SF News Blog Interview
Today, Charles Tan talks to Richard Calder about his work, living in Thailand, and his collaboration with Filipino artist Leonardo M. Giron on the Dead Girls graphic novel.
What made you decide to pursue writing as a career?
The notion that books and writing were going to be a central concern first came to me, I suppose, in adolescence – that time when we disabuse ourselves of becoming train drivers, astronauts, or international men of mystery, but still retain enough of the childlike about us to be capable of believing that imagination will open other doors, and that life is more than a round of grubbing and spending. As I grew up, I wrote mostly indifferent, or bad, poetry – and some of it found its way into small magazines, as indifferent, or bad, poetry, often will; and then, when I was at university, a bad, certainly unpublishable, novel. It wasn’t until much later – I distinctly recall the sobering prospect of turning thirty with hardly any published work to my name – that I began writing with the kind of seriousness with which I hoped to be received, either by editors, or simply people I respected. In 1989, my first story – Toxine – was published in an Interzone anthology, and that same year, and the next, Interzone – the magazine – carried more of my work. Early in 1990, shortly after I moved to Thailand, I began to receive letters of interest from publishing houses and literary agents, which further propelled me to try my hand at the novel that became Dead Girls. When Malcolm Edwards at HarperCollins bought Dead Girls in late 1990 – the novel was written fairly quickly, but later went through considerable revision – I remember thinking that the door that I’d dreamed of walking through as a boy had at last opened, and that I’d only need step over its threshold to find myself in the fabled Land of Established Author.
But the course of a writer’s life is never so smooth!
What’s the appeal of speculative fiction for you? What made you decide to write for the genre?
I’d read SF from a pretty early age. Brian Aldiss was probably one of the first SF writers I sought out, and in my mid teens, I was a big fan of Michael Moorcock and J.G. Ballard. Then I recall not reading much SF for about ten years. I was brought back to the genre, first, by discovering Angela Carter, who so often incorporates SF, or fantastical, themes and motifs into her work, and then by the cyberpunk explosion. My early stories – and certainly Dead Girls – are, I think, a marriage, of sorts, between the vision of Angela Carter and the chrome-and-silicon, turbocharged world of cyberpunk.
I’ve never self-consciously taken a decision to write genre fiction, it’s simply the case that, whenever I’ve dreamt up a narrative, or had a particular idea on which to hang a story, it’s quite naturally taken a science-fictional form. The flavour, or dimension, of science fiction and the fantastic, seems built into my imagination, and it’s a predisposition I’ve never wished to resist, or challenge. It’s not the source, or fountainhead, of what I do; that lies somewhere far off, in childhood; but it seems interwoven with that source – and perhaps because SF is itself childlike, a genre of play and wonder.
Though I’ve always been quite happy to describe myself as a SF writer – the kind of self-denial endemic to the ‘slipstream’ is, I think, a little silly – I am concerned about realizing narratives and ideas in my own way, without kowtowing to the market. Which is only to say that, for me, genre expectations – the preponderance of a certain way of writing, which, at the moment, is rather slipperily referred to as ‘classic’ or ‘traditional’ SF – isn’t a given. This, I suppose, has the effect of making me seem like something of an eccentric, some might even say – what with my focus on sexuality, aberrant or otherwise – a shocking, writer, though it has never been my intention to be either eccentric or to shock (to purposefully shock is, after all, a vulgar exercise), but only to remain faithful to, and adequately realize, a personal vision in genre terms.
What were the challenges in getting published?
It’s a cliché, perhaps, but writing is a lonely business. A book can take a long time to finish – many years, perhaps – and as long again to get it published and into bookshops. Throughout this process, a writer experiences considerable periods of isolation, and out of isolation, perhaps, a certain ennui.
For me, the initial challenge was (and often still is) simply the harnessing of the necessary will – that is, sitting down, concentrating what powers I have, and addressing the task of constructing sentences, paragraphs, chapters. Creativity, for me, comes from the ground up. I may have an overarching idea for a narrative, but a story only really takes form, and more importantly, comes to life, when I focus my energies on the minutiae, which, simply put, is all about getting the best words in the best order. A narrative armature is, of course, important, but I’ve always felt that it’s attention to the basic building blocks of fiction that gives birth to credible characters, action, dialogue.
