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Andy Duncan

Photo by Jeanne Beckwith

There's a suburb somewhere in Hell called Beluthahatchie that I never would have known about except for Andy Duncan. Andy is on this year's World Fantasy Awards ballot three times: his book, Beluthahatchie and Other Stories, was nominated for best short story collection, and two of his stories, "The Pottawatomie Giant" and "Lincoln in Frogmore," made the short fiction category. He's had novellas nominated for the Nebula Awards two years in a row, and other works nominated for the Hugo and by the International Horror Guild. This year's novella, "Fortitude," is a disturbing story about General George Patton's déjà vu, and the previous one was an oddly reassuring tale called "The Executioner's Guild," about, well, a guild of modern executioners who make sure executions are as humane as possible. As you can imagine from the above, Duncan likes the weird, and he also likes the wonderful.

I first met Andy when I was in graduate school with him at the University of Alabama, and while I remember kind words and a friendly, Southern voice, the memory that sticks the most comes from a Southern Literature class we had together. Midway through the semester, we did presentations on a relevant area of interest, and Andy got up and did a talk on the wonderful movie version of Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep. I don't know to this day how Andy tied in the movie with Southern literature, though he probably went by way of the Gothic and film noir. All I know is that I remember listening to him spellbound, and thinking, "This man can talk."

And reading through his stories, that's what comes across. Andy loves to talk, and he loves to tell us stories. He's genuinely interested in the people in his stories, and they're all interesting in turn, and they all feel real. Even characters who should be unlikeable, like General George Patton, become absolutely fascinating once he gets into their heads.

Mack Knopf: You love novellas, don't you? Why the form?

Andy Duncan: I guess I'm working my way towards a novel, because the short stories just get longer and longer. "Fortitude" is a strange thing. It's basically something I never read before. Someone gets the chance to change things, and changes almost nothing. Patton gets his life to live over, and knows it.

MK: Tell us about yourself: family background, education, anything that's been a major influence on your writing. In short, what led you down the primrose path to the writer's life?

AD: I was born Sept. 21, 1964, in Columbia, S.C., in the hospital that's now the Department of Social Services headquarters, last I looked. I was the belated youngest of three children; my brother was 20 when I was born, my sister 15. My father carried the mail on a rural route, my mother was a housewife, but they both were readers, believed in the power of reading and writing, the value of a library card. I grew up surrounded mostly by older folks, got along better, in fact, with grown-ups than with kids my own age, didn't have close friendships with peers until high school, when I bonded famously with a few other self-declared outcasts. Read constantly, watched TV constantly, was fortunate enough to learn about the world as children should, at a distance, through mediation, while being sheltered from the worst of it. Always loved to hear people tell stories, grew pretty good at telling them, myself -- orally, I mean. Went into journalism because, given my interests, that seemed the best route toward A Good Steady Job With Benefits, the Grail of my upbringing. Eventually got a bit bored with that, tried teaching, tried fiction writing, and lo, the fiction started selling, started gaining a small but devoted following. John Kessel, who was my M.A. thesis director at North Carolina State University, was my invaluable guide into the professional ranks of sf, remains my mentor and friend, and must be mentioned in any account of my writer's life, however short; as must my wife, Sydney, who among many other virtues is the best support system I could hope for.

MK: You've had a day job all along when you were writing, and continue to do so. I take it you don't believe in the stereotype of the starving artist?

AD: One's life should not serve one's art. It should be the other way around. You don't necessarily have to do the Charles Bukowski thing and live in filth. Living in filth is not romantic.

MK: I'd love to ask you about how reporting shaped your writing. You worked at the Greensboro, North Carolina News and Record for seven years as a reporter and editor, and having been a reporter myself, I know that does things to a person's writing. I'm curious if it had any effect on you, and if so whether you think it helped you.

AD: My newspaper years -- four years as a reporter, three years as an editor -- were instrumental in making me a better fiction writer. All those hundreds of stories I wrote, of course, were like on-the-job training in dialogue, description, narrative. Factor in all those thousands of interviews, the days spent listening to how people talk, the hours I spent at the library, the lengthy wire dispatches that I had to prune to their essence, the headlines that had to be an exact number of characters, no more no less, and you realize that I was learning to be a fiction writer all that time, without realizing it. Journalism also got me accustomed, early on, to my work being accepted and published, then read by hundreds, thousands, of strangers, then being responded to in the form of phone calls and letters. I also got very comfortable working with editors, dealing with rejection, dealing with rewrite requests. So when I finally started my fiction career, a lot of hurdles that many aspiring writers find difficult, even insurmountable, were simply not issues for me. I often tell young writers, even poets, that they should try working at a newspaper or magazine for a while.

