Hal Duncan in His Own (Ten Thousand) Words – Interview
In the course of my time as book reviewer/author interviewer I’ve (publicly) traded most words with Hal Duncan and this combo post of the three interviews is my proof lol.
I thought we covered just about everything in these 10000 words where we talk about his novels like Vellum, Ink, and Escape From Hell!, and touch on a ton of topics on science fiction, fantasy, and genre in general, but I was wrong because he went on to do these crazy must read columns for us.
Like many writers during this time (the first interview is circa 2005) I was introduced to him/his work via Jeff VanderMeer who was a go-to source at the time for upcoming or even forgotten writers.
At the time I liked Jeff very much too, guy was always open to share his thoughts and had a lot of them and I was so happy to go see Annihilation this year, which even though it varied greatly from his book, I had a blast.
I haven’t talked to Hal in a long time but he was always super solid, always funny, always had lengthy answers and I hope you enjoy our chats below.
This week I have the author of a major release, marking the debut of a new voice in speculative fiction. Vellum will be kicked off with the up coming World Con weekend, the first installment in a duology named The Book of All Hours, whose sequel Ink will be released next year. I have had the privilege to read Vellum already, and can only give it my highest possible recommendation.
Hal and I talk about Vellum, Ink, Samuel Delany, his future projects, and compare Mervyn Peake’s prose to Gin. Check out part II of this interview afterwards!
Jay — In August your first novel Vellum is due to be released. Tell us what readers should expect from a novel that the distinguished Jeff VanderMeer said of “ it’s one of the most assured first novels of the decade, and it’s a novel many writers beginning their tenth novel would kill to have written”, and a release that Macmillan is pubbing this as going to have a similar impact as Ian M. Bank’s The Wasp Factory.
Hal Duncan — I’d rather hope for readers to come to Vellum without too many expectations; the higher the expectations, the more risk that the book won’t live up to them. What readers shouldn’t expect is a big cotton-candy heroic adventure story; there’s the odd exploding airship and a few ancient powers unleashed, but the parts I’m proudest of — and the most important parts of the story — are the very low-key, intimate moments where it’s about human beings struggling to just get by rather than saving the world against the forces of evil.
In terms of subject-matter I guess I’m in the same territory as Neil Gaiman or Philip Pullman, what with the epic backdrop of the War In Heaven, but I wanted to give a very human perspective, to do a sort of fantastic Dr Zhivago. Also I’m taking a more experimental approach, with a Michael Moorcock-style multiverse and the sort of layered narratives you get in, say, Jeff VanderMeer’s own City of Saints and Madmen or Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves.
What I wanted to give the reader was something that will involve you on a very human level with the stories of the characters, but which you can also really get your teeth into, if you like that sort of thing.
Jay — I read this is only the first part of a two novel sequence dubbed The Book of All Hours, and the second novel is titled Ink. Are these 2 individual novels in the same setting or will Ink be a traditional direct continuance of Vellum?
Hal Duncan — Ink is a sequel, but it’s the subsidiary characters of Vellum who take centre stage, so it’s a bit of a shift in perspective rather than a direct continuation of the main narrative of Vellum. In the same way that Vellum’s two volumes tell individual stories, that of Phreedom and Thomas Messenger in one, Seamus Finnan in the other, but build up into a wider narrative, Ink breaks down into two volumes — Hinter’s Knights and Eastern Mourning; but it also closes off the wider story arc of ‘The Book Of All Hours’ that is opened up in Vellum.
Jay — I read on the Nightshade board that you plan on following The Book of All Hours with a series of individual works in the same setting, will these be full length novels or collections of shorts?
Hal Duncan — I’ve got about five ideas so far for full length novels I’m planning for a series called Folds, using the 3D time idea of the Vellum as a backdrop. There’ll be points of convergence and overlap, with some of the alternative histories and fantastic realities of ‘The Book Of All Hours’ expanded upon and investigated, but I should probably make it clear that the connections will be very loose and the “worlds” will all be quite different — different “folds” of the multiversal Vellum.
They’ll be linked more by the shared metaphysics than by a shared mythos; there’s no big monoculture common to the books. That said, there is an “alternative Faerie” world that appears in Vellum, that I’ve already returned to in a couple of short stories, and that I want to explore further. There’s scope for a novel, I think, but I can see it working better as a collection of shorts, like Delany’s Neveryon series. I’ll see how it develops though.
Jay — Is there anything your working on currently outside the The Book of All Hours we should be expecting in the future?
Hal Duncan — I have a few short stories popping up in various places — Electric Velocipede, Strange Horizons, and the Nova Scotia anthology that will be out at WorldCon — but right now I’m busy finishing ‘Ink’.
Although I am also constantly planning what comes next, scribbling out synopses and story notes or throwing ideas back and forth with the guys from the GSFWC (Glasgow SF Writer’s Circle). As soon as Ink is done, I’ll be starting properly on a novel provisionally titled ‘Wild One’.
It’s a retelling of the Gilgamesh epic with the story taking place across three threads — a fantastic one of mythic gods and heroes, a historic thread set in pilgrim America, and a near future one partly set in and around furry fandom.
That probably sounds a bit bonkers but I’ve always seen the death of Gilgamesh’s fur-covered “wild man” friend, Enkidu, as the symbolic crux of the story, a great starting point for investigating the dualities we set up between human and animal, “primitive” and “civilised”, pagan totemism and organised religion.
Jay — If I am not mistaken, this is your first work and The Book of All Hours seems grand in concept and in scope from the plans you have discussed for it regarding multiple book and spin-offs. To what or whom do you give credit for the inspiration behind the work, and your choice of writing as a whole?
Hal Duncan — Samuel Delany, first and foremost, I’d have to say. I think he’s the writer who’s probably most inspired and influenced me over all, from first reading Nova and Babel-17 as a kid, through the breath-taking ambition of Dhalgren, right up to the Neveryon series, which were unlike anything I’d ever read.
In The Tale of Plagues and Cities, the way he shatters the fantasy story and patches it back together with journal entries from real-world New York during the AIDS-epidemic of the ’80s — that just made me realise how powerful fantastic fiction can be if you’re willing to push the boundaries out, forget the conventional wisdom and go for broke.
