Real versus fake and The Monkees win hands down.

I heard a song yesterday that brought a lump to my throat. I was driving along in my car when Daydream Believer came on the radio. It was the first time I had heard Davy Jones’s voice since he passed away. I remember watching The Monkees on TV when I was a kid and he song brought back a wash or memories. But most of all what struck me was how innocent and niave and optimistic it is. Nobody was trying to make a masterpiece, all they wanted was to make a hit single – great tune, fantastic hook for the chorus and simple lyrics evoking  young love. And they nailed it.

But I guess my sadness, apart from the loss of Davy Jones, was for a greater loss, the loss of the innocence and naivety in society in general that was necessary to bring this song about, or at least to allow it even exist. I listen to the incessant beats of what passes for pop music – only for the time that it takes me to safely switch station (it’s always in the car) – and wonder how big business and reality television such as The X Factor and American Idol have been allowed to take music away from you and me. We used to own it.

I played in a band once. The music we payed could have made it onto the radio – if we were any good – because we were playing songs – songs we liked, songs by other bands we liked, songs we wrote that we hoped people would like – but we didn’t need to audition for anyone or get on a TV show or be Christmas Number One just because we won a TV show. We just needed to play, for our own reasons, because of the music. I guess bands are still doing that but do they even imagine hit singles? They’re a thing of the past now. Nobody cares. Nobody sits with their radio, sitting excitedly through the top forty  waiting for this week’s number one to be announced. That buzz has been stolen from us. That innocence. Everyone’s too knowing, too cynical. And I’m saying that as someone who has spent thirteen weeks on the Top Ten Cynics List.

Maybe The Monkees – a pop group invented for the TV age –  were where the rot began. So how sad am I getting nostalgic over the fake band that tried to be real? I guess it just goes to show how far we have fallen. At least the Monkees were an honest fake.

Simon Cowell, give me back my music you ***tard.

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What else could one call a Simon Morden interview – Rocket Scientist.

Dr. Simon Morden, B.Sc. (Hons., Sheffield) Ph.D (Newcastle) is a bona fide rocket scientist, having degrees in geology and planetary geophysics. Unfortunately, that sort of thing doesn’t exactly prepare a person for the big wide world of work: he’s been a school caretaker, admin assistant, and PA to a financial advisor. He’s now employed as a part-time teaching assistant at a Gateshead primary school, which he combines with his duties as a house-husband, attempting to keep a crumbling pile of Edwardian masonry upright, wrangling his two children and providing warm places to sleep for the family cats.

His not-so-secret identity as journeyman writer started when he sold the short story Bell, Book and Candle to an anthology, and a chaotic mix of science fiction, fantasy and horror followed. Heart came out to critical acclaim, and Another War was shortlisted for a World Fantasy Award, but with The Lost Art, things suddenly got serious. Contracts. Agents. Deadlines. Responsibility. Scary stuff. The Lost Art was subsequently a finalist for the Catalyst Award for best teen fiction.

As well as a writer, he’s been the editor of the British Science Fiction Association’s writers’ magazine Focus, a judge for the Arthur C Clarke awards, and is a regular speaker at the Greenbelt Arts Festival on matters of faith and fiction. In 2009, he was in the winning team for the Rolls Royce Science Prize.

Tell me one little known fact about Simon Morden.

(Everybody knows about the Mars thing now, so something different). Twenty years ago, I was cycling home from work: beautiful sunny day, early summer, perfectly bright. I was up to somewhere between 25-30mph, turning the biggest gear I had, when a car coming the opposite direction decided to turn in front of me down a side road. I realised very quickly that I couldn’t avoid a collision – one of those moments when time becomes stretched and you get to experience everything in super-slo-mo – and started to haul my back wheel around, believing that it was going to be better to take the impact side on rather than head on. It sort of worked. My right-hand side smacked against the car’s left, and instead of going over the top, I bounced away down the road. The car screeched to a halt, I’m lying on the hot tarmac, and in a scene straight out of film-maker’s 101, my back wheel is still clicking round, slowing, slowing, stopped. The front wheel is bent in half. And I look at me, thinking “This is going to hurt.”

Now, I’m a big bloke. I was young, fit and my fighting weight was about 100kg. What I didn’t realise then was that I’d broken the car. If you do the maths, I managed to impart at least a couple of metric tonnes of force to the side pillar. I shattered the windscreen. And while I didn’t walk away from this – more hauled into the back of an ambulance by some very burly paramedics – I hadn’t actually broken anything of mine. I’d managed to cut my hands on my brake levers and taken my knee down to the dermis. Oh, and ‘severe bruising’ which meant I couldn’t move for a week. But I was back at work in two weeks, and seemingly none the worse for the event.

Fast forward two decades, and my right hip is starting to fall apart. Them’s the breaks…

Everyone except me knows about the Mars thing. Tell me about it.

The Mars thing.

There I was, newly-minted PhD certificate on the lab wall, perusing the NASA Bumper Book of Meteorites for some likely samples to use in my experiments. As you know, Bob, NASA run a yearly expedition to Antarctica to collect meteorites: it’s brilliant in its simplicity.

Ice flows, from where it collects on land, towards the sea. Sometimes, the flows come up against subsurface mountain ranges and get pushed upwards, slowing their advance, or halting them altogether – because the weather is so severe, the accumulation of new ice is more than outstripped by the ablation of the surface by the wind. So what you get is an old, deflationary surface. Normally, crap just accumulates on land, and buries what falls on it – not so here. There is ice, which is being eroded away, and whatever falls/has fallen on that ice. And because the only thing that could possibly have fallen on the ice is a meteorite (black), you can just go round picking these things off the ice (white). Let’s not talk about the extra ten thousand calories a day the expedition members have to consume just to stay alive, and think instead, “that’s actually quite cool”.

So – in common with publicly-funded institutions and some private collections – NASA produce an updated list every year of their samples, which researchers can borrow (in the loosest sense of the word – some testing is destructive). I’m going through the catalogue looking at eucrites – that’s a class of differentiated stony meteorites – and working out which rocks the curators have got enough of to spare me a few grams. Because some years, they get a lot of samples back, not all of them have been properly classified: the description in the catalogue is just a bit vague, but that’s fine, and someone will nail it down later. Which is pretty much how science is supposed to work. I fill out my list, and a couple of weeks later, a padded bag covered in rather exciting stamps and stickers turns up. I record the weights and appearances of each sample, check them against the inventory, and get to work.

My research involved testing the remanent magnetic field of meteorites, to better understand the environment in which they’d formed. Practically, it involved breaking off little bits and progressively demagnetising the fragments in either an alternating electric field or by heating. The heating experiments are much more difficult to do right, but they yield all sorts of interesting information, including which minerals hold the magnetism. These being meteorites, I was looking at alloys of iron and nickel, and contamination was relatively easy to spot – iron oxide (that’s plain old rust) has a very different magnetic signature to native iron. One of my samples seemed to consist only of this rusty iron, and was therefore precisely useless for my research. All the metal inside had oxidised, and the information I was looking for had been lost.

Except, of course, that this meteorite had been misclassified in the catalogue. Rather than being a ten-a-penny eucrite (they’re still 4.6 by old, formed at the very start of the Solar System, and by far the oldest thing anyone will ever touch) that had been contaminated by the Earth’s high-oxygen, high-water atmosphere, it had formed on Mars. It had been blasted from the surface by a massive meteorite impact, achieved escape velocity, and through the clockwork of celestial mechanics, fallen to Earth in Antarctica. I had a piece of Mars on my desk and I completely missed the significance of the results my experiments had given me. Several months later, someone else in a different lab on a different continent did another set of experiments involving the oxygen isotope ratio, and swiftly reclassified the find as a Martian meteorite. Which is also pretty much how science is supposed to work.

Are you still involved int his area of science or have you ditched the day job?

The day job ditched me, I’m afraid. It was a casualty of a perfect storm of government cuts in the early 1990s – so that not even top graded research projects were being funded, my supervisor retiring, and being far too junior to get a research or lecturing post on my own cognisance. The field of research I was involved in was so fantastically specialised that me and my supervisor were the only people in Western Europe doing what we did. There was another group just setting up in Finland, and another in Japan, and that was about it. But meteorite science as a whole was a small field: our world conference attracted around 400 delegates, most of whom already knew each other really very well. I did try quite hard to hang on, but in the end, it just wasn’t happening, and I had to go out and get a different job. Making ends meet – I was newly married – was proving tricky.

I am – obviously – still fascinated by science stuff. My current part-time job is teaching Design Technology to ten and eleven year-olds at the local primary school. We haven’t exactly thrown the curriculum out of the window, more turned it up to eleven. It is, in essence, a basic engineering course, almost entirely practically based. We make things and then either race them or blow them up. And sometimes both at the same time. A couple of years ago, a bunch of us – two from the school, and three from outside – entered the Rolls Royce Science Prize with our home-brew wind tunnel, with me in charge of instrumentation. I don’t think I’d designed a circuit since A-level, but I managed to cobble together enough bits and pieces so that the sensors in the tunnel would talk to the computer outside, and simple enough that the children could confidently use it for experiments. We won, which was nice (Primary school science doesn’t have a fantastic reputation, so beating a bunch of Secondary schools and FE colleges was good, too), and we’re investing the prize money in a massive greenhouse/outdoor classroom for doing proper horticulture and plant biology in, as well as having off-grid power and water systems, worm farms and composting. I’m going to try my hand at some hydroponics and try and pretend we’re on some vast generation ship…

How does your work backgound, current and past, impact on what you write?

In a couple of ways, I think, though they aren’t exclusively the domain of a scientific bent. First and foremost is naturally the need – sometimes the overwhelming need – to get things right. And when I say right, I mean, can I convince the reader that I know what I’m talking about. So I do lots of research. Lots and lots and lots. The London Metrozone, for example, is a real place. The streets are all there, the Underground stations, the railway lines and cuttings and flyovers and underpasses. Even the timings to get from one place to another are as accurate as I can make it. Yes, I piled old shipping containers on parkland in order to give the refugees somewhere to live, but this sort of containerised living isn’t something I’ve dreamed up on my own: it’s a real solution to a present problem. I want to nail everything down: the effectiveness of body armour, the behaviour of shaped charges, the extent of computer control and automation in cars, the possibility of ‘hat nav’, Catholic religious orders… partly because I’m obsessive, but mainly because I think it makes for a better story. If there’s something I don’t know, then I’ll go away and find out enough to bluff it. I don’t want my scenery to wobble when you push it.

The second and related point is that I want my plots – no matter how outrageous (and the Metrozone plot moves from slightly off-centre to What Fresh Hell Is This? at remarkable speed) – to be on rails. Causality, the effect of one thing on another in a not-necessarily predictable but after-the-event inevitable sort of way, needs to be continually nipping at my characters’ heels. Can you imagine a story which starts off with the push of a domino and ends with civilisation collapsing? I can. The chain of events doesn’t even need to be shown: they can diverge elliptically and snowball off-screen, only to bend back and bite someone’s arse later on.

It probably gives you the impression that my wall is covered with little post-it notes and lots of pieces of string, trying to plan everything out beforehand so I don’t forget about the veritable arsenal of Chekhov’s guns I showed you in chapter 1. It’s not like that at all. I’m one of those writers who makes it up as they go along. I have to keep all this stuff in my head. Why yes, I am slightly mad.

Typically, how long do you have to keep it in your head, given that level of thoroughness? (How long does it take you to write a novel?)

I’m not making any claims to super-human feats of memory – I don’t think of something until I’m just about to write, and once I’ve written it I can (and do) stupidly forget stuff on occasions that has to be cleaned up in the editing process. But when I write, I feel like I’m watching the action unfold. All I have to do is describe it. I don’t know how that works – presumably my subconscious mind has it somewhere and just spools it out. This is sounding madder by the minute, but that’s genuinely how it feels. My characters aren’t under my direction, the plot continually surprises me, and while I can consciously guess at what happens next, it doesn’t always turn out that way. I have to assume I’m not channelling the story from somewhere external, that I am actually putting the work in somewhere along the line – and I do get ‘blocked’ sometimes where I can’t visualise the scene properly, so it’s far from being straightforward.

What I’m trying to say in a roundabout sort of way is that I seem to have a very vivid imagination that’s been fed with thousands of stories since my teens. I get to blend all those elements up inside and out comes this flood of … whatever. But I can see it, and I can write it down. Depending on the length of the story, it takes from six months (which is really very quick, and the made-up world starts to bleed into the real one, which isn’t healthy), to a year to get a first draft down. I’m not writing all the time – I’ve other duties to attend to – but I do try and write every day.

What would it take, do you think, for you to be able to become a full time writer? Is it harder than before given the way the publishing industry is at present?

Okay – being a full-time writer, which is probably the holy grail and ultimate goal of a writer’s career, can mean two things. Firstly, that you write full-time (well, duh) and secondly, that you’re able to support yourself, and possibly your partner and family if you have one, simply by selling the words that come out of your brain.

The first isn’t that difficult – if you’ve no one to help financially or materially, it depends on is the level of discomfort you’re willing to suffer. Starving in a garret, whilst fashionable, isn’t exactly fun. I’m lucky in that my wife earns enough that I don’t have to go out to work – though I do have a part-time job teaching primary school kids Design Technology. The work I do there takes up more time than the hours I get paid for, but since I originally volunteered my time, the fact they pay me at all is a bonus. More important than me enjoying it though is that the children I teach seem to enjoy it, too, and learn some important science and engineering skills on the way. It gets me out of the house, too: I’m not admitting to being a borderline recluse, but I took part in an NHS survey recently where one of the questions was “Do you enjoy meeting new people?” I answered “Rarely”. I am really very self-contained. I’m also heavily involved in raising my kids: I’ve been the house-husband since they were tiny, and still do the cooking, cleaning, washing and ferrying around. Another five years and they’ll be more-or-less independent, but for now, a portion of my time is taken up with looking after them. And to be honest, I don’t think I’d swap the time I spend with them for any amount of cash and get someone else to do it. Just being here when they get home from school, helping them with homework, taking them places and being around to kiss them goodnight – It’s important, and I can still put in a full day around that.

As for the second part? That’s not just hard, but really, really hard. Consider the economics of it: if a full length novel takes an average of a year to write (average – some do take longer), how much does a writer need to be paid in order for them to do that without having alternative sources of income? The median wage in the UK is around £25,000. I’ve never been paid £25,000, or even close to that, for one novel, and for the most part, neither has anyone else I know. There are always exceptions – someone can suddenly hit it big, get a six-figure sum for their book and it makes the news. But there are very good reasons why it makes the news: it’s because it’s so very unusual. There are always film rights: someone optioning the film rights on a novel is a good chunk of cash which often exceeds the author’s original advance, but that’s nowhere near guaranteed. It would be brilliant if I could earn enough money, consistently, that my wife could give up work, but until I can at least match her wage, we’ll have to keep arrangements as they are. In a few years time, I’ll be pretty much full-time by default, but that won’t be because of my bank balance.

Is it harder now, to be full-time, than it used to be? Undoubtedly. A B-list author could manage, and manage well enough, on the advance provided by a book a year. Now? Not really, unless your outgoings are really very low. Anecdotally – publishers obviously play their cards close to their chest, and the only good research I’ve seen on the subject came from Tobias Buckell, whose survey is now over 7 years old – advances are not just not keep up with inflation, but actively going down. Which is a roundabout way of saying “Buy more books!”

What are you working on at the moment?

Imagine a world where magic pervades every aspect of people’s lives, from how their plumbing works to how their kings and princes conduct their warfare. Then imagine the greatest, the richest, magical kingdom of all, the one that relies on magic the most. That’s what I’m writing about right now, except because I’m a complete bastard to all my characters, I’m taking the magic away – slowly at first, so that the signs are there for those who can interpret them, then all at a rush so that everyone’s lives are turned upside down. How do you go about reconstructing a civilised society when a thousand years of status quo is swept away? How do you go about defending your borders when you’ve only a ceremonial palace guard and a handful of militia to hold back the ravening hordes? And most importantly of all, how do you keep everything together when your own citizens are rioting in the streets? The answer, as always, has been right there in the middle of things all the time, just ignored and neglected. That library, that expensive folly of collecting and storing and copying, kept alive for a millennium on the whim of the rulers of the land, suddenly seems worth a second look.

Can our heroes hang on long enough to bootstrap the entire Renaissance from scratch? Or are they going to be wiped from the map by the cold, dead hand of history? That’s my book, my Ignite.

