Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Interview with Hal Duncan - Interviews (SD #54)

Hal Duncan is among the brightest new stars of western SF. His dualogy The Book of All Hours is considered one of the most serious, unconvetional and innovative works in the genre. Actually... which genre? Mr. Duncan was so kind as to answer ShadowDance's questions and below you can read about genres, 3D time, writers' workshops, homophobia, political correctness and much more. And, oh yes, about Vision.


ShadowDance: The Book of All Hours series is definitely not for every taste. It demands an effort from the reader that nowadays not everyone is willing to, or even capable of, making. What was your books' target readership and do you think they reached those people?

Hal Duncan: This is a hard question. There's a part of me that just thinks of myself as the target, or that narrow set of readers with the same tastes as me, the ones who'll get all the weird and obscure stuff I think is cool. Yes, that might mean alienating other readers who don't "get" that stuff, but so what? Why water it down, take out all the stuff that I find interesting, just because someone might not like or understand it? You'll just end up with something unadventurous, unambitious and uninteresting. What's the fucking point? So in some respects I guess my target readership is just whoever has the same quirky tastes as me, which I guess means people looking for something sort of... rich and meaty.

BUT... there's another part of me that wants to do more than just "preach to the choir". That's something Scott Bakker talks a lot about, and I totally agree. I don't want to limit my target readership to people with the same tastes as me, because I think, for example, of the outcast teenager growing up in some nowhere town and dealing with a world of shit, the sort of kid who reads SF/Fantasy to escape because if they didn't they might fucking kill themself. They're not looking for some ponderous literary tome inspired by Joyce and Borges, but I want to reach that kid and blow their mind the way PKD or Delany did to me, because the great thing about genre fiction is that it can do that. And if you're writing about things like homophobia, say, it's way more important to reach that outcast teenager than it is to reach some twenty-something graduate living in a nice cosy bohemia with all their boho mates around them.

But that puts you in a tricky situation, right? How do you make your work populist enough that this kid will pick it up just cause it looks kind of cool without compromising on the richness, the meatiness, without making it just another blockbuster? What you can do, I think, is make the books work on multiple levels, give readers a ride they can enjoy even if they don't completely "get it". The idea is that if you can just get the reader to give in and go along with the flow, maybe they'll have enough fun that they'll go back to it later, put in that effort over multiple readings.

The wonderful thing is, I think, that's paid off. I've had a lot of positive feedback from people you'd expect to be sympathetic, like other writers or readers of "literary" fiction, people who'll put in the effort on a book of such crazy ambition. But I've also had fan mail from kids who just thought it was fucking cool -- a fourteen year old in the States, another who said it helped them get through a bad few months at a boarding school in Wales. I found fucking fanart on the internet just the other day. And that totally blows me away, that there are these younger readers who've picked it up looking for just another big commercial blockbuster and been swept away by it, loved it. Because even if they don't quite get it -- and some of them have said that -- they've gone back and re-read, and re-read and got a little more out of it each time. That totally fucking rocks.

SD: The detailed descriptions of various historical and mythological events and places in the series are overwhelming. How did you chose which events and characters to use in your story, and why? Was it difficult to combine so many alternate realities and persons that, together, form a coherent storyline?

HD: At the start I didn't chose at all, I guess. What I mean is I had this idea for a huge mad monster of a novel about the Book of All Hours, this ancient tome containing all of history and myth, everything ever written and everything never written. I knew the novel would be in four parts, based on the seasons and times of day, a mythic cycle structure, but with that central idea the question was not so much what to put in as what to leave out, and I just didn't know. Eventually I just had to give up on the idea; I was going insane trying to boil down all of history and myth to One Big Story.

About the same time however I had this other idea, the unkin -- the Cant, gravings, the Covenant -- as a way of tying all that history or myth together, but using it as a backstory. Within this synthesised mythos I could write any number of individual but interconnected stories, do each one as the idea came to me, build up the Big Picture of the War in Heaven through these little snapshots -- Phreedom's encounter with Metatron in Slab City, for example.

I managed to write a grand total of two stories in that mythos, before Jack came along and, well, just sort of blew those plans to fuck.

Thing is, Jack is basically my version of Moorcock's Eternal Champion, and I kind of fell in love with the character, so I found myself using him in all these wildly different narratives -- the expedition to the Caucasus in Vellum, the Berlin and Sodom storylines in Ink, the Jack Flash stuff in both. I had a whole load of ideas for stories with Jack and the other characters that came with him -- Puck, Reynard, Joey -- including one about The Bacchae being done as a Harlequin play at some point. None of this was tied to the unkin mythos or the Book of All Hours properly, but what I found was ideas like the Cant or the Book kept popping up all over the place. All these stories.

These were all originally meant to work as stand-alone stories, but because they were forming all these links with one another under the surface I found they simply refused to work that way, in draft after draft. A lot of this stuff I was working on for years before I finally realised that the stories only really worked when read together, that there was another larger story I was trying to tell. Even then, as I thought about using the four-part structure to tie it all together, to bring out that bigger story, I still thought of it as more of a collection of individual pieces than as the diptych of Vellum and Ink. That larger story was very much on an abstract level.

