No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Sunday, March 25, 2001

Interview: Geoff Ryman, March 2001

This interview took place in March 2001, at the monthly British Science Fiction Association night in London. This interview previously appeared in Vector #217, the critical journal of the British Science Fiction Association.

TB: You’ve published six novels so far. The first was The Unconquered Country, which started off as an Interzone short story. Did it actually start as a short story, or did you write the novel – novella – and then strip it down?
GR: No, it started as the story in Interzone, which was slightly cut down to improve it. Then it came out in the longer version, which had some pictures to beef it up and also a little bit more about the heroine when she was a child. That made it all the more poignant, and I like those bits.
TB: Which version works best for you?
GR: Oh, the novella. I would have loved to have gone back to the original version, just to compare, but I could never find it again. The one I submitted to Interzone, I don’t know where it is. I asked them more or less immediately afterwards where it was, and they didn’t know either. Somewhere in my bundles of paper there will be a manuscript, but I haven’t been able to find it. What was cut was an awful lot of the stuff when the city’s falling and she’s walking across the equivalent of Pnomh Penh, and that was a much, much longer walk, and more stuff happened. That’s all been cut, and it stayed cut, because I couldn’t find it again!
TB: There’s a lot of rewriting going on in Cambodian history at the moment. The author of a revisionist text was quoted as saying "we don’t want people to remember too much". They’re rewriting their history books to recount what might have happened to particular people, rather than what was going on politically. That ties in to the whole rewriting, to some extent the fictionalising, of a really grim bit of history. What do you feel about that?
GR: It’s a bit like this thing that’s coming out about surrendered wives. In principle it’s really objectionable. Women give up. But on the other hand, people find it works, and I think the reason it works for them is, not that they’re giving up, but that what they give up is resentment. They place a different interpretation on the same events within that relationship. If only the men did it too, presumably the relationship would go along much better. I can quite see why, if you’re trapped by history, you might want to change the interpretation of it. If you don’t, then you let the past control you. It is only an interpretation, and any interpretation of history is a fiction, and it is just made up. The thing we have to hold onto is what actually was. You then look at what your interpretation of it is. I’m not sure – I hope nobody will be too offended – but I think possibly some of the difficulties we’re having in the Middle East right now is because one of the interpretations placed on the Holocaust is that last time we didn’t fight. This time we will. And maybe you could take what happened in the Holocaust and turn it around, and say ‘well, we won the war. The war was won.’ And there were Jews in the army of Britain, there were Jews in the army of America, there were Jews who got out of the camps and fought in resistance armies in the woods of Czechoslovakia. And maybe if they didn’t say ‘we were chickenshit and let ourselves be gassed’ – if that’s what’s going on, I’m not a hundred percent sure – maybe then you would complete that past, and get away from it. And I can quite see why ‘hey, we killed anyone who wore glasses’ is something you’d want to complete. I doubt whether it’s actually going to heal if you lie about it, because it’s just going to be suppressed. It’s actually going to be something you talk about all the time, in different ways, if you suppress it.
TB: That was very much the point that the article was making: children were learning about the atrocities and the genocide from their parents, rather than learning about it at school. It seems to me that if they can learn about it through fiction, however fictionalised the experience is, at least they’re learning.
GR: That’s when the myths come up, as well. That’s when it doesn’t add up, and the sense of shame gets even worse. Then you’re not looking at your interpretation, questioning your interpretation; you’re even more trapped in whatever myths you’ve created about it.
TB: Your next novel was The Warrior Who Carried Life. It’s the Gilgamesh myth, with a twist: the protagonist is a woman who’s been mutilated by the invaders, and by magic she takes on a male body and a male role. She has living armour, a living sword – both effectively parts of her body. She goes to the land of the dead … Why the Gilgamesh myth? You’ve also written a short story using the myth, and a version of the saga for live reading.
GR: My partner is very involved with Middle Eastern archaeology. He didn’t dig up a missing bit of the first tablet of Gilgamesh: but he identified it. It had been sitting, unidentified, in some professor’s drawer for some decades, and he found it and said ‘Oh my god, this carries on at the end of the Gilgamesh epic’. His colleague was a brilliant woman called Joanna Firbank, who I acknowledge in Was… for other stuff that she did: she said, ‘No, it’s not the end, it’s the beginning.’ And they slotted this missing bit among the other versions they had. What it meant was that they finally understood that the epic of Gilgamesh starts out exactly as it ends: it starts out as it ends, it ends as it starts out, it’s a whole circle.
TB: What was the missing bit?
GR: There’s a brilliant new translation – it really is very good: it’s not only being able to understand the words, it’s knowing what the words meant idiomatically and culturally – that’s come out in Penguin. It replaces one that Nancy Saunders did, that was (a), a translation from the French and (b) someone looking at the Babylonian and Assyrian versions and just scrunching them together to come up with a complete legend. This one is actually much more precise about where each bit comes from. It advises you to go to the corner of the temple and dig down to the foundation stone, and there you will find a certain kind of box, and there, carved in tablets of lapis lazuli, you will find the original, totemic version of the Epic of Gilgamesh. It just ends up as the epic ends. It was something I got very interested in, and read about a lot. It’s a wonderful story.