MK: Andy, your work is pretty hard to fit down into any one category -- which is a good thing, in my opinion -- and you tend to play with styles and genre expectations. Being from Batesburg, South Carolina, and living below the Mason-Dixon line, you've probably had a lot of people call you a "Southern writer," as if that was something you could put a finger on. Is there a "Southern" voice, in your opinion, and do you have one?

AD: There is no one Southern voice, no one Southern experience, no one Southern point of view. There are many Souths, have been since colonial times, and new Souths are popping up all the time, like the suburban Asian South in Atlanta. Certainly a number of traits are shared by many Southerners: a love of colorful talk, a sense of place, a yen for digression, a sense of humor, a fascination with the eccentric and quirky and grotesque, an obsession with history, an obsession with religion and the supernatural in daily life, an immersion from birth in an ocean of Story. If any or all of these are present in your voice, and you have spent any important time in the South, then I'd say you have a Southern voice, that you are, moreover, a Southern writer. But my credentials there are pretty safe anyway, no matter what I wrote, since I'm a South Carolina native who has never lived outside the South and who virtually spits grits whenever I open my mouth to speak. No one would mistake me for, say, a New Englander, or a Californian, or a Jamaican. But I'm determined not to write about the South all the time, not to use Southern points of view all the time, not to fit anyone's predetermined notion of what "Southern writing" entails. That would be as limiting as, say, being pegged as only an SF writer.

Beluthahatchie cover

MK: Beluthahatchie. I have a suspicion you collect pet words like some people collect knickknacks. Care to tell us where the word came from, and your story evolved from there? Maybe you could show us the process of how you evolve a story that was a finalist for the Hugo. I take it you changed your mind about basing it on annexation law after reading enough of that. . . .

AD: I encountered the word "Beluthahatchie" in Zora Neale Hurston's "Story in Harlem Slang," a story accompanied by Hurston's own glossary, which drew upon African-American folklore much older than 1920s Harlem. "Beluthahatchie" was identified as one of several suburbs of Hell. My first thought was, "I've read a lot of stories set in Hell, but never one set in Beluthahatchie. I wonder what that story would be like?" So the whole story evolved from that one word. When the time came, it was easy to title the story! But I did take some spectacular wrong turns along the way, for example my foray into annexation law, when I believed the story should be about a boundary dispute between the sleepy suburb of Beluthahatchie and the bustling city of Hell. But in researching African-American folklore of Hell, I finally encountered the old slave tales of John and Old Massa, and the songs of Robert Johnson, and so the story finally clicked into place. I think writers should write down all the amazing words and phrases they encounter on slips of paper, or index cards, so that when they're stuck for something to write about, they can pick a card and write about that word, that phrase. I just found out today that courtesy tickets used to be called "Annie Oakleys" -- because the famed sharpshooter, as part of her act, would shoot holes in tickets, in effect "punching" them. So you'd say, for example, "We didn't have to pay to get into the concert; my friend at the radio station gave us some Annie Oakleys." Isn't that great?

MK: Your stories come in an enormous range of voices, from vastly different times, educations, and walks of life. How do you evoke such voices, and have you ever gotten people who tell you "just write what you know"?

AD: People have told me that, and what they meant, I suppose, was that I should write only about thirtysomething nearsighted white guys who grew up in Batesburg, South Carolina, got their B.A.'s in journalism from the University of South Carolina in the mid-'80s, and so on and so on. That prospect does not interest me. Most writers lead fairly dull lives; if they were reduced to writing only about their own lives, the world of literature would be a duller place. That being said, there's nothing wrong with the dictum "Write what you know" as long as you give "what you know" the broadest possible interpretation. You know some things because you've lived them, and other things because you've witnessed them, and other things because you've been told about them, and other things because you've read about them, and other things because you've imagined them, and all those avenues toward knowledge are valid, and all can (and should) enrich your writing. As for where all the voices come from, I don't know, but I suspect a partial answer is what I wrote in response to the Faulkner question below.

