Hal Duncan is the author of many novels, stories, poems, blog posts, and other works, including the Book of All Hours diptych, Vellum and Ink, as well as the novella Escape from Hell! (Monkeybrain Books), the chapbook An A to Z of the Fantastic City (Small Beer Press), the libretto Sodom! the Musical, the essay Rhapsody: Notes on Strange Fiction (Lethe Press), and the story collection Scruffians! (Lethe Press). Vellum was nominated for the Crawford, Locus, BFS, and World Fantasy awards, and won the Spectrum, Kurd Lasswitz and Tähtivaeltaja awards; both Rhapsody and Scruffians! are, as I write this, nominated for the BFS award.
We conducted our conversation by email in August and September 2015.
Are there particular types of fantasy (broadly speaking) that appeal to you in a (broadly speaking) queer way? (An anecdote to perhaps clarify what I’m getting at: I’ve recently realized that what I think of as the queer parts of my imagination are most drawn to fantasy of the fin-de-siècle Decadents and aesthetics, to certain types of body horror, etc., and perhaps one of the reasons I’ve never been much interested in cod-medieval fantasy is that it just never seemed to me interesting as a queer space. Which is not to say it couldn’t be such to somebody else, of course.)
I immediately think here of the fantasy story that made the deepest imprint on me as a child: Michael de Larrabeiti’s The Borribles trilogy. It’s a sort of anarcho-socialist 1970s urban take on Peter Pan that abolishes Neverland and turns Barrie’s fancy of never growing up into a glorious defiance of establishment mores. The idea is that any snot-nosed latchkey kid can just choose to never grow up. They turn Borrible: their ears go pointy; they go off to live in squats in London, surviving by thieving and animal cunning. They’re pint-sized punks with a two-fingered salute for adult propriety, hunted by a special division of the Met, with an enemy based on the Wombles—a beloved British classic of cosy kid’s fic that was on TV when I read the first book.
The trilogy was so unashamedly anti-moral—which is to say, passionately ethical—that the third book was dropped by the publisher in the wake of the Brixton Riots, under Thatcher. The female and West Indian Borribles who’re part of the heroic team could be seen as tokenism these days—there is only one of each—but progress is made by stances that look compromised in retrospect. The point is, this was a formative influence for me, and it’s queer as fuck in a wider sense of the term—where any norm, sexual or otherwise, might be seen as defining itself by exclusion. To be a Borrible is to be sworn to a sodality of the abject. The books are underpinned by this idealism tapping into the part of every kid that’s queer as an excludee from adult power structures and proudly so. They may not have immunised those readers from the systems of thought that normativity, hetero or otherwise, does its damnedest to instill, but they had a profound impact on me, I’m sure.
They set what fantasy is for me—fuck all to do with secondary worlds that as often as not seem to be idealised sanctums of normativity, myths that outright valorise abjection. Fuck Neverland. Fuck Narnia. Fuck the Shire. This was a fantasy of our world, of the fantastic as a ferocious antagonist to the mundane infiltrating every interstice of it. And it was a fantasy holding no truck even with the moral filters of the transgressive. I mean, I never really clicked with that Decadent aesthetics, horror and whatnot. I can see why you’d connect with it as queer, but for me . . . it’s about punk versus goth, man. I had a flirtation with the monstrous in my teenage years where abjection drove me into murderous self-mythologising—put a gun in my hand, and I would have been a high school shooter—but in the base mindset I returned to, the queer will always be wild and wayward and wonderfully so.
So my ideal fantasy is not that of Wildean Decadents. No Dorian Gray for me; I have Rake Jake Scallion, “Fixed” in the Scruffian stories by the magical McGuffin of the Scruffian’s Stamp, which carves your identity on your chest, so you always spring back to that state. Like the Scruffians themselves—waifs likewise Fixed by the Stamp, to serve as indestructible slave labour (and worse) in the machinery of Victorian capitalism—he’s immune to damage or dissipation. But to be a libertine, for me, means simply shrugging off taboos rather than allowing oneself to be defined as monstrous in the breach of them, so he’s more Han Solo than Dorian Gray. Some of those Scruffians go wild in their blithe tinkering with their Stamps, editing themselves into monstrous “Hellions.” But for all the relish of the grotesque and Grand Guignol in those stories, it’s all . . . an unruly mob of gleefully vicious Artful Dodgers playing David and Goliath with the Powers-That-Be. There’s no horror of these often murderous wee tykes, rather a savage relish of deviance as a dimension of vitality.
