"In my view unless you've been bankrupted as a writer or gone to prison at least once you haven't really been a writer..."
An Interview with Michael Moorcock
By Mike Coombes
©Mike Coombes 2004
A shorter version of this interview appeared in NFG Magazine in 2004. This version appeared in the Internet Review of Science Fiction in 2005.
Born in 1939, Michael Moorcock is probably the most influential writer in post war British fiction. He has had an astounding career, starting as Editor of Tarzan Adventures magazine at the age of just 16. As editor of New Worlds he turned a traditional 'pulp' SF magazine into the '60's flagship for alternative culture and the 'New Wave' of modern contemporary fiction, encouraging writers such as J G Ballard and Brian W Aldiss, many of whom went on to gain considerable mainstream success.
I asked Michael if he felt like an iconoclast at the time. "I suppose so. I provided most of the polemics for getting rid of the conventions of SF but keeping the visionary approach, in opposition to the modernist fiction then being produced. Many writers, not usually associated with SF, have said that they were inspired to produce their own 'post-modernist' work as a result of reading New Worlds. I think some of us contributed a fair amount to the atmosphere which has created the current climate. I was against calling ourselves any sort of 'movement', though it would have been better literary politics to have done so, but I did write a lot of editorials in New Worlds saying that we were breaking new ground. I didn't make elaborate claims, but tended to celebrate the work of writers like J G Ballard and William Burroughs. For quite a while I saw myself mostly as a publicist for other writers and didn't really start doing idiosyncratic work, as I saw it, until the late 60s."
However, despite his prolific output (Moorcock has produced at last count 98 novels and novellas, a number of non-fiction books, countless short stories, essays, one movie under his belt and at least one more in the pipeline, rock musician, songwriter... the list is endless), financial success has at times been more elusive. Following threats from the IRS in the UK - who admitted he didn't morally owe the money they were demanding - Michael moved with his wife Linda from London to Austin, Texas.
"I told them I'd piss off if they didn't compromise. They didn't compromise. I pissed off." Michael is now out of bankruptcy, but can't afford to move back to the UK. "We're now talking about leaving and so far have only agreed on Paris as a possible place to go."
Moorcock's literature has often had a political, satirical edge, albeit often filtered through the experiences of one of his most entertaining and enduring characters, Jerry Cornelius, the sexually ambiguous English assassin who during the 60's and 70's seemed to epitomise all things cool. But is the 60's hipster still relevant in the 21st century? "Certainly he's just as relevant, or I wouldn't still be using him to confront 21st century themes. I'd say the 21st century is slowly catching on to what Jerry was about..."
Cornelius was/is a curious character in many ways, not least because he has appeared in stories written by a number of diverse writers, with Moorcock's permission. "I came out of popular fiction and Jerry was always meant to be a sort of crystal ball for others to see their own visions in - the stories were designed to work like that -- a diving board, to use another analogy, from which to jump into the river and be carried along by it. I particularly liked Harrison's Cornelius stories and these fed back to me more than most of the others. Since then, of course, we've had homages and so on from the likes of Alan Moore, Bryan Talbot and many others, who have produced their versions. All of these have tended to use Jerry the way I intended to use him -- as a way of seeing modern life and sometimes as a way of commenting on it. Jerry, as Mike Harrison said, was as much a method as a character and I'm glad that others have taken to using that method."
Michael seems to read almost as much as he writes, and keeps a close eye on up and coming writers. "I really enjoyed Tony White's Foxy-T and there are some fine writers emerging from the genre and in my view doing their own thing - Jeff VanderMeer, K. J. Bishop, Jeffrey Ford, China Miéville, Steve Aylett - whom I'd be inclined to call visionary writers rather than genre writers as such. Alan Wall is in my view one of the very finest writers currently working. It was a great indictment of the literary establishment that China, his most recent novel, wasn't even put forward for the Booker this year. Not surprising, but disgusting nonetheless."
One of Moorcock's other great creations, Elric, the brooding albino Emperor of the dying nation of Melniboné, is an epic fantasy hero like nothing Tolkein ever dreamed of. Indeed, Moorcock is not a big fan of the 'Godfather of Fantasy'. "Tolkien was a very nice guy who was very encouraging to me when I was young, though not as encouraging as T. H. White and, of course, Mervyn Peake. That said I was deeply disappointed when I read the books, having saved up for them when they first came out. They sounded like Uncle Mac to me, from the old BBC Children's Hour -- and I've since learned that Uncle Mac and Co were consciously doing exactly what I suspected they were trying to do, which was turn me into a nice middle class boy... So my reaction to Tolkien was one of deep suspicion. Also I prefer the psychological construct you find in Peake -- where the castle reflects the minds of the central characters. Tolkien created what he set out to create -- a fairy story with a happy ending. There is no true tragedy in Tolkien and I have said this in no uncertain terms in Wizardry and Wild Romance."
