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This interview is exhaustive and amazing, so I won’t mince words here: Hal Duncan is the author of The Book of All Hours duology, Vellum and Ink. Vellum won the Gaylactic Spectrum Award in 2010, and was also nominated for the Locus Award and the World Fantasy Award. He has published dozens of short stories in venues such as Strange Horizons, Postscripts, Interzone, and Electric Velocipede, and has two collections of poetry released through Papaveria Press. He is also the author of Nowhere Town: A Punk-Ass Musical, which was performed by the University of Chicago theater group.
This month’s issue of Apex Magazine brings you “The Boy Who Loved Death,” an especially dark and disturbing offering from Mr. Duncan. Below, we discuss fictional cubism, wild muses, authorial self-awareness, the depiction of Hollywood violence, and Doctor Who, among much, much more!
If you are accustomed to wearing profanity-blocking glasses, I would advise you to adjust the setting to eleven, and secure them over your eyes in three… two… one…
About “The Boy Who Loved Death”:
Apex Magazine: First, of course, because I always have to ask: What was the initial spark that brought this story to life?
HAL DUNCAN: Back at the end of last year, a band called The Dead Man’s Waltz invited me to collaborate with them and a few artists in other media for a multimedia show on the theme of death in narrative, Story’s End — their music, a short movie (which ended up with me being filmed buck naked on a moor in Skye… in January), art, animation… and some readings from myself. I immediately thought of an existing short, “The Toymaker’s Grief,” and as we thrashed out the structure into three acts — violence, loneliness and resolve — it clicked with me that this story worked as bridge between Acts 2 and 3. The obvious thing then was to pair it with a story bridging Acts 1 and 2, something that conjures violence but has a slingshot into loneliness. So… brutality but with coldness, stillness, emptiness as the quality you really take away from it — that was the remit. And Newtown had just happened.
The connection came pretty much instantly. The moment Newtown happened, I started thinking, I need to write a school shooting story. Except started isn’t the right word. Back past Aurora, it’s been a subject waiting to be addressed for me, because years before Columbine, I was wearing a trench coat to school and planning where the chicken wire would go at neck height to slice the throats of kids running in panic from my guns. For real. I had the journal filled with rants about “pigs” and “vultures,” and the vengeance I’d wreak on them. I carried a blank-firing replica pistol and a Rambo knife with the words “nec spe, nec metu” scratched into the blade: “no hope, no fear.” I fantasised of a deal with Death where he’d do right by me in exchange for souls. I was self-aware enough that I knew it was the compensatory power-fantasy of a pitiful wretch with zero ego, but that was just a reason to take the ego out into the woods and put a bullet in the back of its head, figuratively speaking. Push alienation far enough and there’s a state-shift, a short-circuit in affect. You’re dead inside, the last vestiges of ego dumped in a shallow grave, and the shadow walking in your skin is no longer planning the massacre as revenge but as art.
So, I’d written around this before, but the narcissistic rage at the heart of that mentality makes it a tricky subject. How do you conjure the grandiose sense of glory that’s paradoxically bound to an utter extinction of ego — without it all reading as the stuff of those fantasies? But with yet another fucking shooting… it had to be done. And Story’s End virtually picked me up and stood me at the path into that story, saying, Go. You’ve been fucking around long enough. Just fucking do it.
AM: Despite the fact that the story is almost devoid of explicit blood and gore, it packs an intensely violent punch, which is horrifying perhaps all the more because of the absence. Why did you decide to frame the violence in this particular way?
HD: There’s an incredible poem about Columbine by Simon Armitage, “Killing Time,” which conjures two boys “armed to the teeth with thousands of flowers,” carrying out a rampage in which each murder is translated to the gift of a flower. It’s incredibly powerful. Amanda Palmer also had a song a few years back, “Strength in Music,” where in the live performance the opening monologue was replaced by a spoken word performer simply reciting a list of names and injuries. Again, fuck. I knew it was the effects of those two approaches I wanted to get. As a spoken word piece in the first instance, I wanted it to start in the fairytale mode of its companion, “The Toymaker’s Grief,” but I knew I wanted that quiet to give way to the chilling functionality of the news report, for the sense of detachment to be the real horror.
Action movies, Grand Guignol horror — the more graphic the violence, the more our defences kick in and render it safe by rendering it spectacle. We have mechanisms for handling even ultra-violence, turning it into a thrill, and even if it’s not a cheap thrill, well, even in a chin-stroking appreciation of the artist’s uncompromising rendering of blah blah fucking blah, the end result is a processing of the horror that ultimately returns us to stability. Fuck that shit.
Hence the conceit whereby no killing actually takes place. In place of the Hollywood carnage that the reader knows how to handle, they’re given a scenario in which the boy has no real impact whatsoever. Death doesn’t blast from his fingers in a terrible revenge. He’s not even cursing his victims; their deaths are patently just the variety of endings, in youth or old age, that would befall any selection of folk as their lives run their natural course. So the story refuses you the fantasy as mechanism, the magic as surrogate gun. The only truly fantastic thing in the story — because Death can easily be read as psychotic delusion — is the reaction, the fact that people behave as if utter carnage is being unleashed.
