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Rod Duncan is indeed a ‘Custodian of Marvels’

February 2, 2016

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Rod Duncan is the wicked mastermind behind the Gaslit Empire series, the latest of which is The Custodian of Marvels published by Angry Robot. Wicked, because the perils he keep flinging his heroine, Elizabeth Barnabus, into with such reckless abandon is enough to give one a fit of the vapours.

In my attempt to delve further into the methods behind devising Elizabeth’s precarious adventures I was treated to a remarkable writing masterclass. Rod’s writing is brilliant because he can weave a story through the most devilishly complicated plot, yet never leave his readers confused.

But this is not all. Rod also has dyslexia and a serious issue with short-term memory. So not only will this interview be a treat for those interested in learning good writing technique, but will also reveal the inventive ways in which Rod gets around what might put many people off trying to write.

Would you talk about how the Gaslit Empire came to be?

The Gaslit novels came out of a sense of place. I live in Leicester, the fabric of which, like many of the East Midlands cities, was built in the Victorian era. The signs of that are everywhere. Some of them are obvious, for example buildings with inscriptions under the eaves saying when they were built, and some it you just have to look below the surface. But there have also been a number of occasions when I’ve been able to get a glimpse beneath the surface of Leicester, when a thin layer of Tarmac breaks up after a winter frost and you can see the cobblestones underneath. When we had our house renovated in one of the Victorian Terraces, the gas fire got pulled out and you could see the bar in the chimney space where a kettle would have been hung. That sense of the past builds up over a period of time. It almost felt as if I turned my head fast enough I would catch a glimpse of the world as it was.

I wanted to find a way in writing to start experimenting with that dual presence of a present day and a time over a hundred years ago. So I started writing some location specific pieces of text, with the idea of perhaps having some kind of locative media project whereby people could go to a place and experience this story as the world as it currently is, and then imagining a Victorian world still there just under its surface.

Having some form as a novelist I reverted to type and dropped the idea of a series of short stories as my writing turned into a novel. As always with me, the path into that was discovering a character and a voice. Once I find a voice with a piece of writing, it tends to self-generate. The story will rattle on once I’ve got that. I found this interesting voice that was almost like a Victorian voice and almost like a present day voice. That was so interesting to me I carried on experimenting with it.

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Describe the Gaslit Empire.

So I created an alternate history where I could imagine the Victorian era still present today. Some people reading the books do not necessarily realise at first that the date is almost up to the present day in our world, because it feels very Victorianesque. There has been a revolution. A revolutionary war in the country that has resulted in Britain being split into the Anglo-Scottish Republic to the north and the Kingdom of England and Southern Wales to the south. The border, by a quirk of fate, passes right through the city of Leicester, which has boomed as a smugglers’ town and a home to various ne’er-do-wells. A young woman lives in this city, just to the north of the border in the Republic. She is a refugee from the south. She ekes out her living as a private investigator. The stories start with her investigating various crimes. This makes the book initially feel as if you’re reading a first person crime novel, set in the Victorian era. But as the story progresses and you begin to unfold the layers of this alternate history, you understand some of the causes of this national divergence, which then becomes increasingly important as the story moves forward.

The series is called ‘The Fall of the Gas-lit Empire’, although there is this great international order that’s kept the world in a Victorianesque feel aesthetic. But the technology is crumbling and we start to see the evidence of that crumbling order. The title suggests that by the time we get to the end it will have fallen, but I can’t possibly divulge any more at this stage.

Why did you decide to have a heroine as the main protagonist, because it creates a very interesting dynamic within the story.

That goes back to what I said about discovering this voice. Hers was the voice I discovered and she revealed herself to me, not through any planning. When I initially wrote the scenes that would become The Bullet Catcher’s Daughter I wrote it as a man going to a clandestine meeting. It was to my surprise that this man managed to evade a problem by removing a disguise and revealing herself as a woman. That came completely out of the blue for me. Having written it I tend to allow my subconscious to have a say in the writing. I may plan what’s going to happen in the scene, but if something just suggests itself to me, I often experiment and follow it, and go with it. So that’s what happened with her. The detective revealed himself as a she and I then (as has happened in my writing before) when I read back over the scene that led up to that point I realised that the clues were all there. It’s very strange.

