Ben Peek (benpeek) wrote,
Ben Peek

Interview: Rjurik Davidson

Rjurik Davidson is the author of the new collection, the Library of Forgotten Books, published by PS Publishing in the UK. The collection holds alternate world stories—one in France and one in post WWII Australia—and four stories set in the Caeli-Amur world, where his well received 'the Passing of the Minotaurs' is set.

A prolific author of short fiction, Rjurik is a film reviewer for the Metro and an editor at Overland. In addition, he just picked up a two book deal with Tor in the US.

I say these things so he looks successful and you envy him.

It's merely coincidental that it's true.

Caeli-Amur, Structural Challenges, and Rju's Influence on Peter Carey.

The Library of Forgotten Books marks the first book of Rjurik Davidson—how's the experience been?

Start with the easy ones, huh? I know you, Peek: sucker me in, make me feel all comfortable and then - bam!- right in the solar plexus. Actually, it's a hard question because it's been a long process with so many stages. The stories were written over a three year period, 2005-2008. I look at the stories and think, "I was a totally different person when I wrote these." It's a bit like listening to old albums after an extended break: the stories take you back to all the events and places you experienced when you wrote them. There have been several house-moves, three trips overseas, several relationship and friendship break-ups (gee, you'd never guess from the stories, right?) But PS Publishing have been great. And it's a cute little book, isn't it? Hopefully people will get some joy from it.

A good portion of the book is given over to the Tales of Caeli-Amur, which features the story, 'The Passing of the Minotaurs', one of your more well known pieces. Is there where the body of work of Rjurik Davidson's fiction will be found, for the near future at least?

Looks likely, as I've just agreed to a two-book contract with Tor. The first novel - provisionally titled Caeli-Amur (now Unwrapped Sky, it seems--ed)- and a sequel are set in that world. People seem to like it. I guess there were things I wanted to examine in Caeli-Amur, and if people like it, that's a good reason to prioritise those stories.

Hoepfully, I'll still be able to write other things. For starters, I'd like to do more science fiction. I'd also like to write some things less obviously 'genre' - surreal pieces, 'postmodern' (for want of a better term), magic realist. Those pieces are where I satisfy my more experimental urge, and I wouldn't want to give that up. For starters think it's harder to write those kinds of pieces. It pushes you, as a writer, to try different POVs, structures, styles. (The challenges in the Caeli-Amur stories tend to be more standard narrative ones: plot problems, motivation and character, consistency in world-building and so on).

I also write a lot of non-fiction: fi reviews for Metro magazine, essays for Overland magazine (of which I'm an Associate Editor) and, in the near future, at least one book review and perhaps more for The Age. .

Pausing on the release of the novel from Tor, any idea when we can expect that?

Nope. I've committed to handing over the first novel on January 1, 2011 and the second on January 1, 2012. Beyond that, I know nothing.

Sweet, now, returning to your point about PoV. Personally, I find plots to be the most difficult, since they tend to have to echo throughout the character, world, and so forth. Not that plot isn't an issue with anything experimental, but in that work, the emphasis on them shifts, and they become less driving as an influence.

You could be right about plots. God knows they can be tricky. My stories seem to be getting more and more labyrinthine, plotwise. And longer. But I think the difficulty in the surreal stories is in capturing a mood. It's such a delicate thing to create. I'm not sure I can even describe how you do it. Is it just a matter of exactly the right words? Also, you can "think" your way through a plot problem, but you can't do that with a surreal image, which really needs to come from the unconscious, I think.

Yeah, I don't think I'd disagree with that. I often think that the connective techniques are just different—the use of a colour, a motif, a particular phrase, those are the things that guide it a lot in my mind. I would probably argue that while I think it is words, I think most of the success comes from the intent, the design of the author, and that I don't think that the success of a surrealist piece relies on much that is fundamentally different than a realist, or plot driven piece. In the end, it relies upon the skill that the author displays at construction and the audiences receptiveness of it—though I admit such a statement does reduce the impact of the variety of choices that the author and audience make.

I guess the other thing about surrealism is that its logic is dream logic: things are very symbolic and make sense in terms of the system of symbols a story deploys, even if the logic is literally impossible. So in a dream, you step from you bedroom straight onto a train station, and it makes complete sense in the dream. Only afterwards, when you think about it do you think, "Gee, that was weird." So when you're writing a surreal piece, you're accessing this type of logic. In Peter Carey's short story "Crabs", the main character turns himself into a truck. What's hard here, in terms of writing, is to maintain verisimilitude. How do you ensure that the reader doesn't think, "What? A truck? This is dumb." Foreshadowing is necessary, but also the system of symbols that you set up is important. In "Crabs", automobiles are one of the two or three central symbols and Carey sets them up really well. When Crabs turns into a truck, you think "Ok, cool, that's a shock but cool." Or, if you like, of course the train station is right next to my bedroom! How could I not have known?

I guess, to take 'Crabs' as an example, I reckon the logic of the story is really dictated by the characterisation. 'Crabs' begins the story wanting to be a tow truck driver, and without the foreshadowing, it won't, as you say make sense. But I tend to think that the story is defined by it's characterisation, and the change into the truck is done through that. If I was to pick a story of Carey's that I think structures more on a system of symbols, I'd probably pick 'The Last Days of a Famous Mime' and it's use of blue string, wherein what happens to the string allows for the reader to understand the emotional state of the mime.

Or it could be, that I like the latter story more than the former...

Or maybe it's just that "Crabs" was first published in Overland? Actually, there are a whole bunch of Carey stories that are really first rate. It's been years since I've gone back and re-read them, but I remember they really opened my eyes to the things you can do with a story. I always think that it's a pity that he stopped writing short stories. I told him that, at a signing about ten years ago. Clearly it had a great influence on him.

The New Wave, Andy and Rju's Fantastic Journey, and Influences.

Okay, so we have the Library of Forgotten Books, which is a nice start in collecting your short work so far, but are there plans for more?

I would love for some of my other stories to be collected one day, but perhaps that will need to wait until after the first novel is out. There are a few stories there which I really hope have a bit more of a life. I tried to convince PS to take a couple more, but they only had so much space. But stories like "Bones", "The Interminable Suffering of Mysterious Mr Wu", "Domine", "The Winding Down of the World", "The Fear of White" - they all stand up, I think. I've got a books worth of (mainly SF) film reviews which I'd like to see reprinted one day. It all depends on publishers really. Oh, and I've got a film I've co-written called "The Uncertainty Principle" currently being read by some producers overseas. Something might come of these, something might not. It's all a case of fingers crossed, eyes closed, hope the carriage doesn't jump the tracks.

Actually, I must admit, in an otherwise fine collection, I was a but disappointment that some of your science fiction wasn't there. One of my favourites was 'Domine', published a few years back. I remember you having a term for that, actually—slow science fiction, or something?

Yeah, "Slow SF" was a term Andy Macrae and I came up with around about that time (I think Andy coined it). The way I think of it, it's the application of a certain kind of minimalist style, which particularly values subtext, to SF. So you pretty much jettison action (which has little subtext - the meaning of a gunshot is just that, a gunshot) for a style in which what is happening on the surface of the story is not what is really happening. The things people say and the things they mean are very different. There are whole internal emotional worlds that you catch momentary glimpses of in the interstices of the events. A person slips and says something that is significant, they have a certain look that betrays a hidden feeling, a character suddenly starts crying for a reason we can only barely discern. These moments remain fragments of a greater whole that the reader has to imagine. You might find the influence of Raymond Carver in there somewhere. Maybe there's some of the modernist writers (Katherine Mansfield perhaps?) as well. In "Domine" I came up with a particular, and I think peculiar, point of view. It's written in the first person. But because the lead character is so emotionally suppressed, you're barely aware of his internal dialogue. It's a first person "fly on the wall" point of view. The story in The Library of Forgotten Books which applies this style is "Twilight in Caeli-Amur", a "slow fantasy" story, I suppose.

