Interview With Christian Graphic Artist / Writer

Duncan Long


By Chris Deanne


The first half of this interview originally appeared at The Lost Genre Guilde blog with the second half appearing at the now defunct Write and Whine blog, in 2007. The entire interview is reproduced below.




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 or fantasy book, I always 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 graphic artist and has written several novels, including the Spider Worlds trilogy, chapter books published by Harper Paperbacks. He was gracious enough to tolerate a novice interview.




Chris: Tell me about doing art when you were in grade school. What was your favorite art project that you can remember?


Duncan: 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.


As a third grader, I had a teacher who was a fairly skilled watercolor artist. She taught us a lot about painting in that medium. It was rather amazing what she had us doing, actually.


By the time I was in fourth and fifth grade, my teachers had started singling out my drawings. I guess there was always a little trickery going on as well with my artwork. I can remember (being near-sighted helped) taking great pains to draw a tiny reflection of a man hanging on a noose, reflected in the eyes of a woman ‘s portrait I’d drawn in fourth grade. I thought the teacher had noticed the tiny horror I’d added when she stopped in front of my drawing and studied it. But instead of reading me the riot act, she told the class that I’d captured a very sad expression on the woman's face; thus my first exposure to subliminal messages – and risk taking in graphic artwork.


Since then, I often add a little extra to reward viewers. Perhaps a small fly walking on a stone, a hidden face in clouds or smoke, or a trick in perspective (see the illustration of animals to the left and notice how each seems to move in and/or out of the foreground if you look long enough). Oddly, as viewers get to thinking there are 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 graphic artist getting surprised sometimes, tool.


Chris: What about high school? Did you find yourself spending a lot of time in the art department?


Duncan: 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 by trial and error.


Fortunately, I was always a good drawer and when the computer/paint programs/digital tablet came around, I pounced 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.


Chris: Where did you go to college? Did you find yourself challenged there, encouraged or both?


Duncan: 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 A grades 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 – things a child might need to know but of little use to me as far as creating artwork).


I had planned on majoring in biology which I loved. But at the time I started college, DNA had just been discovered and, rather than seeing its complexity making Evolution an impossible proposition, the professors were struck by the notion that soon they would constructing new forms of animals in college labs and such nonsense. I thought this was a crock (it was), and somewhat foolishly switched my major to music, thereby enabling me to either teach or ask, “Do you want fries with that?”


After teaching for a four years, 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 now employed in my artwork and to some extent in my writing. I taught high school and grade school music for five more years, and then started a mail-order business where I sold my own how-to books, often creating the illustrations as well. I eventually started selling the book rights (I enjoyed writing/illustrating and grew 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.


Chris: I found Spiderworlds, a children's fantasy book that you wrote about 10 years ago! Could you tell me about that?


Duncan: Yes, that was with HarperCollins. I had been writing action/adventure books (the nine Night Stalkers books 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 – there were surprises all the way around).


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 with lots of plotting and action. Most of those readers who seem to have enjoyed the books most 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 then the books themselves having a sci-fi bent with a humorous undercurrent that only adults were likely to pick up on, the books didn’t gain a huge following, and so we only did three books in the series. But they were surely fun to write and I hope, someday, adult readers might discover and appreciate them (and 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 is no Christian literature out there for young people, yet when I approach Christian publishers and commentators they seem stunningly indifferent to my offerings; I suspect it’s easier to rant than to do something about things (and I say this as an experienced rantor myself).


Too often “subtle message” is not what many want. I think that churches tend to see “Christian Literature” more as propaganda or 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 flat pink with not details or figures to bother the congregation.


Chris: 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?


Duncan: 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 great ebook reader 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.


[Note: Since this interview was given, Long has placed entire books online in a free ebook format, as well as ad-free PDF and print versions. You can find these at his Free Ebook and Print Novels web site.]


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 acting as if every buyer is a potential criminal – while gouging the customer with prices that are ridiculously high, and have been so 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 somewhat true. But it’s true in the same way that one might say, “germs want to 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 adopted by the publishing industry for dealing with ebooks has been to charge too high a price for the product and hope cheap ebook readers don't become popular – has only 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.”


It’s a shame that, given the choice to read a pirated version or to buy and read an ebook for 99 cents, a lot of folks would be willing to pay rather than skirt morality, if for no other reason than to help an author. A lot of business might be enjoyed by the publisher were this model followed given zero “printing costs” and systems like Bit Torrent that make distribution next to free. 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.


[Note: Since this was written, WOWIO (working with several publishers as well as Duncan Long Publications) has started experimenting with ad-supported free online ebooks as well as sales of PDF versions of the books for nominal prices.]


Chris: Have you been primarily focused on doing art or are you writing other things as well?


Duncan: My bread and butter is ghostwriting books for other people. This is a tad depressing sometimes since folks claim credit for my work, often without noting I was the one that did much of the work. I think this is another example of things being trapped in the past in the publishing industry.


And oddly, people are outraged when a “rock star” is discovered to be lip syncing to music performed by someone else. Yet, these same people seem to be fine with the fiction that their favorite rock star, movie actor, or politician is simply lying about writing the book with their name on it, instead having hired someone else to author it for them.


It’s 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 or politician with no 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 too-often shallow people, many of whom we wouldn’t let baby-sit 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’d much 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.


Chris: 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?


Duncan: 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 stylized illustration 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.


Chris: Are you writing any speculative fiction yourself?


Duncan: 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. [Long has since made several of these novels available for free from his Free Ebook and Print Novels web site.]


Chris: Have you had experience doing art for Christian Speculative Fiction writers or magazines devoted to that genre?


Duncan: 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 graphic artwork 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)


Chris: You had mentioned that you have a fiction piece in progress. Can you tell us a little about it, as this is a Christian Speculative Fiction group?


Duncan: Well, actually several. I have become a work juggler, it seems, with several manuscripts in progress, polished and completed as time and inspiration comes along. The trick is avoid starting stuff and then failing to finish, which is an easy trap to fall into. (Ideally I think a guy would start a story, artwork, or whatever and continue until it was finished, undistracted by other things.)


I try to address moral issues in all my work, so even when it is set in, say, a godless society, there is a truth that comes across. Sometimes this approach is necessary in order to show what horrible things are possible when morality is altered or changed in profound ways.


I have one unfinished manuscript that is an overtly Christian story, set in a future in which Christianity has been all but abandoned and then suddenly becomes the only solution to a monumental problem facing mankind. It is a rather epic story, spread across our solar system about 100 years in the future. I wish it could go to print, but I’m not optimistic. The only Christian publishers I’ve approached were pretty cool toward the concept as well as the story and I doubt that a secular publisher would tackle it (a science fiction story without a lecture or two about evolution and a few digs toward religion is a tough sell to the big publishers – ha).


Interestingly, some of the short stories at my site are actually the opening salvo for one of my novels; it's set in a future when Artificial Intelligence entities control and run everything while mankind is relegated to a sort of paradise existence – which proves to be fruitless and pointless for many due to the lack of any religious system. It is a bit bleak but also has enough action to (I hope) keep the reader propelled along without being overwhelmed by the drab aspects of such a universe.


I guess the bottom line here is that, as a Christian, I feel compelled and guided in what the story will be even if it is about a secular or even an anti-religious culture or a storyline in which all the landscape is godless. I feel that God will shine through and reveal himself in the dire circumstances, and that a story – and especially speculative fiction – can do a marvelous job teaching on many levels. C. S. Lewis of course comes to mind. Yet, I think the Cyberpunk and other movements have demonstrated, nearly as well (and often inadvertently, I suspect) that God and Salvation are a necessity for humankind and that without these, existence becomes a stark, bleak nightmare.


Chris: Any thoughts about where Christian speculative fiction will be in the next 5 years? This would include horror, science fiction and fantasy.


Duncan: I think that, or at least hope, that Christian speculative fiction will spread its wings a bit in the years to come. There’s a tendency for Christians to ghettoize themselves, thinking their work must be overtly religious or it can’t be suitable (and I know there are exceptions to this – I paint with broad strokes for a few sentences here). The thinking is that if the story isn’t “gentle Jesus, meek and mild” then it is secular.


Horror? Oh, yes. Just think of the fact that the whole genre fails to show both sides of things. That is, only evil is shown and good – if it even makes the scene – is always weak and helpless at best. Even when “good” appears, it is often the “good witch” or “white magic” or such. And a real battle is missed; the power of Christ could be brought into the struggle to create a truly epic side to the horror marketplace, expanding it in ways that have not yet been seen. (And my apologies to Christian writers who may have done this already as I am not too in touch with this area of writing.)


I guess my bottom line is that there’s merit to the concept that everything, each and every bit of what we do, belongs to the Lord, and therefore everything we do should be done for Him. That means I might be writing about the plight of, say, a prostitute in an ancient kingdom or faraway planet where the Gospel has never set foot, in the most godless society one could imagine, yet still my story can reflect the truths of right and wrong and morality without ever a mention of God being made.


There is a wide-open field for the Christian writer, and I believe it’s even more open for the Christian writer because he doesn’t get locked into the idea that life is meaningless and that philosophy has come to a dead end. For the Christian there is hope, and that can make all the difference in how we face an otherwise hopeless situation.


I also feel there is a subtlety that is too often missing from Christian writing and I hope this will change in the next few years as well. There’s a failure on the part of many Christian artists to be as wise as serpents while only being meek like sheep. There’s a fear of approaching things from a realistic or even amoral viewpoint.


I am hoping that this hesitation to tackle tough subjects will be lost and that Christian writers will venture into the mainstream. Until people see the outcome of sin and evil (and fiction is very good at doing this, and speculative fiction the very best at it), it is hard to convince them it is wrong.


Sin is “fun for a season” and if people never see the winter that follows the springtime of sin, they can't see a need for change or repentance. (Of course there is a danger of getting caught up in success and becoming locked into worldliness for the writer – but of course this is true for each of us in all walks of life. Once a Christian ventures out of the monastery, there is danger of becoming worldly.)


The Christian writer can show what a world where human cloning is the norm might be. Or where organs are harvested from the unborn, or any of a thousand other horrors that are on the horizon. Science fiction has always served as the warning alarm for society, and I think Christian fiction should be, but currently is not, at the forefront of this process.