The absence of that carnage becomes the actual driving force of the story, because that’s the wrongness, that’s what doesn’t fit. With any narrative, we can’t help but try to find the logic of it. Narratives that refuse that unsettle us; we want the answer that resolves the illogic, the thing that makes sense of it. And if the only resolution of tension lies in imagining that the boy is somehow — somehow — an agency of Death, the idea is that’s sort of engendering in the reader the driving impetus of the shooter. Sans sympathy. Indirectly. Abstracted from affect. But I think the real horror here is maybe in a liminal recognition of an insistent, undeniable sense that murder is the only solution to that tension in the text. That it’s not even anger or despair driving for that resolution but aesthetics.
At least I think that’s what I was trying to do. The process of finding the conceit, writing the story — the narrative is the articulation of the aim, the end result the best explanation of that aim. I can return to it and try to unpack the how and why, but if the figurative construct wasn’t the best way to articulate it, really, then I’d just write an essay rather than a story.
AM: In your interview with Laurance Gidney over at The New Gay, you talked about the way you “package” stories as you work on them — breaking them down into passages, and from passages into groups, etc., and even titling them as you go. I noticed this was something you also did with “The Boy Who Loved Death.” In only around a thousand words it presents a lot of story, and gives this impression of being just a quick glimpse of a fictional world beyond its borders. Could you talk a little about the way you compose a story like this one? Did you know when you began that you wanted it to be a flash fiction piece? Or did that come about naturally in the writing of it?
HD: I knew that I wanted it to follow the form of “The Toymaker’s Grief” — ten panels of exactly one hundred words each, panels being the way I think of those minimal units. I did this first with “The Disappearance of James H_” and it just worked, so I’ve adopted the approach not so much as flash fiction per se, more as a story form in its own right. Ten by a hundred is just conceptually neat, pure — like the structural constraints of a sonnet. If it’s a tight enough idea— clean-lined enough, simple enough — it’ll come sufficiently crystallised that I know I can bring it in at that length. If a chapter tells an episode and a scene tells an incident, what I’m doing is breaking that down further. A short functionally coherent sequence of actions makes a move. A short functionally coherent sequence of moves makes an exchange. A short functionally coherent sequence of exchanges makes an incident. So a story like this is a story in ten moves, ten panels.
Working like this forces an economy in prose, an ergonomics. There’s no room for slack. And it forces you to mine every moment, write it properly as a move, with the dynamics of such; each panel has to work like a little narrative in its own right — just as a scene or chapter has to. But in a way, setting that constraint on yourself makes it easier. It’s like breaking down a program you need to write into discrete functions. So I can usually sit down and fire through something like this in a single night and in a single draft. Each panel being written with the editing taking place in real time: a sentence comes out, gets tweaked; next sentence comes out, gets tweaked; both get tweaked; repeat till you have the finished panel; move on. I might skip ahead to make notes. I might go back to tweak a word here or there. But each panel is of a size it’s easy to hold in your head. You can tell if it’s right or not, like code or poetry. And parsing narrative into moves like that means you can hold the larger structure in your head. Mostly. As I get above one thousand words, that’s why I have to start chunking panels into passages, grouping moves into exchanges: a structure of sixteen panels would be unwieldy; better to think of it as four exchanges of four moves each. Actually with each move functioning as a narrative beat, as you get a bigger structure, you want a rhythm of bigger beats on top of that anyway, just as in a novel where each chapter works as narrative beat, you want a rhythm of bigger beats at the act level.
AM: The representation of Death in this story is that of a beast with an ape’s body and a wolf’s head. It immediately evokes the feeling of something unpredictable, something primordial and yet horrible. It’s a very distinctive image. Why did you choose to present the character of Death in this way?
HD: Simple answer: Charles Starkweather. One of the interesting things about the killer the movie Badlands was based on, one of the things they leave out of that story, is the fact he had visions, delusions… or psychotic ideation he articulated as such. Starkweather talked about having met Death: Death came to him out in the hills, as a man with the head of a bear, took him down through the golden fires of Hell and offered him a deal — you can see where the story is coming from. The point is, when I read of this, it chimed so wholly with my own teenage ideation, it was instant recognition. Starkweather painted. I wrote. Creativity makes you reach for a figurative way to articulate experience. Maybe he did actually hallucinate, but if you’d put a gun in my hand at age 15 and asked me afterward why I used it, I’d have cast my ideation in exactly those figurative terms: that I’d met Death. Not that it was like I’d met Death. Your fucking banal so-called reality, I’d have said, isn’t half as true as this.
