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An Interview with
Michael Cobley, Gary Gibson and Hal Duncan

by Neil Williamson

Three Scottish writers establishing their credentials at the 2005 Worldcon have honed their skills in Glasgow's long-lived genre workshop, the Glasgow SF Writers' Circle. Infinity plus talks to Michael Cobley, Gary Gibson and Hal Duncan about the various influences of critique workshops, living in Glasgow, and each other.

The three of you have been friends and colleagues in the Glasgow SF Writers' Circle for getting on for fifteen years. Writers groups have a notorious reputation for bitchiness, despotic leadership and old ladies writing poems about cats, but to have lasted the time it has this one has obviously got something going for it. How, if at all, has GSFWC influenced your writing careers?

Shadowmasque by Michael CobleyMike / Well, my own experience has shown that I'm not always the best judge of my own writing, certainly after the first draft, anyway. For me the most important thing that has to happen after finishing it is that I have to kinda fall out of love with it. You know, those rose-tinted shades have to come off so that you can see the truth about this newly-minted baby, which is when you find out that it's not perfectly formed, well-muscled and ready to step out into the world and fend for itself. What I'm trying to say is that once you've fallen out of love with a story, you can then see what its technical flaws are and (usually) figure out how to fix them. And the Writers Circle has been an essential part of that process, at least when I was writing more short stories than I have been in recent years.

Against Gravity by Gary GibsonGary / I've always said I was never sure how much influence a writer's group has on an individual's success or lack of it in terms of professional publication: success at writing requires a certain kind of dedication over more than a few years, and the kind of people who stick around with a group like this are the ones who are determined to get somewhere regardless of their actual participation in that group. But I found GSFWC extremely useful in the early years primarily because it offered the opportunity to hang out with like-minded people, so there's a psychological/supportive aspect beyond the whole critique/review thing, which I think is more important. I'd already made my first professional short story sale before I joined GSFWC, so I was already on the right road.

Vellum by Hal DuncanHal / I think the most valuable thing about critique can be giving it as much as getting it, learning to strip a story apart into its component parts and see if it can be put back together in a better way. It's easy, on the receiving end, to delude yourself that the criticism is wrong and you're right -- it's the bestest cat poem ever, no matter what those fools say -- but you have to be ruthless about a story to give good critique; and once you learn to do that to someone else's story, you can't help but apply the same quality control to your own work. If it's not designed to foster that skill a critique group is no good, not for all the secretaries and treasurers, and backslapping and bitching in the world. It's for hobbyists. Might as well be a knitting circle. The GSFWC took a no-leadership, no-nonsense approach in adopting the Milford Rules as pretty much the only structure early on. I think that focus on professionalism rather than touchy-feely encouragement made serious critique a priority over tea and biscuits and all that bollocks. And that's the key thing I'd say that's affected my writing, both as a craft and as a career.

Now that you've achieved a level of success, do you still see a role for GSFWC with regard to your writing--or is that function now taken up by agents and editors?

Mike / For me, the GSFWC was most valuable for test-driving my short stories, but since I've been focused on the Shadowkings trilogy for the last 4-5 years, I've not been writing many of them. When I get a deal for my next project, a big, subversive space opera, I'm looking forward to writing a whole bunch of short stories to accompany it. And guess who'll get first sight of them...

Gary / I think there's a life cycle to an author's participation in a writers' group: there comes a point where, if you're serious enough to keep working, you know what people are going to say long before they open their mouths. In other words, you learn to critique your own stuff reasonably objectively. But I still like to attend, because as--if not more--important than the actual critique is the social aspect of a writer's group. Though when I say that, I remember I do still put stuff in, from time to time. Getting yourself critiqued regardless of how high (or low) you are on the writing scale is a good way of keeping yourself grounded.

Hal / I've found that a lot of critique is, as Gary said, now internalised but I still workshop stories. There's always another perspective, and that critique might solidify a niggling doubt at the back of your mind. The middle section of this story is a bit long. The ending of this other one is a bit weak. Because my tastes run to poncy literary experimentations which can leave a lot of readers cold, and yet I still want my fiction to remain accessible, I find the Circle most valuable as a testing ground these days. How many readers will actually get what I'm trying to do? All, many, some, none? Will they enjoy it enough to not mind if they don't, or enough to give it a second reading? If it's just a matter of the reader being thrown by a story based on an obscure Sumerian myth or a narrative that takes place across 3D time, well, I'm unlikely to change elements I feel are central to the story. But it's nice to know if readers will accept it because of the writing, say, or if they're going to throw things at me.