Most people don’t know it, but Charles Dickens novels, far from being created just for entertainment, proved to be the major force that changed the English legal and charity systems that had been in place for treating poverty. Dickens, through his novels, pictured the bleak plight of the poor. His stories were instrumental in getting rid of the workhouses and in doing away with the notion that the poor were rightly punished because they were, without exception, lazy and degenerate. Dickens brought about the compassion and generosity we see today when dealing with the poor around the planet.


One man, writing stories that weren’t overtly religious, had a very profound moral impact on readers by showing them the dirty underside of a civilization that mistreated the poor, widows, and orphans. (And we all know who else spoke about treating the poor, widows, and orphans with charity.)


So I would like to challenge your readers (and also myself) to make tomorrow’s Christian speculative fiction (as well as Christians in the arts in general) the moral compass of our society, displaying the horrors and abominations as well as the good and beautiful, showing people the Hell they can face as well as the Heaven. (As a good evangelist friend of mine has noted, folks don't recognize the need for a parachute until the plane they're on is going down. As writers, our job is to put folks into an imaginary plane, and then send it hurtling toward the earth – and perhaps even put them through the crash. Then, people can see the possible outcomes that result without morality guiding a culture and a people.)


Chris: Finally, tell us a little bit about your website and your art there.


Duncan: Well, my web site has been slowly built for a little over a decade now, and I’ve created somewhat of a maze (be sure to string out a line behind you so you can find your way out of the labyrinth). I have had folks write saying they enjoyed visiting the site – and then they good-naturedly browbeat me for having taken up four hours of their time so that they failed to get their tasks for the day done.


From when I first started putting the pages together in the mid-1990s, I’ve tried to make the site easy to navigate. That doesn’t seem so spectacular an accomplishment today with web design pretty much formalized with a navigation index at the top or side of the page; it was a bit radical when web design was sort of Wild West style with pages going off the side of the screen for several feet and perhaps adored with dancing baloney and artwork borrowed without permission from other sites.


Early on, I adopted dark backgrounds to show off my artwork and make my site a bit more distinctive. Black also tends to create sort of an experimental, “this place is different” sort of feel.


My artwork covers about every subject imaginable. I attempt, with most of it, to convey some sort of message or moral thought. However, some pieces are simply for fun and others are subjects like dragons, demons, and such. All are pretty much realistic through I have a few abstracts and so forth sprinkled in. I sort of go in all directions with my artwork and for a time worried I really had no style other than a sort of Heinz 57 mixture, but that seems to be changing (hopefully for the better).


I have culled pictures with actual biblical themes from my general collection (arranged into “galleries” according to when work was produced) and have placed these into a Christian gallery at the site. However, that grouping is getting rather large with 200-plus pictures and it need to be broken into sub-groups – a task I have put off for about two years now, and which grows worse by the month.


I try to add new artwork to my site every few months so that visitors are rewarded with something new when they return. I would like to do that with my short stories and articles pages as well, but just don’t seem to have the time to keep that end of things going and still leave time to earn a living (I keep hoping some grand charity or corporation will give me a grant so I can just create all day without worrying about earning a living – but of course that is a dream that is not likely to be realized, alas).


As for my music, the love of my life for some time, it languishes with neither a site of its own or much online. But I am currently working toward creating several albums worth of MP3s (mostly Ambient style music with some pounding techno-rockish type atonal music as well – can you tell it is hard to define?). This I hope to make available online for folks to enjoy as well, though I have yet to locate a site willing to host it, and the size of these makes the cost of doing so from my site a bit too expensive to entertain. [Note: Since this was interview took place, a few of Long's MP3s have become available from his MP3 downloads page.]


Well, I have gone on too long, I fear. However, it’s good to step back and evaluate one’s own work from time to time, seeing where it works and where it has shortcomings. And hopefully it will work more often than be short of the mark. And when it is short, hopefully the artist will have the humility to realize why that is.


I feel very blessed to be able to share all this with you and will look forward to seeing your article when it appears.


Chris: Duncan, you certainly did not go on too long. I really appreciate you taking the time and effort to do the interview. You have been very gracious to a novice such as myself.




Duncan Long's Home Page


Duncan Long's Online Gallery of Graphic Artwork







Soli Deo Gloria





Text: Copyright © 2007 by Chris Deanne. Illustrations: Copyright © 2007 by Duncan Long. All rights reserved. Text used with permission of the author. Copying of this article, graphic artwork, or illustrations is strictly prohibited without prior written approval of the copyright owner.




Spacer gif for Duncan Long's graphic artwork and illustrations for book cover and CD album covers.
Graphic artwork by book illustrator and author Duncan Long.
Graphic artwork by book illustrator and author Duncan Long.
Graphic artwork by book illustrator and author Duncan Long.
Graphic artwork by book illustrator and author Duncan Long.
Graphic artwork by book illustrator and author Duncan Long.
Graphic artwork by book illustrator and author Duncan Long.
Graphic artwork and illustrations by Christian writer and graphic designer Duncan Long.