Drinking, Vellum, & Delany – Hal Duncan Interview

hal duncan

This week I have the author of a major release, marking the debut of a new voice in speculative fiction. Vellum will be kicked off with the up coming World Con weekend, the first installment in a duology named The Book of All Hours, whose sequel Ink will be released next year. I have had the privilege to read Vellum already, and can only give it my highest possible recommendation.

Hal and I talk about Vellum, Ink, Samuel Delany, his future projects, and compare Mervyn Peake’s prose to Gin. Check out part II of this interview afterwards!

Jay Tomio — In August your first novel Vellum is due to be released. Tell us what readers should expect from a novel that the distinguished Jeff VanderMeer said of “ it’s one of the most assured first novels of the decade, and it’s a novel many writers beginning their tenth novel would kill to have written”, and a release that Macmillan is pubbing this as going to have a similar impact as Ian M. Bank’s The Wasp Factory.

Hal Duncan — I’d rather hope for readers to come to Vellum without too many expectations; the higher the expectations, the more risk that the book won’t live up to them. What readers shouldn’t expect is a big cotton-candy heroic adventure story; there’s the odd exploding airship and a few ancient powers unleashed, but the parts I’m proudest of — and the most important parts of the story — are the very low-key, intimate moments where it’s about human beings struggling to just get by rather than saving the world against the forces of evil.

In terms of subject-matter I guess I’m in the same territory as Neil Gaiman or Philip Pullman, what with the epic backdrop of the War In Heaven, but I wanted to give a very human perspective, to do a sort of fantastic Dr Zhivago. Also I’m taking a more experimental approach, with a Michael Moorcock-style multiverse and the sort of layered narratives you get in, say, Jeff VanderMeer’s own City of Saints and Madmen or Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves.

What I wanted to give the reader was something that will involve you on a very human level with the stories of the characters, but which you can also really get your teeth into, if you like that sort of thing.

Jay Tomio — I read this is only the first part of a two novel sequence dubbed The Book of All Hours, and the second novel is titled Ink. Are these 2 individual novels in the same setting or will Ink be a traditional direct continuance of Vellum?

Hal Duncan — Ink is a sequel, but it’s the subsidiary characters of Vellum who take centre stage, so it’s a bit of a shift in perspective rather than a direct continuation of the main narrative of Vellum. In the same way that Vellum’s two volumes tell individual stories, that of Phreedom and Thomas Messenger in one, Seamus Finnan in the other, but build up into a wider narrative, Ink breaks down into two volumes — Hinter’s Knights and Eastern Mourning; but it also closes off the wider story arc of ‘The Book Of All Hours’ that is opened up in Vellum.

Jay Tomio — I read on the Nightshade board that you plan on following The Book of All Hours with a series of individual works in the same setting, will these be full length novels or collections of shorts?

Hal Duncan — I’ve got about five ideas so far for full length novels I’m planning for a series called Folds, using the 3D time idea of the Vellum as a backdrop. There’ll be points of convergence and overlap, with some of the alternative histories and fantastic realities of ‘The Book Of All Hours’ expanded upon and investigated, but I should probably make it clear that the connections will be very loose and the “worlds” will all be quite different — different “folds” of the multiversal Vellum.

They’ll be linked more by the shared metaphysics than by a shared mythos; there’s no big monoculture common to the books. That said, there is an “alternative Faerie” world that appears in Vellum, that I’ve already returned to in a couple of short stories, and that I want to explore further. There’s scope for a novel, I think, but I can see it working better as a collection of shorts, like Delany’s Neveryon series. I’ll see how it develops though.

Jay Tomio — Is there anything your working on currently outside the The Book of All Hours we should be expecting in the future?

Hal Duncan — I have a few short stories popping up in various places — Electric Velocipede, Strange Horizons, and the Nova Scotia anthology that will be out at WorldCon — but right now I’m busy finishing ‘Ink’.

Although I am also constantly planning what comes next, scribbling out synopses and story notes or throwing ideas back and forth with the guys from the GSFWC (Glasgow SF Writer’s Circle). As soon as Ink is done, I’ll be starting properly on a novel provisionally titled ‘Wild One’.

It’s a retelling of the Gilgamesh epic with the story taking place across three threads — a fantastic one of mythic gods and heroes, a historic thread set in pilgrim America, and a near future one partly set in and around furry fandom.