Worldcon 2005 sees the publication of your third, second and first novels, respectively. You all attended the 1995 Worldcon. Did that in any way stoke your ambitions to be novelists? And how does it feel to have achieved that 10 years later?

Mike / When the '95 Worldcon rolled round, I'd already attempted two SF novels which had come to nothing (although I learned a lot from trying). But then, in '95, I was just starting to write Shadowkings--and anyway, I'd decided that I would keep writing, aiming at the life of an SF/fantasy novelist, and heck, I made it! Though I gotta say that if someone had read the entrails of an unspecified beastie back in 1990, when I was an earnest young cyberpunk, and told me that my first published novel would be an epic fantasy, I would have laughed like a drain.

Gary / Again, I already had the desire for publication, so rather than the Worldcon influencing me to get ahead with the writing, the writing influenced me to go to Worldcon. What's really important about the '95 Worldcon is the contrast between where many of us were at the time, and where we are now in 2005. That whole 'ten years later' thing has a certain dramatic ring to it.

Hal / Hell yeah. I seem to remember Gary saying something at the time (though my memory's pretty poor, I admit) about how cool it would be if the next Glasgow Worldcon we were all walking in with book deals. The '95 Worldcon had Delany as Guest of Honour, one of my absolute all-time heroes, so in between walking around going "Look, it's Samuel R. Delany!" and, well, getting extremely drunk, it got me really stoked about the possibilities of SF to be high-brow, literary, queer, experimental and a stonking good read all at the same time. I think it was that which got me started on The Book of All Hours.

Readers might be tempted to expect a homogeneity from writers who have read and critiqued each other over such a long time, but on the surface it would seem that your three styles are as different as it's possible to get. Is there no cross-influencing going on at all, or is it at a more subtle level?

Mike / Hmm, interesting question--I really dig Al and Gary's stuff but as a writer I want to do my own thing rather than overtly repeat what I've seen the other guys do. That said, I've seen Al and Gary write things which I've been mighty envious of, but that just spurs me on to try and excel myself. As for similarities, I do think that we share a certain hard-edged quality, a kind of unflinching attention to authenticity. Perhaps a lack of sentimentality goes along with that.

Gary / I'd agree with the lack of sentimentality. I can't speak for anyone else, but it's nothing deliberate on my part, it's something that's been communicated to me by others who've read what I've done. Where it comes from, I can't say.

Although we've read and critiqued each other, and share some tastes in terms of writers, we're otherwise three very different individuals who happen to have the shared common bond of writing SF, although of course that leaves vast room for variation in tastes and methods of approach.

Hal / Yeah, Gary and Mike stole all their best tricks from me. Nah, seriously, I guess there is a hard edge to all our stuff, but I don't know if that maybe comes from shared influences like early cyberpunk rather than direct from each other. Actually my writing can be quite shamelessly sentimental at times.

What you have always had in the GSFWC is a lot of kicking story or novel ideas off of one another, usually in the pub. Or the odd idea here and there weirdly popping up synchronistically in stories written independently by different writers.

How about influences? Do you share favourite writers?

Mike / I know that we all have a liking for cyberpunk, but I'm not sure that the other guys enjoy some of the fantasy writers I've been inspired by, like Karl Edward Wagner, George R.R. Martin, Robin Hobb, Robert E. Howard, or Clark Ashton Smith.

Gary / I envy Lucius Shepard's writing talent, myself. He's the writer I want to be when I grow up. In terms of the kind of thing I'm actually writing for Tor UK just now, it probably comes out of reading a lot of Greg Bear and Gregory Benford, two writers I rate very highly. Vernor Vinge is in there, too. I don't have any taste at all for traditional fantasy myself, though more contemporary stuff like the kind of thing written by Christopher Priest and Jonathan Carroll I do have a soft spot for. As big an influence, I think, was watching old tv shows when I was growing up, like Night Gallery and old Twilight Zone episodes. So you can probably blame Rod Serling just as much.

Hal / Shepard, yes, absolutely; I'll second that. I nearly peed the carpet when he told me on a forum that he'd read my book and enjoyed it. I'm in the huff with Jonathan Carroll until he gives me a fully satisfying ending. I have to confess I haven't read much of Mike's list at all.

Other than that, I've mentioned Delany already, and I'd have to say Moorcock is a huge influence. To be honest, my favourites tend to be as much outside the genre (or on the very margins of it) as within -- William Burroughs as much as Alfred Bester, Guy Davenport as much as Ray Bradbury, James Joyce, Edward Whittemore, Katherine Dunne. The poncier the better.

And what, if any, works by Scottish authors have influenced you?

