Kazuo Ishiguro is a British author and winner of the Booker Prize for his novel The Remains of the Day (1989), which was later adapted into a film starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. He has also published the dystopian science fiction novel Never Let Me Go (2005), which was adapted by screenwriter Alex Garland into a film starring Keira Knightley and Andrew Garfield. He has recently published The Buried Giant, a fantasy novel set in a semi-historical Britain ruled by King Arthur.
This interview first appeared on Wired.com’s The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast, which is hosted by David Barr Kirtley and produced by John Joseph Adams. Visit geeksguideshow.com to listen to the interview or other episodes.
Your new book is called The Buried Giant. So how did the idea for this book first come about?
I’d have to go a long, long way back for that. I can remember telling an audience back in 2001 about a book I was working on, which was very like this one. I couldn’t really figure out the setting — even the genre — until much later. But I knew for a long time I wanted to write a story about a society that was suffering from a kind of collective amnesia. Not dementia or anything like that, or Alzheimer’s — some kind of very selective amnesia so that whenever anyone tried to remember things around a certain area, a certain topic, everyone would blank out. I was playing around with possible settings, possible locations to play out this idea for a number of years. What lay behind that was that I wanted to ask this question: How does a society, how does a nation, decide when it’s better to remember certain things from its recent past, and when is it better for that nation, maybe, to keep certain memories buried — for the sake of keeping the society stable, for the sake of avoiding another cycle of violence or disintegration of that society altogether? For a long time, I just couldn’t get a story that would actually take me into that situation.
And so you did eventually settle on the Dark Ages in Britain, right? Did you do historical research? Just talk about coming up with that, developing that as a setting.
Before I actually chose that setting, I toyed with the idea of using what you might call [a] science fiction setting, as I had done in my previous novel Never Let Me Go. It’s not difficult to think of some situation, if you come up with a high-tech, high-concept idea of why a mass of people in the community might be having their memories controlled. It’s easier to think of a solution to that problem, a writer’s problem, if you come up with some sort of a high-tech reason. So I was playing around with that for a while, but there was something about that environment that just didn’t feel right for this particular story. And it occurred to me: I could actually go right back into some kind of fable-like universe instead, where instead of some SF-ish or high-tech reason for the amnesia, I could fall back on these ancient tropes: a kind of magic or a spell of some sort. So I thought: “Wouldn’t it be good to go right back into some kind of ancient Britain where a mist has descended on the land, and the people there suffer from these memory lapses because of this mist?”
And that visually and aesthetically appealed to me much more. I wanted these bleak moors, these huddled little villages. I could see the protagonist plodding on across this very unfriendly landscape that maybe contained supernatural forces as well as more conventional hostile dangers. And the actual trigger point for that, the thing that really opened up something in my imagination about that particular landscape where I could set the story, was that I was reading an old English poem called “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” It’s a poem I’ve read a number of times over the years in different translations. I don’t know if you’ve ever come across it; it’s a fun poem. It’s a story poem, and you don’t need to know the story, but it basically takes place in two big castles. But there’s a tiny little bridge passage when the hero, the young Sir Gawain, rides from one castle to the other across an ancient Britain. And it’s only a stanza or so, but there’s a little description of what a terrible place Britain was back in those days. And the anonymous poet says, “There were no inns or anything like that for him to stay at, he had to cling onto rocks to sleep in the driving rain.” Which kind of puzzled me; I don’t know why he has to sleep on rocks rather than under a tree. But anyway, that’s what it says, and then the bit that really caught my imagination: It says that, “. . . often he’ll be chased down to villages by wolves or wild boar, or by panting ogres.” And the “panting ogres” are never mentioned again, they’re just part of the landscape, like unfriendly bulls or something. And then he reaches the castle and the story continues, but it was literally a few lines that described some imaginary ancient Britain that really caught my imagination. I thought, “I would like to put my story down there.”
You asked if I know the story of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” and I don’t know if I’ve ever actually read the poem, but as a child, I had a picture book of that story. It was done in the style of an illuminated manuscript, and I just read that over and over and over again, so I know the story, at least, very well, and I love it.
It’s a great, fun story, but most of it has nothing to do with my novel! You’ve probably forgotten this; maybe this little description of the land he crosses wasn’t even there in your picture book. The story’s great, but what I took out of it was that little glimpse of the land he crosses.
I’ve actually heard you say, though, that in general, you’re not particularly fond of Arthurian stories. I was curious: What is it about the Arthurian stories in general that you’re not such a big fan of?
I may become a big fan of them, but I haven’t really read much. I’m not particularly drawn to the story about the Round Table, or the hunt for the Holy Grail, or the love story between Guinevere and Lancelot. I’ve come across these things like everybody else has, but it hasn’t had a special allure for me.