I’ve also just delivered the fourth Metrozone book, The Curve of the Earth, in which, well… some really big things go boom, and not in a good way. It’s up to Petrovitch to sort it out in his usual inimitable fashion.

And furthermore, I’m re-releasing my very first published novel, Heart. I’m giving away the e-copies (.pdf, .epub, and .mobi, if I can format the damn thing correctly), and if people want a hard copy, that’ll be available from a pod publisher. That’ll happen in the next month or so.

That sounds like standing heroic fantasy on its head, and may even be, persih the thought, somewhat original? And unusual for someone with a scientific background – though I guess your book is re-inventing the rational world from magical beginnings.

Do you or did you ever read much fantasy?

Now this is the thing about fantasy – I seem to have read far more than I realise. I started, pretty much like everyone else, with bowdlerised fairy tales, taken from the Grimms and Hans Christian Andersen, then into traditional children’s books, which often contain fantastical elements: the Phantom Tollbooth, Five Children and It, Tom’s Midnight Garden, and such like. It’s only a short stretch from there to fully-fledged fantasies like Narnia and the Hobbit. Looking back, though, all these things were frowned on at school, all except Beowulf, which was old and Saxon and therefore counted as literature.

Then I discovered The Lord of the Rings, aged 13. I understand that some people read it at exactly the right moment in their formative years, and it changes them forever. I’m one of those. Thereafter, it was Poul Anderson’s Broken Sword, Karl Edward Wagner’s Kane (which are dark – really, really dark), Conan, Lovecraft… By this time I was playing Dungeons and Dragons, which was serious head-fuel for a teenager, and inevitably as you play and become a more experienced gamer, you want to try your hand at running your own campaigns. It’s like a boot camp for young writers, really. I was still playing by the time I got to university, and that’s when you don’t have a couple of hours to play, you have a couple of days. Gnarly.

It’s no coincidence that the first full-length novel manuscript I wrote was a fantasy – it was (and remains) completely unpublishable. But Heart was my first published novel, and that was what you’d now call urban fantasy, written long before the genre became synonymous with pale boys and sexy girls. It, too, is quite dark, taking on Arthurian legend and apocalyptic myths – I’ve recently made the full text available as a free ebook, so you can make you’re own mind up exactly what it is.

And yes, I still read fantasy, which is often tinged with horror, especially if it’s done right.

At what stage did you stumble across SF?

There were SFnal TV shows – things like Thunderbirds and Stingray, and of course Doctor Who – but the first SF book I ever knowingly picked up was Harry Harrison’s Spaceship Medic. It was the Puffin 1976 edition, and I was 10. Because I was a precocious brat and could read to a high level very early on, I was let loose on the school library books while the other kids had to plough through the set texts. I saw this book (exactly this cover here – it’s burnt onto my retinas) and it must have called to me. After that, I started on the hard stuff – Clarke, Heinlein, Asimov, Niven, more Harry Harrison, Aldiss. I couldn’t get enough, and fortunately my mum was a queen bee in the local WI. She managed to ‘pre-sort’ the bookstall for anything with a spaceship or woman-in-improbable-armour on the front. As a consequence, I got to read some magnificently age-inappropriate books.

If I say everything I thought I knew about sex came from reading SF, would that be too much information?

You must have been at just about the perfect age when Star Wars came to your local cinema.Was it an event/influence and has film in general had an impact on your writing or even life?

 

Ah, Star Wars. I queued for round the block for that, and when I couldn’t get in for the first showing, me and my friend waited for the next one. The scrolly titles, the John Williams score, the thunderous bass, the massive space ship that just kept on coming. Han shooting first.

For a kid who’d grown up on slightly ropy special effects and stop-motion animation, it was a jaw-dropping spectacle. The story was simple, archetypal, epic. And in that way that it does, it became part of my cohort’s childhood, to be quoted endlessly and parodied affectionately. I haven’t seen the prequel trilogy. Neither do I want to. I can keep the memories clean and unsullied of the abominations that are Jar Jar Binks and midichlorians.

Films in general, I used to consume like sweeties. We used to pitch up to the local cinema for the cheap night pretty much every week. Then we had kids and it simply stopped. So I’ve seen all sorts, mainly from the mid eighties to the mid nineties, but thinking about it now, they’ve had a significantly lesser effect on my writing than the books I’ve read over the same period. I don’t know why that is. Obviously, being able to quote dialogue from Alien, Aliens, Terminator, The Princess Bride and Bladerunner has meant that Petrovitch always has something apposite to say, but affecting the plots of the stories I write? Not really.

What books were you reading at that time?

It was the summer I turned 11, so was about to go to Secondary school. That would mean I was binging on Clarke and Asimov. Childhood’s End, The City and the Stars, A Fall of Moondust, Rendezvous with Rama, The Foundation books, and the Robot stuff. I’m guessing that at least some of it went completely over my head – I remember rereading Childhood’s End much later and thinking that I’d missed an awful lot of nuance the first time around – but those books, which often simply dealt with technical problems and not complex emotional relationships between characters were perfect for me: galaxy-spanning empires? No problem. Treating other characters as if they weren’t automatons? More than I could cope with. I was precocious in my reading age and scientific understanding, but was seriously behind (and remained so for a long, long time) at my emotional development. I hope I’m a bit better at that sort of thing now.

What, no Pkd?

As you have just won the Philip K. Dick Award in the past week (as I write) I have to ask what it means to you and how it makes you feel?

As I said in my acceptance speech (ably read out on my behalf by Ellen Wright of Orbit), no one except those gripped by extreme hubris ever sets out to write an award-winning novel, let alone three. So to be merely considered for the award was an unexpected public reward for what was essentially a private pleasure: I wrote the Metrozone books because they were fun stories to tell. That they’ve gone on to find a wider audience is brilliant, and now having won the PKD award, I’m supposing that even more people will hear about them and perhaps give them a go. What it definitely does mean is that every single book I write from now on will have “Winner of the Philip K Dick award” slapped somewhere on the cover. What I’m hoping it means is that my publishers will allow me to go off-piste a little: there will be a Book 4 – “The Curve of the Earth” is already in the can, and I’m about to do the edits – and if that goes well enough, I’ll round the series off with 5 and 6. But there’s so much more I want to write that isn’t cyberpunk, but is still firmly in the genre.

As to how it makes me feel? I picked up the actual framed certificate from the couriers last week, and it’s sitting on my desk waiting to go on the wall somewhere. It’s there in black and white, and I still can’t quite believe it. William Gibson won that award for Neuromancer. Tim Powers. Geoff Ryman. Stephen Baxter. Gwyneth Jones. Michael Marshal Smith. Richard Morgan. And now me. No, definitely can’t believe it.

You are on death row, convicted of murder (wrongly) and will be hanged in the morning. What’s your last meal?

Part of me thinks I’d rather fast, which would clearly be my last protest at the injustice of it all. And let’s face it, it would be my last opportunity to lose some weight, which has crept up over the last few years and will now take some concerted effort to shift.

The other, less aesthetic part of me would be thinking “Curry!” I’d be pretty much good to go on anything that my local (The Last Days of the Raj, Low Fell) serves up as long as it came with peshwari naan, and I’d wash it down with some Cobra or Kingfisher. Take that, post-mortem bowel movements!

If you were an artist (musician, painter, actor, film director etc.) in a discipline other than you currently operate, and you were going to be remembered for only one piece of work (a one-hit wonder), what would that piece (song, painting, movie) be? One single existing  piece of ‘art’ by someone else.

Gah. It’s an almost impossible question to answer. Art – great art – provokes an emotional response from the viewer. It makes us love it, cherish it, defend it. And of course, it’s an individual response: we don’t have an objective scale to measure art against. Culturally iconic art is also very parochial. How can we compare say, the Terracotta army of Qin Shi Huang with Tutankhamen’s funeral mask? Both serve a similar purpose, and yet rise naturally out of their specific cultures, redolent with meaning.

So given that, I’m going to pick something culturally relevant to me, an Englishman of part-Jewish heritage, living in the 21st century in North East England. I’m going for the Lindisfarne Gospels – yes, I know it’s a book, but the illuminations and the calligraphy elevate it from being a mere book to a work of unparalleled art that continues to fascinate and attract. It’s supposedly the work of a single man, Eadfrith, an 8th century bishop of Lindisfarne, who used quills and reeds, soots and soils and plants and gems, to create something that is transcendent. The detail is incredible, the construction techniques used to create the patterns and knots precise and mathematical, in a style unique to these islands. As an icon of artistic, cultural, religious, technological and ethnic significance, I can’t think of anything that can match it. 1300 years later, it isn’t just treasured, it’s fought over – we’d like it back from the British Library at some point, thank you very much. They lend it to us occasionally: the last time, 180,000 people turned out to see it. The colours and the script are as vibrant and exacting as the pictures of the pages suggest, but there’s something about the sheer physicality of the book itself. It’s treasure, and not just because it’s treasured.

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No Regrets – The Terry Pratchett Interview, Albedo One issue #4, 1994

NO REGRETS – the terry pratchett interview

ALBEDO ONE: The Colour of Magic was your fourth novel but your first suc­cess. Did you ever think you were wasting your time writing?

PRATCHETT: No. I never thought I’d wasted my time with the other ones. I made enough money out of them. My idea of a good novel was one you made enough money out of to buy a greenhouse. I wrote three books, I had three greenhouses. It seemed to me to be very satisfactory. Then when The Colour of Magic became suc­cessful I realised I was capable of putting the entire Amazonian rain forest under glass. I didn’ t think I was wasting my time, I was enjoying what I was doing.

ALBEDO ONE: At what stage did you know that The Colour of Magic was going to be a hit?

PRATCHETT: It’s very hard to say. It came out in hardcover and did well, but it was really when it came out in paperback that we started to get feedback from shops like Andromeda in Birmingham that it was their best selling book. And I think it stayed their best selling book for two years and when it was knocked off it was knocked off by Light Fantastic. We started getting word of mouth that it was doing very well and it crept up on me very quietly. Equal Rites was doing very well in what you might call fannish circles and suddenly Mort was number two in national best-seller lists -that was the fourth Discworld book.

ALBEDO ONE: Did any of the others then hit the lists in retrospect?

PRATCHETT: No. The best-seller lists don’t work like that.

ALBEDO ONE: There was no resurgence of sales to put them onto the list?

PRATCHETT: Oh, yes. My God, here is an innocent man who thinks that best­seller lists have anything to do with the number of books sold. The point is that if a book that had been published three years ago started to sell twice as many all of a sudden it probably wouldn’t even get no­ticed. People wouldn’t be tracking it. The system has cleaned up its act an awful lot but the best-seller list system is not an entirely foolproof thing. I know about three or four years ago one newspaper did a spot check. They phoned up some SF specialist bookshop and said ‘Can you give us your best sellers for the week,’ and I think number three was Equal Rites and that had been out for three or four years by then, but that particular week it had sold a lot. Mort was the first one that featured in best-seller lists but there is no doubt that if best-seller lists had anything to with sales (I know why it doesn’t – they say the Bible would be number one all the time) but the annual sales of the other books are such that it would be surprising if there hadn’t been weeks when they should have featured in the best-seller lists, technically. But the lists don’t work that way. It’s only to do with recently published books. So Mort was the first one that made it and I have to say that subsequent to that none of the others have failed. But there’s always a first time… I must say carefully that they made it in one edition or the other though many of them have made it in both hardcover and paperback. It’s not simply what books you sell in that period, it’s how many books other people sell.

ALBEDO ONE: So it’s important what time of the year you launch a book, like with a movie.

PRATCHETT:Yes. A hardback’s harder at Christmas time because that’s a good hardback buying time. And it depends on who else is around and…

ALBEDO ONE: Would it be more important to get the physical sales – you say it’s a good hardback selling time so you could get better sales – but is it more important in the long run to get the higher immediate sales than to actually appear on the best-seller list?

PRATCHETT: Oh, I Think one would be very stupid if you said it was anything other than getting as much of their money into my pocket as possible. A friend of mine has said. ‘It has been established, we have it on impeccable authority, that the poorer you are the more likely you are to go to heaven. Just think how helpful you have been in helping lots of people just that little bit further along the road to salvation.’ (LAUGHS) No, I’d like to sell a lot of books It would be nice if featuring on the best-seller lists was part of that. It’s probably quite possible to sell a lot without featuring. There have been people who have been on the list who haven’t sold at all. That sort of thing can’t happen now but in the bad old days a book which didn’t actually get published that week nevertheless seemed to be selling very well according to the lists.

ALBEDO ONE: So how long after the success of The Colour of Magic did you chuck the day job?

PRATCHETT: The Colour of Magic started to take off in 1985, I chucked the day job in… We knew in the Spring of ’85 that Colour of Magic was doing well, I chucked the day job in Autumn of ’87.

ALBEDO ONE: Did you rush into it?

PRATCHETT: No. (A REFLECTIVE PAUSE) The honest truth is that I chucked the day job at about the right time. I could have chucked it earlier and there would have been a little bit of … (I never did discover what there would have been a little bit of- RN) I can now say that yes of course it would have been fine and I should have chucked it earlier but bearing in mind that I wasn’t too certain what the future held I chucked the day job when I knew that, as it were, I had contractual arrangements and things which gave me some years of security.

ALBEDO ONE: Was it your intention right from the start to write a series of novels about the Discworld when you were writing The Colour of Magic.

PRATCHETT: No, no it was never my intention to write a series but they have this habit of turning up in my head and so they get written. Because I don’t stick to the same characters and as I’m not doing some lengthy  chronicle  and because  the Discworld is a fairly flexible place with all kinds of different continents and peoples and things I can more or less make anything fit without stretching the Discworld too much. Small Gods was a fairly angry book. Men At Arms is a police procedural novel. I can make all these fit into the Discworld frame.

ALBEDO ONE: You say Men At Arms is a police procedural. I haven’t seen it except as a title on a list. Are you saying that it is less humorous?

PRATCHETT: Oh, no, no, no. A police procedural novel can be even funnier if the police include Trolls and Dwarves and things like that. You start looking at the whole basis of the cop novel. You get the cop moving in a different way when you’ve actually set it in a fantasy city. The Discworld is flexible enough to enable me to do all kinds of things.

ALBEDO ONE: Do you have any desire in the future to write things that aren’t humorous?

PRATCHETT: I will do. I’ve kept saying this… I would say it’s likely if not definite that the next two years will see the first non-Discworld adult novel. Put adult in any kind of inverted commas you want. I’ve been thinking about it for some time. Not because I’m tired of the Discworld but because there are some things I can’t do in the Discworld that I can do elsewhere. But I will keep the Discworld going while do¬ing something else as well.

ALBEDO ONE: Have you any idea how many more Discworld novels there are?

PRATCHETT: They just keep on popping into my head. Even if I didn’t have another main central idea, I know

ALBEDO ONE: Will that be one a year or…

PRATCHETT: I don’t know. They may be like buses – none will come for ages and then there will be three at once. The point is, when I wrote number one I didn’t know there was going to be a number two and so on all the way through, so it would be ridiculous of me to forecast. All I know is that one of the central images for the one I’m going to write next (I’ve just finished the one that’s going to come out in the Spring) hit me about three days ago. Wow! Yes and that’s never been done. Five minutes before I hadn’t known about it and five minutes after I realised I knew where the plot lay, so I can’t forecast what’s going to happen.

ALBEDO ONE: Does Men At Arms feature any of the old crew?

PRATCHETT: It’s not a sequel to, but it follows on from, Guards! Guards! Literally follows on in the sense that it takes place a few months later. I had various things I wanted to say and various avenues I wanted to explore and the guards of Ankh Morpork were a useful tool for doing it.

ALBEDO ONE: Is the police procedural a genre that you enjoy reading?

