[GUEST INTERVIEW] Christopher Paul Carey interviews Rhys Hughes on “The Abnormalities of Stringent Strange”
ABOUT RHYS HUGHES: Rhys Hughes was born in 1966 and began writing fiction from a young age. None of his early efforts saw print, mainly because he never submitted them anywhere or even showed them to anyone else. Those stories have all been lost.
Eventually he began sending his work to editors. His first published story was called “An Ideal Vocation” and it appeared in an obscure anthology in 1992. Encouraged by this “success,” he then proceeded to bombard the British small-press with hundreds of eccentric tales for almost two decades. His first book, the now almost legendary Worming the Harpy, was published by Tartarus Press in 1995. He has published many volumes since then, chiefly collections of short-stories but also a few novels, in several languages.
He considers his three best and most “Hughesian” books to be The Truth Spinner, Tallest Stories and The Abnormalities of Stringent Strange. You can get in touch able to get in touch with him easily enough through his blog The Spoons That Are My Ears.
I first ran across Rhys Hughes’s brilliantly funny, sharp, and perceptive work when a story of his — a smart, heartfelt tribute to Philip José Farmer’s classic The Lovers — appeared in an anthology alongside a story of mine. Since then I’ve been both dazzled and highly entertained by his unique and multiform output of fiction. Hughes’s latest novel, The Abnormalities of Stringent Strange, is forthcoming from Meteor House, so let’s find out what the author is up to this time.
Christopher Paul Carey: You are not primarily known as a genre writer, but your work is not exactly mainstream either. How would you categorize your work, or can it be categorized?
Rhys Hughes: In the past I often said that my work exists in the borderlands between genre and mainstream, but I no longer think that’s true, because it makes it sound as if I write realistic fiction with some fantastical input, or vice versa, and I don’t do that at all. I can think of plenty of amazing writers who are in those borderlands and I enjoy their work a lot but I think my own work is in some other category at a tangent to both genre and mainstream.
Maybe that sounds pretentious. I hope not. I just think that what I do is equally distant from genre and mainstream but not between them. The writer I’m most often compared to is R. A. Lafferty but I’ve never read anything by him and that needs to change, so I’ll probably get hold of a pile of his books this year. I’m aware that my work is never going to appeal to a wide audience and in the past, prompted by my agent, I did make attempts to write in a more commercial style, but it never worked and now I’ve given up trying to be normal. My agent has given up trying to change me too.
I’m a lost cause. I can only write what I want to write.
CPC: You have said that you want to write exactly 1,000 stories. How is that coming along and do you really think you’ll be able to stop after 1,000?
RH: It’s coming along nicely, I think. I have just finished writing my 695th story and I am looking forward to reaching the magic 700. Not sure why the number 700 is so magical but it seems to be, for me at least, and then I might have a rest from writing for a few months. Or maybe I won’t. New ideas are constantly bubbling up in my mind and if I don’t get rid of them by putting them in stories they won’t leave me alone, they’ll just keep building up, filling my skull right to the brim and increasing the pressure inside until eventually the top of my head explodes. So I have to write to stay alive and sane.
I decided long ago to set myself a specific numeric goal to aim for, partly because I’m a fairly disorganised individual and having a definite target helps to keep me focussed, and partly because of my fear of fading out endlessly like a dying echo getting quieter and quieter but not actually coming to an end; I would rather finish my writing career with a door slam and then silence. Yet another reason is because I want to link all 1,000 stories into a single story-cycle like a mosaic which makes a kind of sense when viewed in its entirety.
I’m Welsh and Welsh writers tend not to do grandiose things, so I want to be different and be able to say, “Look, here are one thousand tales and they can all be read individually, or if you prefer they form a coherent massive single unit and can be read like a really big novel. It’s up to you!”
CPC: What was the inspiration for the novel The Abnormalities of Stringent Strange and what is it about?
RH: I happened to be walking along a beach back in the autumn of 2009 and the title and most of the plot of the story just came to me during that walk. Going for long solitary walks always has this effect on me. Ideas, plots and situations just pop into my head, I don’t know why. I saw the main character in my mind’s eye first and then all the other aspects of the book followed. I had recently finished writing a novel called Twisthorn Bellow that was a sort of pulp monster spoof and although I was pleased with it I felt I could have pushed it further and harder and I regretted the fact I hadn’t, so maybe inventing Stringent Strange was a way of having another go at getting it right.
