First off, Tell me about yourself?
Well, the homophobic hate mail labelled me “THE…. Sodomite Hal Duncan!!” (sic) and that seems as good an intro as any. I’m a queer writer, mostly known for science fiction and fantasy, but I do a fair bit of spoken word too, not exactly the shy and retiring type, so the sense of “The Outlaw Josey Wales” style swagger in that moniker does kinda tickle my fancy.
In terms of a broad bio: I moved into Pennyburn, Kilwinning, in the 1970s, grew up there through the birth of punk and Star Wars, the era of Mutual Assured Destruction, miners’ strikes and Margaret fucking Thatcher, of HIV and Section 28. Lost a brother in my teens and went a bit crazy for a while, but I came out of it basically stable; all the wanky adolescent angst kinda gets put into perspective when Death comes knocking on your door, so I’m pretty easy-oasy about most things, you know? So it goes, as Vonnegut put it.
I moved up to Glasgow for uni and I’ve been based there ever since, slogging away at the writing for a decade or so while working admin jobs, then retraining and working as a programmer. I got my big break in 2004 when Pan Macmillan picked up VELLUM, which made a big splash in the wee pond of SF/Fantasy, so I bit the bullet and went full time. It’s been a rollercoaster ride since then, a weird mix for a kid from the sticks, where you’re getting jetted off to Finland one day for a convention, then coming home to an empty fridge cause you’re broke as fuck. I’m very much a cult writer, as likely to do some anarcho socialist cut-up of the Gospels as something that will actually sell, so… well, it’s not the most stable of professions even for more commercial writers. I fucking love it though. I scrape by making shit up for a living, without a boss to answer to.
Since this is an Ayrshire based blog and you’re from Ayrshire, I have to ask, what do remember most about growing up here?
It’s hard to narrow it down, to be honest, to pick out specifics. That’s my whole childhood we’re talking, so if I look back, there’s a domino effect of memories sparked by memories. I remember playing in the construction sites of Pennyburn with the neighbour kids, our families having moved in while it was still being built. I remember the boy that went missing in Bourtreehill in 1976, hottest summer on record, how the adults thought he’d been abducted but all us kids fancied he was in the foundations of some pebbledash house. That kind of took root as a metaphor for me: this utopian dream of the New Town housing schemes built over a dead kid. I remember how the small town Orange Lodge sectarianism of Kilwinning did not mix with an influx of Glasgow overspill of Irish descent, how any group of kids hanging out at an underpass would challenge you: What team do you support, Rangers or Celtic?
There’s a thrawn pride in coming from Kilwinning now–like, Glasgow has a rep but pffft! we had “Welcome to Saigon” graffitied on the wall of the high street Presto’s, “HELL” painted over the “Welcome to Kilwinning” on the road sign in from Dalry, like fucking High Plains Drifter. But yeah, I have to admit that for much of the time I lived there, I’d have happily burnt the whole town to the ground. I’d a mate whose big brother went full-on National Front fascist. I was a geeky gay teenager at the height of the Casuals. There wasn’t a lot of love lost between me and Kilwinning, put it that way. At the Pennyburn playing fields, there’s the side walls of a bridge sat at ground level, a Bridge to Nowhere, a Bridge over Nothing. An old railway cutting was a dump when we moved in, see, then got landfilled. I always imagined the rats of the dump buried alive, having to eat other to survive now. Another metaphor for growing up in Pennyburn.
More positively though: there’s things that still fascinate me about the place. I’m the type of writer who likes to play with history and legends, and Kilwinning has the Number Nothing Masonic Lodge. It’s literally referenced in occult history texts. And I sorta remember as a wean exploring the abandoned explosives test ground at Ardeer Peninsula, how crazy and mysterious that landscape was. At the playing fields at Pennyburn again, see, there’s another wee bridge over a branch line that cuts between the Ayr and Ardrossan lines, after they split at Kilwinning, like the bar across an A. From the top of that bridge you can look out south-west to this ginormous sand dune hill and the chimneys of ICI. There’s a wee country road that heads out that way, cutting under the bypass, but you can’t really see the lay of the land beyond; I have these snatches of memory from way back though, images that are almost dreamlike: a road that seemed to stretch on forever; grass-covered hillocks in precise rows and column, like geometrically arranged burial mounds.
I’ve got one novel gestating at the moment, funny enough, which is diving into that. I spent a few months back with my folks at the start of 2016 to help them around the house after my dad had a heart attack, and walking the dog for them took me up by those bridges, looking out toward ICI. By now I thought those images were just dreams, but the thing is, I end up on the train to Irvine at one point to get some shopping in, and looking out on my right, I see these mounds, realise I’m looking out at this landscape I’d pegged as just a dream. It’s frickin real. Long story short, I ended up heading out one day, doing a bit of urban exploring around the abandoned parts of the old ICI works, and… well, things kinda got weird from there.
