Interview with Hal Duncan

Interview with Hal Duncan by Rob Queen / Optimutt

WARNING: Not for the faint hearted! Strong language and stronger opinions given.    J

Early this November, at the 2007 World Fantasy Convention, I tracked down Hal Duncan, author of Vellum and its sequel, Ink, to the Chez Sophie bar that seemed to draw the bulk of the convention’s 1200 attendees when not attending a panel, listening to a reading, giving a reading, or scouring the art and books rooms. Mr. Duncan made for a rather obvious target, dressed in black capped well by the shock of wavy black locks and goatee, but becoming all the more obvious in a predominantly American crowd with his Scottish accent.

Optimutt: Mr. Duncan, last night, when I asked you for an interview, it was about 3:00am. You said something that I remember distinctly being unable to understand.

Hal Duncan – I get incomprehensible. Over here… A: there’s a Scottish-ness. B: I’ve actually got a pretty thick accent, I slur naturally, then, add alcohol to that, and I can become completely incomprehensible.

O: You’re a Scotsman in America. How is that treating you?

HD: Last year in Austin, there was a small accident where I was dropped on my head. The fact of it was is that we’d been at a bar, as you do [at the World Fantasy Convention]. A group of us were like, let’s go to a party. I’m like, “I’m at a bar, I have a drink, a cigarette as well. I was outside, and I’m happy here. If you want to go to the party, then carry me!” I didn’t actually expect Jason from Nightshade to take me literally, but he threw me over his shoulder. We managed to get out of the nice, comfortable carpeted area of the bar, as far as the marble floor of the foyer, where he… According to Jason, I squirmed.

O: Did you really or was that his justification for dropping you on your head?

HD: There’s a bit of truth to this in the sense that I do have a vague recollection of my lighter falling as we were walking. And I remember thinking that, I’m at the shoulder height of an ex-marine, so if I reach, I can get it. I reach out a little bit far, and basically he overbalanced and we fell, right on my head! But yeah, the point of that is that there I was, on my knees like Willem Dafoe of Platoon, arms spread, blood pouring down. People were like, are you ok? I went like, [something completely incomprehensible]. So it was like the others think: I’m Scottish, drunk, and concussed, or maybe all of the above. In terms of comprehensibility, that was completely gone.

O: Did they take you to the hospital?

HD: No, they figured I was ok, when Allison Baker, she put bandages on me, paper towels. At one point they were holding a beer can on my forehead. It’s nice and cold. I’m like “Gimme! Gimme that, gimme the beer can and I’ll hold it myself.” That’s what they thought I said, at least. And so I take the beer can, crack it open and start drinking. That’s the point where they’re like, ah, he’s ok.

O: Has your writing changed since being dropped on your head?

HD: Not really. No. Thankfully not. No permanent damage apart of this f***ing lump [He pulls back a lock of hair to reveal a nice little lump].

O: So what’s it like to be Mr. Duncan?

HD: It’s been totally unexpected, a total blast. I have nothing to complain about. It’s f***ing awesome. It’s pretty much just f***ing awesome. How can there be a downside to people buying your book, giving you money, allowing you to go out and have a blast.

O: On the back cover of Vellum, it says you are a computer programmer. Do you still have that job?

HD: No. About two years ago, I quit my day job. I enjoyed it for a while. But times changed. New management came in, and with the money coming in from Vellum, I was in a position where I don’t want to do this and I was like “bye”! I’m going to go off and do what I f***ing love! Paul Esterfeld said, about becoming a writer: it’s kind of like a relationship, getting used to the person you love. It’s a weird change in your life, a completely new way of living. I get up when I want, go to bed when I want – if I want. It’s absolutely f***ing fabulous.

O: The reading you did yesterday, a poem called Still Lives took me off-guard by the political element of the poem. How do you balance the politically oriented elements of your fantasy work?

HD: I’m Scottish, so socialism is in my blood. My old man is an ex-laborer. I’m like an anarcho-socialist who recognizes that democracy’s the least of all possible evils. The way I look at socialism, fundamentally there’s an odd principle. There’s the inflection of moralist orthodoxy that you get with any system: Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely. So in any system, it’s all about checks and balances. It’s at that point that I look at it from the socialist perspective in that, ultimately, with the check and balance system, that liberal democracy is aimed to distribute wealth /power as much as possible. What I feel, I have to say, growing up in Scotland, I’ve heard some people talking about it being like a record of defiance… ultimately the Scottish culture is so much about being social-based, about the society rather than the Marxist Socialist view.

Also, the point where I grew up, I was under the evil Margaret Thatcher. Before she was PM, she was health secretary for GB. She stopped school milk, claiming its distribution in schools was too much expense. This is milk! For children! Rickets disease, an abnormal bone formation in children resulting from inadequate calcium in their bones, was really bad in Glasgow. The health service was non-existent, what with the level of unemployment making the place a welfare state.

Milk was brought into schools to combat rickets. Then Thatcher in the 70’s stopped school milk. Funny enough, a decade or so later, rickets started to be a problem again in Glasgow.

O: Was milk reinstituted at that point?

HD: No! They left that to the individual parents.

O: How much of that kind of Socialism – concern for the people, rather than the ramifications of the political institution –takes place in the books?

