The Michael Moorcock Interview
The Quantum Muse staff met Michael Moorcock at Readercon 12 last
year and were impressed with his humor, approachability and good nature.
For a man who stands huge among fantasy authors, he was very friendly
and down to earth. He even signed our poster.
We now have reason to be unimpressed with either his judgement or
memory, because depite having met us, he agreed to an interview.
We now present the long awaited (both of our subscribers
sounded excited about this one) interview. Please reward him for being
such a good sport and buy a few of his books. We have helpfully provided
links at the end of this interview that you may do so from the comfort
of your computer, and not have to wait for tiresome parole hearing or
a designated driver to bring you to the bookstore. We've been there,
Quantum Muse: What are you working
on now? I'm working on a single malt scotch.
Michael Moorcock: I'm working on the new
Elric, The Skrayling Tree, and the final Pyat, The Vengeance
of Rome. The current climate is making it a bit hard to concentrate
on either, since they both address issues which I associate with the
recent suicide attacks in New York and Washington. Not, directly, of
course, but The Skrayling Tree has to do with my idea of the
mythic Matter of America and Pyat, of course, is about man's inhumanity
to man, to put it the broadest it will go. It's actually about the Nazi
holocaust. It was hard enough bearing the burden of death and suffering
in the past, in which I forced myself to see every individual in every
concentration camp picture, no matter how dehumanized they had become.
That was part of the early exercise, as it were, in facing this
material and trying to get some sense of the social resonance's, the
cultural climate, which allowed the holocaust to happen. And since they're
also comedies, you're constantly walking a tight-rope. Tiring work,
all in all, so it goes slowly. But I am very close to the finish now.
As soon as I have delivered the new Elric I'll return to Pyat and finish
him, I hope, before I go to England in the Spring.
QM: You have seen a lot of changes
in the Fantasy publishing industry, from the pulp magazine market to
the mass market novels of today. Novels seem to have become thicker
and series now seem to dominate the genre. How do you feel about these
changes? Do you see the Internet causing any new changes in the industry?
MM: I've seen a lot of improvements,
of course. When I started publishing the Elric stories nobody was quite
sure what to call them and for a while along with Tolkien I was my own
category. To be honest, I started doing trilogies because it was way
of selling a novel three times! Rather than doing one long one for the
same money, it was more economical to do three very short ones. You'll
note that even when put together, few of my fantasies are as long as
the majority of trilogies.
I don't 'world-build' and have no interest in what I see as crossword
puzzle activities -- making up artificial languages and the economies
of countries and so forth -- and leave that to the people who like to
do it. I look for the quickest way to tell the story I want to tell.
I am fundamentally a storyteller and the genre in which I tell the story
is only chosen because it's the best genre I can see for telling that
story. But since I started an industry has grown up to supply people
with fantasy escapes. I've said this before, but people accuse
me of not doing what they expect from a fantasy trilogy and in response
to this I described Elric as a failed escape plan -- which makes people
furious. My fantasies are, of course, escapism, but they aren't at root
escapist, because they're written by someone who prefers to confront
what scares the crap out of him. So I feel very little in common with
those miles of fat fantasy books and feel almost guilty that, in the
wake of Tolkien, I reinvented the Victorian three-decker (a lot of them
weren't that long per volume either!). I could write 15,000 words a
day and gave myself three days a volume. That's how, for instance, the
Hawkmoon books were written. 45,000 words was the minimum paperback
length for a 'novel' (which are more normally 60,000 and up) so the
whole four are only 180,000 words, which is shorter than one volume,
say, in the Pyat sequence. So you could say I would like to see a return
to thin, fast series. But would this mean a thinner readership, too
QM: Where do you see the Fantasy world
heading? Should we worry?
MM: I started writing fantasy before
there was any real industry, so I don't read much of it. I never did
read much of it. I have never been able to get through Lovecraft, I
get impatient with Morris, Dunsany and Cabell and thought Lord of
the Rings the daftest bit of Pooh-ery I'd read in a long time. What
I like (which isn't to say where it's going) continues to be the work
of individual writers -- Carroll, Harrison, Mieville, Disch, Etchells,
Aylett -- all bloody blokes, you notice. But all very individual writers.
I think I look for anger in my visionary fiction or, for me, it isn't
worth the time. I admire the likes of Gene Wolf, Richard Calder and,
of course, some of the graphic novel writers like Alan Moore, whose
anger, whose furious bafflement with the universe, comes through.
QM: Are there major differences between
US publishers and British publishers or have the German publishing corporations
taken over the world?
