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The Alchemy of Storytelling: An Interview with Novelist Rod Duncan

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In 2003, Rod Duncan’s crime thriller, Backlash was shortlisted for the John Creasey Award for the best debut crime novel of the year. Backlash was followed by Breakbeat (2004) and Burnout (2005). The novels trace three very different stories which happen on the same day in Leicester, the most ethnically diverse city in the United Kingdom.

Duncan has a degree in mining geology and has worked as a scientific researcher in Aberystwyth and Leicester. He has been writing full-time since 1993.

Your most recent novel, Burnout, is the third in a trilogy that includes Backlash and Breakbeat. What unifies the three novels?

The three novels take place at the same place and at the same time – in and around a fictional riot in Leicester. They are interlinked stories, following the paths of different people through a traumatic event.

I was interested in exploring the nature of narrative and the way events can seem different from different points of view. For example, a 'goodie' in one story can be a 'baddie' in another – the same person, in the same event but viewed from a different point of view. Of course, there is no such thing as a 'goodie' or a 'baddie' and this was a way of exploring that from within the confines of traditional narrative.

After the first two novels, was Burnout easier or more difficult to write?

The most difficult thing in writing Burnout was that I was already tied down from the previous novels. I knew what the weather was like on every day of the two weeks of fictional time that make up the core of the stories. I knew what all the major events were. I knew where all the key characters were, sometimes on an hour-by-hour basis. There could be no murders discovered, for example, during that two weeks, or they would have been mentioned in the previous books. In short, I was hemmed in by my own previous writing.

How did you deal with this challenge?

Just as a blank page with infinite possibilities can sometimes block a writer up, limitations often produce great creativity. (I believe this is the reason that many creative writing exercises put a series of artificial limitations on what a person is allowed to write). Burnout was a challenge, but ultimately I was extremely pleased with the result.

How did I overcome these difficulties? Lateral and logical processes. The subconscious provided the lateral part. The conscious mind used lots of huge sheets of paper with complex charts scrawled all over them, establishing where all the characters were day by day through the two weeks, and all the key events.

How have the novels been received?

I'll talk about how the first novel, Backlash was received. It was a story that jumped out onto the page for me. I could feel the pressure of the story wanting to be written. At the same time, I was very nervous about it because it is a first-person narrative from the point of view of a mixed race woman, who works as a community relations police officer. It touches on issues of racism and differing attitudes to multiculturalism.

I worried, all the way through the writing process, that this material could be misinterpreted. Only when I finished did the anxiety go away. When I wrote the last sentence I knew it was complete and I stopped worrying what other people would think.

What caused this anxiety?

As we have seen recently, different people mean different things when they speak of multiculturalism. Almost any simple statement made on the issue can be misinterpreted. But in a novel, there is enough room speak about it.

So how was it received? I am glad to say that it was received very warmly by people from many different races and backgrounds. I was particularly pleased with a glowing review in India Weekly. The reviewer got to the heart of the book. He really understood it.

Only one person complained about the way the book talked about racism. She stopped me in the street and asked why I'd written all those things bad things about Leicester. This shook me up, because I love this city in all its beautiful diversity. But then I asked her exactly what it was in Backlash that she didn't like. It turned out the only part she'd read was the cover. I decided I could live with that.

Why do you think Backlash has been this successful?

I think Backlash was received well because, at heart, it is a good yarn. The multicultural city is its background. But the story is about a woman, confronted with a crime that threatens her life and an event that will change it forever – one way or another. I think that's why it was shortlisted for the John Creasey award for the best debut crime novel of 2003.

What would you say are your main concerns as a writer?

Narrative touches everybody. It is fundamental to the human condition.

Children learn to cope with their fears through stories of wolves and pigs and evil and good and death and love. We tell stories about things that have happened to us, to codify the changes of our lives. We try to find out the stories of our ancestors to help us understand where we came from. It is through stories that we understand religion and history. Writers and storytellers aren't simply making a living or entertaining people. They are engaged in something elemental. There is magic here. The alchemy of storytelling. I don't believe a novelist could write a book and be unchanged by the process.

How has your own writing changed you?

Each of the books I have written has taken me on a journey. Particularly Breakbeat. That is the story of a dyslexic man, coping with a crime and coming to terms with who he is.

I found myself writing the words of another character talking to him, telling him why he acted as he did, explaining his psychology. But really the character was telling me why I do the things I do, why I am as I am. I hadn't known it before.

What concerns me about writing? Is it to have a chance to entertain the reader? Yes, certainly. Is it to explore complex issues? Yes. But underlying all that is something more profound, something that exists mostly in the subconscious. It is to immerse myself in narrative. In short, it is to be human.

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