The Arthur I was interested in was a quasi-historical figure. I read a lot of stuff about a real historical figure upon which possibly the Arthur legend was based, and so I became fascinated by this period in British history that is a complete blank. There’s a period about which no historian seems to be able to make a confident statement, and that’s the period between 410 AD, when the Romans leave Britain because their empire is crumbling, and they leave behind a disintegrating society because the whole civil structure disappears when the reigning Romans go; to the time when the Anglo-Saxons basically conquer the land and start to turn Britain into what then becomes England, around 490 AD.
So there’s something like an eighty-year period about which very little is known because all records disappeared in the post-Roman era. But it’s thought it was a time of skirmishes and civil war. Now, a lot of people think King Arthur may well have been based on a real military leader who led a lot of the British resistance to the invading Anglo-Saxons, and at some point, it’s thought — this is all conjecture, I guess — that this military leader won some kind of huge victory which at least maintained some kind of uneasy peace between these two tribes for a generation or two. So that was a situation that I wanted. That’s what I was looking for. And so I thought, “Okay, I’ll call this guy Arthur,” because I could then make use of a lot of the literary reverberations that come off that. But it’s that Arthur I was interested in.
Now, this Arthur is long dead by the time my story starts, but the enforced peace that he instituted is just about holding still, between two factions that have learned to coexist — they’re kind of friendly, they’re intermingling, but their coexistence depends on them not remembering what happened a generation back, because some awful atrocities were committed in order to win this peace.
I’ll say in addition to all of that, because we’ve just been talking about remembering and forgetting at the societal level here, at the forefront of the book, there’s a love story, and it is about the same question — when is it better to remember, when is it better to forget? — that’s applied to a marriage. Very much the same issues exist for a couple, like the couple at the center of my book. They’ve been married for a long time; they’ve lost a lot of their precious shared memories. They’re now worried that their love might not survive the loss of these memories. If they’ve lost all these memories of the years that they spent together, the happy memories, maybe there’s nothing to sustain their love. This is their concern at the beginning. So they set off to try and find their lost memories. But as they go on, the fear comes into their lives that all the bad memories will come back with the good ones, and would their love survive the resurrection of those bad memories? On the other hand, if they keep these bad memories just buried, does that mean their love is based on something false, a false premise? Is it just an illusion?
You mentioned that they’re traveling across this landscape inhabited by ogres and dragons and monsters like that. I’m just curious: Were you drawing on any particular folkloric tradition or literary tradition for those kinds of monsters? I noticed that you had studied with Angela Carter, who’s known for writing these dark fairy tale stories. I just wondered: What sort of literary influences did you have for the monsters in this story?
She was my tutor and mentor; she was much more than just my tutor at university when I was doing a writing program many years ago. She then went on to be a mentor figure, and we continued to be friends right up until her early death at the age of fifty-one. And so, I don’t know if her writing had a direct effect on something like The Buried Giant, but generally, she was an example of an author who didn’t think in categories. She didn’t think some things were not suitable for literary fiction and other things were. She was a pretty out-of-the-box kind of writer, and to some extent, I think her career suffered while she was alive. She was quite a neglected writer during the time when she was alive. It’s only later on that people have come to recognize what an important writer she was. But I think that when I first started to write, it was because of people like Angela that I never really thought in terms of categories, or genre even.
Are there other stories, though, about ogres and pixies and dragons, that are favorites of yours that you’ve read?
I am very fond of The Odyssey and The Iliad, actually. Those two Homer works I read regularly in different translations as they come out. I just read the recent translations of both of those books by Stephen Mitchell. I enjoy reading old Greek stuff in general: Euripides, Aeschylus, where the acts of gods are there in a very intimate way — in an almost banal way. People are never surprised at the intervention of particular gods when they do remarkable things, even on the battlefield — as in The Iliad, where they just shrug and say, “Ha! I would’ve got that guy if Athena hadn’t intervened and whipped him away.” So I like that coexistence of gods and the supernatural alongside the banal and the everyday.
I was also brought up on a lot of samurai stories as a child — not just samurai folktales, but I read a lot of manga-type stuff featuring samurai. And it may be true to say — maybe I’m generalizing falsely here — that in a lot of Japanese samurai tales, once again, fantastical elements seem to exist very easily and naturally. There’s no big deal about it. A samurai wanders into a town, and the townsfolk say . . . “We’ve got a demon problem on that bridge over there. This demon keeps appearing and frightening people. Could you do something about it? You’re a samurai, you’re good with a sword, please do something about it.” And he says, “Well, all right, give me a nice meal for free, and I’ll see what I can do.”
