Interviews With The Fantastic
InterGalactic Interview With Andy Duncan
by Darrell Schweitzer
SCHWEITZER: I suppose the standard opening question is: What caused you to
write all this weird stuff?
DUNCAN: [Laughs.] I didn't start writing fiction with any seriousness until I was
in my late twenties. I dabbled with it in high school. I dabbled some more when I
was an undergrad. Then I just put it aside. I didn't think I was very good at it and I
didn't think I had any interest in doing it either. I used to joke that I was the only
journalist in America who did not have a novel in the drawer. I did not secretly
long to be a fiction writer or a playwright; but when the Mac Classic came out, I
got a home computer. I bought it off the back dock of Carolina Biological Supply
in Burlington, North Carolina. I was almost like the woman in You Can't Take It
With You who writes plays because the typewriter got delivered to her by mistake.
I had this nice home computer sitting there, with all these nice word-processing
programs, and I started noodling around.
The stories that came out were, for one thing, better than what I was writing as a
teenager, and I thought, "Gosh, all that journalism, all those interviews, all that
dialogue and description, structure and stuff I've been writing all these years has
helped the fiction. How about that?"
Also, the stories that were coming out increasingly had supernatural elements or
weird elements. Then I was reading a lot of Fred Chappell and John Kessel and
Orson Scott Card, all of whom lived around where I was living in North Carolina.
So then, armed with these stories, I started applying to creative writing programs,
and I got into the one at North Carolina State where John Kessel was teaching.
That was the slippery slope right there, because, far from discouraging me from
writing this sort of thing, he actively encouraged it, and he said, "Have you read
this?" and "Have you read this?" and "Have you heard of Terry Bisson?" "Have
you heard of Howard Waldrop?" He was assuring me that there was indeed a
market for what I was doing. There was a genre for it. That was, I guess, the start. I
haven't really had any discouragement to stop writing this stuff either.
SCHWEITZER: You seem to have come into the field, in the '90s, influenced by
very contemporary writers, like Card and Kessel and Chappell. But did you also
grow up reading the fiction of 50 or more years ago, Lovecraft and Heinlein and all
DUNCAN: I had been a serious reader of this stuff for many years, when I was a
kid and when I was in high school. I remember my neighbor Barry Johnson turning
me on to Harlan Ellison, and that led me to the Dangerous Visions anthologies, and
that led me to everybody who was in the Dangerous Visions anthologies, so I was
reading, at twelve and thirteen and in high school, Philip K. Dick and Brian W.
Aldiss and everybody I could find at the library in Batesburg, South Carolina. I
actually read The Hobbit when the Rankin-Bass TV movie came out. At the end of
the Ballantine edition of The Hobbit there is that deceptive fine print that says, "If
you are interested in Hobbits you will learn a lot more about them in The Lord of
the Rings." So I read that, too, buying the Ballantine editions but also checking the
hardcovers out of the library. I remember reading Dune, which was also a big
influence, about the same time. I'm pretty sure the copies of Dune and The Lord of
the Rings that I checked out of the public library in Batesburg, S.C., in the 1970s
were the hardcover U.S. first editions, from Chilton and Houghton Mifflin,
respectively. I wish I had them now!
But then I sort of got out of reading any SF or fantasy when I graduated college. I
had not read any of it for years. I had never had much of any awareness that there
were any science fiction and fantasy magazines out there, other than The Twilight
Zone Magazine, which I read from its first issue because it showed up at the
neighborhood convenience store and had Ellison's name on the cover. So after
college, it was the purely local influence. It was the local author shelf; here would
be Fred Chappell and Scott Card and John Kessel. And it was reading, particularly,
their short-story collections that were out at the time -- Kessel's Meeting in
Infinity, Card's Maps in a Mirror, and Chappell's More Shapes Than One -- that
made me think, "Gosh, I haven't read this stuff in a while but it's doing a lot
different stuff than I remember." It was a lot more diverse field than I remembered.
