Okay then, fellow lovers of the extreme, have we got a treat for you. In normal circumstances, this man probably wouldn’t require an introduction. Today, however, there’s a chance you might not be familiar with his work so let me just give you a head’s up:
He writes stuff that makes Douglas Adams look sane.
So without further ado: Rhys…
Sum yourself up in 10 words
I’ll try to do it in nine… No, I can’t!
I’ve been having a look at your website and the 624 amazing titles you have listed there of your completed works. Also on there is your intention to write 1000 stories, linking a large number of them under an umbrella you’ve called PANDORA’S BLUFF. The questions I prepared after reading that little ditty of information seemed to go on for days. However, my first one has to be: How are you sure of maintaining such a high standard? You have a fantastic handling of the English language – one far superior to my own and many others like me – but surely such numbers must risk fluctuations in quality, so how do you ensure you’re not writing something you’re not happy or proud of?
The short answer is that I can’t be sure of maintaining a high standard. I just do my best each time, and yes, my best often isn’t good enough. I look back at my earlier stuff now and it often seems too restrained and conventional, clumsy in places, a bit thin and nowhere near as original as it could have been. But some other people like those stories better than my later material. I do think I’ve got better and better over the years and I believe I’m at my best right now, but I can’t be totally certain of that. No writer is ever really the best judge of their own work.
It’s just important to do one’s best. I’m always happy with every story I write while I’m writing it and proud of it when it’s finished and I never deliberately churn out work I suspect might be substandard in any way. Each new story must be an authentic gem. But with the passing of time, those little ‘gems’ can start to look tarnished and then one begins to wonder if they were ever as shiny as they seemed. There’s a lot of self-delusion in the act of writing, in the writing business itself, but that’s an occupational hazard. Do your best. It’s trite advice but it’s right.
Why PANDORA’S BLUFF? And what happens when you have finished the 1000th story and you realise you still have more to write? Do you continue towards a new target or do you fight this instinct and channel your energies into other endeavours?
When I was about 15 I decided that I’d like to write a big historical novel, I mean a really big historical novel, the most sweeping epic ever attempted. I’d got interested in reading about ancient civilisations and I decided to work out how many generations separated the Sumerians, the oldest known civilisation, from our own time; and I was amazed it was only about 270 generations. Sure, that’s a lot of generations really but it didn’t seem impossible to write a novel with 270 chapters, one for each generation, so the result would be an unbroken chain connecting us with them. The moment I had the idea for that novel, the title came to me too: Pandora’s Bluff. It’s a reference to the fact that the last thing out of Pandora’s box of troubles was the personification of hope, but my twist on the myth was that hope is actually the worst of all the troubles because it’s false. Such cynicism at such a tender age! When I look back, it makes me laugh to think of this 15 year old with almost no experience of the world having this grandiose plan for a massive cynical saga. Talk about presumption!
Anyway, I still plan to write that novel, if I live long enough, but it’ll have a different title now. So the words ‘Pandora’s Bluff’ were going spare and I decided to appropriate them for my project of 1000 linked stories. The conceit about false hope still applies and I’m a damn sight more experienced than I was back then; but however much we learn about life and the world, it’s still only a drop in an almost infinite ocean and there are always going to be people with vastly greater experience than ourselves. I’ll admit that Pandora’s Bluff is a grandiose title, but only in a strangely naïve way, and that’s fine by me; it’s no more pompous than Balzac’s ‘Human Comedy’. Not that I am comparing myself to Balzac! Having said that, John Clute did compare me to Balzac once, but not in terms of style or substance, just because of the grand linked project thing. But Balzac was vastly more industrious and astute than me.
As for what I’ll do when the 1000 story target has been reached, if I ever do reach it, the answer is that I’ll stop writing altogether. I’ve made that promise to my readers and myself and it’s essential that I keep it.
You have a wonderful talent for titles, though some of them might raise an eyebrow (there’s a certain one in your horror anthology involving a sex obsessive who struggles with the term ‘entering a woman’ as though she were a door). Firstly, as someone who finds names and titles the hardest part of the job, how do you come up with such outlandish – and yet perfect – examples? Is there a process you go through or do they tell you what they should be? And secondly, is there a fear of offending when making use of a word you know a large number of people find offensive? – or is it a case of: “if it works, it stays – and if you’re offended by it, the problem’s yours, not mine”?
