One Thousand and None Nights: An Interview with Rhys Hughes

George Salis: You’ve been working on an ambitious project, a 1000 story cycle titled Pandora’s Bluff that you’ve nearly finished. What can you tell me about it? It’s one story less than the Arabian Nights. Do the Nights have any influence on this project?

Rhys Hughes: Yes, the Arabian Nights was absolutely an influence on my project. Some of the better known stories in that collection were part of my childhood reading, and later when I was a student I lived in a house with an attic full of old books, including a ten volume set of Burton’s 1885 translation of the complete tales. I have therefore always felt an emotional connection to the collection. I had already written quite a few short stories before I came up with the idea of linking all of them with all my future stories to create something bigger, a grand story cycle, but without the use of a framing device. The linkages are in the stories themselves and consist mostly of recurring characters and locations, themes and outlooks. Not all my stories are linked yet, I need to create linkages in new stories in order to draw those unlinked stories into the cycle. I don’t know why I chose to stop at the target of 1000 rather than writing one extra. An arbitrary decision.

When I decided to write one thousand stories I never believed I would ever get anywhere near that number. I thought I might reach five hundred if I was lucky, so I’m quite surprised to find myself close to the end of this project. Soon I’ll have to decide whether to separate the novels from the cycle. I must also decide if any tales ought to be rewritten or replaced, and how the mini-cycles within the greater whole should be properly organised. Then it will be a case of trying to make sure all the stories are published. Most have been published already, in many different outlets over many years, but I doubt there is anyone apart from myself who has read all my published stories, let alone the stories still waiting to be published. There is a unity to the cycle that isn’t visible to anyone other than myself at this stage. At least I hope this unity is real. But the point is that each story should work within itself, as well as contribute to the overall cycle. The idea is that you don’t have to read any of my other work to appreciate any individual story. If it doesn’t work like that, the cycle will definitely turn out to have been a bad idea!

GS: You’ve published over 50 books since 1995. How do you manage to be so productive, mentally potent, and passionate even when the audience for novels, for example, seemingly exists at the fringes of society?

RH: I write quickly. It’s as simple as that. Ray Bradbury once said, “Live and write with great haste,” and that’s the advice I follow. When I was eighteen years old and trying to write short stories, I was a perfectionist. I would rewrite the same paragraph dozens of times. But I soon learned that the way a reader reads a story isn’t the same way a writer reads it, and that endless rewriting does something to a writer’s mind so that he or she is no longer able to see the work with anything even remotely approaching a reader’s perspective. Perfectionism distorts. I have come out on the side of fluidity, I guess because I feel I wasted too much time endlessly rewriting passages. That explains how I am so productive. But in fact I’m not really so productive when compared with many other writers. It only seems that way because I write short stories and there are lots of them. Writers who write long novels may well be far more productive than I am. Certainly I have started to slow down at long last, and I welcome this.

My sense of urgency regarding writing isn’t as intense as it once was, but I will always remain passionate about literature, and the way I remain passionate about my own work, even after writing so much of it, is that I am passionate about other writers and books and literature. A passion for reading feeds a passion for writing and keeps it going. If I stopped reading books, maybe I wouldn’t feel enthusiastic about writing them, I don’t know. I have been a very active reader since I was fourteen years old and I can no longer remember how it felt to be a non-reader. Maybe it was a better life, but I doubt it. I won’t say anything about my mental potency. Better not to rate oneself in that regard. I am aware that literature has become a minority pursuit in the world, but it’s a very significant minority and full of very enthusiastic people and the fact that most books don’t sell in the tens of thousands, or even in the hundreds, isn’t necessarily something to regard as tragic. It’s very nice to have a healthy audience, but health has nothing to do with quantity and everything to do with quality.

GS: Because you’ve been so prolific, can you tell me which of your works you love the most or perhaps which book a new reader should start with and why?

