Name: Gary Duncan
Where are you from?
Belford, Northumberland. I’ve come full circle — I was brought up here, then left for university, then lived and worked overseas for a few years, then came back about 10 years ago.
Fiona: Tell us your latest news?
My flash fiction collection — You’re Not Supposed to Cry — has just been published by Vagabond Voices in Glasgow. It comes in at 60 stories, with the stories ranging from 100 to 1,000 words. The stories look at the everyday and the mundane — the little details of our lives.
This is the blurb from the book:
Family dinner somehow becomes more mundane after Uncle Colin does a fatal face plant into the plum pudding. A lonely old widower sits at home and participates in conversations he records whilst riding the bus. Curled up like a comma, a woman lies in bed and remembers the exclamation-mark man her partner once was.
These brief, vivid glimpses into the lives of others lay bare the ugliness and absurdity — but also the beauty — of existence. In his flash fictions Gary Duncan explores what it means to be human with insight, compassion and humor.
Fiona: When and why did you begin writing?
I wrote my first stories when I was 16 or 17. They were terrible, of course — derivative, over-written, a dog’s dinner of different styles and voices. I still have some of them locked away in the filing cabinet in my office. And that is where they will stay. I’m not sure about the why. When I do get an idea for a story, though, it just has to be written. Maybe there’s a need there, just to get it out of my head and onto the paper.
Fiona: When did you first consider yourself a writer?
I’ve only ever worked in publishing, so I’ve been writing and editing since I left university. I started at a trade publisher in Hong Kong — it was pretty dry stuff but I loved it. That then led to some freelance work (movie reviews, travel writing, etc.) and that in turn led to fiction. I had a few stories published here and there, but didn’t really get into short stories and flash fiction till about five years ago. These days, my day job is still editing — that’s what pays the bills — but I’m quite happy to call myself a writer if anyone asks what I do.
Fiona: What inspired you to write your first book?
Life in general! As I said, I’d had a few stories published in short-story magazines and I wanted to take it to the next level. I took some of those stories and reworked them once I knew roughly what I wanted to do with the collection. The fun part was coming up with a bunch of new stories that would work alongside the ones I already had. I carried on sending out stories to magazines, but most of the stuff I’ve been working on in the past few years was written with the collection in mind.
Fiona: Do you have a specific writing style?
I like a pared down style — I edit a lot, so my stories are (hopefully) fairly tight and easy to read. I like stories that look effortless on the page, like they’ve just come out that way, fully formed. The reality of course is that they’ve probably gone through endless rounds of edits to get to that stage. I think that’s essential with flash fiction and short stories. You take an idea and you get rid of everything that’s superfluous.
One review said: “This collection of gritty snapshots, of lives passing you by like the countryside through the window of a train carriage, is written with remarkable lucidity and compassion for lives and scenes that may otherwise have passed unremarked.” I’ll settle for that.
Fiona: How did you come up with the title?
Dana Keller at Vagabond Voices suggested it. I’d had a few ideas in mind while I was writing the stories but as soon as Dana threw that one into the mix I knew it was the right one. It’s a line from one of the stories, and I think it works perfectly for the collection as a whole.
Fiona: Is there a message in your stories that you want readers to grasp?
I don’t really have a message as such. But hopefully there are enough ideas in the stories that will make readers come back for a second or third reading. It’s impossible to try to second-guess what readers might think, though. I’ve done some readings and Q&As recently and it’s always fascinating to see how other people interpret your stories. Sometimes they “get it” but other times they see something you didn’t intend and come away with something entirely different. I think that’s pretty cool too — it’s up to the reader to decide what they think the story is about. That’s especially true with flash fiction or short-short stories because you don’t have the space to explain everything in detail. You have to make the reader work a little bit harder and fill in the blanks themselves.
Fiona: How much of the book is realistic and are experiences based on someone you know, or events in your own life?