A middle-aged writer returned to the town of his upbringing, retracing childhood explorations. A missing kid decades before, who I sorta remember fancying that we might find. And I’d have been exploring with this childhood gang, all of whom are dead now except for me. So as I realise that this is all a bit “Stand By Me”, that I’m living in a Stephen King story, well, I start running into a bunch of odd synchronicities. And mysterious deaths. And old maps on which, I shit you not, that Ardeer peninsula is there one decade, gone the next. Like WTF?! So basically there’s a psychogeography novel brewing–virtually autobiography, to be honest–about this wee corner of Ayrshire I’m slightly obsessed with now. Parts of that landscape I can actually point to as having made it into VELLUM and INK. Like, the Road of All Dust in the prologue of VELLUM is based on one of those memories of Ardeer Peninsula so old I’d written it off as a dream.
Which of the books you’ve released is your favourite, and does that reflect the reception it’s received by fans and critics?
I think my favourite is always just the latest. Well, really it’s whatever I’m working on and can literally change from one week to the next if I jump from one project to another. There’s a constant honing of skills (at least one would hope so) and/or a shifting of interests, so what’s most exciting to me right now is not really gonna be VELLUM. It’s going to be that Ardeer novel, or the other two I have in the planning stages: one set on a far-future terraformed Mars; another that’s drawing on my Ayrshire roots again, using Glaisnock House down by Cumnock as a setting.
Looking back at the completed stuff… thing is, there’s different skills and aims in different works, so that favourite status will shift also depending on what mood I’m in. What’s the most fun and accessible? What’s the most bugfuck mental? I’m rubbish at doing Top Five lists of albums or novels, because fundamentally I think the best art is what’s good at being itself. For me, you can’t rank David Bowie against Iggy Pop; it’s apples and oranges. Bowie is the best at being Bowie. Iggy is the best at being Iggy. Likewise with SUSURRUS ON MARS or THE LAND OF SOMEWHERE SAFE or TESTAMENT, to pick the three most recent projects, most reflective of where I’m at right now. They’re each very different, and if they’re not trying to do the same thing, I can’t say that this one pulls it off better than that one. I rate them all for being the best I could make them at what they wanted to be.
The reception by fans and critics does maybe come into play here though. I’m not sure it’s really about rating the work more highly, but with VELLUM and INK… they’ve found their audience and been loved, so I can let them go, move on. Other people love them, so… the puppies have gone to a good home, if that makes sense? In contrast, those three more recent works all came out from small presses, and TESTAMENT in particular is really not commercial. So it didn’t get a lot of reviews, I don’t know how well it’s found its audience, and so it has more of a place in my heart for that.
Or with THE LAND OF SOMEWHERE SAFE, that just came out in September, but it’s an offshoot of a series of chapbooks I’ve been self-publishing for a while, instalments of interconnected stories and novellas in this “Scruffians” mythos. A sort of a twisted satirical riff on Peter Pan, those are huge fun to write and I kinda feel they’re some of my truest work and the most accessible, but ironically I think they have a readership in, like, double digits. I’m rubbish at self-promotion, so there’s a hardcore of fans who know about the Scruffians and love the hell out of them, but beyond that, they seem virtually unknown. So yeah, as I talk about that, right now, my own passion gets het up because I’m sure there’s readers out there who’d click with these books so hard, and I could easily say, “This. This is my favourite. Of all my ouvre, this is the fucking bomb,” but I know tomorrow I could be saying the same thing about SUSURRUS ON MARS.
On a related note, how do you take criticism, and on the other side of the coin how do you respond to positive feedback?
I’ve been a member of the Glasgow SF Writers Circle since my uni days, a no-nonsense critique group where one of the first things I brought in got me my best and worst feedback ever, one member describing it brutally (but justifiably) as, and I quote, “like bad Doctor Who fanfiction.” I hated Doctor Who at the time, so that cut fucking deep. It was spot on though, exactly the ruthless skewering of my adolescent wank I needed. And I learned from that, and from a whole lot of subsequent critique, to disinvest ego from my fiction, to not be precious. There was a lot of wound-licking over the years, to be sure, some “YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND THE GENIUS THAT IS ME!” disgruntlement, but with a good hard-nosed workshop group like the GSFWC, a bitter vow to show those bastards with the next story, and the honing of editing skills on other writers’ work, where you can be objective, can mean that eventually you’ve zero problems ruthlessly ripping apart your own work, looking at the words on the page with a surgeon’s cold dispassion.
Ego can make you refuse to see the flaws, throwing a strop at negative feedback, or it can make you see nothing but the flaws, the slightest negativity a trigger to crises of self-doubt. If you can take ego out to the desert and put a bullet in the back of its head, approach the work without it, asking simply “Does it work or not, does it do the job or not?” it becomes kinda just like coding and debugging. You don’t throw a hissy fit in denial when your code doesn’t run because it’s your precious baby and it’s perfect as is, shut up! You don’t throw your hands up in despair because you’re rubbish, a talentless imposter, nothing you do will ever work! You just figure the fuck out how to fix it. You even learn to enjoy the challenge.
