Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Sunday, May 08, 2011

GetFanged Interview

Turns out that interview I did a whiles back with the lovely folks at is no longer available outside the community. Fear not though! They did say, feel free to make it available to yer readers however; so, since I've been asked about it, and since I really liked the questions they came up with, I'm happy to oblige.

So, here we goes:

1) The concepts (and consequences) of mythology and archetypes are so relevant within your work, especially Vellum and Ink. Do you see these ideas transcending from art and fiction into real life? How significant a role do you think they play in our everyday lives?

Actually I see dreams and delusions, writings and rituals as aspects of reality; they're aspects of us, so they're always already part of our everyday lives. They're all articulations of our semiotics, individually and culturally.

That probably sounds a bit "what-the-fuck?!" but it's not actually that complex. It's just that every word has connotations, right? The word "dog" doesn't just carry meaning as content, like a box with the basic definition inside -- domesticated canine animal. It's loaded with meaning as import; the word explodes on impact into a shrapnel of associations -- barking, growling, slavering, snarling, wagging tail, guarding sheep, sniffing out drugs, pissing on trees, biting hands, fetching sticks. Every experience you've ever had with a dog, every story you've ever read with a dog being faithful companion or rabid attacker, affects what associations "dog" has for you. To each of us "dog" has a unique import.

This goes for every word, every symbol. So we each end up with a personal semiotics -- the system of all these symbols, what each means individually, how they relate to each other. Ultimately, it's a subconscious worldview coded into the raw stuff of all imagination, all thought. Ultimately, I'd say this personal semiotics is the subconscious. Scale it up to society, as we articulate that to each other in everything we say, even more so as we make it manifest in art, and you have a mass subconscious coded into the culture itself. The base state is turbulence, of course, tension. Consensus, when it comes, comes in the form of tribes for whom "dog" has an import of "unclean beast" versus tribes for whom it has an import of "loyal companion." That alone should give you a sense of how deeply this semiotics affects our everyday lives; and that's a trivial example compared to, say, "queer" or "immigrant."

Now, bring Carl Jung's notion of archetypes into play. In a mythic archetype like an Earth Mother figure, the two symbols become metaphors for each other, so "earth" packs the import of "mother" and "mother" packs the import of "earth." And it's not hard to see how basic notions -- mother, father, earth, sky -- have high import on their own let alone wired together into archetypes, how an archetype's profound impact is going to propagate it as a meme, as this figure of an Earth Mother impacts my personal semiotics so deeply that it comes out in my art, which becomes the medium by which it impacts your personal semiotics. And so on until you have tribes with whole mythologies of Earth Mothers and Sky Fathers. Understand how those two archetypes, in particular, are also bound to notions of "flesh" and "spirit" respectively, and again that should give you a sense of how deeply this affects our everyday lives. Being born into a tribe in which "dog" equals "unclean" affects how you relate to all dogs. Being born into a tribe in which "earth," "mother," "flesh," "nature," "sex," and suchlike are equated with "sin" via an archetypal figure like Eve or Lilith affects how you relate to all women, your own body, the material world itself.

We can go further. In some archetypes, an aspect of your psyche is wired into that metaphoric construct. So with culture dominated by men, that Earth Mother also represents the Anima of the male subconscious. A puer aeternus figure -- the eternal youth -- represents the Self. Where you find a Dark Lord figure in fantasy or horror, what you're dealing with is the Shadow. So what you get in the core characters of Vellum and Ink is seven lynchpin archetypes treated as core components of the psyche, riffing off the Egyptian notion of seven souls -- Superego aka Persona (Guy), Id (Jack), Anima/Animus (Phree), Self (Puck), Ego (Seamus/Metatron), Shadow (Joey), Senex (Don). These are aspects of ourselves that surface in numinous dreams and fictions. We all have a little Jack inside of us.

What they mean to us has a profound bearing on how we live our lives; it's basic Jungian psychology to understand that a negative Anima figure, say, is a sign of an unhealthy psyche. A narrative that transforms relationships between archetypes becomes a sort of psychodrama then, a ritual seeking to resolve tensions, for good or ill. To topple a tyrant god in a story is to depose an overbearing Ego. To conquer a demon in a story is to beat the Shadow into submission, repress that aspect of the psyche. Again if you look at figures like Eve or Lilith, the demonisation and subjugation of the Anima plays out, in real terms, as a neurotic misogyny with utterly practical consequences. So yeah, I think this stuff affects our everyday lives big time.

2) How would you apply this to the vampire genre? As the vampire has transformed from Nosferatu, the hideous monster in the shadows, to Edward Cullen, the "pretty" romantic hero at the prom, do you think the mythology that was initially established and reinforced, through folklore and literature, has been abandoned completely? Or has it simply evolved/devolved? Why do you think this happened?

The transformation actually begins outside the vampire genre, I'd say. In Gothic Romanticism we see a gradual reconfiguring of the Shadow that renders it sympathetic, antihero rather than villain. Faust, Frankenstein's monster, Melmoth, Heathcliff, Byron himself as an archetype made flesh via his celebrity -- these all impact the societal semiotics, rewiring it, recasting the malevolent Shadow as moral outcast, exile from society. It's no accident that this comes as a response to Rationalism which sets up intellect as rightful king over the base passions -- Ego as tyrant over Id. Repressing the libido basically outlaws most of what constitutes Id and makes it Shadow; in such circumstances it's only a matter of time before that Shadow cuts loose in the form of the Byronic antihero, the Sadean libertine, cast as monstrous by society's semiotics but recognised as wondrous in personal semiotics because we know deep down the repression is unhealthy. That's the glamour of that archetype.

