The Past is not Past
An Interview with Andy Duncan
by Nick Gevers
Andy Duncan is a new prodigy of speculative fiction; in the last few years, he has published a succession of stories of remarkable atmosphere, articulacy and insight, a brilliant short fiction debut comparable with those of James Tiptree, Jr. and John Varley in the Seventies, or of Lucius Shepard and Greg Egan in the Eighties. In October 2000, Golden Gryphon Press publishes Duncan's first collection, Beluthahatchie and Other Stories, a comprehensive showcase of his superb tales, including the notable novellas "The Executioners' Guild" and "Fortitude" and two hitherto unpublished pieces. Beluthahatchie is one of the landmark volumes of the year.
Duncan's stories are characteristically set in richly evoked historical locations; they empathise rigorously with these settings and their inhabitants, capturing their tragedies and their lunacies with an exquisitely calculated blend of farce, pathos, and outright horror. Sometimes quietly understated, sometimes ferociously antic, these tales are the products of an authentic literary genius, one of which much will be heard in coming years.
Andy Duncan, a former journalist and now an active teacher of creative writing, is personally as conversational, as abundantly forthcoming, as any of his fictions. In this interview, conducted by e-mail in August 2000, he throws much light both on his own creative processes and on the challenges facing any beginning writer.
(Andy Duncan maintains an informative homepage at www.angelfire.com/al/andyduncan)
[Editor's note: Beluthahatchie and Other Stories has since won the 2001 World Fantasy Award for best collection.]
NG: Your first published book, rather unusually, is a short story collection, rather than a novel. How has this reversal of customary publishing logic come about? And how does it feel to be taking the step to book publication, surely momentous for any writer?
AD: The book came about because our Pine Mountain, Georgia, friends Michael and Jeri Bishop came to visit my wife, Sydney, and me in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, in summer 1999. Michael, as you know, is a Nebula Award-winning novelist, author of Brittle Innings and other wonderful books. The night before Michael and Jeri left home, I was soon to learn, they amused one another by reading aloud "The Executioners' Guild", my then-current Asimov's novella. (I take it they don't have cable.) This apparently put ideas in Michael's head. En route to dinner at the Taylorville Diner, Michael asked me, "Hey, Andy, how many stories have you published to date?" I told him, "Oh, about a dozen." He pondered this, then said, "That's enough for a collection." As my heart leapt, I said, matter-of-factly, yes, I supposed it was. Then he told me that the folks at Golden Gryphon were looking for material; they had asked him to recommend writers, including new writers, who deserved to have a collection of their work published. "Would you mind terribly," Michael asked, "if I were to recommend an Andy Duncan collection to Golden Gryphon? I even could volunteer to write a foreword, if that's OK." Doing my best not to drive into the ditch, I managed to squawk out that I wouldn't mind that at all -- in fact, that would be very nice, thanks. By October 1999, I had a book "in press," as we say in academe. I'm very proud of the book, and of all the stories therein, and I can't thank Michael enough for getting the ball rolling.
NG: You are professedly a Southern author (although you don't allow this to limit your subject matter at all). How does this regional orientation affect your style, your narrative voice, your characterisation, your themes?
AD: I'm determined not to fit anyone's predetermined notion of "Southern writing". As I like to tell people, there's a lot more to write about in the South than moonlight and magnolias and the Confederate dead -- or, conversely, trailer parks and Snopeses and Baptists. When two of my most overtly Southern stories -- "Beluthahatchie" and "Liza and the Crazy Water Man" -- became my first two sales, I feared I'd be typecast, doomed to writing only in a Southern voice; I worry less about that now. But certainly I have inherited a lot of Southern traits that are useful for a writer: a love of colourful talk, a sense of place, a sense of humour, an immersion from birth in an ocean of Story. Not to mention a fascination with the eccentric and the quirky and, yes, the grotesque; and, as Faulkner deathlessly put it, the conviction that "The past is never dead. It's not even past." As for style and voice -- which I find difficult to distinguish, in writing and in teaching -- I don't know whether to credit the tradition of Southern oral storytelling, but I do know that in writing every story I read every sentence, paragraph, page, aloud a dozen times, convinced that what sounds good is good.
NG: You spent eight years as a journalist before turning, as John Kessel dryly puts it, to the more lucrative field of fiction writing. Did your reportorial career play a large part in your development as a creative artist? And what prompted you to leave journalism?
