Q&A with Andy Duncan

[PHOTO CREDIT: Shaniya Johnson]

Andy Duncan suggests new authors get their start by modeling their greatest influences and working until they write stories that only they could write. In that vein, “Charlie Tells Another” in the current issue [on sale now] is a uniquely Andy Duncan story. He offers us more tricks of the trade and the inspiration behind this and other stories below.

Asimov’s Editor: Is this story part of a larger universe, or is it stand-alone?

AD: My Charlieverse, as you might call it, sprang from a conversation with Eileen Gunn in summer 1994. I was a student at Clarion West in Seattle, and Eileen was not only one of the local volunteers, but also one of my instant mentors. She picked me up at the airport and promptly lent me her magic typewriter, on which she had written her first published story and on which, that summer, I would write my first published story. During a classroom break, Eileen asked me, “Have you ever heard of Charlie Poole?” Oh, yes, I said; he was one of the first pioneer recording artists I heard about when I moved to his old neighborhood in North Carolina in 1986. “I’ve been thinking for some time,” Eileen continued, “that someone ought to write a story about Charlie Poole, and now I think it should be you.” I said something on the order of, thank you, I’ll get right on it—thus beginning decades of happy amateur musicology and associated research, and thousands of words of fiction revolving around what The Encyclopedia of Fantasy might call the Matter of Charlie Poole, which to me is also the Matter of the Carolinas and a lot of other Matters. While two short stories from this ever-evolving mass were published in small-press volumes years ago, “Charlie Tells Another One” is by far the biggest and most significant chunk to be published, and I’m very proud that it’s in Asimov’s. A huge thanks, again, to Eileen for initially pushing what looks like a perpetual-motion machine!


AE: How did the title for this piece come to you?

AD: Normally, titles come to me very early. Indeed, sometimes I settle on a title before I’ve settled on a story to go with it! That wasn’t the case with this story, though. When I brought the draft manuscript in June 2018 to the Sycamore Hill Writers Conference (held, coincidentally, in the North Carolina mountains, near where the story is set), it had only a placeholder title: “Banjo Lessons.” Everyone agreed, yep, it was a placeholder title, all right—one that might mislead the reader into expecting actual, you know, banjo lessons! But the ensuing discussion helped me realize the title should reflect the central theme of nested yarnspinning, and ultimately my wife and best reader, Sydney, helped me select the right one. Who knows? “Andy Tells Another One” might be the title of a Duncan collection one day.

AE: What made you think of Asimov’s for this story?

AD: Well, for one thing, Asimov’s is an excellent magazine that regularly publishes many of my favorite writers and favorite stories. But it also exerts a strong emotional pull on me. My first fiction sale was to Asimov’s, in January 1995—though the story didn’t appear for more than two years, in the issue dated March 1997. That was “Beluthahatchie,” which I had written during the first week of the 1994 Clarion West workshop in Seattle, on Eileen Gunn’s magic typewriter, and which became a Hugo Award finalist in 1998. I will forever be grateful to Asimov’s for taking a chance on me and on so many other unknown writers through the years. I also owe quite a lot, personally, to the late Gardner Dozois, who pulled me from the slush pile and became a great friend, writing coach, and mentor, and to Sheila Williams, who treated me to a nice French dinner—with wine!—at the 2001 World Fantasy Convention in Montreal, just like I was Somebody, and has been extraordinarily generous with her time and encouragement ever since.


So I write about history, especially in the gaps, and on the margins. I write about race, and class and gender. I write about words and language. I write about the American South, about very specific times and places, and about place-ness—the crucial importance of being in this spot, rather than all those other spots.


AE: Who or what are your greatest influences and inspirations?

