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M John Harrison

interviewed by David Mathew

"I hate describing my work, especially at what my girlfriend calls 'grown up' dinner parties," says M. John Harrison -- a man who has, most likely, been asked to do so on many occasions since 1971, and the Light by M John HarrisonBritish publications of The Committed Men and The Pastel City. "I make these tentative efforts and people say, 'Oh, horror fiction then,' or, 'Oh, science fiction,' and at that point I bow out of the conversation. At one of these affairs a Guardian journalist asked me how I'd describe what I wrote, and when I said I didn't really know how to do that, he said he thought he could probably help me. 'You do that thing Moorcock does, but more controlled.'"

The anecdote reveals a good deal about the (unnamed) Guardian journalist -- with his masked questions and tally-ho assumptions -- but it also tells us something about one of the most consistently brilliant writers at work today: M. John Harrison. His work is, as it should be, difficult to define, sui generis; it is unlassooable, and roams its pastures and prairies with a grin. "Controlled?" I understand what the journalist meant, I think -- he was referring to the poise and balance of the prose -- but Harrison's work leaves its mark; it is feral, it is fierce... To change the metaphor somewhat, very recently someone of my acquaintance described a piece by Harrison as being akin to necking a pint of neat scotch. It's a tidy analogy.

Harrison continues: "The problem with description anyway is that it's so close to explanation; and explaining something is so close to explaining it away. That's what he was doing: tidying me up, explaining me away. One of the points my stories make -- by being there, as much as by their content -- is that you not only shouldn't, but in the end you can't, explain things away.

"My stuff has changed massively across thirty years. The change is easier to describe than the work itself. You can see what's going on in The Pastel City. Somebody dissatisfied with fantasy of that kind is looking for a way to turn it against itself, but hasn't found a technical means. By Viriconium Nights he's found out how to do it, but now he sees that the problem with fantasy is fantasy itself, and it's more interesting to write about that. So he takes a thread he started in 'The Ice Monkey', which is a story about how far people will go to escape quotidian life, and he works it through Climbers and into The Course of the Heart, having to learn a whole new technical vocabulary on the way. Finally he sees that to write about people's fantasies is to write about desire, and after some testbedding in Signs of Life, he's looking 'Science and the Arts' in the face."

The process, however, was not quite so lean and simple. "I'm probably explaining myself away," Harrison admits. "If I could have written 'Black Houses' in 1971, I would have. That would have been a good starting point for a career. I just wasn't up to it, either as a writer or a human being. Also I was full of this pointless rage against the f/sf genre for not being a proper vehicle for that kind of fiction. I kept stealing the bread van and complaining it wouldn't corner like a BMW. You can do that once, but twice is stupid and three times is wilful. Recognising that was the biggest change for me. At the end of the 70s I believed I'd wasted ten years. I went back to the beginning and started out again, in the direction suggested by 'The Ice Monkey'."

These days M. John Harrison is continuing to reflect the status quo in his fiction. "Everything since 'Running Down'" -- with its things falling apart, its decay, and the picture fascism champing at the bit -- "has been designed to reflect the state of Britain," Harrison confirms. "From In Viriconium, through Climbers, to Travel Arrangements. But I'm less interested in the look of it now, the kind of pre-disaster landscapes I used to adore, than in the dreams Viriconium by M John Harrisonthat precipitate the disaster; and more interested in the place where the internal fantasies of people like Isobel, Choe and Mick (from Signs of Life) intersect -- and are seen to become -- the public dreams, the actual social and political drivers of globalism. The idea of 'choice' is what drives us to export all the risk, disorder and poverty out of the gated community of the West and into other parts of the world, so that we can enjoy shopping. We live in a fantasy culture, a culture of comfort. We must always have choice, even if someone else has to pay for it, even if it's not really real. We're so obsessed with this that it's an article of faith with us that 'you can be anything you want to be'. This is essentially a politics of masturbation, which in stories like 'Suicide Coast' is linked to the more obvious politics of consumption, the default politics of the West. But 'Running Down' was certainly the beginning of all that. It became the template for a lot in my fiction.

"But you don't want to read me for this. You want to read Joel Lane or Tim Etchells. Or get out to a Forced Entertainment show, especially if they ever do Goodbye Emmanuelle again."

