In 2015 Professor Barbara Bengels (specialising in Writing Studies & Composition at Hofstra University on Long Island, New York) asked me if I would answer a few questions which she was also putting to other SF writers. Barbara Bengels being a collaborator with Jim Gunn, enough said! The Q & A was never intended to be published to be an interview, but here it is now, repurposed.
Following after Barbara Bengels’ questions is an interview which I originally did by email in February 2017 with Javier Mora Bordel of the city of M—— (as one would say in a 19th Century novel)—for the website La bitacora de maneco (“Captain’s Log”), an interview which seems to be logically linked, and is now updated a little.
BB: How much encouragement did you get—if any—from your parents when you were a child? Did they encourage or discourage you from reading SF (if you did read it—or comic books—or any other form of written entertainment)? When did you begin writing your own stories? Did your parents encourage you in that endeavor—and if so how? To what degree did your parents appreciate your creative gifts? Did they do anything specific to help or hinder you in your pursuits?
Nobody ever asked me about parents before! [Barbara told me afterwards that I wasn’t the only writer to react thus.]
When my mother was young, she had a bit of a dream of being a writer and treasured a rejection letter from a popular fiction mag of the 1920s or 1930s called The Velvet Magazine (long time defunct)—this may have been her only submission. My father was less literary, but our bungalow held a fair number of books from the 1930s and 1940s such as a standard edition of Dickens, other classics such as Jane Eyre, and sets of Encyclopedias in multiple volumes, Peoples of the World, Countries of the World, which I looked through, and the fairly magnificent Art Deco 10-volume Wonderland of Knowledge (with lovely illos) in its own special little bookcase, which I paid a lot of attention to.
As to science fiction, my parents immediately acceded to my request for Eagle comic, showcasing Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future, to be delivered weekly as soon as it launched in April 1950. Here on a postal stamp years later:
I had just turned 7 years old at the time, and was excited about space travel. And I remember how, at the annual Xmas party for kids of parents who worked at the post office, my father arranged that I would receive as a present a book of my own choice—I recall choosing one year an SF novel for children (which proved to be childish), and another year an SF comics annual (much more satisfactory). Basically my parents condoned me reading whatever I wanted to. They had decided that I was bright, but there was no attempt to guide me, although I did have a room of my own to curl up in with books, and a big desk, and from the time I was 11 or so, a typewriter. I never actually learned to type properly and I still use one finger (though quickly). On the whole my parents didn’t know what I was reading, just that I was reading, a lot. Having a well set-up study-bedroom of my own was important.
I started typing a non-SF story when I was 14 but I merely rewrote the first page lots of times, searching for les mots justes. At that time I also wrote several columns of journalism about cacti, which were published and paid for (by postal orders worth ten shillings apiece) by the national magazines Amateur Gardening and Popular Gardening. One of my columns was about the peyotl cactus with quotes from Aldous Huxley‘s The Doors of Perception and Robert S. De Ropp’s Drugs and the Mind (1957).
A bit derivative and stiff perhaps, but well worth the ten shillings which at the time could buy 8 pints of beer (and which nowadays would be 50 pence/half a Euro). Had I but known, I would have written ‘Nahuatl’ rather than “the Mexican name” but this was forty years before Wiki happened.
Despite the drugs, I remember that my parents were proud of these horticultural ventures of mine as an augury of the future. In fact, back then, the word “drugs” wouldn’t have rung any anxious parent warning bells. As regards such bells, my father once walked in on me in 1957 while I was listening to a BBC radio adaptation of Vladimir Dudintsev‘s Not By Bread Alone just at the very moment when a Soviet prosecutor uttered the phrase “sexual intercourse” in court—the sole mention of sex in this saga of heavy engineering and corrupt bureaucracy—whereupon my dad exclaimed incensedly, “I’m not having you listen to things like that!” and promptly switched off the radio.
I do recall that I became petulant because journalism wasn’t almighty literature. Fiction was my future! My final article, about peyotl, appeared when I was 16, having won a couple of scholarships to university and thus escaped from school. I was two years younger than the normal age, yet I’m fairly sure that I started school at the same age as other kids and I never skipped a year, so how did this happen? Ian-ian Time-Slip!
I only realised subsequently the extent to which my own particular nuclear family largely kept to themselves. Likerwise I kept to myself in my own room, which seemed to be perfectly natural behaviour, though in retrospect this was perhaps a bit weird. My father never talked at home about his job (ultimately, assistant head postmaster of two large towns), where he was not, in fact, “one of the boys”, not a chap for socialising at a pub, no interest in football, et cetera. My nuclear family kept significant facts and history suppressed. I only discovered to what extent this was so when, decades later, my cousin Pamela (my only close blood relative) wrote a fictional “autobiography” of my deceased grandmother who lived till 92, and I edited the book prior to its self-publication. Amongst censored family history, just for instance, my father’s sister had decamped from the dull north of England during the 1930s to have fun in London and became the consort of a black marketeer. Probably a black marketeer—how else to explain that Jack and my aunt came out of the 2nd World War owning a mansion on the bank of the Thames with a motor launch at its private landing stage? (And a tortoise living in its huge garden; how I yearned for a tortoise or for any creature, but my parents would never allow any pet in case it gave precious me a disease.) My ‘naughty’ yet generous aunt’s existence was carefully sanitised to the extent that my cousin had no idea that my father even had any sister. When we drove southward in our black Austin car for about twelve hours to visit Aunt Eva, we were visiting a “friend” of my mother’s. “Silence, exile, and cunning” (as James Joyce put it) was perhaps part of my nature from early on as regards writing, though I fairly easily became gregarious as need be.