RH: I always say to a reader new to my work who is interested in reading some of my stories to go for either Tallest Stories, which is a collection of sixty linked stories arranged in three linked mini-cycles, or The Truth Spinner, which is a collection of humorous fantasy tall tales somewhat along the lines of Dunsany’s ‘Jorkens’ yarns. I’m especially fond of the former and I guess that if I could only rescue one book from among all I have written, that I would choose that one. Which doesn’t mean I think it is necessarily the best, but it is undoubtedly the most representative of what I do, what I hope and try to achieve with fiction.

I have just sold a novella to a publisher that I will probably regard as the most emblematic of my abilities, hopes and visions when it comes out, and it is due to be a slim book all on its own. That story is called My Rabbit’s Shadow Looks Like a Hand and consists of a dozen small narratives connected by a conceit that I think is my best, or at least the most satisfying personally to me. I won’t say I was in a waking dream when writing it, but there was something hallucinatory about the experience, yet in fact it was directly inspired by Don Marquis’ Archy & Mehitabel poems, which I find to be wise and poignant.

GS: Wordplay is often a good way to ensure that a piece of fiction won’t appeal to a wide audience yet you’re not shy about tinkering with words and phrases in clever and surprising ways. How important is wordplay when it comes to the essence of your work and the way in which you write?

RH: Wordplay doesn’t make for big commercial success in books, true, but some of my favourite writers use a lot of wordplay, and because I enjoy doing the same I have no intention of changing my approach. I love the puns of Vian, Perec, Queneau, and many others. The second half of Brian Aldiss’ Barefoot in the Head is a swirl of puns, and Julián Ríos’ Larva: Midsummer Night’s Babel consists entirely of puns with footnotes to explain them that are also puns. So, yes, wordplay is very important to me. It’s the playfulness I really like, and in fact I like playfulness of most kinds in fiction, in the use of unusual form or in unexpected concepts. My favourite punfest isn’t Finnegans Wake but Cabrera Infante’s La Habana para un Infante Difunto, a tropical riot of steamy language, images, situations, routines, very sensual, filthy in fact, but also bizarrely soothing, it’s hard to pin down why it is great, and it’s a very rare thing in Spanish, which is a language that hasn’t really gone for wordplay in literature for many centuries, since Góngora and Quevedo, and then suddenly Infante appeared like a word magician with satyriasis. It’s not just puns though, there are other kinds of wordplay involving symmetries, tricks of grammar, repetitions, variations, inversions. I’ve always admired the way Spike Milligan would set up a situation in which the latter half of a sentence completely changes the meaning of the first half, “I paid the fine with trembling fingers but the judge wanted money.” He was influenced by Beachcomber, I assume, and maybe Flann O’Brien. Wordplay was more popular, or at least more tolerated, some decades ago. Now it’s more about plot, emotions and characterisation. But you never know. Wordplay might return one day.

GS: You’re a fan of Ray Bradbury, as am I, and he once said something to the effect that the things that fascinated us as children are what we end up writing about in our adulthood. What were you obsessed with as a child and is what Bradbury said true for you?

RH: I wasn’t aware of this quote by Bradbury. An interesting observation! I suppose I do mostly write about the things that fascinated me when I was young. I wanted to be an explorer, a mountaineer, and an astronaut or at least an aviator, and I write about exploration and adventure but not so much about space these days. Monsters and the tropics fascinated me, ancient history and strange beliefs too. The first time I was shown a paradox I was beguiled. The first time I saw an Escher drawing I was bedazzled. These enthusiasms have remained with me ever since. Music too, especially jazz, and there do seem to be a lot of jazz musicians in my tales. Flying is a love of mine, but I didn’t get to do that for real until I joined the Air Training Corps. Electronics was an important hobby back then and I was one of those who began by making their own crystal radio sets and soon progressed to constructing transmitters that could be concealed inside a matchbox. There are a lot of basic engineering principles embedded in my work. The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that Bradbury was right.

