The OF Blog: August 2006

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Interview with Eric Garcia

How did you become a writer?

Well, that's sort of a multi-part question, isn't it? It all pretty much started when I was 12 years old and my parents bought me my first computer (a Texas Instruments "Professional" -- wow!), which I used to start typing out my very first stories. So, in a sense, I've been a "writer" since I was 12. I don't know exactly what made me into a writer, what made me want to tell stories or gave me the ability to do so...

But the question you're probably asking is "how did I become a published writer?" and the answer to that is a little easier. As a child, I wrote short stories, and attempted my first novel when I was 16. Let's just say it did not go well.

After that, I went to college and majored in English, then in Psychology, then in film, then transferred colleges and majored in film again, then back to English where I stayed, thank God. All the while, I kept writing, mainly because it's something that I love to do. Some folks shoot hoops or do the crossword puzzle for fun; I write. Many writers, I know, practice their craft from a place of pain and/or difficulty, and I applaud their ability to do something day in and day out that tortures them. Me, I'm an instant-gratification kinda guy. If I didn't enjoy what I was doing right then and there, I'd probably stop and go do something more fun...

A year after I graduated from college, I wrote a manuscript, my first full-length completed novel, and it sat in my house for a couple of years before a friend convinced me to send it to agents. I was very fortunate in terms of timing; I got an agent inside a month and she sold the book inside the next couple of weeks. I realize now that this is *highly* unusual, and I can only blame/thank the stars and good timing for my success thus far. That manuscript was ANONYMOUS REX, and Random House/Villard bought it in fall of '98 and published it in Summer/Fall of '99, and just like that, I was a published writer.

Who were your influences? What kind of books were you reading as a kid?

I read a lot of fantasy and sci-fi as a kid, though I was open to mystery, suspense, pretty much anything that didn't make me wade through 100 pages of description. I didn't get into Faulkner until high school, so strong plotting was important to me as a child.

Naturally, I read the Lord Of The Rings series; in fact, The Hobbit was the first "adult" book I read, when I was 6, and from there I went into the usual suspects: C.S. Lewis, Madeline L'Engle, eventually bumping to Stephen King and then some light fantasy with Terry Brooks and Piers Anthony and those folks. Even back then, I wasn't all that interested in exploring Our World And The Normal Everyday Things That Happen In It. For a book to capture me, it needed to be slightly twisted. That's still the case today...

These days, I count some of my favorite authors as friends, and that tickles me something wild. Bill Fitzhugh writes some hysterically funny mysteries, Christopher Moore is a wonderfully twisted individual. My college professor and mentor was T.C. Boyle, and I cherish all the time I spent with him; it's nice to know I can still ring him up if I'm having a crisis. I've only gone to that well once or twice, though -- I mean, c'mon, I don't want to wear the man out. I've always enjoyed John Irving (just twisted enough) and Tom Robbins. If I'm looking for a total mind-screw, I re-read some Philip K. Dick...

Where you really into dinosaurs as a child?

Man, I wish I was, because then I could wax on about how my childhood obsession became a career obsession... but, no. Wasn't, really. No more than any other kid, I guess. The dinosaurs were just a way into the story for me, something that sparked my imagination and let it all take off... Of course, I know a lot about 'em *now*

Did you read a lot growing up and does it play into your writing now?

I read a ton growing up. As a kid, we used to take family vacations, and I was fortunate to get to go to Europe and Asia with my parents, and, as a result, spent a lot of time in the back seats of a lot of rental cars driving through countryside which, as an adult, would be fascinating, but as a child is not much more than field after windmill after sunset. So I read. And I read. And... I read.

Does it play into my writing? I don't see how it can't, but I couldn't give any specific examples. I've read thousands and thousands of books over my lifetime, and I'm sure each one, in its own way, left its mark on me. You'd think that some of it's got to come out in my writing...

How did you come up with the idea for Anonymous Rex? Detective stories are cool, dinosaurs are even cooler, but I never would have thought about combining the two.

