‘Writing, Gunpowder, Dinosaurs and Nematodes’
Stephen Studach discusses the ‘FILARIA’ experience
With its author BRENT HAYWARD.
Born in England and raised in Canada Brent Hayward states that he was always into S.F. and writing, as well as the boyish pursuits of model planes, dinosaurs and gunpowder. He cites the simultaneous discoveries of Samuel R.Delany and Punk Rock at seventeen as a major turning point in his life. His first published novel Filaria has been chosen as the flagship work for the fledgling book makers ChiZine Publications. He has a wife and two children. Trained as an aerospace draftsman, he manages a small drafting office for a Canadian company. Stephen Studach asked some questions in Australia and Brent Hayward answered them from his home which is presently in Rzeszow, Poland.
BH: He is a guy who likes details. He can get lost in them, in fact. He’s also a guy who doesn’t really like to talk about himself in the third person, so he will now switch… I always need to have a project on the go, and the act of writing is meticulous, which appeals to me and scratches an itch. Though I’m generally happy, I write darker stuff and maybe I channel my inner darkness that way. I was never very social, or at least not very good at being social, so I’ve always been an avid reader. And I’ve always wanted to create something that could touch others the way that influential works have touched me. I think that’s why we create in the first place, us writers. Us humans. That, and an attempt to remain relatively sane. People tell me my stuff is weird, too. I don’t know. I write stories that I would like to read. I guess I like weird stuff.
SS: Your novel seems to be constantly pressing against the soft walls of genre as well as trying to get its grubby-nailed fingers into the cracks of style, and to heck with the spidery, wormy things that live in those stylistic crannies. Now I know you don’t particularly want to label your work. I tend to agree; naming candidates for genres and sticking pre-set tags on books seems an instinctive, lazy act, the human mind’s need for marked definition. So, please describe your novel Filaria. What were your primary intentions with the story itself?
BH: When I began Filaria, I had been reading novels by the Oulipo group: Perec, Mathews, Roubaud, Roussel. These folks made up a series of rules and then wrote accordingly, as a challenge to each other. Like not being able to use the letter ‘e’ in a novel. I didn’t want to go that far, but I did establish a few guidelines up front. For instance, I didn’t want any of the main characters to ever meet, yet each one had to encounter a secondary character, from one of the other character’s lives, and that person would then divulge something that would, hopefully, change the reader’s perception of each main character. If that makes any sense. I also wanted each scene – there are sixteen, four for each character, in cycles of four – to open in a different location, after some time has passed, in media res. And the closing scene would be in the same location as the opening scene, but with a different character, seeing it through a different set of eyes. Things like that. I really don’t want to make the novel sound non-organically stilted or mathematical, though, because I don’t think it comes across like that. But there were these guidelines.
As for the style, I’m also hyper conscious of the words, the patterns words make. I guess most writers would say that. But for me, it’s interesting sentences that do it, ones that want to be read aloud, ones that surprise and make people smile.
To sum the book up, Filaria is a story of four people. In a way, they each get what they want. I don’t know if the book is science fiction, because I don’t really know what that term means any more, but a lot of people will say that the book is, and I don’t have a problem with that. I think of it as a dream. Books should be either good or bad, that’s it. Filaria, I hope, will fall into the former group.
SS: I guess the cinematic equivalent of the ‘Workshop of Potential Literature’ would be the Dogma 95 manifesto.
You certainly are a meticulous writer. I feel it has shaped the particular ‘dream’ in question into interesting forms.
Yes, some of the things you’ve spoken about – the cycles of four, the non-linearity, the middle placing for opening scenes, are fairly obvious (the rule of quattro is there to be seen in the contents page of course), other aspects not immediately so.
You also have a neat trick of countering a reader’s set on a character, which is also a form of the non-linear I suppose, as is the way you guide us through the story. We’ll be comfortably in our seat of established character or setting, then we will be tipped out of it by new information. The formed mind set is rattled, but it is a pleasant rattling, an enjoyable jarring. It made me smile each time it happened.
As I started to read Filaria the term ‘Gothic Science Fiction’ occurred to me. It called to mind the Gormenghast novels. Yet, as I journeyed further through the book (and ‘journey’, I feel, is a fitting description of the Filaria experience) its kinship with the fantastical, with fables and fairy tales also became apparent. It made me think, as I read it, that a Great and Terrible Oz was lurking in there somewhere.