I loved science fiction for many years. I still love it but not quite so much, or rather I feel less inclined to be reading it all the time. Bradbury was my favourite writer when I was 17 years old. I wanted to write stories exactly like his, and I tried and failed, because it’s not at all easy to mimic his seemingly light style. He was a poet and an original thinker, far above most of his contemporaries in the science fiction world, at least in my opinion. I love the fact that he straddled the genres, he could write science fiction, fantasy, horror and straightforward lyrical tales about the real world, and they were all in his unique voice, none seemed out of place. It was a revelation to me to see a writer who wasn’t confined to just one genre. The stories in a collection such as The Golden Apples of the Sun, which I regarded as his best book for a long time, range all over the place, and include dystopian irony, social commentary, gothic farce, and modern fables. I didn’t read any Bradbury for years and years, and when I went back to him I was relieved to find I still enjoyed his work, but now I regard The Illustrated Man as a better collection. I also have recently read Dandelion Wine. For some reason that was one I didn’t read when I was young. It sat on my shelves for 35 years before I got round to it. I ended up loving it almost more than any of his others. Why I waited so long, I have no idea. It’s a beautiful book, a masterpiece.

GS: You wrote your first story when you were 14 and it was titled, “The Journey of Mountain Hawk.” What was it about?

RH: I remember it well. I don’t remember many of the ones I wrote after it, but the plot of that one is fixed very firmly in my memory. I had read a book about the early colonisation of the Americas and I became fascinated with the Aztecs and Incas, but I was also curious about the settling of the United States itself, and in that book I found an account of the mission of Coronado to seek the Seven Cities of Gold, and how his expedition failed, how a local guide deliberately led them in circles across the empty desert, hoping to destroy them through thirst and sunstroke in revenge for the massacre of his own people. I thought this was a superb story and I decided to base my story on it, changing the names of the protagonists. ‘Mountain Hawk’ was the guide who offers his services to the invaders, telling them that paradise is over the next range of mountains, and of course it never is. My story kept to the basic details of Coronado’s expedition but I took liberties. I won’t say my story was a good story, but I actually managed to finish it and give it a proper ending. Before that moment, and often afterwards, I would start writing stories and abandon them halfway through. This first completed effort was wholly serious, with no wordplay, no strange twists of plot. It never tried to pull the rug from under the reader. Maybe one day I will try to rewrite it, who knows?

GS: To go to the other end of the spectrum, can you tell me about what you’re working on now aside from the story cycle? Or, if just the story cycle, what was the latest story to be completed?

RH: All the fiction I have ever written is part of the cycle, but this might change if I do decide to separate the novels from the short tales. I always work on many projects at the same time, and at the moment I am working on two main projects, the first of which is a book of verse stories that I plan to call Corybantic Fulgours. What I mean by verse stories is that they combine prose with poetry and most also have experimental layouts or are various kinds of word puzzles that are controlled by mathematical constraints. There will be story grids and magic squares and pages with holes in them covered by paper flaps so the story changes on the page as it goes along, and pages cut into strips so that lines of poems can interact with the lines of other poems and make new poems, and prose passages that might be upside down and mesh with passages printed the right way up. It’s going to be a nightmare typesetting it, but I love doing stuff like this.

The second project will be a book of tales based on the adventures of numbers and I already have a publisher who has expressed interest in this. The book will be called Your Number’s Up and all the stories are about the lives of certain numbers, including ordinary numbers, prime numbers, perfect numbers, but also irrational, complex and imaginary numbers, like the square root of minus one. Some will be performance pieces. For example I am planning for the story about the number 496 to have a projection on a wall in which a sequence of numbers counts down to zero, and the story consists of the number 496, which is a very rare perfect number, in other words a number that’s the sum of its own positive divisors, relating anecdotes about each interesting number as it passes him, as these are the numbers he meets on his journey and he knows most of them. He will explain about their properties, their roots and eccentricities, maybe share scandalous rumours about them. The timing of this must be quite precise for it to work properly!

GS: In general, what is a book that you think deserves more readers?