That kind of thing is very typical in not just folktales, but Japanese stories featuring samurai. They’re set in relatively modern times, like nineteenth- or eighteenth-century. And in that landscape, there always seems to be the coexistence of things like oni, as they’ll be called in Japanese folklore, which is a demon-cum-ogre, I guess, and foxes that are shape-changers. Things like that are very, very common, and it seems to tap back into something ancient and profound. So that all comes very natural to me.
I was slightly surprised, to be honest, when I published this book, and a lot of debate seemed to surround it around the question of whether it was fantasy in the modern genre sense or not. I thought, “Well, okay, we can discuss that if we want.” But I didn’t think it was much of a big deal, one way or the other. I needed these elements.
One thing that you said in an interview that really struck me is that this book features dragons, and it also features characters who believe in God, and that there is equally as much evidence for God as there is for dragons. But somehow, people regard dragons in a book as silly, whereas they wouldn’t regard the idea of God in a book as silly; that they understand that the idea of God, even if it’s fictional, is incredibly powerful to people, but people seem to have a problem with the idea that dragons might have the same sort of emotional power.
You put it very well there; it does seem to me odd. Well, I suppose it’s not odd. I guess people feel, in a modern world, that we’ve superseded the beliefs in dragons and demons; that creatures like that are an expression of our fears and hopes and aspirations and longings. But God hasn’t really passed out of our imaginative thinking.
In a way, science and exploration — just knowledge of the world — seems to have removed those other creatures. But God seems to be beyond the reach of science and all these things. And so God isn’t childish, God isn’t fantasy, because God is still recognized as a legitimate expression of people’s profound beliefs about how the world works. And on the question of God — in my book, there is a dispute about God as well, because the Anglo-Saxons who are landing in ever greater numbers in Britain are pagan. They haven’t had Christianity yet. Whereas the native Britons have been converted to Christianity by the Romans, who used to be their bosses. And so there’s a tension there.
One of the accusations that the Anglo-Saxon warrior aims at the native Britons, the Christians, is to say, “Isn’t it convenient — you have created for yourself a god who is infinitely merciful? Never mind what kind of atrocities your armies commit; all you have to do is pray sincerely, and maybe atone, and commit a few pious acts of self-inflicted pain, and you believe that your god will forgive you, because you’ve created a god of infinite mercy. But from our viewpoint,” he’s saying, “this is just a way of condoning hideous, vicious behavior. We may be pagan, but our gods, if you break the rules, you’re punished.” And so there is, if you like, an argument or a discussion about that aspect of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Is there something about the idea of a very merciful god, or an infinitely merciful god, who will forgive even the most hideous things as long as you repent? Has that idea made it easier for some Christian societies to rampage around the world throughout history, creating empires, invading other peoples’ territories and kidnapping people for slaves, and so on? It’s the European, Christian nations that did rampage around the globe, creating these empires all over the world. And it’s an interesting thought as to whether that would have been quite so easy had they not had this god who would forgive them anything.
There’s a really fascinating Arthurian fantasy novel called The Mists of Avalon. I don’t know if you’ve heard of it, but it takes this idea, that’s unfortunately been discredited, that the British Isles used to have a cult of goddess worship before the Christians came. But that is the case in this novel, and so Arthur has to choose between this goddess worship of the pagans and this very sexist, monotheistic Christianity that comes into the British Isles, and that conflict is very much at the forefront of that novel.
That sounds very interesting. You must give me the title of that novel, then, before we finish this interview.
It’s called The Mists of Avalon, by Marion Zimmer Bradley.
Right, I’ll check that out.
You mentioned that there’s been this controversial reception of this novel of yours, vis-à-vis genre, and one example of that that got a lot of attention within the fantasy community was from Ursula K. Le Guin. Do you want to just talk about, from your point of view, how that went down?
First off, I have to say Ursula K. Le Guin fairly quickly and graciously withdrew her earlier remark on her blog, and said that she had perhaps been too hasty in accusing me of snobbery about the fantasy genre. That accusation was based on something that was quoted in a New York Times interview.
I think you probably know more about this than I do, but a lot of people within the SF/F community did debate about this. She withdrew the accusation against me personally, but I think her larger point was that there’s a very strong tendency on the part of mainstream literary authors to be kind of snobbish or condescending about the fantasy genre, even when they used fantasy elements themselves, or entered that arena of that genre. There’s also a general complaint — I’m not in a position to say whether that accusation in general is justified or not, because I haven’t been following what’s been happening over the years — but I made it very clear shortly after I was aware of Ursula K. Le Guin’s initial accusation that I have never intended to sneer or be disrespectful to the fantasy genre. Here I am, I’m borrowing heavily from it; why would I be someone who’s sneering at it?