It was only after I'd written the Phreedom and Thomas narratives that make up most of the first volume that I realised what I was actually dealing with -- this story about Thomas's death and Jack's redemption -- and that I'd have to smash everything up, rip it apart and put it back together. But as soon as I did everything just started to click. I knew the characters and their storylines so well by then that, really, fitting it together and filling in the gaps -- like the whole Finnan storyline of the second volume -- was like putting the right colour of tiles into the right places to construct a mosaic which I already had a picture of in my mind.

This maybe sounds a little crazy, treating the book like it's got a mind of its own, but with tBoAH it sort of feels like the book wrote itself over the decade or so I was working on it, like that original seed of an idea just spread its mycelia through my work, grew and took shape of its own accord, while I was blithely unaware of what was happening, thinking I was writing this story or that when all the time I was actually working on just the parts of this big-ass monster.

SD: How did the idea of "rewriting" ancient Greek texts occur to you, and have you thought about the possibility that the word-games in their new "translations" could be crippled when your books are translated in other languages? Do you think that such unavoidable losses of meaning in translation of such a complex text are crucial for understanding of the ideas you put in it?

HD: It started with the Sumerian texts of Inanna's Descent and Dumuzi's Dream. I wanted to retell those ancient stories with Phreedom as Inanna, Thomas as Dumuzi, but these were pretty obscure myths so I thought, OK, what if I put the actual text in there too, give the reader the actual myth that's being referenced so they're not like, Who the fuck is Dumuzi? You don't know the story of Dumuzi? Well, here it is, word for word. I wanted to be as faithful to the source text as possible, but of course I couldn't just steal someone else's translation, so I had to work out my own original adaptation. In the end I found myself going for readability over accuracy, fucking around with the text in a way that an academic would probably be appalled by, but I don't think I've bastardised them too badly. At least I hope not.

So when it came to the Greek texts the fact that they're dramas added an extra dimension. All you have is dialogue, so you can update it, retell it, and add a new layer of meaning, simply by putting that dialogue in a different context. That's not a particularly new idea. Baz Luhrman did it with Romeo and Juliet, but it's been done for years on the stage, with Shakespeare plays or operas. Years ago, actually, I caught a BBC adaptation of Prometheus Bound which mapped it to the Russian Revolution, with Prometheus in a Russian army greatcoat, bound to concrete, like some Soviet dissident out of favour with Zeus as Stalin. It took this ancient play and made it totally relevant to 20th century history. That was a pretty big influence in my own mapping of the play to WWI, the Red Clyde and such. Similarly, The Bacchae has a much wider relevance, I think, than many might expect. And the more you look into the sexual undercurrents of it the more it seems deeply twisted and juicy, which the Harlequin play setting allowed me to tap into, to bring out a whole layer of subtextual innuendo.

With both of these I ended up being looser with the source text, playing around with it to make it fit the "staging" more in places, fucking with it quite a lot at times actually. In the original text, Prometheus is dragged out by Might and Violence to be chained by Hephaestus, for example, so you have the obvious "translations" of Powers, Slaughter and Smith, all of which work as perfectly good names in English, but you don't have the same obvious translation with Io or Ocean. In the end, I found that having to be a bit more creative often opened up weird new ways of looking at the text I wouldn't have thought of otherwise.

It's inevitable that much of that will be lost in the translations. In some respects, the other editions are ultimately going to be different books. But a good translator, if they can't translate a word-play directly, might be able to find some variant that works similarly in their own language, and what difference there is would be there anyway since alliteration and rhythm are things I use a fair bit, and any translation is liable to lose that. How much is lost I don't know unfortunately, because I can't read the translation, but I've worked with translators that I've thought: if anyone can pull it off they can. I'm actually kind of intrigued by the notion that a really good translator might even be able to add something. And given that the book is about a book which contains all books, and all their different versions, I kind of like the idea of it existing in slightly different incarnations. That kind of appeals to me.

SD: It seems that the decades of second-grade juvenile fantasy are largely done with. We see more and more character-driven and complex works like those of Stephen Erikson, R. Scott Bakker and yourself, that achieve commercial success and establish a firm footing in the genre. Is such development an evolution, or rather a surprise? What are your thoughts on, if we may call it that, that new "hard-fantasy" wave of works?

HD: To be honest, I think the symbolic formulation is still a large part of the market and always will be. There have always been readers who want "more of the same" and will happily devour the most formulaic drivel with uncritical devotion, which of course creates a pressure for publishers to pander to them with puerile crap. Bear in mind that Fantasy as a genre was only separated out from SF in the 70s in order to exploit a market of readers who read Tolkien and wanted "more of the same", so it's not surprising we've had decades of drearily derivative pap dominating the genre.

One result of that domination was, I suspect, writers preferring to market their work as SF. You look at the New Wave, or Interzone in the 80s, and you find SF being used as the default term for all sorts of strange fiction that wasn't really to do with science at all, but could just as easily be called fantasy or horror or slipstream. Where's the science in Delany's Dhalgren? What does Zelazny's Roadmarks have to do with plausible scientific speculation? Or Moorcock's Cornelius Quartet? Silverberg's The Book of Skulls? I grew up reading that sort of strange fiction, working on the principle that SF basically stood for "So Fuck", so I largely thought of myself as an SF writer in that mould. I never liked Tolkien so I wasn't interested in a genre that was basically defined by his imitators.

