An Interview with Duncan Lunan – Part One (unabridged)
by Michael S. Collins and the Winterwind Staff
Duncan Lunan is a man of many talents. Astronomer, editor and author, folk musician: you name it, Duncan has made his formidable mark on the subject. With a career stretching back over forty years, and with friendships and acquaintances with all of the best-known writers and scientists in recent history, he has been referred to as “The Godfather” of modern Scottish Sci-Fi. Here, for Winterwind, is an exclusive interview with questions put to Duncan by myself and the Winterwind team. The rest is all Duncan’s own words. I regard Duncan as not only a writer of the highest calibre, but also a dear friend. Enjoy. ~ Michael S. Collins
Editor’s Note: Due to the pleasantly surprising detailed and in-depth answers in the interview, it was decided to publish it in two parts, and in two formats: an abridged version in the ezine and an unabridged version on the main site. This is the unabridged version.
When/how did you first get interested in astronomy and space?
To a certain extent, I feel my card was marked, because the Scots name ‘Lunan’ does apparently derive from the Moon. Lud, who gave his name to ‘Lud’s town’ (London) was the English version of the Celtic sky-god Lugh, particularly the Moon-god, whose harvest festival was Lugnasagh. The Celts had actually stressed the wrong syllable of the Sumerian Lu-Nanna, ‘Moonlight’, where the prefix ‘Lu’ signified light and Nanna was the Moon-god of the tributary cities of Ur; but in the Indo-European languages the Moon became Luna or ‘La Lune’. My late Uncle Gordon’s investigation of our family history was triggered by a watchmaker in Edinburgh, who told him in 1930 that we were descended from the astronomers of ancient Chaldea. We had invented the calendar, hence making agriculture and civilisation possible, “and to charge you for the repair of a timepiece would be an effrontery”. The old chap actually knew his stuff: there is a statue in the Louvre of a high priest called Lu-Nanna making an offering to the Moon-god. And my family is descended from Alexander Stuart, an illegitimate son of Robert II, who bought ‘the Lands of Lunaine’ in Aberdeen in 1340 and styled himself ‘de Lunaine’ thereafter. When people who don’t know my work ask, “Do you write under your own name?”, the reply is that in my field it would be pretty daft not to.
My parents weren’t strongly interested in astronomy, but I remember my father stopping the car for us to watch the aurora borealis when I was three or four, and them getting me up to see an eclipse of the Moon at the same age. I was four in 1950 when my granny took me down to Troon beach to see the Blue Sun, which was caused by high-altitude smog of oil droplets from a forest fire in Canada. The sky was bronze, the Sun was blue and the whole familiar landscape of the swimming pool and the bandstand was alien, like being on another planet. It had a big effect on me. A year or so later a friend of mine had a picture book of modern wonders including a photo of a Viking Mark 1 sounding rocket, and I remember thinking, “Hey, a real spaceship!” But my first love was still the sea, and what turned it around was Angus MacVicar’s The Lost Planet on Children’s Hour, the original radio version. The boy across the street had “The Young Traveller in Space” by Arthur C. Clarke, and I bullied my parents into giving it to me for my eighth birthday. That got me completely hooked on space, and my mother at 97 is still waiting for me to grow out of it. When I edited “Starfield”, the anthology of science fiction by Scots for Orkney Press in 1989, I asked Angus MacVicar to write the introduction, and I felt that closed a circle. The cover was by Sydney Jordan, whose Jeff Hawke started in February 1954 and that was another big influence as I grew up.
Who is Jeff Hawke?
Jeff Hawke was Britain’s chief astronaut, the hero of the world’s longest-running science fiction strip cartoon, drawn by Sydney Jordan from Dundee. It ran in the Daily Express with 66 stories between 15th February 1954 and 18th April 1974, followed by another story in the Scottish Daily News, and two more in syndication in Europe. A last 7-episode story appeared in the comic A1, in 1991, bringing the total run to 70 stories with 6527 episodes. The stories were syndicated in 45 countries and were so popular in Europe that when the European papers came to the end of the run, there was a special linking episode in which Jeff Hawke died and was reincarnated as the medical officer on a starship a hundred years in the future, the hero of Lance McLane, Sydney Jordan’s new strip which was running in the Daily Record, in Scotland. Lance McLane continued to run in Europe as Jeff Hawke for a further 10½ years, but purists regard that as (literally) another story. The new ‘Jeff Hawke’ ended on H9454, but with extra episodes, missing episodes and stories published only as McLane, by my reckoning the final total is 9858.