As should be obvious, the Scruffians are in no small way my take on and tribute to the Borribles. And they’re probably the best encapsulation of the spirit informing most of my short fiction, peppering it with pirates and fairies, a werewolf who adores his boyfriend/handler and hates taking showers. It’s like the difference between Samuel R. Delany’s Hogg and Through The Valley Of The Nest Of Spiders. The former is transgressive, but the latter is post-transgressive, and it’s that which really pushes my buttons in fantasy (or SF in that case). This exercise in American Pastoral as idyllic really as anything Bradbury ever wrote.
When I first read Vellum, it was a revelation for a few reasons—one big one being that I had no idea who you were and knew nothing about you, and I got it as an advance copy, so I started reading it before there was any publicity, which meant I had no expectations. That there was any queer content at all was a pleasant surprise, since even now I don’t really expect it in genre books from major publishers, but the real revelation was that it felt to me like that ineffable thing I think of truly queer content—as a queer fantasy rather than a fantasy story that includes some queer content, if that makes any sense.
To put it perhaps a bit more clearly: It’s one thing, I think, to write about characters and situations that are in some way or another queer. All well and good, definitely welcome. But then there’s a deeper queer perspective, which is far more rare, and something I can’t define with any precision. I can only point to examples. It’s still pretty darn rare in books aimed at a general audience, because the assumption is that the general audience wants stories from a basically straight, or at least normalized and assimilated, point of view, though now and then something like Vellum and Ink or, more recently, and very differently, Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life gets through and finds a good-sized audience. (Or to look farther back: Dhalgren.) Or, in the broader media world, something like Sense8, which I adored partly because its central perspective, regardless of particular characters’ (or their creators’) sexualities, felt deeply queer to me. And . . . well, I was going to go off in all sorts of directions from this, but I’ll stop and just ask: Does any of this make any sense to you?
It does make sense—yes, The Book of All Hours is structurally queer, I’d say, with a thematic that’s very much tackling the construction of identity via new narratives and in conflict with existing ones. As with the Scruffians—it’s not hard to see my tropes—the unkin’s gravings essentialise their identities, and as with the Scruffians that’s a dread binding of self but also a process one can wrest control of, taking ownership of one’s identity. It’s not hard to see the queer condition in that, I think.
So, in Vellum, Thomas becomes the Eternal (Gay) Victim because that’s the metanarrative imposed on that archetype of queerdom. Phreedom and Seamus are locked into narratives shaped by and reifying abjection by gender and class. By volition and/or subjugation, it doesn’t matter; they have archetypes of virgin/whore and criminal (i.e. class rebel) graved into them. The whole metafictional gambit of The Book Of All Hours . . . it’s a narrative of the dread thrall of narrative, in many ways, a narrative at odds with all that constitutes normativity, right down to character and setting, linearity itself.
And there’s a self-created doom for normativity in the unreason of this abjection. Paradoxically, by the very disempowerment of the abject, the abject is invested with the power of the libido which—I stand with Aristotle and Spinoza here—knows fine well what pathological fuckery has taken place and must be rectified. So in Ink we get those Havens in the Hinter as desperate shams of normativity. This is the tyranny of ego, for me: a matrix of mores by which abjection warps our ossature of stances, scaling up from individual ego to a motherfucking Black Iron Prison written into the mass metaphysique; the Empire never ended, as Phil Dick said. But. Stance seeks to fit the situation—like water seeks to find its own level. Freud be damned; the libido, I say, unfucked by abjection, will desire not just instant gratification of “base” appetites but an ossature of stances optimising satiation via subtlety, via skills in the arts of ardour. And the stance fit to deal with the Black Iron Prison is Dionysus, libido queer and indomitable.
Under the Empire’s thrall, that libido has to smash its way into liberty, so what you get in Vellum and Ink is Jack Flash, swaggering wild spirit of anarchy, agent of chaos. Jack is absolutely the Return of the Repressed—so yes, the whole overall story is queer to the core; he’s the sexually queer as strutting front man for a sodality of the abject. But the queerness runs right down into the retelling of The Bacchae, where even the archetype of pathological life-denying ice-cold-blooded logic is actually onside with the program, Joey playing Pentheus in narrative as ritual.
The point is, we know Pentheus is wrong. Even Pentheus knows he’s wrong. There’s a part of every one of us, I believe, exempting psychopathy, that strives for the stable stance of empathic ethics even as we’re driven by ego’s insanity. And the more frantic the attempt to cast out the abject, the more its monstrosity is powered up from loathsome beast to force of nature. Thomas as Pan as Christ, Seamus as Lucifer as Prometheus, Jack as Dionysus. Abjection is torture, exile, and imprisonment rolled into one, wrought upon the alterior in order to render it queer in order to consolidate the normative. But in its very action, it is, I think, evermade fomenting insurrection. That’s my queer perspective: that outside the city walls, among the dogs and fornicators and sorcerers, that’s where the sublime is to be found, Dionysus striding up to the gate, returned to tear down the entire edifice built by a King of Tears. Stance seeks its own stability. To be queer is to know that the system is unstable, I think, to assume the role of a necessary corrective.