AD: I think my journalism career -- both reporting and editing -- was Instrumental in my development as a fiction writer. As an undergraduate, I took a couple of fiction workshops, wrote a few stories, decided I wasn't very good, and put fiction aside forever, or so I thought. I turned to journalism, and soon was making a pretty good living writing. I loved, and still love, so many things about working at a newspaper. I loved the camaraderie of the newsroom. I loved the opportunity to do research, to become a mini-expert on any conceivable subject in the span of a few days. I loved the excuse to talk to strangers for hours about how they lived, what they thought, what they feared, what they loved. I loved being the person my friends turned to for information, whenever they wanted to know what was really going on in town. And certainly I loved the writing.
As my confidence grew, I became more experimental -- trying to write stories that were all dialogue, that were all description, that were all narrative, that had no "news" aspect whatsoever, that contained in-jokes or obscure references or hidden structures or odd words that I'd select, arbitrarily, ahead of time and resolve to get into the newspaper that week somehow. Endlessly playing, in other words, with the form of the newspaper story. I'm afraid that in my arrogance, I fancied myself a sort of one-man Oulipo movement within the newsroom. But in hindsight, as I look back over my clips, I see relatively little work that I actually remember, still less that I'm proud of; and I am forced to admit that much of my largely forgotten game-playing must have sprung from simple boredom. Because as the years passed, I got restive. I became increasingly uninterested in the story assignments that were handed to me. "Let's talk to people who love their SUVs!" Or: "What happens to the parts of the turkey that aren't eaten?" I wanted to do only the assignments that I came up with, that I thought were interesting or important -- and, of course, at any newspaper only a handful of very senior writers have that luxury, else the daily paper would be largely blank. So the assignment editors and I engaged in a long, mutually frustrating pushmi-pullyu, while my writing varied from brilliance to adequacy, depending on how I felt that day.
I never came close to being fired, because I was too good at what I did, and too well-liked even by my would-be mentors, but I did come close to quitting several times. Once, when I was being strong-armed into accepting a beat I didn't want -- covering one of the local school districts -- I actually wrote a formal resignation letter and handed it to the top boss of the newsroom; he tore it up and said, "You win." I could have found work at other, larger papers, but in my increasing disillusionment I felt that my problems would only follow me. When a very insightful copy-desk chief, Tom Corrigan, offered me, out of the blue, an editing job down the hall, I leaped at the chance, and so my last few years at the paper were relatively happy ones. I had traded my frustrating, open-ended, life-consuming writing job for a satisfying, compartmentalized editing job with fixed hours. I worked nights, when the newsroom was largely empty, and could engineer small nightly triumphs to my heart's content. I was a far better headline writer than I had been a features writer.
And yet I got restless on the desk, too, because what I was suppressing couldn't be suppressed for long. When I bought my first home computer -- a Mac Classic bought off the back dock at Carolina Biological Supply in Burlington, North Carolina, and which I just this summer donated, appropriately, to a home for the aged -- I started anew, on my days off, writing. Initially I was just typing, without shape or purpose; as a teenager I had been given a new electric typewriter, and I did the same thing then, just filling pages. But this time I kept at it, and gradually the typing began to become something more than typing, began to take shape. For years I had joked with friends that I was the only reporter in the country who did not aspire to be a fiction writer. Now, with much reluctance, remembering the futility of my undergraduate experiments, I tried again, secretly in my apartment at night, to write fiction.
And whaddya know -- from the first paragraphs, I saw that I was much better at it this time! Certainly I had lived more and read more and somewhat matured. But all those hundreds of stories I had written at the newspaper, all that private experimentation, all those interviews, all those hours at the library, all those lengthy wire dispatches pruned to their essence, all those headlines that had to be an exact number of letters no more no less -- yes, I had learned from all that. I had been learning, all those years, without realizing it, to be a fiction writer. So I decided, I've given enough years to newspapers, to writing other people's stories; I'm going to find myself a place where I can work on my own stories for a while.
Later: I just thought of another, vital way my newspaper experience benefited my writing career, at least early on. So many aspiring writers, even if they manage to get good work done, have a terrible time summoning up the courage to put a stamp on it, to submit it to strangers -- not only because they fear rejection, but also because they fear acceptance; the thought of their work appearing in print for even more strangers to read, to judge, is terrifying to them. I have trouble identifying with this particular set of neuroses, because after years in the newspaper business, you see, I was accustomed to seeing my work in print every day, exposed to the pitiless gaze of a hundred thousand readers. I also knew, having been on both sides of the desk, that editors and writers have to work together for their mutual benefit and that of the publication, so when I started getting rejection notes and, eventually, rewrite requests, I never took them personally. Thanks to my newspaper days, a hurdle that many aspiring writers find very difficult, even insurmountable, was simply not an issue for me. For this reason, I often tell young writers of all stripes, even poets, that they should try working at a newspaper or magazine for a while.
NG: In the 1990s, you took part in various creative writing seminars and workshops, under the supervision of such luminaries as Michael Swanwick and John Kessel. Both personally and with reference to the needs of budding writers in general, how important do you think such training and consultation is?