I was eight years old when Jeff Hawke began in the Daily Express. When it had been going for about three weeks, I said to my mother, “This is so good, I’m going to collect it”. As mothers do, she replied, “Oh no you’re not… you’re not piling up dirty newsprint… you’ll never look at them…” but I collected all but 100 episodes during its run and now have a complete collection. The Jeff Hawke Club is now reproducing the complete canon of Hawke and McLane in Jeff Hawke’s Cosmos and I’m writing notes on the stories as they appear, which is a real labour of love.
In 1969, in the run-up to the Moon landing, I recalled that Sydney Jordan had predicted the date of it as August 4th, 1969, in a story called ‘Time Out of Mind’. I gave the number of the episode to my librarian friend and fellow SF writer, the late Chris Boyce, and he got me the exact date of publication, so Sydney was on BBC and STV the night of the landing. Five years later, when I wanted to quote Hawke in my first book “Man and the Stars”, I wrote to Sydney for permission and that put us in touch.
Meanwhile, Chris had been influential in getting Jeff Hawke into the Scottish Daily News after it was dropped by the Express, and also in getting the Daily Record (for whom he worked in the late 1970s) to commission Lance McLane. When I met Sydney at the British Easter Science Fiction Convention in 1978, his first words to me were, “Oh, you’re Duncan Lunan. I want you to write stories for me.” It took four more years to happen, but late in 1982 I began writing for McLane with ‘The Phoenix at Easter’ and by the end of the strip in 1988, I had written or contributed to ten stories.
By then Sydney had begun illustrating articles and stories for me, starting with McLane strips for an article in Nuclear Free Scotland and including World Magazine and the Journal of Practical Applications in Space. In 1989 he created the jacket for “Starfield”, the first ever anthology of science fiction by Scottish writers, which I edited for Orkney Press; he did the introductory painting for the article ‘Flight in Non-terrestrial Atmospheres, or, The Hang-Glider’s Guide to the Galaxy’, Analog, January 1993, which I wrote with Gordon Dick, and illustrated my novelette, ‘With Time Comes Concord’, Analog, September 1993. Sydney has prepared a detailed set of illustrations for my current book project “Children from the Sky”, investigating the mediaeval mystery of the Green Children of Woolpit. We’re working on several other books including a discussion project on protecting the Earth from impacts, within ASTRA, the Association in Scotland to Research into Astronautics.
How did your interest in space get more organised, i.e. through ASTRA?
The Scottish Branch of the British Interplanetary Society was founded in 1953 by the late Oscar Schwiglhofer, who had studied physics in Transylvania under Hermann Oberth before the second world war. In March 1962 the late Terence Nonweiler, the new Professor of Aerodynamics and Fluid Mechanics at Glasgow University, spoke on ‘The Future in Space’, at G.U. Observatory. (Some points which he made that night are quoted in my book “New Worlds for Old”.)
At that time I was a fourth-year pupil at Marr College, Troon, and had recently become friends with a new boy, John McIntyre, whose father worked for GPO Telephones. John’s father had come across a misdirected circular for the Nonweiler meeting, and had appropriated it because he thought I’d be interested. That was how I came to meet Oscar, Dr. (now Prof.) Archie Roy, Terence Nonweiler, Ed Buckley, Andy Nimmo and many others who are still friends. As events which change your life go, it was a cracker, and finding a group of adults who shared my interest was a life-saver.
By the following year it was clear than the BIS branch arrangement wasn’t working, and we became independent as ASTRA (the Association in Scotland to Research into Astronautics) in December 1963. I was elected to the new Council as a student member, and with just one gap of a few months, I’ve been on the Council ever since. I’ve been President, Vice-President, Secretary and Treasurer several times over, and my career as a science writer, lecturer etc specialising in space and astronomy has been channelled through the society throughout. Three of my four books to date took shape as discussion projects within the society, and there are three more pending.
