THE ROAD TO PERDIDO: AN INTERVIEW WITH CHINA MIEVILLE
"Obviously music was a big influence on King Rat. It was written during the high point of Drum n' Bass. That was what I was listening to at that point. King Rat is above all a London novel but coming close behind it is also a music novel. The other two novels haven't been quite like that. I write to music but music doesn't saturate the book in the same way. To that extent King Rat was relatively anomalous. When a new music comes along that moves me in the same way that drum n' bass did then I'm sure it'll find it's way into the writing."
Richard Marshall interviews China Mieville
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CM: I guess for now I'm going to not get a job. I figure I'd rather do it now and then if it does all go pear shaped then I get a job rather than not take the risk of writing full-time now. I wanted to write stories since I was about ten. I tried to get various stories published in various SF magazines such as Interzone, and when I was in my early twenties I started writing this novel that turned into King Rat and that's where it all started getting taken more seriously.
3AM: You're an illustrator as well?
CM: I've never done it professionally. I've done it for fanzines and I've done it for my own work and stuff but I'm a very slow illustrator so I couldn't live off it even if people were prepared to pay for it. I'd take too long to do it.
3AM: King Rat -- when was that?
CM: King Rat was the end of 98. My second book, Perdido Street Station , which is probably the one most people have heard of because it won a couple of prizes, was 2000 and then the new one The Scar came out earlier this year, 2002.
3AM: I first read you in the Tony White Britpulp collection.
CM: Tony met a friend of mine at a party and talked about the kind of thing he was doing and this friend of mine said that I wrote pulp fiction. So we got in touch and it went from there. It was lucky chance really.
3AM: What's your take on pulp?
CM: I come to pulp out of genre. I grew up a devotee of science fiction. Philip K Dick, Thomas Disch, Gene Wolfe, Mike Moorcock, and then I got into horror and certain forms of fantasy and more fantastic literature generally. And the associations of that kind of fantastic literature and pulp were very strong. Obviously it's the Weird Tales pulp that I strongly identify with. I feel very defensive of the genre. I don't see genre as a constraint. I see it as a terrain as a set of rules that you play with.
The notion that… I know you're not saying this… but some people, they try and be kind and say that you're stretching boundaries and developing the tradition and when they say that, they're actually saying -- you're breaking out of this scrubby genre. As far as I'm concerned, some of the best literature of the last hundred years has come out of the genre tradition and of course the best of it challenges expectations just as the best of literary fiction challenges those expectations. But it's not that genre fiction is any more a constraint than mimetic fiction. So I see myself very much as a genre writer. I love the fantastic genres. I see what I'm doing as a development of them but very much a part of them. I never feel that I'm leaving them behind. I try and be as experimental and avant garde and stretching as I can be but I don't see that as turning my back on the genre at all. Genre has always been able to encompass that.
3AM: So what is it about the fantasy/horror genre that draws you in?
CM: A difficult question to answer. I think when I was younger I found it very difficult to sustain interest in reading unless it had some sort of fantastic element. That's where I've changed. I can read books without fantastic elements now! But I wouldn't think of writing them. Everything I write comes out of that fantastic tradition and I think it's basically -- the term used in SF is 'a sense of wonder' -- don't take the piss! -- it's basically related to the same radical alienation that the surrealists did.
The reason that I like SF and fantasy and horror is that to me it's the pulp wing of surrealism. That's the aesthetic of undermining and creative alienation that I really go for. That's what I think genre at its best does. It uses the fantasy to constantly surprise the reader. When I'm thinking about it, I'm an active Socialist and that tradition of radicalism is obviously related. But that's a theorisation after the fact! It's true, what happens though is that I feel a visceral love for this stuff and then I sit back and ask myself why. It's not that I thought to myself - hmmm, I think I'll go get interested in radical literature. This is stuff I grew up with. Saturated with it. It's like little kids. They always love the dinosaurs and the monsters and the witches and the aliens and then they grow out of it. But there are some of us who don't! And thankfully I didn't.
