There was a magic trick they did in primary school. The ingredients were books and other children, who looked pretty much like me. Put the two together and the children somehow spoke out the words from the page. Magic is a marvel that you don’t yet understand.
My father read me stories, though: Conan Doyle, Isaac Asimov, Tolkien. It was a great gift. When I started to be able to decode the words for myself, I discovered that Tintin, Marvel comics and make your own adventure books suited me best. They delivered the maximum amount of story in the fewest words.
The stories I compulsively created had to remain in my head until the advent of the word processor. That started to dissolve the barrier between my thoughts and the page. First I wrote a couple very bad poems and a short story. Then a novel. It didn’t occur to me that I should practice more before setting off on such an endeavour. Naturally enough, it didn’t make the grade. In the end, I wrote four novels that didn’t get published. That was my learning process. My fifth novel, Backlash, was picked up. Simon & Schuster commissioned me for a trilogy and suddenly I was a crime writer.
Like most writers, creativity has always been a compulsion for me rather than a logical career choice. So when the filmmaking bug caught me, I dived into that, working on several projects with the director Rhys Davies. And when a science fiction/fantasy story came into my head, I changed course again, moving into a new genre.
The novel The Bullet Catcher’s Daughter came out in 2014 and was shortlisted for the Philip K. Dick award. It didn’t win, but I had the pleasure of going out to Seattle to read an extract in front of an audience of science fiction/fantasy fans, including George R.R. Martin.
Strangely, for a story so rooted in the built fabric of Leicester, much of my SFF audience is out there in the US. It seems the Victoriansque setting is familiar enough from the Sherlock Holmes stories and dramatizations of Dickens. The landscape has become so much a part of world culture that readers in Mississippi or Michigan will have no difficulty imagining it.
A theme of illusion and stage magic runs through The Bullet Catcher’s Daughter and the books that came after it. Each chapter begins with a quotation from an in-world text called the Bullet Catcher’s Handbook, a collection of aphorisms about the life of the stage magician.
Illusion is story. Weave it with characters and feelings and love and loss and the audience will follow you as surely as the children of Hamlyn followed the Pied Piper.
The secret of deep deception is to tell the truth.
Only two kinds of people can be conned: those with vices and those without.
Starting out on my own writing journey with so little knowledge, I’ve had to consciously learn almost everything along the way. That process is still going on. Perhaps that is why I now get such pleasure from teaching creative writing. It feels like sharing the journey. I’m now a creative writing lecturer at DeMontfort University and working with Siobhan Logan, I recently set up a writer development agency called The Writers’ Shed.
Words and writing have never come easily to me. They still seem to be a kind of magic. But I think every artist needs to wrestle with their chosen medium. Without struggle our words will fork no fork no lightning.
Rod Duncan’s next novel, The Queen of All Crows, comes out in January 2018. Here is what the publisher says about it:
The great machine tilted back and began to fall. Every loose thing slid or tumbled toward the rear of the carriages. Smoke poured from the engines as they battled the inevitable pull of gravity. From a distance the end seemed slow, dreadfully slow, yet magnificent.
Scientific progress has been stifled for 200 years and the arms race outlawed. But something is stirring in the wilderness beyond the borders of civilisation.
When an airship is destroyed over the North Atlantic, Elizabeth Barnabus loses her dearest friend. Setting out to investigate, she discovers forces at work that may be about to bring the age of order crashing down.
You can follow Rod’s journey here: https://www.facebook.com/gaslitempire
On Twitter he is: @RodDuncan