Though I don’t recall having a particular image of Death at the point where I was in that zone, Starkweather’s combination of beast-headed man makes perfect sense to me. It’s Death as a reflection of us, a human agency, but with human nous removed. The bear head is a symbol of that primal animal instinct in place of intellect and empathy. But it doesn’t go far enough; it’s not quite all the way there. That sense of the bestial/human can be carried in the image of the ape body, leaving the head free to push further with, symbolically speaking. So: a skull. Because the skull is stripped of even instinct. No flesh to express affect, no eyes to blink awareness. The human skull is depleted of real horror by overuse as a trope— it’s the stuff of schlocky horror flicks and heavy metal kitsch, Halloween fun — but an animal skull… think Frank in Donnie Darko, or the horse skulled Mari Lwyd of British rituals. We can invest this ossature of living entity with agency, but it’s emptied of everything. It looks back at us not with awareness but with the hollowness of our own oblivion. If you’re conjuring a figuration of Death as agency, that puts it beyond instinct never mind intellect. It’s senseless in all senses of the term.
And that feels more honest to me. It’s not that it’s more horrible — though it is, I think — but that it’s more honest.
About Writing in General:
AM: Does form come before the conception of the story for you? You use a lot of thematic and stylistic layering (I’m thinking here of Vellum and Ink using Sumerian and Greek myths as part of their structural skeletons over which is built the new flesh and blood story). Do you decide on the stylistic structure first when approaching a novel-length work, or does it choose itself more or less during the writing process?
HD: The latter mostly, but it depends on the story. With The Book of All Hours, I set out on a grand structure right at the start — four parts based on the seasons, but starting with Fall instead of Summer, and with Parzival as a planned architecture— but that immediately imploded, and I had to write a whole lot of the material over the subsequent years as individual stories and novellas, interlinked by ideas and characters: unkin, Jack Carter, Jack Flash, the Book. The faerie chapter of Vellum (as it became) marks the point where I turned a corner, saw how a story might be universalised by playing different iterations off against each other — historical/reportage, fantastic and mythological. That was a stepping stone to the Inanna and Dumuzi sequences where I cemented the interwoven approach… and realised the disparate material belonged together. The four-volume architecture returned, where things fitted was fairly clear, and the Prometheus Bound and The Bacchae narratives just sort of announced themselves as what needed to go in this place and that. I think I also started panelling stories with what became the faerie chapter. It was only in bringing the material together that I applied it across the board in the rewriting of existing material or with the new material like the second half of Vellum. So, yeah, that’s very much a matter of the formal structure emerging during the process.
Even with that panelling approach fully developed, it’s a similar story with the novel that’s currently waiting to see the light of day, Testament. As the name might suggest, that’s a détournement of the gospels — all five of them, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and Thomas. The formal structure didn’t come before the writing or emerge through the writing — finding it was the writing, or a large part of it at least. That’s to say, it’s a redaction (with knobs on.) I took the raw texts and shattered them into their episodes, folded the different tellings of each episode into one another, cutting only text that was duplicated, reorganising and tweaking material to render it compatible, translating it linguistically and conceptually, and all the while chopping and changing the location of episodes around in relation to one another to find the formal structure of the story. Ultimately, it ends up in seven parts: Jordan; Capernaum; Tabor; Sychar: Bethany; Gethsemane; Golgotha. And each of those is in 24 passages of 600 words each. But I certainly didn’t sit down and think, I’m going to retell the gospels in 7 x 24 x 600 words.
Sometimes, on the other hand, I’ll lay out the structure fully — or it’s there as is. The Gilgamesh novel I stalled on (which is why you’ve seen nothing substantial from me for fucking years) would have followed the twelve tablet structure of the source material — still will, if I get back to it — and I’d figure out how long each passage in those chapters should be, how many passages I wanted in each chapter. The shamefully mischievous novel I’m working on now is a gay porn sci-fi détournement of Kidnapped; it has the chapter structure set out for it — though I’m letting the word count on each run wild. With the novella I just finished, I blocked that out into exactly the structure I wanted — four acts of nine passages of four panels of 100 words.
AM: What is your research process like? The depth of interwoven historical, mythological, and sociological information that you use in your fiction undoubtedly takes some considerable time to compile. How do you organize yourself, and how do you go about collecting the information you needs? Do you have any particular pattern when it comes to how to gather all the information you need, or does the research flow out of the writing process? If the later, how do you keep it from distracting too much from the writing project itself?
HD: I don’t really do a lot of organised research, to be honest. I have a whack of mythological and historical texts, and what I don’t have isn’t hard to find online, so I’m more likely to be Googling furiously as I write, digging something off a shelf now and then. And while I have a shit memory, I’m a jackdaw who’s collected shiny informational stuff over many years. It might be buried deep and forgotten in the nest, but bits will catch the light now and then. To take Testament, for example, we’re talking decades of being interested in the material, starting as an atheist socialist humanist forced to attend Sunday School as part of the Boys Brigade. Then a martyr/messiah complex in those crazy years, shading into interests in Gnosticism sparked by late PKD — the Exegesis, and so on. So I have a shelf with the full texts of the Dead Sea Scrolls, apocrypha and fringe “scholarly” works that are bunkum but offer some vague grounding in the culture of the era if one takes them as a springboard into the reality. Throw away the ludicrous theories and you still end up with interesting little nuggets like the fact that the Aramaic for lamb and the Hebraic for word are virtual homonyms, or that son of man was actually a common idiom sort of equivalent to everyman. There’s a whole lot of acquired stuff, I mean, that turns out to have been “research” when you start using it.