My parents never really understood where I was at. Gregarious and adaptable must be due to all those novels I read by Zola and others, recounting patterns of human behaviour. Here’s a photo from my cousin’s book of my 3rd birthday, where I can’t see much sign of other birthday guests beyond me in my sailor suit.
Was there a formative moment when you decided to become a professional writer—and then more specifically, an SF writer?
In a sense I became a professional writer at the age of 14, in that I found out for myself how to submit successfully to a paying market, even though this wasn’t to be my future market.
The tipping point as regards science fiction was when I went to live in Tokyo in 1967 at the age of 24. Even back then, Tokyo seemed like an SF place, both as regards the exciting positives and the dystopian negatives. I began writing SF as a kind of psychological survival strategy to cope with the “future shock” of Tokyo. I might add that up until I quit teaching in 1976 to become a full-time writer I was extremely fortunate in my jobs. In the brave new nation of Tanzania, the university hired more staff than they had work for. In Japan, the students at my university went on strike for two and a half years to protest at the future renewal of the US-Japan Security Treaty. And the head of the School of History of Art in Birmingham (UK) had cunningly reduced our working week to two and a half days.
Is there any advice you might give to the parents of children who show a particular interest in reading/writing SF?
Awaken an understanding of the “facts” about the universe, its size and age, sciences, and evolution, so that the child knows the context within which we exist cosmically and biologically. Read widely in general; history, mythology, general literature, botany, geography. Know our world, know our cosmos. Be sceptical about imaginary stuff—such as dark matter and dark energy, which remain unbacked by evidence—but never about scientific method per se.
Jim Gunn has asked that I add a few questions that will help him do a research project he described in his Hall of Fame induction remarks (to be further discussed in his upcoming Analog story):
Do you think that the reading of SF has changed your brain?
OR Do you think that you took up reading SF because your brain was essentially different?
OR Do you think that the difference in brains (larger frontal lobes, for instance, or greater use of the rational part of the brain) had anything to do with your involvement in SF?
This sounds a bit Lombroso or Slan. So far I haven’t been scanned or autopsied or measured. I tend to have different perceptions of the world than many other people seem to. (So I didn’t have any problem the half dozen times when I took LSD; LSD showed me the structure of my perceptions. This was illuminating.) I see things that other people don’t notice. If I point out weirdnesses, often people don’t assign much significance if any. I have very good long-range eyesight (just need x2 glasses for reading nowadays). Everything is clear way into the distance. Obviously this is brain-related since that’s where the majority of the processing occurs. Interconnectivity: where other people see a coincidence, I tend to see a connection—but conspiracy theorists take this to extremes.
And here comes the interview with Javier from the city of M——:
1: When did your love for literature start? Who influenced you?
I was a single child, and my parents didn’t socialise much, so books (and comics) became my friends fairly early. There were quite a lot of ‘classic’ books in my parents’ house, such as the complete works of Scott and Dickens, but I ignored these in favour of such things as a big 10-volume popular illustrated encyclopedia of the 1930s called The Wonderland of Knowledge. (See above!)
From this Wonderland, for instance I became excited about the history of Babylon, resulting many years later in my novel Whores of Babylon. There were a couple of other multi-volume 1930s encyclopedias too, called Countries of the World and Peoples of the World. In the former I vividly remember a colour picture of the inside of the great mosque in Córdoba, which seemed very exotic and magical to me. In the latter were ‘native tribes’—this was long before political correctness—and other ethnic societies far away from England. I date my desire to travel from an early age, resulting later in my going to work in East Africa, and setting parts of my novels in Amazonia or the Bolivian Andes, places which I have still never visited except in my imagination. Also, there were three big illustrated volumes from the 1890s called the Monthly Chronicle of North Country Lore and Legend. ‘North Country’ because I was growing up in the north-east of England, the ‘Chronicle’ being a local newspaper which in the past had published every week a supplement of a few pages of strange stories and anecdotes from the past—once a year these pages were collected into a big volume. One of those stories resulted much later in my SF-Horror novel The Fire Worm. I still remember news vendors on the streets of Newcastle upon Tyne calling out, “Chronny-gale! Chronny-gale!” Just as if a time-wind was blowing.
I especially liked to read travel books, and books about natural history including exotic plants, and adventures rather more than traditional literature; of the English Literature which we had to study at school, I think I only really liked Marlowe’s play Edward II. The books which I remember liking most, of those which I bought with my own pocket money, were the Histories of Herodotus and Ovid’s Metamorphoses (in translation). Oh yes, and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. One of my motives for liking books was if there was any sex in them, however mild this might seem nowadays. The 1950s in England was a time of ignorance, banality, and boredom. So, from early on, science fiction provided a great escape. My local library in the otherwise boring town of N—— S—— (yet so much more of a library than most UK libraries of recent decades!) wonderfully provided me with the newest Golden Age SF, from Alfred Bester, Van Vogt, Asimov, as well as with story anthologies. And from back in 1921 there was the astouding A Voyage to Arcturus by David Lindsay (see http://www.ianwatson.info/a-book-that-made-me-and-an-odd-bull/. Nor let me forget Arthur Clarke’s Childhood’s End, very influential for me.
I think that the modern (as of the Nineteen-Fifties) novelist who most influenced me—as far as my first three SF novels anyway—was Graham Greene, because of his foreign settings, his tripartite plot structures, and the personalities of his characters; I read many of his novels as a schoolboy. The early influences are the dominant ones. Even books which I read about cacti. “The child is father of the man,” wrote the English Romantic poet Wordsworth—although you might not realise this fact until you are much older because youth is often a time for rejecting youth. Coincidentally I went to the same Oxford college as Graham Greene (as indeed did Aldous Huxley) but this is of no significance. Probably.