BH: Yes, Dogma 95 would be a similar ideal, for film. It makes the project more interesting to create. Though I think a lot of the ‘rules’, for lack of a better term, should be invisible in the end, so the creation itself doesn’t become a gimmick. But hopefully it can add a layer of depth, if the reader or viewer is prepared to investigate.
Most of my writing is non-linear. Often I do hold back details, so that when they are finally placed they have the power to surprise, a few pages in, when conceptions have been made and are forced to change. I think that’s good for a reader, to re-think, to re-evaluate. Actually, I think that it’s good for anyone, in any situation. Rattles them up a bit, makes gears turn. For me, interactions in life unfold that way; we’re never given everything we need to know up front. We never really see the whole picture and we often have to retrace our steps.
I really appreciate the Gormenghast reference. Those books blew me away. And the reference to fables and fairy tales. I have certainly read countless children’s books, out loud, over the past few years–when they’re good they’re really good. I’ve also watched the Wizard of Oz many times. And the Telletubbies, for that matter. Maybe these latter influences are steeping into my brain a lot more than I think.
SS: How long did it take you to write Filaria?
BH: To get the third draft done took about four years. I’m not very prolific but I am tenacious; I worked on the book every day, at work, on my lunch hour, writing for about twenty minutes each day. I had two little kids at home and writing there was out of the question for me. I tinkered with the third draft for another six months or so, but the book was pretty much where I wanted it to be after four years.
SS: How do you go about the ‘nuts and bolts’ side of the creative process: from first draft on?
BH: My writing process is not the most efficient. I know there are authors who lay out an entire novel, scene by scene, until the whole thing is planned out, and then they begin, following that plan until the book is finished. I never see the whole forest when I start, just part of one tiny shrub. A leaf, even. I go over and over the first scene, expanding it, until the next scene comes to me. Then I sit back and try to see how the scenes relate, how I can better tie them together. Sometimes I have to scrap scenes, characters, whole chapters. So the first draft, if it can be called that, looks nothing like the final product.
SS: That certainly sounds ‘organic’ to me. Maybe ‘Organic S.F. Fantasy’ could be another Dymo label print-out here.
Though you’ve been writing for some time, and your style seems fully birthed as it were, in regards to published work you’re a new writer, the author of the first book from the tyro publishing arm of ChiZine Publications (all power to them!). Accordingly I imagine that you and your novel will be under some scrutiny. How did you get to that point, what was the path that took you there like?
BH: I’m an overnight sensation! Really, I have been writing since I was a kid, and I’m well into middle age now. There’s a lot of trunk stories out there, and a couple of full length novel manuscripts. One’s even in long hand, in pencil. A war story. Lots of gore. I think I was twelve. I started writing seriously and submitting stories for publication about fifteen years ago. There’s a small number of published stories out there also, but as I age, my limited interest in anything mainstream or conventional dwindles even further, and what I’m interested in writing – and reading – becomes more and more obscure. But there are plenty of great writers out there who publish great books, and who write what they really want to write, so I’m always encouraged. And it’s all thanks to small presses like ChiZine Publications. It’s the same as music: indie labels and small presses support new styles, fresh meat. They’re the ones taking chances, changing the landscape, while the mainstream waits until it’s safe to step out.
As far as the scrutiny, it won’t be the first time, but never for anything this size. It’s always fascinating for me. Any form of reaction is better than none, or a lukewarm one.
SS: It’s evident that your characters are important to you. I think that the characterization is one of the novel’s strongest traits. Could you address the art of character creation?
BH: I’m flattered that you’d like me to address this art but I don’t know if I can. I used to write down a brief history of each character, so that I knew what they were doing before the book or story started, but now I find it easier to imagine the folks in my work as developed entities. They change somewhat as I write, but basically I know who the characters are, how they will react, what they’ll say. There’s a few tricks, too, like having a certain character use an expression throughout, or giving him/her a consistent hang up or concern. I have a fear, as most writers probably do, that all their characters will transparently seem like themselves, doing what they would do, saying what they would say. We try hard, when we write stories, to hide ourselves as much as possible, though we’re certainly in there, puppeteering from backstage.
SS: Music seems an integral part of your existence. Sing to us of the music that moves you, that inspires and stirs you, and why.