As for selling a manuscript: looking back, I realize that I was very lucky. Initially, at least. As previously stated, my first seriously written story, Toxine, and the stories, and novel – Dead Girls – that were soon to follow, were immediately accepted. But the truth is that getting published is often a difficult, protracted and complex affair. For the past twenty years, everything I’ve written has seen print, but submission, acceptance, and being part of the process of selling a book, is not something that for me – or I believe the vast majority of authors – is without problems. Indeed, it’s a rocky road. There are immense frustrations and reversals, though fortunately, of course, they’re balanced by moments of great satisfaction and pleasure – the pleasure of bringing a project to completion and seeing it in the public arena. (At which time, much nail biting over how differently one should have done things!) Over time, I’ve become philosophical. Getting published is something of a mad adventure, alternately filled with waves of frenzied activity, periods of great, sometimes dolorous, languor, and, finally – and thankfully – genuine elation.
Is there a mental shift for you when writing short stories vs. novels? Or books that deal with London vs. those that take place elsewhere?
In the past, there’s perhaps been little ‘mental shift’ between short story and novel, but I’m presently at work on a slew of short stories that are the proving ground for what, I hope, will – for me at least – be new ways of writing. (And though not a short story, the
Dead Girls graphic novel project is part of the same, overall project to re-invent myself.) Within these stories – I hesitate to call them experiments, since ‘experimental writing’ so often conjures up the idea of writing that is wilfully avant-garde, wilfully obscure – there’s an attempt to explore new themes, take those themes that I’ve previously dealt with in different, stylistic directions, and to merge New Calder with Old Calder by way of realizing narrative within the formal structures of the essay, the travelogue, the academic paper, and so on. (I began to play around with this sort of thing in my story The Catgirl Manifesto: An Introduction.) I’m particularly interested in developing fictions as concatenations – seeing how one idea, or hobbyhorse, links (perhaps chimerically) with another, and then another, until a narrative spontaneously emerges out of, and imbues meaning into, what otherwise might simply be instances of weird connectivity between anecdotes, trivia, bagatelles. I love the compactness of the short story form, and the discipline it necessitates: the killing of one’s darlings, as I think Auden put it, to achieve a distillation of argument and action.
Travel has always involved forms of ‘mental shift’. For me, living abroad quickens inspiration, and has me dreaming up narratives and characters that simply wouldn’t have come into being if I’d stayed at home. The ‘Dead’ trilogy and Cythera couldn’t have been written in London, and Malignos couldn’t have been written anywhere other than the Philippines. And perhaps all this implies that, though I’ve been back in London for some years now, I will undoubtedly travel, and live, abroad again sometime in the future, if only to discover in myself further new ways of writing.
Considering all your travels, do you see yourself as a British writer, a Thai writer, a Filipino writer, or some amalgamation of all three? Where is “home” for you?
Somehow, over the years – and at least partly due to the fact that I’ve spent a good deal of time abroad, and have had few places I could genuinely call home – I’ve become very English. But becoming English, of course, is different from being English: it implies choice, rather than destiny: embracing a mythic, or imaginary, Englishness (while, I hope, eschewing stereotype!) that doesn’t actually exist. So, while not seeing myself as a British, Thai, or Filipino writer (and actually to identify myself as Thai or Filipino would involve considerable chutzpah!) I do see myself as something of an amalgamation, that is, an artificial construct. The contemporary, real-life Englishman Abroad is a pitiful creature. Ignorant, loud, vulgar, he can be readily identified by the trail of blood and vomit he leaves across the world’s holiday spots. But I am an Imaginary Englishman whose ‘home’ is the construct he has built for himself, a carapace, I hope (ahem), of old-world courtesies and (as one reviewer put it) ‘cosmopolitan sang-froid’, which he carries, and retreats into, much like a crustacean does. It follows, of course, that Richard Calder is – thank goodness – not a real person at all, but a style – a style of writing manifest in his fiction, and a fiction incarnated in peripatetic flesh.
