About Rod Duncan
Rod Duncan writes alternate history novels set in the world of the Gas-Lit Empire. The first of these, The Bullet Catcher’s Daughter, was shortlisted for the Philip K. Dick award. He has previously written contemporary crime, his novel Backlash being shortlisted for the John Creasey Dagger. Born in Wales, he has lived in Taiwan and Ghana but has been in Leicester since 1993. A dyslexic with a background in scientific research and computing, he now lectures in creative writing at De Montfort University. His next novel The Queen of All Crows will be published in January 2018. http://www.gaslitempire.co.uk/
Interview with Lee Wright
LW: When did you first know that you wanted to become a writer?
RD: I was slow learning to read and write. Writing with a pen is still a painful process because my hand cramps up after half a page. So being a writer was never something I was going to do. But then the word processor came along. By the time I turned 30, I’d learned to type. I wrote a few poems at first and a short story. Then, naively, I started working on a novel. My writing was very poor, of course. The book wasn’t destined to get published. But creating the imaginary world of the story, I felt something ecstatic. I don’t remember thinking ‘I’m going to be a writer.’ It’s just that one day I realised I was one.
LW: Was there ever one particular writing hero that you found encouragement from?
RD: I’ve found writers to be very generous with their knowledge and time. Many have helped me along the way, and continue to do so. But I’d like to mention the late Graham Joyce in particular. As writers, it’s our job to explore the strange lands that lie deep within our own minds. Graham exemplified that quest. Not because he wrote psychological fantasy. It was a quality revealed in the dizzying clarity of his vision. He was very helpful and encouraging to me and I will always be grateful for that.
LW: Do you have a favourite novel?
RD: No. And I don’t believe you do either. How could you choose? But there are certain books I keep around me to dip into from time to time for inspiration. Titus Groan, Polar Star and Under Milk Wood for example.
LW: What comes first when you sit down to write a novel? Does it start for you with a single scene? A character? Or a whole plot?
RD: Backlash began with the voice of a character. She told me her story and I wrote it down. The Bullet Catcher’s Daughter began with an idea for an alternate history and moved on to a scene, which I didn’t understand until I wrote it. My work in progress began with a location. I don’t go out of my way to make the process different each time. I just try to approach the blank page as if I know nothing. Then I see what happens.
LW: You lived in Taiwan for a time. Do you believe that it is important for a writer to travel?
RD: Intensity and breadth of experience are vital, in my opinion. You might get those things by travelling around the world and immersing yourself in completely different cultures. But you could equally get them by turning a corner in your home town, by looking in a different direction, by practicing seeing things as if you’ve never seen them before.
LW: What was your 'breakthrough' in writing?
RD: The breakthrough other people talk about would be my first big publishing deal with Simon & Schuster in 2003. Or perhaps being shortlisted for the Philip K Dick Award in 2014. But the real breakthroughs are moments of insight when the writing moves forward. I remember a moment when I stopped self-censoring. Or, rather, I learned to put aside the part of me that was asking ‘Yes, but is that seemly?’ trusting myself to ask those questions during the edit. That was a breakthrough. Another was realising what it was that created narrative drive in my work and thereafter being able to harness it consciously. I’ve made another breakthrough writing The Queen of All Crows - a conscious fluidity in the narrative voice. These are the moments that matter.
LW: You take on projects that form series: The Riot Trilogy, The Fall of the Gas-Lit Empire. How do you pace yourself when writing and planning such long works?
RD: It’s all about deadlines and fantasizing. The publishing contract will say that novel N1 should be delivered by date D. I can’t worry about N2 and N3 until the first one is out of the way. In the first month or two I relax into an experimental phase of writing. Then anxiety about date D pushes me into getting the first few chapters down in order. Then I need to keep myself going through the main body of the novel. Imagining it finished is a great help. By that, I mean fantasising about opening a box and getting out my very first copy, or standing in a shop and finding it on a shelf, or planning my acceptance speech when it wins a major award. Yes, such fantasies are thoroughly indulgent. (And yes, I know that last part is not ever likely to happen). But somehow imagining it in this way keeps me going. Please don’t judge me.
LW: Does the writing process get easier with each new work?
RD: No. You learn something new. You work at perfecting it. By the time you have mastery over it, you’ll have spotted another couple of techniques to add to your toolbox. So now you have more things to practice. There’s never an end to the struggle. That’s the curse of our craft. But also the blessing.
LW: Have you ever had a piece of work published that you’ve later regretted?
RD: I’ve had five novels and one non-fiction book rejected by publishers. I can stack those against the nine books I’ve seen published. The commissioning editors have done the job of weeding out the sub-standard work. I’m a better writer now than I was at the start. But I don’t regret any of it. I hope to be a better writer in the future.
LW: Is there a certain time of day when you work best?
RD: I can’t work in the evening because then my mind won’t slow down enough for me to sleep. Other than that, any time is good. But generally I work on new writing in the morning.
LW: What is your approach to the teaching of creative writing?
RD: The writer’s life is like a journey. However long we’ve been on the road, we still approach the blank page as a challenge. We still struggle to make our writing better today than it was yesterday. This is the foundation of my teaching work - to regard all my writing students as fellow travellers. I do my best to create the conditions for them to advance along the road. You can find out more about my approach to teaching and mentoring through The Writer's Shed (a writer development agency I set up with Siobhan Logan). I share articles and resources about my own writing here: https://www.facebook.com/gaslitempire/
Also via Twitter, where I am @RodDuncan
About the interviewer
Lee Wright was born in Nuneaton, Warwickshire in 1980 and has been writing both fiction and non-fiction since 2008. He is taking an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester.