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Author Interview: Ralph E. Vaughan

Ralph E. Vaughan is a local writer to me, being a long-time resident of Chula Vista, Calif. He is a graduate of the Defense Information School, holds a degree in criminology, and is known for his many Sherlock Holmes and HP Lovecraft pastiches. It is a pleasure to introduce him here on No Wasted Ink.

Author Ralph Vaughan“Who are you?” The enigmatic Vorlons of Babylon 5 were known for asking that of people, causing all sorts of trouble. If asked, I could say “I am Ralph E. Vaughan,” but that’s the kind of answer the Vorlons rewarded with an electric shock. A similar punitive jolt would be delivered for the standard “I am my parents’ child” or “I am my children’s father.” Besides, I tried (and was occasionally successful) not to be like my parents, and my sole positive influence on my two children was to admonish them, “Don’t be like your father.” Asked to describe myself, I’d admit to being a champion of causes both hopeless and lost, a citizen of bygone ages and of empires in the dust, a speaker for people who once lived or never did, an illustrator of realms unseen, and a builder of things that sometimes endure. For awhile. I am hopelessly old-fashioned and permanently out of step with this digital protean world. I am anachronistic, maybe a bit Luddite. I don’t have cell-phone, e-reader, or pad or tablet (is there a difference?). I like writing more than any other activity (though I preferred my Remington Quietwriter to a keyboard), but I am distracted all too easily by reading, researching, game-playing, gardening, woodworking, cinema, and spending time with my dogs and cats. I’m married (40 years), have two children and two grandchildren; since retiring a few years ago, I’ve devoted myself to full-time writing and troublemaking.

When and why did you begin writing? When did you first consider yourself a writer?

I don’t have the hubris to claim I was born a writer, and I don’t think I should admit to having always been a liar…but I always have liked to tell stories, much to the chagrin of authority figures. In first grade, I wrote a short story entitled “The Mouse in the Haunted House,” set, obviously, in a haunted house, but told from the viewpoint of the rodent. Mrs Hamilton was concerned enough to send a note home to my parents (not the first, by no means the last). My first real foray into creative writing was in third grade with “The White Raven.” Mrs Decker was much more enlightened – not only did she send a “good” note home to my parents (they were startled) but she entered the story in a writing contest, in which it placed first. I wrote ever more complex tales as I learned about literature and grammar, but not till high school did I start writing for publication. High school journalism and book reviews for the local paper taught me discipline. It was then I realized there was a wider audience than just me – the world, if not more.

Can you share a little about your current book with us?

Shadows Against the Empire is an interplanetary steampunk adventure set in 1882, but in a Solar System much more interesting than ours. I looked at astronomical beliefs in the Nineteenth Century, but most of my planet building stemmed from debates between me and my friend Carlos Carrion in high school, during which we postulated ancient life on Mars, jungles and oceans on Venus, and a Twilight Zone on Mercury. The plot involves a group of interdimensional beings, known in the mythology of many worlds as the Dark Gods, who were banished by an unknown Elder Race. They want back in, want to rule all the inhabited planets and moons, to feed upon fear and blood – they are rather nasty characters. To gain a foothold, they possess a susceptible Martian, who then becomes a major character in the plot. Although resistance eventually becomes widespread, it starts with two British soldiers, Captain Robert Folkestone and Sergeant Felix Hand, a Martian. They are the main protagonists throughout the novel, but Chief Inspector Ethan Slaughter of Scotland Yard and Lady Cynthia Barrington-Welles, who may or may not be a spy, also appear. This battle between good and evil results in an action novel that will surely please fans of classic adventure.

What inspired you to write this book?

The inspiration to write Shadows Against the Empire came chiefly from a deep and abiding interest in steampunk. Other fans, maybe most, express their interest through fashion or cosplay, but to be comfortable with that outlet you have to be very confident, somewhat egotistical, and relatively outgoing, maybe even a bit of an exhibitionist, all qualities which do not apply to me. Nor do I have any fashion sense. At heart, I’m a shy and retiring chap. But I do like to write. I have a fondness for Victorian literature, specifically Sherlock Holmes. I’ve been writing Holmes pastiches since 1981, so a full-blown steampunk novel seemed logical.

Do you have a particular writing style?

My style tends to be straight-forward, oriented toward action and characterization. I also love writing dialogue. I try to paint word pictures, almost a cinematic style. But a novel is also a collaboration between writer and reader. What I bring to the table is (I hope) good writing, extensive research, interesting characters, and exotic locales; what I expect from the reader is an enquiring intelligence, a knowledge of literature and history, and a competent vocabulary.

How did you come up with the title of the book?

My original title was Darkness Against the Empire, but as the story evolved “darkness” became nebulous and inaccurate. I substituted the more concrete “shadows,” which also echoes themes from H.P. Lovecraft. The “empire” of the title is the British Empire, but in this alternate universe it is very different, having encountered cultures on Earth that developed their own versions of steam technology first invented in ancient Egypt (Alexandria), as well as extraterrestrial races that met Earth’s colonial powers on a more or less equal footing.

Is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp?

“Message” novels seem rarely to entertain. An entertaining novel, as I hope this is, will touch a reader on many levels, allowing readers to discover their own messages. My only goal was to entertain. Of course, writers don’t always know or recognize everything that goes into a novel. Readers, and critics, will always make what they want out of any novel, based on their own interests, interpretations and biases.

Are experiences in this book based on someone you know, events in your own life?

I don’t consciously base characters on people I know, but I sometimes filch names. Cruel people might find their names attached to some rather unsavory characters. As to the nature of the characters, I look more to cultural and mythological archetypes, as well as to my extensive readings in psychology.

What authors have more influenced your life? What about them to you find inspiring?

I aspired to write a rattling good adventure novel like Rudyard Kipling, tempered by Joseph Conrad, with a dash of H.P. Lovecraft thrown in. I also tried to infuse the story with humor, primarily through dialogue, as P.G. Wodehouse did. Also at my elbow were Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov and Raymond Chandler.

If you had to choose, is there a writer you would consider a mentor? Why?

If one writer could be my mentor it would be Joseph Conrad. He understood the darkness at the heart of man and the struggle to overcome it. Also, Conrad developed a clear and precise narrative voice like none other. I return often to Conrad for inspiration, especially three of his stories – Heart of Darkness, The Secret Sharer and The Secret Agent.

Who designed the cover of your book? Why did you select this illustrator?

On previous books, I used a software program with a library of graphics. For Shadows Against the Empire, however, I found a public domain wallpaper, then manipulated it in various ways. Despite an exhaustive search I could find neither illustrator nor first use. The reason for choosing the graphic (or the small portion used) was because it fit the spirit of the title, as well as directly illustrating a scene in the novel.

Do you have any advice for other writers?

Do not “write what you know about” or “write like you talk.” Writers should write about what interests them, what they’re passionate about. As far as narrative, writers need to cultivate a clean and straightforward style, structured by good grammar, enlivened by an active voice and a developed vocabulary. Equally important is the ability to write realistic (not “real”) dialogue that moves the plot along while revealing character.

Do you have anything specific that you want to say to your readers?

To my readers: “When you read my book, put your cares aside, prepare to enter a universe of wonder and peril, and enjoy yourself.”

Shadows Against the Empire Book CoverRalph E. Vaughan
Chula Vista, CA


Publisher: Dog in the Night Books