambience of Mountains.
IFP: Please tell us about your upcoming projects.
CS: I recently finished the second volume of Dossouye’s adventures. The first book was a collection of Dossouye stories that had been published in various anthologies, along with a new, never-before-published novella. The second Dossouye book is a novel, with nothing in it having been previously published. Also, the long-awaited fourth Imaro novel is available at lulu.com. A fifth Imaro novel is forthcoming. I’m also working on a new African-inspired fantasy series that does not involve Imaro or Dossouye, and takes place in a different setting.
IFP: What is your dream project?
CS: I enjoy writing fantasy fiction. But I’ve always wanted to take a stab at science fiction as well. I have never come up with an idea I wanted to pursue, though. Maybe some day…
Bio: Charles R. Saunders has been writing fiction since the early 1970s, including four novels about a heroic character named Imaro, who swings his sword in an alternate version of Africa, and a collection of stories about an African Amazon named Dossouye. He has also had stories published in various small-press magazines, as well as paperback anthologies. He lives in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, Canada. He invites visitors to his website: www.charlessaunderswriter.com.