In this article, I interview Rhys Hughes about his new anthology, The Seashell Contract. All proceeds of this book are for charity. Rhys is also on a mission to write 1000 short-stories (and almost nearing the end). I hope you enjoy this interview, and please do check out his book.
The Seashell Contract is a new collection of short-stories by Rhys Hughes. It includes only previously unpublished work, all written in the past two years. The author’s profits will go to The Mariposa Trust, a charity that supports mothers and families who have lost babies. The book is available both as a paperback and an ebook. It features 22 stories that are fantastical in style and are typical of the work of this writer. The book was issued under his own imprint, Gloomy Seahorse Press, in order to maximize donations to the charity.
DG: This is quite an eclectic collection of stories. Do you believe they share a common theme or subject matter?
RH: No common theme, other than that all my stories probably share subconscious images that help to form connections between them. I am sure that the underlying motives that compel me to write fiction can be quantified and defined, but at the moment I am far too unsure of what they actually are to make a guess as to their nature. So this book isn’t a collection of a certain type of story. Having said that, my style is quite distinctive. On a basic technical level, I have an affection for the story told in the first-person, but I’m aware that with a collection it’s necessary to vary the manner of the telling as well as the subject matter, so this book features third-person narratives too. I tried to make it as varied as possible but I like to think that my writing is already varied and that the things that do crop up more than once are universals the individual pieces can’t exist without. I try to be entertaining but the stories aren’t just entertainments; there is humour but they aren’t comedies; there is also melancholy but they aren’t sentimental tales.
DG: What do you think speculative fiction in particular gives to the reader, as opposed to say mainstream, or pure SFF?
RH: All types of fiction have something to offer. Speculative Fiction offers more freedom to experiment with ideas than most other kinds of fiction, and to experiment in a more unrestrained way while at the same time preserving a sense of logic. A speculative fiction writer can conduct thought experiments just to see what happens and if the results are wondrous, unique, enthralling, there is no need to worry too much that the mechanics of the process that gave rise to the results are impossible in empirical terms. For example, if I write a story about an interplanetary space giraffe that has a neck so long it can stand on one planet and browse the forest canopies of a different planet, that story is going to be essentially speculative fiction rather than science fiction. A science fiction writer would be too concerned with the fact that such a scenario is against the laws of physics and biology to just go along with the conceit and see where it might lead. It’s true that such a story might also be called fantasy or whimsy, but I think there is an essential difference. If the subsequent adventures of the space giraffe are governed by rules that are as rigorous as those of science fiction, even though the scenario is impossible, what we have isn’t pure fantasy but something else. That something else is speculative fiction. I just find it a useful label. It would be better if we didn’t need labels at all, but while we do still have labels, it seems one of the better ones.
DG: Several of your stories include chess as a theme, is there a particular reason for that?
RH: I have always been fascinated by chess, by its possibilities and variants. I played it from a young age. My very first publications of any sort were chess problems for The Independent newspaper back in the 1980s. I have utilized the game of chess in several stories since, as a technique of controlling a text, to greater or lesser degrees of complexity. For example, I once wrote a story that hinged on a ‘knight’s tour’ which is a puzzle that involves a chess knight visiting every square on a chess board once and only once. The solution to this puzzle provided the solution to a riddle in the story itself, which in turn tied up all the loose ends in the plot. I also wrote a novella with a crucial sequence based about the ‘Babson task’, the most challenging problem to construct in chess. Without going into too much detail, this problem involves the fact that a pawn when promoted doesn’t have to become a queen but can also turn into a knight, bishop or rook, and that in a very small number of cases these lesser promotions will be more beneficial. I used to regard myself as rather a good chess player. I beat a Spanish grandmaster during one feverish night in a log cabin in Cantabria, but I learned humility when a 17 year old girl completely destroyed me in a cafe game the following week. Little moments like this can be important. In the wake of that disaster, I have been careful not to be overconfident about anything.
DG: You’ve quite a unique writing style. The closest comparison I can make through my limited experience is Douglas Adams meets Paulo Coelho. Do you think humour and magic realism blend well?
