AUTHOR INTERVIEW: Hal Duncan, Part 2
Glasgow author Hal Duncan literally busted the box with his amazing literary debute VELLUM. Part sci-fi, part historical, VELLUM inverts and subverts literary conventions to result in an exhilarating experience. Recently, Kathleen and Therese spoke with Hal on process, the long road to publication, and the importance of never dumbing it down for the reader.
Part 2: Interview with Hal Duncan
Q: You experiment a lot with characters that cut in either direction -- antagonist or protagonist. The Jack character in particular could be read as hero or villain. Was this conscious on your part or did his character evolve? What is your process for getting to know your characters?
HD: The simple answer to the second part of that question is that I get to know my characters by writing them. I tend to write a lot in the first person -- as with Jack -- or in a sort of “close-up” third person where the reader is virtually in the back of the character’s head, so their thoughts seep into the text-- as with Phreedom -- and where that text might even slip into outright stream-of-consciousness at times -- as with Seamus. So as you write the story, partly consciously and partly unconsciously, you’re trying to create a sense of their voice. For me, this is often when that feeling a lot of writers talk about -- of being in “the zone” -- kicks in, when you find yourself immersed in a particular voice to the extent that the character or the book seems to have taken over, to be writing itself.
With Jack Flash in particular, I suspect I’m just channelling the id, that impetuous wild man with no impulse-control. Actually most of the characters in the books represent one archetype or another -- superego, id, anima, self, shadow; there’s a seven-fold pseudo-Jungian model of the psyche in there, if you want to dig into it. And that feeds into the ambiguity of a character like Jack. Totally unrestrained, the id -- as Jack Flash -- is a force of nature, an avatar of chaos. He’ll shoot first and forget to ask questions later because his attention span doesn’t stretch that far. He’s swaggering and psychotic but he’s kinda charming because we recognise that sense of relish in ourselves, that glint in the wicked grin, that id; there’s a little bit of Jack Flash in us all, I think. But the id is dangerous because repressed desire becomes twisted, warped. So you see that in the other Jacks -- the Jack Carters of the historical or futuristic narratives. When you first meet Jack he’s bottled-up, up-tight; he’s just another soldier-boy working for the wrong side.
The point is that archetypes are value-neutral. It’s only in their relationships to each other that they become positively or negatively charged, when they manifest as brother and sister, father and son, enemies, lovers and so on. I wanted to try and show that complexity of potentialities in the shifting relationships of the characters in the book.
There’s also a more writerly concern in there with subverting the whole hero-versus-villain cliché. There’s a wonderful point in the movie “Falling Down” where the audience realises that the Michael Douglas character is not the hero. At the start of the movie we’re watching this little man go postal and we’re with him, rooting for him; then he just goes a step too far and our whole alignment of sympathies shifts. And by the end of the movie even the Douglas character has realised this. “Wait a minute. I’m the bad guy here?” he says. I wanted to have similar turn-arounds with some of the characters in VELLUM, to get past the simplistic cowboys-and-indians morality of your classic Big Fat Fantasy.
Q: The really breathtaking part of your book strips away layers of history and etymology of words down to the cradle of Western civilization--Sumer--which we are ironically bombing into oblivion even now. There’s also a fair bit of references to classical mythology and biblical history. Did you worry that you were getting too complex for the reader? When do you know you’ve gone too far?
HD: Too much is never enough; there’s no such thing as too far. I’d rather over-estimate the reader’s knowledge than under-estimate their intelligence, because ultimately that’s what it comes down to -- either removing or explaining every obscure factoid that somebody somewhere might not know about (i.e. assuming ignorance as a default), or having faith that if they don’t get a reference, well, they’ll have the smarts to go check Wikipedia, read a book, or just pick it up from the story itself (i.e. assuming curiosity as a default). You don’t know who Inanna or Dumuzi are? (Ed: we did it for you. Click links). Well, pretty much the whole text of their core myth is woven into VELLUM, so you should know by the end of the book. You only have this vague notion of Prometheus -- yeah, he’s the one stole fire from the gods, right? You have no idea what happened afterwards? Well, if you can read through the overlay of history and fantasy, the story as told in Aeschylus’s “Prometheus Bound” is right there in front of you. I work on the assumption that if you’re reading this kind of book then you like a good mental work-out, you don’t want to be condescended to.
