The OF Blog: Interview with Hal Duncan, Part I

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Interview with Hal Duncan, Part I

Sometimes in order to understand a book, one has to know something about the author who wrote the book. What can you tell us about yourself, your background, and how it might relate to the creation of The Book of All Hours?

I'm a child of the 70s, brought up in a Scottish "New Town" -- a small town expanded with housing schemes to take the overspill from inner city Glasgow. It was supposed to give the families a better life, but the result was just a cross-breeding of small-town bigotry and inner-city gang-mentality. Some of the Jack Flash sections -- the "inner narratives" -- in VELLUM are pretty much straight description of that shithole and its hopelessness. My feelings about Kilwinning are sort of summed up in the story about the missing kid that the characters go looking for -- based on the real-life disappearance of this young boy, Sandy Thomson. The thing is, they moved the families into the schemes as they were building them, so all the kids used to play in the building sites. I've always wondered if he didn't end up in the foundations of one of the houses, victim of some horrible accident or worse. That's the way I think of the New Towns -- a dream gone sour, built over the corpse of youth, innocence.

And yet... somewhere along the way that lost boy became a Lost Boy for me, reimagined as an escapee from reality rather than a victim, off having adventures in other worlds, other times -- across the limitless landscape of the imagination which I've tried to represent in the form of the Vellum. He sort of fused with Luke Skywalker, Flash Gordon from the old serials, and all these other golden-haired heroes of modern myth to become this character I'd tell myself stories about as I lay in bed at night, before dropping off to sleep. I called him Flash, and there's a lot of him still there in the Jack Carter of THE BOOK OF ALL HOURS -- a sort of archetype of the id, bound or unbound. The hero, I think, is often a sort of vessel for our desires, a compensatory fantasy. I'm out to subvert the whole wish-fulfilment aspect now, I hasten to add; Jack's not simply the projected alter ego who gets to do all the cool shit you can't do in real-life; he's more than that, I hope. But that is where the character has his roots.

Anyway, as I hit adolescence things just went from bad to worse in this pebble-dashed suburbia where even punk had sold out to Skrewdriver and neo-nazi bullshit. Unemployment was sky-high, Thatcher was voted-in time and again by Middle England, and there was still the sense that the USA and USSR might blow us all to hell. In fact, where previous generations worried about the future, I think we just knew there wasn't any. If the nukes didn't get you, then AIDS would. And that was the real kicker. I mean, there's me trying to come to terms with my sexuality and suddenly along comes the "Gay Plague". Fucking brilliant. And of course I was the smart geek who couldn't walk down the street without some gang of arseholes picking on me. So I was the classic miserable whiny adolescent who Wanted To Die. Years before Columbine I dreamt of massacring my class-mates. I actually went to school in a trenchcoat, honest to God. I had all sorts of schizo notions about deals with Death. I'd send him some souls and he'd do me right when they gunned me down at the end of the killing spree. Death and me, we were on first name terms. I was ready to walk with him.

And then my brother died.

The wish-fulfilment fantasies, the narcissistic rage, the grandiose delusions -- all of that adolescent bullshit was just shattered by this diamond bullet of a truth: people die. Nothing else really matters a fuck, as far as I'm concerned. Or rather anything that matters does so because of that fundamental fact, that there are people, and that they die.

If this all sounds terribly nihilistic and depressing, it's not intended that way. I think of nihilism as a liberating philosophy; it's an abandoment of absolutes, of false certainties that bind us into ideas of destiny, fate. Without giving away any spoilers, the very last scene in VELLUM is an expression of the liberating power of nihilism as I understand it. And understanding the death part of that simple equation -- people die -- gives us a better understanding of the people part, of the precious fragility of human life. That's something that's at the heart of the book.

That is quite a journey to undertake. Which raises a related question: How did you take those elements and weave them into what became The Book of All Hours? Was it trial and error, or did the basic framework of the story come to you suddenly? For looking back (and forward), it seems as though this story both preceded and followed you for a long time.

It started as two completely separate Grand Projects, both of which fell apart into umpteen short stories and novellas which, it gradually became obvious, were part of one single over-arching framework. Back in the 90s the idea of the Book of All Hours had popped up in some experimental steampunk nonsense I'd been writing, (which also featured a prototype of Jack Carter). That early stuff was all shit -- I ended up burning it along with the rest of my wanky adolescent scribblings -- but some of the ideas carried over into the first Grand Project, a huge monster of a novel in four parts, themed around the seasons and times of day. It was going to be set in a city at the end of time, with bitmites flowing through the streets. It was going to be written in a language full of Joycean word-play and allusions. It was going to retell Parzival from the viewpoint of his half-brother, Feirefiz, with touches of the Bellerophon myth. It was going to be the story of Babel rebuilt, the Grail brought out of hiding, the great ur-myth that all other myths are only fragments of. It was, of course, utterly bonkers. I got a few chapters and a fuckload of notes written before shelving it.

The second Grand Project was more straightforward. Although it had a similarly obsessive syncretism at its heart -- in trying to incorporate all the gods and titans, angels and demons of every culture throughout history into the singular mythos of the unkin -- what I was planning was a set of stories which would share the same back-drop and a few of the same characters but would ultimately each stand alone. I got as far as a couple of stories before that project stalled too. I think that approach was just too limiting in terms of tone; it didn't give me the freedom to be pulpy one minute, poncy the next.

So I just abandoned the whole idea of a Grand Project and started writing short stories and novellas as they came, ignoring the correspondances and links between them, ignoring the fact that very few of them actually worked in isolation from each other. Things like the Jack Flash section, the expedition to the Caucasus, the Faerie chapter -- these were all written as individual stories at first. The guys at the Glasgow SF Writers Circle would tell me, this story is cool but it doesn't make sense unless you've read that one, that one makes sense but it doesn't really work as a story. Everything I wrote was like a... fragment of a broken hologram, you know, where each piece has a little area in tight focus but it also has a blurry image of the whole, the Big Picture. Eventually I found myself coming full circle, writing the story that would become the Prologue (which brought me back to the Book of All Hours), and two novellas which would become the Phreedom and Thomas chapters (which brought me back to the unkin).

That was the point where it all came together into the Book of All Hours. I started looking at those fragments as part of a puzzle, figuring out what the underlying story was and whether they could be arranged so that story would be told as much in the juxtapositions of narratives as in the narratives themselves. In a strange way, the basic framework was there right back at the start, a four act cycle based on the seasons and times of day. It just took me ten years to realise what I was writing.

In a previous interview, you describe Vellum as a sort of Cubist Fantasy. For the readers here, could you elaborate more on this?

On a superficial level, the fragmentation of the narrative into little chunks, the way these chunks are put back together with this bit or that seemingly "out-of-place" in linear time -- in one sense Cubism is just a good comparison for how the reader has to reconstruct the narrative out of these strange chunks, like the "bizzare cubiques" that gave Cubism its name. You have to step back from the work, see it as a whole, build the abstract story in your imagination rather than expect a straghtforward direct representation. To some extent I use the phrase Cubist Fantasy as a sort of warning. If you get Picasso and Braques, you'll probably get what I'm trying to do with VELLUM; if you hate that type of painting you may well hate the book.

On a deeper level though, I think there's some more fundamental similarities. There's an idea of 3D time that underpins VELLUM, an idea that as well as the forward-and-back linear time we're aware of, there's a side-to-side of parallel worlds, and an up-and-down of realities which work by different metaphysics entirely. Think of it in terms of story. A story starts at the beginning and goes in a straight line to the end -- the "frontal" time we recognise. But a story, the myth of Inanna's descent into the underworld for example, has variations -- in one version she has a single rescuer, in another there's two. So that's your parallel realities, your side-to-side time. And over generations these stories are retold, simplifed and/or complexified, revisions lain down on top of the old like sedimental strata. Think of the way James Joyce used the myth of Ulysses as a substrate for his novel.

So in the same way the Cubists were using fragmentation to try and represent a 3D object in the round, or as if from outside space itself, to give us a multi-faceted perspective on it, that's what I'm trying to do with VELLUM in terms of time -- to present the story as a 3D object, with the multiple perspectives all fragmented and folded together.

In reading Vellum, I was reminded of this quote by Borges: "The fact is that every writer creates his own precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future." How would you relate the world of The Book of All Hours with this concept of authorial time/space, and to what degree (if any) would this tale reflect perceptions of our shared past/present/future?

I'm not sure about that Borges quote, because to me it feels too focused on the modern writer, on an idea that through their work we rewrite the past in our imagination, aligning the writers who came before into a heritage which culminates in this end-of-line product. So this modification of our conception of the past would be a way of establishing the lineage of one's work, of selecting one's historical precursors and setting them up as benchmarks, signposts pointing along the road to here and now, to this fiction which is mine. Now certainly with VELLUM there's a huge amount of referencing of past writers. I suppose you could see the book as establishing a lineage from the anonymous Sumerian scribe who wrote Inanna's Descent, through Aeschylus and Virgil, right up to James Joyce and Edward Whittemore, William Gibson and Michael Moorcock. But the linearity of the idea of "precursors", of past, present and future -- something about that makes me uncomfortable. It would feel self-aggrandising to co-opt these writers as my literary forebears, to represent them as steps along the road to me.

