INTERVIEW
 
 
An Interview with
Rhys Hughes

Rhys Hughes is Wales's best kept literary secret. Championed by the likes of Michael Moorcock his unique fantastical fictions have already achieved the level of cult-status. His latest work, The Percolated Stars, sees Batavus Droogstoppel navigating his way around a cosmos at the earth's core, a galaxy consisting of planets with names like: Cheeky, Boss Hog, Fluff and... Maesteg! Influenced by Borges, Calvino and Stanislaw Lem, Hughes's fiction is both intellectual and hilarious with plenty of jokes, puns and satirical side-swipes to keep the reader constantly amused. The Percolated Stars also contains one of the weirdest, most perverse sex-scenes I've ever read (and I've read a few). You have been warned. This email interview was completed in March 2004.

By ANTHONY BROCKWAY

 

We're all to some degree products of our environment Rhys - you grew up in Porthcawl. A curse or a blessing with regards your fiction?

Rhys Hughes: That's difficult to say. Porthcawl isn't really very typical of Wales. I don't know if that means anything when it comes to creating a type of fiction. I do think of my writing as 'Welsh' but I'm aware it doesn't fulfil the usual expectations of such a definition. Those expectations are seriously at fault, in my view. I certainly enjoyed Porthcawl for what it was. Nothing ever happened there, but I liked the sea, the cliffs, the beaches, the sand dunes. It never felt claustrophobic, though culturally that's exactly what it was. In the final analysis, I'd say that growing up in Porthcawl was an advantage for my fiction, because without a fixed Welsh identity it allowed me to become painlessly interested in a broader range of cultural values.

You currently reside in Swansea. How have you been coping with the
latest/ongoing/never-ending orgy of Dylan Thomas necrophilia?

Rhys Hughes: It's not easy, but somehow I manage! I wish I could despise Dylan Thomas more than I do, but it's impossible to deny the wit of Under Milk Wood. The problem is that he has become an icon, a touchstone, a saint, which is something that shouldn't really happen to any figure who is merely a writer, and certainly not to a writer whose legacy isn't quite good enough to cope with the posthumous love of an entire nation, or an entire council - which is even worse!
Dylan Thomas was a fine writer, but there are many Welsh writers who are much more interesting. I'd rather read Arthur Machen than Dylan Thomas. But when you look at Ireland and its literary heritage, the question becomes a joke. I can understand why Dublin wants to make a fuss of James Joyce, or Dalkey a fuss of Flann O'Brien - a relatively quiet fuss in both cases - but Swansea forces the corpse of Dylan Thomas to dance more vigorously than its skeleton can endure and the drunken bones are scattered all over the town, trampled in the gutters of the filthy streets.

You have a scientific background, how has this informed your writing?

Rhys Hughes: It has been crucial. I think it was Kurt Vonnegut who said that if you want to find a good writer in a university you should look in the Physics classes and ignore the English Literature department. I won't go as far as that, but a background of some sort in science or philosophy can certainly help to radically alter the way a writer approaches and works his material. In my own case, I believe I'm able to manipulate form with greater precision and originality, with a finer appreciation of symmetry, complexity and coherence, than if I had studied the arts or humanities.
On a basic level, there is latent poetry in the theory, mechanics and jargon of science just waiting to be utilised. It is an untapped resource. For an ideas writer, a knowledge of science and its attendant methodologies is invaluable, because it nurtures the imagination while providing a rigorous framework for the extension of concepts. An appreciation of logic is also useful for the evolution of intricate and self sustaining plots. I doubt it helps much with the creation of believable characters. But it only really depends on what you find satisfying. I get emotional as well as intellectual pleasure from writers who can find lyricism in a discipline such as cybernetics - Stanislaw Lem, for instance. On the other hand, very cerebral literature based on science or logic isn't the only kind I enjoy.

'Fantastic' fiction is often viewed as the literature of subversion. Do you regard yourself as a subversive writer?