I’ve always loved the most ambitious writers, the sheer insane audacity of those like James Joyce or William Burroughs who are willing to experiment with the text, pull it apart and recombine it, but it was Delany who hooked me first with the sensual elegance of his sentences, who really sparked my interest in writing rather than just reading.
I also have to give credit to the GSFWC — and in particular, Duncan Lunan, the key founder of the Circle. When I started going along to the weekly critique sessions I was still only vaguely interested in the idea of writing; I think one of the most valuable things I got over the years, along with the actual feedback on Vellum and Ink, was simply support in the idea that you can treat this writing malarkey as a “hobby” or you can treat it as a craft, accept the fact that you’ve been bitten by the bug and take a professional attitude to the whole thing.
If I hadn’t gone along to the Circle and started hanging out with a bunch of people all quite seriously aiming at publication, I’m not sure if my creative drive might just have fizzled out, if I would have learned the sense of discipline and direction you need to write a 180,000 word novel and make it good. I’m a total butterfly when it comes to my interests, terribly undisciplined by nature, and the workshopping process really, I think, not only fanned the flames but helped me learn to focus that energy, think of it as a craft, a career.
Jay — To step away from the genre talk for a moment. you seem to have a profound knowledge of quality drinks. What is more appealing, a good book or a good drink?
Hal Duncan — Oh, that’s a cruel question.
How can I choose? What’s more intoxicating? The crystalline clarity of a dry gin martini, or the dark complexity of Mervyn Peake’s prose? The rich, velvety fortitude of a glass of port with a Guinness chaser, or the shimmering, airy artifices of a Jeffrey Ford story? The bitter after-taste of a La Fee absinthe, or of an Aeschylus tragedy?
I do love my alcohol, I admit — and my local, Stravaigin, makes the best Bloody Mary you’ll ever taste, not to mention their White Russians — but in the end I have to say that books win out, because a good book makes you think where a good drink will just make you talk. Besides, a book’s effects last longer and you don’t need a bottle of Irn Bru and a couple of Anadin Extra the morning after. Although, Guinness is good for you, so they say.
Jay — What authors, current or otherwise would you recommend to the readers?
Hal Duncan — As well as everyone already mentioned above, and of course my fellow GSFWC writers (Gary Gibson and Mike Cobley are both up for BFS awards and Harvey Raines and Neil Williamson are names to watch out for in the future) there’s so many must-reads in the field or outside — Peter Ackroyd, Ray Bradbury, Italo Calvino, Philip K Dick — that I could probably do a full A-to-Z of authors, so I’ll just pick out a couple of my favourite less well-known writers — Edward Whittemore, whose Jerusalem Quartet is a wonderful, sprawling fabulation on the theme of friendship and sorrow, and Guy Davenport, whose short stories are like elegant essays in their erudition.
At the moment I’m reading Tamar Yellin’s The Genizah at the House of Shepher which I’d recommend even from just the early chapters. Another Jeff VanderMeer recommendation, actually.
Jay — That’s exactly why I bought Yellin’s book myself. Definitely a strong debut. Mr. VanderMeer led me to both that work and Whittrmore by various reviews he did of both authors.
Everyone make sure to be on the look out for it what is already one of the most highly anticipated debuts in speculative fiction this year. Good luck with The Book of All Hours and I hope you come back and join us at a later date.
Hal Duncan — Many thanks for giving me the opportunity
Interview #2 is below:
Jay – Vellum was just released in the U.S., published by Del-Rey. I made you do this last year, but can you tell our friends across the Atlantic what you’re dealing with Vellum?
Hal Duncan- Ok,Vellum is underpinned by this sort of grand theory of mythic history: there’s the Vellum itself, a sort of Moorcockian which can be reprogrammed — graved — using a language called the Cant; if you can speak this tongue you can change reality, you can change yourself, and that’s what the gods and monsters of myth — the unkin, as I call them — have done.
In the distant past, one group of unkin set up the Covenant; they see themselves as angels, a Heavenly Host, out to stop all these ousted gods of yore who want their glory days back, and now they’re gearing up for one last great war.
The problem is, those Covenant angels are willing to use rape and torture, any means necessary, to achieve their aims, so they’re really no better than the power-hungry maniacs they’re fighting.
The heroes are a few newblood unkin who decide they don’t want any part in this war: Seamus Finnan, an Irish angel hiding out in the desert; Phreedom Messenger, a trailer-park biker chick trying to scheme her way out of conscription; Thomas Messenger, her gay brother who’s trying to disappear into the Vellum where he’ll never be found; Jack Carter, a Covenant spear-carrier sent to kill Thomas but in love with him.
Vellum is largely about how these four characters get locked into a transtemporal story of love and betrayal, revenge and redemption, and the way that changes the whole balance of power.
Those personal stories are framed within the larger story arc of the Book of All Hours, an ancient tome in which the Covenant scribe, Metatron, graved the destiny of the Vellum itself, set it down for all time. At the start of the novel the Book has been stolen by a thief, Reynard Carter, who then sets off into the Vellum, using the Book as a guide.
That framing narrative is mostly limited to little “eratta” sections between chapters, though. Vellum focuses on Finnan and Phreedom, with Thomas and Jack sort of bubbling away under the surface.
Jay – When asked about your work, I tell people to think Moorcockian Multiverse and hints of Gaiman’s Dreaming to give a general idea, thinking that the Multiverse is a cornerstone SF quantity, and a universally known and understood analogy. However, I have been shocked how many alleged fan are not aware of the Multiverse. With that in mind — what is the vellum?
Hal Duncan- Think of reality as having three temporal dimensions. There’s frontal time — the way we live our lives, with future and past as forward and back. There’s lateral time — the parallel worlds to the “left” and “right” of ours, alternate histories where events took other paths.
And there’s residual time — where if you dig “down” beneath our world you find archeological strata of more primitive realms with cruder metaphysics in placeof our logical and consistent universe of scientific priniciples.
If you want a comparison, think of it as how shared stories like myths work. You have a story like that of the Greek god, Dionysus and his run-in with King Pentheus. Euripedes gives us one version of this in his play The Bacchae.