Mike / I have to shamefacedly admit that I'm not terribly well-read in classic Scottish authors, but I am a big fan of John Buchan, and the short stories and novels by George Mackay Brown are astonishing for the high, almost ethereal lyricism of his prose; in addition, I'm inspired by the likes of Alasdair Gray, Iain Banks and Ken Macleod. Add to that I'd have to say that I also get inspiration from Scottish rock bands too, such as Simple Minds, Sensational Alex Harvey Band, Pallas, and Citizen Cain--they all display a certain intensity of vision that I find energising.

Gary / None, really. The whole notion of 'Scottish' SF still strikes me as parochial, although I understand the reasoning in terms of marketing. There are authors I like--Banks springs to mind--but I wouldn't say any of them influenced me particularly.

Hal / Um... I really liked The Wasp Factory. I absolutely hated James Kelman's A Disaffection, if that counts as influence; it made me want to not ever write about a middle class man in a mid-life crisis. I hated Consider The Lilies by Iain Crichton Smith as well. Highland crofting woman discovers how miserable life can be. Woohoo. Nah, I prefer Irish writers. A thousand-odd-page-long dream sequence of the Irish giant Finn MacChuill, written in portmanteau word collage... even Alasdair Gray's Lanark, which is tremendous, can't touch that. Or Yeats; now there's a writer for you. Yes, Ireland's where it's at, with the lovely Guinness and all, and the tax breaks for writers, and the lovely Guinness.

You're not all originally from Glasgow, are you? Is there anything about living in the city that influences your writing (in either a positive or a negative way)?

Mike / I've visited several other cities and towns across the UK, but I always treasure the moment when I get back home, here in the West End. The positive aspect?--there's a strong cosmopolitan vibe here, a lot of which comes from it being based around Glasgow University; just about every amenity is within easy walking distance; transport links are great; and there's an underlying sense of the city's history. Negative aspects--sometimes it feels like there are too many people and too damn many of them party too damn much, bah humbug! the context of writing, well, I suppose there are too many potential distractions.

Gary / I'm Glasgow born and bred--the only one of the sf writers I know who is. I also really liked living in the West End, but unfortunately so do lots of other people, which is why it's so expensive there these days. So it goes. The atmosphere is certainly good, but I wouldn't consider it terribly influential in terms of my writing.

Hal / Too many parties? Bollocks to that. I love the West End. Hell, I find it hard to imagine living elsewhere now, although I am a little too close to Kelvingrove Park and my local, Stravaigin, for my own good, now that the sunny days are calling me with the promise of lazy days and cocktails in the evening. But Glasgow's actually come to play a pretty large role in my writing over the years; it pops up in Vellum in various forms -- as itself, in scenes set in the modern day or at the time of the Red Clydesiders, or as Kentigern, a sort of fascistic steampunk alternative version. Its history as a city of Trade and Industry, socialist stronghold and yet "Second City of the Empire", fascinates me.

Are you all going to be busy at Worldcon? What are you looking forward to most?

Mike / Reasonably so--I'm on a handful of panels, as well as a kaffeeklatsch, a reading and a signing sesh. Then there all the panels that Gary and Al and others from the circle will be on, as well as those involving other writer buddies like Bill King, Debbie Miller, Keith Brooke, Ian McDonald, not to mention several parties--heck, when will we find time to get to the bar?

Gary / Yes, I will, or it certainly feels like it--various panels, a reading and so forth. Which is all nice, but feels dangerously close to actual work. Otherwise I'll be skiving off as much as possible. That I'm looking forward to.

Hal / Looks like I'm going to be running around like the proverbial blue-arsed fly. Panels, readings, a publisher party tied in with the launch of Vellum, a signing and a kaffeeklatsch. Not quite sure why I signed up for the kaffeeklatsch when the book's only launched on the Friday of the con -- it's not like there's going to be many fans queuing up to meet me, having read the 500 page monster overnight -- but I thought I may as well do the whole shebang. Sadly, perhaps, I'm most looking forward to just wandering around dazed and drunken with an enormous"My book just got launched at WorldCon in my home town" grin on my face.

Michael Cobley's Shadowmasque, the concluding volume in his Shadowkings trilogy is out now from Simon & Schuster.

Gary Gibson's Against Gravity is out now from Tor UK.

Hal Duncan's debut novel, Vellum, the first part of The Book Of All Hours, is published by Pan Macmillan on 5 August 2005.

© Neil Williamson 2005.

Shadowmasque by Michael Cobley Against Gravity by Gary GibsonVellum by Hal Duncan
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