Interview: David Conyers

TheSpiralingWormToday we are talking with David Conyers, Australian speculative fiction writer and author of The Spiraling Worm. David has also worked on several role-playing games for the Call of Cthulhu series published by Chaosium Inc.

IFP: Are there any recurring themes in your fiction?

DC: Essentially I’m a science fiction author, although many of my readers would be justified in saying that I’m a horror writer because I write some pretty dark stories that have appeared in horror magazines and anthologies. I also dabble in all elements of speculative fiction, including fantasy.

Most of my stories are adventure tales, often in the style of an investigative thriller simply because those are the types of stories I like reading and so, I want to write them. Themes that I’ve explored include the ethics of corporations, marketing in the future, self-actualization, the effects of physical and mental abuse, military and warfare, poverty and the developing world, spies and espionage, and, like every other author, the human condition. I like to write about protagonists who learn and grow.

From a purely genre perspective I also like to explore scientific and technological ideas in my tales, such as terraforming, pantropy (genetically redesigning humans to adapt to alien environments), the bizarre outcomes of the quantum world, superstring theory, space travel, alien and artificial intelligence – the list goes on.

IFP: What are some sources of inspiration for your work?

DC: When I was very young, I discovered science fiction movies and television series, most notably: Star Wars, Blade Runner, Alien, Doctor Who, and Blake’s 7. I was drawn into these imagined worlds and sometimes scary-yet-captivating story lines.

When my father identified my passion, he put me onto various science fiction authors such as Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Brain Aldiss, Frank Herbert, and Robert Silverberg, and suddenly, I discovered the even more exciting worlds and universes of books, with ideas so vast and mind-blowing that I knew I would never see them on television or at the movies. Suddenly, I knew my medium: I wanted to be a science fiction novelist.

My father, being a medical doctor and scientist, also introduced me to Carl Sagan’s Cosmos television series, and then the world of relativistic travel, black holes, the Big Bang, and spiral galaxies opened up to me. I realized that I would need to do my homework if I was going to write science fiction, but it also didn’t feel like hard work learning all about the universe.

At university in the early 1990s I discovered Iain M. Banks and his first three Culture novels, Consider Phlebas, The Player of Games and Use of Weapons, and suddenly, I had discovered what I considered to be the ultimate space opera. Banks’ work was so rich and imaginative, and so dark and believable and full of detail with real characters, and so I decided that’s what I wanted to write.

I also started reading spy thrillers from authors like Martin Cruz Smith, Wilbur Smith, Len Deighton, Ian Fleming, Robert Ludlum, Desmond Bagley, Gerald Seymour, and others, which influenced how I wanted to tell my science fiction stories, i.e. adventure thrillers.

Horror fiction was and always has been a side interest of mine, although a secondary one. In the early 1990s I lived with two close friends, one who worked in a gaming and comic store and the other an upcoming dark fantasy author who had an interest in all things horror and gothic, and the two of them got me onto authors like Clive Barker, Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, and Neil Gaiman.

I still try to read widely today, fiction and non-fiction. Magazines that I regularly devour include: Cosmos, New Scientist, Scientific American, and National Geographic. I’m not a fast reader, about a book a month. Mostly try to read science fiction to keep up with developments in the genre, but I’m finding that is a problem now when I’m trying to get my space opera novel started, because I’m constantly revising my ideas based on what others have written.

Lastly, I’ve done a lot of travel, particularly in developing countries such as Kenya, Zimbabwe, Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Thailand, and the Cook Islands, and the western world in Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, New Zealand, and others, and it would be amiss of me to say I wasn’t influenced by my overseas experiences.

CthulhusDarkCultsIFP: What made you become interested in Lovecraftian fiction?

DC: Well, I discovered the Call of Cthulhu role-playing game.

I’d been playing Dungeons & Dragons for a few years with my friends in high-school and was on the lookout for a good science fiction game, but Traveler was the only game worth looking at back then and yet, I felt it lacked the excitement I was expecting from the genre. Then, when I first encountered Call of Cthulhu, it was something completely new that wasn’t centered on killing monsters, starting wars and collecting treasure. It was about solving mysteries, fighting the good fight and relying on one’s wits alone to save the day, and most importantly, unraveling this amazing tapestry of cosmic horror the game presented so well.