AD: Before I start pontificating, let me say at the outset that a number of marvellous writers and editors, whose work I admired long before I met them, have helped me more than I can say, have been incredibly generous with their attention, encouragement, advice, friendship. John Kessel, my mentor and brother, who grew me from a bean at North Carolina State, is foremost among them, but there are many others -- Michael Bishop, Michael Swanwick, Gardner Dozois, Ellen Datlow, Karen Joy Fowler, Kelly Link, Elizabeth Hand, Jonathan Lethem, Lee Smith, William Price Fox, Wilton Barnhardt -- too many to name here. It was through workshops, seminars, and conferences that I met most of these people, and many others besides, some well known and some (so far) less well known, but all of them dear to me and vital to the progress of my writing career. So I can't imagine myself having taken another route, because how could I have done without these people? (I might add that I met my wife, Sydney, because I enrolled in the M.F.A. program at the University of Alabama; that was a necessary move, certainly!)
That being said, I don't think my own route is the only route; far from it. I do think all budding writers -- whatever their ages -- need, at some point, to hook up with a group of other budding writers, and establish a writing community. Because if no one cares about your writing but you, staying motivated is very hard; and if no one sees your writing but you, then you're not a fiction writer or poet or playwright or screenwriter, you're a diarist. Besides, writing is a lonely business, and one generally disdained or at least misunderstood by writers' families and friends and co-workers. So writers need other writers, early and often. And most writers, in addition, need mentors, established writers who can show the new kid the ropes. I learned more one lunch hour at the Rathskellar in Raleigh, listening to John Kessel and Samuel R. Delany talk shop, than I might have learned in any three M.F.A. programs. So joining a community of aspirants, and befriending members of the larger, more established community above, are both very important.
But what type of writing community you need join, and how long it needs to last or how often it needs to happen, are matters of individual alchemy, like what time of day you write best or what pen you prefer. Some writers thrive, as I did, when they quit their day jobs and enroll in graduate programs in creative writing. Other writers -- a majority of those enrolled -- do the same thing and make no progress at all. Some actually lose ground; some never write again. In the SF/fantasy field, some writers thrive, as I did, at one of the six-week Clarion workshops. Others don't. Some Clarion grads never write again. Some persevere, but only after years of writers' block, and this group, I might add, includes some of the best-known celebrity alumni. I will always be grateful, publicly and privately, to the creative-writing programs that helped me, which I take the opportunity to list again here: the M.A. program at North Carolina State University, the Clarion West workshop, and the M.F.A. Program at the University of Alabama. I will continue to help and support them all I can. But do I go so far as to recommend them? Not to everybody, not even to most.
The care and feeding of a writer is a delicate thing, and each writer requires a different regimen. Certainly aspiring writers should consider the many other avenues open to them: informal writing groups that meet in coffeehouses or in private homes; local organizations for aspiring writers that charge dues in order to bring in speakers and offer workshops; e-mail discussion lists and electronic bulletin boards for the like-minded; night classes, or visiting-writer series, at the local college; clubs and bookstores that offer poetry slams or open-mike nights or even a thickly layered bulletin board; any halfway decent SF convention. There are countless ways for writers to meet other writers for mutual support and encouragement. Back in the 1920s and 1930s, pulp writers such as Jack Williamson and H.P. Lovecraft did it entirely through correspondence.
But there are also countless ways for writers to outgrow their writing communities, to develop interests and ambitions that can't be addressed by that particular group. In my experience, very few informal writing groups last more than a couple of years -- at least without a near-total change in personnel -- and very few writers' organizations are worth their dues for more than a couple of years. That's to be expected; that's OK. A writer evolves, or she's stopped being a writer. In my case, I have pretty much stopped going to workshops -- except for those I teach, of course -- with the exception of the Sycamore Hill Writers' Conference, which I've been honoured to attend twice now. Besides the fact it's run by Kessel and others whom I love, I like Sycamore Hill for the following reasons: it lasts only a week, which is the right length; it happens only every couple of years, which is the right frequency; and it's composed of one-third writers who are, at their best, just a wee bit better than I am, and two-thirds writers who are, even on their off days, as far beyond my abilities as the stars are beyond the Moon. So Sycamore Hill is terrifying, but I learn a lot, and I have fun. Yet one celebrated writer I know declines all invitations to attend, because the very idea of such a workshop horrifies him; he works best alone. When a great conclave of Southern writers was assembled in Charlottesville, back in the early 1930s, folks you never heard of hogged the limelight and did all the talking, while in the back of the room, half-drunk and miserable, speaking to nobody, longing only to go home to Mississippi, was a new novelist named William Faulkner. Not all writers are joiners.
