Dave Hutchinson was born in Sheffield in 1960. After reading American Studies at the University of Nottingham, he became a journalist and is now currently unemployed. He’s the author of five collections of short stories and one novel, and his novella “The Push” was shortlisted for the 2010 BSFA award for short fiction. He has also edited two anthologies and co-edited a third. He lives in north London with his wife and several cats.
Dave, thanks for agreeing to drop by for an interview. The last time I saw “The Incredible Exploding Man,” it was a rough but ingenious first draft freshly written for Jeremy C. Shipp’s Yard Gnome Army Fiction Writing Boot Camp. It was recently published in the acclaimed SF anthology Solaris Rising, edited by Ian Whates, alongside some of the biggest names in the field. Now I’m looking forward to getting Gardner Dozois’s The Year’s Best Science Fiction anthology and reading it yet again, among a selection of the finest science fiction stories published throughout 2011.
What are your feelings in the wake of this tremendous success?
Not only that, but it’s now on the longlist for the BSFA’s short fiction award. It’s an odd feeling. I did Jeremy’s course — which I can heartily recommend to everyone — because I had a lot of time on my hands, I wasn’t writing anything, and I’d never done a writing course before. I’m completely self-taught — which in my case is just a euphemism for “hasn’t the faintest idea what he’s doing” — and I thought it might help point out the errors in my own writing. Somehow it didn’t occur to me that it would also involve writing a fresh piece of fiction, and when Jeremy dropped that bombshell on us I sort of panicked. You saw the extremely lumpy first draft and you know how bad it was; the fact that it went on to be sold, and then picked for Year’s Best, and then get longlisted, is entirely down to the comments of you and our fellow Boot Campers. It would almost certainly be a different story without all that input. So, how do I feel about it? Very pleased, obviously; I’ve had more people come up to me and say they’ve enjoyed this one story than I think all my other stuff put together. It just seems to have tickled a nerve somewhere.
The story features some pretty freaky science, showcased in the form of a pretty original militarized-superhero tale. Care to explain the basics of the scientific concept that inspired the work?
Hah! You know, even though it’s so recent I have no idea where the story came from. It sort of bolted itself together in my head spontaneously out of all kinds of junk that was floating around. Mostly I made it all up. There’s some stuff in there about string theory and a kind of quasi-dimension called Calabi-Yau Space, but I’ve only the vaguest understanding of that stuff; any half-bright physics graduate would shoot holes through the science.
After the other students and I gave you feedback on the story, how did you go about revising it? What pieces of advice from first readers were most helpful in the second draft?
Basically I realized I’d approached the whole thing wrong. The first draft was in the present tense and I think someone pointed out that it would work better if the central character was the narrator. So I took it to bits and did it again. The opening scene in the White House Situation Room — which incidentally I was quite pleased with — didn’t really impress anyone, so that went. After that was gone I needed a new opening, and once I had that the structure of the second draft settled down. I gave the narrator a sidekick, wrote some back story for the sidekick, and by the time I’d done all that it started to look like a proper story. Very hard work, though.
Was Solaris Rising the first place you sent the story? What was your reaction when you got the news that it would be published alongside works by the likes of Stephen Baxter, Alastair Reynolds, et cetera?
Yes. I got an email from the editor saying he had some room and did I have anything to send him. I had something finished, but it was about three times too long, so rather than let the opportunity drop I sent him the second draft of “Exploding Man” as soon as I finished it, and he bought it. It got a little tweaked afterward — the original was set at Fermilab and I suddenly realized that anyone who actually knew anything about Fermilab would tear the descriptions to bits, so I made up a fictional high-energy physics lab in a fictional town in Iowa instead. As for the book? Well, you dream about having a story in an anthology with writers like that. It really is very mighty company to be in.
It’s been about six months since I read the piece, but the overall impression is still very much with me — it’s sort of a frightening story, but the requisite sense-of-wonder that empowers so much of the best science fiction is alive in full force in “The Incredible Exploding Man.” Care to give your own summary of what the plot entails, without giving too much away?
