We’ve first got to say that it’s been a long time since we’ve read a book as trippy, disturbing and exhilarating as Hal Duncan‘s debut novel, VELLUM. It’s a thriller, gay erotica, SF/F, a historical, horror and character studies all amalgamated within a postmodern stylistic structure. Recently, Kathleen and Therese chatted with Hal about his literary style, the evolution of VELLUM, and the challenge of multiple narrative weavings and controversial plot points.
Part 1: Interview with Hal Duncan
Q: Tell us a little bit about the inspiration behind VELLUM, some of the style choices you made, and why you wrote this book.
HD: The original idea dates back to when I was at university, and reading about Lovecraft’s Necronomicon one day, Borges’s Book of Sand the next. If you take the two of those and fold in the I CHING (which I’d picked up by way of Philip K Dick’s THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE) and the mediaeval Books of Hours (which I’d learned about in History of Art lectures), well, it isn’t hard to see where the idea came from for the Book of All Hours, the metafictional / fantastic conceit that underpins VELLUM: this ancient tome said to contain everything ever written and everything never written, the names of every angel or demon, the deeds of every human, the future history of reality itself.
I think those books of mystery and wonder, fictional or factual, all combined into the core idea after a weird experience in the university library. I’d decided, out of curiosity, to check their database for Nostradamus, and found that, yes, they had a copy in the Special Collection in the basement. So I wander down into this room walled with glass-doored bookcases and I’ve only just walked in when the curator asks me what I’m looking for. Not having computed yet that this is where they keep all the extremely valuable and extremely fragile antiques, I tell the curator what I’m looking for, and he gives me a card to sign before disappearing. Five minutes later he returns with this leatherbound volume of Nostradamus, foam cushions to rest it on, and kid gloves for me to wear. I’m too embarrassed to tell him that, actually, it was just idle curiosity brought me down here and there’s no good reason a time-waster like me should be let near the crumbling pages of this precious object. I’m even more embarrassed, after mumbling my thanks and setting the book down on a table, to realise that, of course, it’s in bloody mediaeval French. All I can do is sit there for fifteen minutes, pretending to study it and make notes. Anyway, as dumb as I felt, it was also quite strange, sitting there with this book which was so much an… artefact. I had this weird sense of its singularity; and having it in my hands, the idea that it was still there to be used (if I only had the first idea how to use it) made that quite different from, say, looking at some object on display in a museum case.
That’s where, I think, the idea of the Book of All Hours took seed, in that sense of wonder at an ancient cryptic tome. From an urge to syncretism (or one-upmanship), I suppose, this is my attempt to create a story that encompasses all those variant images of the book as an object of power, with the magic book to end all magic books.
Joyce was another major influence. With the first stab at the novel I tried to write it in a full-on FINNEGANS WAKE style word-play language of allusional puns. Needless to say this stalled completely, but other Joycean elements have replaced that, like the thematic structuring of the four volumes around seasons and times of day, the palimpsesting of ancient myths under the historic or fantastic narratives. But what I wanted to do was create something that crosses the whole spectrum of literary modes, because if you’re writing about a book-that-contains-all-books, well, the narrative should itself embody that diversity. It should have comedy as well as tragedy, parables and prophecies, ripping yarns and witty anecdotes. The end result is not so much Post-Modernist as Pulp Modernist, I think; the pastiches and homages are playful, but they’re not arch. I’m much more sympathetic to the Modernists’ abstract aims than to the Post-Modernists’ ironic games.
Q: As near as we can tell, there are four main narratives (Phreedom, Thomas Messenger, Jack, and Reynard), and a host of minor narratives. Did you choose this form of exposition when you began, or did it evolve organically?
HD: A bit of both. Basically, I’ve always found the collage form interesting, and even a lot of my early stories messed around with conventional narrative structure — tales-within-tales or sequenced vignettes. (And most of these early experiments were lousy, I hasten to add.) But when I came up with the idea for the Book of All Hours, the novel I originally planned had a completely different story, and it was all from the viewpoint of a single protagonist. When that ground to a halt I put what I’d written in a drawer and abandoned it. Thing is, at that point I had another idea — one which was entirely distinct as far as I was concerned — for a series of short stories using a mythos in which all the gods and monsters, all the angels and demons of history and myth, were actually humans who had become “unkin”. These stories would all interlink and, set against an apocalyptic backdrop, tell the story of War in Heaven from the perspective of deserters and draft-dodgers, renegades and refugees.
[Art Note: “Angels and Demons”
Oil and Acrylic on Canvas
© Artist Gina Jrel, 2005]
Just like Grand Plan A — the novel idea — Grand Plan B completely stalled. I wrote two stories — one which would become the chapter of VELLUM set in Slab City, and another which would become the sections set in Endhaven — and then the ideas dried up. Despite the fact that one story actually had Metatron, God’s Scribe, for some unknown reason I didn’t connect this to the idea of the Book of All Hours.