One of the finest pieces of writing on travel and the ex-pat experience is also perhaps the most non-representative. It’s certainly the most terrifying: Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky, a novel about the dissolution and loss of the self. It’s never been my experience to see any ex-pat come to such dramatic grief as the characters in The Sheltering Sky, but I have known many who have lost their identity, and not in a good way. To lose one’s identity is fine if one assumes another, that is, if one effectively re-invents oneself. But to simply lose one’s sense of self, to be lessened, rather than enhanced, by exposure to an alien culture, is a sorry state of affairs. There’s a part of me that’s Asian, but it’s so mixed up with what I value in my own culture, that I’ve become someone who, in many ways, shares a kinship, perhaps, with the kind of artificial creatures I’ve often written about (and perhaps whom I feel most comfortable with): mechanical people, dolls. ‘Home’ for me, I suppose, is a magic toyshop. And the door to the magic toyshop opens when we travel – to that most foreign, and alien, of shores: the realm of childhood, the source of all creativity.
What made you decide to live in Thailand and the Philippines? How have they influenced your work?
Quite simply, I moved to Thailand, and then the Philippines, to write. The experience of living in these countries was profound and has influenced my work deeply, permanently.
I moved to Thailand in January 1990. I’d visited Nongkhai many times before, but now I was coming to put down roots, albeit with the future open-ended to the point of being uncertain, not only in terms of work and goals, but also, of course, financially. My wife and I had some money in the bank, and we planned to use the front of our house as a shop – a kind of general store that, we hoped, would pay our day-to-day bills. Food was cheap, we owned our own property, and our overall expenses would, we hoped, be minimal. Freed from what had been a full-time and extremely time-consuming job, I would devote myself to writing.
Our house was on Meechai Road. Meechai is a not uncommon Thai name. But during the 1980s a certain Khun Meechai – who’d made his name as a birth-control and AIDS prevention campaigner – had championed the condom, to much attendant publicity. Consequently, ‘Meechai’ had become a synonym for condom, and I found myself living on Condom Road.
The house was a simple affair. Downstairs, it was a fairly spacious one-room structure of brick and concrete, which, at the back, gave onto an extra bedroom, a kitchen and a bathroom. Upstairs, it was little more than an oblong teak box surmounted by a tin roof. You entered the house by way of two sliding doors – the kind of concertina-like grilles that protect shop fronts in European cities. To one side of the house was a narrow alleyway, which demarcated our property from a disused rice barn, and to the other side was a neighbour’s house – one built in much the same style as our own.
In the days to come we acquired some furniture and went about settling in. Upstairs, the house was pretty much open plan, and had the appearance of a loft or attic (we pushed a bed into one corner, a table and chairs into another). There was, however, a small section that had been partitioned off to create a separate room. We furnished this space with writing desk, chair, and bookcases. And it was here that I began writing Dead Girls.
My typewriter, along with other household items from the UK, were being shipped, and had still not arrived (and would not do so for some time), so I bought a few thick ledgers, a handful of felt-tipped pens, some correction fluid (to edit with), and set to work.
Dead Girls was, for the most part, written entirely by hand. I wrote fast, completing a first draft in something like three months. But what threatened to put the brakes on that outpouring was the heat. Traditionally, Thais have lived in houses built on stilts, the area beneath providing a comparatively cool refuge for humans, and indeed animals, during the dry season. If Thais don’t possess a refuge of this kind, they certainly wouldn’t dream of sitting in the hottest part of the house, as I was doing, day after day. Naked except for a pair of shorts, and with a huge electric fan playing over me, I soon learnt how effective the teak walls and tin roof were at conducting the high temperatures outside. My manuscript became soaked with perspiration. After my typewriter arrived, and I began transcribing the draft, sweat would fall between the keys, the air sometimes growing so hot that the typewriter would simply cease to function, and I’d have to switch it off for fifteen minutes or so, to allow its overheated circuits to recover. My wife would supply me with large quantities of iced lemonade from the shop below – now up and running – but I think it was only the fact that I was, of course, somewhat younger – 33 years old – that I could write in such stifling conditions at all. (I do not believe I could do so now.) In time, I was to buy and install an air-conditioning unit. During the dry season, Nongkhai could be a very, very hot town.