It has a beginning, a middle and an end — one temporal dimension, the frontal. But another playwright might tell the story slightly differently, because in the city-state he’s from, this character did something else here, that character did something else there. Most Greek myths have multiple versions like this, as you can see if you read, say, Robert Graves. Is any one of them right?
No. You have to look at the story as a whole and say, OK, it has another temporal dimension — the lateral dimension. But there’s also the fact that Euripedes’s telling was a retelling of the story as he heard it from a storyteller who heard it from someone else who heard it from someone else and so on, down and down through the third dimension — I call it residual because the story sort of builds up in layer upon layer, the original palimpsested by the versions laid down on top of it.
So what is the story of Dionysus and Pentheus? Is it the straight line of The Bacchae? The wide field of alternative versions? Or this solid shape which has not just length, but breadth and depth as well. If you can see that as a metaphor for time, then you understand the Vellum.
Your story, your personal history, isn’t just this short thin line from cradle to grave. It’s also all the other versions, the ones to this side or that who did things slightly differently, and the ones before or beneath, who did the same thing, whose story you’re replaying, building upon. The Vellum is the media the 3D timespace in which that wider, deeper story takes place.
Jay – You have stated this novel started as a series of short stories, and Vellum being a novel of several POV characters who themselves have several threads throughout time and the Vellum itself. What was your favorite character and/or manifestation to write and why?
Hal Duncan- It’s a hard call. I loved writing Seamus for his voice, as I said above, but it’s so much fun writing Jack Flash, just letting him rip free and blow shit up, trying to see just how absurd you can make it and still pull it back at the last minute.
The only problem with Jack is that, to get at the other side of him, the uptight soldier-boy, Jack Carter, it’s a real strain. He’s sort of on or off, a total loose cannon or completely buttoned-up — and when it’s the latter it can be very difficult to actually make a connection with what’s going on under the surface, which you need to do for the sake of the story.
He’s much harder to write in that respect than someone like Seamus who just opens up completely. Seamus, on the other hand, just undergoes so much shit in his life that, while the moments of fire and fury give you a pay-off of excitement in the writing, while some of the moments of highest drama in the book were solidly his, there’s not the same sense of playfulness in writing his sections.
So I think the character that probably gives the best balance of those two is Thomas. As Puck he’s just a hoot to write, a flighty fairy in all senses of the word who’s just a great vehicle for comedy.
He’s a mischief-maker like Jack, but where Jack is a rampage, Puck is a romp, the kind of person who’d take your ancient mystical artefact and make paper aeroplanes from its pages. You can have a great time chucking Puck together with a character who has a Very Important Task to perform. And at the same time, as Thomas, you can take that same character and turn comedy into tragedy. Under the sexy sprite is the shy sensitive poet. Put him in the trenches of WW1, or in a reality of prejudice and bigotry, and you’ve got an door into the horrors of the 20th Century, a young soldier cowering in a dug-out, a Matthew Shepard crucified on a split-rail fence.
Jay – When we communicated last year, your first novel Vellum was about to be released in the UK. It’s a book that has garnered strong opinions and I was wondering as the author what kind of reaction have you received from fans and peers, and did it equal your expectations?
Hal Duncan- I always thought it would be a “love it or loathe it” book, and that’s generally how readers have reacted — at one of those two extremes. The Amazon UK reviews illustrate that at its best: one star reviews by people who didn’t make it past page 100, side-by-side with five star reviews praising it to the high heavens.
Much of the negative reaction seems to have been the animosity of people who read for plot, for an immersive narrative that goes from A to B to C; the whole non-linear approach makes it quite simply “not a story”. That’s a fair enough reaction, to be honest; I’m trying to do to narrative what Cubism did to representation, and a lot of folks aren’t going to like it any more than they like, you know, those funny paintings where the woman has both eyes on the same side of the head. They’re going to look at it and think, that doesn’t make sense.
Much of the positive reaction has been from other writers who get what I’m doing, and readers who get off on that very fragmented structure; some people enjoy the process of putting the pieces together, building that multi-dimensional picture in their heads.
What’s been interesting is that it hasn’t simply mapped to any high-brow / low-brow divide though. I mean, there’s this artificial battleground you often see drawn in the genre scene between literary and pulp tastes, a division of readers into two opposing camps, and I was a bit worried that, because Vellum had so much buzz pre-publication, well, you’d get folks buying it expecting your standard Big Fat Fantasy and thinking, what the fuck is this poncy shite?
But I’ve had emails from readers who got hooked by the action, drawn along through the shifts and switches, and who’ve relished the “difficulty”. On the other hand some of the most critical reviews have been from well-respected critics who’ve found it completely chaotic, formless… which surprised me because the discontinuity is only skin-deep as far as I’m concerned; there’s a solid architecture underneath and I’d expected that to be picked up on by those critics.
Jay – Something odd that always crops up is the difference between U.S. and U.K. (or maybe even European in general) tastes in Science fiction, or perhaps reading in general. Vellum seems to be a novel that draws this type of discussion. Recognizing that broad statements don’t neglect the existence of exceptions, what are the differences, if any?
Hal Duncan- I’m not really sure I’m the best person to ask here, as my market knowledge is pretty limited; I just write the stuff and hope someone will buy it. What I will say is that while there might be a perception that US tastes tend to be more conventional than UK or European tastes, I’m not sure that this is actually true.
What you do have in the States is a more dynamic indie press scene, such that the less conventional, more slipstreamy (or infernokrusher, I should say, because slipstream is a wussy word) work is coming out from people like Night Shade, Golden Gryphon, Small Beer, Wheatland, Monkeybrain — the list goes on. There’s a huge community of writers and readers built around writing that’s no more commercial or formulaic than the most avant-garde European experimentalism.
It may be segregated off a little from the bigger genre scene, but when you have Kelly Link’s Magic for Beginners in Time Magazine’s Top Five Books of 2005, well, I think that puts the lie to any idea that UK or European tastes are more sophisticated. The hunger for quality SF (which I parse as “strange fiction” rather than “science fiction”) is there in the US just as much as anywhere else.
The only difference, as I see it, is that the smaller UK market maybe can’t sustain such a large indie field, while at the same time there are editors with larger publisher houses — like Peter Lavery at Pan Macmillan — who’re willing to go out on a limb with weird-ass writers like myself, China Mieville, or Jeff VanderMeer (whose City of Saints and Madmen was picked up by Peter while it was still coming out from Prime in the US).
I think the editors at big NY publishers might be less inclined to take those risks with their marketing departments breathing down their necks. There might be more of a pressure to focus on that dependable market for “more of the same” as opposed to an invariably smaller and less certain market for “something different”. But even saying that, Del Rey have put their big balls on the table with Vellum. Jim Minz snapped it up pretty quick and, since then, Del Rey have really got behind it, the same way Macmillan did. The buyers for the big bookstores too have looked at Vellum and liked what they saw.
So, ultimately, I’m not sure the US is that much more conservative than the UK, in general. If they start burning Vellum in the Bible Belt, of course, I might revise my opinion.
Jay – I was noting whom you mentioned as influences with this work the last time we spoke, Delany, Burroughs, Joyce, and the Moorcock influence is rather conspicuous, but after doing some re-reading, is it a mirage or do is it possible that I see an Irish gunrunner/trinket salesman of Jerusalem ending up in Slab-City?
Hal Duncan- Hands up on that one; you’ve got me banged to rights. Seamus Finnan is a huge homage to the character of O’Sullivan Beare from Edward Whittemore’s Jerusalem Quartet. I read the books just a few years back, before the Seamus character had properly coalesced, and that Joycean voice infected me big-time — infected me again, I should say, as the cadences of the Molly Bloom section of Ulysses have always been, to my mind, some of the most beautiful, poignant writing I’ve ever read.
There’s something that Joyce captured, which Whittemore made his own and which, I hope, I’ve managed to add my own individual touch to, something about the underlying music of that voice that just makes it deeply emotionally resonant. It’s massively sentimental, sensual, even, but at the same time so earthily open and honest that with both Joyce and Whittemore, I think, you get the feeling that you’re listening to a soul laying itself bare.
To me — and maybe this is because that Irish accent is not so very different from a working-class Scots voice — that’s the voice of humanity, the voice of the everyman. The passion and melancholy encoded in those rhythms… sure and what better way is there to tell of the joys and sorrows of being human?
Jay – As you put together the novel, was there a specific character or element that grew exponentially from the point you first envisioned?
Hal Duncan- Seamus’s story did just that. Originally I’d envisioned the second volume as focusing on Jack, but it gradually became clear that Jack’s story didn’t really kick in seriously until Ink and that, for what I wanted to do in terms of mapping the Prometheus story onto early 20th Century history and underpinning the rebellion theme with an elegaic tone, that second volume being the “evening” or “autumn” volume in the four-part structure of the two books — it became clear that for all those reasons Seamus was the Everyman character who had to serve as lynchpin.
It’s funny because the chapter set in Slab City was one of the first things I wrote, way back in 1995 or so, but I didn’t even have a clear idea of his back story at that point. He didn’t even have a first name at that point. It was only when I came to writing the WW1 section in the first volume that the word-play of Seamus and Shamash cemented his role in the story. From there on in he sort of wrote himself.
Jay -What was the most difficult part of the process of piecing Vellum together, and did it go through radical transformations in between submissions or did Pan pick this up quickly in your process?
Hal Duncan- The hardest part was probably in the second volume, in the Seamus sections. Much of the other material had already been written in one form or another, generally at short story or novella length, and these sections tended to just click into place.
Most of those sections were fairly straightforward; even with the retelling of the Inanna and Dumuzi myths it was largely a matter of adapting the original text into my own version, cutting that up, and juxtaposing the poetic narrative with the prose narratives of Phreedom and Thomas. Those prose narratives only had to mirror the source material; they weren’t directly textually related to it. With the retelling of Aeschylus’s “Prometheus Bound” I wanted to actually fuse the ancient poetry and the modern prose completely, to overlay them rather than intercut them.
And I’d constrained myself to following Aeschylus’s actual words as closely as possible, to having Seamus in the trenches of WW1or in the Glasgow of the Red Clydesiders actually voicing the sentiments that Aeschylus puts in his Prometheus’s lips. So it was a bigger challenge, finding the right words for the context and the right context for the words.
Also by the time I came to writing that section I knew what the framework was, what the big story was, and while most of the rest of the book simply needed tweaked and twisted into shape, Seamus’s story was this totally new narrative thread that was clearly the crucial final piece of the puzzle.
Once it was written though — and the whole book then gone through a couple of times to make sure it knitted together — that was pretty much it. I wasn’t working to a deadline and wasn’t trying to fit the book to a particular commercial model, so by the time Pan Macmillan got the book it was, I think, simply worked on to the point where any more radical transformations over and above the ones I’d already perpetrated on it would be liable to just break it.
With Ink there’s been more of a dialogue — with both Pan Macmillan and Del Rey actually — and I think both Peter Lavery and Jim Minz have clicked with my process really well. Maybe because it’s quite an editorial process, a fairly abstract way of thinking about how scenes and sections of narrative function in relation to each other in terms of dynamics.
Jay – The concluding chapter of your Book of All Hours duology, Ink, is said to be a continuation broken down into two volumes Hinter’s Knights and Eastern Mourning that will feature POV changes. Are these characters we have been introduced to already, and can and will you elaborate further?
Hal Duncan- It’s the same cast, but the two most prominent characters of Vellum — Phreedom and Finnan — pretty much take a back seat in Ink. I hope that’s not too much of a disappointment to readers who liked their voices but, really, their defining stories have been told now, and in Ink I wanted to take the inversions of heroism further. I mean, there’s a progression you have in Vellum where you start with Phreedom and Thomas as the main characters.
You think, right, Phreedom’s the heroine; this is her story; this feisty little biker chick’s going to go up against the Covenant and kick some arse, save the day, blah blah blah. And then slowly, gradually, the voice of Seamus emerges until, in the second volume of Vellum, he’s taken over. But at the same time you have another seemingly minor character, Jack, becoming more and more important so that by the end of the book — well, I don’t want to give anything away, but I think it’s clear who’s been set up as the main voice of Ink.
Anyway, that thematic progression is all about subverting the power-fantasy formula of the Hero’s Journey, so you should expect to see the supporting characters ofVellum playing more of a central role in Ink. Jack is the main focus, with a lot of first-person Thomas — because it’s really their story in a lot of ways — but Reynard goes from being this marginal framing voice to being right in the thick of the action, the lynchpin of the book. And Joey comes out of the shadows, so to speak, as a force to be reckoned with. You can’t have a hero without a villain, after all.
Jay – How far along is Ink, is there a working publication date?
Hal Duncan- It’s at the rewrites stage just now. I have edits back from Peter Lavery and Jim Minz that I’m working my way through just now. Mostly it’s polishing work, but they’ve been great in focusing right in on the bits and bobs I sort of knew deep down needed reworking but was too close to the text to see clearly.
That’s the great thing about working with a good editor: the draft I submitted at the start of the year, I felt myself, needed to be tweaked and twiddled a bit before I could be really happy with it; and their comments have crystallised a lot of my vague doubts into solutions. So in the last few weeks I’ve had a whale of a time ripping apart the Prologue and putting it back together again, and I’ve made a few alterations in the first volume that have just clicked things into place, if that makes sense.
I have a weird way of working because of the non-linear approach: the sections are like components of some huge abstract sculpture; each one has a shape to me, and they only fit together in certain ways. So there’s a few that I’ve found were not quite in the right place, and a few that needed rough edges filed off so the fit was snug, but with just the few changes that I’ve made it’s come together really nicely. I can look at what’s been done and say, yes, that’s the finished text.
So we’re aiming for publication of the UK edition February next year. I’m guessing the US edition will be scheduled for pretty much the same, maybe April as with Vellum, though I don’t think anything has been made official yet. The UK release is a bit later than originally intended but then Ink is a bit bigger than originally intended. And I want it to kick arse even if it means taking that wee bit more time.
Jay – You’re the author, if I flip to the page in the Book of All Hours and look up Hal Duncan, what is it going to reveal, both past deeds, and future?
Hal Duncan- Well, the Book of All Hours contains all the stories ever written and all the stories never written, so if you look me up in it, and you can read the Cant, do let me know, because it’d be so much easier to just transcribe the next few novels from the pages of the Book rather than write the bloody things. But apart from that, what would it say about Hal Duncan?
Well, you might have to cross-reference it to my True Name, my graving, but if you could track that down it would probably tell a wild and convoluted tale of blood, sweat and tears, of joys and sorrows, of hedonistic excesses and glorious failures, of dead brothers, gay sex, punk musicals, strange fiction, bachelor pads, doomed love and armies of killer bees. Of course, that’s because the Book tells the lives of all the Hal Duncans scattered across the three dimensions of the Vellum, the Hals of elsewhens and netherwheres, and you might well have a hard time sorting out their stories from my own.
I’m sure I do; Hell, with my appalling memory I’ve never been sure that the past isn’t just as malleable as the future, so I’m not willing to place a bet on any one version of the story as mine.
That said, if there’s an ur-story of Hal Duncan, something that’s common to all the Hals palimpsested by each other, a graving of core identity, a story that all us Hals share — like the way a trailer-park biker-chick’s tale is really that of the goddess Inanna underneath, or a WW1 veteran’s story is actually Prometheus Bound — my guess is you’d find my story to be a drunken anecdote told in a bar at a convention one night about some act of idiotic optimism that nearly went to shit but turned out kinda alright in the end, by luck as much as anything else.
Jay Tomio- How goes the progress on your modernized Gilgamesh project?
Hal Duncan- I haven’t really had much time to do more than research on the Gilgamesh book at the moment, what with the rewrites for INK and various essays, interviews and short stories which popped up with impending deadlines in tow.
I’ve got another translation of the Gilgamesh Epic waiting on my shelf to read (I think I have about four or five now), along with a book on life in frontier-period British Columbia, so I’ll probably be taking them with me when I go to Wiscon at the end of the month, for reading on the plane. Once the rewrites for Ink are done and dusted I’ll be firing right into the Gilgamesh book. I’m really looking forward to it.
Jay – As I was making my way through Vellum, my confidence growing thinking I was now getting familiar with the wonders born of both familiarity and the fantastic around each corner, you than hit me with what I have seen you refer as faire chapter, and while you demonstrate efficiency in applying different modes of genre throughout, the atmosphere here to me was the most chilling — even more real, than in more customary locales and elements with the vellum. Is there an added significance to this segment?
Hal Duncan- Well, that chapter is based very closely on the story of Matthew Shepard, the gay college student who was crucified — there’s no other word for it — in Laramie, Wyoming back in October, 1998. He got picked up in a bar by two straight guys who took him to a hillside outside of town, stripped him, tied him to a split-rail fence, pistol-whipped him, burned him with cigarettes and left him to bleed to death.
Sixteen hours later he was found by passing cyclists who at first mistook him for a scarecrow. He died a week or so later in hospital, never having woken from his coma.
I’m glad to hear you say the faerie chapter feels more real, then, because ultimately it is. It worried me doing it. I’ve done my best to be restrained, to steer clear of histrionics and polemic, because the last thing I wanted to do was cheaply exploit that event just to make a point or push some emotional buttons.
But I felt that the fantasy story I was telling about Thomas could so easily be just another of those cosy stories we so often see about innocent victims and terrible sacrifices. No matter how well-crafted, the artfice of tragedy so-often renders those stories safe, I think. We might come away with a quivering lip of pity or a beard stroking moment of satori but how long will those last? I mean, the story’s over now; time to get back to the grind.
So I wanted to kind of rip the reader out of the story there, to deprive them of the comfort of fiction, the reassurance that what they’re reading is “just a story”. Here I’m sort of saying, yes, what I’m doing doing is just a story. Thomas is just a fictional character. But fuck my story; here’s the reality. Here’s the cold truth we can’t escape from.
