You said that Railsea was “…pinned on a very simple, very silly joke, which is Moby Dick only with moles instead of whales.” How do you go from something that begins as a really silly joke without it falling into cliche or farce? Is there a trick to keeping the reader interested and willing to accept what you have to present them with?
Absolutely, it’s a danger, and I think for me part of the appeal in the fantastic in general is just this notion that many of the premises on which fantasy and science fiction novels are based on are ridiculous. That’s straight-forwardly the case, but personally, I’m not a big fan of whimsy or that kind of slightly exaggerated kind of laughter. I’m much more interested in things that take things that are obviously silly, ridiculous or impossible and play them completely straight, so I think that for me, it’s almost a kind of…I wouldn’t say challenge but its a more interesting way to go rather than just endlessly pointing out how silly it is, which of course it is, but to sort of say, okay, we’ll start from that, but given that it’s silly, what happens if you treat it with a straight face? What happens if you give it its due and you don’t treat it as a joke? You start with that kind of premise and go forward. I mean, vampires are a pretty stupid idea, really, if you get into the biology of it, but if you treat them with a completely straight face then you can do really interesting things with them. And a lot of less interesting things too.
We won’t mention any particular “less interesting” things…
Absolutely, and the whole point for me is that it is absolutely silliness, but you used the right word for me: I’m not particularly interested in farce or whimsy. I’m much more interested in taking something that is self-evidently silly and not making it humorless. It’s intended that there are a lot of jokes and humor in the book , but not at the expense at the setting. The setting I want to to dignify and give it its own sort of integrity if you like; its own reality.
Are you a funnier or sillier person than people might know? People approach your fiction with a certain amount of gravity.
Well I’m probably the worst possible judge, aren’t I? I think I’m hilarious – I think I’m a barrel of monkeys – but I honestly don’t know. I think you’d have to ask other people. I hope I’m not humorless and unfunny and unwilling to play around. I mean, it is true on the whole, with some very serious exceptions, I probably tend to gravitate as a reader and perhaps as a writer toward serious or bleak fiction, but I don’t think that necessarily follows across to my real life. In the same way that it’s almost a bit of a cliche how comedians are often very dour people you can’t draw any obvious parallels, and I would say that I hope that it’s true the other way around too. I do think that things matter, I do take things seriously. Sorry to be vague, but I do think that I’m a bad judge of what I am like in real life. You’d have to ask other people when I’m not there!
I’ve met you before and found you charming, but I know that other people approach your work without any knowledge about you as a person.
I think that’s appropriate because the work has to stand on its own. If you do know a writer or an artist or musician or something, inevitably it’s going to be in your head when you encounter their stuff. That’s fine, there’s no problem with that, but writers are not obviously complete conscious controllers of their own work and the work is always, in various ways, going to go beyond the boundaries of intent and conscious direction. This isn’t to exonerate writers in any way, but it’s always going to be more than that. The default would be to say that the work needs to be approached on its own so I think you can’t draw conclusions about writers from their work. Inevitably, you might be able to make a couple of suppositions, it would be a fool’s game to say “I’ve never met so-and-so, but I’ve read four of her books and I think that I have a pretty good sense of what she’s like.” You might be right, or she might completely blindside you.
You’re an academic as well as a writer of fiction. It seems to me, and I might just be completely off the mark, that your earlier work tended to incorporate your politics in more of an upfront sort of way. Would you disagree with that assumption? Has this changed in any sort of way?
No, I wouldn’t disagree, but to me, I don’t see the directionality as straight-forward or one way. I think that these things come in waves. When I was writing Iron Council, for various reasons I was writing something that I was very aware was an explicitly political book and it was drawing on various political ideas as a way of structuring the narrative. I think that there’s political concerns in all of the books. Having said they’re not in control completely of their on work – that’s true – but it’s also the case that writers’ interests, fascinations and the way that they look at the world color their work, obviously. I don’t think that it’s a question of necessarily that my work earlier was this and now it’s moving toward this. It’s more a question of different modes at different times. It might be that the next book that I publish might feel more political again, or it might be mediately political and then back and forth. I might go through a phase of being interested in issues of race, or whatever it might be. I would be very nervous about trying to infer a kind of unidirectionality, and I’m not just talking about myself, I’m talking about any writer. These things come and go in waves.
Do you think that human beings have this unipolar idea of progression that’s not necessarily supported by reality, or do you think that there is this sort of progressive evolution in all things?
No, I wish I did. That would be comforting in a way. I think that there is a fairly strong narrative drive toward the imposition of an aesthetic structure that implies that that’s the case, but suspect that it isn’t the case. I’m not disbeliever in progress: I think that some things are better than other things! For example, on the whole, it is much easier to be a gay man in the States or Britain now than it was 30 years ago. That’s just to take one example out of the air, and you could come up with plenty of other examples, but that’s not to say that everything is fine. I don’t believe in unidirectionality, because I also think that these things can turn sometimes on a dime and if you look at history, one of the scary things about history are situations that have achieved a sort of harmony can suddenly retrench and go back in a very different way. I think the same is true in art and fiction. There are certainly, if you like, tides of history and sometimes they can feel quite overwhelming, but I don’t think that they’re ever irreversible. That can be good or bad depending on what the tide is.
I had read somewhere that at one time you wanted to write a book in every genre. How are you coming along with this, and does Railsea fit into this scheme? Have you abandoned this effort?
This is kind of an object lesson in the internet: The thing about the internet is that it hears everything and never forgets anything. What happens is that you make these kinds of playful, stupid remarks in interviews and then five years later people are still acting as if its a contract! I love the idea because I like genres and find them very interesting, and so the project of returning to generic protocols and seeing what one can do with them and experiment with them is something I’m very happy to do. I have no anxiety or embarrassment about that, but it was never as formal as the idea that I have a list pinned up on my bedroom wall and once I’ve written the regency romance I’ve got a big “x” through that and then I move on to the locked room mystery, but you know, having said this thing relatively off the cuff, of course as is so often the way, after that I was thinking of that and thinking, “Oh, that’s a really excellent idea! I should totally do that!” I reserve the right to do any kind of any structure I want, but having said that and having been hoist by that petard, I’m now intrigued intrigued by certain generic structures that I wasn’t interested in before. I’m now thinking and wondering if I could do this or that. But you know, one has time. It’s a project that’s doomed to fail anyway, and the question is how interestingly you can fail.
I like that about your work. You’ve made a practice of taking abstraction and making it a literalization. It’s metafictional…
Yes. It’s one of my favorite things about the fantastic: It constantly literalizes the metaphoric and if it does well, it is capable of not replacing one or the other, but to indulge and enjoy both.
Your last book, Embassytown, made me feel as if I was traveling through a linguistic concept. As abstract as the idea was, it was also a physical reality in the system of the book. How do you take something that’s going to be a metaphor under certain circumstances and turn it into something that in the context of the book is a physical thing, and use both at the same time? It must be a difficult balancing act.
Thanks for such lovely words about the book. I don’t want to play the faux naif, but to me, in a very honest sense it is kind of not that much of an issue. It’s what I’ve always done. I don’t think that there’s anything particularly difficult about it. I know that it doesn’t work for all readers. Some readers really hated Embassytown because they found it too dry and abstract. I’m sad about that because I want everyone in the world to love everything I do always, but it doesn’t necessarily work. The idea is, for me, is that I like the counter-intuitive perversity of taking relatively abstruse, recondite or abstract philosophical ideas and using them as pegs for fiction. The trick is obviously to do it in such a way that if you are also interested in the idea for its own sake then you might find some extra texture in there, but if you’re not, then the fiction has to operate in a literalized level where that doesn’t matter. I’ve done that for most of the books that I can think of, even down to a very simple sort of way in Un Lun Dun, which is my kid’s book. There’s a whole section which is kind of a rumination on a certain kind of linguistic philosophy about the control of what one says, and references certain language philosophers, and it literalizes that by the idea of words physically turning against their speakers. The idea is that you put in a joke that the people who might have read the book might smile at, but equally you have to make an enjoyable scene that involves these strange creatures that turn against this person. Similarly, with Embassytown, I knew what the kind of philosophical things that I was interested in using as a peg were, but I also had to try to make the actual narrative work for someone who didn’t give a damn about original language theology or Adamic conceptions of truth or the discredited Sacher-Wolfe hypothesis or all that kind of thing. To me, there’s really no issue there. I don’t find that really difficult, and I’m not saying that I don’t find it difficult because I’m really brilliant, but it’s always how I’ve done things. Anything can act as a peg for a story. If you’re someone who tends to think about things in a kind of theoretical bent, which I am because I come out of an academic background and so on, inevitably you start thinking in those ways in the same way that I start thinking politically, so it’s inevitable that they operate as pegs, but I think that for me the key is that I also love the fiction, so it’s not a question of smuggling or replacing one with the other, it’s using one as a sort of prod to spur ideas down the line. One of the advantages of that, and this is something that Gary K. Wolfe said in a review that I thought was a really good point and is very obvious but worth pointing out, is that even if it’s a spurious theory, that doesn’t mean it can’t make a good story. One of the dangers of doing this is that sometimes people interpret the works and they say the author adheres to such-and-such theory. In the case of Embassytown that was the Sacher-Wolfe theory, which is a linguistic theory, and I’m always like “Not at all! I know that’s wrong, I just thought that you could peg an interesting story on it.” That’s why these are, in a way, almost kind of thought experiments and not statements of truth. If I want to make a scholarly or academic argument, I’ll do so. In fiction, it’s just about using these ideas as a way of spurring narrative thoughts or inventing monsters or coming up with ideas. It’s not something that stresses me out. It’s sort of difficult to answer your question: it’s just what I’ve always done since I was a kid.