An Interview with Malcolm Devlin

Portrait courtesy of Malcolm Devlin

Malcolm Devlin is a writer who, according to his website, ‘sometimes writes vaguely strange stories of one sort or another.’ His books include Engines Beneath Us, a brilliantly written tale of a community with a lot to hide, You Will Grow Into Them, a collection of quietly terrifying short stories, and, most recently, Unexpected Places to Fall From, Unexpected Places to Land.

Malcolm Devlin’s And Then I Woke Up will be published in April 2022.

I interviewed Malcolm Devlin via a collaborative Google Document between October 2021 and January 2022.

First off, your new essay ‘Arrivals’ is wonderful. The line about the moment your child ‘is as infinite as the realities he might grow up in’ is a brilliantly science-fictional sentiment. As a writer of fiction, a writer whose trade is conjuring up entertaining simulacra of some subset of those infinite realities, you are acutely aware of possibilities, risks, but also hope and warmth and wonder. Is this what you meant when you told your mum you didn’t think all your stories were miserable, even though she did?

Possibly, yes. I suppose in one way it’s like the question of whether or not people listen to sad songs because it makes them unhappy or because they can be rather beautiful or strangely comforting. When you try and summarise a lot of stories into a single line they can sound awfully hopeless, but I hope there’s more to them than that.

I think your stories are often very funny, and very true to the multivalent nature of not only the physical world, but also the way the world can feel. And something about the tone or voice of your stories is very non-judgemental and something about that, to paraphrase something Brian Evenson said, allows the reader’s own ethics to spill into the vacuum. When you edit your own work, draft to draft, how do you go about homing in on the right tone, or the right voice, or maybe the right degree of ambiguity?

I think characters and stories should have room to be messy and abrasive.

Malcolm Devlin

Generally, I don’t think morality tales are particularly interesting in and of themselves. I don’t want to write a story that simply wags a finger at its reader as I think the only people who would read it are those who would agree with me anyway so it’s a bit pointless. I think characters and stories should have room to be messy and abrasive. The more their principles rub up against each other, the more interesting they can become. I’m not sure if I always get the balance right, to be honest with you, but I think there’s as much interest in contradiction as there is in conflict, if that makes any sense.

I very much like Brian Evenson’s line though. I think readers respond well to stories that treat them as adults, and giving them room to like and dislike who they choose, and then room to change their minds is a generous sort of writing. Philip Pullman said that writing is a dictatorship but reading is a democracy and that’s interesting to keep in mind. Once something is out there, it’s out there. It’s sometimes incredibly strange reading a review of something you’ve done and thinking, ‘is that what I meant? Is that what you saw?’

Do you feel that reading reviews makes you a better writer?

That’s an interesting one. To be absolutely honest, reading detailed critiques of other people’s work might be of more appealing. Primarily because there’s a lot more of it, but also because it allows me to approach it without any baggage. 

I learn a lot from seeing how people read any text, no matter who wrote it. So, I absolutely value good criticism, the longer and more detailed the better, and I think it’s a bit of shame there isn’t more of it about these days. Nina Allan’s blog is an excellent place to start, her own pieces are incisive and interesting and she has many links to other reviewers. 

Having said all that, I am interested in seeing what people get out of things I’ve done. Sometimes it’s very instructive, sometimes it’s very strange.

In Unexpected Places to Fall From, Unexpected Places to Land there is Wallasey Row, Laburnum Road, a lot of hospitals in ‘The Knowledge’, geographical references like the mountains in ‘We Can Walk It Off by the Morning’, and also ‘a succession of tiny communities pinned to the edge of the Cork landscape’ (pinned is great here); there is also a sense of traversing a landscape or space—flying, walking, descending. What do you make of all that, and did you spend much time looking over maps as you were writing these stories?

I was talking with a friend of mine back in the UK last week and he was talking about the walking he’d been doing around where I used to live. He’d found a ‘bog of scientific interest’—his words—and he sent me a photo of a section of map he’d reached. The bog itself wasn’t recorded but there was one of those tantalising gaps between the contour lines and the iconography that spoke volumes. I realised just how much I missed pouring over OS maps—I have a box of them that came with me from the UK to Australia and I think it’s one of the things I really miss about back home, the sense of translating the language of the map as you walk between hedgerows, the symbols clarifying as you step just over a rise.