Your ideas about abjection seem to me especially good ones for exploring the ways power regulates (or creates) borders and norms. How did this concept develop for you? Have your perceptions of abjection changed over the last decade or so?
The notion is Julia Kristeva’s, so I assume it came via Delany—some reference to the idea or to Kristeva herself sending me off to explore; I don’t remember exactly. In all honesty, my reading on it is still largely second-hand, but it’s such a simple concept that it immediately made sense: things that were once part of us—blood, shit, piss—inhabit a zone between Self and Other, subject and object; there’s an unreason that kicks in, with the difference having to be enforced; and it scales up to social groups, so in the rejection of what was/is at some level part of Us, in the creation of an alterior Them, we get this psychosocial mechanism—abjection—by which the normative defines itself in opposition to the queer.
It blows the whole idea of the queer wide open, because it’s not just about sexuality. Any difference can be recast as deviance from a default norm: the construction of race is no less a queering—of all other skin tones than this artificed norm of “white.” The abjecting label “coloured people” is a dead giveaway, a ludicrous pretence that the marker of difference is some quality possessed only by the Other, as if pink wasn’t a colour: abjection is always already denying the (perceived) qualities of the abject that are still there within the Self. And it steers us away from thinking of prejudice, power, privilege as a numbers game of “minorities”: women are abjected under fratriarchy, the majority of the populace; this is how the artficed norm of masculinity is constructed, misogyny an underpinning of homophobia, I’d posit.
That’s how the idea has been developing for me recently—into the notion of fratriarchy. A family unit ruled by the husband is not patriarchy, I mean; to imagine it such is to buy into the shell game whereby the wife is erased as peer. Whether it’s a familial tyrant treating wives as daughters, daughters as wives, or a Great Leader playing Father of His People but evermade invested with authority by his fraternity of peers—the generals of the regime—the posturing of parental legitimacy is a fucking lie. “Who’s yer daddy?” You wish, dickbro. Wearing a white beard and a grandiose demeanour, wearing this archetype as costume, doesn’t make Jacob, say, any less a pretender who steals the birthrights not just of his brother Esau but of whatever sisters have been erased from the story.
Understand abjection as a mechanism for fucking over the peer-level equality of the paternal and the maternal, both of whom have legitimate authority, and you understand it’s really about which siblings inherit that power—and which do not. The sisters are abjected, and the gender-nonconforming kid bros are abjected, by fratriarchs establishing their privilege in this bogus rhetoric painting them, once the lie is in place, as fathers-in-charge when they are in truth brothers-in-charge. Even where we’re dealing with the exchange of daughters as chattels, this is one generation of brothers cementing the privilege of the next.
I’d root racism in fratriarchy too. Abjection based on disability, on class . . . beyond intersectionality, I think, we need to view the fratriarchal system as a common fight. Fuck “allies.” I’m either fighting fratriarchy for and as a member of the abjected masses on all fronts, or I’m a fucking Fifth Columnist in one way or another. As I’m sure I am, lamentably, as and where I unwittingly recapitulate any mechanics of abjection I’ve not yet woken up to. When it comes to myth as attempt to reconfigure the metaphysique, this has all come more and more to focus for me on the myth of Sodom—because that story contains it all, where the homophobia is bound up in anti-Canaanite xenophobia and capped by what happens to Lot’s daughters. The project of dismantling abjection, dismantling fratriarchy, has become for me the project of rebuilding Sodom—reconfiguring the metaphysique, changing the myth.
A lot of your work draws on mythology—Sumerian, Greek, Christian, etc. What is the appeal of mythology for you?
There’s the obvious potency of the strange first off, the thrill of the incredible where—cf. Delany—fantasy’s sentences claim things that could not happen. I’d go further, actually, and talk of the wondrous and the monstrous as what should or should not happen . . . as in Pegasus and Medusa, say, as in the 1981 Clash of the Titans, as seen in the cinema when I was ten. For a kid, that appeal speaks for itself, no? It still holds.
Add sexual desire to the thrall of Ray Harryhausen for that kid though: that young horse-riding Perseus in his loincloth on the beach, the marriage of the heroic and homoerotic in that image. The Greek myths are queer as fuck, I quickly discovered, and as a kid growing up pre-Internet, they became a focus of yearning. All those stories and statuary, in the imagination they opened out to an entire elsewhen, a lost sexual idyll not just of ephebes so exquisite they couldn’t be allowed to die, but where even the gods were shameless sons of Sodom, never mind the boldest heroes—Achilles, Hercules. The idyllic is evermade elegiac, I think, but in the 1980s of HIV and Section 28, in small town Scotland . . . I can’t do justice to the Sehnsucht that Arcadia was charged with for me before I’d even heard of a Virgilian eclogue.
