The OF Blog: Interview with Hal Duncan, Part II

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Interview with Hal Duncan, Part II

In reading Vellum, I was struck with the sense that at times, this was a very personal book. Which scenes would you say stood out the most to you in an emotional sense as you wrote them?

In some respects the most personal and the most emotional scenes are two different things. Although, as I said, there's a fair amount of personal experience underlying the inner narrative of Jack Flash, his childhood in the schemes, I deliberately kept a certain detachment there, and sort of placed it all in inverted commas as an unreliable narrative. As much as I think fiction should be written in blood, sweat and tears autobiography, especially of the miserable-childhood sort, is just tedious and self-absorbed. That stuff is partly there to be stomped on.

The really important scenes, the ones that meant the most emotionally to me in writing, were those scenes in the faerie chapter where I parallel the crucifixion of Matthew Shepard with the murder of Puck. I was actually trying to absent myself from the writing there as much as possible, to put as little of me as possible into the story, to let the event speak for itself without any cheap sentimentalism. I suppose it's still quite personal, because the narrator at that point, Jack, his grief and rage are sort of expressed by the very fact that they're not expressed, if that makes sense -- and this is the form of grief I remember from my brother's death. A total lock-down of affect. A heart like a clenched fist. A sorrow and fury so fucking intense that any voicing of it would be so... banal as to be an insult. I still remember that feeling and, with that scene describing, basically, the murder of Matthew Shepard in all its cold brutality, well, that scene was written straight from the heart. The image in the Errata which follows that chapter, the self-mutilated Jack -- that's that grief let out.

The other scene that stood out most, and it's probably the scene I'm proudest of in the book, is one of those with Seamus Finnan. There's a few of the Seamus scenes that really mean a lot to me actually, because the soldiers of WW1, the Red Clydesiders, the International Brigades, with all of those I was deeply moved by the stories of the individuals I came across in my research, so when I came to write these sections I couldn't help but think of the reality underneath the fiction; but there it's as much the truth that makes it emotional as the fiction, so it's the scene where Seamus tells Anna the Prometheus story that really stands out for me. That's the thematic core of the book. That's my humanism in a nutshell.

The stories contained within Vellum appear to be reflections of human crises, not just the war between the Covenant and the Sovereigns, but also between humans and their emotions. Is it fair to say that a focus of the story is on human conflicts and discontinuities?

Absolutely. There's the political and religious aspects to the conflict between the Covenant and the Sovereigns, but even that can be seen on a human level as a sort of conflict of reason and passion, the rationalism of the Covenant who want everything neat and ordered versus the romanticism of the Sovereigns who want their old power and glory back. And really the whole war is more of a backdrop for the human stories of Phreedom and Thomas, Seamus and Jack. I'm not interested in just telling the darling-of-destiny story, where the hero comes from obscurity to save the princess and lead the rebels to victory -- not straight anyway. VELLUM is far more about the death of Thomas and how that changes everyone involved, the tensions it creates between Phreedom and Seamus, Seamus and Jack, the internal conflicts it creates within those characters, the way those conflicts are resolved -- or not, as the case may be.

And "discontinuity" is the right word. The characters are quite literally changed in the course of the novel. Identities are shattered and remade. Literally, in some cases.

Thomas, Phreedom, Jack, and Seamus (among others) each appear throughout the various stories contained within the Vellum. What would be the overall 'message/s' (pardon the pun) that these archetypical characters have? I'm particularly curious about Seamus and his roles as Prometheus and Sammael in the second half of the book.

I don't see them as having messages per se. I don't think you can't tie true archetypes down to a simple, singular significance. Instead, I think, they function as unmoored signifiers, metaphors for identity but where the meaning is not so much in what they are as it is in how they relate to each other -- as sister, brother, killer, lover, and so on. The way I see it, archetypes are the psyche's way of interacting with itself. I riff off Jung (and the ancient Egyptian idea of us each having seven souls) in breaking it down into seven major archetypes -- Self, Anima, Id, Persona, Shadow, Mana, and Ego -- but I don't see these as essential components, more as... perspectives, filters.