What have you been doing lately in ASTRA?
I’ve been on the exhibitions and publications committees since they were set up in 1970, and between 2001 and 2003 Jamie McLean, Andy Nimmo and I were producing four issues a year of our magazine Spacereport and journal Asgard, plus an occasional supplement, The New International Spacereport, in memory of Oscar. The Asgards were exploring one of my big ideas, the Politics of Survival, with a view to producing a book, but one of our Past Presidents, Bill Ramsay, suggested a spinoff project on protecting the Earth from asteroid and comet impacts, and that’s been taking priority since.
I staged an exhibition for ASTRA’s 30th anniversary at the Glasgow Science Centre, and four in Glasgow and Airdrie during 2008. In 2009 we had exhibitions in Glasgow, Stirling, East Kilbride and Forth marking the 40th anniversary of the Moon landing, and we’re now looking to see what can be done for the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s flight.
In 1977 the Public Observatory in Airdrie was reopened by ASTRA after damage in a storm, and we ran it for Monklands District Council, afterwards North Lanarkshire, for just over 30 years, for 18½ of which I was a curator. Our part in the 1978-79 refurbishment was under the Glasgow Parks Astronomy Project, of which I was Manager, and at the reopening in October 1978 I was asked if I could create a similar one for North Lanarkshire. It took till 2006 with repeated attempts, but eventually I ran a three-part educational project financed by the National Lottery, through Awards for All for two pilot projects and then Heritage Lottery for the big one. Altogether we ran about 700 events, over 450 of them school visits, and we didn’t have a bad one. Kids and teachers just loved us – the subjects sells itself.
How did your enthusiasm for SF develop?
Until I joined ASTRA I was pretty much under the influence of Patrick Moore’s “Science and Fiction”, reading only classics – Verne, Wells, Stapledon – and technically accurate hard SF, mostly Arthur C. Clarke and Fred Hoyle, though I was branching out into John Wyndham by the time I joined ASTRA. Andy Nimmo introduced me to Asimov, Heinlein, Van Vogt, Sheckley, Poul Anderson… and when I got to University I began reading the magazines and ranging more and more widely.
Did your writing enthusiasm start as a continuation of this, or was there another spark?
The love of words pre-dates all of this. I can remember not being able to read just before I was three, and the full package having arrived just after my birthday. For a while I pretended I couldn’t read because I knew I wasn’t supposed to, but by the time I was four I was writing poetry and produced my own hand-drawn newspaper. So they put me into a school class a year older than me, who couldn’t read or write yet, and you can imagine how popular that made me.
In the early 1970s, you came close to writing for cult favourite Doctor Who. How did this come about, and do you view it as a missed opportunity?
In the days when ASTRA had meeting rooms in Hamilton, 1970-1982, it suited members best to have weekly meetings on Saturday afternoons, and we developed the habit of unwinding afterwards by watching Dr. Who in the pub. During the Pertwee era we were going to Skelton’s Bar near the Top Cross. One Saturday for some reason only Jim Campbell of the Glasgow SF Circle and I were there, and at one point we were remarking that if Katy Manning came in, bought us both pints, flashed the fags for Jim and generally played her cards right, she might just get off with one of us.
“You wouldn’t have a chance,” said Jim, “I’m a Big-Name SF Fan.”
“You wouldn’t have a chance,” I replied, “I’m a big name SF author.” And then I thought, wait a minute, they do take stories from outside authors. So I went away and started working on one. Chris Boyce and others lent me books on writing for TV, and eventually I submitted a story through my then agent. It made it on to a short leet of six, from which they selected four. Mine wasn’t one chosen, but through the agent I had a friendly correspondence with Terrance Dicks, from which I learned a number of surprising things. One was that the rules in the beginners’ books didn’t apply to Dr. Who because at that time it was the BBC’s biggest overseas earner. So when the books said, ‘minimise the number of scene changes to keep production costs down’, they went for short, snappy scenes to keep up the pace. When they said, ‘avoid special effects’, that was because Dr. Who absorbed 90% of the entire BBC budget for special effects. When they said, ‘minimal use of outdoor filming, preferably none’, Dr. Who preferred to film outdoors because it looked more realistic. So one reason why I didn’t make the sale was that I’d written an economy-budget Dr. Who story when they weren’t looking for those kinds of savings; but Terrance Dicks did encourage me to try again.