PRATCHETT: I don’t read an awful lot of fantasy because for relaxation I don’t think you should always… for example I don’t think a baker reads an awful lot about bread. And there has been a lot of bad fantasy in the past – I’m by no means saying that all classic fantasy out there is bad – but there has been a lot of bad fantasy written by people who read a lot of fantasy and so all they keep doing is recycling it. What I actually read for pleasure is all kinds of stuff: I quite like the darker police procedural, people like Carl Hiaasen and Joseph Wambaugh and I thought ‘Hey! Let’s do a police procedural and let’s do it for a police force that has no procedures, whose idea of forensic science is to get the local ghoul to taste the corpse to see how long it’s been dead.’ And then they’ re faced with a mystery that they have to follow clues for. I thought that there had to be a murder mystery involving something they did not understand and had no mechanism for understanding. But the nice thing about your police procedural as opposed to your classic murder mystery is that in a murder mystery you don’t know who did it. Whereas in a police procedural you know, you know everything often and you’re watching the police home in. Columbo, for example, you know who did it. The fun is in watching Columbo zipping backwards and forwards and finally muddling through. So I did the special little Columbo bit where the guy asks all the questions and then does the bit… (TERRY STANDS AND GOES TO THE DOOR, MIMES LEAVING THEN COMING BACK) Then he asks the one question that’s key to the whole thing. And then there are all the other cop cliches.

You can actually have a lot more fun by looking in other genres. Actually, I’m currently quite enraged on the point of genres. I walked along to Hodges Figgis and saw that Margaret Attwood’s book The Handmaid’s Tale which was winner of the Arthur C. Clarke award was put in among the Literature. It’s clearly a work of Science Fiction but it’s not put amongst the Science Fiction because it’s Margaret Attwood and we don’t want to give her the mark of Cain by suggesting that she writes SF. Can you seriously have a bookshop that has LITERATURE and Popular Fiction – I thought, does it mean that the literature isn’t popular? Or the popular fiction isn’t good? I mean what is it you’re trying to say, please? This is the Nineteen Nineties, you know.

ALBEDO ONE: Before going any further, back to Lords and Ladies, your latest paperback. It flows just like all the others.

PRATCHETT: It’s making it look easy that’s the hard part.

ALBEDO ONE: You’re using characters from previous books here. Are you beginning to favour some of them?

PRATCHETT: No, no I’ll tell you what it is, it’s like being the old type of Nineteen Thirties Hollywood studio and in comes this script and for this script we need… And in a sense it’s like having a cast of actors and saying ‘Actually, that’s a good part for Granny Weatherwax there’. It has some advantages and disadvantages. I don’t do it an awful lot. There are the three ‘Witches’ books and Rincewind turns up in three; there’s a number of books with Death as a main character, though they’re all different types of books and all the others are one offs. There may be some central characters that appear asbackground characters in some of them. There’ll always be a mixture of some new ingredients and some old ingredients and the old ingredients are there to hold it together. Besides it works for the three ‘Witches’ because I had them established and they fitted into the Shakespearian bits. It just worked having the three of them, so I had the Three Witches.

ALBEDO ONE: And the graphic novel…

PRATCHETT: The Big Comic. They insist on calling it the graphic novel. I call it the big comic.

ALBEDO ONE: I’ve got to say I…

PRATCHETT: Don’t like it very much.

ALBEDO ONE: What I feel about all graphic novels is that the concept works well when you’re beefing up a short story but when you’re cutting a novel down there’s too much raw material.

PRATCHETT: Yeah, and you lose a lot of what makes it what it is. The Americans did the comic and they said ‘Can we bring it out as the (excuse the term) ‘graphic novel’. I don’t like the term. Here’s the speech: Dark Fantasy is just another way of saying Horror. People don’t like to say Horror so they say Dark Fantasy because that’s Horror wearing a collar and tie. And people don’t like to say Fantasy they say Magic Realism which means Fantasy written by somebody I went to university with. And people don’t like to say comic so they say Graphic Novel, despite the fact that I don’t think the true Graphic Novel has been written anywhere. What they mean is, ‘Here is a rather more respectable form of comic with no Kapow! balloons and I really wish that peoplewould just say, ‘Yes, it’s a comic. Yes, this is fantasy. Yes, this is Science Fiction,’ and defend the genre instead of saying, (ADOPTS A WHINING GIT VOICE) ‘Horror is a bit passe so this is Dark Fantasy,’ and that’ s playing someone else’s game. So that’s why I say I’m a fantasy writer and to hell with ‘It doesn’t read like what I think of as a fantasy’. In that case what you think of as a fantasy is not a fantasy. Or there is more to it than you think.

But for the next comic, Mort, I have actually done the script. And I’ve started again from scratch and I’m bound to say, it works. I’m doing it with Graham Higgins, who’s done stuff for 2000AD and everything, and we’ve worked very closely. And I’ve seen the first half of it and it really does work. Mort gets an extra dimension by being a comic; it’s a slightly different story, but there are things I could never have put in the book which I can put in the corner of a panel in the comic and it will then get a laugh.

ALBEDO ONE: That can only work with the original writer.

PRATCHETT: Yes. Because I knew exactly what the material was doing and how to move it around. I actually think that the first two, The Light Fantastic and The Colour of Magic, were the worst ones to make into graphic novels because they had no real coherent plot, they were fun books. Whereas later books like Wyrd Sisters and Mort and Guards! Guards! actually have a plot and maybe it is possible to get more of that plot down. If this one works, or rather when this one works, I might have another go because it’s like being able to make a film in the privacy of your own head, so I very much enjoyed working on the script.

ALBEDO ONE: So, do I take it that you were unhappy with the result of the graphic novelizations?

PRATCHETT: No. I said they were adequate and I said if someone’s actually going to make a comic of The Light Fantastic or The Colour of Magic they ‘re probably not going to do much better than this. And there is nothing in it where I said ‘Oh, God no, they’re an interesting addition to the Pratchett archives but they don’t move things forward’ whereas Mort, the big comic, as I persist in calling it to the annoyance of Gollancz, enhances the original book.

I have a suspicion -I have to be careful what I say – that you might actually find the best comics actually written by people who are comics writers and who aren’t setting out to do graphic novels. I mistrust the term graphic novel because it sounds like a good thing to put on a tee-shirt. That’s why the French like them. The worst kind of graphic novels are all style; impenetrable plot but shit-loads of style. In the same way that maybe some of the best books are written by craftsman writers that are just going to get out there to do, God help us, a rattling good yarn. And maybe the best comics are written by people who really are at ease in the comic world.

ALBEDO ONE: Which is a nice place to bring in Neil Gaiman because his background is in comics and you collaborated with him on Good Omens.

PRATCHETT: No. He collaborated with me.

ALBEDO ONE: Did you enjoy the collaboration?

PRATCHETT: Oh, yeah. Both of us thought of it as a fun thing. The first draft was nine very interesting weeks. Both of us have said together and independently that we wouldn’t do it again for huge sums of money. Good Omens II wouldn’t be fun to do.

ALBEDO ONE: Is there anybody that you would like to collaborate with?

PRATCHETT: It’s not a case of who I’d like to collaborate with, that one was exactly right. We wereboth in a similar frame of mind, we had something that we were both keen on, we both had a lot of ideas about, and it all happened v ery naturally in a way that could never really have happened if we had set out to make it happen. Also it was the first time that Terry Pratchett, no offence to Neil, or a title with Terry Pratchett’s name on it somewhere had ever been auctioned. I wouldn’t say that I’d been paid much per book before but I’d been happy with it. And so when it went out to auction and the bidding figure went past the hundred thousand and was still accelerating I was lying on the floor shouting ‘Take the money’. It went for a lot of money, certainly a lot of money then. Pocket money now (LAUGHS). So if we did it again we would do it knowing, probably, it was going to be a best-seller and all the stakes would be higher. Whereas we actually said to ourselves when we did it, ‘We hope we’ll make enough out of it to justify the time we put in’. We actually did it very nearly as a holiday job and it was fun. Besides which our careers, I won’t say they’ve separated, because they weren’t… we just happened to know each other. But he’s doing his thing and I’m doing mine. Even when we were do ing it we seemed to be spending a lot of time on different continents and now he’s in the States for a couple of years. There is no possibility of doing it, so there’ll never be aGood Omens II.

And collaboration isn’t something that I’ve automatically thought of. I mean, Stephen Briggs and myself are collaborating on the Discworld companion, which is kind of the spoof Discworld encyclopaedia which is coming out next year. But there are some quite straightforward demarcation lines. He has sweated like mad doing a Discworld database so that every character and every mention of every character can be pulled together. So I said okay, so now I can do the Granny Weatherwax piece.

He’s got access to all my notes and stuff that never got published and novels that got half written and it has all been pulled together and I’m doing extra entries and stuff but that’s rather different because we’re both doing independent things. He’s doing lots of illustrations. That’s fun, but it isn’t a collaboration in the Good Omens sense.

So, for the future I just can’t see where the contingency would arise. But I’m certainly never going to franchise Discworld, that’s a definite. I see lots of attempts by people to write in what they think of as a Discworld style. That’s like saying ‘Juggling’s easy. You just chuck one ball up in the air and the rest follows. There’s no problem. I watched a guy and I’ve seen how he does it.’ But they find that there’s an additional thing that you have to do.

ALBEDO ONE: There’s a tendency for other publishers to disguise books as Terry Pratchett novels with Josh Kirby covers…

PRATCHETT: Dear me. Is there really? I can’t properly blame Josh Kirby. He has to make an honest dollar like everyone else and he’s self-employed. The diplomatic thing for me to say is that if publishers are dressing up other authors as Terry Pratchett clones then they are doing a disservice to those authors. If they didn’t dress them as clones but did something different, then those authors could be pioneering in a different sense. There was one case where we had to take a little gentle action, where a casual glance at the advertising material would have suggested that here was another Discworld book. The word DISCWORLD was in big letters, Terry Pratchett was in big letters – a book similar to those written by TERRY PRATCHETT. So we had a quiet word.

ALBEDO ONE: Getting away from the Discworld, how long is it since you wrote your first children’s book?

PRATCHETT: That was my first book which came out when I was seventeen. My last was Johnny and the Dead which was out in hardcover a few months ago.

ALBEDO ONE: I read Johnny and the Dead and thoroughly enjoyed it.

PRATCHETT: Johnny and the Dead is one of the books I am proudest to have written. It would be wrong to say that it laid ghosts but it was a book I was very glad to have written. There were things in it I couldn’t possibly have done in Discworld and it got me the Writer’s Guild Best Children’s Book of the Year Award. And that was other writers voting. It wasn’t some sort of self-appointed committee, it was other people who graft for a living. I was really chuffed to get that award.

ALBEDO ONE: So I may presume that you are going to continue writing children’s books.

PRATCHETT: I really don’t think there’s too much difference. There’s some things that you wouldn’t tackle in a children’s book because it would be beyond, not the mental capabilities, but the experience of someone under the age of say ten or eleven to encompass. But that field is smaller than you might think. They can easily cope with death and things like that; they know about it and it’s a subject that often preoccupies them. And there are some things that are more appropriate to a children’s than an adult book but there’s a huge overlapping area and most kids read an age group up anyway. No one thinks that young adults read hooks for YOUNG ADULTS, books for young adults are read by kids. Young adults that actually read are reading bodice rippers and best-sellers and me. (LAUGHS HEARTILY) And Horror. Everyone is reading what they like and that’s a good thing.

ALBEDO ONE: And is there a top age limit for you?

PRATCHETT: The oldest fan letter I’ve had is from someone aged eighty-five. So up until death and maybe beyond.

(At this point the street map of Ankh Morpork was produced).

ALBEDO ONE: What can you say about this? It’s a lovely presentation but a ten minute read.

PRATCHETT: Well it’s not even a ten minute read. It is the map of Ankh Morpork. There is very little Discworld paraphernalia for a series of its popularity which has got fifteen books.

The map is quite genuine. It’s a map of the books. People have sat down with stopwatches and a draft of the map and tried to prove it wrong. We didn’t say let’s draw a map and make it work. It was simply done for no more reason than Stephen Briggs, who designed it, looked at the books and said, ‘This might be something worth doing because there’s lots of people out there who have collected all the Discworld books and might like to get something else.’ That’s going to turn up on a lot of walls.

ALBEDO ONE: What disappointed me in a way was all the stuff that you would have to take off to hang it and then you lose all these nice booklets.

PRATCHETT: Buy a second one. £4.99 – cheap. I tell you what, to you only £9.98 the pair. Knocking on from that is the Discworld Companion. We actually sat and designed a coat of arms for the guilds, with their bad Latin mottos. I can actually remember Mort’s which is Non Timesti Misorum (APPROXIMATE SPELLING ONLY, DUE TO IGNORANCE) which actually is the Latin for Don’t Fear The Reaper and I was so pleased that I was able to get that one in.

We’ve done it as a fun thing. It’s as simple as that.

 

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Avengers Assemble – no really, they built this movie from a kit.

From the moment I saw The Ultimates graphic novel, in which Nick Fury was re-imagined as Samuel L. Jackson, I have been waiting for this film to arrive. I have loyally trekked to the local multiplex to watch just about every superhero movie from Batman to Wolverine, Marvel and DC. Okay, so I watched Darkman and Spawn on video. But I sat through Daredevil in the cinema. I even went to see Elektra (obviously I committed some terrible sin in a previous life). So I think it’s fair to say that I’m a fan.

What a disappointment. This is a superhero movie for children with a script channelled through the spirit of Enid Blyton. During the entire film, in which there is incredible property damage and the centre of New York is virtually destroyed, there are zero civillian casualties. The good guys and the bad guys exchange fire and blows,  toss buses and cars about with abandon, never considering the potential for collateral damage. Why? Because it’s a movie, you dope, and nobody gets hurt. Except the kinda-roboty aliens. Buildings are smashed and cars fly through the streets of New York. Explosions wreak havok to steel and concrete. But not a single bystander gets killed on film. Despite the apocalyptic destruction not a single dead body is to be seen in the streets and no nasty smears that used to be human decorate the set. This is a movie for children. This is like the the old A Team TV show – thousands of bullets ecxpended but no-one (human) ever gets hit or killed. Things get blown up but not people. In the entire movie one guy dies on screen. That’s it.

Now, I have to say I’m not particularly bloodthirsty and I can go all week quite happily without setting eyes on a dead body. But for me, context is everything. With so much shit going down, people gotta die. Or else I don’t believe a word. And that’s the problem. I found that after a while I simply could no longer suspend my disbelief. Because the characters in the movie failed to believe in themselves or one another with sufficient emotion(?). They didn’t care about themselves or one another. They failed to act in a manner consistent with saving the world or defeating the bad guys.

So Thor and Iron Man kick the living shit (technical terminology) out of one another while Loki, the bad guy who they’ve captured, sits and watches.Why doesn’t he run away when he has the chance? Maybe it’s because he wants to be captured for his own evil reasons. Well I’m no superhero, or genius (like Iron Man apparently – see the ads) but I was immediately suspicious. But not our heroes – geniuses or not.

And the World’s Greatest Heroes dish out violence both willy and nilly without anyone ever considering what might happen to the not-so-super humans standing around. And why should they – it’s only a movie – there were no dead body in the script – blaze away boys – who cares.

Well, I care. Enough so that less than half way through, I ceased to care. And began to question every move the Avengers made. Like why does the Hulk, hulk out and attack the nearest hero, first time he turns green? But when the aliens invade he only attacks aliens and actually helps out the Avengers. Where’s the logic?

It’s a comic book, I hear you say. But shouldn’t comic books have internal logic? Why is Iron Man popular? I always thought that his personality was important, his weaknesses, the things that make him human. He used to be an alcoholic fer ****sake. Something he had to overcome on a daily basis, along with the heart-thingy. And Captain America is a man out of time, his past and his friends all lost. And in their own movies their stories, the human part of them, were told. In Avengers Assemble, there’s no room for back story. Which makes it really, really hard to care about who lives and who dies. Though, as it’s all cartoon violence we know that NOBODY dies – they’ve got to be around for the sequel.

And that’s it. All I’ve got left is don’t care. Plenty of it. I won’t be going to see Avengers Reassembled or whatever the hell they call it. Even if they come up with a really cool title like Avengers II, I’ll sit it out. Even if it gets five stars from every single critic I’ll be staying at home.

Go to Avengers Assemble if you really have to, but check your brain at the door.

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Anne McCaffrey interview, Albedo One issue #10 1996

Anne McCaffrey

The Encyclopedia of SF says that your first published work was a short story in 1953 and your first novel was in 1967.1 thought that said something about those times.

Yes. I was raising children. I remem­ber they did an interview about me be­cause Sam Moskowitz had me winning an award. I got a hundred bucks for a thousand words which, in those days, wasn’t bad. There was publicity in the local papers and one of the questions was, ‘How did I find time for my writing with my housework?’ Now, that was in 1953 and over the next ten or fifteen years the answer changed and I finally got snotty about it and said, ‘No you’ve got it wrong, how do I find time for my housework with my writing?’ I haven’t been asked that question in twenty-four years.

