I interviewed author Hal Duncan for the blog The New Gay. You can read it here.
There were two questions that I edited out, for space considerations. You can read some interesting “outtakes” here!
Do you have any advice for beginning authors?
Funny enough, I’ve been working on one of those “ten rules” things just recently, after doing some paid critique, writing reports on manuscripts by writers who sometimes don’t even know the very basics, in truth. So here’s what I’ve got so far:
You are not a new writer.
Any sign that you don’t know the ropes, is a sign that you’re not ready to go in the ring.
There is no story without style.
POV is not a communal steadicam.
Voice makes character.
Character makes action.
Action makes setting.
Making tea is not protagonising.
Don’t hide the story behind your back so you can sucker punch the reader with it later.
Find the tenth rule.
Some of these are simple, others maybe not so. The first is about mentality. Are you really just “beginning”? 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? That’s the point: all that really matters is whether you’re skilled or unskilled, and thinking of yourself as a novice or amateur… that’s a rationalization that you lack skill because you’re a learner, an amateur. Bollocks to that. You’re always going to be learning. 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 writer. Just a writer.
The second rule is basically 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. The third is possibly a bit contentious, but as far as I’m concerned style versus content is a false dichotomy. 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 rough semblance of a vague description of the movie running in your head and expect readers to enjoy the story without that “patina” of style obscuring the “content.” Plot, theme and character are interpretations of story which is conjured by the narrative. There is no “content.” Words are the only substance.
The others mainly speak for themselves. 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. 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 characters attitude to them; they’ll be fleshed out in that character’s perception as coded into the narrative itself — as will action and setting. But more pointedly, 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. Setting maybe isn’t dependent on action per se, but time and change is a part of any locale, and the principle of the “telling detail” applies here; a leaf falling from a tree can do as much to conjure a forest as reams of blather. 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.
What books/authors do you recommend?
It depends who I’m talking to, what they’re looking for. I could say Finnegans Wake, but it’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. I could say Delany but if I’m talking to an sf reader who’s into classic Space Opera, I’d be pointing them at Nova, where if I’m talking to someone who’s never read sf at all, but loves experimentalism, I’d be pointing them at Dhalgren. And some of the recommendations I might make — most of those named under influences, say — are pretty obvious to anyone whose taste runs in that direction. Like, it seems redundant of me to say that anyone into sf should read Alfred Bester, or to tell someone who likes poetry that W.B. Yeats is awesome. Hell, I’m even behind the times on contemporary fiction. I loved Cormac MacCarthy’s The Road when I got round to it recently, but that’s old news for most.
I can give you a heads-up on three books that aren’t out yet though: Darin Bradley’s Noise; Pierre Dubé’s Subtle Bodies; Sandra McDonald’s Diana Comet and Other Improbable Stories (ed. note: Diana Comet is out now, available in the usual places). They’re all quite different, brilliant in their own ways. Bradley’s is a post-apocalypse novel with a great core conceit: old CB radio frequencies have been taken over by a subculture with a sort of postmodern survivalist ethos, an instruction manual for what to do in the event of civil collapse emerging out of the chaos of signals; it’s basically about a group of college kid taking to this with a Lord of the Flies style readiness to make sure they come out alive; it opens with that collapse in progress and them already prepared, executing their plan. Dubé’s is a sort of fantasia based on the suicide of René Crevel, a poet who was kicked out of the Surrealist movement by André Breton for his homosexuality; it riffs off his life but fictionalises it, using the suicide as a springboard into a story of fake seances, real visions, and an unrequited love for Breton; if I said it was about Crevel gradually descending into the despair that ends him, that makes it sound bleaker than it is; there’s a real beauty to it, a sense of rhapsody. The McDonald meanwhile is a collection of interlinked short stories set in a world that’s so close to ours you can see New York of the 1900s in her fictional Massasoit — or contemporary housing projects in one story that’s set in the present day — but there’s a rich reconstruction of history that’s somehow redolent of Ray Bradbury without being so nostalgic; it’s got a carnival, the frontier, hints of that mythologisation of America, but it’s not sentimental… except it *is* utterly enchanting; it’s hard to describe. Anyway, I got all three of these as proofs with a view to blurbing them, and I was more than happy to oblige.
I’ll also point to Whittemore and Davenport again here, actually, because they’re nowhere near as well known as they deserve to be. Whittemore’s Jerusalem Quartet is just tremendous, vast in scope, Joycean but totally accessible, blending comedy and tragedy like Catch-22, wonderfully fanciful in places but a profoundly human (and humanist) story (or grand sprawling tapestry of interwoven stories) throughout. It has a poker game played over twenty years by a Christian, a Muslim and a Jew, for control of Jerusalem. It has possibly the most touching scene I’ve ever read, where one character talks another out of suicide. Everyone should read it. Davenport’s work is as simple — at first glance, at least, all short stories and essays — as Whittemore’s is sprawling, but there’s strangely a lot in common, I think. I came to Davenport via a recommendation by Delany, picked up his collection Eclogues, and found it full of these beautiful little gems of stories. The elegance and erudition of them is utterly captivating, and there’s stories like “Idyll” which just take your breath away with by seamlessly transitioning from a shepherd and goatherd winding each other up to two soldiers in the American Civil War. As often as not the meaning is in the juxtaposition of scenes rather than a causal connection. To describe his work properly you need to use words like “pataphysical,” phrases like “Fourieresque utopia,” so he’s probably not for everyone, but if you’re interested in the fictional equivalent of Wallace Stevens, I’d say check out Davenport.