2: When did you decide to become a professional writer?
I resigned from my job as a senior lecturer in Birmingham’s School of History of Art (that was) in 1976 after my second novel won prizes, just as the first novel had done, and began accumulating foreign language translations, just like the first. The money I earned from writing wasn’t vast but it was sufficient for me to quit my job and write full time; and the future looked bright.
But back then was a different age. In Britain there were only about a dozen of us SF authors; every new book was eagerly awaited—and Fantasy had only begun its ascent towards eventual dominance of the genre market. Media SF was still in its infancy; the first Star Wars movie only happened in 1977. Nor were there any computer games to compete with paper books because there were no personal computers. The field was clear for us SF authors. And there were still numerous independent, family-owned publishers who published whatever books they pleased without reference to corporate overlords. When I wrote my fourth novel, I well remember my publisher, John Bush (of Gollancz), saying to me, in an avuncular way, “It’s an annuity for life, my boy, this writing business; these books will go on earning and earning.” (This proved to be very untrue, alas!—the landscape starting to change after the election of Margaret Thatcher.) Back then, publishers were loyal to their authors; they would continue publishing new books by you for years and years even if you never produced a best-seller. Even the job in Birmingham which I resigned from—doing half-time work for full-time pay!—was a gift for any would-be writer, yet only two people in the whole of the UK had applied for it when it was advertised nationally, namely me and somebody else. Nowadays hundreds would apply, and the employers would want a mountain of work out of you in return.
When I was starting out as a writer, there were many opportunities. This said, you still needed to write books which were noteworthy and original, and to continue doing so. Energy and imagination needed.
3: Do you think you are a Science Fiction writer? What other literature genres are you passionate about?
Back in the past occasionally I tried to write a ‘mainstream’ story and it turned into SF after a couple of paragraphs. Nowadays I realise that ‘mainstream’ itself is merely a genre. Culturally the mainstream dominates, but in fact it is more imaginatively restricted than SF.
Other genres… Well, horror, yes. During the later 1980s I was very enthusiastic about the potentials of Horror because Horror seemed to illuminate life in a disorienting, destabilising way which opened the doors of perception. So I wrote a couple of horror novels, choosing themes that were almost guaranteed to stop my books from selling well, and certainly not selling at all to the USA—namely, nuclear disarmament, and animal liberation. One US editor remarked, while rejecting the books, that having the equivalent of the Black Panthers as your heroes was the perfect recipe for commercial failure. Silly me. But I was feeling a bit bleak at the time, for financial and other reasons. My third horror novel, The Fire Worm, was the climax of my flirtation with Horror. Having climaxed, I moved back into SF.
The crime genre… I have written half a dozen bizarre crime stories—such as putting Agatha Christie’s Poirot in outer space, and a murder of an alien in Oxford pastiching the ‘Inspector Morse’ investigations, and an assassination at the Semana Negra in Gijón. But the bizarre elements probably disqualify these from being regarded as crime stories.
I watch crime dramas but I have read very little crime fiction. Probably I would enjoy the genre, but there isn’t time. My daughter enjoys vintage Crime for Art Deco reasons.
4: What is your opinion about Science Fiction nowadays? Which are your favourite writers?
There is a lot of SF nowadays, and much of it is unnecessary, even if it very literate compared with much early SF. The desire to become a published author and to see a book or story with your name on it is not an adequate reason for writing. Passion is needed, but not passion about oneself.
To give a list of favourite writers would inevitably miss numerous names— including those who would be favourites if only I’d found time to read them—so I’ll only choose one writer: the very clever and literate Adam Roberts, especially his novels Yellow Blue Tibia, Jack Glass, and The Thing Itself stimulated by the philosophy of Immanuel Kant.
COURAGE, DEVOTED READERS (IF ANY): MORE REVELATORY PHOTOS ARE FAIRLY FAR BELOW. FEEL FREE TO SCROLL FAST!
5: How is your creative process? How do you turn your ideas into a reality?
I wrote outlines only for my first few books. Basically, I improvise. I vacuum up interesting ideas and information, and then I just start writing to discover what will happen. There is a dynamic by which order emerges spontaneously; so far, this has worked for me. After a couple of pages, I always start again from the beginning because the direction of the story has changed. I will always rewrite text afresh instead of cutting and pasting. I rewrite a lot.
6: I personally think that your sense of humour makes possible this strange mix between brilliant ideas and absurd elements. Could we speak about a surrealist style?
I did propose in an essay which I wrote about 15 years ago that I don’t write SF, “Science Fiction”, so much as SS, “Science Surrealism”. Unfortunately, double “S” is dirtied by the Nazis!
As regards humour, I myself have almost no ability to remember jokes, but I very easily and quickly respond wittily to situations in real time. Wit and humour are a bit different. “The world is a comedy to those that think; a tragedy to those that feel”—said Horace Walpole, whom I quote about another matter as the epigraph for my Whores of Babylon. Most of the time I am serene and happy, which encourages good humour. I enjoy my dreams, though other people often regard my dreams as nightmares if I relate them. Sometimes I laugh aloud during a dream, and this wakes me up.
7: Do you think your work is provocative? May it challenge any kind of conservative moral?
I try to provoke readers to perceive the world in a different way that will reorganise their perceptions of reality, but realistically I doubt that many ‘conservatives’ will even encounter the challenge to their world-views, let alone benefit from this. The majority of people have delusionary world-views, which may be necessary to uphold their sense of identity.
