An Interview With Rhys Hughes - Part 1
By: Ceri Shaw
Posted in: Author Interviews
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This is part 1 of an in depth interview with Rhys Hughes , the Welsh Wizard of the Absurd. Rhys was born in Porthcawl, South Wales in 1966 and plans to write exactly 1000 stories in his lifetime ( see his blog here:- The Spoons That Are My Ears ). When this interview was originally published he had completed 468. Currently his total stands at 600+. Rhys can also be found on the web at:- The Rime of The Post Modern Mariner and on his Facebook page.
AmeriCymru: You write like you''re having a fantastically fun time, are you?
Rhys: Usually, yes, it's fun. That's one of the best reasons for doing anything. Writing for me is many things. It's an urge, almost a compulsion, but it's also a pleasure. That doesn't mean it's fun all the time. No fun is always pleasurable, strange as that sounds! There's always some anxiety in the background as well, a little tension, the worry that the work I'm doing won't be the best it can be, that it won't express clearly whatever I'm trying to say, that it won't be enthralling for the reader. It's fun but it's also hard work!
But fun is definitely the guiding principle of everything I do. I don't want writing to be a chore. If it becomes a chore I'll stop doing it. I hope this sense of fun conveys itself strongly to the reader. Having said that, the fact that something has been created in a spirit of fun doesn't necessarily mean it's not completely serious, profound or poignant. It may sound a bit cheesy, but great fun creates great responsibility...
AmeriCymru: Who did you like to read when you were a child? What did you like in their stories, what made the biggest impression?
Rhys: I had a somewhat unusual childhood when it came to bedtime reading. I was given adult encyclopedias and history books to help send me to sleep, but in fact I ended up reading most of them several times. I also enjoyed reading about explorers. Marco Polo is still one of my biggest heroes. Until the age of seven or thereabouts I wanted to be an explorer myself. Then I was told there were no new places on Earth left to discover and I remember feeling an acute disappointment! Since then, of course, I've discovered that this isn't entirely true...
Another early disappointment was the realisation that not everything that appears in print is always correct! I was very gullible in my youth and believed everything I read. I also believed everything I heard, so I was easy prey for shaggy dog stories. I was told various incredible lies by plausible adults and accepted them all as facts. They told me the Eiffel Tower was an obstacle that horses jump over in races; that the town I grew up in was Australian, not Welsh, but that this was a secret; that Mount Everest was in Scotland; that rhinoceroses lived in coal mines; that dinosaurs were extinct everywhere except in France; that a mouth ulcer can be used as hard currency in shops.
I sometimes still find myself wondering why all those things aren't true...
AmeriCymru: Who do you like to read now? What do you like about their stories?
Rhys: I like a wide variety of authors, almost too many to mention, but they all tend to be highly inventive. I think it was Michael Moorcock who said he would rather read a bad writer with big ideas than a good writer with small ideas, and I agree with that. Obviously the ideal author has good style and big ideas, someone like Italo Calvino, Donald Barthelme, Jorge Luis Borges, Stanislaw Lem, Flann O''Brien, Boris Vian... Those are the writers I usually list as my favourites, together maybe with Felipe Alfau, Georges Perec, Brian Aldiss, Blaise Cendrars, John Barth, Raymond Queneau, Thomas Pynchon, John Sladek, Jack Vance and Moorcock himself.
There have been periods in my life when I discovered a new author who impressed me so much I instantly became a devotee and an avid collector of his or her work. I also suspect I tried too hard to write like them. H.G. Wells was my first literary hero, when I was about 10 years old; Poe was next, a few years later, when I started writing ''seriously'' myself; then Kafka, Frank Herbert and Ray Bradbury. I remember reading Vladimir Nabokov's novel Transparent Things when I was 19 and being utterly captivated by its contrast of subjective realities, its branching of incidents and truths, and realising that at last I had discovered an author whose impressions of the world truly matched my own. That was quite a relief... Later I learned that this isn't such a wise thing to admit, apparently because Nabokov''s impressions are ''elitist'', ''egocentric'' and ''arrogant''. I don''t share those judgements of his work, incidentally!
Another major discovery was Samuel Beckett. I had been told his works were bleak and depressing, even damaging to the soul, but when I began reading them I found myself laughing. The subject matter may be almost unbearable but his treatment of nihilism is uplifting and deeply humane. I can't understand why his early novels are so neglected. Murphy and especially Watt are comic masterpieces... Another Irish writer, Flann O'Brien, was an even bigger influence on me. Irish writers, and some Scottish writers too, have already attained what the Welsh have failed to achieve, a modern literature that is simultaneously localised and universal, introspective and extrovert, particular and broad, that is both essentially Celtic and authentically global. When it comes to literature, Wales is the poor brother of its larger Celtic neighbours, I'm afraid!