This guy, this gentle good-natured guy, was fucking crucified. Fact. It’s not just a story for us to ooh and ahh over because it’s “soooo sad”, and it’s not just a story to nod ponderously about, appreciating the author’s “insight into human nature”. Those are… the emotional and intellectual crutches I wanted to kick away with that chapter.
Jay – Where does your apparent passion for Sumerian myth derive from?
Hal Duncan- Sumerian myth is fascinating for so many reasons. I think what captured my interest in the first place is the fact that it’s the source of so much Biblical mythology — Eden, the Flood, the Tower of Babel. Abraham himself came from Ur of the Chaldeas, from Sumer. The apocryphal folk-hero Enoch is clearly based on the Sumerian god Enki.
Much of Genesis, in fact, reads as a revisionist rewrite of Sumerian myths and, if you dig down through the archaeological strata of the stories, it’s fascinating to see how the original tales have been warped and twisted to a monotheist agenda. And frankly I think the originals do it better. It’s like PKD’s We Can Remember It For You Wholesale versus the movie Total Recall, like Dick’s everyman protagonist suddenly becoming Schwarzenegger’s ubermensch.
The gods of Sumerian myth are complex, often weak characters; the Bible gives us the Hollywood version — black and white, good and evil, sin and piety. Fuck that shit.
Then you’ve got the fact that with Sumer you’re talking about the roots of civilisation, the culture that pretty much invented writing, mathematics, irrigation, and countless other key features of the neolithic revolution; so this is a mythology that sits on the boundary between primitive and modern.
Hell, even democracy has its roots in Sumer; long before the Greeks came along the Sumerians had assemblies which functioned as parliaments or senates, and the myths reflect this. There’s a Sumerian text in which the king of the gods, Enlil, is impeached and exiled by the divine assembly for raping a maiden. That’s a pretty radical concept of divine authority — I mean, you can’t imagine Zeus getting kicked out of Olympus for his abuses of power — and it’s one that in many ways seems deeply modern. Kings, presidents, emperors — nobody is above the law.
So three to four thousand years ago the Sumerians were telling stories about their world, and it seems to me that, if you just scrape away the surface of technology and history, their world is not so very different from ours
Jay – Last year you discussed plans from more stories in the vellum, and that you hadn’t decided what format, whether a series of novels or possibly a collection. Have you pursued these stories at all, and is the assumption that they would be post-Gilgamesh correct?
Hal Duncan- haven’t really had time to do much with these ideas, what with obsessive blogging and the occasional proper essay, with getting Ink into its final shape, and with trying to keep on top of all the PR stuff that has to be done for the US edition of Vellum.
I’ve got a Jack Flash story with Farah Mendelson at the moment, a submission for her Glorifying Terrorissm anthology, another which will be in the Eidlolon anthology out later this year, and I have a few more stories or story ideas that loosely tie-in, if only in terms of taking the 3d time backdrop as a given.
But the other novel ideas are all on the back-burner until after Gilgamesh; and the collection I’m thinking of, set in the Faerie world that appears in Vellum and in The Chiaroscurist, is still a fairly vague and notional prospect at the moment.
Jay – Is there, and if so, what criticism do you think Vellum has received that puzzles you the most (which I think you may have been leading up to where the reply above got cut off), and are any of them related to your writing of Strange Sentences at Emerald City?
Hal Duncan- This is a tricky question, because I think it’s bad form for a writer to point to this or that part of a review and take issue with it; it comes across as sour grapes or defensiveness, and neither of those ever look good.
It’s all very well to be cocky and bolshie enough to say “This review misses the entire point, and how the critic could fail so completely to ‘get it’ baffles me”, but, well, the writer might be better off asking themselves if that puzzling review is just evidence of a failure on their part, rather than squandering time and energy debating the rightness or wrongness of that critique.
However, I’m also fascinated by the processes of writing and reading this strange fiction we call SF, Fantasy, Horror or whatever, so the different responses to Vellum do kick off an analytic part of my brain which is intrigued by the radical disparities between the reactions of this critic and that one.
I’m interested in the way we engage with fiction emotionally and intellectually, the way some people read more for plot or more for theme, for action or for insight, and that’s kind of where that “Strange Sentences” essay comes from. Obviously it could be read as a response to reviews of Vellum where critics firmly in the intellectual camp found it fundamentally incoherent: I’m arguing that there’s a Rationalist misreading of Modernist forms which is just as false as the Romantic misreading; in both cases the absence of conventional representation can be mistaken for an absence of structure. But it’s intended more as an exploration of those ideas in theory than as a specific defence of my own work.
I can say, OK, this is the aesthetic I’m working with, and a reader might well be misread it by applying the wrong aesthetic, but I’m not going to blithely dismiss critique I don’t agree with on the assumption that that’s what must be happening. “You do not understand the genius what is me!” Bollocks to that.
Jay – I was reading another article written by Jeff Vandermeer with interest and was wondering if in your opinion, does fiction, or at least fiction we think of in a slightly heightened manner have to be relevant either socially or politically, and if so what is relevant fiction to you?
Hal Duncan- I’m in two minds about this. There’s a broad use of the term “political” which includes interpersonal politics, the relationships of power between two or more individuals, and I don’t think any fiction can avoid being relevant in those terms.
Whether you have gay characters, female characters, black characters, working-class characters, or whether your fiction is populated entirely by straight white males, even if you’re not consciously trying to address the politics of sexuality, gender, race or class, you are representing “political” relationships in the way you portray those characters interacting.
I think there’s an aesthetic imperative to be aware of this, so as to avoid stereotyping and cliche — because that’s bad writing — and I think there’s a further ethical imperative to that same self-critique, because ultimately those stereotypes can and do reinforce prejudice and inequity. Just because you’re not consciously saying “women are weak”, “gays are victims” or whatever, doesn’t mean that the damsel-in-distress or the tragic-homosexual isn’t sending a subtextual message. Fiction is, in its own right, a social act: there’s a personal-political relationship between writer and reader, like that of a gossipmonger talking to a neighbour about “those people” who just moved in next door — they did this, they did that, you know! — and I think a writer has an ethical duty to be aware of the potential harm you can do with what you might shrug off as “just a story”.