Most of them are based on a version of the truth. I tend to come up with a character or situation first, or maybe a bit of dialogue that I’ve heard or that just pops into my head. I then have a think about what I can do with it. I’ll have a few different ideas and try to ignore the first few things I think of, to try to find something that might not be that obvious.
Fiona: What books have most influenced your life? A mentor?
I read A Kind of Loving by Stan Barstow when I was about 18 and that was a big turning point for me. I read him and I just thought this sounds real, like the kind of thing I could write (one day). I read a lot of Barstow and Alan Sillitoe and all the other “angry young men” of the ’50s and ’60s — kitchen-sink stories about everyday people, about the kind of people I knew. I hope there’s some of that “social realism” in You’re Not Supposed to Cry.
Other things that stand out would be Charles Palliser’s The Sensationalist, Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, and Henry Miller’s Quiet Days in Clichy — I’ve lost count of the times I’ve read them all. Besides all being very short works (which I like), I think they’ve all got such a strong sense of time and place. I read Hemingway and Miller when I was living in Brussels and Milan and travelling around Europe. I loved that whole “writer abroad” thing. I wasn’t writing much fiction at the time but I was soaking it all up and still liked to pretend I was out there, living the life!
Fiona: Are there any new authors that have grasped your interest? Who is your favorite author and what is it that really strikes you about their work?
For new authors, I’d say D. W. Wilson, Tom Franklin, Nic Pizzolatto, Robert Seethaler, and Steven Sherrill, to name a few. I’m not sure how “new” they are, but they’re new to me.
Favorite writer? That’s too difficult. I’ll have to cheat and go for three: Donald Ray Pollock, James Ellroy, and Martin Amis. Pollock’s Knockemstiff is one of my favorite books. His stories can be pretty brutal but he writes about real people. No-one writes like Ellroy: that staccato style and the big themes and the dense plotting. He’s wonderfully un-PC, too, and that’s not a bad thing! I love everything Amis has written, especially The Rachel Papers and Time’s Arrow. And Raymond Carver. That’s four. When I’m stuck, usually if I’m trying to over-write something, it’s always good to dip into some Carver. Keep it simple.
Fiona: Name one entity that you feel supported you outside of family members.
The flash fiction community in general has been very supportive. We’re a fairly small but close-knit group. I run a flash fiction website called Spelk Fiction, and that has been a great way to meet fellow writers and a constant source of help and feedback. It also gives you an inside view of what’s going on in the flash market — who’s out there, what they’re publishing, etc.
Fiona: Do you see writing as a career?
Yes, but the reality is that the vast majority of fiction writers don’t earn anywhere near enough to make a living out of it. I’d like to continue to combine the writing with the editing, and that’s doable.
Fiona: If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything in your latest book?
No, I’m really happy with it! At the same time, I’m wary of reading the whole thing again from start to finish — the editor in me will always find something to change.
Fiona: Can you share a little of your current work with us?
I’m working on a longer short story at the moment — around 3,000 words — for a charity anthology that’s being put together by the UK crime writer Aidan Thorn. It’s called Paladins 2 and it’s for the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation in honor of Henrietta Furchtenicht, a mutual friend. Henrietta’s husband, Craig, is also involved, as well as some great indie crime writers on both sides of the Atlantic.
Fiona: Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing?
I tend to tinker a lot. I sometimes find it hard to know when to stop editing and just sit back and say “that’s it, I’m done.”
Fiona: Do you have to travel much for your book(s)?
No, not yet. Most of my stories are based in and around where I live, in Northumberland. That’s what I know best, so that works for me. But I’d love to have the time to jet off somewhere for a few months and write something different. I’ve thought about doing something based on my travels to Hong Kong, Brussels, and Milan, so maybe one of these days …
Fiona: Who designed the covers?
Mark Mechan at Vagabond Voices. I think he’s done a brilliant job — so many people have commented on it. It’s got a retro feel to it and he’s managed to sum up so many of the stories with the cover image.
Fiona: What was the hardest part of writing your book?
