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Elevating Elric [Interview with Stephen Hunt]

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  • Jerry Cornelius
    Corsair of the Second Ether
    • Dec 2003
    • 98

    Elevating Elric [Interview with Stephen Hunt]

    Elevating Elric: Michael Moorcock Interviewed

    Fantasy author Moorcock speaks to Stephen Hunt about his dislike of formula sword & sorcery, the snobbery of the literary set, and on being censored more in America than anywhere else in the world.

    When and why did you begin writing? When did you first consider yourself a writer?
    Well, from around the age of nine, when I did my first fanzine. A general magazine called Outlaw's Own. I left school at fifteen and was a working journalist from the age of sixteen, editing Tarzan Adventures at seventeen and editing other magazines from then on.
    How has becoming a published author impacted your lifestyle?
    I've hardly known any other kind of life. I've done other things, but I've never not been a writer.
    How do you see the future of SF literature in the 21st century?
    I think it will go on being many things, as it has always been. That is the literal-minded space and mechanistic stuff will continue to be written and have an audience and the wilder, less rationalistic stuff will continue to be written and have an audience.

    In many ways it's possible to argue that what we know as sf IS the literature of the 21st century, with an increasing number of people growing up on it and many literary novels now containing elements of SF of one kind or another. SF already tends to be the best selling popular fiction of our day. It hasn't been a minority form for many, many years.
    Do you ever read the work of the current crop of SF/F authors getting published?
    Some, but I've never been interested in space fiction and so forth, so I'm inclined to read authors like Steve Aylett and Jeffrey Ford, Jeff VanderMeer, China Mieville - writers who are producing fairly wild flights of the imagination, and who generally have high ambitions as original stylists.
    What's you favourite piece of SF/F cinema? Did you ever get to see the first Lord of the Rings movie?
    I was bored brainless by the Lord of the Rings movie and kept wondering why people with such a high level of technology, who were evidently in contact with America, could produce gunpowder and so forth, were making such a fuss about a few decrepit blokes on horseback, but there you go.

    Dark City's a fairly recent film I've enjoyed, also Blade Runner. By and large I don't see many SF films because big spaceships have a way of sending me straight to sleep! As soon as they start appearing on the screen I start to doze off! I have enjoyed fun movies, like Men in Black, and think I prefer the comedies overall.
    Do you use an agent?
    Yes. I've pretty much always used an agent, since I started selling fiction to book publishers. Generally speaking, I've been pretty lucky with agents.
    How long did you spend in rejection letter hell before you were first published?
    I'm afraid I didn't. My early stories were bought and I never looked back. Hate to say it, but that's how it was... I was commissioned to write most of my early fantasy stories -- the Elric stories for instance were commissioned by Ted Carnell. I was a working journalistic and tended to work according to what editors wanted. I'd never have started writing SF on a regular basis, I suspect, if Carnell hadn't asked for those early stories for his magazine Science Fantasy.

    I'd written a straight novel and an allegorical novel, influenced by Peake, before that. Even now I tend to write fantasy novels only when someone asks for them. Same with short stories. My literary novels are not written like that, of course, but my comedy thrillers were commissioned, as were things like the Sex Pistols novel The Great Rock N Roll Swindle. I sympathise with good authors who have trouble getting published and, because I've been so lucky, tend to spend as much time as possible getting those authors published.

    That, to a large degree, was what drove me as an editor. Every time I felt like stopping doing New Worlds, a new author would come along who needed to be published. As a reviewer I tend to promote those authors who, in my opinion, aren't getting the attention they deserve. I'm afraid my rock and roll career was the same. I went into UA one day and the A&R man said 'Well, Michael, when are you going to do an album for us...' Horrible, isn't it?
    Did you always want to be a writer?
    I always wanted to be a journalist. I knew one or two writers from an early age. I wanted to write fiction, but knew journalism was a 'proper job'.
    Where, when, and how do you write?
    For years my office doubled as a living room. I remember the sense of luxury in Yorkshire, where I had a house for some years, when I could actually have a room, which didn't have to double as something else. Now I have a converted garage, like many writers (Philip Pullman has a shed) that is a proper office, by my standards.