People are probably afraid to ask it.

They may be, but I’m older now and it’s obvious I don’t have small ones around and I don’t have housework and I don’t have a husband. I like what Hilary Clinton said, ‘One time there’ll be a time when they won’t ask who’s at home minding the children, they’ll ask how you get good child care when you’re at work.’ It’s the attitude towards women working that has changed, even in my field where you’re allowed more latitude. Once the kids are away at school – which is how I got to write a novel. In 1965 my daugh­ter, who is the youngest, went to school full time. It was like, who pulled out the plug? I had eight hours I could plan my time in. Okay, so I put on a load of wash or I’d start something for dinner in be­tween writing chapters, but I had the time I could devote to the concentrated work that a novel requires.

When you look back over that pe­riod, from 1953 to now, can you see how your home situation, as it changed, changed what you were ac­tually writing about?

I don’t know. I divorced my husband in 1970 and picked up my two younger children, Alec was in college, and moved to Ireland with my mother, which was a major step of tremendous importance. Then I was a wage earner and a single parent. Though I only woke up to that about two or three years ago. Hey, I was a single parent. But from the time I had to earn my own living everything else was geared, including my three chil­dren, to writing and where I could fit it in. I remember at one point Alec was about eleven or twelve and he had some burn­ing question that he had to ask me. I was busy writing something and I just wanted to stick with it long enough to get it down on paper. He turned to me and said, ‘You’ll never make enough writing to pay the phone bill.’ I tell you he got sent to Coventry so fast. But they learned then that Mother was not just Mother, but she was a person who had her own rights, and sometimes her rights were more important than theirs. I think it’s actually a lesson that, even if you’re not a writer, working at home as a career person of any kind, you still need to make that distinction with your kids so that they think of you as a person , not just Mom and there for their convenience. That can be very devastating later on when your kids grow and they’re not there all the time.

In the early days did you publish regularly?

I published the first story in 1953 and then not again until’59 and that was The Lady In The Tower’. And then in ’61 The Ship Who Sang’. Then in 1963 I went down to The World Science Fiction Con­vention in Washington DC and I met Isaac Asimov and Gordie Dickson and Keith Laumer and Judy Merrill and H. Beam Piper – unfortunately he was dead not too long after that. Well I met a lot of people and Jim Blish came up to me, he said, ‘Anne, you wrote such good sto­ries, what happened?’ Well that couldn’t have been more crucial because he was Jim Blish telling me I wrote good stories. So all the way home in the car from Washington to Delaware I kept telling myself, Jim Blish says I can write. Jim Blish, JIM BLISH, says I can write. And that was the turnaround point and I tried again to get back into writing and get my stories done. If he hadn’t come along at that particular time I might have given up. But he was there at the right moment and I’ve always been grateful to him.

How important were your peers to you at that time?

I suppose, very important. So few people were writing science fiction. I mean the SFWA started with 145 peo­ple, of which I did not happen to be one, although a year later I was. And I went to the Milford Science Fiction Conferences that were held with all published writers. Damon Knight, Judy Merrill and Kate Wilhelm were the administrators of that. You had to submit a story to be criti­cized. Boy, moment of truth. Now listen­ing to twenty-five or thirty other writers in the field criticize stories, you got an awful lot of information on how to put a story together and also how to look for flaws in your own work. So it was ex­tremely good. Although I never put any of the stories that really meant a lot to me, like the ship stories or the Pern stories, into the conference I still learned a great deal about writing from that. So the peer group was extremely critical at that point in time.

Did you miss your peer group, as a writer, when you came to Ireland?

It was in 1970 and they decided to start a Milford UK group and I was their chairperson for about five years. Until I wrote a story they all liked. ‘Okay, come on kid, you can quit, you’ve made it.’ So I did. Actually it was about time to turn it over to the English group. Jim Blish was dead by then and John Brunner and Brian Aldiss were fighting. So I was the legitimate midpoint for everybody. Actually people began moving in here, like Katherine Kurtz. Of course that was not until the mid-eighties. I was too busy really, trying to keep the kids together and trying to write, to really worry about associations. And I went to the English conventions as well, which gave me some time off.

Do you like going to conventions?

I did. But the arthritis has sort of put a hiatus on it. It’s just not comfortable for me to travel any more so I’ve sort of cut it out. I’ve had enough. I’ve figured it out, I’ve been to over seventy odd conven­tions since I started in 1963. That’s enough for one person.

One of the words I would associ­ate with you is prolific. There always seems to be something happening.

I can’t not write. So I’m busy with something most of the time. I’ve had a bit of a slack period this last year but I think that’s as much ill health as anything else. It takes a lot of energy to write. I’ve been a bit shy on that. I have a book that I’m very keen on – Black Horses For The King – which is a recreation of the start of farriery- balcksmithing, putting shoes on horses – which I finished and is coming out in both the UK and the USA in Spring 1996. This is a historical juvenile which was not what I intended to write but that’s what it ended up as. I had a lot of fun doing to research for it. Set in Arthurian England – but I used the his­torical not the Hollywood version – around 500AD.

Is that Arthurian period one of your favourites?

No, I hate the Arthurian period be­cause I feel everyone’s done it to death. But Jane Yolen asked me could I do a young adult story set in Arthurian times. And I though that seemed like a good idea and I had always been fascinated with the fact Arthur had had to go to Europe to get horses big enough for his men to ride. Because of course the indig­enous stock were all ponies and you couldn’t have six foot guys riding on thirteen twos. And because they moved the horses from their locale they would have needed shoes. And about that time is when they started using Hippo San­dals, iron rims to protect horses hooves, so I’m historically correct. Though it’s not so much about Arthur as it is about one of his minions.

Do you feel now that you can write about whatever you like and are there subjects that you haven’t felt able to write until now?

I do write pretty much what I feel like writing at the time. Since I’m a popular author I get away with it with my publish­ers. They’ll take anything I care to write. This can be bad because maybe you’re not writing up to what should be your standard. So I rely on good friends and my agent to tell me that this is not right. So I keep the standard up.

Have you always relied on other people?

No. I’ve relied on my own instinct about the story because that’s what I am, a story teller.

In the early days you had the Milford people. Was that purely a tech­nique thing?

It covered every aspect of writing: technique: viewpoint, characters, devel­opment of plot. Because at that point in time science fiction decided it needed to improve the product if we wanted to get better pay and if we wanted to get more popular. Of course in 1969 we put a man on the moon and suddenly science fic­tion was not so stupid after all. We’ve seen an increase in that over the years, where people who might have thought science fiction was for kids realising we have postulated quite a lot of things that are now in constant use. We didn’t make it with the PCs but then we do have a few flaws.

What do you think of sf as a prod­uct now?

I think it has improved tremendously. For one thing you have decent charac­terisation, you have plots. The hard sci­ence is not so much the pivot on which the plot turns. The pimply faced kid at fourteen who was reading Astounding and Amazing, wants more meat to the story and he wants more characterisa­tion. And we’re winning, thanks to Star Trek and Star Wars. Women have de­cided they can read science fiction too. It’s not too much for them.

And write too.

I think there are more women in the SFWA who are making a fine living out of sf than men.

If you look at the split of the awards, it seems to be shifting…

With Connie Willis and Lois Bujold grabbing everything in sight. And Nancy Kress.

When you started were you ever tempted to take a pseudonym to hide the fact that you were a woman.

No I never did, but then I was always very proud of being, not only Irish, but a woman, and it never occurred to me to hide my light under a barrel. Of course my ex-husband, whose last name was Johnson, did not want me to use Johnson. In fact he refuses to be listed in my biographies. He’s ashamed of me as a science fiction writer – that’s his problem not mine.

These days there’s less reason to be ashamed because, as you say, sf has grown up. Do you feel that it is now accepted as literature rather than genre.

Some sf is certainly literature. I’m surprised to be in that category myself, because I’m a storyteller not a literary writer. But I think that some of the finer works deserve an accolade from all over. You have people from outside the field like Margaret Atwood with her Handmaid’s Tale. Michael Crichton says he doesn’t write science fiction but we all know he does. Even Kurt Vonnegut has written quote, sf classics, unquote. Peo­ple like Clive Kussler and Wilbur Smith try a fantastical theme now and again. It fun to write like that. Something like Inca Gold by Clive Kussler is very good. They’re getting in on our action but we’ve paved the way for them so that it would be acceptable. Ten or fifteen years ago it wouldn’t have been.

How much difference has science fiction’s popularity in the movies and in other entertainment media made to you as a writer?

I don’t know it means anything to me as a writer but it has broadened the readership which means more books are being picked up and read by people who did not think they could ever under­stand or like science fiction. And that has increased the female readership as well, which is important. And authorship.

I heard that Dragonflight is in proc­ess as a movie.

Well if we ever get the script I will approve of, yes. But I’m being very diffi­cult. I don’t care if it ever gets made but they’re not going to mess up my drag­ons. They did it recently to such a classic as Narnia which is now politically correct and updated to the nineteen-fifties which I think is a tragedy.

So what is the current state of play?

We’re held up for a studio and a script that I can approve of.

Does that mean there is a direc­tor?

There’s no director yet. I want live action with CGI computer generated imagery, which is now cheaper than it was before and certainly a better bet to really investigate the rapport between dragon and rider. And that’s what the dragon books have had as their main lure, if you want, the fact that here’s this marvellous creature who’s telepathic and fire breathing and all the rest of it, who’s your best friend. That’s what’s so impor­tant about the dragon series and I’m not going to have that messed up.

The minute I saw Jurassic Park I knew it could be done.

I did too. I knew it was coming. I have friends who are in the business and they’re saying you just wait a few years and it will be less expensive and then the dragons could be done properly. I’ll wait as long as it takes because I’m not shortchanging the dragons of Pern.

Is the Dragon series what you are most proud of? (Pause) As a writer.

I don’t really know. Certainly they have paid for my life. From a short story to two and a half million words. It’s a good leap. I’m on my fourteenth dragon book at the moment. I think you’re al­ways proud of the book you’ve just fin­ished and hope that will be the one that makes your mark. It’s hard to say. I’m not very good at analysing my own thing. If I figured out how I do It I probably wouldn’t be able to do it again, so I leave it alone. I get a lot of theses and masters and doctoral dissertations on Anne McCaffrey, the writer. I always have to laugh, they haven’t got it right yet. They’re bringing their own experience into read­ing my books so of course they’re going to differ from what I thought I was doing at the time.

Does what you think you were do­ing change as you look further back?

I never go into it that way. I let other people worry about why I was doing something. There’s no doubt that what’s happening in the world around me creeps into what I’m writing no matter what century or far distant future I’m in. Be­cause people haven’t changed since the Bible was written and I don’t see that they’re going to change in the next six thousand years either. So you can use the reactions of people today and put them in different situations, where they are tested, and still have valid charac­terisations. That’s what I do; extrapolate everything and make people work a little harder in a different environment.

How much of your love of horses is there in those dragons?

Well, dragons aren’t horses. Fire liz­ards are cats. Horses are rather stupid creatures. Certainly they sort of helped but I wanted a different partnership be­tween the dragon and the rider it had to be an equal one instead of subservient. The animal is maybe a different critter but it’s not an animal as we think of animals, it’s its own self and unique. That’s what I was exploring as much as anything else.

What prompted you to go down that line?

Well, it was 1966 and I’d just sold Restoree and I had Decision At Doona fairly well done and I was looking around for a new sort of critter to put in books and I wrote this short story which John Campbell at Analog, bless his heart, picked up. The next thing I knew I was producing dragons. It was a good days work. A very good days work.

One of the most important things, it seems to me, with Anne McCaffrey is your family and I was wondering if any of them feature in your work?

Well, Todd is actually Jaxom as much as anybody. I used Gigi, sort of, for Moreta. The most unusual condition was I started the dragon stories in the late sixties and moved to Ireland in the sev­enties. Dave Gerrold came to live in Ireland and he called me up and said, ‘My landlady is Lessa.’ I said don’t be ridiculous, I made her up. ‘I don’t care if you made her up or not, she’s here, she’s my landlady. And guess what she does for a living?’ I said, She’s your landlady. He said ‘No. She rides racehorses for Seamus McGrath’s racing stable.’ Well that’s about as near as you can get to riding dragons. And I met her and she was Lessa. Definitely. That was uncanny, that I had invented this person and she was alive and well and riding racehorses in DunLaoghaire. Well, these things hap­pen. F’nor turns out to be a first mate on a fishing trawler, named Bernard Shattuck. And that was totally off the wall too.

And the interesting thing was that they were very much like the characters I had written about. Master Harper Robinton was my vocal and opera coach in Wilmington Delaware – Frederick R. Robinson – and he is now, God love him, dead. He came on as a spear carrier and he’s dominated all the major books -seven or eight books. I tried to write a story without him and he barged in and said I really do have something to say about this, Anne, and went ahead. Char­acters will do that and then you know you’ve got a good one. I find that some characters just live it up on Pern.

Obviously Robinton is a favourite, but who are the others.

I was always very fond of F’nor. Piemur is another one. He was modeled after a young friend of mine, Eamon Hanrahan, who was an engineering stu­dent and a friend of Todd’s; they both motorbiked together. Helva, of course is one of my favourite characters and I’m very fond of Killeshandra, bitch that she is. And wouldn’t Sigourney Weaver make a great Killeshandra?

Have any of the other books been optioned by Hollywood?

Oh yes, every book that I’ve written has been optioned at one time or an­other. You grab the money and run. But the only series I’m really careful about is the Dragonriders. Nothing has ever hap­pened. Hollywood goes through dozens and dozens of scripts trying to find some­thing they can use, misuse, abuse, when they get a hold of it. Even to Helva I don’t mind what happens, cause if you take Helva out of the ship you don’t have a story. So you’re fairly safe there. We’ll see. There’s a big search in Hollywood for science fiction films. They may not call it science fiction but that’s what it is. And it’s selling really well. Even such odd things as The Terminatorare tremen­dous box office.

Would you be interested in actu­ally writing the scripts?

I would with the dragons but not with anything else. I’m too close to them. For instance the Dinosaur Planet group would make an excellent children’s animation series. I wouldn’t care what they did with them. They want a planet that smells, fine. But Jurassic Park got there ahead of me.

How close to the Dragonflight book would you see the movie being?

Somebody told me recently that the movie uses the novel as the toolbox. That’s fine because everything they need is in Dragonflight. But I have had several folks – the Dragon series has been optioned about six times now – who wanted to turn everything around and put in elements that have nothing to do with the book and you don’t need it. I mean, you have to reorganise the events within the book to make a film because they were short stories originally. That said, anything they need to do is in the toolbox of the book. It’s when they start being Hollyweird I get upset. For in­stance one group wanted the dragon to speak a garble which the rider would then translate. The whole point of the book is this marvellous telepathic com­munication between rider and dragon. So they speak intelligent English. “So how can we have Dragon voices?” Very simple. You use a tunnel effect on the actor’s (rider’s) voice and that becomes his dragon’s voice. I’m open to sugges­tions about keeping Fax, who’s renamed Raxol, alive. But then at one point these clown heads did not want the dragons to go between. It’s a large planet; how do you get there fast? They didn’t want them to breathe fire. Okay, so you’ve got this core of large fighting creatures; it’s analogous to having General Patton have his men polish the outside of the tanks and when they go into war they’ve had no practice with maneuvering or with using their weapons. Come on, guys, let’s be real. One of the things the Hollywood group wanted to do was to make an action adventure film like Star Wars. Well, Dragonflight is not like that. It’s like a Star Trek script in which you have a problem which you have to solve in the course of the book. So they had totally the wrong slant. You could talk yourself sick with them and they were not listen­ing. They had their preconcoptions. In fact one group had not even read the book. They were going from my original script. I’ve learnt a lot about script writ­ing since then. That’s why I have script approval.

How strong a hand does script approval give you?

It means they can’t do a movie of a script I won’t approve. Most Hollywood studios won’t accept this sort of situa­tion. Disney Warner Brothers… In fact I turned down a million dollar offer from Warner Brothers, because I knew what they’d do. They would not give me script approval and they’d mess mess the whole idea up. The best of all possible worlds would be an independent production, where people I know and trust rather than Hollyweirds have complete control.

You seem to have had nothing but bad experiences with Hollywood.

Not to read the book, I mean it’s stupid. How are you going to know what you’ve got?

How important were awards to you?