But I think there’s a wider discussion going on, not just within the SF/F community, but in the wider book world, about the shifting parameters of what constitutes literary or mainstream fiction. Now, things have been changing rapidly in the last ten, fifteen years. Writers like David Mitchell or Neil Gaiman; some filmmakers as well, like Alex Garland and people like this, and Christopher Nolan and so on. The parameters of what is serious or profound literature, and what is popular genre fiction — those boundaries have been crumbling very fast. And this is one of the really exciting things about what’s happening at the moment, and to some extent, it’s enabled older writers like myself, who perhaps grew up in the crusty and more prejudiced atmosphere about what we could and couldn’t do if we considered ourselves to be literary authors.
People like me have been liberated by a lot of the work that’s being done by writers who are a generation, or perhaps two generations, younger than me. I personally felt very liberated when I first read David Mitchell’s work about fifteen years ago — when I read his first novel Ghostwritten. Not only was that a staggering display of incredibly broad talent, to be able to do so many different kinds of genres all in one book, I was really struck by his fearlessness about how he might be categorized or where he’ll be positioned. He just seemed to revel in any kind of energetic storytelling tools that he could use. And later on, that same characteristic was even more noticeable and admirable in Cloud Atlas.
So writers like that liberated me to write a book like Never Let Me Go. Never Let Me Go was a book I had attempted to write twice before in the ’90s, but I couldn’t find the final piece of the jigsaw. When I tried it a third time, around 2001, I was able to do it because I was able to use what you might loosely call a speculative fiction layer to the story. And this is still going on. The parameters are shifting. And I think there is a kind of a rear-guard action as well. There’s a conservative (with a small c) rear-guard action in the book world, with people who say, “Look, we don’t want ogres and dragons and things within the walls of high-brow literary fiction. There’s enough of that in video games and Hollywood blockbuster franchises. We’re awash with this stuff; keep it out of our classy writing.”
There’s a tension between that school and people who say, “Look, these are all ways of expressing very powerful things. In fact, they’re very powerful tools for expressing emotions that otherwise would just remain psychobabble statements in realist fiction. But you can actually dramatize them with supernatural forces, demons or whatever you want to do. These are tools that have been used ever since people sat around a campfire as cavemen. The ancient Greeks used it, the Romans used it, the Scandinavian folktales, Japanese folktales, European folktales. We’ve used them all along, and why have we suddenly got rather snobbish and sneery about it just in the last few years?” There is a big debate going on now, and I think the tide is with the liberals.
If you’re asking me where I stand on this, I have to be very clear about it: I’m on the side of the ogres and the pixies. I needed them when I was struggling to find a way to express my story, so I know firsthand that any writer who wants to express themselves needs to be free to use these things without people raising an eyebrow and saying, “I don’t like books with pixies and ogres in them.” People are perfectly entitled to read my book and say they don’t like it, that’s fine. But if they’re saying, “I’m not going to read your book, despite having liked your previous books, because I hear there’s ogres in it” — well, that just seems to me classic prejudice. It’s like saying, “I’m not going to come to your restaurant because you have certain kinds of people in your staff.” It’s a conclusion that’s drawn simply by influence and association.
I just have to say: I totally agree with you about your point about prejudice, because I’ve had this experience throughout my life as a fantasy fan and fantasy author . . . I’ll tell people that I write fantasy, and they’ll say, “Oh, I don’t read that stuff.” And I’ll say, “Oh, why not?” and they say, “Oh, I just don’t like it.” And I’ll say, “Well, which fantasy novels have you read?” And they’ll admit that they’ve literally never read any. And it just seems that “don’t judge a book by its cover” is something that we tell eight-year-olds, and that book critics should have figured that out by the time they’re fifty years old.
I agree. Long before fantasy came into my life — this debate came into my life around the time of publication of this book — I have always been uneasily aware of the fact that there is a social status dimension to literature that has nothing to do with art, or reading, or literature itself. In most societies I’ve come across, certainly, highbrow reading, and reading in general, helps people to define themselves as belonging to the better classes. It can be a kind of a badge that some people like to wear, simply to denote themselves as being maybe classier than other people.
And so I think there is a spurious motivation behind some kinds of reading, or some kinds of expressed enthusiasm for books. I’ve always been aware of that side of literature. It exists for theater and opera as well, in quite a big way. And I think some people who are not genuine book fans, or — I’ll rephrase that — maybe people who aren’t confident readers, they are afraid of what people will think about them because of the book they happen to be holding in their hand. When we’re teenagers, we’re very prone to this — if you like that band, you’re not cool; if you wear those sneakers, you’re cool. But with reading, we should grow out of that. We should be reading for genuine reasons. Reading is transformative. It takes you places emotionally. It gives you profound ideas. You shouldn’t be worried about what the person across the aisle from you on the bus or the subway is thinking because they can see the jacket of the book you’re reading. But that dimension to reading certainly remains, and I think books with dragons on them arouses some sort of fear on the part of a certain kind of insecure reader. But that’s just my speculation.