TB: You refer to the Gilgamesh epic in Was…, as well. Dorothy is compared to Gilgamesh …
GR: First off, I think Baum was trying to write an American fairytale, so he was taking images that suited the American landscape – machine men, a scarecrow, which is a very American image – and that didn’t have anything to do with the Indians. There’s nothing Indian or of any ethnic group anywhere in Oz, really. But he took these very American images, but he was putting them in a fairytale environment, and they somehow resonated with these ancient images. The Cowardly Lion is obviously intelligent, bipedal, walks around – like the beast-man Enkidu. There is a plant-spirit, a Straw Man if you like, who Gilgamesh fights: he goes into a garden where the trees grow jewels and meets men who are made out of stone, who are rowers. That’s vaguely Ozzy: there’s resonances to me there of the Oz characters.
TB: That’s right at the end of Was…, isn’t it?
GR: My theory about why the film is so popular is that, without knowing it, it’s the great Joseph Campbell thing about the hero going down to the Land of the Dead. My own personal theory about Dorothy is that she’s coming to terms, in the dream, with the death of her parents. There’s all these parent images everywhere, and they all die, they all have houses dropped on them … There’s all sorts of wonderful death images.
TB: Was... is quite often called your most successful novel. You’ve said it’s the one of which you’re most proud.
GR: That or 253.
TB: One review said it should be a Booker Prize nominee. Maybe it’s the apex of your literary success, as far as the critics were concerned. Why did that novel work then? Was it a case of good timing, of meeting a public demand?
GR: Well, it didn’t go down a bomb with the British public, I have to say. They didn’t rush out and buy it. It’s got legs, and it keeps turning up in America. It’s about America, so Americans resonated with it. It’s about the movie – it’s about a favourite movie – and it’s about themes that were very prevalent at the time. We haven’t got away from the whole question of child abuse and the role of children in society. I think that’s still a theme … and we’ll never get away from death. I think one of the things that was good about it was that I actually went and did some research for a change. I went to Manhattan, Kansas, so there’s a lot of nice stuff about Manhattan, Kansas. And I grew up in a small Canadian village, and I went to school in a schoolhouse that was built when the novel happened; there’s an awful lot of that small Canadian village in Zeandale, and the life and times… It all hangs together as a package. It was sort of post-modern but it wasn’t, because I didn’t really do that much about the movie. It was post-modern, or a little bit beyond post-modern. I just think it’s, for me, a very good book.
TB: I wondered how much of it was timing. It was a novel that dealt with AIDS when the epidemic was at its height, before better treatment became available.
GR: That was the big thing about AIDS, wasn’t it? There were an awful lot of people who thought they were going to live until their seventies and die of cancer, and suddenly found they were going to die a whole lot sooner. You started losing friends when you just didn’t expect to lose them. It’s a shock: we were back in the era when people that you knew who were not yet scheduled to go, people who you thought you’d be spending your old age reminiscing with, were just not going to be around. It was a big thing for the gay movement; a lot of people in the gay movement don’t have families, so their friends are very important to them. It really was this thing – you thought you and your friends would still be getting together for a drink when you were all seventy, and it wasn’t going to be like that. That was a shock, you know: ten years before they were saying ‘sexually transmitted diseases? They’re sporting injuries: you go in, have a shot of antibiotics, what’s the problem?’ That’s a quote. From a doctor. So it was a shock when death came back in.
TB: Going back, in chronological terms, to The Child Garden: that is your most science fictional novel.
GR: I think The Unconquered Country and The Warrior who Carried Life are vaguely in the genre too: sword and sorcery ... they’re fantasy novels.
TB: The Child Garden is set in a future London, with photosynthesising people, and the more-or-less computer-based Consensus …
GR: Yes, it’s a sort of biological computer.
TB: I think maybe looking back on it from the perspective of Was... it’s tempting to turn it into a metaphor for AIDS, even though it’s not the same thing. There are characters in The Child Garden who are walking cancers.
GR: I think I was vaguely aware at the time that viruses had suddenly become a lot more important. I think it’s not so much the cancer as the viruses, and the viruses as a learning experience. At a very simple level, it’s just the kind of metaphor that collapses as soon as you start to write a novel about it.
TB: Although the viruses are meant to be benevolent, they actually destroy some people’s personalities.
GR: I think what I was aiming for in the novel was something that was neither dystopian nor utopian. That you could look at it either way and say, well, there’s a lot of benefits to this. People are actually a lot brighter. If you have suddenly discovered that human lifespan is not going to be what it was, then getting education over with very quickly and very thoroughly is probably a neat thing to do. They’ve got a neat world, too. The thing I liked about it was, it had these houses that grew, and everything was biological.
TB: That takes us back to The Unconquered Country: it’s a fairytale image, the hut on legs, Baba Yaga and so on. … People in The Child Garden are living for about thirty-five years, rather than our accustomed span. Curing cancer, however they’ve done it, has also cured the factors that allow people to get to a reasonable age. And the climax of the novel is that Milena gets cancer, and becomes a living cure for cancer. But you also have all these people who are walking around who are effectively immortal – the Tumours – because they’re walking cancers. I found that a really interesting idea. The viruses can change personality, and cancer becomes almost the opposite, a form of stasis.