BH: I’m singing, right now, The Kinks. ‘House In The Country’. Music has always been huge in my life, ever since I first heard Iggy Pop on the radio, when I was sixteen and living in a white, middle class suburb of Montreal, surrounded, it seemed to me at the time, by hockey players. Books and music are neck and neck obsessions, but since I suck at making music, it’s writing that always wins the race. I would like to have been a rock star. Still, I can always listen to other people’s music. It was all art school punk in the late seventies, British stuff mostly, but things got quieter and more American as I got older. Lots of roots music. Country and blues. Always rock and roll. Lyrics are key. There are several bands out there now that have been coined with the label lit-rock, or something like that, and I quite like a few of them. Bands like Okkervil River. Elliott Smith. Neutral Milk Hotel. Quiet music by angry people, or at least by people who want to say something other than hackneyed tropes.
SS: We each carry, inside, the particular art of others which has enchanted and inspired us. Can you cite some of the works which have remained with you?
BH: I’m always worried, after I put down a really great book, that I’ll never pick up another one quite as good again. But they still trickle in, these gems, every once in a while. They all leave something behind. I read a lot of books, so there’s a ton of these fragments being carried around inside me. We already mentioned The Gormenghast Trilogy. The slow pace and detail of those books were almost excruciating! Pretty much all of Samuel Delany’s books. ‘Dhalgren’ in particular. I would go as far as to say that book changed my chemistry. William Gaddis was another writer whose work stands head and shoulders above everything else out there. Harry Mathews and George Perec, from Oulipo. Philip Dick, Raymond Chandler, Gene Wolfe, Thomas McGuane, John Barth. All these writers have made me stop and read sentences out loud. Stylists, chance takers. Lately, I’ve read great books by Michael Ohle and Brian Evenson. These guys write some really twisted stuff. Precise and controlled and twisted. There are so many good authors out there, but they’re vastly outnumbered by the mediocre. I understand not everybody wants to be challenged – a lot of people want to escape into a nicer, safer world. Not me.
SS: The main players in the novel certainly seem to be living in a world of consequences. The story at times is like a biblical parable unraveling, with the Engineer as the Divinity. There is of course a sort of flawed belief, a broken faith in a personal religion in the book, with many examples of deified machines. It could also be construed as an allegory of our own contemporary situation in the world with war and the abuse and breakdown of the environment.
BH: The four characters in Filaria get what they want, whether they see it that way or not. We have to be careful what we wish for. Not in a lightning-may-strike kind of way, just in a happiness sort of way. But I am very interested in faith and in the various fat books that the faiths use. I wanted Filaria to have its own system of faith, and I wanted this system to be based on rumour, old texts, stories passed down from one unreliable narrator to another. I wanted the system to be leaky and make as little sense as ours. No one ever gets it right or sees it the same way as anyone else. And there’s war, often because of this disparity, and a breakdown in the environment. There’s protest, terrorism, and there’s people just trying to get on with things throughout it all.
SS: From the filaments and patterns in a moth’s wing, to squirming filarial masses, to a transparent leaf… Have you long been interested in worlds within worlds?
BH: Yes. For a long, long time. Lots of days digging around in various disciplines, studying coloured plates, drawing, researching and dissecting and watching, with no real end product in mind. Captivated by the complexity of it all. In some ways, now that I’m all grown up, I don’t see the worlds within worlds so clearly any more. But I know they’re there. I saw them once. I try to bring them back when I write.
SS: You’ve stated that your work is dark, but there is also a counter balance of light there, a goodly amount of hope and humanity. Do you envisage ever moving into darker speculative fictions; what the categorical label-stickers would brand as Horror or Horror Fantasy?
BH: I’ve accepted the ‘dark’ label because I hear it so often, but there’s supposed to be a good deal of humour in what I write. I’d like to think there are a few chuckles in Filaria. I’m glad you saw hope and humanity. I’d like to think there’s as much hope and humanity inside the book as there is outside of it… Which, granted, doesn’t seem like much at times. But it is there, I believe, and it always will be. Certainly I would write darker stories in the future – I have in the past. I don’t know if Horror purists would ever grace me with the label ‘Horror’, though. Creepy might be as close as I get. Disturbing, if I’m lucky. I have been told there’s a lot of bodily secretions in my stories; perhaps I’ll have to crank up the blood ratio.