No, I never worry about being too complex for the reader, because that kind of second-guessing just leads to chickening-out, copping-out and selling-out -- or it would for me anyway. There was a discussion a while back on a message board I hang out on, about writing with an awareness of an imaginary reader. For some writers that reader is themselves; they judge their work on whether they would want to read it. For others it’s an audience, small or large, commercial or critical; they judge their work on whether it will speak to that audience in a common language. Different writers write for different reasons, taking different approaches, with different aims. Personally, I’ll judge my own work on whether I like it or not, and I will also judge it on whether it might be pandering to or alienating this potential audience or that, but these judgements are all over-ridden by standards which aren’t set by any hypothetical reader, myself included, but rather encoded in the book itself. What is the theme of this book? What is its basic form and function? Given the underlying architectural aesthetic, so to speak, what degree of complexity is consistent with that when it comes to interior design? Is this a Minimalist book or a Baroque book? Spare and simple or intricately involuted.
Q: Tell us about your road to publication.
HD: Well, it was largely luck for me, being in the right place at the right time. I’ve been a member of the Glasgow SF Writer’s Circle for umpteen years now and a bunch of us tend to go to the UK cons. Some have gone off to cons in the States. Over the years the Glasgow mob has tended to build up friendships with other aspiring writers, indie press editors, and so on (we’re from Glasgow, after all; we make friends easily); and over the years, some of this wide scene of like-minded souls have started to break through into publication -- magazines, anthologies, year’s bests, book deals. So I was at a con a few years back, having just finished VELLUM, along with Neil Williamson, Phil Raines, Gary Gibson and a bunch of others. Anyway, Neil had a copy of the manuscript I was looking for feedback on and -- darling that he is -- he was reading it at the breakfast table… as a quite deliberate, I suspect, attempt to pique the curiosity of the right people. Long story short, a chain of readings and recommendations leads to Peter Lavery at Pan Macmillan saying, OK, send me a copy. So I did. And he bought it.
The US deal came by a similar chain of fortuity. I run a blog where I tend to post 5000 word rants about anything and everything, and one of these posts -- a particularly opinionated one on the ghetto mentality within SF/F led to a mate kicking off a thread on my message board at Night Shade Books, joking that I needed to take my medication. The thread grew into a big debate which caught the attention of Jim Minz. He followed the link through to my blog, and I guess he thought I was interesting enough (or just insane enough) to be worth checking out, just at the point where Macmillan were touting the US rights for VELLUM. So he did. And he bought it.
I actually feel vaguely guilty about my luck in short-circuiting the slush-piles and the agents, but I spent ten years writing the damn thing so I think I paid my dues. The sacrifices to Dionysus might have also helped.
Q: Do you retain the services of an agent now? If so, are they helpful, and if not, why not?
HD: Yes, I’ve signed on with Howard Morhaim now. I’m not shopping round the next book yet -- it’s barely even started yet -- so I can’t really say much about the helpfulness of agents, but at the end of the day, I’m sure he’ll be worth every penny of his percentage. I don’t really have the salesman mentality to be pimping my own wares and haggling over advances -- I’m just not any good at that sort of thing -- and it’ll be good to have someone I can ask the sort of awkward questions you might not want to ask an editor. Also, apart from being a major name in the business, Howard is very much simpatico with the kind of fiction I write. He’s got a great stable of writers I truly respect, like Jeff VanderMeer, Jeffrey Ford, and Michael Moorcock, and a lot more outside the genre -- a great blend of literary and genre. With that sort of eclecticism, I was very keen for him to represent me, so I’m really looking forward to working with him.
Q: You’ve got an amazing website as well as one of the more entertaining writer’s blog out there. How important is online promotion to marketing your book? Do you recommend that other writers pay more attention to the online forms of marketing and promotion?
