TNG Interview: Hal Duncan
This post was submitted by TNG contributor, Craig Laurance Gidney
Scottish author Hal Duncan burst on the SF/genre fiction scene in 2005 with Vellum, a bold novel that mixed ancient myths with modern politics. That novel—nominated for numerous awards—and its sequel, Ink form a diptych called The Book of All Hours. The sequence is a wild ride through time and alternative universes, weaving Greek and Sumerian mythology with political concerns with stylistic brio that references William Burroughs and James Joyce. It is also an unabashedly queer book, addressing many of the queer subtexts of those myths. In addition to being a novelist/short-storywriter, Duncan is also a blogger who address everything from literature to music to politics in an entertaining, occasionally outrageous way. As you can see below, Duncan is a verbose, charming and delightfully profane subject to interview.
The New Gay: In addition to being an exploration of myth and story-cycles, Vellum and Ink are political works. What are some of things addressed in the work?
Hal Duncan: I make some blatant references to Matthew Shepard and Fred Phelps, so it’s not hard to say that Christian homophobia is square in my cross-hairs. And the latter half of Vellum focuses, in part, on the “Red Clyde” movement of early 20th century Glasgow, from WW1 up to the Spanish Civil War; I’m sort of exploring where pacifism and socialism come into conflict. How do you reconcile a passionate rejection of might and violence with an attitude of “nil paseran” — “none shall pass” — in the face of fascism?
Both themes really abstract to more general concerns though. Homophobia’s just one form of abjection, and wherever you have a marker of deviance — skin colour, gender, gender identity, disability — you get the same mechanisms of prejudice, with the abject being rejected, excluded: this act is a breach of some Natural Order; that type of person isn’t a full citizen of society; non-normative equals abnormal equals unnatural equals wrong. In that mentality, it seems, difference inspires disgust which is seen as a recognition of inherent wrongness. Prejudice validates itself as righteous abhorrence of the criminally deviant. So Christian homophobia is just a metonym of that abjection in general.
I mean, Christianity, Communism, Facism — the specifics don’t matter, as long as the system of moral dicta demands that you enforce, propagate and defend the system, insists that this is a moral duty. All it takes is one neurotic control freak with an irrational disgust at some arbitrary marker of deviance, and they have an imperative to enforce, propagate and defend this “moral” judgement. They get a reward of self-righteous pride for doing so.
So in Ink, I end up addressing that type of system with a fake ideology — Futurism — and on a more symbolic level, with the retelling of The Bacchae; Pentheus is the embodiment of that unreason masked as Order. It’s the queer of any flavour against, I guess, morality itself — against the authoritarian personality and the institutions it shapes. The conflict between pacifism and socialism ultimately reflects a greater quandary of how one engages with such a system.
TNG: There’s a lot of wordplay and linguistic gymnastics in your writing. What does your writing process look like?
HD: It depends on the project — or even what part of it, if we’re talking about Vellum and Ink. Both were based in part on stories and novellas I’d built up over the years without realising they were part of a larger narrative. So I had to do a fair bit of rewiring with Vellum and Ink, to bring the material together, and in a lot of places I was putting the bare bones together and then adding the flesh. I’ve taken that sort of approach with other longer work. But it’s not always the way I work.
A lot of the individual sections, like the Jack Flash narrative thread in Vellum, for example, were initially written start-to-finish as stories, much of it coming fairly fully-formed. And much of the short fiction I’m writing these days works like that too. If I can get into the zone, get into a character’s head, their voice does much of the work — with the poetic tricksiness just part of the persona. A 3K word story might well be done in some caffeine-and-nicotine-fuelled 36 hour session, and at the end of it, there’ll be a few passes of editing required, but I basically have a polished draft. Rather than batter out a rough draft then flesh it out, I’m rewriting, editing as I go, constantly cycling back to reread, changing bits here and there, until I’m ready to move on.
This might well be why I’ve ended up using this slightly anal structure in stories. I chunk paragraphs into passages — often constrained to an exact word count. With section breaks between them, those passages will grouped — usually in fours — into titled or numbered sections. And in a larger work, multiple sections will be grouped in chapters or acts. I’m packaging, I think, in order to work on each unit, and each unit of units, individually, treating those passages as… stanzas of action. You get a sense of structure as it emerges; you know when you need to go back and add a passage, change groupings, where you need another section to balance the overall shape of the narrative — because you’re encapsulating at every level. It’s maybe my code monkey background in play too.
Some wordplay and literary gymnastics come out of that, out of an impulse to make these units as ergonomic as possible. Like, titling the first volume of Vellum “The Lost Deus of Sumer” is a way to pack more meaning in — invite readings of “lost” as “last,” “deus” as “days,” “Sumer” as “summer” in every combination.