This said, Harrison has some interesting comments on the events in New York and Washington, of September 11th, a date which immediately preceded the interview. "My gut instinct," he says, "is that we ought to talk less to each other. Some people think that religion is to blame here. I think it's something prior to that. I think it's language. You can't do religion until you have language. You can't promise someone 'freedom' (Bush) or 'paradise' (bin Laden) except with words; those items are labels without a referent. And if I have to read another article by Martin Amis or Ian McEwan -- middle class wankers who have never been in harm's way their whole lives, competing with one another to produce dully clever, middle-aged Britpap about real events; or if I have to hear another soundbite in which Slimy Tony, dressed up in a casual jacket to look 'hard', licks the arse of the biggest bully in the global playground by 'pledging' himself; or if I have to hear any more investment bankers presenting themselves as wounded martyrs in the ruins of the Church of Money; or if I have to hear another Islamic spokesman misappropriate the words 'caution' and 'evidence'; I think I might fly an aeroplane into something myself. Only so I don't have to hear words any more. Do you see? I'm fucking sick of words because I've spent nearly forty years manipulating people with them for a living, and they don't come near being the thing itself. All rhetoric, including mine, is empty rhetoric. Every death is a real one."

It comes as no real shock that Harrison chooses not to look too far ahead. "If you're going to get by, you need focus," he tells me. "I keep working to produce interesting fiction. I'm continually surprised to find myself 56 years old anyway. I work harder, perhaps as a result. The main thing is to change: life and fiction ought to work in tandem to develop you as a human being. While skill is useless unless you can bring it to new insights into your subject matter, the reverse is equally true, and in the end being able to write about things is an aid to engaging with them (that of course, is the paradox I was pointing out in answer to your question, above). I didn't understand my subject matter until recently. I was a late developer. Maybe I'll get a late flowering too." Nor does he harbour a burning desire to be judged a genius after he has died -- because "It's nice to be recognised. But the benchmark is what you can do, not the tick you get for it. In terms of writing I achieved enough to be happy when I finished Climbers. At the same time I'll never be happy. Writing is a constant nuisance. It's a constant failure, not just to do what you intended, but even to understand (except after the fact) what you intended. I wouldn't have it any other way, but it doesn't make you good at buying things and feeling ok about your life, like someone in that bloody awful Guardian lifestyle magazine. Even now I'm an intense and fairly self-dissatisfied person. Most climbers will tell you the same thing about achievement. (a) The benchmark is what you can do, not the tick you get for doing it. (b) If I can do it, it can't be very hard. (c) So what's next? There's no end to that except the obvious one.

"I doubt I'll be judged as anything after I'm dead: my stuff doesn't have the human reach to live on. I think f/sf/h writers will read the short stories for a few years -- more to find out what I was doing than how I did it." In which case, if someone had never read a word of Harrison's work, nor knew his name, what single piece would the author point that person towards, and what would he expect that person to get out of it? The answer is: "The short story 'The East', in Travel Arrangements. I would expect them to take away from it what they could. I would hope that they would continue to puzzle over it after they had finished reading it, think, 'Oh, that's what he meant,' go back and read it again and start puzzling over it again. I would expect them to bring their humanity to its humanity, their experience to the experiences it claims to depict. I'd hope they got a real chill from it, a sense that something disturbing had happened to them, not just to the central character of the story: that somehow, their view of the world had been for a moment lifted up at its edge. I'd hope that in the end their dialogue with the story's central conundrums would, by wrenching their emotional reactions, extend their emotional reach."

We sense a self-deprecating air, of course: my personal belief is that Harrison is well aware of his strengths and of how much his work is admired and adored. After all, he won the Richard Evans Award a few years ago, and his fanbase is strong and loyal. On receiving the Evans, he says, he felt "Old, for a moment. At risk of being left out, though what from I wasn't quite clear. It galvanised me, to tell the truth. I decided to have more fun." Which led in turn to the work that Harrison is now engaged in [editor's note: Light was published in the UK on 29 October 2002 by Gollancz; see below for links to an extract and review]: "Something that can only be described as a space opera, though part of it is set now and in typical Harrison territory, and it will have my characteristically unforgivable approach to the material... Honestly, it's rewarding to have really committed readers. I'd hope, if I wrote a western or a historical romance, it would be as wrenched, miscegenated and decon as my assaults on the other genres. (I'm fairly certain that typical readers and writers of westerns or historical romances would be as puzzled and provoked by it as science fiction readers & writers were by The Centauri Device.) I'd expect my typical reader to be looking forward to that.