NG: Reading Beluthahatchie and Other Stories, it's striking how versatile your talent is, and how hard your stories are to categorise in respect of genre. Still, your works have tended to appear in genre publications: Asimov's, Weird Tales, Horror anthologies, and so forth. Do you perceive yourself as a Fantasy, SF, or Horror writer? Or do you resist any such pigeonholing?
AD: I always have read and loved SF, fantasy, and horror, in addition to all the other stuff I've read and loved, so it never occurred to me not to write it, if that makes any sense. I never felt any stigma connected to the field as a reader, so I initially didn't feel any as a writer, either. Rather, my concern was breaking into the field, as opposed to breaking out of it. In my first writing class with John Kessel, and during my summer at Clarion West, I worried much whether my stuff would be accepted by the field -- whether it "counted" as SF, fantasy, horror, or whether I would be advised to seek other markets. The consensus seemed to be, yes, it does indeed count, sort of -- but I should seek additional markets anyway, like everyone else! Gardner Dozois sends me very funny acceptance letters, complaining bitterly because the SF/fantasy content of a given story is so marginal, and because once again I have forced him, through sheer damnable guile, to accept a story that certainly will get him fired, lead to the downfall of his magazine and perhaps (by implication) the downfall of all SF magazines, etc., etc. I got one such letter about "Beluthahatchie," which went on to a Hugo nomination, and another such letter about "The Executioners' Guild," which went on to a Nebula nomination and, I just learned, a second-place finish in the Asimov's reader's poll, so Gardner's anguish is largely symbolic -- but there is a grain of truth in it.
Probably I should have been sending my stories to mainstream markets long since. It would be glib for me to point out here that my stories tend to be much longer than those markets will tolerate, or that magazines such as Playboy want contemporary or near-future stories rather than historical ones, or that most of the "literary" journals pay in prestige and not cash. The sorry truth is, my foray into the so-called "genre" markets has proven so successful -- beyond anything I had anticipated -- that it's just easier to keep submitting to editors who know me and my work, rather than to start anew at Kilometer Zero in that huge slush pile at Glimmer Train or wherever. I respect Bruce Sterling, who eloquently defends genre as "an almost unalloyed good," but I also respect fiction writers such as Fred Chappell and Joyce Carol Oates, who publish freely in all sorts of markets, from the "popular" to the "literary," and are tied to no single genre -- except, arguably, the genre of Fred Chappell stories, or Joyce Carol Oates stories. Ultimately, I'd like, of course, for Andy Duncan stories to be considered their own genre, but I'm not there yet.
NG: Aside from your teachers, have any writers, genre or mainstream, particularly influenced your writing? Some names seem quite probable: William Faulkner from the literary canon, Howard Waldrop from the genre side...
AD: Certainly Faulkner and Waldrop are two huge influences. I don't think it coincidental that I was preparing for a fall graduate seminar on Faulkner the summer I attended Clarion West; the extracurricular reading I carried to Seattle was Absalom, Absalom! Let's see, who else? Edgar Allan Poe. Herman Melville. Ursula Le Guin. Zora Neale Hurston. Lewis Carroll. James Thurber. Shirley Jackson. Ross Macdonald. Leigh Brackett. Frederik Pohl. Cyril Kornbluth. Arthur Conan Doyle. Dr. Seuss. Roald Dahl. Ray Bradbury. Harlan Ellison. Edward Gorey. Charles Addams. The late Walt Kelly's comic strip Pogo, especially that amazing language he invented -- the greatest achievement of dialect fiction in the 20th century. P.G. Wodehouse. Mark Twain. Stephen King. Peter Straub. Charles Chesnutt. Alfred Hitchcock, who certainly had a hand in writing all his movies, though he never took a screen credit -- and, since I brought up filmmaking, I should add the names Tim Burton, Terry Gilliam, and Stanley Kubrick, and John Ford and Howard Hawks and David Lean and John Frankenheimer and Robert Wise and Jacques Tati and George Melies and, yes, Ed Wood and -- oh, let's not go there. The heyday of the National Lampoon, especially the stuff Michael O'Donoghue and P.J. O'Rourke wrote. Lots of comic books, too, especially Stan Lee's, and Steve Gerber's Howard the Duck. Mad magazine influenced my whole world-view more than I can say, and so have Jan Harold Brunvand's books on urban legends. Speaking of urban legends, should I mention all those trashy "non-fiction" paperbacks I devoured as a kid, on Jack the Ripper and the Loch Ness Monster and UFOs? I'm happy to report that I continue to discover "new" inspirations all the time. In the year of our Lord 2000, for example, I belatedly became the last SF/fantasy reader on the planet to discover the works of Neil Gaiman, and I am mainlining the man, I cannot read enough of him. His influence will assert itself eventually, I'm sure.