Regardless of Moorcock's opinion of Tolkein, the success of Peter Jackson's movie adaptations of the Middle Earth trilogy have paved the way for Elric to make it to the big screen. The project is still in its infancy, but Michael is enthusiastic. "I recently talked to the Weitz brothers, who are the producers and who are also writing the script. I'm reworking the early stories with the Weitz brothers to come up with the first Elric movie, which will basically be Elric of Melnibone and The Dreaming City, but tightened up to make a better trilogy. If that's successful there will no doubt be other movies."
The last film adaptation of one of Moorcock's books, The Final Program (1973), was something of a disappointment after director Robert Fuest failed to capture the essence of Moorcock's vision. This time around "I'm an associate producer, with real input. We're moving slowly towards getting a good, tight script, which all of us think is important before we even begin casting." Real input will surely make a real difference.
Although fantasy forms a significant part of Moorcock's work, the next Elric novel is likely to be the last. "This follows The Dreamthief's Daughter and The Skrayling Tree and will be called The White Wolf's Son, I think. I'm also doing a four part Elric graphic novel with Walter Simonson which probably won't appear until early 2005. This deals with Elric's life and education before the opening of Elric of Melnibone."
Michael has said in the past that he feels he has "Wasted too much time" on the fantasy genre. "I sometimes think I spent too much time doing what they call interventions -- taking genre expectations and turning them upside down. Trying to create bridges, if you like, between generic work and the work of people I regard as having original vision. But if I've said that I wasted too much time it would have been a passing despair. I have never much cared for genre for its own sake, in any area. I think modern urban fantasy such as that done by Harrison, Mieville, Aylett, Ford, VanderMeer, K. L. Bishop and others probably has a lot to offer the 21st century. It offers more room for individual vision, I think, though the likes of Sheckley and Dick didn't do too badly and I've come to value the work of Pohl and Kornbluth more than I might have done, again because living in America shows how these 'urban folk tales' can really work. I haven't much time for Heinlein, Asimov and the 'Golden Age' Astounding writers. For me they were merely conservative, though I can probably be convinced they raised writing levels. Still the writing level was pretty low in Astounding until they came along, whereas writers like Howard, Brackett, C. Ashton Smith, C. L. Moore and others were already producing great, vibrant writing, enough to produce Bradbury, who was not published in Astounding but in the pulps I liked such as Planet, Startling and Thrilling Wonder! Bradbury was a great influence on Ballard. Both were writers of individual vision who happened to leave the genre better than they found it."
One of the many bridges Michael has created is between his books and rock music. He has in the past collaborated closely with Hawkwind (the ultimate 'space rock' band, who have also devoted at least one album to the chronicles of Elric) and the Blue Oyster Cult, as well as releasing an album with his own band, Deep Fix, who also make guest appearances in some of his books. Unfortunately, it would seem, his involvement in the music industry is over. "I got a bit disappointed with music. Pete Pavli and I produced a lot of stuff both for Gloriana (the musical) and for The Entropy Tango which didn't really get a lot of enthusiasm from our then manager, so slowly we stopped any enthusiastic engagement there. I still do the odd song when asked. People still like to base stuff on my work, so I spend more time cheering them on than doing much original stuff myself. I do have an ambition to play guitar with a guy named Alan Wall, who is a good guitarist, singer and songwriter when he isn't writing novels or lecturing, just because I like what he does, but that's about the level of any immediate ambition."
In a career spanning nearly fifty years one might expect some of the high and low points to stick in his mind - fleeing your country to evade the taxman could, quite feasibly, be counted as a low point, for example.
"I'm not inclined to think like that. The current book is always the one I think will probably be the best. I'm told I'm writing Elric books better or as well as I ever did. I work to make sure I don't get stale, by setting the bar higher or trying for something I haven't done before. My highs and lows aren't associated with work -- I've done some of my best and worst when lowest or highest -- but with my personal life. I tend to think of the circumstances in which I wrote something rather than how I felt about the work. It's never any different. Like most writers I know I get optimistic at the conception stage, miserable when I actually have to sit down and deliver, post-natal depression when the thing's over. By the time the reviews are coming in I tend to give them only a passing interest because, of course, I'm working on something new. If anything I tend to rubbish earlier books in interviews because I think the one I'm currently doing is better. In terms of popular success I suppose I have to look at the period between 1965 and 1980 as my 'highest' years, when I was in all the papers and TV programmes were being put on about me. I've been marginalised somewhat since then, though I still have plenty of interest in what I do. People think if I still lived in London that might not have happened and they could be right. I know Burgess suffered for living out of the country, but he didn't mix with most of the establishment wankers any more than I did. And some writers I've known who enjoyed immense critical success, such as Angus Wilson, have gone so far out of fashion you can hardly believe it. Currently he has no book available in shops. This is true of a number of writers I know who deserve better. So I tend to be grateful that my books are pretty much all in print at some time somewhere!