At that point, negative criticism is just a factor to weigh if it makes sense, water off a duck’s back if it just misses the point of what a work is trying to do. Some people won’t get it. Some people will get it, but it won’t be doing what they’re looking for a story or novel to do. If you’ve written a cubist fantasy that shatters linearity, has characters in myriad incarnations across different realities, and works in adaptations of the myths and dramas of Antiquity in what’s basically full-on prose poetry at points, you have to accept that some people are going to just fucking loathe that. They’re going to throw it across the room at page 50 and give you a one-star Amazon review. So it goes. That’s a perfectly fair response. They’re entitled to not be looking for what you’re offering. The negativity is only unjust if they jump to bitter projections and nonsense conspiracy theories about why something got published because they refuse to believe that anybody could like a book they hate. And even there, unless it’s a professional critic who should know better, fuck it. So it goes.
Positive feedback can actually be harder, I find. I mean, it’s gobsmacking when you get an email from some kid telling you that your book helped them get through a hard year at boarding school, and you can kind of read between the lines as to why this novel with queer protagonists clicked with them. There’s positive responses that make your fucking day, that you remember for years, knowing that you done good, that your book didn’t just entertain someone but helped them, in some very real way. But if you don’t want to be an arrogant arsehole, face-to-face praise can turn you into an embarrassed stuttering “Aw shucks” eedjit, unsure what to say. And a whole lot of rave reviews can take you from “positive feedback” territory into “lauded darling”.
With award nominations and suchlike… that’s when angst can kick in, when you absolutely have faith in the work, but people make it about you, and you’re… just some queer kid fae fuckin Kilwinning. But you’re the Next Big Thing suddenly, a celebrity in this wee tight-knit scene of SF/F; and that’s a fucking blast, sure, but it’s like a drug. It’s like some coke and ecstasy high, that buzz of pride and joy, and it can’t help but mess with your head getting praise in quantities that are basically ridiculous. I didn’t get the Imposter Syndrome you hear about a lot, but Second Album Syndrome? Totally. I’d a hellish writer’s block in the wake of The Book of All Hours, just because I’d never really expected to make it. I thought maybe at best I’d get published by some wee small press. Then suddenly I’m up for the fucking World Fantasy Award beside Murakami and Brett Easton Ellis. Shit like that makes your life feel a bit unreal, and I suspect part of me wanted to blow that up to get back to a nice comfort zone of being just some weirdo writing in obscurity.
Would you describe your books as a specific genre, and if not why? And how do you feel about other people’s attempt to categorise your books?
I’d class THE LAND OF SOMEWHERE SAFE as straight-up fantasy, and I’d class SUSURRUS ON MARS as straight up science fiction, but if we’re talking about something like VELLUM, it gets tricky because we don’t have classic tropes like dragons or space travel to go by, and the deeper I unpack what is going on in that novel, the more I think that taxonomy is a false dichotomy. I’m happy calling that book science fiction or fantasy, but both are just a shorthand that’s useful in some ways, a pain in the arse in others. My fallback descriptor is generally “cubist fantasy” these days, but I could as easily just say “SF” or “strange fiction” depending on who I’m explaining it to.
SF/F is really a marketing category, see, a target audience, a nominal label for a whole slew of different genres (Space Opera, Cyberpunk, Cosy Apocalypse, Epic Fantasy, Swords & Sorcery, etc,) in this vast field of what I’d call strange fiction if I was being technical: fiction that uses the strange. There’s strange fiction that’s published without that label–Attwood, Murakami, Borges, etc.. A lot of writers I love are in that territory–William Burroughs, Mark Z. Danielewski, Edward Whittemore. Many of them I’d as happily call science fiction or fantasy too (or horror); they just don’t have the category label, they get shelved in General Fiction, because publishers and bookstores figure this is the best way to reach a wider audience turned off by the more codified genres dominating SF/F. The dedicated SF/F readers will still find them too. Pan Macmillan actually left the category label off VELLUM and INK, pitching it as that sort of cross-over work. I was like: OK, cool. Whatever works.
Where VELLUM and INK can obviously be classed as science fiction or fantasy though, regardless of them not having that category label, where it gets gnarly is when folk ask: yeah but which are they? They’re both. Neither. It depends how you look at it. You decide. I read works in both camps as a kid–Tolkien and Lewis and Asimov and Heinlein. I mainly got sucked into SF as a teen, collecting the Gollancz Classics, more interested in the spaceships than the dragons. But what really blew me away when I found it was the New Wave–Samuel R. Delany giving us non-linearity in DHALGREN, Moorcock’s Cornelius Quartet, shit like that. I’d argue that stuff is really best described as Pulp Modernism, truth be told.
