[When Andy Duncan asked me whether NYRSF would be interested in reading the introduction to his master’s thesis, I responded yes instantly even though I had never read an MFA thesis and thus had no true idea what it encompassed. I was delighted to find so much of Andy present even in this formal document—his love for the written word, for voices, for the fantastic and the star-crossed all pour out as he lays his stories down for judgment. Enjoy.—kjm and the eds.]
DUNCAN, ANDREW ROBERT. Our Stories Thus Far. (Under the direction of John J. Kessel.)
This is a collection of five stories both fantastical and historical. “From Alfano’s Reliquary” is a tale of skullduggery in the medieval Church of Rome. “Beluthahatchie” depicts the travels of a Depression-era blues guitarist who dies and goes not to Hell but to the next railway station past Hell. “Grand Guignol” is about backstage intrigue at the 1920s Parisian theater of gore. “Liza and the Crazy Water Man” is a romance set amid the Charlotte country-music industry of the 1930s. Finally, “The Chief Designer” is a speculative and mystical portrait of the guiding genius of the Soviet space program.
Dedication: For my parents, who raised me to read.
Andrew Robert Duncan was born Sept. 21, 1964, in Columbia, South Carolina, and grew up in the nearby town of Batesburg. He received a B.A. in journalism from the University of South Carolina in 1986. While at USC, he held many positions on the campus newspaper and wrote a three-times-a-week column that was widely read off-campus as well as on and was quoted in the Chronicle of Higher Education. He graduated summa cum laude ... and was named outstanding student of the College of Journalism. After college, he spent seven years on the staff of the News & Record in Greensboro, North Carolina, as both a writer and an editor in features and in news. He acted in community theater and in student films and was a regular writer and performer on Confetti, an avant-garde variety show seen weekly on Cablevision of Greensboro. He also was a founding member of the Greensboro Playwrights Forum. He began his M.A. work in North Carolina State University’s Department of English in fall 1993 and has taught freshman composition in the department since that time. He has been honored as an outstanding teacher by the Department of English and by the Graduate Student Association. He also teaches a fiction workshop sponsored by the town of Cary. He attended the 1994 Clarion West fiction workshop in Seattle. His short stories are upcoming in Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine, in the journal Negative Capability, and in Starlight 1, an original anthology edited by Patrick Nielsen Hayden, to be published in hardcover by Tor Books in the latter half of 1996.
This thesis collects five of the fifteen or so stories that I have written as a graduate student in the creative-writing program at North Carolina State University. The first draft of the earliest, “From Alfano’s Reliquary,” was written in January 1994. The first draft of the most recent, “The Chief Designer,” was written in July 1995. The first drafts of the three middle stories were written at the Clarion West fiction workshop in Seattle during summer 1994.
Let me say at the outset that I like these five stories. They’re not just family; they’re friends, too. Individually, I have thoroughly enjoyed their company. I am a little nervous, however, about bringing them all together in one place, because I don’t know how they’ll get along with each other and whether I, the good host, will be able to keep the peace among them. Too late now; the table is set, and the guests will arrive any minute.
Probably I should explain my title, Our Stories Thus Far. The third and fourth words are meant to suggest that more of these are on their way. The second word is, I suppose, the grandest claim of all. The first word acknowledges that I do not work alone. Each of these stories was significantly worked on by dozens of people—for example, my friends with whom I workshop manuscripts in Raleigh, my classmates and teachers at N.C. State, and my classmates and teachers at Clarion West. There are many others, family and friends and colleagues and loved ones, and I cannot adequately thank them here or anywhere else, ever. The hundreds of fiction writers and creative writers of every stripe who have inspired me these past thirty years share credit for these stories, too. I am happy to be able to give something back to them. As the title says, there’s more to come.
To me, the full title, Our Stories Thus Far, evokes the announcer’s voice at the beginning of the radio episode, the opening frames of the serial chapter at the Bijou, the breathless blurbs atop the tattered pages of the pulps, the old-timers who keep asking but not caring whether y’all ever heard tell the one about ..., and last, the warm and luminous “To Be Continued” that hangs in the air after Mom and Dad realize you’re asleep, so finally they are able to close the book and switch off the light and rejoin their own story, already in progress.