Anyway, the characters aren't meant as straightfoward allegorical ciphers, but that model is not bad if you want to understand the book as, in one respect, a study of grief: Thomas is the Self as puer aeternus -- not the sentimentalised Inner Child you hear about on Oprah, but Shakespeare's Puck, Barrie's Pan, an impish, irresponsible little bastard with nipping teeth and nicking horns; Phreedom is the Anima -- maiden and mother, guardian angel and avenging fury; Jack is the Id -- the chaotic vitality of our passions, repressed or unleashed; Reynard is the Persona or Superego -- the inner conscience, the self-editor; Joey is the Shadow -- the cold-hearted bastard inside us all; Don, is a Mana figure, as I see it -- the old soldier, a man of age and experience; and Seamus is the Ego -- the psyche as social being, the individual defined by their relationship to society.

That's why Seamus becomes such a focus for the ideological conflicts, because a humanist, socialist, pacifist outlook leads inevitably to such conflicts. Do you fight the fascists as a socialist, or refuse to fight them as a pacifist? Do you steal fire for humanity even if you know they'll hate you for it? Where the others have clear roles, he's the Everyman who has to make the hard choices of real life, and who has to deal with the consequences. He's the battleground between social mores and individual ethics, the tyrant Zeus and the rebel Prometheus. Personally, I've always seen Lucifer, the Lightbringer, as a Promethean hero on the side of humanity against a deity defined by his might. The "laws of God" are just society's mores. The fire, the enlightenment, given by Prometheus, the knowledge of good and evil offered by Lucifer -- that's individual ethics, and if it's a choice between the two I know whose side I'm on.

One of the reactions that I’ve heard from others reading Vellum is a wry observation that they could not believe that one of their favorite characters turns out to be Satan, or rather the Lucifer part. Have you heard similar reactions from other readers and if so, how did you respond to such comments?

I haven't really had that comment, to be honest, but then those who know me well wouldn't find it at all surprising that I turn one of the good guys into Lucifer -- or, more to the point, turn Lucifer into one of the good guys. At the risk of starting book-burnings all across the Bible Belt I'll hold my hand up and say I've always been pretty Antichristian. Don't get me wrong: I like the whole Sermon on the Mount thing -- lovely piece of pacifist socialism -- but this "washed clean in the blood of the Lamb" malarky? Jesus Christ died for your sins? No, I'll die for my own sins, thank you very much, and if I go to Hell (not that I actually believe in Hell), I'll be signing on for the next assault on the Pearly Gates, even if it's only as a stretcher-bearer.

I mean, there's two things to bear in mind here. One is a practical matter of what actually happens in the story. You have to remember that the unkin's identities are defined by their gravings and that Seamus is being royally fucked over by Metatron during the second half of the book. He's being turned into Prometheus because Metatron wants access to the knowledge only Prometheus possesses, who or what is capable of bringing down the Covenant. I can't say too much without giving away spoilers for INK, but it's not as simple as Seamus "turning out" to be Sammael; in the same way that Phreedom and Thomas have their own identities, their own gravings, overwritten with those of Inanna and Tammuz, Seamus's history is tweaked and twiddled so that Sammael is made flesh again in him.

The second thing -- and I can imagine some readers may well have problems with this -- is that if you look at it from a comparative mythology standpoint, I think there's a fair argument that the Lucifer/Sammael of the Apocrypha can be seen as another version of the Prometheus myth. He's the Godfather's right-hand-man. In some Gnostic or apocryphal legends it's actually Sammael who created the world and humanity, just like Prometheus. The Garden of Eden, with the serpent offering humanity wisdom, is a close parallel to Prometheus's gift of fire. Both tyrants, Deus and Zeus, are afraid of being usurped. Read Genesis without the Sunday School blinkers on and you'll find that God exiles Adam and Eve not for being disobedient but because he fears them eating the fruit of the tree of life and becoming as powerful as him. Explicitly. It's there in black and white. Prometheus is credited with bringing medicine and magic, all the arcane sciences to humanity. So are the fallen angels of the apocrypha. God turns against humanity and sends the Flood to wipe them out directly after the fallen angels start cavorting with them. Similarly, Zeus can't stand to see humanity thriving with these wonders gifted to them by Prometheus, so he sends the Greek version of the Deluge to destroy them all. If you look through the propaganda, Lucifer is the rebel hero of the story. He's just been given a bad press. Myth is written by the victors just as much as history is.