    It's full of memorabilia -- the kind of stuff I often use in my work -- old theatre posters, Victorian song sheets, toy soldiers, model trams, pulp magazines, the few SF and fantasy books I own -- a sort of well-spring, I suppose. I do have one spaceship in it -- it tells the time and on the hour plays Christmas Carols while lights flash all over it. I tend to write a lot of the time.

    When I'm deep into a book I tend to keep regular hours. How? I usually start off making long hand notes, then I make a few notes in a file on my computer, then eventually I start typing in earnest, usually doing a warm up chapter, which generally gets modified quite a bit.
    What are you reading now?
    As it happens I'm back to the well-springs, reading Poul Anderson's The Broken Sword, which had the sort of influence on me, I suppose, that Tolkien has had on others. It was published in the same year as LOTR and, of course, didn't get a publisher in England or any sort of recognition.

    Clearly the publisher thought it a bit of a risk. He revised it, and in my view damaged it, in 1973, but I would advise anyone to read the 1954 edition, which has a subtler feel to it than LOTR but certain similarities. Anderson was still full of Old Norse at the time, being just back from an ancestral pilgrimage. I don't think he ever wrote anything better. It's being reissued in the Masterworks series and I've been assured it is the 1954 edition. Thoroughly recommended.

    Before that I was rereading Leigh Brackett since Malcolm Edwards and I are talking about the best stories to include in another Masterworks edition, Sea Kings of Mars. Before that I read Crewe Train by Rose Macaulay, The Hotel in Paris by Elizabeth Bowen, RL's Dream by Walter Mosley and Only An Alligator by Steve Aylett.
    How did you get involved with the band Hawkwind?
    As usual -- they asked me. I was invited to write for them. Then I was invited to go on stage with them. I was, as I described it, Bob Calvert's understudy. Whenever he was dragged away by the men in white coats, I would step in and finish whatever tour Hawkwind were doing.

    Or I would turn up for special dates -- such as Hammersmith Odeon or the Rainbow. I usually did the Christmas gig, too. I had done rock and roll stuff since I was a teenager in a skiffle band called The Greenhorns and Lang Jones and I had formed The Popular Music Ensemble in the early 60s -- which gave the world Suddenly It's the Bellyflops and little else... I lived in Notting Hill and the alternative scene sort of grew up around me, so I was fairly thoroughly involved in all that stuff and knew, of course, a lot of musicians.

    I was very popular with musicians -- Bernie Taupin claimed my stuff influenced his Yellow Brick Road phase, Pink Floyd's Set The Controls For the Heart of the Sun came out of The Fireclown, as I recall, and of course there were two albums called Stormbringer, one by John Martyn and the other, I think, by Black Sabbath. So there was a lot of cross-fertilisation there. A lot of socialising and from that a fair amount of performing.

    I did session work, because I was the only person could play the banjo, so would get called in to Island if they needed a bit of banjo or whatever. I was always primarily a writer, and that and my family always came first, but it was fun to do rock and roll and enjoy, off and on, a bit of easy adulation on stage!
    Did you come up through the writing short-stories route, or did you get published in novel-form first?
    I wrote very short work as a journalist and very short stories for Tarzan Adventures -- usually 1500 words maximum. Good training, I think. Then I started writing 3,000 word stories for Carnell's New Worlds, Science Fantasy and Science Fiction adventures, because that was the shortest length he would buy. Then 5000 words until I was writing 15000 word novellas.

    This gave me an idea how to structure longer work, and I still tend to work in 15,000 sections on certain things. The first Elric novel, which wasn't my first novel, but was my first published novel, was done in four 15,000 word sections. The Hawkmoon books were done exactly the same. I think I began to do 20,000 word sections for, say, the Corum books. All my books are carefully constructed and a lot of the initial work is spent working out how to do the structure, so that even my unconventionally structured books are very tight in their underpinning and foundations, as it were.