No, I completely agree with that, and this show is called Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy. There’s just been a lot of discussion in recent years about what does it mean to be a geek, and one definition people often give is “love in the face of disapproval”: that you love the things you love, and you’re not ashamed of it, and you don’t care what anyone else thinks. And that’s very different from the sort of snobbish impulse where you determine your likes based on what you think is going to win you approval.
Well, that’s quite a good definition. I hadn’t been aware that that’s the definition of “geek,” but that seems to me a definition of a confident person, a mature person.
You mentioned Neil Gaiman. I was just curious if you had seen his review of your book in the New York Times, and if you had any thoughts about it? I have a couple quotes here that I might want to get your reaction to.
Yeah, of course I saw that review, and I was delighted to see that review! Almost at the same time that that review came out, another one came out in Prospect Magazine, which is a British intellectual magazine. It was an interesting pairing, those two reviews, because the Neil Gaiman review, from what I recall, began with the words: “Fantasy is a tool for writers to . . .” And it was a very articulate discussion about the role of what you might loosely call “fantasy techniques” in expressing ideas in fiction.
This other review is by a lady called Joanna Kavenna, a British novelist. Her review was looking at it from the other side. Her review began with something to the effect that the social realist novel isn’t quite dead, but it’s now become a zombie. And her argument was the so-called realist literary novel badly needs injection from things like fantasy, because it’s just become moribund.
This is why I concluded that my book had just stepped into something much bigger than discussion about my book. There’s some kind of ongoing discussion about the shifting parameters of what writers who thought of themselves as literary should be thinking of as their business, their legitimate business. And readers who are keen to follow what they would like to consider to be the important fiction of their day maybe also need to start shifting their parameters about what kind of things they should be looking for. So I thought this was quite an interestingly exciting debate. Was there something in particular you wanted to ask about Neil Gaiman’s review?
So for example, he says, “On a second reading, and on a third, its characters and events and motives are easier to understand, but even so, it guards its secrets and its world close.” And I was just curious: To what extent do you intend this book to be mysterious and inscrutable, and to what extent is that just sort of who you are?
I never intended the book to be inscrutable. Almost any aspect of it, to me, is completely transparent. But I guess from somebody else’s point of view, there might be something mysterious about it. But I can explain almost anything you want about it, if you ask me. I don’t know Neil Gaiman at all, but if I met him, and he asked me, “Explain this, because I was puzzled by it, even after the third reading,” I’ll be able to explain it to him.
To me, it’s a fairly simple story: There’s a mist fallen over the land that makes people amnesiac. A couple want this mist to go away because they want their precious memories back, so at the personal level, this mist is a bad thing; at least, it seems like that at the beginning. But from the nation’s point of view, getting rid of the source of that mist is probably going to restart a terrible cycle of violence. It’s probably going to bring on a genocide. And the only thing that’s been holding down this violence is this forgetfulness. And because the mist is caused by the dragon (although that’s a bit of a spoiler), the story revolves around “do you want to kill this dragon or do you want to defend it?”
In my way of thinking, it’s a fairly straightforward story, but maybe there’s something about the way I’ve told it that puzzles people, or maybe they think that there are various layers. Well, this is true; obviously within that story, there are various kinds of things I think about: about the nature of memory; the nature of the bond between a husband and wife, and what the relationship is between that bond and their love, and memory and their shared memories; what are the things that can possibly tie different communities together and bind them into something that they could call a nation, and what are the things that will forever divide them? Of course, all these things are there, so I guess there are other layers to the thing, but essentially, the story is pretty simple.
You mentioned one major aspect of the story is that there’s this test of love that the boatman gives this married couple, and they’re afraid of what the answer might be. Is their love strong enough to pass this test? That really reminded me of Never Let Me Go, where there’s also this idea of “if our love is strong enough, it will enable us to pass a threatening test.” And I think this is interesting, because in a lot of fairy tales, there’s a love presented in this way, as if it’s this binary thing that gets tested, and it’s either a zero or a one, and consequences flow from that quantification of love.