SS: Unless it’s a dark secret that you don’t want to share, tell me a little bit about that pencil-written war story in your drawer (or trunk). Heck, even if it is a dark secret – c’mon, share.
BH: It was a detailed description of a bombing raid, Germans bombing some town, and each explosion was catalogued, arranged chronologically as the planes moved overhead. I remember one scene where some poor guy’s head departs his body. My friend’s mother read this page and said she didn’t want her son playing with me any more… If only she knew how twisted that kid was already. I was the least of his problems.
SS: If each of us is connected to, gifted, or haunted by a personal muse… what would yours look like, be it she, he or it?
BH: Sadly, I think my muse would be some practical-looking thing. Not very glamorous or mysterious. Certainly not a beautiful woman in a diaphanous robe, whispering ideas in my ear.
SS: There is an apocalyptic fire, a devastating metaphysical deluge coming which will destroy all works of fiction and film. Each creator will be able to save, as well as their own works, six books and six films. Which will you load into your bunker?
BH: I’m going to pick six books that I haven’t read yet but that are next on my list – it seems silly to save six books in my bunker that I’ve already read. If these books turn out to be bad, I’ll just toss them into the rapidly approaching apocalyptic fire. They are: Evan Dara’s ‘The Lost Scrapbook’; Ian Macleod’s ‘The Light Ages’; R.M. Berry’s ‘Leonardo’s Horse’; Laird Hunt’s ‘The Exquisite’; Patrick White’s ‘Voss’; and Henry James’ ‘The Bostonians’. The films would be ‘Delicatessen’; ‘Pulp Fiction’; ‘Leolo’; ‘Raising Arizona’; ‘Freaks’; and maybe a Swedish Art Film, if you know what I’m saying. (I’m assuming that there are no other people.) What about recordings? I’ve often imagined being asked the desert island question and I don’t want to miss this chance, even though it’s not an island but a big-ass fire. So I’m going to tell you six records as well: Love’s first album, ‘Love’; Townes Van Zandt’s ‘Our Mother The Mountain’; Elliott Smith’s ‘New Moon’; The Kink’s ‘Face To Face’; The Soft Boy’s ‘Underwater Moonlight’; Neutral Milk Hotel’s ‘In The Aeroplane Over The Sea’; Okkervil River’s ‘Down The River Of Golden Dreams’. Is that seven?
SS: It is, but we’ll allow that, you might be in that bunker a long while. Sorry, I should have given you your choice of six companions as well. Make it a good Swedish Art Film. If Ray Bradbury comes knocking, insisting that you have to memorise the books, I guess you can ignore him. Glad to see you include an Australian author in there.
What, if anything, can you tell us about the speculative writing scene in Poland?
BH: I haven’t made any connections with other writers here yet but I have seen the speculative fiction publications in stores, some with translations of folks I know, and lots of stories from Polish writers that I don’t know, so I’m guessing the scene here is vital. And Poland produced Stanislaw Lem, of course, so it has to be pretty good.
SS: Filaria is slated to be filmed. You are (astoundingly) asked to nominate a director and lead players. And hey, they’ll even let you on the set when they film.
BH: Directors: Marc Caro, Jean-Pierre Jeunet (of Delicatessen/City Of Lost Children ‘fame’). Phister: maybe the pigeon-chested kid from ‘Gummo’? Deidre: a young Winona Ryder, before she tangled with the law. Because I’m going to be on the set, after all, and she might need some coaching. Mereziah: Charlton Heston, rest his NRA lovin’ bones. Tran so: he’s my action hero, so maybe Jackie Chan?
SS: Hmm, I was thinking of some of the Japanese directors. It would also make a strong anime.
Can you define influences upon your work, aside from other authors, and upon Filaria in particular? Also, what was the tipping point that initiated the concept for your novel?
BH: Rain. Urban centres. Mortality. The tipping point was when I had written about 250 pages and I saw the concept crawl out of the stack of papers. As I’ve said, my method is not very efficient. But I did see, at least, what I wanted Filaria to be, and the second draft captured that. Then I gave this draft to a friend, another writer, Bob Boyczuk, whose collection of short stories has just been picked up as ChiZine Publication’s second book, and he gave me his harsh critique, and here we are.
