Mini interview: Hal Duncan
In between consuming Bloody Marys, Glasgow-based Hal Duncan has been busy taking literary fiction, fantasy and mythology and then forcing them through a black hole to see what interesting new shapes come out. From some excellent short stories he has now arrived with a debut novel entitled Vellum which has been creating waves and whirlpools in the SF Ocean even before its August publication. Taking some time out after the excitement of Worldcon he pulls up a chair in our virtual bar for a chat. A word of warning for the easily offended: there is the occasional naughty word here, but if that shocks you then you would have trouble with the book as well.
FPI: Hi, Hal and thanks very much for joining us. To begin with, could you perhaps try and summarise for our readers what Vellum is about? Not an easy task I know, having tried to summarise it for our catalogue, but do have a go!
Hal: Hi Joe. Thanks for having us. Basically, Vellum is about a book written in a language called the Cant, a language that can be used to programme reality itself; it’s about godlike beings — unkin — who were once human but who’ve altered themselves and the world they live in through that language; it’s about how most of those unkin have been drafted as Heaven’s foot-soldiers and sent out to eradicate any rogues and renegades who won’t sign up to the same covenant, even if this means destroying the world; it’s about the escalating war they’re waging on splintered factions of power-crazy rebels (sort of a metaphysical War on Terror); and it’s about a few individuals who decide bugger this for a game of sodjies and go on the run from the oncoming apocalypse — trying to escape deep into a multiverse of myth and history, deep into a 3D time called the Vellum.
The idea is that there’s the “forward-and-back” linearity of past, present and future which we’re all familiar with; but then there’s also a “side-to-side” dimension of alternative worlds; and finally there’s an “up-and-down” dimension — realities built upon the ruins of realities like archaeological strata where, if you dig down deeper and deeper, the worlds below are more and more primitive, worlds of angels, faeries, gods, what have you. That’s the Vellum.
FPI: Linear narrative seems to go very quickly as we enter the Vellum. Overlapping chronologies are not unusual in literature, but overlapping characters who may be the same characters in different times and places along with interslicing realities is something else. Is it fair to say that Michael Moorcock’s multiverse and Bill Burroughs’ experimental, cut and paste techniques influenced you? And I picked up a lot of references to other literature in there (is there a little Luther Arkwright in there?) but am sure I missed as many as I got, so any other major influences or homages you care to share?
Hal: Yes, reading Burroughs was a “you can do that?!” revelation for me in terms of how a story can be constructed, if you have the balls to go for it. The same with Moorcock — and as well as the non-linear structure to the narrative there’s more than a touch of his Jerry Cornelius in my Jack Flash character… along with a bit of Luther Arkwright, a hint of Oswald Bastable and a few more to boot. It’s no accident that my Carters, “Jack” and “Reynard”, are awfully similar to Edgar Rice Burroughs’s “John” and HP Lovecraft’s “Randolph”.
But I don’t think I could even begin to detail all the little homages to everything from Sumerian myths to modern-day comic books. What I can say is that partly it comes from wanting to extend and complexify Moorcock’s Eternal Champion idea, to look at the Eternal Victims, Prisoners, Villains, etc., as sort of Jungian archetypes, and as roles that perhaps those cast in them don’t want to play. Partly it comes from the even more grandiose influences of Joyce’s Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake, where if you scrape away the skin of reality, get right down under it, it’s myth that underlies everything.
FPI: Vellum draws heavily on some of our oldest myths and infers their continued relevance to modern society. Again not a unique idea – Star Wars does so in a simplistic fashion and writers such as Neil Gaiman do so in a far more elaborate and literate manner. But you take not only the myth’s theme but the actual characters and events, repeating them throughout history, like a classical musician playing variations on a theme. Is it fair to say you like reminding your readers of the relevance myth has to even a post-post-modernist 21st century? And do you believe part of their relevance is based upon the fact that certain events constantly re-occur throughout history?