    My first published work in book form was the Elric short stories and the Elric novel, Stormbringer. Oddly enough this attracted as much attention from 'straight' critics as from the few genre critics of the day.
    How would you quickly summarise your multiverse series for someone who hasn't read any of the novels yet?
    Phew. It grew organically, as I wrote it. The multiverse was first proposed in my first ever SF novel, The Sundered Worlds, which also predicted a few other things, such as black holes and so forth. An odd book. Not very good in itself, but it seemed to have a lot of ideas in it. The multiverse is an infinite number of alternate worlds, divided by scale and mass, so that they can exist in the same space, as it were, rather like Mandelbrot sets. You travel between them by going 'upscale' or 'downscale' and in the fantasy books through various 'gateways' described in more mystical terms.

    There are minuscule differences between these worlds, the differences growing greater the further from your own world you go. The other constant factor in most of the novels is the idea of an eternal fighter, someone who struggles to maintain a balance between Law and Chaos, sometimes fighting on one side, sometimes on another.

    Mostly this fighter is described in fantasy terms, but he or she can sometimes exist on 'our' world, involved in perfectly prosaic struggles (as in King of the City). This gives me considerable flexibility and I can move character in and out of fantasy situations, so that the different worlds, from mundane to vastly different, are as familiar to my characters as they are to me.

    Their relationships continue across a multitude of 'planes'. Sometimes they are aware of these realities, sometimes unaware. The trouble with describing my multiverse is that I haven't even finished describing it in all the books I write! But that's a rough idea, I think. All these ideas existed in cruder form from when I was a teenager, writing my first stories.
    If your Elric character was going to be make it into a film, who would be your dream producers/actors for the role?
    I have no set idea. At one time Brad Pitt was mooted and I didn't like the idea then. I like it better now. I'm off to Hollywood in a few days to discuss this very idea with various parties. I'll probably talk to a scriptwriter first and see if we can work together. My problem is that I get bored very quickly with Hollywood and want to get away. I need a partner with patience and skill.

    My agent wants me to work with a top writer, maybe a writer/director. There is always film interest in Elric, but this time I've worked out how I can work on a movie without losing interest before everyone else does... We'll see. Christopher Lee asked to play Arioch, but that was a few years ago. I have no set ideas, to tell you the truth. The movie would be Stormbringer, I think, and then if there were other movies they'd be prequels. Pretty much as I wrote the books.
    What has your experience been with SF/F cons?
    I used to enjoy them a lot more when I wasn't so famous. Now they can be a strain. Largely because I live in horror of not recognising and thus accidentally snubbing someone. I have a very bad memory for names. Thus I tend to limit my attendance. I enjoy signings and other gatherings, always enjoy talking to readers, enjoy doing readings, but the mass of people at conventions tends to confuse me and exhaust me.

    I do occasionally get depressed by hearing the same panel discussions over and over again, from when I was a lad. But that I suppose is inevitable. I do tend to say that SF fans have a minority mindset while being in the majority as readers. I mentioned Tom Paine's famous remark to the Americans -- it is unseemly that such a large nation should be ruled by such a small one.

    SF readers' feelings towards the literary world are weird, for the same reasons. Most literary writers would give their eyeteeth to have the numbers of readers successful SF and fantasy writers enjoy. So I suppose you could add that the provincialism sometimes upsets me for that reason. * Was it fun running the old SF magazine 'New Worlds' back in the 60s?
    What's the reaction - critical and fan - been to off-genre works like 'Mother London'? We presume the literary mafia applied different rules to it (e.g. they deigned to read it).
    I have always been very lucky in getting mostly good reviews from both literary and genre critics. Even the SF magazines are generally nice about my non-genre work and people like Peter Ackroyd like my fantasies like Gloriana just as much as they like Mother London. I don't think there's a literary Mafia -- just a lot of people who socialise and utter the same mantras (Philip K. Dick is their fave, of course, and always dragged out to contrast with the awfulness of the average social novel -- Douglas Adams in their eyes was the 'first' funny SF writer and so forth). Snobbery exists throughout the arts and many people are harmed by it.