When I discovered just how rich Lovecraft’s ideas were, I went to read his short stories, only to be disappointed, because his prose was hard work and his characterization non-existent. Eventually, I turned to Ramsey Campbell’s New Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos and discovered what a really great Lovecraftian tale was. Then I went back to Lovecraft and tried him again, appreciating him at a deeper level, especially his latter tales.

Being a science fiction writer, I’m always interested in worldbuilding, i.e. creating a consistent and detailed future, which I never really found in horror writing. My logic goes something like this: if a ghost lives in the house at the end of the street, then therefore, ghosts must exist everywhere, and there must be a universal principle to explain their existence. Horror writers, for the most part, don’t create consistent backgrounds to their stories and often write horror stories in isolation from the bigger world, which is fine, but doesn’t work for me. So, when I discovered Lovecraft, he intrigued me because he had built his own mythology to explain why everything was dark and uncaring, plus he used science fiction elements in his stories. His whole imagined universe made sense to me. It was internally consistent.

Because Lovecraft’s setting was public domain and I knew editors who would consider my Cthulhu Mythos stories for their magazines and anthologies, I started writing them. Lovecraftian tales were amongst my first sales.

So, when I write a Cthulhu Mythos tale, I’m more often than not writing science fiction, because that is the genre that generates ideas for me (but not always). A good example is my Major Harrison Peel series, a character who appears in my co-authored collection The Spiraling Worm. Peel is a modern-day Australian Army Intelligence officer who travels the world battling cosmic horrors wherever they occur. Themes in those stories include wormholes, time travel, higher dimensions, quantum mechanics, futuristic weapons of mass destruction, and so forth. It’s essentially The Bourne Identity meets At the Mountains of Madness.

IFP: There are some authors who are very possessive of their characters and stories. You seem to have a positive outlook about shared worlds and collaborative writing. Why?

DC: I’ve had a lot of success from collaborative writing because I always find I learn something from each author I’ve worked with.

One major obstacle that I’ve had to overcome is dyslexia. Essentially, I couldn’t spell and couldn’t do grammar for a very long time, even as an adult. When I edited my own work, I would read what I expected to be there, not what I’d actually written. Teachers and lecturers would point out mistakes to me that I’d never seen. It was hard work and almost made me give up on writing, but I got over that.

These days, I read my stories out aloud to myself about five times on the last draft just to pick out mistakes my internal reading mind doesn’t see. So, collaboration has helped me to see how other authors edit and helped me overcome elements of dyslexia.

Looking back, I’ve also collaborated because that’s what the Cthulhu Mythos is, a shared world setting. When authors such as Brian M. Sammons and John Sunseri read my Harrison Peel tales, they wanted to use him in their own stories and I had no problem with that, as we were all writing in the same open source anyway.

Of course I own the copyright to Harrison Peel; each author that I’ve worked with on a Peel tale has agreed to this condition, just as much as they own their characters. For example, in John Sunseri’s tale “Resurgence” that appears in The Spiraling Worm, I rewrote elements of Peel’s dialogue and actions so he was consistent with my view on his character. Where it becomes murky are supporting characters. James Figgs, the MI6 agent in The Spiraling Worm originally appeared in my tale “Made of Meat”, but John Sunseri liked him so much he went on to develop most of his traits, endearing and otherwise, so John rightfully has a stake in what happens to Figgs in any future stories that he might appear in.

CoverSecretsOfSanFranciscoIFP: What are you working on right now?

DC: Mostly, I’m working on a space opera novel, a thriller in the very far future about a spy undercover on a world he doesn’t really understand.

I’m also working on several short stories, mostly space opera and further Harrison Peel tales, partially because, if I get them done, I’ll have two collections of tales that will come together to form connected storylines. Of course, I then have to find publishers for all of these books. The Harrison Peel book is most likely to occur first, as I’m always having readers, authors and editors asking me when the next one is coming out.

Amongst this busy schedule, I write reviews for Albedo 1, Ireland’s only (as far as I know) speculative fiction magazine where they have kindly made me a contributing editor. Recently, I interviewed Greg Egan for Albedo 1, which will appear in the next issue of the magazine. I am very proud of that achievement. I’m also scheduled to co-edit a future issue of the Australian Horror Writers Association’s fiction magazine, Midnight Echo, with David Kernot and Jason Fischer, which should be a lot of fun working with two talented South Australian speculative fiction authors.