They were important in terms of get­ting the booksellers to give me decent space on the racks. It’s exposure that makes you important.l have eight foot of shelf space in some of the larger US chains and this gives me a lot of expo­sure. I keep constantly winning the Sci­ence Fiction Book Club Award. I’ve got eight of them now. Almost embarrass­ing. Fortunately Sue Grafton keeps get­ting the Mystery Book Club Award.

How is that award decided?

That’s by polling the readership of the Science Fiction Book Club. You’ve got forty to fifty thousand people. Now whether they all vote or not or not, you know how people vote, is immaterial. But enough of them vote for me so that I keep getting the award. And it’s much more prestigious than, say, the World SF Convention awards which might be voted on by six or seven hundred people.

When you talk about prestige, which is your favourite award of all that you have had?

I actually think the Hugo was be­cause I never expected to win it. I was out in Berkeley California in 1968. It just blew my mind. I was sitting at the same table with Gene Roddenberry and Majel Barret, who were not at that point mar­ried, although they looked like it to me, and Betty Ballantine. Dave Gerrold was at the next table and he had a story up for an award. We sat there holding hands. I did not believe my name when it was called out. That was the most important one. It proved conclusively that I was someone who could be watched, that I was a saleable name. At this point I have probelms with publishers because they’re always trying to publish something by Anne McCaffrey so they can get the sales. It can be embarrassing. There’s such a thing, believe it or not, as too much popularity. It can be a headache.

Do you find that it creates a prob­lem for you, in that you’re not able to slow down and make it exactly as you want because of a deadline?

No. I do try to write to deadlines but sometimes I don’t make it. My publish­ers, particularly Del Rey, have been un­derstanding. For instance The Girl Who Heard Dragons came out in the States and everyone thought it was a full Pern novel because the publisher deliberately did not state that it was a collection of short stories. And I’ve gotten some let­ters of complaint from people that this was unfair publicity, and it was. So the UK copy very definitely says a collection of fifteen short stories. Because I don’t like to mislead my public. But I also don’t seem to have as much control as I think I do.

Do you get any control over the images they put on the cover?

I have cover control. Particularly in England where the covers are not as good, generally speaking, as they are in the States. Of course I was fortunate enough to get Michael Whelan for The White Dragon. That cover sold the book. It just leapt off shelves into people’s arms. He’s done most of my Dragon book covers.

Why do you say the UK covers aren’t as good as the US?

Well they weren’t. When Dragonquest came out from Rapp and Whiting it was a black cover with a distorted blue fe­male figure on a Chinese doll. What does that have to do with Dragonflight for God’s sake. I refused to publish with that man ever again. Gradually I worked it into my English contracts that I had cover approval. Orbit does some of my collaborations and I made it plain I did not like the first cover that came out and that they should look at their contact and see that I had cover approval. So I have managed to get better covers. But they’re still not great on some of the books but they’re an improvement on what was originally submitted to me.

Is it the artists, or the lack of im­agination?

Science fiction is still sort of a step­child in England. The art director doesn’t have that much money for books. Some of them were okay but the covers in the States are much better. Ballantine books was the one that started having proper covers on their paperbacks in the fifties and sixties and that started the trend in the States so that you had covers that actually had something to do with the book inside them.

If you were going to have an artist who was recognised as the Anne McCaffrey cover artist as Josh Kirby is for Terry Pratchett, is there some­one…?

Michael Whelan in the States, if he’s not too busy. Steve Weston in England. He always calls me up and says, “Okay, Anne, what will we put on this book?” So we usually arrive at something.

What covers has he done?

He does the Corgi covers for me. The Dragonriders of Pern and some other stuff. I think England used the Ed Romas covers for the Tower and Hive series. Sometimes they’ll take the American cover just to keep the editions, particu­larly the hardcovers, consistent.

In the UK you must have three or four different publishers. How come you main publisher doesn’t grab eve­rything?

Corgi recently have brought under their logo the five books that still be­longed to Andre Deutsch. And then they decided to keep to ‘pure’ McCaffrey, so when the collaboration came up… I had a contract with Futura McDonald which is now Orbit, or something like that, I can’t keep up with the changes. That was to do the Dinosaur Planet series, which was supposed to be for juveniles, but they changed their mind mid-stream. I asked not to do the third book in the group because I just couldn’t spin the story further on, not as an adult. Then I did collaborations with Elizabeth Moon and Jody Lyn Nye and Corgi did not want to take them up. So Orbit did for me and they took the other collaborations, the five ship stories I’ve done. I only have two publishers now in England.

How did the collaborations come about?

There are a lot of mid-list writers who’ve been having a wretched time, both here and in the US. Publishers found it was cheaper to find a couple of unknowns and pay them the low rate. It was cheaper to do that than to give the mid-list writer what they were worth. So Bill Fawcett decided that what he could do was to pair up names of upcoming writers with big name writers. They’d get the same attention that the big name writer got and maybe they could move off on their own, and they all have. Like Mercedes Lackey, Steve Sterling, Eliza­beth Moon, Jody Lyn Nye. Then Eliza­beth Anne Scarborough came to live with me when she was researching an Irish book and we got to talking one evening and decided to write a book between the pair of us. So we would work on our own books in the morning or the afternoon then pass the magic disk be­tween computers and get on with the story. That was The Powers That Be, using Annie’s Alaskan background. I’d been to Alaska too so I knew something. There hadn’t been an ice planet, I notice there are two new ones out now.

Did you enjoy the collaboration?

Yes. We each had special charac­ters and we would do the scenes which involved them and then seam it together.

You didn’t find the seaming to­gether…?

…no problem. I was senior author. No, we agreed on this, that one of us had to be top author. And since I had more experience, I got to do it. So I did the final draft polish.

Have you any further collabora­tions coming up?

No. I have just about as much work as I have energy for without taking on anything new.

Will you begin to take it a little easier?

I have to. I’m looking at my seventi­eth birthday in April (1996) and I think I’m going to have to take it a bit easier.

When you look back, what are the high points? The ones from purely your perspective.

That I only see? When I got onto the New York Times bestseller list. Me? In a science fiction novel? And I was the first avowed science fiction writer to get on it. Because Crichton says he doesn’t write Sf. Neither does Kurt Vonnegut. But I beat Arthur Clarke, Isaac Asimov and Frank Herbert. With the White Dragon.

I get letters occasionally that just blow me to tears. People who’ve read one of the books at a critical point in their lives and have got turned around be­cause of something I wrote. Most of my heroines are victims who become survi­vors, so when I see someone who has been a victim become a survivor be­cause of something I wrote, that’s glad-making. It’s one of the unsung triumphs of being a writer, because you don’t brag about those, but boy do they mean a lot.

You seem to have a very close relationship with your fans. They al­ways seem to be welcome to just walk up and have a chat.

I’ve never bitten anybody yet. There are one or two I would like to but fortu­nately they’ve stayed out of reach. I’m currently involved in a copyright infringe­ment on some on-line nerd who decided he would get in on the action and he had the audacity to copyright work of mine which he had copied word for word. That’s a no no.

How do you track something like that down?

It was tracked down for me. Some­body said did I know about it and I said no, tell me. And as it was so obviously a copyright infringement we have decided to take action.

That is an area that is going to proliferate.

It’s proliferating right now with the World Wide Web. I don’t mind people roleplaying on Pern – there are about fifty fanzines, that sort of thing, about Pern -I do insist they put my copyright notice. I also have a trademark now, Dragonriders of Pern, which is registered to me. I don’t mind people enjoying Pern. I do object when they decide they can do it better and put in totally extraneous things. I made it clear there is absolutely no contact with Earth on Pern. I’ve set that up. You can’t have Red and Black Dragons, sorry, or Silver Dragons. You can only have the existing colours. You can’t use any of the main characters, except offstage.

A small part of the interview (at the end) has been omitted as it related only to a story published in that issue of Albedo One.

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Book reviews from Albedo One issue #3 1993.

Index of first lines

Enlightenment came to Patera Silk on the ball court; nothing could ever be the same after that. So runs the first line of NIGHTSIDE THE LONG SUN (NEL, HARDBACK, UK £15.99, 333 pp) the new novel, and first in a new series set in the universe of his Urth books, by GENE WOLFE. As a master of his craft one ex­pects only the best from Wolfe and as first lines go this one is pretty impressive. But from my perspective, and I consider myself a fan of his work, much of what follows goes downhill. My main complaint about NIGHTSIDE is that it is all too obviously part one of a series and has been written as a means of setting the scene for what is to follow and to introduce backgrounds and characters more than it is intended to entertain as a work in its own right. Conse­quently it moves at the leisurely pace of a work of much greater length, and import one might say if feeling particularly bitchy, and all the action within its pages feels as though it has been padded with an excess of detail which leaves it unbalanced.

That said, it is worth sticking with all the way through to the end and although it may not quite deliver the reward a reader may feel is his due the time and energy invested in its 333 pages, what it promises for the future (in a further three volumes) is cer­tainly intriguing. Patera Silk is a priest whose Manteion (a cross between his home, a monastry and a church) is sold from under him to a property developer, and a some­what shady character to boot. Following his enlightenment, Patera Silk decides to take matters into his own hands. His plan is to break into the crooked developer’s house, which is something of a fortress, confront the man and demand (with threats of vio­lence if necessary) the return of the Manteion. Nobody else gives him much (any) chance of succeeding, not surpris­ingly, but because he believes it to be the will of one of his gods, he proceeds.

For mature readers (maturity being a state of mind rather than an accumulation of years in this case) who appreciate first class writing for its own sake, NIGHTSIDE THE LONG SUN is well worth the invest­ment. But a word of warning to anyone looking for an all-action blockbuster: walk on by.

Already showered with awards, it seems arrogant of me to think that anyone could value my opinion of this novel, let alone base their decision to read it upon any recommendation I might make. But it is not always the best or most interesting or the most readable novel that wins the awards. As with everything, voting in the Hugos etc. is very much a matter of personal taste – or who is flavour of the (month/year/decade -check one). So it is possible for crap (at least what I consider to be crap) to cop the major awards. But DOOMSDAY BOOK (NEL, PAPERBACK, £5.99,650pp) by CONNIE WILLIS does not fall into this category. DOOMSDAY BOOK is, in fact, a beautifully realised tragedy set against the background of England in the Middle Ages. It also involves time travel, the plague and an intriguing mystery. Willis has peopled it with characters for whom we can really care, whether they hail from our century or that which our heroine visits and her back¬ground detail is so convincing that she must have spent years researching it. Of course it is always possible that it’s just that I am both ignorant of the period or particularly gullible – but let’s say for the sake of argu¬ment that she’s done a job good enough to fool the average reader.

One thing that you will have noticed about Connie Willis, if you have read her before, is the measured pace of her writing. She is never in a hurry to go anywhere so that the reader always has ample time to admire the scenery she has crafted. The life stories of the central players are built up over hundreds of pages rather than tens and the plot unfolds in a leisurely manner. There is seldom, if ever, any sign of slam down, drag out action but in the context of the stories she wishes to tell and the manner of their telling, it hardly seems necessary -even in a novel of this length. So why should you bother to part with your hard earned for this particular book? Do yourself a favour and find out for yourself. At £5.99 it will be a cheap lesson. Of course the money you spend on the rest of her output may amount to a considerable sum.

FAERY IN SHADOW (LEGEND, TRADE PAPERBACK, £8.99,249 pp) has certainly answered some questions about C.J. CHERRYH in my mind. Many years ago (when Adam was a boy) I read the Faded Sun trilogy and thoroughly enjoyed it, with certain reservations. Since then I have ploughed my way through three more of her SF novels, most recently HELLBURNER, and so it was with mixed feelings that I approached this, her latest, and the first fantasy of hers I have tried.

I wanted to like FAERY IN SHADOW, I really did. After The Faded Sun I had considered myself, if not a fan, at least someone who appreciated her fiction deeply. But I have to say that as far as I am concerned, following the delights of FAERY it is definitely time for me to wake up and smell the coffee. If I really did like The Faded Sun all those years ago, things have certainly changed. I know that she is held in the highest esteem in writerly circles but it is time for me to stand up and be counted. She does not put her words in the optimum order. Not all of her sentences make immediate sense to the reader who might not be concentrating one hundred and one per cent upon what Ms Cherryh is trying to say.

Yes folks, I found this quite difficult, and tiring, to read. It also cost me a couple of weeks of my life to get through this one, and I am usually quite a fast reader. When I look back on the experience of re-reading sentence after sentence two or three times in order to make sense of what she was trying to put across I have to ask myself was it worth the effort.

My advice to you is don’t waste the time in finding out the answer to that question for yourself. Find something a little more user friendly – like the telephone directory.

Who needs another book about Atlantis by some n utter with a foreign sounding name, I imagine a number of you asking yourselves. And in many cases (most indeed) you would be right to put forward the question. But THE FLOOD FROM HEAVEN (PAN, PAPERBACK, £5.99,224pp) by EBERHARD ZANGGER is different enough from the ‘Aliens from Atlantis kidnapped me for sex’ brigade to be of interest to anyone from serious students of history to the most casual of readers.

Zangger takes as his starting point the two works of Plato, Timaeus and Critias, in which he describes Atlantis and which are the original references to the lost continent. Every story concerning Atlantis can be traced back to a few short pieces in these works, the second of which, Critias, was left unfinished.

So why was Critias left unfinished? It was not his last work. It was part two of a planned trilogy which seems to have been scrapped a short way into book two. If we are to give credence to Zangger’s theories it is because Plato discovered he had made a fundamental error in telling the Atlantis story, which he had presented not as legend but as fact, as history. And it is upon this re-interpretation of Atlantis as Zangger believes Plato himself must have done, that he bases his work. In pursuit of his theory he indulges in a little detective work that even Sherlock Holmes might have been proud of and in the end places before the reader every significant reason he can think of as to why his research amounts to no more than bunkum.

Personally I think he may be as close to the truth as anyone is ever going to get and his answer is certainly more plausible than anything I have seen before. My only problem with it is that as an incurable romantic I far prefer the Atlantis that disappeared beneath the waves of the Atlantic Ocean some twelve thousand years ago.

For something that is transparently a vehicle for getting mileage out of a big name whose recent performances have been below par, STRANGE DREAMS (HARPER COLLINS, TRADE PAPERBACK, £8.99,531 pp) edited by STEPHEN DONALDSON turns out to be one helluva good anthology. Perhaps if it had not been for the Bestselling Author of The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant tag after his name they might have got away with it. Some of us might have been fooled into thinking that Donaldson was setting forth on a new career as an editor and anthologist. We might have believed that compiling this anthology fulfilled some lifelong need in the man. There again, we might still have seen it as merely an excuse to generate some more product under the Donaldson name. But at the end of the day, who cares as long as the product is worthwhile.

If you like short stories and you haven’t got too many of these already in other collections I can heartily recommend purchasing STRANGE DREAMS. Although there are few surprises in terms of author or story content, there’s hardly a one that doesn’t deserve its place here – more about The Storming of Annie Kinsale by Lucius Shepard later. The authors include such luminaries as Orson Scott Card with the near-ubiquitous Euminides in the Fourth-Floor Lavatory, R.A. Lafferty whose marvellous Narrow Valley has been the highlight of many an anthology, Theodore Sturgeon with his darkly humourous And Now The News, Harlan Ellison whose Jeffty Is Five is always worth another look and John Varley with Air Raid which metamorphosed into the movie Millenium.

Of course there are exceptions and I’ve picked the two which are most glaring. If you have passed by Jorge Luis Borges on the shelves of your local library or book¬shop without pause, read his contribution to STRANGE DREAMS and kick yourself for what you’ve been missing all these years. The story here – The Aleph – is a perfectly ordinary sample of his work and it is a wonderful illustration of why the word ‘magic’ appears in the description ‘magic realism’. Look at this for a first line: On the burning February morning Beatriz Viterbo died, after braving an agony that never for a single moment gave way to self-pity or fear, I noticed that the sidewalk billboards around Constitution Plaza were advertising some new brand or other of American cigarettes.

His writing is so effortlessly ordinary and yet approaches everything from such an odd angle that you must question even the most mundane of statements. The Aleph presents itself in the beginning as a love story, develops into a tale of literary envy and becomes suddenly and without prior warning a piece of the purest Science Fiction.