    It's the snobbery, wherever it occurs, I won't tolerate. That's one reason I don't mix much with literary people who are prepared to see me as an educated nigger, as it were. I prefer to stay with the others and play the banjo down by the corn brake. I don't think they apply different rules, however. They just 'can't read' most SF, any more, I must admit, than I can. Most of it is written on a low level of stylistic ambition. That which isn't, like Bradbury and Ballard, gets read. I'm not saying every literary writer writes like Joyce -- but they are writing about familiar life, which to most people is all they can read about. It isn't really snobbery.

    The way a lot of people don't know how to read a comic book. They accept that some graphic novels are good, but can't see what's good about them. There is far less antagonism towards SF than you'd think. What there is is ignorance (as with science in general) and snobbery (as with successful writers like Pratchett). But even that has now changed since the success of Rowling and Pullman. It's all changing for the better.
    What advice would you give to budding fantasy writers?
    Stop reading fantasy books and read EVERYTHING ELSE. This is my standard advice. That way the writer is likely to bring something fresh and original to their work.
    Are you from the 'writing tightly against a full outline school' or the 'make it up as you go along' school?
    Not so much a full outline -- I never use one even if I've done one for a publisher -- but a structural plan. I know what has to go where, even if I haven't worked out the detail of the scene. I know the FUNCTION of the scene. I write very tightly -- everything has to have a double function -- style, description, characters, all contribute to the narrative. That's why I work in 'scenes' -- I set up the dynamic, as in a movie, but each chapter has key scenes which have to expand the idea as well as furthering the narrative.
    When it comes to your drafts, how much do you tend to re-write?
    I don't rewrite much at all if it's a fantasy. I never do a second draft, but will tweak a first draft. With something like the Pyat books, which are on a very serious subject (the Nazi holocaust) I'll work over and over them until they're right.
    We heard rumours you storyboard a lot of your novels - movie director-style. Outside of graphic novel writers, have you heard of anyone else who does this?
    Yes, I draw out scenes, even if it's a novel of character -- I'll still place the characters and give them speech balloons even, sometimes! Pretty much everything I do has some sort of storyboard. I don't know anyone else who does this. Don't forget I started writing comics. It was my main income for several years in my early days. I wrote every kind of comic, though mostly westerns.

    Very few science fiction stories, as such. DANNY AND HIS TIME MACHINE, in which a boy went back to various periods of history, was one series. I worked with some fine artists -- Don Lawrence, the Embletons, Frank Hampson... Probably taught me a lot about the visual elements of narrative.
    Of the work you've penned, what's your favourite novel to date been?
    Mother London, I think. Dancers at the End of Time for fantasy.
    Of all your books, what's been your best selling work?
    Not entirely sure. Mother London sells well these days, as do the Elric books. Most of them have been in print ever since they were published. I've never really totted up which have sold better, though Elric is very steady! But these days my non-fantasy is as likely to sell best. Elric has sold worldwide, too, and has remained in print in most of the industrialised countries for years, so I suppose it has to be Elric.
    Apart from 100% sunshine and lower taxes (we presume), what made you leave the UK for the canyons of Texas?
    The taxes don't work out any lower, really. You might have noticed from the news that it's been raining for days and the whole area around here is flooded. We've been lucky and the river hasn't come too far up to our house. The summers are unbearable in Texas, which is why we're off to California shortly. I left the UK because Linda wanted to spend more time in the US, see her family more, and because my son was being educated in the States.

    Just ordinary domestic reasons. Federal taxes are a bit lower, but I'd do just as well in France or even better in Ireland. Texas has no State tax, but local rates are enormously high! If I moved to California and was paying State tax, too, I would probably be paying more tax than in the UK. I'm thinking of moving back to France, at least for some of the year. Maybe Spain. We haven't entirely decided yet. Linda can't stand the English climate, so while I hope to spend more time in London, which I continue to love best of all, you have to compromise. That's married life!
    Have you ever had any suckworthy manuscript changes made to your published works?
    Yes. In America. I've been censored more here than anywhere else in the world. Final Programme, first edition, was heavily edited and Byzantium Endures was dreadfully edited to remove anti-Semitic and other material from a book which is ABOUT anti-Semitism! White liberals -- stupid white men, as Mike Moore calls them -- are my bane in the US.