But I don't think it's that surprising that we're seeing more ambitious works of Fantasy gaining the limelight now. The combined field of the strange fiction genres -- SF, Fantasy and Horror -- has always been hugely innovative and experimental. The field was deeply diverse even from its beginnings in the pulps. It's always had this other set of readers who're really looking for "something different" -- and that community of fans includes the editors at the biggest New York publishing houses. Sure, they know that simply slapping a dragon on the cover will up the sales by a stupidly large percentage, but they also know that there's a market for ambitious works if you can just connect with it. And they'd much rather be publishing something good if they can. So we've always had great fantasy in the field. It's just that a lot of the time it was published as SF.

The labels have shifted in an interesting way over the last couple of decades. First, people started talking about that sort of strange fiction as "slipstream" rather than SF. Then, in the UK, Interzone shifted its focus away from that sort of fiction, and The Third Alternative took over as the main market for it. In the US, you had magazines like Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet and indie press anthology series like Leviathan and Polyphony. And all of these markets were way more associated with "Fantasy" than "SF". So where we are now, I think, is that the default label for that sort of strange fiction is Fantasy rather than SF. If you published Roadmarks now it would be sold as Fantasy. The Book of Skulls definitely would. I suspect even Dhalgren would. Vellum and Ink are widely considered Fantasy, regardless of the fact that the whole 3D time thing is basically an SF conceit. Hell, even the "magic language", the Cant, is actually (albeit sneakily) described as being consistent with thermodynamics. It's not Hard SF, but then neither is the jaunting in Bester's The Stars My Destination. I think a lot of what we're seeing is Fantasy taking over from SF as the default label for stuff which doesn't fit a particular generic mould.

I think there is probably also a maturity developing in the balls-out, straight-down-the-line Epic Fantasy, with writers like Erikson and Bakker, or Wolfe and Martin for that matter, but I'd have to say I'm not the best person to talk about it from that angle as I don't really read much in that area. I'm more into the type of fantasy you get from Jeff Ford, Jeff VanderMeer, Kelly Link, writers like that. Or, if I want good old-fashioned action and adventure, something with dirigibles. Blowing up, preferably.

SD: More and more mainstream writers use tropes and techniques from Speculative Fiction. Everybody knows about the forays in SF of writers like Pynchon, McCarthy and Murakami, and of the increasing complexity and "cross-genreing" of works inside the field. Do you feel that this convergence is a sign of what literature will be like in the future?

HD: I hope so. When I talk about that market of readers for "something different", and that sort of strange fiction we used to call SF and now call Fantasy, I think part of the reason the field has been so rich in this respect is simply because the pulps became a refuge for writers with certain quirky visions and ambitions during a period when, at least in the UK and US, a backlash against Modernism made it hard to write anything that wasn't contemporary realism. Postmodernism was just about acceptable because it was safe, locked away in an ivory tower of archness and irony, presenting itself as no more than a playful intellectual exercise. But if you wanted to be serious about it you would find yourself a damn sight more welcome in the genre ghetto. There you could be as weird as you wanted; hell, it was positively encouraged, even more so after the New Wave.

I think maybe we're seeing the end of that backlash, with writers and readers shrugging off contemporary realism's strictures. Maybe it's because all the novels about middle-class mediocrities having mid-life crises put the lie to contemporary realism's claims of relevance, or because the limited scope of that type of work means there's only so many traumas and apotheoses you can represent before the story becomes so familiar as to be banal, or because people started to realise that you could actually have characterisation and a plot. I don't know. Magic Realism in the 80s and 90s may have helped to prove how strange fiction could be just plain better than non-strange. Midnight's Children won the Booker of Bookers, after all. Or it could just be that there's a generation of writers coming to the fore for whom the pulp genres are intrinsic parts of their culture, writers who've grown up on superhero comics, video games, movies like Bladerunner and TV shows like Buffy. Whatever the reason, it really seems that there's a sea change going on.

How this will play out in the field I don't know. I'm a strong advocate of cross-fertilisation, and I think the genre labels are largely empty markers for a big melting pot of strange fiction, a lot of which is anything but generic, so I can't be arsed with territorial yapping about border incursions by those pesky mainstream writers, or about what is or isn't this genre or that. That nonsense just makes me worry that good writers will get so fucked off with it they'll be driven out of the genres and into the mainstream. If the mainstream is opening up to strange fiction why bother dealing with the bullshit of genre dinosaurs who demand that all SF or all Fantasy follow some tired formula?

But the vibrancy of the indie press scene makes me hopeful. I think if the field is as willing to move with the times as that scene indicates, then we might well come out of this with a renewed vigour and a fuckload more respect than we've ever had. Kelly Link was in the Time Magazine Top 5 Books of the Year list just the other year, after all. That's got to be a good sign.