At the time I was reading a lot of pulp SF from the 1930s, including Before the Golden Age, a massive anthology of early magazine SF edited by Isaac Asimov, so my mind was already tuned to the thrills and spills of that kind of colourful and often very imaginative fiction. And I was also reading a lot of Philip José Farmer, an extremely clever and playful writer who liked to take pulp tropes and mess with them and harness them to unexpected purposes in his own unique cosmos but without ever mocking the original creations themselves. In other words his work plays games with pulp fiction but not in a disrespectful way and I guess I wanted to write a novel that Farmer might have approved of, though I’ll never know if he would enjoy it or not.
CPC: If answering the question doesn’t give too much away about the novel, what are Stringent Strange’s “abnormalities”?
RH: His abnormalities are crucial to his understanding of himself as a hero. Like most superheroes he’s a mutant and his abnormalities are his mutations, though he’s not really a superhero in the standard sense. The important thing for him is that he doesn’t actually know what his abnormalities are; they are hidden from him. They might be physical or psychological or spiritual anomalies, or skills he doesn’t yet know he has, or anything else. One of the novel’s many ‘journeys’ is the main character’s quest to discover exactly what his abnormalities are, how best he might use them, and what the consequences might be, if any. I wouldn’t say there are any deep messages in this situation about how we all have secret strengths. I just found it more appealing to give Stringent some hidden resources that he may or may not find useful in his hour of greatest need.
CPC: Those who pre-order The Abnormalities of Stringent Strange from Meteor House will automatically have their names included as “spectators” in the novel’s crucial gladiatorial scene. How did you come up with this idea? How well has it worked as a marketing strategy, and do you think you might try something like this again?
RH: Was it my idea? I don’t remember. It might have been the idea of Michael Croteau of Meteor House, the publisher. It’s typical of the ideas I have, but that doesn’t mean it was mine originally. I like the concept of ‘reader participation’. I’ve always enjoyed using the names of real people as characters in my stories, of putting them into extreme fictional predicaments, and the gladiatorial scene in this book turned out to be the ideal location for readers to appear, whether as spectators or actual combatants in the ‘charity’ battles.
As a marketing strategy it has worked quite well, on a modest scale. Certainly I’m very pleased with the amount of money raised for charity by readers bidding to appear as gladiators and be killed in the book. The generosity of some people is always heartening to behold. And the publicity stunt attracted a lot of approval from casual readers too, who especially liked the photographs I took of myself in various absurd gladiator outfits. To what extent this ‘approval’ has translated into orders for the book is a different question, of course.
I’m not exactly a household name and that’s always going to be a disadvantage when it comes to shifting books. I’m not even a hut-hold or emergency-shelter-hold name. However, I do recommend this strategy highly. It’s fun and quirky.
CPC: You have already written a sequel to Stringent Strange, a novella that is available as an ebook, The Further Fangs of Suet Pudding, which readers can get for free when they preorder Stringent Strange. Why a sequel and not a prequel, since the novel isn’t yet available?
RH: Good question. I should have written a prequel really, shouldn’t I? Ah well! I’m not very good when it comes to thinking about strategy and logistics and things like that, I just and to sit down and write the stories. I had no intention of writing any more fiction featuring Stringent Strange; and then suddenly I started writing a sequel that was also a sequel to a very obscure bizarre wartime thriller published in 1944 by Adams Farr called The Fangs of Suet Pudding. I was deep into writing the story before I paused and asked myself, “What the heck am I doing?” but it was too late to stop by then.
This sequel takes place may years after the action in Stringent Strange and hopefully demonstrates that sometimes you can teach an old apeman new tricks. When I began writing the novel in January 2010 the words just flowed, I found the writing poured out of me; and this was also the case with the sequel last November. Both were completed very quickly, in a white heat, almost as if they wanted to be written. Never before have I found writing fiction so effortless and yet I was constantly surprising myself by the twists and turns of the story, almost as if it was writing itself for my amusement. Clearly the character of Stringent Strange is perfectly and ideally suited to my abilities and tastes and inclinations, whatever those are, as a writer.
