An Interview with Andy Duncan

I had the wonderful opportunity to hear you read from your story collection, An Agent of Utopia. I was drawn to the vivid sense of place and setting in your work, especially how richly you convey areas such as Florida and the American South. From a craft standpoint, how do you envision setting? How do you find the sense of place in a story, and how do you know which setting is right for a piece?

Before I start, I’d like to dedicate this Q&A to my late friend and mentor Michael Bishop (1945-2023), a brilliant writer in multiple genres who was far more eloquent on all these topics than I am. And now, after a moment of silence, onward we go.

Setting isn’t just backdrop. It pervades, informs—no, better, infuses—every other aspect of the story. This is most obvious in certain genres, for example ghost stories, sea stories, adventures of survival or exploration, locked-room mysteries, historical fiction, and all those suspense thrillers that depend on isolation: Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None is an exemplar of that form. But it’s true across the board. Setting is story.

Many of my story ideas are place-dependent from the outset. My Thomas More story An Agent of Utopia, for example, had to be set in London, specifically in the tower, and during the reign of Henry VIII—placed also in time. All this I simply knew, first thing. “The Devil’s Whatever” is almost a parody of that approach, a story determined entirely by the many interesting places I could find that invoked the Devil in their name.

But with “A Diorama of the Infernal Regions,” I knew that once Pearleen stepped through that ticky-tacky, dime-museum canvas, she could be anywhere—but where? I wrote the story’s opening right up to that point, then stopped for a long ponder. I knew only that it definitely would not be the Infernal Regions! It was a long time figuring out that she would emerge in the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose—a place I had visited, which is always an advantage.

When you find the right setting, you know immediately. It’s like solving a word puzzle. You finally think of that obvious word that had been eluding you all along. “Duh!” you say aloud, as you write it in. It had not been at all obvious, before, but it became so, the instant you thought of it. I guess any piece of fiction is a word puzzle, in a sense.       

An Agent of Utopia is a thrilling short story collection—at once wonderfully bizarre, piercingly humorous, and infused with historical weight. I love how seamlessly your writing weaves historical details with fabulism and speculative elements; what is your process like for approaching this intersection? What role do you think history plays in science/speculative fiction?

The late Philip Klass, who wrote as William Tenn, argued that history was the only science that science fiction ever really had—certainly the only complex human field of study that science fiction was ever really about. He pointed to future history and alternate history and parallel timelines; to all those time travelers in both directions; to all those extrapolations of the California Gold Rush into the asteroid belt, or of the Roman Empire onto the Galactic Empire; to all those pirates and generals and revolutionaries in space. He always reminded us of Gene Roddenberry’s successful pitch to TV executives who had been minting coin off Westerns for a decade: Star Trek would be “Wagon Train to the stars!”

Tenn’s is one of those lovely assertions, rife in our field and perhaps in every field, that seems to explain everything, until it doesn’t. It explains a lot, though—at least to a history buff like me!

More usefully, perhaps, anyone with even a glancing interest in history knows how partial it is, how incomplete, how biased, and how it keeps changing thanks to fresh ideas, new outlooks, and current research—just like physics, geography, economics, everything. Look at all we’ve learned in my lifetime about, say, Stonehenge, or the pre-colonial Native cities of the Americas.

Viewed in this light, any attempt to re-create the past has to involve fabulism and speculation—so it seems perfectly natural that at some point, you cross a fuzzy border and realize, what the heck, you’re writing spec-fic, so just roll with it. I would argue that it still should be truthful; but I assert that, William Tenn-like, about all fiction.

You are a graduate of the Clarion West Writers’ Workshop, and you’ve since returned to Clarion West and to Clarion at the University of California San Diego as an instructor. What role did attending Clarion West have on your growth as a writer? On the other end of this trajectory, how has the experience of returning as an instructor shaped your writing or your creative aesthetics?

A complete answer to the first question would entail everything I’ve done and thought and written and been since summer 1994, but the terse version is simply that I returned from that six-week residency in Seattle knowing that I was a writer and committed to living a writer’s life.

This seems odd to say, as I had been writing for newspapers for more than ten years at that point—but identifying as a reporter, even as a journalist, was a much narrower aperture for me than identifying as a writer. Suddenly I saw the world in widescreen and in color.

Clarion West was the making of me. And my greatest career honors are my invitations back to Clarion West or to Clarion to meet the future of the field, and to help these people however I can, including the paramount service of getting out of their way so that they can become more fully themselves.

I realize the Clarions are not for everyone—can never be, for countless practical reasons—and many other routes exist to finding oneself as a writer. I laud all of them. Whatever works, I say. But the Clarions helped me, and so I try to help them in return.

I really admire your expansive involvement in the science fiction and fantasy (SFF) community. From your participation in Clarion to your numerous publications and interviews, you’ve been an integral part of the community for years. Though the literary industry is ever evolving, what advice do you have for emerging writers as they seek to build their literary careers?

Imitate everyone; it’s a necessary part of every writer’s development, and every writer’s toolbox. Moreover, if you imitate a variety of things simultaneously, you’ll seem not imitative, but original.