SD: Which one of your characters was the hardest to write about? Why? Have you ever included yourself as a character in your own books? If yes, which one?

HD: I can't say I've really found any of my characters that difficult to write in comparison to the others. Mostly the voice is one of the easiest thing to do and as long as I can figure out where I'm going with the story in terms of structure it's not a problem to keep that going. Getting into the voice, I find, gets me into the point of view which gets me into the world, allows me to visualise the background and action. For all of the characters there have been times when I couldn't get into the voice, sure, but that's largely been because I just wasn't in the right frame of mind at that point of time, or because there was something else wrong with the narrative, structurally or stylistically, that my subconscious was flashing an alert on. So Finnan's story in Vellum was hard to write at points but that was because it needed major splicing and dicing to get it into the right shape.

I suspect this is because the majority of the characters are me, or at least a part of me, in one form or another. There's kind of a Jungian model of the psyche in Vellum and Ink, with Jack as the Id, Thomas as the Self, Reynard as the Persona, Phreedom as the Anima, Joey as the Shadow, Finnan as the Ego and Don as a Mana or Senex figure. They're archetypes, or my personal version of the archetypes, that we all have inside our heads, I think. As such, it's kind of just a matter of accessing that archetype and bringing it out onto the page.

SD: In The Book of All Hours you ignore homosexuality taboos. Furthermore, your descriptions have a level of detail and emotion that the readers of hard fantasy aren't used to. Did you intend it as a message, setting the relationship of two men as a central storyline?

HD: I don't know. "Message" makes it sound all moral and preachy, like I'm out to enlighten the uneducated on the important issue of homosexuality and how homophobia is a bad thing, children, because gays are people too and just as entitled to respect, and religion is not very nice if you use it persecute them, and mores in general, in fact, can be not very nice too, because they can make people feel ashamed and unhappy, even lying to themself about who they are because they can't accept it. All of that could be read into Vellum and Ink, if you wanted, but my own attitude is more like, well, they're queer; deal with it.

I mean, there are pointed comments being made about the queer experience throughout. The use of the Matthew Shepard story in the Faerie chapter is not exactly subtle. It's angry and confrontational: here's your safe and cosy fantasy world with elves and shit; now here's a brutal crucifixion carried out on someone whose only crime was gay sex; this is what we call reality. And then in Ink there's one little thing where I wanted to make a deliberate point, in one of the sex scenes, of having Jack take the passive role, to subvert the stereotyped view which would make him the top and Thomas the bottom. But these points are parts of a larger theme of identity. To a large extent the characters are queer because there's no good reason they shouldn't be. Like there's a shortage of straight central characters?

Actually, if there's a "message" at all maybe it's in that centrality, but it's not so much directed to the general readership as it's aimed at that kid out there, in that nowhere town in that world of shit, who just happens to be gay. I know that when I was that kid I would have loved to see a book with a bona fide homosexual action hero blowing shit up, saving the universe and getting his rocks off with a hot young guy. For me it's worth it if one kid like that actually gets a character they can relate to in a gay who's not a mincing cliché.

SD: The tendency to political correctness has always been an inevitable trend in society. It is especially strong now. How do you think this applies to literature, especially to works as experimental as yours? What do you think its future effects will be on arts in general?

HD: I'm not fond of the term PC because it's an invention of the reactionary right largely designed to dismiss as petty dogmatism what is fundamentally about not being a prick. Not being racist is about not being a prick. Not being sexist is about not being a prick. The same is true when it comes to sexuality, disability and so on. Sure, I think there are idiocies of etiquette where people bend over backward so far in the attempt to not offend anyone that it becomes risible. And sometimes those idiocies are knee-jerk reactions held with utter conviction and a complete lack of reason. These are called mores. Mores are entirely opposed to ethical judgement, they're the fundamental basis of most right wing ideology (if not all there is to it), and sadly, yes, liberal left wingers can have them too.

I don't have any time for mores, whichever direction they come from. On the odd occasion where some moral dictate actually makes sense because its blindingly obvious -- like how its generally considered immoral to kill someone -- it's usually completely contradicted by some other moral dictate -- like how it's generally considered moral to kill someone if they're an enemy soldier. Most of the time mores are so fucked up that those who live their lives by them can simply pick and choose whatever dictate justifies their neurotic/psychotic impulses. Killing is bad? Yeah, but he's a nigger who had sex with a white girl, and that's just plain wrong!

Unfortunately I reckon these idiocies are a part of how humans work. The specifics of the mores come and go, but there's always a mob of cretins and cowards unable or unwilling to make ethical judgements for themselves who therefore have to rely on the received wisdom of rules and regulations about what's right and what's wrong. Thankfully, in my experience, the world of literature has less of them -- I suspect because so much of literature is concerned with ethical complexity. And the more experimental it is, I suspect, the less likely its readership is going to be simplistic enough to judge it on crude mores, PC or otherwise. It's usually only when something is big enough to register on the radar of political and religious organisations that the idiots crawl out of the woodwork to decry the moral transgressor.

I don't see that changing in the future one way or the other.