3AM: I wouldn't take the piss out of that 'sense of wonder'. I can recognise that myself. It's the wow factor of Frankenstein.
CM: I think it is. And I think the problem is that one of the problems mainstream literature has is that it is anxious about the unreal. Therefore the only way it can justify the unreal is by banging literally on the metaphor drum. When you get mainstream writers trying to do the fantasy, unreal genre -- not always, there are some honourable exceptions, but usually, they write very heavy handed work. They have a very visible sub-text which is 'look, this is actually about … women's oppression or whatever. The end of history… whatever'.
The thing about good pulp is that you trust the reader and you know that the mind is a machine to process metaphors so of course all those connections will be there. But you've also granted the fantastic its own dynamic and allowed that awe. There's no contradiction. So I want to have monsters as a metaphor but I also want monsters because monsters are cool. There's no contradiction. It's a grotesquery and grotesqueries are completely fascinating. They always have been. The diffusion of the monstrous and the fantastic in children's stuff in things like Pokemon, I'm just blown away by the creativity of it. Of course it's cynical marketing blah blah blah but it's also very very clever and I'm not in the least surprised that children love them. I would if I were a bit younger I'd be right up on Digimon and Pokemon and so on. Completely.
3AM: King Rat's got London. Is London another element of this fantasy horror thing?
CM: I feel very much to be a London writer. The presence of London is central to everything I write. The writers - the usual roll call, it's Moorcock, it's Iain Sinclair, it's Thomas De Quincy, it's a fairly standard lineage -- London is one of the cities that refracts peculiarly intensely through fiction. London is a strong influence on me but just as intense is fictionalised London in all its forms. The second and third books are not set in London, they're set in fictionalised worlds but they are pretty obviously derived from London.
It's not terribly subtle, especially in the second book! I'm from near here, I was brought up in Willesden, I now live in Kilburn so I'm a north west Londoner. I lived for about ten years round about the Portobello Road.
3AM: Did King Rat's success surprise you?
CM: It didn't sell particularly well. It got good reviews. Perdido Street Station, the second book, was far more successful in terms of coverage but I was really gratified by King Rat because of the reviews, and it sold perfectly respectably. The biggest kick for me was getting feedback from all these writers I grew up with. You get reviews from Mike Harrison and Iain Sinclair, that blew me away. That was heaven.
3AM: Do you know those guys?
CM: I've never met Sinclair - I've corresponded with him. I've met Mike Harrison. I know Moorcock relatively well. You know, if you'd told me three or four years ago I'd be saying this I'd laugh in your face. It's not what I take for granted. It's exciting. I've a novella coming out with Moorcock in a couple of months and again its one of those things where you just think - wow!
3AM: So after King Rat you've done two more.
CM: Perdido Street Station is a very big book about two and a half times the size of King Rat set in a fantasy city called 'New Crobuzon'. It's basically a secondary world fantasy with Victorian era technology. So rather than being a feudal world, it's an early industrial capitalist world of a fairly grubby, police statey kind! That won the Arthur C Clarke award and the British Fantasy Award. The following one is called The Scar. It's set in the same world but it's a stand-alone.
It's similarly large and it's a maritime story set off the coast of where New Crobuzon is and it's basically a pirate story. It's about a big floating pirate city made of ships lashed together. People get caught by pirates and it goes from there. Again, it comes from my childhood reading and the trick with modern pulp and with anything good is to be respectful and true to the roots and to do something in that tradition and do it as well as you can. I don't like post-modern nudges and winks. I'm not big on irony. So it's not like I'm ironically winking at a fantasy tradition of pirates. This is a pirate book. Hopefully it's also an interesting creative novel and one you can read on other levels but it is also a pirate book.
3AM: Have you ever thought of doing graphic novels?