GR: It’s one of the things in the novel I really like. I like the Tumours. I like the fact that when the viruses start to mutate you get people who st-st-st-stutter and the only way they can speak is to sing. It’s been a long time since I thought about The Child Garden, actually.
TB: I still maintain it’s your only proper science fiction novel. That’s not a criticism, by the way!
GR: My next novel’s going to be a proper science fiction novel.
TB: The next novel you had published was 253. Wasn’t that one of the first interactive novels?
GR: I would never say it was the first, because the history of interactive fiction is unwritten, it’s all very debateable … you can’t really verify what’s happened online.
TB: It was an early one, though: 1995?
GR: For a hypertext fiction on the web it’s reasonably early. But you had all the Storygate stuff that was on disk, so there was a market long before that.
TB: There were also the ‘Choose your own adventure’ books.
GR: Yes. There was really a very informed, interesting debate going on in the New York Review of Science Fiction. There was quite a lot of debate about what you could use this kind of fiction for.
TB: I was interested to see how well it did in paperback. Why was that, do you think?
GR: There’s a number of factors in that. First it was Internet, and Internet was trendy. It meant that when they interviewed you, you could talk about something other than ‘author writes good book! Shock horror!’ You could talk about the Internet, and there were some interesting things to say about the Internet and fiction that sounded reasonably new at the time. I think it was a book that was very light in tone, even though it had some dark bits: it had some joviality to it. It was very structured. It got quite popular with younger readers because each character was real short and very controlled. It was an easily perceived structure, and sometimes the structure of a story’s very difficult to perceive. It’s the most important thing about it, and it’s the last thing you see. I think a lot of younger readers found it quite fun: ‘oh, this paragraph’s just describing what you see; this one’s filling you in on the background; and this paragraph’s what’s actually going on now’. They use it a lot in schools to help teach writing. A couple of times I went to schools where what they’d done as a way of teaching people to think about writing issues was to have them do characters in 253: One of the schools – this brilliant story that I wish I’d used – is trying to write the sequel. They’re stuck on a train: this is the train behind the one that crashes …
TB: You’ve just given away the ending of 253!
GR: No, it does say at the beginning that the train’s going to crash. And at the time, it was almost unbelievable – a British [tube] train crashing? The last one was the Moorgate tube crash. What this story was, that the kids came up with, was this guy who’s been busking on the Underground for years, and hasn’t got any money for it. He comes in: he’s got a saxophone: he says ‘Right. For years I’ve been playing you music and you haven’t paid me any money. And now I’m going to make the most God-awful racket you’ve ever heard, and you’re going to have to pay me enough money to stop.’ He just starts blasting away. What happens is, he’s doing this and he suddenly sees this disappointed schoolkid, looking really hurt, and the kid’s carrying a saxophone case… It’s a nice little story. I feel very bad about the sequel, and all sorts of stuff I wanted to do with 253. I wanted to write the next novel, but I had to get back and do real work instead. I never got around to doing the sequel, and I feel very bad about that. The other great thing was that one of the schools did a whole bunch of musical pieces based on the characters. We were going to get them online, and you were going to be able to follow links through to them. The music was fantastic. It was all done with computers and sampling.
TB: Is there any chance of that appearing?
GR: Well, I’m still in touch with the music professor who got them to do that. They’ve left now, and they’ve taken the music. The other thing was, the sequel had Colin Greenland, and Susannah, and Jenny Colgan who wrote Amanda’s Wedding, and all sorts of people wrote characters for the sequel.
TB: So we won’t see it now?
GR: No! I’ve got to write the next novel …
TB: In one of the ads in the book you have the updating of great works of literature for the interactive age: pointing out the metaphors of cages and prison in Casablanca, and so on. Have you ever seriously thought about doing that?
GR: No. What a horrible thing to do!
TB: Phew! But do you think it might be fun?
GR: I think it might be fun as an exercise in lit crit, or as a game – to see how many different images you could come up with. The challenge is not to do lit crit online, the challenge isn’t to write poetry online, the challenge is not to be surrealistic online: all of those things have been done really well. The challenge isn’t to create collections of stuff via hypertext. There was a really great exhibition in Paris, and one room was filled with every single telephone directory in the world. You’d go in, and you could look up a number in Amazonas, Brazil. Another one – they gave this work of art away free, and it had been a sort of online thing – and that was a photograph and biography of all two hundred and fifty people who were dead from gunfire in America in a week. Every single person who’d been killed by gunfire, and how they died, and who they were.
TB: I’m actually surprised there were only two hundred and fifty.
GR: It was very interesting: the number of completely casual slayings, the number of suicides … but that was a collection work of art. It’s actually really difficult to think about what text fiction online is going to be about, unless it’s going to be participative, gaming-type fiction, where the story comes out of a world, and it’s a game. I think that works pretty well. But reading online is not fun. It hurts the eyes and you don’t have much time. We still have a lot of work to do on it.