The ultimate goal, however, is not to fit anyone else’s genre(s), but to become your own genre, a genre of one. The highest public compliment I ever received was in an unlikely place, an online comment thread debating whether one of my award-nominated stories fit this genre or that genre ad infinitum, and Gardner Dozois shut it down by saying: “I’ll tell you what kind of story this is. It’s an Andy Duncan story.” 

Keep reading everything, especially the work of newcomers—and when you like their work, please tell everyone, beginning with the newcomers themselves. They need the boost.  

Get involved. In addition to writing, try lots of writing-adjacent things—editing, publishing, reviewing, interviewing, organizing, publicizing, lobbying, running for writerly or artistic office, fundraising; even, bless your heart, teaching—to see which ones you enjoy and are good at and can keep doing, alongside the writing. Because your fellow writers sure can use your help, and as you help us, you’re also deepening your own experience as a writer.

Also, practice saying, whenever needed, “No, thanks, but I appreciate your thinking of me,” so that you can return to what you want to do.

Finally, I pass along Stephen King’s advice: “Put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support-system for art. It’s the other way around.”

You’ve been a member of the English faculty at Frostburg State University since 2008. How has working in academia shaped your writing? Additionally, is there anything you hope to see evolving or shifting in the academic sphere with respect to creative writing?

I’m a bit unusual, I think, in that my academic career and my fiction-writing career began simultaneously. When I left my newspaper job for graduate school in summer 1993—which enabled my summer 1994 Clarion West experience in the first place—I told the truth to everyone who asked: “I want to see whether I like teaching, and whether I like writing.” I thought I’d give them a try, and if they didn’t work out, I’d go back to journalism. In fact, I reveled in both, and though I would return to stints of journalism after graduation, it was always as a clear interruption (however pleasant or practical) to what I now viewed as my true path, a twinned path: I write; I teach. To me, the one shapes the other, an ongoing exchange.

Needless to add, this is not a universal experience! Plenty of teachers, even of writing, don’t write; plenty of writers, don’t teach. But to me, they seem inseparable. (I should reaffirm here what I said earlier: There are many routes. Higher ed is only one, but it was mine.)

I would love to see creative writing as a recognized, honorable, necessary component of every discipline taught on campus, which is part of my larger desire to see the arts and humanities reaffirmed as the core of a university education, and not as a gang of unwashed buskers barely tolerated so long as their sidewalk squat is kept outside the corporate gates. No problem facing the world is solely a STEM problem, and no past, present, or future student is solely a STEM product. We have to learn everything, if we are to know anything. Thanks for asking!

Recently, you released a webpage called “Weird Western Maryland,” an ongoing culmination of what you call “many years of happily random research.” These tales are so impressively sourced from a wide range of locations, materials, and historical moments. Can you talk about the process for collecting these legends, beliefs, and stories? What role did creating this project play in your own creativity or storytelling impulse?

To say that I have a “process” for collecting this stuff would make it sound a lot more logical than it really is. (The same is true for my fiction-writing “process,” I’m afraid.) Certainly, I collect and read books and articles on all these topics, and my happiest mailbox moments are when Fortean Times arrives from London. I perk up whenever anyone in conversation mentions some weirdness in their family or neighborhood or hometown. I’ve taken a number of classes via the Rhine Research Center in North Carolina. And I am a compulsive list-maker, note-taker, file-creator, document-filer and (digital) cloud-seeder; I will never run out of material, but I am always hungry for more.

After years of witnessing all these OCD behaviors, my wife, Sydney, had a brilliant suggestion as sabbatical time rolled around: “Why don’t you write up for your sabbatical the weird stuff you’ve been collecting about Western Maryland ever since we moved here?” That jump-started not only the sabbatical but the public outreach finally bearing fruit at Andy Duncan’s “Weird Western Maryland.” That it’s housed on a university website is weird in itself!

What is something you are currently reading, watching, or writing that you’re excited about?

I agree with my friend Amy Branam Armiento, immediate past president of the Poe Studies Association, that Mike Flanagan’s The Fall of the House of Usher on Netflix is not only terrific but the best Poe adaptation ever. There, I said it, and with scholarly backup! But I love The Great British Baking Show, too.

Andy Duncan, Interviewed by Montanna Harling

Andy Duncan is a writer, teacher, journalist, and connoisseur of weirdness. His honors include a Nebula Award, a Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award, three World Fantasy Awards, and awards from the Maryland State Arts Council and the Science Fiction Research Association. His latest collection is An Agent of Utopia, from Small Beer Press; he narrates nine stories on the Recorded Books audio edition. His non-fiction project Weird Western Maryland is ongoing. A former board member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Association, he and his wife, Sydney, live in Maryland’s mountains, where they both are tenured English professors at Frostburg State University.

Montanna Harling is an MFA in Prose candidate at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where she teaches undergraduate writing courses. She graduated summa cum laude with a BA in Literature and Writing (Honors) from UC San Diego and had the incredible opportunity to research literary haunting at the University of Oxford. Montanna co-founded UC San Diego’s first-ever literary arts magazine organization, O(the)r People Magazine, and served as its Editor-in-Chief for three years. She writes speculative eco-fiction, with an emphasis on inheritance—her writing explores familial legacies and positions the ecological environment as a space that is infinitely inherited.