See, there’s a backlash against Modernism in the wake of WW2, I’d say, the elitism of Pound and Eliot and suchlike tainted by association with fascism. Realism becomes the dominant mode of serious fiction, and anything using the strange–the uncanny, the fantastic, the marvellous–has to affect the irony of postmodernism to render itself safe, like a smart kid playing class clown so he doesn’t get the crap kicked out of him. The only place you can get away with all that Modernist experimentalism played straight (before magic realism comes along, at least,) is in the gutters.
So you start with Alfred Bester riffing on James Joyce and it goes from there. By the time you hit the 70s, “SF” is really just a default label for any sort of strange fictions, including those that don’t fit any genre template as codified as, say, Space Opera, fictions that have fuck all to do with science, have more in common with frickin 1970s surrealist cinema. There’s been a shift since the New Wave though. People started talking about that stuff as “slipstream” in the 1980s and 1990s. By the turn of the 21st century maybe, the default label for all those strange fictions had shifted to “fantasy”. In the dealer’s room at my first World Fantasy Convention in the noughties, that was the sort of stuff predominating, writers like Kelly Link–whose work is absolutely classed as fantasy.
By the time VELLUM came out then, that was widely classed as New Weird rather than New Wave, as a work in this subset of fantasy. Again I was like: OK, cool. Just as SF includes Jerry Cornelius for me, fantasy includes Kafka; I don’t buy into the rigidly codified definitions applied to either label by partisans. I’m not going to eschew either label, insist on “strange fiction” or “Pulp Modernism” like I’m trying to distance myself from the category. But when it comes down to it, I think those terms are so broad and blurred at the edges and outright overlapping that trying to pigeonhole VELLUM as one or the other is pissing in the wind.
How much research goes into your writing, in particular how much research did you do for Vellum?
VELLUM and INK are the hardest ones to answer that for, to be honest, because they were written over a ten year period and were fed into by an entire teens and twenties of interest in mythology and religion, where you can’t really talk of research so much as just me reading a fuckload of random shit. Like, I didn’t read Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound or Inanna’s Descent and Dumuzi’s Dream in order to write VELLUM; I just thought they were cool. I picked up books on Sumerian mythology and civilisation over the years, on other Near Eastern cultures, or on Classical civilisation. Dodgy popular pseudoarchaeology books that I’m sure most reputable historians regard as utter bunkum. A lot of what you’ve got with the Book of All Hours, I’d say, is really more just a mass of scraps of knowledge and notions I’d built up over the years serving as inspiration.
The most actively researched aspects were probably the wartime sequences. For the Caucasus sequence, I remember buying a map of the region, reading Lermontov, talking a bit with a war buff friend, but it wasn’t until I did the Dumuzi’s Dream sequence that I started reading up on WW1 online, the Pals Battalions and such. I knew a bit about the Red Clyde already, but there was a bit of internet foraging there too, and my dad’s an old Labour activist and history teacher, so I raided his library when it came to the Spanish Civil War. A lot of the details in VELLUM are taken straight from a book called VOICES FROM THE SPANISH CIVIL WAR, a collection of interviews with Scottish members of the International Brigades. Actually, that’s probably where research really started to matter to me. Once you start reading these survivors’ stories in their own words, it both brings it alive and in doing so, brings it home how these are real people’s lives and deaths, how you have to show a bit of fucking respect. You can’t be glib, offhand, fudging shit because it’s just a story. And the realities are just more powerful than some vague fancy anyway.
Since then… aye, a bit obsessive at times is not inaccurate. With short fiction, there are stories that really don’t need any research at all, but even there, the Scruffians tales have settings going back from the present day to Skye during WW2, to Victorian London, to the Children’s Crusades and beyond. And I can go deep with those. To give an example: with that other novel project I’m working on set in Glaisnock House, the basic premise is sort of Harry Potter meets Lindsay Anderson’s If…. So I was looking for a setting to work as a kinda borstal Hogwarts, some crazy complex grand old building for use as a school. I was blethering on Twitter about Rowling’s whole Tom Brown’s School Days schtick from a working class kid’s point of view, how I remembered visiting this mansion somewhere for an outward bound thing as a kid, and someone tweeted me that it sounded like Glaisnock. As soon as I looked it up online, I recognised the exterior, and it was perfect.
So, cue a bit of research: which in this case meant watching a handful of urban explorer videos on YouTube, the place having been derelict for a few years. Then watching them again, and again, and again. I scoured the web for what scant information there is, to the point of now being able to tell you the names of three siblings who lived there in the Victorian era and when they all died, despite having no need for this at all. I found an old eBay listing for the scrapbook of one with pictures in it–also completely surplus to requirements but with some fascinating pics. I spent a literal twenty-four hour period, working through the night just because I got sucked into it, tracing a plan view from Google Maps and going painstakingly through those videos to reconstruct the floor plans from the basement to the third floor.