What Stoker did with Dracula is interesting in that he inadvertently, I think, bound the classic folkloric bloodsucker to this Byronic antihero. I say "inadvertently" because his aristo vampire is far from noble; actually there's all manner of dodgy anti-Semitic iconography of the day at play in the text. He's avaricious for gold, swarthy and thick-accented, associated with gypsies, rats, the East End. He's ignoble. The Schreck Nosferatu is Stoker's Dracula, far more than anything that comes after. Still, Stoker makes this link with aristocracy, and the sexual repression that powers the narrative underneath is just waiting to be unlocked when readers and writers start applying a sympathetic view of the Shadow.

So you get the 20th century Dracula of Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee. And what I find really interesting here is that where this plays to male desires -- a semiotics of rape and seduction wired together into the Shadow as libertine, requiring to be conquered by Harker but glamoured by his Romantic autonomy -- female readers and writers also respond to it in a profound way -- but as Animus, I think, rather than Shadow. Which is to say, he becomes a homme fatale, to coin a phrase, a male equivalent of that Eve/Lilith archetype. You might well trace this back to characters like Heathcliff too -- a female writer's creation, of course. It seems to me this archetype is in many ways a product of fiction by women for women, a metaphoric construct for tackling the Animus the way a male writer might tackle the Anima.

Rice really marks the point where that's cemented, where we're really dealing with a sort of knight/savage semiotics comparable to the virgin/whore semiotics men have as regards the Anima. With Lestat and Louis, it's almost about that dynamic in and of itself, with the female Claudia (the Self as puer aeternus?) largely just watching from the sidelines, but as female figures become central -- Buffy, Sookie, Bella, Helena -- the fact that it's about a relationship with men, (as a whole, I mean,) rather than between them, becomes more and more obvious (even with a male creator like Whedon.) We see that duality time and again, in paired male characters or in male characters with two sides: Angel/Spike; Angel/Angelus; Bill/Erik; Stefan/Damon; Sparkly-Edward/Rapey-Edward.

It makes a lot of sense for the leeching ghoul to end up as the pretty boy at the prom then. Viewed in a harsh feminist light, you could well say there's dodgy wish-fulfilment fantasy going on; setting up a knight/savage with a creepy protector-cum-rapist hold over the heroine essentially infantilises her, so it only makes sense for this to manifest in a teen protagonist, a high school setting. On the other hand, the tempest of adolescence is exactly where our relationship with the opposite gender suddenly complexifies, so it's only logical to approach the Animus from that perspective, in figures that combine protector and predator, fathers and brothers, boyfriends and man-fiends, all those formative relationships a man might have to a woman.

3) You've written essays on homosexuality and have included several gay characters in your work, but with such depth that it has never been the primary focus of who they are. Do you think authors have found it difficult to write gay characters as complete personalities, as you have, rather than a walking stereotype? And, separately, what would you say is the most relevant issue within the gay community today?

For sure. If you look at it from a wide enough perspective, writers have found it difficult to write about gay characters at all -- because until recently it was pretty much taboo to even tackle homosexuality directly. To do so was generally the province of committedly transgressive work, like Burroughs's The Naked Lunch, which took a sledgehammer to the very notion of obscenity; within respectable literature, you were more likely to see it pushed down into subtext a la Tennessee Williams. Within the commercial marketing categories of SF, Fantasy and Horror, you're looking at pretty much wholesale erasure of homosexuality until the 1970s. The same goes for black characters; we're talking about pulp magazines where editors like John W. Campbell rejected Samuel R. Delany's Nova for serialisation because he didn't think readers would accept a black protagonist.

Skin colour or sexuality, essentially what we're looking at is segregation in the media, with the abject absented from protagonist position. That's the segregation of not being allowed to sit at the front of the bus. Mark Charan Newton mentioned on his blog a reviewer who wondered why one character in his books was gay -- what was the reason for it? How did that serve the plot? That's the segregation of being stopped in a white neighbourhod and challenged on your purpose in being there. And if they're allowed in as Magic Negros or Gay Best Friends, secondary characters -- and stereotypical ones at that -- in service of white, straight protagonists? That's the segregation of travelling into a white neighbourhood to work as a cleaner in someone’s house.

Now, I don't think that state of segregation is enforced in written SF, Fantasy and Horror, but if we're tempted to be complacent we only have to look at Hollywood to see it officially sanctioned. Presented with a recent romantic comedy, "Falling for Grace," studios said they simply couldn't release it as a romantic comedy because it had an Asian-American lead. That put it essentially in another genre -- as an "Asian-American movie." That's the segregation of separate fucking water fountains. The situation is the same with movies like The Curiosity of Chance which I tend to call the best '80s high school movie John Hughes never made; it's a great example of that genre, but it has a gay protagonist so it was damned to the ghetto of gay cinema, going round the festival circuit rather than the multiplexes. Oh, you can have gay cowboys in a serious movie made by Ang Lee for mature audiences, but we've yet to see a gay action hero. And this state of segregation is something most of those who aren't in an abject social group probably barely even notice; it's taken for granted.

Within SF, Fantasy and Horror, those official barriers have largely come down, so it's not at all difficult in hard practical terms for writers to include gay characters. Nobody is going to tell them, "We can't publish that because your main character is queer." But it is easy for authors to be unaware of what they're doing (or not doing.) Authors only have to surrender to obliviousness and they won't even think of including a gay character. If they do, it's easy to end up with Gay Best Friends, because, well, if the gay is in that neighbourhood, there must be a reason; and we all know gays are good for catty remarks, fashion advice and consolation over man troubles, right? If they do sit a gay character at the front of the bus, it's easy to go with the assumption that the character's sexuality must be significant in plot terms to justify them being there. Why wouldn't it be the point of the story even?

All of this is to say, really, that it's easy to be complacent, lazy. But I don't think it's that difficult at all to exercise one's noggin a little, see past that bollocks and just integrate Teh Gayness into your narratives as a trait as likely to occur among your characters as it is in reality, and as one that no more defines their role in the narrative than heterosexuality would. For sure, you might have to get your head around the differences of life experience that come with being gay, but that's just what you do in writing any character who isn't based on yourself. If you can imagine the shit that comes with being a soldier or a detective or an 18th century nobleman, you can imagine the shit that comes with being gay.

In terms of the most relevant issue. I can't really speak for the gay community, to be honest. I'm not sure anyone can. That community is a set of individuals grouped together solely on the basis of sexual orientation, so we can only speak of what's most relevant to each individual. Me, right now, I'm most concerned with segregation in the media personally, because I'm a writer. That's my natural battleground, the front I'm best on. It's where I'm most tuned to seeing problems, it's where the issues matter most to me because it's my vocation, and it's where I have skills and experience fitted to actually tackling the issue.

If I were a US soldier DADT would be a bigger deal. If I were Californian, Prop 8 would be more important. If were Ugandan, it would be my basic right to life. Hell, if we're going beyond individuals and their specific circumstances at all, I can't help but be wholly internationalist and say that segregation in the media, military service, gay marriage -- all of that is piddling when compared to government sanctioned murder. I might well point then to the UN general assembly voting last year to remove the mention of killings based on sexual orientation from a long-standing resolution condemning arbitrary and extrajudicial executions. Not that the resolution itself was ever much more than words, but the craven appeasement of the homophobic nations that backed the amendment is... there are no words for it. And the lickspittle chickenshit kidwhoring corpsefucker of a US representative fucking abstained. I'm glad to say the UK voted against it but, you know... Home of the Brave and all that. On one level, all the issues really just come down to that sort of action and that sort of inaction.

4) How often do you write? Will you tell us a little about your process as an author?

I write pretty much every day, if you count non-fiction along with fiction. My routine is hardly disciplined though. Most days I'll drag myself out of bed at some point in the afternoon, boot up the laptop and check emails and interwebs while I have brunch, faffing about with blogs and Twitter. It could just be an interview like this I end up working on, or a column, or a manuscript critique. I can spend a whole working day responding to emails or commenting on some post online, in truth. Or just plain nonsense. The other week, I wasted two days or more plotting out how the Star Wars prequels should have been.

Seriously, I've been going around for the last few years just denying they exist, saying, "Yeah, it's a shame Lucas died before he got to make Revenge of the Jedi; it would have been awesome with the wookie planet and all." But it's not enough. So I've ended up crafting an intricate psychotic delusion I intend to bury the trauma of The Phantom Menace under. If the subject ever comes up, I'm going to rave about how great Samuel L. Jackson was as a ronin Jedi, cracking quips like Han Solo, kicking ass like Shaft with a lightsaber. And so on. Is there any conceivable value in such faffing? I don't know. I might end up with a Notes from New Sodom column, written as a review of these entirely imaginary films and thereby indirectly commenting on what was so profoundly wrong with the actual prequels. Or it might be pointless.

That sort of surrender to the random whims of the muse does seem to be a large part of my process. It could manifest in something like that or in an idea for rewriting As You Like It as a screenplay for a high school movie with the gender of the heroine changed. (Which I ended up doing because of the segregation I talk about above. I was arguing in comments about the need for mainstream gay movies like The Curiosity of Chance, for gay popcorn flicks in the multiplexes, and when I Googled "gay kid" + "high school movie" just to make sure I wasn't overstating the absence of such, the top hit was my own blog review of The Curiosity of Chance. I realised the sort of movie I was looking for just didn't exist so I'd have to fucking write it myself. So I did. Which makes the faffing sort of part of the process; at any point it might suddenly result in a proper project.) No matter how left field it is, if it grabs me then I'll follow it. Shit, I wrote a fucking musical with the tunes constructed in GarageBand because I can't write sheet music, play an instrument, or even hold a fucking note when I "sing," but it ended up being staged last year by college students in Chicago. So fuck it. An idea might look like utter folly in practical terms, but if you don't throw yourself into it, you'll never know.

And when I do get caught up in something, I tend to go from faffing to... well, fags chain-smoked while I'm drinking mug after mug of tea, as I write and revise, write and revise, all through the night and through as much of the next day as I can manage, pretty much incapable of stopping until the thing is done or I'm just too damned tired to carry on. It's far from healthy, I'm sure, but I just wish I could click into that at will. If I can't get into the zone like that, I find it almost impossible to write fiction. Part of the reason I work in such slogs, I think, is that if the flow gets broken at all, I've had times when I simply couldn't get back into a project; it became a gruelling word-by-word trudge that eventually ground down to a dead stop.