Hm. How to avoid spoilers…? It’s really about an ordinary bloke suddenly being pitched into an extraordinary situation following an accident at a particle accelerator, and the choices he has to make after that.
Your writing is obviously very competent, which means you’ve no doubt been at this a while, honing and refining your craft, but also presumably reading widely in the genre. Who are your biggest literary influences, both within the science fiction section of the bookstore and beyond it?
Within science fiction, Larry Niven and Keith Roberts. I thought quite a lot of Niven’s earlier work had a kind of breezy So-Cal quality to it that I liked very much. Roberts, I thought, was one of our finest science fiction writers — his best stuff has an intense connection with the English landscape, particularly the landscape of Dorset. I would also love to write half as well as Eric Brown, Chris Priest, Charlie Stross, and Peter Hamilton, very considerable writers each in their own way. Outside science fiction, Raymond Chandler and Len Deighton. I just love their way with dialogue.
How long have you been writing, and to what author would you say you most owe the urge to scribble?
I’ve been writing properly since I was sixteen, so about 35 years. I’m not sure there’s one writer who prompted me to start; I read a lot of Heinlein and Asimov and Bester and Niven and E. E. Smith and many other writers when I was a kid, and I guess at some point it all reached a kind of critical mass and I decided to have a go myself.
What other influences have had an impact on your writing, literary or otherwise? Any particular band or artist whose music you enjoy listening to while writing?
I’m deeply fond of the English classical composer Ralph Vaughan Williams; his stuff has the same kind of connection to English landscape that Keith Roberts’s fiction has, and that’s kind of influenced some of the stuff I’ve done. I used to listen to talk radio a lot while I was working; for some reason it annoyed me so much it helped me concentrate on what I was doing. These days I’ll just put my Walkman on shuffle. I’m a big fan of Rush, which I suppose dates me a bit, but I’ll listen to pretty much anything for background.
I love Rush! They’re one of those rare classic-rock bands that only seems to get better and better over the course of their career.
What’s your opinion on the sudden surge of Hollywood-level interest in science fiction? Since the success of Avatar, we’ve seen a sequel to Disney’s Tron, a reboot/prequel to the brilliant classic Planet of the Apes, and Ridley Scott is in talks to direct a second installment in the Blade Runner universe following the release of his latest SF film, Prometheus; hell, science fiction seems to be just about everywhere in the mainstream. Would you say this is a good thing, and what project, rumored or confirmed, has your inner schoolboy-geek giddy with anticipation? (I know I’m most looking forward to the recently announced live-action TV series, Star Wars: Underworld, which producer Rick McCallum is describing as a blend of the Star Wars universe and The Godfather!)
It’s funny; to me there seems to have been a steady stream of big-budget science fiction films for years, going all the way back to Star Wars. It’s just that there are more of them these days. Which is good; I always think that films are a useful gateway drug for potential science fiction readers. What has heartened me enormously is the sheer quality of writing on genre television shows these days. Series like Battlestar Galactica and Carnivale had some of the best writing I’ve seen for a very long time.
Dave, I can’t thank you enough for taking the time to drop by and have this talk. I look forward to getting my hands on Dozois’s Year’s Best for 2011, and I wish you continued success in this crazy but thrilling vocation!
Alex, it’s been a genuine pleasure. Thanks for the questions!
“The Incredible Exploding Man” can be found in Solaris Rising, ed. Ian Whates, and will be reprinted in Gardner Dozois’s The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Ninth Annual Collection, available July 3, 2012, and also featuring fiction by Catherynne M. Valente, Robert Reed, Stephen Baxter, Lavie Tidhar, Jay Lake, Peter S. Beagle, Michael Swanwick, and Tobias S. Buckell, among others.
Follow Dave on Twitter, where he tweets as @HutchinsonDave.