TB: Are you tempted to rewrite 253, or to do extra things with it, like turn it into database-driven fiction?
GR: No, not at all. HarperCollins want to do it as an e-book, which is a proprietary format that you load into a particular reader. I have said it so often: it really was very interesting for me to do the web version first. I just had a text file editing package: I didn’t have Dreamweaver or anything. I thought it would teach me HTML to do it by hand. It didn’t: it just taught me how to type! The online version … well, I’m afraid I think it works better as a book. It was meant to be about the variety of life in London. I think what all those hypertext links did is trapped people, following through from characters who were linked to one another – so they all worked at Shell, or they all lived in the same street, or they all knew each other, or they were all in love with the Big Issue salesman… It was only online that I got people writing to me and saying ‘it’s so much fun to have a nice, light-hearted online romp, thank you!’; and other people saying ‘you must be English, you’re such a miserable git!’ On the upside, you could say it was about the hidden similarities that people have, so one person’s wearing somebody else’s jacket second-hand. You don’t know your lover’s on the same train. All the things you don’t know about, but there are similarities that link people. But in print, without the hypertext, two things happened. It was much closer to what I thought it would be like. It’s an urban kaleidoscope – that’s a genre …
TB: Are there any other examples of that?
GR: Georges Perec, author of Life, A User’s Manual … there are loads. It was much more of an urban kaleidoscope, which is a chance to show the variety and how different everybody is. Of course, going through character by character, they seem very different from each other, which is what I wanted. And the other thing I found out is that irony is too easy in hypertext: two lovers, different cars, one’s just decided to break the relationship off, the other’s just decided to propose marriage and has left his wife … Now, when you’re reading it, you read through and two cars later you recognise who it is. ‘Oh, I know who this is! I understand, I get it!’ That’s fun.
TB: It’s like a memory game when you’re reading it.
GR: All fiction is a memory game, and all irony is enhanced if it’s you seeing it. But hypertext links make it just too easy. They sort of slam it in your face. I thought maybe it reduced the impact. I decided that I didn’t like hypertext links in the middle of the text, because (a), it inevitably emphasises stuff – it’s a different colour, and it’s underlined – and it may not be the most important thing in the description. And (b), as soon as you have a hypertext link in a piece of text, you’re faced with confrontation: the user’s saying ‘Am I going to click on that or not?’ If the answer is ‘I’ll read to the end’, they’re going to read everything much more quickly, because they want to get back to the link. It actually bounces you out of it. My advice for anyone writing anything for the web is, don’t have hypertext links in the copy. Save it all up till they’ve read what you want them to read, and then have the links underneath, or to the side, or above.
TB: But the title’s a bit of a fib, isn’t it? There are 254 passengers on the train. There’s William Blake …
GR: Ah, but he’s a footnote. He’s outside the rules. He has more than 253 words. He’s not one of the 253 people sitting on the train.
TB: That’s the other thing: they’re all sitting down, on a rush-hour train. It must be science fiction!
GR: Yes! It’s a game! You have to grant me that it’s a perfectly filled train: if there’s an empty seat, it’s because someone’s turned it down. Everyone who wants a seat has one. And you also have to grant me that everybody gets off, nobody gets on. It’s a game. It’s a train of fate.
TB: Veering back slightly to The Child Garden, as well as 253: they’re both novels that are very much rooted in our London. There are architectural footnotes: the HarperCollins offices in a building modelled on a Scandinavian prison, and the School of Oriental Studies … It’s also true of Lust: very much, if not London here and now, at least a London that we can recognise. It’s almost a love story to London.
GR: That’s what 253 was meant to be. If people go away and say ‘gosh, London’s neat’, that’s one of the things that I wanted to happen. Just south of the river, just past Waterloo, is a really neglected, and often quite ugly, part of the town. It’s just not very lovely. Not many people would go there clutching a guidebook. There’s actually quite a lot of interesting stuff there if you poke a little bit.
TB: Have you ever thought of doing the Geoff Ryman Literary Walk?
GR: No … I’ve had a couple of people ask me to write guidebooks. Judith Clute and I tried to do a series of books about London, but it just all fell through.
TB: You put her house in Lust instead?
GR: I put her house in Lust. I put her in Lust! Well, sort of … she’s the French Canadian who’s selling the flat.
TB: Justina Robson said about 253, here in Vector, that ‘it looks and feels like a friendly and shallow kind of book, not a trawl through the heart of darkness.’ Is that also true of the way they’ve marketed Lust?
