Richard Calder is a British Science Fiction writer who came to prominence in 1992 with his post-cyberpunk debut novel, ‘Dead Girls’, the first part of the ‘Dead’ trilogy. He has written ten novels in total, including ‘Malignos’, ‘Impakto’ and ‘Babylon’. Richard wrote the ‘Dead’ trilogy whilst living in Thailand and has also lived in the Philippines. He now resides in the East End of London.
He has most recently published a reinterpretation of ‘Dead Girls’ in graphic novel form with artwork by Leonardo M Giron. This was launched in August at the 72nd World Science Fiction Convention in London. It was reviewed for SFCrowsnest in September.
SFCrowsnest:. What made you become a writer?
Richard Calder: What made me start is what makes me continue: an obsessional need to play with the elements of language in order to shape an artefact – a thing-made-out-of-words – that offers the illusion of life. Not life itself, of course, which like history is simply one damned thing after another, but an artificial world that exists at right angles to our own – a world that provides consolation and a certain degree of meaning. Writers come into existence when pen touches paper or fingers tap at a keyboard; in other words, the writer is a doppelgänger, another self, someone and something similar to the human creature that shares his or her name but, at the same time, other.
A writer exists in a fictive continuum. And since that continuum is self-referential – which is to say stories are about other stories and really not about life at all – and since I believe an audience or readership is created rather than found and that, in any case, a work of art is or should be self-sufficient, I find that I write for myself. This, I suppose, is as close to aestheticism as a Science Fiction writer may reasonably get. But the studied indulgence of play and the creation of illusion – some vivid, intensely realised abstract of what passes for reality or life, a world more lively, more interesting, than the day-to-day one we otherwise inhabit is, for me, the only thing that constitutes a compelling reason to write. And in the simple hope of writing better and perhaps differently, I continue to scribble away.
SFC:. Who or what would you cite as major influences on your writing?
RC: Overt influences are, I think, obvious, particularly, say, on the ‘Dead’ trilogy – Gibson and, cyberpunk in general, Burroughs, Ballard and Angela Carter. The same holds for a book like ‘Malignos’, which, in many ways, is an homage to Moorcock and Vance. But it’s the subconscious influences that have probably been more important and lasting and, for me, that involves memories of childhood.
For instance: I grew up in East London next door to an abandoned World War Two aerodrome. I’d only have to walk to the bottom of my garden and climb over its fence to find myself in a Ballardian landscape of overgrown runways, ruined pillboxes and shelters, tumbledown barracks and rusted underground fuel tanks. And this aerodrome – always deserted, always ghostly quiet – seemed to have a limitless horizon. Indeed, as a young boy, I could never quite discover where it ended and where the everyday world began again. It seemed a hiccup in reality, a way station between worlds. (I was to re-encounter this landscape, its sense of unlimited space and its concomitant, alien quality of strangeness, many years later when I first saw Tarkovsky’s ‘Stalker’.) Now, in my late fifties, my memories of that fantastical, frankly surreal, playground, are conflated with memories of the Kennedy assassination; the initial episodes of Dr Who; Gerry Anderson’s Supercar, Fireball XL5; British comics like The Eagle, Valiant, Victor and Century 21; American DC and Marvel titles. Oh and the incredible mid-sixties SF television drama series ‘Out Of The Unknown’. And I recall an episode of ‘The Avengers’ – ‘The Hour That Never Was’ – which, much to my delight, was itself set in a mysterious, abandoned aerodrome and which reinforced my early sense of living next to something I might have later called an inter-dimensional crossroads. Soon, astronomy became a hobby. I would star-gaze through my six-inch reflector and beg to stay up late to see Patrick Moore presenting ‘The Sky At Night’.
A certain vision of childhood permeates all my work and it’s memories such as these – and many, many more – that I constantly return to as a source. Childhood is a powerful and essentially uncanny realm that I never tire of meditating on, evoking, and seeking to re-explore.