Sometimes I borrow the names of streets for particular stories but the geography of them is sometimes imagined. I have a reasonably good sense of direction, so being able to imagine how locations line up is fairly straightforward. Wallasey Road and Laburnum Road exist but not in the locations the stories claim (in the case of the latter, the real road isn’t particularly interesting but I’ve always liked the name of it.) For some longer projects, I’ve sketched out a simple map, mostly to keep things consistent but I don’t think they’re the sort of thing I’d include in a text at any point.

‘My Uncle Eff’ and ‘We Can Walk It Off Come The Morning’ are both set in very specific places, but some of the other stories are more abstract and feature places which are an imagined amalgam of actual locations. ‘Walking to Doggerland’ is set somewhere called Bryhanton, which I picture as being either between Hunstanton and Cromer on the Norfolk coast, or replacing one or the other. The novella I wrote for Tor.com, is one of the first things I wrote to completion once I moved to Australia. Its location isn’t entirely specific—because of its subject matter, it didn’t quite fit in the UK as most of my stories seem to, so it’s a bit more generic. But it’s interesting seeing how I nicked street names and locations from where we first ended up staying.

I find it fascinating that you have a box of Ordnance Survey maps of Britain physically with you in Australia. I used to love paper maps because they were easier to draw on, and tracing your finger along routes became a little like playing out a possible journey.

When we moved to Australia, it was an all-in deal so pretty much everything came with us that we didn’t find a reason to ditch. I spent years collecting those maps, a new one with each new place visited; each excuse to get out into the countryside, so I wasn’t going to bin them before moving away. They’re like favourite books I hope to re-read someday.

Does the landscape of Australia, near where you are, speak to you in the same way as the landscapes of those maps?

Not exactly but there are a few reasons for that, I think. We arrived in Australia in the second-half of 2019 and by the time we’d got ourselves on our feet, the pandemic had started. Even though we’ve had it comparatively easy where we are, it still restricted how much we could do and see.

In Southern Queensland, we’re mostly in semi-tropical jungle and rainforest. Every inch of it feels vividly alive; the palette of greens is a little bluer, the browns are a little redder.

Malcolm Devlin

Additionally, the landscape is very different from back home and I still find it faintly overwhelming. In Southern Queensland, we’re mostly in semi-tropical jungle and rainforest. Every inch of it feels vividly alive; the palette of greens is a little bluer, the browns are a little redder. The heat and humidity can be punishing for three months of every year and on those days, I desperately miss the crispness of a European autumn afternoon.

I would never claim for the landscape here to ‘speak’ to me—I don’t think that’s for me to judge. We’re very much new here—alien if you like—and for the present, perhaps indefinitely, this is very much a landscape of other people’s stories.

Is the statue of the gnome with a fishing rod which marks the hidden entrance to Wallasey Row a real detail, or is it entirely made up?

The Pinnerman is based on the sort of weird fibreglass advertising figures you sometimes see in old resort towns. You don’t normally see them so far out of town and I made him up—I wanted a landmark that kids would imagine in their own legends of the holidays they had. When my sister and I were kids, we used to know we were close to my grandmother’s house in Lancashire when we passed ‘The Mushroom’, which was a concrete water tower on the way or ‘The Tree Tunnel’ which is more self-explanatory. There is a related anecdote in ‘Walking to Doggerland’ in which one of the characters tries to liberate a housebound garden gnome, only for it to dissolve when left outside—that one is absolutely a true story and I still feel rotten about it.

I really like how Aleyna in ‘We Can Walk It Off by the Morning’ speaks the word ‘borderlands’ and feels there is ‘something satisfying, something spell-like about the phrase’; and this line:

There was more to history than coordinates marking where something began and where something ended, it was the tangle in-between that resonated.

Malcolm Devlin, ‘We Can Walk It Off by the Morning’

What is it about borderlands, liminal spaces, ‘the tangle in-between’, which you find so alluring?

Somewhere things are no longer fixed, where things start to change, where one status quo slowly bleeds into to another.

