Rhys Hughes is a prolific writer of Fantasy and Magic Realism. His works often use comedy to examine philosophical issues. He is the author of numerous works including the novels The Percolated Stars & Twisthorn Bellow, the novellas The Coanda Effect and The Crystal Cosmos, and collections, anthologies and ebooks.
At 6700 words, The Astral Disruptor follows an investigation into the theft of the sky by renowned Absurdity Investigator, Sampietro Mischief.
Patrick: Your new ebook, The Astral Disruptor, is now available from 40kBooks. It begins with the theft of the sky. Could you tell our readers about the genesis of the story, where it began, how it formed?
Rhys Hughes: I have lots of different working methods but I saw 'The Astral Disruptor' as a film in my head before I wrote it down. Actually that's not quite true, it wasn't a proper film with all the action flowing, but more like a series of fragments, a lost film that had to be reconstructed from disjoined images. That's a fairly typical working method for me. Sometimes I'll start writing a story with absolutely no idea of what's going to happen, and then it feels like I'm reading a text written by someone else while I'm creating it. But in the case of 'The Astral Disruptor' everything significant was worked out before I began, so the ending wasn't a surprise for me, which sometimes is a relief. There were very few variable factors in the process of composition.
The title was one I had been saving up for years. I keep a list of titles for future stories with the hope I'll eventually get round to dealing with them. Sometimes I know what story will be generated by a particular title and then it's just a case of finding the opportunity to set the thing down, to upload it from my brain onto the page, but other titles remain just strings of words until I get a sudden urge to use them. 'The Astral Disruptor' had been waiting since 1985. When I decided I wanted to write a story about the theft of the sky I scrolled through my list of potential titles and that one jumped out at me.
Patrick: As I read through The Astral Disruptor, I found myself thinking of Sir Terry Pratchett. Is Pratchett an influence for your writing?
*Rhys Hughes: *I respect Terry Pratchett and rate him highly as an author of comic fantasy but he has never been an influence on me, or if he has been then it has been a subliminal or indirect influence. I tend to cite as "influences" only authors I have read extensively and I haven't read enough Pratchett yet. When it comes to fantasy I'm far more influenced by Jack Vance and James Branch Cabell, and Italo Calvino's more fantastical works.
I prefer irony to comedy, or rather I like comedy to be as ironic as possible, and Pratchett's humour tends to be a little too orthodox for my taste. Having said that, his comic timing is impeccable. I wish I had his sense of momentum and pacing. But essentially it still comes down to irony for me, which is why I love Vance so much, especially his 'Dying Earth' stories. They aren't laugh-out-loud pieces but they have a dry wit and there's a relentless prickly energy about them that comes close to being my 'ideal' form of writing.
*Patrick: *Where do you draw inspiration from when crafting your stories?
*Rhys Hughes: *
Generally I'll take my inspiration from philosophy, logic and puzzles. I mean that I like taking concepts and working them to see what happens. But I want to stress that I try to keep everything light and clear. It's certainly not a case of pushing ideas to the point where they are on the limit of understanding. The reader should be stimulated intellectually but not put through too much of an ordeal.
I love mind-expanding conceptual fiction but not for its own sake: it must be entertaining too. Italo Calvino remains for me the finest of all writers because despite his towering intellect he remained fully engaged with humanity and the real world. I like to think I also take plenty of inspiration from the real world, but whenever I read Calvino I realise how much harder I could strive to achieve a better balance between the head and the heart, the world of logic and the world of experience. I don't have the balance right yet, but Calvino did, and I constantly regard his achievements with awe.
*Patrick: *Tell us about Sampietro Mischief, renowned Absurdity Investigator.
**(http://www.40kbooks.com/?pageid=133&category=13&productid=36)Rhys Hughes: **Sampietro Mischief is an Absurdity Investigator, but whether he investigates and "solves" absurdities or does the opposite and helps to propagate them is the essential question about him. He's an individualist but I suspect he might have fallen into the trap of being a stereotypical maverick, which is the kind of paradox that makes his fictional life worth living. I guess that many writers get the urge to create a private investigator or police inspector of some description. At the very least such characters are a convenient hook on which to hand a brace of conundrum-based adventures. I didn't want Sampietro Michief to be too competent, but neither did I want him to be incompetent. I hoped he would be a synthesis of the two extremes. "Paradox" is the key word of his essential nature, personal history, domestic situation and destiny, but I suspect that his pet monster, Chives, will end up dominant in their private cosmos.