SFC: How old were you when you started writing? Did your childhood experiences drive you straight towards writing Science Fiction or did you experiment with other genres first?
RC: I grew up in a house without books and went to a pretty rough East London secondary school, recollections of which – re-imagined, creatively skewed – provide a backdrop to Iggy and Primavera’s schooldays in ‘Dead Girls’ and probably inform later fictions, too. In educational terms, I fared badly until I was about 14. Then something changed. I had a good, indeed excellent, English and form teacher and I began to read and, in a sense, wake up – as so many adolescents do at that age – to the world beyond family and school. My form teacher, as well as teaching English, taught Drama, and would regularly take a small group of favoured students on extra-curricular trips to West End theatres. He was a friend of theatre director Joan Littlewood and, on quite a few occasions, we visited Stratford East. And I began to read more and more.
I had always read, of course, but intermittently, seizing upon certain books that would prove to have a lasting effect largely by accident. ‘Tom Sawyer’ comes to mind, which I read quite early. There, I discovered a lyrical, visionary intensity, that had, of course, something to do with the book itself, but more, perhaps, to do with my boyhood state of mind. The mind, if this doesn’t sound pretentious, of a solitary, much given to dreaming and roaming across abandoned World War II aerodromes, which, to this day, is a time I recollect – and now I am going to sound truly pretentious – in a manner that often seems Wordsworthian. The world of ‘Tom Sawyer’ and indeed, ‘Huckleberry Finn’, which I read in quick succession, remains a potent, formative experience. This had, I believe, something to do with Tom’s relationship with Becky, later to influence the way I dealt with Iggy and Primavera’s relationship in ‘Dead Girls’. Indeed, the early chapters of ‘Dead Girls’ quote directly from the book – specifically, a furtive, conversational exchange between Tom and Becky while they are in school. For me, these two characters prefigured the theme of ‘young runaways’ or ‘lovers on the lam’, which, as I grew older, I rediscovered in films such as ‘You Only Live Once’, ‘They Live By Night’, ‘Gun Crazy’, ‘Badlands’, ‘Bonnie And Clyde’, ‘Thieves Like Us’, ‘Wild At Heart’, ‘True Romance’ and ‘Ain’t Them Bodies Saints’. It was a theme that was to become and remain of crucial importance. Tom and Becky’s later incarnations were, of course, quite different from their fictional antecedents. They were teenage outlaws, as dangerous as they were doomed. But, in me, at least, a direct line of influence exists, from children’s literature to the world of adult fiction that, I think, explains the genealogy of Iggy, Primavera, and so many of my boy-girl pairings, all of whom represent attempts to realise a transposition of Tom, Becky and, say, Bonnie and Clyde.
But as a boy, all this was still off-piste; I was busy turning to some of the authors someone of my generation might be expected to read: Tolkien and Peake, Aldiss, Heinlein, Asimov and, perhaps unexpectedly, Ballard. I also began my first attempts at writing, the usual kind of things adolescents attempt: maudlin poetry; pop-song lyrics; micro-fictions that would have made Adrian Mole blush. These initial forays had a strong, Bowie-esque, Science-Fictional flavour. And my love of SF television, film, and comics, my interest in star-gazing and the American space program – and indeed, the music, and style, of David Bowie – made this inevitable. When I would visit my local library, I would head straight for the SF shelves. And much to my surprise and, I think, everybody else’s, I began to thrive academically. But my school was really so bad, so rough, that I left shortly after turning sixteen and went to a College of Further Education, after which I proceeded to university.
It was during my first year at university that I attempted and completed, my first SF novel. It was quite awful, quite unpublishable. But the positive was that I had finished it. Some of its characters and some of its ideas were to resurface ten years later, when I sat down with considerable deliberation to write a short story for ‘Interzone’ that, I hoped, might seriously be considered for publication. The manuscript of the first novel also followed me to Thailand – where it still is, I would suppose, unless it has been destroyed, either by pique or white ants – and was occasionally mined during my work on the ‘Dead’ trilogy.