Malcolm Devlin

Borders are strange things at the best of times. Imaginary lines on a page that don’t necessarily have a direct analogue in the natural world. The idea of ‘We Can Walk It Off Come The Morning’ was largely to have a couple wittingly and unwittingly cross a whole number of borders. So there are lines between worlds, between nations, class, vaulting physical fences, relationship boundaries and so on. The line of Aleyna’s that you quote is a wee bit of an unsubtle lampshade hanging on the idea. But there is something seductive about the idea of borderlands too. Somewhere things are no longer fixed, where things start to change, where one status quo slowly bleeds into to another. I think a lot of my stories are caught in between places. I wouldn’t go so far as to describe them as liminal, but I suspect they’re a pain in the neck to categorise sometimes.

There’s an interesting tension between looking forwards and looking backwards. It’s absolutely important to learn from the past and to respect and appreciate the context of the present, but nostalgia is a trap. Land is an easy signifier of the past in the way it’s scarred and marked by its history; in the sense of what ‘it’ must have witnessed, but again the temptation to resort to nostalgia can lead down some very ugly avenues when it comes to ideas of what belongs and what doesn’t.

There was a quote from an interview Alan Garner gave a few years ago when he released his memoir that I’ll add in here. A good rule of thumb is that ‘Alan Garner has probably said it better’:

I find nostalgia one of the most poisonous words in the language. It is a complete romantic fabrication. […] the point of getting out of the bed in the morning is to bring about the future.

Alan Garner

Essentially, this line might seem contradictory for those with a surface familiarity with Garner’s work. Many of his books, The Owl Service, Red Shift, Thursbitch, Boneland, set a story in the past against a story in the present, occasionally replaying the same beats in different contexts. He’s a writer who does exceptionally interesting things with history, and I can imagine it might be tempting to assume that his work is nostalgic by default. But, taking The Stone Book Quartet as an example, it’s really fascinating in the way that he insists on demonstrating forward movement at all times. The stonemason’s son doesn’t follow in his father’s footsteps. The blacksmith retires and his forge is closed. The children are shown their ancestor’s markings in the cave, but they all know they’ll grow out of being able to see them when they’re older. All are aware of their history, all are aware of their connections to the landscape they’ve been brought up in, but neither aspect blinkers them. Garner is diligent in his portraits of the past but he’s never sentimental.

(Looking for that quote, I found a blog that actually says what I was planning on saying. Odd that.)

Do you feel that fantastika, particularly sf, has the power to reshape the world or engineer better futures?

It’s a nice idea but I’m a bit wary about making such grand claims. Science fiction has been around for long enough, it’s reasonable to ask why we aren’t living in a better future already.

I’m not sure ‘engineered’ is the right term, but I’m sure science fiction has inspired plenty of individuals and many of them have doubtless done great things. Some form of science fiction likely inspired many founders of Silicon Valley tech companies. Again, some of those innovations are good, but on the other hand we’ve also got Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk using their wealth to play spaceman while the world burns, and Google tracking and monetising your every move.

Elon Musk seems to have skipped over all the ethical and environmental debates in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars books and his takeaway is just ‘Mars would be cool to live on.’

Malcolm Devlin

Meanwhile, Mark Zuckerberg just announced his plans for the next stage of how social interactions on the internet might work—with a brand name taken from Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash. The problem is that Zuckerberg is still refusing to understand—let alone deal with—the seismic ramifications of Facebook’s last round of innovations.

Good science fiction thinks much deeper than the surface level shininess that seems to appeal to characters like that. Elon Musk seems to have skipped over all the ethical and environmental debates in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars books and his takeaway is just ‘Mars would be cool to live on.’ I think we need more than that.

I appreciate I’ve gone off at a bit of a tangent and I haven’t quite answered your question. I think that being inspired is the first step and perhaps science fiction is useful tool for that, but it’s only a beginning and I think that reading wider and deeper is every bit as important.

Others are more optimistic. I’d recommend you take a look at what Usman Malik has to say on the subject.

After I read your answer I discovered that Usman Malik has given a great TED talk related to this, ‘Imagineering a Desi Future’. Where did you first encounter his work?

I met Usman at the Clarion West Writer’s Workshop in 2013. He’s a tremendous writer and hands down, one of the kindest humans I know. His collection, Midnight Doorways, is an exceptional piece of work.

