By Adam Roberts | December 19, 2010
Here's an interview conducted by my friend Aleksi (formerly of Finland, now I believe living and working in Russia) early last year. It has hitherto appeared only in Finnish, I think; and dates from after the publication of YBT but before NMA.
1. You’re a SFF researcher and writer at the same time. Does your academic work have an influence on your writing and if so, what kind of influence? Or is it the other way round?
But the other way around would be ‘an FFS researcher.’ I’m not even sure what that is.
I wouldn’t say that my critical writings influence my creative writing, or vice versa, so much as I would say that both sorts of writing proceed from the same premise: that literature is inherently intertextual; that stories and images shape the way we live our lives, just as much as life shapes art’s stories and images. More specifically I suppose I’d say that my novels are, in part, critical interventions into the ‘megatext’ of science fiction, just the way the critical writing is. So: Salt is a midrash on Le Guin Dispossessed and Frank Herbert’s Dune; Stone remixes Jack Vance and Iain M Banks and so on. I don’t think my books are any different to the rest of literature in this regard, except in being, perhaps, a little more upfront about it. But Dune is already a remix of Asimov’s Foundation books via David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia film; and Asimov’s tales rework Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and 1930s Pulp SF. And so on.
2. How did you end up being a professor of 19th century literature AND SFF author at the same time? What was the university’s initial reaction to you emerging as a science fiction author? I mean, you ARE professor of the ”serious literature”. ;)
I like ‘emerging as a science fiction author’: like I’m coming out of the closet.
Well, I don’t know how it is in Scandinavia, but when a Professor of Literature is appointed in a UK University he or she is legally obliged to take up one or other Pulp or Junk-Culture association. My choices were: sff author; country and western singer; reality TV show contestant; burlesque dancer; Man Who Makes Models Of European Airport Termini Out Of Glued-Together Matchsticks or wrestler. For me the choice was obvious.
3. I think that one of your strengths is how you create vivid and plausible worlds in your books. Even the weird vertical world of On or oxygen-filled space of Polystom feel believable. What makes this world creation even more admirable is that you don’t write series but single novels. In series you have much more time to describe the world to the reader than in a 300-page novel. How do you create your worlds and what kind of background work do you do for them?
There’s a short answer and a long answer to this question. The short answer is: strong black coffee. The long answer … well I don’t have time to go into that here.
4. Describe your normal day as a writer (and why not as a professor also)? Are you a cafeteria writer like Jonathan Lethem or do you take a months vacation to Tokyo just to make sure you get the right feel to the novel like Jon Courtenay Grimwood?
Not all writers are called Jon, you know.
Jon Lethem has the right idea. Jon Courtenay Grimwood—whom I know a little—is both a very nice and an effortlessly cool individual; I couldn’t do what does, being neither. Actually, I don’t travel very much. In part this is a principled belief that I’d rather be Diogenes the Cynic, living in a tub, than Alexander the Great ranging far and wide. But it’s also the fish-out-of-water sensation of being in a country where I don’t speak the language, something I dislike. Practically that limits me to: France (since I speak a little French, with a suitably atrocious English accent), or Scandinavia, where everybody from University Professors down to the guy who sells lotto tickets on the street speaks flawless English. I don’t know about Japan. I’ve never been there, and whilst I’m kind of curious my sense is that Japanese is a really hard language to learn.
My work routine is very simple. On a writing day I (a) drop the kids at school/nursery, (b) cycle to the Costa or the Starbucks in central Staines, (c) buy a large black coffee, find a table, set up my laptop, put loud music on my walkman (at the moment I’m listening to Who’s Next) and write. I do that all morning. Then in the afternoon I go home, answer my emails, sort out admin, other stuff; and this is also when I revise stuff I’ve written on previous days. I can’t listen to music whilst I’m revising, or reading proofs, because I need to concentrate; but I can’t not listen to music when I’m writing my first draft, because if I don’t then I over-concentrate on what I’m doing and that clogs the process. This latter is also sometimes called ‘writers block.’ The good news is that there's a simple cure for it. Listening to music whilst you work.