To me it seems self-evident, to be honest: if Seamus is Prometheus, then he's also Lucifer.

Two of the characters are gay. What has been the range of reactions that you have heard from people in regards to this, especially considering how these characters are portrayed throughout the novel? Also, how would you say the overall climate among readers is in regards to receptivity for homosexual characters?

The reaction's been overwhelmingly positive. I can't think of any responses I've seen that reacted against the homosexuality, and there's been plenty that have picked up on it as a good thing. The nearest thing to a negative reaction was a passing remark in John Clute's review, but that was because he saw the sex as self-indulgent, I think, a bit too redolent of authorial wish-fulfilment for his liking; it certainly wasn't about being uncomfortable with the characters being gay. Instead, where reviews or comments have mentioned the homosexuality it's largely been to praise the characters as rounded individuals; readers, gay and straight alike, seem to have felt that I've succeeded in elevating Jack and Puck out of the realm of stereotypes and tokenism -- which is truly gratifying. I really wanted to drive a big monster truck over the cliches, to blithely ignore any idea of what can or can't be done with gay characters, most of all for their sexuality not to be the be-all and end-all of their purpose in the narrative. I mean, yes, there's an element of the classic Gay Victim in Puck, and of the eternal Repressed Gay in Jack, but those cliches are set-up in order to be soundly thrashed, smashed apart. Yes, there's a part of the book which is about homophobia and its victims, but that's only part of a wider story about persecution in all its forms. And readers -- especially gay readers -- seem to have recognised the straightforwardness of this approach -- they're gay; big deal -- and found it... refreshing.

So, I'd have to say the climate seems pretty receptive. The field of strange fiction has always been pretty accepting of difference, I think. You do see a tendency to exoticise, fetishise, infantilise or demonise these differences -- to render them Other -- and a market for those works which is therefore receptive to gay characters as long as they fit into certain roles. The fetishisation of homosexuality in certain types of vampire fiction -- all those mooning sensitive poseurs in shirts with frilly cuffs, making doe-eyes at each other's luscious lips -- is something that particularly irks me; it's fricking softcore porn for Goth girls as far as I'm concerned, no better than having a faggot flouncing about for a few cheap laughs. But that Othering isn't the whole story. In a field of fiction largely written by geeks for geeks, I think, as often as not we identify with those outsiders. We write and/or read those works and see ourselves in the characters -- strangers in a strange land. That's me, we think, and I ain't no Other. Many of the most popular writers in this field, gay or straight -- Samuel R. Delany or China Miéville, Clive Barker or Neil Gaiman -- have quite happily placed gay characters right at the heart of their works, and nobody bats an eye.

Speaking of other authors, what changes have you seen in recent literature of the weird or fantastic? I’m wondering if there could be a strong case made for today’s SF reflecting the conflicts of the so-called Culture Wars of the 1980s-1990s.

Possibly so, though I'm not sure I'm the best person to ask here as I'm pretty out-of-date in my reading. As cyberpunk, after the initial boom in the Reagan/Thatcher era -- when it was so pertinent, so relevant, to the nascent culture of consumerism and global capitalism -- seemed to gradually become genrefied and formulated into a set of noirish tropes and stylisms, co-opted into a superficial style which was all mirrorshades and technotoys, I have to admit I drifted away from the field for awhile, lost touch with what was happening. I spent a long time reading more realist or non-fiction works, ancient classics or marginal contemporaries, than I did reading within the field, so I'm not really in a position to pontifcate on the changing face of SF. I'd be liable, I think, to unfairly neglect writers from the not-quite-so-recent past simply because I haven't gotten around to them yet.