I know it’s not right to blow one’s own horn too much, even if one is supple enough to reach it, but I do think I’m very good at titles. I think I come up with some of the best titles in the business. Having said that, they are the kinds of titles that I personally like and I’m aware that they won’t be to everyone’s taste. Plenty of other people prefer short, pithy, incisive titles, one-word titles such as ‘Blood’, ‘Invasion’, “Retribution’, ‘Dusk’, ‘Dominance’, ‘Hatstand’ or whatever. I don’t much care for those sorts of titles. I like titles to be elaborate, weird, funny and unique. I like to think that if one of my titles is typed into Google, the results will only reference that story and there will be no other matches. Often this is indeed the case. In my view, a story title should be a one-line poem, enigmatic, quirky and enjoyable in its own right, and it should proclaim itself distinctly as a title that only one author could devise.
But it might also serve the function of controlling the growth of the story. Plenty of my stories grew directly out of a title. The title came first and the story followed it with a certain inevitability. For instance, the moment I came up with the title ‘Cracking Nuts with Jan Hammer’ I already knew a lot about what was going to happen in the story itself: the title told me. I knew that it had to be about fusion jazz, and because I can’t imagine anyone cracking nuts with Jan Hammer for fun, I also knew it had to be about punishment. So clearly the story had to be set in Hell, a special Hell reserved for fusion jazz and prog rock musicians, where the doomed souls are forced to crack nuts. Then I had to ask myself: why nuts and what’s the Devil’s part in all this? Very rapidly, as you can probably imagine, the story almost wrote itself.
But where did the words’ Cracking Nuts with Jan Hammer’ come from? They just popped into my head. This happens all the time. I keep a list of titles for future stories and I add to this list nearly every day. My favourite of all my titles is ‘The Story with a Clever Title’ but that one didn’t write itself! I’m also very fond of ‘The Ghost Written Autobiography of a Disembodied Spirit’, ‘The Laughable Career of the Tickle Master’ and ‘The Mark of Cain, the Jeremy of Abel’ among many, many others. Again, I can’t really offer a convincing explanation as to where those titles came from. This morning, the title that just popped into my head for no apparent reason was ‘The Elephantine Doggerel of Mouserian Catullus’. That’s a fairly clumsy potential title, but I’ll write the tale anyway because it’s already unfolding in my mind.
Despite all this, a simple title is sometimes the right one for the job, and the story that you referred to, about the sex obsessive, couldn’t really have had any title other than the one it actually has. Well, it could, of course, but not in my world, and if people don’t like my titles that’s not really my concern. I mean, I do hope people like my titles but if they don’t that’s too bad. Incidentally, my two favourite titles of any work of fiction are Half Past Human by T.J. Bass, which is a brilliant title for a superb science fiction novel, and Malign Fiesta by Wyndham Lewis, which is simply and utterly perfect: a whole world of menace and joy in just two words! One of my future books will be called The Big Dwarf Shortage, and I’m really pleased with that, but the Wyndham Lewis title has a touch of genius about it. And it’s an extremely good novel too.
(i) What are you working on right now?
(ii) What are you reading?
(iii) Any favourite authors/books – and what are your 5 desert island books?
(iv) What future plans do you have for your work?
(v) Work to music or in silence?
(i) A novel entitled The Young Dictator. It’s an attempt to write something for young adults, a genre I’ve never tried before. I have no idea if I’m doing it right, but it’s immense fun to write! It’s about a 12-year-old girl who takes over the universe with the assistance of her Gran, who is a barmy Fascist. It’s a satire on politics but there are no cheesy messages. It’s an irresponsible satire, rather than a moral one. People sometimes forget that an irresponsible action can be just as effective an anti-authority gesture as more controlled and rational opposition. But I really don’t want to lecture any young readers on what politics I think are best, so I intend to keep my own views as ambiguous as possible as the action unfolds. It’s just so patronising to lecture people in an attempt to win them over to the causes you happen to believe in. They must be allowed to follow their own road, even if it’s the wrong one.