It can be difficult getting the balance right with a collection of stories. I wanted to look at a few common themes — loss, old age, people on the brink — but I didn’t want to go over the same ground too often. Or, conversely, include anything that would have been too random or wouldn’t have fit with the rest of the stories. I had to cut a number of
stories actually — and that’s tough. They were good stories on their own but just weren’t a good fit with the collection as a whole.
Fiona: Did you learn anything from writing your book and what was it?
Yes, a few things. First, that it’s hard work! Second, that writing a good story is only part of the battle — with a collection, it’s just one piece of the puzzle and you have to keep your eye on the bigger book. And third, that I prefer the editing to the actual writing. Writing is fun of course — that buzz when you get the first draft down — but for me the real work starts after that. Edits, rewrites, trying to “find” the real story — that’s what I like.
Fiona: If any of your books was made into a film who would you like to play the lead?
That’s the good thing about having 60 stories in the collection — I can choose as many leads as I want! I often write a story with an actor or actress in mind, as that helps me to put a face to the characters. There’s a story called “Safe,” about a woman who has committed a terrible (but unspecified) crime and is now living a new life with a new identity. I wrote that with Maxine Peake (Shameless, Silk, The Village) in mind. In another story, “Black and Blue,” about a guy gradually losing his grip on reality, it was Timothy Spall.
Fiona: Do you have any advice for other writers?
Just the usual: write every day. I used to think it wasn’t worth trying to write unless I had the whole day ahead of me with no interruptions, but that’s never going to happen. I’ve got into the habit of doing short bursts now — half an hour, an hour. That works well with flash fiction, where you can hammer out a quick first draft and then go back to it over the next few days to edit. It might only be half an hour, but do that every day and it soon builds up.
Fiona: What book are you reading now?
I’ve just finished Paul Heatley’s FatBoy (which is very good). Next up is Steven Sherrill’s The Minotaur Takes His Own Sweet Time. I have a stack of things to read after that — Helen Simpson’s Cockfosters, Lee Child’s Night School, and Neil Campbell’s Sky Hooks.
Fiona: Do you remember the first book you read?
At middle school we read Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals. I thought it was great because there was swearing in it. I was about 11, so it was funny at the time.
Fiona: Is there one person, past or present, you would like to meet? And why?
Lee Harvey Oswald. I’d ask him if he did it.
Fiona: What do you want written on your head stone and why?
I don’t really care what it says, as long as there are no typos!
Fiona: Other than writing do you have any hobbies?
Cycling, going to the gym, buying books and drinking coffee. More the latter than the former.
Fiona: What TV shows/films do you enjoy watching?
TV: My “holy trinity” are Mad Men, The Sopranos, and The Walking Dead. At the moment, I’m really into The Americans and Better Call Saul. I tend to binge-watch things on Amazon and Netflix, and watch a lot of outdoor/survival stuff with Bear Grylls and Ray Mears.
Films: I used to be a prolific cinema-goer but these days it’s mostly just the latest Marvel or DC offering with the kids. My favorite films are The Deer Hunter, The Usual Suspects, American Beauty, The Bourne Identity, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and Carlito’s Way. And probably loads of others that I’ll remember as soon as I send this off.
Fiona: Favorite foods/colors/music?
That’s an easy one. Japanese/black/Kate Bush.
Fiona: If you were not a writer what else would you like to have done?
Writing/editing is all I’ve ever done and I’m pretty hopeless at just about everything else, so I’m not sure. Maybe a gym instructor.
Fiona: Do you have a blog/website? If so, what is it?
I don’t have a personal blog, but Spelk Fiction is at https://spelkfiction.com/.
Gary Duncan’s flash fiction collection, You’re Not Supposed to Cry, is available from Vagabond Voices (https://www.vagabondvoices.co.uk ). He lives in Northumberland, England, and edits Spelk Fiction (https://spelkfiction.com/ ). Contact him via Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/GaryJohnDuncan ) or Twitter (https://twitter.com/garyjohnduncan ).