CM: Yes, but again the problem is timing. I'm just too slow. It's a question of time. I'd love to, and I've done illustrations to my books and I'm proud of them but they just take so long. I'd need about six months when I had enough money where I could do nothing else but devote my time to that. It's what I'd like to do eventually. What I'm going to do eventually is an encyclopaedia of this world I'm setting all these adventures in. There'll be loads of illustrations in that.
3AM: Are you thinking of a series like the sort Steve Aylett is doing at the moment?
CM: To some extent. My books are a lot bigger than Steve's and Steve, although he is clearly steeped in SF, he writes from a more surrealised slipstream. My stories are clearly more generic. That's no qualitative distinction there but the internal logic of mine is more grounded. In a sense what I'm trying to do is a kind of anti-Tolkien secondary world whereas Steve's is much more destabilised. He creates a slightly dream-like kind of logic so there are similarities but I'm much more interested than he is in creating a systematic coherent secondary world. I like it because it's the ultimate geek thing. It's Middle Earth, it's Narnia. It's escapism and the ultimate fantasy thing. So I want to be part of that and try and twist a lot of those tropes and simultaneously be a coherent secondary world that you could immerse yourself in but also be very critical of the reactionary fluff that surrounds people like Tolkien and Lewis.
3AM: For some that charge of escapism is a negative charge.
CM: Part of the reason why it's a strong critique is that a lot of the people actually doing the fiction have tried to turn it into a positive. So you get Tolkien saying 'What's wrong with escaping? The people who most hate escapism are jailors.' And Moorcock has a wicked riposte to that. He said that's not true. 'Jailors love escapists. What they don't like is escape.' Basically, I don't think there's anything inherently escapist about fantasy. The reason people think there is because so much has been derived from Tolkien and Dungeons and Dragons and has degenerated into something of the continual repetition of its own cliché - a kind of comfort food - but that's not intrinsic to the form.
Gormanghast is a fantasy, Max Ernst, but these are not escapist. The corollary of this idea is that realism narrowly conceived is unescapism. That's bullshit! You read someone like Anita Brookner or what Banks calls Hampstead novels. This is a novel about a middle class world where the people are hermetically sealed from the rest of the world. That's escapism. You compare that with Mary Gentle's Rats and Gargoyles or Mike Moorcock or M John Harrison or whatever, where you have the fantastic completely penetrated with real material concerns, men and women, gender, economics… there's nothing intrinsically escapist about this literature at all.
Anyone who tries to write escapist fantasy is kidding themselves. You might think you're being escapist but you're not escaping anything. It's like people who say, I don't have a theory, I just use common sense. It's an ideologically impossible position. It's the same with much putative escapist literature. It thinks it's escaping but it's rampantly ideological. I figure that you might as well acknowledge this and then use the fantastic to riff off the shit that's all around us. Any fiction -- any art -- becomes fucked when it becomes mannerism.
A lot of literary fiction has become its own cliché and it's become very mannered. Of course there's a lot of appallingly bad pulp fiction but when this stuff finds something new and locates itself as part of the tradition it's as good as anything. There are some writers in that tradition in terms of their use of language who as prose stylists are the equal of anyone alive. I'm thinking of people like John Crowley, M John Harrison, Gene Wolfe. There are also a load of writers who evade easy classification. I'm currently very interested in Lovecraft, the pope of horror pulp: by all reasonable standards his prose style is terrible. But you can't put it down. There's something compelling about it. This neurotic fascination with language and what I like in fiction -- in any form -- is fiction that is conscious of its own use of language. Some pulp, and some non-pulp, uses language basically just to pass on information, which is a bit boring. What Lovecraft ironically shares with the Modernists like Joyce is the absolute physical awareness of the shape of the language itself. They do it in very different ways.
