Interview with Hal Duncan

Q: Without giving anything away, what can you tell potential readers about The Book of All Hours? To be frank, I can’t even think of a way to put it all in a nutshell.

The core idea of it is the Book of All Hours, an ancient tome containing every story ever written and every story never written, sort of a cross between Lovecraft’s Necronomicon and Borges’s Book of Sand, and the blueprint of reality itself — which is a sort of Moorcockian multiverse, the “Vellum”, with three temporal dimensions. Think of it as like an ancient myth. A story about Prometheus, say, has a beginning and an end, past and future, the dimension of time we know. But then there may be variants of this story where the Corinthians tell it one way and the Athenians quite another, like parallel worlds, a second side-to-side dimension. And finally you have the layers of revisions and retellings, where the story of Prometheus may be an Nth Generation retelling of a primitive “thief of fire” story; so in the Vellum, time has a sort of up-and-down dimension, with older worlds, worlds of angels and demons buried in the dust beneath our feet, so to speak. Which version is the “real” story of Prometheus? The Athenians’ or the Corinthians’. The one in Aeschylus’s play or the one told round the Palaeolithic campfire?

Maybe the “real” story is the “story of the story” you get when you put all those versions together, look at them as a single tale in three temporal dimensions, the similarities across variants, the changes in retellings, the inconsistencies and congruities. OK, so, in the books, this is how I treat the gods and demons of mythology, and us mere mortals too; a character’s story doesn’t just take place in one fold of the Vellum; it takes place in all of them, across them. It’s what you get when you put those different versions together. What I tend to do is take one or two versions as the base narratives and weave them together, but with fragments of other variants to give you a sense of the bigger “3D” story.

It gets even more complex because all the gods and demons of our myths are seen as “unkin”. They’re actually humans; all that makes them different to us is they know the language of the Book, the programming language of reality, and they use it to travel between folds, exist as 3D entities, rewrite their own stories, hack reality, so to speak. Thing is, when you have characters rewriting their own past that makes for a pretty unconventional type of plot, deeply non-linear. Because largely Vellum and Ink are about how they completely screw things up.

In terms of the Big Picture, what you have is one set of angels, the Covenant, who have this Grand Plan for humanity, which unfortunately involves wiping out any unkin who won’t sign up to it. When one rogue unkin, Thomas, tries to escape his fate you get a thread being pulled out that leads to the whole of reality falling apart. So the big story of the two books is about him and various other rogues and renegades in different incarnations across different folds — from ancient Sumer to the Somme, from a post-apocalypse America to a fascist steampunk Glasgow — trying to survive and maybe even, hopefully, sort things out.

Q: What do you feel is your strength as a writer/storyteller?

Audacity and sheer bloody-mindedness maybe. In terms of craft, well, I think I can put a good sentence together, craft characters to care about, and hold a metafictional mindbender of a plot-structure in my head, but talking about those as “strengths” would be complacent and conceited, and I’m sure many would disagree with my self-assessment. So what I tend to identify as the thing I’m most focused on, the quality I consider most important and would like to think is my real strength is that utter disregard for preconceived notions of what can and can’t be done in writing. If I set out to do something I won’t do it by halves, even if it seems like the dumbest, craziest thing in the world to do… like writing a 400,000 word monster of what could probably be described as Cubist Fantasy.

Maybe “insanity” is a better word.

 

Q: I’ve read somewhere that what ultimately became the story behind VELLUM and INK started out as a single short story. Can you tell us a little more of the road that led you from that short piece to what became The Book of All Hours?

There was a story — actually “plotless adolescent tosh” is more fitting than “story” — which featured an early version of Jack Carter (as a werewolf) and in which I came up with the idea for the Book. Then there was a long period of writing a pile of stories and novellas before I finally wrote this other story, “The Road of All Dust” which featured a version of Reynard Carter and in which I actually nailed the idea of the Book. I realised I had the prologue of a novel when I looked at it, and when I looked at the pile of stories and novellas stretching back to the Book’s first appearance, I realised that in the ten years in between, without knowing it, I’d actually been writing The Book of All Hours.

