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An interview with Gwyneth Jones

by Iain Emsley


Gwyneth Jones, writer and critic of science fiction and fantasy, was born on 14th February 1952 in Manchester where she studied at a local convent school and then at the University of Bold as LoveSussex, where she took an undergraduate degree in History of Ideas, specialising in seventeenth century Europe; a distant academic background that still resonates in her work. After university, a few years in the civil service and some foreign travel, she spent two years in actual, gainful real world employment, writing tv cartoon scripts (about three cute newshound robots and their cute robo-puppy). Since the late eighties, she has been writing full time.

She's written more than twenty novels for teenagers, mostly using the pseudonym Ann Halam, and several highly regarded science fiction novels for adults, notably the Aleutian Trilogy, White Queen (co-winner of the James Tiptree Memorial Award); North Wind and Phoenix Café. Her short story collection Seven Tales And A Fable won two World Fantasy Awards, and her critical writings and essays have appeared in Nature, New Scientist, Foundation, and New York Review of Science Fiction amongst other venues. Some of these are collected in Deconstructing the Starships.

Her latest sequence, which began with Bold as Love (winner of the Arthur C. Clarke award), posits an England which is overrun by a Green Rock and Roll revolution when the government of the time decides to set up a Counter Cultural Think Tank. Ax, Fiorinda and Sage, despite their best efforts, were drawn into this ruthless revolution, eventually forming a triumvirate to re-stabilise England. Personal differences lead to a temporary split but their mutual attraction brings them back together during the continuing volumes, Castles Made of Sand and Midnight Lamp, which sees them leaving England to tour America.


Iain Emsley: Who is your ideal reader?

Gwyneth Jones: I write for myself, first and foremost. I write to entertain myself, and to find out what I think, if that makes any sense. It's a thrill if other people get entertained too, and seem to be on my wavelength -- then I don't feel so alone. But I do like writing dialogue, which is something I definitely do for an imaginary audience. It's quite a trick, getting your lines to do the work the scene needs; and sound great; and read naturally; and stay vividly in the character's voice, but without caricature. It takes a huge amount of work to make it look effortless, but it's very enjoyable work.

IE: Where is genre going, now that we live in the future?

GJ: I don't think we live in the future. There's a borderline, it keeps moving and we don't cross it. This is a fairly obvious observation (tomorrow never comes, eh?). But the sf borderline hasn't been crossed either, not yet. Show me an alien person from another planet (or even an alien slime mould). Show me convincing evidence of just one other earth like planet. Let me enter a videogame, seamlessly. Land a human crew on Mars, set up a colony on the Moon. Develop an AI (whether or not clothed in doll-skin) that passes the Turing test with no cheating. As long as these sort of things haven't happened, the quantum leap stays unleapt, and maybe that means the genre can go on going round in circles. (If I was a betting woman, my money would be on the seamless entry to the game environment 1st, AI second (they're linked, of course), the space exploration boost whenever military hubris decides; and the alien possibly never.)

IE: What does Fantasy offer that Science Fiction can't? Why is it gaining popularity among readers?

GJ: I'm one of the people that thinks Fantasy is the broader label, and it includes science fiction. If Fantasy is gaining in popularity, I can give a good reason and a depressing reason why. The good reason says more sf&f readers now want their fiction richer with possibilities, a broader live pathway and less authorial control over what's going on in the 'world' of the book: science fiction is very paranoid fiction, very tightly controlled. And (auxiliary reason) maybe this area, China's "New Weird" is where the natural home of the arthouse end of the genre has moved, since real science has become so fantastical, and since the sf has become so artificial -- a fascinating game, but disconnected from any real future.

The depressing reason (and it really does depress me) is that science is harder than fiction. Harder to read about, harder to write about, and much harder to integrate into a human drama. Hence you get great sf short stories, but relatively few genuine sf novels ever get written. It's usually space-age drag, with homely old fashioned storytime underneath, but even that doesn't fool the public. To be fair, I'm sure only a few really great fantasies are written (and they all tend to be totally different from each other, same as great sf). But while the middle class (so to speak) of sf is shrinking, possibly because even the smell of something like science puts people off, the genre Fantasy mill goes on churning out endless cod-mediaeval thousand-pagers, and no one knows how to stop it. I think you have to keep this hinterland in mind, when you're talking about idealised "sf and fantasy". The reality on the bookshop stacks is that all those serial fantasies nobody can stand to review (I know. I've pleaded with reviewers, but in vain) are the ones getting publisher support and fanbase.

