Monday 30 January 2012

“Every Dialogue Scene Is a Duel” – Matthew Hughes, interviewed by Stephen Theaker

Hi Matt, thanks for agreeing to be our first interviewee.

I’m honoured to be here.

I’ve just finished reading the three Henghis Hapthorn novels, one after the other, and it was one of the most sheerly pleasurable reading experiences of my life. I’ve previously read The Damned Busters and Quartet & Triptych. Where would you recommend I head next? And is there one book of yours that you would recommend to first-time readers of your work?

Since you liked Quartet & Triptych, which is about my master thief and art forger, Luff Imbry, I would suggest The Other, from Underland Press in the US. It’s the first Imbry novel. It came out last month and it’s available in Kindle. You might also want to check with Angry Robot’s e-store in a little while. I’m just in the process of sending them the seven or eight Imbry stories that have appeared in various venues over the past few years.

But for someone coming to my work for the first time, the book I recommend is Template. It’s a stand-alone space opera, an Oliver-Twistish story about an odd fellow (all my protagonists are a little off the vertical) trying to find out who he is and why people are trying to kill him. It will give a first-timer a general introduction to The Ten Thousand Worlds and Old Earth, along with a rattling good read.

Does magic feature in your other novels of the Archonate, or is that unique to the Hapthorn books?

Yes and no. Back when I was writing what became Fools Errant, the first—though I didn’t know it at the time—Archonate story, I put in a mention of how the universe periodically alternated between rationalism and magic as its fundamental operating principle. At the time, I was interested in how Isaac Newton had started out as a full-weight medieval alchemist but then switched mid-career to rationalism and became essentially the founder of the Enlightenment. It was as if the rules of the game had abuptly switched one day, and he had stepped off one wave and onto the other without missing a beat.

Years later, when I found myself developing the idea of the Archonate universe, I thought it would be interesting to explore the culture at the time when the change was about to happen again, although virtually nobody knew it. So, in every subsequent tale, including the Imbry stories, the impending cataclysm is the background to the foreground events. It’s a bit like the first half of 1914, when there is a great, highly articulated civilization that does not know—although a few suspect—that it’s about to come to an abrupt and tragic end. “The lamps are going out all over . . . we will not see them lit again in our lifetime.” That kind of thing.

Henghis Hapthorn’s problem is that he is forced to accept that it’s going to happen in his time, horrifying though the prospect is to him, and he is trying to decide how he will ultimately respond to it. Luff Imbry, if there is ever a sequel to The Other, may make the conceptual leap and begin to become a thaumaturge.

One of the strengths of the Hapthorn novels is their even-handedness; the reader appreciates how Henghis feels, as a Sherlock who can no longer eliminate the impossible, but also shares the excitement of his intuitive alter ego regarding the age of magic to come. Would you secretly side with one of them? In which of the two ages would you prefer to live?

His alter ego is also, although this is not stressed, a complete egotist. Henghis is detached, Osk is engaged, which makes sense because the thing that counts in the coming age is not intellect but will (or axial volition, to use the technical term).

I think it should be clear to the discerning reader that I would side with Henghis—not that I consider him an epitome, but he is, at least, a civilized being. What comes after him is definitely a rough beast. In The Spiral Labyrinth, we see the world after the first few centuries of the world’s ultimate age that will culminate in Jack Vance’s Dying Earth: a decadent, amoral Old Earth of rogues, monsters, and self-involved sorcerers.

I am sure there are worlds among the Ten Thousand during the penultimate age where I would be happy to live out a life. What would those rich and mellow places become once will begins its reign as the be-all and end-all? I don’t know, but for most of them I doubt if it would be an improvement.

I read Majestrum after reading The Spiral Labyrinth and Hespira, and I was a bit surprised to find it wasn’t the beginning of the Henghis Hapthorn story (although it works perfectly well as a standalone novel). Similarly, you mentioned earlier the Luff Imbry novel, which follows on from short stories and novellas. That’s quite an unusual approach, reminding me in a way of how indie bands like Stereolab and New Order would leave singles off their albums; it encourages a certain kind of fan. Was that approach the result of a deliberate decision, or is it just how it’s worked out?

It’s just how it worked out, but it’s a long story.

In 2001, I had two books out from Warner Aspect (Fools Errant and Fool Me Twice) that did not do well enough for them to ask for a third. But an editor at Tor, David Hartwell, said he’d like to see an Archonate novel. So I wrote Black Brillion. While I was waiting for it to come out, I thought it might be a good idea to get into the digest mags to raise my profile (I had no idea how their circulation had declined). So I looked through my file of story ideas and found a premise: suppose you came to realize that you were living in a world that resulted from someone’s three wishes going, as they always do, wrong?

I thought I’d be cagey and set it in the Archonate universe. A detective seemed to be the right kind of character to solve the puzzle, so I created Henghis Hapthorn and set him loose. The story was called “Mastermindless”. I sent it to Gordon Van Gelder at The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, not knowing that it was really hard to sell to him, and he bought it within a week. He told me later it was the first thing he’d received in two years that made him laugh out loud.

I formed the impression that he’d buy another one, so I wrote more Hapthorn. All told, over the next year or so he bought six stories, the last one of novelette-length. Rather than just write stand-alones, I decided to give them a continuing story arc, and I used the impending magic/rationalism switch as the frame.

Henghis turned out to be popular with the F&SF readership, and the agent that I had then suggested I should outline some novels. So I thought up Majestrum as the next element in the story arc and wrote it up as an outline, with sketchy ideas for Spiral Labyrinth and Hespira. Night Shade Books, which had already brought out my story collection The Gist Hunter and Other Stories (containing all the Hapthorn F&SF stories), bought into the concept and the novels duly appeared.

Which comes down to this: I needed a story to promote myself, and it turned into eight or nine plus three novels.

Meanwhile, Black Brillion came and went. Tor wouldn’t let me write the whole story I wanted to tell (I was limited to 80,000 words), so I wrote a companion novel, The Commons, in episodes that I sold one at a time to Gordon, then put the whole thing together and sold it to Robert J. Sawyer’s Canadian sf imprint.

Luff Imbry was another invention who grew in the telling. He began as a supporting character in Black Brillion. After it came out, I got a nice review of my early books from Nick Gevers, Jack Vance aficionado and co-editor of Postscripts, and when I got in touch he said he’d like to see a story from me. We talked about it a little and decided that Imbry had legs. I originally set out to be a crime writer, and only fell into writing science fantasy by accident (people kept telling me they’d buy novels or stories if I wrote them), and Imbry was an opportunity to create a real noir baddie. I think of him by the way, as much like Sydney Greenstreet’s character Kaspar Gutman in The Maltese Falcon, with a little Peter Ustinov stirred in.

I eventually sold a half-dozen Imbry tales to Postscripts, which led its publisher, Pete Crowther, to ask me for three novellas about him. They would come out once a year. The second, The Yellow Cabochon, should appear soon. I’ve just proofed the typescript.

So, to summarize, were there some deliberate decisions? Yes. Or did it all just work out that way? Yes to that, too. Years ago, I described my writing career as a succession of desperate hops from one ice floe to another, like Pearl Pureheart fleeing across the black and white river. Hapthorn and Imbry tales are just more ice floes.

You seem to love conversation, especially the verbal duels between your protagonists and their snarky subordinates, such as Henghis Hapthorn and his integrators, and Chesney and his demon in The Damned Busters. Is that something you enjoy about your own books?

It must be. I do a lot of it. It comes naturally, I suppose, because when I was growing up verbal repartee was what went on around the kitchen table, some of it close to vicious (maybe it’s a Liverpool thing). We honed our knives on each others’ hides.

But beyond that, I believe the fictioneer’s indispensible tool is conflict, and that means that every dialogue scene is a duel.

Do you draw on your experience in political speechwriting, which (going on The West Wing, at least) I imagine might have involved crafting perfect replies to difficult questions, as well as the speeches themselves?

Speechwriting, as I practised it, was the art of creating impressions in the minds of the listeners. You soon come to realize that no one actually remembers speeches, but everyone remembers the impression a speech made upon them. The other key thing is that you need to create a carrier wave of shared emotion between the speaker and the listeners, which is why speeches contain very few new facts but are full of old ones—especially the beliefs and assumptions that the speaker and listeners have in common.

It’s actually the very opposite of dialogue in fiction, because conflict is what the speechwriter (and speaker) are trying to avoid.

The first time I read your work, I think, was in the Jack Vance tribute, Songs of the Dying Earth: the brilliant “Grolion of Almery”. How was it to get the email inviting you to take part?

Gardner Dozois sent me an email describing the project and asking me if I wanted to put in a story. My response was: “Try and stop me!” I was overjoyed, not least because I actually revere Jack Vance. He is the only author I knowingly reread (I’m at an age when I can be a chapter into a novel before I’m fully certain I’ve read it before).

And did you feel any pressure to live up to the expectations of Jack Vance’s fans?

No. I don’t think of the readers when I’m writing. I’m an intuitive writer who starts with a character and a situation and a vague idea of where it all goes. Then I see what happens. It’s a very insular business, just me and the guy in the back of my head who does the heavy lifting.

Thanks for such fascinating answers. I’m very happy to know there’s so much more on the way from you (and so much out there already that I’ve yet to read). Coming very soon is Costume Not Included, your second novel from Angry Robot. What should readers expect?

Please note the comment above about seeing where it goes. In Costume Not Included, I bring in the historical Jesus and proceed with Chesney’s development as a crimefighter and, for the first time in his life, somebody’s boyfriend. Things get more complicated, which is problematical for someone who is a high-functioning autistic. Soon I have to start the third in the series, and at the moment I have only the vaguest idea where it will go.

Speaking of things on the way, I’ve just received the final typescript for The Yellow Cabochon and thought you might like to see it. You’ll note how Imbry brushes up against the return of magic.

Thank you very much for doing this. It’s been a pleasure.

This interview originally appeared in Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction #39, along with reviews of Majestrum, Hespira and The Spiral Labyrinth. Reviews of Quartet & Triptych and The Damned Busters appeared in TQF34 and TQF37. A review of The Yellow Cabuchon—thanks, Matthew!— should appear in our next issue.

1 comment:

  1. glad to see good work continues to be published... Keep up the great work.