*Patrick: *The world created in The Astral Disruptor - have you written any stories in it before? Do you plan to revisit it again?
*Rhys Hughes: *
'The Astral Disruptor' is only the first in a series of interlinked stories set in the same imaginary world. I haven't written the sequels yet. Last year I discovered the writer Primo Levi and I was extremely impressed by a collection of his short stories, many of which were as ingenious as those of Calvino. They had the same flavour. He was yet another excellent Italian writer to end up on my bookshelves. I decided to create a fictional land called Litalia or Lit-It, a "Literary Italy", and to cover it with cities that have some fundamental connection with the writers they are named after. Sampietro Mischief is resident in Buzzati, but I plan to send him on a tour of Litalia in which he'll visit Calvino, Gadda, Dante, Ariosto, Eco and various other cities, together with his sidekick, Chives. I'm not sure how many stories will eventually be set in Litalia, maybe a dozen in total, enough to make a book when the cycle is complete.
I'm going to begin writing the second Sampietro Mischief story soon, probably in the next few months. I'm not sure what its title will be yet, but I suspect it will be set in the city of Calvino. For me, that was always going to be the most daunting of Litalia's locations and I don't want to risk turning it into too large a psychological obstacle by postponing my treatment of it. The story itself will probably involve a robot version, or many versions, of Marco Polo. An invading army of Marco Polo robots, maybe each one associated with a different Tarot card, who invade the city and strip it away layer by layer, changing its character by exposing a single aspect and thus altering the lives of its citizens, until Sampietro Mischief stops them. If he does stop them. I dare say there will also be an animated suit of armour in the story, though I don't know in what context. I'm also toying with the notion of splitting the story into two equal halves, a "good" half and a "bad" half, though this conceit may prove to be beyond my technical abilities.
*Patrick: *Sampietro Mischief reminded me a great deal of an exaggerated parody of Sherlock Holmes - was Holmes an influence for this character?
*Rhys Hughes: *Believe it or not, I've never read a Sherlock Holmes story! I've seen films and watched television adapations, but as for the actual character created by Conan Doyle, I don't know him. Will I ever get round to reading the originals? I'm not sure. I have such a backlog of other reading to do it won't be for a long time. But I imagine that Sherlock Holmes is an influence, indirect if not direct, on any author who invents a detective, whether private or police, even if that detective was designed to be as original as possible. It's inevitable. As for Sampietro Mischief, he's based more closely on the slightly odder variants of the basic type, such as John Sladek's Thackeray Phin. The main difference, I suppose, is that Phin is a 'debunker' on the side of good and usually gets it right, whereas I'm not entirely sure what side Sampietro Mischief is on, if any, and he tends to make things more absurd rather than less. Maybe he's just a paradox-lover and has no moral core beneath his surface obsessions.
*Patrick: *Your use of language is extraordinary; you draw a vivid world in very short order. You also use a lot of humor in your writing - would you go so far as to call that your style?
*Rhys Hughes: *I hope I have a distinctive style that's recognisable, but this isn't really for me to judge. All I can say is that I think I've managed to forge a style that's a blend of many elements, humour being one of them, but I don't want to get stuck in the same mannerisms. That's always a danger when attempting to develop a signature style. Irony is fundamentally important to me and has been ever since I read Voltaire's Candide when I was 15 years old. That was my first introduction to overwhelming ironic content and it left me overawed. Later I discovered the stories of Donald Barthelme and I discovered overwhelming ironic style. I was no less impressed. Now I find it difficult to read any prose that doesn't have at least some ironic quality. When I talk about "irony" I don't mean sarcasm or flippant scepticism but authentic irony, which says one thing on one level but other things, some of them contradictory, on deeper levels. Richly ironic prose is something I am addicted to, and my favourite authors all utilise it. It's important to remember that irony can be positive as well as negative. I keep coming back to Calvino but he really was a master of life-affirming irony. I also love Lem, Alfau, Borges, Vance, Flann O'Brien, Sladek, Mutis, Pavic, Barth, Perec, Queneau, Vian... A good example of a book that has everything I most value in a work of fiction is The Dancers at the End of Time by Michael Moorcock: it's an omnibus volume of three amazingly inventive novels that deal with questions of genuinely enthralling and troubling importance, written in a highly engaging style that makes superb use of irony, absurdism, farce, tragicomedy and satire.
