"I feel like something very large is laughing at me."
— Michael Swanwick
It's not a rainy day by any reckoning, but virtually speaking, it has been a month of apocalyptic floods. I might as well return to the winter of 2009, when I spent some quality time with some of the world's best writers at the World Fantasy Convention in San Jose.
One of my favorite memories is talking to Michael Swanwick, a writer who has written in just about every genre or non-genre you care to imagine.
The world has changed a bit since I performed this interview, but not so much as to be unrecognizable. When I sat down with Michael Swanwick, I realized that I could put on any hat I so desired; science fiction, fantasy, mystery, non-fiction, literary fiction interviewer – because Swanwick has written them all.
My interviews have many plans and approaches before I sit down. Usually, those get tossed by the wayside as the conversation emerges. Here's a fine example opf that stretgy of no-strategy, ecnause the conversation makes demands that the interviewer must follow.
06-09-10: A 2010 Conversation with Paul Provenza and Dan Dion
"I was raised to respect the printed word so much, when I was in school, I couldn't highlight books..."
You set up an interview with a comedian and a photographer to talk about their book about comedians, and you get some preconceptions. The gig is at The Booksmith, the same folks who presented Chuck Palahniuk, but this one is at the bookstore and I was unsure of where I'd be doing the interview — maybe in the back of the store by the children's books? No, they were kind enough to put us upstairs. But, though the date was wrong, it was in fact the first day of summer. They were jackhammering outside, so I had to close the window and turn the little desk area into a sort of sweatbox.
For this reason, I always bring cold water. No actually, the reason I bring cold water is so that in the event I have a horrific coughing fit from some rogue allergic reaction, I can at least manage not to make my guests think I'm going to expire right in front of them. But the cold water came in handy as we talked and all my carefully planned thoghts went right off the rail.
Sure, I could have asked these gentleman, Dan Dion and Paul Provenza, about the funniest lines they heard, and the wild antics they endured. But that just didn't feel right, and I found myself exploring another avenue entirely, which was an attempt to get at the book as a revelation of how comedy gets done — and to do so without spoiling the joke, so to speak.
"...I do like trying to change the voice book from book."
Readers who subscribe to Interzone may have noticed that I wrote for that magazine from time to time, when I have something that really grabs my attention. Not surprisingly, 'Kraken' managed that feat, no problem. The next step was setting up an interview, over the phone, since Miéville won't be in the US until July for ComicCon. Fortunately, I'm an early riser, so an 8AM curtain call (4 PM in the tentacle-enshrouded remains of London) is not a problem.
When we think of China Miéville, sure there are a lot of us who enjoy his utterly grotesque, baroque "pulpy romps," as he described them. And it is easy to get distracted by his incredibly detailed surfaces, his ability to conjure up in the reader's mind something akin to a $30-million dollar Giger sculpture underneath the streets of London in a few short sentences.
But as I spoke with Miéville, I was reminded that his ability to work with such power and ease comes not from wallowing in the pulps so much as wallowing in the classics, in this case, Thomas Pynchon's 'Gravity's Rainbow.' There was a point back in 1970 when Pynchon's landmark was up against Sir Arthur C. Clarke's 'Rendezvous With Rama' for a Nebula and lost.
While that might seem like a monumental failure of vision now, it hardly matters in the long run, as Pynchon was at work shaping a new generation of visionaries, including China Miéville. He and I talked about Pynchon's influences on his writing at a prose level, and I do believe that they are a large part of what makes his work both extremely entertaining and ultimately, rather powerful.
I transcribed most of my interview for Interzone, but space did not allow me to transcribe it all, and I'm guessing that they won't have space for the pertinent Pynchon quote that Miéville sent me after our interview, which I offer here:
"The rest of us, not chosen for enlightenment, left on the outside of Earth, at the mercy of a Gravity we have only begun to learn how to detect and measure, must go on blundering inside our front-brain faith in Kute Korrespondences, hoping that for each psi-synthetic taken from Earth's soul there is a molecule, secular, more or less ordinary and named, over here - kicking endlessly among the plastic trivia, finding in each Deeper Significance and trying to string them all together like terms of a power series hoping to zero in on the tremendous and secret Function whose name, like the permuted names of God, cannot be spoken... plastic saxophone reed sounds of unnatural timbre, shampoo bottle ego-image, Cracker Jack prize one-shot amusement, home appliance casing fairing for winds of cognition, baby bottles tranquilization, meat packages disguise of slaughter, dry-cleaning bags infant strangulation, garden hoses feeding endlessly the desert... but to bring them together, in their slick persistence and our preterition... to make sense out of, to find the meanest sharp sliver of truth in so much replication, so much waste... [Gravity's Rainbow, p. 590]"
Cory Doctorow was typing on his computer when I arrived, checking email as I set up my recording gear. He's a busy guy — just check out the accompanying article on his new project 'With a Little Help,' toss in a stuffed-to-the gills tour for his new novel, 'For the Win' and his usual busy slate of daily contributions to Boing Boing, and an interview can totally understand why Doctorow's hands rarely leave the keyboard.
Cory Doctorow did leave the keyboard behind when he sat down to talk to me in his hotel room about his latest novel and whatever else was on both our minds. Yes, I have to admit it, I started with a totally obscure question about an obscure Belgian techno artist named Speedy J. I first discovered Speedy J on a Warp Records compilation (with Aphex Twin) and proceeded to buy his work. And I made a kind of judgment call, in that I didn't ask Doctorow to elaborate on why I found Speedy J's track title, "The FUN Equations" so relevant, because to my mind, it'[s one of the joys of his new novel 'For the Win' to discover that yourself as a reader. But trust me it does have something to do with something in the novel!
We talked a lot about 'For The Win,' and also about his collection 'With a Little Help.' Now, just to be clear, I had read the PW piece before going in. However, I didn't expect to actually see a hardcopy and I'm sure my eyes bugged more than a little when I did see it. I tried to be demure, but I'm a page-slavering book addict. And it was really quite unexpected when Doctorow was so kind as to say, "Well, this book is getting heavy anyway.... why don't you take it off my hands?" No hesitation here! You can hear our conversation by following this link to the MP3 audio file.
New to the Agony Column
09-18-15: Commentary : William T. Vollman Amidst 'The Dying Grass' : An Epic Exploration of Simultaneity
08-21-15: Agony Column Podcast News Report : Senator Claire McCaskill is 'Plenty Ladylike' : Internalizing Determination to Overcome Sexism [Incudes Time to Read EP 211: Claire McCaskill, Plenty Ladylike, plus A 2015 Interview with Senator Claire McCaskill]
Agony Column Podcast News Report : Emily Schultz Unleashes 'The Blondes' : A Cure by Color [Incudes Time to Read EP 210: Emily Schultz, The Blondes, plus A 2015 Interview with Emily Schultz]