SD: If that is the case though, what about Richard Morgan's Black Man which was renamed in the US by Del Rei, and never made it to the Hugo or Nebula finals, even though it was labeled one of the best SF books of the year? Or the rumor that some people wanted to change the title of the second Lord of the Rings movie, because The Two Towers wasn't "appropriate" after 9/11?

HD: I can see what you mean, but I think we have to be clear about what we mean by PC here. This is a pejorative term with a specific application, used by the Right to sneer at the practice of avoiding language that might be seen as discriminatory or insulting. It's a term which exists to dismiss a certain reaction to prejudice. So, talking about "African-Americans" rather than "negroes" is about not using the latter term because it's intrinsically associated with slavery, segregation and centuries of racism; but to the Right it's just about "being PC". Talking about "homosexuals" or "gays" rather than "inverts" or "sodomites" is about not using implicitly judgemental terms, but to the Right it's just "PC nonsense". But whenever the Right start banging on about political correctness you can guarantee they'll quickly shift focus to some ridiculously extreme example, like using "vertically challenged" instead of "short". Because this is a strategy designed to trivialise liberal concerns about discrimination. Fuck, I've actually heard an American senator on the radio in the US defending the word "negro" as a "perfectly good word", totally unable to see what was offensive about it, and all the while pronouncing it in his Southern drawl, as "nigruh", so close to "nigger" as being almost indistinguishable. The man was a fucking moron.

Of course, it doesn't cut both ways. If a term is offensive to the Right they would never think of their own objections as being PC; more likely they'd talk about "blasphemy" or "obscenity" or simply "bad taste". And infact, as a writer more likely to run up against that sort of reaction, more likely to offend, and more likely to have editors worried about the reactions of conservative readers, if I was dealing with an editorial pressure to watch my words, to not offend the moral majority, I wouldn't think of that pressure as political correctness. I'd think of it as prudish cowardice.

I mean, that sort of spineless over-cautiousness isn't new and it's not necessarily political at all. With The Two Towers rumour, for example, I don't really see that as a problem with political correctness, because it wasn't anything to do with a liberal worry about the sensitivities of a marginalised minority. That was just idiot producers worried about the cash they might lose out on if a bunch of morons throw a hissy fit about the "bad taste" of the title. What was the worry? That the bereaved of 9/11 would be outraged by a coincidence of two words in combination? That liberals would think it insensitive? Or that conservatives would? I don't think it was even that rational. It was just hysteria that was, quite sensibly, seen for what it was. A moment of panic. And that's assuming the rumour is actually founded.

With Black Man, I haven't read the book, to be honest, but from what I hear of it and what I know of Morgan's work in general, it's the reactionary right he has to worry about, not the so-called "loony left". So I wonder how much of what you talk about is political correctness, and how much is conservatism, and how much just a failure of nerve. If Del Rey thought it might offend African-Americans, yes, that sounds like the sort of over-sensitivity that just feeds the Right wing complaints about PC. And even though Morgan has said he's OK with the change you'll get those who suspect he just doesn't want to piss his publisher off by complaining. I'd take him at his word, though; I suspect it just wasn't that big a deal for him, as long as the text itself wasn't meddled with.

Now, if the lack of Hugo or Nebula nominations for Black Man was due to its confrontational approach to American social inequities that's something else. If that's the case -- and it's a fairly big if -- the problem there is surely more one of conservatism, of readers being uncomfortable with his full-on left wing approach to sexual and racial politics. That wouldn't be entirely surprising in a country where "liberal" is virtually synonymous with "communist infiltrator" for some. And it wouldn't be at all surprising if a publisher were reticent about pushing that sort of book in a market -- the near-future, militaristic technothriller market -- where readers may well be of a more conservative political stripe than the readers of, say, non-linear Cubist fantasies with gay protagonists. But political correctness is not the problem there; if anything, it's the opposite – a reluctance to do anything that the reactionaries might consider objectionable.

And that's an old, old story in literature. The Right has always been vastly more obssesive and oppressive about what writers being "offensive" than any PC left-winger could even hope to emulate.

Go back to The Two Towers, in fact. If political correctness were really an issue I'd have thought someone might have questioned Peter Jackson on those rather dubious representations of Orks with their black skins, broad noses and "tribal" war-paint, taken him aside and said, um, Peter, don't you think these look a bit like those dodgy 19th century representations of African "savages"? Or similarly, with the new King Kong, where the natives of Skull Island are even worse! Fuck, they're a total racist stereotype of the "degenerate negro race", straight out of the 30's pulps. The cannibal natives in the second Pirates of the Carribean movie aren't much better; they're just objects of comedy rather than horror.

I don't see political correctness having much of an effect there.

SD: Your works are stylistically complex. Do you feel that this is your main strength as a writer, and if so, what is your main weakness? You got any? :)

HD: That's something of a loaded question, with style so often seen as being at odds with content. I'd say one of my main strengths is certainly voice, style as content. I can turn a pretty phrase, I reckon, but it's done in the service of narrative voice, an attempt to capture character. Some of my works, like Vellum and Ink, are more noticeably complex simply because you've got multiple points of view and each has its own voice. Different characters need different voices. I don't like to leave a clumsy sentence -- I'll do my best to make sure the rhythm flows, to turn it into something that would sound good if read aloud -- but that doesn't mean the prose has to be flowery. With some characters you might want that voice to be punchy and plain, pared down to the bare bones.