Then, via John, I started reading the Dozois Year's Best anthologies. There was
one in particular, the Eighth Annual Collection, covering the year 1990: It included
James Patrick Kelly's "Mr. Boy," Bruce Sterling's "We See Things Differently,"
Terry Bisson's "Bears Discover Fire," John Kessel's "Invaders," Ted Chiang's
"Tower of Babylon," Greg Egan's "Learning To Be Me," Connie Willis' "Cibola,"
Jonathan Lethem's "Walking the Moons," Lewis Shiner's "White City," and Joe
Haldeman's "The Hemingway Hoax," among others. It was one terrific story after
another, and I thought, this clearly is the place to be.
But, yeah, as you say, there was this gap. I was very familiar with writers from
mid-century -- even Manly Wade Wellman I got into as a teenager, when the
Silver John novels were coming out -- but then there was this interruption. I was
not aware of anything that was going on in the '80s, really, and I picked it up
again, circa 1990. That was when I got aware.
SCHWEITZER: It also seems that either you are part of a school or you are being
herded into one. Your work has a lot in common with both that of Terry Bisson
and Howard Waldrop. It may have something to do with a Southern tradition of tall
tales. Do you see yourself as part of a group, or as a regionalist?
DUNCAN: I certainly am. I can't help it. The Appalachian singer-songwriter Mike
Cross says that wherever he goes, when he opens his mouth, the grits start flying
out. That's how it is with me. Initially, it seemed I was always writing Southern
stories and Southern folklore type stories, Wellman being my big influence there.
But I was also writing other stuff simultaneously -- some of which ended up in
Weird Tales -- stories like "From Alfano's Reliquary" and "Grand Guignol," what
Mike Grimwood, who was on my thesis committee, referred to as my "tales of the
macabre," the more Poe-like things, though Poe was a Southern writer too.
But I was trying all sorts of things that didn't necessarily fit in my mouth, that
weren't necessarily the Southern-accented things that I initially got known for, like
"Liza and the Crazy Water Man" and "Beluthahatchie." So I think early on I was
fighting the Southern pigeonhole. I didn't want to be thought of as just doing that.
But then "The Chief Designer" helped, when I got attention for that, and it was so
completely, at least on the surface anyway, non-Southern, all about the Soviet
rocket program. I thought, OK, that sort of cleansed the palette. It took the curse
off. I thought, now that I have demonstrated that I can do other things, it won't
bother me to do more Southern things. I wanted to be an adjustable wrench. I
didn't want to be thought of as the guy who does just this one thing over and over.
SCHWEITZER: Do you think there genuinely is a Southern narrative voice,
which goes from writer to writer?
DUNCAN: I think Southerners, more than folks in most parts of the United States,
are raised with an appreciation for oral tale-telling, whether it's, traditionally, from
the politicians or from the folks at the hunting club or the gas station or the barber
shop or the beauty parlor or whatever. I think every extended Southern family has
people in it who are valued because they tell stories so well. I know that this is to
some extent a universal, but it seems that, culturally, the folks that tell stories very
well are honored in Southern life, not only around the kitchen table but in the
pulpit and in the statehouse, in the courthouse, in all sorts of walks of public life. I
think that at least in the traditional South -- and to a great extent the traditional
South is still alive and well, more than many people would wish, perhaps -- it is
still pervasive in the atmosphere. It's in the water, in the soil. If you grow up there
or spend any extended time there, it is hard to escape.
Now, that being said, when you look at folks like Flannery O'Connor and William
Faulkner and Truman Capote and Zora Neale Hurston and Terry Bisson and
Howard Waldrop and Bruce Sterling and Mike Bishop, who has been there so long
that he counts, surely, these are extremely diverse writers. There are things they
have in common. You can characterize the subject matter, but it's hard to
characterize the voice or anything, except that I do think it works really well read
aloud. I think there are some brilliant writers who don't work so well read aloud.
But I think that what you can say about most any Southern writer you can name, of
any prominence, is that the story works really well when you put it in somebody's
mouth and perform it or read it. It becomes like the story told around the campfire
after the coon hunt, or the story told at the kitchen table or at the funeral or at the
beauty parlor. And a lot of the problems that people have, for example, with
Faulkner, would be cleared up if people would just read the thing aloud. His
rolling, thundering, amazing, page-long sentences actually make some sense when
they're read aloud. It's almost like getting students to pay attention to Shakespeare,
to understand Shakespeare. If they are just reading it on the page, it doesn't make
nearly as much sense as when you hear it actually performed in the mouths of
people who are familiar with it and know the culture and know what they're doing.
SCHWEITZER: Was there somebody in your family who was valued for
storytelling like that?
DUNCAN: A number of people. My aunt Evelyn in particular was a very good
storyteller, and when we would go visit her in Columbus, Georgia, once a year, she
would regale everybody with stories. She was fascinated with political corruption,
celebrated crime cases with lurid scandals. She was an avid newspaper reader, and
when we got there she would fill us in on everything that had been happening in
Columbus, Georgia, that year, with her own spin on it. She made these
mesmerizing stories out of it. When I was a kid, there was a serial killer making the
rounds, preying on old ladies in Columbus, Georgia. They called him the Wynnton
Stocking Strangler. The material she got out of that was more hair-raising than any
Hitchcock episode, listening to her tell of the latest exploits of the Strangler. She
was convinced that the Strangler had come to her door one night and that only
pluck and good sense had allowed her not to let him in, not to become a victim. So
I think about her too. But everybody in my family -- my brother tells very funny
stories. My mother used to tell very funny stories. My father would tell stories on
more than one occasion. There weren't really individuals singled out, but it was an
accepted sort of communal thing to do when you got together. Other families
played horseshoes or cooked big dinners and things. We would get together and we
would all start saying, "Hey tell again about that time when Melinda saw the
snake!" So I got it honest, as we say back home, I suppose.
SCHWEITZER: Did you hear any ghostly stories too?
DUNCAN: This is interesting. I was thinking about this tonight. I was thinking
about going to the ghost-story event, but I didn't get a chance. I got waylaid. But
I've never had a ghost experience. I don't recall any of the immediate members of
my family telling of any. But my mother -- I know of no other way to say this but
that my mother had psychic abilities for many years, at least up until menopause,
anyway. I got very used, growing up, to the fact that my mother could read my
thoughts. I know that everybody's mother can read his thoughts to some extent
when he's a kid, because mothers aren't stupid, but it was a different way.
There's a story I always tell because it makes vivid how mundane this ability was,
how we just took it for granted. The short version is that we had been planning a
family trip, and we were looking over the atlas at where we would stop for this or
that night and who we would visit on our summer vacation, and then I excused
myself and went into the other part of the house to do homework, or work on
something. I was there for a couple of hours, and then I got to daydreaming and
thinking, "I can't remember where we said we'd stop on the second night." I
wondered if it would be here or there. So I went to ask. I walked through the house
to where my mother was sitting reading a book in the den. I walked in and opened
my mouth to ask this question, and she looked up at me and said, "I don't know
where we're going to spend the second night," and continued talking in that vein.
She genuinely thought that I had asked the question, but I had not. I had merely
thought it, and opened my mouth to speak it. But she had received it already. She
had caught it like an expert outfielder. To her that was just like normal
conversation. She had heard me speak it and so she responded.
That sort of thing happened all the time, when I was growing up, and it continued
when I was living on my own. There were stories in the family about occasional
premonitions my mother had had that came true. She was taking a nap one
afternoon and dreamed that her brother was face down in a rowboat, and she got
alarmed and started calling around. It turned out that he was indeed face down in a
rowboat, dead. He had gone fishing and had had a heart attack while he was out
there on the pond. So it didn't take too many occasions like this for word to get
around in the family that my mother had the sight. She would periodically see
people walking through the house, out of the corner of her eye, people who weren't
there, and she'd say, "Did you see that?" Or she'd look around, and I never saw
anything. But this was the sort of atmosphere I was raised in.
But this seemed to stop about the time she reached her late forties or early fifties.
Much of it seemed to go away, or at least she didn't talk about it anymore. So I had
that growing up. I don't recall any ghost stories per se, although we did have a
cousin, who's dead now, who vowed that he had picked up a hitchhiker once, and
that the man has told him about the imminent second coming of Jesus, and then
vanished from the car. He was convinced for years that he had been visited by this
angel to bring him the word. This was an utterly, completely matter-of-fact
individual, who was not prone to outbursts or rants or anything, a completely
prosaic, blue-collar guy, who just had had this one incident that he was adamant
about. He vowed it had happened. It was not a hallucination or anything. So I guess
there was more than one weird thing going on, although I myself never directly had
any experience like that.
SCHWEITZER: The fantasy writer, of course, deals with things that are
intentionally made up. So, was it a natural extension from such a background to
make this sort of story up?
DUNCAN: I think it was. I think what you hear so much when you go into any
writing workshop, and I started hearing it even in grammar school, is "Write what
you know. You can't write about it if you haven't experienced it." But I got to
thinking that there are all sorts of ways to experience something. You can
experience it by reading about it, studying it, learning about it, talking to other
people about their experiences. Early on I got fascinated. I wanted to hear people's
ghost stories. I wanted to hear about these uncanny things that happened to them. I
to this day remain fascinated by people who claim all variety of paranormal
experience, from UFO abductions to sightings of the Mothman or Bigfoot or
whatever. I even go to gatherings of these people and just sort of sit and listen in,
because it just fascinates me. Even as a kid I would press people for details. They'd
say, "Oh, you're too young," and I'd say, "No! No! Tell me." Eventually, of
course, because people want to tell you, they would.
So I guess it was only logical -- I had not thought about it before -- that when I
started to tell stories, to write them out and overtly fictionalize things, that I would
draw upon all of this and write about characters that were having these experiences
that people I talked to or people I knew had claimed to have. Even though I had not
had them myself, it was a way of having them vicariously, I suppose. Of course
now that I am older and set in my ways, that is the only way that I want to have
them. [Laughs] I would rather hear about someone's chilling Ouija-board
experience than have one of my own, I think.
SCHWEITZER: But the difference between what you're doing and what they're
doing is they're implying belief. Fantasy may be neat, but there is a contract
between you and the reader that you made it up. Do you have a sense of being
DUNCAN: I do think that's crucial. That is why I don't consider the Left Behind
series either fantasy or science fiction. I think it is written by people who devoutly
believe that these events that are depicted in these novels are scripturally
determined and will happen, and that the books are reasonably accurate prophecies
of our near future. While not all the readers of those books share that belief, I think
the core readership does. I think that's very different from reading an Ian
McDonald novel and thinking, "Oh, yes, this is the future of India." We might
think it is very plausible. We might even share his view of the future of India, but it
is not that same sort of belief. It is far more distanced. That's equally true when
you're reading Lovecraft or a Jeffrey Ford collection, or Joe Hill's collection, 20th
Century Ghosts. On some level, Joe Hill may believe in ghosts. I have never talked
to him about it. I have not read interviews with him. But it's part of the contract,
that when you sit down to read the title story of that collection, you the reader do
not necessarily believe that ghosts haunt movie theaters like this. You also believe
that Joe Hill himself does not necessarily believe it, but you share the mutual
conceit. It is a game. How plausible can he make it, and how convincing can it be
for the duration of that story? I think that's part of the pleasure of it. When I read
the writings of people who genuinely believe this stuff, like a lot of the paranormal
investigators, the John Keels, you know, it just does not satisfy on the level that the
artificial creation does. I guess that as I get more immersed in this and write more
of it, the more skeptical I get. [Laughs.]
It's not quite like the Amazing Randi and the professional illusionists who are very
hard to fool by the pretend mind readers and clairvoyants and mediums, but I do
think it is something similar. We hear these stories that people try to pass off as
true, and we say to ourselves, "Well that would be a lot more convincing if they
would do this to it." Or, we can spot the ways in which they are making up a story,
just to add conviction.
SCHWEITZER: I suspect that a science fiction writer reading a UFO book is sort
of like an automobile engineer walking through a junkyard and seeing beat-up and
degraded parts of things that he usually works with. He says, "That's a part of this,
and I know where that goes."
DUNCAN: Yes, exactly. Two of the books that in hindsight -- I did not realize it
at the time -- were preparing me for my future career, that I read as a kid, reading
everything at the public library that had the science fiction stamp on the spine,
were two books by Gene DeWeese and Buck Coulson that were set in the science-fiction subculture, Now You See Him/It/Them and Charles Fort Never Mentioned
Wombats. I had never heard of Charles Fort or Bob Tucker or Poul Anderson or
Gordy Dickson or any of the people that showed up in those books, so I should
have been mystified by them, but I was instead enchanted. It was clearly about this
loony world that I knew nothing about but that would be a lot of fun. I remember
that the plot of Charles Fort Never Mentioned Wombats was based on the
assumption, as it turned out the erroneous assumption, that people going to a
World Science Fiction Convention would be incredibly gullible and would fall for
all this UFO stuff, when in fact they turned out to be the most skeptical possible
audience for such things. So the plot does not go the way the plotters expected, for
just that reason. The further I get into the field, the more this seems to be so.
But still I love all the stuff. My paranormal bookcases are groaning, because, hey,
it's a business expense. I am always up for buying UFO books and Bigfoot books
and things like that, ghost story books. But it fascinates me increasingly as a
sociological or anthropological or literary enterprise, and not as anything that I
believe anymore. When I was a kid I believed it, but I don't now. Not really.
SCHWEITZER: What are you working on these days?
DUNCAN: I am working on several stories for anthologies that people have in the
works. I also have some long-term book-length fiction projects -- I hate to say the
n-word, but novels they would be eventually -- that I have been working on for
some time. It's about time to let others in on the secret too and show them to
people and get some suggestions. None of them is finished yet, but they are
outlines and big fragments and chunks. I have two new stories out at the end of
2009: "The Dragaman's Bride," a 1930s Appalachian dragon story, in The Dragon
Book, edited by Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois, from Ace; and "The Night
Cache," a supernatural geocaching romance set in modern-day Western Maryland,
which is a standalone novella from PS Publishing. PS also will be publishing my
second story collection, The Pottawatomie Giant and Other Stories, in 2011.
To some extent, I have never felt especially prolific, and sometimes I wish I wrote
more and had more stuff out there; but on the other hand I am very happy with the
stuff when it does come out, however slowly. The writing has never been full time
for me. I have always been teaching or doing journalism or something for the day
job. So the fact that I just keep emitting this stuff periodically, and coming to these
events [e.g. the World Fantasy Convention] and actually having something to show
for my labors, and having people coming up who have actually read the stuff and
getting autographs is just an ongoing delight. Ted Chiang has always seemed, I
think, somewhat bemused by the attention his stories get when they come out, and
I know how he feels. I sometimes feel that way.
But I guess the next step, the one thing I would like to achieve that I haven't done
yet, is to get at least a couple novels out there. At least to be circulating them and
know they are done, even if they don't get accepted anywhere or don't make much
of a splash. I would at least know, okay, I have done that, because I remember
vividly the happiness I achieved in the early '90s when I realized that I had
actually written a short story that I was happy with completely, and that I was done
with it. Now I could send it out and put a stamp on it, and I thought, well clearly I
could write another of these, having done it. I need to reach that point with the
novel now, which I haven't reached yet.
SCHWEITZER: Then you will go on to epic trilogies, and bug-crushers . . .?
DUNCAN: [Laughs.] I used to be very snobbish about series, and then I took a
hard look at my bookshelves at home, at all the books that had really inspired me,
that I really enjoyed as a reader, and I realized how many of them were series
books, from George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman novels to, my gosh, Sherlock
Holmes novels and stories, Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and Gray Mouser. There is a great
deal of honor in a good series set of characters that one explores. Like anything
else, it can be done well or ill. I remember during that orgy of reading in junior
high, reading some Tolkien imitators that were merely imitating. Then I read
Stephen R. Donaldson's first Chronicles of Thomas Covenant trilogy, and I
thought, okay, here's somebody who is clearly influenced by Tolkien, but who is
bringing new stuff to the table, who is not just going through the motions. I think
there are a lot of people now who demonstrate that you can do series books and
giant, thumping trilogies and decologies without just going through the motions. I
loved the Harry Potter series. I don't think it's the best fantasy novel there ever
was, but, my God, it's a five-thousand-plus-page fantasy novel that is good and
intelligent and witty and pays due homage to its predecessors, that also had
millions of Americans reading it simultaneously as it was published, which I would
not have thought possible, if you had suggested it to me twenty-five years ago. It's
astonishing. So, who knows what's going to come along next? There's life in the
old forms yet.
SCHWEITZER: Thank you Andy.