This is people walking through a pitch black basement, I mean, flashing a torch this way and that, turning every which way in a fucking labyrinth. But I was fucking determined. I’ve actually nailed down where the sealed-off room is; I vaguely remember a rumour when I visited, would have thought it was just kids’ imaginations working overtime in a spooky old house, but no, there’s genuinely an extra window on the first floor of the original core building, between the last room you can get into there and the south wing. I can’t quite tell where the door for it should be, but to get into it I know which wall you could take a sledgehammer to. Where I wanted a secret room for the novel, the thing couldn’t be more perfectly placed.
But yeah, that’s the level of research I can happily get sucked into. Emphasis on the happily. I’m not trumpeting some great dedication to fidelity here. I fucking love shit like that, scouring old maps, nailing down an exact location for some character’s den in a London rookery, diving into an online repository of articles on the molly markets of the Georgian era. It’s fascinating in and of itself, it can spark as many new ideas as it answers questions, and with something like that Glaisnock example, I’m just not that great at visualising a setting made up from whole cloth, and I need that vividness for the story to flow. Things like those videos are an absolute godsend.
Are there any authors who you really like, and/or influence your own writing?
Having talked about the Glaisnock novel and the Scruffians stories earlier, the logical first on the list has to be Michael de Larrabeiti, a kids’ fic writer, so not someone you’d immediately associate with things like VELLUM or TESTAMENT, but without a doubt the writer who’s had the longest-lasting influence, given that I read THE BORRIBLES in primary school. And his riff on Barrie’s Lost Boys as snot-nosed latchkey kids gone feral in 1970s London is subversive as fuck. Kids who’ve chosen to never grow up, Borribles live in squats, winning their names by adventure, and in the first book going on a Dirty Dozen style mission to assassinate the high command of their arch-enemies, these giant rat like creatures who’re a delicious kneecapping of the Wombles. With a decapitation by shovel in the second book and a scathing pisstake of the London Met, we’re talking kids’ fic so bolshie that the third book got dropped by the publisher in the wake of the Brixton Riots.
Politically then, these books are the perfect antidote to Enid Blyton and C.S. Lewis, to all the reactionary politics and religious allegory and general dodgy claptrap the sacred cows of classic kids’ fic are rife with, so I don’t doubt they helped give me a better sense of ethics than Aslan ever did. And with the real world setting, they stamped into me a sense of fantasy that wasn’t locked into some magical realm–Narnia or Middle-Earth. For so many, fantasy begins and ends with secondary worlds, elves and magic swords. For me, it was always immortal kids in jeans, with woolly hats to hide their pointy ears, nicking an apple from a barrow and legging it.
The Scruffians are basically a huge homage to de Larrabeiti’s Borribles, a darker twist on his guttersnipes, mimicking the Artful Dodger charm and whimsy but as a front for adult satire; the debt is transparent if you know them both. Beyond that obvious tribute though, I realised a while back that at least two of my recurrent characters, Joey and Fox, used in The Book of All Hours and elsewhere, are essentially my takes on two of de Larrabeiti’s Borribles. His characters so imprinted on my childhood fantasies, they’re basically my avatars of the Jungian archetypes of Shadow and Superego. You can’t get more influential than that.
For more adult influences and/or inspirations, I could reel off a massive list that would do none of the individuals on it justice, but instead I’ll just point at writers mentioned above and single out Delany as an absolute genius. I discovered his early SF as Gollancz Classics, then had my mind blown by DHALGREN, and he’s continued to amaze me with everything he’s produced since. I rate his most recent novel THROUGH THE VALLEY OF THE NEST OF SPIDERS as, of those I’ve read, the single most important novel of the 21st century to date.
If you haven’t heard of him, Delany’s a black gay writer and academic. In the late 60s, he raised the bar on prose craft in SF, brought it up to compete with any stylist you care to name. He raised the bar again in the seventies with DHALGREN, a monumental work of the sort of ambition you get in Pynchon, Joyce, Mailer. He reinvented fantasy in his Neveryon series, which I’m not even going to try to describe except to say that one volume contains what I believe is the first story ever to tackle the AIDS epidemic–and it does so in a wild manner, cutting between this fantastic city of an imagined Antiquity and New York in the 1980s.
He’s erudite to a level that awes me, and a genius as much in emotional terms as intellectual. Like, he is genuinely just the sweetest person you will ever have the pleasure to meet, and that underpins his writing. THROUGH THE VALLEY is a 700-odd page tome which tells the story of a gay interracial couple over the decades they’re happily together. That’s basically the plot. They get together and it works. They have a good life. Together. Along with the cooking and discussions of Spinoza’s Ethics, it has no small amount of pornography of the most fetishistic, graphic and downright gross nature, exhaustively detailing actions that are with 100% certainty going to make every reader go “Ewww!” at some point or other. And it’s absolutely beautiful, one of the most moving novels I’ve ever read, heartstopping in its humanity, because it’s post-transgressive.
