Hal Duncan is a multi-talented author who is also an active blogger, writes poetry, songs and has even written a musical called Nowhere Town (premiered in June 2010 in Chicago by the University theatre group, directed by Beth Walker).
He last month he was a guest of honor for the celebration of Tähtiväeltajä day, the legendary Finish science fiction magazine. This is not the first time he has been in Finland; in fact Finish Fandom took this opportunity to officially adopt him (yes, he is officially part of Finish Fandom).
During his last night in Helsinki, he agreed to answer some questions.
Tanya Tynjälä for Amazing Stories: You are considered to be a new weird author and despite your acceptance of that label, you prefer not to consider yourself as just new weird. Why?
Hal Duncan: I grew up reading science fiction that was very open, New Wave writers like Michael Moorcock, Samuel R. Delany, who were writing experimental fiction that had no boundaries at all, and for me that is natural. I think, over the course of the decades, the readers thought they have a clear distinction between science fiction and fantasy now, and when somebody like Delany comes, everybody is asking “is this science fiction or fantasy?” People are so invested in their concepts that they try to put the label they think fits best, so for the science fiction readers “That is fantasy,” but for the fantasy reader with a strong concept of what fantasy is, “That is science fiction.” It is the same with what I write. That was the question I was asked when I started writing, and I just couldn’t be bothered anymore to try and fit into boxes. I have adopted the term “strange fiction”, I prefer it because it’s an open description for any type of fiction that is rich in elements that could be aliens or robot or angels or any kind of fantastic, strange event. You know, some people discuss if Kafka or Borges are fantasy authors; others say it is magic realism. I prefer to say: “whatever, It is just strange fiction”.
AS: Most of the writers talking about this subject say it is mostly a matter of the publisher rather than the writer. The publishers create these labels so the reader can find his path among all the books
HD: Yes, and I think that’s brilliant. The label is just there for the reader who needs it; for me it doesn’t matter what it’s called. It doesn’t bother me if I am published as science fiction or fantasy, as long as the code runs, as long as the narrative works. I just want to write, so I think as long as people aren’t imposing preconceptions, expecting me to write something that it’s not going to be, I will continuing writing the story that wants to be written, whatever name or genre you want to give to it.
AS: Most of your stories revolve around heaven and hell. Could you tell us why this is so?
HD: Yes. Although I was raised an atheist, when I was a young child I joined a youth group called the Boys Brigade, just because my friends were in it. It was a Christian organization, so we’d have to go to Sunday school and church. Listening to the teachers, I was always thinking: “All this is really wrong”. There was so much that was really bad teachings. Some of the Old Testament stories like Sodom and Gomorrah, or the Tower of Babel in which people are trying to get better and God punishes them. Way from the start: Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, God tells them “here is the knowledge of good and evil.” Here is the ethical understanding of what is right and wrong and he chases them out when they take it? God is the bad guy in the story. What’s he got to hide? When I was reading, as a child, those stories, I was truly convinced that God was something to hate. So I kind of rebelled against that. Also being a gay man there are some points on religion, especially Christianity, which I have a lot of problems with, or better: they have a lot of problems with me. Bible stories have been used over centuries, and are still used, to justify harming people. Of course I am going to stand against them. If they are not burning people anymore, the church is still a force against progress; for example, the Catholic Church of Scotland is one of the strongest opponents to marriage equality. In North America some religious groups have those clinics to “cure” homosexuality. So I always felt that I wanted to write stories for those teenagers, for them to grow up with another point of view. In some cultures, like the Bible Belt in North America, maybe you can’t talk about these things with your family, so as writers we can offer them the other side of the reality without threatening them with exposure. I mean, if they go to a bookstore and they take my book “Vellum” from the shelf, it does not scream “gay”, so they can buy it along with other books; they are not going to get in trouble buying my book, as if they buy for example a gay magazine. But maybe they can find something in my book that can give them hope. That is a strong writing force that guides me: write to reach other young teenagers living in different circumstances and let them know they are not alone.
AS: So you are doing something that is quite common: using science fiction and fantasy as a political tool. Of course not everybody is going to read the book in the same way, for some it is going to be just a charming, good story, but others will see more.