The only thing I can do in such circumstances is jump to something else. I have found sometimes that if I've got two projects I'm bogged down in, treating one as the work I'm meant to be doing can sort of turn the other one into an escape, a way to slack off. And then I'll suddenly click back into that second one. It can be annoying if they're both long though, cause then, sooner or later, that second one will start to slow down again, like clearly I'm now treating this as the work I'm meant to be doing, so clearly the first one is the fun project. I swear to God, it's like the muse knows I'm trying to pull a fast one on her and is fucking with me out of spite.

5) "Jack" is a name you frequently use in your work. Can you tell us how the name became significant to you? Is it, essentially, all the same character? Is it an archetype?

Yeah, Jack's basically the Id, which is what the classic hero of a Joseph Campbell style "Hero's Journey" is at heart, I'd say. He goes right back to early childhood, really; he's the Jack from Jack and the Beanstalk, Jack the Giant-Killer, first and foremost. I still remember reading all those Puffin editions of classic fairytales, and while The Three Billy Goats Gruff was my favourite (in part, because of the voices and clip-clop noises my dad made when he read it to me; in part, I suspect, because the nascent anarchist in me already saw self-elected gatekeepers, like the troll who reckoned it was his bridge, as evil to be overcome with trickery and headbutting,) that reckless, feckless youth who sells the cow for beans, lucks out on the fact they're magic, and ends up climbing to the Heavens themselves to steal the magic of the Big Guy Up There... there's a classic trickster archetype in there too. It's the sort of mix of hero and rogue you get in Errol Flynn's Robin Hood or Burt Lancaster's Crimson Pirate. The glint in the eye, the gleam in a snickety-sharp grin... it's the sheer gusto of this archetype that defines them, the liberty of spirit that makes them act on impulse and only think oopsy after, when they've got themselves into the shit.

That's the libido unleashed, raw desire let loose to play with the wild abandon of Peter Pan. That's why he's the classic hero, because the classic heroic story is shameless wish-fulfilment. I'll make no bones of the fact that I was a shy and bookish kid, scrawny and far from good-looking, so to a large extent Jack was the cocky, handsome hero I wished I could be; there was probably a little of my older brother in there too, since he was very much that sporty charmer. Flash Gordon from the old serials got folded into the mix -- that's where the "Flash" in Jack Flash comes from -- and I'd get myself to sleep at night by making up stories in my head of the adventures of this Id archetype: "Once upon a time there was a boy called..." For a long time, it was "Flash." The name changed a couple of times; I can't honestly remember if it was "Jack" first, but it wouldn't at all surprise me.

Anyway, I shelved him when I started getting serious about the writing, because I wanted to do more than wish-fulfilment. He came roaring back when I started playing around with intertextual fictions, pastiching the old pulps. I wanted to riff off Edgar Rice Burroughs's John Carter for a dynamic hero and Lovecraft's Randolph Carter for a more cerebral protagonist -- hence Jack and Reynard. And because this was very much inspired by Moorcock's Eternal Champion stuff, with Jerry Cornelius a big influence, he also cut loose as Jack Flash, the archetype with all caution thrown to the wind.

The whole point of that character was to deconstruct the archetype -- not in a hostile way, because I side with the Id when push comes to shove, but poking a little fun at the power-fantasies, exploring where they do go deeply wrong (c.f. Nazi Jack in Ink.) He's not a force to be denied, repressed -- that'll just get you fucked up, like Pentheus putting Dionysus in chains and paying the price for it -- but he's like a dog who kinda wants the guiding hand of the Persona/Superego (Guy,) who will do anything for the Self (Puck) as the true centre of the psyche. The point being, a healthy psyche is a matter of the relationships between those archetypes; the unbridled Id is only dangerous if its passions are perverted by neurosis. I guess this is the anarcho-socialist in me; where people panic at the idea of desire unleashed -- cause that must mean rape! murder! mayhem! -- I think, well no, not if your core passion is empathy, not if "being selfish" actually means having integrity because you revel in the joy of fighting the good fight.

Still, part of the reason I use the name is to make the links to other avatars that give other facets. I do think, ultimately, because the name was so widespread in history it came to mean simply "lad" -- think "every man jack of them" -- the Jack of fairytales is a bona fide folk-hero, like Brer Rabbit. Even figures of more recent legend and history, like Spring-Heeled Jack or Jack the Ripper, can't help but bind to that myth. And as monstrous as those Mad Jacks are, they're still the unleashed libido. They actually just deepen the figure, benchmarking the extremes the Id is capable of.

To give you an idea of how embedded Jack is in the societal semiotics, I went to see Matthew Bourne's modern dance / ballet version of The Lord of the Flies the other week, and realised -- I hadn't really thought about it before -- that the antagonist is a Jack in both name and nature. He's red-haired, leader of the choir who're among the stranded boys. He's bold and headstrong, quick to challenge Ralph for leadership. He's the prime force in the boys going wild -- he's all about the playing and the hunting. I read the book in my teens, so now I'm wondering if Golding's Jack was another seed in my subconscious. Interestingly, as I remember the book, there's no question that it's anti-Id, that this Jack is the terrible beast within unleashed when the chains of control are loosed; but in Bourne's version it struck me that Ralph's assumption of authority early on could be seen as illegitimate, that one might well take a contrary reading and ask how far Ralph is responsible for provoking the unruly Id. I'm tempted to do some intertextual parody with Joey in the Ralph role, as a control-freak who needs to be overthrown by Jack.