Thing is, that early story was torched as part of a boxful of puerile crap, but I’d seen the novel potential in the Book of All Hours, and tried to write it. I had this Grand Plan of a four-volume epic, with each volume based on a season and a time of day: Fall/Dusk; Winter/Night; Spring/Dawn; Summer/Day. There were ideas like the Cant (the magical language of the unkin) and the bitmites (the nanotech ink which comes to embody it) which would end up in Vellum and Ink, but my first bash at it as one big novel failed utterly. I was being way too ambitious, partly from having just read Finnegans Wake and being enraptured by Joyce’s use of wordplay to show reality in complete flux, partly from not having a clear enough idea of the story I wanted to tell and why. Either way, I didn’t have the skills to write the book I wanted to.

So I shelved that and moved on to another Grand Plan. The idea of the unkin had come together as a way of syncretising world mythologies, emerging in my first published story, what would later become the Slab City scene in Vellum, where Metatron meets Phreedom and Finnan. I wanted to do a whole series of interconnected stories in this mythos, stories about all the draft-dodgers and deserters trying to get through the War in Heaven kicked off by the Covenant, humans dragged into the apocalypse. But that also failed; I had too many other ideas I wanted to write, set in worlds that were too wild and pulpy to fit into that mythos.

The Book of All Hours kept re-emerging though, along with other tropes and themes, like the unkin or the Cant, popping up in a Lovecraftian story of an expedition to Kur, or Indiana Jones style adventures in Tell-el Kharnain. Phreedom and Finnan sat gathering dust, but Jack and Puck, Reynard and Joey were constant characters, their relationships played out time after time, linking across stories. Puck’s death in one story made sense of Jack’s madness in others. Then, as I say, I wrote “The Road of All Dust” which brought it all together. I finally realised that what I’d been writing for the last ten years was all one big mosaic. I didn’t realise how deep the links went until I started binding it into a book, right enough; I was sort of laying out the pieces in place, trying to figure out what fitted into the gaps, what had to go, what had to be completely rewritten (which was pretty much all of it), and Phreedom came roaring back into the picture, with her lost brother Thomas as the link between the mythos of the unkin and the stories of Jack and his cohorts.

Q: Have the plotlines diverged much since you began writing the series, or did you have the entire plot more or less figured out from the very beginning? Were any characters added or further fleshed out beyond your original intention? Have you made any changes to your initial plans during the course of the writing of the series?

Because the majority of the narrative threads were written separately, as soon as I started to weave them together into the big thematic structure it was fairly obvious they had to be worked over big time. But it wasn’t so much changing plotlines as drawing existing ones out in the links between them, bringing this part of the story into clearer focus here, switching a character in a sequence there. You know how fragments of a hologram contain the whole image but with only their own little area in focus? All of these stories and novellas I had were like hologram fragments I was trying to put back together, so the Big Picture would be whole again and clear. Only these stories were themselves made up of fragments; they were failed experiments which had been glued together wrong, screwing up their version of the Big Picture. So there was a lot — and I mean a lot — of radical revisions, smashing these up and recombining them.

When I started seriously on Vellum, for example, the original intent was to have the second volume focus on Jack, but Finnan’s story emerged so strongly from the Somme sequences in Volume One, the whole Prometheus Bound storyline of Volume Two just demanded to be written from scratch. Where Volume Three was going to focus on Joey, writing the harlequin play thread as the backbone changed that a lot.

And yet I had beginnings like “The Road of All Dust” or endings like pretty much the whole of the Tell-el Kharnain narrative, plot-points and interactions in which the whole thing was mapped out. There are benchmark scenes in there, like the final meeting between Finnan and Phreedom, where I wrote the resolution of a story I hadn’t even written ten years ago. It’s weird. I think my subconscious knew exactly what the story was; it just made me figure it out the hard way over a very long time.

Q: What would you say was the hardest part of the entire process involved in the writing of the Book of All Hours? Each new addition reveals yet more depth to a series which has shown just how rich and complex it truly is.

It was definitely that recombination process. Sometimes it would be the simplest thing in the world. As more pieces fitted into place, a lot of the time that would make it utterly obvious where the next piece needed to go, how it needed to be reshaped to fit. But that could also create points where there was this big empty hole, and I’d be looking at it, knowing that something wasn’t right but not knowing what.

In Volume Three, for example, “Hinter’s Knight”, you have these two inter-linked alternate history narrative threads based around Reynard, one where he’s a night-club owner in Berlin, another where he’s being interviewed by MI6. Most of the links between those and the major narrative threads are thematic though. And the whole volume — as Winter and Night — is meant to be, well, this is the depths of the chaos, when the shit has well and truly hit the fan; so it had to be wild, Saturnalian. How these threads fit together becomes as much about the ideas bouncing between the two narratives as it is about the big story that integrates them, because the big story at that point is it’s all going pear-shaped.