Trying to really load Vellum and Ink in that way is where other processes came in, in fact — in the Inanna/Phreedom narrative threads, for example, or sections based on Prometheus Bound or The Bacchae. There I was treating public domain translations as source texts, not just overarching schema, but rough drafts to be rewritten; I used multiple alternative translations for reference and basically went through, line by line, creating my own version. Where names of people or places would mean little to a contemporary reader, I figured “translation errors” could create interesting new meanings. Like, if there’s a passing reference to some “Phrysia,” what happens if you switch that for “frieze”? Or if you rename Apollo as Apple, can you blow the dust of this fusty deity, museumed in dry Classicism, and render him fresh and juicy, sweet and smooth? Anyway, I wanted to do justice to texts that are in verse in their original, so I tried to invest my version with a comparable poetic power; hence even more literary fireworks there.
TNG: You wrote a fabulous take down of a homo-bigot SF writer, John C. Wright. And you’ve written about other important issues–like ‘whitewashing‘ in movie casting. What other issues are currently in your crosshairs?
It’s all one issue for me at the moment — abjection. I should probably thank Wright for being so wrong, actually. It was his rabid diatribe against the “abomination” of “homosex” that sort of galvanised me, the fact that it was sparked by Syfy’s response to a GLAAD rating — taking it on the chin and committing to do better. This was, of course, kowtowing to the “PC thought police” as far as Wright was concerned, and it was arguing with that which really crystallised my views as regards whitewashing and straightironing. I started thinking about the endless bullshit about quotas, and how certain types of character are fine “as long as it’s important to the story,” and so on, started thinking about the absence of the abject.
This all sort of came together into a realisation that what we’re dealing with, in the world of Gay Best Friends and Magic Negroes, where the Asian heroes of Avatar: The Last Airbender end up white on the big screen, where Troy and Alexander eradicate any hint of homosexuality — this is segregation. This is a system that doesn’t accept the abject sitting at the front of the bus, in narrative terms, as the lead character. Movies, novels, TV shows — these are the water fountains of today. We thirst for stories which speak to us by representing us, but we go to the water fountains in the centre of town looking for that, and we’re turned away, sent to the ghetto. To indie flicks and arthouse cinema, Gay Fiction and Black Fiction. Studios explicitly reject a romantic comedy like Falling for Grace as a romantic comedy because the lead is Asian-American; that makes it, they say, an “Asian movie.”
This is literally the segregation of characters — saying this type goes here, that type goes there. The point being, of course, that when GLAAD pressures for better representation or Racebending.com protests the whitewashing of The Last Airbender, this is not about quotas or political correctness. It’s not even about — as it’s usually posited — reflecting diversity. Which is to say, it’s not about a fuzzy beneficent liberalism in which it’s just so much nicer to be “inclusive.” This is about integration. I think it merits that term with all the import that goes with it. Wherever we run up against the same old bullshit about political correctness, I think we should be hitting back with no fucking quarter, calling the system out for what it is: segregation. And I’m just as happy to call out movies like 300 where not only are the Spartan’s straightironed but they’re rendered as homophobes who disdain Athenians as “boy-lovers,” lionised for their heroic battle against the monstrously faggoty Xerxes and his fiendish army. That’s fiction functioning as agitprop, politics in the text never mind the subtext. That sort of demonising narrative has a name too: blood libel. It’s a classic use of homosexuality as a signifier of depraved decadence.
It all comes from the same place, I’d say: abjection. That’s my core concern right now, in all its various aspects. I do care about other issues, of course, but I’m not likely to address them publicly when mostly I’d just be another mouth spouting an uninformed opinion. But the effect of fiction is something I can talk about as a writer. I know how it works, what it’s capable of. And as a queer writer, I know how that can go horribly wrong. So, yeah, for the moment that’s my main target.
TNG: Who are your influences?
HD: Fuck, who *aren’t* my influences? Let’s see… Michael de Larrabeiti’s Borribles trilogy blew me away as a kid. Sort of Peter Pan style Lost Boys who’ve run away from home, only set in 1970s London. They’re snotty-nosed street oiks who live in squats, steal to get by, and never grow up… unless the police nab them and clip the ears that grow pointy when they’re Borribled. That’s what set my idea of fantasy, long before I read any Tolkien or suchlike, and I freely admit that the core conceit of Scruffians, used in a series of stores I’ve been punting out online recently, owes a huge debt to those books. Man, the second in the series has a decapitation by shovel; it’s awesome.
