The Newsletter of
An Interview with Rhys Hughes
by Jeff VanderMeer
Rhys Hughes is a prolific Welsh writer of absurdist fiction who most closely resembles Italo Calvino and John Barth. His volumes include Worming the Harpy, Romance With Capsicum, Nowhere Near Milkwood, Eyeliad, and Rawhead & Bloody Bones. Recently, he had a long novella, "The Darktree Wheel," published in the Ministry of Whimsy's Leviathan 2 (where part of this interview first appeared). In this interviewer's opinion, Hughes, at the age of 32, is a protean talent who deserves much more exposure in the United States.
How long have you been writing? When did you first start writing seriously and why?
For as long as I can recall. My first efforts were incomprehensible cartoons with all the action offstage because I couldn't draw. I would have these big speech bubbles coming from beyond the frame, as if some figures were standing out of sight and talking across the empty space. From here it was a small step to genuine prose. I kept starting novels which I quickly abandoned, generally with meaningless or inappropriate titles: The Krachlie, The Impossible Inferno, The Thinnest Book in the World. Then when I was 14, I resolved to attempt a proper short story. It was about an Amerindian fighting the Spanish in Arizona and was the first time I'd ever researched anything. After that, the tales spurted out like jam from the loser in a doughnut-wrestling bout. I never sent any of these to editors; publication wasn't my priority. My very first submission was at age 17, when I mailed a hastily conceived story to a popular magazine. I found this process embarrassing and the subsequent rejection cooled my ardor for literary activities. I made only fitful efforts to get published in the following years, and then at the start of 1992, when I was 25, I decided to give it one last push. Instead of submitting one piece and waiting for a reply, I staged a blitzkrieg on the market and was quite successful.
Who has been the biggest influence on your development?
I've always worked in isolation. When I began writing, it seemed an undesirable thing to admit, so I kept it secret. I was probably scared my sister would make fun of me if she found out—maybe I've still got that fear. With my scientific background, I never had a chance to meet any literary types. Plus the town where I grew up—Porthcawl—was an independent state with regard to the rest of the nation, divorced from Welsh culture and its supposedly intense poetic tradition. I've tended to preserve, and even cultivate, this isolation; I still know very few writers or artists. So my biggest influence was my bookshelves, packed with authors who never disillusioned me by revealing fleshy weaknesses over a cup of coffee. Even now I feel uneasy about meeting writers for real: I prefer them between covers, where they have all the answers. I was kept going by a handful of authors who seemed to stoke up my rusty creative furnaces with platinum pokers: H.G. Wells was the first, then Edgar Allan Poe; Frank Herbert and Ray Bradbury joined later. Finally, in my last teenage year, I discovered Vladimir Nabokov and I knew just the way it should be done. Another point, which reveals my distasteful elitism: I can admire dead authors more easily than living ones—they don't come back to soil their pedestals or contradict my view of them. How's that for basic misanthropy?
More specifically, who is most directly responsible for the avalanche, the thunderstorm, the monsoon, the hurricane, the tsunami of puns, jokes, and allusions which litter your literary landscapes like the thousand-year treasures of an immortal magpie?