(ii) I always read too many books at the same time. At the moment I’m reading three novels: Of Men and Monsters by William Tenn; Dan Yack by Blaise Cendrars; and God Bless You, Mr Rosewater by Kurt Vonnegut. All of them are excellent so far, especially the Tenn, which has an ingenious conceit at its core. I’m also reading half a dozen short story collections by various authors. One of them is Villiers de L’Isle-Adam’s Cruel Tales and I’ve been reading that since 1991 but I’m still only halfway through it! I love the individual tales but I just can’t read them in quick succession, they are too rich, so I probably won’t finish it for another twenty years…
(iii) My favourite author is Italo Calvino and has been since I picked up Cosmicomics two decades ago and was blown away by the sheer invention, imagination, comedy of effect, profundity of subject matter and lightness of touch. For me, he’s the ideal author, balancing the intellectual with the emotional, the head with the heart, the inner with the outer, the absurd with the serious. Other favourites include Stanislaw Lem, Milorad Pavic, John Sladek, Donald Barthelme, Flann O’Brien, John Barth, Jack Vance, Brian Aldiss, Alvaro Mutis, Boris Vian and Samuel Delany… My five desert island books would probably be: The Complete Cosmicomics by Calvino; The Cyberiad by Lem; The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Alvaro Mutis; Tales of the Dying Earth by Jack Vance and Froth on the Daydream by Boris Vian.
(iv) Lots and lots of plans! Almost too many to mention! I have about eight unfinished novels to write, including The Clown of the New Eternities, which I’ve been working on since 1994, and about twenty novellas, and I still intend to keep on writing short stories. Will I diversify into other forms, like plays, film scripts, radio work? Probably not. I’ve been saying that I hope to diversify for the past twenty years and I’ve done absolutely nothing about it, so I reckon it’s time to accept the fact that I’m just a writer of novels, novellas and short stories, and won’t ever do scripts, cartoons, theatre work or anything else along those lines. I would like to compose some music at some point, though. I still have daydreams about doing that. I just need some decent recording equipment. And a few instruments. And better musical ability than I’ve got.
(v) Silence mostly. I used to listen to music while I wrote, but I don’t do that now. I also used to smoke while banging typewriter keys, like a pulp fiction hack from the 1930s, but I gave up the smoking habit a few years ago, thank goodness! Coffee is essential to my work. I have written on the hoof once or twice. I wrote a novella while hiking over the Alpujarras Mountains, which was interesting. I can write in tents, hotel rooms and on aeroplanes if I have to. But generally I prefer as few distractions as feasible. Coffee is the one intrusion always welcome in my working hours…
Who are your influences and in what way do they influence you?
Writers like Calvino, Lem, Vian, obviously; some philosophers; explorers; mavericks; dreamers; people who go against the grain, even if that grain is only muesli and their spoon has got stuck on an oat; absurdists; individualists; contrarians; pioneers; mind expanders; moderate extremists; fanatical moderates; paradox makers and makers of chocolate and mischief. They influence me by reminding me that life is crammed full of opportunities and those opportunities can be seized. But it’s up to you and only you to do that. I dread getting bogged down in hopelessness, so I admire anyone or anything that tries to open up the world and keep it open.
With 624 stories, 21 novels and a series of eBooks written, have you suffered with ‘writer’s block’ If you have, how did you overcome it? – and if you haven’t, do you know how you would deal with it?
Touch wood, I never get writer’s block. Touch wood and other substances too: metal, crystal, ceramics, stone, fur, cheese! If there’s just one service I can do for other writers it’s show them a way of never having writer’s block. I don’t have space to outline in detail the method here, but I can quickly summarise it. Essentially, writer’s block comes from having too much choice and not from having too little. That’s the opposite of what most people assume. Writers who have writer’s block think they don’t have anything to write about, but that’s completely mistaken; the problem is that they have too much to think about and that’s what’s making the white-out. It’s like static coming from too many jumbled up signals. It’s the blank page that’s causing the trouble. The unlimited possibilities of the blank page are too overwhelming; they paralyse the imagination. So the answer is to reduce those possibilities with some creative constriction! Filter those choices, reduce them, add a few constrictions! And those constrictions can be random. Try flipping open a dictionary a few times and pointing at a random word. Maybe you will get ‘remains’, ‘fried’ and ‘map’, the same as I just did when I tried it, and now tell yourself that your story has to include those three elements. Already we can see a shape taking form. ‘Map’ suggests an adventure story, buried treasure, maybe pirates, while ‘remains’ suggests a corpse, a skeleton or mummy, and ‘fried’ could be something to do with nuclear fusion or a supernova. Who knows? But the block has already been broken and the author is free again to start writing!