Anyway. My point is just that Jack gets fucking everywhere, it seems.

6) Who, or what, is your greatest inspiration as an author? Why?

Life. Death. The fact you can't have one without the other. When I was sixteen or so, I was the classic angsty adolescent on overdrive, gay and geeky, dreaming of murder pacts with Death himself because I loathed my life, and then one hot summer day my brother stepped out into the path of a Ford Capri and got himself killed. It took me a good few years to even feel what that meant, it was such a shock, but the reality of it sort of squished my self-pity like a bug. What the fuck does some fuckwit's snigger behind your back matter compared to the absolute absence of a brother you hadn't even got past the infantile bickering with yet? Nothing matters in the face of death.

Except... if nothing matters, it doesn't fucking matter that it doesn't matter. That's the true nihilism I discovered as I shaved my hair into a mohawk, walked around in black leathers with a chickenbone necklace, went into university wearing green camouflage face paint straight out of Apocalypse Now in protest at the first Gulf War, discovered ouzo and hash, starved and stayed awake for three days on a wacky notion of a vision quest, eventually got a hold of some acid for a real trip, and all this while a circle of friends slowly socialised this savage loon as we met for the Glasgow SF Writers' Circle and chatted in the pub after sessions. That's where Jack first resurfaced in some quasi-psychotic cut-up-and-fold-in crazy writings (since burned) -- though at that time he was a werewolf by the name of Bardolph Carter. I kind of was Jack for a while, let the archetype ride me as a loa rides an orisha.

And I came out of that fucking burning with passion, the transitory absurdity of existence all the more reason to dive into it with every fibre of your being and glory in every moment. To live. To love. To laugh. And it's not about a desperate hedonism to stave off the emptiness, simply about celebrating all the joys and sorrows that come with being mortal flesh, the subtle as much as the sensational. That's at the core of most of my writing, I'd say, and it's ferociously opposed to all that strikes me as denial and delusion built to barricade us from reality. Shell games of salvation in spiritual perfection. Edifices of Empire built to bolster us with status that depends on slave moralities. Fuck that shit.

7) What is your favorite book to give as a gift?

I don't know that I really have one. There's no one book I'll foist on anyone and everyone and say, "You must read this," because mostly if I'm buying books for birthdays or Christmas it's going to be something selected specifically for the recipient. "I saw this and thought of you" sort of thing. The closest I've got to a repeat gift is maybe Catch-22, which I've gone through a fair few copies of simply by lending it out without much care about getting it back, happy to replace it with a new copy. It's a great book, but then it's acknowledged as a modern classic, so I'll spare you my ravings about it. It's all been said before by plenty of people; you don't need me to tell you you should read it if you haven't already.

8) What are you reading right now?

Jeffrey Ford's The Cosmology of the Wider World -- a very short book, more a novella than a novel, going by the length, I reckon. Came out from PS Publishing a good few years back, but I've only just got round to it. I can't say much about it, cause I've only just started, I'm afraid, but Jeff's writing is just wonderful. Beside Kelly Link, I reckon him as the best short story writer in the strange fiction genres at present, and I'm sorely tempted to just drop the "in the strange fiction genres" entirely. He can be warm and whimsical, with some of his stories almost Bradburyesque in vibe, but as often as not you get slowly pulled out of the comfort zone and into strangeness that's reminiscent of Kafka. He's an incredibly sophisticated writer but when you meet him in person, you sort of understand why it never comes across as flouncy, anodyne or pretentious; he's this big laid back dude with a broad New Jersey accent, who'll tell these fucking hilarious stories where he's totally the butt of his sons' jokes. I think he's just so genuine it comes through in his fiction, as a real powerful sense of humanity. I saw him read a semi-autobiographical story once at the World Fantasy Convention, based on when he and his wife were just married, going through the salad days. It was fucking beautiful.

9) Vampires, Werewolves, Zombies, Witches, just to name a few. Do you have a preference as to what you read, or write, within the horror genre? Do you personally identify with the mythology of one more than all the rest?

I have to confess I'm totally Team Werewolf. Possibly not the safe choice given the venue -- like rooting for pirates on a site called -- but I'll do my best to justify my heresy.

The thing is, most monsters I come at as a contrarian, the type of kid who lost their fear of the dark by inviting that looming presence into bed to snuggle. I see most bestial bogeymen as projections of Shadow and Id, aspects of the psyche to be accepted and integrated. I see sneakily conservative moral messages like that "teenagers who fuck must die" subtext coded into old slasher flicks. And I find myself deconstructing that, peeling away the monster mask to get at the creature underneath. Which is, I guess, to say that I come at it from more of a dark fantasy viewpoint than classic horror per se.

So the old school vampire of folklore is too straight-up horror for me. It's just a leeching miasma, feeding on cattle as often as humans. If it crawls out of its grave in the ghoulish shape of a fetid corpse, that's hardly much better; it's still a parasite, not a cool and dangerous predator. It's not a tiger, but a tick. It's kind of too crude a figure of petty using and abusing to really grab me. I can't identify with a sheep-tick, and I'm not that interested in stories of man versus sheep-tick.