What I will say, kicking off your question is that there definitely seems to be an engagment with large-scale political and cultural issues in a lot of the work that's coming out now, which really interests me. In SF, you have writers like Geoff Ryman and Iain Macdonald looking to developing countries -- India, Cambodia, Brazil -- for stories of the future, which strikes me as an admirable sense of perspective, looking beyond the narrow Anglo-American worldview, focusing on something beyond one's own backyard and the same old junk scattered around it. My fellow GSFWC member, Gary Gibson, has a few timely things to say about religious zealotry and military prisoners in both his novels, ANGEL STATIONS and AGAINST GRAVITY, and I'm sure he's not alone in picking up on the current climate -- Richard Morgan being a case in point. Then in Fantasy, you have China Miéville and Jeff VanderMeer, both of whose work deals with political issues far more complex than how the poor dispossesed prince needs to be restored to his throne. VanderMeer's SHRIEK, in particular, with the pointless war that blasts right through the centre of it, strikes me as pretty pointedly relevant -- though it's by no means a cipher for the War on Terror.

But as I say, I'm not sure I'm the best person to ask about this. It could be a shift towards greater political engagement, but it could equally well be that I'm not up to speed on a lot of what's been going on.

And finally a couple of not-so-serious questions:

Although I didn’t get to attend the last WFC in Wisconsin last year, I heard vague rumors about a lot of drinking and good times that occurred. Are there any funny stories to share of that time, such as which authors could best handle their liquor?

Unfortunately, I'm not sure I can answer that... on the grounds I may incriminate myself. No, my favourite story from last year's WFC can only be told in person, at the bar, with no recording devices or members of the law enforcement agencies present. I'd quite like to return to the US at some point, you see.

I will say that at Wiscon this year, having previously discovered the joys of the Governor's Club in the Madison Concourse at WFC (Brian, the barman mixes a mean White Russian), I managed to pretty much eradicate all memory of the Thursday night and had to spend the next three days asking anyone and everyone I ran across if they knew what I'd been up to. Having woken up in bed bright and early on the Friday morning around 9:00, I assumed I'd wigged out early when the Governor's Club shut ,and toddled off to my room. Oh, no. First I find out that my editor nearly tripped over me when he made it back to the room we were sharing at 3:00 in the morning to find me out cold, fully dressed on the (quite comfortable) floor. I have no memory of this. Next I find out that at least an hour after the Governor's Club closed John Scalzi walked into the elevator to find me swaying there with a White Russian in my hand (with ice unmelted and therefore clearly recent). Scalzi to Duncan: Hey, Hal. How ya doing? Duncan to Scalzi: I'm fucked. I have no memory of this either. Then there's the report of me sitting on the smoker's bench outside the hotel at 1:00 -- this from a worried bystander who, after seeing me stagger off through the lobby in a determined Z, responded to the revelation that I'd made breakfast with "He's still alive?!" Again, I have no memory of this. And I'm not going into the rumours that I finally heard, and had confirmed to my excruciating embarassment, of me hitting on another writer (albeit politely). All I'll say is that, as with the rest, I have no memory of this whatsoever.

Let that be a lesson to you: drinking is not big, it's not clever, and it doesn't make you look cool. Even if it is a lot of fun.

This last question is our version of the Rorschach Test for authors, to help us better gauge their personalities behind the quill/pen/keyboard: If you were to own several monkeys and/or midgets, how many would you own, and what would you name them?

Could I have Mexicans instead? I know you can't own Mexicans -- that's what we call slavery -- but then strictly speaking you can't own midgets either, and ethically speaking, monkey minions could also be considered rather dubious. No matter how well you treat them, you know, it's not their natural habitat. Unless, you're actually living with them in the trees, eating bananas and having mutual grooming sessions, of course, but then the whole ownership thing rather becomes a moot point.

No, I'd rather have Mexicans, or at least midget monkeys dressed as Mexicans, not so much real-life Mexicans but like the peasant kid in The Magnificent Seven. Come to think of it, seven would probably be a good number for these midget monkey Mexicans -- not too many, not too few. I'd have them all wear white linen and little red neckerchiefs, and every one of them would be called Pedro. That way, when I had some errand for them to run, I'd simply lean out the window of my villa and shout, Pedro! Scampering out of the trees they'd come, and the first one there would catch a shiny gold coin flipped through the air. To town, Pedro, I'd say. Quick, fetch the doctor! Or at least some very powerful painkillers. Si, Don Loco, Pedro would chitter, and be off like a flash.

One can but dream.

Once again, a great many thanks to Hal Duncan here. And for those curious, his next book, Ink, is due out in February. It was a real pleasure getting to do this interview.

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