Back in the 1960s, I really did like reading adventures in outer space (including “surreal” adventures such as stories by Robert Sheckley). Spaceships and aliens, please!
While I was living in Japan, in about 1968 I subscribed (by airmail, paying by cheque) to New Worlds magazine, expecting to receive the traditional New Worlds; but what arrived was the revolutionary large-format new New Worlds edited by Michael Moorcock. At first I was a bit annoyed by the lack of spaceships and aliens compared with previously. However, I was increasingly feeling the need to write some sort of SF as a kind of psychological survival mechanism to cope with the “future shock” (Alvin Toffler’s phrase) of life in Tokyo. 50 years ago, a lot of things in Japan seemed very futuristic compared with England, such as—just to take one example—the high-speed bullet train. Hey, in England a bullet-train still seems futuristic. After Brexit, a horse-and-cart will be cool. In more than one way.
After experiencing a few issues of the new New Worlds I thought: I can write this sort of stuff myself! So I typed my first published SF story, “Roof Garden under Saturn”, and airmailed the pages to New Worlds. Basically my story was a description of the roof of a Japanese department store, slightly exaggerated. This must have seemed exotic back in England because New Worlds quickly accepted the story and wanted more. In fact the new New Worlds was the perfect outlet for me at the time and I quickly became enthusiastic about the ‘New Wave’, although I wouldn’t say I was part of it considered as a movement or as regards socialising. William Gibson once told me that the Japanese-themed things I had in New Worlds affected him.
9: Which is your concept of language in The Embedding? Which linguistic theories influenced your work?
This is explained at length (a) in French in a new edition of L’Enchâssement and (b) in Spanish in the introduction by me to the new translation published by Gigamesh in the Spanish omnibus volume Incrustados, so I don’t want to repeat myself. But I do wish to mention—as a huge generalisation—that the theories of Sapir and Whorf (namely, that the language you speak causes you to perceive the world differently from speakers of other languages) gave way to the more ‘scientific’ theories of Chomsky (namely, that all human languages are united on a deep structural level, genetically programmed) and now Chomsky in turn is no longer top guru, ‘disproved’ by a tribe in the Amazon called the Pirahã… and the excellent 2016 film Arrival (La llegada) bases itself upon Sapir and Whorf once again and even quotes their names. It’s as if nothing much has happened since The Embedding was published over 40 years ago; the book is still contemporary enough. That’s nice for an author, but a bit strange.
10: Chris Sole and their colleagues in Haddon experiment with children. To what extent can Science cause abuse of humans?
Bad science can cause abuses, but usually ideology is to blame. For instance, Stalin’s political support for the wrong-headed theories of Lysenko led to the starvation of masses of people in the former USSR. Lack of science certainly produces abuse of human beings, as we will witness soon if ignorant Trump and his ignorant gang continue in power.
11: In Alien Embassy aliens help humans to develope the concept of Social Ecology. Is this novel your portrait of the great failure of utopias of the sixties?
Beware (spoiler!): the aliens might not be real… I’m very interested in ‘designed’ societies, as in Alien Embassy, as in Whores of Babylon. (Obviously a generation starship would need a cleverly designed society aboard, although I feel no desire to write about a generation starship—although, immediately I say so, perversely I feel a challenge.) I didn’t read Social Ecology texts; I think I was more influenced at the time by Herbert Marcuse and by The Limits to Growth (Club of Rome, unlinkable to due to apparent paranoia).
12: Now, with The Jonah Kit , you reflect on human spirituality. Paul Hammond, one of its characters, sets out an alternative theory between atheism and deism: God exists but he is in another place. Irony?
My fictional uses of scientific theories often function metaphorically; likewise my fictional use of a ‘God’ which doesn’t exist. Cosmologies which were far out and very speculative 30 or 40 years ago—such as the Many Worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics—are becoming more ‘plausible’ nowadays. One mystery is that the Big Bang ought to have produced equal amounts of matter and antimatter, which would therefore have promptly annihilated one another; however, our visible universe of galaxies is made of lots of matter (and of mostly ‘empty’ space—ignoring all the bound-up energy of virtual particles in the void). The latest theory I read to explain our universe of matter-only is that at the Big Bang almost instantly all the antimatter was inflated away. So maybe ‘God’ only applies in the corresponding antimatter universe now extremely distant. (An Anti-God, perhaps?) This sort of fits in with The Jonah Kit. Though for me ‘God’ is only a useful metaphor, which reflects a major delusion of human beings.
A different theory of our universe, according to which everything that we observe is only a fraction of existence—which emerged subsequently to The Jonah Kit—is the current orthodoxy that unobservable Dark Matter explains how the outer parts of galaxies rotate faster than ought to be possible without the galaxies coming apart. But there is no actual evidence for the existence of Dark Matter, and now it’s beginning to seem that a modification to our understanding of gravity may explain the observations without invoking vast amounts of undetectable mysterious matter. Likewise, there’s no evidence for vast amounts of unobservable Dark Energy which is allegedly speeding up the expansion of the universe. Since mainstream cosmology has based itself for many years on what is purely imaginary (even if mathematically consistent) I feel justified in imagining a few cosmologies.
Maybe I should add that this sceptical comment about one area of science has no connection with my view of Climate Change, which is here right now on Earth along with a full package of valid scientific evidence.
13: The “ufo” phenomenon is one of the main elements in Miracle Visitors. Pharaphrasing Jung: Do you think the ufo is a modern symbol in the collective subconscious?