Neither would I! The actual story isn't all that interesting, sadly. In the summer of '96, a year after I graduated from USC, I told my wife that if I was going to seriously make a run at becoming a writer, she'd have to crack the whip and make sure I got work done every day. One weekend, I wanted us to go to Las Vegas with friends, and she insisted that I get my 15 pages written that day. On a lark, I wrote this weird bit about dinosaurs yelling at each other in some guy's basement and then coming up to street level and putting on their human costumes... and promptly forgot about it. Months later, I came back to the story, re-read it, thought it interesting, and then took a shower -- where the rest of the idea exploded in my head. I sat down, started writing, and a couple months later, ANONYMOUS REX was born. Weird, I know, but the shower has worked countless times for me; if I'm stuck on a story point or character, I take a shower, and more often than not, I'll get past the block. Probably explains why I'm so very, very clean and fresh-smelling.

What's your favorite herb (people that have read the Rex books will get the reference)?

Cilantro! (I know, some people simply can't stand it, but mmmmm I loves me some cilantro!)

When you were writing Anonymous Rex, did you ever expect it to get translated as much as it did?

I barely even thought about publishing it in the U.S., let alone in as many countries as it's in right now. I simply just wanted to tell this story the best way I could, have some fun with it, and see what happened from there. Of course, the end goal is always publication, but foreign territories hadn't even occurred to me. Now I'm fortunate to have all 5 of my books published in something like 14 different countries, which is beyond wonderful. The more I can do to warp the minds of, say, Costa Ricans, the better.

The first two rex books were set in the west coast and the third was in Florida. Did you work any of your past into the settings since you live/lived in this area?

Anonymous Rex is set half in L.A. and half in NYC, and of course my L.A. experiences played into the settings and tone of the book. L.A.'s a great place for noir -really, the *only* place for American noir - and it just seemed a perfect fit.

Casual Rex is half L.A., half Hawaii, and again, a little Hawaiian reconnaissance
visit or two doesn't hurt anyone...

Hot And Sweaty Rex is barely L.A., and mostly South Florida, and since I spent the first 18 years of my life in the Miami area, it definitely plays into the novel. H&S Rex is, in a way, my love/hate letter to South Florida. I was born there, my family is
still there, and though I've physically escaped it by moving to California, I think mentally, I'll always have a part of me that's moist, chaotic, and a bit sultry.


Did you ever expect Matchstick Men to be made into a movie? Were you satisfied with it?

Unlike Anonymous Rex, which was written when I was as-yet unpublished and just starting out, I wrote Matchstick Men when I'd already had a degree of success. So I'd be lying if I said that I never expected it to be bought for film --

But let's look at that closely. I expected it to be *bought* for film --

But never to actually be made. Why? Because nearly nothing gets made. The odds are so incredibly against any property getting turned into a film that to assume my book would get that treatment would have been the height of hubris (not to say I'm short on hubris)...

And to imagine it would be directed by a man like Ridley Scott and star two of my favorite actors in the world (Cage and Rockwell)... very dream-come-true sort of stuff for me. I was incredibly pleased with the end result, and I'm thankful every day that a lot of people enjoyed the film. Even more so that it turned a bunch o' folks onto my books.

What TV/Movie writings are you credited with?

Most of my TV/Movie gigs have been rewrites or polishes that, fortunately, pay nicely, but unfortunately don't result in credits. I've sold a number of scripts that haven't yet been produced (see earlier question on near-impossibility of movies getting made), acting as producer on a few different film projects, and I'm in the middle of adapting my most recent book, CASSANDRA FRENCH'S FINISHING SCHOOL FOR BOYS with a great actress named Jordana Brewster to play the role of Cassandra. If you must know *everything*, I'll point out that I was the Co-Exec Producer of the Anonymous Rex TV movie for the SciFi Channel... but let's move on.

What are your hopes for the future?

I'm just interested in continuing to write the stories that interest me, and hope that they interest other folks as well. Books, movies, TV, stage, internet -- whatever the format, I'm there.

Oh, and world peace. Let's add that in.

Have you ever thought about expanding more upon your musical side?

I have, and I'm doing that right now, actually (well, not right *now*, but you get the point). I've been hired to write book & lyrics for a musical theater piece that the producers want to put on Broadway, and just lyrics for a second show (I'm working with my good friend and wonderful composer Brian Feinstein on both). I'm a huge musical theater geek, and though that business is possibly even more insane than Hollywood, the creative joy I get out of it is worth all the loopiness.

