Muses of a Strange Land: An Interview with Rhys Hughes

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Welcome to another addition to our growing list of author interviews. This discussion with Welsh writer Rhys Hughes is long overdue, and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. As usual, feel encouraged to follow Mr. Hughes on his Amazon page. I’m certain you’ll find much to admire in his ever-growing oeuvre. 

Justin A. Burnett: The first thing I noticed when familiarizing myself with your work is that there is a lot of it. Not only that, but you seem to explore a variety of styles as well. How many books have you written so far? Do you see your fiction work in the context of a particular genre?

Rhys Hughes: I have written 48 books so far. In fact the latest has just been published, but I haven’t announced it yet. I don’t have a copy yet and I feel I can’t really announce it until I have a copy for myself and can see that it has turned out well in terms of production, that the pages haven’t been printed in random order or whatever. So yes, I am very prolific, but that’s because I write fast, and the reason I write fast is because the work sort of prepares itself in my mind before I sit down to write. It’s already half formed in my head. I guess that I could slow down and be more careful but the pressure of new ideas would build up if I did that, and it might prove unbearable.

As for different styles, when I was younger I wanted to try every style, every genre, I had no fixed abode anywhere in literature. But that has changed now. I have settled down, become more focused, and I no longer try my hand at everything. There are certain types of writing I know I will never be any good at. I know this because I tried them twenty or more years ago. Erotic fiction, for instance. Or genuinely scary horror fiction. I can’t really do those. My mindset and everything about me isn’t really conducive to writing effective examples in those genres. I tried but I soon realised it wasn’t for me. I used to see myself as writing in all genres, but primarily in science fiction and fantasy. Now I don’t see myself as writing in any genre, unless speculative fiction is a genre. But I suspect it isn’t. Also not all my work is speculative. There was a time when I liked the term Fabulism to describe the kind of fiction I do, but even that wasn’t quite right. The critic John Clute described my work as belonging to a category called Fantastika and I rather like that. I have adopted it.

I suspected you weren’t too focused on genre; I think I’ve read enough of your work to make the claim that there’s such a strong, distinct voice in your fiction that it feels uniquely Rhys Hughes in the same way that Borges is simply, indisputably Borges and Calvino is Calvino over any claims that concerns of genre might make on those particular writers. I’d like to return to Calvino in a minute, but do you mind elaborating on Fantastika? What distinguishes it from Fabulism or magical realism?

It’s no more precise a definition than Fabulism or magic realism, so very little or nothing at all distinguishes it from them, if we are going to be honest. I just like the sound of the word. It still seems fresh and therefore liberating. If I say I write magic realism people are going to assume I do a bad imitation of the brilliant Marquez. If I say I write Fabulism they are going to think I write fairy tales in which some of the characters might be drug addicts. But Fantastika has no obvious meaning, at least not in English speaking countries. When I was in Serbia a few years ago, I walked into a bookshop and saw that “fantastika” was just the label for any fiction at all that wasn’t realistic, including all fantasy, science fiction, magic realism and horror. It’s one of those labels that isn’t really a label, like sticking a label that says “fruit” onto an orange when it could also be stuck onto an apple or a mango. It’s liberating and it’s also a bit fancy, maybe.

That’s probably the best defense of the term I could imagine, especially in your case, since coming to your work expecting something in the vein of Marquez would be misleading. In my opinion, it’s the bright, playful core at the center of your work that tends to resist the full identification with writers like Marquez or Barthelme. Is this “bright core” why you found it difficult to write horror? You mentioned your “mindset” in connection to your resistance to writing “genuinely scary” fiction. Is this where the delightfully infectious sense of celebratory wonder in your fiction comes from? Can you identify a parallel, in short, to your writing style or thematic choices and your outlook on life that might help potential readers understand what they’re in for when they’re picking up one of your books?

I can’t write horror that is creepy because I can’t bear to leave things unexplained. Either I want the mechanics of a ghost, demon, vampire explained scientifically, which ruins the horror, or I want them explained absurdly, which also ruins the horror. I just can’t leave things unsaid. That’s the issue. To be an effective horror writer you must be able to leave things unsaid. And the things you leave unsaid have to be the right ones, the ones that extend the tension beyond the end of the story or the end of the scene. I can’t do that and even if I could I am sure I wouldn’t be able to do it well enough to make a difference.

But you mentioned Barthelme and stylistically he has been the biggest direct influence on my work, absolutely, at least since I discovered his stories, which was almost 27 years ago. There is darkness in Barthelme but it still has the bright core you mention, and this bright core often comes from the rhythms of the prose, from the music, rather than the themes or the treatments or even the sense of the words themselves.

If a new reader is familiar with Barthelme and likes his work I definitely hope that reader would find in my work something similar or the same to what they find in Barthelme. Barthelme was style and Calvino for love of ideas. My two biggest literary influences. And Boris Vian for not being afraid of going very absurd, of going absurd and then going even more absurd. That was important to me too.

It’s interesting to me that Barthelme is the stylistic influence, but that might be because I’m in the thick of World Muses right now, which I happen to be reading alongside Calvino’s Cosmicomics. I seemed to sense the presence of Barthelme much stronger in the earlier work of Better the Devil. Do you find World Muses to be much less restrained in terms of going very weird compared to your earlier work?

World Muses is absolutely one of my favourites of the books I have written. It might even be my favourite of all. But I don’t know if I can explain why, because I’m not entirely sure why myself. I had no idea I was going to write a book when I began it. I just wrote a flash fiction for my friend, Ayu, who lives in Indonesia. Then I immediately had an idea for another and wrote that one too, also for a friend. As the days went on I began to write more, also for friends, female friends. At some point I understand that I was writing a book that was a collection of flash fictions, then I realized that actually no, I was writing a novel that only seemed like a collection, and that the individual tales were chapters and that the frame was contained inside them rather than outside them, somehow.

Maybe halfway or so through the project it occurred to me that what I was doing was a sort of tribute to Calvino’s Invisible Cities, but with women instead of cities, and I know how awful that might sound, but I absolutely made sure to limit the male gaze in these pieces, primarily because the women in these stories are based on real people, on my friends. Most of them anyway. Some were invented for the sake of completing the book. The idea is that in all the individual chapters, the woman wins ultimately in some way, and this holds true for all of them, except one, which insisted on being negative, and that one wasn’t based on a real person, I’m pleased to report.

So yes, Calvino was a bigger influence stylistically and in every way on World Muses than Barthelme was, but that was for the simple reason that I didn’t want to be ironic about people who are my friends. Barthelme is remorselessly ironic, intensely so, and that approach didn’t seem appropriate for this particular book. And yes, the weirdness was limited here too, because it didn’t seem necessary at the time.

I’m glad you dove into this one. World Muses is definitely a stunning work, and my favorite of what I’ve read so far. It’s an exhilarating experience, consistently unexpected and thought-provoking. I think the comparison to Invisible Cities is absolutely spot-on. You discussed the general process of World Muses, and I’d like to follow up with your creative process in general. Do you typically plan things out ahead of time, or does your work more or less reveal itself to you along the way? Was there anything significantly different in your process on World Muses than with your more lengthy formats?

I plan but only in the same way I plan a hiking trip. For example I might have a starting point and a destination and maybe a few places along the way that I am keen to visit. But the rest of the route is done without planning and might be prone to unexpected diversions with encounters that are wholly surprising to me. But I try to get back onto the route at some point. Maybe a comparison with jazz would be better. There are periodic resolutions that I am aiming for but I am free to improvise between those resolutions, provided they eventually do take me where I want to go.

I have planned books much more meticulously than this. The Percolated Stars, for example, was my most carefully planned book. I made notes for how the story was going to develop and these notes covered the entire story from beginning to end. But it’s very rare I do things this way. It’s also rare that I have no plan whatsoever and just wander aimlessly. Usually it’s something between these two extremes, or a combination of the two extremes. Sometimes I begin with no plan at all and the plan develops later. That’s what happened with World Muses and my latest book, The Nostalgia That Never Was. I have no idea which approach is better, if any. I guess that careful planning is less stressful. Maybe I ought to do it that way more often.

In an introduction to the revised edition of Better the Devil, you discussed a misadventure with a publisher that led to the reissue of that particular title. I found that to be delightful little vignette, and wanted to be sure and ask if you’ve had any other interesting or frustrating encounters with publishers over the years. Incidents like yours are very instructive, I believe, to newer writers who may be a bit starry-eyed and naïve when it comes to publishers. Did the Better the Devil issue ever resolve? What’s the most frustrating obstacle you’ve encountered in getting books published?

Publishers are just like people, they are all different, and even though we imagine that they probably share the same values and standards, this is only true in a very general sense. There are amazing publishers out there, and terrible ones, and everything between. All writers are probably going to end up dealing with the good ones, the bad ones, and the ugly ones too (ugly in spirit, I mean), but the main thing is not to let any of that distract you, as a writer, from your purpose, the purpose you have chosen, which is to write. Deals will go sour, publishers will pull the plug, you probably will be promised the world and you won’t get the world. Just keep going, keep yourself active, and don’t expect anything to happen until it has really happened.

The publisher of that particular chapbook you mention, Better the Devil, might have be a fraudster or he might have just been incompetent. The end result was the same. But I used what happened as an opportunity to expand the chapbook, create a better chapbook, and in the end it turned out positively.

And it made for a good introduction as well. I am aware that you’ve written essays, but I haven’t read any of them yet. What kind of nonfiction topics do you generally cover, and where would you recommend new readers wanting to dive into your essays begin?

I have published very few essays actually and most of them appeared in very obscure magazines more than twenty years ago, although a few are probably available online. The thing is, I never took essay writing seriously back then. I just wrote them because I was asked to. It’s only in the past two years that I have decided to start treating my non-fiction as seriously as my fiction. So I decided to start again from the beginning and the year 2017 for me was ‘Year Zero’ when it came to writing essays. Since then I have written 22 exactly. Not many but there’s no particular hurry. I am hoping that my first non-fiction book will be published quite soon, maybe this year or next year, but I need to create the material for it first.

I do have a title for that book. Bullshit with Footnotes. There will also be an essay with that title which will consist of just one sentence and each word in the sentence will have a long footnote and the footnotes themselves will constitute the real essay. That’s the idea anyway. Those footnotes might have endnotes too, and maybe those endnotes will also have footnotes. Let’s wait and see!

As for a list of the sort of topics I might cover, I prepared this list a while ago to act as my guide:

• Strawberries, the finest fruit
• The First Science Fiction Novel
• How every writer is their own favourite author
• Brexit: some thoughts on Europe
• Mazes, their symbolic meaning
• A most underrated writer, the work of Barrington Bayley
• When satire goes too far
• Parallel Universes, how even their non-existence will prove their existence
• Occam’s Razor, a new logical twist
• Alain Resnais, his films
• Why immortality accelerates time, an idea
• Life after death, a new way of looking at this question
• Kizomba, the most sensual dance
• Paradoxes, why they are so intriguing
• The Empathy Problem, some thoughts on empathy
• Mountaineering, a pure pursuit
• Coconuts, the floating food
• Jacques Tati, his films
• Penguin Café Orchestra, an appreciation
• Perpetual Motion, the joy of mechanical absurdity
• Logic and the monsters, an imaginary film script
• The hazards of being a pedestrian
• The perils of checking out women
• Three things I write about and three I don’t
• The Ultimate Existential Horror
• A logic flaw in the horror genre
• Walking through Portugal
• Predatory males, why they give real predators a bad name
• Italo Calvino, an appreciation
• Not in my name, usurpation through accidental nomenclature
• Unusual titles for stories
• The Workshop of Potential Literatures
• Desperate Straights, a logico-whimsical argument
• Some thoughts about Richard Dawkins
• The art and designs of Rodchenko
• Rules for an imaginary literary society
• The Poetry of William McGonagall
• The problem of evil, a possible solution
• Géza Csáth, his life and work
• Pierre Louys, his life, perversion and work
• Maurice Richardson, his neglected classic
• Romanticynicism, an outline for a new literary movement
• Magic Realism, what it might be
• What scares me, a personal list
• Metafiction, married a fiction, had lots of microfictions
• Stories never to be written
• John Sladek, an appreciation
• Creative writing classes, a few doubts about them
• Uranus, a planet neglected in science fiction
• Pretension, and what it really is
• Why songs are often illogical
• First band without the definite article in their name
• Rinky Dink Panther, Time Traveller

I absolutely love these. I’m utterly intrigued and can’t wait to read the products of your nonfiction labor. I keep a list of running essay titles and ideas as well; I find it immensely helpful. I’m sure my opinion hardly counts as qualified, but I tend to believe that essays truly test the mettle of a writer. You have several “appreciations” for writers, here. Outside of those already mentioned above, which authors whose work might appeal to readers of your work do you feel deserve more recognition?

Oh, the world is full of underappreciated writers. When I was younger I wrote essays about writers I admired but they tended to be writers who were already very well-known indeed, such as Samuel Beckett. I think that now it’s much more useful to write about lesser-known talents. Not that Geza Csath and Pierre Louys are especially obscure, to be honest, but they could be better known in the West. Having said that, obscure writers are often obscure for good reasons and it’s often pointless to lift them out of obscurity, not that I am really in a position to do that anyway. But there are many writers who might be well-known in their own countries or in their own languages or in their own milieus who aren’t well known to, say, the fantasy-loving or SF-loving audiences in the West, and maybe they should be.

Boris Vian definitely ought to be better known than he is, even though he’s a cult figure in France. Andrei Platonov is perhaps the greatest literary genius who remains relatively unknown outside his home country, Russia. I could list lots and lots of names. Milorad Pavic, Mia Couto, George Lamming, Cyprian Ekwensi. Lots of their writers were maybe more famous once but have slipped into a collective forgetfulness. For example, there were many writers who were mainstream in the 1980s that very few people read anymore. D.M. Thomas. Remember him? Why did he slide into obscurity? I have no idea. Mario Satz is another. Even Bruce Chatwin, so big in the 80s that people would read him on the tube trains, has become a very marginal figure.

I guess if I had to choose just three writers I regard as very good indeed but who are little known among the fantasy-loving audiences of the West, I would go for: Felisberto Hernandez, Mia Couto and Ismail Kadare, all of them brilliant, all of them celebrated in their own countries but not enough here in the UK, or in the USA, perhaps. I would perhaps like to write an article on Couto one day, for instance.

Excepting Beckett, of course, I have heard of none of these writers outside of Vian, Pavic, and Kadare, who I haven’t read. You’re always an excellent source of writers I should be reading who I would’ve never stumbled across otherwise.

Forgive me this, but why, especially given his new book on Adam’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, is there no planned essay of appreciation for Neil Gaiman on your list?

Ha ha! I have nothing against Neil Gaiman at all, but as his name crops up everywhere and everyone seems to love him, I just can’t resist having a dig at him now and then, purely for the sake of seeing the shocked reactions of others.

Gaiman is no longer a writer but an untouchable demigod and therefore the urge to make jokes about him is just too strong. I don’t know if that urge is a British thing or just a Welsh thing or just comes down to my own nature, but the moment someone is ubiquitous I have an urge to treat their reputation as a sofa and plonk myself down on it. Just for a lark really, just for fun.

I began reading Mombasa Madrigal last week; how did that book come together, and does a love for W. G. Sebald come into play here?

I wrote Mombasa Madrigal before reading the work of Sebald but the moment I read Sebald I wanted to be inspired by his method, so I regard Mombasa Madrigal as sort of being pre-inspired by Sebald, if that makes any sense, which I am sure it probably doesn’t. The first Sebald I read was The Rings of Saturn, and I have just finished reading Vertigo. He is definitely one of my best discoveries of the year 2018. Every year I discover writers I have never read before who turn out to be excellent and I am very lucky that this is the case.

Sebald’s work is gold, and I’m glad you happened across him. What artistic goals do you aspire to with your writing? What would have to happen, in an ideal world, for you to look at your writing career and say “aha, I did it!” Is there any work of yours that you feel comes closest to meeting this goal?

I have a very definite goal when it comes to short stories and that is to write exactly one thousand of them, link them all together into one big story cycle and then forget about the writing of short stories forever.

I have been planning this for years and years and I am now on story number #912. My earliest surviving story dates from 1989, so I am entering the 30th year of my short story writing ‘career’. With luck it will be finished within one more year, two years, maybe three. The question then remains whether I separate out my novels from this cycle or not. If I do separate them out (and I suppose I will) then I will have to write a few more short stories to replace their numbers in the cycle. That shouldn’t be too difficult, as I don’t have many novels to my name.

When the short story cycle is completely done, I will finish the novels I have ideas for. That will then mark the end of my novel writing ‘career’ too. What will I be left with? My non-fiction. I want to write exactly 1000 articles to match the 1000 stories. Also plays. I have been writing plays recently and really enjoying the process. I don’t know how many plays I will write in my remaining lifetime, I haven’t set a definite target yet, but I am free to specify 100 or 500 or any number. That should keep me busy for another couple of decades, I reckon. Alternatively, I might just retire completely before too long (after the completion of the short story cycle) and forget about writing altogether. I am not quite ready for that yet. Or rather my imagination isn’t, even if I feel that I am, because the ideas keep coming and crowding my brain and they demand to be put down on paper before they will agree to leave me alone….

So when I write the final word of my thousandth story, I am sure I will then say, “Ah, I did it.” But what “that” is precisely, and whether it was worth doing, are other questions.

That is definitely the most unexpected and interesting answer to that question I’ve ever received. What originally made you decide to write 1,000 and only 1,000 short stories? Does assigning a specific quota to each format help the creative process in some way?

I can’t remember exactly when I made the decision that I was going to write exactly one thousand short stories and no more. I am sure it is connected with the 1001 Nights. When I began writing short stories I had no such scheme in mind, I never considered writing a sequel to any story I wrote. Every piece was a standalone. Eventually, I wrote a story which seemed that maybe it could the first of a series and in fact it did beget a series. I added one sequel every year. It would always the last story I wrote in any particular year. Then after nine years it was done, so I put the stories together and they formed a novella. I had two other novellas that were connected with it in various ways, so I put them all together into a book, and the book turned out to be a novel called Nowhere Near Milkwood. But I hadn’t realised it was a novel until it was published. I just thought it was a collection of short stories. The connections between the stories worked more like the connections between the chapters of a novel and that was unexpected.

As for why I decided only to write one thousand stories, that is entirely because I believe one needs to know when to stop as well as when to keep going. Almost every writer reaches the zenith of their ability at some point, the summit of the mountain, and then it’s a slow decline to the bottom on the other side. There are a few authors who get better and better but they are in the minority. I never wanted to fade away, declining into the dusk of obscurity on the other side of the mountain. I’m already obscure enough. I want to reach the summit of the mountain and stop there. That’s why I put a definite limit to the number of stories I plan to write. It could be that I have already passed the peak, of course, and am already descending on the other side. But the target of one thousand is almost within grasp. I think I have done the very best I can.

You’ve had a flurry of releases lately, and a few upcoming, if I’ve understood correctly. Is there anything you’d like readers to know about these?

I am very prolific. Some would say I am too prolific. In fact my own publishers and editors have said this, and so have a number of other writers, even some writers who are well known. They have told me to slow down and publish less. But in fact I don’t feel capable of doing that. The ideas come into my mind, they have to be encased in stories on the page or otherwise they won’t leave me alone. But one day it will all come to an end. I will stop writing, no more books will emerge from my mind at all. So I’m not too concerned about being too prolific rather than remaining silent. the silence will catch up eventually.

I had three books published last year and by my reckoning there will be another three this year, or maybe even four. One of those, however, will be a strictly limited edition with a print run so small it is almost the same as not having it published. I don’t mind small print runs actually. I don’t mind them because I am so prolific. If I wasn’t prolific, if I only published a book once every couple of years, then small print runs would surely be an issue. Writers want to read after all. I’m not different. I want to read too. But if a publisher approaches me with an unusual idea, for example a very small print run of handmade deluxe copies of one of my books, then I am going to be willing to go along with that. It can always come out in a cheap paperback edition some time in the future. There’s always that option.

As far as I’m aware, my next book to be published will be Mombasa Madrigal, which is the handmade deluxe book, and that will be followed by a fantasy adventure novel The Wistful Wanderings Of Perceval Pitthelm. Maybe my big book of tribute stories to authors I admire, The Senile Pagodas, will also be out later this year, but I can’t be sure about that because it has been in preparation for about six years already and my published doesn’t seem in a mighty rush to ever publish it. I have already had one book published this year, The Nostalgia that Never Was, and I am really delighted with the way that one turned out, so we have to be grateful for what exists and not unduly fret about what is waiting to exist. That’s my view anyway.

Excellent! Before we wrap this up, is there anything you’d like to plug? Parting words of wisdom? 

I would like to plug my collection, Mirrors in the Deluge, which is one of my favourites but didn’t do very well. No idea why. The publishers were lovely people, so if I could somehow persuade people to buy a few more copies, that would be really great. I don’t have any parting words of wisdom really. I think that wisdom is a bit overrated and certainly those who think they have it generally don’t. I would just say that if you want to write, do it and keep going and don’t let anyone discourage you.

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