Hopefully, I'll still be able to write other things. For starters, I'd like to do more science fiction. When he was in Melbourne, Stan Robinson noted that there was a gap in SF. Most SF, he argued, was either near future (the day after tomorrow) or far future (five hundred years from now). I'd like to write some stories in that in between time, which I think will be a fascinating historical period. It'll be the moment when humanity will need to make its choices: does it want things to fall apart into a disintegrated barbarism, or will it finally grow up take responsibility for its own actions? Apart from that, I'd also like to do some other, less obviously 'genre' stories - surreal pieces, 'postmodern', (for want of a better term) magic realist.

You mention Carver and Mansfield there, but is there, you think, a speculative fiction reference for that kind of work?

Yes, definitely. Basically it's a continuation of what a number of New Wave and Post-New Wave (I just made that term up, to mean, like most "post-things" after the "thing" but including it) writers have been doing. The two that spring most obviously to mind are the late and greatly under-appreciated Thomas Disch, most especially his novel 334. The other would be M. John Harrison's work. Both of them are influences, though I read Disch much earlier. Harrison I read after I had begun writing this kind of fiction. After I wrote "Domine", I read some of Harrison's short stories and immediately noted an affinity, though I wouldn't compare my work to his - his prose is perhaps unparalleled in the SF world. Anyway, we should remember that the aim of these New Wave writers was, as Disch put it, to "elevate SF to its true potential as the heir of Joyce and Kafka, Beckett and Genet." So no doubt some of the same influences are coursing through Disch and Harrison. Anyway, I've always thought it unfair that Disch has never been as appreciated as he should have been. Harrison, though, has a good niche in the SF world, and I wait expectantly for his next novel.

Ha! I knew it wouldn't take long for you to start talking about the New Wave and authors like Disch. How influential are they, and this movement, on you?

Oh, pretty influential - though you should never really take a writer too seriously when they make claims like this. Anyway: Partly it's the way that they combine a certain formal innovation with a new and mature (compared with the previous generation of Golden Age writers) content. (I'm using the term New Wave fairly loosely to describe a whole range of micro-movements, but I think it's a fair use of the term.) Here is a generation which comes along and breaks the old conservative barriers of the form, and drives through the fissures radical political and social views. In fact, the formal innovation is a sign that new content, new world views, have emerged. Broadly, I share many of the views of these writers also. Moorcock, Le Guin, Delany, Spinrad, Ellison, Disch, Russ, even Phil Dick, were on the radical left (Ballard was a different kind of radical, I suppose, but he really opened the first salvos in the New Wave revolution; Silverberg was one of those on the right who went along for the formal experimentation). As this sixties radicalism dissipated, you had the rise of the much more nihilistic, or at least cynical, cyberpunks, and so on. As a radical leftist, I respect the work of that earlier generation of New Wave writers. I still think those of us who work in SF need to constantly fight to keep the space they opened up.

I suppose you'd have to say that the New Weird can be seen as an influence also, though I wrote "The Passing of the Minotaurs", which forms the beginning of the first novel I recently sold to Tor, before I read any of China Mieville, Ian R. McLeod or Jeff Vandermeer. The other influence - and this goes back to my teenage years - is Lovecraft. I know there's a Lovecraft revival of sorts going on, but I haven't read any of it. Still, I dare say you can find him in some of my work. He's one of those true originals, a person who has done something essentially new. Conrad (Heart of Darkness), Kafka, Ballard, Virginia Woolf perhaps ...

Still, my influences are wider than genre fiction. I'm influenced by Absurd theatre (Ionesco, Beckett, Agee) but also someone much more formally conservative like Arthur Miller. I'd say the Russians - Tolstoy, Gogol, Chekov, Dostoyevsky (don't you like how I just rolled them all into one, erasing any differences between them?) are definitely in there too. The French existentialists: Sartre, De Beauvoir, Camus, partly for their engagement with the world around them, their sense of themselves as political writers - for this reason Victor Serge would have to be in there also. Myths and legends - Greek and Viking - are important. The Beats. But I'd also suggest that my influences range far beyond literature. In music: Tom Waits, Keith Jarrett, Nick Cave. In visual art: Kandinsky, Picasso, Dali. Film: Goddard, Bergman, Hitchcock, Eastwood (as in Clint). You'll notice that cutting across many of these influences is a certain avant-garde sensibility. And indeed, along with that, a political radicalism.