Hal: Well, looking at the world just now I see internment without trial, wars being waged for “the freedom of small nations”, crazed revolutionaries who want to kill the bourgeois — so it certainly feels as much like 1915 as 2005 in some ways. We say “lest we forget” and “never again”. I think we understand intellectually how we have a tendency to make the same mistakes again and again. But if we don’t have an emotional connection, well, we might just as easily say “the past is another country” or “who now remembers the Armenians?” As they say, those who don’t remember the past are condemned to repeat it. So I think the real importance of myth is that we tend to feel its power more immediately and deeply. As a metaphoric, archetypal, resonant reinterpretation of history, it allows us to connect with that history on a more emotional level, to really understand its relevance.
As an example, I remember watching a BBC production of Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound a few years back which portrayed Prometheus in a Soviet greatcoat, bound in concrete and steel reinforcing rods, having fought in the revolution against the tyrant Kronos only to see Zeus take the throne and betray the cause. Suddenly, simply by costume and set design, the parallels between this ancient play and Stalin’s Russia just leapt out. What’s important in the Prometheus legend, after all, is not just the “stealing fire from the gods” stuff; it’s that Prometheus is trying to make the revolution meaningful rather than just an exchange of one tyrant for another — literally giving “power to the people” — and he pays for it big time, just as all of Stalin’s old comrades paid the price if they dared to challenge the new Communist Tsar. Prometheus in chains becomes every old Bolshevik airbrushed out of the photographs and locked away in a gulag.
Thing is, to us that Bolshevik in the gulag is nearly a century back from the here and now. And Prometheus in his chains is two millennia in the past and — if you imagine time as 3D — countless layers of fictionality down from us. But they have the same story. It’s not a cyclic view of time I’m working with. It’s not that the same event happens in this year, in that year, and over and over again, the same underlying mythic pattern being replayed. No, it’s that all those instances — in this year, that year or whatever — are all, from another perspective, the same singular event, happening right here and now. I mean if you look at those two individuals, the real Bolshevik and the fictive Prometheus, as having the same story, I think, you can also look out into the world around and say, OK, where else is that story? Where is it now?
FPI: Vellum is unusual in modern fantasy in being a two-part tale rather than the traditional trilogy and certainly stands above many works in terms of making the reader’s mind have to work. I know you like to push the envelope of the genre with your writing, but do you see reading as an interactive medium rather than passive and engaging your reader’s brains, making them seriously think about what they are reading as part of pushing that envelope?
Hal: Absolutely maybe. I’ve described Vellum as a Cubist epic fantasy and that’s kind of an indication of how the reader needs to engage; they have to construct the big picture out of multiple, often-contradictory perspectives. And I’m clearly assuming that the reader is willing to, at some point, make this effort rather than wanting to just switch off their brain and settle down with a bag of popcorn.
But at the same time I’m not really out to push the envelope, not to break convention just for the sake of breaking it. The reader might have to do a bit of work to really get the most out of the book, but I don’t want to demand that level of commitment; I want readers to be drawn into that deep engagement rather than feel like they need a rest every five pages. So I made a conscious effort to keep Vellum as accessible as possible on a first reading, to make it hold together enough dynamically so a reader can relax, get swept along in the story, and reach the end feeling satisfied even if they don’t quite get it.
If I can get a casual reader fired up enough to dive back into the book, rather than being alienated by its unconventional elements, well, that’s more important to me than breaking genre boundaries, going further than other writers. It doesn’t matter how far you go if nobody follows you.
FPI: Very true. Isn’t there something wonderfully ironic in writing a book, a large part of which is concerned with the power of books and words to alter perceptions, truths and even realities? Especially as you are actively challenging your readers to engage with the subject matter, making them think, possibly changing their perceptions? It could almost be seen as recursive! Is Hal Duncan actually an unkin using his novel as a sort of Trojan book to rewire our reality?!?!
Hal: Heh. I suppose it is pretty gnarly: Vellum is, of course, one half of The Book of All Hours, the other half being Ink. And in the novel there’s a legend told about this eponymous Book in which it’s described as quite possibly containing everything that’s ever been written, perhaps even everything that’s never been written; this would, of course, mean that it contains Vellum. Then again, the fictive Book of All Hours is, according to another legend, the book which defines reality, the names and deeds of every person who’s ever lived or ever will live in the Vellum, which would mean that it contains the characters’ names and deeds, and our names and deeds, including, I suppose, my writing of the novel. And, well… you get the idea.