SFC: For those who are not familiar with your work, how would you describe it? What kind of SF do you write and what are the key themes that you find yourself returning to?
RC: What I write is clearly Science Fiction in theme, design, and treatment, but it has never fitted easily, or comfortably, within genre, or commercial, parameters. And this is, I think, because I write, or, at least, try to write, a kind of fiction that both is, and is not, Science Fiction. Thus the ‘Dead’ trilogy – ‘Dead Girls’, ‘Dead Boys’, ‘Dead Things’ – has, at its heart, a big SF idea: luxury sex-dolls contaminate the human gene pool with malicious viral nanoware; a generation of girl-children are subsequently born in whom the nano-virus lies dormant until triggered by puberty, after which the girls metamorphose into cyber-human hybrids, fantastically strong, with certain paranormal abilities; and since this second-generation of dolls is capable of replicating by infecting human males via an intoxicating, vampire-like bite, the ‘doll-plague’ spreads. This grande idée – which clearly announces that ‘here be SF’ – is complemented with scenery, wardrobe and props gleaned and then given a certain literary spin, from SF’s backstage: flooded cities, robots, ray guns and some Dickian ontological conjuring tricks.
I love SF’s pop-cultural elements; I love its flirtations with scuzziness; I love writing literary SF that is informed with the spirit of comic-books and trash cinema to create avant-pop mash-ups. Indeed, the ‘Dead’ trilogy, I’ve sometimes thought, might, in spirit at least, be considered as a kind of synthesis of ‘Alphaville’ and ‘Barbarella’. (At which point I must pause to say I’ve never heard, or read, any kind of explanation of why those two films have exactly the same plot!) It’s the writing that takes the central SF idea and its attendant ‘stuff’, someplace else, someplace, perhaps, where SF is not expected to go.
You’ve asked me previously about influences and I really should have cited film directors, such as Cronenberg and Robbe-Grillet, who probably come closer to what I attempt to do than many SF writers. Both – the former, say, in ‘Shivers’ and ‘Videodrome’, the latter, say, in ‘Trans-Europe-Express’ and ‘Gradiva’ – play with genre conventions and both are concerned with what Cronenberg refers to as the Revolution of the Flesh, the New Flesh or revolutionary flesh technology.
In the ‘Dead’ trilogy (and, to a greater, or sometimes lesser, extent, in the novels that follow), I was interested in a theme that I returned to in ‘After The Party’ (a novella and companion piece to my novel ‘Babylon’) and later short stories such as ‘The Catgirl Manifesto: An Introduction’, ‘Madeline Smith’, and ‘We Are Not Alone’ (the latter to be published in PS Publishing’s forthcoming Postscripts anthology ‘Far Voyager’): the re-presentation or mimetic reification, of the flesh; the notion of the body’s infinite erotic plasticity. In focusing on this, I find myself concomitantly and, I think, necessarily, focusing on a parallel theme: that of the secret history, the notion that there is, encoded within what might be called paramount or normative, reality, a timeline that is stranger, and, in some paradoxical way, more real, than the one we are most familiar with. It glints and winks at us through the indices of popular culture and increasingly through the miasma of populist politics – those quasi- or sub-political issues that are really obsessions, and morbid obsessions at that: immigration, the undeserving poor, the despoliation of individual and national innocence. In all of which we hear the fear of the alien, of the other.
It seems to me that we are a Dream Nation; that fantasy, and the understanding of fantasy (though not Fantasy) is the key task of a contemporary artist and, through understanding, the creation of parallel narratives or discourses that challenge what Foucault calls the episteme or dominant discourse, defining and proscribing the possibilities of knowledge in any given time.
I would describe my work, then, as an attempt to challenge dominant or normative narratives by offering other narratives, other possibilities; by delineating hidden life – the hidden life of the individual and of nations and cultures; to throw some light on that secret, repressed, hidden life; to investigate liminal spaces and decode the way we live, talk, and act and thus reveal something about the parallel culture or universe, deep within all of us that is at once alien and our truer, unrecognised collective self.
