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Ian R MacLeod

interviewed by John Jarrold

Ian, your latest novel, The Light Ages, has been called a mixture of SF and fantasy, calling at all stations. Do you prefer one side of the genre to the other? If so, why?

I feel that a lot of the problems in the genre are due to an over-discrimination between different varieties of what are essentially the The Light Ages (UK) by Ian R MacLeodsame thing, so in many ways I'd rather not make that distinction. It's especially off-putting for the casual reader (which is most of us). It's like asking for advice when you're interested in buying a new CD player, and then being deluged by a lot of stuff about different bitrates and bandwidths that you really couldn't care less about.

Personally, what has always drawn me to the gene is its wide range, so on that basis I'd say that I don't have a strong preference for what might be called fantasy as against what you might term SF. I like to do both, and then perhaps try something that might be neither. Admittedly, there was a time when I did rather take the SF side of things more seriously. Of its more technological nature, it often tends to require a bit more research to put your ideas (even if they're made up) on a seemingly factual basis. Having said that, writing The Light Ages took a great deal of research, and The Light Ages (USA) by Ian R MacLeodwas seriously intended, even if it is probably more fantasy than it is SF, so it certainly cured me of that prejudice. Basically, I guess you could say that I'm genre-savvy enough to be fully aware of all the schools and distinctions, but that I'd like to break them down.

What do you feel is the centre of your writing--characters, the worlds you create, or the stories you tell?

It's probably worlds; a sense of place and time and atmosphere. Characters tend to be answers to a series of questions, and they then define themselves more by how they react to things and start to become interesting and alive. Plots also emerge in answer to questions, not least of which is -- well, this is all very nice, but something needs to happen pretty soon before the whole thing gets boring!

Beyond that, beyond worlds even, I feel that a lot of what drives my writing is ideas and questions. Not in the sense of a fresh way of portraying faster than light flight or some scientific theory or neat new gadget, but in a broader way. For example my next novel, The House of Storms, which is due out next year, was really an attempt to answer several thoughts. One was that it occurred to me that I couldn't write about an essentially evil character, so I decided to try to do so to see if I could. Another was to do with expressing the essential conflicts between progress and conservatism in England, and what a later version of the English Civil War would be like. Another was to describe a house which had a living presence and took a role in events. And so forth. You twist them around, try them out for size, chuck a few out; for example, the book was originally supposed to be about death, but that theme didn't work out. I think that one has particular themes and obsessions at various points in your life. It might be children. It might be work. It might be sex. These things tend to come out within whatever fictional frame you're working around, or at least they should, otherwise you'll probably not going to find what you're writing about to be particularly good or satisfying.

You're well known for short fiction, and have twice won the World Fantasy Award for that form. Now The Light Ages has been shortlisted for the World Fantasy Award for best novel. How do the forms differ, other than in length, and do you prefer one to the other?

Over the years, and as a reader, I've generally enjoyed short SF more than novels. I look for substance, atmosphere, interesting writing, new ideas and fresh approaches in what I read, and I feel that a lot of genre novels aim mainly for entertainment and the reassurance of well-travelled paths. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but I've always wanted a bit more from books.

For me as a writer, I've never really felt that most of my short stories are as short or as classically structured as they might be. A lot of them, indeed, are straining in the direction of novelistic ambition. Of course, this may be a strength of sorts, but it does rather reflect the fact that I set out to be a novelist rather than a short story writer. The short stories came more easily, and more "by accident", even if they were the work of several drafts and efforts over a number of years, and so that was what I became known for. The more focused and organised approach which novels require, and then the sustained underlying passion, was often too easily diffused. I seem to have shifted gear now, and it's short stories which have become hard to achieve.

What led you to the world of The Light Ages?

As I said earlier, a lot of my writing is driven by ideas. In this case, it was the idea of magic; what would it really be like, how would it work, and how would this particular world of ours be different and function if it worked? In my optimistic youth, I used to believe in ghosts and many other aspects of the supernatural. I became an avid reader of books by writers like Colin Wilson, and was interested in people like Ouspensky and Gurdjieff. Now, in my cynical middle age, I don't buy this stuff anything like as easily, but a lot of me would still like to, and I still yearn for something more than the supposedly real world. Then, I've always been fascinated by the multiple universe aspect of quantum theory, and that physical laws were defined in the moments after the Big Bang. From all of that came the idea that there might be a world close to ours where magic really does work, that all the efforts of the alchemists and Renaissance philosophers in that direction didn't turn out to be fruitless. From there, I guess, came The Light Ages. Although I'm using hindsight to make the process sound much more structured than it was ...

Do you sit down with specific ideas for stories and novels, or wait for the muse to strike? You use analogues of both world wars from time to time -- are they times that particularly inspire you?