With the modern vampire, the antiheroic potential is more what I'm looking for, but the whole knight/savage thing leaves me cold. Too much Romantic angst for my taste. Too much Vampire Bill doing Foghorn Leghorn with a stick up his ass: "Why, if any hahm should come to Sookie... Ah shall brood at you, Ah say, brood at you!" I can identify with Spike at his cocky best, and Godric was hawt when he was Evil Pixie Godric with his dreads and tattoos, but what others are looking for in vamps seems to be this... cold, dark grace, and that's exactly what doesn't appeal to me. To me, that glamour is just begging for a pratfall.

With werewolves, on the other hand, they're all about the fun of ripping stuff to shreds, shaking it like a ragdoll and growling when someone tries to get it off you. There's a vitality in the wildness of fur and forests, howling at the moon, a whole slavering maw rather than two elegantly pointed canines, claws that dig into the earth itself. To me the werewolf has that Id thing going on, it's all about this unleashed appetite for life, and I've yet to see anyone take that all the way. I have a story doing the rounds at the moment that kind of typifies how I see the werewolf, harking back to the old folklore where shifting was a matter of dirtwater from a wolf's pawprint. It's a shamanic thing, not a curse but a skill -- the ability to become the wolf. Again, think of loas riding orishas.

So you have a werewolf (who may or may not bear some resemblance to Jack) with his handler (who may or may not bear some resemblance to Puck,) and that werewolf is dog to the core. Hey, a dog's just a wolf who thinks he's human anyways, so it makes sense to me. We're talking the sort of werewolf who has to be told constantly not to licks his balls. Who will do anything rather than take a bath even in human form. Who'll bring a vampire heart to his handler and drop it in his lap to play fetch. Who clambers up on bed when the alarm goes off, and sits on his handler's chest, saying, "Get up get up get up get up get up! I'm hungry!" As you can probably tell, it's not exactly serious, but that's the point. The werewolf is "Wild Thing" by The Troggs, "I Wanna Be Your Dog" by The Stooges. It's about the utter lack of inhibition, and with that comes an utter lack of concern for dignity. And that's where the monster becomes fun for me, when it's leaning out of the car window, tongue lolling in the wind. That's what I identify with. If I was a werewolf, I'd be totally, "Rub my tummy!"

10) On your blog, Notes From the Geek Show, you discuss the form and the purpose of writing a great deal. How do you feel about form over function as a writer? Must you choose one, or can there be a good balance between the two? And, either way, what do you see as the purpose of writing, in general?

Form follows function for me, always and forever. This might seem at odds with my tendency to attack the whole notion of style versus content, but form and function is a perfectly valid distinction and it's a wholly different one. Style is not form. Content is not function. Some see narrative in simple terms: the story is a series of events with causal connections between them; that series of events is content to be conveyed in a functional form by the narrative; an ornamental patina of "style" may be added to that form, or not as the case may be.

This is bollocks. Try and do that in narrative and all you end up with is deposition: X did A; Y did B; Z did C; and so on, step by dreary step. The prose might be clunky or it might be purple, depending on whether you "add style" or not, but it won't be narrative either way. Narrative is not about simply communicating; it's about conjuring.

How to explain this?

At risk of boring you, I'll go all technical for a bit. Linguists use a model of six functions of language, see, suggested by Roman Jakobson. There's six things involved in any articulation, he says: an author; an audience; an open channel; a code; a context; the message itself. So an articulation will take one of these as its focus, making for six possible aims: emotive (expressing the author's state -- e.g. "Fuck!"); conative (invoking the audience's response -- e.g. "Come here!"); phatic (opening/closing the channel -- e.g. "Hey there!"); metalinguistic (verifying the code -- e.g. "What do you mean by 'doggish'?"); referential (relating to a context -- e.g. "The dog's barking"); or poetic (existing as a construct for its own sake -- e.g. "The dead dog eats / Dirt of the death-world's streets.")

It's a decent enough model for the most part, but I don't think it's quite adequate. Try and fit narrative into it and you end up with two options: a) you see it as referential -- it's meant to communicate the story; b) you see it as poetic -- it's just a pretty construct that exists for its own sake. Get one group saying it's referential and another saying it's poetic and you have the content/style dichotomy, even the idea of function and form in opposition.

But to me, it seems that Jakobson's model is missing a seventh component, the medium, and that that's what the "poetic" is really all about -- patterns in the medium itself, rhythm and rhyme. When an articulation is focused on the message, I'd say, it's doing far more than just making pretty shapes. Where I was talking about a personal semiotics above? It's tapping into that. Word by word, it's calling up notions out of that personal semiotics, setting them in a dance with each other; it's throwing them into conflicts and coalitions, tensions that complexify and build up as a drama, until the right move resolves those tensions; and it's leaving us, when it's all over, with those notions slightly changed by having gone through that drama, with subtly different imports, in subtly different relations to each other. Again, every story you've ever read about a dog changes what "dog" means to you.

That's quite different from just communicating a series of events, but it's also quite different from just making pretty word-structures. And crucially, it's wholly about that moment-by-moment experience of story as story. If you understand that as the function of this kind of articulation -- narrative -- you understand that form is fundamentally about the most effective way to conjure the story. The narrative has a little more give than a computer program -- it's not going to crash just because of a missing semi-colon -- but every word is an operation on the audience's imagination, a sub-routine invoked.

