Andy Duncan’s short fiction has been honored with the Nebula, Sturgeon, and multiple World Fantasy awards. A native of Batesburg, SC, Duncan has been a newspaper reporter, a trucking-magazine editor, a bookseller, a student-media adviser, and, since 2008, a member of the writing faculty at Frostburg State University in the mountains of western Maryland, where he lives with his wife, Sydney. His new short fiction collection, An Agent of Utopia, is due out November 6, 2018.
How did you choose the new and selected stories for your third collection An Agent of Utopia? Was there a running theme or vibe you were going for?
I joked that the “selected” part was easy—I could select stories all day—but the “new” part was hard. The two new stories I wrote for the book wound up at novelette length, which meant most of the reprints needed to be shorter to keep the page count manageable. As a result, much of the selection was process of elimination, combined with my desire to highlight stories I feared had been forgotten, such as “The Map to the Homes of the Stars” and the previously uncollected “Slow as a Bullet.” One of the last Facebook conversations I had with my longtime editor, mentor, and friend Gardner Dozois, only weeks before his untimely death, was Gardner naming the long stories he wished I had included, and me replying, “Next time, I promise!”
The crucial canonical anthology for me, at the dawn of my fiction-writing career, was The Norton Book of Science Fiction (1993), edited by Ursula K. Le Guin, Brian Attebery, and Karen Joy Fowler, and I love that in her Introduction, Le Guin wrote: “The stories are arranged chronologically because there had to be an order, and when we tried that one, it worked.” When I read through my selections, in which the new stories were followed by the reprints in order of first publication, I thought, “This works,” knowing that my editor-publisher at Small Beer, Gavin Grant, might have alternate suggestions—but he didn’t, so there was the Table of Contents, done. Whew!
My only thought about theme was to realize, as I read through, that the reprints were mostly in Southern voices, while the new stories were in markedly different voices. I decided that was okay. Being pigeonholed as a yarn-spinning regionalist was never attractive to me anyway.
“An Agent of Utopia” is one of the new stories. What was it about Thomas More’s execution that interested you in writing about the fate of his head?
I initially thought the story would climax with the execution, but then I realized that was too much like Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons. Besides, it would make More too prominent a character. I wanted to tell the agent’s story, not More’s. What matters most to the agent is not what happens to More, but who the agent is serving. Who most deserves the agent’s allegiance? That intrigued me, because it’s not only a variant of a thoroughly Tudor theme, found throughout Shakespeare—“Who is the rightful ruler?”—but also a deeply important question in the twenty-first-century United States. That realization seemed to assign More his proper place in the story: a head on a pike, though a resonant one.
Where does the character of Aliquo, the assassin in “An Agent of Utopia,” who’s after More’s head, come from?
The character springs from the title, which was, for many years, all I had. As a graduate student at North Carolina State University, circa 1995, I found a box of giveaway books outside some English professor’s, probably Tom Hester’s, office. Atop the stack was a battered paperback critical edition of More’s Utopia, in English translation. (It was available, in More’s lifetime, only in the language in which he wrote it, Latin. It was as limited in its audience as the Bible.) I claimed it, vaguely thinking that reading this work of proto-SF would be good for me. Not for years did I actually get around to reading it, but that very afternoon, when I got back to my apartment, I wrote down the story title that had occurred to me on the walk home: “An Agent of Utopia.” I had no idea what story went with it, but the title fascinated me. Was More an agent of Utopia? What about Thomas Jefferson? Or W.E.B. Du Bois? Or Stalin? How about Octavia Butler, who showed so many of us the way? What would be the goals of a Utopian agent?
When I finally read the book, and realized statecraft in More’s Utopia relied heavily on assassination, I had an answer—enough answer to fill in the character, anyway. I should add that my inspirations included two classic 1980s stories narrated by dangerous operatives: John Kessel’s “The Pure Product” (1986) and Bruce Sterling’s “We See Things Differently” (1989).
What kind of research on sixteenth-century England did you have to do for this story?