HD: Yes. Because science fiction and fantasy are commercial genres, it doesn’t have to be solemn, you can write about serious topics but not in a solemn way. If you want to engage people politically, it is better not to be solemn, boring. Also, because it is popular literature, you can reach a wide audience using the strangeness as a metaphor. For example my book “Scruffians” is a collection of short stories in which there are these kids that are stamped with a magical artifact. You put it onto their chest and it reads everything about them, exactly who they are. But when you place again the artifact it engraves them permanently, so they can stay the same forever; they don’t need to eat; they cannot be injured; if for example they lost a hand, it grows back. This is very useful because they’re ideal for working in some kind of Victorian factory, say, so they become child labor. Indirectly the stories get into exploitation, a critique of capitalism. In the story some of those children go on the loose and once free, they live in squats. So the story explores anarco-socialist ideals as well, but it’s all done in a kind of Neil Gaimanesque story, the sort of thing young adults might like to read.
AS: I find your prose very poetical, and you also write poetry. Creatively, is there any difference between poetry and prose for you?
HD: Not really, I have a very similar approach writing fiction as I have writing poetry which is: the words matter; words are the only substance. As is always said, “show, don’t tell”, I think, is a little too vague for me. I prefer to say that the purpose of writing is to conjure, not just to communicate. People who just write to describe a story that will be flat and lifeless. The point is to conjure the story in the reader’s head, word by word, phrase by phrase, sentence by sentence, so it’s almost as if you were firing words at the reader, and those words are hitting them in the forehead, and exploding, and conjuring images. I am very much about the sentence level dynamics of prose. As you probably noticed, most of the stories are broken up into titled sections or numbered sections, and each of these sections will be in four parts, each of which will often be exactly one hundred words. This is an arbitrary constraint, but it forces you to write really economically, ergonomically. I don’t believe that style and content are separate. I don’t believe style is additional to content. Words are the only substance; they are the form of the narrative in your head. For me style is not slathering stuff on a sentence that works already just to add an “effect”; it is about making the sentence work at its best, to create something that is athletic and vigorous, vital and is accessible to read. It is about working for the reader, entertaining the reader. And everything is equally important: the “style” and the “content.” It is like organizing a ten course meal: things have to follow in a specific order; you can’t just pile it all on one plate. When you construct something, it has to have some dynamics. People might think that what matters is the story. Yes, but story is conjured by the narrative. Bad construction doesn’t conjure. Of course some people when reading are just looking for benchmarks to skim read. SO if a writer uses a well-crafted formula, it can work for some readers, but for me the reader is doing the work there. Just because the reader can skim read, it doesn’t mean that as a writer I want to skim write. I think there are some writers who come with that attitude. If skim writing is good enough for people who just want to skim read, ok for them. But for me that is insulting your readership, insulting the audience, and not giving them the dynamics of good fiction.
Fiction should be visceral, not just lovely and lyrical all the time. It is not about prettiness; it is about viscerality. If you see a lot of badly written fiction, it is often because people make the mistake of misunderstanding style. They add adverbs and other things, complicating the sentences structure, and they think they are adding style. And it’s the opposite: if you are aware of style, the second draft will be shorter, because you are always perfecting. When I write critiques, I always say there six basic principles in
literature: clarity, economy, specificity, acuity, concision and fluency. Those are simple principles that build good working dynamic prose.
AS: You are talking about respecting the reader, and it makes me wonder how important blogs are for you, because they are a way to connect with the reader.
HD: I like blogging. I have done it a lot. I have stopped blogging so much–I have moved to twitter. When blogging, I was having fun writing but also reading, both positive and negative reactions. I moved to twitter because I think it’s more social, like a group of people hanging in a bar or an ongoing convention you can really chat. In a blog of course people can write comments but it’s not so direct.
AS: You publish quite a lot online. What does you publisher think of that?
HD: Well, most of the works for free are really things hard to sell. Poetry for instance, there is not much money in it. I know there are not great chances for my poetry to get professionally published. Ultimately I have a couple of collector editions of my poetry, but you don’t make a lot of money for that sort of thing. As for the short fiction, poetry and short fiction are never best sellers. So if there’s no great market I just want my work to be read. Besides, writing in that case can be more experimental, and can lead to further publications. The first “Scruffians” story was first online for free.
For more information about the author and his works, visit his official webpage: http://www.halduncan.com/
(Editor’s Note: the spanish language version of this interview will be published in a few days.)