I haven't always been interested in puns, and there are not many of them in my work before 1995, but I've always loved allusions, I really don't know why, unless it has something to do with my lack of interest in monomorphic narrative. I rarely read one book at a time, more often it's simultaneous dozens—and I tend to write like that also, working on innumerable stories in parallel. Books full of allusions satisfy my impatience and keep me faithful. Early on in my writing career, I took seriously the ideals of restraint, simplicity and clarity, even though applying them was tedious in the extreme. Eventually I discovered this methodology was predominately Anglophone and that other traditions had literatures which weren't afraid of saturating books with ideas. After pondering the subject awhile, I concluded the key to the matter is our insistence on a "suspension of disbelief" which is quite alien to some cultures. The Anglophone reader likes to believe a novel is relating a report which is, or could be, true. Too many ideas erode this illusion and expose the framework of the story. The mainland European tradition has greater awareness of fiction as artifice and is less worried about playing with the format. I don't desire suspension of disbelief; as an engineer, I actually prefer seeing the circuits of invention. The need to confuse literature with reality troubles me: it's a dubious ability in writers. I'll go further and claim that realists are hypocrites who remove themselves from what they intend to represent by the process of writing, which is an unreal, fantastical act. The best the realist can do is shadow reality, which is itself a shadow. Plato has a lot to say on this topic. It's why I prefer my fiction to be an obvious construct and allusions are probably an extreme way of emphasizing this, as well as being a cure for literary boredom. As for puns, these are among the most despised literary tricks in the business and they are extremely difficult to defend. To quote Poe: "the man who is capable of habitually committing them, is seldom found capable of anything else." But he drew a distinction between "puns for the pun's sake" and those which manifest "the character of the richest grotesquerie." I hope my own efforts do not stray too far outside this latter category. However, there is a further dimension to puns, mostly overlooked, and this is their occasional profundity. Kierkegaard opens his book Either/Or, the first expression of his philosophy, with a pun which serves as a startling metaphor for hereditary sin. And let's not forget Nietzsche's use of the verb "untergehen." On a prosaic level, I usually conserve puns for my Chaud-Melle tales, which are repositories of excess. My initial concern with the cycle was to provide my readers with value for money. It wasn't enough to develop themes, plots, ideas and characters. The puns are there as a bonus. If they get in the way,
it's up to me to make them more subtle, less obtrusive. I suppose this aesthetic comes from my enthusiasm for the works of Milorad Paviïc, my favorite writer and the most generous imagination currently producing fiction. I want to follow his signs.
Your reading strikes me as awfully eclectic. What, for you, is the common element among the writers you most enjoy, and who are they?
Yes, it's a ludicrous mix of classics, mainstream, experimental and genre writings. Not knowing anyone who was interested in literature of any sort, I had no clear direction when it came to educating myself in the art form. So I read everything: Tolstoy, Homer, Clark Ashton Smith, Bunyan, Kafka, Asimov, Cervantes, Robert E. Howard, Beckford, Shelley, Roger Zelazny, Melville...There was no pattern to my tastes, I wanted to find out what the fuss was about. Gradually, specific authors gained precedence, pushing out the others, only to be superseded themselves by new discoveries. The only common element they shared was an ability to astonish me: I adopted Thomas Pynchon, Samuel Beckett, Donald Barthelme. They each displaced the one who came before them, and I foolishly attempted to imitate them all. I was focusing in on what I really wanted to read. The process seems to have stopped now and I happily rate my favorite authors as Paviïc, Calvino and Borges. Though I still respect Nabokov, I believe he's an essentially romantic figure, best read by pining students.
What do you most strive for in your own writing? An emotion? An intellectual idea? Please elaborate.
I'd like to be able to say it's pure ideas, but this isn't so. Many philosophical notions will always be bubbling beneath the veneer of my prose, but I'm really striving for an emotion and I know exactly which one. Calvino summed it up well, when talking about his first fantastic volume: "Instead of making myself write the book I ought to write... I conjured up the book I myself would have liked to read, the sort by an unknown writer, from another age and another country, discovered in an attic." It's this aspect of atticness that I'm after, the feeling that the work is essentially mysterious, elusive, secretive. Somehow excess of detail and colorful language seems to help achieve this condition. It creates a hidden suspicion that there's too much going on to absorb everything and that the real meaning of the work is just out of reach. It's an attempt to regain that childhood state on the edge of literacy when adult books look both enticing and unfathomable. For me, Paviïc is the master of this, though paradoxically there's also a sleek precision in his oeuvre. Comparing literature to food, I'd assert he achieves the status of chocolate-enrobed chilies.
Your style is an elusive, effusive thing. It owes much to writers like Calvino and Barth, yet it is entirely unique in my experience, especially as applied to your particular subject matter. Does this come naturally to you, and how have you cultivated this style?