So… Plan C was less grand: sod it, just write some bloody stories. Being an inveterate experimentalist though, every other story ended up being told as some non-linear, multi-viewpoint mosaic (like the Jack Flash sections) or in an epistolic form as letters and journal entries (like in the Caucasus sections). The same character would appear in different incarnations in different stories. Ideas like the unkin, the Cant, gravings, or the Book popped up all over the place. Almost a decade after writing the showdown between Phreedom and Metatron in Slab City, I suddenly saw how I could work this into a retelling of Inanna, splicing ancient and modern realities. The version of Tammuz-as-Thomas came immediately after that, as a novella, but I realised the structure needed to be more complex to reflect his metamorphic nature. It was pretty much at this point, a good way down the line, with a lot already written in the form of short stories or novellas, that I gradually realised all these various techniques of collage I’d been developing on the scale of short stories and novellas could be scaled up and used to bring together these two projects I thought I had abandoned years ago… but that I’d actually been writing all along.
So the answer to the question is: yes and no. Plan A was for a singular narrative. Plan B was always intended to tell multiple stories from multiple angles. And with Plan C, well, my unconscious appears to have been the one making the decisions all along. To me it feels like the narrative form evolved but I’m not convinced my unconscious didn’t know exactly what needed to be done.
Q: Let’s talk about process. The narrative structure of the book is challenging, to say the least. You move forward, backward, sideways, and every which way, which mirrored the fluidity of time itself. How did you keep it all straight? Where did you know to come back and tie one thread off and begin another? What’s your plotting method?
HD: Actually from my point of view it wasn’t too much of a struggle to keep things straight, with most of the narrative threads being written separately and only later taken apart into sections to be clicked into place around each other. Although I don’t tend to write linearly anyway (but rather have the narrative flicking this way or that in time, as with, say, the faerie chapter), I do tend to work with only one narrative thread at a time.
The Seamus narrative in volume two is actually a good example of how, plot-wise, this process actually makes things a lot easier. I mean, you start with the source text, Aeschylus’s “Prometheus Bound“, and you have an idea of translating that into the unkin reality, and into early 20th Century history at the same time, telling a story which mirrors Prometheus’s but giving it these
extra angles — mimetic history and futuristic fiction. With the myth there, you already have a framework in place in terms of plot, and the more familiar you are with the text, the more it will kick off possible parallels. On a first run through I’d simply take multiple translations and try to find my own phraseology, replacing archaicisms with word-plays, modernising the text, chopping words and phrases round until I had my own interpretation of the play.
Then, I’d chunk the result into sections, working out the chapter structure, where the big dramatic breaks are, where the Jack Flash or Jack Carter sections should intersect that narrative. In the second volume it’s a fairly straightforward structure of viewpoints alternating between chapters. Once you have the chapters in place you go through it again looking for the smaller dramatic breaks within those chapters, the section breaks where the action needs to cut from the future to the past. By that point you’re already thinking of where and how to add the layers of realist and fantastic narrative, how the description will weave round the dialogue, where the dialogue has to be radically adapted to fit the scene. It’s actually, I suppose, like a painter doing sketches first, shuffling them together to work out the composition, blocking that out on the canvass and only then building up the detail on top.
The point is, I’m not simply starting from the beginning and writing all the way through to the end, so the end of a thread is often being tied into place at the same time that the start of it is — just with a loose knot that will get tightened and trimmed later on in the process.
Q: You don’t shy away from controversial stances and take every opportunity to flip the bird at institutions, government, and especially our present understanding of the role of religion in supporting oppression and acts of violence. Talk a little bit about why you’ve chosen to write about these topics. Did anyone along the way ever tell you to tone it down for the market?
HD: Surprisingly perhaps I haven’t had to deal with any heebie-jeebies at all on the part of either Pan Macmillan in the UK or Del Rey in the US, and I like to think (i.e. I hope) that that’s because any political stances in the writing come over as passionate and outspoken without being too blinkered or didactic. Alternatively, it might be because you only have to read the book to know that I’d be highly unlikely to compromise the thematic heart of it for the sake of higher sales. Because it would be selling-out and because it wouldn’t work. Trying to tone it down would be like trying to tone down CATCH-22. Try and make that book less dark, less absurd, more safe, more reassuring, and all you’d do is turn it into a cheap travesty that no-one would give a damn about. You’d have to be a cretin and a coward to do that, and the people I’ve dealt with in the publishing world have been anything but. They’ve totally understood that toning down the passion in the book would only ruin it.
I mean, ultimately I’m writing about these things with a sort of pacifist / socialist / anarchist stance because that’s what the book is about — the War in Heaven not as some grandiose struggle between Good and Evil but as an actual war, an ideological power-struggle where you can’t be sure who’s right and who’s wrong — or even if anyone is right or wrong. The current political and religious climate of the War on Terror makes these questions, I think, ones that we have to ask. We have to explore the ethical dilemmas of interventionism and isolationism. I mean, what else is there to write about in this day and age, what else that actually really matters? Some middle-class character going through a mid-life crisis and relationship problems, reaching a moment of apotheosis in which they realise just how screwed up they’ve become by their own neuroses? Kill me now and feed my body to the pigs.
We’re living in a world of internment without charge, global power-struggles between ideologies, guerrilla warfare and civilian slaughter. We’re living in Picasso’s Guernica, in a world-wide version of the Spanish Civil War, only it’s not Fascists versus Stalinists but Crusaders versus Jihadists. In terms of that current struggle I think we have to challenge the dichotomy, ask the hard questions about the totalitarian tendencies of religion, which is really what I wanted to do with VELLUM.
Q: You tackle the murder of Matthew Shepard and the homophobia that lead to the crime, and offer an unflinching look at the aftermath of his death. You especially raise the point that the homophobia that killed him is still alive and well, perhaps even thriving. Do you think that SF/F genre is one that is particularly malleable in allowing a writer to explore areas and topics that might otherwise not be as easily digested?
HD: Yes, and I think there’s two things here that make SF/F particularly powerful in this respect. The exotic is the life-blood of fantastic fiction; and since it’s the unusual which is generally marginalised, othered by society at large, fantastic fiction has become a field which naturally appeals to those who don’t quite feel they fit in to the social pecking order. It offers fictions where these readers can find identification figures in the outsider, the “Other”, because so often it’s written by, for and about the weird. I’d certainly say that it was my own “misfit” status as a kid that first drew me to the field, looking for fiction that offered an escape into other worlds, an imaginary sanctuary from grim realities.
One might criticise SF/F for that if that was all it was, but even at it’s most escapist, where the reader has their head firmly in the sand (or in the clouds, for that matter), what it’s still presenting is a hypothetical alternative, a hope of other possibilities. I’m suspicious of the insistent bleakness you see in, say, kitchen-sink realism; if it addresses homophobia, to take your example, there’s good odds that the message at the end will be how terribly hard it is to be a homosexual and how cruelly the poor faggot will be treated by society. Is that really a more worthy message than in the consolatory fantasy where, no matter what, you know that everything will be OK? Conventional pessimism is no better than conventional optimism.
I look at a hell of a lot of realist fiction and what I see is idiots who cannot escape their horrible circumstances, not because there is no escape, but simply because they cannot imagine one. If you’re a gay kid growing up in a small town, for example, goddamnit you should be reading that escapist SF/F, because those are the stories that’ll tell you that, well, actually, there’s other places you could be. So they might well be strange and alien, with perils you can’t predict? Cool!
There’s a quote from Wallace Stevens’s “The Man With The Blue Guitar” that sums up my attitude to the role of imagination in this regard, a response to the realist accusation of escapism: “They said you have a blue guitar. / You do not play things as they are. / The man replied, things as they are / Are changed upon the blue guitar.”
This plays into the second aspect of SF/F, what really makes it powerful: when it pushes beyond the wish-fulfilment and goes from offering solace to the marginal, pipe-dreams of imaginary alternatives, and actually goes on the attack. The counter-factuals of SF/F can be, and often are, critiques of reality, challenges to the consensus view. It builds worlds with societies that reflect our own but twisted and altered, utopias or dystopias which comment on our own society’s more abstract features. And it can be fucking sneaky about it. It can translate race, gender, sexuality or what-have-you into metaphors and wire them into a ripping yarn, an adventure that will carry progressive ideas to a far wider audience. It can take political stances abhorrent to totalitarian regimes and allegorise them, get them under the radar, as many writers in the Soviet Bloc did. SF/F is not just malleable in this respect; it’s downright mercurial, a master of disguise, sedition sold as sensationalism.
Q: The gay community has really embraced the book for showing gay characters that go beyond stereotypes. Were you surprised at the response?
HD: Any positive response is always a surprise, and the more enthusiastic the more surprising it is. Although at the same time, of course, there’s a part of me that says, well, how could you not love Thomas and Jack when they’re both so peachy? Thing is, I have two totally opposing views about my writing which are generally in a weird mix of balance and conflict. On the one hand there’s the self-critical approach to your own work, where you see all your faults, where you’re so close to it, having laboured on it so long you can’t possibly read it for that immersive enjoyment, and where simple insecurity means that you have no idea if anyone in the world is going to like it. On the other hand, there’s the overweening arrogance where you’re deeply in love with the work, deeply passionate about it, and convinced that, by God, this is a fucking work of genius. Those two sides of my personality are in a continual dialogue with each other, which ranges from an uneasy truce, where both agree that the reality is somewhere in the middle, to all-out screaming match, with both of them contemptuously dismissing the other as “full of shit”. Me, I just shrug and hope for the best.
In terms of the specifics here — the response of the gay community — I guess I’m surprised that it’s getting noticed outside the SF/F community at all, but totally gratified that it’s reaching my fellow fags. It just goes to show that we’re not all disco-bunnies… or that being a disco-bunny doesn’t necessarily mean you’re automatically going to run away, hands flapping, from a 180,000 word Cubist fantasy.
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!