Not long after that, Jon Pertwee appeared in cabaret at the Caledonian Hotel in Ayr. He’d said in interviews that he wanted more input to the Dr. Who story-lines, so I went over with friends in hopes to talk to him. The night was a disaster. Anticipating a big audience, the hotel had laid out the tables around the dance floor to put on a disco afterwards, but only three tables were taken, one of them ours, and one by a solo drunk who barracked throughout. “Would someone mind pouring that gentleman back into the bottle?” Essentially he was presenting a stand-up act to an empty space. It was impossible to work up any spontaneous laughter, and after the first few jokes fell flat we clapped one, to which he replied, “Oh, don’t applaud for God’s sake, intellectual nods will suffice” – which got about the only laugh of the night. There was no chance to talk to him, so I sent up a note afterwards inviting him for a drink, but not surprisingly the reply was that he didn’t want to see anyone.
Soon after that my career in nonfiction took off dramatically, so I didn’t pursue the Dr. Who angle any further. But who knows what might have been?
Something similar happened in 1989, when I reviewed the Glasgow premiere of Moontrap for the Herald. I wrote to the UK producer asking if they had any plans for novelisation, and he replied, “Forget that – I need a treatment for a sequel in six days, can you help?” Again Chris and others lent me books on writing for the cinema, all of which began, “Forget your dreams – you’ll never be asked to start your career with a $45 million SF movie,” and spent the rest of the book telling you how to do a docu-drama about your local baseball team for $250,000. But I found that the format for a treatment was the same as for the story-scripts I was writing for Lance McLane, so Jim Campbell and I brainstormed a story and I got it in on time. I heard nothing back, but Locus said a few months later that a sequel would be filmed, set on Mars, which wasn’t ours. As far as I know it never happened.
What writers have inspired you?
At one of the US Milford workshops apparently 20 SF writers were asked that, and the only name on every list was C.S. Forester. Because my first love before space was the sea, naturally enough when I grew up beside it, so other early influences were Percy F. Westerman, Arthur Ransome, Nicholas Montserrat…and I read a lot of nonfiction by Thor Heyerdahl, Joshua Slocum and other seafarers before I started on astronomy and space. In the next phase, Arthur C. Clarke, Patrick Moore, G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis… and after that my reading broadened out a great deal.
How did the book projects (Man & the Stars, New Worlds for Old, Man & the Planets, Starfield) come about?
When I joined the BIS Scottish Branch in 1962, formal meetings were held at the Royal College of Science & Technology (now Strathclyde University’s main building) or at Glasgow University Observatory, with less formal ‘discussion meetings’ in the Geneva Room at Green’s Playhouse, later renamed the Apollo. ASTRA became independent in 1963 and gradually metamorphosed into a student society meeting in Glasgow University Union, but for some reason, by 1966 it wasn’t gaining any more student members. Oscar Schwiglhofer and I were worried about what would happen when the present ones graduated. I felt that a major project for publication was the answer, and in discussion with Ed Buckley, Archie Roy and others I formulated ‘The Interstellar Project’, expanding the discussion meeting format into a series intended for book publication.
The topic was ‘The first phase of interstellar colonisation, out to 12 light-years’. That became Part 1 of “Man and the Stars” and we later extended it with a Part 2 on Contact with Other Intelligence. The main ideas for Part 1 were worked out by Ed Buckley and myself, with Ed as the artist, and the speakers were Dr. Archie Roy, as he then was; the late Prof. Terence Nonweiler and John Macvey; Andy Nimmo and John Braithwaite; Ed Buckley, Oscar Schwiglhofer, and John Bell of the Glasgow SF Circle. We first intended all of them to contribute guest chapters, but it proved impracticable. The big influence on Part 2 was Chris Boyce, who opened it with a guest chapter and originally was going to write the whole of it. Gavin Roberts had emerged by then as the second artist on the project, even while still at school. He co-illustrated all three books and did the cover for “Man and the Stars” and later for “Man and the Planets”.