CPC: Another thing you and the publisher are doing with this book is giving readers the chance to order a “deleted scene” — a scene you will write specifically for the reader, but which doesn’t appear in the book itself. Can you tell us more about this idea?
RH: It’s another way of getting more ‘reader participation’ and also a way of raising some money for charity. A reader who orders a ‘deleted scene’ gets a loose page that can be slotted into the book at a certain point, so that they, the reader, will be a character in the story for just a few paragraphs. They will get the chance to fight against any writer of their choosing with any weapons they like and they can die in any fashion they prefer; or they can leave those decisions up to me. A percentage of the money spent by any reader who orders such a scene will go to Animal Aid, a charity concerned with animal welfare. I think there’s a nice irony in readers cutting each other up with swords and spears and contributing to saving animals from cruel treatment!
Being able to insert the deleted scene into the book and thus creating a unique book is something that appeals strongly to me. I love playing with form, but this seems to be an activity that very few writers do these days. The fact you can use form just as creatively as subject matter has been generally forgotten. I love the way that Milorad Pavic, one of my favourite writers, included a hundred variant endings to his novel Unique Item, so the reader can choose one at random. Some people might think that playing with form in such a way is just a gimmick and a stunt, and it may well be, but it’s enjoyable and unexpected and in fact all fiction is a gimmick and a stunt anyway. As long as it’s entertaining, that’s all that really matters.
RH: I do now, yes. I want to write lots and lots of works using this character. I plan, for instance, to fill in details about his youth, how he learned to fly, his love life, whether there are any other apemen he can meet or not, and there is plenty of scope for him and his mentor, Professor Crinkle, to have all sorts of offbeat and offworld adventures in various styles. I mean, not everything he gets up to has to be a comedy; I’m sure that there must be genuine tragedy in his life somewhere along the line. And another thing occurs to me: what if one day he accidentally crashed his plane into that anthology I mentioned earlier, Before the Golden Age, and got stuck inside the prose? He would have to make his way back out on foot, perilously crossing from one story to another, seeking the exit point of the back cover. That could be fun!
I also want Stringent to cross paths with other characters from some of my other books. I want him to have at least one adventure with the golem Twisthorn Bellow. Whether they will be friends or enemies is unknown to me at present. I also have plans to create a series of stories involving a character called Oddity O’Clock, who is a living timepiece and who has peculiar adventures with his colleagues, who are also sentient scientific or business instruments, barometers, thermometers, cash registers, etc. One of these adventures will be chronicled in a novella called Half Past Oddity O’Clock and I know that Stringent Strange will definitely be a major player in it; though I don’t know when I’ll get round to writing it, maybe not for several years yet.
CPC: Do you have any other stories or novels coming out soon?
RH: I always have lots and lots of things coming out soon. In fact I worry that all my forthcoming projects will interfere with each other and I wonder if maybe I ought to slow down, but I don’t think I’m capable of doing that while alive. I do promise to stop writing when I’m dead, if that helps; and in fact I won’t write a single word between the instant of my death and the end of the universe trillions of years in the future. I can keep this promise.
I have already had one book published this year, a collection of 60 linked tales called Tallest Stories, and I’m due to have another three books out in 2013, namely The Just Not So Stories, The Lunar Tickle and The Senile Pagodas. All are short story collections and all will be issued by different publishers. It might be the case that one or more of them will be pushed back to 2014, in which case they will rub up against another three books I have due out next year.
I write so much because I can and because I have to. I am privileged to be in this position and understand that I may not always have the opportunity to do what I love doing so much. I think it would be ungrateful of me not to write while I have the chance; and I think it’s a shame that so many talented writers out there don’t have the same luxury to indulge themselves in this respect as I do. At the same time I know that my situation can change at any time.
Christopher Paul Carey is the coauthor with Philip José Farmer of Gods of Opar: Tales of Lost Khokarsa and the author of Exiles of Kho, a prelude to the Khokarsa series. His short fiction may be found in such anthologies as Tales of the Shadowmen, The Worlds of Philip José Farmer, The Avenger: The Justice, Inc. Files, and Tales of the Wold Newton Universe. He is an editor with Paizo Publishing on the award-winning Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. Visit him online at www.cpcarey.com.
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