IE: In the ICA talks in May, you commented that SF was claustrophobic, which is why you abandoned it. Do you still feel this way?

GJ: Yes I do, although never say never, and I might write a space opera one day. Writers I admire, such as C.J. Cherryh, and Frederik Pohl, have managed to write space opera that wasn't about manifest destiny, or that nauseating Heinlein libertarian agenda. But the kind of science fiction I've enjoyed writing so far is very intense, very paranoid, and you'll find the examples in Greg Egan or (tho' Mike cares v.little for the actual science, whereas me, I am part nerd) Mike Harrison. By the end of the Aleutian trilogy I'd started to feel trapped by the engineering that goes into an sf novel. I hope I've matured. Equally possibly the hard science seemed less interesting because it's really a young person's game, like mathematics, and I had nothing more to say on those lines. But I wasn't ready to kick back and start writing adventure fantasy with infodumps, so I'm doing something different. (There are other, political explanations, see below.) I'm still keen on science. There's plenty of Bruce Sterling type near-future extrapolation; and very involving fantasy-neuroscience in the Bold As Love books (involving for me, I mean) ... It's just not what the books are about. The books are about the characters, and the world they live in.

IE: Has Science Fiction moved into the mainstream and into popular language? If so, do you think that it affects the content or delivery?

GJ: Science Fiction hasn't moved into the mainstream, or into popular language, via print fiction. It's all been tv and screen media-based: Star Wars, Star Trek, The Matrix (same goes for Fantasy, with Buffy and Angel and the like). Besides the obvious, the branded stuff and novelisations, print fiction writers have to be influenced by this phenomenon, they have to chase the market. The effect is bound to seem a dumbing-down, because screen-based sf&f works are good at being immediate, visceral, kinetic. They aren't big on exposition, complexity, or making sure a story makes sense all the way through, which are the natural strengths of print fiction. On the other hand, I always flipped over the special effects scenes in sf books, and even more so now. Oh, there was a great battle. Blah blah blah ... Hand me my game controls, this just doesn't work in print. Maybe I'm speaking only for people who play games here, but I can't help it. As a writer, I've always played those scenes very visually and kinetically in my head, and I've found their true expression in the games-coders' work.

My feeling is that print science fiction is still an orphan genre. But I bet if the mainstream ever embraces it, the cultured people will only be interested in the infotainment and the rocketships. They won't have any time for 'literary' sf (sigh). The mainstream writers think they can do that sort of thing all by themselves.

IE: That's a very downbeat view. How come? Mainstream writers have flirted with sf but have rarely come up with anything that is satisfying either at the idea level or the story level. Do genre readers need to be more attentive to the 'literary' mode? Indeed, what do you mean by literary?

GJ: I think mainstream fiction about science or the future is different from the genre treatment in this important respect: in the mainstream the human interest is rated as more important than the ideas; in the genre works, the ideas are privileged above the human world. (Same goes for magical realism.) I can try and explain this further if you like but suffice it to say I think it's a subtle but absolute difference. (Hey. It's all in Plato. What do they teach them in these schools?)

IE: How do you feel about the future?

GJ: As you might have gathered from Bold As Love (unless you thought I was putting it on for a laugh) I feel that the future for us non-spacefaring folk is in poor shape right now. It's not beyond the bounds of possibility that 'we' (I mean middle class people in developed nations away from the war zones) could actually find ourselves getting uncomfortable, quite soon and quite suddenly. Take a look at what's going on in Italy, and the harvests in Western Europe, and oh, a whole lot of other indicators. The woods are burning, they really are. I am not making this up.

IE: What makes you the most hopeful and the most fearful?

GJ: The expected blow never falls. The Americans and Russkies never did blow up the planet, we're not yet standing on Zanzibar. Probably nothing so dramatic as a plunge into the dark ages will overtake us. We'll limp through the population-bulge somehow, without changing our evil ways, and come out the other side still more or less civilised, just with a real lot fewer other living species for company. I think for me, that outcome will do for both hope and fear. But who knows. Maybe something much worse and totally unexpected will happen instead. Bring it on.

IE: Does writing have a role in shaping people's worldview?

GJ: Reading and writing had a huge role in shaping my worldview, and though I know a lot of people who don't read much (much less write), I think the culture is still conveyed in words, however the message is finally consumed.

IE: Can it ever disengage itself from demanding (or delivering) a moral response?

GJ: Morality will always be part of the cultural baggage that gets passed on. I think that's unavoidable, because we're social animals, and the distinctions we call 'moral' are hardwired into us. Like good/bad, fair/unfair, just/unjust. But having said that, many writers don't have any intention of engaging with morality. They intend to engage with the money. Tho' (due to the hardwiring) they'll feel obliged to produce a moral response if you poke them with a stick.

IE: What are you currently working on?

GJ: Band Of Gypsies, the fourth Bold As Love book.

IE: You seem to be consciously using the Matter of Britain to your own ends. Do you think that this mythology is in need of an update or somehow rescuing from cod retellings or do you see it as a vital part of the cultural heritage?

GJ: The whole fantasy genre is in need of an update. If I had the power, I'd wipe all the cod-mediaeval stuff off the board. The story they tell, the rapine and pillage and the breaking of nations, is in our real world future now, god help us, not some safe, imaginary past ... But there's no use saying pigs can't fly when you see them catching swallows (this is an Alan Garner quote by the by). The people want to read it, so it will be written and it will be read.

When I wrote the original Bold As Love story (for In Dreams, ed Kim Newman and Paul McAuley, which came out in 1992), I knew I wanted to write something much longer set in that world. When I came back to it, I realised that I had to invent some kind of situation where my rockstars would be in charge, and yet not be branded as complete arseholes. This was a tough project, and I fell back on folktale.

So let's think about Arthur. (NB, my main inspiration for this strand was and is a book called The Lantern-Bearers, by Rosemary Sutcliff, and I don't know if there was an overt Arthurian element in there at all.) I don't know if a historical Arthur ever existed, but if he did I see him as a young man growing up in Roman Britain, in the civilised south west, close enough to the line to believe he could still have a decent career, while still aware everything civilised was falling apart (sort of like today). Instead, he took up the defence of civilisation -- in full knowledge that by becoming "dux bellorum" of the embattled Britons, he was completely wrecking his own hopes of living the "normal" life he was defending.

That's the hero who inspired my story. I'm not in the least interested in imaginary Iron Age kings, or hero-tales of super-warriors; or of warrior queens. The writers who inspired me were Chretian de Troyes and Malory, sophisticated mainstream fiction, with a hefty dash of weirdness. Plus my youthful reading of The Once And Future King (and other teenage, children's novels, refs available on request. John Masefield, Susan Cooper, etc); and the presence of the Grail myth in fiction, from mediaeval times onwards. Which becomes the neuroscience Grail of fusion between matter and mind, in Bold As Love. Plus quite a lot of practical bgd, such as my sister's a very competent mediaeval latinist, who was on the now-legendary Cadbury dig. So, just the normal genre reader's knowledge really.

Chretien de Troyes (who is the real progenitor, in my opinion, not Malory) wrote at the court of Marie de Champagne, and later of Philip of Flanders, early in the twelfth century. He took his inspiration from the Celtic tradition (possible imported to Brittany by British refugees from the Anglo-Saxon conquests); but he wrote totally contemporary novels, in which he had to reconcile the brutal and mythic source material with the courtly, feminised taste of his audience. (Hands up if you thought 'feminised' was a bad word) ... That's the way it should be. The tension and friction, between the older material and the modern context is what keeps the story evolving, alive.

IE: Was it a need to make it somehow pay attention to the Britain as it is now? Are you concerned with understanding where the UK is now politically and socially in terms of the last twenty five years of governments?