If you were to own several monkeys and/or midgets, how many would you own, and what would you name them?

I'd never own any midgets, because slavery is so 1860's. I might *hire* some midgets though, as part of an agreed-upon employee-employer relationship, and in that case, I would contract out for three midgets and name them Huey, Duey, and Louie.

As for monkeys, I've heard they throw a lot of feces, and I live in a strict no-feces development. Sorry, monkeys, you'll have to find another place to hang out. You don't have to go home, but you can't stay here.

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.

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

Friday, August 18, 2006

Interview with Elizabeth Moon

Indeed, the newest interview I'm bringing to you is with Elizabeth Moon. I was verry happy for getting to work with this amazing women, and it was my real pleasure making this interview.

Did your style change noticably from the time you started writing columns for the weekly newspaper and articles?

My style has probably changed over time, but I don't really notice that. I do notice a difference based on what I'm writing: each type of writing "asks" for a slightly different voice. Nonfiction tends to be conversational or instructional--either chatting or teaching—while fiction tells the story in the voice appropriate to its type.

Is there something you would change in your first published books?

There are a couple of really bad typos in the very first edition, which we caught in later editions. Aside from that, no. If I wrote them now, they'd be informed by another 20+ years of experience, but I don't know that they would be "better."

You have co-worked with Anne McCaffrey on two books. What was it like working with her?

Anne is a gracious, generous senior author, and delight to work with. I learned a lot from her.

Do you plan on co-operating with other authors? If yes, who with?

Probably not any time soon. It's too much fun playing in my own sandbox.

What does co-writing look like? How does it work?

Every pair of co-authors does it a little differently. Sometimes one is definitely the senior author, and sometimes they are more equal partners. Sometimes they work in the same office and sometimes (as with us) an ocean apart. So there really isn't one single answer.

You got serious about writing in your mid-thirties. What was your job before that?

I was in college or the military or college again until my early thirties, working part-time jobs that included tutoring math and science, photographing at horse shows, and even painting signs. While in graduate school, I was looking toward work in biology, probably in wildlife management or wildlife behavior research--which is now my unpaid "job." Once we moved to the small town we now live in, I did volunteer work with the local ambulance service and library, and for awhile worked as an unpaid assistant in a rural clinic.

Why fantasy?

Why NOT fantasy? I enjoy writing several kinds of stories, both fantasy and science fiction (from hard SF to "space opera" to near-future almost-mainstream.) Each gives me (as the writer) a different flavor of pleasure to work with.

What can you tell us about the book you are currently working on?

I'm working on the fifth and final book of the Vatta's War series, science fiction that straddles the divide between space opera, military SF, and political SF.

What are your plans for the future?

Write more books and keep working on our wildlife management project. I'm not sure what kind of book I'll write after the one I'm working on...but I know exactly what needs doing on the land.

Apart of writing, what are your interests?

Music (I sing in a choir), biology, emergency medicine and prehospital care (even though I'm no longer in the ambulance service, it's still an interest), prairie restoration and wildlife management, horses, wildlife photography, history, fencing (Renaissance style, rapier and dagger or buckler), politics, spaceflight, cooking...just about anything but filing and housework.

And the last question in this interview is the traditional question of the OF: If you were to own several monkeys and/or midgets, how many would you own, and what would you name them?

Aren't two mischievous horses enough trouble already? What I need in the "small" category is a brownie to crawl under the desk and keep my computer cords untangled, or plug and unplug things when I need that done. If I had such a creature, I'd name it Caliban, even though that's asking for trouble...though not as much trouble as if I named it Puck.

Thank you for being so kind to do this interview. We wish you the best of luck with your work.

Thanks for asking me.

That is it, for now.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Interview with Guy Gavriel Kay

Scrolling down you will find an interview with Guy Gavriel Kay, the author of Tigana, The Fionavar Tapestry and A Song For Arbonne among many others. Enjoy.

What would you say to entice somebody who has never read your work to read your books?