MK: One thing that comes through in almost all of your stories is that you love research, and that history is a treasure-trove of ideas for you. From the portable electric chair in "The Executioner's Guild" to Jess Willard, heavyweight champion of the world in "The Pottawatomie Giant," it's obvious you love to find something bizarre that really happened, and then embroider at will. Would you like to tell us a little bit out how you research, and why? Why not just make things up completely out of whole cloth, instead of going to so much trouble in stories like "Liza and the Crazy Water Man"?

AD: I do entirely too much research, probably. 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, perhaps never to return. More often, though, the research merely spurs the invention, gives me the courage to make things up. "Liza and the Crazy Water Man," for example, has a lot of research in it, yes, but it's still 95 percent made up. If you're writing fiction, it has to be mostly invention, no matter how much research you do. On the other hand, if you're writing about anybody other than yourself, you've got to do some research. OK, my protagonist is a bank teller. Have I ever been a bank teller? No. Well, then, I'd better find out what a bank teller's job is like. I'd better read articles, read books, hang out in banks, talk to bank tellers, take notes. That's research. In fact, even if you're writing about yourself, you still need to do research. Ask anyone who's written an autobiography, or a memoir of any sort. No one writes based on memory alone. The best research advice I can give fiction writers is this: write down only the stuff that really inspires you, that gives you an idea for a character, an incident, a line of dialogue, a bit of cool description -- something you can run with. Because you're not writing a research paper, you're writing fiction, and the research must serve the fiction, not vice versa. Don't write down the uninteresting stuff; you don't need it.

MK: What are some of the challenges you've faced in becoming a professional writer? Telling someone you want to be a professional writer is like telling someone you want to be a professional artist -- they just don't get the instant respect they did in the Renaissance.

AD: Did professional artists get instant respect in the Renaissance? Theater people were regarded as little better than whores, and visual artists were at the mercy of their wealthy patrons, many of whom treated their "kept" artists with, at best, great condescension. The first professional writers, as we know the term, in the 19th century were furiously scribbling hacks, slaves to the marketplace, as dependent on the whims of the editors of, say, Godey's Lady's Book as Shakespeare was on the whims of the royal court, or as the TV networks are on the Nielsens. This is not to say you can't get a lot of respect as a professional writer today. You can, if you're writing legal briefs, or advertising copy, or how-to articles for home-repair magazines, or sitcoms.

But respect for writing fiction or poetry or drama, well, that just isn't going to happen, because most people neither write nor read that stuff, and so they view it as irrelevant. There are many reasons to be a professional fiction writer, but if you want the respect of your family and your neighborhood, you'd best go into some other line of work, at least as a day job. I advise my students that they can be professional writers without ever earning a living at writing. Professionalism is in one's attitude toward the writing, the craft, one's fellow writers -- not in how much money you make off it. So go be a professional insurance-company attorney (like Wallace Stevens) or trade-magazine editor (like Gene Wolfe) or farmer (like Wendell Berry) or psychotherapist (like Amy Bloom) or engineer (like Kurt Vonnegut), and be a professional writer on your own time, after you get home. So there's no need, really, to want to be a professional writer; just declare yourself one, and proceed accordingly, whatever it is you happen to be doing for a living.

MK: Closely related to the previous question, how and why did you begin writing? No one becomes a writer of any success without a great deal of work and intent, so why do you write? There are old saws like Samuel Johnson's dictum that only a blockhead ever wrote for anything but money, or the saying that if you can do anything but write, you should. So what do you get out of writing -- what's your motivation?

AD: For my first 15 years or so of life, my ambition was to be a cartoonist, specifically a comic-book creator. I churned out reams of comics, none of which I now have, alas. In hindsight I see this involved writing and much as drawing; art separate from story didn't appeal. In junior high, I so disliked a 19th-century novel assigned by my English teacher, The Yemassee by William Gilmore Simms, that in study hall I amused myself by writing a parody of it, in installments, which I passed around to my classmates for the immediate gratification of hearing them guffaw. I had read all Woody Allen's and S.J. Perelman's and Robert Benchley's collections by then, and was drunk on the parodic ideal. I think the title was "The Pekingese." That'll give you an idea of the level of my wit. I filled a notebook with the thing, and when my English teacher finally, inevitably, confiscated it, I expected savage punishment. Instead, she praised me and asked for a copy. This was my first indication that my fiction writing alone, without illustrations, might have merit. But everyone who knew me, with my full cooperation, soon channeled my writing/publishing impulse into journalism, because in journalism, as we all know, writers can Make a Living.