In ‘The Knowledge’, there is a map and allusions to psychogeography. Did you have a map of London which you marked up to get all the places right? Or did you know those places from having walked or driven them yourself?

For ‘The Knowledge’, I bought a copy of the Blue Book—I’ve no idea if it’s official or even if there is an official version of it, but I hunted around and found one available online. The one I found is a spiral bound stack of A4 papers, it’s essentially a list of ‘runs’—approved routes hitting certain landmarks—that officially accredited London taxi drivers memorise to develop The Knowledge, the understanding of routes through the city. Trainee cab drivers go out on mopeds with their list of runs open in front of them, haring through the streets to learn the way. There’s a whole system of tests in place to get certification—it’s a learned skill welded to the location. It’s still a thing, but of course GPS devices are freely available now and Uber and the like have steamrollered in, but there’s something mythic about the ritual of it, which remains fascinating.

‘The Knowledge’ as a story stemmed originally from the daft idea that the rat coachmen in Cinderella would go on to become London taxi drivers, don’t ask me where that came from. The runs that serve as section headings are all taken from The Blue Book.

Aliya Whiteley told me she thought this collection of yours ‘makes some interesting choices […] that really made the whole thing feel very cohesive.’ What choices did you have to make as you sequenced these stories?

Structuring the stories proved quite interesting. In the first instance, ‘Walking to Doggerland’ was presented complete in the middle of the book. It’s a fairly lengthy novella, it occupies nearly half the word count of the whole volume, so it felt a bit monolithic placed as it was, as though it upset the gravity of everything else around it and brought the pace of the book to a halt.

We (Dan Coxon, the editor and I) experimented with splitting various stories up and seeing how they read that way. My one insistence was that we started with the story ‘We Are Now Beginning Our Descent’ and we ended with ‘Talking To Strangers on Planes’. Both are stories set in planes and airports and they both echo each other quite clearly. Everything else was up for grabs for a while though. I started hacking stories into pieces and moving them about the place.

One inspiration there was Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights, which is what she describes as a ‘constellation novel’. An incredibly rich collage of story fragments, thoughts and philosophical musings, in which some stories break off part way through and are picked up further down the line. I’m not making any comparisons in any other way, here of course, that would be absurd, but I’d never really seen something like that before.

Unexpected Places to Fall From, Unexpected Places to Land isn’t a novel, but I think it’s very satisfying to see how it might be viewed as a rather eccentric one. We tried splitting ‘The Purpose of the Dodo’ and using that as a structural device—it’s divided into short pieces as it is, so it felt fairly natural. I also tried splitting ‘Talking To Strangers on Trains’ and spacing those sections out as well, so in one draft all the stories were shuffled together in a really strange way. It was interesting, but I don’t think it added much given the stories are only very lightly connected for the most part. In the end, we settled for only splitting ‘Walking to Doggerland’ into three and more or less using them as pillars throughout the book. I’m happy with how that works, I think it makes the book feel more coherent, and reinforces the idea that characters crop up in more than one place.

You told me in an email that the science in your stories isn’t remotely rigorous, but that you did hunt around for shiny details, like Julian Barbour’s amazing idea of the Janus Point, time flowing in two directions and all that, and I couldnt help but think back to Backwards, the Red Dwarf novel by Grant Naylor, too. I could imagine the scene at the end of ‘The Purpose of the Dodo is to be Extinct playing out on desaturated and low resolution nineties-vintage British video.

Ha! That didn’t occur to me at all, but I wonder if the Red Dwarf episode the novel was based on was in the back of my mind when I was working on Dodo. It’s been a very long time since I’ve seen it!

What nuggets of science have caught your attention, recently?

Right now, we have a six-week-old baby in the house, so most of the real-world science that makes me double-take is strictly biological. My god.

Which writers or stories have had the biggest stylistic influence on you?

Oh, everybody. That sounds flippant. I think what I mean is that I’m probably inspired by everyone I read whether it’s conscious or not. Having said that, I never really want to nick stuff from others, so I try to avoid reading anything that’s too close to what I’m toying with, only to go back later and think, dammit.

There’s something about a particular type of cinema, which ditches dialogue and action for those gorgeous lengthy scenes that are almost entirely sensory. I find that completely riveting.