Different answers for different books, actually, as I've been a bit of a moving target over the years. The Fionavar Tapestry is my 'take' on Tolkien-style high fantasy, an attempt to incorporate a great many of the classic elements of the genre, but interweave complexity of character and motivation. My later books moved slowly but surely towards a space I discovered or created marrying history with fantasy, to explore themes I think are hugely relevant to readers today. I've spent nearly twenty years trying to make the point that fantasy can be as important as any other form of literature. One reviewer described the books as 'the kind of escape that brings you home.' If that notion appeals, the books should.

Do you lay out the structure of your books completely before beginning to write, just in skeleton form, or not at all?

Not at all. I subscribe to the British novelist Graham Greene's notion that if he outlined is books he felt like a stenographer while writing them. The novels are a discovery process for me as much as for the reader. I do know the themes, and a general sense of character and destination ... but the route unfolds as I go.

What effect did your work with Christopher Tolkien on editing The Silmarillion have on your own writing?

I think, looking back, that the exposure to JRRT's drafts, notes, false starts, dead ends helped to make me less awed and intimidated, later, when I started my own large fantasy. At the time I began Fionavar most of the 'serious' writers exploring fantasy were working AWAY from the epic form, as if surrendering it. That was the period when, for example, 'urban fantasy' was being shaped. My experience with The Silmarillion and the papers helped me to avoid that need to 'go somewhere else' in fiction. Later, I did move elsewhere to a degree, but it was because I was testing my own boundaries as a writer, not because I was abandoning the form.

Being a fantasy author, do you believe in magic, aliens?

Not in any sense that the genre embodies. I do believe there's life elsewhere in the universe. I hope there's baseball out there.

Where do you think your characters come from? Are they based off of people you are acquainted with or did they happen to pop into your head one day?

Neither, actually, though I tease friends that I've used them for various villains. The characters emerge from an immersion in the periods I'm researching for the books. For example, when I was reading about Byzantine history for Sailing To Sarantium and then Lord Of Emperors it became flat-out obvious to me that a mosaicist would have to be a central figure (ultimately THE central figure) and the idea of a sharp-tongued, angry, gifted artist began to emerge.

Many of your characters are artists, musicians, scholars and the like. Does this focus on the arts reflect on your own interests?

This fits nicely to the last question! Which of us did that? I've always been interested in the relationship of art and power, a theme that goes back a very long way in history. Artists of all kinds are also exceptionally useful to a writer as 'window' characters into a culture as they are – by definition, almost - observers of the culture and sometimes a bit estranged from it. They help the writer (and therefore the reader) to get a view, a perspective on that society. The risk - which is easier to avoid in fantasy and historical fiction - is for a navel-gazing, self-absorbed character.

What do you feel are the prevailing themes throughout your work? Fionavar dealt with good and evil, Tigana dealt with memory, Lions dealt with religious and cultural strife... Would you say there are unifying themes underlying your work? What are they?

Well, in a way, your question cleverly answers itself. You've noted diverse themes (Fionavar is, in many ways, about the price of power, actually) and this is simply the truth: each book starts with a theme, a REASON for me to be writing it, and for readers to spend however long it takes to read it. I need something more than 'paying the mortgage' as a motivation to spend as long as I do immersed in a book (three years for each, more or less) and the varying themes offer me that. They keep me thinking, asking questions. There are overlapping motifs among the books, and various critics and academics have been adroit in spotting them - and sometimes spotting links that aren't
there ... but that's another issue entirely!

How did you decide to write about civilizations so closely based on actual history, rather than creating entirely new cultures? What advantages/disadvantages does this method provide?

I've actually written speeches and essays on this topic, and some of them can be found over on, the authorized site on my work. The answer is complex and many-faceted. One aspect of it is that over the years I've grown increasingly interested in the interface between fantasy and history, the ways in which making the past fantastical can (paradoxically) bring it closer to the reader, not more distant. This follows from the way that, in a fairy tale, we are ALL the youngest son of the woodcutter who goes into the forest, or the only daughter of the fisherman, who goes down to the sea one evening ...

Your recent books have been closely tied to real history. How do you decide when to stay close to what actually happened, and when to allow your characters and civilizations to follow their own paths, which may not so closely reflect their historical basis?

