an unrepentant pariah:
Michael Moorcock interviewed
You have been short-listed for the Whitbread Prize, won The Guardian Fiction Prize and you’re still not part of the literary mainstream. What makes you continue to write fantasy?
MM: Because I like writing fantasy, and I have an audience that likes me to write it. It’s as simple as that really. I’ve never really judged myself much by the literary world, although I must say I haven’t been badly treated by it. I tend to regard my constituency as being readers rather than critics, so I don’t really mind very much what people think of me. I’ll write a perfectly straight novel as well as a fantasy novel with the same amount of ambition.
Can you even begin to describe – in layman’s terms – what your new book The War Amongst the Angels is all about?
MM: In a sense I can – if you take Milton and the War in Heaven, and then sort of work down from there. These angels that I’m describing aren’t really the conventional notion of angels, they aren’t perhaps the way we might perceive them. For example, they make us throw up as soon as they speak, we can’t bear to look at them and we have no idea of what these sounds and visions really mean – we can’t make them coherent. Essentially, I suppose there is a metaphorical element. I’m really writing about ordinary people and – if you like – their angelic counterparts. I see people as being heroic in real life, and I’m really just trying to make that straight relationship between people’s ordinary heroism and something more spectacular.
Over the decades, your writing career has produced an enormous body of work. Would it be fair to say that without having read several of your eighty or so books, the average reader is going to be somewhat confused with this one?
MM: I don’t think so. Several people have read The War Amongst the Angels who haven’t read anything else – or very little – of mine and didn’t have any problems with it. Each book that I write can be read independently, yet still function within the frame of the mythology – so you could read it as an individual book and later on you might discover that there’s a whole lot of related stuff before it and after it. Nonetheless, I don’t really expect my readers to read every book that I write. I’m more like a family business, cinema or movie company in that I turn out a certain number of books for different people quite often. Not everybody likes everything that I write.
In The War Amongst the Angels you once more return to the motifs of the Eternal Champion, Law and Chaos and the Multiverse – all these have been features of your writing for over thirty years – could you briefly outline these concepts for the uninitiated?
MM: It’s very difficult actually, I must say. Too much to go into here. My publishers recently reprinted all these books in omnibus editions where the series are more or less brought together in single volumes. There are thirteen or fourteen of them, with about three books per volume. I worked with an editor called John Davey who helped me rationalise the books, and in the act of putting the whole series together I began to see other dimensions that I actually hadn’t thought of before. Strangely, the whole thing was actually bigger than I had originally planned it to be, and that in itself acted as a sort of inspiration which lead to me writing these other books. To return to your earlier question, I think you should be able to read them all pretty much individually.
Your work has been compared to that of Tolkien, Raymond Chandler, Edgar Allen Poe, William Burroughs, Charles Dickens, James Joyce and George Bernard Shaw – which probably makes you very unique – but I’m surprised that you haven’t been compared to Kurt Vonnegut.
MM: I have actually . . . occasionally. I think Vonnegut’s star’s fallen a bit, and they don’t tend to use him as much as they used to – but yes, I have actually been favourably compared to him which I was rather pleased about. Occasionally that has happened – in America of course more than here. probably.
So your star didn’t ascend quite as far as his did – but there doesn’t seem any good reason for it. Why?
MM: Well there are reasons for it. One is that I’ve always had the option of being both a literary writer and a popular writer . . . so that at the same time I was getting posh reviews in The Guardian, my sword & sorcery books were coming out in paperback. I think while they all came out in that format there was a kind of consensus in the literary editors’ minds that this was all right, this was proper, this was appropriate. Then the fantasy books started to be published in hardback – because the publishers found it was worth doing – and it was at this point that people started to get confused. People are very, very conventional, you know. They need everything to be in its place. It was even suggested that I change my name and things like that – but I didn’t see why I should. I have never found any particularly good practical reason for deceiving the public. The way I look at it is that this is what I write, the public don’t have to read everything that I write – they don’t have to read anything I write – if they like some of it, well and good, but they don’t have to have a particularly consistent pleasure in everything I do. Similarly, I have different ambitions in different kinds of books.
Probably your most well known creation is Elric of Melniboné. Now, he’s something of an anti-hero, isn’t he?
MM: Yes he is. He’s not a traditional hero. I think the one thing that Elric doesn’t share, say with James Bond if you like – is that Elric isn’t predatory in the way that modern heroes are. He is still old fashioned enough to be – in his adventures at least – defending an underdog or something of that sort, some cause. He’s not a complete bastard, the way some anti-heroes are, but he is also a bit of a whinger. He’s always worrying whether it’s right or wrong to do this and whether or not he should do this – he gets on your nerves a bit sometimes!
He does have a terrible run of bad luck, doesn’t he?
MM: Yes he does. Yes, he’s not a lucky albino.
You have previously said that Elric’s character was based upon aspects of yourself. Was there a particular point in your life when this identification was strongest?
MM: Well, these aspects were based on me when I was a teenager really, which was when I started writing – and I suppose they are based upon the ambiguous elements in my own character even now. I still write about Elric – he even reappears in The War Amongst the Angels! I rather like Elric. In fact, I actually managed to bring him back with some of his more pleasant traits . . . his more disgusting aspects are not quite so strong, but he still has the same kind of elements to his character.
In the mid 60s you also created Jerry Cornelius. Previously, you have said that you found your voice as a writer with this character. What did you mean by this?
