Q&A: MICHAEL MOORCOCK
By Paula Guran
British author/editor/critic/musician Michael Moorcock is probably as close
to being a legend in the sf/f field as one can get while still breathing. In
1956, aged 16, he became editor of Tarzan Adventures. According to the
Moorcockian mythos he lost that job for attempting to publish more prose than
deemed necessary in a supposedly comic magazine. While editing other commercial
magazines he began selling genre stories and by 1961 had created the
"multiverse" and the character of the Eternal Champion.
Although the heroic anti-hero appeared in many incarnations under a multitude of names, he is most often referred to as "Eric". The stories of his efforts to maintain a balance of Law and Chaos were a deliberate reversal of the established clichés of heroic fantasy and intentional anti-Tolkienism. Unlike mere sequel, the Elrician multiverse and themes grew into an accessible and popular metanarrative that also included the adventures of eternally hip "secret agent" Jerry Cornelius (Moorcock received The Guardian Fiction Prize for the Jerry Cornelius Quartet in 1977) and the comedic (and so much more) "The Dancers At The End of Time" stories. Among the prolific Moorcock's other works are the Nebula Award-winning novella "Behold the Man" (1966), World Fantasy and John W. Campbell Award-winning GLORIANA, OR THE UNFULFILL'D QUEEN (1978), and literary novel MOTHER LONDON (1988) which was nominated for the Booker and Whitbread prizes. He was awarded the British Fantasy Society's August Derleth award for his novels THE KING OF THE SWORDS, THE SWORD AND THE STALLION, and THE HOLLOW LANDS.
As editor of "New Worlds" magazine (beginning in 1964) Moorcock published fiction that pulled SF out of its shiny spaces ships and directed it toward what was sometimes termed the "new wave". Moorcock and his co-conspirators posited post-modernism long before it had a name. He received the BSFA Award in 1966 for his work on "New Worlds".
The legend is further burnished by connection with music through his own band, The Deep Fix, the British group Hawkwind, and Blue Oyster Cult.
Moorcock was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2002. He has been honored with two Lifetime Achievement Awards: The World Fantasy Award in 2000 and the Prix Utopiales, in Nantes, France, in 2004. He was recently designated at this year's recipient of the Horror Writers Association's Lifetime Achievement Award.
Moorcock is also a political and literary critic. His "study of epic fantasy" WIZARDRY AND WILD ROMANCE (recently revised and re-published by Monkeybrain Books, see review below) includes his notorious essay that compares THE LORD OF THE RINGS with Winnie the Pooh and dubs Tolkien's work as "nursery fiction."
With the June 13 publication of THE WHITE WOLF'S SON (see review below), Moorcock has "retired" from writing heroic fantasy. (Elric's adventures, however, will continue in graphic novel form).
Back in April, before Mr Moorcock left Austin, TX for Spain, I posed some questions to him and got some typically erudite answers for "Publishers Weekly" in connection with THE WHITE WOLF'S SON. As is usual for such things, there was more material generated than the publication could use, so I followed up with a few more questions and here present a lengthier version.
There is much more to learn and read of Michael Moorcock. His Web site athttp://www.multiverse.org/ is a good place to begin:
Q: You've said THE WHITE WOLF'S SON is your "retirement" from writing
heroic fantasy. Why, after more than 40 years, did you feel this time had come?
A: I began as a writer challenging literary conventions, including the conventions of fantasy fiction. Most of my career was devoted to that challenge in one way another, with my work on New Worlds, the Jerry Cornelius stories, more recent books like BLOOD AND THE WAR AMONGST THE ANGELS. I did the same with my literary fiction, including MOTHER LONDON, the Pyat novels and so on. Having completed the last of my "holocaust" sequence, featuring Colonel Pyat, I feel that I want to devote myself to shorter, more autobiographical books and any short fantasy I write will only be if I have an idea I feel strongly about and if it is commissioned, say, by an anthology or magazine. I have lived too long, if you like. One begins by experimenting and lives on to find those experiments have become conventions. This is certainly true of the fantasy genre, which now abounds with versions of what, when I wrote them, were unique and original.
Q: Isn't there also something a bit triumphant about becoming a convention?
A: Not really. I admire innovation and have little interest in generic work of any kind, except at the point of innovation (Hammett, for instance, or Bradbury).
Q: Both you and Elric have matured over the years. How did writing the last Elric novel differ from writing the first?
A: Well, I always said that Elric c'est moi. As I have matured, so has he. I conceived him in my late teens and the first story was published when I was 21. By the time I was 23, I had killed him.
Therefore it hasn't been possible in sequential time to show him maturing and therefore reflecting my own maturity. As a result I have had to employ different devices to demonstrate this increased maturity. In the current sequence, I have shown him more through the eyes of others than in the earlier books. These adventures all take place in the space of a few moments in Elric's original world, but cover a thousand years in our world.
Q: You are well known for championing Mervyn Peake as "the greatest imaginative writer of his age" and disdaining Tolkien as boring escapism. What do you think their literary reputations will be in 100 years?
