Interview with artist/ writer Duncan Long

posted for Chris Deanne

As I had said in my interview with Wayne Batson Thomas, I suppose that I am a shallow Science Fiction/Fantasy Reader. When I go to the local Border's Bookstore and look for a new Sci Fi/Fantasy book, I alway check out the cover. Frankly, if the cover does not grab me, I'll look for something else.

As Lost Genre Guild is primarily a Writer's Network and blog, I thought it would be nice to hear from some artists in the industry. Who happen to be Christian as well. I was concerned that this was a bit of a stretch--to find a Christian artist who also loved Science Fiction and Fantasy, but lo and behold, I found Duncan Long.

Duncan Long is a profession artist and has written several books, including Spider Worlds, a chapter book published by Harper Paperbacks. He was gracious enough to tolerate a novice interview.

C-Tell me about doing art when you were in grade school. What was your favorite art project that you can remember?
I always liked assignments where I could draw what I wanted. The teacher simply asked us to draw what we'd done during the summer, a face, etc., and that was always great. I can remember my fourth and fifth grade teachers singling out the drawings I created for such projects. I guess there was always a little trickery going on as well with my artwork. I can remember (being near-sighted helped) taking pains to draw the tiny reflection of a man hanging on a noose, reflected in the eyes of a woman I'd drawn in fourth grade. I thought the teacher was had noticed and was about to read me the riot act when she stopped in front of my drawing. But instead she told the class that I'd captured a very sad expression on the woman's face; thus my first exposure to subliminal messages (ha) and risk taking.

Since then I often add a little extra to reward viewers. Perhaps a small fly walking on a stone, or a ghostly image that can be picked out if you look long enough. Oddly, as viewers get to thinking there are such things to be found, they often discover objects I didn't actually put in (faces in clouds, etc.). So I guess this is sort of a two-way street with the artist getting surprised sometimes as well.

C-What about high school? Did you find yourself spending a lot of time in the art department?
I'm pretty much an "outsider" artist, being self-trained for the most part. Our little school had only 40 students in the entire high school. So there was no art department (and after grade school I was pretty much self-taught with my dad, who was also a musician/writer/artist, supplying some hints and art books to help me along). However I was often chosen for making murals and lettering for plays, dances, and so forth so I actually had a lot of experience creating artwork to please the masses during the last three years of high school. I'm not sure what might have happened had I been in a school with an art department if I had learned some good art techniques rather than monkeying into them on my own. Fortunately, I was always a good drawer and when the computer/paint programs/digital tablet came around I was able to pounce on them. The ability to use the "undo" option has been a big part of my creation of artwork. It enables me to experiment and thrash around until something finally works. I have a sort of dab and tinker sort of working system that allows me to gradually stumble into what I want to see -- okay, maybe that's a little extreme (ha), but I don't think I would have got this far with real paints as opposed to digital. The computer allows an artist to really stretch his wings if he is so inclined.

C-Where did you go to college? Did you find yourself challenged there, encouraged or both?
I got no training at all in either writing or artwork -- well, except for the basic English/literature course (where I had papers singled out by the teacher -- but only got Bs on them because "We reserve our As for English majors" and an art course I needed so I could teach grade school as well as high school (Art for Grade School Teachers or some such thing, where we spent time learning about the proper way to cut paper, how to color in the lines, and so forth -- I kid you not -- all the stuff designed to knock any creativity a child might have out of their personality, near as I could tell). I went to Sterling College (in Sterling Kansas) and switched my major from science (then mired down in Evolution -- which still is the case today) to music, thereby enabling me to either teach music or ask, "Do you want fries with that?"

I got my Master's in music composition at Kansas State University, and that actually proved very useful because while there I developed the concepts of composition that now are employed in my artwork and to some extent in my writing. I taught for high school and grade school music for a time, then started a mail order business where I sold my own how-to books, often creating the illustrations. I eventually started selling the book rights (I enjoyed writing/illustrating and great to hate the marketing end of things) and found I could make a living of sorts at this. I wrote mostly non-fiction books but have also seen 13 novels go into print (three being the Spider Worlds stories).