"But the downside of a very loyal, longstanding readership is that sometimes they aren't happy for you to actually change. A lot of Viriconium readers hated Climbers. One described it as 'an episode of Coronation Street'. He meant it was 'only' about life as he actually recognised it. I was sad that he couldn't be as excited as I was about that. It will happen again, because -- just as I'd rather make a mistake than not try new things -- I'd rather alienate every last reader than not do exactly what I want. It's selfish, I know: but it's your guarantee as a reader that you're getting something intense (even if it's something you don't want). The risk here is that people will suffer lost-reader syndrome. If you change, you can't have been what they thought you were. They feel betrayed, they feel abandoned. In the murkier depths of that is a control thing: who decides who you are? You, or your colleagues and readers? I have to say that the last thing I'll accept is imprisonment in someone else's definition of who I am, or what my best work is. That can be a problem with people you knew thirty years ago."

Writing -- the very process of writing -- means the same to M. John Harrison as it ever did: "Three parts psychological necessity, two parts job, one part a hit as good as coke or sex (but not quite as good as adrenalin). I'd rather go climbing, I might as well say that now, because trying to keep yourself together while you're looking at the wrong end of a fall is just the most absorbing thing in the world. It's to do with self-awareness, but paradoxically it doesn't leave you any self to be aware of. That was the big thing in my life: but it wasn't necessarily the healthiest or the most mature thing. (What's brilliant about climbing is that you don't even have to be very good at it to bring about the basic situation. I was never more than a mediocre climber. Andy Pollitt, one of the two or three best rock-technicians in Britain at the time, once said to me, 'Think what I have to do get that scared, Mike.' I took the point.) And although some of the mechanics of composition have changed over the years -- "I used to keep my journal in longhand. Now I do everything on the machine. The machine is my friend. Without the machine I would be nothing" -- Harrison continues to filter his and others' life experiences onto the page. "Intentionally or not," he says, "every writer writes 'about' themselves. Once you know that, you stop trying to do it directly. That element is going to take care of itself better than you can. Given that, though, I try in limited ways to use my own experience, if only on the grounds that it's what I know. I still have this sad idea that good writing ought to be, at least partly, an attempt to come to terms with the major events of your life (and thus, by extension, other people's lives). You can do that at greater or lesser remove. 'The Ice Monkey' is a very direct piece. Its emotional truth lies in a very direct use of real people and events. The fantasy element, though important, is reduced to two or three sentences which serve to wrench the realistic material for emphasis. On the other hand, while there's a lot of real stuff in the short story 'Empty', that realism only acts as a scaffold. The emotional truth of the story is handled in what are the most obviously fictional, fantastic elements. And the rule with Climbers is that just when you think it's most autobiographical it's generally least; and vice versa. I have to say that no one should take any of this as an explanation of what I do. I look for the wrench, the paradox, the metaphor that seems to work in more directions than it should. I look to confuse, delight and irritate. Manipulating reader-expectations around the fiction/nonfiction interface is only a part of that. It's both technique and subject matter: I write about self-anecdotalisation too."

I am interested, I tell him, in Choe (one of Harrison's most memorable characters). I can't help thinking that Choe had a very interesting journey onto the page, via an initial spark. Where did he come from? "There are a couple of answers to this question. One is that he came from 'The Ice Monkey' via Climbers. He's the failure of that particular escape-trajectory: he's what you end up as when you've ramped up the body chemicals as far as they'll go and it doesn't get you high anymore.

"The other is that he's based on three or four real people, including a legendary steeplejack, a climbing journalist, and a couple of roped-access engineers. Most of his dialogue is directly reported from those sources. His driving behaviours, his favourite foods, his TV habits, the way he dresses, are direct reportage. All the anecdotal material in Chapter Two is true (and of the same person). His 'spiritual' side is fictional and bolted on, but the key to him -- which is that he's too intelligent to behave this way, and he knows it -- is absolutely accurate. Guys like these undercut their own behaviour ironically the whole time, but can't learn how to do anything else. They're fantastically attractive. They're fucked. They brought attention deficit disorder to the Thatcher boom and it worked for them.