NG: You have a very definite gift for the crafting of period tales, whether with an overtly supernatural cast or not. How much historical research does this necessitate? And how do you achieve your often uncanny sympathy with your historical protagonists?
AD: I do entirely too much research, probably, as my answers to a couple of questions below will indicate. Certainly from an economic standpoint, it doesn't make much sense to research a story as thoroughly as if it were a novel. And sometimes the research elbows aside the writing; if I know too much about a given subject, I have to put it aside. Years ago, I had a story idea involving Dante Rossetti and Elizabeth Siddal. Partially in the name of research, I signed up for a graduate seminar on the Rossettis: a wonderful class, but when it was over, there was nothing left to write about, no room left in my head for invention. More often, though, the research spurs the invention, gives me the courage to make things up -- again, as the examples below may underscore.
As for my sympathy (or, a word I prefer, empathy) for the historical, for the dead, I think growing up the youngest member of an extended Southern family had a lot to do with it. My parents were considerably older than the parents of my classmates. For everyone else in the classroom, the Depression and World War II, for example, were remote events that existed only in history books, whereas for me they were vitally real, immediate events, because my parents and their siblings talked about them all the time -- as they talked about parents and grandparents and other family members who were long dead, but whom I came to know, in a sense, as presences in the house. So I concluded that all the other stuff in the history books, all those other people long past, must have a similar immediacy. Certainly the Civil War does -- in a sense, it's being fought all over again in South Carolina as I write this. It's not exaggerating to say that from an early age, I started to view all times and places and people as co-existent, in some metaphorical yet deeply meaningful and truthful way.
I still feel that way when reading history -- that all these people are my next-door neighbors, that I share their problems, that it's in my interest to know something about them. For that matter, I feel that way when reading the newspaper -- even the news from the other side of the world. I get so worked up, reading the newspaper, you wouldn't believe it. That empathy carries over, inevitably, into the fiction, but for me it's less a writing technique than a personality trait, one that's hard to separate out and view dispassionately.
NG: Proceeding now specifically to stories in Beluthahatchie: several of these, such as "Grand Guignol", "From Alfano's Reliquary", and "The Premature Burials", are notable for their dexterous employment of gallows humour. Why does this technique appeal to you so?
AD: Another Southern writer who was a big influence on me, Joseph Mitchell, looked back on his corpus near the end of his career and noted the abundance of what he called "graveyard humour." Maybe I'm just whistling past the graveyard, trying to hide my fear, like Lou Costello in an old B movie; but I like to think that if you laugh at something, then it has less power over you, so that laughter is a fundamentally subversive thing. (I think Harvey Kurtzman, and his successors at Mad, taught me that.) So I hope these stories are courageous and not cowardly. There's a lot of comedy, intentional comedy, in Edgar Allan Poe, whom these stories clearly are riffing on, and all his best disciples (in whose ranks I do not yet include myself) have picked up on that, and exploited it. The most brilliant sequence in Shirley Jackson's brilliant novel, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, is the one in which the crazy uncle wheels through the house, regaling a wide-eyed visitor with the lurid details of the night his family was slaughtered, while the other members of the tea party sit in strangled embarrassment in the parlor, trying to keep up appearances despite the, uh, late unpleasantness. It's the Manson slayings rewritten as a Frasier episode.
John Kessel and I have talked a lot about this, about the fact that all the most serious writing has to be, on some level, funny, while all the funniest writing has to be, on some level, serious. John's own works are terrific examples. To attempt to separate the two, as in, "OK, now I'm in yuk-yuk, funny, zany mode," is to me a sign of immaturity as a writer and, perhaps, as a person, which may be one reason I'm seldom much fun at parties. I probably should add at this point that whenever I read a piece aloud to an audience for the first time, I am invariably surprised by the number of laugh lines. I'm seldom conscious of being funny while I'm writing, but if people view me as a funny writer, I'm glad. God knows we could use more funny writers.
NG: Another recurring device in your stories is the rendition of love that transcends the grave: two pieces of yours, "Saved" and "The Map to the Homes of the Stars", first appeared in Dying For It, an unearthly erotic anthology edited by Gardner Dozois. Is this simply a culturally inevitable Southern Gothicism? Or is it a reflection of something personal?