GR: Well, they marketed 253 right. When they showed me the cover of Lust, I was speechless. It’s a very dark book. It is not 253. It’s got very dark things in it … you can be dark and sexy. You can have a nice black cover, which just says Lust. Even in gold foil! But that looks like a poster for a Farrelly Brothers film, called something like What you did with the Courgette. Basically, in the novel you think you’re buying, somebody uses a courgette for a completely unspeakable purpose. His mother’s making the salad. Before he can stop her she’s chopped it up raw and put it on the salad, and the guests arrive. And everyone says, ‘it’s absolutely delicious. I’ve never tasted a salad like it. What have you done?’ And he sits there… You know, I saw this cover, and I just said it was jejune. (Unfortunately, I didn’t know what jejune meant at the time: later I looked it up in the dictionary and realised it was the wrong word. I meant na├»ve.) What is it? It’s like every dumb joke you’ve ever seen. You look at the cover and say ‘oh God, there’s a penis on the cover. Oh – no – it’s a couple of vegetables.’ And that’s not funny. There’s just no joke there. It’s quite stylish without it. Because it’s heavily about fathers – but not like Man and Boy, which was a very different take on father-son relationships. The cover was kind of based on Man and Boy. The marketing department never read the book. The original idea for the novel was that it would be a lot happier than it turned out. I don’t write happy books. Though it does have a happy ending. It’s actually about someone who gets his act together. It’s encouraging, you know: if he can do it, maybe I can. But it isn’t a light, fun, jokey read, and that’s what they thought they were getting.
TB: Some of it is very funny, though.
GR: The kind of word that gets used to describe those books – it is a kind of marketing genre – is ‘sparkling’. It means that it’s funny, it’s got some depth to it: they’re not bad novels. They’re all very funny. They’re about very close to home, often romantic relationships. They’re called ‘breezy’. The covers are awesome: they look like the kind of animations you used to get at the beginning of 1950s Doris Day movies, little jokey animations that are quite stylish. It’s a kind of sub-genre. HarperCollins is a great publisher, they know what they’re doing, and they did think they’d got one of those. I think the marketing’s been proved wrong. There isn’t a review – and there haven’t been many – that doesn’t mention that the cover’s misleading. There isn’t a review that hasn’t said ‘don’t be put off by the cover’. I think they got it wrong, and it really does mean you should stand and fight your corner. I should have fought harder.
TB: Is it selling?
GR: They never tell you if your books sell. Or rather, they haven’t said ‘this one’s another best-seller’, so the answer is … well, we don’t know yet. It is in every bookshop. I was very impressed with the way they got it into the shops.
TB: It’s more exemplary than your other novels: it’s a demonstration of how somebody can change their life. The protagonist learns and changes all the way through. You can see how he’s growing and changing just by the effect he’s having on his Angels, the beings he summons up in order to have sex with them. He’s coming to terms with his past, as well: he’s coming to terms with another of your recurring themes, which is fulfilment of potential. There’s a bit in Was... with Judy Garland’s mother dying of a heart attack in a car park.
GR: I was aware of this really neat idea and I just loved it. It was so Platonic it wasn’t true: that basically you had an ideal you, somewhere else, and that this ideal you was what, if you did everything that was in you, you would become. You’re born with certain proclivities and potentials, and either you fulfilled them or you didn’t. One of the worst things you could do was block them. I just found that a really neat idea, because I like the idea that somewhere out there there’s a spirit life. One of the things that bothered me about a spirit life is, if it’s outside time, then does that mean you were there before you were born? If it’s outside time, there can’t be a beginning, a middle and an end. It can’t be that there’s no you, then you get born and suddenly the spirit life has been there all along. Fulfilment of potential was quiescent, and flared up in that book. Michael is good. Like most of my people he’s a miserable git, but he comes out OK in the end. It takes a miracle to do it!
TB: Though apart from the Angels, quite an ordinary, everyday miracle.
GR: I’m just wondering if he could have done it without the miracle. It’s A Christmas Carol, it’s Groundhog Day: the miracle comes, the miracle exactly suits how limited the hero is, and it’s the thing they need to complete or break away from who they are. Actually, most of us do not change. We’re stuck, really very badly stuck, and when we try to change it’s like dieting – dieting makes you fat. Most of us, the more we try to change, the more we’re trapped with ourselves. Sometimes you see people who really do change, and you wonder how they do it.
TB: You say elsewhere, though, that you have to accept things in order to move on, to change. If you just keep saying ‘no, that’s not right, that’s not fair’, you won’t change at all.
GR: That’s what I’ve learnt recently about people close to me. I was complaining about them, and I realised that I was actually terribly fond of them – exasperated, but fond of them.
TB: On to more general themes. You explore the theme of immortality in several places – people who can’t die, or people who can only die under particular conditions. In The Warrior who Carried Life, Cara has immortality conferred upon her. The Galu can’t die unless they are killed by someone who is, effectively, in the right frame of mind: that’s how they reproduce. The Tumours, in The Child Garden: the Angels, in Lust. Very often they’re sterile, and that’s an integral part of their immortality.
GR: You don’t want to be immortal like the folk in Gulliver’s Travels, who just get older and older, and more and more feeble. You want to be immortal and young and fit, but if you’re young and fit you’ll probably be able to reproduce, and that’s a very bad recipe for the ecology of the planet if, every thirty years or so, you have another generation of kids. It’s possible to lose sight of just how useful mortality is. We don’t like it when it happens to us, but it’s like market forces: nobody likes market forces, but they’re very useful things.
TB: In The Child Garden, you’ve got children who’ve been deprived of childhood, and adults who’ve been deprived of old age. The whole parent-child relationship disappears. That struck me as another take on the same problem.