I've got more and more organised as the years have gone by. I still enjoy the process of writing, and I'm really not that comfortable if I don't have anything to write. Mornings when I wake up and I know I really can't write anything either because I know the thing I'm working on is unresolved, or I need to do more research, or have to do some other kind of work, generally aren't as good as those mornings when I know I'm well into something. So for that reason, and although I'm essentially an emotional go-for-it sort of writer, I've striven to give myself greater organisation and structure. I no longer just write and see what happens -- or rarely, and then as a more conscious exercise.

I suppose that the two World Wars are times I've used fairly frequently. Basically, I've read a lot of books on the subject since I was a teenager, so I have a good pool of knowledge I can call on. To be honest, however, I'm a bit wary of returning to that area just at the moment, as it seems to me that its in danger of being a bit over-done. Still, I guess I will return, but I'm always trying to find new things which interest me, and fresh aspects of history.

Following on from that, in your latest collection, Breathmoss And Other Exhalations, you mention 'the big lies' that are fiction writing in your The Light Ages by Ian R MacLeodintroduction. Can you expand on your feelings about fantastical literature as opposed to-- that awful word-- 'mainstream'?

Well, when I started out seriously writing in my twenties and through well into my thirties, it seemed pretty obvious to me that the distinction between the two was fading. My broad role models in this, people like John Fowles, Christopher Priest, Keith Roberts, William Golding, Antony Burgess, JG Ballard and so forth, seemed to be able to cover both areas pretty successfully in their different ways. It was a trend I was certainly intending to swim along with in my own way. I also laboured under the misapprehension that SF was cool -- something which I'd picked up from the Michael Moorcock/Hawkwind/2001 era, when it briefly was, and then rather clung to against the evidence through the long uncool years which lay ahead. I mean, the very idea of Hawkwind being ever thought of as cool probably says it all. Michael Moorcock, of course, remains cool to this day.

As a reader, I've drifted further and further away from SF. I miss the sense of risk and experimentation which excited me when I was younger. I don't really feel that it's moved on in the way I hoped it would. Filmically, instead of going in the direction of 2001, it went the way of Star Wars. Much though I love Tolkien, he spawned far too many books which are simply lesser versions of the same. Larry Niven's done some great stuff, but he didn't break any ground which hadn't already been broken in the Golden Age. And so forth. For me, I suppose, SF is about the New Wave -- books like Dangerous Visions and Dying Inside and writers like Harlan Ellison and Thomas Disch. But at the same time, I'm terribly conscious that writing SF or something broadly resembling it is work for me now, and thus my attitude is tinged by that. If I didn't write SF, I'd certainly find myself reading a great deal more of it.

Also relating to the Breathmoss collection, many of your protagonists and narrators have things done to them, rather than being the instigator of events. Do you find that concentrating on an observer gives you more descriptive opportunities -- or is there another specific reason why this should be so?

I'm conscious of this, although I do sometimes think of it as a bit of a fault. As you know, John, my main character Robbie in my novel The Light Ages was probably a bit too passive until you helped me sort this out. Thinking about this issue, I do feel that the passive main character is often a characteristic of more "literary" fiction. He or she drifts along. Something happens. They drift again. There's a bit of nice description, some pretty descriptive writing, a touch of cryptic conversation. You know the score; a classic example would be something like The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles, although of course that's an excellent work. On the other extreme, Tarzan or Buck Rogers tend to be pretty active, as does Indiana Jones. I guess I'm stuck more towards Paul Bowles than I am Buck Rogers, but one of the things I really like about SF is the discipline it gives you to make sure that something interesting happens -- the need to come up with an interesting plot. Otherwise, I guess I and my characters would probably drift even more.

As you've observed, my approach is generally that a main character is galvanised into action by a far more lively and reactive second character. This would be Laurie in my novel The Great Wheel, Terr in New Light on the Drake Equation, and so forth. There's certainly a major character in my upcoming novel The House of Storms who takes the bull by the horns and tries to sort things out in her own ways and on her own terms, but it all works out very badly for her and for the world. Maybe I should get some psychiatric help!

When did you start writing, and what brought you into it?

I fell in love with SF in my early teenage years, and soon began to try out my own stuff. I like making things, so writing always seemed a natural progression from reading. By the time I was sixteen and seventeen, I was writing a big alternative history novel set in the thousandth year of the Third Reich. It didn't get finished, and what really kicked me back into writing more seriously in my early twenties was the realisation of how boring and meaningless, for me, working life was probably going to be without it. It became a habit to get back to my digs or flat and start writing, and my wife Gillian was and always has been tolerant and supportive. Mainly, to begin with, the focus was novels. It took my into my thirties to do so, but I did finish one. Not that it sold, but by then I had at least learned how to type, and also how to write to some degree of polish. Then, after a couple of other novels wouldn't quite get going, I fell into writing short fiction, and finally started to sell.

