Ian R MacLeod
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
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 was
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
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
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 introduction.
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
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
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
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
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.
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)
Order online using these links and infinity
plus will benefit:
...The Light Ages, UK paperback, from Amazon.com
...The Light Ages, US paperback, from Amazon.com
...Breathmoss And Other Exhalations, hardback, from Amazon.com
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