I’m afraid I mainly binge-watched Game of Thrones. However, when I was in London for the 2014 Worldcon, I explored the Tower for a day, and made lots of notes. Come to think of it, I also saw a performance at the Globe Theatre (Julius Caesar), and spent many hours over, under, and beside the Thames. I love rivers, especially urban rivers. Very helpful were Neil MacGregor’s Shakespeare’s Restless World: A Portrait of an Era in Twenty Objects and the glossary in John Dover Wilson’s Life in Shakespeare’s England. I purposely avoided re-reading Greer Gilman’s Cry Murder! in a Small Voice and Exit, Pursued by a Bear, which are so brilliant I might have been intimidated into abandoning this story. Strategic avoidance can spur the imagination, too.
“Joe Diabo’s Farewell” is the other new story in this collection. The protagonist, Eddie Two Rivers DeLisle, is a Mohawk steelworker who gets a one-time job in a welcoming party at the screening of the film The Flaming Frontier in 1920s New York City. What’s the historical basis of this story? And what struck you about Eddie DeLisle’s character and made you want to write about him?
I first learned about the importance of indigenous workers to the Manhattan skyline in Joseph Mitchell’s 1949 New Yorker article “The Mohawks in High Steel,” which I encountered in his 1992 collection Up in the Old Hotel. As a twenty-eight-year-old newspaper reporter nursing MFA ambitions, I was so impressed by the book and by Mitchell himself—he was a small-town boy who went to the city and Made Good as a writer, just like me!—that I wrote him a fan letter, which he politely answered.
A few years later, Frank Thompson’s 1996 book Lost Films: Important Movies That Disappeared introduced me to the fascinating topic of movies that we know once existed, based on abundant secondary evidence, but that we no longer have even a single copy of. I find both poignant and magical that massive studio-era productions involving hundreds of people could in a single lifetime vanish like Brigadoon, like a mirage, like the morning dew. Thompson’s chapter on The Flaming Frontier notes the studio’s insistence that “real Indians” were involved in the production, and briefly describes the gala New York premiere. I asked myself: Suppose a “real Indian” actually showed up to that gala? What might have been the lure, and what would that person have thought upon arrival? When I realized Eddie might have been one of the steelworkers Mitchell wrote about, the story began to coalesce.
Mitchell died the same year Thompson’s book was published, age eighty-seven. I learned in the obits that for the last thirty-two years of his life, Mitchell reported every day to his private office at The New Yorker without, so far as anyone knows, ever writing a publishable word. I thought of the steelworkers he wrote about decades earlier, back when he could write, who in the 1920s were denied any chance to tell their own stories to the masses, even as they sacrificed their lives to erect Manhattan monuments (that still exist) to a racist white culture (that still exists). All this silence, loss, erasure eventually goaded me into writing “Joe Diabo’s Farewell,” my saddest story to date.
I’ve noticed in many of your stories that old films or the film industry frequently come up—sometimes as a topic of conversation between characters, or, as in “Joe Diabo’s Farewell,” it’s a part of the plot. You’ve also said that you’ve read more books devoted to the movies than books on any other subject. What got you hooked on old films and film in general?
Born in 1964, I was by far the youngest of three kids born to parents who were Depression children and who came of age during World War II. So on some level, I probably gravitated to old movies in an attempt to better understand my parents and the era that created them. My parents and their siblings talked about the 1930s and 1940s all the time, as if they were the day before yesterday, so the movies of those decades, in particular, fascinated me. They were like time travel. Much of my interest in history probably dates from that same desire for understanding. But my parents, like all parents, proved unfathomable, bless their hearts, and I got interested in the movies for their own sake: the personalities who made them, the social attitudes that shaped and skewed them, the technical expertise on display.
I checked out every movie book in the public library multiple times, and in those pre-cable, pre-VHS days of the 1970s, I read about countless movies before I ever got a chance actually to see them. Joe Adamson’s Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Sometimes Zeppo: A History of the Marx Brothers and a Satire on the Rest of the World was one of my favorite books, though I never had seen the movies Adamson described; ditto Pauline Kael’s The Citizen Kane Book. Happily, when I finally saw those movies, they were even better than I had imagined! (Roger Ebert pointed out, years later, that when film critics finally got the chance to actually re-watch these movies at home, they discovered they had misremembered almost everything about them, so that wholesale reassessment occurred, and standards for the whole field got higher.)