But at the same time I think that’s using the term “political” rather too broadly. It strikes me that what we’re really talking about here is the social rather than political relevance of fiction. The word “political” has its roots in the Greek polis — i.e. “city” — so I’d rather keep it specific, keep it tied to relationships between the individual and the State. Political to me refers to ideologies and institutions of government, to rebels and rulers, tyrants and traitors. Here I think it becomes more complex.
You can look at secondary world fantasy, say, and apply that same aesthetic / ethical imperative: is the writer self-aware in their representation of the political backdrop, or are they taking the easy option of cliche (aesthetically dubious), and does that subtextually justify inequity (ethically dubious)? But there are plenty of stories which simply do not function on that political scale, which are focused on the individual’s relationship with other individuals, with family, reality, mortality or some even more abstract notion, and it seems wrong-headed to me to try and force a political reading where that simply isn’t the point. My own writing tackles those themes but there’s plenty of great writers who don’t. There’s plenty of stories to be told which are relevant to our lives but which are addressing questions outside the domain of politics.
Jay – As you fine tune Ink and now having some distance from Vellum — what facet of the novel were you most at odds with, and now in hindsight, how did it seem to work out?
Hal Duncan- The size, is the simple answer. The hardest decision I had to make was in whether what I was dealing with was one book, two books or four. On the one hand I felt the four volumes being each quite different in tone, viewpoint, and even style meant that they might be better published individually as a series.
On the other hand I wasn’t convinced that they each individually delivered the introduction and resolution you want in a stand-alone novel, and I didn’t want to pad out the larger story arc with excess baggage.
The scope of that arc, however, was such that I knew this would be a thousand-page monster of a tome as a single volume and that, given the density and complexity of the structure, I might well fry my own brain trying to write it only to end up with a book that readers would run a mile from.
I was reticent for a long time about splitting the big story arc up into two books, because I had to be sure that each book would function independently. It was only as I was getting to the end of the second volume, in fact, that I decided that, yes, this worked as a stand-alone novel. I was writing the closing scenes and thinking, okay, yes, this is a resolution. It may not have closure, with everything boxed away neatly, all questions answered, all loose ends tied up, but it does have a finish. It was a bloody hard judgement call to make, though, because I can understand entirely that what works to my satisfaction may not work for others and they might well come away from Vellum thinking this is just half a novel. As it is, I think it’s worked out all right.
Most readers seem to have felt that, yes, there’s a proper pay-off in the end. I reckon this is because it wasn’t a publisher’s decision after the fact to sell one novel as two books for purely commercial reasons; rather it was my choice to tell the story as two novels. But the idea that Vellum and Ink would work best as two distinct novels was something I had to be persuaded of by the writing itself.
Interview #3 is below and is similar to ones I conducted with Paul S. Kemp and Chris Roberson in that they were a leaner one topic feature met to have a little levity. With Hal of course we talk hell.
Today we join forces with Hal Duncan to talk Hell! Duncan is the author of two novels: Vellum and Ink. Vellum was nominated for the World Fantasy Award and BFS Award for Best Novel honors as well as getting nominated for the Locus and and Crawford awards for Best Debut Novel/Author. We talked about them with Hal when they were released, in fact, we did it twice.
Next month, his latest, Escape from Hell! is set to be published by Monkeybrain books as the next part of their line of original novellas. We’ve talked to Hal at length on a couple of occasions so today we keep it short and sweet, in a single topic manner that we’ve also done with Paul S. Kemp, Jeff VanderMeer, and Chris Roberson (who is name checked by Hal in this interview as well).
Today Hal and I chat Samuel L, Hell, Neil Gaiman and more!
Jay — Do you even believe in hell?
Hal Duncan — As a metaphysical realm? Not even remotely. As a state of mind, on the other hand? I think a lot of us find ourselves in Hell at some point in our lives.
Jay — Your novella, Escape From Hell! is set to be published by MonkeyBrain Books next month. Can you give readers the low down?
Hal Duncan — It’s a hitman, a hooker, a homo and a hobo in the ultimate prison break… escape from Hell itself. It’s about these four people damned for their sins — murder, fornication, sodomy and suicide — deciding, “fuck this shit,” and trying to blast their way to freedom. Think if you took a Neil Gaiman story but turned it into an early John Carpenter movie. We’re talking fast-paced, balls-out pulp fiction, an action/adventure story with angels, lost souls and a whole lot of gunfire.
Jay — What was the impetus for this project. Why Hell, why now?
Hal Duncan — It all kicked off as a discussion with a mate of mine called Mags who works in television. We tend to throw ideas at each other for movies we’d like to see, brainstorming characters and plots just for the fun of it. With this one we were thinking, OK, what’s the ultimate prison? And obviously, it’s got to be Hell, right? So we started riffing, and I got really excited about it, ended up going away and developing the whole story in synopsis, virtually scene-by-scene. Cut to a year or so later, when I’d gotten bogged down in trying to write a novella for Chris Roberson at MonkeyBrain.
I’d passed the deadline and was totally blocked on the idea I’d originally pitched to him, then it struck me that I already had this story that was the perfect length for telling as a novella — more meat than a short story, but more boiled-down than a novel. There’s an old idea that novellas are easier to convert to film than novels, so I figured the whole process should work just as well in reverse. So I touted the idea to Chris and he loved it.
Coming after the 400,000 word, non-linear mindfuck monster that was The Book of All Hours, it also offered a radical departure that appealed to me, something that was all about pace and plot, pure narrative drive. I suppose a part of that appeal comes from my contrarian nature; I like the idea of doing the exact opposite of the huge, sprawling, experimentalist tomes that readers of Vellum and Ink may have come to associate with me. Mostly though, it’s just that I grew up on all those old SF novels that were 150 pages max.
I love that stuff, but it’s hard to find a book these days that’s not at least twice that length. That’s OK if you’re in the mood for something that might take you a week to read, but I have a range of tastes as a reader and I want to keep stretching my range as a writer. So the MonkeyBrain novella line seemed like a great way to get back to that old pulp spirit.
Jay — So, you escape Hell — what’s the first thing Hal Duncan does?