The Storming of Annie Kinsale on the other hand, while coming from the pen of an author who would claim to plough the outer edges of magic realism, is a total piece of stage-Oirish blarney which might just convince some fifth-generation New York Paddy with a name like Zablinsky or Tortelli or Tortuga or Torquemada, but faith and begorrah would ye ever be after kindly sparing us your arrogantly unresearched bullshit if you wouldn’t be afther minding Mr Shepard, yer honour. You nearly spoiled a perfectly good anthology, never to mind a perfectly good lunch.

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Book Reviews from Albedo One issue #1 1993

Fanfare of trumpets and a drumroll please, maestro. The new Stephen King novel is here and despite the regularity with which his books now appear – second only to Dean R. Koontz retreads – the event still causes a flutter in the hearts of horror fans everywhere. And rightly so, for no matter how each succeed­ing novel stacks up in the King oeuvre, compared to the rest of the pack he’s in a different class.

But there are worrying signs in DOLORES  CLAIBORNE  (HODDER & STOUGHTON, HARDBACK, 241pp, UK£14.99) for those that so loved his earlier work. The body count is down, the gore is virtually non-existent and there are almost no supernatural elements worth speaking of. Worrying signs for those that have failed to grow with him, that is, because Dolores Claiborne is an altogether more mature offering from the pen of a writer who has realised that he does not have to shock his audience out of its wits to hold its attention. Dolores Claibome is a. con­tinuation of the road King first set foot upon with last year’s Gerald’s game,  but leads the reader through this unfamiliar terrain (for King afi­cionados) at a more comfortable pace. There is a question that must now be asked about this direction. Is it horror? It is certainly being mar­keted as  such and given the man’s track record his publishers would have to be insane to do otherwise. But with­out the name of King on the jacket into what niche would this latest of­fering fall?

Dolores Claiborne is certainly the closest that King has come to mainstream at novel length and the pace and style of the novel would certainly lend themselves readily to re-labelling, but with that name in the mix, shaking the horror tag will be a slow process, if his publishers and agent permit him to even attempt such a thing.

So what is the book about? Dolores Claiborne has worked most of her adult life as housekeeper and companion to Vera Donovan, a sad and lonely woman living on the edge of madness. Deserted by her family, Vera has no-one in the world except Dolores whom she treats abominably. Naturally, when Vera dies in suspicious circumstances Dolores is blamed. Because, as eve­rybody knows – though it has never been proved – Dolores Claiborne mur­dered her husband.

The story is told in Dolores’ own words as she recounts the events that led up to the death of her em­ployer to an audience of three: two policemen and a stenographer. The author assumes the voice of a cantan­kerous old woman and maintains it extremely well throughout, present­ing a clear picture of this prickly, sharp-tongued woman whom one can respect and sympathise with even if she is almost impossible to like.

Dolores Claibome is neither a tour dc force nor a blockbuster but that said I have no hesitation in rec­ommending it to all fans of Stephen King (whose literary horizons it may broaden) and to anyone who likes a good story, well written.

After a gap that lasted the guts of a decade Joe Haldeman has finally presented his public with the final part of his Worlds trilogy, WORLDS ENOUGH AND TIME (NEL, HARDBACK, 332 pp, UKE15.99). Unfortunately one is left wondering exactly why he bothered. I like Joe Haldeman as a writer and have thor­oughly enjoyed the other novels of his that I have read but I have to say that when I read the first two parts of the trilogy WORLDS and WORLDS APART, which have been reprinted simultaneously in paperback, I was disappointed They were pretty stand­ard fare with little to make them stand out from the crowd. Part three is not even up to the standard of those first two.

The story follows the journey of a select group of inhabitants from the worlds – artificial satellites upon which

Earth’s excess population had built a better future for themselves – to the planet Epsilon on which they hope to establish a colony. The majority of the novel is dedicated to the journey, and particularly to Marianne O’Hara – the central character from the previ­ous book. It follows her hopes and dreams, the triumphs and tragedies of her life. Unfortunately (again) these just aren’t arresting or even very in­teresting. Sorry, Joe, from a top rank writer one expects better. Much bet­ter.

From a top rank writer one expects something like THE KING MUST DIE by MARY RENAULT which has just been reprinted by SCEPTRE in paperback (379pp, UK£5.99). This was written as an historical novel in the nineteen fifties long before we discovered that J.R.R.Tolkien had single-handedly invented (so it seems) the fantasy genre. It is a retelling of the Theseus legend from Greek mythology somewhat reworked based upon archaeological evidence. A rationalisation of what may have been behind the tale that has been handed down through countless generations of the boy king who sacrifices himself to certain death as a tribute to King Minos of Crete and who meets and kills the terrifying Minotaur freeing his people from the yoke of Crete.

This is simply the best fantasy (sorry, historical) novel I have read in ten years. Anyone who considers them¬selves a fan of the genre should do themselves a favour and read The King Must Die. It is simply brilliant.

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Namedropping in Dublin – an interview with Clive Barker

This is an interview with Clive Barker that featured in Albedo One #3 from Winter 1993. Hopefully it gives an interesting snapshot of his thoughts and opinions at that point in his career. This is the first time that it has appeared on-line.

When word trickled down that there was the chance to interview a major writer, who was also a film director, playwright and artist, I grabbed Des Doyle (expert on all things fantastical) and elbowed myself to the head of the queue. Naturally we were more than a little in awe of, what to us was a very important person indeed, but after less than two minutes in his company he had put us entirely at our ease, Clive Barker is not only a very talented man but also a very friendly and likeable one. On the sort of schedule he was maintaining during the weeks leading up to our meeting he had every right to be jet lagged and irritable. Instead he was polite, enthusiastic and appeared to be as interested in us as we were in him. If I wasn’t a fan before the interview, I certainly was afterwards.

ALBEDO ONE: In the new edition of The Hellbound Heart the word fabulist occurs as a description of the type of writer you are. Is this your word or that of the Harper Collins publicity machine?

BARKER: It was my notion that… the terminology was somewhat troubled. Publishers and bookstores have the desire to compartmentalise the kind of fiction we’re interested in. Sometimes in a way which forces the fiction to be viewed in a way that is not useful to that fiction, dividing the whole area of imaginative fiction into Horror, SF and Fantasy only works to a certain point, there are places were the material seems to be all three things – Alien as a movie seems to be plainly all three things and there are certainly lots of literary equivalents to that – Weaveworld and The Great and Secret Show, and certainly books which touch on horror, certainly have large fantastical elements in them and also have elements of SF, not hard SF, not hi-tech SF, not Bill’s (Gibson) cyberpunk SF but perhaps an older sense, a 19th century sense of SF. Anyway however the dialectic goes, the fact is that the areas overlap in a lots of places. I am not interested in writing for a particular genre audience, I am interested in writing for people who are interested in imaginative fiction, which I see as a body of literature which is very rich, very large, very varied which runs from Moby Dick to Alice in Wonderland and passes through Dante and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, obviously Frankenstein and Gulliver’s Travels and Pilgrim’s Progress. It’s this massive body of imaginative fiction.

ALBEDO ONE: Does this give you a problem in the States where they’re keener on giving labels to everything?

BARKER: Actually I’ve had less problems with categorizations in the States than I’ve had here. Not movies, I’m talking about books now. That may be because I’m an import there, I’m not quite in translation -I’m British so I’m weird anyway – there’s always that assumption. I’ve always said that if my books were translated from the Portuguese I’d get better reviews. That whole academic critical tradition – if it’s imported then it’s probably magic realism. And if it’s home bred it’s genre. I looked at the terminologies and saw that I fit into none of them, or all three depending on your point of view, and if I used the general term fantasy it will be associated with Tolkien, which is not the kind of work that I do, or Conan the Barbarian, or dragon-haunted Anne McCaffrey territory. A new word was needed, or rather an old word was revitalized, and that word was fabulist -somebody who makes fables, somebody who lies, somebody who deals in the fabulous. I’ve also tried and I’m very pleased to find that it’s carrying some weight now, to use the word fantastique to describe this body of fiction and I’m just stealing something from the French and using it in our vocabulary in the hope that eventually we begin, even within the community of the people who are intent on analysing this body of work, using this word, because ‘we are purveyors of imaginative fiction’ is a rather laborious way of putting it. We make the fantastique have a little bit more elegance to it. Labels are also finally, completely redundant. Once the person has picked up the book and is reading it, it doesn’t matter what the terminologies are. But you need the label to get them to pick it up in the first place. At least until the name means more that the label. Which is what’s begun to happen now and I think people pick up a Clive Barker book and it doesn’t matter as long as I don’t write a cookbook.

ALBEDO ONE: Were the Books of Blood originally written with the intention of submitting them to magazines?

BARKER: They were written in the first place as entertainments for friends and they were published by accident. I had a theatre agent who frankly knew fuck all about publishing books but he had a rudimentary grasp. I showed him these stories which weren’t to his taste at all but he said, ‘I’ll do something with them’. He sent four or five to Gollancz at first and the story goes that Livia Gollancz, the matriarch of Gollancz at the time, clutched her pearls and shrieked as though she had discovered there was a mouse in her underwear and said take these away from me. And then we passed them along to Barbara Booth at Sphere  who said we’ll take these – we’ 11 take whatever you’ ve got. I said well that’s actually all I’ve got. She said we can’t do much with this small number but we could do more if you had more. So I said give me some time and that’s how those came about. But it was, as with so many of these things, as much accident as intention. I’d like to claim that there was some great master plan … I’m not even sure that my career hasn’t gone from one accident to another. I’m not very good with the long view, I just follow my imagination and it leads me into new areas constantly. I get very bored very quickly so I tend to move on because I’m tired of a certain area.

ALBEDO ONE: Can you see yourself getting tired of the fabulist area?

BARKER: No because the fabulist area is as big as Moby Dick to Alice in Wonderland.   The whole point about fabulism is that, I think, it’s the interesting fifty percent of literature.

ALBEDO ONE: You once said in an interview that your books were written from the points of view of somebody on the outside looking in and that Stephen King wrote from the inside looking out. Can you enlarge on this?

BARKER: Steve writes from the point of view that the status quo is something to be valued. I think that the status quo is actually repressive and banal and wretched. He writes from the point of view of ordinary individuals whose lives and values are under threat from forces, monstrous things from other countries (how terrible), or other planets with strange plants. You know the old line about aliens coming and raping our food and eating our women. I think Steve’s perception is the world outside the community, perhaps even outside the family is a dangerous threatening place which is full of strange people with odd sexual habits, with strange configurations to their faces etc. I come the opposite way. I view the family as being the root of much of the unhappiness the individual feels. The conservatism, the very mundaneness of people’s lives, the source of the rage that makes people explode into violence and anti- social behaviour. And certainly the social and religious structures which control those communities, families in their intellectual compartments, are also responsible for the profound unhappiness individuals feel com-promising what is in them right through their lives, so my heroes or heroines, if they’re not marginal to start with become marginalised the further from the status quo they go or are summoned, for very often the thing that lies outside and threatens the status quo is in fact finally indifferent to it. The powers that come through my books, the semi-divinities, the monsters, angels and demons don’t really have the same kind of destructive intentions that Steve’s monsters do. They couldn’t give a fuck about the status quo, they don’t care about screwing up the world; what they care about is their own agenda which is actually a much larger agenda than destroying a whole bunch of houses on a hill. A lot of times the human beings are irrelevancies to them, and what the human beings in my stories often do is grab hold of this passing glimpse of transcendence and say I want a bit of this, maybe I’m frightened but I’m more hungry for it than I am frightened. Part of it is about purpose and meaning. What often happens in my stories is that when these forces appear in the lives of these ordinary people, the people realise that there is a larger context for their behaviour. Maybe they realise that their lives are not going to end when they draw their final breath, that around them in the atmosphere are forces that are important to them.

ALBEDO ONE: Do you believe that?

BARKER: Completely. It is my belief about the world. I am putting into metaphorical form my profoundest beliefs about what the world is like. I believe that – whose quote is it – “not only is the world stranger than we know, it is stranger than we can know “? As children we know more about the world, grasp all kinds of possibilities about it. Then we steadily close down. The shutters are nailed across our faces. And what the fiction of fantastique does is get its fingernails under the shutters and start to pull again to let a little bit of light into the sealed unit of our consciousness and say ‘remember the sense of wonder, the sense of infinite possibilities, remember what happened when you were first told the stars were really suns and that the light was very old and maybe these suns had even gone out by that time and remember all of those wonderments, and having remembered all those things remember them again.

ALBEDO ONE: Would you describe Stephen King as an influence?

BARKER: No. I think you can see from my fiction that he’s not. He’s a force of nature. He has an incredible fecundity, a massive audience and I am extremely happy for him, he’s a very nice man and I wish him every success in the world. I feel not the slightest compunction to compete with him.

ALBEDO ONE: Did him christening you the future of horror put a weight on your shoulders?

BARKER: I think it was a weight that I shrugged pretty quickly. Weaveworld was published three years after the Books of Blood came out almost to say I’m not a horror writer, I’m not in this competition, I’m not running a race.

ALBEDO ONE: In the publicity material for Imagica, names like C.S Lewis, Lewis Carroll and J.G Ballard are mentioned. Are these your influences?

BARKER: Influences fall into at least two categories – the category of authors you read when you’re a child and you first get a sense that adults are actually making a profession out of telling these kinds of stories. There’s another kind which you discover later. Ballard would fall into that category.

ALBEDO ONE: The influence of authors in childhood is more profound?

BARKER: Yes absolutely. Finally the first book of the fantastique that you pick up and read all to yourself or the first book that you buy – I remember I bought a Pan edition of Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination for two and six back in 1962 or something, at the age often. It was a major investment and I treasured it and I read it through many times until I had another two and six to buy something else. The effect that a book like this has on you is profound It’s like your first fuck – you’re never going to forget it.

ALBEDO ONE: It might not have been that great, but you’re…

BARKER: …never going to forget it. Exactly. Especially if you’ve paid for it. The feeling you get when you discover books with an intellectual subtext, which Poe has but I didn’t know at the age often. Actually Lewis has in the Narnia books but I was completely unaware of. We then disgraced into a lengthy (well, fairly lengthy) discussion on C.S Lewis’s Christianity, Orson Scott Card’s championing of the Mormon faith and other esoterica but…

BARKER: The whole issue of the Christian fantastique fascinates me now because of Imagica – because Imagica is a book in which the hero turns out to be the half- brother of Christ – so I went back to all my favourite examples of the Christian fantastique. Pilgrim’s Progress is prime amongst those and an extraordinary work of the imagination which is completely passed over in books about the history of the imagination . If you study that book it is an extraordinary mental journey that is being taken and immaculately cleanly presented. I count that a success. I count Charles Williams a failure. The theology doesn’t marry cleanly to the narrative. Chesterton works wonderfully well, marrying his Christianity with his fiction, and is horribly undervalued critically and academically. I wanted, as a Christian revisionist and a Blakean, to bring those points of view to bear on a large scale narrative . It seems to me as though too often heroic fantasy (hate that term) has taken refuge in the metaphysics of dead cultures and in doing so managed to both take itself into a place of safety – who the hell is going to argue if you fuck over a Norse god – and remove itself from any serious debate. Point two, it seems to me that in Tolkien at least, the values which are being supported are not so much Christian values as Home Counties values. They’re the values of a very particular kind of Englishness. I sure as shit wouldn’t want to live there.

ALBEDO ONE: You probably don’t have the feet for it.

BARKER: The only thing that ever plays on the radio is the Archers, right? It is a world whose values are the values of a civilised, but a very dusty, dowdy culture.

ALBEDO ONE: Isn’t that the secret of its success – that it was so comfortable.

BARKER: I think not. The Lord of the Rings doesn’t succeed because it’s about defending the Shire but because it’s about little people, and they could have come from any culture, against mega scale villains and the little people succeed. I think the Shire could have been a good deal less cosy and the narrative still would have worked. The Lord of the Rings really doesn’t come into its own as a narrative, and Tolkien doesn’t find his voice, until they’re actually out of the Shire, when the adventure moves from this rather cloistered scones for tea environment into something which has more risk; when we begin to get a sense of the great darkness against which these creatures are set. I think the scones for tea values of the Wind in the Willows, which is a beautiful piece of fantasy writing, is a different thing. I recently read a very interesting essay in a book called Secret Gardens, which is about the golden age of children’s literature, which talks about the fact that my favourite chapter is the great failure of the book. My favourite chapter is The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, in which they meet the Great God Pan of course, and the writer is saying that this is a terrible gaffe-a stylistic and conceptual gaffe to be introducing the G.G. Pan into this world of punting and picnicking animals and that to me seemed to be the very point of it. That when these darker, more rich, maybe more sexual figures, appear in the fiction of the fantastique, that’s when it catches fire for me. I enjoy the picnicking but the confrontations with the G.G. Pan there in the deep woods seems to me the real heart of enchantment in that book.