So as I dove into the writing of that, I had a fair amount of stuff in my head, some stuff on the shelf to grab when needed, but otherwise it was online resources. A website which gives you the original Greek in multiple translations, information on the individual words. You springboard from that to look for the meanings of idioms — oh, look, under the fig tree actually means studying the Torah — what the various Herods actually did, what the history was to this place or that, what Capernaum looked like, what kind of boats they used, diagrams of the Temple, and so on. Rather than distracting from the writing, I tend to find research is an accelerant. It brings things alive, unearths little details like the story of Hillel the Elder who was challenged to explain the Torah while standing on one foot. So Hillel stood on one foot and said this: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn it.” That sort of thing doesn’t suck me away from the novel. Instead, BOOM, suddenly I’m imagining that as a story told to a chuckling child… who’s thinking on it at age twelve when he’s been left behind in the temple and is about to argue with the priests… over the stoning of the adulteress, because the simplicity of Hillel is perfect as the root of a child’s response to moralists, and the action of drawing on the ground before responding is perfect for a child. So that nugget of research generates a linchpin moment right at the start of the narrative grounding “do unto others” wholly in Pharisaic Judaism. The book is very much about restoring the Judaic context, undoing Roman apologism and anti-semitic spin, so the research here was almost like… detective work required to solve a case. Jewish seating arrangements at a supper of the period aren’t a distraction; they’re the answer to who the Beloved Disciple is.
AM: Given the non-linear nature of much of your novel-length work, and the span of time some of those books have taken to complete (I’m thinking specifically of the ten years it took to produce Vellum), do you prefer to work on one project at a time, or do you swap between multiple projects simultaneously? I’m assuming there’s some swapping going on, between novel-length work and short fiction, at least. If that’s the case, given the strength of your character voices, does that ever present difficulties when swapping between projects, in terms of getting back into a character’s head after being away from them?
HD: Short stories I really prefer to just storm through, and most often I can. If I can click into the voice of the narrative, it tends to write itself in some sort of weird channelling thing. But it’s fucking unpredictable. It can dry up, or run into a brick wall, or some outside force can knock me out of it for a few days, and then there can just be no other option than to jump ship. Novels and novellas have been a bit of a bastard over the last few years in that respect. After Ink, I was burned out by the work, and headfucked by the response to Vellum, and managed to create a financial and emotional car-crash in my life — the perfect storm for writer’s block. A novella that was contracted ground into the dust. I jumped to another project — which luckily the publisher preferred — only to find that was a hellish slog to finish. (Ironically, of course, that was “Escape from Hell!”.) The Gilgamesh book ran into a wall right at the start. Other novel ideas emerged, but I just couldn’t keep myself in the zone for any one of them. Short stories? Piece of piss. Anything longer? Not so much.
So working my way out of that has been largely a matter of hopping from short story to short story. I seem to have reverted somewhat to the way I started on The Book of All Hours. Jack and Puck are still recurrent characters, so I can jump into a story with them in any sort of setting or mythos. (Oh, look! Now they’re fairies inside an eye! Now they’re pirates! Now they’re on Mars!) Shit, I’ve written two fucking musicals around the fuckers. Two! And I seem to have developed another mythos — the Scruffians — which has spawned ten interlinked stories now, with more to be told; so my unconscious may well be writing a Scruffians novel by the backdoor. Stories are mostly done in a single burst though. Between them… I spent a long time diving into bigger projects now and then to try and build up… not stamina, but the ability to engage at the depth necessary for a novel, to be able to burrow down into it and not let anything knock you out. I shit you not, I was so fucking glad when I found myself storming through Testament. Actually being able to stay the course for a novel! Finally! Thank fuck!
It seems my muse just has no fucking discipline at all half the time. It’s even weird and unpredictable as to whether or not it’s difficult to get back into a voice. With the Scruffians, I moved on to other things for a while, came back to some story ideas recently and just clicked back into the recurrent narrator’s voice. Two short stories came flying out, followed by a novella. On the other hand, I have a sequel story to “Sic Him, Hellhound! Kill! Kill!” where I clicked straight back into the character’s voice when I started it, got knocked out of it and haven’t yet been able to get back in. So I don’t even know any more. Sometimes it seems like the strength of the character’s voice makes it piss easy to get back into something. Other times… it’s not like it’s other voices from other projects interfering. It’s more like I have to be in the right headspace for that voice, for that story. Like I have to be the werewolf to write the werewolf, and if I’m not feeling the fierce fun vibe, I’m fucked. I had to take a break from the novel I’m working on now — the Scruffians novella came with a deadline and an advance — so I fucking better be fucking able to get back into it. Or I swear to Cock, there will be muse blood on my hands.
AM: Your most recent book is a collection, Errata, brings together four stories set in The Book of All Hours world. Could you tell us a little more about the collection and the stories included?
