Every once in a great while a new author bursts on to the scene that is so different from everything else being published I have to sit up and notice and shout a bit about it. This year that author is Peter Higgins with his debut Wolfhound Century. It is a strange novel to be sure, but that is its greatest strength. Think China Mieville with more of a Slavic Folklore bent, but with the speed of a LeCarre novel. If that sounds like a heady mix it is yet a good one and making it feel startlingly original. Higgins has published short fiction in such places as Asimov's Science Fiction and Fantasy Magazine, but his novel was my first exposure to his work. It certainly won't be the last.
MH: Wolfhound Century is a dark, fast paced visage of a Russia that never was. But it is so much more than that. What is your barroom description of Wolfhound Century?
If I’d been in the bar for a while, I’d say it was inspired by books like Gorky Park, but written by someone who’d read a lot of Gene Wolfe and John Crowley and the folklore of the endless Slavic forests, and had grown up in the Cold War, with a life-long attachment to the dark, extraordinary history of Soviet Russia. Someone who’d read Nabokov’s memoirs and random pages from the 1914 edition of Baedeker’s Russia. I might add that one of the root ideas is that painters like Chagall and Malevich weren’t painting abstract or fantastical parables, they were simply recording what they saw.
And if I was still there at closing time, I’d be talking about the archetypal 20th century struggle between, on the one hand, the totalitarian idea of the individual as an atom of the state, subjected and reduced by the overwhelming forces of history, party and state, and on the other hand, the conception of each and every human being as a huge and partly unconscious world of emotion, perception, imaginative potential and creative imagination. Then I’d have to get my coat and go home.
MH: What came first? The world, the angels, or Vissarion?
HIGGINS: The world came first, definitely, or rather, two worlds: a northern and central European world of slow rivers, birch forests, wintry Baltic shores, and that 20th century world of revolution and war, marching crowds and gulags and state police, writers and artists and composers and dissident intellectuals.
The ‘angels’ are immense beings that fall out of the sky, dying or already dead, and their mined, abraded torsos litter the continent. The regime appropriates them as a justification for its mythology of itself: in a sense, it’s a parallel with the way totalitarian dictators claim to embody wider, universal forces, the inevitability of history. When one angel survives the fall and starts to reach out, to speak, to influence, some people want to listen. They want to subject themselves to the greater, more certain power. And the really dangerous ones think they might be able to use it …
MH: One of the themes I was struck by was the land fighting back for its very survival and you've given them avatars of a sort with the palubas. Which gives it a very Robert Holdstock vibe.
So the forest in Wolfhound Century – its endlessness, the avatars that come out of it – is proudly Holdstock-ish. But Holdstock’s wood is very English: superficially, on the outside, it’s small, only a couple of miles across, and in a specific, almost-mappable English location. Only when you go in and get lost there do you learn how immense it is on the inside. It draws you in, dilates time. And nothing escapes from it: the mythagos that cross its borders soon fade. The forest in Wolfhound Century, on the other hand (like the forests of Russia and central Europe) really is huge. It dominates the psychic terrain. The regime tries to close the forest off and blind the people to it, but their cities are full of forest things. Forest presences. Forest influence. Several of the principal characters themselves have forest roots, which they grow more aware of and try to understand. And the forest asserts itself: it reaches out and participates. As you say, it fights back. Fangorn and the ents are in there somewhere.
That idea, that everything is alive, has other roots too. It’s central to shamanism, for example. It runs deep in the Russian, Nordic and central European forests and Siberia, and comes through in the folklore from there. That world view was still influential in 20th century Russia, and not just as a primitive relic. There’s a fantastic quote from Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, the Cosmist who drove early Soviet thinking about the human colonisation of space and transhumanism:
‘There is no substance which cannot take the form of a living being. The simplest being is the atom. Therefore the whole universe is alive and there is nothing in it but life.’
This concept – panpsychism, sentient matter – shaped my thinking about the Wolfhound Century forest, and also about the angels: where they come from, what they’re made of, how they do what they do. And what unfettered or assisted human perception can tap into.
MH: With Wolfhound Century you've subverted Stalinist Russia as well as Slavic mythology, but this is clearly not the Russia we know. Possibly a deep past alternative history, but this world appears very much separated for ours. Are you worried that people will feel you've appropriated a culture? Have you had any feedback from Russian natives?
HIGGINS: No, I really don't feel like I've appropriated another culture.
As you say, in Wolfhound Century I’ve drawn on Russian history and culture. I haven’t taken them straight, I’ve re-imagined them and mixed them up with other things that aren't Russian. I’ve felt a responsibility to my sources and I’ve tried to write as well as I can. I'm very much aware that the history which my book stands sideways to was real – millions died and millions more had their lives ruined – and I've tried to let that awareness show through in Wolfhound Century. How far I've succeeded, whether I've always got it right, that's something for readers to make their own minds up about. It's not for me to say. But I’ve never worried that this book, the way I've written it, was trespassing across some kind of frontier into another culture's territory, and personally I don’t think the artists whose work I’ve drawn on – including writers like Mandelstam, Akhmatova, Pasternak and Nabokov, and painters like Chagall – would recognize that idea of their cultural separateness – those barriers of difference – either.
If I can give you one example of what I mean, Mandelstam was Russian but he wrote about Charles Dickens, Beethoven, Rome, the ancient Scottish poet Ossian, Hagia Sophia in Istanbul and Notre Dame in Paris. He saw continuity between ancient Greece and Russia: he said they met on the shores of the Black Sea. And he specifically denied the relevance of personal background to his work: of himself he wrote, 'it is enough to speak of the books he has read, and his biography is done'.
Other writers and artists I've drawn on maybe wouldn't use such stark terms as Mandelstam, but they all have the same deep involvement with a culture that goes way beyond Russia. They're part of a shared, complex, three-thousand-year old, wide-ranging, multi-linguistic, allusive tradition. It's one culture, modernist and frontierless, that may take account of local and national differences and inheritances but isn’t limited by them. And the precarious existence of that culture in a totalitarian state is part of the story Wolfhound Century is trying to tell, and it’s part of its way of trying to tell it.
I’m sitting at home at the moment, about 1300 miles from St Petersburg. The idea that, somewhere between here and there, there might exist a line of separation, a cultural and historical boundary drawn across Europe, doesn't feel right. That’s one of the reasons the Cold War was so cruel and why we celebrated when the wall came down. But even when the Cold War was at its height, we read books and listened to music and watched films from the territories of the Eastern Bloc.
I don’t know if maybe someone 1300 miles away from me in St Petersburg is writing an SF fantasy about a weird version of London during World War II, with a Prime Minister who’s a bit like Churchill and with writing that draws on Dickens or Virginia Woolf or Dylan Thomas. But I hope someone is. That would be awesome. And it would be fantastic if Wolfhound Century finds Russian readers. I'd love to know what they make of it. Of course, they’ll see that it’s not written in the same way that someone who lives in Russia would have written it. The imagined elements in it are my response to, my engagement with, Russia and what happened there, but it’s written from my perspective and it couldn’t be anything else.
MH: Do you have a favorite Russian folk tale? And if so did you integrate it into the Wolfhound Century in some form?
HIGGINS: Well, there’s a fantastic tradition of Russian folk tales. Sadko. Prince Ivan. Baba Yaga. The Fire Bird. The Snow Maiden. They’re part of the background to Wolfhound Century, certainly, they’re in the air: but in terms of integration into the story, they’re not really primary sources, as far as I’m consciously aware.
MH: Wolfhound Century ended a bit abruptly. What made that a good breaking place and what can we look forward to with the sequel Truth and Fear?
Truth and Fear, which is coming out early in 2014, widens the story out. I'm not going to say too much, but you'll see a lot more of the bad guys and what they're up to, and more about some of the things that were off-stage rumblings in Wolfhound Century, as well as other quarters of the city of Mirgorod and some new places on the continent.
And some new characters. And some big surprises. And a finish that'll knock your socks off and leave you wanting more ...
MH: What is the greatest advice you've even been given as a writer?
HIGGINS: "If someone tells you you’re doing too much of something in your work, then do it more, because that's your true voice."
A friend who's an artist told me that.
MH: Now on to the important issues. What is your favorite hat?
MH: Sorry about the hatloss. Always remember a lost hat is never forgotten. I feel your pain having lost one of my old standbys last year. I also have a different hat for each season. Well, multiple hats for each season. Another important, life directing question: Scotch or beer?
HIGGINS: If I've just tramped twenty miles across Scottish moorland through mist and rain, then Scotch, but otherwise definitely beer.
MH: What books are you reading at the moment?
HIGGINS: Not for the first time, I'm making a determined attempt on the lower slopes of Gravity's Rainbow.
MH: That's a heavy one. I appreciate all your time. Is there anything you'd like to say to close us out?
HIGGINS: Just to say, thanks for inviting me to do this. It's been a lot of fun. I'll be lurking somewhere at World Fantasy Con 2013 in October if anyone wants to say hello.
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