The interstellar discussions wound up in the summer of 1973 for publication by Souvenir Press in 1974, and at the suggestion of Bill Ramsay of ASTRA and Gavin Roberts we went straight on to the Interplanetary Project, which generated the first draft of “Man and the Planets”. Ed Buckley, Terence Nonweiler, Archie Roy, John Macvey, Andy Nimmo, Chris Boyce and the late A.T. Lawton were the speakers; again they were supposed to contribute guest chapters, but only four of them did. Souvenir Press wanted a shorter book and I split it into two parts, but they didn’t go for that and “New Worlds for Old” was published by David & Charles in 1979, “Man and the Planets” by Ashgrove Press in 1983, both edited by Paul Barnett who’s now better known under his pen-name, John Grant.
In 1971-1984 I was SF critic of the Glasgow Herald, and when the 200th anniversary of the paper came up in 1986, Chris Boyce suggested to them that I run a short story competition, which proved so popular that it ran for six years. The judges in the first year were Chris, Archie Roy, Alasdair Gray and myself, with Angus McAllister, Veronica Colin and Bill Morris taking turns in later years. Chris also suggested the anthology project which became “Starfield: Science Fiction by Scottish Writers”, though it took till 1989 to get it into print with Orkney Press. The stars of the Starfield were the late Edwin Morgan and Naomi Mitchison, plus Alasdair Gray, all of whom supported the project from the outset. Then we had the established Scottish writers of SF and non-fiction – Chris Boyce, Donald Malcolm, Archie Roy, Angus McAllister and myself – and we had all the early judges, and winners and runners-up from the first three years of the competition. The dustjacket was by Sydney Jordan, introduction by Angus MacVicar, and design and typesetting by Dog & Bone, Glasgow (Chris Boyce, Angela Mullane, Donald Saunders and Alasdair Gray, so you’ll know the style.)
In collecting “Starfield”, you were Editor as opposed to merely writer. How would you compare the job of Editor to writer?
Interesting point of view, that the editor is superior to the ‘mere’ writer! I’d been editor of the Marr College Magazine at school, and had to do a lot of editing to fit the guest chapters into the nonfiction books, so it wasn’t a new experience. I knew which story of Chris Boyce’s I wanted, and Archie Roy’s was written specially, so the only selections I had to make were among what was available from Naomi Mitchison, Alasdair Gray, Donald Malcolm, Gus McAllister, Edwin Morgan and myself – and that took care of itself as I worked out what order the other ones were going to appear in. I did it all in the bath one Sunday morning, writing the introductions in my head which would link one story to another. The only real problem came up just before publication. Edwin Morgan, who was out of the country at the time, had told me I could use any of his poems – but it turned out he had assigned all of his copyrights to his publisher, and they wanted the entire proceeds of the book assigned to them. They eventually agreed to accept a one-off payment which took up most of the advance, and I had to persuade the other contributors to agree to that – one of them was threatening legal action.
You’ve mentioned the late Glasgow writer Chris Boyce, one of the contributors to “Starfield”. Do you have memories of working with him?
I first met Chris in 1967. I had just made my first professional sale to Amazing Stories, and Chris had already appeared three times in SF Impulse, twice with cover art by Keith Roberts. He was working then in the Technical Section of the Mitchell Library. I was in a singer’s workshop called Folk Song Repertory at the time, and a librarian member called Willie Ross told me that Chris wanted to meet me. We hit it off from the outset and Chris quickly joined ASTRA, taking an active part in the early stages of the Interstellar Project. In 1970 and 1971 Chris gave us three highly original talks ‘On the Interpreting of Extraterrestrial Cultures’, which were printed in our magazine Spacereport and one was reprinted in our journal Asgard. When we decided to expand the Interstellar Project with the Extraterrestrial Contact discussions which became Part 2 of “Man and the Stars”, the original plan was for Chris to write that section of the book. For a time, we were meeting at the ASTRA rooms in Hamilton on Saturday mornings for joint work sessions on it. But with mounting other commitments, including his becoming engaged to Angela Mullane, in the end Chris wrote only the introductory chapter to that section.