HD: The first abortive attempt at The Book of All Hours all those years ago left me with a lot of material exploring this city at the end of everything which is sort of touched on in Vellum. As Vellum and Ink came together towards the end, I revisited it with a view to integrating it, and thrashed it out, with a whole lot of rewriting, into four stories: “The City of Rotted Names”; “The Prince of End Times”; “The Whenever at the City’s Heart”; “The Tower of Morning’s Bones”. CoRN, PoET, WatCH, ToMB. Ultimately though, I decided they didn’t belong with those works, that this was a sequence in its own right. It might sort of sit around the diptych, as a frame. There’s a part of me now thinking that the Gilgamesh book would be a centrepiece, with Vellum sitting between CoRN and PoET, Ink between WatCH and ToMB, that there’s a missing piece to be fitted into place. Another part of me is telling that part to shut the fuck up, the last thing we need is an even bigger structure to try and keep in this tiny noggin.
Anyway, I ended up selling three of the stories to various anthologies, releasing the fourth online for a limited period as an experiment in direct sales (and a way to solve a cash crisis, to be brutally honest.) As a cycle though, I thought they really belonged together, and I wanted to have a go at self-publishing — not as an ebook, but via Lulu, as a physical chapbook. I wanted to see if I could put them together into a professional-looking package, if I had the chops for the design and typesetting. I got a great deal on a cover from Cat Ingall, (an artist involved in Story’s End,) and she did an amazing job. That cover is done with a single piece of A3 and a scalpel. Photoshop was used afterwards, to apply textures and stuff, but it’s all a single paper-cut; and I’m well chuffed with it. I’m pretty proud of the interior too. The stories themselves are hard to describe. They’re fractured, cubist like Vellum and Ink, but more boldly fantastical, lusher in the language too. The influence of James Joyce may well show through in some of the wordplay. They’re on Amazon, so rather than describe them, I’d suggest just using the Look Inside function. You’ll be able to tell from the first page, I suspect, whether you love it or loathe it.
AM: In your interview with Writer Unboxed some time ago, you mentioned in passing the age-old adage to beginning writers about “perseverance” and I absolutely loved your response: “[…]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?” (Writer Unboxed interview, 2006) This seemed to underline that writing for you is something you would do regardless of publication or acclaim, but are drawn to for other reasons. So, if this isn’t too personal: Why do you write? What is the spur that makes you compose short stories, novels, and poetry? Perhaps the real question is: what does writing a story down do for you? Why do you do it?
HD: Why do I do it? Why the fuck not? Why do people stop inventing narratives? When, you’re a kid, I mean, you play make-believe in whatever form. It’s not an “escape.” There’s no motive to it other than the sheer fucking fun of pretending to be Luke Skywalker or Flash Gordon, inventing an adventure for yourself and your mates. I never understood the kids at school who hated compositions, as we called it, when you got given a phrase or something and asked to write a story around it. I fucking loved that shit. I remember the story I wrote about a gladiator getting killed in the Coliseum, which opened and closed with the same line “We who are about to die salute you.” (Symmetry, motherfucker! In your face!) Or when they gave us an unutterably shit task of writing about our hobby, what we liked to do in our spare time, so I waxed lyrical about my hobby of watching paint dry because fuck you if you’re going to be this fucking banal. Or when we were studying James Thurber, and the teacher had us all write a story in his style, then after we handed them in, next day, he tells us he’s got another Thurber story he wants to read, and one sentence into it, I realise he’s faking them out with my fucking story. Mr Olufson, bless him. He’s one reason I don’t not write, one reason I just didn’t stop.
It’s like a sport. Most boys play football or whatever, I guess, for the fun of it. Some just don’t stop. The more they play, the better they get. It’s more exercising to play than to spectate, but it’s hugely rewarding. Narrative like any game is based on conflict, and working through that conflict is stimulating, and resolving it is satisfying. I guess in writing you can have the equivalent of being soundly thrashed, but it’s worth it.
And with an art, there’s more to it than there is with sport. The better you get at writing, the more it becomes not just an enjoyable game, but a mode of thinking. All narrative is figurative. By rendering actions, moves, exchanges, incidents, episodes, stories, narrative creates a model of a potential scenario playing through. That’s often abstractable and reapplicable to other scenarios; the more it is, the more we talk about that fiction exploring the human condition. Writing such work is essentially thinking, with your fingers and whatever’s at the end of them — pen and paper, typewriter, laptop — as an extension of your mind, creating a persistent model you can fuck around with, and one that often makes sense in a way you could never articulate with a wittering monologue in your head that can’t possibly sustain coherence for the number of hours required to think even to the complexity of articulation in a novella. You make sense of things physically in that written articulation, and you read it back, and you realise what you’ve made sense of. Or sometimes you don’t. That’s what I mean above about “The Boy Who Loved Death.” That is, in and of itself, an articulation that strives to make sense of everything that went into writing it. Those words on the page make more sense of that stuff than I can in non-figurative discourse. I read it back and it makes sense, but I can’t even really do it justice, can’t fully explain the how and why. That is the explanation.
AM: You’ve spoken in past interviews about the importance of an author’s self-awareness in being successful as a writer. Did you find that — for you, in your experience — your self-awareness of the subjects and aesthetics you are drawn to was something you had to develop through the process of creating a lot of written work, or did you always know rather clearly what you believed and valued and found stylistically pleasing, and that your writing came organically from that?