"It's twenty two miles, I think, from Hathersage to Holmfirth, if you take a single-track back road called the Strines, which is nothing but blind hairpins in woods, with 100 and 200 foot drop-offs. Choe once spent a month trying to drive it in less than seventeen minutes in a standard Astravan. The Strines has a pub on it, and it can take a lot of traffic, so to make sure no one else was on the road he drove it after midnight. We were about three quarters along one night when it became plain he wasn't going to improve on his best time...

"'Job's fucked, Mike,' he said. 'But I'll show you something, shall I?'

"I said yes.

"He stopped suddenly and screamed, 'Out! Get out Mike, and look at the van! I got out.

"'See? See?'

"I couldn't see anything.

"'Are you fucking blind, or what? The brakes, Mike, the brakes!'

"They were bright red, cooling to cherry. We were ten miles from anywhere in the pitch dark and he had exported enough heat into the front discs to get them bright red. Three weeks later he was racing Jane Johnson down the same road. Jane is not a slow driver, and at that time she owned a Ford XR2. Choe was in a fifteen year old Datsun that had cost him a hundred quid. She held him off for eleven miles. Then he overtook her on a cattle grid and his front suspension fell off."

For M. John Harrison, stories arrive at strange times and via unconventional routes. They are not necessarily in the air for him to catch? "It really does depend," he tells me. "'Seven Guesses of the Heart' was based directly on a dream. More usually, a paragraph or two from my notebooks act as a seed, around which other bits and pieces fall into more and more organised relationships. You can see that clearly in 'The Gift'. At a certain point, fictional material begins to insert itself to provide connectivity. A story emerges, the whole thing goes through a convulsion in which a lot of stuff gets thrown out. Suddenly, bang, there it is. I spend the next nine months trying to get one sentence right so I can call it 'finished'. I begin a story anywhere along its length, including the final sentence; and I work anywhere in it, too. (The last thing I did on Signs of Life was to write chapter eight.) There's a huge and welcome unconscious input: I never refuse an intuition, the more inexplicable the better. I need to be surprised by a story or it goes back in the raw material file. The ones that survive are the ones that did something extreme, of their own accord, while I was trying to write them. Stories are certainly 'in the air for me to catch', but I throw most of them back again, as being too ordinary or too easy to write."

And he is pleased that reviewers are starting to get to grips with what he produces. "Recently, they have been getting things right. But they tend to get one aspect, select one theme or thread or suite of references and see that as the whole of the meaning. I can understand why, and sympathise. A lot more fish are being fried than they want to eat. Fiction traditionally processes the disorder out of life: but in something like 'Gifco', for instance, the whole point is to offer people almost as much depth or interpretive choice as they would have in reality. So the tendency of the reviewer is to simplify a text which otherwise would seem too unpackable, not to say wilfully incomplete and paradoxical.

"Generally, I've had very powerful, positive reactions, both inside and outside the genre, for the last four books. People are reading me in a way that wasn't possible even in the 80s. Mind you, I still get some pretty dull responses." And for a writer who seems to invest so much in each piece this really does seem like a crying shame. He might disagree with some of his interviewer's notions -- "I have to say that 'misused magic and pricy miracles' sounds a bit more like J K Rowling than me" he writes in response to one of my questions -- but Harrison thinks hard about every answer, intent on providing, in interview as in tale, the perfect prose, the ideal response. So just for the record, as it were, I asked him about his views on a series of themes:

On magic.

"Magic is to do with desire. Every organism lives in the gap between the desired and the possible. Human beings, caught in the same biological anxiety as a brown rat, say: What if I had it? What if it was just on the table in front of me now? All that food, all that money, all that fame, all that beauty? All that (fill in the blank)? What if I could change things? Do you know that utterly stunning Lou Reed song, 'Dirty Boulevard'? I play it really loud if I forget what all this means. Magic is to guess at what you might have, and yearn for it, and then suddenly see it with a wrenching clarity, there but not there. Fiction is a medium for discussing those aspects of desire; but it's also, and much more importantly, a way of doing acts of symbolic magic, that old Burroughsian 'magical intervention' in the world.