These literary revelations come with much less regularity now. Blaise Cendrars was the last author new to me who really fired me up. I hope he won''t be the last, but maybe I''ve become more set in my ways as I grow older, or perhaps I have already encountered my ideal type of writing and don't need anything different. Or maybe my ideal type of writing doesn't actually exist and perhaps I have to create it myself. Whether it will turn out to be a match for the taste of anyone else remains to be seen!
AmeriCymru: When you're writing a story, how do you feel about it? Do you think about your reader, what effect it will have on them? Do you see the page and hear the words or is it more like a movie in your head?
Rhys: To be totally honest I mostly write for myself. I write the sort of fiction I want to read, not the kind a Welsh writer is supposed to produce, whatever that might be... Calvino said something that made an impression on me. He said he wrote the kinds of books he would like to discover in the attic of an old mysterious house, in other words, books with an exotic aura, books that give off an air of something precious that was lost but is now regained. By definition the ''exotic'' is both alien and alluring, so to write fiction that is auto-exotic requires a fairly major imaginative dislocation at some point. Too much control and the special ambience will break, but too much chaos and it will be lost in a general riot of ideas and evocations.
I guess this is the same as saying I try to write stories that operate on several levels and consist of many layers, with at least some of these layers and levels defying instant interpretation and categorisation. Maybe some levels will even be in opposition to each other. Not that I want to be obscure for its own sake! On the contrary, I hope always to write logically, but there will always be space in my work for engimatic undercurrents and sometimes those more abstruse elements can carry the logical, definite parts of the work with greater force than if everything was only on one level, clearly discernable and conclusive... The point of ''fantastical'' fiction is that it really should be fantastic in the old sense of the word, with a balancing tension between control and chaos.
I rarely see my projected stories as moving films, but I do have a strong visual sense when I'm working. Before I begin a story I usually receive one or more ''still'' images which I can then extrapolate and link together. I prefer to use only images that resonate strongly within me but resonate for reasons I can''t work out... I also have a strong audio sense and frequently I'll divert the course of the story because of some opportunity that language has thrown up. I'm obsessed with wordplay! One disadvantage of this is that my dialogue is never believable, with the exception of a handful of ''realistic'' stories where I deliberately didn't bother with wordplay. If I can ever find a way to make my readers care less about the endless contrivance in the mouths of my characters, to forgive the cleverness, I'll be utterly delighted!
AmeriCymru: Do you have a regular process in creating a story or does it vary from piece to piece? Do you plan your stories or do ideas crowd out and you pick one to finish?
Rhys: My brain is constantly filling up with ideas. The process never stops! I get ideas every day and if I don't use them in a story they refuse to leave me alone, or even worse I forget them and then kick myself for not using them! This has been happening for years. I usually jot ideas down on scraps of paper for future use and then try to forget them until they are needed, whenever that might be! It seems strange now, but I recall that when I first started writing, original ideas came to me with difficulty. Some machinery in my brain must have had a good oiling since then!
I regard my growing collection of ideas as a resource or sometimes a burden! Because ideas do come with such frequency I can't bring myself to follow the orthodox rule of "one idea per story" so I'll try to use as many as possible in as short a space as possible. The danger with this is that the fiction can become overloaded, so the challenge is to make sure the ideas balance each other out in some manner, or amplify or contrast each other, in other words work together.
As for the act of writing, I have several methods that I use. One is to plan the whole thing in detail, but I don't do that very often. My novel "The Percolated Stars" was much more carefully planned than anything else I've done and it ended up having one of my most chaotic plots! Another method is to plant images or incidents through the projected story like oases in a desert and then link them up. That''s the method I use most often. A third method is to rush blindly into the story with no idea what''s going to happen, but even when I do that I still have the same basic structure in mind, which is that I want the plot to be circular, for the ending to mirror the beginning, not as an exact reflection but as a distortion, maybe enlarged or diminished or transformed by irony. I guess I could describe that kind of plotting as being a ''spiral'' rather than a circle! I was once told there's something in the Celtic soul that prefers circles and loops to straight lines. Maybe there is.
But I know exactly when I realised that circular plotting was my favourite kind. It was when I read Jack Vance's "The Eyes of the Overworld". The climax of that unusual, funny and somewhat disturbing fantasy is a repetition of the opening, but because of what has happened during the progress of the novel the context is different, changing the significance of the repeated event, making it more intense. It's a case of something being the same but different at the same time! I was enthralled by this device and decided it was a trick I wanted to play myself!
In my short novel "Eyelidiad", for instance, I began with two sentences, the very first and the very last. I knew I wanted to write a story about a man who carries a living portrait of his younger self on his back, so the first sentence had to be, "On his back, a spare head." Which in turn meant that the last sentence had to be, "On his head, a spare back." Then it was just a case of linking those two equally balanced but different statements with as wild an adventure as possible!