HD: Without knowing which particular responses you’ve got in mind, my kneejerk feeling is that… well, usually when I talk about the importance of self-awareness it’s less about subjects and aesthetics, more about recognition of one’s own drives and delusions. And usually, it’s more about bad writing going hand-in-hand with the lack thereof — I mean the profound lack thereof.
It’s not about having a conscious aesthetic agenda and/or a strong will by which you deliberately choose your subjects by an act of will. I think casting that as a crucial factor in the creation of good art would be presumptuous verging on prescriptive. Plenty of good writing comes from writers being explorative, experimental, discovering the subjects and aesthetics through their work. Agendas can differ radically from work to work because beliefs and values can be diverse, even contradictory, in tension with one another. Hell, I’d say that’s true of myself. If you were to abstract the Scruffians stories and the Errata sequence to aesthetics, you might well consider them wholly incompatible. One is instant accessible fun, the other poncy as fuck literary cubism. I’m sure I could analyse what I’m doing in each and draw out commonalities, but ultimately that’s not what I mean by the importance of self-awareness. Or I don’t think it’s what I would have meant. It’s possible I’ve just forgotten what I was thinking and/or moved on in a flagrant disregard of consistency.
No, I think more likely I just meant that it’s easy for a fantasist to throw up self-serving smokescreens and squidink. And the more you shroud your own gnarly dynamics in self-validating flim-flam — whether it’s going to a critique group for mutual masturbation instead of actual critique, or blindly defending your entitlement out of clueless cuntfucker’s privilege — the less you interrogate yourself, the less you interrogate your readings of others, the less you understand human beings in fucking general, and the less capable you are of writing a decent fucking story for that reason. Notorious Amazon meltdowns might indicate that cash success is not out of the question, but that’s not creative success. And really, even with cash success… if your cover letter screams VALIDATE MAH SENS OV GENIUS!!!, you’re getting fucking nowhere.
AM: You offer a lot of free-to-read fiction and poetry on your website, and you’ve mentioned that you’re just as interested in potential readers figuring out if they might dislike your fiction before they buy your books as you are in them figuring out if they might like it. There’s been a lot of discussion within the SF/F online community in the past few years regarding the free distribution of fiction online, with some very vocally for and some very much against (the later often using arguments of copyright and the ability to make a living off their work). My question here is two-fold: First, What would you argue to those who are dead-set against authors sharing their work online? What has been your experience in regards to giving readers a taste for your work before they purchase?
HD: To the first question: I wouldn’t bother arguing, to be honest. They can do what they want with their own work. If they don’t want to put it out online, that’s up to them; I have no interest in persuading them. If they don’t want me to put my work online, I still wouldn’t bother arguing. It’s none of their fucking business. I’m under no obligation to justify myself to some presumptuous motherfucker with a bee in their bonnet about how those of us busking on street corners — for everyone to hear! — will undercut and bankrupt all the gig venues. End of story. They’d be arguing with the wrong person anyway; I’m hardly a proselytiser about this.
Which feeds into the second question: I don’t really know how much any of the free stuff translates to sales. I’ve no idea how many people click through from links on the blog to stories in various webzines. I haven’t even kept much of an eye on downloads, to be honest — most of which are… well, idiosyncratic. Like, the downloads include the libretto for Sodom! The Musical! (a musical based on a Restoration farce), the screenplay for Whatever the Fuck You Want (a high school movie based on As You Like It with Rosalind gender-flipped), and a cut-up and fold-in of the Book of Revelation (The original says anyone who adds a word to it or takes a word away will be damned. Doesn’t say anything about changing the order.) Really, there’s only one proper story there that was released for free, a novella called “Die! Vampire! Die!” That was put out way back in a cursory experiment to see if anything came of a “donate if you enjoyed” message at the end. Nothing much did, as I recall.
The Scruffians Project was more successful, but there the only taster upfront — initially, at least — was the opening of the first story up for sale, which is no more than the equivalent of the Look Inside function on Amazon. I invited Paypal donations of whatever amounts people felt like, and if that tallied up to a target of two thirds SFWA pro rates I would post it up for free download to everyone. If and when it did, if people who could then download it for free donated regardless, and it reached a secondary target of full pro rates, then I’d repeat the process with a second story. It rolled on for four or five stories, with one of them being pretty lengthy, so it did the job — allowed me to eat — but the drop-off in donations after the stories went free was a distinct contrast to continuing downloads, and ultimately the last story didn’t reach its first target. Since then… I linked to that page recently on Twitter cause I was thinking of trying some of this storybusking (as I call it) again, and got another couple of donations, but there hadn’t been a hint of action until then. So if anyone is checking them out for a taster, that’s not translating to sales. But then I’ve never had massive blog traffic. I suspect with a larger following, a model like that might have hit the critical mass to sustain it. I will say though, the most successful direct distribution experiment was with “The City of Rotted Names,” which was busked for whatever you wanted to give, an extra story thrown in for anyone donating a tenner or above, and only available over one weekend. There was one massive donation from a total stranger, but even leaving that out of the equation, the total was a good solid sum.
