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Dreampunk profile: Jim Hardison (a.k.a. J. R. R. R. Hardison)
From an online interview on May 11, 2019
First off, tell us a little about yourself. How do you see yourself as a writer?
When I was in first grade, Miss Rainwater—that was really her name—gave the class the typical assignment to write down what we were going to be when we grew up. My mother saved mine. It says, “I am gong to be a wrytr.” Not a speller. That’s still something I struggle with. But I’ve basically been telling stories in one form or another since I was old enough to talk.
During the intervening years, I’ve worked writing short stories, screenplays, teleplays, TV show-bibles, tons and tons and tons and tons of brand character guidelines and brand narratives, comics, and then finally, some novels.
Oh, and I forgot games—probably because that’s something I’ve never managed to get paid for—but it’s been a big part of my storytelling. In grade school, I was always the Dungeon Master for my D&D group. Then I started writing my own game systems for fantasy, sci-fi and weird combinations of the two. After graduating high school, I took a year off to try to start a game company, but I had no idea how to approach the world of business. When that failed, I signed up for film school.
I was pointed to your work by your friend Jeb Sherrill. Did you first hear about dreampunk from him or somewhere else? What does the term mean to you personally?
Jeb and I were manning a booth at Wizard World Comic Con, promoting my books Fish Wielder and Demon Freaks and his book Storm Dreams. A potential customer asked what Storm Dreams was like and I described it as dreampunk. I was very pleased with myself, as I thought I had coined the term right there on the spot and that I’d been enormously clever about it, thank you very much. After the person bought Jeb’s book and left, however, he let me know—in the kindest way—that dreampunk was not only already an established thing, but that Storm Dreams was an acknowledged entry in the genre. So much for being enormously clever.
For me, dreampunk is the intersection of science fiction and fantasy in the realm of dreams. So, I imagine it would stretch its roots back to Alice In Wonderland and The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath and forward to include books like Storm Dreams and other works in which the walls between reality and dreams get thin and the distinctions get murky.
That’s a great story. It is a pretty intuitive term, right? You’re not the first to invent it only to find they weren’t the first either. Who was the first? I have no idea.
I guess it just proves that old adage: “Strange minds think alike.”
Tell me about your particular style. How do you deal with dreams in your stories? From what I’ve seen, it’s all pretty surreal.
It’s hard to discuss exactly how the dreampunk elements surface in my book, Fish Wielder, without giving away some major plot turns, but there is at least one character who believes the entire world is a dream, and just enough supporting evidence to make a few of the other characters nervous. Fish Wielder is set on the magical world of Grome and is mostly a comedic high fantasy, but there are enough kinks in the reality of the place to give it a couple of toes in the dreampunk genre.
Fish Wielder has been on my to-read list for a while, and you’ve just bumped it to the top. I think it’s fair to say your artistic aspirations span various media, right? Whether you get paid or not, the drive is there to create and craft and share your particular weirdness with the world. Where do you think that comes from?
OK, I’ll tell you, but it’s not pretty. I think the drive comes from being a power-drunk despot. I’m from a big family—six sibling—and I came toward the end, so there was always a need to compete for attention. Storytelling was an integral part of that because it worked to hook people’s attention. When I was really little, my older sister read fantasy stories to me and I’d get so caught up in them that it that sparked my love of the fantastical and made me realize how powerful stories were. When I got old enough to start reading to my little brother I really enjoyed the way being in charge of conveying the story put me in control of his emotions. That sounds pretty manipulative as I write it down, but it was thrilling to be able to make someone feel something as if it was really happening to them.
That’s what got me into being a Dungeon Master in D&D. If I did it well, the players would get so enthralled that they’d get scared when I needed them to be scared, or feel triumphant, or angry or happy. It was addictive to have that kind of power and it cemented the idea that the medium used to tell the story was irrelevant. What was important was the emotional power. I guess I feel that when a story is told well—regardless of whether it’s conveyed through a book or a movie or a role-playing game, it’s like a memory the audience gets to have without having gone through the actual struggle and hardship of the literal experiences that are being described. That’s amazing to me. That I can put memories into people’s minds of things that have never happened and can’t possibly happen—but those “false memories” can be just as impactful and emotionally potent as if they were real.
Man, once you get a taste of that, you just want to do it all the time. Since it’s generally kind of hard to make a living telling stories, I learned to be pretty opportunistic about it by being agnostic about the medium.
Wow, that’s quite an answer! I can definitely see a similar motivation in myself, now that you point it out. Even the rush I get from programming boils down to essentially the same thing, just with a machine instead of a mind. Can you point to any movies, series, or games that approach the same sort of feel you like your own work to have?
Yeah. I probably made that sound more serious and dramatic than it winds up being in execution, given that I generally lean toward comedy as a delivery mechanism. There’s a great film from 1980 called The Stunt Man starring Steve Railsback and Peter O’Toole in which O’Toole plays a maniacal film director. At one point, he says that the goal in his filmmaking is to get people laughing and then slip in the deeper meaning while they’re distracted. That’s sort of my mission—although I’m sure I’m not as successful at it.
In terms of feel, I’d point to the John Carpenter / Kurt Russell film Big Trouble In Little China as a significant touch point. The tone, feel, humor, and weirdness are perfect, as far as I’m concerned. I was also heavily influenced by Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Mix those with a healthy dose of Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia, then season the whole thing with The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath by H. P. Lovecraft, and you’d have what I’m reaching for.
That does sound rather tasty. Would you say dreaming plays a role in your creative process? Like do you ever get ideas from dreams?
Absolutely. My first idea for a novel came from one of those epic dreams where you could swear you were in another world for years or you at least watched a full length feature film. Although I never finished that book, several elements from it wound up in Fish Wielder.
I will admit that I’ve had more than a few dreams from which I’ve waked thinking, “This is the most amazing story ever! I must write this down before it fades and I lose this literary masterpiece!” But then I start writing it down and it’s really just nonsense because some major plot point is completely ludicrous or one of the main characters is a swashbuckling speck of dust or something. It all worked in the dream, but there’s no way it’s going to fly in the real world.
Haha, yeah, I’ve been there. I tend to use little phrases or images only. But those can be important. So I’ve got to ask: As somebody who makes a habit of writing comedy, what makes you laugh? Is that something you can put into words?
The thing that gets me the most is juxtaposition—either when something absolutely absurd happens in a normal and expected situation, or when characters react in a very normal and down-to-earth way in the face of something completely extraordinary. When the most deadly beast turns out to be a little white bunny or a character carries wet wipes with him through the zombie apocalypse. I love that kind of juxtaposition and it almost always makes me laugh.
Well played, sir. That was a trick question. All right, this brings us to the end of the interview. My last question is what is the best way to support you in your work? What should we read first?
Thank you, Cliff, for interviewing me. I appreciate it. Since my existing books are standalones, it doesn’t really matter what order they’re read in. Fish Wielder is an epically silly epic fantasy and Demon Freaks is a horrifically funny horror thriller—so it’s really up to people’s personal taste. I’ve also got a graphic novel out with Dark Horse Comics, The Helm, which is a super-heroically ridiculous superhero story.
As far as support goes, reading and reviewing are the most awesome ways to support any author you like. And the reviewing part doesn’t have to be official—although that’s always nice. If you read something and you like it, tell someone about it—either on a public forum like an Amazon review, or Goodreads or your own blog, or just consider making a personal recommendation to someone you know.
Fish Wielder, by Jim Hardison (2016)
The book is kind of like The Lord of the Rings, set in Narnia, if it were written by the guys who made Monty Python and the Holy Grail while they were listening to the music of They Might Be Giants.