Interview with Rhys Hughes

Rhys penned five pieces for Afterlives of the Writers:

one on Richard Brautigan called The Queue, one on Antoine de Saint-Exupery called Underwater Morning, one on Boris Vian called World Trumpet, one on Yasunari Kawabata called Misty Islands, and one on Donald Barthelme called Knights that Go Bump in the Night

1. When did you first want to become a writer? What were your writing ambitions then? Have they changed since then?


I always wanted to be a writer. Well, that's not quite true. The urge began when I was about six years old. I had wanted to be an explorer but was told by various adults that "there was nowhere left to explore" and so I decided that writing books might be a good alternative. In fact those adults were wrong, there are many places left to explore, but I didn't learn that until much later. I didn't really know what a short story was at that age, I just assumed that writers wrote novels. So I began writing novels. I began writing them but rarely got past the first chapter. No stamina at all, it seems! One of those early unfinished projects was called "The Impossible Inferno" and I have since reused the title and the main idea in a novella. It is weird to think that at the age of 40 I was finally completing a project that had first occurred to me at a very tender age indeed. But I regard that novella as one of my best works. As for writing ambitions, they really just consisted of wanting to write books, and that desire hasn't changed at all. I didn't have a clear vision of what might happen after those books existed, and I still don't. I write books and then I want to write more books. That's all. The only significant change was when I discovered what a short story was and realized that here was a form that might really be suitable for me. I was fourteen years old when I wrote my first proper short story. I wrote maybe two hundred in my teenage years but they have all been lost. I started again later and this time I was more careful at keeping them. My earliest surviving short story dates from 1989 and since then I have written more than nine hundred.


2. What made you want to write a piece on each of the writers that appear in the anthology?


The story I wrote about Donald Barthelme was one that I wrote a few years before I even became aware of your project. I had to adjust it slightly to make it fit your requirements. Those adjustments were very precise. All the other pieces were written specifically as a response to your call for submissions. But originally they formed one big story. They were sub-chapters of a bigger story called "The Original Copycats" that I submitted to you. You liked four of the five sub-chapters. You didn't like the one devoted to the afterlife of Daniil Kharms, so I agreed that the four other sub-chapters could be split apart and scattered throughout the anthology, and then I added the adjusted story about Barthelme. The reason I chose those particular writers was simply because they all resonate strongly with me for various reasons. I am pleased with my choices and the way the stories have turned out. I guess I ought to have made more of an effort to choose a female writer, maybe an African writer too. Diversity is important to me. At the same time I understand that I felt more comfortable writing about a speculative afterlife for those specific writers than maybe I would have felt with other writers. I mean, this afterlife project absolutely seems a superb fit for Richard Brautigan. I am just surprised that he himself never wrote a piece about his own afterlife. My Antoine de Saint-Exupery piece is maybe the weakest of my five contributions. I love the man and his work, and he is one of my heroes in a modern age where we aren't supposed to have heroes, but I am not really able to capture the flavor of his prose very well, and although these afterlife stories don't have to be written in the style of the writer in question in order to work, I feel it helps if at least some of the ambience of that writer's style creeps in. I might have done a disservice to Kawabata too, I don't know. But I really believe I got the Barthelme absolutely right, and did a good job with the Brautigan and Vian.


3. Do you have a favorite book by each of those writers?


Certainly I do! My favorite book by Richard Brautigan is Trout Fishing in America, his most successful book, the first of his novels to be published and the one in which he established himself as a true original. It is one of the finest and funniest and profound metafictions I have encountered. I have read many metafictions but that one still manages to surprise me with its inventiveness. I also love his strange dystopia/utopia tale In Watermelon Sugar. Those are his two best books. Although nearly all his books are worth reading and contain tremendous passages and bizarrely affecting passages, that pair are the essential books of his life. As for Antoine de Saint-Exupery it's his novel Night Flight that I find really moving, almost unbearably beautiful in fact. When it comes to Boris Vian, I would recommend Froth on the Daydream and Autumn in Peking as his two best. For many years I would say that the former was my favorite novel but in fact the latter is even better. They are both whimsical, odd, highly inventive, charming and yet unsettling. My favorite Yasunari Kawabata book is Palm-of-the-Hand Stories, a panoply of very short tales that he wrote over the span of his entire career, certainly one of the best short story collections I've had the privilege of encountering, perhaps the very best, although Donald Barthelme's Sixty Stories is a strong contender. All these books struck me with great force when I first read them.


4. Do you believe in the possibility of an afterlife? And if so, where would you like to go in your afterlife, and what might you do?


I do believe in an afterlife, I strongly believe in one, but it isn't at all like the standard versions of the afterlife that we find in mythology and fiction. I believe in an afterlife but I don't believe in the survival of individual identity. This might sound trite but I don't think it is. After I die, there will be life, because others will still be alive. The fact I am dead won't affect the fact they are still alive. They will continue in the universe without me quite happily. So there is life after death, it just won't be my life. But it might as well be my life. I'm not sure if I can explain what I mean with the clarity I seek. Before I was born, I was effectively dead. Then suddenly I was alive. So we know that something can come out of nothing, or rather that life can come out of oblivion. And the life that came out of oblivion then called itself "I". It acquired an identity that is mine. When I die I will return to oblivion, but we already know that something can come out of that oblivion, that life can come out of nothingness, because it has already happened to each one of us. That new person will acquire an identity and call itself "I". That identity won't be the same as my identity but the "I" will be exactly the same. Does this make any sense? I guess I am saying that individual identity isn't so very important, that it doesn't matter who we are provided we are someone, that we might as well be someone else as be ourselves, because whoever we are we will still regard that person as ourselves. This is a form of reincarnation but without the survival of the ego. In essence I am saying that other people will live for us after our deaths and that those other people might as well be us. Just as we are living for the people who lived before us who are now dead. We are existing in their afterlife right now and we are their afterlife, the same way that those who come after us will exist in our afterlife and will also be our afterlife.


5. What's the next writing project you're working on?


I always work on many projects at the same time, too many perhaps, and at the moment I have exceeded myself. That's not really such a good thing. It is making my mind spin around inside my brain and my brain spin around inside my skull, both in opposite directions, like coaxial helicopter rotors. It has got out of hand. I am working on five novellas, eight short stories, six articles, and three plays. Whenever I focus on one of these projects I feel guilty for neglecting the others. Why do I allow myself to get into such situations?! Clearly I am a polystorymus individual. The most important of these projects, as far as I am concerned, is a novella called "Students of Myself" that is actually a portmanteau of many shorter tales linked by a framing device and containing links within themselves. I am pleased with the conceit of that particular framing device. I don't know how long the novella will take to finish. I began it last year and it is progressing very slowly, so it might not be ready until next year.