Castles Made of SandGJ: When I set out to write Bold As Love it was going to be two books, like Malory only haha! Completely different! Castles Made Of Sand was going to end just as it does, but then there was going to be a coda, with Fiorinda speaking directly to camera, years afterwards, saying: now you've read the legend, of course it wasn't really like that. And discussing how memory, just like the fossil record of life on earth, contracts some things, exaggerates others, completely loses whole sections ... But my editor at Gollancz really hated the idea, and by the time I started to write Castles Made Of Sand so did I. I didn't want to do a trick ending. I knew a lot of what happened in the space between, and I wanted to write about it. To my mind, this is where the statement about the state of Britain begins. The earlier stuff, the floods and railway collapse and rabid Boat People and alla that stuff was just obvious, it was what was happening around me as I wrote.

I don't know if the UK will dissolve into three nation states (and a federal Ireland). I'm very clear that there are three nationalities. I've concentrated on England, specifically, because I wanted to give the separateness of Wales or Scotland respect and anyway, I live here. But seriously, I do think there is something terrible going on in the world today, in the UK as well as anywhere else. I'm calling it magic, in my fantasy. It's a way of describing a world situation where unbelievable, jaw-dropping bad things happen, and nobody bats an eye, and people (except for what's known as the lunatic fringe) just carry on as normal. In another generation, it was called fascism.

IE: Midnight LampIn Midnight Lamp, are you trying to escape from the confines of these islands or trying to put what was happening into a more global context?

GJ: What happens in Bold As Love and Castles Made Of Sand cries out for a global context, and also these are rockstars. They had to have a US tour.

IE: Will you expand the story into Europe?

GJ: I'm not sure. Band Of Gypsies is mainly set in England. But I'm starting to feel a pull towards Europe, for the last piece of the story. It would be much more challenging than writing the USA episode (which I cunningly cut down to California, the only part of the USA of which I have anything like personal knowledge).

IE: Is all good genre about the present?

GJ: In a strictly formal sense, yes. What else would we write about? But I have no problem with setting things in the future (obviously); and I have no problem with historical fantasy if it's specific and classy, like Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel series. I like it. And tho' all historical detective series get pretty cracked if they go too often to the well, I really liked the first Lindsey Davis Falco books

IE: Is it about extrapolation of current trends or does it need to be something greater than  that?

GJ: Ideally, you want to base it in current trends and make a connection with something greater. Like a good song, or a good haiku, make a statement about the particular, then map it onto something universal.

IE: Are we coming back to the 80s fetish with social and urban collapse?

GJ: I don't think social and urban collapse goes away, it's a perennial favourite in sf&f, especially in the UK. We're suckers for survivalist-cosy, blitz spirit sort of stories. And adding a few magic dragons and so forth, as in Mark Chadbourn's near-future England fantasies, definitely does no harm.

IE: Do you think that there is a post-Seattle confidence in the notion of protest?

GJ: No, I think there's a growing anger and desperation.

IE: Were you concerned that the music would somehow lock the series into a late 1990s and early 2000s perspective?

GJ: There are several layers to the music. First there's the sixties classics -- Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley, John Lennon, The Grateful Dead; music no one should ever forget. Then there's my own personal experience of helping out at a punk venue (which you can read about on infinity plus); Brighton gigging, clubbing; the Urban Free Festivals of the early nineties -- the Levellers' years. Then there's the late 1990s and early 2000s, of course. Bold As Love volume one has summer-of-1999 written all through it, complete with the NME gonzo journalism, and I'm happy to have it like that, although it is dead nostalgic already. Nostalgia is one of the things rock&roll is all about, in my opinion. The past, the golden days, the anthems of our lives ...

IE: How much of it is an influence for you?

GJ: Music means a lot to me, all kinds of music, but when I embarked on the Bold As Love series I thought it was a joke, me as a rock-and-roll buff. I just wanted to do it, qualified or not. Punk taught me this ... Then I started running into the people who REALLY don't know anything about it. So, well, relatively, it depends on your point of view. I'm like the Ufologist who doesn't believe, no, no, no ... but, er, I do keep a couple of scrapbooks. And a special thing what I put on my head at night, so that I won't get abducted other than by NICE aliens-

I love music, and I still buy rock cds and even listen to the radio, and even go out and dance. I think I've really seen the Carling Weekend for the last time, but it was in 2001. That's the whole story. Read it in greater detail on the website.