So I must confess, I do like to fuck with people’s heads, but there’s a more serious aim than just postmodern game-playing. A lot of metafiction strikes me as creating an arch and knowing distance for the reader, reminding them that they’re reading a story. I want the reader to feel that they’re in the story, surrounded by it, by this 3D structure, part myth, part history, part fiction. As I say, I think of it as a sort of literary Cubism. So it’s a matter of changing the reader’s perspective rather than their perceptions.
But, hell, if you think Vellum‘s a metafictional mindfuck, wait’ll you read Ink.
FPI: ‘Literary Cubism’ seems like a great description for it. The Vellum, like Gaiman’s Dreaming, or Moorcock’s Multiverse, offers an almost infinite canvas for the spinning of tales. Do you have any plans to use it for future stories after the second book – not necessarily sequels, but using the basic setting and ideas for other tales and characters? And does the idea of having your own Middle Earth or Discworld appeal to you as a writer, your own bit of imaginary real-estate?
Hal: I have about five or six stand-alone novel ideas at the moment, all of which I think of as basically set in some corner or other of the Vellum, in one or more of the Folds. Ideas like the unkin or the Cant will probably be well in the background though, if present at all; I’d rather move on and mine other areas of the Vellum for new materials. Some of these novels will be similarly mythic, others much less so, less epic and more low-key. The thing is, there’s basically infinite scope in the Vellum; the whole metaphor is after all that of a blank canvass, the substrate of the world, a blank page of skin on which anything could be written. And the 3D time metaphor dovetails perfectly with my cut-up-and-fold-in approach.
FPI: Zarquon knows how you could film Vellum – perhaps a mini-series would work better – but if it were to be filmed who would be your dream choices for director and cast?
Hal: Sadly, I have actually thought about the dream cast. I’d go for Christian Bale for Jack, I have to say; I think he could do the punk charm of Jack Flash but I could equally well see him as the WW1 version, Captain Jack Carter — a hero with a hint of cruelty. Rupert Everrett as Reynard for that public school rogue feel. After that I’m not sure — perhaps Jude Law as Joey. Scarlett Johansson for Phree, maybe, though I’m not sure if she’d be hard-assed enough.
Thomas is the hardest; the only actor I’ve seen who I immediately visualised as Puck is a chap named Hans Matheson. The one casting choice that’s absolutely certain as far as I’m concerned though, is Colin Farrell for Seamus Finnan. The man fookin’ swears like a fookin’ trooper and in fookin’ Irish; he’s perfect for the role.
Director, though… God knows. I think you’d need Nicolas Roeg or Darren Aronofsky to do something as twisted as Vellum.
FPI: Perhaps we should round off this chat by asking what’s currently on your bookshelf and what’s next for Hal Duncan?
Hal: My bookshelf is getting fuller by the day — I have a horrendous backlog of books waiting for me to finish reading them — but the books at the “Start Here” end are Tamar Yellin’s Genizah At The House of Shepher, Jeffrey Ford’s The Girl in the Glass, Kelly Link’s short story collection, Magic For Beginners and Zoran Zivkovic’s The Fourth Circle. Once I’m finished Ink I’m looking forward to a wee break, and getting stuck into that pile.
That’s assuming I don’t get dragged into the next novel, which is currently simmering away at the back of my head desperate for me to get started on it. For this one I want to do a retelling of the Gilgamesh legend in three threads: one will be set in the full-blown mythic fantasy world of the actual epic; in another, I want to map the basically civilised Gilgamesh and his wild man companion, Enkidu, to a Pilgrim America background, with the one as a settler the other as a native; and I want to set the third thread in a near-future version of the more extreme aspects of furry fandom, with people dressing up in living fur-suits to have sex. It sounds nuts, I’m sure, but I think there’s a great story in there. Boy meets furry boy. Boy loses furry boy. It’s a timeless classic.
FPI: Reworking the oldest written tale of humanity? I can’t wait to read it! Hal Duncan, thank you very much for sharing some time and insights with us. Vellum, one of our SF Book Picks in the new FPI magazine, has just been published this month and is available to order now. Seriously, people, you really need to read this; I enjoy reading as many books as I can, but there is a select group of writers who I always clear my groaning book shelves for – Hal Duncan has joined that list.