All in print, and growing in number seemingly almost daily. Moorcock works at an enviable rate, and at one time was able to complete a novel in just three days. "I no longer write novels in three days. I used to, but then it went up to three weeks a decade or so ago. Now it could be as much as three months!" On top of the Elric movie and book, "I'm currently finishing the last of my Pyat novels, about the forces and compromises which led us to allow the Nazi Holocaust. In this one he gets to meet Mussolini, Hitler and Co., gets captured during the Spanish Civil War and ultimately repatriated to England by accident where he commits probably his greatest but most domestic betrayal... I'm writing a memoir of Mervyn and Maeve Peake called Love, which will also include commentaries by the Peake children, who are friends of mine (as were Mervyn and Maeve). And I'm also writing a Tom Strong story for the Alan Moore series by Wildstorm, an Escapist story based on Michael Chabon's character from Kavalier and Clay, and am toying with the idea of doing an anthology of pirate stories, since both Chabon and myself are great pirate fans... I also have an anthology to do in the Mammoth series [which] will be a miscellany of
mainly British authors taken from magazines published from 1855 to 2000, all from my own collection. It will include a number of Edwardian authors, like Pett Ridge, Morrison, Zangwill, along with modern writers such as Bowen, Wilson, Ballard and others, and will also reprint features about scientific and mechanical developments. Essentially it will try to heal the divisions which have grown up in literature since the 19th century and bring together a wide variety of different kinds of writing, much of which will be unfamiliar to the general audience. It will also be illustrated with material from those magazines. Constable plan to bring it out in time for Christmas 2004."
"I still have the editing/promotion bug. That's why I've been reviewing new fantasy writers for the Guardian recently. After Jeff VanderMeer, however, I hope to stop reviewing fantasy and do more general fiction - I recently reviewed Tony White's Foxy T because I thought that really added something to the literature of London. I'm doing a reassessment of Angus Wilson's No Laughing Matter for the Guardian and a review of Martin Gilbert's Letters to Auntie thingy, 5000 years of Jewish history, for The London Magazine. I also have plans to write two short novels, one called The Rules, which will be very personal/autobiographical, and another called London, My Life, the story of the city-bound Jew -- he's the opposite of the Wandering Jew who is forced to live in London from the time of the Celts on. I have some other ideas, too, but few of them will be generic fantasy, unless they are comics or movies."
One might assume that after fifty years he might slow down. "In a good year I could turn out six novels... The year I did Condition of Muzak, I also did Breakfast in the Ruins, one of the Dancers at the End of Time books and three others... Last year I'm not sure I even wrote one novel, though I finished the Pyat and did a few novellas. A resting year."
When he was relating his story of his experiences with the IRS I suggested to Michael that writing and bankruptcy seem to go hand in hand - as many of us have discovered, writing is not a comfortable or secure way to earn a living. Michael's reply? "In my view unless you've been bankrupted as a writer or gone to prison at least once you haven't really been a writer..."
So does Michael have any words of advice for writers wishing to avoid bankruptcy and prison?
"I would advise them not to try to avoid bankruptcy and prison. These are necessary credentials, amongst others. If they want to write fantasy I always advise them to stop reading fantasy and read modern realists. If they want to write autobiographical realism, I advise them to read some of the best visionary writers of our day. But if you're not risking bankruptcy and prison you're probably not taking enough risks in your work, either. There are a few cautious geniuses you can point to - maybe T. S. Eliot, for instance, though most of his contemporaries took greater risks of one sort or another (Pound for instance) -- and I don't denigrate people who find stability in conventional living, as I've found it to a degree."
"My method was to take the risks but carry a lot of life insurance so my family wouldn't suffer at least financially for the risks I was prepared to take. But we should all maintain areas of risk, I think, however cautious we are by nature. Harrison is cautious by nature but took up rock climbing whereas Ballard has lived quietly, more or less, in the same house in the western suburbs of London most of his life, quietly taking risks with his own mind (and occasionally his driving...). The danger to a writer is to get too set in their ways, too comfortable, even if it's in their own misery. My method used to be to change where I lived or how I lived from time to time. Some of this was damaging to relationships or to other people, so I slowly worked out a way in which I could take risks without, by and large, making others take risks with me."
"What informs one's work is that element of uncertainty it has -- once you know where you're going in a book you might as well stop writing, unless you are a sort of journeyman booksmith content to turn out the same artefact year in and year out. P. G. Wodehouse and Terry Pratchett do this perfectly honourably, for instance, but it doesn't suit me to live like that. I prefer to have Blake as my model, I suppose. Or even De Quincey." Thomas De Quincey was the 19th century author of Confessions of an English Opium Eater.
One of Michael's risks currently is the local Tex-Mex cuisine, as he has an allergy to jalapenos and has recently recovered from an attack; "Slowly. It's a serious allergy which makes my hands and arms swell and sends hives all over my body! Probably Texas is not the best place to live for me. As it happened the jalapenos came in a hot chutney a guest brought to an Indian meal Linda prepared!"
Jalapenos notwithstanding, it looks like Moorcock has a busy year ahead of him, and the advent of a new movie is likely to launch a whole new phase of an already outstanding career.
Read Moorcock free at www.fantasticmetropolis.com and www.revolutionsf.com
You can address your own questions to Michael Moorcock - and download Deep Fix MP3's - via his website, www.multiverse.com .