As I got older, and became a writer myself, I kept returning to those movies, looking for tips on how to handle (or not handle) structure, character, dialogue, pacing, even the visuals. I write my stories cinematically, trying to envision not only what they sound like but also what they look like, and I routinely “cast” actors in my mind to help the characters become real to me. But more recent movies and TV shows keep inspiring me, too. David Lynch’s 2017 Twin Peaks is almost certainly the best TV series I’ve ever seen, and it may be the best movie I’ve ever seen, if something eighteen hours long and made for television counts as a movie; if not, my fallback best movie is probably Mulholland Drive. (My favorite movie, of course, is Casablanca. Two different lists.)
One of my favorite scenes in “Joe Diabo’s Farewell” is when Eddie and the other men dressed up as Native Americans—who obviously aren’t Native Americans—munch on roasted chickpeas together early in the morning after putting in a night’s work together at Colony Theater. It’s a charming bonding moment for these guys. Eddie says to himself: “This won’t last, Eddie. We’ll all go back to our own neighborhoods, our own jobs, our lives. If we cross paths after tonight, we won’t even recognize each other. We’ll just see a Negro, or a Greek, or a Jew, and that’s all we’ll see.”
I knew that with the exception of Eddie, none of the “real Indians” in costume that night would be real Indians, but that raises the question: Who are these people, then? I got to thinking about New York City a century ago, the embodiment of American multiculturalism (from a demographic standpoint, anyway), and also about the temporary community created during any theatrical event, so that the participants are a bit reluctant to go home at the end, no matter how tired they are. Then the chickpea vendor walked up, interrupting my musings, and I was happy. I’m glad you like that scene.
Were there any surprising research rabbit holes you discovered while working on these new stories?
I was just on a Worldcon panel titled “Research Rabbit Holes,” and I didn’t quite confess my shameful secret, namely that I begrudge none of my research tangents. A half-dozen times during the process of each story, I tell myself, “Okay, that has no place in this story, but it’ll certainly fit another story one day.” They’re all down payments for later, and therefore I’m loath to talk about them too soon. I’ve gotten better, after all these years, at telling the difference between the detail that can be filled in later—I actually type out, INSERT PERIOD AUTOMOBILE TBA, and so forth—and the detail that has to be nailed down immediately because it’s important to story development. What really surprised me, in putting this book together, is how many research errors—just naked fact errors—can survive in stories through multiple reprints before some sharp-eyed editor finally catches them.
In “Unique Chicken Goes in Reverse,” you write about six-year-old Flannery O’Connor and her kinship with her frizzled, backward-walking chicken. After reading it, I watched the Pathé News footage of her and her pet. I found myself giving a lot of side-eye to the end of the footage—the part where scenes of other farm animals get played in reverse. It’s as if they’re meant to make you doubt whether O’Connor’s chicken really walked backward. What’s your take on it?
Much the same as yours. That newsreel really offends me; it’s obviously making fun of this kid and her pet and their bond, however peculiar. O’Connor liked to joke, as an adult, that the newsreel marked the peak of her fame, but I can’t help imagining that her feelings and her parents’ were hurt at the time. “Let’s go into the Deep South or a small town or a marginalized community and find someone to laugh at” is still a common media technique, sadly.
I was tickled pink when I found out that Richard Pryor, among several comedians, was a major influence for you. Is there any of his influence in the stories of this collection?
Pryor’s effect on me is impossible to overstate. As I have discussed elsewhere, I grew up a shy white Southern kid in a segregated town, a segregated church, a segregated school, so well insulated from the African-American half of Batesburg, South Carolina, that my first conversation with a black person never happened until I was an undergraduate, with a student from Nigeria. “I like your shirt,” I told him. “It’s a dashiki,” he replied, “but thank you!” And I read no African-American literature—no non-white literature, really—until university.
I was, however, fascinated by the parade of black performers and politicians on the tube through the 1970s and early 1980s, and the wider world they represented. Having decided that being funny was not a terrible life strategy, I always gravitated toward the comedians and comic actors, but above all there was Pryor, who I probably first noticed on Saturday Night Live, and then on the LPs that were smuggled among my (all-white) friends like contraband, and listened to with the volume low, because they were so “dirty.” But the language was the least transgressive thing about those angry, explosive, truth-to-power recordings. I felt that Pryor had grabbed me by the shirt collar, screaming in my face something I desperately needed to hear. And when I finally saw his uncensored stand-up routine, the man full-length and in motion like a head-to-toe live circuit, in Richard Pryor: Live in Concert, I felt this was simply the greatest actor/writer/performer alive. I still think that. Steve Martin, another hero at the time, was simply very funny. Pryor was Shakespearean funny, so funny that he went past funny, into higher realms.