AmeriCymru: Your titles are really wonderful. "At the Molehills of Madness", "The Postmodern Mariner", "Bone-Idle in the Charnel House", "The Just Not So Stories", how do these come about? Do you start with a title and give it a story or the other way around or does it vary? Did these percolate in your head for years or make them up on the spot?
Rhys: For me titles are of fundamental importance. I nearly always begin with the title first. I regard the title as a kind of gene that controls the growth of the story. The more elaborate the title, the more controlled the growth. A title is also the chance for an author to write a one line poem, to create a sense of mystery. I like seeing titles that make me wonder, ''What on earth could that be about? I must know!''
Brian Aldiss said that his own favourite titles tended to be oxymorons, such as "The Dark Light Years", and I can see his point. Such titles create an insatiable curiosity! I yearn to see how the impossibility of the title is going to be resolved, or how the promise of its beauty can be delivered. Boris Vian wrote a book with a beautiful title, "Froth on the Daydream", that also happens to fully deliver its promise. Another of my favourite titles is Milorad Pavic''s "The Inner Side of the Wind", and how could I forget "Dwellers in the Mirage" by Abraham Merritt or "The Well at the World's End" by William Morris?
It's quite easy to create titles that are puns or warped versions of titles that already exist. I've done this many times, often less flippantly than might be imagined. I remember seeing Milan Kundera's novel "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" and asking myself, ''Yes, but the unbearable lightness of being what…?'' The title seemed unfinished. For some reason it didn't occur to me that BEING was the quality in question… I considered the matter and decided that the most unbearable form of lightness probably belonged to a steerable balloon or zeppelin. Hence my short story ''The Unbearable Lightness of being a Dirigible''.
That was one of my first efforts in this regard. Others include ''Chuckleberry Grin'', ''Rancid Kumquats are Not the Only Fruit'', ''The Taming of the Old Woman Who Lived in a Shrew'', ''Gone With The Wind in the Willows'', ''Portrait of the Artist as a Rusty Bus'', ''The Non-Existent Viscount in the Trees'', ''Von Ryan''s Daughter''s Express'', ''Oh, Whistle While You Work, and I''ll Come to You, My Dwarf'', ''The Cream-Jest of Unset Custard'', ''Where Angels Fear to Bake Bread'', ''As I Walked Out One Midsummer Night''s Dream'', ''An Awfully Bubonic Adventure'', ''Hannah and her Cisterns'', ''Sadie Loverlei''s Chatter'' and many, many others.
That's a slightly parasitic way of creating titles and is destined to eat itself up eventually, so I also create titles in other ways. Sometimes I work hard with combinations of words until I find something that resonates. Often a phrase jumps into my head for no apparent reason. Other times someone else may say something that makes perfect sense at the time but if taken out of context becomes wholly improbable or even startling. Then I'll ask permission to use what has been said as a title. That''s how my first book "Worming the Harpy" came about. The harpy in question was originally an ugly cat. Or a title may have an obscure personal significance which sounds surreal but isn't really. "The Smell of Telescopes" is one example of that. I owned a telescope when I was younger and it did have a unique smell. I imagined that it smelled like starlight…
The best titles don't always lead to the best stories and my favourites among my own tales sometimes have fairly mundane titles. ''Eternal Horizon'', ''Less is More'', ''In the Sink'', ''But it Pours'', ''Lem's Last Book'' and ''Loneliness'' are tame titles for me but I''m pleased with the stories they tell. Sometimes a simple title is the only feasible one. If I glance at my bookshelves I see lots of great books by great writers that don't have elaborate or clever titles. ''Ice'' by Anna Kavan, ''Leaf Storm'' by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, ''Sphinx'' by D.M. Thomas, ''The Last Museum'' by Brion Gysin, etc. Simple titles but effective.
I keep a list of titles that are still awaiting stories. Whenever I come up with a new title I add it to my list. ''Pell Mell in Pall Mall'' is the most recent. I have absolutely no idea why that phrase jumped into my head, nor what the story is going to be about, other than the fact it involves great speed and must be set in London. Like I said, a gene that controls the growth of the story… Many of my favourite titles haven''t been used in stories yet. These include ''My Rabbit''s Shadow Looks Like a Hand'', ''This Werewolf Prefers Muesli'', ''Dynamiting the Honeybun'', ''Nat King Cole Abhors a Vacuum'' and ''Aldrin''s the Buzz Word'' among others… Some readers have claimed that ''Cracking Nuts with Jan Hammer'' is my best title, but I don't think it is. My personal favourite of all is actually called ''The Story with a Clever Title''.