So, it's not a matter of communicating content, with style as an ornamental patina. When people talk about style without substance, the real problem is actually a surfeit of substance -- words that aren't carrying out the function of narrative in conjuring drama and are therefore extraneous, crowbarred in for purely poetic effect. And that's a deficit of form for the same reason -- the structure is bloated with redundancy. A stylist is just a writer who can conjure with panache, and that likely means conjuring in less words than a flat deposition of the series of events, coding a character's attitude to an object into the words used to describe it, for example, so they don't have to tediously explain that attitude.

It's really about force, you might say. Form is function, because each word is an action upon the reader's imagination, a force exerted upon it. An articulation is a process as much as an object, always already the performance of an operation, of a function. It's simply a matter of how effectively this is done.

11) What's the best way for your readers, and potential readers, to support you and your work? What are you writing right now?

Buying the books is the obvious one, of course, and passing on the all-important word-of-mouth to others... assuming you enjoy them, that is. And if you've been there, done that, there's a poetry collection coming out from Papaveria later this year, a Scruffians art book in collaboration with French artist Zariel, and another project which is in the works, but not quite signed and sealed -- so I can't really blab about it yet. But if you keep your eye on my blog, you can be sure I'll be trumpeting everything as it happens.

If you want to be more directly supportive -- and bless you if you do -- there are also a few direct distribution experiments I've dabbled in over at the blog, with stories available in exchange for Paypal donations. Basically, I wanted to try the online distribution thing for a series of short stories set in the same mythos. So with the first story I set a target at two-thirds of the pro-rate for a story of that length. Anyone donating whatever they felt comfortable with got a pdf of the story. If it reached the target -- and it did -- the story went up for free download from a fileshare site. Those who came late and read it for free were invited to donate if they enjoyed it; and if the full pro-rate was reached I'd do the same for a second story.

So, there's now a half-dozen or so stories free to download, and there's one that hasn't reached its target; any donors will get that sent out as a pdf and if enough donations come in I'll punt it up online for everyone. Donors have, in the past, got at least one story that won't go up online at all -- a little Christmas goody for their support. The set-up seems pretty fair to me. I don't like the idea of a tip jar, but I'm happy to try a bit of busking, so to speak. And the project did actually keep me fed during a particularly impoverished period, so if that's not support, I don't know what is.

There's also a readings service, where all of those stories are available in mp3 form -- though that's for set prices according to length because, well, I thought I'd try a slightly different model just for comparison. Actually, you can pick any of my short fiction you want and order it as a reading -- quote upfront, natch. And again if you want a sense of what you're in for, there's some poetry readings up for free, so you can sort of try before you buy.

What I'm working on now? The next big novel is sitting on the backburner, simmering away on a low boil, taking rather longer to cook than I'd really like. I've got Assault! On Heaven! going too -- the sequel to Escape from Hell! Though that's also kicking its feet, to some extent. In the meantime, I'm working on a lot of short fiction these days. Just finished a gay supervillain story for an anthology. Got a start made on a follow-up to the werewolf story I was talking about above. But I have to admit there's been some faffing recently. Plotting imaginary Star Wars prequels and all that. Or recording a sequel to the 42-verse sea shanty about the gay pirate gods, Matelotage and Mutiny, which ended up as a stickman slideshow on YouTube.

When I say my routine is "hardly disciplined," that may be an understatement.

12) What advice would you give other up and coming writers? What's the best, or worst, advice someone gave you?

Well, here's what you could call "Duncan's Ten Rules of Writing," drawn from experience either workshopping or doing paid critiques on manuscripts by writers who sometimes don't even know the very basics, in truth. It's what, I've found, unpublished writers most often need to hear, so while I think it's bad form to crib responses from other interviews and such, this is a bit of a stock answer now:

  1. You are not a new writer.
  2. Any sign that you don't know the ropes, is a sign that you're not ready to go in the ring.
  3. There is no story without style.
  4. POV is not a communal steadicam.
  5. Voice makes character.
  6. Character makes action.
  7. Action makes setting.
  8. Making tea is not protagonising.
  9. Don't hide the story behind your back so you can sucker punch the reader with it later.
  10. Find the tenth rule.

The first is about mentality, because the tendency is to think of yourself as a "new" writer, an "aspiring" writer -- "beginning," "up and coming," whatever. Bollocks to that. You're just published or unpublished, good or bad, in whatever combination.

You've been writing since you first scrawled your name. You've been making up narrative since your first daydream. Does it matter if you didn't even start doing those together until you hit forty, if you write The Naked Lunch? All that really matters is whether you're skilled or unskilled, and thinking of yourself as a novice or amateur... that's a rationalisation that you lack skill because you're a learner, an amateur. Fuck that shit. You're always going to be learning, always aspiring. You might never be published.

The nearest you come to a graduation is the day you cease to accept any excuse for a lack of skill in your work. In fact, if you're looking at other writers like they've achieved a special status you wish you had -- call it established, professional, whatever -- you're engaging in a fantasy of being a writer when you should be writing. Because you are a writer. Not a beginning writer. Not a new, aspiring, novice, up and coming or whatever writer. Just a writer.

The second rule is mainly just presentation -- functional prose in the required format. It should go without saying, but a lot of writers aren't wired into the sort of online communities or writer's groups where you learn this. You want to look up Standard Manuscript Format on the interwebs and apply it, if you want to even get a foot in the door. You could apply it to prose quality too though, where the "ropes" are simple principles: clarity; economy; precision; incisive phrasing; concise phrasing; logical sequencing in the presentation of objects and events.