GR: That society is full of orphans. The ones who have some parent around for the whole of their childhood are very, very lucky. A typical person in that society grows up in an orphanage, which is a very different experience from growing up in a home. I think that does give you a very different take on people. I say that at close hand, because my Mom grew up in an orphanage. I was stuck on orphans for a good long time.
TB: In Was... you have Dorothy, whose mother is dead and whose father is absent. To some extent, even in The Warrior who Carried Life and The Unconquered Country, there are missing or dead parents.
GR: I do have a very strong tendency to end up writing about orphans. In the end, I promised myself with Was... that it was a habit, and it was going to stop. So in my next novel, which will be called Air, the heroine’s problem is she has too many relatives: she’s got family coming out of her ears. This is a novel about the Internet. I finished the first draft in December 1995, and went back to 253. It actually has in it something called Last Minute Rescue, which is not that far away from it has things like portals and so on, which in 1995 wasn’t too bad. The novel’s about the last village in the world to go online. The Internet’s about to be supplanted by a brand new and very exciting technology, and the village fashion expert comes down from the hill into the local town, and realises that they’d better get their act together and find out about all of this, or they’re just going to be nowhere once this new technology comes in. A lot of the novel’s about how she gets her village online and up to date. Another part of the novel’s how she keeps getting betrayed by everyone. An awful lot of the story centres on these people: either how they betray her early on and they end up friends, or they’re her best friends and then they betray her. It’s a wheels-within-wheels novel of village life, as much as anything else.
TB: Another female protagonist?
GR: Another female protagonist, and another vaguely oriental one. When I started writing this, I was aware that it’s not unlike The Unconquered Country. Most of it’s pretty down-to-earth stuff. It’s a village in a landscape: it’s not unlike Yemen, which is very hot, but it’s very hilly and high up, so you get lots of terraces. Very hard agriculturally, very isolated because all the roads go down the valleys.
TB: Another recurring theme that I noticed is autism. In particular, you seem concerned with the way that the gifts of an autistic, or unconventionally intelligent or talented child – both Milena and Rolfa in The Child Garden, Jonathan, and to some extent Dorothy, in Was..., Third in The Unconquered Country – can be destroyed by well-meant education or treatment. You also focus on the rich inner life, the intuitive skills, creativity and so on of the autistic or damaged person – whether child or adult. Why’s autism so fascinating? Do you think that more emphasis should be placed on understanding rather than ‘curing’ this sort of condition? And, in 253, you have the data analyst Lisa Sindersley realising that her research implies that all men are born mildly autistic – ‘their elaborate systems of logic, their narrow focus, their lack of emotional understanding’. Is there a real-world basis for that? It’s terribly convincing!
GR: I'm not so sure I swallow autism as a source of creativity. If anything, by removing the ability to interpret human behaviour, communications, gestures, it can destroy creativity. I did definitely go through a phase of wondering what hidden losses were involved in inculcating children with a vast and complex range of cultural tools and beliefs. There is some evidence of a loss of creativity as most people age, usually while still subjected to the educational process. I did very much go through a phase of wondering whether the setting up of authority figures in education, science, and the arts was good for our ability to think clearly. So there was a strong tendency in my work to show rebellious or withdrawn children defending or losing creative skills or more holistic ways of thinking. Re the character in 253... it was a made-up nightmare SF scenario – that there would be a scientific basis for some kind of sexism. It is hopefully not true.
TB: In an interview on the Books Online website (, you talk about the gradual demise of literary science fiction, and its replacement by film.
GR: I’m not sure about literary sf. I remember when I was at Milford, and we all shared our favourite ever moments in science fiction. It was all images like the hot air balloon going round Jupiter in Arthur C Clarke … all very, very visual images that you just didn’t get outside books. You needed books to see these things. Now, of course, so much of that stuff is done very well by films. I love the special effects in movies, and I actually think that some of the television series think in very broad terms about the format. Unlike the old television stories where you were back at square one every week, you begin to see different themes coming out in different seasons. All that’s very clever. It’s obviously drawn an awful lot of the energy away from science fiction books into science fiction media. Then the backwash is that about half the books on the rack are media tie-in. But then there’s the Science Fiction Masterworks list. Those are great. That is just such a timely thing to do. Our heritage restored!
TB: So, whither literary science fiction?
GR: I think it’s going to be around, but it’s going to be like really challenging jazz, or interesting new serious classical music: there will be a following, and I think it’s going to be quite easy to get reasonably well known in that following fairly quickly. You could arrive and make your mark very quickly, have people who are interested in your work, talk about your work very knowledgeably – I think all that is a wonderful part of it, but I’m just not sure that it’s going to have massive market impact. Given that a hundred thousand books were published last year, I think that no one’s seeing the death of the book. It’s just the death of the individual book.
TB: Are you a science fiction writer?
GR: That’s like asking me whether I’m a gay writer. I’m a writer who writes things that are about gay people, and I write novels that are science fiction.
TB: But you don’t ghettoise yourself as an SF author.
GR: I’m not only a science fiction author, because plainly I don’t only write science fiction. You’ve just said I only wrote one science fiction novel! I am a writer who writes science fiction.