AD: I like to tell this story: In fall 1996, I received a letter from Gardner that said he was editing a sequel to his 1995 anthology Killing Me Softly: Erotic Tales of Unearthly Love. His deadline was approximately yesterday, and did I have any unpublished stories on hand involving sex and ghosts? After glancing with some embarrassment over my work in progress, I wrote him back immediately, confessing that I had two such stories in hand and was working on a third. I have written others since. I have no good explanation for why I should be thus obsessed. I certainly never lost a lover to death, thank God. Probably, as you suggest, it's something in the air, related to the Southern obsession with history that I talked about above. Certainly "love that transcends the grave," to use your phrase, is one of Poe's great themes -- though in Poe, the love usually loses something in the translation. (Teeth, digits...) And Poe was a Southern writer if we've ever had one. But pop culture may be partially to blame, too. Like Gomez, I thought Morticia Addams was pretty hot!
NG: Both "Beluthahatchie" and "Lincoln in Frogmore" draw pretty obviously on African American folklore: how that folklore has rendered Hell, how Abraham Lincoln figured in (historically dubious) Black oral testimony. In exploring this territory, you raise politically charged issues of race and class: what effect do you intend?
AD: That's a good question, and as tactfully worded a variant of "Where do you get off with this dialect stuff?" as I could imagine. I have expected this question for a long time, and so you would think I'd have ready answers, but no, quite the contrary. I'll do my best, though.
Certainly all my stories, on some level, are meant to divert, to engross, to entertain; when I'm working as I should, the stories also, on some level, are meant to disturb, to unsettle, to shake people up, to pose tough questions. (Harlan Ellison taught me that about Art years ago, when I encountered Deathbird Stories and the Dangerous Visions anthologies just before I was old enough to handle them ... which is, in hindsight, the perfect time to read that stuff.) Two tough questions I like to pose, because I have no answer for them, are: To what extent can I ever really know what it's like to be anybody else? To what extent can anyone else ever really know what it's like to be me? These questions bore to the heart of the whole fictional enterprise -- because if fiction doesn't attempt to transform both writer and reader, make them briefly someone else, then what good is it? Otherwise it's frivolous, it's candy. As a writer, I feel no qualms whatsoever about trying on the persona of someone apparently unlike myself -- such as an uneducated old black man, a survivor of the days of slavery -- because I am confident, in my writerly hubris, that in the writing I will establish some sort of common ground with this alien character, that I will, at exhilarating moments, through craft and imagination and gall, become him, and take the reader with me. Now, whether I have done the job well or poorly, convincingly or gratingly, is up to the individual reader to decide, but I have little patience with folks who say I should stick to writing "what I know," because then we'd all be limited to writing memoirs, if that, and we would lose a precious and necessary route to knowledge because of cowardice.
I should mention here that while "Lincoln in Frogmore" is too new to have generated much response yet, "Beluthahatchie" has been in circulation for years, and has been a very popular text among my friends who are teachers; they like to assign the story to their students, and then watch me field questions. The black students invariably express surprise that I'm white -- not because I in any sense "fooled" them, as fiction writers don't "fool" anybody, but because I, a white man, nevertheless was interested in telling a black person's story. This amazes and pleases them, so rare are such boundary crossings in today's culture. I think that's a shame. The rivers that divide us are not as deep as we like to think; they are fordable at many points, and not just at the occasional heavily guarded bridge.
Later. Looking back over your question, I see another intended effect of these two stories (as well as others in the book). One of the (many) issues in human affairs larger than race, larger than class, is the pervasive influence of folklore. I find folklore, even the family folklore we grew up with, to be essentially creepy. It tends, like the best writing, to pose disturbing questions and leave them unanswered. The legends of Robert Johnson certainly qualify, and so do the legends of Abraham Lincoln's travels in the South. I hope both these stories convey some of this creepiness.
NG: In very different ways, "Liza and the Crazy Water Man" and "Fenneman's Mouth" dramatise aspects of popular culture: its nostalgia, and its manipulability. The first story is quite sentimental, the second rather cynical; with which attitude, on balance, does your sympathy lie?
AD: I don't see those stories' attitudes as quite so diametrically opposed. "Fenneman's Mouth," for all its cynicism, holds out the possibility that the couple at the end might be good for each other, however compromised their meeting -- just as Liza and Alvin proved to be good for each other, however compromised their meeting. And "Liza and the Crazy Water Man," like the Frank Capra movies that inspired it, has, for all its sentimentality, a lot of cynicism percolating throughout: Alvin is quite the opportunist, for much of the story, and so, in a different way, is Liza. Each is using the other, and being not quite honest. I'm working on a screenplay version of "Liza and the Crazy Water Man," in which these darker elements come very much to the forefront. Where do my sympathies lie? I feel for all these people. They're pretty much doing the best they can. You're quite right, though, that "Liza" and "Fenneman" are related. I see the relationship this way: in each story, people try to fix, preserve their experiences, their lives, through technology; in each story, the attempt is doomed.