In your opinion, what’s the best thing you’ve written? How is it possible to choose a favourite from such an immense catalogue?
The best novel I’ve ever published is The Percolated Stars and my best story collections in print are The Smell of Telescopes and The Brothel Creeper. I’m particularly fond of those three books and they were easy to pick. But my best work of all hasn’t yet been issued. It has been accepted for publication but hasn’t appeared yet. There’s the novel The Abnormalities of Stringent Strange, the novella The Impossible Inferno, and a new collection of linked tales The Truth Spinner. All three are due out sometime in 2012 and I believe they trump my earlier work.
Sadly the world of publishing has been overtaken by pointless celebrities who have never even read the book they claim to have ‘written’, and sharks on the publishing side happy to steal an author’s hard work for the sake of a few quid. These people piss most decent folk off but when you’re someone with such an immense body of work and you have to approach HHHB for an interview rather than the other way round because you feel you’re not known by the wider public (which certainly made me feel like a bit of a tosser after reading some of your work), surely your level of anger and frustration must be in danger of putting out the sun! If you had twenty minutes with those in charge of the no-marks and their world domination, what would you do or say?
You’re certainly not a tosser, let’s get that straight first of all. A tosser for not knowing who I am? That’s nonsense. Even I don’t know who I am half the time and I’m me! I’m not especially angry at anybody or anything. Frustrated yes, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. If you’re frustrated it’s because there’s something you want that you haven’t got. So go out and get it! At least make the attempt… Negative feelings are still energy. I think almost any energy can be harnessed for positive results. As long as you’re moving, that’s all that matters. When any creative person, be they writer, artist or musician, gets discouraged and gives up, it’s because they have lost their hunger for success. The great thing about frustration is that it’s an indicator you’re still hungry and hunger is vital in this business. It’s hard to satisfy a hunger that isn’t there!
I’m not especially well known in the writing world and I want my work to be known more widely than it currently is. So it’s up to me to keep an eye out for all opportunities and seize them if I can. The days when the publisher did all the promotional work are long gone, unless you are a best-selling author and have the clout to act in any way you like. These days, some contracts even specify that the author has to do promo work and can’t decline to attend book launches, readings and similar events. I was alerted to the existence of your website when Simon Bestwick was interviewed here and posted a link on his Facebook page. “Huh?” I said to myself. “They’re interviewing him and not me? That’s not fair!” And my jealousy bells started ringing on the ends of cords woven from pure egotism and selfishness. Now I wish to make it absolutely clear that this jealousy was not the kind that doesn’t want the other person to have whatever it is they’ve got, but the kind that is motivational. The formula is: “He’s got it; I should have it too. How do I go about getting it?” Like I said earlier: even negative feelings can be turned into positive energy. Don’t turn your back on that kind of energy!
Of course, there are always tactical people in the writing business who will read such a statement and rub their hands together and giggle to themselves, “He has admitted to being egotistical and selfish and jealous. We’ll remember that in case we need to use it against him in the future!” But I’m not only admitting my own egotism, I’m also saying that those people are just as egotistical as I am, maybe more so. The difference is that I’m willing to admit it in public; I don’t play stupid tactical games, whereas they don’t have the guts to be honest. And saying that writers should seize opportunities when they can doesn’t mean that I’m advocating the simpering sycophant approach. That’s not needed at all. I don’t go to conventions, I don’t pal up with big names and I don’t ask my contacts in the business for special favours. I can’t stand nepotism. You have to play it straight and win your reputation through the sheer quality of your work. But when an opportunity, however large or small, comes along to showcase your work or get your views aired, then there’s no reason to hold back. Be proactive, but be honest. Don’t spare anyone’s feelings and don’t spare your own.
You mention on your site that you’ve been writing for most of your life but those stories written when you were a kid no longer exist. Have you ever tried to re-write these or do you prefer to let them rest in the ether.
I wrote hundreds of stories when I was a youngster. Everything I wrote before 1989 has been lost, and even though most of it wasn’t accomplished prose, some of the ideas in a few of the stories were good and I have reused some of those already. I still occasionally rewrite one of those lost stories and the rewrites are always better, at least I hope that’s the case! My soon to be published novella, The Impossible Inferno, is actually based on one of the first ideas I ever had. I carried it about in my head for thirty years; then two years ago I finally embodied it in a story. My ideas were always better than my ability to do them proper justice. Maybe that’s still true, I don’t know! But I’d rather be a writer with ideas too big for him than a writer who never has any ideas.
Which means more to you: critical response or sales?
If I’m not getting sales, then good critical response means more to me. If I’m not getting good critical response, then sales mean more… If I’m getting neither, then neither mean much to me. If I’m getting both, then I’m off to a tropical island pronto…
Which title would you recommend as the starting point for a first time reader of your work?
The Truth Spinner when it comes out later this year. In the meantime, I’d recommend Link Arms With Toads! as a representative selection of short stories that span my entire career; I put together Toads! with the specific intention of making it a gateway into my work for the new reader, so it features work in all the genres I have attempted, science fiction, horror, fantasy, magic realism and others.
What’s the best advice you’ve been given and what would you say to someone trying to make it in this fickle industry?
Ignore all advice. But if you can’t do that, then do this: ask yourself how much you want to be a writer, deep down in your heart, and if you are absolutely certain it’s really what you want to do, then go for it! And don’t let anyone discourage you, because there will nearly always be attempts to discourage you. And when someone does try to discourage you, ask yourself what’s in it for them. There will always be something. And just keep going. It’s your life, your ambition, your destiny.
You use humour a lot in your work. Despite the surrealism associated with a number of your situations, they tend to use realism as a base. Is there a risk of humour detracting from the reality or does it encourage it, what with humour being a big part of everyday life? And which type of humour works best in a horror story or is it a case of ‘funny is funny’ whatever label it has attached to it?
I find humour extremely mysterious. The whole thing about comedy fascinates me. The philosophy of it. I mean, what the heck is comedy really? I’ve always suspected that it’s not as harmless as it seems to be, that there’s something deeper going on behind the way it creates this bizarre biological reaction in humans. Someone says or writes something with an unexpected ending and it induces this weird fit in the listener or reader, there’s really no other way of describing laughter, it’s a kind of fit. And the person who has the fit is grateful for it! The gratitude comes from a release of tension, I suppose; but what’s the mechanics of that? I don’t have a clue and I’ve never read a convincing theory that truly explains the process. It’s a truism that there’s plenty of cruelty in comedy and we all know that but we don’t fear comedy. We fear being laughed at, but not the physical contortions of our own laughter. There’s a lot of exploration still to be done in comedy. I think that the processes of tragedy are fairly well understood, but comedy is elusive in that respect. We simultaneously value it and denigrate it because it’s not serious, but we are constantly pressurising each other to ‘lighten up’. What is the connection between someone slipping on a banana skin and a simple pun? Both are utterly different and yet they are examples of the same thing: humour. And there are many different grades of laughter. Take a ‘bitter’ laugh, for instance. How does that relate to a giggle? Comedy is an enigma to me and that’s why I’m so intrigued by it.
I don’t really know the answer to your question about which type of humour works best in a horror story. The easy answer is to reply that it depends on the reader, but I’m not so sure about that. As you say, there is a lot of humour in real life, so I don’t think that adding humour to a horror story takes away from the realism. I’m wondering if the humour itself is the real horror, in the sense that it’s horrific that anything horrible can be funny. Back in the 1960s, Thomas Disch proposed an impossible comedy that could never be tolerated because the subject matter was too intrinsically grim. The title of that theoretical piece was Auschwitz: a comedy. But since then someone has made such a comedy and although reviewers were divided on its merits, those who did like it described it as ‘uplifting’ and ‘dignified’. I’m referring to Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful, of course. This is odd, to say the least. I think it’s a mistake to regard laughter as something innocent. Whatever it is, it’s not innocent!
Is it hard to write funny? A lot of actors say acting funny is a serious business and I wonder if this is the same for an author?