But more: the stuff of myth is archetypal. I don’t hold with Jung’s notion of innate metaphors, but a language has a base vocabulary—mother, father, sun, earth, cow, fire—and a culture has root metaphors—time is money. An archetype is what you get, I think, by wiring those base symbols (with their primal imports) into relationships of mutual metaphor, where each element connotes the others—sun, gold, youth—in a virtuous circle, a feedback effect of poetic power. And mythology is the craft of reconfiguring how those symbols fit together. Which is no small thing.
Any story, I mean, is ultimately leaving you with a subtly shifted connotative import to whatever symbols it operates not just with but on. A crude example: the word “dog” for you will have different import than it does for me, each of us having unique experiences of specific dogs, each personal history shaping a connotative import as individual as the denotation is consensual. Benji or Cujo, a fictive dog can shade that import for the audience. For sure, one wee movie of a friendly mutt or rabid demon dog may not outweigh decades of actual experience, bad or good, but consider how narratives loaded into reportage and rhetoric have affected words like “immigrant” or “Arab.”
So, narrative is deeply political in its impact on the imports of whatever semes it’s operating with and on, and in cultural terms (i.e. when it comes to individual psychologies and social systems), the archetypal is infrastructural. Myth is going in so deep that for all intents and purposes I’d say it’s metaphysical activism. That’s to say, it’s direct action on the metaphysique—that ossature of stances the religious call soul and the marginally less religious refer to as “the mind.” (Superstitious mumbo jumbos both of them. I’m talking here of signs, symbols, semes, but it’s all stance, far as I’m concerned, disposition of material body.) Where archetypes like those we call “God” or “Dionysus” are wrought into that metaphysique, to kill one or free another in myth is to literally wage war in Heaven, to liberate a political prisoner of the psyche. Myth is the frontline of the Culture Wars.
I could rave also about how myth humanises the archetypal: Gilgamesh as a tragedy of mortality; Inanna’s ambition as utterly human; Dumuzi as a gazelle in flight—a god made animal, with all the vulnerability of the truly vital, i.e. that which is alive because it moves in flesh. But the appeal of myth could be endlessly unpacked really. The deeper I look at it, the more I know I’d find to say.
Let’s talk about that idea of myth as humanization of archetypes and bring in the Culture Wars. We’re doing this interview as the U.S. media, at least, is fixated on Kim Davis, the county clerk in Kentucky who refused to issue marriage licenses to gay couples, and I’ve found myself more fascinated by her religiosity than anything, because if we assume she’s not just playing it all up for the attention, she believes she’s got some sort of direct line of communication with God—that if God doesn’t necessarily speak through her, she is at least his instrument in the world. The stories and myths she tells herself are ones that make life clear for her, and, in fact, turn her into a hero. She hasn’t just humanized archetypes, she’s rendered them into her own image, which I’d say is the image of her prejudices, but which she would say is the simple truth of God.
So my question then is: What are the perils of the humanization of archetypes? Is there a hubris to it, or at least some of the problems that accompany anthropomorphism? Are there ways that as a writer that you can grapple with such perils?
Actually, I think there’s maybe a different sense of “humanising archetypes” slipping in here with the notion of anthropomorphism. Where I talk about an archetype like “God” or “Dionysus” I’m not sure anthropomorphising is the right term. That’s the Victorian approach to myth, seeing all those pagan deities as personifications of some force of nature—the sun, the storm, the earth, whatever. As if those “primitive” pagans thought in the crude formulaic allegory of second-rate Neoclassical poets.
No, if an archetype is a compound symbol the way I’m describing, the “youth” morpheme that’s bound to “gold” and “sun,” say, is as much tenor as vehicle, as much referent as signifier. Is it really anthorpomorphism if what you’re talking about is always already human in form? You’re not projecting humanity onto a force of nature with e.g. the Drifter archetype, where it wears the name “Dionysus” in The Bacchae. Where other aesthemes (to coin a term) bind with the aestheme of the wandering stranger to render it sublime (i.e. numinous and monstrous, that which both should and should not be), this is the opposite of anthropomorphism really; we’re tapping into the resonances of those core aesthemes to encapsulate and address a mode of human agency. We’re rendering the human as sublime rather than vice versa.