My life as a professor at the University of London (‘non-writing days’) involves: (a) dropping the kids at school/nursery, (b) cycling to college (c) teach students, do admin and other university-style duties (d) er, that’s it.
5. Do you misuse your power as a professor and spread the gospel of SFF in your lectures? (Sorry, I just had to ask that.)
6. Many of your main characters are NOT likeable (e. g. Salt, Swiftly, Splinter). Actually, some of them are even repulsive. Why do you torture your readers with so unlikeable characters?
Because they’re more interesting. Some of my characters are unlikeable, I agree; but I’d say that most are just conflicted, or fucked-up, or tangled in various ways—I don’t find it hard to like them. This is how most people are, in the world, I think. SF as a whole has had something of a problem with characterisation: a tendency towards ‘likeable’ characters ‘with whom people can identify’ overcoming obstacles, going on a ‘journey’ of self-discovery; all that can-do positivity crap. Its not that it’s sappy wish-fulfilment, or even that it’s existentially mendacious—although it is both those things. It’s that it’s boring. As far as characterisation goes, I’d rather read Samuel Beckett or Nabokov than 99% of that sort of book. Iago is a more interesting character than Cassio, after all: but more to the point so is Othello, and he’s neither villain nor especially unlikeable, although he is conflicted. Severus Snape is a much better piece of writing than Harry, Ron or Hermione.
7. In your novels you’ve described (sexual) violence more than once. In Salt and On there are those kind of scenes and actually the whole Land of the Headless revolves around possible rape and guilt. What’s your comment on this?
It’s a serious matter, one I don’t take lightly. What I mean is: it would be easy to slip into a facile use of rape (say) as a sort of short-cut to a particular sort of affect, or readerly reaction. I’d hope I don’t do that; although there is a sense in which a desire to fuck-about with (again) the conventions of the genre, the long tradition of blithely sexualising and objectifying female characters, leads me to this sort of violence of representation. But it makes me a little uneasy, yes. Land of the Headless is the last of my novels to do with rape, and I think will be the last. It’s too gruesome and upsetting a subject to handle, I think. Besides, sexual violence has very little to do with sex, and a great deal to do with violence, which leads to your next question.
8. Actually this is a continuation for the previous question. When asked about the detailed and almost clinically described violence in his novels Jon Courtenay Grimwood answered something like violence isn’t pretty or cool and he wants people to keep that in mind. Like Jon you have sometimes very vivid and disturbing scenes of violence in your novels. What are your reasons for having them?
Violence in novels and films very rarely has any relationship to actual violence in the world; and I think (although I’m not specifically thinking of J C-G here) that most of the ultra-noir self-consciously gritty violence popular in film and books nowadays is just as much about the vicarious male fantasies of empowerment as any Bruce Lee or James Bond movie. I’m not really interested in that; or, I suppose to be fair, I don’t often indulge in it. The Jacobean or Gothic aspects of what I write, the violence in that sense, has more to do with a desire to rupture the conventions of the text; to fuck things up.
9. Okay. This is my trademark question. I’m too fond of it not to ask it everytime I have a chance. If your novels were music, what kind of music would they be? What’d you play?
I am the Elvis Costello of SF. Either that or the Moby Grape of SF. But I’d rather be the Elvis Costello of SF.
10. Could you name a authors that you’re reading at the moment. Is there any new SFF stars on the British soil that we should be watching for?
I read a lot, partly because I review a lot and write criticism and so on; but mostly because I love reading. At the moment I’ve just finished Adam Fould’s non-sf novel The Quickening Maze. Before that I read Thomas Pynchon’s latest, which isn’t very good. There are a lot of very good younger British SFF writers coming up: Alex Bell, Mark Charan Newton; Kit Whitfield; Joe Abercrombie (though he’s not so young now). I’m reading (in MS) a really good Viking/Werewolf novel called Wolfsangel by M D Lachan at the moment: watch out for it next year.