SFC: Can you say a little more about this fantastical element to your writing?
RC: In the modern world, the greatest explorer, and writer, of fantasy – particularly dark fantasy – has been Sigmund Freud. I cite Freud because, though my work contains hardly any sex – at least of an overt nature – it is infused with grindhouse atmospherics. It is, in other words, a symbolic universe analogous in some ways to the sexually-charged Freudian dream-world and its interpretation.
Freud, of course, was a key influence on Surrealism and Surrealism has been a key influence on me. The world of Hans Bellmer, De Chirico, Leonor Fini, that is, of dolls, mannequins – Bellmer’s endlessly reiterated Doll and the mannequins that populated the 1938 Surrealist exhibition in Paris and of sphinxes, magical toyshops, the endless corridors of baroque hotels and the colonnades of abandoned cities: this is the Calderian universe, intensely lyrical, sometimes baroque, sometimes glacial, somewhat formalistic, and suggestive of something dark, something erotomaniacal, flowing beneath.
I am a Surrealist, I think, rather than a genre SF and Fantasy writer. I write about fantasy, rather than write Fantasy. My project is to explore the dark undercurrents of personal, and collective, dreams and to try to interpret them in terms of secret histories – not just of people, but of our time. This post-Freudian exploration of secret history is necessarily an exploration of childhood.
The realm of childhood is where the wild things are and first-person narrators, who are usually in mid or late, adolescence and very, very wild indeed, fill the pages of my books. There is a close relationship between Dada and Surrealism and the infantile, the childlike, the adolescent, which produces artistic strategies that are playful, badly-behaved, disruptive, regressive. The stuff of childhood – its assorted paraphernalia, babble, and make-believe rituals – is re-animated and set at challengingly perverse loggerheads with the adult world. The doll, or mannequin – that constant in Surrealist work, and the icon or most significant fetish-object, of the realm of the artificial – is thus central to my vision: the symbol of the human translated into the realm, not just of childhood, but the artificial. And as such the doll is, I suppose, a symbol of the child’s imagination, too, of fairy-tale land – a place of dark forests, of cruelty, of sleeping beauties.
But if fairy tales are cruel, bloody and strange, they hint at paradise, too, since they end happily ever after. Where is home when, as an adult, one is a foreigner everywhere? Is it merely somewhere defined by its opposite, rootlessness? Or is it a happy ever after, a fairy-tale ending – the wedding that transforms the last scenes of Shakespearian comedy – which we can only expect to find in fiction, and other imaginative universes?
SFC: How has your experience of living in Thailand influenced your writing?
RC: Nong Khai lies along the Highway of Things Past, a phantom town haunted by ghosts, mirages, will-o’-the-wisps. And if it was once a place necessarily possessing a quintessential otherness, then it’s come to seem far stranger, far more other, now when, divorced from my everyday experience of the world, it rears up at me from the depths of memory. Indeed, it sometimes seems no more than a series of hallucinogenic snapshots. There’s one of me sitting in a riverside eatery at night, gazing out over the big, Mekong River, towards the palm-stippled Laotian bank far, far away, the moon high above. And there’s another: me cycling downtown along Meechai Road under the hot, morning sun or perhaps taking the back road, past the fish farm, the rice-fields and temples. And yet another and another: me sitting in the Kangaroo Bar, consuming one of Bill Hughes’s breakfasts and the first Singha of the day or sitting with the mad, Vietnamese barber, Dr. International – out of whom grew the fictional Dr. International who appears, first, in ‘Dead Boys’ and then in ‘Dead Girls – The Graphic Novel’. The two of us would while away the small hours in his little shop, drinking the last Singha of the day and viewing his curious collection of videos, all of which seemed to focus on the glorious history of the Kuomintang. And on the last page of this imaginary photo album, there are the snaps I most return to: me sitting in front of my desk, scribbling away on the ledger that was to contain the first draft of ‘Dead Girls’; typing it up, the heat so intense that my typewriter’s electrics would seize and die. ‘Primavera’ emerged from these damp, sweat-stained pages like a little Venus Anadyomene rising from the surf.