Where it might look more complex, in tBoAH, is because there one of those voices -- one of the most important -- is the voice of the bitmites, which I wanted to be really distinct. You've got a group mind that's part magical and part mechanical, so I wanted it to be really alien, really artificial. And it functions as a Greek Chorus at times, so it has to be pretty damn poetic. It has to read like this is the language itself, the Cant, actually come alive. The result is not exactly going to read like Hemingway. I have a few short stories which use the bitmites too, and the prose is even more dense in them.

Where I see that as a strength, a lot of readers see it as my main weakness, I'm sure. It can come across as excessively symbolic, opaque and obscure. If it doesn't work for a reader, you're fucked. The story totally fails for them. The same is true, actually, with other facets of my writing. I take a really abstract approach to structure a lot of the time, sort of a Cubist thing, with a fragmented narrative, sections arranged according to theme and tone. To me it's all about balance, shape; there's a huge amount of order in there, like in a Cubist painting, if you step back far enough from the canvass to see it properly. But if it doesn't work for you it looks like complete chaos. So again where I see strength, others see weakness.

Or again with character. The 3D model of time I use in tBoAH means you get all these different versions of the same character -- mythic and archetypal, historical and realist. What I'm trying to do is give the real world character all the dimensionality that comes from seeing them in multiple worlds, a hero in one but a villain in another. It's a way of showing the complexity in the permutations. And I want to give them the resonance of myth, but at the same time to give that myth a deep grounding in reality, so you really connect with the character, empathise with them. I'm really proud of Finnan, for example. I felt in Vellum that he really came alive as a character, that the approach really paid off.

But some readers have just been alienated by that approach. If the character exists in multiple realities, they think, their death in one is diminished. Or the archetypal aspect is something they just don't engage with; it looks superficial, a caricature. They look at Jack Flash and think he's just a cartoon, a comic book hero. To me they're missing the point, but it doesn't really matter what I think. As far as that reader is concerned, my characterisation doesn't work.

Ultimately, I guess, it's a disregard for conventionality that's both my main strength and my main weakness. That attitude affects my writing on all levels -- voice, structure, character, plot -- and it's either a strength or a weakness depending on your viewpoint.

SD: Has there been a point when you doubted whether you should continue writing?

HD: No, although there might have been times when others did, for all the reasons outlined above.

Seriously, though, there have been times when I doubted that I could. I felt pretty burnt-out after Ink, and a couple of projects went awry because I just felt like tBoAH had taken so much out of me. I got blocked on one project, and at the lowest point in that sort of situation, after a massive headfuck like tBoAH, you can end up wondering if you've just spent everything you had, if that was it. But really, I knew that was bullshit, that I just needed a break to clear my head, to let the energy build up again and to give my subconscious time to work out what was wrong with this particular project.

Thing is, I've got a ton of notes and ideas for poems, stories, novels, and I know the way I work, that sometimes I just won't be able to get into the zone but sooner or later it'll kick in again. Even when I get blocked on some piece of writing it generally feels like a sort of palpable presence in the back of my head, like a pressure building up. I get cranky, edgy. I'll pace the room like some fucking trapped animal because I know the story is trying to get out. I just have to find the right key to unlock the gate. There's no doubt about whether I should or could keep writing. If anything it's the opposite, this constant frustration that I should be writing now, god damn it. Now, now, NOW!

SD: Do you believe in the idea of the artist as a solitary genius, and do you think there is place for such people nowadays? Do you communicate actively with other colleagues and does that help you?

HD: I'm sure there's a subset of artists who are geniuses, and a subset of those who are solitary, but I don't buy it as some bullshit Romantic myth of the true artist, isolated from the rest of humanity by the uniqueness of their vision. That just sounds like posturing bollocks to me. I'm not sure I even believe in innate talent. Talent is vision, far as I'm concerned, and vision is something you can't learn in the same way you can learn craft, but it's something you can... I don't know... find. It's just a matter, I think, of looking hard enough in the right place, throwing yourself into life -- love and death, sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll, whatever really makes you feel enthusiasmos in the old Greek sense of having the divine within. That's what inspiration is, I think. It's nothing to do with being a "genius" with some sort of "gift".

That passionate engagement with the world could make you solitary or social. Sure, there are some artists who throw themselves so deeply into their vision they end up out of touch, but I'm a social being. For me, there's a "blood, sweat and tears" humanism that drives me and that's fed by contact with friends. I can be a bit too much of a party animal for my own good, to be honest. But when I go to cons like WFC in the US or Fantasycon in the UK and spend time boozing and blathering with colleagues I tend to come back hyper-charged, reinvigorated.