ALBEDO ONE: Children seem to prefer the darker side of fantasy, while we wonder if they’re up to it.

BARKER: I was giving a talk at a university a few days ago and Ramsey Campbell was in the audience and somebody asked a question about Pinhead from the Hellraiser movie. Whether I’d intended to make him this cult hero – it was all by accident – and Ramsey pipes up from the back he’d been going around schools vetting them for his son Matthew and he went into one which had an art exhibition of ten-year-old’s art and the first picture which had been put up to impress parents with a civilised school this was, was a picture of Pinhead.

ALBEDO ONE: How did that movie come about? Did New World come to you?

BARKER: No, I did a screenplay. I sat down with a friend of a friend who wanted to produce movies and 1 said, ‘I’ve never directed a movie but I’d like to direct’ and he said, ‘I’ve never produced but I’d like to and so we’ve got ignorance in common’. So I said to him, ‘what do you think they’ll give us?’ and he said, ‘they might give us a million dollars ‘ So I said,’ what can we get for a million?’ and he gave me a list of things and Hellbound Heart suggested itself as something we could turn into a movie for very little money.

ALBEDO ONE: Are you happy with what came out of it?

BARKER: For a million dollars? Yeah!

ALBEDO ONE: If you had ten million dollars would you like to make changes?

BARKER: Oh, yeah! They’re all open wounds. But the fact is you do what you do and you move on and you say we’ve got some stuff I like and some I hated.

ALBEDO ONE: Were you happy with Hellbound as a sequel?

BARKER: They’re my beasties, so l watch them totter off into the world like a loving father and watch them do things which I wouldn’t have them do but they’re under their own control to some extent. I can’t find it in my heart to be overly possessive. Life’s too short to be constantly glancing over your shoulder and saying, ‘shit, I should have had control over that’, because you can’t.

ALBEDO ONE: Would you be interested in directing a movie from someone else’s script?

BARKER: No, to be perfectly honest because I have my three score years and ten and I have a head full of ideas. I would much prefer to just do what I want to do.

ALBEDO ONE: Buddy Vance in The Great and Secret Show said that stuff like sleeping and shaving are irrelevancies and he was going to live 24 hours a day. Is that you?

BARKER: I did the calculations for Buddy. He worked out how much time he spent sleeping and shaving. It seems like we’re an entropic system and it steadily works its way down into nothingness and we’ve got to fight really hard to hold to purpose, to meaning. I feel the battle is against meaningless, purposelessness. The only way 1 know how to fight is by making work – by writing stories, by painting pictures, by making movies, by occupying myself in such a way that the void doesn’t yawn quite so darkly or grimly as if I was sitting on my own. I hate being ill and being reduced to being static. I hate sitting in front of the TV and being uninvolved in what’s going on. I hate waiting in airports – everybody hates waiting in airports – but we also invite into our lives the mundane because it’s comfortable, it’s safe, it’s strangely calming, the rhythm of something repeated. And it sickens me. And yet I will seem to have for an extended period an incredibly mundane life. When I wrote Imagica I wrote six days a week for sixteen months. What could be more boring than going to the desk every morning and writing three thousand words? And yet the internal adventure was so full of turmoil and tumult and romance and excess that it seemed to me to be a magic carpet ride.

ALBEDO ONE: You sound like someone who writes a book to find out how it ends.

BARKER: No, that doesn’t happen. Particularly a book like Imagica is meticulously plotted before it begins and I will diverge from that plotting when a new idea comes along. But I knew I was writing about a faker of paintings who was finally going to fall in love with a creature which was neither male nor female and I knew that he was the half-brother of Christ, so I knew his father was God. I didn’t know who his mother was – I worked that out along the way. I knew all about Judith. I knew what kind of places I wanted him to visit. I’d always wanted to write about a fabled city in the shape of a volcano with millions of people living in a tiny space, a place of decadence. I’d always wanted to write about a lake whose waters could possess you, a lake that had been pissed by a goddess.

ALBEDO ONE: Did you know how it ended when you started?

BARKER: I knew who lived and died and what kind of transcendence I wanted for my characters. And I knew what the first sentence of the book would be. I knew that in the teachings of Pluthero Craxase the line was there was only ever room for three people and I knew that they were Judith Gentle and Piopah and by and large everybody else was… redundant. I wanted to write a thousand page book in which the thing was really about three people and everybody else – the gods the goddess the demons the armies were somehow extrusions from those forces.

ALBEDO ONE: Are all your books that meticulously planned?

BARKER: Always, because they’re long, you know. That was even true of the short ones, it was true of Cabal as well. But for Weaveworld and Great and Secret Show there was a chapter by chapter breakdown. It’s my method, it’s not everybody’s. It works for me. My method is to build a narrative structure on which I’m going to heap all the details of my invention and, for me, the pleasure of reading is in the details, the asides, the digressions, the little insight. I want the narrative to be solid and strong and I want to have a terrible inevitability about it so that when Gentle begins as a faker of paintings and has his art taken away from him because he realises it is of no value, when he realises 800 pages later that he can actually make a map of his journeys, that he can use his talent as a means of recounting, of sending out into the world information about the journey he has taken, the reader should be able to track the change of attitude – from this waster at the start to this mapmaker at the end and that arc be very precisely pinpointed and drawn.

ALBEDO ONE: Has moving to America had an effect on what you’re writing?

BARKER: I don’t think so, I wrote about America before I moved and I’ll write about England now I have

ALBEDO ONE: But actually being steeped into that culture?

BARKER: The only effect it may have had is of making me more proper.

ALBEDO ONE: Because you see yourself as being more English now that you’re abroad?

BARKER: Yes I’m very aware that my cultural origins are much more literary that those of the people around me; That I have much less interest in TV and game-shows and I Love Lucy repeats. My enthusiasm for popular culture is pretty obvious but it’s not anything like as all-consuming as it is for many of the people living in LA whose concern seems to circle over and over again and around the box office receipts for a given movie or how many copies of Spiderman were sold this week. Who gives a fart? There’s no sense of tradition, the long view in either direction. Because there isn’t much history to look back on there isn’t the ambition for the long scale endeavour. But we in the area of the fantastique are able to access mythologies and ideas… one of the things I dislike about the style of so many contemporary horror novels is their reliance on the colloquial, the momentary, the sense that they feel more confident being poppy, filling the page with so many contemporary references that in five year’s time the text will be out of date.

ALBEDO ONE: What are the novels of the fantastique that have been written within the past ten years that will last?

BARKER: Ghost Story, I think. It’s a tremendous piece of work, first rate. I think people will look back very fondly on Red Dragon, more than on Silence of the Lambs. I think Red Dragon is the superior book. What else have I been blown away by. I think people will view Ramsey’s body of work very favourably and I think it will be the earlier things they will feel more comfortable with

ALBEDO ONE: Would you find anything of worth in James Herbert’s work?

BARKER: I think Jim is a great pop writer. I don’t know how the future will judge him. He’s not a very pure writer, stylistically. He’s very journalistic. I think that’s a frailty. It is very difficult to have both things. If you’re so up to date you can catch the popular audience there’s a good chance you’re sacrificing some of the long term effects. I would prefer to err on the side of the long term. Not have the number one best-seller but have something that’s still selling twenty years later like Ray Bradbury. I think Bradbury is a brilliant writer, an excessive writer very often, but his excess is the liability of his virtue and his virtue is to write poetry in prose form. I think the commercial viability of the fantastique is both a blessing and a liability.

ALBEDO ONE: Would the commercial people be crowing out those that go for literary merit?

BARKER: Well, the Patrick McGraths still get published and Thomas Tessier, and both are superior to Dean Koontz. But the fact is Koontz outsells Tesseir and McGrath many times ten to one but the stuff is being published. The lists still have room even in these hard times for these rather more difficult works. I am not convinced that you can walk the tightrope. I hope Imagica walks the tightrope. There are some very difficult things in this book but we’re in our fourth printing in America and our second here so we’re selling numbers. But there’s a lot of sexual material and a lot of violence in my work and there’s a lot of weirdness which maybe sweetens the pill of metaphysics. I think that that’s an honourable tradition, I think it’s true of the Bible as well by the way. But it is the case that the material in Imagica is quite problematic, deliberately so, much more than Weaveworld.

ALBEDO ONE: Americans might have problems with a Clive Barker film because it’s not tradition. Nightbreed for instance.

BARKER: They had terrible problems with that but you have to make the movie, don’t you. Cronenberg said to me, he called me up after the movie had opened and the reviewers had taken their hatchets to it, and he said, ‘Join the club. Here you are, you just made a movie that the critics took apart. Wait until you make your next one ‘ . I said, ‘What’ll happen it?’ He said ‘ They’ll say why can’t he make an individualist movie like Nightbreed’ . He said that time after time that’s what’s happened to him. That they’ve beaten him over the head and then they’ve used their finer feelings for the previous movie as a bigger bludgeon the next time round.

ALBEDO ONE: Has the experience put you off big studios? Will you go back to the independents?

BARKER: I’m an optimist. I go on the basis that even if don’t win I must enter the game at the highest possible level. I must try and make a book that will appeal as widely as possible, or a movie. The realists are winning, that’s the problem. The enemy is very strong. You turn on the TV – what happened to the imagination, where is it among the game shows and the soap operas?

ALBEDO ONE: It’s even difficult to Find in the movies. A movie with a plot is a genuine pleasure.

BARKER: And some thinking goes on behind the plot. TERMINATOR 2 is a brilliant piece of technical work and the blandest piece of thinking imaginable. It’s predictability is what struck me. You knew exactly what had to happen for them to have made the movie. For that amount of money. Fisher King is an exception. It’s a flawed picture but it’s still got some magnificent things in it.

ALBEDO ONE: Surely all the really worthwhile movies are flawed in major or minor ways?

BARKER: I agree with you. I like things to overreach themselves. I like to see overachievers at work. I’m not rather interested in people who do their job really well and manage to cross all their T’s and dot all their I’s. I like things that are raw and unrefined.

ALBEDO ONE: Surely the Hollywood polishing process tends to turn everything slightly bland.

BARKER: And yet you’ve got the problem of my world view. I have a responsibility to be a proselytiser. The material that we celebrate is being driven back by a tide of banality much of which is sourced in people who are claiming to make the material we celebrate which is terribly worrying. In other words the banalities of a Dean Koontz are far more dangerous to us that the insipidity of Martin Amis as a ‘thinker’. Because the Koontz’s of this world are actually playing the enemy’s game but wearing our faces, and that worries me a lot. They’re using the tools that have been honed by radicals and revisionists and anarchists and subversives to smooth and pat the head of the status quo.

At this stage HarperCollins’ representative in Ireland informed us that we had overrun our allocated time and that we really should wind it up. So basically Des and I stopped talking. Clive, however, continued as he said that we were the real thing, the fans, not just some journo to whom interviewing him was merely a job. There had been a suggestion early on that we photograph him outside a nearby graveyard and this we did, taking an extra half hour of somebody else’s time. Unfortunately our photographer, who consequently fails to get a credit, lost the damn pictures so you’ll have to use your imagination to fill in the blanks. By the way, I’m the one on the left.

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Create Your Own Genre – Steve Rasnic Tem Speaks

Born Stephen Rasnic, Steve Rasnic Tem grew up in the relatively isolated rural community of Jonesville, Virginia, in the heart of Appalachia, and in his opinion one of the most beautiful areas of the US.  He went to college at VPI in Blacksburg as an English Education major, studied playwriting at Virginia Commonwealth, going on to earn his Masters in Creative Writing at Colorado State University where he studied poetry under Bill Tremblay and fiction under Warren Fine.  He continued his writing education by joining the Northern Colorado Writer’s Workshop founded by Edward Bryant, where he met his wife and fellow writer Melanie.  They chose Tem as their new last name. Other writers in the workshop at that time included Connie Willis, Dan Simmons, Cynthia Felice, and Leigh Kennedy.

Over the years Steve has published over 350 short stories, several novels and collections, as well as several hundred articles, essays, and poems.  He has been awarded the British Fantasy Award, World Fantasy Award, and Bram Stoker Award for his efforts.  He has held a day job for many years as a technical writer and editor in the software industry.  He currently lives in Centennial, Colorado.  His new novel out from Solaris Books is DEADFALL HOTEL.  You can visit the Tem home on the web at www.m-s-tem.com.

Tell me one little known fact about Steve Rasnic Tem.

The first fiction I published–during my early high school years–were short stories involving several super heroes I created.  These appeared in some of the early spirit- or ditto- duplicated (I believe in the UK they were called Banda machines) comic book fanzines of the time. BOMBSHELL in particular, out of West Virginia, published a number of these very brief (under a thousand words) stories.  I also put out a couple of issues of a fanzine of my own, Super Hero Fantasy.  Some other writers contributing to the comic fanzines at the same time included Howard Waldrop and  George R. Martin.  And one particular name appearing in issue after issue of Bombshell during that period was that of a young Hawaiian writer with the exotic name of A. A. Attanasio—so exotic, in fact, I was convinced it must be a pseudonym.  And I have to admit that at that time Attanasio’s writing talents were much more in evidence than mine.  I had enthusiasm, but not much else.  I loved the comics.  Still do.

Do you think movies are killing super-hero comics?

Do you mean adaptations of specific comics, or just movies in general competing for those entertainment dollars?

I was thinking that comics in general are not as interesting, exciting, imaginative or innovative as they were fifteen or twenty years back – when graphic novels became okay for adults to read.

I think that perhaps the refinements in movie special effects have enabled them to supplant the spectacle comics were once able to provide that was beyond what was affordable in other media. If what you’re looking for are super heroes battling it out in midair then the movies can now provide that quite convincingly. But that was never what I was looking for in the comics.

What I look for in the comics is the same thing I’m looking for in any sort of fiction: interesting storytelling about subjects that matter told so that it elicits a strong emotional response. I want to be moved by what I read. And I find that the older I get the more this is true. Finding that kind of storytelling can be difficult, no matter what the medium. Certainly for every ten movies I watch I’m lucky if I find 2 or 3 that meet that criteria. And I’m more likely to find those among the works of auteurs and independent creators.

The same is true in the comics–it’s the smaller, more personal stories set outside the super hero genre which are more likely to move me. And I especially like work which makes full use of the medium, which demonstrates an understanding that panel to panel storytelling is different from cinematic scenes, and makes full use of that difference. And there are companies like Drawn & Quarterly, Fantagraphics, and Top Shelf which focus on those kinds of books. I eagerly await any new work by Craig Thompson or Lynda Barry or Seth or Guy Delisle or David Beauchard (whose sense of the comic page is simply amazing). And Shaun Tan’s The Arrival–it was amazing how he wordlessly captured the timeless and universal experience of the immigrant.

Some good names checked there – but if a novel of yours was optioned tomorrow and the optioners gave you choice of director, who would it be and why?

First I’d wonder why they were giving me the choice of director. Except in select cases I think it’s probably a bad idea to give the author a choice. Although most writers will probably say they’d like the movie to be a faithful adaptation of the novel I think that since film is such a vastly different storytelling medium you’re more likely to get good results if the director is simply given permission to have at it as he or she sees fit. It’s not as if the original is destroyed–it’s still there on the shelf. Of course I suppose there should be some resemblence, else why buy the rights in the first place?

So, assuming they’d make it very much their own (and the best directors always do), I’d certainly be pleased if any of my favorite directors tackled the project. I can imagine a Terrence Malick bringing out the mystical aspects of my work, or a David Lynch bringing out its surrealism. Paul Thomas Anderson directed one of my favorites of recent decades (Magnolia) so he’d be interesting. And Christopher Nolan might highlight some of the odder psychological states my characters sometimes inhabit. Seth MacFarlane (Family Guy) would be an odd choice, but I’d be really curious about what he’d do with that material.

Actually, I think my new novel DEADFALL HOTEL would make an interesting TV series. I feel that with this work I’ve finally created a setting that goes far beyond anything I’ve been able to put down on paper. One of the more interesting aspects of writing this book was that the more I defined it, the more detail I put into my descriptions, the more mysterious and intriguing the hotel became. I’d be really curious to find out what others might see there that I haven’t yet witnessed.