*Patrick: *Did you always know that you wanted to write Fantasy and Science Fiction or was it something that you realized slowly over time?
*Rhys Hughes: *
Yes, I wanted to be a writer since the age of 6. Originally I wanted to be an explorer but I was told there are no new lands left to discover. Writer was my second choice of career. I imagined I would grow up to be a science fiction writer. My love of fantasy came later than my love of SF. I was never a big fan of 'epic' or 'heroic' fantasy. I preferred the more offbeat fantasy writers such as Vance, Silverberg, Delany, Moorcock, Zelazny. For a time my favourite novel was Ursula Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness. But I've always found it harder to get my own SF published than my work in other genres. My favourite SF writer of all is probably John Sladek, but his main concern tended to be with pure concepts and paradox rather than with science itself. The finest SF book that isn't really SF is Calvino's The Complete Cosmicomics. Traditional SF fans will probably be appalled at its apparent whimsicality, but in fact it's a totally rigorous work.
I've wandered off the point, haven't I? Yes, I wanted to be a writer for a very long time. But I don't know why.
*Patrick: *I've read online that you are in the process of writing a 1,000 story project of interconnected tales - when working with so many different stories, how do you keep the prose fresh and keep from repeating yourself?
*Rhys Hughes: *
The conceit of linking all my work together is something I borrowed, or stole, from Moorcock. I saw him doing it and decided I wanted to do the same thing. Later I learned that other authors had tried to pull off the same trick, James Branch Cabell and Cordwainer Smith, for example. I set myself a limit of 1000 tales because it's a large number that will take a long time to reach but it's still achievable. My earliest surviving story dates from 1989. That particular story is #1 of my thousandfold project. Recently I finished story #567, so I'm more than halfway through the scheme. I hope to get to story #1000 one day but nothing's certain in this world. If all goes to plan, the final result will be a unified whole, a grand story cycle made up of a multitude of smaller cycles that are meshed together. What the symmetry of this will ultimately be like is another question. It might end up resembling a gigantic knot that can't be untied!
But the point you make about repeating myself is a valid one and the short answer is that I can't guarantee I won't repeat myself. There's no inbuilt failsafe mechanism in place. It's simply up to me to be careful and avoid taking the easy route whenever I need to solve a fictional problem. A certain amount of repetition can be beneficial, can even generate some powerful effects, as J.G. Ballard often proved. Careful repetition in a reinforcement role is a useful tool but lazy repetition is disastrous. My mind is constantly bubbling over with new ideas and I rely on the fact that the sheer quantity of these ideas means that I can be choosy and opt only for the most original, yet I suspect that unthinking repetition does appear in my work, hopefully not often. There's no solution other than to be vigilant and self-disciplined!
*Patrick: *You have written stories exclusively for foreign, non-English markets - do you write your stories in those languages or have them translated after?
*Rhys Hughes: *I don't write in any languages other than English. I've learned a smattering of tongues on my travels but my aptitude for new languages is poor. I rely entirely on translators. The way that my non-English books come into being is like this: I produce a lot of fiction. I'm not as amazingly prolific as critics often claim: compared with Moorcock, Silverberg, Calvino, Aldiss, Zelazny, etc, I'm a slouch. Nonetheless I do write more every year than my English language publishers can handle. So it seems an attractive option to give foreign language publishers first chance to issue certain books and individual stories. Instead of merely allowing my existing books in English to be translated, I produce customised versions for different markets. This applies to short story collections mainly, but if a foreign publisher was interested in a new novel before any English language publishers, I'd have no hesitation in sending it abroad. Lots of my stories have appeared first in a foreign language. Many of them have appeared only in a foreign language and maybe some of them published that way will never appear in English. They will be variations without a visible theme...
*Patrick: *Plans for future ebooks?
*Rhys Hughes: *I believe that 40K have more ebooks of my work in the pipeline. I may even publish my own ebook later in the year. When I first heard about electronic publishing I was dismissive, but lately it really seems to have taken off. I am toying with the idea of obtaining a Kindle. Everybody I know who has one recommends them highly. We'll see!
Ok - I think that's about it. I want to thank Rhys Hughes for taking the time to chat with me. His eBook, The Astral Disruptor, is available in multiple formats and platforms here on the 40kbooks.com website.
Watch for more Author Q&A's coming soon!