I was going to keep in that way, so that the readers would begin to think it was a man, but then at some point she would be revealed as a woman. Although this was a neat trick, I realised it would cause me problems in terms of the bigger story, because it had to be a woman in this situation to tell this story. The character had to be someone to whom society had given a raw deal, marginalized and restricted, in order to properly examine those aspects of this alternate society. That being so, gender identity (particularly in terms of someone who is equally comfortable presenting as male or female) is going to become a very important theme of the story and indeed has continued to do so. Thus presenting the protagonist as male initially would have clouded the issue for readers. So I had to write the first sentence as ‘Had I been born a man…’ just to give the game away right from the very start, because although I liked the trick, it was a different story to the one I was telling, so I had to do it in that way.

Elizabeth is a woman in a situation where the only respectable woman is a married one. Although there is a slight difference between the north and south divide, there is still no proper emancipation for women. This is why Elizabeth has to pretend to be her brother, or she would not be able to earn a living, and therefore creates some very interesting social issues. Do you feel that the science fiction/fantasy genre is actually quite a powerful medium for discussing real-life issues?

The short answer is yes. Although I don’t see that as uniquely so. Fiction, whatever you label it, has this power. It’s a curious thing that by telling what are lies, you actually try to reveal the deepest truth. And of course fiction is made up. In many ways the objective is to find the most profound truths you can. The more absolute honesty you can find in this sense, the stronger my story, in my opinion.

You allude to this categorisation of this science fiction/fantasy genre. They do perhaps give the author a greater scope to play the ‘what if’ game in a more huge way. You can change the very fabric of the universe if you want. That’s all fine. You do have that power just as much in work that is called literary fiction. I am very sceptical about the boundaries that are drawn between genres and sub-genres, and I would certainly say that there is a very strong case to call literary fiction a genre in the sense of marketing.

So I think this is common to all forms. I also think it’s a responsibility of the writer.

I think you’re right because a good writer gets a reader emotionally involved. The idea being for the reader to disappear into the book.

Yes. It is one of the extraordinary privileges of being a novelist, in the sense that someone you’ve never met, on the other side of the world is going to pick up that book and for a period of one to three days, you are going to have a more intimate relationship with that person than anyone else around them. Because they are going to be more emotionally involved in that story than the reality, or potentially so. That’s just magical to me, a privilege and a responsibility.

Do you think that’s what drives you as a writer? What makes you want to keep writing?

That relationship is probably going to be a part of it. That it is a form of communication in which I create an experience for someone. Or at least I can anticipate someone wanting to create an experience in themselves. That may be quite profound because writing is a very deep form of communication, which I find tremendously exciting. That drives me on.

I’m also driven on by the more I discover about writing, the more I realise there is to learn. It’s just all these wonderful new tools that are being given to us and you just continue on that journey, which I believe has no end. Your power to help someone generate an experience as a reader just continues to increase, and that’s so exciting.

It is interesting that you’re talking about communicating through writing, because you’re dyslexic and you began life as a scientist. So the first thing I would like you to talk about is how do you deal with your dyslexia?

The two are related. I was a scientist because I was dyslexic. That was my discovered path through education that would allow me to continue with my education without having to read or write too much. So they are causally related.

I also have a short-term memory problem. The question you have asked me would cause no problem with someone else because they would be able to hold on to all of the question. But my short-term memory overloads very easily. I may be only able to hold onto one or none of them at all.

This must make it very difficult, because a writer has to hold onto the concepts of what they are writing about. So to recap I asked about the difficulties you have encountered as a fiction writer, considering you are dyslexic and originally used to writing as a scientist.

Firstly, I don’t think I was ever a good writer as a scientist. I realise now I haven’t actually fully answered a previous question. I’ve already told you the reason why I’m a writer, but to add to that, from really quite early childhood I was conscious of a drive to be creative that I didn’t have a way of fulfilling. There was an almost visceral discomfort related to it and I didn’t know how to answer it. I was about eighteen and I started playing guitar which satisfied this discomfort. I suspect a part of my dyslexia is coordination, a bit of dyspraxia. So I was never going to go very far with the guitar and also my wife and I went and did voluntary work overseas for a period of time which was wonderful. We went out to Taiwan and set up an environmental office for the Baha’i community in Taiwan. We did a lot of environmental teacher training programmes. It was a great time, but so incredibly intense and full on I didn’t have time to practice the guitar, and it didn’t help that the climate rotted the strings and my fingers got soft.

