Richard Harland has been a poet, a musician, a university lecturer, and, for the last seventeen years, a full-time writer, known for The Vicar of Morbing Vyle, The Black Crusade, and his Worldshaker, Heaven & Earth, and Eddon & Vail novel series. He sports a dazzling array of steampunk headgear and also happens to be one of the longest-serving members of the AHWA. We talked to Richard about his 2016 Australian Shadows Awards win.
Your story His Shining Day, from Jack Dann’s now multi-award winning anthology Dreaming in the Dark, won the short story category in last year’s Shadows Awards. Congratulations!
Can you tell us a bit about the story (without spoilers, of course)?
The story is seen through the experience of 9-year-old Paulie, who’s travelling round Europe with his parents in their caravan. They come to a small village in the north of Greece where a festival is underway – a happy occasion of dance and celebration, in which the whole community takes part. Only one person isn’t happy: the boy Manolis, dressed up in a smart suit with bits of paper pinned all over him. And yet the festival is held in his honour!
Because it’s his special day, he’s entitled to ask for anything he wants. What he wants is for Paulie to play games with him … so Paulie produces his draughts and draughtboard (aka checkers), and they play game after game after game. On this special day, Manolis is supposed to win every time. Paulie feels as any 9-year-old boy would feel about that.
Gradually it emerges that Manolis doesn’t care so much about winning as about prolonging the games as long as possible. Something is due to happen at the end of the festival, but he keeps on pleading for one more game. In the end, though, the day is over, and the festival progresses to a kind of play-acting phase, in which Paulie and his parents aren’t included.
Very early the next morning, Paulie feels guilty about that ‘one more game’ he never played with Manolis. He knows the place where the boy was led off, and goes there with his draughts and draughtboard. What he finds is the shock of the story … not such a happy, innocent festival after all.
What gave you the idea for the story?
I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of ‘the scapegoat’ in primitive myth and ritual – ultimate cruelty and injustice, yet socially accepted as a religious necessity. I had a first stab at writing a scapegoat story in “On the Way to Habassan”, published 10-15 years ago, but I wasn’t satisfied with the result. The cruelty and injustice came across, but not the disturbing, numinous quality I wanted.
Another related anthropological phenomenon is the ‘god-for-a-day’ ritual, and I realised I’d have a more powerful story if I could work that in too. But I played around with those ideas for many, many years without ever feeling I’d found the right way to use them.
The lightbulb moment came from an almost forgotten memory that arrived out of nowhere. When I was a student, I’d been travelling with friends in Turkey, and we spent a day in the port of Izmir. Somehow we ended up in a suburb high above the main metropolis, and found ourselves included in this joyous local festival. Only the boy at the centre of it all was closer to tears than joy.
In fact, it was his circumcision ceremony. The bits of paper pinned to his suit were envelopes containing gifts of money, unlike the bits of paper in “His Shining Day”. But the image of his unhappiness in the midst of everyone else’s happiness—happiness for him!—that was the clue I needed. All the other elements just slotted right into place around it.
As for the setting, well, I always knew this would be a tourist-in-other-lands story, because I’ve been building up a collection of horror/supernatural short fiction around that theme. Greece was probably suggested by the fact that Izmir was Greek in earlier times … also by the fact that many recorded ‘scapegoat’ myths and rituals come from Greece. I’m not the first to point to some darker, Dionysian goings-on behind the rational sunshine-and-light picture of Classical Greece!
I located the village in the story near Ioannina on the route between Igoumenitsa and Meteora in the mountainous north of Greece. I remember Ioannina because it’s where we had to stop to have the motor of our Kombi fixed (on a different trip, different ‘we’)!
Is this your first Shadows Award?
Yes, and it looks amazing! Congratulations to the artist who created it (and to Mr Lucifer for modelling for it!)
What are you working on at the moment?
My ‘big project’, the book that’s been building up in me for most of my adult life. It’s a multi-volume fantasy, on a scale I could never have handled before. But very hush-hush! I could say more, but then I’d have to kill you, along with everyone else who reads this interview. Very messy, very time-consuming …
You’ve done a great service to the writing community with your Writing Tips website. Can you tell us a bit about what inspired you to write it? And what made you decide to give it away for free?
I guess I wrote it because I could. For a fantasy author, I’m maybe more than usually conscious of what goes on in my writing process. Having writer’s block for 25 years forced me to think a lot about the craft – like, doing it wrong before I finally managed to do it right! Also, being a uni lecturer on English Literature (and smuggling lectures on fantasy/horror/SF smuggled into my courses).
But I ought to say, ‘more than usually conscious of what I have done in the writing process,’ i.e. after the event. Creativity first, understanding afterwards—and entirely optional! I think conceptualizing and theorizing before you write produces bad results … in literature mostly, and in fantasy even more so.
I never thought of charging for the website. I guess I just wanted to save other writers from my own mistakes. But I also never realised what a huge thing it would turn out to be. 30 pages grew and grew to 145 pages, 5 weeks away from my own writing expanded into 5 months. It just ran away with me.
I’m always getting contacted by people wanting to pay for advertising on the site. Not interested! For me, the satisfaction is when intending writers or even published writers send me emails saying, thanks, your website really helped. That’s a buzz!
You’ve been a member of the Australasian Horror Writers Association since its very earliest days. What do you see as the value of the AHWA?
Ha! I was there to declare the AHWA ‘up and running’ at the original launch in 2005 at Continuum! Back then, horror writers were a bit like embarrassing, unwanted relatives … in many people’s minds, the hierarchy was SF top, fantasy in the middle, and horror at the bottom. We’ve come a long, long way since then!
The AHWA has surely been a big part of that rise in public profile. Supported and run by unpaid volunteers, with such a modest membership fee, it could so easily have faltered and fallen. Instead, it’s become a major presence on the scene. Ever-increasing member numbers, more and more services and benefits to members – it has to be the best value for money in Australia! Best of all is that sense of writerly community, which is a value you can’t put a price on!
I’m proud to be able to say I was in it from the start. (Hey, can I claim founder member status?)