The OF Blog: An Interview with Michael Moorcock

Friday, May 05, 2006

An Interview with Michael Moorcock

Below you can read an interview I did with one of the greatest fantasy writers today. I hope you will enjoy reading it, and if not yet, read Michael Moorcock's books.

Q: You first became an editor at the age of 16 with Tarzan Adventures and recently with the online Fantastic Metropolis. How would you compare your experiences doing that and what influence, if any, did your editorial work have on your approach toward writing?

A: Not a lot of difference, really. Generally speaking, my editing work has involved some kind of enthusiasm. I got the Tarzan job because people there liked what I did in my fanzine Burroughsiana. I got my next job, on Sexton Blake, because the editor liked what I'd said in another fanzine (Book Collectors News). I learned a lot at every job and I was involved with making changes on Tarzan, Sexton Blake and New Worlds. I was able to promote a kind of fiction I liked through all these jobs and that's what I was able to do on Fantastic Metropolis, promoting authors like Zoran Zivkovic, Alan Wall and Steve Ayelet. I think my approach to writing had something to do with my editorial work. Editing, at least the way I did it, is a bit like being a teacher, a bit like being a therapist, a bit like being a theatrical promotor. As with my reviewing, I only involve myself with people I feel enthusiastic about. They are not necessarily writers who write like me -- in fact I tend to admire writers who can do things I can't do. And they're a pretty varied lot, though they do tend to share a visionary aspect.
About my only editing jobs which didn't involve much enthusiasm were editing for the Liberal Party policy magazing Current Topics and Golden Nugget, a 'men's' magazine, both in the 60s.

Q: Jeff VanderMeer and R. Scott Bakker recently had articles on the relationship between politics and fantasy published in Cheryl Morgan's Emerald City. What are your thoughts about the relationship between our political (or perhaps social will work just as fine here) world and the telling of a fantasy or SF story? Can one ever remain apolitical in writing, or does 'politics' involve something intrinsic to human life and understanding?

A: It depends on the nature of the story. None of the Jerry Cornelius stories are apolitical, of course. I've written some intensely political fiction, including my non-fantasy novel King of the City. The Pyat books are political, though ironic. Some forms are better for dealing with politics than others. Classic sf can do it very well, of course. But classic sf tends to generalise, which is why I came up with Jerry Cornelius, who could deal with specifics, including contemporary political figures. I found that generic fantasy is the same, you can at best generalise about politics (in the Hawkmoon stories I did some satire, reflecting the politics of the day and in the current Elric stories I do my best to make them as relevant to modern times as possible) but ultimately the medium is the message and you can't do that much with genre. You have to create your own forms to suit your own attitudes. I've worked for political parties and have been closely involved with politics most of my life. I still write some political journalism. Genre, sadly, will always involve a fair amount of generalisation.

Q: Your work has, at various times, been labeled as "New Wave" or "New Weird." What are your thoughts about these labels and how would you sum up in a concise fashion what you write for those people who are unfamiliar with your work?

A: I've always loathed labels. When we were doing New Worlds I studiously refused to let anyone call us a movement, though many tried. All that is literary politics, which I've never wanted to play (though some politics is always involved in promoting new writers). I was amazed when Mike Harrison, who had always shared my dislike of labels, suddenly started promoting the 'New Weird' label. It's not like him to play politics. But I suppose we can all get stuck for a definition sometimes. They can help us move forward but the problem is that definitions/labels then have to be defended and debated. I saw enough crap when people were discussing what was and what wasn't sf to prefer not to label what I do or, indeed, label what I believe. My own politics is a mix. I'm a person of the left who writes mostly, at the moment, for right-wing journals and newspapers like The Spectator and The Telegraph. I'm an anarcho-syndicalist who believes in keeping the British House of Lords (unelected upper house) unreformed. What label exists for that mix? Movements always go backwards and forwards, even when they are pretending just to go forwards. 'New' ? 'Old' ?
What are you doing when you're creating a new form on one hand and going back to a pre-modern form, as it were, on the other? Labels simply add to the confusion.

Q: Do you hold to the adage that if one wants to understand a society, she or he ought to look at the literature being produced by that society? And if you do believe this, what do you think would be revealed to a hypothetical future reader reading through 20th century works from the US and the UK respectively?