Fast forward to age 27, when for whatever reason my long-dormant fiction-writing impulse awoke with a vengeance, leading me to quit my perfectly good newspaper job and enroll in graduate school. I guess I was tired of writing other people's stories, and wanted to try writing some of my own for a while. Fiction has been riding me ever since. Why do I write? Because I'm deeply unhappy when I'm not writing. That's how I know I'm a writer. What do I get out of my writing? A momentary stay against confusion, a feeling of having ordered a small part of the world, to pleasant effect. That's motivation enough, surely.

MK: What challenges do you see facing speculative fiction writers today? Let's face it: writing weird stuff is harder to explain at a party, and it can be hard to make it in the field. What's changed and what's changing, in your opinion, about popular acceptance of spec-fic?

AD: Judging from TV commercials, which are aimed at the broadest possible cross-sections of America, even fairly sophisticated SF ideas have become commonplace, easily grasped by all. Last night, for example, I saw a commercial that showed an alternate 2001, in which the Roman Empire still rules the world. The emperor's face is on a giant TV screen as he delivers his oration amid popping flash bulbs from the press corps. Then he drives off in a motorcade, waving at the crowds. That commercial would have been unimaginable even a few years ago, when the very idea of an "alternate history" had currency only among a few historians, and within the SF ghetto. There was a similar series of commercials recently that showed Larry Bird and Aretha Franklin and other celebrities working these dead-end, menial jobs, because this was the timeline in which they didn't follow their talents, their dreams. That premise once would have just utterly confused anyone outside the fields of skiffy -- I mean, you'd have had to explain yourself, in a movie, for 30 minutes, just to establish the rules of this alternate world. But now, in a mere 20 seconds, everyone gets it. That's both really great for SF writers, and really bad for SF writers.

On one hand, Philip K. Dick and Theodore Sturgeon and Thomas Disch are being reprinted in these beautiful Vintage paperback editions, and Bruce Sterling and Kim Stanley Robinson are all over the place, very much pundits of the moment, and Jonathan Lethem and Jonathan Carroll are getting all sorts of mainstream publication and acclaim, and these formerly fringe SF ideas have considerably currency, and all that's great. But on the other hand, the pressure to come up with something entirely new within sf, something that hasn't been done on a TV commercial already, has become almost nightmarish. So many of the wildest future imaginings of even 10 years ago now look old hat. Some argue that SF has become mere nostalgia; we know the future is not going to look like those old Frank R. Paul illustrations from the pulps, so what good was sf, really, what good is SF now if it's not keeping up, if it doesn't keep showing us something new? So that's the new challenge facing us, I think. The marketplace is not a new challenge, because SF is and has always been a tough dollar, and the suspicion with which a lot of folks view SF writing is not a new challenge, either, because let's face it, all careers in America are viewed with suspicion if they aren't lucrative. Oh, you want to be a proctologist, great, that makes sense, because proctologists make a lot of money. But if you want to be a forest ranger, or a potter, or a music teacher, or a farmer, or an SF writer, well, then, you must be crazy, right?

MK: What authors, what book or books have had a strong influence on you or your writing? You mentioned you've recently been mainlining Neil Gaiman, who you remind me of to some degree. You're not covering the same ground, but like him, I'm never quite sure on your pieces if you're going to scare me, amuse me, or show me something beautiful. What grist have you had for your mill, including history and the news?

AD: Ideally, I think, a work should do all three -- scare you, amuse you, show you something beautiful. Certainly Gaiman does that, in and out of his Sandman books. (Allow me to insert a plug for Gaiman's new novel, American Gods. It's terrific.) Gaiman I've discovered only recently, but most of my strongest influences I discovered quite young. A partial list: Lewis Carroll, James Thurber, Arthur Conan Doyle, Dr. Seuss, Roald Dahl, Ray Bradbury, John Bellairs, Edward Gorey, Eleanor Cameron, P.G. Wodehouse, Mark Twain, Edgar Allan Poe, and lots of comics -- 1970s-era Spider-Man and Fantastic Four and Batman, Walt Kelly's Pogo, Steve Gerber's Howard the Duck, Mad magazine, Plop!, the EC and DC horror comics, the Warren magazines such as Creepy and Eerie. Two Robert Arthur-edited anthologies, Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbinders in Suspense and Alfred Hitchcock's Monster Museum.