MM: There have been serious problems
with publishing since shareholders came into the picture. When it was
two blokes and a plucky Girl Friday in an office we saw the taste of
Mr. Secker and Mr. Warburg and probably Girl Friday too, if the truth
be known, in their lists. And very good taste it was, too. They risked
their money and whatever they could raise, to publish books. Other,
more commercial publishers, published into lower common denominators
and sought to please it in order to make money, as Harmsworth did, for
instance, by feeding popular taste back to its public. When those publishers
took over the other publishers, it made publishing far less flexible,
far less individual and had a knock on effect whereby the big book chains
actually sell display space to those who can afford it.
Now shareholders demand that publishers publish 'only bestsellers'
and the whole notion of venture capital is set aside. The basic idea
of publishing is that as I as a writer go into partnership with someone
who can afford to produce and distribute the book and we share the profit
of that partnership. My contracts still reflect that partnership and
its the business relationship I try to insist on, but it becomes almost
impossible in the face of corporate publishing. You leave one on principle,
as I did Murdoch, and discover your next one is then taken over not
by Germans but by French interests who also help develop missile technology.
It is almost impossible to make moral choices amongst publishers
because of their wide corporate interests. I chose Warner in the US
because it seemed to me to be the least awful and because Ted Turner
gave a billion dollars to the U.N. The recession might see a return
to more sane levels of publishing and smaller publishers coming back
as the larger ones rid themselves of unpredictable subsidiaries.
QM: What's it like to be a cultural
MM: I was a cultural icon long before
I realized it and I think I missed most of the benefits when at the
zenith of my public esteem. I don't live in a world where I am any kind
of icon (unless Boring Old Fart is an icon) and that's the world I choose
to live in. Most people I see on a regular basis don't care what I do
and have little idea of what my books are like. Hawkwind avoided this
very successfully and I think I did. If you really do identify with
'the people' -- which everyone else, and see your interest as their
interest, you don't get carried away much.
QM: What's the best part about being
Michael Moorcock? Do you get to delegate soul numbing chores to flunkies?
MM: I had a year or two of being on
Cloud Nine and nearly lost good friends, when everything was happening
for me (best-selling album, movie, books enjoying phenomenal success
and so on -- plus I had the right look for the time) but I think your
instincts pull you back if you're not by nature given to needing that
sort of fame. So by and large I'm a bit surprised when someone who does
regard me as a cultural icon starts to behave oddly... Usually, through
my behavior, it takes a few short minutes to dispel any idea that I
have virtues worthy of an icon. By and large flunkies seem to delegate
soul numbing chores to me. I'm not sure how I got into that situation...
By and large I simply forget about soul-numbing chores and don't do
them, even when I'm suppose to. Life's too short for soul-numbing chores,
if you can avoid them. That's why I enjoy The Idler magazine.
QM: What's better, Michael Moorcock,
famous author, or Michael Moorcock, rock star?
MM: What's EASIEST is Michael Moorcock,
rock star. It can be hard work, rehearsing and so forth, but you can
also disguise your mistakes more easily. And usually when you're performing
the people are there because they want to see you. So you don't have
too much of a problem winning them over. If I did rock and roll as my
main job, rather than writing, I would work a lot harder at it and emulate
people I admire for their stagecraft (like Bowie) as well as their musicianship.
As it is, it has been fun for me, mostly (though I took the work itself
seriously) and there's a lot to be said to being able to go out on to
a stage, raise your fist into the air, shout FREEDOM and have a couple
of thousand people on their feet. I love the solidarity with the audience
and can easily see how addictive that can be. But the job I train for,
as it were, is writing. That's my main work. Family first, writing second,
rock and roll third.
QM: Did you start writing the Elric
stories with the Eternal Champion cycle in mind, or did the concept
of the champion evolve later?
MM: The Eternal Champion was first
drafted BEFORE the Elric stories and then published more or less at
the same time as the stories were running (i.e. they all appeared in
Science Fantasy magazine) but I didn't work it up into novel length
until later and I hadn't thought of putting Elric into that context
originally. The thing evolved, like the Jerry Cornelius stories, bit
by bit, rather than as a single blinding concept. By the time I was
writing the Corum stories, of course, I was consciously working them
into an overall cosmology.
QM: Your character, Elric of Melnibone,
shocked those of us raised on Conan novels. Whatever possessed you to
develop such a complex character? Was it a reaction to the prevalence
of the physically perfect Barbarian swordsman as a hero?
MM: Though Tolkien had been kindly
and encouraging to me as a boy, I was disappointed by Lord of the
Rings and remained an enthusiast for the vitality of Howard's pulp
fiction, which seemed to me to be altogether more vigorous, better storytelling
and so on. I was asked to do a fantasy series by Ted Carnell of Science
Fantasy and originally thought he wanted Conan pastiches. When I
discovered he wanted something different, I came up with Elric. His
tragedy and his tragic story was directly in contrast to Tolkien and
his contemplative qualities, his intellectualism, were deliberately
in contrast to Howard.