The Interviewer Pauses for a Moment to Assert His Stupidity.

Also, just an aside here, you're on your own with Harrison. I've just never gelled with his writing.

Well, what can I say? In many ways he continues to innovate. Is there a more ambitious writer in contemporary SF? Light is a wonderful and lyrical reconstruction of the space opera. Perhaps you might like to read "Running Down" or "The New Rays" or "The Ice Monkey" - all wonderful short stories. He takes SF and fuses it with a kind-of modernist introspection which I like. I must admit that at times he seems wilfully intractable, and he's not for the faint hearted. If you want downbeat, then he's your man. But there's a dense lyricism to his writing, a command of language, a technical brilliance, that I find appealing. When I first read him, I thought: wow, he's doing things I can't. That excited me. I suppose he's a writers' writer.

Writer's writer.

There's a term I find interesting, simply in the way it gets brought up. Baked into it is the idea that the author is somehow above the full appreciation of the regular audience, that he or she has an ability that only those dedicated to an art form can appreciate. There's an elitism that, as I get older, I find myself less willing to embrace in the term—but do you find that it sits differently for you?

It's a short-hand term, isn't it. But I do think there is something in it. As a specialist of sorts in any field, I think you appreciate the details: just how hard it is to achieve a certain effect. I suspect if I came to a field I don't know too much about - painting, dancing - that I'd see different things than an expert. The expert would have a level of appreciation, by virtue of their training and knowledge, that I wouldn't. Is that an elitism? I wouldn't think so, more a recognition that writing is a differentiated field. Different people will want different things.

You know, I think I just argued myself into a corner here for no real reason. Onto something else, quickly!

The Secret to Rjurik's Success (It's not Wheatbix, and Originally, I made a Karate Joke)

To save myself more embarrassment, if I may so assert, it seems since taking on the Associate Editor gig at Overland that writing in general has become more focused and successful for you. Would you agree with that, or is it a simple coincidence?

Just coincidence. I think I'm just more focussed and successful nowadays. Maturity? Who knows. These things rumble on and you get some breaks and they gain momentum. But I think it's all pretty fragile. Certainly feels that way. The Overland Associate Editorship certainly gives one a bit of cultural cache. It gives you some networks among the literary circles. But really there's only one thing that gives you focus and that's you - your internal compass, so to speak. I feel like things just fell my way a bit more recently, after some years of pointing it in the right direction and marching off into the writing wilderness. A slow march, lets be honest, but a march none the less. There was a story about that some time wasn't there? About a turtle and a hare, I think. Turtles are one of my favourite creatures. And frogs. I like frogs.

In other words, I worked hard, stuck with it, and things are coming together right now?

Yes. Though I'm not sure I worked that hard. :) I've searched out all kinds of experiences: travel, different art forms, wacky people. Sometimes I think I could have concentrated more on writing. Still, I do have the gift of perseverance, and I think that's the most important thing. And I have taken some risks. I haven't really pursued a 9-5 career and that has meant sacrifices, though to me they haven't been big ones. Who needs a range rover and a boat and a huge house and all that stuff? Some people I guess, but it's never really been my goal. If an unpublished writer was to come to me and ask my advice - and there's never been such a person, so I'm going to get this out for no reason at all - I'd say, "Write. Keep writing. Keep reading as widely as you can. Write as much as you can, but have a life too. There are other important things. Then get back to writing. Then back to living. Keep on keeping on." There, I just gave advice that no one asked for. I feel better now. :) Anyway, for someone like me, there really wasn't much choice. If I don't write, I get miserable. It's just a personality thing. This may, incidentally, explain why I'm often grumpy ... You'd think I'd have learned. Write Davidson, write! But having said that I don't have a 9-5 job, I still have to work and do other annoying things - writing is still hard to get done.
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