C-I found Spiderworlds, a children's fantasy book that you wrote about 10 years ago! Could you tell me about that?
Yes, that was with HarperCollins. I had been writing Action/Adventure books (the Night Stalkers series about an elite US helicopter team) when the bottom dropped out of the action adventure market. So my editor at Harper jumped into the young adult market, the R. L. Stine books were big then, and soon Harper wanted something along those lines for intermediate readers. I am afraid while my intentions were good, my heart was in the science fiction arena so of the book proposals I sent, the Spider World concept was the one chosen (ironic as it started as an adult short story -- and my agent thought there was no hope for the idea in terms of a book, let alone a series, and certainly not a series aimed at younger readers -- and I think my agent had ever reason to think this). So the Spider Worlds books were never really spooky (despite the covers) and were actually sci-fi in concept with a few chills here and there, though lots of plotting and action. Oddly most of those readers who seem to have enjoyed the books were adults, reading the books to their kids. Well, needless to say, with the marketing aimed at the young horror market, the covers projecting that idea, and the books themselves having a a sci-fi bent with a humorous undercurrent that only adults were likely to pick up on, the books didn't catch on, and so we only did three books in the series. But they were surely fun to write and I wish, someday, adult readers might discover and appreciate them (if wishes were horses, I would be a cowboy).

I might also note, as it could be of interest to your audience, that each of these three Spider Worlds books was based on one of the ten commandments, the first dealing with not lying, the second with not stealing, and the third with honoring your parents. These messages are buried in the storyline, but there. I have been somewhat saddened that the Christian community doesn't get behind ideas like this and instead often rants about how there's no Christian literature out there, yet when I have approached Christian publishers and commentators they seem stunningly indifferent. I think that churches tend to see "Christian Literature" as something that must have lambs and sunshine and perhaps take place in Biblical times. (And ditto for Christian music and art, come to think of it.) And thus the arts languish with the world having say in what is produced rather than Christians. Were the Sistine Chapel built today, Michelangelo would likely be asked to paint the walls a nice pink :o)

C-I've been to your website and see that you have published some stories that are free for reading. What prompted you to do so and has there been a response?
Well, I have followed the theory that putting stuff online is a way to be discovered by editors and readers, etc., etc., and found that this doesn't always work (ha). Seriously, the idea is sound only most book editors are still pretty much firmly entrenched in the 19th Century, only begrudgingly sending emails and still wanting paper manuscripts. They are not out trolling the Internet looking for new, old, or alien talent. Likewise most readers of ebooks have not yet found a decent, affordable ebook reader, and thus haven't found the joys and advantages these devices have over print books (and there is one out there: The eBookwise reader -- and possibly others).

I have discovered a lot of material on the net to read (I love my eBookwise reader which is perfect for the task of reading novels and such downloaded from the net). I think this is where the industry will eventually be headed and hope to live long enough to see ebooks catch on -- provided someone comes up with a way to pay those whose work is being read. If a system is not developed, I can see writing and the arts becoming something people do for a hobby because there is no money to be made at it. Sadly the major publishers are all but ignoring this potential market and the marketplace is thus sorting itself out in less than ideal ways for writers, musicians, and artists. (And the record industry, which causes me to shudder every time I think about how it has gone about things, seems to have headed in the other extreme, often making war on its customers or treating them as if every buyer is a criminal -- while gouging the customer with prices that are ridiculously high, and have been for decades -- I can remember when the recording industry told consumers the prices were going to tumble on music if only we would go along with the switch from LPs to CDs and invest in new players, for example.)

The old saw that "information wants to be free" (which is actually a misquote, I believe) may be true. But it is true in the same way that one might say, "germs want to be spread." The idea that information should be free, and that authors should therefore work for free, seems ingrained with much of the Internet and in the end may very well kill the golden goose (with said goose being currently throttled by both the corporations as well as the pirates). Unfortunately the high prices that publishers are asking for their ebooks has not helped, with a few folks now scanning books and putting them online for free -- whether the author and publisher agree to this or not. I think eventually this practice is going to create problems just as the MP3 has for the music industry, even though publishers are generally ignoring the growing problem and failing to lower their prices on ebooks, which would do a lot to prevent this from happening (scanning a book and then OCRing it being a whole lot more work than ripping a CD). So thus far the solution -- charge too high a price for the product and hope cheap ebook readers don't become popular -- has been the only one the publishing industry has adopted, and thus the industry has encouraged those who feel justified in sharing books for free since it's easy to rationalize, "I would never buy the book at this price, and since the publisher is obviously gouging me for a handful of electrons anyway, I will read this pirated version for free." Yet the shame here is that I suspect, given the choice to buy and read an ebook for, say, 99 cents, a lot of folks would be willing to pay if for no other reason than to help their favorite authors. A lot of business might be enjoyed by the publisher and writers were that the case. But as long as the cost of an ebook is going to be nearly that of a book, and as long as the ebook reader is going to cost hundreds of dollars (with the exception noted above), then I can't see this situation changing for the better any time soon.