Persona, self, ego, id, shadow, anima/animus, senex . . . Jung’s taxonomy of these modes essentialises dynamics into (sub)structure—like the classical conceit of four elements, it collapses a system of deeper complexity—but it’s a good touchstone here: when I talk of the archetypal, I mean something profoundly human, the symbol encapsulating a disposition of one’s metaphysique. Dionysus is a stance, a mode of engagement.
Where I talk about myth humanising these symbols then, that’s maybe a misleading shorthand. What I mean is that myth can be more than just some ritual drama of generic tropes—the Self-as-Hero and Shadow-as-Monster, say, dancing through some template of the Hero’s Journey. As myth renders the archetypal in specific terms—the Drifter becoming a god called Dionysus, newly arrived in Thebes—the more it fleshes the archetype out as a character with a name, a face, parents, lovers, a birth and maybe even a death, the more it becomes an existential(ist) project. Dionsyus against Pentheus, Gilgamesh mourning Enkidu, Dumuzi fleeing the recruiters . . . here the narratives are setting up the stances against realities of the human condition—tyranny, grief, conscription. The myths are driving for existential truth, not just some essentialist ritual drama formulated precisely to grave the status quo in the metaphysique. This type of humanisation of archetypes is the creative struggle against what Kim Davis is doing.
Davis could certainly be seen as self-mythologising, but she’s a symptom of something other than identification with the archetypal. That enthusiasmos (in the original Greek sense: having the deity within) makes for a poet or prophet, comes with its own risks of outright madness, but is at least creative. One can take the stance, drink the world with relish as Dionysus in the flesh, and absolutely such a praxis has perils: taking the figurative as literal, casting the sublime as the divine; binding oneself into a single mode, where stance must shift to fit the situation, where life sometimes calls for one to be Inanna rather than Dionysus; letting the ego bloat itself on the grandiosity of apophenic rapture. This is the chaos magician’s path I’m talking about, I suppose, and it’s easy to go astray on. A writer is maybe (one of) the best equipped to walk that path though: it’s (maybe? one would think?) easier not to get sucked into self-delusions if one understands the material of myth as story—if one sees the mechanics of symbols, the dynamics of stance.
So, the point is, Davis is no would-be magician fallen into messianic hubris. Where an archetype lies at the root of her constructing this narrative in which she’s a heroic martyr, it’s the pernicious trope constructed around the compounding of father, king, and sky. As Zeus or Pentheus or God, this is the ego to Dionysus’s id/libido, and what makes Davis’s iteration of it so pernicious is precisely the dehumanisation, I’d say. Pentheus can be overthrown. Even Zeus, because of his human backstory of birth and all that goes with it (Uranus, Kronos), can be imagined overthrown (cf. Prometheus knowing how this could happen). That’s myth recognising the reality of ego—the matrix of mores playing tyrant over the psyche—as an authority of dubious legitimacy, constructed existentially, societally. Davis’s God is shorn of all humanity but the most abstract—nameless and faceless in its purest form—to render his authority unimpeachable in its abstraction. He’s designed, above all else, to render the ego’s rule inviolable. This is, I think, pathological.
Ego is a stopgap system, its axiomatic mores the training wheels for children who should be maturing into the skill of ethical judgment—and, okay, a pragmatic fallback for a reality in which some don’t develop that integrity. Practical as it is as such, it has an unfortunate flaw in its mechanics of pride and shame as reward and punishment for conformity: it constructs the system of mores as good in and of itself, a Natural, Social or Divine Order, a fabric of society wherein one can find pride not just in conformity but in conviction, in active proselytising. To strengthen the system’s thrall by acting as its agent—suppressing the interrogation of it, imposing and instilling it as and where you can—is the pinnacle of piety, an active devotion beyond mere obedience.
I don’t doubt for a second that Davis is sincere, but I think it’s got little do with any belief that she’s in communication with God. She’s just huffing faith. It feels good to feel right; it feels right to feel good. Zeal validated by pride validated by zeal, this is fucking sanctimony addiction, a runaway feedback loop by which the ethically inadequate can bootstrap a sense of self-worth. This isn’t even speculation. The pious will literally tell you that faith has a sense of “grace” as reward and that their sense of conviction comes from the rapture of that state. How anyone can not see the vicious circle of hubris and até is beyond me.
And consider that this reward of grace—which is to say pride—comes regardless of the substance of the moral axiom. Result? A system primed for prejudice to be promulgated as ardent article of faith. Any petty personal dysfunction works as pretext. An unreasoned disgust at Teh Buttseks or at “miscegenation,” it makes no difference; if you can pull a fuckheaded Thou Shalt Not out of your ass, every transgressor is an opportunity to glory in that sanctimony high as you zealously advocate your absurd moral axiom. The next protest at your sanctimonious twaddle is your next fix, so I suspect vicious fuckheadery is selected for, actively malicious moral axioms serving as the best spurs for the ethical opposition that is the sanctimony addict’s chance for glory and grace.
There’s nothing of the archetypal in that craven egoism. It’s not a peril of humanizing archetypes but rather of dehumanizing one in particular, abstracting it to utter inhumanity, to invest it with an absolute authority to be inherited by its dictates. Where all other archetypes embody that within the metaphysique which is not ego—not least the id/libido, always already striving for eudaimonia—it’s no surprise to see these all demonised wherever this viral pathology we call God reigns supreme. If there’s a risk of going nuts if you unleash the id and shadow, I think it’s a necessary risk in a necessary struggle.
How did you come to have your books published by Lethe Press, which is an explicitly queer publisher? Do you think that having your work released by publishers that are devoted to queer content affects how that work is perceived? Is it a different experience for you as a writer than when you publish with more general presses?
Steve Berman has been an amazing supporter. I can’t recall if his first contact was to solicit a story for Icarus magazine or to reprint one in Wilde Stories, the annual best-of. But Icarus as a venue certainly allowed me to rip loose—like its being focused on queer substance as core criteria made it wonderfully eclectic in terms of genre approaches. I found it a perfect fit. And where short story collections are a hard sell, Steve jumped at the chance to do Scruffians! Hell, he actively leapt in, over Twitter, to snap up Rhapsody when I was blathering about self-publishing it—non-fic being even less commercial.
In practical terms, the differences in working with Lethe have mainly just been those you get working with any small press versus something like Macmillan or Del Rey, and even there, with the latter . . . I was lucky to be dealing with Peter Lavery and Jim Minz as editors; I haven’t had a publisher, to be honest, where I didn’t feel solid support. I doubt a major publisher would have gone for the collection though, and I’m sure as fuck they wouldn’t have let me have the cover of the deluxe edition Scruffians! with the naked donkey-donged hot guy. Steve sent me a bunch of images from that shoot, and basically I asked for the most in-yer-face one—and no cop-outs such as the title covering the cock. He had the cojones to go for it, bless him.
I wanted a difference in perception there, really, for the book to be blatantly, confrontationally queer. I got to present the work as (literally) balls-out punk. Like: No, as much as I love me some poncy literary fantasy, this is not to be put in a safe wee box of bourgeois propriety, stories to sate the cerebral and sentimental. I’m all about the viscerality, and Lethe let me put that upfront—in full frontal, even. Has it affected the way the work itself was perceived beyond that? I don’t know. I hope folk would have got the ethos anyway, that it’s just the most honest presentation for them to know that it’s coming from, as the hatemail dubbed me, “THE . . . Sodomite Hal Duncan!!” (sic). But we’d have to ask the readers.
In some ways, the donkey-donged hot guy (let’s call him DDHG) serves as a kind of marker for potential audiences—it says, “This is a book for people who want DDHG on the cover of a book,” and even to some extent, “I, as someone who wants DDHG on the cover of a book, am looking for other readers who are enthusiastic about DDHG on the cover of a book,” which is a kind of genre marking, or a way of signaling to a potential audience. Also of pushing away the readers who don’t like DDHGs (such people exist?!)—aside from the fact that it’s a naked man, it’s no different from putting some other icon on a cover, like a spaceship or a smoking pistol or a cowboy hat.
Are there benefits for you, then, as a writer (beyond the benefits or challenges of sales) in addressing particular audiences? Vellum and Ink had wildly varied responses because they were published for a general fantasy audience, whereas I’d assume (and could be utterly wrong) Scruffians! has a fairly self-selected audience, so that audience’s criteria in evaluating it—in, indeed, valuing it at all—would be different, because if they get past the cover, then they’re likely to be at least a bit more sympathetic to your project than a more random reader who picks up a book from a major publisher. For better or worse.
I don’t know. If we’re not talking about the bottom line of how many people read it, the pros and cons of targeting, I’m not sure what difference the composition of the audience makes. I’d see reviews as part of that, really. Aiming at a broader audience, as with Vellum being marketed to a general readership, means more negative reviews, negative word of mouth that it sucks to see. Aiming at a narrower audience more likely to be sympathetic means less of that, but it also means fewer positive reviews, less word of mouth extending in unexpected directions—like with some fan of way more traditional fantasy falling in love with Vellum despite it not at all being what they thought it would be. But this just seems like another angle on maximising the reach of the work—sales but seen through a less mercenary lens, not a matter of how much money you make but simply whether you make the connection with as many people out there as would actually click with the book.
