There’s plenty of fantasy and sci-fi featuring massive space adventures and ploys to take over Earth, but Clark Thomas Carlton has a fresh take on the genre that comes from the micro perspective.
Carlton’s Antasy series, currently featuring Prophets of the Ghost Ants and The Prophet of a Termite God, features complex societies, religious turmoil, war, and amazing modern parallels but there’s one catch: The characters are all tiny humans living among insects.
We have the opportunity to chat with the author about creating such a complex world and how his journey as an artist, playwright, and screenwriter helped shape his stories. Take a look!
What were your first seeds of an idea for The Antasy series begin and how did you develop them?
First of all, thanks so much for having me at The Fandom!
I was traveling in the Yucatan and had spent a day hiking through the rain forest then climbing to the top of a Mayan temple that had been used for human sacrifice. Just before dinner, I was sipping a watermelon margarita and munching on some peanuts when one of them fell under my lounge chair. A short time later, I saw ants converging on the peanut from different directions. Large black ants got in a battle with some smaller brown ants and the peanut was wobbling between them. At one point, the peanut split into two which should have been an easy resolution for the ants — each could port off half — but the ants kept fighting, shearing each other into pieces. I watched the ants until we were called to dinner and kept thinking about them. I recalled the hours I had spent as a kid in a sandy lot behind our house watching ant wars.
That night, I dreamed I was a soldier riding on the back of an ant. I looked up to see I was under the shade of a golden poppy. Behind me, I saw thousands of other soldiers riding on black ants with swords and bows and arrows. Across from us, over a spread of large and chunky sand, I saw our enemy. They were an army of men riding on red ants. We were charging towards each other for a clash when I woke up. I wrote it all down and knew that it was the basis for a sci-fi/fantasy series: a distant future where humans had evolved to the size of insects and intertwined with their world. I knew the visuals would be just fantastic, examples of which [can be seen on my website.]
Once you knew the novel would heavily involve insects, how much research went into getting them just right? Were there any interesting new bug facts you discovered?
I read a few books about ants and other insects, but none would be as thorough and as hair raising as The Ants by Edward O. Wilson and Bert Holldobler. Dr. Wilson is known as The Second Darwin and is the father of Evolutionary Biology. He is also the foremost authority on ants. The Ants was a fascinating read and a challenging one for me, a layman. There are 15, 000 known kinds of ants and they are extraordinarily diverse in their appearances, diets and survival traits. Some ants are living refrigerators that hang from the ceiling by their claws and are stuffed with nourishment. Others are farmers that grow their own fungus. A few kinds of ants are pirates that invade the colonies of other ants to steal their eggs and hatchlings to raise as slaves. And then we have the driver ants with marching columns of 50 million blind soldiers that tear rats and snakes into pieces. Those are just a few examples of these endlessly fascinating creatures.
What was it like creating your own society for the series? Which elements were essential to defining this society?
I created a few societies for my series and their cultures are an outgrowth of the insects they have adopted. An example is the people of the Slope who have parasitized the leaf cutter ants. Leaf cutters are cultivators who shear, pulp and fertilize leaves in order to grow a nourishing mushroom. Their division of labor is extremely complex with different castes of ants dedicated to very specific tasks like mulching. The tenth-of-an-inch people who live among them are also extremely stratified and born into an occupation and status they cannot break from. My protagonist, Anand, is born into the lowest caste and he works in his colony’s midden or trash dump where both ants and humans deposit waste and corpses. His life would be hopelessly difficult and ugly except that his mother is from another tribe, the traveling cockroach people. Her tribe, the Britasytes, are the gypsies of this world and their roaches exude a pheromone that repels ants and other insects. This allows Britasytes to travel unmolested through different ant nations so they can work as traders, showmen and carnies. Anand’s story begins in Book 1 of the Antasy trilogy,The Prophets of the Ghost Ants, when he is on the verge of leaving the tribe he hates for the one that embraces beauty, freedom and adventure.
Despite the sci-fi elements, this is a story about the human condition. What do you hope readers take away from Pleckoo’s journey?
Pleckoo is my antagonist and the story shifts to him in Book 2, The Prophet of the Termite God. As a character, he is completely contemptible, a war criminal and guilty of the worst offenses. But he is also completely ignorant, illiterate and a victim of institutionalized cruelty. In Book 2, we see how things might have turned out for him if he were born into better circumstances. I also hope readers get a view inside the head of someone with claims of being a prophet: someone who believes his thoughts and fantasies are messages from a god.
