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Hal Duncan



What first inspired you to write?


I could talk about the high school English teacher who took me aside one day after reading a short story assignment of mine, to encourage talent.  Or the writer's circle I joined while at university, a workshop group of aspiring writers, all aiming at professional publication rather than faffing about with mutual back-slapping.  But those are the things that inspired me to write commitedly.  What inspired me to write in the first place?


The Three Billy Goats Gruff.


I mean, from being read fairy stories in bed, or when I watched Star Wars or those old Flash Gordon serials, or read Hardy Boys or Borribles books -- the whole experience of fiction, from The Three Billy Goats Gruff on -- that's what inspired the games of make-believe I played with friends in the playground.  You be Darth Vader, I'll be Luke Skywalker, and let's make it that... whatever.  And the writing just came out of that.


I used to make up bedtime stories for myself when I was lying in bed, drifting off to sleep; I had this character called Flash who I'd happily drop into any type of adventure whatsoever -- sci-fi, western, fantasy.  It was just another form of make-believe to me.  And kids get so much fiction read aloud to them that it seemed entirely natural for these fancies to be narrated: One day Flash was walking down the road when...


I do remember eventually borrowing my mum's old Olivetti to try and type out a story properly, but to be honest, I just don't see it as being inspired to write in any special way.  How many children don't construct narratives for fun, in some form or other, in daydreams or games of "let's pretend"?  This was just daydreaming on paper -- like drawing battling spaceships, but using words instead of felt tip pens.  The only difference I ever noticed between myself and others is that when the teacher set us to write stories as assignments in school, other kids seemed to see that as work, where for me it was just... being asked to play.


To me, it's kind of like asking, "What first inspired you to build sandcastles?"  I was in a sandpit with a bucket and spade, surrounded by bigger kids all building sandcastles.  So I started playing.


What inspires you now?


Building sandcastles is still fun.  Simple as that.  As I say, if we're talking about what stirs me to write at all, what keeps me scribbling away in general, I'm dubious of this whole notion of inspiration.  It's a little bit precious for my liking, too reminiscent of the Romantic clichι of the poet as some sort of wonderful unique snowflake of an individual, their sensitive spirit stirred by mysterious forces in a way that others aren't, this magical flame called inspiration kindled in their heart.


Sure, I can see where that notion comes from -- there's a part of me that's driven to write by some weird passion that may as well come from the Muses, a part of me that's trying to articulate tensions of desires and fears, joys and sorrows, to use words as a medium for hammering out conflicts of affect and belief, as a method of resolving them.  But that's an itch more than an inspiration.  It's simply that fiction and poetry are good tools for making sense of the world, for building these big figurative models that work like extended metaphors where the vehicle is unmoored from the tenor.  It's less about being inspired by this or that, than it's about having this strange way of reacting to everything and anything.  You fall in love and get your heart broken.  Someone close to you dies tragically.  Two guys in Wyoming crucify a gay kid on a split rail fence.  How do you make sense of that?


You build a sandcastle.  You write a story.


Really, I just loved building sandcastles so much I didn't stop.  I've done it for so long now, I doubt I could stop.  Why would I?  It's a blast.  And our appetite for those sandcastles is strong enough -- people are so passionate about art and entertainment as consumers -- I don't really get why there's this sense of mystery attached to the production of it.  Like us writers and painters and whatever don't get a huge buzz just from building the most awesome sandcastle we've built yet?  What other inspiration is necessary?


What advice would you give to a new writer?


Stop thinking of yourself as a new writer.


Why so?


"New" is the word you use when you're still starting stories without finishing them, when you have notes and fragments going back ten years but no actual finished works.  This isn't being a new writer.  It isn't being a writer at all.  It's being a hobbyist.  Quit tinkering and finish those damn works.  Or burn them all and start from scratch, write something brand new and keep writing it until it's done.  Then you won't be a new writer; you'll just be a writer.  If you have the commitment, that makes you a writer, period.


"New" is also the word you use when you've never been published though, when you're comparing yourself with those "established" writers, the ones with works in magazines or on library shelves, the ones who've made their mark in the world of print.  If you want to conquer that world, fair enough; burning ambition is a damn fine incentive to get better.  But the word you're looking for here is not "new" but "unpublished."  It's not about you being unknown.  It's not about you.  It's about whether your works get read or not, whether they matter to other people. Still...


"New" is also the word you use when you're not counting all those stories you made up as a kid, when you're overlooking all those aborted, abandoned, adolescent scribblings, when you've sat yourself down and said, OK, this is where it begins.  So you've only just started, you tell yourself, you're still just learning.  Bollocks to that.  We're all starting new with each work.  We're all still learning.  It doesn't matter if it's your first story or your fiftieth.  All that matters is whether that story sucks or rules.  You're not a "new" writer; you're a writer of stories (or poems or whatever) that are good or bad.  It's not about your immaturity.  It's not about you.  It's about whether your stories work or not.  It's always about the stories.  See...