I immediately recognised her: a girl vulnerable, yet haughty – at once victim and possessed of super-human power – a girl who had been standing next to me, at right-angles, in the wings, casting a shadow across my peripheral vision, all my life, but whom, until that moment, I had not known or had known, rather, only as an intimation, a distant glimmer. She wasn’t based on anyone or any single person, at least. But as she emerged from the foamy, bubbling confusion that represented the first chapters of ‘Dead Girls’, she seemed to coalesce out of my past, to be a distillation, a kind of quintessence of Calderian lost time. In some respects, ‘Dead Girls’ evokes Peter Pan – a story about death as much as escape. In ‘Dead Girls’, this undercurrent becomes explicit. Peter is Primavera, Iggy, Wendy. Peter will never grow up – because he is dead. And the same is true of Primavera. Like Peter, she is a runaway, or refugee. And she seeks out lost boys, and takes them to her Isle of the Dead: a world of strange children, strange games, of misfits and dolls.
SFC:. What are Primavera’s origins?
RC: Primavera’s origins are chiefly to be found in certain fictional antecedents. ‘Dead Girls’, in its humble way, is immensely influenced by ‘Remembrance Of Things Past’ or, ‘In Search Of Lost Time’ and Marcel Proust’s boyhood infatuation with Swann’s daughter, Gilberte. I would also cite Alain-Fournier’s ‘Le Grand Meaulnes’, the visionary childhood realm of Wordsworth and Thomas De Quincy’s recollections of the child prostitute, Ann, with whom he would walk down Oxford Street at night, homeless, destitute and, who in later years, would provide the focus of so many hallucinatory, waking dreams. There are, of course, many other writers who have been obsessed with or made their subject, the realm of childhood. Dickens comes to mind, whose best, or most memorable, writing occurs in the early chapters of ‘David Copperfield’ and ‘Great Expectations’ and Estella is, perhaps, another proto-Primavera.
SFC: Your latest project, ‘Dead Girls – The Graphic Novel’ is based on your 1992 debut novel. Why did you decide to revisit this story after so long and what was the motivation for adapting it into a graphic novel?
RC: I’ve always wanted to write a comic or graphic novel and, more recently, I’ve wanted to revisit and again enjoy the company of Iggy and Primavera. The theme of escape that pervades all my fiction is counterbalanced by the theme of returning home. Perhaps hardwired into all of us is the myth of original sin, the fall and the expulsion from Eden – of innocence betrayed, lost and the prospect of some kind of paradise regained, some kind of redemption, of coming at last to the home that we call, in an essentially childlike, very human way, ‘heaven’ and I think I wanted to re-render the ‘Dead Girls’ narrative in a particularly childlike way; that is, as a magical picture book that represented, not just a revisiting of source material, but a homecoming.
I believe all writers are locked in a continual struggle to discover, mine and then re-visit what might be called their ‘source’. I’ve cited some of my thematic sources above but the Calderian heartland, if you will, is very much the mad, frenetic, comicbook world Iggy and Primavera – my strongest and best fictional characters – inhabit. In many ways, ‘Dead Girls’, the original 1992 novel, is a comicbook in novelistic form. It has hyper-real characters with hyper-kinetic action and pacing. For years, I longed to see it realised visually, either as film or comicbook. There have been two ‘Dead Girls’ film projects, one Australian, the other Anglo-Thai. I was commissioned to write screenplays for both. Though the film projects never got out of development and are now no more, I had it in mind to use one of the screenplays as the basis for a series of comicbook scripts.
SFC: How did you choose the artist?