Maybe! The problem is that people’s reported experiences all seem unreliable in one way or another. I regard the ‘phenomenon’ as an exotic altered state of consciousness, which is what I needed a whole book to explore, thus I can’t provide a simple paragraph as an answer. It’s interesting to look at the original reports which Kenneth Arnold made in 1947 about the very fast, flat ‘objects’ which he saw in the sky (and which sound to me like atmospheric phenomena). Very quickly this became a newspaper sensation about piloted ‘flying saucers’ which isn’t what Arnold said at first; the media created this myth—and, once you have a potent myth, you have caused a mind-set by which people can interpret unusual experiences. Arnold’s comparison of what he saw as being like “saucers skipping on water”—invoking the game of skipping flat stones across water—makes me wonder who the hell has ever used crockery for this purpose. “Sorry, Grandma, me and the boys lost the dinner service in the lake…”
14: Through The Gardens of Delight you develop an emotional tribute for Hieronymus Bosch. Why do you choose this particular work of art to inspire you?
In the late 1950s the works of Henry Miller were mostly still banned in the UK on grounds of being pornographic. So I naturally wanted to read Henry Miller. And I found a non-banned book by Miller in my public library, Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch, its dust jacket showing part of Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights. Wow. This looked like a brighter side to A Voyage to Arcturus with all that book’s bizarre bodily transformations and metaphysical messages mysteriously concealed therein. Miller’s essay about Bosch pointed me to a book by Wilhelm Fränger, The Millennium of Hieronymus Bosch, which I found a copy of on a visit to my aunt in London (12 hours by bus) when I was about 15. I think I spent 30 shillings on the book, which was a lot back then, though it is only 1 Euro 50 cents now. The book was an interpretation basic upon heretical Gnostic ideas—perfect! The germination, or pregnancy, for my novel lasted at least 20 years.
15: On the other hand you live in a certain Renaissance environment in Queenmagic, Kingmagic. Orson Scott Card in the September edition of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1986 wrote a brief review invoking the figure of Pirandello. What do you think this refered to? Do you agree with that?
This must refer to Pirandello’s best known comedy, Six Characters in Search of an Author, where characters rebel against the story they are in and invade a different story, somewhat as happens with my protagonist in very different circumstances in Queenmagic, Kingmagic— my own novel being a fantasy which questions reality in a fast-paced tragicomic bittersweet way, set inside of chess and some other games, as if those are real worlds. I don’t think I ever read, or saw, any of Pirandello’s work myself—there are lots of things that I haven’t read, which I ought to have read. But I have just re-read Card’s review, because I keep such things—in a semi-orderly, though not obsessively orderly way—and he actually says: “Queenmagic, Kingmagic can’t be compared with anything, except perhaps a screwy comparison like ‘This is how Pirandello might have written Lord of the Rings’ or ‘With Queenmagic, Kingmagic, Franz Kafka meets T.H. White’” (Psst, I haven’t read Tolkien or T.H. White, but I did read everything by Kafka!) So, Card’s comment isn’t exactly a comparison with Pirandello so much as a witty surrender as regards the possibility of comparisons.
18: In The Fire Worm you confront the horror genre. What do you consider more terrifying, a creature such as Lovecraft used to create or the obsessions and fears that can make it real? What do you think are the main fears of our society?
The main fears of our society ought to be nuclear war, climate change, overpopulation, a pandemic mutated disease with very high mortality, and at least somewhere else on the list an extinction event due to an asteroid impact—those things which can destroy civilisation.
The actual fears of the majority of people are none of these, due to inadequate education, lack of scientific understanding, religion, prejudice, nationalism, lack of foresight, short term goals, manipulative and trivialising media, corrupt or stupid self-centred politicians.
19: You explore sexuality in Orgasmachine. Which is the origin of this work? What kind of role do women play in your work? Do you think society needs to have women as simple objects of desire?
I don’t think I would have written Orgasmachine without the Women’s Liberation Movement that arose in the UK and the USA in the late 1960s. The experience of living in Japan from 1967 to 1970 was also important. I remember how the very efficient and English-speaking secretary of the English department of my university announced that she was leaving the job because it was time to get married. She was not in reality getting married; it was just the traditional time when she ought to get married according to the norms of Japanese society, consequently she must leave her job. Her replacement, who was suitably younger, couldn’t speak any English and wasn’t efficient at all.
My early novel Alien Embassy has a woman as narrator—a young black African woman (because I had lived in East Africa, so this seemed a natural choice). My trilogy written in the 1980s, The Book of the River, The Book of the Stars, and The Book of Being, has a female main character and narrator, and is partly set in a feminist utopia—though reviewers seemed not to pay much attention to this vital feature of the books. Women play important roles in my books, often leading roles. About 80% of my novel Mockymen (2003) is narrated by a woman.
Women as objects of desire easily becomes ‘women as objects’. In that respect the society of elephants is healthier than ours.
20: Was it difficult for you writing novels setting in the Warhammer universe? How did you get to combine your personal style with this popular fantasy? Do you think your participation and the work of other writers as Dan Abnett was decisive to push this company?
I had always loved space opera but I never thought I was equipped to write space opera. The Warhammer 40,000 universe liberated me to have grotesque, lurid, baroque fun—provided that I treated the background completely seriously. So each morning after breakfast, using no drug stronger than coffee (though with happy memories of LSD), I would hallucinate myself into that grotesque, deranged, psychotic future universe. I was the first writer to tackle 40K; other early writers for Games Workshop opted for generic medieval fantasy or near-future post-apocalypse backgrounds, because these didn’t require reading the encyclopedias of information produced by GW for games players.
As regards the participation of fiction writers, always remember that GW is a games company and its Black Library is essentially a sideline, not the main thrust. The main business is selling games, especially 40K, and the miniature models. The games designers are the guys with power. No fiction writer could ever be “decisive” to the company. A writer can influence details of the 40K universe, which Dan Abnett certainly has done, but not influence the corporate momentum.
