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Interview de Hal Duncan - Utopiales 2008 le retour

Par Luigi Brosse, le mercredi 4 février 2009 à 20:34:21

L'interview originale

Let's get directly to the point. Which advice would you give to a reader who is wondering if Vellum is for him or not?
That's a good question. I'd advise you to ask yourself Do you want more of the same or do you want something different? If you want more of the same, then probably Vellum isn't for you. If you want something different, then maybe Vellum will work for you.
Vellum is a complicated novel. I kind of describe it as cubist fantasy. In order to appreciate it, you have to step back, until everything resolves into a picture. If you look at it on a small scale and if you focus on the details and go from A to B to C to D then you may think That doesn't make sense, it's complete chaos, this is nonsense! But if you step back and take a wider perspective on it, then you go Ah... It resolves into a picture. If you like that sort of thing, go for it. That would be my advice.
Most of the reviews that I read were from readers who deeply enjoyed the book. Unfortunately that was not my case. It was not a problem of your style or originality, but I never truly entered in the book, or in the characters. So what happens in this case, should I pursue with Ink?
I don't know, what didn't work for you?
It's rich, there is a lot of amazing things inside, but I never grab what was your point there, what was the meaning of the book.
Did you engage with the characters?
Not really, sometimes yes. But you are shifting characters quite often, and then I lost this feeling.
One of the things that I'm trying to do in the book is to tell the story in a fragmented structure. My aim is to have the same story being told from different perspectives. Think of the story of Thomas's death, which is central to the novel. You have one story of Thomas's death in the prologue, and then he comes back, alive in the main text, and then you get the story of his death again, but in a different world, from a different angle... For some readers, that gives it more power but for others, what they felt was that, because he dies and he comes back, it lessened the impact.
It wasn't probably my case. I just couldn't make any sense of where the book was going. Maybe it is something conscious.
What you should hopefully have is this cubist thing. If you step back from it enough, the picture resolves, or it should resolve. And it has been quite interesting in terms of the reactions: some people, the most high-brow critics, somehow have been split: half of them liked it, half of them hated it... like it just didn't make sense to them.
There is no in-between? Because I recognise the strong qualities of the book, but I was sometimes wondering why, what is the meaning, what is happening?
Fundamentally, it's constructed upon a very abstract structure... the destruction of order in Vellum and the world's reconstruction in Ink. I would say it's kind of a thematically constructed book. In the same way as James Joyce's Ulysses or Finnegans Wake, it has a kind of underlying structure which is not so much based on a plot, on specific events happening to specific characters. All the action is not tied up to a straightforward this happens, so therefore this happens, and therefore that happens and so on. It's more sort of a theme: using seasons and times of day, like summer and daylight, then dusk and autumn, to deal with the dissolution of order, then winter and night, spring and dawn as things coming back together. Both books are constructed using this thematic structure.
So you said that the ending of Ink is more brighter. Why did you choose a classical ending, when the rest of your book is different from the "same"? Why didn't you decide to end your book with a big destruction?
Fundamentally... I wouldn't say that I'm an optimist but I would say I'm a humanist. I think there are too many books that were written with the idea to be serious, you must be negative, miserable about the nature of the world. That, as an intellectual attitude, is bollocks. The world is strange and interesting and absurd. It may have no meaning whatsoever. Sure. But there are two types of nihilism. One type of nihilism is what everybody thinks of as nihilism: the world has no meaning, it's all shite, it's all bollocks, forget it! Why bother? To me that's a failure, not seeing it through all the way. If you want to be properly nihilist about it, the correct attitude is not why bother, but why the fuck not? Nihilism is not fatalism.
So coming back now to Vellum, why did you choose the angel figure, because there are very present in it?
Because... What it was, was I'm a complete syncretist. I read a lot of mythology, and syncretism is about trying to tie them together. Christianity has, practically speaking, tied those old mythologies together in one way. Christianity has adopted a lot of the pagan gods and brought them in, made them saints or angels. So if you're using the idea that the gods and demons of the past were all individual entities, a good way of wiring their stories together is to say that they have all been gradually brought into this fold as angels.
I think that with your book, you tried to avoid "good against evil" plot. But for a lot of people, angels are seen as the good ones. Thus it seems a bit contradicting, because probably the readers will thought of them as the good ones.
I'm psychologically kind of iconoclastic, the rebellious type. As soon as I see a structure like the angelic hierarchy, I question, I want to challenge it. My automatic response to that sort of thing, the Christian idea of higher archangels, is, Um... Yeah... Are they really good? Are they really the good guys? If you look at it rationally, would they actually be the good guys? Guarding Eden, destroying cities, the apocalypse... they're kind of like stormtroopers.
Ok, why the Book of all Hours is divided into two parts. Is it your choice or some editorial constraint?
It was my choice. When I started writing it, when I started bringing together the various things that I had written and looking at that as The Book of All Hours, I kind of initially thought of it as one big book. But as time ran on, as I worked on it more and more, I realized that it worked better as two books.
There are probably many people who'll suspect that it was a decision on the part of the publishing company. But that's not true at all. It was entirely my choice, because I realized there was the story of things falling apart and there was the story of things coming together. The destruction and the resolution, those were two different stories. For me, it doesn't feel like those are two parts of one book, they are two books. One is Vellum and one is Ink. And those are the two parts that make up a text. It's the paper, and it's the writing on it. And thematically and intellectually, in terms of plot, I felt that those were separate stories that needed to be told separately, but added together, they develop something larger.
How and when did you work on Ink?
Vellum and Ink were written fairly simultaneously. I was working on both of them at the same time. I finished Vellum first and spent a year, or a bit more, finishing off Ink. Much of what was written for Ink, was written at the same time that I was writing things for Vellum.
Could you give us a brief overview of the authors that influenced you the most, and if there are some French ones among them?
Unfortunately not. British culture is so bad in terms of translation, there are so few things translated from French to English, so few things translated from any language to English.
But in terms of influence, there are too many to mention. The most important one is James Joyce. And the central idea of the book is the Book of All Hours which is pretty much a complete steal from Lovecraft's Necronomicon and Borges's Book of Sand. You take the two of those together, you take the pulp of the horror or weird fiction, the idea of the Necronomicon, and you take the magic realism in The Book of Sand and you put them together, and that's pretty much where the Book of All Hours is coming from.
What is yours at the end, if you take everything from somebody else? (laughter)
What's mine? (pause) That's hard to say. I don't know. (pause) It's hard not to look at everything and see your debt to other writers, even when people are saying they've never read anything like this before. What is most mine is probably the central idea that I wrote in the prologue. There are all these stories about what is this book, what it may contain. One person says this, one story says that, one story says it contains everything ever written and everything never written, one version has it that it's a map of the multiverse, one vision is that it's the greatest truths about the universe all brought into a single sentence. And there is a line where the writer, at that point, says he's discovered this two-word sentence. And those two words are People die. I would say that's my personal addition.
It may not be original because in some respects it's a banal truth, it's very obvious. People die, that's very simple, that's absolutely undeniable. But I personally think that if you understand the ramification of that, well... Those two simple words are like dropping a stone in a pond, and the ripples come out. That stone is tiny but the consequences are massive. And if you emotionally understand that people die, what people are and what death is, how those two things reacts with each other. To understand that, it's very hard to get your head round. What seems like a very tiny small simple statement opens up into a whole panorama of incomprehensible, inconceivable reality.
Let's be a bit more joyful now. What did you think of the success of the Book of All Hours?
It's fucking awesome! I can't complain, the reactions have been fucking tremendous. I didn't expect that at all. When I was writing it, I didn't expect it to get published. It's incredibly experimental. It's really complicated and poncy. It's stupidly, crazily ambitious. I mean, I just wrote this big-ass fucking book, trying to address the nature of reality, the nature of human consciousness. But I just thought, fuck it, just go for it. And I didn't for a second expect to get published or have a popular reaction, people going: Oh, this is good, we like this. So I've been blown away by the reactions of readers.
And what's been great about it is actually ... One part of the audience will go like We don't like this, we don't want this, we like to read traditional fantasy, traditional science-fiction, this is pretentious, we hate this, this is nonsense. And the other critics went: This is ambitious, we like it. And as it seems, it's pretty much split right down the middle. On one hand you have critics, high level intellectual critics, half of them like it, half of them hate it. And on the other hand, you can look at some Amazon reviews and they will go I read 50 pages, and I got bored, and it was nonsense. That was shit.
But I've got this fourteen year old girl in Massachusetts writing to me and saying I read your book, I didn't understand all of it but it really worked for me. To me that's really important because that's what I wanted to do, to have something intelligent and smart, difficult perhaps, but that was accessible on an instinctual level, something that people could read and go Maybe I didn't get this on a first read, but I want to read it again and I want to try to understand it. The 14 years old girl, her reaction, that's exactly that. I didn't quite get it, but I like it and I want to read it again.
Yeah, it's full of complex prose, of complicated themes and ideas but it also has exploding airships, the kind of stuff that's cool. The example I always use is the novel Catch 22 by Joseph Heller. It's Second World War fiction. This book is non linear, complex but it's something which is instantaneously accessible because it's funny. That's the point, it's funny. You know, just because you want something that is smart and intelligent, that doesn't mean you have to be ponderous and solemn. It can be funny, pretty weird, strange... Anything that makes people interested. And my attitude is exactly that. I want people to be able to come to Vellum and Ink from any walk of life. I want to be open because why should you preach to the converted? A middle class, middle age person writing for middle class, middle age people. No! You want to be writing for working class kids, teenagers, old people, everybody.
This was one of your main motivation when you start writing the books?
Yes! There is no point writing for people that already think like you. What you really want to reach is people that don't think like you. In particular in Vellum, what was all the time in my mind is, is there going to be a kid, somewhere in the Middlewest of America, that has no sense of hope. Maybe they are reading big fat fantasy or popular fiction, but it's not actually telling their story. Actually maybe I'm thinking of the sort of gay kid I used to be. And I wanted to write for that person and give them a story where they'd think, Oh shit, this is me, this is my story, this is something I can identify with, this is something that means something to me. And it's not a traditional fantastic heroic fantasy, it's something they are going to be moved by.
My reaction to that is why didn't you choose some characters that are not white coloured? For example, Phreedom or Thomas are not black?
There is one little point where... with Thomas, one of the versions of him, as his history is told across many folds of the multiverse... Like Michael Moorcock's Multiverse, the Vellum has different folds where the story takes place. So there are some folds where he is black. I would have to admit that largely most of my writing is from my own perspective, my Scottish perspective. I'm dealing with World War One, the Red Clyde and stuff like that. Finnan for example, his Irishness is very much a part of him. Jack Carter is an English officer in the 1930s. And Phreedom is coming from a certain culture. So for those characters, it wasn't right for them to be black.
Sure. But correct me if I was wrong, Phreedom is mostly American-like, a young girl lost in the middle of the USA. So she could have been black.
Yeah, she could have been... I suppose. (pause) I would say it's not specified that she's white. There is no specification of her skin colour. Maybe there is one thing that indicates that she's white, because she's a redhead, and I think she describes herself as "trailer trash". But to be honest, I don't know. If a reader wants to project, to read it as a black character, why not? But that's not the image I have in my head, the trailer trash goth-girl. And her and Thomas are in the World War One stuff as well. I kind of visualise most of the characters as looking the same across the folds, except Thomas who's a bit more fluid because that's his nature.
Did the success of Vellum change your conception of writing?
It certainly changed my attitude theoretically. I kind of went through a big crisis of faith. Writers can have a kind of fucked up mentality. On one hand, you really want to be acclaimed. But on the other hand, the reason you are a writer, rather than a rock star, is because you want to be off-scene. You don't want to be the centre of attention. Whereas a musician would be up on stage, performing for a live audience, the writer hides, he's completely obscure. Thomas Pynchon, nobody has seen him. J.D. Salinger, a complete recluse. I think there can be a kind of schizophrenia for writers who oscillate between those two things.
When Vellum took off, I started to question why exactly I was doing this. Because, with success, you get something like: This is the best thing ever written. This is wonderful, it is great. OK, it's good, but it's not that good. Sure, part of me thinks this is the best thing ever written because you need to have that level of complete arrogance and stupid faith in yourself. But at the same point, you have the flip-side of that, which is utter self-doubt. And then you want to challenge everything. And the more people come up to you with This is great, this is wonderful., the more you react against that. The more you go Well, maybe it's not that good.
And if you get success, if you get attention and respect, then you start to question your whole motivation. I think you can get really paranoid and fixated on this. It can be very destructive. I can understand entirely why musicians or stars with a bit of success become self-destructive. You can't accept the praise you want, because if you accept something like this book changed my life then this is too much to your ego. You have to be wary of that. So you end up going; okay, if I accept that, maybe the real reason I was writing is because I wanted somebody to come up to me and say that. And Oh my god! This was just for show. You end up challenging yourself on that principle: I did it all that for that reason. So it can be really paralysing and awful.
Did you overcome it?
Yeah, (smile) I think so. Though I think most writers you talk to would say that they are utterly afraid of being found out. Whatever you are writing, and no matter how much faith you have in it, it will always be less powerful for you than it will be for somebody else. So if that person comes to you and tell you This is incredibly powerful, that worries you. You will never be over the fact that other people are more moved by your work than you are. Because you look at it objectively.
But maybe, this person is looking at it objectively, from its point of view.
Yes, but for you, they are experiencing a machine that you have built. It may be a strange and wondrous thing. But you know exactly how that machine works. So, for you, it doesn't have that wonder. It doesn't have that mystical quality to it. And it never can. So all you can do is look at it and say Well, I'm an engineer, I built a machine that does this and that. But not: This is wonderful and amazing! It does this strange thing... It's still a machine doing stuff.
Consequently, are you feeling stressed for your next book?
No, not so bad. I've gone through the stress. The second book Ink, which concludes Vellum, was quite hard. I had to finish it, but I had this kind of crisis Oh my god, this is now for real. Because I was writing Vellum for myself, I didn't even have the thought of the possibility of a deal. And when I was at the end of Vellum, it was contracted. So I had publishers waiting for Ink. Money had been paid. So you think, If I don't do that, I will have to give the money back. That's when all the pressure comes in. And also because the first has been so successful, you're wondering if the second will have the same effect. Will people says This is shit!
Well, I got through that. So now, I'm OK.
And now to conclude this interview, what is your opinion about the internet. Is it something compulsory for an author now, was it useful for creating a buzz around your book?
I wouldn't say it's necessary for an author. But certainly, it can be hugely beneficial. I would certainly say that Vellum's success has to do with word-of-mouth. And these days, this word-of-mouth is through the internet. Reviews or simply a blog. The internet goes on constantly. You have writers who blog, who read each other blogs and comment on other blogs. It's like being at the bar or at a convention. All it takes is one person saying I found this book and it's really cool. And to pass it on to the next person. The internet is like that kind of thing. I think there's a lot of Vellum success which was based on that word-of-mouth. Some of the American science-fiction and fantasy writers kind of heard about it, checked it out and started spreading the word.
And yourself, do you have a blog or website? Are you connecting with a lot of people?
Yeah, I read a lot blogs. I know it's really a procrastination activity. Mentally, I should be writing, but instead I just read blogs. And I keep a blog myself. I don't post there regularly, but my posts can be 5000 or up to 10000 words long. I'm very bad. I can say nothing, not a word for two weeks, and suddenly... Bang! A huge ass post. I use it mostly as a way of working through ideas on fiction, to critique concepts of writing. I wouldn't dignify my stuff with the word "essays", but a lot of the entries are about the essence of science-fiction and fantasy.
Well, thank you for your time and your answers.
Thank you.

Interview conducted by Luigi Brosse

  1. L'interview exclusive traduite
  2. L'interview originale

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