QM: The first chapter of Elric of
Melnibone was written in the present tense. Why did you choose to
do it that way?
MM: It's not the first Elric I wrote,
of course. Oddly enough, Savoy are reprinting a novel called Zenith
the Albino by Anthony Skene, which I have always credited as the
inspiration for Elric. I had a lot of trouble tracking it down and a
friend finally found a copy. I saw to my surprise that the novel starts
in the present tense, too. Maybe it was an unconscious lift from Skene.
I was trying to set a certain atmosphere and present tense does that.
QM: The Elric saga has inspired a vast
mountain of artwork, a comic book adaptation, and even a few games.
What is the likelihood of a movie? What would it take to get you to
agree to such a project? The right director? Enough creative control?
Or just a huge wad of cash?
MM: I have turned down a lot of prospective
Elric movies. I am waiting for the cost of effects to go down. I'm also
thinking of an anime version. An audio version is in planning currently.
You can't get the cash necessary to make an effects movie without the
people with the cash wanting some sort of control. I'd rather not make
the movie under those conditions, though I don't blame the people with
the money to invest.
QM: Which of your characters was the
most interesting to write?
MM: I think Colonel Pyat is the most
interesting to write. I also found Josef Kiss and Mary Gasalee (from
Mother London) good to write and, of course, I am very fond of Mrs
Cornelius, who is my answer to a Greek chorus.
QM: With the exception of agreeing
to be interviewed by Quantum Muse, what has been the low point
of your career?
MM: I've had such a varied career there
are usually some high points to part of it and low points to part of
it. I tend to measure my life by emotional climates rather than career
ups and downs. So I think in terms of broken marriages, estranged children
and so forth. I'm currently feeling low because the Texas climate doesn't
suit the chronic condition I have which puts me in quite a lot of pain,
but even that doesn't bother me that much. Public tragedy tends to engage
me, so I've had some low points since Vietnam...
QM: The high point? (With the exception
of being interviewed by Quantum Muse.)
MM: High point was probably getting
the Guardian Fiction Prize for Cornelius, which I set great store by.
QM: Is there any truth to the rumors
of wild sexual experimentation? Any Pointers?
MM: One person's wild sexual experimentation
is another's boring repetition or whatever. I have had enough experience
of most things, I feel, to know to a degree what I'm talking about...
The old saw used to be if you couldn't do it on a bed then it was a
QM: Did you ever have a real job, and
if you did, what's it like?
MM: I had a number of real jobs. At
fifteen I was a messenger, mostly, for a shipping company (in the days
when the London docks were the largest in the world) and at sixteen
I worked for a firm where everyone from the boss down (management consultants)
thought I ought to be doing something else, so it was an easy transition
to becoming editor of Tarzan Adventures, for which I was already
writing. By seventeen I was changing the format and the circulation
went up. I then worked for IPC (Fleetway) as an editor on Sexton Blake
Library. I also worked on Thriller Picture Library and various comics,
including freelancing for LOOK AND LEARN and BIBLE STORY
(worked with Ken Lawrence on various projects -- Ken later did Trigan
Empire). I then worked for CURRENT TOPICS, the policy discussion
magazine of the Liberal Party (I was also interested in politics) and
then became editor of New Worlds. Some of those must have been proper
jobs. I didn't like them much.
QM: If you had 20 millions dollars,
would you spend it on a trip to the space station, or would you just
MM: I give the Jack Trevor Story Memorial
Prize out of my own pocket. The condition is that the winner spend it
in two weeks and not have a penny to show for it. One winner spent it
on drink before he even got home and another took a holiday. So I think
my answer's in there somewhere...
QM: When dealing with a publishing
agent, do you find a shrieking hellsword or a needlegun to be a handier
tool? Would Stormbringer be a threat to a creature without a soul, such
as an editor?
MM: What do you mean ? My agent IS
a shrieking hellsword. Ask any publisher.
QM: Which authors did you find influential?
MM: Influential? Peake, Stevenson,
QM: Which current authors do you feel
are worth watching for the future of the genre?
MM: Worth watching? Lots, but I've
named a few above. Also Rhys Hughes, Jeff VanderMeer, Paul de Filipo
-- in fantasy I can't think of any women I read, as such. My own taste
tends to run a bit more to Elizath Taylor and Elizabeth Bowen!
QM: How would your describe your agreeing
to be interviewed by Quantum Muse:
(a) A kindness to a struggling on-line publication.
(b) The low point of a night of binge drinking.
(c) Quantum Muse who? I thought this was Prairie Schooner.
MM: This isn't where I told the taxi-driver
QM: Would you mind buying the next
MM: Yes. I want my mother.
QM: Might she be willing to
buy the next round?
Here is a selection of novels by Michael Moorcock
Elric: The Eternal Champion Series