It’s interesting you point out that maybe this happens in a lot of fairy tales. I hadn’t really been thinking about that. I first came across this motif in Never Let Me Go, and I’ve repeated it here. It’s there because I recognize an emotion that people have: that love is so hard to find, and it’s so hard to maintain, that when you do that even halfway successfully, you feel it’s so special that surely people recognize the very special and unique nature of it. Surely that will entitle you to some kind of concessions or something, some special treatment from God or from fate or whatever it is you think controls you. Surely you and the person you love, by virtue of this love that you’ve built, qualify to be an exception in some way.
Maybe it’s an error, but that feeling often accompanies love. Maybe it’s a foolish thing to think love is that powerful, but it’s not just in fairy tales where there’s tests of love. I think that idea that maybe love can trump death, or at least trump some of the worst aspects of death, is there in every kind of storytelling — from screwball comedies, to westerns, to whatever. You see that over and over again.
These are maybe silly beliefs that people have, but somewhere, I think, many of us have this almost irrational hope when we think about mortality and death, and we don’t really like to think we’ll be separated. Even unreasonably, people who are quite advanced in age think they’ve got a lot more years together when they’re enjoying their time together. They don’t sit there saying, “Well, let’s be rational about this; chances are one or the other of us will die in the next five years.” No one says that. They live as though it’s going to go on forever. I’m just trying to capture that aspect of human relationships, and in these kinds of tests, I suppose, I’ve formalized it. But it reflects in our more hopeful, romantic, and irrational moments what a lot of us hope and think about love and death.
Unfortunately, we’re running pretty short on time here, and you did ask me before we started if I could maybe recommend a book to you at the end. There was one I really wanted to mention that I thought of a lot while reading this book, that I think you might really enjoy. It’s called The Knight by Gene Wolfe. He’s a very highly regarded fantasy author. This is a book about a boy who travels to a fantasy world, and grows into a mighty warrior, and then loses his memory. So he reverts to the state of being a young boy in the body of this warrior, and he has to learn what actually happened to him in his life of adventure. Gene Wolfe has a lot of mysteries in his stories, and he’s a very fine prose stylist, and he shares a lot of your preoccupations with identity and memory and things like that, and I think you would really enjoy that book.
Gene Wolfe. And which other writers would you recommend — if we’re talking about the contemporary scene right now?
Among living authors, I would also really strongly recommend Tim Powers as one of my favorite fantasy authors. My favorite book of his is called The Anubis Gates.
Graphic novels — is that an interesting field at the moment? I used to follow people like Alan Moore. But that’s going back some time now. I know he still produces stuff. But do you think graphic novels have much to do with the fantasy book world at the moment, or is that something completely separate?
Absolutely! We talk about graphic novels on this show. I’m more of an expert in prose fiction, but I love graphic novels. My main issue with graphic novels is that they’re just too expensive. I can’t afford to read them. But there are some spectacular ones out there. There’s one called Y: The Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan that I really enjoyed.
Brian K. Vaughan. That’s kind of interesting. I’m very new to this area.
Well, I’m happy to answer any questions you have. We’re at the time limit that we agreed on, and I’m happy to stay here as long as you want, but . . .
Well, I have an event this evening — I have to drive to Menlo Park in a different part of San Francisco in a little while. Obviously, you’re interviewing me, so I was telling you about my speculations about the fact that there is a debate going on, certainly, in the mainstream book world about the shifting parameters of what constitutes legitimate, highbrow fiction now. But what are your thoughts on that? Am I way off, do you think, on that, or do you sense that there is something like that going on? And what are people saying within the science fiction/fantasy community?
From my perspective, there is definitely what I would perceive as progress, particularly in recent years, but this is something that’s been going on for a long time, and is a longstanding source of resentment among fantasy and science fiction authors — the way that there’s just this implicit belief in the literary world that a work is either serious literature or fantasy and science fiction, but it can’t be both at the same time. And so any work of fantasy and science fiction that is plainly great literature — like 1984 — by some sort of magical, transmutational property, becomes serious literature and stops being fantasy and science fiction. And you’ll very often have this situation Ursula K. Le Guin is aggrieved about, where a literary author will write a book that is plainly science fiction by any reasonable standard, and will say, “Oh, but this isn’t really science fiction because it has serious artistic intent” — the implication being that every other work of fantasy and science fiction lacks any serious artistic intent, and that this book is better than all of them, even though the person often has never read any fantasy and science fiction, and is in really no position whatsoever to judge the relative merits of their work versus the existing body of work. I think people of my generation have much more flexible attitudes, or much more open-minded attitudes, about this. But it still drives me crazy. In grad school, I took a class from a very well-known author who I like a lot, and he assigned us two books to read which I would consider science fiction by any stretch of the imagination: Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and Fiskadoro by Denis Johnson. But half the class could not be convinced that these were works of science fiction, because they said that they dealt with serious themes, or were well written.