Meanwhile Chris and I were running the Glasgow SF Circle, first at the Granville Bar and then more formally at the Charing Cross Hotel, with a programme kept in step and jointly announced with ASTRA’s. In 1974 Chris won the Gollancz/Sunday Times SF novel competition with “Catchworld”. We found this out only ten days before the award was to be given at the Eastercon in Newcastle, and I organised a supporters’ bus from ASTRA and the SF Circle, although I couldn’t tell anyone why they had to be there. “Catchworld” and “Man and the Stars” were published almost simultaneously, and the Isobel Begg chat show we appeared on together on STV was a highlight of that year. The Chris Boyce/Duncan Lunan double act featured at a number of other events over the years, including a sales conference at the launch of the IBM PC, and a seminar at Glasgow University Dept. of Adult & Continuing Education. In 1973 ASTRA began the Interplanetary Project, again with Chris heavily involved, and the last chapter of “Man and the Planets” is based on his talks on von Neumann probes and on mind-machine interactions. Chris took part in several National Children’s Book Week programmes which we organised, and in the ‘SF Writers’ Weekend’ which we organised as part of ASTRA’s High Frontier exhibition, in 1979, at the Third Eye Centre and Glasgow Film Theatre.
During the 1970’s Chris was developing his model for simulating extraterrestrial encounter situations, test-flying them at meetings in the ASTRA rooms. The first public simulation was run at our ‘High Frontier’ exhibition, after Chris published “Extraterrestrial Encounter, a Personal Perspective”, to which I contributed a guest chapter in turn. We had in mind that this would be an ongoing engagement, but I haven’t yet found a publisher for “Search Among the Stars”, the next one I had in mind. At the end of the 1980’s Chris, Angela and Alasdair Gray formed Dog & Bone Publishing, which published Chris’s mainstream thriller “Blooding Mister Naylor”, as well as doing the layout and typesetting for “Starfield”. The cover story was ‘The Rig’, which had been the first of Chris’s to catch my attention in Impulse with the Keith Roberts cover; this time it was painted by Sydney Jordan, in two versions, and at the launch we made Chris a present of the first one.
More recently Chris was becoming actively involved in ASTRA again as his children reached their teens. He supported the discussion projects on Andy Paterson’s space art and Chris O’Kane’s Mars Project, and in 1998 launched one of his own to review “Extraterrestrial Encounters” after twenty years. The “ET Presence” discussions were based on highly original papers by Chris himself and he had begun writing the new book, asking Andy Nimmo and me to read and comment chapter by chapter. Unfortunately only the first chapter was finished. He was working on other projects with me and with other ASTRA members including Andy and Jamie McLean, and apparently his death was instantaneous – he keeled over in mid-sentence while talking to a colleague, and he’s still very much missed. I’m still a friend of the family and recently I’ve been privileged to attend the weddings of both his daughters, Petra and Toni.
How did the Glasgow SF Writers Circle come about?
The original Glasgow SF Circle was a fan group meeting in pubs, though it had been through a formal phase with monthly talks at the Charing Cross Hotel. Dr. Anne Karkalas of the Glasgow University Extra-Mural Department, later Adult and Continuing Education, was one of the prominent members. I’d stopped going because it clashed with the Troon Folk Song Club, which I was running with the late Dave Proffitt, and the Friends of Kilgore Trout had taken over the Glasgow SF scene about 1977. Meantime I was going to the UK Milford workshops started by James Blish, and after I ran the first Glasgow Herald SF short story competition, Anne Karkalas asked me to run a creative writing class at the Department, which did a mailshot to competition entrants living within the Central Belt. It went well enough that they offered me a second term, to which the class agreed as long as it could focus on workshops, and at the end of that they decided to keep going, as the Glasgow SF Writers’ Circle.