    Nowadays I'm more aggressive in protecting my books and if they are going to edit them like that, they don't get them. Generally, however, I've looked after my books fairly well. Oh, yes, there was a weird edition of Una Persson and Catherine Cornelius which had the sex removed... Again in the US. Censorship, often in the form of self-censorship, is very noticeable in this land of the Second Amendment. Social approval is more important to most of these people than life itself.
    Of the feedback you've got from fans about your novels, what's your favourite?
    I don't really have a favourite. I've been around a long time and have had a lot of praise. I've had several letters, which say how my work has helped readers reconcile with their parents, oddly enough. I feel that I've been a bit of use when I get such comments.
    What amount of research do you do for your books?
    Enormous amounts for the likes of Pyat. Very little for anything else.
    How long does it take you to write a novel?
    It took three days a piece to write all my early fantasies. By the time I was in my thirties it was taking around seven days. Gloriana took six weeks and Warhound took a month. The most recent Elrics have taken longer, but that's partly because of circumstances. I still write at speed, but because I hate to feel I'm repeating myself, I have to write much more consciously. Those early fantasies were written almost in a trance, the way Haggard used to write his.
    As a resident, what's your thoughts been on the 11th September situation, and the U.S. war on terrorism?
    I think it was a terrible thing, which the perpetrators didn't expect to be so awful, let alone the victims. I think Bush has exploited it to his own advantage ever since. Missed chances for world peace of all kinds. It weighs heavily on me. It extended itself to the Middle East and that terrible situation is like a weight on my soul.

    I think of those poor people, especially the children, in the planes probably more than I do the people trapped in the buildings as they collapsed. However, I think Bush and Co have totally mishandled the reaction, playing to the worst elements and making mistake after mistake, compounding the problem rather than resolving it.
    How much of your working day do you devote to SF/F fiction these days?
    Apart from what I've mentioned, none.
    What are you working on at the moment?
    Completing the last Pyat novel, which takes him into the camps. Doing an Elric graphic novel with Walter Simonson about Elric's early life and his training as a sorcerer, working on a book or the British Film Institute about Heaven's Gate, the Cimino movie, working on a memoir of Mervyn and Maeve Peake to be called Love, working on the final Elric novel in the sequence I've been doing lately, turning over the idea for a novel called Vanishing London, doing a bit of review work but otherwise hanging out and having a good time!
    As an old hand at the SF/F 'game', what changes have you noticed along the way, and do you think SF and fantasy is in a better or worse state today than when you started writing?
    Good and bad. The problem nowadays is that idiosyncratic work has less chance of being published by mainstream publishers who now send it automatically to SF and fantasy editors who are often fairly conservative. There is now a kind of expectation for what genre work should be like, whereas it was easier to publish quirky stuff in a non-genre form once. There is some great stuff being written. Always has. It is to do with the genius of the individual writer rather than the rising and falling waves of fashion within the genre.

    Good writers will always stand out and always have their readerships. Some attract large readerships and some attract smaller readerships, irrespective of quality. The big fat fantasy trilogies and the Tolkien and Moorcock cloners out there have their place I suppose, but I feel sometimes that I'm drowning in cold lard when I see them all lined up on the shelves. It keeps you on your toes, however, to try to do something different.

    But when people have pinched most of your characteristic methods and characters, it gets harder, too.

    Got to go now. Hospital visits!
    Source: SF Crowsnest
    Last edited by The Cosmic Balance; 10-09-2008, 04:56 AM. Reason: Interview reformatted for clarity
    "Jerry Cornelius was based, for instance, on a young man I used to see around Notting Hill where there was also a greengrocer called Cornelius of London."

    --Michael Moorcock