So it’s very much a question of definition, then. The argument circles back on itself, because it’s all about definition. If you define science fiction as a genre that isn’t serious, then, obviously, it becomes a circular argument. Then you can always say, “Science fiction cannot be serious, and that work, because it’s serious, is not science fiction.” That all depends on the definition that science fiction is a non-serious genre.
Exactly, that’s the issue.
The last person who was interviewing me said at the beginning of the interview that he thought my book wasn’t fantasy because the preoccupations of contemporary fantasy tended to be adolescent issues. He didn’t mean that in a pejorative sense; he meant literally, they tend to work out a lot of the worries and concerns of adolescent people. Whereas my book seemed to be dealing with the preoccupations of people facing aging and death. That hadn’t quite occurred to me before, but do you think there’s anything in that: That fantasy — just as a marketing genre; I’m not talking about the genre any more deeply than that — is actually about young adult people working out their growing-up issues?
There certainly is a lot of fantasy that fits that definition, and I think that given the massive success of the YA publishing category in recent years, that’s even more firmly established this connection between young adult literature and fantasy in the minds of people who don’t read any adult fantasy. But if you read books that are published as adult fantasy, they deal with an incredibly wide range of topics. To take an obvious example, Game of Thrones is perhaps the best-selling adult fantasy novel right now, and it’s not particularly concerned with coming of age, although that is part of the story.
What is your opinion of Game of Thrones? Once again, I have to confess, I’ve not read or seen an episode of the TV series, but I may do now. I actually deliberately avoided it while I was writing this novel. It became famous long after I started to write this book, and I just thought, “I’m not going to watch it, in case it messes up my view of my book.” But now that I’ve finished the book, I may look at it. But do you consider Game of Thrones to be an important part of what’s going on now, or would you really prefer to recommend Tim Powers or people like that?
I love Game of Thrones. It’s one of my favorite books. I’ve read it five times. And when my friends and I get together, approximately fifty percent of our conversation regards speculation about when the next book is going to come out, and what it’s going to contain. There’s just an incredible frenzy, which you’re probably aware of, among fans about what’s going to happen with the next book, why isn’t it coming out faster? I would certainly recommend Game of Thrones in addition to authors like Tim Powers and Gene Wolfe. They’re all favorites. Another one you really have to read is China Miéville.
I know China Miéville. In fact, I’ve met him a number of times. He’s a very interesting guy. The City & the City is the only book of his I’ve read, but I thought that was very interesting. Do you know that book?
I do, I’ve read it. It’s more of a surreal novel, and his earlier work is more overtly fantastic. My favorite of his books is called The Scar, and it’s just this crazy, gonzo, grotesque secondary-world fantasy that I think everyone should read.
All right. And what about Neil Gaiman? Does he fit in your landscape as a fantasy writer, or where does he fit? He’s enormously influential and talked-over at the moment, but is he part of the SF/F community, or what is he?
He certainly is. I would say he’s a fantasy author. I think that’s how he would describe himself. He’s been a fixture at science fiction conventions since he was very young. He was very strongly influenced by one of my favorite authors, an author from the ’60s and ’70s named Roger Zelazny.
And he’s from the sixties?
There was a movement in science fiction called “The New Wave” in the 1960s, and Roger Zelazny, Ursula K. Le Guin, Tom Disch, and Samuel R. Delany are generally thought of as being the main people in that movement.
So Neil Gaiman would be considered to be somebody very much at the heart of the fantasy thing, or is he considered to be someone who hovers on the periphery and crosses into more mainstream stuff? How is he regarded?
I would say he’s maybe the most beloved person within the fantasy genre. He has a massive following within it. He’s achieved a lot of mainstream success. But he has done so by writing the kind of things he was writing all along.
So that doesn’t cause resentment — the fact that he’s become so famous in the mainstream?
No, I think we’re all happy for him. Occasionally you’ll get someone who achieves mainstream success, and then tries to distance themselves from their roots, like teenagers who don’t want to be seen with their parents. And that can cause resentment, but success on its own, I wouldn’t say does that.
We’re going to have to leave in just a minute, but just another question: What about J.G. Ballard? Is he regarded with any seriousness amongst contemporary readers of SF/fantasy now, or is he somebody way back in the past?
I’ve read him. He’s very well regarded within the field. I would say he’s probably not particularly well known to younger science fiction and fantasy readers, but among people who know him, I think he has a very strong reputation still within the field.
And do you think all these people you’ve mentioned, people like Tim Powers and Gene Wolfe — to what extent are they heard of and read in the mainstream? Would they be respected by people outside of the SF/F community, or do they very much need to stay within the walls of the genre for their readership?