Because I attended a prominent science-fiction workshop, hang out with science-fiction writers, subscribe to science-fiction magazines, teach a science-fiction class, and have sold two of these very stories to science-fiction markets, I am frequently asked, “Oh, do you write science fiction?” Sometimes it’s obvious that the person really means, “Oh, do you write crap?”—I can practically see the translation scrolling across the bottom of the screen. In such cases, I don’t hesitate to reply, “Why, no.” If the person seems to respect science fiction, on the other hand, and seems genuinely interested in my work, I generally reply, “Yes, I do”—but my “yes” lacks the breezy confidence of my “no.” Frankly, I don’t consider any of these stories science fiction. If I had to label them, I would call them fantasy stories. Of course, I would also claim as fantasy stories most of the world’s literature including all the science fiction, so you see what a wet blanket I am at genre-labeling parties. (These are less enjoyable variants of Tupperware parties, attended primarily by literary theorists, people who enjoy shelving books more than reading them, and vice presidents in charge of marketing. At genre-labeling parties, the lids never seal properly, and the contents instantly get stale.)
I ask myself, then, why do I feel such an affinity with science-fiction writers? Why do I court the science-fiction audience? Some of the reasons seem obvious. I have read science fiction since I was a kid, and I have found it a continuous source of inspiration and wonder. Science fiction that considers itself science fiction is a brand-new genre—several of its founders are still with us—and its infant feuds and frenzies suggest the enthusiasm that the earliest English novelists, for example, must have felt: this makes it an exciting place to work. The professional science-fiction community welcomes new writers, does everything it can to help them, provides much-needed encouragement, advice, and camaraderie; no other field of literature works more conscientiously to replenish its ranks. And though The New Yorker sends me nice notes about my stories, the top science-fiction markets occasionally vary the nice notes with acceptance letters and checks written in genuine US money, and I would like to encourage this tendency by sending them more stories.
There are deeper reasons as well, I think, for my sympathizing with science-fiction writers. For example, all five of these stories were constructed in the same way many science-fiction writers traditionally construct stories: setting first, plot and characters later. “I still get the greatest fun,” Hal Clement once wrote, “out of making up solar systems and planets and working out the chemical, physical, meteorological, biological, and other details which may later provide a story background” (qtd. in Gunn 206). I read this to mean that Clement first thinks of a setting, as in, “What would intelligent life be like on a planet with a gravity hundreds of times that of Earth?” Then Clement does a great deal of research to work out the details of the setting; and out of that research, the story and the characters evolve. This has been exactly my way of doing things. When people ask me what a particular story is about, I generally respond by telling them what the setting is, as if that were the whole story. Maybe it is; ask Eudora Welty, or Melville, or Faulkner. The initial inspiration of each of these stories was no more than a question about a setting; for example, “I wonder what life would be like in an African-American suburb of Hell?” These vague notions—too preliminary to call ideas—suffice to get me not to my writing desk but to the library. To write these stories, I read everything I could find on Pope Stephen’s cadaver synod, African-American folklore of hell, the Grand Guignol of Paris, the Charlotte recording industry of the 1930s, and the Soviet space program. The photocopies, books, and notes mounted. My single-spaced notes on “The Chief Designer,” for example, occupy a computer file several times longer than the story itself, and it’s a long story. As I was doing all this happy drudgery, plot, characters, scenes all naturally suggested themselves. I read in Mel Gordon’s history of the Grand Guignol, for example, that the theater frequently used real animal eyeballs in its lurid performances because they bounced so well as they hit the floor (Gordon 47). I immediately pictured some theatrical eyeball connoisseur running a bounce test on a sack of eyeballs, bemoaning the poor quality and so on, and so I had both my opening scene and the character of Max. “Beluthahatchie” was a pleasure to write largely because I realized during the research phase that my African-American hell story also should be a Robert Johnson story. As a result, I wound up researching two subjects rather than one and getting ideas based on the coincidences and collisions of the two.