No, I think the focus has to be shifted in the other direction. Every writer, I'd say, sets themself up as a signpost -- on a junction in the middle of nowhere, where multiple roads converge. They set up signs pointing in different directions: Joyce, 100 miles; Aeschylus, 200 miles. In some respects that can be a way of orienting the reader, so they can triangulate the writer's "position" in relation to these landmark authors. And in establishing that junction of influences, the writer may well transform the readers concept of the past: Aeschylus is closer than they would've thought from here, just a short drive south; the road to Joyce is downhill from this point in authorial time-space, rather than the hellish uphill struggle if you're coming by a different road. A lot of what I'm trying to do in VELLUM is set up a junction where you can get from, say, William Gibson to that anonymous Sumerian scribe in a few minutes' drive. Because I think that's an interesting journey to make.

I'm not sure I'm expressing this very well. If you think of the 3D model of time, the Vellum, it's hard to talk in terms of past, present and future; that's just one dimension, and in that context, those other writers aren't being treated as linear precursors; they're perspectives, angles on the story-as-object. Aeschylean tragedy, Virgilian eclogue, Gibsonian cyberpunk, Joycean modernism -- I'm kind of trying to unmoor them from their temporal setting altogether, to bring them together such that the ancient becomes modern and the modern becomes ancient in the reader's mind. Don't think of Prometheus Bound as being of a dead past; it's as relevant, as present as when it was first written.

So would it be fair to say that in some senses at least, that one interpretation of the greater story unfolding within the Vellum is that of how we ‘place’ or ‘position’ ourselves in relation to other people, to other ‘landmarks’? Because it seems to me that one could make an argument (not THE argument, but merely an argument) that part of what is going on within the story is the active insertion of the Reader into the Text in such a way that temporal and spatial differences are being warped. Or is this a misleading interpretation of the story?

I think that's fair. I mean, the metafictional aspect of the work is right up front; in the Prologue where you have Reynard Carter finding this Book which, according to one legend, contains every story ever written and every story never written. Theoretically, then, it must contain his own -- and yours and mine too. And that idea is woven throughout the novel; there's a recurring theme of how we can become trapped in the story of ourselves, the roles we've chosen for ourselves but believe to have been chosen for us. Often in post-modernism that type of metafictional conceit is all about distancing the reader from the text, deliberately placing the story in inverted commas, as an artifice, but what I wanted to do was pretty much the exact opposite. I wanted the reader to find themself drawn into the text, to be actively engaged with it. You could argue that the central protagonist of VELLUM is actually the reader themself; instead of being an outside observer, the reader is being invited in as a participant.

The hope is that in folding all these pasts and futures, parallel realities and fantastic realms around and through one another, in reconstructing the writer's version of the story, the reader will also be constructing their own version. Maybe the best way to explain this is in terms of the Matthew Shepard section. There we have a real-word event fictionalised, fantasised as the murder of a faery. A simple retelling on that level can be emotionally powerful, but it's always going to be "just a story", filtered through the writer's words and images and distanced by its intrinsic nature as a representation; it's something we look at, not something we're in. You can -- and I do -- try to suggest a larger scope by drawing parallels to other similar stories -- like that of Thomas, Tammuz, Pan or Christ -- but still what you're left with is "just a story", albeit an eternally recurring one. At the end of the day those references only add extra depth to that representation. So what I wanted to do was use this metafictional idea that our reality, the reader's reality, is just another fold of the Vellum to collapse that sense of distance. In the past I've said that I wanted to throw the reader out of the story at the end of that chapter, to suddenly strip away the fantasy and point the reader out into the real world, to have them slam face-first into the brutal truth of a real-life crucifixion. But maybe another way to look at it is that I want to make the reader suddenly look down and realise that this is what they're standing on. They're walled-in by the fictions of Thomas, Tammuz, etc., but the solid ground they're standing on is the real story of Matthew Shepard.

In essence, what I'm trying to do is carve out an abstraction, the story as a space defined within those walls, fictive and real, with the reader positioned within that space, within the story, seeing it every which way they turn, hopefully even seeing it in places I haven't. So there's no escape, no cosy reassurance in the knowledge that these events happened elsewhere, elsewhen, in fiction or history. That 3D model of time, and the metafictional insertion of the reader into that timespace is a way of saying, look, this story is all around you, not just there and then but here and now -- my here and now, and yours too.

End of Part I

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