Interview with D. Harlan Wilson

Codename Prague by D. Harlan Wilson

D. Harlan Wilson is a busy man. He edits The Dream People, teaches full-time at an Ohio university, and still manages to have a life unrelated to writing.  He took the time to answer my questions about his work and allow the Niteblade readers to learn more about him.

Looking over your biography, I noticed you received your M.A. in Science Fiction Studies from the University of Liverpool. I honestly thought you made it up until I visited the university’s website. What was that experience like?

 The Science Fiction Studies M.A. was a wonderful experience and seminal to my growth as a literary critic and fiction writer. I owe it all to Bob Crossley, my advisor at UMass-Boston, where I did my M.A. in English (1995-97) before the ULiverpool program (1997-98). When I started at UMass-Boston, I wanted to be a Medieval or Elizabethan scholar, but I met Bob in an apocalyptic literature course I took with him, and he turned me on to science fiction. Under Bob’s guidance, I did my UMass-Boston M.A. thesis on science fiction, a linguistic analysis of the novels Neuromancer, Riddley Walker, and A Clockwork Orange, for which I won an award. Bob encouraged me to pursue another M.A. degree at ULiverpool, one of the only SFS programs in the world at the time. I didn’t feel like I was ready for the rigors of a Ph.D. yet, so I did it.

In addition to immersing myself in a different (English-speaking) culture – I lived in downtown Liverpool across from the central train station in a flat over a fish and chips shop – I got to read scores of cool sci-fi books and talk and write about them extensively in an intimate professor-student setting. Basically we met twice a week for two hours at a time to discuss a particular text, usually a novel, and then the rest of the time the onus would be on me (and the four other students in the program) to do research, meet with our advisors, and produce criticism. And in the end we had to write a 40 or so page thesis. Mine was a study of the influence of Romanticism (especially Keats’ work) on Dan Simmons’ Endymion quadrilogy. Not publishable stuff, but instrumental in my future Ph.D. studies at Michigan State University and the book of literary theory and criticism that resulted from it: Technologized Desire: Selfhood & the Body in Postcapitalist Science Fiction.

Aside from my studies, I fondly remember my trips to the Lake District, about two hours north from Liverpool by train.  That’s where all the Romantics hung out – Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, etc. I went up there whenever I could, and I go back whenever I can. I think it’s my favorite place in the world. The landscapes, the air itself, is inspiring in so many ways.


Your fiction works have been described as Bizarro or irreal fiction. How do you describe your work to someone not familiar with it?

I’ve more or less given up trying to describe it, or I deflect and redirect the question whenever it’s put to me. Categories are useful for marketing purposes, and it’s human nature to categorize things, but otherwise calling something this or that ultimately belies what it is in its totality. In the past, I’ve called my writing “offbeat” or simply “weird” in casual conversation. I like the term “irreal,” which exhibits absurdist, existential, and/or dreamlike elements. Irreal fiction usually denotes a certain literary quality (à la Kafka, Borges, Gogol, etc.), but the term “literary” is problematic, too, and can mean different things to different people. As with anything, really; the specter of subjectivity is a formidable monster.

Bizarro is an increasingly slippery category, mainly because there are so many different kinds, although most if not all Bizarro fiction seems to relish in the absurd and out-of-the-ordinary. I certainly do that. Bizarro has received as much criticism as it has praise and outright fanaticism, and all publicity, negative or positive, is good publicity. The fact is Bizarro continues to gain momentum and popularity; some readers really get into it, whereas other just want to see what it’s all about. I like the category in that respect. And I like some Bizarro fiction. There’s good and bad, but that’s the case with any type of writing, or art in general, and my version of good and bad of course differs from other versions.

Categories aside, I hope my writing does two main things: edify and entertain. I want people to laugh, but I also want them to think about the nature of narrative, reality, language, history and the future. Especially in my novels, where I almost invariably blend the genres of science fiction, fantasy, horror, and film and literary theory. These speculative and critical realms were once perceived as outside the purview of basic human ontology. I believe they are at the center of twenty-first century mediatized life.


In previous interviews you’ve expressed the wish to re-edit some of your earlier works. How do you think your style has changed over the years?

My style has changed significantly over the past 15 or so years since I started writing fiction, as it does for most writers. For me, it had to do with developing a wider lexicon and command of language, which I’m always trying to improve upon. I began writing novels – bad ones, although I thought they were good at the time. I remember feeling more and more insecure and uncomfortable as each novel unfolded. I didn’t really know what the hell I was doing, or wanted to do. Other than to become a famous author, right? Once I started writing shorter pieces, though, particularly flash fictions, I got better, grew more confident with my narrative voices, rhythm of prose, word choices, execution of dialogue, etc. Nowadays my fiction tends to be rather theoretical, i.e., I often fuse elements of fiction with film, literary and cultural theory. It’s not that I want to return to my old stuff and theorize it, per se. I just want to clean up what in retrospect looks like crappy prose to me. And of course my interests have changed as I’ve gotten older. Many themes in my earlier fiction are pretty boyish and juvenile compared to now. Naturally – I started writing in my early twenties, and now I’m almost forty.


Do you have specific writing habits which contribute to your success?

No. I’ve never had any habits that fueled my writing, other than smoking, but I haven’t smoked while writing for years. I write most efficiently in the morning, in my basement library, with coffee, when my mind is clearest. But I teach fulltime and have service responsibilities at my university, and I have a family (a wife and two daughters), so usually I have to write whenever I can, whenever I find cracks in my schedule. I still write every day, if only for 15-30 minutes.