But this is sliding away from the question regards tasters. I guess the point is, I like direct distribution models, and I see no distinction between posting a Scruffians story that’s hit its target and publishing in an online magazine that pays — well, except you get more coverage with the latter — but my personal experience doesn’t indicate that simply giving a full story away generates sales.
AM: Part two of that question: For those just starting out in the business of writing, what’s your perspective on the odds of an author of today making a living at writing? In the past, that’s been a major marker of writing “success,” but is that a reasonable or even desirable goal these days?
HD: I have no idea. I’m so broke it’s ridiculous, neck-deep in debt and scraping by on charity and odd payments here and there, earning a bit of spare cash from manuscript critiques now and then, ignoring shit that will inevitably bite me in the ass cause frankly there’s fuck all I can do about it right now. Put it this way: every so often I wish I had just enough money to fake my own death and run away to Mexico. (I’d join a mariachi band! They’d call me Don Loco!) I can’t begin to describe how far away from properly making a living at it I am.
But then, a fair degree of my current financial fuckedupness did come by way of aforementioned perfect storm of writer’s block. I did fuck up my taxes, take a high maintenance boyfriend on a holiday that nearly bankrupted me when the shit hit the fan, and destroy my ability to write a fucking novel with second album syndrome and relationship meltdown. Yay! The point is, my perspective is hardly representative. I’m really not a good benchmark on the odds of your average writer making a living. Vellum and Ink being kind of cult novels, clearly there’s still word of mouth generating sales, and that in turn generates lots of opportunities here and there, but that’s not your average debut novelist’s story, I’d hazard. Meanwhile, on the other side of it, I’m not exactly churning out a novel a year. And when I finally get a novel written, what sort of novel is it? Is it a nice commercial novel that will earn me a nice advance to pay the motherfucking mortgage? Noooooo, that would be far too sensible! So what the fuck do I know about the odds of making a living? Would you hit your agent with an anarcho-socialist atheist humanist détournement of the gospels, in seven chapters of 24 passages of exactly (no more, no less) 600 words each? No? Then you might be in with a shout. Fucked if I know, mate.
AM: You also do some visual artwork (I’m thinking here of the Cities of Flesh series, which you have collected on your blog). These images are also collages — not dissimilar to Vellum or Ink in structure, though the medium obviously differs. Is this something you work on regularly, or is it more on-the-whim? Do you practice any other kinds of art?
HD: End of last year, I think, I picked up the oil paints for the first time in forever. I needed something to break up a bedroom wall, and I had the paints, a couple of panels salvaged from furniture and some gesso primer, so I did a wee diptych of slightly abstracted still lives, a combo of apple and pear. (Guy Davenport traces the juxtaposition back to Antiquity. More modernist restoration of the archaic then.) But visual art is a rarity these days. I could do a fair portrait in pencil back when I was a teen, but I doubt I could pull it off now. I’m a sporadic songwriter though. Which is somewhat frustrating, because I can’t play a single instrument and can’t hold a fucking note to save myself… unless maybe it’s in the key of Bad Tom Waits Impersonation. I can’t write sheet music either, of course. Essentially, I have no fucking capacity whatsoever to communicate music, and yet my muse — my fucking wayward fucking twisted little bastard of a muse — will happily plant songs in my head. And when I say songs, I mean virtually fully orchestrated ensemble musical numbers where characters will sing harmonising refrains across and under each other, building up to a big finish of a sort of round — like “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” you know? I mean one voice starts with their refrain, a second comes in with a different, a third comes in, the fourth comes in, the backing trio comes in, each with their own refrain, then one by one, they switch so they’re all singing the same refrain like some fucking massed chorus in Les Fucking Miserables. Seriously. This is “The Battle of Jack’s Love,” one of the numbers in Nowhere Town (my gay punk Orpheus musical,) and it came to me in my head. With not an iota of the skills required to communicate it.
I’ve found the wonders of Garageband to be a solution to that problem. Using the Apple loops, chopping them about, building up layers of tracks to build the melody between, I found I could construct the music. I still can’t sing for shit, but with Nowhere Town, some students in Chicago actually found the book and tunes I’d posted, actually sold their theatre group on staging it, so I ended up roping in a few friends for a convoluted (and agonising for them) process whereby I laid down a godawful attempt at the vocals and they tried to translate that into the actual melodies. Ultimately we ended up with mp3s the theatre kids could use to learn how the words fitted to the tunes. I went over for the show, and it was fucking fantastic. Obviously I’m biased, but that’s the annoying thing: I do think I can write a pretty good song. My muse is generous in bestowing upon me catchy melodies with driving beats, that I’m sure could sound fucking amazing if performed properly. I however lack even the basic co-ordination required to play a fucking recorder and am actively painful to listen to. It doesn’t stop me trying though. If a song comes, I’ll try and build it in Garageband and lay down an approximation of the vocals, chuck it up on SoundCloud. Why the fuck not?