A: The first essays I wrote as a late teenager on the subject of fantasy was to examine its psychological components. I was more interested in 'the Alphabets of Unreason' than the Elvish alphabet. I was much influenced by romantics like the Shelleys, Byron, Maturin and by French existentialists and surrealists when young. My own fantastic landscapes are there entirely to reflect the moods and character conflicts of my heroes and heroines. I couldn't tell you how long it took to go from Oin to Yu, but the inhabitants wouldn't have discovered America and be growing potatoes and smoking tobacco, either! Peake's GORMENGHAST is a 'haunted palace of the mind' and as such has interested me far more than the demons and dragons of Tolkien. In the recent nationwide poll taken in England for readers' hundred favourite novels, Peake came 50th and Tolkien came 1st. It's my view that if Peake had been writing a hundred years ago he would still have come 50th and Marie Corelli or Hall Caine would have come first. I do not have any quarrel with Tolkien as an entertaining and sentimental fantast reflecting the tastes and needs of his age, if a bit of a pedant, and he was very kind to me as a boy in an avuncular sort of way, but Peake's creativity is of an entirely more substantial nature. Such work tends to have longevity, like Thomas Hardy, even if it isn't as popular as the generic fiction of its time. Peake, incidentally, was even nicer to me when I was young and not at all avuncular. The Inkling I chiefly admire, incidentally, is the much less-known friend of Lewis and Tolkien, Charles Williams. Lewis and Tolkien were huge fans of Peake. They might even have agreed with my assessment!
Q: In what way(s) do you admire Charles Williams? As a fantasist, theologian, poet, man? Where might you recommend one begin reading him?
A: I admire Williams as all those things and as a rigorous Anglican theologian. Start with MANY DIMENSIONS or THE PLACE OF THE LION.
I doubt if I will be remembered by many, if any, in a hundred years.
Q: Pish-tosh, Angela Carter would have disagreed with that, I think, and others. But, let me rephrase: What, if history so graces, would you like your literary place to be?
A: As a decent novelist in the European moral tradition, as something of a literary innovator. Maybe as a decent editor.
Q: Of your own work, which do you now see as giving you the most personal satisfaction as a writer?
A: MOTHER LONDON and the Pyat series
Q: MOTHER LONDON is something of a love letter to London, your hometown. You've lived in Austin, Texas, for some time now. Will it evoke a similar paean?
No, in short. I am a Londoner born and raised and went through perhaps the most traumatic events aside from the Great Fire that the city has ever known. I have lived near Austin for ten years and while I have, of course, made use of speech rhythms and experience of those years, they simply can't have the same kind of effect on me as my childhood during the Blitz and growing up through drastically changing times. I shall soon be going to live in Paris, which was always my 'second city', because London has changed too much for my taste. I am fundamentally a European, much as I love the US and have enjoyed living here for the past dozen years, and a big city dweller. If I were to move within the US it would be to New York or Los Angeles. This is not to suggest that Austin doesn't have many virtues -- her civic planners have shown considerable intelligence and aesthetic taste and of course UT has perhaps the finest collection of modernist writers, including many of my personal favourites, in the world. A superb resource. I shall not be severing ties with the US completely, and might indeed decide to keep some kind of residence in Texas, but we have always had a place in Spain and it, and Paris, are much closer to my grand-children. It will be much easier to see them there and be around while they are growing up. That, in fact, is the driving reason for me wanting to get closer to London now.
A: This last Pyat volume seems to have been promised for quite a number of years now. Has this been due to your own scheduling? Some quirk of publishing? The onslaught of history itself?
Q: Just wrestling with difficult subject matter -- Dachau, 'mixing' with Nazis who saw themselves as fine fellows -- just a huge emotional package interrupted by illness. Depressing stuff...
A: After starting back in Byzantium, the Colonel is finally arriving at the era of the holocaust. Is the 20th century, then, the most horrific of all or merely the most recent century of horrors?
Q: For me the worst horror, because it happened in 'civilised' Europe and it could have happened to me!
A: What would you say is the single major theme in your work?
Pretty conventional, probably. Loss. Remembrance. The urge to reproduce a paradise which, as Proust has it, could never have existed and by definition never could exist. Nothing especially different from other writers whose resonances are chiefly romantic. Against that sense of loss, of impossible longing, runs a dialogue, of course, where various Utopias, as in my WARLORD OF THE AIR or GLORIANA, are examined and discovered to be based on flawed idealism at best. Like many writers, I use my own sense of realism to examine my own romanticism!
Q: What's next for Michael Moorcock?
Maybe a movie I'm working on. A memoir of Mervyn and Maeve Peake, whom I knew well from the mid-1950s. The text for a book of Peake drawings being done in France next year. Maybe a comic book. A novel called PETE'S RULES which began as an examination of an old friend and has turned into a rather more uncomfortable self-examination than I might have wished. Some short stories. The last Pyat book, bringing us up to the actual Nazi holocaust, comes out in England from Cape early next year and the previous three will be reprinted by Vintage. And possibly a new comic novel called LONDON, MY LIFE! OR: THE SEDENTARY JEW. After spending so long with Nazis and the holocaust I feel like relaxing with a comedy or two. A fairly busy retirement, all in all...