It just point blank refuses to see any of that gross stuff as transgressive, I mean. With William Burroughs, Hubert Selby Jr, some of Delany’s own earlier work, you get taboos broken in a way that’s shocking, in a way that arguably reinforces the taboo because it’s all about how shocking the breach is. Not so here. Delany just negates the taboos, writes all those ickiest acts as… casual communions. Often with strangers. Like a scene where one character cooks chilli for a bunch of others–and the action is largely that sort of everyday domesticity–it’s just a way to give, to bond. So the novel ends up profoundly utopian, and where Delany’s empathy just saturates the pages, you end up with such an intimate portrait of the couple that as it takes you right up to the ends of their lives, it floors you. It’s not tragic. It’s not maudlin. It’s just… I can’t even explain it. I can only recommend you read it. It’s like… the moments I’ve felt most important in my own writing… this is what they’re aspiring to.
What has been your proudest moment as a writer/performer and what is your greatest accomplishment?
I have to confess, I’m not really sure. Again, I’m rubbish at the Top Five ranking thing, more inclined to think of what I’m aiming for, or the most recent work that’s come together just right, than to look back on past stuff and rate one moment relative to one another. C.f. my answer about positive feedback too, for all that I’m a cocky motherfucker and attention slut, I don’t know that I really think of it in terms of pride and accomplishment per se. Like, where those novels and stories each have their own aims, where it’s about making each the best at what it’s meant to be, my biggest contribution is just getting myself the fuck out of the way so I can see what needs to be done to achieve that.
I don’t think in terms of “The Muse” or such shite, but I do kinda feel each work is a thing unto itself that’s sparked from some chance logical connection, rooted somewhere in my backbrain, started knitting together from associations, taking shape in accordance simply with a natural dynamics of narrative. Like, it’s an autonomous self-generating complex of symbols, and me, I’m just realising it–in both senses, recognising and making-real. There’s a buzz in the recognition of success, in nailing a work down as it wants to be, but pride in oneself seems a bit misplaced. If there’s pride there, it’s less in something as my accomplishment, more like parental pride in a kid done good. Pride on behalf of VELLUM, say, that for some reader stuck in a shitty boarding school it was something of a lifeline.
I think the nearest I can come to a straight answer then is with a project that took me by surprise in taking wing out of the nest in a way I never expected: the gay punk Orpheus musical NOWHERE TOWN that started as a bonkers caprice and ended up staged by college kids in Chicago.
I’d had a three day fling with a guy who ghosted me after, see, and having fallen for the idea of falling for him as much as actually having fallen for him, I proceeded to expiate my misery with a week-long absinthe-fuelled songwriting spree. I mean, I firmly believe the best way to get through heartbreak is to go all-in on the overwrought Romanticism of it, booze for a week with “Love on the Rocks” on repeat until the sheer absurdity of the cathartic performativity gets it out of your system. So I was writing Tom Waits style laments and the image of this grizzled heartbroken wastrel persona in a dive bar straight out of Small Change seeded itself as a scenario; the narrative took root.
Those songs clicked with others I had kicking about from a time when I was arsing about with a mate in a punk “band” that never got further than my make believe. A story took shape. Before I know it, I’ve got my perennial cast–Jack and Puck, Joey and Guy from VELLUM and elsewhere–in this full-on fucking musical in which punk singer Jack is taken by this Tom Waits psychopomp called Chorus from a dive bar in Limbo to a cabaret in Hell in the attempt to rescue his dead love, Puck. There’s all flavours of punk numbers, Tom Waits style blues (and tango!), and outright Broadway show tunes–and I mean medleys and fucking ensemble numbers.
I have zero musical ability, mind, beyond imagining music in my head. I can’t hold a note, can’t play an instrument, and can’t write sheet music. I know exactly how the singers’ voices will overlap in a duet, but I’ve fuck all capacity to communicate that to another human being, let alone perform it. Still, in a daft procrastination from doing actual fucking work, I find myself mucking around on Garageband, discovering a piano riff that matches what I imagined for one song, and I end up, by the power of Apple Loops layered umpteen tracks deep and snipped and spliced all manner of ways, constructing the backing tracks for all of the songs. Because why the fuck not? Never underestimate the power of procrastination. I post the book and the mp3s on my blog, then gaily go around singing these songs terribly to myself in the privacy of my own home, blethering to mates about the mad project sometimes, drunkenly singing the entire thing in a room party at a convention, but at the end of the day, putting it out of mind.