Rhys Hughes: Subversive in terms of being different to other writers, yes. Philosophically subversive, perhaps. But politically subversive? Not really. No. I don't have enough experience for that. It takes a particular set of circumstances to develop a talent that can be genuinely politically subversive without merely being fashionable. I don't live in Iraq, Burma or Argentina. It surprises me that fantastic fiction is often viewed as the literature of subversion - it depends what is meant by 'fantastic' I suppose. If it's simple fantasy, I'm torn between regarding it negatively as a simplification of the world for people who have a limited ability to cope with real life, or positively as a way of drawing attention to values that really matter - love, courage, loyalty, faith - by dissolving the trivia of everyday life. Some types of fantasy are anti-escapist, but those are rare. There is also a tradition of satirical fantastical fiction but satire isn't necessarily political, and comic satire can sometimes have dubious motives, as the function of comedy is frequently to deny pain, or at least the seriousness of pain, which is a broadly reactionary motivation, even if only unconsciously. Of course it's possible to be oppressed by circumstances rather than regimes - there is always the tyranny of poverty - but when a writer subverts only those things that make him or her unhappy the results can sometimes be selfish and immature rather than outward looking and progressive.
There's an argument that fantastical literature is mainly allegorical and therefore absolutely committed to the real world as it is and critical of political life. In this sense, allegory is used to disguise meanings from the oppressors (whoever they might be) while leaving those meanings obvious to the masses or a rebellious elite. It is a code. This may be true of Mikhail Bulgakov, Karel Capek, Frigyes Karinthy but is utterly untrue of 99% of writers in the field, certainly not in English. There has been no pressing need for writers in this country to adopt allegory for reasons of political subversion. Rex Warner was one of the few British writers to use fantastical allegory successfully - he retains more textual complexity than most others. The irony is that when the oppressors understand the code (as they must do very quickly) the allegorical form itself becomes their target. Writers aren't very good at changing the code, perhaps because the symbols are archetypes, so they continue using a form of allegory that no longer disguises anything. Allegory then becomes its own justification and functions in almost the same way as pure fantasy, with the difference that the penalties for writing it can be rather higher!

There's certainly plenty of satirical bite in your work. Whether your characters are in the wonderful world of Chaud-Mellé or starclipping around a galaxy at the centre of the earth you still manage comical digs at smug coffee ads, TV licences, the Tories, even clowns! An
anti-bourgeois stance then, or a scatter-shot morality?


Rhys Hughes: Well, I'm anti-bourgeois, of course. Who isn't? But the sad truth is that in my work my morality has more to do with what pleases or irritates me on an emotional level than with what I consciously believe to be beneficial or malign to the human race in general. My satirical bite usually consists of attacking those things, however serious or trivial, which annoy me. The downside of this approach is that as an author I don't really have a morality, merely a bundle of biases. The upside is that some of the things that annoy me just happen to be major injustices at large in the world. My biases often mimic a lofty moral disdain and I'm glad when they do. It's always good to aim high, and the basest motives have more space above in which to soar. Satirical bite is also something that can be learned or copied without conviction. It's possible to adopt a particular tone - say that of John Sladek or Joseph Heller - without real understanding. Satire has its own techniques like any other style of writing. It's important to me that there's at least some poignancy behind the irony. Satire for its own sake is probably a mistake of some kind.

Give us some of the key texts that have influenced you.

Rhys Hughes: It will be easier if I mention the names of writers. In approximate chronological order, from the age of 10 or so - the early novels of H.G. Wells; Robert Louis Stevenson; Edgar Allan Poe (fundamental to my own work); Franz Kafka; Voltaire; Frank Herbert; Ray Bradbury; Clark Ashton Smith; Vladimir Nabokov; Thomas Pynchon; the 'New Wave' writers, Michael Moorcock, J.G. Ballard, Brian Aldiss and John Sladek; John Barth; Donald Barthelme; Boris Vian; Felipe Alfau; Milorad Pavic; Gabriel Garcia Marquez; Nathanael West; Georges Bataille; Flann O'Brien; Jack Vance; Stanislaw Lem; the OuLiPo writers Raymond Queneau and Georges Perec; and especially, Jorge Luis Borges and Italo Calvino. There are a number of books that utterly changed the way I regarded fiction and its function and form and these writers were responsible for most of them. I'm sure there are names I've forgotten and I'm discovering wonderful new writers all the time - Orhan Pamuk, Sudhir Kakar, Amin Maalouf, the astounding Alvaro Mutis. The list is enormous and one day might almost seem endless.


There's a wealth of allusions, philosophical ideas and general metafictional shenanigans in your work - where does this vast knowledge of literature and literary techniques come from?

Rhys Hughes: Mainly just from reading many books - most of them in my teenage years and early 20s. My reading rate has slowed down now, but I did consume a large number of books when I was younger. Reading is crucial. There's no other way of preparing to learn about literary technique. The act of writing is also important. It is difficult to invent a brand new technique but frequently two or more existing techniques can be blended in a way that produces startling results - spiritual irony or erotic pomposity, for example. I suspect that a lot of techniques get re-invented by writers. Early on I thought I had invented a technique (or found a voice) wholly my own - quirky, humorous, absurdist, sad and angry. Later on I discovered Nathanael West and realised that all I had done was tread some of the ground he had already explored. I also independently invented many of the methods of metafiction - self referential loops, narratives which move beyond their frames, appropriation and metamorphosis of other texts - without knowing they were tried and tested techniques, but I suspect that metafiction is a beginner's technique as well as a vehicle for very advanced writing, because it is essentially playful. I've stayed with it and tried to push it as far as possible. Once a writer completely understands a technique, that technique belongs to the writer, and the question of whether it was invented, re-invented or borrowed assumes less importance.