3AM: All those words with CHTH…
CM: Absolutely. Absolutely. And he never uses five words when he can use twenty! It creates this absolute hypnogogic rhythm. I love all that. I get very frustrated with a lot of modern literary fiction. I try and keep up with what's going on in that world and there are some writers who write non Fantasy stuff -- people like Cormac McCarthy who I think are deeply wonderful. But then there's an awful lot of stuff that seems mannered and seems to be about being in a backslapping club.
3AM: So what have you got going in the future?
CM: I'm going to turn my PhD into a book. This is not uncommon. It'll give the completist something to do! So I'm talking to academic publishers. I'm on the board of Historical Materialism an academic journal. I'm talking to the publisher of that journal at the moment. I'm also writing the next fiction. It's set in the same world but I can't say what it's about! Some shared peripheral characters. Lots of monsters. Vampires, all that kind of shit! I've just done this novella which is coming out on its own on a small press and then coming out as part of a quartet including Mike Moorcock with Gollancz. The collection is called Cities. There's me and Mike and then someone called Paul di Fillippo and Geoff Ryman. That should be out this year. I've had a short story published in a homage to Lovecraft collection over in the States and things are going well.
3AM: Where are your fan bases? Do you have a sense of who you are writing for?
CM: For the most part the largest group of readers is the science fiction/fantasy readers, particularly in the States. Here I get the impression that I have a higher than normal proportion of non-genre readers. Which is nice because you don't want to feel like you're preaching to the converted all the time! A lot of people say to me -- I never liked Fantasy but I really liked your book which I always take as a huge compliment. For the most part they're quite young. I was on a book tour in the United States a few months ago and I'd been lucky, was getting good reviews in. Even in the Guardian and places like that, which is pretty unusual. It's a very exciting time to be writing fantasy. It hasn't been this good since cyberpunk or New Worlds!
3AM: Is the Harry Potter thing having an effect?
CM: I've read the first two Harry Potter books and I really disliked them. I expected to like them and I was really surprised. I like kids' books. I liked the Pullman immensely. I liked Gaiman's new one Coraline. A fabulous and scary book. Clive Barker's got one out called Abarat which was great. But I didn't like the Harry Potter books. My impression is that we are definitely in a very good time for the genre. These things are cyclical. There was one in the seventies around 'New Worlds'. There was one in the eighties with cyber-punk and we're in one now which is the new new wave. There's a group associated with it.
I don't think it's to do with Harry Potter. I think those are a completely self-contained phenomenon which is weirdly sealed off from what would normally be its bedfellows. This is my impression. I could be wrong. Sealed off from the other SF books, the other fantasy books, the other children's books. The Potter readership doesn't spread. Whereas with Pullman, I think they are better and more to the point. They penetrate more into other things. You read Harry Potter and you basically want to read other Harry Potter books. You read Philip Pullman and you might go and read someone else.
Of course it's had an impact -- so Diane Wynne Jones has apparently sold more books on the back of Harry Potter which is great but I don't think it happens much. I think the Potter books are quite anomalous in how self contained they are. So I don't think that's why we're on the crest of a wave at the moment. A wave I don't trust at all, incidentally. I think it will come crashing back at any time. I've thought about writing for children a lot and I'd love to but I think it's a very distinct skill and I'd love to but I'd have to practice a lot. And if I did that I'd definitely want to illustrate it.
3AM: Like the Tim Burton book?
CM: I didn't like the Tim Burton stuff so much as, say, Coraline. Burton reminds me of Edward Gorey, the illustrator, who I'm not so keen on, even though it is quite interesting and fantastic and dark - it has this edge of whimsy and I'm not very big on whimsy. What I like about Gaiman is that he meets you straight. He looks you straight in the eye and he doesn't blink and he doesn't wink. I'm not very big on whimsy because whimsy seems to be about distancing yourself from that sense of wonder. I like stuff that surrenders to it. So I'm always a bit ambivalent about Burton. He's got some fabulous visions but he always side-steps them a bit. Tames them.