How has your experience as an artist, as well as a writer for stage and screen informed your novel writing?
I’ve worked as a screen and t.v. writer and that’s all about the building of a tightly constructed story with what’s called “narrative drive.” With the exception of humor — you never stop funny — everything is about advancing the story. The dialogue in a screenplay should be sharp and snappy and like the volleys of a tennis match. That’s the one thing I bring to writing novels — characters conversing in a way until one of them wins the point. Readers of epic fiction want a strong narrative — something cinematic — but they also want colorful details and nuance and I can’t help but describe how things look and smell in my micro-world. When Harper Collins acquired Prophets of the Ghost Ants, my editor, David Pomerico, pushed me to show more of my characters’ interior worlds in the rewrite. That’s frowned on in screenwriting — show don’t tell — but a novel has the beautiful advantage of revealing the full depth of someone’s feelings and allows for poetry.
I love to paint — I’m known as Grandma Moses on acid — and my writing has also been called painterly. I think painting and making music and writing in other formats are all good cross-training, a means of making new neural connections. Sometimes when I get stuck on a plot problem in my novels I’ll pick up my guitar or paint and the solution to the writing problem will emerge.
What’s your writing process like?
I’m a strong believer in the magic of commitment. The first act of writing is not waiting for inspiration but in sitting down before your computer and doing the work. I’m a night owl who finally gets some quiet when the family is all in bed and the phone stops ringing or pinging. Once I have glued my pants to the chair, the flow will come and it starts by connecting with feelings, good or bad. It’s important to do research and it’s important to have life experiences, but imagination goes a long way when we connect with our emotions. The trope is “write what you know” but more importantly, a writer must have a desire to say something. Anyone who is indifferent to the world cannot be a fiction writer. Sometimes writing is about capturing or recreating beauty and sometimes it is anger or frustration or sadness over the events of life. For me it is often disgust, disappointment or anger with the latest news. Reading the New York Times can be very motivating.
Whatever I work on, I render it to please myself first and I think my standards are high. It’s a bonus when my work appeals to others and connects with them. Being read is a way of connecting with others, a means of mitigating loneliness. The best kind of writing is sincere and comes from an honest place. The events of my books may be fictional but in some ways my writing is all a confession of who I am.
ABOUT THE BOOK
Prophets of a Termite God (Antasy #2) is out now. You can snag a copy via Amazon or support your local independent bookstore via Indiebound!
Once an outcast, Pleckoo has risen to Prophet-Commander of the Hulkrish army. But a million warriors and their ghost ants were not enough to defeat his cousin, Anand the Roach Boy, the tamer of night wasps and founder of Bee-Jor. Now Pleckoo is hunted by the army that once revered him. Yet in all his despair, Pleckoo receives prophecies from his termite god, assuring him he will kill Anand to rule the Sand, and establish the One True Religion.
And war is not yet over.
Now, Anand and Bee-Jor face an eastern threat from the Mad Emperor of the Barley People, intent on retaking stolen lands from a vulnerable and chaotic nation. And on the southern Weedlands, thousands of refugees clamor for food and safety and their own place in Bee-Jor. But the greatest threats to the new country come from within, where an embittered nobility and a disgraced priesthood plot to destroy Anand … then reunite the Lost Country with the Once Great and Holy Slope.
Can the boy who worked in the dung heap rise above the turmoil, survive his assassins, and prevent the massacre of millions?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Clark T. Carlton is the son of a barefooted, Floridian cowboy and a beauty queen from the Land of Cotton who ventured North to raise their children in the long shadow of New York City. When he was a teenager, his family moved from a blue-collar melting pot to a segregated and conservative enclave of Southern California, an event which forever altered his world view. He studied English and Film at Boston University and UCLA and has worked as a screen and television writer, a journalist, and as a producer of reality television in addition to a thousand and one other professions. He has always had more blue than white in his collar.
Some of his favorite books are the classics of science fiction, all of which have an element of fantasy if they involve time travel or traveling faster than the speed of light (or through a wormhole) to another solar system. As a child, he had hopes of enlisting in Star Fleet Academy, but any physicist worth his neutrons will tell us that kind of space travel will never be possible. One of the greatest regrets of his life is that he cannot travel the galaxies to interact with alien societies- but it has opened him up to create his own imaginary world.
He lives with his family in Los Angeles where he enjoys tennis, volleyball, songwriting, and painting. A friend of his calls his paintings “Grandma Moses on acid”, which he takes as the highest compliment.