I’ve spoken of how comedy is a mystery and I do think it’s something that should be taken seriously, but it has a big disadvantage too. Nothing dates as badly as comedy. For instance, during my life there have been a handful of TV comedy shows that were a big influence on me, to the extent that if I hadn’t watched them I mightn’t be the writer I now am. The first and probably most important of those shows was The Goodies, which was a light surreal adventure spoof involving these three disparate guys who got into bizarre situations with lots of knowing references to other shows. I am often asked if Monty Python was a formative influence on my thinking, but the truth is that when Python was first on I was too young to appreciate it. The Goodies was more digestible to my young mind. A few months ago I managed to watch a few of the episodes for the first time in almost forty years and it was a shock to discover they aren’t funny any more. I can only speak for myself, of course, but although I thought the ideas still worked, the humour had died. The spirit had gone stale.
And yet, the fact I found them hilarious and even inspirational when I first saw them doesn’t imply I was somehow mistaken back then. I’m not saying they were never funny and that I only thought they were. I’m saying that they were genuinely funny back then, but now aren’t. That’s an entirely different process. It implies that examples of comedy somehow use themselves up, that they serve a function and then wither away. A kind of “discard after use” aesthetic. It reminds me of that quote by Nietzsche to the effect that a man climbing stairs uses the steps to get to a higher level, but the stairs feel betrayed when the man leaves them behind. We use comedy in the way we use stairs but the steps crumble behind us. Maybe this is a tortuous metaphor. So to answer your question: I don’t find writing comedy difficult at all, but to write comedy that will always remain fresh and funny is probably impossible. That’s one of the pitfalls of the genre. It’s no less eternal than tragedy but it’s ephemeral too.
What feeds your writing? Anger? Humour? Stupidity? All of the above? None of the above?
The same as what feeds the writing of all other authors, though few are willing to admit it in public: ego, lust, selfishness, desperation to be noticed, envy, petulance, and yes, as you rightly suggest, stupidity, which is another name for stubbornness. Any writer who denies that these negative energies are motivations is frankly a fibber. Many writers are big fibbers on questions like these. They don’t want to hand ammunition to their critics and rivals, they don’t want to look bad in front of their friends. But writing should be about truth and the truth is often unpalatable. Writers are egotists. There’s no honest way of avoiding this conclusion. I’ve got a lot of stick over the years for saying stuff like this, but the stick has always come from people who are the very embodiment of egotism and selfishness. They hate it when someone blows the whistle on their motivations. And yet we shouldn’t ever be afraid of the truth, not if we are strong. I’m a massive egotist, and if you are a writer reading these words right now, then you are too. Sure, go ahead and deny it. You’re not even fooling yourself.
This doesn’t automatically mean there’s nothing deeper about an act of creation than the imprint of an individual ego. Art can be great despite the guiding principles that led to its creation. Nietzsche has a lot to say about this: go forth and read him. Mind you, he does tend to get misunderstood almost more than any other philosopher, so maybe it’s a bad idea to read him on the subject. The fact of the matter is that I generally don’t care how or why any book came to be written: I care about the book itself. There are many writers I admire who weren’t nice people. If the books are fine, I’ll read them. And even if there’s stuff in those books I don’t agree with, I’ll filter it out with my mind. I find it strange that some readers won’t touch a talented writer because that writer’s political or religious or other views aren’t the same as the reader’s. Surely it’s possible to take good stuff from a book and disregard the bad? That’s what I do. I can read a right-wing or left-wing writer without succumbing to any dubious messages embodied in the text: if I encounter something I don’t like I’ll just ignore it. Enjoying the superb works of Rex Warner didn’t turn me into a Marxist; the brilliant Ernst Jünger didn’t turn me into a conservative militarist. We do have our own minds!
Personally I write for all the deeply flawed reasons given above. Oh yes, and perhaps also from a genuine desire to contribute just a tiny bit to the human culture storeroom, eccentric ideas section, whimsy and irony subsection.
Is human flesh overrated?
If you mean in food terms, then I’m a strict vegetarian and wouldn’t know. If you mean structurally, then I’m happy enough wearing it on my skeleton: maybe tiger flesh would be better. Dinosaur, better again. Who can say?
What question do you wish I’d asked? What question do you wish I hadn’t asked? What question are you glad I didn’t ask?
I really wish you’d asked, ‘What question do you wish I’d asked?’… Oh, you did!