That means you have to find the right transition point to switch from one thread to another, and that point can be quite abstractly defined if it’s a matter of theme more than anything else. It’s like a DJ doing a mash-up. You know you can bring together these two songs, the beat from this one, a sample from that, and it’ll sound bloody tremendous, but you’ve got to get the timing right; it’s all got to be in synch. And with this type of writing, one scene out of place can throw everything out of whack. So I had some hair-tearing moments particularly with that volume. One narrative thread actually got ripped out and discarded completely.

Q: Characters often take a life of their own. Which of your characters did you find the most unpredictable to write about?

For the most part, in Vellum and Ink, because I based three of the four volumes around existing sources — Sumerian myths and Greek plays — the characters were bound into those existing tales. Though Finnan’s very much an example of a character coming alive, his voice bursting out of the Somme sequence and becoming, you might well say, the voice of Vellum as a whole, even though that emergence of the character led to me writing the Prometheus Bound narrative from scratch, it wasn’t really that he was unpredictable. If anything, it was the opposite. In realising just who he was as a person, the whole story of Prometheus clicked round that identity. It was more like realising his history and just letting him tell it in his own words, rather than creating a character without a future written for him and then having him decide that your plan for that future, for the story, is wrong.

Even the most bolshie and flighty characters like Jack and Puck, who continue to kick their way out of my psyche every so often, (respectively) swaggering and skipping gaily onto the page unbidden, even those tend to burst out with fully-formed stories around them, I find. Which is maybe strange, given that a lot of my characters are basically rebels and refuseniks, and that much of Vellum and Ink is about those characters rejecting the roles “written” for them.

 

Q: Previous depictions of homosexual characters in fantasy/scifi books have always been somewhat clumsy and didn’t ring true. And yet, instead of trying to get readers to “accept” it, you just went ahead and put Jack and Puck’s relationship as a central storyline throughout both volumes. Was that intentional from the beginning? INK contains graphic sex scenes between the two, and I was wondering what sort of responses those sequences generated among readers and critics?

One of my pet hates is the fetishisation you get in certain types of fantasy, particularly vampire fiction, I have to say, where gay equals frilly shirts, sensitive pouts and lingering looks with doe-eyes. Man, at least slash is subversive in applying that aesthetic to straight characters, and at least slash has the guts to get down and dirty. That stuff is just softcore boy-on-boy goth porn. Even when it’s not so deeply fetishised, there still seems to be a tendency to stereotype gays as refined rather than rough, fey rather than fiery, cats rather than dogs.

The second problem with gay characters in genre fiction is that they’re generally marginalised as subsidiary characters, which smacks of PC tokenism. Yeah, so your heroine has a Gay Best Friend; big deal. So your team of heroes has a tagalong queer; I’m not impressed.

The last problem is that even when you get a fully-fledged protagonist they’re generally just not genre enough. By which I mean, the writer feels the need to show that it’s “normal” to be gay, so the characters are rendered in a Realist mode rather than as Romantic heroes. They’re intelligent, sensitive portraits of gays as “just like everyone else”. Bollocks to that. The fetishised gays are annoying. The marginalised gays are frustrating. But the normalised gays are just plain dull. I want a gay character who blows shit up. I want a gay James Bond, a gay Jerry Cornelius, a gay Superman, a gay Indiana Jones, a gay Clint Eastwood in Where Eagles Dare. Achilles wasn’t normal. He was an uberfag, dragging Hector’s body ten times round the gates of Troy for killing his boyfriend. Now that’s what I call a hissy fit!

So Jack sort of blasted his way into existence as a result of my desire to see a genuine, bona fide, gun-toting, ball-busting genre hero, one who’d kick ass, stand up to the Man, bring down the system, do everything you’d expect a hero to, except he’d get the guy instead of the girl. Puck started off as little more than that love interest in the Jack Flash sequences, but as I started using them in other scenarios the relationship developed and, in the faery story retelling of the murder of Mathew Shepard, became a way of talking about sexuality on a far more serious level. There was never any thought of pussy-footing about the subject, never any worry about whether people would “accept” it or not. Writing Jack Flash is sort of like accessing your inner terrorist, while writing Puck is like accessing your inner faery; neither of those have much respect for conventionality.