I have many other projects brewing, some of which may go ahead and some which may not. That, unfortunately, is the general nature of publishing, particularly the small press. In the meantime, I have short stories coming out in various anthologies including Macabre (Brimstone Press), Ancient Shadows (Elder Signs Press), Best New Tales of the Apocalypse (Permuted Press), Scenes from the Second Storey (Morrigan Books) and in magazines such as Jupiter and Andromeda Spaceways.

IFP: Can we expect more Harrison Peel stories in the future?

DC: The short answer is “Yes”, as I’ve detailed earlier. Major Harrison Peel certainly made an impact when he first appeared in 2005 in the anthology Horrors Beyond in the time-traveling, wormholes, government conspiracies, and waste pollution hybrid tale “False Containment”.

Peel’s next significant appearance was in The Spiraling Worm published in 2007, which is a collection of Harrison Peel tales I co-authored with John Sunseri. John introduced his NSA spy Jack Dixon into the series and the two characters became a team.

The Spiraling Worm became a huge success, critically, achieving honourable mentions in Australia’s two top speculative fiction awards, the Aurealis and Australian Shadows, which doesn’t happen very often in the Cthulhu Mythos genre. It’s also a consistent seller on Amazon.com and is considered by many critics the best Lovecraftian collection to come out in a long time. Ellen Datlow of The Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror fame also had some very kind comments about the book, and three of the stories made her recommended reading list for 2009.

John and I were ecstatic by the response and went straight into writing a sequel. We had horror authors C.J. Henderson and Brian M. Sammons keen to be involved, introducing their own characters, namely: a thief turned spy, Joan De Molina, and a Special Forces soldier, Jordan, respectively. John and I wrote a couple of short stories for the next book and it was all rolling along nicely until several significant issues hit us all at once. The sequel ground to a halt and, after many more pitfalls, I started to consider if it was worth pursuing, and so, gave up.

Recently, however, I’ve had some interest from several publishers for a sequel, or perhaps a revamp of the series. C.J. Henderson has been great at promoting The Spiraling Worm and has been waiting in the wings to get involved again. Brian M. Sammons and I began collaborating on several short stories, including new Harrison Peel tales, one of which was recently published, “Stomach Acid”, in Cthulhu Unbound 2 from Permuted Press.

I’ve also got a Peel collaboration with John Goodrich that is looking for a home, and a second Peel novella with Sammons in the works. Another Peel tale was accepted recently for a new Cthulhu Mythos anthology due out in 2011. I’m close to having another book of Harrison Peel stories ready to go. Of course, when any of this will actually happen is anyone’s guess.

IFP: How did you begin writing for the Call of Cthulhu RPG?

DC: In the early 1990s, when I was living in Melbourne, I joined a group of tournament Call of Cthulhu writers called the Cthulhu Conglomerate, whose members included well-known gaming writers Mark Morrison, Penelope Love and Richard Watts.

The four years I was with them, I wrote two scenario books. The first was Devil’s Children, which was later published by John Tynes’ Pagan Publishing, and A Handful of Dust, which is now a free download from Yog-Sothoth.com, managed by the estimable Paul Maclean. Cthulhu Conglomerate scenarios that have been printed in Chaosium books include “The Crack’d and Crook’d Manse” (Mansions of Madness), “The Old Damned House” (Mansions of Madness), “Tatterdemalion” (Fatal Experiments), and “Love’s Lonely Children” (The Stars Are Right!).

In the early 2000s, when I decided to be serious about my writing, I found that I had already done all the research into the game to approach Chaosium. I hit their editor, Lynn Willis, with an outline and the first couple of chapters for a series of a gaming book set in the Belgian Congo tentatively entitled The Hand That Feeds. The game, set in the 1930s, took investigators from London to Leopoldville (today Kinshasa) then up the Congo River, finally embarking on an epic jungle expedition and a King Solomon’s Mines-style conclusion inside a lost city with an all-out war against insane cultists. Lynn immediately liked the book and asked me to finish it, until some internal Chaosium snags brought the whole process to a standstill.

Meanwhile, I had finished the Secrets of Kenya sourcebook, which I had been developing in parallel and that was well-received and published. I then wrote several more scenarios, appearing in several Chaosium books. My favourite would be “The Burning Stars”, which appeared in Terrors from Beyond. In this scenario, set in 1930s Haiti, the player characters suffer from amnesia and thus have to backtrack what has already occurred for them.

