Cooper D. Barham writes dark, fantastical fiction from a Christian perspective. I talk with him about his stories and writing experience, including his fiction featured on Geeks Under Grace!
Q. As a writer, what kind of stories do you like to tell?
I think it’s important to be able to show adaptability with your writing and storytelling abilities, so I try my hand at many things. However, my preference has always catered to fantasy and science-fiction. Even then, you can become more specific and say I prefer soft sci-fi over the strictness of hard sci-fi, or epic fantasy over dieselpunk. Even deeper, I am more inclined to writing stories with a dark undertone. “Dark” can be translated in so many different ways though, that summing it up into a single word is nearly criminal.
Yet, even though I have all of these preferences and such, my stories require something of me beyond their literary cosmetic. When I write, I always set forth with a few goals, which may not always be perfectly evident on the surface, but constantly thread themselves through the background. I write to convey the message of Christ (which can be done with dark stories, for the record). I write to inspire. I write because I’ve been inspired, and am notorious among some of my friends and consistent readers as somebody who plants an abundance of Easter Eggs within their work. I do this with the vague hope that readers will absorb what I write, and somehow make their way through the underpinnings and into those things which originally captivated me.
“Iscariot” is a short-story where the various sins of men manifest themselves into a body-altering virus. This virus, Penance, transforms humanity into a more physical representation of their inner struggle, taking on traits of our own Kingdom Animalia. For example, the sin of sloth gives you characteristics of a mole, and pride dons your body with the various menaces of a winged bat.
In this afflicted world, a special sort of officer named Iscariot works alongside his partner to track down and annihilate the victims of Penance’s infection. But because he’s only human, Iscariot finds himself in a personal conflict where the love of his own daughter might compromise his ability to get the job done.
Q. Stephen King thinks every author has an ideal reader. Who is the ideal reader for “Iscariot”?
Well, Stephen King is brilliant, so he must be right. Let’s see… When writing Iscariot, I wanted something that would cater specifically to a Christian audience, without showing any signs of being exclusive to them alone. At the same time, because this fiction work was part of a “test-fire” for the Geeks Under Grace website to see how well it might be received, I also wanted to play to my skills, so I gave it a surreal, decrepit, urban setting.
In my experience, the more shadows you have in a story, the greater the power of the light when it shows face. That’s what I wanted to convey to the readers. Yeah, things might be dark and brutal, but that’s how our world can be sometimes, and that’s why it’s so important to strive for hope. Because hope is a cure for the darkness.
Q. What is the inspiration behind your characters, and the unique world you’ve built in “Iscariot” ?
The concept of Penance came to me as I was studying under some of author Brandon Sanderson’s lessons about “magic systems” and how to orchestrate them as a device for narrative theming. Originally, I thought of “Iscariot” as a better fit for long-form fantasy, and it had a very different shape from the short story published on GUG. In fact, it used to simply be titled “Penance,” but I modified the name based on the primary attack of the protagonist from one of my older stories, thinking it would be a good name for an actual character. It took some time for me to become comfortable with having a character named Iscariot who wasn’t like Judas Iscariot.
As for Iscariot himself, he’s not overly special. He is basically a manifestation of two characteristics: “Jaded Officer” and “Loving Father.” To this day, I don’t have an image for Iscariot in my mind. He’s sadly faceless. Yet, I put relentless detail into his every word. I wanted the reader to know that he had a refined brand of understanding and empathy, but was still very much a fragile human.
Iscariot’s partner, Arthur, was vaguely inspired by a companion character in the horror video game The Evil Within. Ultimately though, I had Arthur function with more comedic value as a brother-in-arms than the character who he was originally derived from, as that person was rather boring.
Writing isn’t the only thing he has good taste in. He knows how to dress, too!
Q. If you had to cast actors to play the characters in your story, who would you choose?
This is going to be difficult to answer, as I am bad at assessing these things. “Iscariot” really only has three characters of focus. I, for the love of me, can’t think of somebody who actually “fits” the mold of Iscariot in my mind, so I will say Jeremy Renner as that’s the closest I can conceive. Arthur could be played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, though I’m probably only saying that because he played a character named Arthur in Inception. As for the Pride, I’d cast Ulquiorra from Bleach, as he would fit perfectly.
Q. Do you listen to music while you write?
Yes I listen to music while I write. I have about two dozen playlists formed specifically to capture a certain vibe or ambiance for whatever I’m trying to write. Consequently, I listen to a lot of instrumental music. Two Steps From Hell, various video game and anime soundtracks, Audiomachine, tons of no-name Youtubers worth far more attention than they receive, stuff like that. However, I also listen to a lot of rock music, rock being the most ambiguous definition for a genre ever. I listen to both Christian and mainstream rock and metal, but I bounce all over the place. For reference, as I’ve been answering these questions, I have jumped from Project 86, to Breaking Benjamin, to The Glitch Mob, to Run Kid Run, to Dragonball Z, to The Fountain, to Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood. Now I’m back on a mainstream artist called Starset. I love music.
Q. Have you published other stories, besides “Iscariot”?
My website, cooperdbarhamwriter.com, is host to many of my stories, particularly the short fiction I wrote during the apex of my college career. I can take the time to briefly sum up two or three for any interested readers.
“Ghost” is the tale of a humble but lonely spirit who passes his days waiting for people to come to his cottage in the woods. In the meantime, he cultivates the small home into something warm, where he and his imaginary friends can laugh and sing. This is a very soft story, which I was asked to orally present for a small reading at my alma mater. Themed in shades of autumn, “Ghost” is without argument one of my favorite personal works.
“The Drums” is an attempt at the horror genre, which had a greater result than I’d anticipated. It follows a curious intellectual named Noel, who is descended from a vile heritage of the Whitewine family, as she enters a decrepit manor left behind by her ancestors, in search of understanding. What begins as an innocent adventure into her own history leads Noel to find that the horrific aftermath of her family has not completely subsided and the rain which protects her sanity is slowly beginning to fade.
“The Interview” was an exercise in first-person. The protagonist is a superhero-gone-rogue, now interested in siding with the alliance of men and women he once held as enemies. But he must pass their interview first, and the company is tough cookies. Masterful supervillains aside, he must maintain composure under intense questioning and the very presence of one of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
Q. Who are the writers/storytellers that most inspire you?
Ah, another painful question.
The ones who most inspire me are also usually my favorites, and having reviewed my questions in advance, I don’t want to start repeating myself in the upcoming questions, so I’ll just throw out some names. Patrick Rothfuss, Brandon Sanderson, Brent Weeks, Masashi Kishimoto (Naruto), Tsugumi Ohba (Deathnote & Bakuman), Eiichiro Oda (One Piece), Hiromu Arakawa (Fullmetal Alchemist), and all of the brilliant minds writing for studios like Bioware, Pixar, Telltale, Studio Ghibli, Naughty Dog, and so many more. I am also frequently inspired by words, feelings, or ideas derived from the music I hear.
9. What is your Desert Island book?
The Kingkiller Chronicle. Yeah, that’s two books, not one. It would be three. Hopefully someday it will be three.
A happy Cooper meeting one of his favorite writers, Patrick Rothfuss, author of The Kingkiller Chronicle.
Q. What has been your experience so far with publishing and getting your stories out there?
I’ve had two items published in a literary magazine called “The Wineskin,” which didn’t become available online until after my publication and thus cannot be used to find my works on the interwebs. Those are my only officially published works, outside of my own blog. However, I have an opportunity arising soon which could lead to much larger things.
Q. What do you think makes a “Christian” story? Do you classify your own stories that way?
All I know is that a Christian story can’t “play nice” under the guise of being Christian, as if that word were synonymous with altruisic. This doesn’t mean your story needs violence or vulgar language, it means you can’t dance around the fact that people struggle on a daily basis with things that are not low-caliber issues. My day job has me working with troubled youth and I tell you, a happy-go-lucky Jesus isn’t going to help them with anything. You need a big problem solved with a bigger Savior. You need confidence and force. But delivered in love and mindful of your audience.
I classify some stories I write as “Christian.” Some are very clearly written with Christian messages openly displayed, in others, it’s simply an overtone or an undertone. But I try to be consistent with some things. While I don’t shy away from violence, at the same time unnecessary, bloody purple-prose is tasteless. I try to uphold positive sexual content, by which I mean I acknowledge it as a commonplace thing and part of our instrumental human nature, without being raunchy or overly suggestive. Language can be tricky, because I do my best to steer away from profanities. This can be difficult depending on the setting you’re working with, as it quickly becomes corny to use phrases like “he slung a few crude remarks” or “she swore” over and over. Hopefully by regulating a modicum of maturity in these things, I can continue to improve my writing while casting a message of Christ without appearing like a complete victim of the “Christian Bubble.”
Q. What advice can you give aspiring writers?
Perhaps the best thing I’ve done for myself is entered into every new piece of media with a very intentional desire to learn something from it. I will then keep record of all of the stuff I think is good for later use. Sometimes much later.
Many of my early works failed because I wanted to do too much and was unwilling to cut out the stuff which ultimately lead to their demise. It was like I’d been afraid that, if I didn’t use that idea at that moment, I’d somehow forget it or it would deplete in value. This is nonsense. Do not bog down your works with every cool idea you come across, because then every idea is so busy vying for attention that they all end up neglected. If you used an idea in an old story, be at peace with yourself that you can “resurrect” that idea later on, and probably with better proficiency.
Perhaps the greatest vault of writing knowledge I’ve ever found is a podcast by Brandon Sanderson, Dan Wells, Mary Robinette Kowal, and Howard Tayler called Writing Excuses. The lengths those four go to help new and old writers is astonishing. Here’s a link to an article I did about the podcast. Seriously, check them out. They’ll be far more helpful than I could ever be.
Q. What’s next for you in your writing?
I recently made extended contact with the chief editor of Tor Fantasy Books to talk about publication. We are both going to be attending a convention in August called Sasquan, and during our time there, I will have an opportunity to pitch my most recent novel, Doubting Puppet. So to answer your question, I am preoccupied with refining that book so it may be presented to him with confidence.
I have also recently purchased a domain through WordPress and am in the process of writing new material for a weekly serial. It’s going to be a story of some friends who enter the competitive video gaming scene, inspired by a documentary called The Smash Brothers which focuses on the popular fighting game Super Smash Bros. Melee. That combined with my own experience of competing in tournaments and keeping tabs on the action in that field of interest has lead me to write something which might capture the large-and-small of that type of atmosphere and aspiration. Nine of the first ten chapters I want to have done before publishing are complete, and once they are all done, you may find them at cooperdbarhamwriter.com.
Q. What is your favorite…
My favorite novel is The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss. I’ve written a painfully exhaustive review of it for Geeks Under Grace, because my love for that series runs deep. Here’s a link, so as to save you from going through something long enough here that you might mistake it for some kind of dissertation.
I am uncertain what my favorite movie could be. It’s not something I’ve put much thought into. However, it is probably something both animated and nostalgic. I love psychological depth, but sometimes a topsy-turvy, fun, emotional rollercoaster will get the job done, too. Something in the vein of The Incredibles, Lilo and Stitch, or The Land Before Time.
My favorite video game is even trickier to pick out than my favorite movie. I’ve divided the title of “best game” into two categories in my mind. To me, a game is either incredible on the basis of gameplay or story. Everything else such as soundtrack, graphics, voicecasting, etc., is significant to the end product, but none of them make or break a game. But if you have a video game which is supposed to tell a good story, but fails to live up to its contemporaries, then it better have some good gameplay to fall back on, and vice-versa. You must have one or the other in spades. As such, my favorite games are Kingdom Hearts 2 Final Mix and Telltale’s The Walking Dead. KH2FM has astonishingly good gameplay, with every other developmental aspect up to par as well. As for TWD… let’s put it this way: If some day I write something with half the narrative mastery as that work, I will have likely be near the peak of my writing potential.