IE: What do you feel about the apparent New Wave of British Writing that was hailed? Was it just an extension of the previous New Wave coming back in terms of influences?

GJ: Some of the modern stuff is very new-wavy. But I think the possibilities for making science fiction relevant to the present were temporarily played out, and that's why we're now heavily into the Heinleinish, libertarian space operas, rocketship fantasies and militarist "boarding school" series. A more sinister interpretation says that there's been a bit of a regime change, and science fiction across the board, US and UK, has retreated into the safe territory of might-is-right, so as not to lose the neo-conservative public. But I don't think that's happened consciously. I think it's more a winnowing process. The market decided that the unisex, moral, environmentalist days of the nineties were over.

IE: Do you see SF in particular as still an area for boys with their toys?

GJ: The UK SF genre will be an area for boys and their toys until there's a whole group, or generation, of women who have significant commercial success, which will earn them publisher support. While sf is defined as "the sort of science fiction blokes write", this is, logically, unlikely to happen. But does this matter to UK sf writing women of today? I'm not sure. If I were them, I'd think diffusion into the mainstream looked like a more attractive option.

IE: Are you looking for a different way to express yourself and your ideas?

GJ: I'm looking for something different with every book I write. But I haven't left anything behind. It's like evolution, you're never finished with something, you carry your old preoccupations into the new work, and put them to new uses.

IE: Did you have any qualms about the use of phases like "Arbeit macht Frei" given its historical use? Is it just to provoke the reader into thinking?

GJ: For your readers: "Arbeit Macht Frei", which means "Work Makes You Free", (or, a popular version, Joy Through Work) was wrought in iron on the gates of Dachau, and of Auschwitz, the extermination camp in Poland to which Jews were brought, believing it was a labour camp; and on the gates of other camps. Here's a link for you (there are plenty more): It's the name of an album brought out by my Techno bad-boy band, who are operating ( futuristically) somewhere between Rage Against The Machine and Marilyn Manson. But they come from Cornwall. The Heads use the Auschwitz quote as a violent, contemptuous, political statement about world capitalism*, and it makes them muchos dineros. *Or that's what they think they're doing. They're pretty young.

Qualms? I will tell you a story. When I did the Bold As Love website, I had some teeshirts made up, just for fun (you could really buy them, on the merchandising page, and quite a few people did). I wore one of the Arbeit Macht Frei tees, out and about, in fear and trembling, wondering what the hell people would say. My genre-fairy godmother, Tanith Lee, took me severely to task when she saw this (at a vampire story signing). But the ONLY TIME I got any other comment, was once on the campus of a Mid West, US university, when a young slacker-looking bloke walked up to me and said, Freedom Through Work, huh? That's cool! I kid you not. I can only presume, all the other people who noticed the significance were too reserved to tar and feather me--

IE: You play with the idea of spin with Fiorinda's "death" and also the whole conspiracy theory about the government experiments. A thought towards modern politics?

GJ: Like I said, I'm writing the fantasy of now. I think you can find these elements in the thousand-page cod-mediaevalers too, if you take the time to look. Fantasy is like sf, it reflects what's going on around the writer. I really wish I had time to review more genre fantasy, and talk about this ...

IE: In Midnight Lamp, were you reflecting on the US government's last well known attempt at creating a weapon of mass destruction? You have a distinctly downbeat view of parts of US society, including the right to bear arms. Would you care to elaborate?

GJ: I do not have a downbeat view of US society! Far from it! I think they castigate themselves unecessarily, and valorise (is that a word?) Europe far above what we deserve. If you want a downbeat view of the State of the Union, you should try some of my US correspondents right now. Or I could provide a few links ... such Common Dreams, or the Viridian Pope Emperor (that's Bruce Sterling), or the Wildlife Trust, for heaven's sake. As for the right to bear arms ... well, you know, I'm writing about the future of now, and trying to tell it, for better or for worse, the way it looks, not the way it should be (I'm free of the straitjacket of sf). But you may have noticed, at least one of my main characters is a little bit gun-crazy. I think one out of three is fair.

© Iain Emsley 2003.
The mass market paperback of Castles Made of Sand and the hardback of Midnight Lamp are published in the UK by Gollancz on 20 November 2003.

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