If Not Now, Then When: A Conversation with Duncan Wallace
By Annie Agathopoulou
With additional reporting by Katharine Yacovone and Lois Payne
When Duncan Wallace appears on the other side of the screen on a day in early July, his greeting arrives from the near future. For the curious, no, Duncan has not been engaged in the subtle art of time travelling, a la Doctor Who. The reason why we are fast-forwarding to the future, while he is fast-forwarding to the past, is much more earthly than that: we are in the United Kingdom, he is in Australia and, admittedly, 9 hours allow for altogether too many events to occur.
Having succumbed to both the convenience as well as the difficulties posed by virtual meetings, our distance soon becomes even greater the more his image becomes distorted, pixelated, and ultimately altogether frozen. The reason for that WiFi-induced inconsistency, Duncan explains, is Australia’s vastness, further proof that long-distance connections can rarely exist unhindered. Still, as we have witnessed in Duncan’s latest literary work — a letter that fictionalises a post-lockdown moment of observation set in a Cambridge pub, between himself and another patron that has just been published with The Letters Page journal- human connections can exist despite, and sometimes because of those difficulties. And sometimes it takes very little indeed, for these connections to take root.
‘I think I’ve always been interested in the small details,’ Duncan confesses, ‘in the very very small things just because they are possible holders of meaning- of storytelling- that you wouldn’t expect normally.’ A hat, a suit, a stranger raising a pint of beer in a manner that is uniquely individualistic, anything can become a link between two people, more so after a year spent isolated from such simple, everyday moments.
It was precisely this Covid-19 induced isolation, as Duncan characteristically says, that not only sharpened his penchant of bearing close witness to the fleeting moments of other people’s lives, but also ultimately propelled him into his very own literary journey, one that was years in the making.
‘Writing is a pretty new thing for me, I would say,’ Duncan divulges. ‘I mean, I have wanted to do it for a few years, but the last year or so has given me all this time and all this idleness and made me think if I want to give this a shot. If not now, then when.’
Even though his writing could potentially be ‘an isolated event, part of a peculiar episode,’ as he candidly phrases it, the urge for intimacy and close communication was already there, only to rupture once the pandemic restrictions were lifted and life had resumed in a more comfortable, albeit careful and subdued, rhythm. Casting his attention to his surroundings and allowing his eyes to roam unbothered, this relaxing and thrilling exercise on reflection soon became the literary nutrient that fuelled the work Duncan later shared with the world.
‘This piece is entirely driven by observation, and even the feeling of observation, of being drawn to someone in a hopefully not too stalkery way, of noticing someone and being captivated by them.’ Indeed, in his latest work, we not only observe the observee, but we also experience the observer’s needs and wants that have infused his interpretation of the stranger’s actions.
When asked if this particular self-exposure was intentional, or if it was an accidental by-product of having immersed himself both in the moment as well as in the writing, Duncan speculates that it might have been a little bit of both, an attempt to expose his thoughts to the audience and of trying to capture what he was feeling at the time. ‘I think there is more of me than there was of this particular man,’ he goes on to say. ‘It was the story that I was looking for at that particular time. Whether that makes the piece less truthful or more distorted, that is for the reader to decide.’
More than that, however, Duncan’s work isn’t merely suspended within this inherently human need to share fragments of our lives with others. Rather, through his words, Duncan attempts to offer his audience a different kind of sustenance, a firmer closeness, a kinder understanding. ‘One function that story-telling can have is to be a form of nutrition when things are challenging, and it’s okay to have stories that sort of do that as their main purpose,’ he admits. ‘That might mean it limits what they can tell you or you have to overlook the background, but it’s okay.”
This liberating act of approaching his audience in a more direct way is the reason behind Duncan’s choice of format, returning to a correspondence-based fiction, in the form of a letter.
‘Letters are almost like an uninhibited form of writing,’ Duncan adds, ‘as if the writer is ‘closer to their self. I guess there is an intimacy about the form that can make the stories you want to tell easier to write and also probably more digestible. If you feel like the story is being written for you or you’re intruding as a reader that was meant for a person, you can feel more special, or make you more curious about the writing. The format of the letter gave the reader a similar experience to what I had, with observing this person. I was almost in the position of a reader, before I even started to write about it: looking at someone and interpreting what things mean, and projecting my own interpretations, and feeling as if I was reading some private message.’
In the world of literature, fictionalised chance encounters might be a common nutrient for stories, and protagonists made from everyday people might not be such an unexpected condition, after all. Still, even having walked down that pre-paved literary path, there is something uniquely, unexpectedly fresh in Duncan’s letter: the reminder that the magic of fiction can come out of the ordinary, out of the mundane and the perfectly imperfect humane, that fairy tales are not as far out of our reach as we might have thought, and that maybe, just maybe, we are all part of a story, if only we remember to open our eyes, and look.
Duncan Wallace is a PhD student at Cambridge, where he researches the history of British immigration control. He was born in Edinburgh and grew up in Melbourne. He has lived in several cities in Australia and the UK and worked for a short time as a lawyer. His recent publication in The Letters Page, ‘Our best wishes to you in the months ahead,’ can be found in our archive. Subscribe to our newsletter to receive The Letters Page publications right to your inbox.
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