AM: Fandom question! Your essay, “The Doctor: A Strange Love, Or: How I Learned to Stop Hating and Love the Who” (awesome title, by the way!) is included in Queers Dig Time Lords: A Celebration of Doctor Who by the LGBTQ Fans Who Love It. Without wanting to give too much away about what sounds like quite a personal fandom struggle, do you have a favorite Doctor, and if so, why? Is there any particular individual you’d like to see as the new Doctor in future series?
HD: Matt Smith nailed it for me. Tom Baker was my Doctor as a kid, and he was definitely cool, but I was never massively invested, and those are fuzzy memories. I watched a good whack of the Troughton and Pertwee reruns they showed at one point, and Peter Davison was OK when he took over, but I was never a huge fan, to be honest, and by the time the original stuff ended I thought it was fucking abysmal. I was cringing during The Hobbit before I even realised the puerile buffoonery I was cringing at was Sylvester McCoy’s; it was like some sort of fucking Pavlovian conditioned response of hate. So I wasn’t excited at its return, didn’t watch more than a few episodes here and there, and wasn’t terribly impressed… until the Matt Smith run. I think he has an ungainly awkwardness that fits the role, and the charisma of a classic slightly-odd character actor; Eccleston lacked that for all his acting chops and David Tennant… too cool, too good-looking. To be honest, I think they were casting for the wrong kind(s) of credibility until Smith.
I like their choice of Peter Capaldi for the new Doctor. Malcolm Tucker FTW! I want to see him dispatching villains with a “Fuckety bye!” Who should take over after Capaldi? I’m happy for her to be relatively unknown.
AM: What are you currently working on, and what can we look forward to seeing from you in the next couple of years?
HD: Hopefully Testament will see the light of day at some point. I’m “in talks” with a small press, as they say. We’ll see. It’s an outré book. There’s not just the redaction of the gospel narrative as described above. It has a framing narrative woven through: of an editor who’s (re)constructing the material and expanding on it, fleshing out scenes with context — e.g. conjuring Capernaum — but shifting the context as the novel progresses — e.g. conjuring Capernaum as 1970s Hebridean fishing village. So, more multiversal shenanigans going on, though all within real world history this time. And, without giving too much away, despite doing this in the present, the editor is an insider, a character in the gospel narrative itself— actually multiple characters. There’s a thesis at the heart of it about how some of the background characters click together, a distinct spin. You could say a radical spin, but I’m not the first to punt it, and actually I’d argue that the action of the last supper only works if you take this as an assumption. I mean, events can only play out in the way they’re described if this holds true. Anyway, I have faith in the book, but it’s not exactly the best material to be trying to flog in the middle of a recession.
Other things: My co-editor, Chris Kelso, and I are just putting the final touches to an anthology, Caledonia Dreamin’: Strange Fiction of Scottish Descent. It’s an anthology of fiction inspired by words of Scottish dialect — maukit, thrawn, clarty. We tasked writers to take a word and build a story around it, springboard off it, go wherever they wanted. The idea is to bust these great words out of the ghetto, not to see them as quaint little proletarian parochialisms, but to show how they belong in the 21st century and in the wider world. We didn’t want it to be just by Scots for Scots, so we opened it up to anyone with even the loosest connection. We’ve got a great ToC, I think, a really solid set of stories from writers as far afield as Australia. I’m well chuffed with the result. There’s also a short story collection coming out from Lethe Press: Scruffians. That’s contracted and in progress, but we still have to thrash out the exact content, so there’s no release date scheduled. The novella I mentioned earlier… there should be a contract arriving soon for that, fingers crossed.
What I’m working on at the moment is, as I like to refer to it, Teh Big Gay Porn Sci-Fi Kidnapped. I made a joke on Twitter a while back that if I was ever going to do one of those Pride and Prejudice and Zombies mash-ups, I’d just take Kidnapped and insert lots of gay porn in it. Of course, then I got to thinking about how easy it would be to translate sea travel to space travel, and how I already had this terraformed far future Mars setting, where Phobos has been shattered to an orbital ring with arkworlds scattered through it, how Mars and “the fob” would map to Lowlands and Highlands Scotland, how the singularitarian Earth-based “geister” culture (persona maps of the dead uploaded to machine gestalt AIs, downloaded into android drones) could become the English, and so on. With other aspects of the Mars scenario extrapolating social media and DIY porn to a zero privacy / zero shame culture, actually there’d be a real reason to the sex — it would be graphic but not gratuitous. Long story short, it clicked, and I’m now just under a quarter way through. The pitch line: Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped as a Heinlein juvenile, sexed up — both literally and linguistically — by Samuel R. Delany circa 1970.
Will it sell? Fucked if I know. I’m waiting to hear back from my agent after sending through a pitch and proposal a few months back. But bollocks to it. I’m writing it anyway. If the buttsex is too risqué for the marketing men, fuck em. My muse may be one twisted fucking capricious fucking bastard of an asshatted wiseass who clearly exists only to fuck with me, but if push comes to shove I’ll back her up.
AM: Thank you so much, Mr. Duncan, for giving us a glimpse into your writing life and for sharing “The Boy Who Loved Death” with us here at Apex!