I based the format partly on the Milford workshop’s rules, and on what I’d learned there from John Brunner, Chris Priest, Rob Holdstock, Richard Cowper, Ken Bulmer and the other regulars. But I also drew on a weekend seminar which the late Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger ran at the Glasgow Folk Centre in 1966, and on experience in Folk Song Repertory, a singers’ workshop which was set up afterwards. One of the most useful things which MacColl and Seeger did was a workshop on workshops, exploring what constructive criticism is and how to prevent ego-trips, cliques and other problems to which workshops can be subject. Many of those principles apply just as forcefully to creative writing as to live performance; but if you think having a story critted in a group session is harrowing, try giving a performance to an imaginary audience while a bunch of fellow-singers are taking notes.
Michael Cobley and Elsie Donald were among the original members; Veronica Colin joined for the second term and later ran the group for several years. There was some disagreement about what the true start date was, but Barry Condon settled the matter by throwing a 21st anniversary party in October 2007.
After 1986 the competition went on for five more years, followed each time by the writing class, and each year more of them joined the Circle – including Hal Duncan, Gary Gibson and Neil Williamson, who coordinates it now.
You’re well known for helping aspiring writers. What motivates you to do so?
Beyond the initial motivation that I was getting paid for it, I suppose the main thing now is that I’m passing on the help I had from other writers, Chris Boyce, John Brunner and the rest. When “Man and the Stars” was coming out, I wrote to Carl Sagan asking for permission to quote him and he replied, ‘Thank you for asking, please feel free to do so and take this permission as indefinite’ – and Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov replied in virtually the same words. No big deal for them, I suppose, but it meant a lot to me at the time.
How much influence can a writing mentor have upon their mentee before the latter simply becomes a puppet of the former?
As I said at Barry’s party, what the individuals and the group have achieved is ultimately down to their own talents – I’m sure many of them would have made it on their own. The aim is to help one another to achieve commercial publication, and we’ve created an environment which enabled many of those talents to flower. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea – the established Glasgow writers that I’ve mentioned didn’t fancy it, or didn’t like it if they tried it – but when pretty well everyone who’s stuck with the group has achieved publication in one form or another, at least we’re not doing any harm to those who do enjoy it. In the days when I ran folk clubs, very few of the new singers I encouraged followed me into unaccompanied traditional singing, and in the SF Writers’ Circle, few if any have followed me into my kind of hard SF, so whatever else I am, I’m not a puppet-master.
GSFWC is twenty-four years old this year. In between, it’s helped launch the careers of countless writers. Did you envisage it lasting this long or being so successful?
I didn’t consciously think it would last this long; but then again, there was nothing built into it which would give a ‘best before’ date. There are always going to be more people wanting to write, so as long as they can find us, the group can go on for ever.
Do you suffer from writer’s block?
I think it was Gordon Dickson who once infuriated a seminar by saying ‘I had one once, for ten minutes on a Friday’, but I’m afraid I’m the same. Andy Nimmo, who has a diploma in psychology, reckons I might get seriously disturbed if I was ever prevented from creative work.
What advice would you give to those interested in writing who are reading this?
I can’t beat Heinlein’s advice: start to write, because the world is full of people who’ll tell you about the great book they could write. Finish what you start, because it’s full of first chapters in drawers, given up when people found it was too much like hard work. And market what you finish – most writers give up after the first couple of rejections. Alistair MacLean had nearly 60 rejections for his first novel, HMS Ulysses, and Compton MacKenzie had more than 60 for Whisky Galore. It took me 18 years to find a buyer for my novella In the Arctic, Out of Time, and when Gardner Dozois published it in Isaac Asimov’s SF Magazine it got nine Nebula nominations. One more would have put it on the final ballot, so I was right not to stop believing in it. I feel that way about the Green Children book at the moment: it’s hard to sell because it combines speculation with serious historical research, but I think it will go well when it does find a sympathetic publisher.
This concludes Part One of our interview with Duncan Lunan.
Note – This interview was originally published on the old Winterwind Productions site in May, 2011, prior to our switch to WordPress in 2020.