As for reaction, I’ve had good reviews in the gay press, which is cool. In the SFF world, there’s been a little criticism, from some of the high-brow reviewers actually, about the eroticisation of Puck — but that seems more to have been a concern about him losing roundedness as a character and becoming too emblematic. I sort of see that as missing the point in a story so deeply invested in pulp tropes and archetypes, and besides, the whole rejection of eroticisation seems like cultural neurosis to me — the old spirit versus flesh, mind versus body thing. Sensuality is good. But, hey ho.

Anyway, other than that, the reaction on the whole has been extremely positive, with no one I can think of actually expressing offence or distaste in a reactionary way. I think a lot of SFF readers are behind the underdogs and outsiders. And those conventional and conservative enough to be thrown by a bit of gay sex aren’t likely to make it past the first 100 pages anyway, I reckon.

 

Q: Were there any perceived conventions of the speculative fiction genre which you wanted to twist or break when you set out to write The Book of All Hours?

All of them. OK, that’s a glib response, but it’s partly true. I didn’t set out with any grand idea of being unconventional just for the sake of it — to be, like, a rebel, man, or oh so clever — but I’m really drawn to pulp tropes and clich├ęs…but with a strong sense of mischief and malarkey that makes me want to really mess them up, because it’s more fun that way.

An example: you’ve got a map at the start of Vellum, so to speak, described rather than drawn but still a map, a classic fantasy convention. In fact you’ve got the maps in the book which grow to inconceivable scales, which you could read as dismissing those other maps as small fry; and you’ve also got the “burning map” in the first line, which you could read as a symbolic torching of the whole trope. And you wouldn’t be entirely wrong on either count. But at the same time that “burning map” is a loving reference to those old epic movies, with the deep voice-over and the scrolling text over some ancient parchment which starts to blacken, then burn, before we cut into the action. Man, how can you not love that shit? Similarly in INK, you have a whole series of pastiches of pulp narrative forms, at one point, everything from bad Swords & Sorcery novels to hokey Space Opera to corny radio serials.

Where I did want to break conventions was with the whole moral dualism of Good and Evil you get a lot in genre. That just doesn’t interest me. So I wanted to give a sound drubbing to the whole idea of the hero who’s intrinsically good. To that end, you’ve got scattered pointers throughout the books that set up Jack as a classic monomythic hero — the boy raised in obscurity, secretly the saviour, complete with prophecies and what not — but he actually starts off as a Covenant spearcarrier in Vellum, and in one thread of Ink, in one fold, his heroic idealism leads him straight into the SA as a true believer in fascism. I also wanted to rip apart the idea of the villain who’s just plain bad, and Joey, in Ink, becomes very much a way of deconstructing that villain.

When it comes down to it, it’s probably the subtext that I want to break, the implicit moral message of the convention rather than the convention per se, because those subtexts can be deeply conservative nonsense.

Q: What was the spark that generated the idea which drove you to write The Book of All Hours in the first place?

I was at university back in the 90s, and I had Lovecraft’s Necronomicon and Borges’s Book of Sand on my mind, along with the “books of hours” I was studying in Art History — these medieval meditational works, like instruction manuals for living a virtuous life. I was in a bit of an “occultism and apocrypha” stage — browsing the Book of Enoch and suchlike in the university library — so I decided, out of curiosity, to do a search for Nostradamus on the library database. It turned out they had a copy, but down in the “Special Collection”, which I knew nothing about, never having been down there. So I go down to have a gander.

So, I find this room in the basement of the building, lined with walls of glass-panelled bookcases all filled with leatherbound tomes, and there’s a wee bloke at a desk there, clearly excited to actually have a chance to do something for someone. It all seems quite… grand, and I’m just there on a whim, but before I think about it I’ve already told him what I’m looking for, and he’s given me a card to fill out as he goes off to fetch the book. I start filling out my tutor’s name and other such details on the card, finishing up as he returns with this big-ass ancient tome. I mean, this thing is proper ancient, comes with kid gloves and foam cushions to rest it on so you don’t damage it. And I’m here to piss about with it out of idle curiosity. It’s too late to back out now without looking like a complete twat, though, so I take it to a desk.

And, of course, it’s all in medieval French, which I don’t understand a bloody word of.