I got into sf in my teens, with Philip K. Dick and Robert A. Heinlein playing a strange tug-of-war for my heart. The former I loved for the metaphysical mindfuckery, his obsession with the nature of reality and what it is to be human. The focus on empathy, the neo-Gnosticism in his later works, the notion that “the Empire never ended” — you can probably see a lot of that in Vellum and Ink. The latter might seem a strange call, given my politics, but at fourteen I found his libertarian self-indulgence eye-opening. The polygamy and gender-switches, the free love and individualism, it presented the unconventional as de rigeur, and if I eventually found myself kicking against his didacticism, utterly rejecting the politics of works like Starship Troopers, it did serve as a good springboard for thinking beyond life in small town Scotland in the 1980s.
Then as part of the Gollancz Classic series, I discovered Samuel R. Delany — Nova and Babel-17 — and while I didn’t know his sexuality at the time, something in there just resonated. And it wasn’t just my gaydar going off. Man, Delany’s prose just sings. And when I read Dhalgren, that blew my head wide open in terms of what you could do in a book. I still think it’s one of the 20th century’s classics, on par with Catch-22. I don’t know to what extent his influence is reflected in my work, but he’s the writer who really made me want to be a writer, I’d say.
Most of my influences from outside the commerical strange fiction genre came in with university, discovering James Joyce and Wallace Stevens, Blake and Yeats, Pinter and Borges. And meanwhile within those genres I was discovering Gibson and Shepard, Jeter and Powers, Lovecraft and Peake. I could go on — you could probably trace direct influences from all of these in Vellum alone — but there comes a point where you’re just listing names. I haven’t even mentioned Michael Moorcock yet — though I was a latecomer to him, didnt read the swords & sorcery works as a teenager, but instead jumped straight in with Jerry Cornelius. Then there’s Edward Whittemore and Guy Davenport. I could point to specific scenes or techniques in Vellum that wouldn’t exist without them. It’s a question where the answer could go on forever.
TNG: What are you working on now?
HD: I’ve got two projects I’ve been faffing with for so long I’m not sure if I should just shut up about them for now. I’ve got the next big novel, a retelling of the Epic of Gilgamesh. It’s a similar approach to Vellum and Ink, actually, a sort of cubist take in which the same story is playing out in three narratives — mythic, historical and futuristic. But it’s being difficult at the moment. And I’m also trying to get up some steam on a sequel to Escape from Hell! — going by the equally John Carpenteresque title of Assault! On Heaven! And there’s a third and final instalment brewing for that series: Battle! For the Planet! Of the Dead! They’re shameless pulp, hence the incrementing exclamation marks for each instalment. But I’m not really getting into the zone with either project at the moment. Neither are contracted, at least, so I’m not desperately slogging through them just to meet a deadline; if something else comes along that *does* just write itself, I’ll just run with it, so I’ve ended up doing a lot of short fiction in the meantime.
There might be another larger project in those short stories, actually, in terms of the Scruffians stuff I mentioned earlier — which is a huge nod toward Michael de Larrabeiti’s Borribles, but with a darker twist that’s treading similar terrain to the “graving” conceit in Vellum and Ink. The core conceit is a device by which people can be “Fixed,” basically. They don’t age, don’t change, always return to the state in which they were Fixed… and historically, the idea is, this has been done to kids for pure exploitation. Like, during the Industrial Revolution, suppose you need some tyke to clean out the machines in your mills. You just pop down to the workhouse, buy an orphan and get them Fixed; you don’t have to feed your “indentured” Scruffian, and if they lose a hand or foot to the machinery, well, it’ll grow back. So there’s a Waiftaker General — imagine Peter Cushing as the Witchfinder General meets the Childcatcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. And there’s the kids who’ve escaped, living in squats, trying to rescue their fellow Scruffians. It sort of masquerades as children’s fiction at first sight, with a whole Lost Boys whimsical vibe, but gets really twisted in all manner of ways. There’s no Neverland here, just Whitechapel rookeries and a ferocious fight for freedom.
Anyway, I’ve got a number of stories written so far in that mythos, more lined up to be written, and a narrative arc taking shape between them. I was experimenting with releasing the stories online for Paypal donations, so the existing ones are currently available via the blog for free download, but the ball didn’t keep rolling in terms of meeting the targets I was setting, so I’m thinking about where to take it from here if it does cohere into something bigger.
TNG: Who has the best ass in genre fiction?
HD: Heh, writers or characters? I’ll refrain from assessing the asses of fellow writers, cause that would just be awkward if we ever end up on a panel together at a convention. But in terms of characters, the character of Mouse in Nova clearly has to win. In my imagination, at least. Which maybe says more about me than anything else. Or can I choose a character from a movie or TV show? Is that cheating or just plain shallow? Cause I’m pretty sure Alan Ball is attempting to make Jason Stackhouse’s ass a thematic motif in True Blood. And then there’s a time travel movie in the offing, with
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