SS: In reference to the mating of the title with the novel. I’m thinking of the people in the Filaria world as infections in the Elephantiasis of the construct itself. Or are they merely the occupants of a decaying organism, an ill support system? I’m thinking of parasitism and symbiosis, of writhing nematodes inhabiting, struggling, breeding, learning, dying – both, all, infected? A god, with worms? An infestation that might still have members that could aspire to ‘ascend’?
BH: Yes. Humanity as parasite and the world, in the novel, at least, as an infection. A cyst filled with bacteria. Plus, of course, there’s Tran so’s eye parasite (which, though referred to by the dark god as a ‘Filarial worm’, he contracted from nasty water, not by mosquito. I know, I know, the biology isn’t quite there, but Filaria also sounded like a city, or a place, so the word seemed appropriate to me).
SS: Many writers can pinpoint that moment when the ‘spark’ flared up and they knew that they wanted to write. Can you?
BH: I knew I wanted to write shortly after I learned to read. Now I’m trying to learn how.
SS: What are your three favourite dinosaurs?
BH: This is a bit of a trick question. My son is into dinosaurs now and I see that they have new names, new colour schemes, new ways of standing. In a generation or two, references to all of the dinosaurs we knew as kids will be gone, replaced by all these new ones. There’s some kind of conspiracy going on and I don’t like it. So, from the old school: 3) Triceratops 2) Anklyosaurus 1) Euryops.
SS: A conspiracy? There’s a short story, or at least a poem, in there. Yes, scientific discovery, the emphasis on the ornithological rather than the herpetological connection (which seems embodied in the Archaeopteryx), plus Crichton and Spielberg, have overrun we boyhood experts. But oh, what glorious beasts they were from our youth. The Ankly was a wonderfully armoured, stout creature. My Bradbury era selection would have to include the Plesiosaurus, a colony of which, as a boy I liked to believe, inhabited Loch Ness, living in a system of underwater caves.
What are your ambitions in regards to the way ahead for your writing?
BH: I just started another long piece and it’s taking off, starting to occupy my thoughts, which is a good sign. My ambition is for this ms to grow to the point where I see what it will become, to like it, and to be able to finish it. I want to have a first draft in hand when my gig in Poland is up.
SS: You mention gunpowder in your bio. When I was a kid I blew up heaps of stuff. What about you? (Names may be changed to protect the guilty.)
BH: Me too. Tons of stuff. We used to make our own gunpowder. Mostly it just fizzled. We also used to cut the heads off matches and pack stuff full of them. We made rockets and tried to blow up everything that wasn’t tied down. Once I shoved a sparkler inside a plastic hand grenade filled with gunpowder, after the fuse had gone out. There was an explosion, and my face, which was about six inches away from the grenade, became covered in unburnt gunpowder. I ran to the bathroom to wash it off, expecting to be horribly disfigured… I wasn’t, at least not more than usual. So I went back outside and blew more stuff up. I was getting gunpowder out of my nostrils and my ears for days after that. Don’t try this at home kids.
SS: If you and I were ten years old and best friends on a weekend, which of these options for amusement that I offered would you vote for?
1: Go swimming at the local, completely unpolluted, river; walk the rail line over it, jump off the bridge, hit the Tarzan rope, ogle girls.
2: Go target shootin’ with my pop’s .22 and maybe blow something up.
3: Go explore the storm water drain system under the town. I’m sure one drain goes under the cemetery. (I’ve got matches and a candle, and a crappy little electric torch.)
4: Get into that big abandoned old house and take a look.
BH: In order: 2, 4, 3. Certainly not number 1: I can’t swim and I never liked to take obvious chances with my life (though I’ve done numerous dumb things, in retrospect, where I could have died or been hurt). Also, I wasn’t really into ogling until a few years later, maybe around fourteen or so. I was a little slow in that department.
SS: As far as danger is concerned, you’d be safe with me, I’ve lost hardly any friends on my adventures. Actually, at ten, if we couldn’t do all that in one weekend, and maybe sneak into the drive-in movies, there’d be something wrong. Let’s do it all.
Well, Brent, thank you for your time, energy and consideration. And for the intriguing work of fiction that is Filaria. The labelers are waiting, that’s them up ahead with the smoking, glowing branding irons, but I feel that your novel will obtain from many readers those smiles you’re after.