All I could do was sit there for fifteen minutes, turning pages and pretending to make notes once in a while, scared shitless that I’d perpetrate some outrage on this priceless artefact with no justification other than mere whimsy. Eventually, I got up and did my best to look like I’d satisfied some abstract point of studious curiosity as I let the curator take the Extremely Valuable Book away from the Gormless Cretin.

But the thing about it was, it was the first time I’d ever held a book like that, looked at the pages up close, and the fact that it was huge and leatherbound and utterly incomprehensible just made it feel like holding the bloody Necronomicon itself. It was just this thing of utter mystery, like a grimoire straight out of a fantasy story. So, somewhere in there, ideas clicked together — this book and the books of hours and Borges and Lovecraft — and it sort of became an idea that the ultimate magic object for a fantasy book was, well, a book. What devout reader isn’t just a little bit in love with books as artefacts, what they represent? What magic artefact could be more powerful than the very thing in which the fantasy realm is defined? So what would be the ultimate book? An infinite book, of course, like the Book of Sand containing all such realms, our world included. A book of ancient secrets like the Necronomicon. A book of hours that was the ultimate instruction manual for reality itself.

Hence, The Book of All Hours.

 

Q: Many have pointed out your heartfelt embrace of political and social advocacy in both VELLUM and INK. How important was it for you, as an author and as an individual, to weave that facet into your writing endeavour?

There’s a bit of a conflict between author and individual, to be honest. As an individual, I believe in ethics over morals every time. There’s a lot of socially constructed mores, I mean, that are founded on blind faith in some received wisdom passed down from a higher authority (Moses or Marx, it’s all the same to me). I think that’s a cop-out, an unethical refusal to take the responsibility to make one’s own judgements based on reason and empathy. Because of that shirking of ethical responsibility, morality actually goes hand in hand with prejudice and bigotry, fundamentalism and authoritarianism. Following my own ethics, I have to take a stand against that moralism. I won’t sit on my arse and do nothing while Reverend Fred Phelps of the notorious Westboro Baptists still has his sick little website, www.godhatesfags.com, with a gif animation of Matthew Shepard burning in the fires of hell, and a counter of how many days he’s been there. And since writing is my skill, since it’s a way to combat these unethical moralists, if only by raising awareness, well, that has to be a part of my writing.

But as an author I know that didacticism doesn’t make for a good book. You can’t tell a good story if you can’t tell it honestly, and that means questioning your heroes, seeing the story from the villain’s point of view, refusing the easy and obvious plot twist that would make the message pat, simplistic. Fiction is not polemic. So although you have a lot of political and social ideas being raised, even points where they’re explicitly preached — as in Finnan’s pacifist, socialist rants in Vellum — that doesn’t necessarily mean those are my personal beliefs just laid out straight onto the page. In Finnan’s case, in particular, there are over-statements, points where I’ve made his socialism more extreme than my own, as part of the whole Red Clyde movement; and there are contradictions, challenges, like his being pacifist but nevertheless joining the International Brigades to fight in the Spanish Civil War. I’m not setting out to propagandise a particular ideology here, rather to make the reader think, I hope, about how the complexities of navigating the conflicting ethics.

I mean, in some respects, Metatron is one of the most ethical characters in the books, the whole Covenant he created an attempt to stop the brutal reigns of unkin warlords, self-proclaimed gods lording it over humanity during the Neolithic. He’s a humanist, a republican, in many ways, someone who’s chosen to try and save the world. I respect him for that. That’s the thing about ethics versus morality. You can respect someone for having ethics, living by them, even if you disagree with those ethics. From my point of view the fact that someone is exercising rational judgement and empathy is more important than the particular political and social ideas that result from that. So my fiction is more focused, I hope, on pointing up the failings of moralities and the importance of ethics, than it is on advocating a particular ideology.

Q: Will the retelling of the Gilgamesh myth be the project you tackle next? What’s the progress report?

I’m still very much in the research stages. What I’m mainly working on at the moment is a novella for Monkeybrain Books, but once that’s done I’ll be diving into the Gilgamesh novel. I’m going to say no more, because ideas are no problem to talk about, but actual progress… that’s jinxing yourself.

Q: Given the choice, would you take a New York Times bestseller, or a World Fantasy Award? Why, exactly?

Can’t I have both? Please? Pretty please? Pretty please with sugar on top?