AD: A top-of-my-head sampling, in alphabetical order, from a very long list: Michael Bishop, Terry Bisson, Brooke Bolander, Leigh Brackett, Ray Bradbury, Octavia E. Butler, Lewis Carroll, Siobhan Carroll, Ted Chiang, Ellen Datlow, Philip K. Dick, Samuel R. Delany, Carol Emshwiller, Gardner Dozois, William Faulkner, Jeffrey Ford, Charles Fort, Karen Joy Fowler, William Price Fox, Terry Gilliam, Edward Gorey, Eileen Gunn, Joe Haldeman, Elizabeth Hand, David G. Hartwell, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, Nalo Hopkinson, Zora Neale Hurston, Shirley Jackson, Buster Keaton, Walt Kelly, Ellen Klages, C.M. Kornbluth, Nancy Kress, Harvey Kurtzman, R.A. Lafferty, Spike Lee, Ursula K. Le Guin, Val Lewton, Kelly Link, David Lynch, the Marx Brothers, Judith Merril, Sam J. Miller, Joseph Mitchell, Fitz-James O’Brien, Flannery O’Connor, Sarah Pinsker, Edgar Allan Poe, Kit Reed, Nisi Shawl, Mary Shelley, Peter Straub, Theodore Sturgeon, Michael Swanwick, Hunter S. Thompson, James Tiptree Jr., Charles Vess, Howard Waldrop, Orson Welles, Manly Wade Wellman, Billy Wilder, Terri Windling and Lisa Yaszek—plus Alice Rae Yellen’s Passionate Visions of the American South, and the 1993 traveling exhibit it accompanied, and Baltimore’s American Visionary Art Museum; the magazines Fortean Times and New Scientist; all my Clarion, Clarion West, and undergraduate students through the years; Richard Butner and everyone else at Sycamore Hill; the amazing new writers entering our field every year; John Kessel, who grew me from a bean; and, above all, my wife, Sydney.

AE: Are there any themes that you find yourself returning to throughout your writing? If yes, what and why?

AD: My sensei, John Kessel, always says, “You write about what bothers you,” and in my case that is absolutely true. So I write about history, especially in the gaps, and on the margins. I write about race, and class and gender. I write about words and language. I write about the American South, about very specific times and places, and about place-ness—the crucial importance of being in this spot, rather than all those other spots. I write about folkways and folk music and folk traditions, and rituals and performances, and the truths they tell, and the truths they hide. I write about science and pseudoscience, and the natural and the supernatural, and all their many intersections. Joe Haldeman has said that the true answer to, “What’s your new novel about?” is always, “It’s about everything that crossed my mind as I was writing the novel.” Well, these things I’m listing are the things that cross my mind every day, as a result of growing up a lower-middle-class Southern white kid in the shadow of a thousand Confederate monuments and surrounded by mesmerizing storytellers, all of them liars.

AE: What other projects are you currently working on?

AD: I’m currently writing an M.R. James pastiche, an academic satire, a folk-horror story about dark rituals in the woods, and a meditation on Fermi’s Paradox, all of which have merged into the same novella. In September, I’ll be the Asimov’s featured author at the Brooklyn Book Festival; in November, I’ll be helping with the SFWA stage at the Baltimore Book Festival; in March 2020, I’ll be at ICFA in Orlando; in May 2020, I’ll be at the Nebula Conference in Los Angeles; and in summer 2020, I’ll be teaching Week One of the Clarion West workshop in Seattle, which probably means I’ll be at the Locus Awards Weekend, too. Meanwhile, my new story “Mister Percy’s Shortcut” is in Cat Rambo’s anthology If This Goes On (Parvus Press, 2019), and my third collection, An Agent of Utopia: New and Selected Stories (Small Beer Press, 2018), is a World Fantasy Award finalist this year.

AE: What are you reading right now?

AD: Ted Chiang’s new collection, Exhalation; Julie C. Day’s new novella, The Rampant; House of Whispers Vol. 1: The Power Divided, by Nalo Hopkinson and her comics collaborators; Farah Mendlesohn’s The Pleasant Profession of Robert A. Heinlein; Sarah Pinsker’s first novel, Song for a New Day; Nisi Shawl’s anthology New Suns; and the Victor LaValle-John Joseph Adams anthology A People’s Future of the United States, which includes Alice Sola Kim’s brilliant “Now Wait for This Week.” Yes, I’m always reading multiple things. Though you didn’t ask, I just finished reading James Kaplan’s two-volume Frank Sinatra biography, Frank: The Voice and Sinatra: The Chairman; two vintage Fortean volumes by John Fairley and Simon Welfare, Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World and Arthur C. Clarke’s World of Strange Powers; Richard Gergel’s Unexampled Courage: The Blinding of Sgt. Isaac Woodard and the Awakening of President Harry S. Truman and Judge J. Waties Waring, which is in part about my South Carolina hometown of Batesburg; and Erica Lagalisse’s Occult Features of Anarchism: With Attention to the Conspiracy of Kings and the Conspiracy of the Peoples, which is a hoot. And I just re-read J. Sheridan le Fanu’s Carmilla (1872), out in a new Lanternfish Press edition with a Carmen Maria Machado introduction. I highly recommend all these titles.