"New" is the word you use when you don't think you're up to scratch yet, when you know you have the desire, when you hope you have the talent, but you're all too aware of the weaknesses in your writing, the skills you still lack.  But the word you're looking for is not not "new" but "flawed".  Join the club.  We all have those weaknesses, those flaws.  It's not about being a new writer.  It's not even about being a bad writer.  It's not about you.  It's about weak characterisation, stilted dialogue, incoherent plotting, clunky prose -- the specific flaws. In the stories.


What I'm trying to say, I guess, is that "new writer" is linguistic handwaving for amateur, and getting past that is as much about attitude as anything else.  Finishing instead of faffing.  Having ambitions for your progeny rather than yourself.  Not being daunted by your lack of experience.  Not glossing over the problems in your work with the shorthand of "amateurish," as if some vague essence of general deficiency is at the root of all that's wrong.  It's not.  What's wrong with the story is what's wrong with the words on the page.  It's not about you.


This is what they mean when they say you have to kill your darlings -- that you have to disinvest yourself, view your own work with an eye as cold as if it were a stranger's.  You are not some literary novice, some doe-eyed ingenue, your work an offering from the depths of your heart, paltry and inadequate but the best you can do.  No, you are the cruel and vengeful god of your sentences, merciless in your judgments, ruthless in your purging of the unworthy.  You will scourge the inadequate.  There's a simple golden rule in writing, really, one that applies at all levels: cut the crap.


What are you writing


I've got a novel and a couple of novellas on the back-burner at the moment.  The former is a more serious work, a retelling of the Epic of Gilgamesh across three narrative threads -- in mythic, historic and future settings -- using the source story as a jumping-off point for an exploration of love and death, mortality and humanity.  The two novellas are follow-ups to one that came out from an indie press in the US last year, Escape from Hell!  They have their serious side thematically, but they're unashamedly pulp, action/adventure stories with more than a few nods to early John Carpenter movies.  The second in the sequence is called Assault! On Heaven! and the third is Battle! For the Planet! Of the Dead!  Even without the incrementing exclamation marks, those titles probably give you a good sense of the high-octane, in-yer-face fun I'm going for.

What I'm mostly working on at the moment though is a set of short stories all based around the same idea, with a larger story-arc gradually developing between them.  It looks like ending up as a collection or a novel.  I'm riffing off the Lost Boys in Peter Pan and Michael de Larrabeiti's Borribles trilogy to some extent, with a core conceit of kids who've been "Fixed" so they never age, never change at all, in fact.  But my own take is darker, distinctly adult in terms of its themes and subject matter.  The kids don't choose to stay kids; it's forced on them.  There's no Neverland here, no escapist wish-fulfilment, just slavery and abuse, privilege and exploitation -- and bloody revenge.  There's a levity of tone that comes from playing around with the techniques of children's fiction -- the "Fixed" kids are known as Scruffians, and they're subdivided into scamps, scrags, scallywags and scofflaws depending on the age at which they're Fixed; their dreaded enemy is the Waiftaker General; characters have names like Gobfabbler and Puckerscruff -- but when you peel back the surface, what you find is the Children's Crusade, workhouses, orphans bought and sold, set to work in factories and brothels, the persecution of Jews and Gypsies.  Fantasy is about confrontation, not consolation, far as I'm concerned.


What are you reading now?


Dickens's OLIVER TWIST.  I'd never gotten round to reading it, and it's kind of appropriate to the Scruffians stories, quite a few of them being set in Victorian London, in the slums and rookeries.  When I'm working on something I generally find it's better to keep my imagination moored in the general terrain, and fiction can... fill in the flesh that you don't get with the bare bones of researched facts.  Also Dickens is a rollicking good read.


Who is your favorite literary character?


I'm not sure I have one.  Characters come in so many different types -- comic or tragic, iconic or naturalistic,  heroes or villains -- it just doesn't seem right to pick a favourite when you're not comparing like against like.  You have tragic characters who wow you with the thundering resonance of their key lines -- Ahab's final curse in MOBY DICK, Prometheus's contemptuous put-down of Hermes in PROMETHEUS BOUND, John Proctor's "Leave me my name!" in THE CRUCIBLE, Shakespeare's Lear roaring against the storm.  But how do you weigh their gravitas up against the sheer charm of Puck, speaking straight to the audience in the epilogue of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM?  Or the  monstrous absurdity of outright caricatures like Mr Bumble in  OLIVER TWIST or Milo Minderbender in CATCH-22?