And for purely practical reasons, if you're an aspiring writer in the genre community I strongly recommend getting out there, making connections, if not through cons then over the internet, via blogs and forums, because there's a whole community out there that's incredibly supportive and helpful. If you're blatantly out to get something from it, of course, it'll show, so don't treat it as a means to an end. Nobody wants to hear your fifteen minute monologue on the great idea underpinning your first novel which you just happen to have a copy of, it's about this book, see, blah blah blah. But if you get out there and just look at it as a chance to have some fun hanging out with like-minded people, who knows what might come of it?

SD: Have you been strongly influenced by another author? If yes, who?

HD: Too many to count. I get a love of language from Delany, a concern with metaphysics and mindfuckery from Dick. Both of those writers were quite formative influences, I guess. But if you look into tBoAH, I think you can also find the clear influence of James Joyce, Edward Whittemore and Guy Davenport in various places. The idea of the Book itself is half Borges, half Lovecraft. And the list goes on. I don't know if there's an author I could single out as a cardinal influence over anyone else.

The nearest I could come to it, maybe is Moorcock, because although I came to him quite late and didn't really click with the straight Fantasy stuff -- Corum, Hawkwind, etc. -- you can see, I think, the deep influence of both Jerry Cornelius and Oswald Bastable in Jack -- Jack Flash and Jack Carter. With things like the chi-gun, the airships, the alternate realities, the pulp adventures, all of that stuff, I don't think it's hard to see the roots. There are actually a couple of little references in Vellum and Ink, slipped in as deliberate nods to Moorcock, acknowledgements of that debt.

Even some of the other characters are partly an extension of the Eternal Champion idea. I map his Eternal Champion, as a hero archetype, to the Id, and I think you can do something similar with other characters too. So Joey, as the Shadow, is the Eternal Villain, while Thomas, as the Self, is what Jung called the Puer Eternus, the Eternal Kid. And so on. Connecting that cast of characters to the Harlequinade was, in no small part, inspired by Moorcock making a similar connection in his Jerry Cornelius stuff.

Hell, the Vellum is basically my take on Moorcock's multiverse, an attempt to systematise it by looking at it in terms of three dimensions. So yeah, I think it's fair to say that Moorcock was a pretty strong influence.

SD: More and more authors seem to take up blogging, either on the request of their publisher, or because they want to be more accessible to their fans. You have a blog; apart from the obvious advantages, do you feel that it may get in the way of an author's work?

HD: A blog is an author's work. It's writing. It's not fiction and it's not for money, but neither is a journal, or notebooks, or letters, and these are all ways of developing one's craft or one's ideas.

I mean, clearly there's an aspect of self-promotion to blogging, which is why a publisher would be keen on it, and that contact with the fans is part of that. But those blogs that are just about the PR are often pretty dull, like a series of press releases -- this story sold here, that one sold there. Yeah, whatever. If you don't enjoy blogging for the sake of it, it's probably not worth the hassle.

But for me that contact with the reader is as much about the feedback as it is about PR. It's cool to get complete strangers from remote country's taking the time to post a comment saying they've enjoyed this or that entry, and how they found it because they liked your books enough to hunt the blog down. That totally energises you, keeps you feeling that, yes, there's somebody out there appreciating what you do. Writing's not like music, where you get the audience reaction at a gig, the buzz of live performance, actual applause. So a blog is great if you're, like me, a total attention slut.

But more importantly, as far as I'm concerned, a blog can be a place where you formulate theories, tell anecdotes, rant and rave and ramble about whatever is interesting you or pissing you off -- and all of that is good practice. In fact, it can even be a part of the production process, a way to kick story ideas around out loud or work through ideas about your approach to writing and genre and so on. Over the few years I've been blogging I've built up more than enough material for a book of non-fiction, and I'm now seriously looking at the possibility of working that material up into something publishable. Without the blog as a place to riff on the nature of strange fiction I doubt I would ever have gone in that direction. If it comes together the blog will basically be the notebooks from which the first rough draft is worked up.

SD: What do you think of writing workshops?

HD: The Glasgow SF Writers Circle was utterly invaluable to me. I honestly don't think I'd be where I am today without it. There are some caveats, of course, but I think if you want to learn your craft properly a good workshop is a great asset. But here's the caveats:

You can't teach vision, I think. You can learn all the essentials of craft through critique, how to analyse a work on the level of character, action, setting and so on, all the ins and outs of language, how to cut back on adjectives and adverbs, good grammar, bad grammar and creative grammar. You can learn how to turn leaden prose into gold. But if there's a lack of vision, the story will still just be mediocre. That's one big problem, I think, with the whole workshop approach, if writers think they can just go through this process, "graduate" from it, and that's that. The GSFWC, Milford, Clarion, an MFA course -- as valuable as these might be there's a limit to what they can teach you.

The second caveat is that it only works with a good workshop, and by "good" I mean brutal. A lot of workshops are basically cosy knitting circles, mutual masturbation societies where hobbyists get together, read each other's stories (sometimes aloud, for fuck's sake) and then slap each other on the back about how much they all enjoy each other's work. Fuck that shit. If you want support, you go to the pub afterward, hang out in your free time. Then you can stroke each other's egos all you want. The workshop is not for that. The workshop is for tearing your crappy story apart and shoving the useless scraps of it in your face so you can smell the shit. This doesn't work. That doesn't work. Your story falls apart because of A, B, C, D, E and so on. Some workshoppers will always cushion the blow, temper the criticism with praise. Others will always try to be constructive, offer a solution to the problem. But if the story isn't salvageable, you may have to face a workshopper who's ready to say that to your face. And in a workshop run right you might just have to shut up and wait till it's time for your rebuttal before you can say a damn thing.