That links to the third though, which is just what I'm talking about above in terms of form and function. Words are the only substance. Style is just how you put them together at all levels -- sentences, paragraphs, passages, scenes, chapters, acts. Whether you end a chapter on a wrap-up or a cliff-hanger is a stylistic decision. The key point is that your narrative is an articulation and if it doesn't work as such, it won't conjure the story. You can't just slap some words together into a depositional account of the movie running in your head and expect readers to enjoy the story without that "patina" of style obscuring the "content." There is no "content." Plot, theme and character are effects of story as it's conjured by the narrative. Words are the only substance.

The others mainly speak for themselves. (4) The confusion of multiple third person limited and omniscient narrator into muddled third person limited and/or amnesiac narrator is the first thing to watch for. (5) Mastering narrative voice (which will also help you stick to a POV) will bring your characters more alive than spieling a profile -- physical description, traits and attributes, backstory summary. Actually it'll bring other characters alive in your viewpoint character's attitude to them; they'll be fleshed out in that character's perception as coded into the narrative itself -- as will action and setting.

(6) Action is only action if it matters to a character; otherwise it's just stuff happening. It's the character's attitude to peril that makes it peril. And the conflict of a narrative -- the agon -- depends on your characters having agency; without that you just have tin soldiers being smashed against each other. (7) Setting maybe isn't dependent on action per se, but stopping to describe the setting pauses the narrative when you could be wiring that description into action, with the character engaging with the setting. Remember, time and change is a part of any locale, so a leaf falling from a tree can do as much to conjure a forest as reams of blather; you'll be showing what the setting is by showing what it does. (8) And in terms of making tea? Sometimes that's literally making tea. Mundane tasks like that can be protagonising -- as when making tea after a death in the family is a character distracting themself from grief -- but dawdle and dross are just tedious.

The penultimate rule is something I've been surprised to see in quite a few of the works I've critiqued -- authors not just keeping a card up their sleeve to make a dramatic revelation with a shocking twist, but completely obscuring the story itself by keeping a POV character's backstory, for example, a secret to the reader... even though the character knows it, everyone else knows it, the logic of their interactions makes it absurd they don't talk about it, and most of the action is in fact predicated on that backstory. Aha! the writer says, when they suddenly reveal on page 450 that the POV character is the son of the antagonist... as both of them knew all along. This is especially bad when "later" equals "in a sequel." Hiding the story till then means not having a story at all.

The tenth rule you'll have to explain, once you find it.

13) Finally, what's got you fanged (excited/inspired)?

The Scruffians art book is probably the most exciting thing at the moment. I met the artist a couple of years back at the Imaginales Festival in Épinal, and we spent a wee while talking Chthulhu and zombies over beer. We've caught up with each other a few times since, and vaguelyy talked of working together. He suggested a guide to an imaginary world of some sort, like a fake journal of sorts with illustrations by him and text by me. Being a bit slow, I pondered over various settings for a while before it hit me rather blindingly that his artwork would be perfect for the Scruffians. If you know comics, I think of it as a cross between Chris Bachalo and Jamie Hewlett; if you don't know comics, the latter is the artist involved with Gorillaz.

It's a perfect style for the concept, Scruffians being a sort of fucked-up riff on Barrie's Lost Boys by way of Larrabeiti's The Borribles -- which replaces Neverland with 1970s London, has these unaging tearaways living in squats, snot-nosed street-oiks who steal to survive (best kid's book in the world ever.) Where those books have the kids basically just decide to not grow up, Scruffians are the product of a doohickey which "Fixes" them, sets them for all time as they are, by imprinting it on their chest in the form of a Stamp -- not unlike the unkin's gravings in Vellum.

In the Victorian era then, when a lot of the stories are set, this is an industry. There's a villainous Waiftaker General who takes kids from Jews and Gypsies to make Scruffians -- justifying it on the blood libel that the kids are "stolen," of course. There's the Institute where you can bring a waif bought from a workhouse, have him Fixed. The point is, Scruffians are great cheap labour. They don't age, don't die even if you starve them, and if you send them into the factory to clean out the machinery, if they lose a hand or foot now and then... no matter, it'll grow back soon enough. You need to lash their feet to force them up a chimney? No worries, they'll be right as rain next day. As long as the Stamp on their chest isn't Scrubbed, they'll always spring back to the state they were Fixed at.

Unless, of course, they start tweaking the Stamp, basically editing their own physical and psychological identity. The stories are set in the cribs of Scruffians who've escaped, gone rogue. Some of them have to tweak their Stamp just to overcome the fear written into them at their Fixing. Some tweak a little more and become Urchins in all senses of the term -- spikes on fists, wrists, elbows, knees. Some go a further still and end up as Hellions, truly messed-up little bastards who could have fuck knows what -- horns, wings, fangs, you name it.

Anyways, the book should have one or two of the stories, with scribblings and sketches to flesh out the world; we're looking to make it bilingual, in French and English. As of the last month or so, Zariel's started to send me some of his sketches, and they're looking seriously awesome. His artwork is fucking spot-on for the style of the stories, as I say. If you check him out here -- at his site -- you'll see why I'm excited. I'm really looking forward to the end result.



Blogger Victoria said...


The changed their domain so maybe the link just doesn't work anymore. I will send a message to the owner.

- Red

2:00 am  
Blogger Damien said...

Great interview, great answers.

5:22 am  
Anonymous Krystyna said...

Thanks for posting this! The links went where they were supposed to go.

12:13 pm  

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