No? Ah, bollocks. Oh, well then, I’d have to take the cash before the kudos, because I’m a pragmatist, and a New York Times bestseller means money in the bank, which means a more comfortable life, which means time and energy to write the next book down the line, and the one after that, and so on. That means more chance of winning the WFA with a subsequent book, of course, but I’m more interested in being able to carry on doing what I love to do. The WFA, on the other hand, thrilled as I’d be to win it, is like any trophy, any good review, any letter from a fan. It’s great to get the kudos, and it’s even better when that kudos might create more readers by increasing the profile of the book, but I don’t write for the ego-gratification of literary awards, judged or voted. I’d be lying if I said I don’t relish every morsel of praise as a shameless attention slut, but you can’t take that sort of kudos too seriously or you’ll become a tosser. A WFA is an award for the book, not the writer. A New York Times bestseller, though — that’s beer money!

 

Q: VELLUM is the living proof that the internet can provide a lot of exposure for a book. Do you feel that most publishers don’t yet understand the full potential of this tool, in terms of exploiting the wealth of fantasy-related websites, message boards, and blogs?

Yes, but I’m not so sure that’s entirely a bad thing. The internet community is like one big online convention, and the thing about the word of mouth provided by the websites, message boards and blogs — like discussions on panels or in the bar — is that the buzz is genuine. It’s just fans shooting the breeze about this book that someone recommended to them and which blew them away, writers chatting about each other’s novels and techniques, what they think works well and what doesn’t. As someone who’s benefited immensely from the chain reactions of internet responses, I’m prejudiced, but I do think it’s an honest and natural process. Publishers are aware of it and do use it to some extent. They know that this website or that with an active forum might be a good place to get the word out; a competition to win a free copy of whatever is a good way to do that. Or my Polish publishers set up a ton of interviews with various portals, for example, posted on forums to publicise my visit last year. They do know that this is an important mechanism for dissemination of information these days.

But trying to exploit that cynically would, I think, be resisted. There’s something seedy and dishonest about deliberate viral marketing campaigns, and PR should always be upfront about being PR. In the convention metaphor, you wouldn’t want people being paid by publishers or dealers or agents or whatever to go up on to panels or work their way into casual conversations purely for the purpose of promoting a certain book. You can have free copies at registration, flyers and such, but you don’t want to have to walk a gauntlet of leafleters on your way to the bar. The power of word of mouth rests in its honesty, its spontaneity. You can’t force a book to “catch on”, and trying to do so might well alienate those you want to reach.

Q: The series has garnered what can best be described as a cult following. However, many doubt that it will ever become “mainstream.” With that in mind, how rewarding is it to realize how successful the series has been and continues to be to this day?

I’m truly chuffed by the success. These aren’t the kind of books that are to everyone’s taste; they’re very much in the love-it-or-loathe-it camp, so to be honest, when I was writing them I had very low expectations. I was well aware that the non-linear narrative would be a huge turn-off for many, and while I’ve always been a firm believer in immediacy in writing, in trying to give a roller-coaster ride of a story — something that will carry the reader along even when they might not “get” what I’m trying to do, where I’m trying to take them — I couldn’t be at all sure if that approach would work. I didn’t want the books to be the sort of thing only an English graduate could or would read. I wanted them to satisfy the reader looking for complexity but also be packed full of meaty genre goodness — to be exciting, visceral and wild, rather than ponderous, intellectual and poncy. But I largely expected the appeal to be limited, the books to be uncommercial. I didn’t really expect to find a publisher — maybe in the indie press, I hoped, but certainly not in the majors.

So when Macmillan and Del Rey picked them up that was amazing, and the beauty of it is that it’s given them a high enough profile to reach exactly the wider market I was really only dreaming of — those readers who dig the two-fisted muscularity of the story, who dig yarns about angels and bitmites and anarcho-terrorists and exploding airships but who aren’t averse to the poncy Classical allusions and Modernist construction, even where it baffles them. In fact, the complexity just makes them go back and reread it. But finding that market can be a matter of critical mass. With an indie publisher Vellum could easily have sunk without a trace and disappeared almost instantly, simply because it didn’t have the circulation to keep the momentum going. And I can’t help but want it to keep going.

To me, “cult classic” is a label to aspire to far more than “literature”. Catch-22 is a cult classic. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a cult classic. These are books where critical success doesn’t go hand in hand with being exiled to some academic ivory tower. You don’t read them because they’ve been canonised by literature professors or critics. You read it because a mate was wowed by it enough to force it on you; and they read it for the same reason. The first email I got from a reader telling me he’d bought another copy after foisting his own on a friend — that’s the sort of success that thrills me to bits.