A: I am inclined to agree with that. Indeed, I moved to Texas because I didn't want to live in a familiar environment. There's not much difference between NE USA and Britain or France. Texas, as they say, is a different country. The literature produced in Texas certainly helps me understand her better. We used to write in NW fiction which we assumed demonstrated our culture to the future. We also tried to write fiction which demonstrated the future we were trying to describe. My fiction will reveal to the future reader probably much that I am unconscious of, which is why I'm inclined to trust instinct rather than any tendency to rational speculation. I dumped rationalisations from much of the fiction I wrote and published precisely because I knew those rationalisations were the least revealing aspect of visionary work. I don't know -- what does Blake reveal to us, other than that he was the greatest visionary of his time. We can argue with his rationalisations, such as they were, but we can't 'argue' with his vision. Does that make sense?

Q: You moved to Texas in the 1990s. What, if anything, about American/Southern society did you learn while living there that you did not know before? What were your general and specific impressions of the people there? Is 'the future' (socially, politically) on display in the US, or is it to be found elsewhere now?

A: I think I had to learn about the roots of American politics by moving to Texas, which was what I'd hoped to do. I know I understand more about the nature of both right and left libertarianism than I did, how the Constitution creates more fundamentalists than the Bible (thank God). I've learned not to judge people as 'backward' because they live according to the Old Testament, as most Europeans do. I understand more about the nature of American radicalism and its rejection of European radicalism (increasingly, these days). I think American radicalism was held back by its adoption of European models. I'm not sure 'the future' isn't anywhere you decide to look. I once thought I'd found it in Los Angeles. At another time I found it in London. Currently, I think I've found it in Paris. 'The future' is as complex and as varied as he present, in other words. We find metaphores which do the best job possible. A good image, in other words, is worth any amount of speculation. People find my 60s fiction 'relevant' to the present, just as we find much of Dick's fiction relevant to our present. Again, Dick was far more accurate about the future than most of the writers telling us how the future would be in Analog, say. Indeed, all the Galaxy writers (if you can make a group of people like Bester and Pohl who didn't usually publish with Campbell) who concentrated more on modern social issues seem to have been a lot more accurate about our present. Is that a fair answer? I was romantic about Texas and I suppose part of its attraction was that I saw a certain aspect of the future -- a multicultural future -- here, when I stood behind a bunch of kids at Astroworld and heard them talking in a mixture of black, Spanish and regular American. It was that language which brought me here and which I sought to reproduce in a form and a music of my own in Blood, Michael Moorcock's Multiverse (DC comic) and The War Amongst the Angels. Musical subtleties...

Q: To what degree would you say risk goes with being a writer, both in the professional and personal sense?

A: You have to take all the risks you can, both with your lifestyle and with your work, to be the best writer you can be. Writers can easily rationalise their need for security and build themselves a coffin. If you get too secure, it's time to move on.
Sometimes life does it for you. Sometimes you have to take a conscious risk. I try to take risks in my life and work. They usually improve the work if not my finances.

Q: In recent years, there have been many stories, both in print magazines and on online journals, extolling the 'resurgence' of fantasy. What do you think accounts for this belief and is it necessarily a 'good' or 'bad' thing?

A: You'll probably have guessed my answer to this one by now. It's both good and bad. And it isn't either. It's the zeitgeist, innit? People used to find their romance (many still do) in historical fiction. Increasingly, they've found it in fantasy. Scott wrote fantasy which pretended to be about a past reality. It's good escapism. Tolkien wrote fantasy which was frankly invented. It might say something for our development that we are prepared to accept frank invention over pretended authenticity. It's all part of what we sometimes call the post-modernist sensibility.
A knowingness which also gives us metafiction and its associated forms.
A resurgence? Maybe. What did we have instead of 'fantasy' in, say, the 15th century? And how wholly did we believe in, say, the Gods of Olympus when their stories were the latest being told? I must say the insistence of religious fundamentalists in modern times suggests that people are having to try harder than ever before to believe in the supernatural. Whether escapist fantasy is 'good' or 'bad' depends on the main uses to which it's being put by the individual. Another thing we were fond of saying at NW was 'context defines'...

Q: Do you think that fantasy books must deal with some theme to truly be great? Should there be themes at all, and if so, what themes would you say you tried to convey with his works?