Who would you name as influences -- writers, artists, film-makers, anyone ... ?!

My influences are very varied. I've always rather felt that this has been reflected in my career path as a writer, in that I've found that I'm generally five or ten years older than other writers in the genre who are at a similar point to me. If I'd had a more clear-cut role model in the genre whom I wanted to emulate, I'd have probably got further quicker, but the synthesis I was aiming for was ill-defined and wide-ranging, and I'm happy with what I've achieved in getting towards it, and I wouldn't have it other way.

Influences change as years go by, of course, but I think budding writers look at the writers they admire more as role models; people they have a dialogue with and learn about the world from. When I was thirteen, I'd have been happy to be John Wyndham. When I was fifteen, it was Arthur C Clarke. At sixteen, Tolkien. At eighteen, it would have been Robert Silverberg. Then, through doing A levels, I discovered the classic works of literature, and I came to love Thomas Hardy and DH Lawrence. Along with Hemingway and Dickens and F Scott Fitzgerald, and John Updike, these are still the writers I still most return to and remind myself about.

Outside of books, I'm a great listener, and occasional dabbler in, music. Of modern musicians, I really have to mention Robert Fripp. He's always been a bit of an idol. The combination of risk, darkness, joy, staggering technique and a concern with the wider aspects of the world, as well as the actual music, have a great appeal to me. Lyrics, good lyrics from the likes of Steely Dan, Richard Thompson, Nanci Griffith and Joni Mitchell, have also been a great inspiration and resource for me as a writer. I've also always been interested in experimental music. Of the modern crop, I rate Bjork and Boards of Canada very highly. I suppose that my other great musical love would be the late romantics; Elgar, Richard Strauss and Mahler, although, as you've probably gathered, I try to listen to all types of music.

Finally, I've always taken a lot of inspiration from films. Again, I have to mention Nicholas Roeg as a sort of figurehead, for much the same reasons as Fripp. Risk, experimentation, darkness and joy, dazzling technique ...

How have you found publishing and the publishing industry, on both sides of the Atlantic?

I'm still confused! A lot of the processes and decisions seem very messy. Of course, and as William Goldman famously said about the film industry, nobody in publishing really knows anything. Still, I don't think things have ever been or will ever be any different.

I have to say, though, that the British publishing industry, at least as far as "the genre" is concerned, strikes me as being a bit more backward than the industries in the USA and France. In both of those countries, and France especially, there isn't the same amount of silly snobbishness and over-distinction between "art" and "popular culture". Stephen King, for example, is reviewed as the serious chronicler of modern American life that he plainly is. Considering how strong Britain is in all aspects of the arts, we really don't give ourselves enough credit. Contrast the way we regard a figure like Elton John (who has plainly made a huge contribution to modern music) with how the French venerate Johnny Halliday. So I'd say that it was about time the publishing industry in the UK realised just how strong we are in SF and Fantasy. When you think about it, the list of who we're produced is pretty amazing for such as small country. It would probably help if the directors of publishing houses weren't as contemptuous as they often are about it (and you know a lot more about this than me, John), and perhaps occasionally even read some of what they publish ...

What are you planning to write next?

Having done The Light Ages and The House of Storms, which are both essentially works of fantasy based on the premise of a universe nearby to ours where magic of a sort works, I felt that I wanted to explore something closer to the here and now. Basically, the idea I'm exploring is a novel which starts off in Birmingham at the start of this century, and leads, through the life of the narrating main character, to the end of it. It's not intended as a work of "prediction", although prediction is obviously part of what the book contains. The real issue, which I mentioned earlier, is the death-stuff I couldn't fit into my previous book. Then there's god as well -- or God. He or she or it, or their non-existence, certainly get a look in. Sounds absurdly ambitious, I know, but it seems to be going well so far.

Do you have any long-term aims for the future?

It would be nice to be able keep writing, and to continue to see my work in print. Beyond that would be mere egotism, and we all know that writers aren't remotely egotistic ...

© John Jarrold 2004.

The Light Ages (UK) by Ian R MacLeodBreathmoss And Other Exhalations by Ian R MacLeodThe Light Ages (USA) by Ian R MacLeod

Ian R MacLeod's The Light Ages is published by Simon and Schuster/Pocket Books (UK 2003/2004, ISBN for mass market paperback: 0743462440) and Ace (USA 2003/2004, ISBN for mass market paperback: 0441011497).
His collection, Breathmoss And Other Exhalations, is published by Golden Gryphon (June 2004, ISBN: 1930846266)

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