This has varied from book to book, Maja. In A Song For Arbonne I wanted to offer some hints as to how western history might have been different if certain events had fallen out differently in medieval France and Provence. In The Lions Of Al-Rassan I wanted to SHARPEN awareness of what happened in medieval Spain in and around the time of the Reconquista (the Christian reconquest of the peninsula) so I 'telescoped' events but didn't change the ultimate result.

If you were to own several monkeys and/or midgets, how many would you own, and what would you name them?

Although I have been informed that several of my most esteemed colleagues and fellow-authors have leaped - nay, fallen all over themselves! - to reply to this delicate, probing inquiry, I am going to courteously pass, in order that we may both claim that no primates or vertically-challenged humans were injured or maligned in the making of this interview.

Thank you.

You're welcome.

An interview with Stephen R. Donaldson

Here is an interview I did with Stephen R. Donaldson. It was a pleasure working with Stephen, and I hope that it will be a pleasure for you to read it.

Are you thinking of doing something outside of the genre realm? Like a straight prose or even some poetry?

I don't plan my work in that fashion. I wait for ideas to come to me. And I don't "judge" them at all, or try to fit them into any particular genre. I try to write whatever my ideas ask me to write. (Consider my four "crime" novels, or the poetry on my web site.)

When you are writing, how important is the actual prose? Some folks seem to really focus on plot, world building or character development and seem to not prioritize prose. For others, prose is extremely important. Some come down in the middle, poor prose can kill a decent story, but good prose cannot lift up something dross. While writing, how much do you focus on the craft? Is it something that you come back and edit later?

I live for and through language. I see and feel with language. For me, "import" on every level is about language. Other writers have different (and equally valid) approaches; but for me a story fails if its prose doesn't "rise to the occasion" of its characters and plot.

In my first drafts, my over-riding priority is simply to get the story on paper. But I rewrite extensively and often. That's when I hone the crude forged metal of my prose into something that I hope will have a cutting edge.

Have you ever had any trouble with fundamentalists who object to their portrayal in the first and second Chronicles?

Very, very rarely. In general, those people don't read (so they don't know how they've been portrayed). They "demonize" an author when that author has become hugely popular among children (e.g. J. K. Rowling). Other than that, they live in ignorance.

Was it a conscious decision to have the importance of free will as the central theme of many of your books (The Ravers, The Zone Implant, Two of the Stories in Reave the Just), or did that just sort of slip in by accident?

I don't do it deliberately, but that doesn't mean it happens "by accident". It's an unconscious expression of who I am (or who I was when I wrote the particular story in question).

What, if any, connection is there between The Land and Middle Earth? There are some similarities between the two, is The Land homage to Middle Earth or is Middle Earth a model for what the Land is?

Tolkien's work made what I do possible. In that sense, "Lord of the Rings" is an inspiring model for "The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant." But Middle Earth itself was never a model for the Land (except in the sense that Tolkien showed me what could be done within the bounds of epic fantasy). Looking back, I can see "echoes" of Middle Earth in the Land. But then, I can see "echoes" of *lots* of things in the Land (Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" leaps to mind).

Thomas Covenant is an anti-hero. While you are not the first to write such a main character, it seems fair to say no one else was doing it in the time period when you first wrote. What authors do you think you read that influenced you to pursue writing a fantasy novel with this type of character? Are there other authors today you think are writing this type of character well?

I never know what to say in response to such questions because I don't think of Covenant as "an anti-hero": I think of him as the most important kind of hero there is, a *human* hero. I learned more about his character by reading "The Ambassador" (Henry James) than I did from any fantasy I've read (with this disclaimer: I'm a *very* slow reader, so there are many contemporary writers of fantasy whose work I haven't had time to read). However, I suppose I should mention Tennyson's "Idylls of the King," since it provided the foundation for much of what I've done with Covenant--and it is certainly fantasy.

What do you think your next move will be once Covenant is finally finished?

I have no idea. I never try to make those decisions in advance. However, short stories seem likely.

Who can drink more beer, Covenant or Avery?

Please. Everyone knows that the people in the Land drink springwine, not beer--or, if they're very lucky, diamondraught.

If you were to own several monkeys and/or midgets, how many would you own, and what would you name them?

Sleazy, Gropey, Dumpy, Rashful, Non-Sequiter, Aloysius, and Doc.
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