 

Q: The fact that you have an official website and a blog on the internet is an indication that interaction with your readers is important to you as an author. How special is it to have the chance to interact directly with your fans?

What I like about it is that it doesn’t feel like interacting with “fans”. I mean, I like conversation and supplication doesn’t qualify. If someone posts a comment on my blog, though, that just means they read the blog. They may or may not have read the books, may or may not have loved them. They’re on the level of someone at a party who’s been on the edge of a conversation and decides to chime in. Which is cool, a good way to get more interesting conversation. Even if they’re posting just to say they loved the book, there’s more of a sense — I think — anyway, of communication on an equal basis. That reader may or may not be another writer. They may write fiction or they may blog. Whatever, it just feels more to me like a community of equals, because that “fan” can engage the “author” in a proper conversation in a way you don’t always get so much in conventions and signings and all those other types of social gatherings where the distinction between the writer and the reader is more hierarchical, the interaction less natural.

I initially started up the blog just to give myself a presence on the internet as much as anything, to raise my profile. I thought it would be interesting also to chart the process from the initial sale of Vellum and Ink, up to publication and beyond. As it turns out, I’ve got into the whole conversational aspect of the blogosphere more than anything, all the debates and discussions that ripple through it every so often. The blog is an opportunity to get into issues in more depth than would be polite in a forum, where a 5000 word post wouldn’t exactly feel appropriate. And that can lead to all sorts of juicy conversation. Ultimately, I just like kicking ideas around with people.

Q: How well-received has INK been thus far?

It’s had a few very positive reviews, and I’ve had some personal responses that were gushing — with people saying they consider it better than VELLUM — but it’s early days yet, too early to get a real sense.

Q: Honestly, do you believe that the speculative fiction genre will ever come to be recognized as veritable literature? Truth be told, in my opinion there has never been this many good books/series as we have right now, and yet there is still very little respect (not to say none) associated with the genre.

Never say never, but as things stand at the moment, to be blunt, no. All the good books and series in the world don’t matter half so much as the formulaic product the marketing categories of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror are inextricably associated with. And to be even more blunt I don’t see why we should expect it to. You bind yourself to a marketing category and you bind yourself to the brand image that goes with it.

I mean, imagine that in the Golden Age, instead of all the magazines and publishing imprints devoted to science fiction, war fiction was what really caught on — stories set around warfare, in the pulp tradition, with chiselled heroes, noble feats and big explosions. Imagine this becomes a genre — War Fiction — on a level with Westerns, separated out from general fiction. That marketing category is a promise of “more of the same”, a promise that you, the reader, looking for stories about chiselled heroes, noble feats and big explosions, can go to a certain magazine, a certain imprint, a certain genre — War Fiction — and find those stories.

Now there are a lot of potential readers during this Golden Age who like War Fiction in the form of John Wayne movies, but when it comes to books they don’t want the literary equivalent of popcorn movies. They don’t want chiselled heroes; they want flawed heroes. They don’t want noble feats; they want human realities. Big truths are more important than big explosions. So that brand image doesn’t appeal to them, and they ignore the written form. Still, there’s more than enough who do want that for the brand to go from strength to strength.

As it does, a new generation of writers comes in, with whole new ways of writing this “War Fiction”. Many are subverting the old tropes. Many are writing novels that could stand beside anything in general fiction. Many of them are writing novels that involve flawed heroes, human realities and big truths, and these books are described as “transcending the genre”. There’s this guy called Norman Mailer with his novel, The Naked and the Dead. And there’s Joseph Heller with his novel, Catch-22. Amongst War Fiction fans these are hailed as classics. Unfortunately, both are published with covers featuring cigar-chomping sergeants who look a lot like John Wayne, storming the beach at Iwo Jima, blossoms of flame behind them. Cause, hey, that’s what sells. That’s the brand image of War Fiction. A whole generation of potential readers misses out on these books because that brand image is misleading.

These “War Fiction classics” remain relatively unknown outside the growing community of War Fiction fans, some of whom decide that the abbreviation of “War-Fi” is really cute and catchy. Norman Mailer doesn’t like it, but he has little choice; by now the marketing category is so separated out from general fiction, and such a guaranteed market, that it would be crazy to publish a war fiction book without that label, that cover, that brand image. Writers start to find that their “fiction about war” is automatically deemed “war fiction”, sold as “War Fiction” and adored as “War-Fi” by loyal fans. Not that they mind; most of them are war fiction fans themselves, and fandom has become a wonderful worldwide community which treats war fiction writers as stars.