AE: Do you have any advice for up-and-coming writers?

AD: Read everything—all genres, all eras, all traditions, all formats. This includes history, biography, memoir, criticism, science, poetry, plays, comics, translations, the classics, graffiti, all of it. Write every week if you can, for an hour or two. Don’t get hung up about your “schedule” or your “system,” which will evolve as your writing evolves, as your life evolves. Don’t fetishize your tools. You can write with anything, on anything, anywhere. Enjoy the fallow periods: Use them to edit, to research, to jot notes, to eavesdrop on strangers’ conversations (and write them down), to daydream, to fill the tank. Trust your obsessions. Write the stuff you are moved to write, the stuff that won’t get written if you don’t write it. Your ultimate goal is to be your own unique one-person genre, but in getting there, you may have to imitate lots of people; fortunately, imitating several disparate writers at once can look pretty dang original. Take care of your body, of your mind, of your health; practice self-care. Find a group of writer friends, whether they’re all in your town or spread across five continents, with whom you can exchange manuscripts, honest criticism, unfailing encouragement, and hugs. More formal, structured workshops are not for everyone, but look into them as you gain confidence, for you have abundant options, from one-day and weekend events through six-week summer residencies like the Clarions and multi-year MFA and Ph.D. programs. You want to be part of a writing community, with lifelong writerly relationships, and these programs can help. Ditto writers’ organizations. Don’t go to conventions and conferences alone, as that can be lonely and dispiriting; instead, bring a couple of friends with you, or arrange to meet a couple of friends on the premises, and then invite other people into your group. “Loved what you said on that panel! Want to hang with us for a half-hour?” Remember that however new you are, wherever you are on your path, you belong here. Fight Imposter Syndrome by welcoming others to this community where you all belong. Help one another. And if you’re not in the habit already, please get into the habit of reading aloud, especially your own work as you write it. This will be an ongoing revelation, just as writing should be.

AE: What is something we should know about you that we haven’t thought to ask?

AD: Whenever I reach for a spoon in the kitchen drawer, I pause for a second to look at what I’m holding and make sure it’s a spoon—rather than, I don’t know, some sort of alternate random object that may have crept into the spoon drawer, a trap for the unwary. Maybe that’s nothing anyone needed to know, but it seems significant, somehow.

AE: How can our readers follow you and your writing?

AD: A reasonably up-to-date fiction bibliography, with links, is at https://sites.google.com/view/andy-duncan/home, but I’m more active on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/andy.duncan.39794) and Twitter (@BELUTHAHATCHIE).

Since his first fiction sale, to Asimov’s in 1995, Andy Duncan’s stories have appeared here and in Analog, Clarkesworld, Conjunctions, F&SF, Lightspeed, Tor.com and many anthologies, including multiple year’s-best volumes. His honors include a Nebula Award, a Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award, and three World Fantasy Awards, the most recent for Wakulla Springs, cowritten with Ellen Klages (Tor.com, 2013; PS Publishing, 2018). The title story of his third collection, An Agent of Utopia: New and Selected Stories (Small Beer Press, 2018), was a Nebula Award finalist, Duncan’s ninth. A native of Batesburg, South Carolina, and a graduate of Clarion West 1994, he has an M.F.A. from the University of Alabama and teaches writing at Frostburg State University in Maryland. Andy considers his new story a companion piece to his March 1997 tale, “Beluthahatchie.” Music plays a major role in both stories.

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