Interview With Hal Duncan

Ink by Hal Duncan

W: 5) What works on modern ideas in quantum mechanics, if any, did you read, in preparation for your work on Vellum?

HD: What I haven’t already mentioned, I can’t really remember, I’m afraid. Most of my initial reading was done so long ago and in such a jackdaw manner (scavenged from wherever and quickly woven into the nest) that I can’t think of individual titles and authors now.

W: 6) The Jungian conception of the Collective Unconscious and the archetypes, therein, would seem to allow that these symbols and forms can be mapped onto any person, just so long as the proper conception of self is employed. As an author, is there the temptation to map too much of yourself into a story, and do you see a danger of too much of the story mapping itself onto you?

HD: Too much is never enough. That might sound glib, but what I mean is I think there should be no half-measures if you want your fiction to address the unconscious on a collective level rather than simply model your own personal psychology — the relationship between your conscious and unconscious, and the subject-specific relationships between the various archetypes that constitute that unconscious. It’s not that the latter is less worthy. There’s a lot of great fiction where writers are mining their own neuroses and psychoses, bringing their own variants of the archetypes to the surface to be manifested as avatars in characters, then set into interaction with each other. And this makes for powerful writing because as often as not the psychodrama that results is one we can’t fail to recognise. It’s also one which, in the differences between the relationships of the archetypes in that author’s psyche and the relationships of the archetypes in ours, expands our understanding of those archetypes’ full potential. It’s also, however, easy to use those archetypes quite shallowly.

[ad#longpost]So, suppose I recognise seven key archetypes: the Persona, who for me is Reynard, the writer and voice of reason, an ideal self-image; the Id, who for me is Jack, the firestarter and voice of passion; the Anima, who for me is Phreedom, the female principle; the Self, who for me is Puck, a puer aeternus, the classic Inner Child; the Ego, who for me is Seamus, the social being who has to deal with reality; the Shadow, who for me is Joey, the cold, dark force of opposition; the Mana, who for me is Don, the old soldier, made stoicly wise by hard experience.

You can use these characters quite superficially to construct a Star Wars style “Hero’s Journey” where the wish-fulfillment hero is a cipher for the Id and the villain is just a cipher for the Shadow, and so on. This type of use is common in genre and over and above entertaining the reader, it can be, I think, a map for both writer and reader to get to a certain state of mind. The forms here are well-established conventions. The map is already drawn and so both writer and reader can navigate their way through this manifestation of the collective unconscious with ease, though without really addressing it. The archetypes simply go through a little dance, fighting and fucking, at the end of which the story is basically a picture of the relatively stable and desireable psychological state. In terms of magical terminology, you could call this the “Right Hand Path”

Taking this further, however, breaking from established routes like the Hero’s Journey and trying to map the wilder territories, deliberately going off the track and into the wildwoods where the monster’s lurk — where it ultimately becomes about accepting and integrating the Shadow rather than defeating it (because the defeated Shadow is only really repressed and will therefore always return) — this can be the start, I think, of Jung’s process of individuation. It might simply be a rather disfunctional display of the writer’s fucked-up mentality, a fictional manifestation of their internal struggle — and as such it can be powerful and profound as outlined above. But to make that work as a map of the collective unconscious requires, I think, absolute commitment, because you have to deconstruct yourself as completely as possible, not just negotiate a truce with your demons but take them apart and see what makes them tick, find the aspects of each archetype that would be demonic to others even if its a positive force to you. In terms of magical terminology, you could call this the “Left Hand Path”.

This is where failure becomes a matter of not mapping enough of yourself to the story, I think, where those absences and blind spots paradoxically function as negative spaces which continue to define the story largely in terms of your personal psychology, the disacknowledged aspects of it. It’s like giving the reader the map but holding back half of the key so that it only partially makes sense to them. By putting yourself in there as wholly as possible, carved open and laid out for scrutiny, you’re providing them with the full key, or at least as much as it’s possible to give.

Again in practical terms, you need to show the personal nature of the archetypes as you present them, how that relates to an individual psychology and how these avatars relate to the archetypes in their impersonal indefinite states of potential. I try to do this by playing multiple avatars off against themselves as well as each other, exploring permutations and potentialities, while at the same time grounding that in some intensely personal experiences.

W: a. Would you find it accurate to say that, in the act of writing, one taps into the collective unconscious to drag out the archetypes necessary to properly affect the perceptions of your readers?