The relationship I’d established with Chaosium was instrumental in them later picking up The Spiraling Worm and publishing it, and editing the fiction anthology, Cthulhu’s Dark Cults, for them.

IFP: Do you have a favourite Call of Cthulhu scenario?

DC: This is a hard question. I don’t have a particular favourite, but standout scenarios include “The Crack’d and Crook’d Manse” by Mark Morrison, because I think it is the best scenario to use to introduce players to the game, and incidentally, was the scenario that I first played. “Pickman’s Student” is the best Keith Herber scenario and he wrote many good ones. “The Temple of the Moon” by Michael Szymanski and Scott Aniolowski, is another favourite because of the exotic nature of the scenario: it is set in Peru. The Masks of Nyarlathotep by Larry DiTillo is my favourite of the long, book-length (campaign) scenarios, because he had this fantastic back story, used exotic locales well and the game is played like a pulp Indiana Jones-style adventure. “Bad Moon Rising” by Marcus Rowland is also impressive for being such a novel idea, especially considering it was written in the late 1980s.

I also think the Delta Green by John Tynes and Dennis Detwiller sourcebook was a tremendous achievement, and really helped revamp interest in the Call of Cthulhu game in the late 1990s. From what I have seen in development, Miskatonic River Press and Sixty-Stone Press look to be the two most exciting Call of Cthulhu gaming publishers for the next few years and, hopefully, next decade.

IFP: How do you think Mythos RPGs have affected how readers perceive Lovecraft and Mythos?

DC: I think it has been a tremendous influence, because the game brings so many ideas to the ever-expanding genre and, more importantly, it is constantly bringing new readers. I myself may have never turned to the genre and Lovecraft if the game hadn’t excited me. Lovecraftian traditionalists are a dying breed; the Cthulhu Mythos survives because new authors adapt and expand the setting, and many of them use the role-playing game as reference material as a guide to developing their own stories.

Many of the new batch of Lovecraftian authors writing today were first involved in the game before they turned to fiction, and I’m thinking here of Brian M. Sammons, Cody Goodfellow, John Goodrich, Daniel Harms and William Jones, to name a few, all respected Cthulhu Mythos writers in their own right. So, the influence of the game is often not noticed by readers.

IFP: Aside from writing short fiction, you were an editor for Dark Wisdom and edited the Cthulhu’s Dark Cults anthology. How did you make the leap from writer to editor?

DC: Editing went hand-in-hand with writing, as I found it firstly increased my chances of getting noticed by the publishers I wanted to publish me, secondly for teaching me the writing process as seen from the other side, and thirdly to get books out there I wanted to see published.

I’ve also worked for more than twelve years as a corporate writer (and still counting), mostly in marketing and communications, and a lot of that involves editing, my own work as well as others. I’ve edited finance and engineering industry newsletters, and for a time, I was the editor of Southern Write, the SA Writer’s Centre member magazine.

Cthulhu’s Dark Cults would have to be my most interesting and challenging editing project to date. Essentially, the book is a collection of ten short stories and novellas set directly in the Call of Cthulhu role-playing game world featuring characters and locales from famous Call of Cthulhu books such as Masks of Nyarlathotep, Shadow of Yog-Sothoth, Day of the Beast, and Horror on the Orient Express. Up until now, Chaosium’s fiction line has been separate from their gaming line, but this book will change all that and hopefully strengthen the bridge between the gamers and fiction readers.

IFP: The Australian speculative genre community has a reputation for being very cohesive and distinct from the genre in the rest of the world. What uniqueness do you think that community contributes to the speculative genre as a whole?

DC: This is an interesting question because something like 90% of my work gets published overseas and, for a long time, I didn’t feel like I was part of the community. Then I started attending conventions and joined organizations such as the Australian Horror Writers Association and the SA Writers’ Centre where I met other speculative fiction authors and my perception changed. Most writers and editors are very friendly and supportive, including the most successful of us such as Sean Williams, D.M. Cornish, Fiona McIntosh, Marianne de Pierres, Karen Miller, and Kylie Chan, which I hadn’t expected.