The GSFWC works that way, applying the Milford Rules, where everyone gets a copy of the story beforehand so they have enough time to read it and prepare notes. Then you sit around and everyone gives their critique, one by one, with the writer only allowed to answer direct questions until the very end when they have a chance to respond. This is a good way of not getting sidetracked by the writer jumping in to defend every point, large or small. It works. But here's where the last caveat comes in.

Most people can't take criticism. In all likelihood, people will tell you exactly what's wrong with your story and you won't really listen to a word they say. You'll be too busy being hurt and shocked at how they hated your gem of a story to actually take it in. But what will happen is you'll try harder next time, to prove you can do it, and because you're doing the same thing to their stories you'll be learning all these skills of analysis that you can apply to your own work in order to pull that off. Eventually you will be able to look back at those early works with a critical eye, and you'll realise they were right when they tore it to shreds.

If you really want to learn your craft, I think, you have to learn to be a ruthless critic of your own work and that's where a workshop can be a great tool.

SD: What are your future creative plans? Do you intend to return to the world of the Vellum, or do you have other ideas to put on paper?

HD: As I say, I'm looking at the possibility of a non-fiction book, a book of critique, but the current thing on the agenda is a novella I'm doing for Monkeybrain Books called Escape From Hell! It's a high-octane adventure story -- a hitman, a hooker, a hobo and a hobo in the ultimate prison break... escape from Hell itself. I think a lot of readers of tBoAH will be surprised because this is really action-oriented, fast-paced and short, about 40,000 words. It's about as far from tBoAH as its possible to get, in some respects. I like the idea of going from something insanely huge and sprawling to something really tight, with a completely linear narrative.

After that, the next full novel is a retelling of Gilgamesh, done similarly to the Inanna/Phreedom section in Vellum, with the original source text rewritten and turned into a narrative thread, interwoven with two other threads that'll sort of tell the same story in parallel -- with one set in historical British Columbia and the other set in the near-future. You might well look at it as being set in the Vellum, with action taking place similarly across that 3D time-space, but it's not an unkin story; the characters in the historical and near-future threads will be all too human.

I've got a few ideas that are like that. Basically any story you can tell could be set in the Vellum, whether or not the characters know that. The Book of All Hours series is finished with Ink though. There are four stories already written that are related to it, with the bitmites in this city at the end of time, but otherwise I've no intention of returning to that aspect of the mythos. I'm not interested in retreading the same ground, writing some never-ending series of The Chronicles of the Second Edition of the Book of All Hours, Volume 12. But I do like the possibilities opened up by the whole 3D time idea, so you might well find that idea popping up in my fiction again here and there.

And Jack and Puck have a tendency to infiltrate any story idea that comes to me if I'm not careful. There's a lot of fun to be had with them, and with certain types of story they're too perfectly fitted not to use. So I'm pretty sure they'll be working their way into my fiction for some time to come.

SD: Could you share an advice you think important for aspiring authors (apart from "work hard and don't give up")?

HD: Let's see. I can probably boil down everything I've said above into something simpler. Write for you and those like you, what you would like to read. Write for the person you want to inspire the way you were inspired. Write the book into the shape it wants to be. Don't be afraid to rip things apart and put them back together. If you can get into a character's voice, you can get into their world. Fuck mores and fuck conventions. Fuck genre labels. Forget bullshit cliché of the solitary genius. Get out and meet other writers and it'll do you the world of good. If you want to find your vision you've got to throw yourself into life anyway. And if you want to learn your craft, the best thing a workshop will teach you is how to be ruthless.

As an illustration rather than advice, back when I was starting out I got totally bogged down in all this stuff I'd built up over years. Half-finished stories, notes, background material, bits and bobs of writing that didn't come to anything because every time I sat down to try and work it into a story I tried to use it all. I didn't know how to throw anything away. This sentence was really cool. That image was great. This idea just had to be used. That character just couldn't be scrapped. I couldn't go forward as a writer because I couldn't let go of anything. So one day I took it all out and burned every single scrap of it, everything I'd written up to that point, the good with the bad. It was a crazy thing to do, and there's stuff I regret losing, but it had to be done and it couldn't be done by halves. It was a mercy killing. If you're an aspiring author, I reckon, someday you'll face a point in your writing where you'll have to exercise that sort of ruthlessness. If you can burn everything to ash and start again with a blank page then, if nothing else, you'll know you've got what it takes. Because I think that's the point where you realise you've found your vision, and that all that stuff had to be cleared away because it wasn't a part of it.

SD: Do you wish to share something with your Bulgarian readers?

HD: A few beers? I'm a sociable person. If you ever fancy a chat at a con, I'm always happy to share a pint or two and a good conversation.