21: Chekhov’s Journey is an ucronic recreation of the journey of the Russian writer in 1890 through Siberia. Why do you choose this character? How do you get to join together this kind of theme so dissimilar?
I like connecting things where other people see no connections; in fact, this is the way my mind works. Previously, I had written a short story featuring the genteel though ironic early 19th century novelist Jane Austen in an ecocatastrophic England of the early 19th century, where the British navy pulls icebergs from Antarctica to provide drinking water. This was decades before recent tongue-in-cheek versions of Jane Austen’s novels with added horror, such as Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters. The Tunguska event—where a small asteroid (probably) exploded over a remote part of Siberia, flattening millions of trees—came to my attention, and I thought: which Russian writer can I juxtapose with this big cosmic event, as I did with ecocatastrophe and Jane Austen? Dostoevsky, perhaps? No, no. Dostoevsky is an erupting literary volcano already! But ah…Anton Chekhov is a bit like a Russian Jane Austen. And then I discovered that ‘quiet’ Chekhov had made a journey across the whole of Siberia—bingo! In reality Chekhov’s journey happened about 20 years before the Tunguska event, but that isn’t a problem—that is a challenge, to a science fiction writer.
22: You wrote two novels in collaberation: Under Heaven’s Bridge with Michael Bishop in 1980; and recently, in 2009, The Beloved of my Beloved with Roberto Quaglia. What do you think about working together other writers? Are there differences between them? What can we get of Ian Watson in each of these works?
I need to be very much on same wavelength as a collaborator, to the extent that what we write will seem interchangeable as regards authorship. Afterwards—especially a few years later—I no longer know which one of us wrote what.
UHB was written, with remarkable speed and ease, by typing and airmail post; the Beloved book using talk then computers and email. It’s well over 30 years since UHB and I haven’t reread it since, so any comments I make would probably involve false memories. The Beloved book initially arose as a single story, “The Grave of My Beloved”, which was conceived in an otherwise deserted hotel outside the second ugliest town in Hungary where Roberto and I were guests of a convention. A third guest was Darth Vader (David Prowse the actor) who was very late for breakfast, consequently Roberto and I began talking about virtual necrophilia, as one would; after a while I proposed a story, which I would start and Roberto would continue, then I would revise and write more followed by Roberto writing some more, et cetera. This first story was a bit less transgressive than later stories in the book, and it sold quickly to Weird Tales, encouraging us. The second, more transgressive story, “The Penis of my Beloved”, arose on a later occasion during a coffee break in a snowy Austrian valley while Roberto was driving me from Budapest to Genoa. Talking to each other in different parts of Europe was essential for these stories to get started. At first, for the sake of spontaneity Roberto wrote his parts in Italian, which he translated into surreal English, giving a unique flavour to the prose, which I was happy to sustain. With later stories, Roberto wrote directly in English. The stories are all different, not like chapters in a novel, but there’s a framing narrative, of bedtime stories told to a giant tumour—you need to read the book to understand how and why. Finally we had a book of eleven stories (plus the framing narrative), of which five had already appeared in anthologies or magazines, and Ian Whates’ small press NewCon Press published this beautifully; no ‘commercial’ publisher would have risked such a book—hoorah for small presses. And one of the stories, “The Beloved Time of Their Lives”, won the BSFA (British Science Fiction Association) Award for Best Short Fiction of the Year 2009. That story, in fact, was more Roberto’s doing than mine; he wrote a bittersweet time-travel romance which was in part a parody of Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveller’s Wife, a book we both loathed; for a crazier narrative I jazzed up the story with added surrealism, in a way performing a reversal of our usual roles. (Roberto had already published a brilliant parody of the soulful, self-help book Jonathan Livingston Seagull under the title Jonathan Livingshit Pigeon.) By now Roberto and I were able to exchange identities. This is collaboration!
23: Your collaboration with Stanley Kubrick in the script of A.I was very famous too and it was an adaption of a Brian Aldiss’s tale. How was your work method? Did you feel the creator of the story or you had to adjust you to Kubrick´s rules? What did Sara Maitland bring to the project?
Sara Maitland says that Stanley hired her in 1995 to provide a female and a feminist viewpoint as regards what she refers to as “the nuances of interrelationship, of the minute movements of human hearts and especially, since maternity was an important theme, of women’s hearts”—and also for her understanding of fairy tales. I’m sure that the latter resulted in the use in the film of W.B. Yeats’ poem “The Stolen Child”—“Come away, O human child / To the waters and the wild…” What Sara says happened, as of 1999 after Stanley’s death, is at http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/arts-my-year-with-stanley-1079966.html Sara says that she worked with Stanley for a year; she doesn’t mention how often she may have visited him, although she does describe begging for a holiday from the job. She also mentions signing a confidentiality agreement—something which I was never asked to sign, perhaps because Stanley was in a hurry to get on with the project immediately (now!) and the confidentially aspect simply got forgotten. Stanley wanted many things immediately, though could also wait patiently for years till he felt that a project was perfect.
I do remember the then-head of Warner Brothers UK phoning me after the film was fully finished to tell me that screen credit had been assigned to me, consequently when exactly did I want my bonus in Dollars to be converted into Pounds to send to me, and quoting the exchange rate on that day and hour. He mentioned that he had already phoned Sara to tell her that she wouldn’t receive screen credit and that she accepted this. Screen credit (and a bonus) was based, according to my contract, on whether what I wrote “substantially resulted” in a film. I believe that a panel adjudicates upon and approves credits. A problem about memoirs regarding working with Stanley is that memoirists use the words ‘script’ and ‘screenplay’ very loosely and vaguely.