A: It’s a tricky thing because blatant self-promotion just for the sake of it can be pretty dull and tedious, but I do think, as a secondary effect, the way a blog or a journal can raise people’s awareness of you as a writer is something that it would be foolish to under-estimate. The way I think of it is that a blog is just another mode of expression open to you as a writer and you need to be writing it for the same reason you write stories or essays -- to say something. There needs to be real content to it. You need to be interesting, entertaining. You can have fun with it because it’s informal; you can be as bolshie or as whimsical as you want because, at the end of the day, the nature of a blog as a personal journal means you’re presenting these ideas and fancies as transitory and experimental. Even when I’m exploring more serious theories about writing and genre or politics and religion, I tend to put the emphasis on the exploring. My scribblings on scribblings aren’t essays, not rigorous and researched academic essays by any means, even where they’re referenced. Instead a blog, like a forum, can be a great place to debate with others with similar interests. The follow-through of that is that if there’s something interesting to this rant or that random thought, links may well ripple out over the blogosphere, onto forums. You can’t do it deliberately and calculatedly just to “raise your profile” -- that’s just bad form and people will probably see through it -- but if you actually like writing as a medium, if you’re comfortable putting your crazy ideas out there in front of anyone and everyone, you can prove yourself to potential readers in a way that no review can match. Better still you can tell those potential readers exactly where you’re coming from, your interests, your influences. You can post samples for readers to taste.
I wonder if it’s not as important to warn readers who will loathe your work as it is to reach the readers who will love it. I’d much rather have someone read my blog and decide that I’m a poncy literary type whose non-linear nonsenses will piss them off, than have them read a rave review, buy the book thinking it’s the New [insert Big Name Author here], and end up telling everyone they know how much they hate it, regardless of that person’s tastes -- because I do think a strong negative response often over-rides our objective judgement that anyone else could possibly like this thing we hated. The inverse is true, I think, with reaching the right readers; if you pique their curiosity with your online blatherings enough to buy the book, and if they love it, I think they’ll still tend to be selective in who they recommend it to. Or at least the people who respond to those recommendations -- often posted as blog entries themselves -- will be those who are simpatico to that reader in the same way that they are simpatico with you. And so the internet becomes this huge globalised medium for word-of-mouth to spread -- personal, individual recommendations that are more reliable and trustworthy because they’re more targeted along existing lines of common tastes and interests.
Also I think it’s good for you as a writer just to be writing, to be playing with ideas about writing, telling stupid stories about your drunken exploits. It’s practice.
Q: Do you use a critique group? How do you process their feedback?
HD: Yes, I’ve been part of the Glasgow SF Writer’s Circle for over fifteen years now, I think. I still take short stories to them, although with VELLUM and INK I didn’t submit them for a crit session because 200,000 words novels are a bit much to do in one evening. We work pretty much by the Milford Rules -- face-to-face, going round the circle one by one, each person getting their turn to give their critique while the author has to keep schtum… until their rebuttal at the end, of course, when they get to tell everyone why they’re wrong and stupid. With a short story that format works well, but it’s not so easy with novels because there’s so much to deal with. You can’t expect everyone to devote the time and energy required to do justice to that length of work, so my tendency these days is just to ask if anyone’s interested in reading it and commenting by email.
In terms of processing that feedback… I think there’s a cycle you go through as a writer, from not listening to listening and back again, from arrogance to insecurity and round and round again. When I joined the GSFWC I don’t think I was capable of seeing faults in my own writing even when they were spelled out to me. Processing feedback consisted pretty much of sulkily brooding about how those bastards didn’t fucking understand at all, and it’s not a pointless vignette with no dramatic tension, and I’ll show you, goddamnit. It’s only after that bitter thirst for revenge and validation has pushed you through the development of critical skills (so you can give as good as you get with the cut-throat razor of critique) and the gradual application of those to your own writing (so you can make it so fucking good they will bow down before your genius) that you actually, I think, become detached enough from your own work to hear the validity of other people’s judgement. You realise, well, actually, yes that story is a piece of shit. Oh dear.
But the more you go through the workshop process, the more you internalise the feedback, knowing beforehand how certain readers will respond and either modifying your work accordingly or not. There comes a point, I think, where the most valuable feedback, the critique you do listen to is the stuff that you actually already knew, even if only at the level of niggling doubt. If the comment makes sense, if you hear it and think, yes, that’s the problem I was trying to put my finger on, it’s immensely valuable. But by this point in the workshop cycle, I think, you’re actually confident (or arrogant) enough to shrug off comments that you don’t agree with. And it’s not because you’re fooling yourself. It’s because those comments would be valid if you were writing a different story. You’re not. You’re writing this story. And for this story that comment doesn’t apply. It kind of ties in with what I was saying earlier, with the idea that you can judge a story in terms of its own aesthetic standards. It might be wrong for this audience. It might be wrong for that audience. But it’s right for the story.
