Robert Bagnall is the focus of our eleventh Q&A feature, an English author behind 2048 - The Meschera Complex, the short fiction anthology 24 0s & a 2 and Roadkill - which debuts in The Needle Drops... Volume One later this year. We discuss Robert's work, as well as genre writing, cream tea, science-fiction films and treacle.
Robert Bagnall was born in Bedford, England, when the Royal Navy still issued a rum ration, and now lives and writes on the English Riviera within sight of Dartmoor.
He is the author of the science fiction novel 2084 - The Meschera Bandwidth, and the anthology 24 0s & a 2, which collects two dozen of his thirty-plus speculative stories published in Daily Science Fiction, Terraform, Flash Fiction Online and elsewhere during the 2010s. He has also appeared in ‘Best of British Science Fiction’ three times since 2016 and been a finalist in the L Ron Hubbard Writer of the Future competition.
Away from the keyboard, he has run four and walked one marathon, used to hold a world record for eating cream teas, and has read Proust’s ‘A La Recherche du Temps Perdu’ in its entirety—but took longer doing so than Proust took to write it.
So, Robert - Roadkill’s primary antagonist (without giving much away) is time. For you, what is an example of both a time-loop story told particularly well, and one told poorly? What should be avoided at all costs?
Sticking to movies, which is more of a common currency than prose fiction, I’m struggling to think of a bad example, possibly because I try to remember only the good, perhaps because when I Googled ‘worst time loop movies’ I hadn’t seen anything cited, but most probably because I’m a sucker for the things with an incredibly low quality threshold. I’ll even defend Bill & Ted, Hot Tub Time Machine, and Looper, although if I was Joseph Gordon-Levitt I’d be disappointed to end up looking like Bruce Willis too. That said, I’m only halfway through watching Dark on Netflix, and am fascinated to find out whether it’ll end up making sense or disappearing up its own fundament.
In terms of the best, I’ll never grow tired of Twelve Monkeys, but would urge anybody who has never seen Shane Carruth’s Primer to stop reading this and go watch it now.
As for what to avoid, as a writer, simple: internal inconsistency. I don’t particularly care for all the arguments that people have against time loop stories on principle, such as multiple timelines aren’t possible or you can’t kill your own parents and still be in the story--that’s what suspension of disbelief is there for--but it is incumbent on the author to make sure the same rulebook applies across the entirety of the story. Don’t have one character set for life from an accumulator placed on the strength of tomorrow’s newspaper but another find facts from the future don’t hold for them--unless that’s the point of the story, in which case you have some other explaining to do.
I would also throw in a more general writing point, which is to ensure that anything vital is, if not introduced then at least foreshadowed early on (or, if it isn’t, you’re sure why you’re going for that jarring wtf From Dusk Till Dawn effect). This applies to time loops and time travel, perhaps, more than many story elements because they are such good candidates for getting you out of a hole or explaining the inexplicable. This, for me, is where the Marvel Cinematic Universe fell apart, by using time travel as a get-out clause when there wasn’t any sense that that was in the rule book. (Plus, kids need to know that heroes die and bad things happen--I was brought up on Watership Down and Grimm, I don’t remember anyone saying, it’s okay, the fluffy bunny wabbit’s not really dead, it’ll all be okay somehow…)
Within the breadth of localised folklore, both English and beyond, could you share a favourite story of yours that you feel is underappreciated in modern circuits?
It still beggars belief that there are some people out there who maintain the bizarre belief that treacle mines are made up.
Outside the realms of fiction, you participate in an entirely different type of marathon. What draws you to running, specifically, and do you intend to continue (dependent on cream tea consumption, of course)?
Sciatica and slipped discs mean that I no longer run. Writing is a very desk-bound, indoor, solo activity and running seemed a way of achieving some balance. It also provides targets to aim for and is a great way of seeing new places at a relaxed pace (I’ve run the Paris and Helsinki marathons, as well as London twice).
For clarity and in the spirit of full disclosure, the world record was for the most people eating a cream tea simultaneously (643), so I only had a tiny sliver of it, and it’s since been lost in any case. (And proper clotted cream only, no squeezy cream, which goes on before the jam, please, folks--disagreement will result in direct action or banishment to the outer circle of Hell known as ‘Cornwall’).
"Proper clotted cream only, no squeezy cream, which goes on before the jam, please, folks--disagreement will result in direct action or banishment to the outer circle of Hell known as ‘Cornwall’"
You dabble in both fantasy and horror between your science-fiction outings -- how do you determine what fits into ‘horror’ vs. ‘sci-fi’, for example? Do you intend to write a horror story from fruition, or does this moniker develop as the story begins to lean toward darker subject matter?
I don’t set out to write anything in particular other than a story, which, at its most skeletal, is simply about (a) protagonist(s) who need(s) to overcome something to achieve something. It’s during the telling that genre emerges--or not: I have a number of stories that I’m very fond of that haven’t sold because, I like to think, they don’t easily fit into a genre mould. But to set out to write in a particular genre for a specific market seems faintly anti-British and contrary to the centuries of rank amateurism that has made the country what it is today; it’s the sort of professionalism that I’ll leave to Americans.
In your anthology 24 0s and a 2, is there a specific story or two that come to mind when you recommend it to potential readers? Have any larger projects been born from these slipstream stories?
I’d hope that everybody can find something in any of the twenty-four stories, but to highlight a couple, I like to think that two - The Digital Mortician and They Have Been at a Great Feast of Languages, and Stol’n the Scraps make a pretty good job of one of the hardest challenges for the writer, that of making the reader a player in the story - the first in getting the joke which is never explained, and the second... Well, that’s harder to express in simple language.
One story that was omitted from 24 0s and a 2 was Shooting the Messenger, which, in 2017, became the first of my three appearances to date in the annual 'Best of British Science Fiction' anthologies, and I’ve been trying to expand it into a novel ever since, but keep getting distracted by short stories and real life.
You chronicle your progress in regards to your fiction over on your blog, which provides much insight into the behind-the-scenes process of freelance writing, as well as well constructed musings on various topics from yourself. Recently, you discussed diversity in story structure and mentioned how you often construct stories using “eight mini-act(s)”. Could you provide a brief overview of your draft process?
The eight mini-acts is simply a way of breaking down the normal three acts into more manageable chunks. It’s something I’ve retained from a screenwriting course I did almost thirty years ago and comes originally, I think, from director and screenwriting guru Charles Harris (charles-harris.co.uk - and apologies all round if I’ve misattributed it). For longer works it’s how I proceed when I’m ready to start putting words down, just making sure there’s something under each of those mini-acts. However, many, many hot baths may be had before I reach the stage of putting finger on keyboard.
Short fiction, particularly flash, works in a far more simple way, and can be as simple as the set-up and punchline of a joke. Writing a 1000-word story in a day, coming back a few days later to assess in the cold light of day, then sending it into a cruel world to start collecting rejection emails makes a pleasant contrast to the Lovecraftian hell of writing the middle of a novel.
"Writing a 1000-word story in a day, coming back a few days later to assess in the cold light of day, then sending it into a cruel world to start collecting rejection emails makes a pleasant contrast to the Lovecraftian hell of writing the middle of a novel."
In three words or less - what can our readers expect from Roadkill?
Earworm (try singing the song… now try stopping.... see?)
Thank you, Robert, for taking the time to participate in our Q&A series. We’re looking forward to the debut of Roadkill in The Needle Drops… Volume One later this year. Any final words?