In the follow through of that, maybe there’s an upside and a downside in terms of how the two types of responses impact your ego. The hype and backlash you might get with one way of presenting the book make for a different experience to the comparative sense of rolling tumbleweed you can get, to be honest, if you go from that to publishing via a dedicated LGBT small press. It’s only comparative, of course; I got some great reviews for Scruffians!, Brit Mandelo on Tor.com in particular saying some very nice things. Ultimately though, whether the response is loud or quiet, positive or negative, it’s all a crazy ride of validation and vanity where . . . well, for me it’s been as much to do with my own headspace as anything. Like, you can be headfucked by a massive buzz or the absence of it, gutted or gladdened by haters. Insofar as any sort of response pushes buttons that will fuck with your sense of perspective, it’s healthier, I think, to be as Vonnegut as you can about it all: so it goes.
So as far as post-publication pros and cons go, it’s swings and roundabouts, I’d say. Pre-publication? When I’m writing, I don’t really think of the audience much beyond “whoever reads it.” I mean, I know some writers think in terms of an ideal reader, and for a more commercial writer in a category like SFF there might well be a very real difference in writing under contract for very different audiences. But the ideal image I tend to work with is not of a reader to be satisfied but of the work itself—novel, short story, or collection of short stories. The work wants to be what the work wants to be, and I’m just trying to carve and wire and tweak it to that shape, to the point where it seems right. I just hope to fuck that when it’s done some publisher will see what I see in it and be up for trying to get it to the readers who will too.
Earlier, in passing, you mentioned HIV and Section 28. I didn’t experience Section 28, but we had similar laws, statutes, etc. (It wasn’t until 2003 that the remaining sodomy laws were invalidated in the U.S.) My own sense of queer identity is one very much inflected by, even constructed by, the AIDS era. The way the popular representation of AIDS physicalized our abjection. The activism of ACT UP, just the awareness of which, I think, probably saved my life because here were queers not hiding in shame, but fighting back, asserting both their absolute queerness and their right to life and dignity and love. The very deep conviction I have that we must talk and write openly, accurately, and without shame about sexual practices because it’s literally a matter of life and death. The sense of a whole generation of our people lost. A fatalism I’ve never been able to shake, born of never expecting to live past twenty-five, or, at most, thirty-five. (Every queer I know of my age can talk with real authority about self destruction.)
One of the things your work does well, particularly vividly in Vellum and Ink, is weave history into mythology, mythology into history. The older I get, the more I value the way the stories we tell preserve and transmit our history: individual history, group history. The sense of what it felt like to live in those days, in those places. What it felt like to watch the evening news.
And so, after that long preface, a simple question: Queer history, queer mythology, queer stories—do you see them working together? Is it something you think about consciously as you write, or (and?) is it just inevitably going to find its way into your work because of who you are, what you’ve lived?
Yes. For the second question first, a simple answer: yes to both parts, because the writing is (a mode of) thinking about this stuff. As I’m writing this response, I’m thinking as much in these words appearing on my laptop screen as on any metaconscious level. I’m thinking on the hoof, on the page. If I write about queer myth and history in something like my essay in Bahamut, “A Citizen of New Sodom,” it’s as transparent as can be that it’s a product of who I am, what I’ve lived, but it’s barely less transparent in my long poem “Sodom.” That’s maybe even more explicitly making the connections in its autobiographical aspects, speaking directly of what it was like to grow up in that era.
I agree 100% with everything you say, recognise every iota of that conviction, feel it with every fucking fibre, together with the necessity of witnessing, the need to speak of that loss, that whole generation annihilated. My fatalism—I mean, fuck, remember this was the era of Mutual Assured Destruction, too—only died in an annihilation of personal identity, when my brother’s death basically added such weight of unfathomable futility that . . . the only way I can describe it is like the collapse of a black hole. I survived because I died, that part of me the religious would call a soul, what I’d call stance. Because I still had a body, hollow as it was, because I still walked and talked and breathed and ate, some newborn self sprung into existence out of that abyss, the archetypes I write as Jack and Puck and so on stitching themselves together over time into who I am today, which has no truck with fatalism—but only because I see it as failed nihilism. Like, full nihilism says it doesn’t matter that nothing matters. Ask not, Why bother? Ask, Why the fuck not? But the point is that, for all intents and purposes, I see myself as forged out of that devastation, and though my brother’s death was the ultimate tipping point, Lord Cock Almighty but the AIDS epidemic was the wasteland I died in and somehow walked alive from.
It’s maybe less transparent in the fiction when I am, as with the poem “Sodom” and with other works, like “Sonnets for Kouroi Old and New,” thinking of queer myth, history and story, but it’s no less true where it’s true. This or that tale may be tackling something else entirely, only informed by the import that queer heritage has for me in general, but where it is tackling this subject . . . this is me thinking in figurative terms, processing my stances to make sense of it all.