Until one day I get an email from a couple of students at the University of Chicago, asking permission to stage it. They’re readers of my books, follow the blog, and want to do it as their Drama Club project. I’m tickled pink, of course, and give them the go-ahead, but there is the sticking point that the tracks on the blog don’t have vocals. The lyrics are there to read, but can I provide the sheet music for them or something? The something I eventually comes up with entails me recording my version then conscripting a couple of mates with actual musical skills to listen to my tone deaf, flat-as-a-pancake travesty of the tunes and make sense of what I was aiming for. Bless them for their patience, I don’t know how they manage it, but they do. So we get demo mp3s of the full thing with decent vocals and hand them over to the kids in Chicago to learn by ear.
And they pulled it off, by fuck. I managed to scrape up some money, and with the cast and crew chipping in, I flew over to Chicago and saw them stage it, and it was fucking glorious. I hadn’t realised quite how swanky a university Chicago is, not quite Ivy League but with some wealthy donors, so the budget was ridiculous. It was so professional, the set looked fantastic and every single one of them was talented as fuck. The kid who played Chorus was a wee skelf of a lad I was surprised to see in that role, but when he opened his gob, this pure Tom Waits growl came out and he sold it perfectly. It only ran for three or four nights, but I was there every night, I think, and on the last night they hauled me up to give a bow as the author at the final curtain.
That was just fucking brilliant. It wasn’t just my accomplishment though. Hell, when you look at the amount of work going into a stage production, my contribution was a fraction of it. But to see the project realised as it was meant to be, not just a fancy in my head, not just words on paper, mp3s played through a stereo, but as a full live performance. I was so fucking chuffed.
I can see you offer editing/mentoring services, tell me a little more about that?
I’m not so regular now at the GSFWC, but since I joined when I started uni, we’re talking thirty-odd years of experience in critiquing. So I reckon it’s fair to say giving feedback is a bit of a skill. I’d probably never have thought to do anything with that, but Gary Gibson, a fellow member who got his first book deal a few years before me, started doing paid critiques for an agency called Jericho Writers, and he pointed me at them as a good extra revenue stream to help keep the wolves from the door. You get sent through a manuscript, read it, write a report for the author, and they get a wee follow-up chat by phone to clarify points, bounce ideas around and/or just ask any other questions they have about the craft and/or business. It’s book doctoring, really, rather than editing per se.
I was a bit wary of it going in, because there’s a lot of sharks preying on naive writers, and there’s a lot of writers looking for validation more than real feedback. For that reason I’ve maybe tended to go a bit overboard in making sure clients get their money’s worth. The reports are advertised as a minimum of 5K words, as I recall. Mine have grown to regularly be more like 20-30K words. I describe it as a literary MOT, working methodically through all aspects of the craft, focused on finding issues that need fixed and suggesting solutions. I’m happily surprised to have only ever had a couple of clients who took umbrage because they were really just looking for smoke blown up their ass. I’ve been well impressed by the number of clients who took some tough feedback on the chin and were galvanised by it. I mean, I’ve told people that their Author’s Pet protagonist really needs to be ripped out entirely and the whole novel rewritten from the PoV of a minor character whose only in it for one scene. Because that was the hard truth.
Jericho Writers also runs an annual festival in York, so for a few years now I’ve also been travelling down to that to run workshops and give one-to-one sessions face-to-face. It’s expensive for the punters, but the first year I went I was seriously impressed by the calibre of the other book doctors and the agents that Jericho Writers bring in. Any qualms about the company had been long put to rest by then, but it was still good to see. And developing and running the workshops there also prompted me to offer mentoring independently, face-to-face–sort of like a literary analogue of guitar tuition. I offer an initial consultation for basically the price of a pint in a pub as we chat about what you want and what I offer. I’ll talk you through feedback on a sample of writing provided in advance, and if the method works for you, subsequent sessions can be arranged round my flat.
My core method then is essentially live editing: hook the laptop to the telly, manuscript up on the screen, and we go through it line by line from the start, honing. Reread the sentence and hone it. Reread the paragraph and hone it. Reread the passage and hone it. I’d one client who booked a full week of sessions, afternoon and evening, came up from fucking Stevenage for it and stayed in a B&B. It was intense as fuck. Both our brains were melting when we called it quits at the end of each night. We got through an entire chapter in that week–a whole chapter. But he was blown away by how he could see the narrative improving, finding its shape, and I was well chuffed at how, by the end of the week, he was pre-empting my comments, picking out exactly the issue I was about to highlight, making exactly the suggestion I would have.
It’s flexible, to be clear. With another client, I’ve spent much more time just talking through plot points of her novel, thrashing broader aspects out conversationally. I also now offer reports direct, because that way I can give back the annotated manuscript too, so if a novel is of a higher standard, it can slide from the sort of report-focused book doctoring you get via Jericho Writers into something more like the editing you’d get from a publisher or an agent: feedback focused into comments and suggested tweaks on the manuscript itself, the report more of a summary of key points rather than a blow-by-blow analysis going through all aspects from the ground up–presentation, prose, PoV and voice, dialogue, action, and so on. I’ve had the odd freelance editing gig for publishers the last few years too, and it’s good to get to work on novels that are further along, don’t need the radical overhauls that the rougher ones often do.