NG: Your award-nominated novella, "The Executioner's Guild", was the first story of yours that I read; I was and I remain enormously impressed with it, and others seem to feel the same way. How did you conceive of your scheme of the journeyman executioner and the terrible test he must face? Did Gene Wolfe's novels of Severian the Torturer play any part in the story's genesis, as some have speculated?
AD: I am enormously gratified to be mentioned in the same breath as Gene Wolfe, but I must confess that I haven't read the Severian novels yet, though I revere The Fifth Head of Cerberus and many of Wolfe's shorter works, such as "Seven American Nights" and "Suzanne Delage." So when someone, I think Gregory Feeley, first responded to the title of my novella with "Aha! Shades of Gene Wolfe!" I was taken by surprise, and in fact made slightly queasy, for no writer likes to fear he's re-inventing the wheel. Readers of "The Executioners' Guild" also have pointed out thematic overlaps with Ernest Gaines' A Prayer Before Dying and Harlan Ellison's "Mephisto in Onyx", neither of which I had read at the time.
Before I wrote the novella, I did read Stephen King's The Green Mile, which I knew to be another Depression-era period piece revolving around a black prisoner and an electric chair; and long before I ever conceived of writing "The Executioners' Guild," or anything else, I read, as most Southerners have, Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. Moreover, as I was finishing my novella, I read, for good measure, Faulkner's Intruder in the Dust. And how I held my breath as I read Faulkner's passage about the strange stillness of the waiting town of Jefferson, for fear it would prove too similar to my description of Andalusia! That's the extent of the intertextuality at work in "The Executioners' Guild," as near as I can recall, at any rate.
So, where did the story come from? That's a long story in itself, but I'll tell it because it helps demonstrate how I work, when I'm working at all. Back when I was a graduate student at North Carolina State, I took a Faulkner seminar taught by Mike Grimwood -- which remains, incidentally, the best literature class I ever had. Among many other assignments, we were sent to the library to roam among magazines of the Depression era, researching the social context in which Faulkner wrote his most celebrated stories and novels. Fresh from the library one day, a classmate -- I believe it was Mick Philp -- told me, "I found something that made me think of you." What Mick had found was a Depression-era article about a professional executioner in Mississippi who hauled a portable electric chair from town to town in the back of a truck. "Sorry, I didn't make a copy," Mick said. "And no, I can't really remember where I saw it, either. I just stumbled across it on my way to something else, but I'm sure you can find it easily, if you look."
Well, I looked, but I didn't find it easily. I didn't find it at all. I spent months looking for solid information on this remarkable individual, without success. Then I mostly gave up, but at conventions and parties for years afterward, whenever I was among writers or other connoisseurs of odd information, I asked whether anyone ever had heard of this portable electric chair. Finally, someone had. It was in 1997, at a party during the first Slipstream Conference at LaGrange College in Georgia. When I asked my inevitable question, Kathleen Ann Goonan looked thoughtful and said, "That rings a bell. I can't remember why, but it does." A few days later, she mailed me a couple of Xeroxed pages from Worse than Slavery: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice, by David M. Oshinsky; huzzah, there was a passage about the portable chair and a footnote directing me, at long last, to the American Mercury article Mick had stumbled across years before. The article turned out to be a condescending but ultimately somewhat inspiring portrait of a drunken idler with a shady past who found, in this highly unusual job, not just a steady income, but a shot at redemption. So there was one of my main characters, ready-made and waiting for me.
Now, during all this time, while waiting for Kathy Goonan to come along, I had done some work myself, and unearthed a lot of interesting lore about executions in the first half of the 20th century. I was especially fascinated by a short 1930s profile in Time magazine of the mysterious and mild-mannered Mr. Ellis, the longtime official hangman of Canada, who supposedly was the latest in a long line of Mr. Ellises, the name being a sort of job title. I found out much later that the article got many facts wrong, but never mind -- it set my imagination racing. And to put the old veteran hangman in the same story as the young rookie electrocutioner seemed absolutely right to me. So there were my two main characters: now all I needed was a plot or, better yet, a theme. A conflict between the old ways and the new ways, certainly, but what else?
I found my "what else" in an astonishing book, Agent of Death: The Memoirs of an Executioner, by Robert G. Elliott (Dutton, 1940). Elliott had been the longtime executioner of New York state; he finished the manuscript on his deathbed. Plainly and often clumsily written, without a hint of artifice, the book is an unforgettable document, by turns hair-raising, darkly hilarious, thought-provoking, and moving. Most remarkably, Elliott explains, at considerable length, his reasons for believing that the death penalty serves no legitimate purpose and should be abolished -- and explains further why, believing as he did, he nevertheless continued executing people, month after month, year after year. The short answer is that the executions would have proceeded with or without him; better, Elliott reasoned, that these unfortunate wretches be dispatched by him, a dispassionate and humane professional, than by someone careless, or hate-filled, or sadistic. It is not an exaggeration to say that in this man's elaborate system of self-justification, executions were a form of ministry to the condemned. When I finally put the book down I sat in my armchair, shaken, and stared into space for an hour or more. Among my thoughts: How many other executioners felt, feel, this way? View the job as a sort of priestly duty? Suppose they all did -- were required to feel this way, as a requirement of membership in -- what? The union? The guild?