One of the problems that overseas authors might come across while trying to break into Australian speculative fiction magazines such as Andromeda Spaceways, Midnight Echo, Borderlands, or Aurealis is that many of these publications survive on government arts grants, which stipulate a certain percentage of Australian content, and that can be as high as 80%.

Also, being a small market (Australia has the same population as Texas), our magazines don’t cover all niches of the genre. For example, it is almost impossible to get space opera and hard science fiction published locally (except in Cosmos), and the trend is towards literature genre speculative fiction, not action adventure tales.

I’m not sure what the Australian uniqueness is, but I’m certain that it exists. Many Australian speculative fiction authors have done well in Australia, but can’t get published overseas. I’m an exception to that trend, but I can’t tell you what I’m doing differently. I do try to write to an international market, so if there is anything in my story that is particularly Australian, I make an effort to explain it even if it might be obvious to another Aussie.

IFP: What are some of your favourite writers and novels?

DC: Favourite authors include: Alastair Reynolds, Iain M. Banks, Martin Cruz Smith, Len Deighton, Haruki Murakami, Douglas Adams, and Ian Fleming. Most of these are either science fiction writers who specialize in space opera, or political thriller writers. I don’t read that much horror and I don’t consider H.P. Lovecraft as one of my favourite writers, although I do like him.

Some of my favourite novels include: Consider Phlebas (Iain M. Banks), Gorky Park (Martin Cruz Smith), The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (Haruki Murakami), Ringworld (Larry Niven), The Day of the Triffids (John Wyndham), The Power and the Glory (Graham Greene), Ghostwritten (David Mitchell), Non-Stop (Brian Aldiss), The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy (Douglas Adams), The Year of Living Dangerously (C.J. Koch), The English Patient (Michael Ondaatje), On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (Ian Fleming), The Naked Sun (Isaac Asimov), Dune (Frank Herbert), The Beach (Alex Garland), Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (J.K. Rowling), Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (Philip K. Dick), Game, Set and Match (Len Deighton), Singularity Sky (Charles Stross), and The Bourne Identity (Robert Ludlum). I could keep this list going for a very long time.

Recently, I’ve gotten into Alastair Reynolds and have enjoyed everything he’s written, which is unusual for me because normally, I can’t read more than a couple of an author’s books before I’ve read enough to satisfy me (Iain M. Banks was the last author who I devoured). I like Reynolds because he is the pinnacle of what I think all science fiction authors should be: great characters, intricate plots, elegant world-building and a sense of grandness that most speculative fiction authors can’t pull off. My favourite novel of his would have to be Chasm City, followed closely by Pushing Ice.

IFP: What is your favourite Lovecraft/Mythos story?

DC: Of the stories written by Lovecraft himself, my favourites have always been his science fiction pieces: At The Mountains of Madness, “The Whisperer in Darkness” and “The Shadow Out of Time”.

Most of my favourite Cthulhu Mythos short stories are by contemporary authors and include: “Than Curse the Darkness” by David Drake, “Black Man with a Horn” by T.E.D. Klein, “The Barrens” by F. Paul Wilson, “The Star Pools” by A.A. Attanasio, and “A Colder War” by Charles Stross.

IFP: If you could be a Lovecraft character or creature, who would you be and why?

DC: It would be my own character Harrison Peel from The Spiraling Worm, not because I think I could be him because I’m not as brave or physically and mentally as capable as he is, but because of what he stands for (which, strangely enough, mirrors my own beliefs). He sticks by his principles and is devoted to bringing the Cthulhu Mythos to its knees wherever and whenever he encounters it. I also like him because he has human failings. He has wins and losses like the rest of us, and often questions what he does because the world is never black and white, even when Elder Gods are involved. I guess that’s why I created Harrison Peel in the first place, to tell stories about the kind of heroes I admired.

Bio: David Conyers is an Australian science fiction author from Adelaide who also writes Lovecraftian horror, with over 35 short stories sold worldwide. His first book, The Spiraling Worm, co-authored with John Sunseri, received honourable mentions in both the Aurealis and Australian Shadows Awards, and was a blend of spy thriller fiction and the Cthulhu Mythos. His latest book and first as editor is Cthulhu’s Dark Cults, the first fiction collection set entirely in the world of the Call of Cthulhu role-playing game. David’s website is www.davidconyers.com.

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IFPInterview: David Conyers