A: Ultimately it's the author's talent which defines greatness. What would be trivial in some hands can be great in others. Frequently the author has no clear idea of their own talents. Great themes can become trivial in the wrong hands. Triviality can become great in the hands, say, of a Proust.

Q: An oft-overlooked dimension about fantasy is the addressing of gender issues. To what degree would you say fantasy works reflect prevailing social attitudes about gender? Also, is there any truth, in your opinion, to the notion that while female authors can write convincing male characters, male authors have a much more difficult time in writing a convincing female character?

A: Well, of course, as a supporter of feminism and a convinced 'Dworkinista', I'd like to see more work dealing with gender issues. Again, it depends on the talent of the individual author. Flaubert wasn't too bad at writing a convincing female characters. It depends on the form, too. Leigh Brackett, working in a genre she loved, tended to produce strong males and stereotypical strong females, rather the same as the male writers she was most influenced by. I would reckon if we read mostly Jane Austen, we'll be inclined to write good female characters. If we read mostly Robert E. Howard, we would be good at writing adolescent male characters. Temperament must surely have a great deal to do with it. My favourite writers when I was a small child were Louisa May Alcott and Edgar Rice Burroughs. Another favourite was Richmal Crompton, a woman, who wrote about a 'bad' small boy called William, with whom I identified. These days, although I'm currently reading a lot of Balzac, as well as Dumas and Scott, I always 'default' to Elizabeth Bowen, though I've never knowlingly read any of her supernatural fiction. It's her social fiction which I love. I'm as convinced by her men as I am by Angus Wilson's women.

Q: What are some of the projects that you have on tap?

A: I seem to be writing a comedy provisionally called The Sedentary Jew, about a man who's cursed to remain in the same city for eternity (London, of course). I'm doing text for a bunch of Mervyn Peake drawings previously unpublished, a mixture of little stories and nonsense verse, which will first be published in French in Paris. I'm writing a memoir of the Peakes, whom I knew from a boy. I'm doing a bunch of miscellaneous novellas and short stories.

Q: Is it likely that we will see you working with some other authors? If it is, who with?

A: The only collaborations I have in mind at the moment are with artists (such as Walter Simonson on the Elric graphic novel). I collaborated with Storm
Constantine on Silverheart and she's doing a new one Dragonskin, which is mostly her. The title's mine... No other collaborations, except with artists, on the books.

Q: Who are some of the writers that you are reading today?

A: Alan Wall. Iain Sinclair. Steve Beard. Apart from some of those already mentioned.
I'm reading Proust for the second time. Reading off and on Balzac's A Harlot High and Low, which I'm not enjoying much, though I love Balzac. I just finished a Simenon Maigret novel. Much enjoyed Walter Mosley's sf novel The Wave and today bought his new 'straight' novel Fortunate Son, which I haven't started yet. Reading Adam Gopnik's autobiographical Paris to the Moon. Steve Beard's Meat Puppet Cabaret (his best so far). Bought Hugo's Notre-Dame de Paris today.

Q: What do you believe are the major influences for this thing we call 'Fantasy' today?

A: Well, Monkeybrain recently reprinted my revised book on the subject, Wizardry and Wild Romance. I take it back to Amadis of Gaul, I suppose. Walter Scott.
The Gothic writers. Frank Baum. Edgar Rice Burroughs. Lord Dunsany. Cabell. Weird Tales writers. I've argued that Tolkien borrowed American models as much as English (or 'Nordic') which could explain the popularity of that sequence in the USA. In an interview he did in NW, he was worrying about whether or not he should join the SFWA... I don't like the way we these days separate 'literary' (British) imaginative fiction from 'pulp' (American) imaginative fiction.
There are as many examples of both in both literatures. Tolkien, of course, has had a huge influence on modern generic fantasy, though not much on me. I liked Poul Anderson's Broken Sword a lot more. These days, we're talking about probably the most successful single genre in the bookstores. Must be huge variety of influences on those.

Q: If you were to own several monkeys and/or midgets, how many would you own, and what would you name them?

A: Well, it's not legal to own midgets, so it would have to be monkeys. And they're hard to housetrain. I guess it would be one monkey, as long as he didn't annoy my cats, and I guess I'd have to call him Mikey...

Thank you again for this interview you did for We all wish you success with your work.

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