All right, I'm getting off my soapbox now.

C-Have you been primarily focused on doing art or are you writing other things as well?
My bread and butter is ghost writing books for other people. This is a tad depressing sometimes with folks claiming credit for my work. I think this is another example of things being trapped in the past in the publishing industry. Today, people are outraged when a "rock star" is discovered to be lip syncing to music performed by someone else. Yet most people seem to be fine with the fiction that their favorite rock star (or movie actor or politician) is simply lying about writing the book with their name on it, instead having hired someone else to write it. But it is an odd situation and one more thing that has messed up the publishing industry since the millions of dollars paid to celebrities for books they don't actually write could buy a wealth of really fine novels and such from unknown writers. In fact, for each million dollar book advance paid to a star without any real story to tell, our society is losing perhaps 100 or even 200 quality novels. This happens month after month, year after year so that literally thousands of quality works are being lost so our society can gain insights from people, many of whom we wouldn't want to babysit our kids or be alone in the room with our teenage son or daughter.

Of course I won't complain too loudly (or reveal who my clients are) since this is where my money is coming from. But I would rather be trying my hand at quality works with my own name on the cover.

That said, I still am putting a few in print with my name on them. The most recent is(see: Protect Your Privacy ) and I'm hoping it will take off -- and perhaps wake folks up to how their rights are quickly being gobbled up by both the government as well as the big corporations (the two often working hand in glove).

C-Because this interview will be for a Christian speculative group, I have a few questions regarding this genre. Have you had much experience doing art for Christian speculative fiction?
A very few. Most of my illustrations are for secular novels or, oddly enough, for supermarket tabloids (my wife having been startled one day to see a picture that I'd based on my own face staring at her as she waited in the supermarket checkout line - ha). The neat twist to these latter illustrations is that they often are on Biblical subjects and thus the artwork is paid for so I can then offer it to Christian groups wanting artwork for PowerPoint presentations. The Lord really does provide in mysterious ways.

C-Are you writing any speculative fiction yourself?
Yes, I have a couple of sci-fi novels but thus far no takers. That said, I have been remiss in not sending these to more publishers since with much my time is so tied up with my non-fiction and artwork. I often tell beginning writers that the secret of getting into print is persistence, sending out your manuscript again and again and again -- and I fear I need to follow my advice a bit more of the time

C-Have you had experience doing art for Christian Speculative Fiction writers or magazines devoted to that genre?
On occasion my work is used with Christian publications, but very seldom with Christian Speculative Fiction. I think perhaps the market is small and my work not that well known. I seem to get enough business by word of mouth and by folks stumbling into my web site, so I really have not spent much time pursuing new avenues or customers. And it seems like I never quite have enough time to do all I wish I might . . . Often I spend time creating artwork or music rather than pursuing projects that would bring in more money (and thus we often live hand to mouth here as well -- but so far no starving artist). I think perhaps cloning is the answer to my time problem :o)


Part two of my interview will be published at my weblog Write and Whine .


Deborah Cullins Smith said...

Great interview, Chris! It's interesting to see Mr. Long's views on everything from ebooks to publishing houses to art! What a find. I'll have to look for some of his books the next time I'm in Borders. Thanks for introducing Duncan Long to the rest of us, Chris! Good work.

:) deb

Bruce Woodworth said...

Very nice interview, Chris. Your questions were concise, relevant, and revealing in their own way...as was the last interview I read of yours. You're getting good at this!

(It also doesn't hurt that your subject didn't take much prodding to express himself, eh?) lol

Thanks for introducing us to another creative individual!

amyanne said...


Would you be interested in participating in the blog tour for Tricia Goyer's latest novel, Valley of Betrayal?