HD:It’s not necessarily the case. Much writing has little or nothing to do with the archetypes at all, never mind using them in a project to, well, fuck with the reader’s head. But that is something that’s going on in a lot of heavily archetypal fiction, I reckon. I think of those seven archetypes outlined above as common to us all, and I think many psychological states can be viewed as surfacings of (our own personal versions of) those archetypes. In narcissistic rage, for example — that irrational wrath at something as trivial as a traffic jam — it seems to me like we’re seeing the world through the eyes of the Shadow. For that moment, it’s our flip side that’s in control (hell, we even refer to it as “flipping out”).

With archetypal fiction you’re offering the reader views of your fictive world and by extension the real world through the eyes of your versions of the archetypes. In identifying with those characters, in the resonances of those characters with the reader’s own versions of the archetypes, it’s possible that they’re going to be at least temporarily looking at the fictive world and the real world beyond through the eyes of not just your avatar but through the eyes of their own avatar of that archetype. Indeed, in the immersive experience of reading, if your written avatar is functioning as their identification figure for the duration of the experience, then with luck you might actually be giving them a view they’re unfamiliar with, offering a new angle on and from-the-viewpoint-of their own unconscious alter egos.

W: 7) What are the ways in which you, as a writer, feel that you can/should/want to affect the world? What is your quest?

HD: All fiction is, I think, capable of altering a reader’s worldview. You can be cynical about such statements, scoff at the idea that a book can really have any significant effect, but I don’t think this is an overly-optimistic, self-serving inflation of the value of fiction. Quite the opposite. If this wasn’t the case you wouldn’t have propaganda. The Bible and other scriptures wouldn’t have the power they have, and half the world’s religions would be out of business. Not admitting of this power leaves it in the hands of the Right, who know fine well that you can shape society with the right stories. So I think it’s important to recognise that writing can affect the world through its effects on the reader, if only to ensure that you’re not affecting the reader in a way you wouldn’t want to — reinforcing easy stereotypes, expressing dodgy subtexts — and better still so you might actually try and counteract some of the conservative and reactionary messages readers are receiving from elsewhere.

To that end, much of my aim is focused not so much on shaping people’s worldviews but on the idea of unshaping them, attacking stereotypes and moral absolutes, trying to wedge a crowbar into the cracks in people’s minds and jimmy them open. I think you have to have a sense of… humour and perspective about exactly how much effect one book or one writer can have, so quest is a bit too grandiose for my liking — a bit inflationary and egoistic — but, fuck it, there’s something to be said for the Quixotic holy fool, setting out to save the world from what might be windmills but might just as well be giants. So, taking these insane ambitions with a cellar-full of salt, I want to write a bestselling book that rewires people’s heads, something that takes a sledgehammer to the doors of perception and gives the reader the map to what’s beyond.

If I could, if it’s possible, I’d like to write a book that would sell even to a reader who was a full-on motherfucker of a bigot — a homophobe, a racist, a sexist. I’d like to draw them in with a rollercoaster of a ride, pull them through Hell and have them come out the other side rooting for every underdog they used to hate. Or in a real — a practical — sense, I’d like to write a book that some downtrodden kid in Nowhere Town, Idaho or Killmenow, Scotland might read and find some hope in, suddenly see that going Columbine on their classmates asses is not the only option. I’d like to put even just the smallest hole in the wall around that kid’s dying soul, just enough for them to see the light on the other side and realise that no wall is totally invulnerable.

And that’s the sort of magic I definitely believe in.

W: 8. Again, with respect to those who work in fiction, today, drawing directly upon the things in which they believe, how much does your work stem from your personal beliefs?

HD: Directly, intensely and thoroughly. Bearing in mind that I’m a nihilist / existentialist and my most passionate belief is in nothing, that we die and that’s the end of it, that the universe is devoid of any essentialist pupose, and so any beliefs over and above that are temporary and contingent, theories more than beliefs, I do reckon that if you’re going to make a choice you may as well throw yourself into it with passion. My brand of nihilism isn’t that pissant ennui stuff where the lack of intrinsic purpose means that any option is met with a lacklustre “why bother?” Fuck that shit. If you’re a bona fide nihilist, you should be asking yourself “why the fuck not?”

That whole attitude informs both Vellum and Ink. It’s what they’re about and it’s my attitude to writing them. If you’re thinking of writing a 400,000 word Cubist fantasy diptych that strip-mines the Jungian unconscious and has “people die” as it’s core message, then you sure as hell better throw yourself into it, and you sure as hell better be sincere.

W: 9) What are you reading, at current?

HD: Jeffrey Ford’s short story collection, The Fantasy Writer’s Assistant.

W: 10) What is your favourite colour?

The colour of sandstone in the early evening.

For more on Hal Duncan, you can check out his official blog here. And to purchase his books, you can snag them from Amazon using the links below.

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