Whether any of this is visible in my fiction, I don’t know, but it has to be one reason that John Kessel’s oft-stated workshop dictum lodged in my mind, when I was his graduate student: “All the really funny stuff is, on some level, very serious, and all the really serious stuff is, on some level, very funny.” I can envision Pryor as several characters in my collection, for example Daddy Mention in “Daddy Mention and the Monday Skull,” especially the last scene, and John in “Beluthahatchie.” Those are both comic/heroic figures defying authority and speaking their minds, which is the Pryor character defined in those landmark albums and concerts. I also could see him in “Slow as a Bullet,” both as Cliffert, whose resourcefulness everyone underestimates, but also as the narrator who spins the tall tale in the first place. A dual role! Probably, though, the Pryor influence most comes out in my public performances of these stories, where I try to fling myself fearlessly into the readings, and get loud reactions from people. I often write the story with the performance in mind. Pryor taught me that. I’ll never be as good as him, of course, but that’s what heroes are for.
You’ve been published in the field since the nineties. What have the changes in the industry in the past two decades been like for you? The publishing industry and the SFF cultural scene look very different today than they did two decades ago.
They sure do, and I’m glad. When I attended Clarion West in 1994, only a handful of SF short-fiction magazines existed, all in print only, all in what looked like circulation free-fall. When I asked Frederik Pohl, at a Science Fiction Research Association conference, whether he felt the field could survive the demise of the magazines, he replied, “It already has.” Despite a few spectacular counterexamples, the field was very white, very male, very straight, very middle-aged, and very American, with some middle-aged straight white male Brits thrown in, for diversity. A handful of book publishers were the gatekeepers of SFF, and so-called literary markets, were closed to us, as they were closed even to Stephen King. Social media did not exist, and nothing went viral but viruses. I had never seen a website, and I was one of only two or three Clarion West students and instructors who even had an email address, because I had a university affiliation. Who off campus would need an email address? Digital audiobooks did not exist, nor the YA market as we know it. Submissions were on paper, with self-addressed stamped envelopes and trips to the post office. New writers could await publication for years, even after acceptance. My first story sale, “Beluthahatchie” to Asimov’s, was submitted in late summer 1994, bought in January 1995, but not published until March 1997, which turned out to be a fateful year: Audible pioneered the mass-market digital media player, and in the UK, the first Harry Potter novel appeared. The twenty-first century of publishing had begun.
While we have a very long way to go, and while backlash and backtrack are chronic and troubling, the fact is that today’s field of science fiction and fantasy is more diverse, inclusive, and international, contains more markets and subgenres, has a broader reach, a stronger cultural signal, and in general is more vibrant than any of us dreamed possible in 1994. In particular, it is more accessible than ever to new writers, who have greater visibility and greater networking opportunities than ever, and who feel a passionate collective commitment to their presence in the field. The membership of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America will surpass 2,000 soon, if it hasn’t already. Even gray-haired veterans like me are newly inspired. All this fresh energy and activity, this influx of talent, is nothing but good for the field. May it continue; may it redouble.
What’s coming up next after this collection? Any future projects you can tell us about?
Two new novelettes and a new short story are in press: “The Devil’s Whatever” in The Book of Magic, perhaps the last original anthology edited by Gardner Dozois (Bantam, October 2018); “Mr. Percy’s Shortcut” in If This Goes On, an original anthology edited by Cat Rambo (Parvus Press, January 2019); and “Charlie Tells Another One” in Asimov’s (September/October 2019). With “Worrity, Worrity” in Ellen Datlow’s anthology Mad Hatters and March Hares (Tor, December 2017) and “New Frontiers of the Mind” in Analog (July/August 2018), plus “An Agent of Utopia” and “Joe Diabo’s Farewell,” 2017-2019 is looking downright productive. Must be time to get back to work!
Is there anything else you’d like your readers to know about An Agent of Utopia?
I am very proud of the first and last sentences of the book. The first is: “To the Prince and Tranibors of our good land, and the offices of the Syphogrants below, and all those families thereof, greetings, from your poor servant in far Albion.” The last is: “Hey, Mr. Nelson? Is this your dog?” Those two sentences—that’s my career, right there.
Spread the word!