RC: Terry Martin, who was at the time publishing the quarterly magazine ‘Murky Depths’, had run my comic strip ‘Death And The Maiden’, which I both wrote and illustrated. But Terry had also been running strips featuring the art of Filipino mangaka or comic-book artist Leonardo M Giron. As soon as I saw Leonardo’s work, I knew that he was the right artist for ‘Dead Girls’. Leonardo is an East-West fusion artist, perfect for realising the novel’s two locales: a steampunk inflected late twenty-first century London and a noir-ish, cyberpunk Bangkok. ‘Dead Girls’ was written in South-East Asia, specifically Nong Khai, Thailand and the novel has an Asian ambience, strongly influenced by Asian popular culture: manga, anime, Hong Kong chop-socky movies and more. A South-East Asian comicbook artist – especially one who shared my influences, and who instinctively understood my scripts’ cultural cross-currents and references, and who, moreover, possessed such visual fluency and panache – was a perfect match.
SFC: What do you see as the relationship between the 1992 novel and the 2014 graphic novel?
RC: ‘Dead Girls – The Graphic Novel’ is not just an adaptation, but a reimagining of the original novel. It stands alongside it, but also stands alone, to the degree that I consider it less an adjunct to the original, but something separate – my eleventh novel, in fact. It takes ‘Dead Girls’ the novel as a starting point and then becomes something else. I like to think of the novel and graphic novel as existing in parallel universes. (Actually, I’m writing a novella, the work-in-progress title of which is ‘Dead Heat’, that will reconcile the two ‘Dead’ universes.) And I would urge readers who are familiar with the original novel to approach the graphic novel in that light. Here we again visit the principal characters (though there are new characters, too!), recognise its central Big SF Idea, and re-experience many of its scenes (some of which, like some of the characters, are completely new!) while at the same time finding ourselves in an alternative ‘Dead Girls’ universe – one less at odds or setting up dissonance with, the original but complementing and indeed expanding it, enriching it.
SFC: What advice would you give to unpublished, aspiring SF writers?
RC: To have the time, energy and ability to write should in itself, I believe, be considered a privilege. Getting published is even more of a privilege. Everything that follows – critical attention, a degree of commercial success is an extra that, though of course certainly welcome, is not absolutely necessary to the vocation of writing. And writing is a vocation, however much – if the roll of the dice goes your way – it may seem, for a while, like a career.
Do not try to write too much. Writing is difficult and, for most people, necessarily slow. The completion of a novel may seem a gargantuan task (all that blank paper to fill!) but a slow, studied, methodical approach will stand you in better stead than trying to write, say, four or five thousand words a day. Trollope could do it. He could do more. He could eat napalm for breakfast. And so could most Victorian authors and they had to, given the constraints of the triple-decker and the mid-nineteenth century’s curious paucity of wholesome early-morning comestibles. And we shall extinguish the ‘napalm’ metaphor, here, there are contemporary authors that can do it, too. And many of them have to, because of commercial imperatives. But if you’re just setting out, you don’t have to do anything. And you should let that be a strength.
This is all advice based on my own mistakes: principally, that I’ve often tried to write too much, too quickly. Write, then, on a daily basis, but in a measured, disciplined, way. Write five-hundred words, not five thousand.
Put the best words in the best places. Construct elegant sentences. If your characters are continually standing about in ill-defined locales blathering on and on and on, chapter after chapter, then shoot them and repopulate your scenes with characters from whom drama may be expected to flow, rather than hot air. Pare everything down. Let things happen. Make your dialogue count. If things aren’t working out, throw the bath water out and then the baby, too, and start again. Do not be afraid of your canvas. And do not be afraid of where your imagination takes you. Like any craftsman, exercise care and restraint. But be bold, too. And write something you want to write about. Deeply. Something that moves you. Not something you think you should write about. SF too rarely moves the heart. But it should.
Do not care about originality. Care about authenticity.
And don’t worry so much (I know you do!), just write.
SFC: Thank you.
Interview © Richard Calder 2014
© Patrick Mahon 2014
all rights reserved