MM: Well until I wrote the first Jerry Cornelius stories, I was still trying to write like other writers. You tend to do this when you first start anything really. you see the people you admire and you think ‘I’ve got to be like them.’ It’s not that you’re trying to copy anything they do, but you just feel that they reflect your level of aspiration. Originally I was attracted to science fiction and fantasy but I really didn’t like most of it, so I tried to write space operas – but I couldn’t really do it. One of the problems with writing space operas is that you can’t write about character – I think that it’s very hard to write about character in such stories. By the time I started writing about Jerry Cornelius – once I found my voice – I found enough confidence to start writing the way I wanted to write, in as style that was my own and a form that was my own.
It was also about this time that you started to acknowledge contemporary culture in your writing.
MM: Absolutely. This was something which I had always wanted to do – I’m not a great rejecter of contemporary culture – I tend to be by and large in the middle of it. In fact, I tend to jump with both feet in whatever’s going, so I’ve never used fantasy as it were to avoid real life. I’ve always wanted to find ways of making what I write relate to reality.
Bearing in mind that these books were written in the late 60s, you used contemporary references such as a phonetic play upon Harold Wilson and the Beatles, and created characters such as Turning Nihke (who seems to be a very close cousin of Nik Turner from Hawkwind) in your stories. Was this post-modern myth making, or did you view these inclusions as humorous asides within your universe?
MM: There were two writers really who were friends and involved in the same incipient movement that became known as the SF New Wave – but it was nothing we had called it – I was one and the other was J. G. Ballard. We didn’t actually read much in the way of SF or fantasy, but we saw the potential of what it could do for us – so we just started pulling the elements we wanted out of it, and essentially this was post-modernism. A lot of the other SF writers at the time wanted to be on a par with modernist writers. They wanted to be accepted as modernist writers, so they tried to write SF stories that Virginia Woolf might have written, as it were. Ballard and I sort of rejected that, we weren’t interested in modernism, and we didn’t know about post-modernism because it didn’t exist! But we really did reject modernism in most of its aspects for our own work – mind you, we weren’t putting James Joyce down or anything like that – from our own point of view we needed new ways of dealing with our experience. It was actually experience – I’d been through the Blitz, Ballard had been through the Japanese prison camps, Brian Aldiss had been through the Malayan war as a young soldier – so we’d all had this very intense time and there was no fiction which really described it. There was a lot of World War I stuff that was more to do with nostalgia, longing and horror, but nothing that really seemed to sum up the post-war world that we lived in, which was a world dominated by the atomic bomb. This didn’t bother us – I don’t think any of us were particularly afraid of the bomb as such, but we saw it as a metaphor, saw it in lots of ways. It was a different world to anything that had previously existed. It had different rules by that time, so we were trying to find fiction that reflected those rules more, so we were in that sense post-modernist – but we didn’t realise it until many years later when people started telling us we were post-modernist! But that’s exactly what we were, and that’s exactly what we were doing, for what it’s worth. I think it influenced a lot of later post-modernism – I’m told that by writers who were enthusiastic about New Worlds in the 60s.
Would you say that you have been accepted in academic circles now?
MM: I don’t think I am because I’m also rude to academics! Every so often academics make overtures to me – and I’m not being nasty about academics, I really am not – but I somehow find that I can’t deal with it. I really am a working writer and although I’m also an intellectual – I do think about how I write, the techniques and so on – I’m actually not very interested in abstractions about fiction, any sort abstractions about fiction. I’m just interested in the best way of getting the story across.
Your ideas have become something of a staple in science fiction, particularly in recent years. Are you upset about the poor state of fantasy writing today?
MM: Well this is the problem. You always feel a bit miffed when somebody has pinched an idea of yours and sold it for millions and millions of dollars . . . and you’re worried about the rent! I’m not saying that’s true, but there is a point where it feels vaguely like theft, because you know specifically that it was either your idea or Fritz Leiber’s idea, or Tolkien’s idea. There are a few basic ideas, and when you see somebody actually doing an entire series effectively around one tiny element of something that you’ve done, you do feel a bit funny. You can’t help it . . . I don’t think it’s a very nice emotion to feel, and I don’t admire myself for feeling it, but sometimes I do feel slightly fed up about it. But in a broader sense, any form that begins something, no matter how unorthodox, eventually becomes labelled. The conventions of the genre become the main thing and publishers start to buy it by recognising those genre conventions, not by any quality that the book might otherwise have. On the other hand, there are dozens of really good writers now, writing slightly in the margins who are published as SF because there’s nothing else the publishers can think of to do with them. These writers are really very, very good and there are probably more of them around now than there has been at any other time. So on the one hand you have all these horrible blockbusters that just seem to go on repeating the same notions over and over again, but on the other hand you’ve got these really good young writers who are making something new.
As well as writing, you have in the past tried your hand at music. Do you still have dealings with the world of rock and roll?
MM: To some extent I do. Last year, Nik Turner came through Austin, Texas – the nearest town where I live now – and persuaded me to go up on stage with him. So we actually did do a gig in Austin and he recorded it, and apparently some of it is on a record – but I haven’t actually heard it yet. Probably just as well! There are a couple of other things that I’ll be doing with Nik – you know, fairly standard stuff – but I’ve also revived the musical of Gloriana which is one of the books that I wrote in the 70s, and the music of that is still very good . . . well, to put it another way, it’s better than anything else I’ve done! So I’m really trying to get that done as a stage musical at the moment. We’ve approached Sir Cameron Macintosh, and he’s sort of vaguely interested, so we’ll see how it goes.
So, finally, what does the future hold for Michael Moorcock?
MM: Well, at the moment, a life of unmitigated terror and misery as I encounter Adolf Hitler and friends, but after that I think probably a fairly cheerful life once I’ve finally put the Nazis to rest.