After Stanley’s death almost everyone rushed to sell their memoirs of working with him to magazines and newspapers, with more or less accuracy as regards these memoirs. My own extended memoirs, with full details of the work method, are at http://www.ianwatson.info/plumbing-stanley-kubrick/ Parts of this appeared previously in The New Yorker and in Playboy.
Recently I heard that Sara Maitland wrote a full screenplay for A.I. for Stanley and that she regards this in some way as her “Pension”. I do not understand in what way.
24: In 2001 you published your first book of poetry The Lexicographer’s Love Song. What does mean poetry in your creative universe? Is poetry a escape mechanism to escape from prose fiction?
At the Eurocon in Barcelona recently I did a long interview with Mariano Martín Rodríguez, focused upon my poetry, which is in Hélice (in English)
25: In 2012 you and Cristina Macía founded the small press publisher Palabaristas. In the website you say your target is “to promote gender literature”. In what sense? What do you think makes the difference between Palabaristas and other publishing houses? Are platforms on the Internet like Lektu the best idea to promote an independent editorial as yours?
“Literatura de género” means “genre literature”, not “gender literature”. “Genre” = non-mainstream literature such as crime (novela negra), science fiction, etc. “Gender” = male, female etc. As regards gender, the Alucinadas series of anthologies are SF written by only women authors, intentionally so, since women’s voices too often get marginalised or excluded; but Palabaristas publishes many male authors too. (“Palabaristas” = “palabras + malabaristas” = “jugglers of words”. I invented the name.)
We obviously think that a non-DRM platform like Lektu is a good route, and so do an increasing number of publishers in Spain who are joining with Lektu.
NOT LONG NOW! MORE PICTURES ARE COMING, HONEST!
26: To conclude, which are your next projects?
I’m updating a novel, The Waters of Destiny (co-written with my friend, scientist Andy West), which Palabaristas previously issued as an ebook. It’s about how, in the 12th century, an Arab doctor of genius could realistically within the mind-set and medical technology of his time have isolated and stored the true causes of the big killer Black Death (which has nothing to do with the fleas on rats). Horrific consequences follow in our own near future, due to terrorist fanatics, descendants of the Assassins of Alamut.
Subsequent to the ebook, the Syrian war totally destroyed one city (Homs) which our modern characters visited. I can cope with the Syrian catastrophe fictionally, whatever my personal feelings—but the deranged and very dangerous Trump throws all plans and plausible forecasts into chaos as regards the world at large.
I am also busy with a sequel to my novella The Brain From Beyond: A Spacetime Opera. The narrative of The Brain From Beyond was improvised, and that wasn’t the title in the beginning. I did read several books about the nature of Nothing, and I took a risk using the dwarf planet Ceres when our Dawn probe was heading there for a close look, but Dawn has been in close orbit since 2015 and I haven’t been invalidated, not yet, phew.
Invalidation by progress in scientific knowledge isn’t necessarily fatal to a good SF story—the jungles of Venus of bygone days can still thrill us. But an SF writer ought to stay alert. The nearby star Tau Ceti was a good destination until ten years ago; I used the Tau Ceti system in a long story published in 2001 in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. But now we know that Tau Ceti’s solar system contains ten times more debris than our own solar system consequently, vast and mostly empty though even space within most solar systems is, it might be a bad idea to send a starship there from the point of view of extinction events being more frequent for habitable worlds if any.
The sequel is now completed, entitled The Trouble with Tall Ones: A Spacetime Pantomime. PS Publishing ought to release this in 2019.
Here’s a bit of a mystery… A column clipped from a local Tyneside newspaper, dated December 22 1959, says that I had just won a scholarship to Balliol College, Oxford. (Back then, you needed to apply colleges at Oxford and Cambridge separately and individually, not in convenient groups as now. My scholarship was worth a hundred pounds a year, not to be sniffed at.)
However, the following photo, marked 3.9.60, shows me in the Spring Gardens pub, North Shields
Surely the real date of this photo must be Sept 1959. It’s the 21st birthday party of the chap sitting in the middle, Mike Gordon, who subsequently taught history in Switzerland and self-published a couple of novels set in Roman Britain. Consequently we’re wearing ties. All apart from the birthday boy—who lent me Childhood’s End and who played much chess at his guardians’ terrace home, as well as much Wagner on his record player. Mike Gordon was important to us because for decades he strove to keep us six in touch. Respect. RIP?
Middle row back, with the pipe, is David Faddy, who became to our amazement a lecturer in Photography and then the innovative Head of Photography and the Dean at the University of Westminster. Respect. RIP. Another became a Canadian librarian, another worked in Pensions and played championship chess, yet another RIP became a Canadian professor of Elizabethan drama.
Though, my god, I might be the same person… No, what I mean is, the two photos might be from the same year.
Finally, for total interview Junkies, here’s an email interview back in 2012ish with a chap in Australia… oh dear me, I darned well seem not to have completed this! Oh my apologies, Mr Ormsby, I’m sure you were called Mr Ormsby but I seem to have no email address for you—how can such a thing be possible? (I have deleted the unanswered questions and empty spaces.)
Ahem. As you can see, these are a generic set of questions. I have tried to have a variety of questions, including an odd silly one. Pick and choose which ones you want to answer. If you are willing, I would love to develop a second set more targeted to your work or if you would prefer to write about the upcoming book, that would be fine as well.
So here goes:
Who would you like to collaborate with (being living or dead) and why?