Malcolm Devlin

So, some things on my bedside table that I’ve read and enjoyed recently and have sunk their hooks in would include The Animals In That Country by Laura Jean McKay, Peaces by Helen Oyeyemi, The Other City by Michal Ajvaz, Light Perpetual by Francis Spufford, From The Neck Up by Aliya Whiteley, Tyll by Daniel Kehlmann, The Art of Space Travel by Nina Allan, The Swimmers by Marian Womack, At Night All Blood is Black by David Diop. I’m also rereading a few classics. Things like Susan Cooper, Alan Garner and Peter Beagle. Also a few John le Carré books, because, why not?

I’d also say I’m influenced by films. For some of the stories in Unexpected Places, I revisited a whole pile of Krzysztof Kieślowski DVDs, in particular The Double Life of Veronique and Blind Chance. There’s something about a particular type of cinema, which ditches dialogue and action for those gorgeous lengthy scenes that are almost entirely sensory. I find that completely riveting.

I watched Three Colours: White again a little while back and Id forgotten how wonderful it looks, and also how bizarrely the tale unfolds.

You mentioned Aliya Whiteleys From the Neck Up earlier, and that is an incredibly sensory collection. Whiteley uses colour in a way I find incredibly interesting, because for me it feels very cinematic, and when I spoke to her she mentioned Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe adaptations. Are you framing and reframing shots in a photographic or cinematic sense when you write?

I’m a graphic designer, so I suspect there’s some degree of visual thinking going on no matter what I do. For some scenes, I might be tempted to imagine them in a cinematic sense. Some scenes might demand a little more Cinemascope, some things might benefit from being hand-held and jittery. I think it’s a pleasant way of thinking about details after the fact, but I don’t know if my stories are particularly cinematic from a visual standpoint. There’s a lot of people talking over each other and being morose in kitchens.

But it’s an interesting thought experiment, applying one type of medium to another. From a practical standpoint, you can see how visual thinking might be useful when you want to avoid ambiguity. There’s a nearly invisible sort of storytelling that can come with careful blocking of scenes on the screen or the stage.

Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining or Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Cure are instructive in the way they manipulate the expectations of cinema grammar. Kubrick uses his Steadicam to tour hotel sets that don’t make physical sense and starts screwing with editing conventions to disorientate the viewer; Kurosawa misdirects attention, so when something unsettling happens you’re looking in the wrong place and you’re never quite sure if you witnessed it correctly. I love that sort of thing.

A still from the BBC pseudo-documentary Ghostwatch (1992).

There’s a scene in Stephen Volk’s Ghostwatch where the viewers are shown a clip with something creepy lurking in the corner that they might miss. When they’re shown the scene a second time, the creepy figure is missing, leading them to doubt themselves. It’s a very theatrical piece of sleight of hand where the special effects take place in the viewers head and it’s very effective. 

I used to help build stage sets for a local theatre company and the way playwrights and theatre directors juggle physical space and time is really fascinating to me. 

I remember seeing the National Theatre’s production of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials years ago and it contained a brilliant bit of narrative stagecraft. Throughout the play, Lyra’s daemon is represented by a puppet, which is controlled and voiced by a puppeteer, dressed in black from head to toe, his face hidden in a balaclava. It takes moments before he becomes more or less invisible to audience. The puppet takes over, alive in that weird way realistic special effects can never quite measure up to—a meeting point between what’s shown and what the audience agrees to believe. 

At the end of the play, Lyra must find her ‘death’, and she’s told that it’s accompanied her for her entire life. You could tell from the collective intake of breath that the audience could tell what was going to happen a moment before it did. The puppeteer who’d been there all along took off his mask and introduced himself. For the first time, this figure who’d been there all along was “seen”.

It was such a brilliantly conceived moment, and it was uniquely theatrical. It was something that couldn’t work on the page or on the screen where everything is theoretically possible—the limitations of the staging had created something entirely new and there was genuine magic in the moment.

Which short story writers excite you the most today?

Some names we’ve already mentioned: Aliya Whiteley, Nina Allan, Brian Evenson, certainly. Also, Kelly Link, Helen Marshall, Sarah Hall, Usman Malik, Kelly Sandoval, Nathan Ballingrud, Hellena Bell, E. Lily Yu, Camilla Grudova, Ted Chiang, Robert Shearman. I also very much enjoyed Fabio Fernandes’ recent collection from Luna Press.

A tweet of yours: ‘Listening to the new Arab Strap album and pretty sure ‘Sleeper’ is one of the best ghost stories I’ve heard in ages.’

And part of another: ‘My first reaction to a lot of books, songs and films these days, is to justify why I find myself reading them as ghost stories despite all evidence otherwise.’

Which particular not-ghost ghosts have manifested themselves for you recently?

Yes! I suspect it’s a sort of face pareidolia. I look at something and think, yeah, probably a ghost story. I think it’s mostly my insistence that ghost stories have a broader definition than what’s sometimes expected. Recent things I’ve seen which I secretly believe are ghost stories in disguise include the films Nomadland, Atlantis and Red Moon Tide; and the books Rachel Cusk’s Second Place and Russel Hoban’s Turtle Diary. None of which are really ghost stories at all, but each of which shares an unambiguous haunted quality. There’s something bittersweet and autumnal about each of them. Things not said, connections not made, people drifting apart. Sometimes ghosts aren’t the only things that go unseen.

Arab Strap’s ‘Sleeper’ on the other hand feels much more traditional and less ambiguous. The obsequious clubcar barman fuelling addictions through the night even feels like Delbert Grady from The Shining is making a cameo. It’s wonderful stuff. Some of Aiden Moffat’s work reminds me a bit of Joel Lane’s short stories, so perhaps that’s why I find them easiest to think of in the same categories. Stick it on a playlist with Tom Waits’ What’s He Building In There and Laura Marling’s Night Terrors.

If a reader of Unexpected Places to Fall From, Unexpected Places to Land and Aliya Whiteley’s From the Neck Up came to you and asked you to recommend a short story collection on a similar wavelength to those, which collections would pop into your head?

Well, aside from exploring the writers I listed above, I would tell them to go and read everything else Aliya has written. Handily, her books are quite short, so they can pretend they’re reading a multi-volume collection of longer stories.

Finally, you have a new novella coming out and Samuel Araya’s cover is this amazing depiction of a man screaming in a room. Which landscapes do you take the reader to in this book, and where did you find yourself taken as a writer as you wrote it?

And Then I Woke Up is set in an intentionally generic, unnamed city that might be in the US, but might feasibly be in Australia. It’s an anonymous sprawl of a place, cut through with concrete highways, strip malls and flyovers; big enough that when it appears empty, it appears desolate.

As I said earlier, I borrowed some of the street names and geography from Brisbane, but that was mostly for expediency’s sake and I don’t see the story as being set here precisely. Most thematically, Brisbane is a city split in two by a long, wide, meandering river—one that turns back on itself so frequently it’s sometimes very difficult to tell which side of the river you’re actually on. That’s appropriate for the novella, which is largely concerned with the divisive nature of how things are perceived—most of the characters are on one side or another but they’re not all sure how they got there. The narrator doesn’t name the city he’s in, partly because he’s very conscious that his understanding of reality is precarious. He’s not entirely unreliable, but he’s self-aware enough to distrust anything he can’t verify, so he tends to hedge his bets.

Importantly, I didn’t think the novella would have worked if I’d tried setting it in the UK where I normally set my stories—or at least it would have been very different. A major influence was the classic zombie movie, and George Romero’s adaptation of the zombie as a cinematic monster is very much an American mythology, partly because it strikes me as being coupled to a very specific gun culture. A lot of zombie stories are survivalist fantasies and I wanted to pick at that. This, of course, makes it sound more likely to be set in the US rather than Australia, but I rather like the uncertainty here as—to add further confusion about which side of the river we’re on—it’s not strictly a zombie story either.

In terms of my mindset, I wrote the novella in 2019 and sold it right at the beginning of 2020. It’s been instructive going through the editorial stages over the past couple of years, mostly given how strange everything has become. I honestly wasn’t sure if the idea of the story would still be relevant by the time it was published and that feels a bit naive with hindsight. More personally, there’s one scene in particular which hits somewhat harder than it did when I wrote it, because we’ve had a kid of our own since I wrote it and… yes… that was a bit eye-opening. Turns out I’m more squeamish than I used to be!

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