So when I found I didn’t have an outlet for that creative compulsion, in desperation I picked up a pen and started writing. When I say ‘in desperation’ that’s because it’s against all the things I was told in school. I was told I would never be a writer. That was the completely overwhelming lesson that teachers left with me. I should not write.

But as a way of satisfying my creative output, I always been a compulsive storyteller in my head. So when I started to write, I also discovered I could use the word processor for writing stories (which had developed in the meantime in the early 1990s). My typing had developed and through typing I am able to dissolve that barrier that had stopped me writing before.

So I initially wrote a few poems and then a story and then a novel. I just adored it. It was like a massive revelation. I feel quite emotional now just thinking about how wonderful it was. Technology moving on really helped me to make the transition into writing.

I wrote that novel, but it didn’t get published. I wrote several that didn’t get published. My fifth novel was the one that got published. Again you can see the fingerprints of a compulsion all over that story, because why would anyone write the third novel if the first two hadn’t got published? There is a great deal of work involved in writing a novel.

But I just felt I was learning constantly. I now teach creative writing at De Montfort University (DMU) and I see the wonderful experience the students are having. I know people who have then gone on to do a Masters in Creative Writing, write their novel and get published. What I did was effectively my degree and my Masters through experimentation and learning through mistakes, and loving it. Despite the comedown of having my novels rejected.

The next part of the question is how different have you found writing fiction to writing as a scientist?

I don’t think I have switched that part of my life off. My scientific background is all over what I write. My way of thinking about the world. The sense that what I’m doing is writing an alternate history probably more akin to what historians would call a ‘counter-factual history’ which is an experiment in ‘what if’. Thinking about historiography and what the influences of individuals can be on the big flow of history, or can’t be. That’s what I’m doing. I’m experimenting with those ideas and trying to find truth in them. Although a scientist would then be able to test their theories and try to disprove them. I don’t have a means of doing that, other than the readers saying ‘that’s reasonable’ or not. So, yes, I do think there’s an undercurrent of a scientist’s approach to things all the time in my writing.

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As a lecturer in creative writing, do you think there is a two way learning process going on in your teaching practice and does it have an effect on your writing?

I’ve taught creative writing ever since my first novel came out, which was before De Montfort University. What I do at DMU is more related to the publishing industry and I don’t teach a great deal of creative writing, as such, there at the moment.

I think if you ask a lot of writers about how they write, they will tell you about the things in writing that don’t come naturally to them. Because those are the things they have developed a conscious understanding of. Those people who have an extraordinary instinct for character and psychology don’t need to have any method of figuring out the psychology of the cast of characters in their novels, they just know it somehow on some level. So they are entirely unaware of how they do it.

Those people who have an extraordinary ability to plot the big scale of story have no idea how they do it, because they’re just so good at it they’ve never have to develop a method. So what you tend to get is people telling you about the things they’ve had to figure out. I think I had to figure out more than most.

I came to creative writing with one outstanding ability, which was to be able to imagine myself into a scene and to know what the character was experiencing and noticing. Writing from inside the scene. Not everyone comes with that initially and it’s actually quite a difficult one to teach. It’s very powerful in terms of writing dialogue or understanding plot, or putting prose together. But as I didn’t come with the tool kit that allowed me to express this in writing, I had to work on all of that through my many unpublishable novels. So in many ways I’ve quite a wide understanding of how things work with creative writing.

Teaching solidifies these things and makes me really consider how to explain them. You have to make them concrete and nail them down. When I have done a great deal of creative writing it has actually blocked up my own writing, because I’m temporarily putting that conscious layer in between.

So I will occasionally notice something that is a common issue with a lot of learners (but even experienced writers are learners), which is a problem with immersion in the scene. I see it happen over and over again with different people, which forces me to really think about a framework to understand how to overcome this problem and find ways of getting people to practice overcoming it, even when it doesn’t come naturally to them.

I focus on my own writing to figure out what’s different. The shape of a scene would be a good example with the latest novel The Custodian of Marvels, because having gone through that process of thinking about it I applied the results to my own writing in more focused way. It enabled me to navigate through the kinds of scene I would have found difficulty with when I had my first novels published, which was ensemble scenes with a lot of characters and all of them doing different things (of which there are a lot in The Custodian of Marvels).

