Author Spotlight: Malcolm Devlin (UNEXPECTED PLACES TO FALL FROM, UNEXPECTED PLACES TO LAND)
Malcolm Devlin is the author of the collection ‘Unexpected Places to Fall From, Unexpected Places to Land’, published by Unsung Stories, and the novella, ‘And Then I Woke Up’, published by Tor.com in April 2022. His first collection, ‘You Will Grow Into Them’ also published by Unsung, was shortlisted for the British Fantasy and Saboteur Awards. He currently lives in Brisbane.
Welcome back to the Hive, Malcolm. Let’s start with the basics: tell us about Unexpected Places to Fall From, Unexpected Places to Land. What can readers expect?
Unexpected Places to Fall From, Unexpected Places to Land is a collection of stories with an unforgivably long title. The stories are about journeys and destinations; they deal with multiple worlds and the various realities that might have been had we made different choices somewhere down the line. They’re also loosely connected. They can (if you choose) be read as though they each take place in parallel worlds to each other, so a character who appears in one story may well be glimpsed in the background of another, doing something very different.
Tell us a little something about your writing process for this collection – did you have any kind of process for creating these parallel worlds?
The second story in the collection is called The Purpose of the Dodo is to be Extinct. In it, a man dies in every single reality at the same time and the story spirals outwards, splitting into a series of shorter stories showing how his death landed differently in different worlds. It occurred to me this could be an interesting way of curating a whole collection. I had other stories which involved some tangential idea of the multiple worlds — time travel, second chances, characters stewing over making the wrong choices — so I thought it would be interesting to use the conceit of The Purpose of the Dodo as a broader structural device.
During the editing of my first collection, it turned out that the same names kept cropping up in different stories and I was asked whether it was an intentional decision. In that case, it wasn’t — it was a lack of imagination on my part when it came to filling in supporting casts. In this case, I leaned into the coincidence. This time, they could be the same characters, so I adapted the stories so they had clearer overlaps.
Can you tell us a bit more about your characters? Were there any you found easier to portray than others?
This might sound a bit weird. I think one thing that absolutely everyone is capable of, is being an arsehole. In terms of character, I think it’s fascinating to consider both how and when that ‘superpower’ is wielded, and how and when it’s repressed. I’m not saying all my characters are terrible people, but they all could be and that keeps me on my toes.
That’s a new perspective!
As an example, I’m very fond of the three sisters in Walking to Doggerland, who just popped up reasonably fully formed and starting bickering amiably with each other. They’re three people who love each other desperately and don’t always want to be around each other for good reasons as well as bad ones.
Your previous collection You Will Grow Into Them was quite dark; can we expect more of that darkness from Unexpected Places?
You Will Grow Into Them had one foot in horror, the new book has shifted that foot to science fiction or fantasy — my science isn’t particularly rigorous, so I suspect that will be down to the reader. It’s not quite as dark as the previous book, but having said that, the theme of death and dying does form a thread running through the stories and I hope it doesn’t come across as morbid. Essentially, if You Will Grow Into Them was a collection of coming of age stories, Unexpected Places to Fall From serves as its opposite. There’s darkness there, absolutely, but also — I hope — a bit of warmth too, maybe even a bit of wonder.
We see such varying opinions from authors when it comes to the time of editing their books. How have you found the editing process? Enjoyable, stressful or satisfying?
Many of the stories have been published elsewhere originally, so most have been through some sort of editorial process already. Unsung are lovely folk and in this case, I was lucky enough to work with Dan Coxon and Jon Oliver who are both brilliant people and brilliant writers to boot.
The biggest question came down to the order of the stories. Originally, Walking to Doggerland — a novella which occupied about half the word count of the entire book — was going to be presented complete, but its presence felt a bit unbalancing. We experimented a bit with splitting it into pieces, and at one point, I broke up a number of other stories and arranged them all through the collection, so you’d read part of one story, then part of another, then read a whole other story then back to the second part of the first and so on. It was an interesting jumble but a bit much. Eventually we settled on splitting Doggerland into three parts and spacing them evenly throughout the book. I like that it reinforces the idea that characters can and will reappear and it’s quite appealing getting dropped back into a story having spent a little time elsewhere.
I imagine it creates an interesting impression mirroring the three sisters in the structure of the three parts too!
What (or who) would you say are your most significant fantasy/sci-fi influences?
I think I have a magpie’s interest in shiny things and I’m probably influenced by everyone I’ve ever read in some way or another. But, off the top of my head (and from the side of my bed), I love Russell Hoban, Nina Allan, Angela Carter, Clive Barker, Helen Marshall, Usman Malik, Alan Garner, E Lily Yu, Cynan Jones, Yoko Ogawa, Jon McGregor, Aliya Whiteley, Francis Spufford, Kathleen Jennings and I could probably keep going if anyone would let me.
The world shifts, and you find yourself with an extra day on your hands during which you’re not allowed to write. How do you choose to spend the day?
There’s a little town up in the hinterland about an hour-and-a-half’s drive away from where I live. Lovely views, forest walks, nice cafes and so on. More specifically, there’s a nice little bookshop there, but it usually closes at midday on Saturday and doesn’t open on Sundays at all. So, if you can arrange for all this to happen on a weekday, I’ll bundle the family into the car and head up there. Thank you.
One of our favourite questions here on the Fantasy Hive: which fantastical creature would you ride into battle and why?
I’m not one for battles, but I’m happy to follow whichever fantastical creature nips off to hide in the pub instead.
Tell us about a book you love. Any hidden gems?
Not hidden exactly, but I’ve just finished reading The Other City by Michal Ajvaz (translated by Gerald Turner) which has been sitting on my shelf for a few years. It’s a gloriously strange exploration of a parallel Prague full of midnight fish festivals, wardrobe wars, hidden jungles and hollow statues. I’ve always been a bit of a sucker for stories about impossible places tucked out of sight inside mundane ones and this scratches that itch in a way that makes me want more. Closer to Borges than Neverwhere, it’s a lovely, eccentric dream of a book.
Can you tell us a little something about your current work(s) in progress? Have you any upcoming projects which you can share?
I have a novella coming out in April from Tor.com. And Then I Woke Up is about survivors of a pandemic affecting how reality is perceived. It was written before Covid-19 raised its head, and I was sort of hoping it wouldn’t still be topical by the time it was released. Either way, I’m excited to get it into people’s hands.
Are you planning anything fun to celebrate your new release? Do you have any upcoming virtual events our readers may be interested in?
Circumstances are a bit tricky at the moment. We moved to Australia just before the pandemic and the international borders here are still closed. So while I really can’t wait to get back to the UK to see people again, and get involved in whatever events I can do, I’m on the wrong side of the planet for a while at least. To confound things even more, we have a baby due any minute now, so I expect my attempts to promote the book might be scuppered by something small and screamy. We’ll see. Maybe I’ll get him a dodo onesie and set him loose on Instagram. That’s a thing, right? Right.
Finally, what is the one thing you hope readers take away from your writing?
They can take whatever they like, so long as they return it. I mean, come on.
Thank you so much for joining us today!
Thank you very much for having me. Sorry if I broke anything.
It’s all good, that’s what duct tape’s for…
Unexpected Places to Fall From, Unexpected Places to Land is available now from Unsung Stories –