That probably sounds a bit bonkers but I’ve always seen the death of Gilgamesh’s fur-covered “wild man” friend, Enkidu, as the symbolic crux of the story, a great starting point for investigating the dualities we set up between human and animal, “primitive” and “civilised”, pagan totemism and organised religion.

Jay Tomio — If I am not mistaken, this is your first work and The Book of All Hours seems grand in concept and in scope from the plans you have discussed for it regarding multiple book and spin-offs. To what or whom do you give credit for the inspiration behind the work, and your choice of writing as a whole?

Hal Duncan — Samuel Delany, first and foremost, I’d have to say. I think he’s the writer who’s probably most inspired and influenced me over all, from first reading Nova and Babel-17 as a kid, through the breath-taking ambition of Dhalgren, right up to the Neveryon series, which were unlike anything I’d ever read. In The Tale of Plagues and Cities, the way he shatters the fantasy story and patches it back together with journal entries from real-world New York during the AIDS-epidemic of the ’80s — that just made me realise how powerful fantastic fiction can be if you’re willing to push the boundaries out, forget the conventional wisdom and go for broke. I’ve always loved the most ambitious writers, the sheer insane audacity of those like James Joyce or William Burroughs who are willing to experiment with the text, pull it apart and recombine it, but it was Delany who hooked me first with the sensual elegance of his sentences, who really sparked my interest in writing rather than just reading.

I also have to give credit to the GSFWC — and in particular, Duncan Lunan, the key founder of the Circle. When I started going along to the weekly critique sessions I was still only vaguely interested in the idea of writing; I think one of the most valuable things I got over the years, along with the actual feedback on Vellum and Ink, was simply support in the idea that you can treat this writing malarkey as a “hobby” or you can treat it as a craft, accept the fact that you’ve been bitten by the bug and take a professional attitude to the whole thing. If I hadn’t gone along to the Circle and started hanging out with a bunch of people all quite seriously aiming at publication, I’m not sure if my creative drive might just have fizzled out, if I would have learned the sense of discipline and direction you need to write a 180,000 word novel and make it good. I’m a total butterfly when it comes to my interests, terribly undisciplined by nature, and the workshopping process really, I think, not only fanned the flames but helped me learn to focus that energy, think of it as a craft, a career.

Jay Tomio — To step away from the genre talk for a moment. you seem to have a profound knowledge of quality drinks. What is more appealing, a good book or a good drink?

Hal Duncan — Oh, that’s a cruel question.

How can I choose? What’s more intoxicating? The crystalline clarity of a dry gin martini, or the dark complexity of Mervyn Peake’s prose? The rich, velvety fortitude of a glass of port with a Guinness chaser, or the shimmering, airy artifices of a Jeffrey Ford story? The bitter after-taste of a La Fee absinthe, or of an Aeschylus tragedy? I do love my alcohol, I admit — and my local, Stravaigin, makes the best Bloody Mary you’ll ever taste, not to mention their White Russians — but in the end I have to say that books win out, because a good book makes you think where a good drink will just make you talk. Besides, a book’s effects last longer and you don’t need a bottle of Irn Bru and a couple of Anadin Extra the morning after. Although, Guinness is good for you, so they say.

Jay Tomio — What authors, current or otherwise would you recommend to the readers?

Hal Duncan — As well as everyone already mentioned above, and of course my fellow GSFWC writers (Gary Gibson and Mike Cobley are both up for BFS awards and Harvey Raines and Neil Williamson are names to watch out for in the future) there’s so many must-reads in the field or outside — Peter Ackroyd, Ray Bradbury, Italo Calvino, Philip K Dick — that I could probably do a full A-to-Z of authors, so I’ll just pick out a couple of my favourite less well-known writers — Edward Whittemore, whose Jerusalem Quartet is a wonderful, sprawling fabulation on the theme of friendship and sorrow, and Guy Davenport, whose short stories are like elegant essays in their erudition. At the moment I’m reading Tamar Yellin’s The Genizah at the House of Shepher which I’d recommend even from just the early chapters. Another Jeff VanderMeer recommendation, actually.

Jay Tomio — That’s exactly why I bought Yellin’s book myself. Definitely a strong debut. Mr. VanderMeer led me to both that work and Whittrmore by various reviews he did of both authors.

Everyone make sure to be on the look out for it what is already one of the most highly anticipated debuts in speculative fiction this year. Good luck with The Book of All Hours and I hope you come back and join us at a later date.

Hal Duncan — Many thanks for giving me the opportunity. All the best.