What advice do you have for people just starting out as a writer?
You are not just starting out as a writer. I mean, not unless you’re literally a four year old. You’ve been writing since you learned in primary school. I’ll bet you’ve been making up stories too, even if you weren’t writing them down, just playing make-believe in the playground. Or with action figures in your bedroom. And I don’t imagine school has changed so much since my day that they no longer set story writing tasks, so however long ago you wrote down your first story, shite as it might have been, you have been writing since then. You’re not just starting out. You’re not a “new” writer. You are a writer, full stop.
The whole “new writer” notion is a fancy of yourself as novice, as aspirant, as learner, but here’s the thing: You will never stop being a learner. You will never stop aspiring. You will always look at yourself as a novice compared to the writer decades your senior whose new work still blows you away. There is no graduation day, so there is no distinction. The only distinction you’re making by classing yourself as a new writer is a sort of shilly-shallying admission that you’re not the sort of writer you want to be: to wit, you’re not good and/or you’re not published.
You’re not a “new” writer. You’re an unskilled writer and/or an unpublished writer. Own that.
And note the distinction, because if you’re thinking of publication as graduation day, as validation day, the day you go from being a “new” writer to a “proper” writer, this is wank. Kafka wasn’t published in his lifetime. You might never be published in yours. Or you can pay to have the worst drivel published by a vanity press. Fuck it, you can even get paid by a real publisher for skim written dross that naively manages to hit the right wish-fulfilment buttons and so becomes a household name despite being dire. Ask yourself: what sort of publication is it you want, and why? Is it just your name on the cover of any old book filled with amateurish tosh–publication as graduation as validation? Or would you feel like an imposter hugging your new booky book like a diploma if you knew it was shite?
If your answer is that you don’t give a shit about quality, you just so want to see your name on the cover of a book, have people know you as a Published Author™, you don’t need my advice; you can find a vanity press to exploit your egoistic self-gratification anywhere. You wouldn’t be asking me for advice though, if that were the case, so I’m gonna assume that you would feel like an imposter, right? Because as that “new” nonsense is stripped away with the “unpublished”, you’d be left with the raw truth: that you’re unskilled. This is what you really care about. That you’re not a good writer.
But here’s the thing: in the moment you accept that, cease seeing yourself as a “new” writer and start seeing yourself as simply a writer, but as a bad one, as a rubbish one even, you have become a better writer than you were ten seconds ago, your writing no longer that of an inveterate amateur and hobbyist. The “inveterate” is the crucial word there, mind. Again, Kafka was never published in his lifetime; writing just as a hobby is perfectly legitimate. The issue is being stuck in that mode against your own supposed ambitions. The “inveterate” means hobbyism as an excuse for bad craft, means writing off flaws as acceptable since you’re really only playing at writing, means wistful daydreams of being a proper writer–if only, *big sighs*.
Fuck that shit. You are not a new writer. You are not just starting out. The only startpoint here is if and when you get serious about the craft. If and when you accept the fact that you might never be published and yet cease to make allowances for the bad craft on the bogus excuse that you are but a humble naif. The only “proper” writer, if you need a threshold, is the one who’s buckled down to the task of improving their craft, and you can be that with not a single publication credit to your name because everything you’ve written to date is utter mince. No certificate required.
There is an infinitude of advice on techniques that a skilled writer could give to the unskilled, but the glib reductive axioms trotted out as wisdom often do more harm than good, so I can’t–won’t–offer more practical advice than that here. That craftsman mindset is a universal requisite though, I’d say, the most critical skill to learn, because it’s what’ll drive you to learn all the other skills. It’s about ego getting in the way again, really. It’s not about platitudes of “dedication” or “belief in yourself”. It’s about the rookie mindset as avoidance driven by ego, doing yourself down a little so as not to feel a total failure when you look at your writing and see crap. It’s about facing up to that wee part of yourself and how to deal with it, hitman style. You fuckin double-tap the wee nyaff, bury it in the sands, and go write.
And lastly do you have social media/a website and if so provide links?
My website is at http://www.halduncan.com, and that has links to everything, but for your convenience: you can find me blethering on Twitter as @Hal_Duncan and you can sample some of my spoken word with my public Vimeo videos; if you enjoy the latter, there’s more to see for Patreon sponsors, with audio and print rewards also available, and even a discount for ebooks, audiobooks and print chapbooks sold via my Bandcamp; as with the videos, you can sample stuff first, the ebook of the first instalment in the Scruffians series being available as a free download in epub or mobi format; and if you join my mailing list that also gets you a wee ebook of three stories, one of them exclusive to subscribers. Fire in, by all means.
First Published on: https://offtherecordblog.org