-comic book character?
My favorite comic book character? I’m going to toss a bit of a curveball at you and transition to Japanese manga for a moment. Don’t get me wrong, I love me some Captain America, Spider-Man, and Gambit, but no Western comic book character has ever torn so deeply into my heart and found a home in its pulse as one particular series. For over half of my twenty-four year life, I have consistently kept up and studied the never-ending folds of Naruto. The protagonist, in particular, is somebody that I cannot only relate to, but aspire towards. I was the same age as Naruto when I discovered the series, so I was immediately on-board for all of the cool ninja hijinks. What I was not anticipating was that as I became older and the world challenged me to grow, I would be growing alongside that character as well. Now Naruto is no longer his obnoxious, pitiful, heart-broken youthful self, but instead a paragon of good will who understands the benefits of overcoming pain, of being a good friend, and having patience through adversity. Naruto is my favorite. Every day.
For my favorite Bible verse, I would be strung out trying to find just one, so I’d like to lay the entire book of James on the table. Short, concise, dripping with wisdom, and easily digestible by most audiences, James is without a doubt my favorite book of the Bible. In fact, it was the first sizeable portion of the Bible I ever tried to memorize at length. I got through the entire first chapter and soon fell apart rather abashedly. Perhaps I shall make it a summer project to try and pick up on that once again.
I’ve come to learn that most people cannot name their favorite song. I mean, there’s a lot of music out there, so I understand the dilemma, but a group of my peers and I challenged one another to come up with our own “top ten” lists of favorite songs, so after weeks of sifting I was able to figure it out. Interestingly, it is the only song on the entire list which has no words. The track is “Atonement” from the video game Final Fantasy XIII. While I have some irks with that game, the soundtrack was superb, and this song in particular enraptured my spirit. At first, it wasn’t so special, but the more I heard it, the deeper its roots sank, and eventually it was my go-to music for sobering my mind in times of trouble and breaking my heart when it’d grown momentarily too cold.
My favorite writer is Brandon Sanderson. For so many reasons. Firstly, his writing is great and rapidly improves with each new work he pumps out. Secondly, his website has a series of “progress bars” to show you how far along the author is in each current project. Third, he is a writing machine with an endless wealth of imagination and creativity, constantly releasing new, amazing works. Fourth, all of his writing is very diverse, touching on many different genres and topics, so even if you don’t like one series, you’re bound to enjoy another. Fifth, he’s got a great heart, a humorous disposition, and willingly provides free lessons for would-be writers to learn and expand their craft. I can’t wait for him to wrap up his Reckoners series with Cataclysm. So pumped.
Q. And finally, off topic and just for fun… what do you think needs to happen to make the upcoming Final Fantasy VII remake amazing?
Keep the original magic of the soundtrack, just make it sound newer, like in Advent Children. Can’t go wrong with Nobuo Uematsu.
Previously unexplorable areas need expanding so the players may go there. Brand new areas should be available as well.
The story should fundamentally remain the same. If anything is added, it should be almost exclusively for the sake of character development or expanding the setting, but the grand scheme and major plot points should be unaltered.
The graphics need a major revamp, because, and I say this as somebody who loves both Final Fantasy and old school games, FFVII did not age well. Diehards will hark about how the blockiness of the character models was part of its original appeal, but no, that’s nonsense. It looks awful. Make it look as mesmerizing as FFXIII.
As for the gameplay… I don’t know. I don’t really care what they do with the gameplay as long as I’m allowed to play as more than one character. I’ve liked the gameplay of all the Final Fantasy’s in their own respect, all the way from FFI to FFXIII. Turn-based is fine. Something a little more freeform is just as welcome.
Just please don’t ruin the voice acting. That would be an incredible shame.
A lover of Jesus and of fantastical fiction, Silas Green talks books and Christian living on Geeks Under Grace. He spends the rest of his free time trying to write stories and exploring the paradise island in the Pacific on which he is stranded.
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