Maybe H.G. Wells. I´ve impersonated him several times in period clothing and I think we could share mind-sets. In fact I already collaborated with American Michael Bishop on the novel Under Heaven´s Bridge, the first transatlantic novel collab, produced back then entirely by airmailing typewritten pages to and fro. More recently I collaborated with Italian surrealist Robert Quaglia, producing together what I´m fairly sure is the only full-length genre book by two European writers with different mother tongue. We deserve a medal from the EC 🙂 And — ta-da! — my newly launched big novel about the true cause of the Black Death, and an Arab doctor of genius who works this out in the 12th century, and terrifying modern repurcussions is a also collaboration, with Andy West of my Northampton (UK) SF Writers Group, though the book itself isn´t SF but a historical and contemporary thriller of medical terrorism. Rush now to www.watersfdestiny.com to behold the beautiful electronic covers, and download the first volume, Assassins, for free! For e-pub purposes The Waters of Destiny is split into 3 ebooks — and my website www.ianwatson.info has just received a great new look to coincide with this.
What would be the best piece of advice you would offer a new author?
You think the difficult part is getting started; but actually the difficult part is continuing, onward and onward, and doing so freshly all the time.
Do you listen to music during all processes of writing? Do you listen music you know or new music when writing?
I don´t usually pay much attention to external things when I´m writing, so I don´t deliberately provide music for myself. But if a nearby radio started playing Saint-Saens´ Organ Symphony or the wonderful waltz from Eugene Onegin (or a dozen other things) I´d certainly notice.
Have you read a romance novel? Do you think you could write one?
Ages ago I read a couple, both by “Vivian Donald” who was actually Charles McKinnon, a tough Scottish engineer who took over from me running the university bookshop in Dar es Salaam. Also, granting himself the title McKinnon of Dunakin, he wrote the Observer Book of Heraldry — he led a rich fantasy life beneath the boozy surface. Sweet kisses among the purple heather in the glen… The closest I myself have come to romance is The Beloved of My Beloved, written with Roberto Quaglia, a transgressively crazy book which might leave most readers of romance feeling seriously disorientated, although it is a love story, all be it a perverse one.
What sport did you play as a younger person? Were you good at it?
I was fat until I was about 14, so I was useless at sport. I can swim, sort of, but the sea tried to drown me off the south of Spain a few years ago, so I won´t be doing that again any time soon.
Where do your ideas come from? Do you have a standard formula for plots or do stories come to you as a whole construct?
My ideas often come from the sudden juxtaposition of a couple of diverse things which ought to have no connection with each other. (Except that I see they do.) As regards what will happen in a short story, this reveals itself during the actual process of writing. I write to explore, so it would be boring to know most of what´s going to occur.
When you start a new story, do you have a title for it? Does that trigger the story?
In the case of a story I just sold to Asimov´s (to appear June 2013, probably), the title itself, “Blair´s War”, kicked off the story, but mostly I decide on titles afterwards. I do need a working title for the computer file but that might just be something like “Elephant Story”. Hmm, I just cooked that title up at random but actually it gives an oblique clue to what the Asimov´s story is about. That´s my subconscious at work again…
Are movies of books ruining the book?
Very occasionally they´re better than the book, as in the case of The Children of Men by P.D. James.
Do you see ebooks threatening traditional publishing?
My wife-to-be-very-soon, Cristina, and me have just set up an epublishing company, the first products from which are the 3 e-volumes of The Waters of Destiny, because no traditional publishers (or agents) would touch it with a bargepole. And my three previous print books came from small press NewCon Press (UK). The small press will take more risks and be more adventurous. This said, my “former” traditional publisher Gollancz has reissued my complete works through www.sfgateway.com (except for 4 lurid Gothic space operas I wrote for Games Workshop, who guard their titles jealously even though they don´t e-publish, er, yet). For me personally the way ahead would appear to be ebooks and small press.
Print-on-Demand hasn´t worked well for me, except for my Space Marine which its own publisher, GW, banned for 15 years on grounds of heresy, but finally they relented to the extent of a POD; previous tattered copies of the first edition had been trading on eBay for $100.
What is it about fantasy that appeals to you?
I will tell you a terrible secret. I have never read Lord of the Rings. But I did see the films…
Can I get an autographed book? (lol)
Of course. But unless you meet me at a convention, this is a surprisingly time- and money-consuming operation. Some dedicated American collectors will spend about $50 on post and packing fro and to, and that´s on top of the cost of the book. Airmailing a bookplate for signing strikes me as more practical… so long as you already have the book.
Do you have a group of people that you show a new story to? How much impact can they have on the whole story?
I´ve workshopped quite a few of my stories of the past few years with the Northampton (UK) SF Writers Group which I set up about 7 years ago because I ought to take my turn. We workshop in depth, 2 stories per month previously circulated by email. A workshop where people just read stuff out is a waste of time except for mutual psychological support. For me workshopping has been useful mainly on the level of silly mistakes I overlooked, plus suggestions for minor improvements rather than anything radical.
Do you have a target each day?
I like to get rid of at least 200 words from what I wrote the day before, before I do anything else.
Do you write constantly or have breaks between books?
All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. This said, I find I´m working many more hours a day than I used to work, although all this activity doesn´t result in more output of fiction. These days all sorts of other work is involved in being a writer aside from writing. And in fact I seem to write more slowly than ever in the past because I rewrite so much. I´ve produced about 35 novels and almost a dozen story collections, but I´ve been doing this for quite a long time; I´m not prolific.
After so many books, how do you keep them unique?
Repeating oneself is boring, though I find there are sometimes structural similarities between trios of books (I don´t mean trilogies) before I head off in a different direction.