HD: Kind of a lot actually. In Vellum, the second half kind of a retelling of it’s about… it’s kind of like, the story was transported to the 1920’s in Glasgow, a period at end of the First World War. You have the story of John MacLean, a red bloody socialist. Years after the war, people realized that Stalin is really not a nice guy, but before that, there was a point, in Glasgow where the British government thought Scotland would have a Stalin-esque Socialist revolution.

At one point, 60000 unionized steelworkers and shipbuilders went on strike, and gathered in George Square, which is the square center of Glasgow. They went on strike because at the time there was a huge Irish immigration, and instead of acting against immigrants with the notion that “they were taking our jobs,” they asked for shorter working hours, so that everyone could have a job.

They had been on strike about a week or so when rumor went out that there was a deal to be announced in George Square. Instead of a deal, the police came out and read the riot act to the workers. Unfortunately, for these boys, most of these steelworkers were veterans of the First World War.

They just f***ing kicked the s*** out of the police, but the next day, the British Government called in actual tanks in with an army from down south, England. The local barracks were closed down because the government was afraid they were going to join the workers, thought there was actually going to be a revolution. But there was no chance. That was January 13th, Bloody Friday.

One of the leaders of that was Scott MacLean; a man in and out of prison, who took part in a hunger strike. He actually died under the treatment of British Government. Here’s an anecdotal story: Walking down a street, one day, he saw a beggar, but didn’t have money to give him, so he gave up his coat. His health being broken by his time in prison, he caught pneumonia, and died. That story, Bloody Friday, it’s all in the second half of Vellum. That was the set, and one of the characters, he lived through an adaptation of that. There’s you know, references to

MacLean, one who was slightly modelled after that character.

O: Now what about this Mulitverse you created for “Vellum” and “Ink”. Did you read Schrödinger’s cat get ideas from that at all?

HD: Robert Anton Wilson? I read that many years back. I read Michael Moorcock as well. Largely, I went back, more from their mutual source, James Joyce. Finnegan’s WakeUlysses, the story of coming on different scenes being told different ways. Wilson’s Illuminatus Trilogy as well. But yeah, I read that.

O: How did James Joyce influence you? Was it more the story or the art of his writing?

HD: Both. I have a real terrible tendency to use wordplay; puns. The first part [of Vellum] is the Lost Deus of Sumer. Multiple puns. Lost=Last. Daos=Days, Sumer=Summer. That makes it hellish for any translator. But that comes from Finnegan’s Wake; that kind of collision where I throw 3 to 4 words together all in one word. There’s a lot of that. There’s an awful lot of talking about the characters & setting. The character I was talking about who has that Irishness.

There are actually sections where the voice becomes an unpunctuated use of just whole words. As I was reading Ulysses, I still say, the last section ofUlysses, Molly Bloom’s soliloquy, is one of the most beautiful things I’ve read in my life. When Molly Bloom is talking about losing her virginity, where Leopold is romancing her and kissed her under the Moorish wall. The last lines, “he asked me would I yes to say yes… and yes I said yes I will Yes.” It’s beautiful poetic use of language. A lot of people think of modernism as very rationalist,realist, but I think there’s a huge romantic thread in there. The language is romantic and rational, and that’s where I think modernism
comes from. The reputation of the word yes; that it ends on the word yes. The story ends on such a note of affirmation, such a note of positivity. That is absolute crystal brilliance.

O: Is optimism, positivity, an important element to your stories?

HD:  It is something I call the blood, sweat and tears of humanity. It’s rather a nihilist viewpoint that ultimately, life is utterly meaningless; devoid of all point, all purpose, except for what you bring into it, what we create. But the important point to me is that nihilism isn’t negative. It’s actually a fallacy to look at the world from a fatal nihilist, from the existential sense, to look at the world and say it’s s***. “Why bother?” No. that’s wrong. I say, “Why the Hell not?”

In Ink, there’s a character, Jack Flash, you know, the fire-starter, and there’s this friend of his, who’s also his enemy, Joey. They’re the two sides of nihilism. Joey is the dark side it, miserablist, fatalist, dressed in black, “It’s all pointless, why bother.” Jack is the fire guy, he says, “Why the f*** not?” The poetry still lives, it’s hugely in your face, and that’s the point I’m trying to get across. Sure the world’s pointless. Sure, there is no real reason to do anything, except that you’ve got this life. You’ve got a f***ing lot; you might as well do something with it. Grab it by the balls and have the best time you can f***ing have. You’ve got to engage in life, that’s kind of my own philosophy, which is all there through the books.

O: What’s next for you? More poetry, another book, another world tour?

HD: My poem, Still Lives is posted on the blog. There’s no money in poetry. If I wanted to be read, I’m just as happy to post online and let people read it there. The next big project, another novel, kind of a work in my head at the moment, is a retelling of Gilgamesh. It’s the oldest story in mankind’s history. But I feel it’s as relevant now as
it was when it was written: a story of what it is to be human. It’s the story of Gilgamesh and his friend, possibly lover, Enkidu who comes from the forest, the whole theme of whom runs between civilized primitive, man vs. beast. My reading is that Enkidu is dead, and it’s a look at Gilgamesh’s reaction to it. “Oh my god, my friend is dead. Oh my god, I’m going to die as well.” And his real quest to the secret of immortality, I see it as what distinguishes man from beast: your knowledge of your own mortality, and that’s as relevant now as it was then. And I’m looking forward to get my head into that.

Copyright Optimutt, November 2007

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