RH: I would suggest The Ascent of Rum Doodle by W.E. Bowman, and also its sequel, The Cruise of the Talking Fish, the two funniest novels I’ve read, and both still unjustly neglected. Both are about an incompetent but thoroughly decent explorer named Binder. There’s a third in the series but it remains unpublished. Rum Doodle is a classic amongst mountaineers and it has been republished by Vintage a couple of times. Vintage are doing tremendous work at the moment, publishing so many neglected and undervalued writers, and Bowman is one of them, but I suspect the new editions aren’t attracting the wide readerships they deserve. One day I would love to see all three of the ‘Binder’ adventures in one omnibus volume.

Another author I would like to see made more readily available in English is Boris Vian. His books tend to be published by fairly obscure printing houses over here. Penguin or Vintage really need to add his work to their catalogue. Froth on the Daydream was published by Penguin a long time ago, in fact, but I don’t think that Autumn in Peking, which is even better, has ever been published by a major publisher in English, and the same is true for The Red Grass and Heartsnatcher. I adore Vian. There’s something very special about his style. An omnibus of all four of these novels would be most welcome, to stand on the shelf right next to the Bowman omnibus.

GS: Could you also tell me about some of the writers/specific books you love and why?

RH: I could try to answer this by finding some common element in all the writers I most enjoy and saying that I love inventive whimsy or writers who are willing to play with form as well as content, but some of my favourite books aren’t like that at all, so it would be a mistake to be too prescriptive. One of my favourite books is the collection of seven ‘Maqroll’ novellas published under one cover by NYRB as The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Alvaro Mutis, incidentally the very first book I ever bought online. There is very little humour in these novellas and the tone is always serious, intense but also somehow distant, but the effect of the prose is truly mesmerising and deeply impressed me. Like in the best stories of Ballard, imagery serves the function of plot, and the language somehow contrives to be heady while remaining sober. Remarkable work!

The books of Italo Calvino also continue to enthral me. Calvino has been my favourite writer for at least the past thirty years. He was an intellectual but one who never disregarded the emotional side of life, so although he was hugely influenced by Borges, his work has a warmer sensibility and I always get the feeling that he is a friend of the reader. He cares about the heart as well as the head. I have read The Non-Existent Knight more times than almost any other novel and I feel sure I will read it again someday. I have mentioned Boris Vian and Flann O’Brien, so now I would also like to put in a good word for Stanislaw Lem, for his unconventional and amusing speculative and philosophical stories, The Star Diaries, The Cyberiad, The Futurological Congress, and books like those.

Alasdair Gray, who recently died, is another of my favourite authors. A superb artist and designer as well as a tremendous writer. Mia Couto is another favourite and there is a vast amount of wonderful work coming out of Africa at the moment. I always enjoy reading R.K. Narayan and his Malgudi Days is one of my favourite short story collections. Another collection I adore is Palm-of-the-Hand Stories by Yasunari Kawabata. There are so many excellent writers in the world, almost too many, how is a reader supposed to keep up? Every year I discover a writer new to me who I find entrancing in some way. Last year it was Ingeborg Bachmann, I am eager to see who it will be in this new year of 2020.

Rhys Hughes was born in Wales but has lived in many different countries. He graduated as an engineer and currently works as a tutor of mathematics. He began writing fiction at an early age and his first book, Worming the Harpy, was published in 1995. Since that time he has published more than forty other books. His short stories have been translated into ten languages. He is nearing the end of an ambitious project to complete a cycle of exactly 1000 linked tales. His most recent book is the collection Arms Against a Sea and he is hard at work on an experimental novel called Corybantic Fulgours.

George Salis is the author of Sea Above, Sun Below (River Boat Books). His fiction is featured in The DarkBlack DandyZizzle Literary MagazineThe Sunlight Press, Unreal Magazine, and elsewhere. His criticism has appeared in IsacousticAtticus Review, and The Tishman Review, and his science article on the mechanics of natural evil was featured in Skeptic. He is currently working on an encyclopedic novel titled Morphological Echoes. He has taught in Bulgaria, China, and Poland. Find him on FacebookGoodreads, and at www.GeorgeSalis.com.

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