Q: Ten years (fifteen actually, as part of a critique group) is a LOOONG time. Did you ever entertain giving up or that it just wasn't going to happen for you? Or did you just know that eventually it would happen if you hung in there?
HD: I'd have to say that for a lot of that time I wasn't really thinking either ahead, at the road to publication, or back, at the length of time I'd been doing it. I was pretty half-arsed at submitting short fiction. I mean it’s not going to let you quit your day job, and a lot of the work I wrote didn’t seem to fit the main markets anyway; it was too pulpy to sell to the literary journals, and too poncy to sell to the genre markets. Also, I kept on writing these 20-30,000 word novellas that, I figured, were just not going to be picked up by a magazine. That kind of word count is simply out of bounds in most submissions guidelines and even those markets that might take it, well, you’ve got to be really worth it if you’re going to take up that much space. And when the novel started to come together it was so rough and wild, at first, that I reckoned no editor in their right mind would touch it. I mean, as far as I was concerned it was a Grand Folly that I was doing because, well, I wanted to. I wanted to get it out of my system, and then I could settle down and write a nice sensible novel, one which started at the beginning and went all the way to the end… you know, like normal novels do. No Grand Theories of Myth. No archetypal characters with innumerable contradictory avatars.
If I thought ahead at all it was pretty much that given another ten or twenty years then I might actually be as good as I want to be. I got past the whole dream of being an enfant terrible, first novel published in your early twenties, critical acclaim, and all that. Rock stars need to be young; there’s no age limit on writing. So I sort of took the long haul approach: if you have to write a million words before you’re any good, as the saying goes, well then let’s just get on with it.
Actually, as some of the GSFWC started to get novel deals -- Bill King, Michael Cobley, Gary Gibson -- the idea of being published did become more real; but I think I had a Romantic notion that I’d be the Glasgow group’s Neal Cassady -- the one who never actually achieves success like the Ginsbergs or the Kerouacs but who pops up in all the stories about the group, the odd character in a novel here or there. I’d be the glorious failure, the one that all his mates knew should have made it, could have made it, just maybe, if he hadn’t been too busy living. Other writers might talk about perseverance, sticking with it, but I think that somewhat whimsical illusion actually served me better. It’s much more fun to be the quixotic waster working away on your own mad projects for the hell of it, expecting to crash and burn, but thinking, fuck it; why the hell not?
Q: What’s next for you?
HD: Well, the next thing to hit the shelves will be INK, the sequel to VELLUM, but after that the next novel is a retelling of the Epic of Gilgamesh. It will be a more linear novel but again it’s going to be multi-threaded, using an adaptation of the original source text as an underlying architecture and interweaving two other threads, one historical and one set in the near-future. The original epic is both simple and powerful, with a relationship between Gilgamesh, King of Uruk and Enkidu, a wild man which moves from adventure to tragedy, raising all sorts of questions about humanity and mortality. I want to map that to a thread set in British Columbia in frontier times, with the relationship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu reflected in one between a European settler and a Tlingit orphan who’s grown up in the wilderness. In the last thread, the SFnal thread, the Gilgamesh character is an anthropologist who specialises in totemism, and who gets drawn, by one of his students -- the Enkidu figure -- into a subculture of biotech fursuits and bodymods where people have animal alter egos… not unlike modern-day furries but a bit more hip, more posthuman. It’s all about how we draw lines between human and animal, “civilised” and “primitive”, about our awareness of our own mortality, and our reactions to that awareness.
Apart from that I’ve got a whole bunch of bits and bobs either coming out or in the works: a short story in the EIDOLON anthology which should be out just about now; a collection of poetry called SONNETS TO ORPHEUS to be released in a limited, numbered edition from Papaveria Press in August, if things go to plan; I’m actually doing a song with a band called Aereogramme for an album of collaborations between Scottish writers and musicians (and with writers like Alasdair Gray and Edwin Morgan also involved I’m totally chuffed to be in their company); “The Chiaroscurist” will be getting reprinted in John Klima’s LOGORRHEA anthology based around spelling bee words (which also has an amazing line-up of contributors); and I’m doing a novella for a project Chris Roberson of Monkeybrain Books is working on which sounds really exciting.
Good luck, Hal, and thanks so much for a great interview!