And I finished the novella, not coincidentally, on the day Karla Faye Tucker was murdered in Texas. Yes, I said murdered. "The Executioners' Guild" is an angry story.
NG: Another novella, "Fortitude", is an astonishing tour de force of psychological portraiture, its subject General George S. Patton. Why Patton? And what inspired the story's bold play with the presentation of time and memory (an evolving technique of yours)?
AD: Why Patton, indeed? Others have asked the same thing, and in frustrated tones! My poor wife, for example, found herself, for months on end, sharing an increasingly small apartment not only with me but with the late general as well.
The origin of this story is another saga, which I will keep as brief as possible. In the story "The Quaker Cannon," by Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth, glancing mention is made of Patton's role in that triumph of World War II espionage code-named Fortitude. As a history buff since childhood, I knew about Fortitude, the fake invasion of Calais designed to fool the Germans, but not until reading "The Quaker Cannon" -- perhaps because it's a disturbing story in its own right -- did I find myself disturbed by Patton's role in it: humiliated, ignored, shunted aside, exiled to the English countryside as the dummy commander of a fake army. My immediate thought was: "Boy, did they pick the wrong person for that duty." For weeks after reading "The Quaker Cannon," I was haunted by an image: Patton standing on the seashore, gazing across the Channel, quite mad and utterly alone but for powers and principalities of the air, straining to hear, to will into audibility, not the surf, but the walls of Calais being pounded into the dust -- as a sort of berserk fulfillment of his "duty." For all its length and complexity and alternate-history game-playing, "Fortitude" is ultimately my attempt to write Patton into that scene of madness.
The second crucial component to the story is Patton's well-known claim, documented extensively in Carlo D'Este's magnificent biography, that he had total recall of countless past lives, spanning millennia, and had been a soldier in all of them. Well, I asked myself, suppose Patton had recalled a past life -- as Patton? What would he have done then? As there was no way of telling this story through the eyes of anyone but Patton himself, I soon found myself doomed to a hellishly complicated structure of interlocking memories; and while I often cursed the folly that had led me to such a pass, I liked the results well enough to persevere, and finally the thing was done. "Fortitude" was the obvious title, because that's what I needed a lot of to finish the story!
NG: All of the stories already mentioned appear in Beluthahatchie; at least two completely new pieces have yet to be published. What are they concerned with, and where are they going to appear?
AD: Ellen Datlow has bought a story titled "The Pottawatomie Giant," which is inspired by a real-life confrontation in a crowded vaudeville theatre between Harry Houdini and the world heavyweight champion. It'll be published on the Sci Fiction website sometime in fall 2000. Gardner Dozois, meanwhile, just bought a novella titled "The Chief Designer," which is sort of a secret history of the Soviet space program. It'll be published in Asimov's sometime in 2001, most likely. And I'm currently awaiting editorial word on a third story, a short erotic suspense tale titled "The Open Door," which is both a satire of my former Tuscaloosa neighborhood and a riff on the late British short-story writer H.H. Munro, whose pen name was Saki.
NG: Of course, you have several projects under way at present, including a novel, Redemption Songs, and a screenplay. How are these progressing? And how do you envision your writing career developing over the next few years?
AD: All I'll say about the novel at the moment is that writing novels is hard work! The "Liza" screenplay I've already mentioned. I find the wholly arbitrary structure demanded of a screenplay to be both frustrating and liberating; reshaping "Liza" to fit the mould of a screenplay is a very interesting process, and one that I think will help me with novel structure as well. I just wrote a one-act play, an adaptation of a couple of Manly Wade Wellman stories, that will be performed, if all goes well, in fall 2000 at an SF convention in Durham, North Carolina, to which all Infinity Plus readers are cordially invited. (For details, visit: http://www.trinoc-con.org/index.html.) My hopes for the next few years include: to get at least one novel manuscript on the market, perhaps a mainstream one; to get some more poetry written; to crack one or two good non-genre magazine markets; and to write a lot more stories. I have lots of odd ideas, and I look forward to tackling them. I'd also like, I must admit, to be some SF convention's guest of honor one day. Guess I'd better get to work and write some SF!
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© Nick Gevers 28 October 2000