Neither are bestsellers to my knowledge, but I think that they certainly could be. I think that a significant proportion of literary writers, if they actually read them, would admire them quite a bit. I think there’s some percentage of the literary audience that is just going to be turned off by the level of fantastical stuff in their stories. There’s sort of a threshold of fantastical element that you can have for a lot of literary readers, where, if it’s a fairy tale, or if it’s surreal, or if it can somehow be categorized as magical realism, they can get on board with it. But if it goes from a five to a seven on a scale of how much fantasy is in the story — there’s a tipping point for them, and they just can’t cope with that anymore. But I think Gene Wolfe and Tim Powers are both massively under-appreciated in the literary world, and many more people than currently read them should, and would enjoy them.
Neal Stephenson? How is he regarded?
He’s very highly regarded. His novel Snow Crash is a classic work of science fiction. He’s also achieved a lot of crossover success. This happened with William Gibson, too; a lot of the cyberpunk-oriented writers have moved more toward mainstream fiction. Neal Stephenson also moved a little bit more into historical fiction as well, but he’s had recent books which are really more techno-thrillers than out-and-out science fiction novels. But like I said, geeks tend to love things and not ever fall out of love with them. And so once you’ve been loved in the fantasy and science fiction world, you really have to do something pretty alienating to lose that affection.
Are there any big disputes going on within the SF/F world that you can identify? Is there a schism, or is there some sort of internal debate going on that you think is a particularly significant one? Or do most people tend to think the same things?
No, there are a lot of massive debates, and a lot of very acrimonious ones. The big one right now is a big schism between the old guard, who tend to be older and whiter and more conservative, versus the younger generation, which tends to be much more multicultural and much more accepting of sexual identity and sexual orientations. And there’s quite a big point of tension between those two camps right now.
So that’s simply to do with the politics. It’s to do with, actually, things like celebrating gay people on the one hand, and other people not liking that. It’s stuff like that rather than a literary difference, is it?
But that comes through in the fiction as well, in terms of who gets represented in the fiction. But if you’re talking in terms of aesthetic battles, the big aesthetic battle within fantasy and science fiction is the battle, essentially, between hard science fiction versus soft science fiction and/or fantasy.
Hard science fiction?
Hard science fiction would be science fiction that adheres most rigorously to the rules of science as we know them, and people who write it tend to have backgrounds in physics and astronomy and chemistry and so on. And they often regard themselves as superior to people who write less scientifically rigorous kinds of fiction.
And final question: What exactly is the demographic? I assume it’s pretty young, the people who read people like Gene Wolfe, Tim Powers, and so on — these people you’re talking about. These are mainly read by what kind of demographic, would you say?
There’s actually a lot of discussion within the field about what’s called the “graying of fandom” and the aging of people. A lot of the authors I’ve mentioned, I would actually say, tend to have a bit older readership. What happened is that science fiction had a big boom in the fifties, with authors like Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke and Robert Heinlein, that pretty much everyone today has heard of, and a lot of the people who still read science fiction are people who were drawn to those authors initially. And since then, there are so many more people writing science fiction that it’s been much more difficult for any individual author to achieve the kind of following that those authors had. And so the audience has attenuated somewhat over the years. And then you had the YA boom with Harry Potter, where that brought in a whole new generation of people as fantasy readers. But to a substantial extent, at least so far, they’ve been locked into this garden of the YA section of the bookstore, and have not, at least so far, moved in massive numbers to reading adult fantasy written by authors of a generation or two before them.
So I’ve been mistaken in thinking that the contemporary fantasy audience is predominantly young?
Yeah, I don’t think that that’s the case at all.
That’s very useful to me to get a lot of that, and I’ll follow up on all of these, particularly Tim Powers and Gene Wolfe.
Is it all right if I use this on the show — this conversation we’ve been having?
Oh, sure, if you don’t mind me being the interviewer!
No, this is great!
I could become a radio host! Or something, or audio host, or whatever you call it! That’s been very enlightening because a lot of the people I meet crossing the States like this don’t know much about this stuff. I’ve asked, but a lot of the traditional booksellers or people like that, they’re interested to know, they’re not being snooty about it, but they just don’t know very much about it.
Well, they should all listen to my podcast, and then they’ll learn all sorts of interesting things.
Ah, well, maybe this is the other question: Which other websites, do you think, are the key websites to follow this kind of stuff? I know that there’s this thing called io9?
Oh, yeah, that’s one of the big ones, and the other one I would point you to is called locusmag.com. It’s the website for Locus Magazine, which is the trade publication for the science fiction/fantasy field.
All right, that’s interesting. Okay, well, thank you very much!
Thank you! This has been really fun.
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