RH: I think that humour can blend with anything if it is done well. I think the same is probably true of tragedy, pathos, bathos and anything else you might care to name. I am, however, largely unfamiliar with Douglas Adams. I have read two of his books. And I am totally unfamiliar with Paulo Coelho. The writers who are my favourites and who have inspired me the most for the majority of my writing career are Italo Calvino, Donald Barthelme, Boris Vian, Flann O’Brien, Jorge Luis Borges and Stanislaw Lem. In more recent times I have also discovered the work of Mia Couto, who has been a revelation to me. But I guess I can say that Calvino and Barthelme are the two writers who have affected me the most deeply. I love the endless flow of ideas, the playful prose in which those ideas are conveyed to the reader, the fact that their work can appeal simultaneously to the head and heart. My writing style is often called ‘unique’ but it isn’t really. It is distinctive, yes, but not unique. It’s just that I read more fiction from non-Anglophone countries than most other writers I know who write in English and I have picked up an approach that seems unusual. There is so much great literature out there and it’s always worthwhile expanding our reading horizons. I discover incredible writers who are new to me all the time, but I haven’t really changed my favourites for the past thirty years. It is undoubtedly a good thing to have one foot planted in the familiar, while the other foot strides off on the end of its leg into territories unknown.
DG: Short stories as a genre is considered to be a tough sell for anthologies, yet we see so many markets online and offline for short stories. Some pay, some don’t pay, but it’s clear that readers are reading short stories. How do you find them different as a writer, as opposed to a novel? What freedom short stories allow that a novel does not? Or what limitations?
RH: Short stories really are becoming less popular in commercial terms. Collections of short stories tend not to sell very well. I have heard several proffered reasons for why this might be so. One highly respected editor I know told me that the attention spans of readers are getting shorter and shorter, but that it’s a mistake to assume this means that short stories are ideally suited to them, because they don’t want to have to engage with a brand new set of characters and situations every few pages of a book. They want a familiar group of protagonists. Therefore novels are actually more suited to the modern reading public. This might be true. I just don’t know. Many of my own stories have shared characters that pop up from time to time. Maybe this helps to break the isolation that is a standard feature of the short story and maybe it doesn’t. But none of this really answers your question, because it could be simply that short stories continue to be read in great numbers but that it’s the willingness to pay for them that has changed. Also let’s not be too Anglo-centric about this. There is a science fiction magazine in China that features primarily short stories that has a circulation of a quarter of a million. I know that my agent always used to tell me to stop writing short stories and concentrate on novels instead, but although I have written novels and have more planned, I think my heart and mind are those of an irrepressible short story writer! My imagination is too restless to focus on only one work for too long.
DG: You are giving all proceeds from the sale of this book to charity. Tell us more about it. What made you decide to support it?
RH: It was an impulse decision. A friend of mine was raising money for The Mariposa Trust and she was promoting the charity on social media. To raise money she was doing some remarkable things, such as a 100 KM walk non-stop over the mountains of central Wales. I wanted to help in some way. I could have made a simple donation, of course, but then it occurred to me that if I put together a new book of stories and donated the author’s profits to the charity, that would be an action I could promote much more widely and effectively. Of course there is a bonus in it for me, as it helps to expose more readers to my work. That’s the hope anyway. So it’s not pure altruism in that sense. But if more money is raised for the charity this way than I could reasonably expect to donate to them myself, the project will definitely be worthwhile. And the book will help to promote the charity too, so anyone who doesn’t want to buy the book might still make a donation to the charity. I have donated the profits from a book to charity on a previous occasion. That time I chose Animal Aid as the recipient. Gestures like this are only a drop in the ocean but while there is an ocean and we have extra drops, why not shake them in? Just so long as we don’t get the impression we are better than we really are, there is certainly no harm in it.
Rhys Hughes was born in Wales but has lived in many different countries. He graduated as an engineer and currently works as a tutor of mathematics. He began writing fiction at an early age and his first book, Worming the Harpy, was published in 1995. Since that time he has published more than thirty other books. His short stories have been translated into ten languages. He is nearing the end of an ambitious project to complete a cycle of exactly 1000 linked tales. His most recent book is the collection The Seashell Contract and he is hard at work on an experimental novel called Comfy Rascals. Fantasy, humour, satire, science fiction, adventure, irony, paradoxes and philosophy are combined in his work to create a distinctive style.