This sort of thing used to be terribly difficult for me to write. Having forced myself through the teaching to critically understand what it is to create a shape to a scene enabled me to approach those scenes in a far easier way than I would have done before. So I think with this latest novel I‘ve moved on in the sense that I’m handling something I once found very difficult. It’s certainly feels to me that I’m handling it better.

It is interesting that your Gaslit Empire that occasionally drop out of Elizabeth’s voice for example, ‘The bed frame creaked, a single low note that seemed almost musical.’ You drop into this very poetic description just outside her voice and then drop back into the voice. Was that a conscious move?

I mentioned before that the voice of a piece is very important to me and once I’ve found the voice it will guide the writing and the story. I’ve been with Elizabeth for three books and this is longer than I’ve ever been with one voice before.

So you say I drop out of a voice, but I disagree. I have a very clear view of where Elizabeth is in relation to the text. This is a first person narrative and when you have a first person narrative written in past or present tense, where do we imagine the narrator is? In a present tense first person novel the narrator isn’t jotting this stuff down as it’s happening. What do we imagine is happening? In the past tense first person narrative, where is the narrator with respect to the events?

As a writer this is something for me to understand and have a feeling for. Some people may do this with a conscious understanding or instinctively. For me, Elizabeth is three to four years after the events of the saga of the stories and is writing this down, or dictating it to me and I’m writing it down. So that’s her relationship with time.

I’m going to give you an example of a natural storyteller who says ‘I went to meet Elaine at the St Martin’s coffee house and I go upstairs and I find her sitting there and she says “Hello, Rod. How are you?”’.

So what’s happening there? We’ve gone from present tense to past tense. That’s not indicating a difference in time relationship, that’s indicating a difference in the mental closeness of the narrator to the events that are happening. That’s what you’re experiencing in the narrative. Elizabeth, three to four years after it’s all finished, is telling you about a world that’s already slightly past, which gives me the leeway to narrate some aspects of the world. At times she is taking the full advantage of that distance, which you can see in the example I’ve just given and at times she’s very involved in the narrative and she’s close up. That’s the variation you’re feeling.

Let’s suppose Elizabeth is in the heart of the action somewhere. So taking an example from The Custodian of Marvels:

Jeremiah bent to bring his face close to the metal grille. His finger found the screws that seemed to hold it in place. But there was another detail I hadn’t noticed before –a button no bigger than a threepenny bit, flush with the rim and made of the same dull metal.

 This is the kind of and in-between depth of immersion into the story. Elizabeth’s kind of analysing because she says ‘I hadn’t notice it before’, which implies a certain distance from the event. But ‘His finger found the screws that seemed to hold it in place‘ is quite visceral, and with that description of detail she’s fairly close in and she’ still analysing. So there we get the sense of this person who’s remembering from some distance.

Also:

‘There was a bitter irony in our situation. I found myself laughing.

Again there’s a certain distance there.

In another example where Elizabeth’s right there in the moment:

I advanced down the passage towards the noise. I could see sparks fountaining from the door ahead. Threads of smoke drifted close to the ceiling and there was an acrid smell in the air.

We’re very, very close at that point. We know that it’s close because we’re getting that multi-sensory thing and the kind of thing she’s observing is very small, very fine ‘Threads of smoke’ in the air. This very precise, closeness of observation.

There is an implied relationship with time in the way these are. You can ask yourself this question in writing the size of a paragraph. How much time within the world of the story has elapsed during that paragraph. In the above extract I imagine it’s a second or less than a second. A very small piece of time. More or less real time.

If I find a bit that’s even closer in you’ll see that one paragraph will be a fraction of a second, because it’s seen in slow motion. If I find a piece that’s further back it may throw its net over years. When I talk about shape it’s the manipulation. The very conscious and fine manipulation of these qualities. I would call it the narrative distance. Where is the narrator in her mind. I know where she is physically three to four years after the events have happened, but where is her mind? How hypnotically involved is she in the story at that point?

Let’s take a paragraph where the amount of time is compressed into days:

Exactly two weeks before my visit to the professor, I had been travelling east along the Grantham Canal, in my boat the Harry. With a crew of five, I could have steamed through the night, delivering my cargo in less than half the time. But my one helper was Tinker; a boy who, though loyal to a fault, had no use for schedules.

You’re now in the wonderful position of having the final book of the trilogy out soon. How do you wind yourself up to begin writing a new book?