Later, in adulthood, Flannery O'Connor, William Faulkner, Joseph Mitchell, Lee Smith, John Kessel, Jonathan Lethem, Kelly Link. Other grist for the mill: I've been a movie junkie since childhood, especially old movies, and I've probably read more books devoted to the movies than books about any other single subject. For the first half of my life I seem to have watched television 24/7, as I vividly recall everything broadcast, however lame, through the Carter administration at least. I was raised in a newspaper-reading family, and my years as a journalist only aggravated that condition, so I still buy the local papers everywhere I travel, and I can't imagine not subscribing to at least one. Music is increasingly important to me, especially pre-Beatles folk and country -- but I revere the Beatles, too. I love urban legends and folklore of every stripe. Lately I've been surfing the Web a lot. It all figures into the writing, in some unholy and monstrous way.

MK: What are you working on now? Are you tackling a novel now, or are you still focusing mainly on short stories? And some of your stories would make great screen plays -- any word on that?

AD: People keep telling me my stories are naturals for the movies, but so far no producers have told me that! So my occasional bursts of screenwriting have been purely "on spec," for my own education, really, because you do learn a lot when writing screenplays. The first thing you learn is that the screenplay is a really difficult form to master -- it's like mastering the haiku, or the sestina. The second thing you learn is that screenplays have very little in common with fiction. Another form that I'm trying to learn by doing is, of course, the novel, which has a lot in common with short fiction but is nevertheless a very different animal. I have a couple of novel projects, several short-fiction projects, a screenplay project or two. There's no shortage of things to work on. Occasionally one project reaches critical mass, distinguishes itself somehow from the other projects, and when that happens I work on that project exclusively until it's done. So far everything I've finished has been in the realm of short fiction, but who knows what next year will bring?

MK: What advice would you give to an aspiring young writer?

AD: Bruce Sterling likes to say that his ambition as a writer is to write really "Sterlingian" fiction, to be the most like Bruce Sterling that he can possibly be. I think all writers should aim to write more like themselves, and less like anyone else. My advice is, write that unique stuff that only you can write, the stuff that won't get written if you don't do it. Don't worry about what other writers are doing, much less about what the "market" is dictating this week. Write your own fiction (or poetry, or drama), make it as true to your unique vision as you possibly can, and you'll draw an audience. You'll create your own genre, your own market.

MK: Faulkner once said "The past is never dead. It's not even past." Care to comment on this as regards your writing?

Andy Duncan

Photo by Terry McGarry

AD: It's my motto. I think growing up the youngest member of an extended Southern family had a lot to do with my fascination with history. 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. So I concluded that all the other stuff in the history books must have a similar immediacy. It's not exaggerating to say that from an early age, I came to view all times and places and people as co-existent, in some metaphorical but 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. 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. I can say, though, that when I first encountered that Faulkner quote, it had real resonance for me. It was the articulation of something I had known to be true all along.

MK: Andy, tell me what's coming up or what has recently happened with your fiction, would you? "The Chief Designer," a story about the Russian space program, came out June in Asimov's. Anything else on the horizon?

AD: As for new stuff, "Senator Bilbo" is in Starlight 3, just out from Tor. Both my World Fantasy-nominated stories will be reprinted in the next few weeks, "Lincoln in Frogmore" in the October/November double issue of Asimov's and "The Pottawatomie Giant" in The Year's Best Fantasy & Horror, edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, from St. Martin's. The August Locus has a long interview with me (that hardly overlaps this one at all); excerpts are online. And I'll be on the bill at the third Slipstream conference at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Ga., in February 2002, for those who want to come say hey.


Reader Comments

Mack Knopf is a Consulting Editor for Strange Horizons. His previous appearance in Strange Horizons was "Things We Were Not Meant to Know: H.P. Lovecraft and Cosmic Horror."

Further Reading:

Andy's personal web page, full of more information on him and his stories.

The Past is Not Past: An interview with Andy Duncan.

Stories online: "Fortitude" and "The Pottatowatomie Giant."

Strange Horizon's review of Beluthahatchie and Other Stories.

Another review of Beluthahatchie and Other Stories.

Bio to come.
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