I feel I have to ask an obvious question to the author of Peckinpah: An Ultraviolent Romance – If you could time travel and spend the day with Sam Peckinpah what would you do?

If I was younger, I suppose we’d go out and party or something – he was a wildman, did tons of drugs and drank his ass off; at one point he claimed that he couldn’t direct effectively unless he was shitfaced. I try to keep my partying to a minimum these days, with moderate success most of the time, so I guess I’d probably sit there and listen to Sam ramble on. He was a big talker, according to his biographies. Despite being an addict, and an asshole, he was a brilliant guy, filmmaking aside. But eventually I’d get sick of him. I usually get sick of everybody, preferring humanity in small, controlled doses.


I understand you’re working on a cultography of John Carpenter’s They Live. How does one prepare for such an undertaking?

Lots of research in many different areas, including my personal history as well as film criticism, literary and film theory, the cultural history of the 1980s, and the biographies of John Carpenter and Roddy Piper.  The cultographies series is a recent venture for UK publisher Wallflower Press, which is distributed in the US by Columbia University Press. It’s a cool project in that I’m asked not only to analyze the film but to write about my personal relationship with it, i.e., how it influenced and enlightened me in its (and my) historical context. I’ve completed the research portion of the book and I’ve written about a third of it, so it’s well underway.

Writing my first book of criticism, Technolgized Desire, was a totally different experience, fraught with anxiety and uncertainty. I was still finding my way as a neophyte critic, and I had to satisfy the demands of my Ph.D. dissertation committee. I spent three years revising the book after I received my Ph.D., without guidance, and that was kind of traumatic, too. The They Live book is a different experience altogether. I know what I want to do and I’m having so much fun writing it. That’s what writing criticism should be like. Nobody really reads it except for professors and scholars and grad students. This wasn’t always the case, but nowadays I can always tell if books of criticism were written under the pressures of The Academic Thumb. It’s nice to get to a point where you can have fun while at the same time produce compelling and dynamic criticism. I’ve only crossed that threshold recently.


From November 2010 to March 2011 you’ll be on an international book tour to promote the release of Codename Prague. The venues aren’t all bookstores and universities. How did the tour come together?

The Zero Degree of Meaning Tour, as I call it, a reference to the theory of Deleuze and Guattari, which informs Codename Prague, has been a long time in the making. Codename Prague has been finished for about two years, so my publisher, publicist and I have had ample time to plan the tour and scope out unique venues. I didn’t want to do readings/signings at a bunch of megabookstores like Barnes & Noble, Borders, etc. I’m a big supporter of independent bookstores, and presses for that matter, who are interested in unconventional literature that pushes boundaries and tries to do new things. So that was my main focus. I also focused on other, more esoteric venues – bars, drug stores, stadiums, fitness centers, old school theaters, sex shops, fish and chip shops, celebrity households, the streets … A number of people worked on setting up readings/signings for me, but I owe most of it to Stanley Ashenbach, my publicist, and also my primary financial sponsor and backing. This’ll be the biggest tour I’ve ever done for a book and it wouldn’t be happening without his encouragement and hard work. Stan and I have been together for years and I wouldn’t be the writer I am today without him.

I can’t say whether or not the tour will be a success, i.e., that it will produce the proverbial buzz that authors and publishers need to sell books. This ain’t Newyorktimesbestsellerland, after all. I have received several good preliminary blurbs for Codename Prague from the science fiction literati, among them Kim Stanley Robinson, John Shirley, Pat Cadigan, and Mike Resnick. That will get the book some attention, I hope, but ultimately the book must speak for itself. Whatever the case, I’m looking forward to scurrying like a vermin around the world for a few months.


What is the most unusual experience you’ve had at a book signing?

Most of the signings and readings I’ve done have been uneventful. One incident stands out. I was at an independent bookstore somewhere in West Virginia. Can’t remember the name of the store, but I was signing copies of Dr. Identity in 2007. At some point, a goddamned porcupine got into the store and started raising hell, running all over the place, knocking over bookshelves, and even firing its quills at people. I remember the manager of the store staggering around trying to catch the thing in a garbage bag. That didn’t work, obviously. In the end, some guy – might have been a cop, but maybe not – shot it with a handgun. Like, a Dirty Harry handgun. Huge. Loud as hell. I couldn’t believe it. But it didn’t seem to bother most people. The guy calmly picked the porcupine up by its tail and carried it outside like Medusa’s head. Crazy. Then I went back to signing books.


Your writing interests are all over the place – novels, flash fiction, screenplays, criticism – what do you do in your free time?

Along with family stuff, I watch TV and movies, and I work out. Lately, in the last three or four years, I’ve been getting more and more into bodybuilding. I have a gym in my basement and lift weights 60-90 minutes a day, five days a week, plus cardio, and I watch my diet carefully, counting calories, measuring proteins and carbs and fats, and allowing myself one cheat day per week during which I eat whatever I want. My metabolism is such that muscle doesn’t come easy to my body, so it’s a challenge, but a much needed challenge, one that speaks to all aspects of my life, if only in that the release of endorphins into my system keeps me on the level – I’m sort of wound up. Anyway, I can’t say things are that exciting right now. But that’s ok. I’m enjoying a relatively tame family and academic life. For now. When my girls get older, my wife and I have plans. She’s a writer too and we’re always mapping out the future.


Anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

I’ll simply to encourage folks to visit me online at and Thanks Amber!

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