What is your favourite of all the fiction you have written, short story or novel?

That used to be a relatively easy question for me to answer.  There were certain stories in which I felt I “got it right.”  Or I could fall back on the standard “the one I’m working on right now.” And there’s always a grain of truth to that one, because that’s the story you’re most focused on, the one you’re obsessed with, the one—in a sense–you have to love in order to get through it.

But an odd thing happens once you’re written/published a lot of stories over a long period of time (in my case somewhere upwards of 350 over a period of 36 years or so).  That connection between you and your fiction warps a bit, becomes something else.   I think that–for me at least–although I’m still very much aware that my fiction expresses who I am and what concerns me, I’ve become much more cognizant of the instrumentality of the process.  I’m the middle man through which these fictions are delivered.  I don ‘t mean anything terribly mystical about that—it’s not like it’s automatic writing or anything—it’s just that after doing it awhile the process acquires all these unconscious or instinctive parts.  A large part of that is that you learn how to create characters that seem to naturally tell their own stories with apparently little prompting from you.  The imagination takes over—that’s where the art comes into storytelling.  For someone on the outside who doesn’t engage in this sort of activity this may seem like an almost miraculous process, but for the person who does this every day it’s nothing particularly special—it’s just part of the craft.  At the time you’re writing the piece you should be fully committed—you’re engaged emotionally, intellectually, physically.  It seems that all that matters is seeing this story through to the end.  But once it’s finished, well, it’s on to the next story, and so on.

Sometimes these stories take months or even years to create, and their importance to you may intensify as a result.  My recent story “Twember” for Interzone is based on an idea/perception I had in high school, and which I attempted to write several times over the years.  Finally being able to complete that process begun with that long-ago inspiration was quite fulfilling.  My new novel Deadfall Hotel has been in progress since the mid-eighties.  It’s become like that older child you still have living at home.  You’re very proud of it, and somewhat possessive—in the case of Deadfall it was an imagined location that had kept me entranced for years—and I was its sole possessor.  Sometimes it felt like a place I lived in by myself.

Other stories are the results of a kind of white heat—you can’t seem to get the words down fast enough, and years later you may not recognize it as something you’ve written.  Sometimes your life circumstances profoundly affect your process and your relationship to your stories.  After our son died in 1988 there was a six or seven year period in which I felt as if the storytelling voice I heard inside my head had completely changed, and I wrote fiction relying on my innate sense of craft with little confidence that I actually understood what I was doing.  Some great stories came out of that period, but I honestly can’t remember writing most of them.

I suppose this is a roundabout way of saying I don’t think I have favorites anymore.  The relationship has become too complicated.

You talk about white heat – but do you ever find the need to draft and re-draft a story or novel, searching for the inner truth (i hope that doesn’t csound as pretentious to you as it did when I saw it on the email page). I also hope you know what I’m getting at.

At least for me the “white heat” phenomenon is pretty well restricted
to the rare 5-6 page stories, and even those get several drafts.  My
basic process is slow, and highly iterative.  Although I have a
reputation as a prolific writer most of my stories take a number of
weeks or months to complete.  I’m not a fast writer, just an incessant
one.  If I decide I want to write a particular story, or if I’m
invited into an anthology, I usually spend a couple of weeks just
poking at the idea, trying to see various aspects, and doing a lot of
background reading and research.  When I think I’m ready to start
writing I try to draft an opening that has the tonal qualities I want.
And maybe I write a couple of pages.  The next day I start by
rewriting those 2 pages, and then add a little more.  I add random
bits of conversation and description, and the odd thought or
meditation whose connection may seem pretty off the wall but for some
reason I think fits.  Oftentimes I don’t even know what character is
speaking or thinking these thoughts.  I’m just poking around, really.

I’ll go through this same process day after day, adding the odd bits,
until the characters reveal themselves a bit more, and start telling
me their secrets.  Characters are full of great secrets–you just have
to learn how to approach them so that they’ll reveal them to you.  I
keep doing this until the emotional heart of the story reveals itself.
Until this happens, I’m not even sure I have a story.  But once it
does happen I feel; pretty confident I’m going to finish it, and again
I rewrite with this emotional heart (hopefully) fully present in the
story.  That’s when the characters and setting can really take over.

So often the stories take several months, and sometimes years.

Have you ever taught writing or given workshops? Do you think it is a good idea for new writers?

I’ve taught a workshop here and there, and Melanie and I were resident
authors for a week at Odyssey.  I came out of workshops–both in
graduate school in the creative writing program and for many years in
Denver’s f&sf writer’s workshop run by Ed Bryant– and I believe in
them, but I also don’t think they work for everyone.  The main thing
they give you is first-hand experience in an audience’s reaction to
your work, and that’s a perspective that’s invaluable.  Oftentimes
beginning writers think they are communicating a particular thing, but
when they take the piece to workshop they discover no one gets it, or
they get something out of the story the writer would never want to
convey. After workshopping a number of stories with that kind of
back-and-forth you start developing a sense of what works on the page.
That’s workshopping at its most basic level.  Some of your fellow
workshoppers are going to be trustworthy critics and some are not–you
learn to tell the difference, and that’s another valuable lesson.  You
also learn to take criticism–that’s also important–especially when
the criticism is from an untrustworthy source.  Hopefully you learn to
handle yourself professionally when this sort of thing happens.

Beyond that, if you have working professional writers in the workshop
you can learn a lot more.  You build story problem solving skills.
You learn what editors are looking for, that sort of thing.

But there are some very good writers out there who don’t do well with
critiques, who can’t stand to sit there in silence while their work is
being pulled apart.  And they can learn what they need to learn in
other ways. There’s no need to put themselves through the stress of a
workshop if it really isn’t working for them.

You have put into perspective my own thoughts about workshops, though one area you didn’t mention is the chance to network.

If you had a chance to take a workshop given by any author – living or dead – not necessarily your favourite writer but the one you could learn most from – who would it be and why?

I think oftentimes the best writers, the ones with the strongest
voices, are limited in their teaching because they filter everything
they read through their own aesthetic as they build that voice.
Stepping back from that to determine what the student is trying to do,
or is potentially able to do, takes a special talent I think.  I know
for myself when I read students’ work I have to make a special effort
to separate my own process from the student’s particular approach and
goals.

That said–and I have no idea if they’d be any good as teachers–but I
wouldn’t pass up a workshop opportunity with either Cormac McCarthy or
Toni Morrison.  In both cases it’s because of the quality of the
language.  They both have the ability to make ordinary moments
extraordinary, and for me that’s what it’s all about.

Apart from making ordinary moments extraordinary, what else do you strive for as a writer. And does any part of the process come easy to you?

Inspiration has always come easily–I’ve always had many more ideas
than I can handle.  I may get momentarily blocked–although “fatigued”
might be more accurate–with one project, but I can always jump to
another, and i usually have multiple projects going at once.  The rest
of the writing process, though, I’ve always found to be hard, hard
work.

At the most basic level, I’m working to create fictions which have a
sense of completeness.  Theme, tone, language, structure–I look for
ways to make them reflect each other so that the construction seems to
be all of a piece.  That’s a lot of elements to make work, but happily
stories are powerful engines which are naturally able to synthesize a
variety of elements–you just have to learn how to control that
engine.

Beyond that, I’m trying to tell the truth, the emotional truth, as
best I can, which isn’t always easy.  You have to learn how to step
back a bit and disengage yourself.

And at least for myself and my needs, I’m looking for discovery.  I
want to be surprised by what my imagination uncovers.  I want my
characters to bring me new perspectives and insights I haven’t thought
of before.  I want to stumble upon new angles for looking at things.
And when I’m intrigued in that way I feel the audience will also be
intrigued.

How do you build characters? Do you take many from life?

Characters come from all over.  The basic source, though, is simply
sitting and watching and listening to people.  Writers in general like
to talk, but it would pay them, I think, to listen more.  When I’m out
I tend to watch and listen to people closely.  I suppose some might
find that creepy–although hopefully my unassuming demeanor tends to
disarm them–but maybe I’m just lucky that no one has called the cops
on me yet.

Sometimes when I need a character I program myself with a message like
“Go to the park–you’re going to find your character there.”

I’ve never been one to write long biographies of characters–just raw
notes of specifics for consistency reference, nor do I base characters
very often on people I know.  For me it’s more inspiring to know just
a little about a character–interesting or self-revealing things they
say for example, or unusual habits and tics, a few of their passions,
a few prejudices, some key fears.  I like to imagine the rest.
Frequently I’ll overhear some bit of intriguing conversation, or a bit
of dialog just floats through my head–I have no idea who just said
that–I don’t see their face–and for me it’s fun to imagine what kind
of person would say such a thing.  And I let my imagination fill in
the blanks.

I think it often shows when a writer has written out a lengthy
biography and description–and not in a good way.  You’ve done all
that preliminary work and you want to use it–so you start dropping in
large expository passages from it into the work, telling not showing.
It weakens it, and what’s worst, it short circuits the process by
which the character you’re creating tells you their story, tells you
who they are.  There needs to be breathing room for that to happen,
and if you do all the work beforehand, well, the evolving character
stops evolving and they have nothing left to tell you.  In a sense
they’re dead on the page–you’ve murdered them.

I think it’s also good to leave room for the reader to participate in
the process. Over the years I’ve tended to include less actual
physical character description in my stories–readers tend to fill in
those details themselves, so I try to get out of the way of that
process.

Do you think it is important to keep up with what is happening in the genre – what other people are doing?

I have decidely mixed feelings about it.  On the one hand it’s just
good business to be aware of what’s happening in the industry, and you
have to remember that your work isn’t read in isolation–it’s read in
the context of all these other works being published, and it’s going
to be evaluated in that context.  And if you’re talking about your own
work at all–and most of us do–you need to have a sense of that
context so that you can make intelligent statements about your work
and how you’d like it read.

On the other hand, you shouldn’t let trends and what other people are
writing influence your direction or what you’re trying to accomplish.
I think you need to keep that process as separate as possible–if you
want to tell the truth as you know it, how it’s been for you during
your time on the planet, if you want to express your imagination in as
unfiltered a state as possible–then you have to stay focused on those
things which are unique and specific to your own writing.  The goal, I
believe, should not be how you fit it in within a genre–that’s for
the critics to decide–it should be creating your own genre.

Who is doing the best work in the genres at present?

I actually don’t think there is a “best” where fiction is concerned.
It’s a bit like asking Which is better—lemons or kiwi?  Which is why I
often have a problem voting for awards—much of the time the nominees
simply aren’t that comparable. Particularly when you have writers
writing at the top of their game, which especially seems to be the
case where short fiction is concerned right now.  I don’t know how
people come up with their “best” lists—sometimes it seems as if it
must be the best they’ve read recently, the best among writers they
think deserve more attention, the best from writers who have similar
obessions to yours, etc.

When writers are at their best, they tend to create their own
genres—and you’re naturally going to like some genres better than
others, but that doesn’t mean a particular genre is intrinsically
better.  And how are we to define genre in the first place?
Oftentimes when I see these lists it appears that they’ve left the
more high-powered, literary authors off the list, thus artifically
narrowing the genre definitions they’re using.  So you rarely see
Cormac McCarthy on lists for horror, sf, crime—and yet his writing is
submime in almost everything he does.  You also almost never see
soimeone like Steven Millhauser on these lists, and yet few can write
short stories at his skill level.

There are writers I pay attention to, however, for technical prowness,
for depth of feeling.  Caitlin Kiernan and Jeff Ford, Laird Barron,
John Langan, Ramsey Campbell (whose prose still provides textbook
examples of telling detail), Catherynne M. Valente, Graham Joyce,
Theodora Goss.  Just to name a few current writers doing beautiful
work—but I could name many more.

Outside of literature, do you find inspiration from any of the other arts?

Earlier in this interview I mentioned my love for comics. I’m passionate about animation as well, and film in general. I made puppets when I was a kid, and wrote and performed puppet plays–and if there’s a puppet show with an adult or more sophisticated story I’ll go see it. (I even wrote an all puppet musical once upon a time.) I also have a large art library, and I draw and paint. I make no claims for my talents in those areas, but it’s something I love doing, and will probably do a lot more of once I retire from the day job. Sometimes I work some of my fiction ideas out with a drawn or collaged image, getting some of the basic imagery down. I think my basic sense of imagery comes from my study of painting. I haven’t done much professionally with the painting, although pieces of a graphic story I painted appeared in several issues of the NY graphic art magazine Blurred Vision. I hope to do more experimentation with art and prose storytelling in the years to come.

I’ve written a number of stories with artists or filmmakers as the lead characters. Or I’ve borrowed something from a particular artist’s approach. My short story “Sharp Edges” was a tribute to Dario Argento, and my story “Chain Reaction” is more than a nod to the Dogme 95 movement. And several sections of my novel The Book of Days attempt to translate the experience of viewing art or hearing music into narrative prose.

Actually, I find myself inspired by anything in which certain people do well, who raise the art through their personal involvement. So at times I’ve found musicians, chefs, great dancers and choreographers, fashion designers, etc inspiring, or even someone like Pele on the soccer field, or John Elway on the football field. I think excellence in almost any endeavor can be inspiring to creative people. You just translate the experience into the terms of your chosen art/field.

You’re on death row convicted of murder (wrongly) but you’re going to hang in the morning. What is your final meal?

A thick crust pizza with all the meats, spaghetti with meatsauce on the side, breadsticks, cole slaw, a couple of fantail shrimp, apple pie ala mode for desert, diet Mountain Dew to wash it all down.

And finally:
If you were an artist (musician, painter, actor, film director etc.) in a discipline other than you currently operate, and you were going to be remembered for only one piece of work (a one-hit wonder), what would that piece (song, painting, movie) be? One single existing  piece of ‘art’ by someone else.

If it has to be an existing piece it would Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights.  But I can’t leave it at that–there’s a painting I’ve always imagined.  It’s called “The God Tree,” and it’s this huge tree consisting entirely of William Blakean forms–human bodies acting out the human drama in all its breadth and complexity.  And in the background there’s this magnificent J.M.W. Turner sort of sky.  This painting doesn’t exist, but I wish it did, and I wish I had created it.

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The Rolling Stones at their best, at last.

When I was a kid (hint: it was a long time ago) there was a split in musical taste along the lines of Beatles vs. Stones. Coming down firmly on the side of the Beatles at the time I kind of ignored the Stones for many years – longer than I should have, given that I considered myself to have broad tastes – but the prejudices of youth are difficult to overcome. In my teens I borrowed High Tide and Green Grass – Big Hits Volume One and recorded it on my reel-to-reel tape deck. But that was pop music really and I was a rock snob. I remember reading a review of Ziggy Stardust when the LP came out in Sounds magazine and finding that the elitist journalist had hit the nail on the head. In his review he said, and I paraphrase, “it would be a shame if this was the LP to break Bowie in the UK.”Aand I thought, yes, exactly. But really I thought it would be a shame if he broke at all. After all, he was my secret and I didn’t want every Joe Soap to have a piece of him.

I went through the same process many times, though not always as mean spiritedly. I attempted to bring Bruce Springsteen to the attention of my friends, pressing Born to Run on them at every opportunity. Naturally, they ignored me totally. However, after the release of Born in the USA the Boss included Ireland in his European tour schedule. For a month before the gig people came up to me telling me I should check out Springsteen. I do have the LP Born in the USA but must admit my real interest in his music peaked with Darkness on the Edge of Town and ended after The River.

And as for the Stones, I was looking for relevant sixties and seventies music to buy on vinyl and gave consideration to the Rolling Stones, mainly because I had exactly one of their albums on CD (Beggar’s Banquet) and it wasn’t half bad. It was also about the time that their back catalogue was re-mastered and re-released on CD, and also on vinyl. The hype seeped into my poor brain and I read the glowing reviews of Exile on Main Street: now reapprasied as their masterpiece. It wasn’t an LP I was overfamiliar with so I thought it a good place to begin.

How right I was. Exile is a terriffic album, absolute top quality material spread over four sides of vinyl – this is not one that would have been far better as a single album. So I thought I would take another chance on the Stones and bought Let it Bleed. For me, this si the masterpiece. It has a far more authentic, bluesy vibe, probably due to the more acoustic feel of the instrumentation. This is the sort of music that makes me wish I didn’t think Mick Jagger is such a git.

Incidentally, Let it Bleed knocked Abbey Road, my favourite Beatles album, off the top of the UK charts only to be replaced in its turn by Abbey Road once again.

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