Life wasn’t all sweat and ink stains, of course. Those early days in Nongkhai were, for me, truly wondrous. I was, perhaps, as free as I’d ever been in my life – free to do whatever I wished, free to pursue a new life. I bought a motorbike, and, during the evenings, my wife and I would drive downtown, sit in one of the restaurants along the big, moon-dappled Mekong River, and stare at the opposite, Laotian bank – served, in those days (before the Thai-Australian ‘Friendship’ bridge was built nearby) entirely by a fleet of tiny boats. I think some of my happiest memories of those days – and I think they are perhaps the happiest memories I am ever likely to have – are those quiet moments by the river, eating delicious, spicy food, drinking ice-cold beer, and staring, utterly entranced, at the bend in the river, the diamond-like stars, the moon, the little lights that festooned the river bank, and thinking, yes, I’m here, I’ve done it, I’m actually living in this fairy-tale world, and nothing can ever take it away from me.
How has the Richard Calder of today differed from the Richard Calder two decades ago? What piece of advice would you give yourself back then?
If experience gives, it also takes away. I wouldn’t – couldn’t – write, say, the ‘Dead’ trilogy today. My concerns, and perspective on life, have changed – and changed considerably. Where the 2009 version of Richard Calder differs, I think, most markedly from his forebear is in his concern for discipline. (And in life, as much as art.) Invention springs from discipline of form, and I currently find that, for me, characters, dialogue, narrative, evolve chiefly through formalistic concerns.
I’ve never been one to give advice, to others or myself. But I currently find myself reaching out to the Calder of two decades ago, just as the 1990 Calder reaches out to me. Writing is always a matter of re-invention, and ultimately, of re-inventing the self. With the Dead Girls graphic novel project, Calder Past and Calder Present merge and become the ghost – and ‘ghost’ necessarily, since the project is ongoing and incomplete – of Calder Future. And Calder Future will, I hope, preside over a fictional universe that is tighter, more controlled, and more elegant, than the baby universe that it sprung from.
Currently in the field, how do you see diversity? Is it gradually being undermined or is there a slow but steady exploration of other cultures, other ideas, other worlds with the proliferation of the Internet? How would you describe the current British speculative fiction field right now?
I’ve always been most interested in SF when the genre has suggested that it can do anything, go anywhere, and that nothing lies beyond its purview. That means that I’ve been drawn to SF chiefly because of the New Wave and Cyberpunk. Publishers currently focus almost exclusively on what has come to be known as ‘classic’ or ‘traditional’ SF, meaning space opera, or some variant thereof. Diversity is thus compromised.
How would you define being a libertine writer?
Principally, a libertine writer is one who castigates hypocrisy, and the moral virtue sometimes made of fear. (Though to effectively enslave people it is only necessary to convince them that the opinions they hold have nothing to do with a constant diet of persuasion and fear, but that they are free, and their opinions are their own.)
And a libertine writer is something more, too. I’ve long subscribed to the hope of witnessing the evolution of a true species of ‘dark fantasy’, that is, a body of fiction that has its roots, not merely in Romanticism, Symbolism and the European Decadence (traditions that have inspired so much of my own work), but more importantly, in psychoanalysis and the exploration of society’s collective unconscious (traditions that underpin the last century’s, and this century’s, quest to understand the soul of modern man). In other words, I long for the emergence of a species of the fantastique that eschews escapism and embraces the challenge of creating an imaginative exegesis of contemporary life – an exegesis that seeks to understand, say, the emotionally regressive and stunted life of British society in 2009 by reference to such thinkers as Freud and Foucault, rather than by punking out, not only to the market, but to respectability; an exegesis that fearlessly uses the elements of science fiction, fantasy, horror and much else to explore the festering cellars of the collective human mind in order to reveal some measure of ‘truth’ about the hidden, unacknowledged ‘secret life’ to which we owe our current state of regression, infantilism, affectlessness and near perpetual panic.
To write a truly dark fantasy it seems imperative that an author address a fundamental reality: that human beings spend their entire lives dreaming, fantasizing, confabulating; that the nature of fantasy – of how we indulge it, use it, and of how it uses us – is the central issue facing the modern world, and not something that can be relegated to the usual, debased arena of discourse that so often passes for ‘fantasy’ – whether ‘dark’ or otherwise – in the marketplace.
You’re currently adapting Dead Girls into comic form. What are the particular challenges in making the transition from prose to comics?