Fast forward to the 70s, through Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-5 (a brilliant work of experimentalist war fiction), through the New Wave (heavily inspired by Vietnam), through all sorts of debates about how WF could be expanded to something other than War Fiction, to disassociate it from the outdated brand image of chiselled heroes, noble feats and big explosions (with some writers like Vonnegut seeing such a disparity between their work and that brand image that they deny they’re even writing War Fiction, and are, of course, denounced as traitors to the genre). Fast forward to George Lucas’s blockbuster movie War Stars, a loving homage to the pulp roots of the genre, chock full of, yes, chiselled heroes, noble feats and big explosions.

Fast forward to today, where War Fiction is still tied to that brand image for the general public. They don’t know that the genre contains such forgotten classics as The Naked and the Dead, Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse-5. Why should they? They see War-Fi movies, War-Fi TV series, War-Fi novelisations, War-Fi merchandising, War-Fi conventions, all of it reinforcing that brand image. You can tell them that War-Fi is media and War Fiction is the written form, that War Fiction being a genre doesn’t make all its work generic, but that double-think just fries their brains. Genre but not generic? Huh?!

The fact is the best work in the field of speculative, fantastical, horrific and just plain strange fiction has been sheltering under that brand image for decades, allied with the pulp trash for commercial survival, exploiting the guaranteed market, poaching readers as they grow out of “more of the same” and start looking for “something different”. It’s a hell of a lot easier and safer than venturing out into the mainstream where, without the brand image, the label, the cover, that work has much less chance of reaching its target audience. Lack of respect outside that small community is an inevitable result of immersion to the point of submersion in the morass of generic formula fiction. I think that’s just a harsh reality. If writers and readers of “war fiction” had similarly segregated themselves out as a distinct genre, one which lumped together everything from Commando comics to John Wayne movies to Alistair MacLean to Action Man dolls to The Naked and the Dead, I doubt Catch-22 would have the respect it does today.

Not that I’m complaining. Being off the critical radar, down in the ghetto with the drunks and junkies, has also, I think, allowed this strange fiction a freedom from the overbearing aesthetic of contemporary realism which has held sway amongst general fiction for decades. That aesthetic seems to be crumbling now, I think, which is why I say “Never say never”. It’s possible that, if that aesthetic collapses, we might see more strangeness seeping out into the mainstream, and academics being drawn down from their ivory towers to investigate, tracing that strangeness back to its roots in the ghetto. Writers like Jonathan Lethem might well be taken as indications that this process has begun. But unless and until that happens I don’t see why on earth we’d expect them to have an inkling of what’s going on in this gaudy, grimy and gloriously vulgar ghetto of genre.

Q: Admit it, you should have won the World Fantasy Award! Still, winning the Rookie of the Year Award from Fantasy Hotlist last December (my very own year-end awards) for VELLUM must have warmed your heart, no!?!

Heh. Rookie of the Year Award is, of course, deeply appreciated… but does it come with a cool trophy or a cash prize? A pint of Guinness would do.

Seriously, though, I’m happy to lose to a writer on the level of Murakami, and the amount of “you should have won” consolations I got in the aftermath was more than enough kudos for me. Hell, the shortlist was strong enough that any one of the nominees winning wouldn’t have surprised me. I think it’s important that the WFA isn’t a fantasy writer’s in-crowd award, that the judges take an utterly objective view over all that can be considered fantasy, rather than limiting it to the works labelled as such.

Actually, I quite like the idea of being one of those people who builds up a huge oeuvre of highly respected work over decades, with tons of nominations, but somehow manages to miss out on all the awards until it becomes just plain criminal as far as most folks are concerned. You know, like Scorsese not winning an Oscar until this year. It would kinda tickle me to have people saying, “You know, Hal Duncan’s never won a WFA! Nominated forty-five times but still hasn’t won a single Big Metal Head!” Then, when I’m old and wrinkly and blind and hacking with emphysema, they can give me a lifetime achievement award out of guilt and sympathy, and I can dodder up to the stage only to collapse under the weight of nominee lapel pins. That would be cool.

Q: Anything you wish to share with your fans?

 

A few beers.

___

Interview by Patrick
fantasyhotlist.blogspot

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