I have known Ian for many years, we met, oddly, through a mutual acquaintance; I say oddly, because we’re both atheists, yet we met at a Bible studies group, which Ian used to host for our mutual friend, who was the local Baptist Pastor. Ian has progressive MS and it has slowed his ability to write and publish in recent years. ‘The Faith’, self-published 2017 through Amazon, is his last piece of fiction to have been published. This interview was conducted via email, although I was able to visit Ian recently, suitably masked, not that we ended up talking about the interview!
Interview with Ian Duncan, August to September 2020:
ASP: When did you start writing in earnest? And was this academic, fiction or poetry? ID: I've always been fond of writing and I've dabbled in various forms. I sold my first piece at 22 in a print magazine, back when that wasn't a weird rarity. I wrote my first academic text book at 30, and a number of others followed. I have also been involved in various writing projects within the computer game industry. But poetry took some time to take root: I sold my first poem at 40. ASP: Was it easy or difficult to switch from academic text to fiction and poetry? ID: Moving between non-fiction and fiction are very different but it doesn't feel like a transition. I've always dabbled with them both in parallel. Though my first published book was academic, I had written endless beginnings of specific novels and cringeworthy teenage poetry which never saw the light of day. ASP: Were you commissioned to write the text book?
ID: It wasn't commissioned – I offered the publisher the textbook idea and they offered me the contract. I had pitched one textbook a few years earlier to a different publisher, when I was still a graduate student. I never heard back, and in hindsight I'm rather glad: I didn't know enough to realise it wouldn't be very good!
ASP: How long did it take to get your first acceptance? And during this, and subsequent times, did you ever get disheartened by rejection? ID: I've been fortunate to have relatively few rejections. Even of poetry and stories. I've tried to offer publishers ideas that match their interests and fit my writing, often writing for a specific venue. It's no guarantee, of course. I still have a couple of pieces written for a specific market, that didn't get bought, and I haven't sent to anyone else. And I have self-published twice, when I have a piece that I needed to write. I don't advertise my self-published work, but publishing this way allows me to share my work: with friends, family and those who stumble across it. ASP: When and why did you start writing 'The Faith'? ID: I started thinking about the story in 2007, toyed with it for several years, committed in 2016, and finished the book in 2017. It marinated for a long time in a back room of my brain (on a shelf with plenty of other Mason jars, stuffed with all kinds of weird pickles.) It's an exploration of religion: a way to think about how religions start and how they develop; how they can fulfil people and how they can hurt them; and importantly, why I don't think cynicism is very helpful. Both the main characters in the novel take a faith journey that isn't the journey they thought they were on. ASP: Do you identify with any of your characters in it? I wondered, perhaps Jack. (Certainly, I much preferred Jack as a character, despite his obvious flaws, over Sarah). Was there anything hoped for when writing your characters, as to how the reader might react to them? ID: Yes and no... Can I write a character that I don't identify with, at least a little? I think I would struggle to believe them, and struggle to sell them to a reader. But my characters are also unlike me, sometimes very much unlike me – I hope! I think the way I write characters is to push fragments of similarity outside of who I am. That isn't always easy. I wanted Jack to be more misogynistic than he ended up being, and more extroverted too; it's difficult to write characters the further they move away from my own world view. I find it easier to write characters with different life experience than radically different personalities. ASP: I know of your background with theology, and in your youth being an ardent member of a church, was it this, along with later experiences that inspired writing 'The Faith'? ID: Yes. I did theology as my undergraduate degree. So, I think it is probably a flavour in lots of things I write. But rarely a focus. The closest was a non-fiction blog. I was grappling with the issues of faith in short posts every few days: doctrine and doubt, history and mythology, belief and behaviour. 'The Faith' was a return to some of the same themes in fiction form. Everything I've written in some way relates to my experiences or personal interests, from a piece about the future of artificial intelligence to another about Japanese history. One of the great things about writing fiction is the ability to turn any aspect of your thought into a story.
ASP: How do you go about working a story? Do you write consecutively, sentence following sentence? Or do you have scenes mapped out and try to connect them? Or, indeed, any other way of working? ID: Sometimes the idea for a piece begins with a setting or character. I have a large directory of little notes. Sometimes just a line, sometimes a scene, or even sales copy from the back of the imagined book. But any idea I take seriously, I work from the outside in. I first write the whole story in a paragraph or two, then I block the structure with a sentence for each section, then I expand the plot points. It's a process, but each step isn't set in stone: there have definitely been times where characters or situations have surprised me. I've tried to just write, starting at the first page and going from there, the way many other authors do. But more often I end up with a soggy middle. And usually give up. When working on a book, I follow this 'zooming in' all the way. Each chapter begins as a paragraph, then grows to a sentence for each beat, and then expands to the full text. But, yes, some scenes are mapped out. The emotional peak of The Faith was written before everything else. I knew what the crux of the story was going to be from the outset. ASP: I know, sadly, you have for the most part had to abandon future writing projects; I wondered if you were still maintaining any poetry creation? And, if so, will there be a possibility of a future collection? ID: This year my progressive MS has included aphasia, so words are much more difficult. On good days I am still playing with poetry, but I am not working towards an organised collection. For the last eighteen months I've been developing 'Henosis': a new book about imagination; a fictional non-fiction book. It brings together lots of things I've written in the past, from complete stories to simple ideas. It is slow work, and I don't know whether I will reach the end. But the process is enjoyable. ASP: Of all the styles of writing you do, is there one that is your favourite medium? ID: I've thoroughly enjoyed everything I've written; academic, non-fiction and all types of fiction. The style that I now miss the most is longer form writing, but I'd miss poetry too if I couldn't do that.
ASP: Thank you for your time, Ian.
ID: Thank you.
‘The Faith’, self-published 2017, Amazon.
‘A novel about faith, faithfulness, and the body. Jack is an aging cult-leader struggling to protect his legacy as his own faith crumbles. Sarah is an atheist blogger trying to expose Jack's religion. As they journey through the history of The Faith, they come to realise they are more similar, and more dependent on each other, than either imagined.’
‘Tregare’, self-published poetry collection 2017, Amazon.
‘A beast as big as a horse is stalking the fields, a giant stone hand clutches the cemetery wall, in the woods a recluse carves people from bone, and a bell rings in a tower with no door. A collection of poems about the mythical life of a small Welsh village, weaving together folklore and imagination to tell overlapping stories of the strange and macabre.’