I'd have to say, actually, that much of the appeal of these characters is probably their boldness, their larger than life qualities, the way they steal the scene, chew the scenery.  I'm tending towards characters from drama rather than novels, I realise -- right down to the theatrical terminology -- maybe because the more naturalistic approach you find in novels creates characters I just don't relish the same way.  They're more rounded, more subtle, which makes them more intellectually interesting but less... enchanting.  I mean, to be honest, if it weren't for that literary I'd pick Burt Lancaster's Captain Vallo in THE CRIMSON PIRATE.  Cause pirates are coooool.


What future projects do you have planned?


I have a whole bunch of novel ideas lined up, but with the novel and novellas I have gestating at the moment, those are way over the horizon.  I've got a broad outline for a high school movie that I want to flesh out into a proper script, a contemporary gay retelling of Shakespeare's AS YOU LIKE IT.  I don't have a hope in hell of ever getting anyone to make it, I'm sure -- even apart from the subject matter, I have zero connections and zero experience in that medium -- but I figure what the hell; go for it.


The idea was sparked by a conversation in the comments on my blog.  I'd posted a couple of reviews of movies set in high schools with gay protagonists -- THE CURIOSITY OF CHANCE (the best 1980s teen movie John Hughes never made) and WERE THE WORLD MINE (a musical that riffs off A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM) -- and got into an argument with someone who was pretty much decrying the banality of such populist trash.  My position was that it's all very well having gay characters in serious cinema, from MY BEAUTIFUL LAUNDRETTE up to BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, but when you're fourteen and queer maybe what you want is a gay Ferris Bueller, a gay Marty McFly, a gay Danny Zucco.  And that type of character simply doesn't exist.


But, OK, in order to be sure I wasn't talking out of my arse, I ran a quick Google on the strings "gay kid" and "high school movie," to check whether I might be forgetting anything stupidly obvious.  I was expecting to find pages about this or that "high school movie" that at least had a "gay kid" as a token character.  I would have been glad to find even a single  case that I'd overlooked where that "gay kid" was more central.


The top hit was my own blog entry on THE CURIOSITY OF CHANCE.


There's no movie that fits those simple parameters, no movie that invites such labels in its IMDB plot summary or online reviews, none with a single page devoted to it, on all the interwebs, not one with a higher profile than my sodding blog.  And I know the hit rate on my blog; it's not high.  That's fucking shameful.  Anyway, in the spirit of "something has to be done" I went away and did something.  I doubt anything will ever come of it, but who knows?  I'm looking at it as a long-term project.  The idea itself is sound, I reckon; the source text translates so easily I really think it has legs.  Maybe one day...


What interests do you have outside of writing?


Sex and drugs and rock'n'roll... I wish.  To be honest, the writing is my passion as well as my profession, and it ranges from high-falutin critique to punk song lyrics, so I don't really feel the need for other pastimes.  I'm not sporty -- I'm not the outdoors type at all -- so when I'm looking for a break from the creative side of things, I'm likely to just drag some mates to the pub, or head out to a gig.  I'd rather shoot the breeze over a pint of Guinness than bother with all that hill-walking and rock-climbing malarky.


You could maybe count music as a separate interest -- if it's not just another aspect of the writing.  I can't sing in anything other than a bad Tom Waits impersonation and can't play a single instrument, but I discovered the wonder that is GarageBand on the Apple Mac, where you can construct music from a vast library of sampled loops. I have a whole musical I put together with it, in fact -- ballads, reprises, medleys, ensemble numbers, the works.  I was carrying the songs around in my head for ages, with no way to make them real until I started messing around in GarageBand.  For all that the loops are pre-defined, I found that by splicing and dicing them, overlaying them in multiple tracks, I could actually get the songs sounding as near to how I imagined them as made no difference.


That might count as a current or future project, actually.  I posted up the instrumental versions on my blog, along with the script, and some college kids in the US contacted me, asking if their theatre group could stage it.  So over the last few months I roped in some friends to help me lay down the vocals for them, and as of now the kids are trying to translate it into something they can perform.  There's no guarantee it'll come to pass, but I'll be stoked if it does, so I'll be mucking in if I can help them out in any way at all.  As I say though, it's music but it's still pretty much writing.


Any last words of wisdom?


Nah, I don't really do wisdom.  I'm better at grandiose folly.





Vellum: The Book of All Hours 1 (Macmillan, 2005)




Ink: The Book of All Hours 2 (Macmillan, 2006)


Sonnets for Orpheus (Papaveria Press, 2006)


Escape from Hell! (Monkeybrain Books, 2008)


The Lucifer Cantos (Papaveria Press, TBA)


Various short stories published in magazines and anthologies. For links to work available online or for download, feel free to check out my blog:



The Toymaker's Grief


Once Far Ago


Once far ago -- or maybe twice or three times -- there lived a toymaker with a beautiful wife and a charming daughter.  Then there lived a toymaker with a charming daughter.  Then there lived only the toymaker, alone in a quiet house after the funeral, after the mourners had all left, dressed in his finest black suit, sitting motionless on a smooth bed, in a cold room, in an echoless house, simply sitting there, gazing out the window at a sky as blue as the eyes that would never again confirm their love with just the slightest, most momentary, smiling glance.