Essays, poetry, fiction, I’ve used Sodom in all of these precisely because it encapsulates for me the confluence of history, myth and story in general. Back when I was finding my feet as a writer, awed by Joyce’s wordplay, one of the Joycean portmanteaus I coined in my own scribblings was “mythstory,” which I think made it into Errata, and which probably says it all as to how those different threads seem inextricable to me—with an echo of “mystery” in there too, of the rites of ancient times, of the dramas of the medieval era, and of enigma plain and simple. Sodom is a mythstory to me, all of these things, so the essay and poem tackle it, but it’s there too in The Book of All Hours and in my most recent short story, “And a Pinch of Salt.”
At the height of the AIDS epidemic, the thing is, as that entire generation was being annihilated, that’s when I read Delany’s Driftglass, with its epigraph conjuring a survivor’s lament: Mother Sodom is gone . . . Where now shall I go to make a home? It’s become part of the myth for me, this idea of survivors—maybe unmentioned slaves in Lot’s household, maybe merchants out of town on business. A lineage of exiles begun in that destruction, travelling in the tents of the Israelites perhaps, Sodomites born to anyone and everyone, out of place and out of time, always already cuckoos in the nest.
It seems to me to capture this key aspect of queer identity, that we’re born sundered from our heritage. That as we awaken to what we are and turn to look for that heritage, what we find first, as often as not, is the ruin of it. Maybe it’s less so for a generation with the Internet and Gay/Straight Alliances in school—I hope it is—but even the contemporary queer community that might have been a beacon of hope to me as a teenager . . . that was a wasteland of salt and sarcoma, a recapitulation of Sodom’s oblivion.
But that absence in itself becomes the heritage. In the fragmentary testimonies that preserve and transmit the truth of some Renaissance artist’s queerness only in hints and rumours liable to be dismissed as “unproven” by historians, or in the court records of some molly house rentboy’s trial in Georgian England, I see the survivors of Sodom, the obliteration and the exile—and the defiant witnessing, the driven loveborn witnessing. The imperative to rebuild, to gather the scatterling fragments and (re)construct this legacy of a diaspora that’s metatemporal: always beginning now, in the now of any queer kid waking up to who they are, what they are; always ending now, or always attempting to be ended, in the now of any queer fortysomething trying to raise Sodom anew in verse or prose. Of anyone of any age anywhen doing the slightest thing to make some sort of shelter for the dispossessed, whether it’s the shelter of a story to keep a dead soul being washed away by time, or a literal physical haven for a very real cuckoo kicked out of the nest.
I am so with you that this is a matter of life and death, to talk and write openly and accurately and without shame—not just in the specific context of discussing sexual practices in the face of HIV, but for the sake of every potential suicide and self-destruction spurred by the desolation of being born alone in exile. It’s for the sake of accuracy I tackle this figuratively, in fact. I can’t do justice to what needs to be said without the myth. History has its deep import, just like the word “dog,” the personal resonances that are the mass of the iceberg beneath the visible tip. It’s not a cerebral pondering then, not a dispassionate consideration of how I shall write of queer “mythstory” in this work or that. Rather this is the only way I can articulate it, as story, as myth:
There are those who say Sodom was not destroyed for sexual sins, but because its mob pounding Lot’s doors for the strangers to be thrown to them breached the law of hospitality. When he woke on the morning of Sodom’s destruction, the first Sodomite after Sodom looked out from his bedroom window and saw the smoke rising, and he knew only that it was gone. Over breakfast, on the TV news, one pundit claimed this reason, another that. When one spoke of hospitality, the Sodomite looked around him at this home that wasn’t his but where he had been warmly welcomed, thought of other exiles who might find no such couth in their wanderings. He thought of the desolation of such unwelcome, for those other Sodomites, for anyone. And he swore to himself in that moment that he would make a legacy for his lost city, for all citizens of Sodom, lost or living. He swore himself to hospitality, to welcome any stranger, any Other, in whatever house he made a home of in his travels. And so he did, going out into the world in search of other survivors; and though some had disavowed their homeland in shame, sworn themselves to other nations and cities, each sworn Sodomite he found understood his oath, having made the exact same vow themself, as it turned out. So, in a hospice here, a hostelry there, in this pub and that website, over time they built a city and a legend, scattered in every corner of the world. The legend is no doubt idealised, the reality imperfect, compromised, but to this day, the city is renowned as haven for the dispossessed, its halls of lost heritage rebuilt in the interstices; and it is said that Dionysus himself will return one day, to plant the figwood dildo he carved long ago that he might fuck himself over the grave of his lost love Prosymnnus, a fig tree blossoming from the dead wood, in the heart of the park at the heart of the completed city, on the day New Sodom is raised fully and finally from the ruin.