Hal Duncan — I’d take my tobacco and papers out of my pocket, roll up a cigarette, and light it on the fires I’ve just walked out of, take a long slow draw and blow the smoke out through my evil grin. Then I’d do pretty much what the characters do. But I can’t tell you what that is without blowing the ending.
Jay — Over at Notes From the Geek Show in your blog post pointing to our excerpt of Escape From Hell! you mentioned Samuel L. Jackson in passing regarding casting the roles in the novella. Jackson is known for one liners — you are writing the screenplay to the Escape from Hell! You have Jackson in your cast — what’s the one liner you give him?
Hal Duncan — An answer to the question, “How can you kill someone if they’re already dead?”:
“Motherfucker, if you got the mouth to annoy me with questions, you got a head I can blow off your motherfucking shoulders.”
Or words to that effect.
Jay — A hitman, hooker, a homosexual kid, a hobo, hell. Hal, that’s a cast of alliteration. If you had room for one more who would it be and why?
Hal Duncan — Maybe a hunchback. Thing is, the characters are all “othered” in some way or other — cast as “outsiders” in terms of race, gender, sexuality, social status. To some extent, they’re all where they are because their paths in life have been shaped by the perceptions of society. Way I see it, there’s really only one of them whose “sin” is even a real crime — the hitman.
The rest are there because of bullshit religious mores that scapegoat anyone outside the norm, anyone who bucks some bogus “natural order”. A woman who fucks for money, a kid who wants to suck cock, a man who takes his own life — in the infantile “morality” that condemns those, it’s deviance from “the way of things” that’s the real issue, and that difference is equated with wrongness.
Abnormal equals unnatural and unnatural equals bad. This is the same sort of bullshit that invents the idea of “miscegenation” as a crime, says that it’s not how things are “meant to be”.
A lot of fantasy buys into that bullshit, reinforces it even, by playing on prejudicial programming, gut reactions of revulsion in the face of physical deformity. Nine times out of ten in fantasy, a “warped” physical form is a signal for a “warped” spiritual form, and more often than not the features that mark out the monstrous have analogues in the real-world — a hunched back, a hooked nose, obesity or withered flesh, any disability or disease, any deviance at all.
So if I’d had room for an extra character in EfH! maybe it would have been nice to take a swing at that bollocks by throwing that type of “otherness” into the mix as well — except that it might well have smacked of tokenism.
Jay — The cover to Escape From Hell! is sweet as well. . .hell. Did you have any input or is that just Chris Roberson handling business?
Hal Duncan — Chris put the artist, Erik Gist, in touch with me, and we threw a couple of ideas back and forth based on the synopsis — because the novella wasn’t quite finished at that point. There’s a scene later on that we both thought would have looked really cool — you’d have had the heroes all standing there, tooled-up and facing out at the reader; it would have had a nice “bring it on, motherfuckers” vibe — but one feature would have been a bit of a spoiler.
In the end we both preferred the option Erik ran with, which is taken straight from the prologue with just a tiny bit of artistic license used to bring Lady Justice into shot. If I remember right, Erik suggested it in a really early email, and described it almost exactly the way that I’d always visualised the scene. So I was totally over-the-moon that we were on the same wavelength.
Really my input came down to “yes, that sounds fucking awesome,” and “oh, but yeah, this Hell is cold and grey rather than fiery and red”. I mean, the traditional imagery of Hell-as-inferno _almost_ got in the way for a whole millisecond — most images of Hell are all black and red after all, thick crimson skies, darkness and flames — but Erik had actually picked up on the ashen wasteland feel I was going for, so it was just a matter of confirming that his first instinct was correct.
The colour palette he used for it is perfect, I think, and I love the little touches of red on the key characters — Seven’s shades, Belle’s rosary and so on.
Jay — I’m big fan of books like Letters From Hades by Jeffrey Thomas and To Reign in Hell by Steven Brust or Di Filippo’s A Year in the Linear City and obviously you have the Divine Comedy. What are your favorite get out of hell or novels taking place in the inferno and why?
Hal Duncan — Paradise Lost is way cool, of course, and Gaiman’s riffing on that in the Sandman comics is great. There’s the anti-heroic streak to Milton’s Lucifer that appeals to me immensely. He’s still painted as a villain — it’s not an anti-Christian work by any means — but I think it’s one of those cases where the imagery undermines the message, subverts it.
Where the the rebel angel’s fall is presented as such wilful defiance, it hints, I think, at a reversal of the ethical polarities; it resonates with the defiance of every underdog who ever stood up to a tyrant. And the Sandman storyline is the nearest we’ve got, in anything I’ve read except maybe Pullman’s His Dark Materials, to my own… anarchist metaphysics. Ultimately, the resignation of Gaiman’s Lucifer isn’t about the illegitimacy of the whole set-up, but it’s still a deliciously subversive notion.
Jay — Speaking of Dante, his guide for much of the time was a poet, Virgil. If having a choice and unluckily finding yourself ending up in the wrong direction — who would you choose to be your guide?
Hal Duncan — I reckon I’d keep with tradition and choose a poet too: Rimbaud. He wrote Une saison en enfer, after all — A Season in Hell — so we’re talking about someone who’s mapped the territory. He gave up writing at the age of 21 and went off to become a gun-runner in Africa, so I reckon we’re talking about someone who could handle himself in a tricky situation.
Also, with his hotness, his devotion to “a systematic derangement of the senses” and his taste for absinthe, hashish and sodomy, he was exactly the sort of bipolar bad boy I’m drawn to like a moth to a flame. I probably _would_ follow someone like that into Hell just because I have zero sense of self-preservation.
We could be great together, in a fucked-up, wild-sex, wild-parties, drive-each-other-totally-psychotic sorta way. Hey, if you shatter any distinction whatsoever between “a good time” and “a bad time”, there’s no real difference between Hell and Heaven, is there?
Jay — You are — as of now — the first 3-time interviewee of our site. A fate worse than hell?
Hal Duncan — Heh. Not at all. It’s always a pleasure talking to you, Jay. A third term with the Republicans in the White House — now that would have been a fate worse than hell.