Rod Duncan was born in Wales, has lived in Taiwan and Ghana, and has been in Leicester since 1993. A dyslexic with a background in scientific research and computing, he now lectures in creative writing at De Montfort University and writes alternate history novels set in the world of the Gas-Lit Empire. The first of these novels, The Bullet Catcher’s Daughter (Angry Robot, 2014), was shortlisted for the Philip K. Dick award.
In addition to alternative history novels, Rod Duncan has written contemporary crime and poetry. His crime novel, Backlash (Pocket Books, 2003), was shortlisted for the John Creasey Dagger and his poem “but one country” which was published in Over Land, Over Sea: Poems for those seeking refuge (Five Leaves Publications, 2015) has, so far, been translated into seven languages as part of Journeys in Translation, an initiative that aims to facilitate cross- and inter-cultural conversations around the themes of home, belonging and refuge.
The project encourages people who are bilingual or multilingual to have a go at translating 13 of the 101 poems from Over Land: Over Sea: Poems for those seeking refuge (Five Leaves Publications, 2015) from English, into other languages, and to share the translations, and reflections on the exercise on blogs, in letters and emails to family and friends, and on social media.
How would you describe the writing that you do?
I’m best known for a series of alternate history novels called The Fall of the Gas-Lit Empire, which imagine what might have happened if the Luddites had taken control of the north of Britain.
But I find it hard to draw lines between different kind of writing. Some prose looks so like poetry that you can’t say it isn’t. And some poetry looks like prose. All I can say is this: I try to approach the blank page fresh every day, as if I was just starting out.
Who or what has had the most influence on you as a writer?
The older I get, the more clearly I realise that my father was the biggest influence on my writing. If you look at the kinds of stories read to me at bedtime, you’ll find a map of my writing interests today. Science fiction, fantasy, detective stories, adventure and Victoriana. He was also fascinated by illusion and the psychology of stage magic. All those themes are prominent in my writing.
How have your personal experiences influenced your writing?
I’d need to live another life as someone else before I could have a go at answering that question.
What has been your most significant achievement as a writer so far?
I used to worry that as a writer of fiction, I was wasting my life in fantasies. With so much going wrong in the real world, how could I justify the indulgence of it? But I’ve come to believe that when people engage with fictional narratives, they create a world inside their heads that can be just as real and important as any objective reality.
Someone once told me that for half an hour while reading one of my books, she forgot about her chronic pain. I don’t think I can have any higher objective or achievement than that.
How did you get involved with Journeys in translation?
As soon as I heard about Over Land, Over Sea, I knew I wanted to contribute something to it. The news was full of the tragic stories; people seeking refuge, facing suffering and terrible loss. I was really grateful to everyone who put the anthology together for giving us the opportunity to do something – however small. So I wrote a poem, which became part of the anthology and has gone on to become part of Journeys in Translation.
Which were the easiest aspects of the work you put into the project?
I’m not sure how to answer that, beyond saying that the job of writing a poem must surely be easier than the job of translating one.
How did the idea of the poem come about?
The poem is based on a famous statement by Baha’u’llah, made in the 19th Century: “The Earth is but one country”.
The line seems simple enough, but its implications are huge. For example, it is incompatible with the idea (considered axiomatic by many) that the nation state should have primacy in governance and administration. It also challenges the idea of borders.
In the poem, I set out to give expression to these two incompatible world views, and to do so without judgement or condemnation.
I’d seen poems constructed so that they would give opposite meanings when read forwards or backwards. That seemed the ideal form to hold the concept. Once I’d had that idea the poem came surprisingly quickly. The circle was an accident at first. But once I’d noticed it emerging, I reworked the wording to make a better fit.
What would you say is the value of initiatives like Journeys in Translation?
It is the job of the artist to respond. To anything. To everything. When faced with suffering on such a scale, with the violent clash of opinions, with a change in the tide of human affairs, with a shifting of the tectonic plates of settled understanding, how could any artist stay silent? And in the last analysis, we are all artists.
It is the nature of art to provoke a reaction. Indeed, we know something is art because having encountered it, we find that we have changed. The world no longer looks the same.
It is the nature of humans to communicate, through our words, through what we do and what we make. How could we close the door on the great conversation of our age?
It seems to me that Journeys in Translation is an expression of what it is to be alive today.
Journeys in Translation will culminate in an event that is going to be held on September 30 as part of Everybody’s Reading 2017. During the event the original poems and translations will be read, discussed and displayed.