11. Okay. Take a deep breath, because this is a LONG (but not necessarily a good) one. It’s actually a bunch of questions tied to a knot but it seems to me hard to separate them… If you don’t get what I’m aiming at, just skip this question. It’s about your ambitions as a writer. Are your ambitions still the same as they were when you were writing your first novels or have they changed along the road? Correct me if I’m wrong, but I remember you saying in interviews that in every novel you want to come up with a new, original idea and not just write something you’ve already done. Do you still maintain true to this cause, and if so, why? (The origin of this question is actually a personal matter. In June we were discussing with Jukka about writing – because we both have ambitions in writing – and I was just about to give up the whole thing. Jukka said to me that if you have ambitions to write, you still have them when you’re nearing fifty or sixty no matter what you do. So the best way to deal with them, according to Jukka, is to try to achieve them. Otherwise they’ll just cause you more pain by haunting and accusing you. Well, that was the main point of Jukka, anyway. So, actually the thing I really wanted to ask is: From where does your ambition to write spring from and how do you cope with it? By coping I mean that the things we try to achieve usually turn out to be very different from what we were trying to achieve. So, in a sense, we often fail to achieve the original goal. Jeez, wasn’t that a badly structured question!
Is the question here the last seven words? Because the answer to that is: no.
To try and address the whole thing. My experience is that there are people who, perhaps vaguely, like the idea of being writers, and then there are actual writers. The difference between these two groups is that the former can take it or leave it, depending on various circumstances; whereas the latter have no option but to write. The hearts’-blood writers I know have to write; it’s more like a compulsion than anything else. If this is the case, then you should give it a go; Jukka is perfectly correct, in his impressively massy and sculptural way: if that’s the case with you, then it’s not going to go away, and you probably do owe it to yourself to try it. For me, writing borders on compulsion. As for writing a different novel every time: well, that has a lot to do with me not wanting to bore myself, or to bore the reader, by doing the same thing over and over. I’m afraid I’ve got a low boredom threshold. Asking how to cope with one’s ambition … that’s a very interesting question, and I’m not sure of the answer.
12. As Cheryl Morgan said you charmed the Finns in Finncon with your witty sense of humor. There was even a rumour going on that you had been a semi-pro stand-up comedian once. What do you thnk of that? Does this make you consider change of career?
Change my career? Ooh, I don’t know. How much does it pay?
[Clears throat] ‘My brother smeared creosote all over the entrance to my house. I had to kick him out. I said: “brother, never darken my doorway again …”’
13. Although you’re very witty and funny in live situation and joke openly the humour in your novels tends to be somewhat different kind - it’s subtler (YBT might be an exception) and has darker shades. One could even argue that the saying ”Devil is in the details” applies to the humour in your novels. Stone, for instance, is quite funny, but the source of funniness is the way in which the narrator, Ae, recollects and comments his/her story and describes the little oddities of the novel’s world (like nose enlargement for you-know-what…). The subtlety in your ”serious” novels is almost the opposite of the parodies you write. Do you agree/disagree? Why is there so big a difference – or is there truly?
I wouldn’t say so. What interests me, as I said above, is rupture … controlled rupture, I suppose; a breaking-through; or to put it in more positive terms the leap into something completely other, ‘transcendence’ the sense of wonder. That can be achieved conceptually, or in terms of narrative; but laughter is also that sort of rupture, or transcendence.
14. Some of your novels have this ”document” style which is to say that in them (e.g- Snow, Polystom, Stone, Salt and Yellow Blue Tibia) the text itself is an official document of some kind with footnotes and such. Is there any specific reason for you to write this way?
Aren’t all novels necessarily ‘documents’?
15. It seems to me that you write a lot about guilt, forgiveness and redemption. The most obvious example is, I think, Land of the Headless which revolves around the redemption of the poet Cavala. In Polystom the poor Stom is, even though he doesn’t seem to understand it, carrying the guilt for the death of his life. At least that’s the way I see it. And then there’s Eleanor in Swiftly, who is responsible for his husband’s death. And so on. Do you consider these themes crucial to you or am I just imagining it?