Science-fiction writers are kindred spirits, too, in the way they keep trying to startle the reader sentence by sentence. Many people who have tried to read science fiction and given up have done so not because the writing was bad but because the sentences could not be read with any complacency whatsoever. In science fiction, you keep encountering sentences like: “I myself was the first man to put a postage stamp on a letter, after fourteen thousand years” (Smith 49). Or: “The big man’s dinner jacket split open in the back, and a little man climbed out” (Knight 46). Or: “The dogs sprang after me with a whir of propulsive fans” (Sterling 48). These sentences call attention to themselves, and so do a lot of mine. Once I finally bring myself to leave the library and drag out the typewriter, I labor over my sentences, revising them and reading them aloud and revising them again. Some of my typed manuscript pages are devoted entirely to dozens of alternate versions of a single sentence, not unlike the “novel” Jack Nicholson wrote in The Shining. My ideal sentence—which I’ve never achieved—sounds good, summarizes a major theme of the story, and is somehow startling, unexpected, peculiar, eccentric, baroque so that it cannot simply be read but must be dealt with as well. Yes, writers in all genres, if they’re any good, labor over their prose and work toward sound as well as sense, but the element of surprise, sentence to sentence, is, I think, the specialty of the science-fiction writer—and, needless to add, of the genius. I think I’m safer comparing myself to the science-fiction writers. I’m young yet.
Ursula K. Le Guin, who probably fits both those categories, writes about “the way in which the open context of science fiction brings the language alive” (30). It brings the story alive, too. Le Guin’s example:
In a story where only what ordinarily occurs is going to occur, one can safely use such a sentence as, “He was absorbed in the landscape.” In a story where only the story tells you what is likely to happen, you had best be careful about using sentences like that. (ibid; emphasis in original)
The phrase Le Guin emphasizes, “only the story,” is the one that takes my breath. Imagine what the state of fiction would be if we opened ourselves to the story and allowed the story alone to shape our appreciation of the story. Imagine, as a reader, turning to each new story as if a whole new world were unfolding before your eyes, a world in which constant attentiveness, alertness, and engagement were demanded of you. Imagine, as a fiction writer, sitting down to each new story as if a whole new world were pouring from your fingers, a creation whose like was never seen before. How soon we would grow disgusted as readers and as writers with stale categories, hackneyed formulae, bland imitations, sterile self-indulgences, and numbered volumes of interminable series, if we approached each new story expecting just such freshness, audacity, eccentricity. What diverse and inventive readers we would be—how open to new stories, new writers, new genres. And how we would write! We would remake the whole of literature and then remake it again, story to story, novel to novel, and there’d be no end to our wonder and astonishment. “Only the story tells you what is likely to happen.” That science-fiction writers dare even to voice this ideal, so seldom achieved, so seldom appreciated, is reason enough to exult in their company.
That being said, these five stories are more properly fantasy than science fiction. I mean they are not extrapolations of what could be or reconstructions of what might have been but celebrations of what demonstrably ain’t. As such, they are fragile things, so please be careful as you turn these pages. These stories would not survive long in the world beyond this book. John Updike alludes to this fragility in describing Kafka:
Such scenes could not be done except with words. In this age that lives and dies by the visual, “The Metamorphosis” stands as a narrative absolutely literary, able to exist only where language and the mind’s hazy wealth of imagery intersect. (Updike 1529)
Well, here we are at that crossroads. I know which way I’m going: straight across the borderlands. Wish me luck; there are no maps. I’ll have more stories when I return.
Andy Duncan, MFA, lives in Frostburg, Maryland.
Gordon, Mel. The Grand Guignol: Theatre of Fear and Terror. New York: Amok, 1988.
Gunn, James, ed. The Road to Science Fiction No. 3: From Heinlein to Here. New York: Mentor-New American, 1979.
Knight, Damon. “The Handler.” 1960. In Le Guin, Attebery, and Fowler.
Le Guin, Ursula K. “Introduction.” In Le Guin, Attebery, and Fowler.
Le Guin, Ursula K., Brian Attebery, and Karen Joy Fowler, eds. The Norton Book of Science Fiction: North American Science Fiction, 1960–1990. New York: Norton, 1993.
Smith, Cordwainer [Paul Linebarger]. “Alpha Ralpha Boulevard.” 1961. In Le Guin, Attebery, and Fowler.
Sterling, Bruce. “Cicada Queen” (1983). Crystal Express. New York: Ace, 1990.
Updike, John. “Kafka and The Metamorphosis” (1983). The Story and Its Writer: An Introduction to Short Fiction. Ed. Ann Charters. Third edition. Boston: Bedford-St. Martin’s, 1991.