Dead Girls the novel has had to be completely re-imagined and re-invented. The novel’s essential elements, of course, remain – most importantly, the two central characters, Iggy and Primavera, the mise-en-scène of London and Bangkok, and the idea around which the narrative revolves: that of a nano-virus plague that is turning young girls into cyber-dolls. The structure of the graphic novel, however, is quite different from that of the novel, and there are scenes, plot devices, and a lot of dialogue and voice over that’s completely new. The graphic novel, then, is a new piece of work that takes Dead Girls the novel as a starting point. But, importantly, the graphic novel is true to the spirit of the original novel.
How did you end up collaborating with Leonardo M Giron? Where did you find him?
I saw Leonardo’s work in the quarterly magazine Murky Depths, and it was immediately evident to me that he possessed both the skill and vision to delineate the ‘magic toyshop’ qualities of Dead Girls. I subsequently asked publisher and editor Terry Martin to introduce me to him. (Terry has shown tremendous enthusiasm and support for the project throughout!)
Dead Girls is a cyberpunk, or, some would say, ‘post-cyberpunk’, novel; but it also owes much to the gothic, particularly in its deliberate conflation of eighteenth-century automata and twenty-first century robots.
In Blade Runner, Daryl Hannah (who plays the replicant ‘Pris’) ‘does a punk variation on Olympia, the doll automaton of The Tales of Hoffmann’ (according to film critic Pauline Kael). The magic-toyshop world of Hoffmann similarly pervades Dead Girls, spliced with latter-day variations – but far more self-consciously. Leonardo’s work – which combines manga-inspired Ligne Claire with sketchy, highly detailed renderings of hyper-real, futuristic cityscapes – is ideally suited to realizing the tale of a twenty-first century Hoffmann, a tale of dolls, porcelain and clockwork, of mannequins, toys, visionary childhood loves, and of androids, gynoids, mecha, hyper-real cities, ray-guns, and death.
Leonardo paints on Dresden China, and he paints scenes and figures that owe their ancestry to both Lewis Carroll’s looking-glass world and Gibsonian cyberspace. His eclectic style – a style that is at once innocent and sophisticated, and that conflates Eastern and Western influences – means that he is as much at home in Meissen as in Manila. And since Dead Girls is set in both East and West, his hybrid approach harmonizes with the story’s cosmopolitanism.
Dead Girls was influenced by the work of the Surrealist artist Hans Bellmer. Bellmer, of course, had an obsessive interest in the magic, or demonic, toyshop world – an interest that had begun, or culminated, in his fateful visit to the opera to see Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann, which was to be such a powerful influence when he came to construct his great Surrealist object: The Doll. Sue Taylor, in her book Hans Bellmer, The Anatomy of Anxiety, writes: ‘Like André Breton’s famous chance discovery of a rustic slipper spoon at the flea market in St Ouen, which fulfilled the poet’s imperfectly understood enigmatic desire, the unexpected delivery of old toys from Bellmer’s mother had great resonance in the artist’s psychic life.’ According to another of Bellmer’s biographers, Peter Webb, these toys included ‘broken dolls, linocut magazines, glass marbles, Red Indian disguises, conjuring tricks, penknives, spinning tops, and pink sugar pigeons’; Alain Jouffroy adds dangerous items, ‘daggers, axes, totems, dynamite, and automatic pistols’; and Alain Sayag mentions grade-school primers and, curiously, phials of poison.
The toyshop that displays such items is home both to the naïf, and to the sinister; to innocence, as well as perversity. It is such a toyshop that Leonardo and I are building, a place of magic, of subterranean wonders and amoral forces, a place at once delicate and cruel, a lost domain of play and revolt.
For we are twenty-first century Hoff-men.
Where can unfamiliar readers find more of your work?
My first two published stories, Toxine and Mosquito, are available online at Fantastic Metropolis. Go to:
Prospective readers may purchase the ‘Dead’ trilogy (that is, Dead Girls, Dead Boys, Dead Things) and my other novels, Cythera, Frenzetta, The Twist, Malignos, Impakto, Lord Soho, and Babylon, at Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.
And those who wish to read Dead Girls the Graphic Novel on an episode-by-episode basis should subscribe to Murky Depths at:
And news about the graphic novel’s progress, as well as examples of artwork, can be found at: