Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 19
Stories
Expendables
by Orson Scott Card
Schadenfreude
by Michelle Scott
Deathsmith
by Pete Aldin
Bonus OSC Story Serialization
Eye for Eye Part Three
by Orson Scott Card
IGMS Audio
Expendables by Orson Scott Card
Read by Orson Scott Card
Tales for the Young and Unafraid
Growing Pains
by David Lubar
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews

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 that?

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 deliberate?

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.


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