My style owes a lot to incalculable writers, but more to sheer toil. I don't believe I'm a natural, quite the opposite: I rely on artificial systems of my own devising to heighten my creativity. A couple of years ago, I read about a school of fiction called OuLiPo, founded by Raymond Queneau and Francois Le Lionnais, which rejected the concept of fiction as a mirror of the world and sought instead to apply mathematical rules to literature as a way of producing complex word-games. Funnily enough, such rigorous constraints imposed on a writer can encourage originality and an inventiveness more relevant to our society: limiting the obvious development of a narrative opens up lateral routes. With my fascination for symmetry and geometric form, I had great sympathy for the ideals of OuLiPo and decided to employ them in my own texts, though as an amateur in the sphere of mathematics my structures were always going to be more simple than those used by the official school. So there are geometrical patterns in all my recent work, not merely in the mechanics of writing, but in the orchestration of plot, character and dialog, and this is a critical factor in the evolution of my style. The symmetry also extends to the way my stories interact. With typical grandiosity, I envision an enormous story-cycle made up of smaller epicycles, each overlapping and contributing to the workings of the whole. The result will be an absurd word-machine, a "punicycle" made up of exactly 1,000 short-stories which are arranged around a non-existent hub. Each epicycle, or "wheel," will form a closed loop and the overall structure should do likewise. Sounds pretentious? Well I'm already one-fourth of the way through the project and when it's ready I'll retire from writing.
What's the biggest problem with most fantasy/horror/sf today?
The same problem as always: a dearth of real imagination. But there's been a recent improvement in the health of genre writing. In fact, after a bleak interregnum when elfland developers and hack thrillers dominated the market, cleverness and panache have staged an uprising. The exciting work is no longer all in translation: it's possible to buy English prose the equal of what's been jumping out of Latin America and France for the past 60 years. Some of it even reaches the bestseller lists. And the independent presses are taking up what the established houses neglect. I can't say the situation's ideal, but compare the fiction magazines being produced now to what existed a decade ago. It's like contrasting a giant platter of figs with a boiled nose.
Angela Carter was frequently quoted as saying that she never missed a chance to overwrite. This could apply to your own writing, but I don't think it indicates a lack of control so much as an exuberance. Would you care to comment?
I threw away the standard aesthetic ages ago. I don't see why it's so laudable for every writer to be a minimalist. For me, cutting adjectives is a metaphor for culling baby seals. If authors whittle down their work for a good reason, I have no problem with that, but it's become a credo. I need overwriting to accomplish my objectives—how can anyone possibly fictionalize concepts such as teleology, solipsism or Hume's theories of causation, and furthermore present them in an adventurous and mysterious milieu, which is ultimately governed by an omnipresent symmetry, without swallowing a dictionary? There's as much control, but it's like a toad's throat, heading outwards. Sure, the disadvantages of excess are manifold but restraint can be just as egotistical. Pretending to be an ambassador of reality, in the mode of Hemingway, is rank presumption. He's a superb example of sparsity as a logarithm for ego, a messiah of selfishness. At least I get my pomposity out in the open. This question of egotism is an important one for writers to address and chopping adjectives isn't going to mitigate a painful swelling. It's too late for me—even my eminently practical girlfriend can't save me now—but I issue this warning to all minimalists who think they are safe...There's a more spiritless reason for my exuberant approach. It's an easy way of strutting in public, of reclaiming all that time I wasted in my youth reading archaic books and writing unpublished stories. I should have been chasing girls and learning to dance, instead of beating my eye on frivolities. Now I'm too stiff to chase anything other than cakes and have a pressing need to make use of everything I absorbed. My loyalty to rules is not complete: my mind, fringe and pulse are agents of order but my heart, ears and tongue aid chaos.
If you weren't a writer, what would you be?
A radio-astronomer or a vegetarian chef. Actually I'd like to combine the two and fry a gargantuan brinjal vindaloo in the receiving dish. The ensuing aroma might even elicit contact from alien intelligences. Who in the galaxy can resist Indian food?
Do you have any hobbies, and if not, do you at least have some bad habits you'd care to share?
Befriending pumpkins, folding borders, mocking lodestones.
What is your favorite word in the English language?
Probably "eschew." It's a perfect word: edible, flippant, serpentine. But there are many almost as good. For example, "cleave," which has two diametrically opposed meanings; "rhomboidal," a word with a nonchalant tilt; and."ontological," round and lengthy, but also smart, like a computer tucked up in a king-sized bed.
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