Your writing may be intellectual but it is never cold. The profusion of jokes, the gymnastic plotting, the sheer energy and deviousness of your characters lend it a human glow. As a writer are you conscious of the need
to be an entertainer?

Rhys Hughes: Absolutely. I hope that my work is entertaining. I shudder to think that it might be abstruse, difficult or tricky without also being fun! The model for me will always be Italo Calvino. His work has depth and lightness in equal measure and I'm constantly charmed, bemused and awed by each of his books - a pleasant and perhaps unexpected combination of sensations to receive at the same time from one text. His early trilogy, Our Ancestors, has everything that matters to me - strangeness, comedy, humanity, philosophy, sensuality, defiance - and these qualities are seamlessly integrated into a set of narratives that demonstrate the art of pure story on many different levels. The once forgotten - one might almost say lost - Spanish writer, Felipe Alfau, had a similar talent, an ability to deliver the full metafictional experience without the creased brow, and I love his romantic, adventurous, feverish tone.
These writers are also good at characterisation, which is something I find difficult to do convincingly, though I'm getting better at it. Calvino and Alfau were two of the very best creators of eccentric characters. The non existent knight, Agilulf, is nothing more than an empty suit of armour inhabited by an intangible belief that it is a man. Most fictional characters don't exist, but Agilulf doesn't exist even in his own fiction. In this way he is closer to the majority of the human race, who also don't exist in fiction, than most fictional characters are, however representational of 'real' people they seem to be. This is why Calvino and other anti realists - at least in terms of the frameworks they employ - are more representative of reality than realistic writers. But of course Calvino was also capable of social realism in a traditional mode. Whatever technique he employed, however experimental his writing became, he never forgot his humanity - and that is vitally important.

You're work is fiercely anti-realist and you obviously enjoy displaying the artifice of the fictional process. Is the telling of the story more important to you than the story that is eventually told?

Rhys Hughes: I'm fond of saying that realism is the least realistic mode of writing and that absurdism best represents the real world. This is true. It is also a rather glib generalisation. I have mixed feelings about conspicuous form and artifice in fiction. On one level, I believe that a sophisticated grasp of the mechanics of fiction is desirable - and if those workings are visible throughout the story, so much the better! This approach is guaranteed to turn the work into something anti realist, independently of what issues are dealt with. On the other hand, I do appreciate types of fiction that care little or nothing for clever form. Paradoxically, I don't adhere rigorously to my beliefs about what fiction should be even though those beliefs are rigorous! Maybe I just have a need for readers to appreciate exactly how cleverly constructed my works are - that might be pride or pique. But I'm not as strict with myself as I once was!
I still like to make the point that if a writer is allowed to write freestyle the chances are that the produced work will lapse into familiar (and tired) patterns. Formal mechanisms such as the mathematical games of OuLiPo are good at helping a writer avoid the obvious routes, at forcing the imagination down avenues that would probably never be explored by a reliance on simple inspiration. It is about creative limitation. And yet some of those obvious patterns may be important - the basic drives of love, life, death - and avoiding them isn't necessarily a good thing either. Precise reliance on rigorous rules of form usually doesn't produce very fine work - the results still need to be adjusted by human intervention. There's also the fact that writing which comes out of experiences and cultures that are foreign can fulfil (at least for me) all the requirements of the most formally inventive literature while remaining utterly rooted in human instincts and feelings. Maybe this is the reason I tend to read a lot of translated books!

When you write, who do you envision your reader to be?

Rhys Hughes: To be perfectly honest, I've never thought about it! This is more likely a product of my laziness rather than my arrogance. I don't actually know who I imagine my 'reader' to be. I suspect he's probably a copy of me, which is another way of saying that I write only for myself - a lie in fact, because I write to be read by other people. I just hope I am understood. If I'm not, then really I ought to try harder to work on more levels, not fewer. Complexity can embrace simplicity - a literary truth that is frequently overlooked..

So far in your career you have concentrated mainly on short stories and novellas. The Percolated Stars was your first full-length novel. Which format do you feel most comfortable with?

Rhys Hughes: It makes more sense to write novels than short stories. The reason why I've concentrated on short stories is partly to do with my disorganised working methods, though I do love the short story form. When I was younger I kept starting novels which I never finished - I rarely got past the first few chapters. My interest would simply evaporate and I'd feel an urge to begin a new novel. Many of the ideas and plots I had should have been developed but I lacked the discipline to keep working with them - some of them I may return to one day! It was a lot easier completing short stories, though I still managed to end up with hundreds of unfinished fragments. I have dozens of boxes of papers containing the beginnings, middles and endings of stories. Sometimes I'll abandon a piece for many years before returning to finish it. And I have many stories which exist only in my head - waiting for me to set them down on paper. I like compiling lists of the titles of future stories!
I eased myself into writing proper novels very gently - I wrote a sequence of linked short stories which could be regarded as chapters as well as separate tales. The Percolated Stars is actually my first published novel, but the first novel I ever finished is Engelbrecht Again, which hopefully will be published later this year. That's a really strange book, extremely clever and immensely obscure - the logic of events is linguistic rather than based on cause and effect. Words often have concrete substance. I'm pleased I wrote it, but I consider that novel to set a limit on territory I no longer need to explore further. I have many other novels in various stages of development. I hope to complete another this year, The Clown of the New Eternities, which will be my most ambitious work to date.

What is the perfect environment for writing?

Rhys Hughes: I've never written in the perfect environment. A shady terrace overlooking a beach, sunlight sparkling on the gentle surf, clipper ship far out to sea, a pot full of coffee - a blend probably brought by the clipper from some exotic locale. On second thoughts, I'm in the exotic locale already, so the coffee is local, and the ship is full of something else. What else is desirable? Other people's silence, my own music. And work only in the mornings. For the rest of the day, the embrace of a passionate woman!

Your fiction has achieved cult-status, championed by the likes of Michael Moorcock. Do you think there is a place somewhere in the mainstream for your work?

Rhys Hughes: I hope there is! I wish there was! But I don't know how it will ever find a place in the mainstream if it carries on the way it has. I've been thinking about writing one commercial - call it sellout if you prefer - book. I want to. It doesn't mean the writing has to be bad. On the contrary I intend to regard it as a challenge - lofty disdain for the tastes of the general public is probably pointless. Talking about Michael Moorcock, he's an example of a writer who has the balance absolutely right. I adore his 'Pyat' sequence of novels - Byzantium Endures, The Laughter of Carthage and Jerusalem Commands manage to be popular literature and high literature at the same time. There are many authors who manage this difficult juggling trick, some of them with seemingly little effort! I've already mentioned Calvino, Alfau too. Alasdair Gray is a fine example, Brian Aldiss, Donald Barthelme, Boris Vian was a genius at it. Alvaro Mutis.

Do you crave literary fame or would you settle for posthumous rediscovery?

Rhys Hughes: The honest answer is fame. At the moment I'm extremely obscure and I can't honestly say I'm entirely satisfied with my 'cult' status. On the other hand I'm grateful to all those readers who take the trouble to seek out my books - some of them are extremely difficult to track down! I crave literary fame for the same reasons as any other writer - egotism, reassurance, destiny - and these reasons are powered by the same frustrations, doubts and hopes. Provided it brings in the money, which isn't always the case, the main advantage of literary fame is the practical freedom it offers, though this shouldn't be overstated. I'd love to be able to travel around the world more than I do, knowing I can write a book wherever I am and making enough money from the process to keep me travelling!

A cursory trawl through the internet reveals your love of Borges, Calvino, Aztec culture, Gloria Estefan, Spanish and chillies. Is there a hot-blooded Latino trapped inside your body struggling to break free?

Rhys Hughes: I'm sure there must be! I'm quite addicted to certain aspects of Latin culture - especially Brazilian, mostly the music. My daydreams are frequently tropical in nature! I'm not sure about the Aztecs - the relics of their civilisation seem grotesquely inhuman. I hope to travel extensively in Latin lands this year - maybe Spain, Portugal and then down to Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina. How far I get depends on how long my money lasts. I'm capable of being frugal for long periods - but I'm equally capable of impulse spending. I plan to do some voluntary work in development in Brazil. Whatever happens, I can't spend another summer in Wales, even though I love my home country! I already sip yerba mate from a gourd in the evenings - and I don't even have a patio!

Finally: Maesteg, one of the extra worlds in the underground solar system of The Percolated Stars - surely not a love planet or a holy one, what would it have been like?

Rhys Hughes: Hmmm, difficult one this. I haven't been to Maesteg for years. In my callow youth, I was a member of the Air Training Corps and my first hike took me through the forests north of Margam Abbey as far as Pontrhydfen. The route was extremely winding but we stopped off at Maesteg, the only centre of civilisation (so to speak) we encountered on the way. The entire hike was about 20 miles, which isn't so far, but I was wearing new boots. I found it difficult to walk for a week afterward! As far as I know, that was the only time I ever went to Maesteg. But to answer your question - the planet would probably just be a single giant blister!

It's a wonderful concept! Thanks for sharing your thoughts Rhys.

The Percolated Stars is on sale now at Forbidden Planet. Also keep an eye out for A New Universal History of Infamy, Rhys's reinterpretation of Borges' Historia Universal de la Infamia (1935). It has an introduction by John Clute and will be published by Night Shade Books. Also be sure to track down Rhys's extensive back catalogue of novellas and short story collections - all are available through Amazon.

ŠAnthony Brockway 2004

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