TB: Do you feel your roots lie in the science fiction genre?
GR: It just depends what decides it’s going to be written. If that’s science fiction, then great. I always felt that science fiction was fiction. It never occurred to me that it was something separate from fiction. I had a couple of run-ins with the Irish Times: they don’t review science fiction. It’s very interesting: when Was... came out, I was surprised to discover that the marketing didn’t say ‘winner of the following awards’, and that they were promoting it to the gay market. The one thing they didn’t tell bookshops was that they were also promoting it in Interzone and to the science fiction market. It never occurred to me that it’s actually less socially acceptable to be a science fiction writer than to be gay. But this is the case. Don’t tell them at work that you’re a science fiction fan!
[Audience]: Did you see the episode of Frasier where they go to a science fiction convention because there’s an actor there that they saw doing Shakespeare, and now he’s on an SF television show. They’re trying to save him from the science fiction show by bringing him back to the stage. The whole thing was ‘Science fiction! Aargh!’
GR: Mind you, have you been to the Seattle convention? It’s the one at which Thomas Disch invented the Philip K Dick award. It used to have guests of honour like Ursula Le Guin and Vonda McIntyre. Very suddenly it is the most media-driven ‘dressed up as a Martian bunny-rabbit’ convention anywhere. If the writers knew anything about Seattle, if that was the convention they went to, maybe it figures. It’s the only science fiction convention I’ve been to where I went to the dealer’s room, and I wouldn’t say there was a bookshop there. There was a bookshop that specialised in Terry Goodkind special editions, and another that sold really old Edgar Rice Burroughs novels, but there wasn’t a good bookshop.
TB: You worked in theatre, and you were a member of Mind the Gap – tube theatre. Is that still going?
GR: I don’t think so, because it was all a product of the comic genius who actually liked doing that to himself. It was a great idea.
TB: Did you enjoy it?
GR: I loved doing it – yes, that incident in 253 [where ‘Geoff Ryman’ sits in the wrong person’s lap during a performance] actually happened. I hadn’t realised that playing a complete fool in public is awful. We all like to look reasonably good in public, and to look like the biggest Charlie on the planet, to an audience that doesn’t know that they’re seeing a performance… If you’re funny and it’s a performance, there’s admiration for the fact that you’re being happy, and there’s an appreciation of what you’re doing. He was doing the most brilliant tease of people who just thought they had a loony on their hands. It’s so humiliating, really genuinely humiliating: I was surprised how much I hated it. Other stuff happened: he did run off when the police finally stopped us, he just bolted –
TB: Leaving you to answer the questions?
GR: Yeah. ‘We have a letter somewhere …’
TB: How about more traditional theatre? Have you ever acted on stage?
GR: One of the things I wanted to be when I was younger was an actor, and I started out as a Theatre Arts major before I decided it wasn’t an education. Living in apartment houses in Los Angeles, where there are actors, is enough to really convince you that you never want to be an actor. It’s just a miserable life.
TB: And film … you’ve said elsewhere that you’ve tried to write films.
GR: I keep trying to write films and I think I’m possibly one of life’s novelists.
TB: That’s not necessarily a bad thing!
GR: They’ve taken an option out on Was... and the number of scripts it’s gone through – talk about development hell! There’s been a play version in Chicago which was completely faithful to the book, and that was very educational because it was terrible. The acting was great, but if you take something that works in 400 pages and you jam it all into two hours … First off, you think they’re all on a donkey cart that’s broken free, and it’s going downhill faster and faster, and there’s no brake. And secondly, it’s too jammed together. There is Dorothy being fucked from behind by Uncle Henry, and in walks the show’s sponsor, who’s paid to get it staged because he loves The Wizard of Oz. It’s slightly out of context … and then you’re introduced to him at half time, and it’s all rather awkward. I went off faithful adaptations of novels in a big way after that. I told the filmmakers that they would have to combine characters, and would they please change as much as possible. I did that (a) so that it might possibly be a good film, rather than a terrible play, and (b) I figure if the movie of Was... is very different from the book there’ll be some reason to read the book. I also remember a good television adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. That was wonderful except, like every adaptation of Jane Austen – except Clueless, which is Beverley Hills – they get distracted by the frocks, and it becomes ‘hey, wasn’t it wonderful to live in that era?’ That’s not what she’s on about. So, as an antidote to that, I went back and read Pride and Prejudice again. All that happened was that I was re-screening this movie in my head, that I didn’t like. It wrecked Pride and Prejudice for me, which was awful. So change as much as you like: (a), my novel’s safe; (b) it stands a chance of working as a movie.
TB: And (c), they’re going to change it anyway, so you may as well give them permission.
GR: The great thing was, they’ve done this huge exercise of combining all the characters and changing the dates and changing everything, and now they’re doing a completely faithful adaptation again.
TB: Finally … in Was... you have an author being asked ‘What’s your worst nightmare?’ – and he laughs it off with a crowd-pleasing answer. So, what is your worst nightmare?
GR: I have a lot of nightmares … Aside from horrible physical illness, aside from somebody I love dying horribly, aside from really screwing up at work, being so incompetent that I want to die … some of my worst nightmares are in Lust. Being killed by a lover would be pretty godawful.