I find the transition period quite difficult, because the mode of writing at different stages of the book is very different. In the very final part, when I’ve got to all the editing after people’s comments, you’re probably putting in or taking out comma here and there, which required a certain mindset. I write with two voices in my head, one is the critic who is the editor and the other is the creative genius. They have to be in balance for the process to work. Someone whose critic is too powerful will get blocked. Someone whose creative genius is too powerful will just ramble. Right at the end of the process putting it all to bed, you put the creative genius right to one side. You’re entirely there as the critic. Starting a new novel, you need the creative genius to be all powerful and the critic to be hardly there at all. This is why the transition is quite difficult, and always takes me a few weeks to dare to write anything because, at first, nothing feels as if it’s going to be a good as what I’ve just done.

When you’re in the mode of starting a story you’re really fully aware that the process of writing is a process of experimentation and discovery and that there’s something about that technique of putting words down on a page that is a lens that you can look through into your own subconscious mind to find stuff you don’t know is there. So you need to just put down some rubbish. I remember dealing Hillary Mantel saying that if she has a session of writing she hopes to make a discovery of two in that period of time. That really spoke to me because I feel very much the same.

Tell me about the strategies you use to work with your problems of dyslexia and short-term memory.

The first thing is the keyboard. I also have dysgraphia and my handwriting is very difficult to read. My hand will also cramp up. So handwriting is out of the question for me. All of this is standard with dyslexia. This is why it was always the keyboard for me with writing. Learning to type removed one barrier.

More recently I’ve begun to use voice to text software. I use Dragon Naturally Speaking. I put on a headset with a microphone and as I speak the words come up on the screen. Although I can’t edit through that system because it would be too difficult. So I still edit through the keyboard. I also do quite a bit of writing through the keyboard. But, for an early stage of the writing when I’m getting ideas down or just wanting to get the story down really fast, this voice to text is absolutely wonderful. It also means I can stand up and walk around as I’m doing it. If you’re spending hours and hours sitting it does play havoc with your back.

When I work between my’ editor’ voice and ‘genius’ voice, there isn’t too much room for the ‘editor’ voice with the voice to text software, so it pushes me towards a looser style which is much better for me in the ‘genius’ phase.

For those writers who use word for Windows, and probably other packages, you can tint the page. You can go into the page setup menu and change the background colour of the page. So you can reduce this foreground to background issue that, for some dyslexics, causes visual disturbances and visual stress.

Even for people who aren’t conscious they have a problem with that, if you spending a long time in front of the screen you will probably find that helpful.

I know a lot of my friends use Scrivener and say how useful it is, but I use word and make full use of the document map facility which forms a side bar down the left-hand side the screen and will show all the bits of text that you’ve identified as chapter headings. So you just see a map of all your chapters down the side. I will also put in a chapter title, which I’ll strip out at the end, but helps me to navigate around my writing. This means that, even with my short-term memory working issues, I able to work with the novel on the big scale, because I can see the whole thing laid out. It gives me a much better visual sense of where I am in the story that I would otherwise find difficult.

You also have a talk back system.

I have a lot of very good coping strategies for my dyslexia, but one I don’t have makes me a slow reader, in the sense that it takes me quite a long time and a lot of mental effort to read. This means I haven’t read as much as I should have done. That’s probably the reason why I’m always a little transgressive with genre. Because I don’t have as broad or thorough understanding of the genres and what’s out there as other people do. But I would always advise writers to read as much as they can.

I do now use speech synthesis software. That’s text to speech and the computer reads text to me. As a dyslexic with working memory problems, audio books can be a bit of a problem, because they are spoken out in such a measured way; so slowly and so beautifully. This means that by the time they reach the end of a sentence I’ve lost track of what they’re saying. But with the software that reads to you (which comes out without emotion and sounds clumsy compared to an audiobook), I can rack the speed up to a machine gun delivery, which sounds like a cartoon voice. Because it comes out so fast I can get rid of the working memory problem. I can get to the end of a long and complex sentence and I can still retain the beginning of it. It doesn’t give a richness of reading experience, but I’m able to read several chapters at a time without fatigue. This is because I have a much easier relationship with the sound of the words than the visual experience. The stuff that appears on the page is a transcription of what I have imagined it sounds like. So I always speak my work out as I’m writing. Anything that appears in my books will have been read out at least 20 times during the writing process, while trying to find the right rhythms and sounds.

Rod Duncan

Rod Duncan

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