I think this is absolutely right. That nexus of things does fascinate me: guilt and shame; atonement and redemption. The reasons for that are doubtless very personal, rooted subconsciously as much as consciously. In turn that’s partly a cultural thing, what it means to be English in this day and age; and it’s partly that personal angle, the stuff the Killers sang about in their song ‘All These Things I Have Done.’ But the author is dead, as I’m sure you’ve heard, so it’s hard for me to be sure about the specifics of that last one.
16. In Yellow Blue Tibia Konstantin says when discussing with Dora: ”Science fiction is the Olympics games of the imaginatively fit.” Nicely put! Is this how you think about the SFF genre as well? Or is it your ideal of SFF?
17. You like to pay homage to your predecessors and you don’t deny it. You even alter other people’s stories like in Swiftly and Splinter. What (SFF) novels would you like yet to ”revise” and why?
As I said above, I’ve reworked several of my key texts in this way. What haven’t I done yet? Well, I’ve long harboured the dream of combining two of the novels that have had a massive influence upon me (Lord of the Rings, A la recherche du temps perdu): to write a Tolkien-style fantasy after the manner of Proust. This would be a twenty-four book Fat Fantasy sequence, 800-1000 pages per book, in which there’s very little plot, but it’s all written with an immensely detailed, fine-grained prose. I have yet to persuade my editor at Gollancz that this would be a commercial proposition.
Otherwise: I’ve toyed the idea of writing a sequel to Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, to be called Twenty Eighty-Four. Set (obviously) a century later, it would have no individual human characters. Instead the logic of Orwell’s dystopia would have succeeded: states would exist but individuals would not. That wouldn’t be very jolly, though. One thing I have written, but which may not be publishable, is a properly medieval heroic fantasy: not just modern characters running around a medieval-style world with wizards and orcs and so on, but a properly realised pre-Modern realm, in which shame rather than guilt is the social logic. Since it wouldn’t be possible to write such a pre-Modern world in a Modern form like the novel, I had to write this as an alliterative poem, using the form of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. That was fun to do; but it would take a brave, or commercially suicidal, publisher to take it on. How many fans of Fantasy fiction go into a bookshop saying to themselves ‘what I really want is a Fantasy written in the form of fourteenth-century alliterative verse …’? Not many. Also I've never really written a Time Travel novel, but I'd like to, at some stage.
18. In the preface of the Palgrave The History of the Science Fiction (great piece of work) you write: ”And since we are on the subject of gratitude, let me record that I am not in the least grateful to the British Arts and Humanities Research Board - - A plague on their house. That this book was ever completed owes nothing to them at all.” Wow! Can you REALLY say that in an academic work? I bet they aren’t giving you money in the future, either. :D
19. In an interview some time ago you admitted that you have some kind of fixation for gravity. And true enough, novels like Polystom, Gradisil and On are wrapped around this premise. But to me it seems that you’re also interested in the fabric of reality. In Polystom there’s this question of who created who and in Yellow Blue Tibia the reality is even more uncertain concept. What’s your view on the concept of ”reality? (Hmm, I’m not really sure I put it right. If you don’t get what I’m getting to, just leave it.)
Reading Philip K Dick at an impressionable age, as I did, can have a profound effect upon a person.
20. Even though you are ”only” a linguist, your novels are often founded on some state-of-the-art theory or theories which are sometimes explained in detail. How do you keep yourself up-to-date on these things and is it hard to create novels that are scientifically right without not having an education of physics/mathematics/etc..
How do you mean, ‘linguist’? Perhaps you were misled by what I said about Japanese, earlier? To be clear: I can’t actually speak Japanese. I’m really not sure that speaking English, and being able to say ‘la plume de ma tante’ with a very thick English accent, qualifies me as a linguist. I’m kind of flattered that you said so, though.No tags for this post.