The Corner of His Vision


He stood then, the toymaker, largely because he didn't know what else to do, and he left the bedroom, closing the door behind him with a soft click.  He walked down the stairs to the ground floor, pausing at the bottom of the steps, where the front door faced him and the doors into the living-room and kitchen waited to his left, in the corner of his vision, on the threshold of his memory, closed and with a thousand joys beyond, those joys and all the sorrow wound within like coiled springs.


The toymaker turned right and entered his workshop.




The Magic of the Workshop


The magic of the workshop was gone for him, of course, every half-built toy upon the shelves and surfaces an image of another, an original built for his girl: a teddy bear of golden fur and black felt eyes; multi-coloured building blocks with letters on each face; a rag-doll in a gingham dress with wool for hair; a wooden marionette in lederhosen, red cone for a nose; a clockwork ballerina in pink silk, wound by a key to turn en pointe and port de bras to tinkling tines, delicate as --


The toymaker leant against a wall and wept a while.




The Single Fibre of a Squirrel-Hair Brush


The doll's house was unfinished, just a painted plywood shell of angled roof and four walls hinged to open out, two floors divided into rooms, a stairway made with matchstick banisters.  It would have been ready for her birthday, wallpaper patterns painted on with the single fibre of a squirrel-hair brush, each room curtained and carpeted in finest fabric, furnished with bed and dresser, or basin and bath, or sink and cooker, or sideboard and suite and television set and coffee table and china dogs upon the mantelpiece.


Largely because he didn't know what else to do, the toymaker began.




As the Toymaker Worked


As the toymaker worked he didn't notice the minutes becoming hours, the hours becoming days, no light of sun or moon to mark time in his windowless workshop filled with every clockwork toy you can imagine but without a clock.  He noticed hunger and he ate, he noticed weariness and slept -- at first, at least.  After a while he didn't even notice these.  He didn't notice the days becoming weeks, the weeks becoming months.  The last thing he remembered noticing was the doorbell, a neighbour with concern upon her face, food in her hands.
-- You're sure you're coping? she'd said.




A Door Without a Letter-Box


As the toymaker worked, each time he came close to completion of the doll's house, he found reason to be... unconvinced by it.  The painted-on front door seemed cheap, a trick, when it would hardly be impossible to craft a working frame, a door with hinges, and a pin-head for a doorknob.  The windows needed glazed -- no, needed to slide open, up and down.  The walls were bare without framed paintings and bronze ducks.  The floors required Persian rugs.  The dresser needed perfume bottles, photographs.  And that front door... what was a door without a letter-box?
It wasn't good enough.




Shrunken by Sorrow, Consumed by Work


As the toymaker worked -- and how he worked -- striving to make the doll's house perfect for a memory, he didn't feel the wasting of the years.  His hands did not seem frail for all the delicacy of their age; if anything they trembled less, trained by this work of such devotion to such exquisite minutiae.  His eyes were sharp as in his youth now, as he worked on tiny letters to sit on the writing bureau in the living-room.
Shrunken by sorrow, consumed by work, he only felt a little weary as he curled up on the stool to sleep.




The New Screwdriver


The doll's house, he decided, needed an extension to the kitchen -- no, a garage off to one side.  No.  A workshop.
It didn't take long to build, barely a year.  The hardest task lay in the crafting of the tools to line the racks, and the toymaker had some practice here.  He had long since built new tools to work at the small scale of detail he required for the perfection that he sought: a half-scaled hammer; a hacksaw at half the scale of that; a vice scaled down by half again.
The new screwdriver sat well in his grip.




A Little Something Missing


From inside the doll's house the work was so much easier now.  He only had to stoop a little as he moved from room to room to squeeze himself through the miniature doorways.  He could kneel to paint the skirting boards, or to carve in gaps between the floorboards where he had pulled up the carpet, or to screw in the power sockets for the wiring he had laid.  And the doll's house in the workshop of the doll's house in the workshop was nearly complete, only a little something missing, he thought.
A letterbox for the door, he thought.




And Long Away


Once far ago -- or maybe never, maybe never -- there lived a toymaker without a beautiful wife and a charming daughter, alone and lost, somewhere in a doll's house within a workshop of a doll's house within a workshop of a doll's house within a workshop, and so on.  And so on.  He had lived there for so many days and weeks, months and years, in the houses of his grief, that he had quite forgotten how far ago and long away the outside world was.
Is this the end of the story?
Let it not be the end.
One day...




Copyright © 2009 Hal Duncan














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