"Fantasy fiction should be an especially good means of doing that, and until the arrival of commercial fantasy, it was. It was always rhetoric, dissembled ideology, dissembled ritual, the cranky voices of real individual magicians, Catweazels who could write a bit. For me it still is. Viriconium stories aren't just odd for the sake of it (well, not entirely). Signs of Life isn't just about the misused magic of genetech, or the pricy miracle of Isobel's transformation: it's about the politics of transformation in our age. I'm interested in desire, whether emotional or ideological: in fact I often make reciprocating metaphors out of those two."

On religion.

"Spirituality (along with politics, sex, art, science and probably language itself) lies in the gap between what we want and what we can have, what we know and what we don't, between the real and the constructed, between the quotidian and the awesome, between everything it might be and the one thing it is. That gap is an unhealed cut. My stories cluster around it like rentboys, pushers and clients in front of a King's Cross amusement arcade, getting off on the extreme tension and equivocality and challenge welling out into the night. People need to be more than they are. Actually, I think that's a kind of sprituality in itself, and to an extent that's the 'meaning' of stories like 'Black Houses'. But there should be some version of caveat emptor that warns the reader against the coldly-set traps of metaphor and self-reflexiveness. Does Choe Ashton, in 'Anima', meet and fuck and then deny a real earth-mother? Or is she only a Jungian figment? Or only a metaphor for his political and psychological 'fall from grace'? All these things at once? Something else altogether? Who is being teased here (other than, obviously, the author, who is clearly teasing himself)? Most of the ambiguously spiritual incidents in my stories are designed to represent something else, even if only ambiguity itself."

On feeling undervalued as a writer?

"I don't. I'd like to reach a wider audience, which means by definition a larger one. But given the nature of the project -- which has always been to frame questions, not provide answers -- I think I've been well received since the mid 80s. The best two or three books attracted serious reviews in broadsheet newspapers and literary magazines. I won a prize for non-fiction with a novel, which is a trick if you can do it. I was a bit disappointed that Climbers didn't get a nomination for the Booker, because I thought it was a good book. With hindsight I see that its human concerns were far too limited. It's that peripherality of concern or limitation of viewpoint which has sandbagged my stuff in the mainstream and literary marketplace. I doubt there's time to redress that now, although I'm always trying."

And lastly, on the long-known influence of Arthur Machen.

"This is a top question," says Harrison, "even if it is like asking me if I still beat my wife. I'm a bit chary of the uninterrogated, a priori definition of 'influence' here. On the other hand we don't have ten years or so to have the pre-meeting meetings in which we might debate some strategies for setting the ground rules of the meetings we would have if we accepted that the term 'influence' actually represented the same thing to both of us... But given that, I expect I'll always hear his voice, even though I haven't read him for twenty years. My swerve against him and all those other ecstatics and mystic Christians -- was to poison his reveries with the quotidian. Thus the weird urban magic of The Incalling or The Course of the Heart.

"What I've always tried to do with my influences is set them at one another like dogs. You can't avoid this anyway -- it's like Jumble Wood down there, it's bedlam, they're all growling and yapping at once 'and you can't quite hear them' -- so you might as well try and use it. Two of my favourite writers when I was young were C S Lewis and William Burroughs. See? Or you might collide Christopher Isherwood with Alfie Bester. You set Rosamund Lehmann at war with the pulp sensibility of Bukowski, under the broad umbrella of Edwardian metaphysical fiction. You try to use the structures from one genre that's 'influenced' you to scaffold the concerns of another. All this would happen anyway -- if you're lucky you can influence it a bit. That's the theory, anyway. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.

"I love Arthur Machen: but I love a lot of similar writers too, including WB Yeats, Charles Williams and the vastly under-rated Robert Chambers. (Not to mention Stanley Spencer, even though he wrote with paint.) I think 'influence' is an old-fashioned word. These days we're too self-aware not to be influenced. Only ageing romantics -- locked in their death struggle with the strong precursor, terrified of losing their identity, racked with hypocrisy, jealous of their diminishing intellectual property -- claim to be 'original'. Another completely unexamined word.

"If your fiction is experientially based it will be true and real, whoever you co-opted as a tutor when you were young, whatever influences you swam in since."

This interview was first published in The Third Alternative (for which there's a special subscription offer to infinity plus readers).

Light by M John Harrison
Light is published in the UK by Gollancz (£17.99, ISBN 0575070250; trade paperback, £10.99, ISBN 057507026; 31 October 2002).

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