[Audience]: You’re a writer who’s expressed interest in acting, and I know quite a few actors who write. What are the similarities?
GR: It’s the same job, exactly the same job. The public are quite right to be most interested in who’s starring in a film, because the actors are the storytellers. What a writer does in a novel is a whole bunch of imitations of the tone of voice of his characters. The main action of any story is when somebody makes a decision. Nobody talks when they make a decision, and nobody does anything while they make a decision, but that’s the most dramatic bit of any story, when someone decides, because that’s when they change. After they’ve decided, then they go and start shooting people, or write the letter that breaks up their relationship, or whatever. The most important bit of any story is in the hands of the person who’s telling the story. If you’re a novelist, what you’re doing is you’re acting being that character to yourself, and you’re mimicking their experience of going through that silence. What you’re doing as a writer is taking the silence and giving it words. You’re slowing time down, you’re imitating that person: you’re talking in their tone of voice, trying to bring alive the experience of that decision. I think in movies, what a really good actor is doing a lot of the time is filling in the gaps between the dialogue. They’re putting the little tip of the iceberg that is the dialogue into the perspective of all this history that the audience are never going to know. They’re showing you what’s going on in that character’s eyes, and how they feel about things … I find myself doing it when I’m rereading, I get very attached to certain ways that those characters I’ve made speak, and certain emphases, and certain ways they move. It’s a very important part of communicating what an experience is for someone, and I think actors do that. My experience of being a writer is that I can do a performance once, and I get it in words. If I try to do it too often, it goes flat and dead and I don’t have the technique to sustain it.
[Audience] What about the active experience? A writer gets to make the character’s choices, whereas for an actor the choices are made, but they have to communicate to the audience to make it seem like they’re spontaneous.
GR: They have to work their own way, imaginatively, into role. They will never get it identical with the author. They have to work their way back into the same territory that the author was in. With the play of Was..., the actors sat and talked to me. They were all very professional Chicago actors. They had these tiny parts and they did wonderful things with them. They’d ask, ‘Uncle Henry: he fought in the Civil War, didn’t he?’ I could visibly see the good ones working their way back into the play.
[Audience]: What about computer-generated actors?
GR: The person who’ll be acting will be the animator.
[Audience]: But when they recreate the greats …
GR: I’d love to have Marilyn back. I’d remake Breakfast at Tiffany starring Marilyn Monroe.
[Audience]: You think it could be made to work? It wouldn’t be Marilyn Monroe.
GR: What would happen is, there’d be certain star animators. That’s how animation works. They base it a lot on the person who does the voice. For the dragon in Dragonheart they filmed Sean Connery reading the dialogue, and mimicked his actions. I’d love to see Cary Grant. Work your way into the Cary Grant part, give yourself that persona: Cary Grant on screen is a persona that Archie Leach created. Get into that fiction and reanimate it: it’d be great.

Thursday, March 01, 2001

When the King Comes Home -- Caroline Stevermer

When Hail Rosamer was eight, she announced to her mother that her next pair of shoes would be red. "Perhaps when the king comes home," said her mother: "which I was already old enough to know meant 'no'."

The proverbial king is Good King Julian, monarch of Aravis two centuries before Hail's birth. Although he's invoked daily by the people of Aravis, there's no good reason why he should return. His senile, heirless descendent King Corin has held the throne for many years, and Aravis is capably governed by the prince-bishop and his group of advisors. Aravis - one of the small group of imaginary East European countries which were the setting for Stevermer's earlier A College of Magics (Tor, 1994) - has been at peace for decades, and life is placid.

Hail's ambition is to be a great artist, and this is a world in which many of the great artists have been women. A headstrong girl, she is nevertheless determined to learn all that she can from the acclaimed Madame Carriera - despite her clashes with her fellow apprentices, and her increasing frustration at her own lack of skill. She studies, and falls in love with, the art of Gil Maspero, King Julian's contemporary. By reproducing a siege medal of Maspero's, Hail finds herself accused of counterfeiting: fleeing the city, she recognises the profile from the medal on the face of a living man. Has the King come home?

A College of Magics was acclaimed for its blend of school story, epic fantasy and Edwardian travelogue. The charms of When the King Comes Home are more subtle. Stevermer builds up character and setting for a quarter of the book before the story truly begins. The narrator is an older, wiser Hail, looking back to her youth and the great lesson she learnt: a lesson that may be wasted on the inattentive reader, so delicately is it imparted. The older Hail's voice, wryly affectionate towards the promises and possibilities of her lost youth, is poignantly distinct from the impetuous romantic who rushes into danger for the sake of principles and scholarship.

The conflicts that Hail encounters are rarely black and white. The prince-bishop's counsellors are motivated by both political and personal concerns. The villain of the piece, far from being a black-hearted monster, is a former librarian. Hail perceives the flaws in those she admires without loving them any the less, or recognising the flaws in herself - although, looking back, she wryly admits that her companions were more tolerant than she deserved. Her single-minded obsession with the long-dead Maspero is almost her undoing, but also her salvation.