3AM: Looking beyond the writing world to a more general cultural point of view - are we in a good place at the moment?
CM: I think we're in a very contradictory place. On the one hand we're in a really, really, really bad place -- rapid slide to war, economic collapse, all that sort of thing but on the other hand there are more positive things than there have been for ten years. In the cultural arena, the plugging in of cultural figures into the political arena is really positive. I'm thinking of Arundhati Roy and Tom Paulin and on a political milieu the whole post Seattle anti-capitalist mood is fantastic. I think the upsurge of union militancy is fantastic. The awkward squad. And they seem to go hand in hand. So I'm really, really scared and really, really excited at the same time.
3AM: Tom Paulin?
CM: I don't necessarily agree with everything he says but he's got integrity and I admire that. He was grossly misrepresented over the issue of Palestine. You read the transcript of what he said and the accusation that he's an anti-Semite is a disgrace. A disgraceful accusation. Complete fucking crap. I think his public stance is great. I like the way he takes it seriously, whether it's on stuff like Palestine or stuff like when he called out Germaine Greer. Remember when she came out with some asinine crap about the soldiers on Bloody Sunday? I really rated Paulin. Because he turned round and was absolutely defending the Catholics who had been murdered…
3AM: Murderers. Murderers. I remember that.
CM: He really went for it. He was speaking up for these murdered Republicans. And he'd taken it seriously. I hate this kind of communal club thing, you know, that says, well, we might disagree but we'll all go and have a gin and tonic afterwards. He was clearly angry and it's what gets me angry too.
3AM: He did the same with Thwaite over the Larkin Diaries. Called him a racist. Brilliant stuff.
CM: I missed that but I respect the way he works. I'd love to meet him. I was involved with the Socialist Alliance at the last election and obviously there was a lot of stuff about Palestine. I'm not Jewish, so if you say stuff like Paulin said and you're Jewish then some people call you a self-hating Jew and if you're not Jewish they call you an anti-Semite. We were all at the time at the frenzied height of the debate when the Paulin thing happened. It was particularly galling for someone who has always worked on anti-racist campaigns. My view was, fine, tell me I'm full of shit, that you think I'm wrong, but don't call me racist. It's scary how this situation is turning out. I know some people in the Socialist Alliance in Oxford who were trying to organise some defences of him: it was such an obvious witch-hunt. A real shame. Because in Britain we've always had a strong anti-Zionist critical Jewish community.
3AM: Yes, even with the Tories.
CM: Even in the Tory Party although their anti-Zionism often segues into anti-Semitism.
3AM: I don't think that's true of someone like Gilmour.
CM: I don't think he's an anti-Semite but some others were. But I thought in Britain we had basically won the argument that to be an anti-Zionist did not make you an anti-Semite but now I feel some people want to push that back. It's depressing. If you look in the States, where that argument has not been won, you know how much ground there is to lose.
3AM: Would you ever bring in stuff like this, or September 11th, into your work?
CM: Not directly. I don't think it's the duty of the writer. I had an argument with Steve Aylett once. I'd just written this agit-prop story and he was saying that basically all agitprop was antithetical to art. I think that's a cliché. I think it's hard to write politically engaged art but I don't think it's possible.
3AM: Someone like Stewart Home is an obvious person in this respect.
CM: I suppose so. That's a very good point. I always put lots of politics in my books but again it's the thing about writing pulp. You're there to tell a story and get people to turn the pages. If they don't turn the pages and are bored then you've failed at your job. I like the idea of politically engaged fiction as long as it doesn't forget that it is fiction.
3AM: Steve Wells' Attack! Books -- especially his own novel, was trying to do this. Shame it had to stop. Ran out of money.
CM: Post September 11th I've been involved in a lot of politics but I don't feel I have to sit down and write a novel about it.
3AM: Music is an influence?
CM: Obviously music was a big influence on King Rat. It was written during the high point of Drum n' Bass. That was what I was listening to at that point. King Rat is above all a London novel but coming close behind it is also a music novel. The other two novels haven't been quite like that. I write to music but music doesn't saturate the book in the same way. To that extent King Rat was relatively anomalous. When a new music comes along that moves me in the same way that drum n' bass did then I'm sure it'll find its way into the writing.
It's also difficult to incorporate now because if you're writing about a fantasy world you can't make a real world analogy. You break continuity. So although it's there -- so it sounds monumentally pretentious but Benjamin Brittain was very important to the last book -- I obviously couldn't say that in the book in the way that I could make references in King Rat.
3AM: What else do you count as influences?
CM: There are a fantastic number of movements that I don't particularly like in their raw form but I have as influences. I don't particularly like William Burroughs. I would not sit down and say "Hmm, I must read some Burroughs". Personally, it doesn't ring my bell. I find it a bit relentless and not in a good way. But I think that Burroughs is fantastically important as an influence. Lots and lots of Burroughs influenced writers I love. Same with punk. I would never put on a punk LP but loads of music I love would not exist if it weren't for punk. I respect these as an influence, Burroughs as an influence. But I'm not in their raw form. Angela Carter I really love.
3AM: She loved the genre.
CM: Absolutely. Whereas if you read the SF of Margaret Atwood or Paul Theroux, they hate what they're doing. I want to say to them - relax. Enjoy yourself. And Paul Theroux he does these outrageous interviews about how when he wrote Ozone the quote was - "SF is just flapdoodle and what I'm trying to do is something serious!" The arrogance of the man. But it's also stupid and ignorant. Now, if I was going to write, say a western, then I'd first go and read ten westerns. I'd get to know the field. That's just basic good manners. And he just comes into the scene, doesn't bother to learn about it… At least Margaret Atwood knows a little bit about the scene although I'd criticise The Handmaid's Tale.
3AM: What about Iain Banks.
CM: I think he's wicked. I have all the time in the world for him. We share the same agent so we've met on a number of occasions. I love the fact that he's very successful and is never rude about the genre. He is very respectful about his generic roots. Do you know Jon Courtney Grimwood? He does a very interesting, very political, cyber-punky, post cyber-punky stuff. Mike Harrison too. Someone needs to write about British SF. It's more exciting now than it has been for years and years. I'm also interested in when different worlds overlap, like when the neo-punk stuff overlapped with the New Puritans. You get these punk kids and these new lit kids meeting and overlapping -- I like all that.
3AM: You used to live in America?
CM: I was in Harvard for a year. International Relations. My thesis was on International Law and Philosophy.
3AM: You knew Ernest Gellner.
CM: He lectured me on Anthropology when I was at Cambridge. He was very scary. He just lectured when I was there. Whenever another lecture finished there'd be this big noise in the corridor and he'd just stop talking in mid-sentence and walk with this kind of pugnacious grace and open the door and we'd all be sitting in the lecture hall and all this tumultuous noise would suddenly just cease as everyone in the corridor saw him and he'd just glower. And then he'd stumble back in and he'd say, "To recapitulate…" and he'd just continue.
3AM: A fantastic teacher.
CM: Yes. My view of him was that he had a view of Marxism that was basically Stalinism and that's why he opposed it. That's what he was against. He never really engaged with any different kind of Marxism. I was surprised because that's a very common thing. It really hampers these otherwise very brilliant thinkers. They were always attacking a straw man Marxism.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWEE
China Miéville was born in London in 1972. When he was eighteen, he lived and taught English in Egypt, where he developed an interest in Arab culture and Middle Eastern politics. Miéville has a BA in social anthropology from Cambridge and a Masters with distinction from the London School of Economics. His first novel, King Rat, was nominated for both an International Horror Guild Award and the Bram Stoker Prize. Perdido Street Station won the Arthur C. Clarke Award and was nominated for a British Science Fiction Association Award. He lives in London, England.