Michael Moorcock, hailed by many as one of the world’s most influential fantasy authors, was kind enough to spare some of his time for a talk about past, present and future
Michael Moorcock, prolific author, performing musician, social activist, former long time editor of New Worlds Magazine has certainly made his mark in many fields. None more so, however, than as a fantasy and science fiction writer, where he is credited with bringing to the world the character of Elric of Melniboné. With such an interesting resume, Moorcock has probably been interviewed countless times. Therefore, when we got the chance to interview him, we chose, instead of focusing on his famous books (which are many), to focus on the man, who is responsible for so many hours of happy reading and for making generations of sci-fi lovers want to become writers themselves. And because we wanted to focus on the author himself, without further ado, we give – Zach Wheat’s interview with Michael Moorcock!
Hello Mr. Moorcock and thank you for agreeing to hold this interview!
- When did you discover your own political radicalism? Do you feel your anarchism informs your work as much as Orwell’s socialism or Shaw’s Fabianism? Is there a work in particular that you think stands out as more pointedly political than others?
Pretty early. I worked as an office junior at a firm of management consultants, several of whom were socialists. So from the age of 15 I began to have conversations about politics with people who had sometimes worked in government or for govt departments. My Uncle Jack worked for Churchill and lived at 10 Downing Street. He was very proud that Disraeli was our ancestor, so I thought of myself as potentially a writer AND a politician! Since Toryism didn’t fit my personality I first picked Liberalism (in spite of Churchill’s admonition that I should never become a Liberal). Until I actually worked for the Liberal Party during the so-called Liberal Revival of the late 50s/early 60s, I thought of myself as a leftwing Lib. However, the more I read about amarchism, the more I thought it seemed the right ‘ft’ for me. By 1957, although I would work in the Liberal Party’s publication dept for a while in 1961, I identified mostly with anarchist socialism. I think, honestly, my work informs my politics! I found a political and moral point which encompasses my own views of justice, non interference and equality for all under the rule of law. Some of my books look at ways of achieving such a society. Some reflect a world which has already reached a point of successful self-examination, a society based on empathy. King of the City is one of my most overtly political books and of course the Pyat books are considered to be political as well as moral novels.
- Were there pointed incidents when you experienced an extreme backlash from the conservative moral vanguards that you could share?
Some during demonstrations or when I performed with Hawkwind (overhearing the police say of us ‘If I had my way I’d put them all up against a wall and shoot them’ while pretending to be smiling British bobbie. Death threats from the US Bible Belt for ‘Behold the Man’, but generally nothing serious from individuals. A few incidents of cops acting badly or brutally, mostly in UK. People who enjoy being Such people like to form groups and come at you team-handed because they are far more frightened of the world, frightened of change, than anyone because they are secretly full of doubt. By one’s very existence as a free-thinker and free spirit, one challenges the dodgy ideas they like to pretend are rocks or sturdy spars.
- I’ve been to London, and I think more than any other city, it shows the visible strains of late capitalism. One could scarcely believe a middle class ever existed. How much of that transformation did you experience, particularly from Atlee to Thatcher?
I have almost no inclination to return to England. That’s especially true of London. That’s why I live in a primarily Asian and African immigrant part of Paris. It’s most like Notting Hill/Ladbroke Grove when I lived there, before it became full of scum like politicians , models and TV producers. 1946-1986, 6 yrs old to 46. Except when I was abroad I experienced pretty much all of it. As I say, my uncle worked for Churchill and he also worked for Attlee in the transition. My uncle was a staunch Tory, of course. Churchill loathed socialism. But my uncle had enormous respect for Attlee. I grew up in a mostly Tory/Liberal home. My grandmother worshipped Lloyd George but her sense of justice was fierce. It was that sense which informed our house. My mother would defend me against policemen and all-comers but then hear the case as it were herself and hand out punishment. Which was rarely harsh, usually mild. She was a sweet woman who lied like a trooper from dawn to dusk, never for personal gain but I was convinced for a while until at around the age of six I began to realize she didn’t tell the truth. But I also loved her stories because she was a natural entertainer! As they say in Texas she’d rather climb a tree to tell a lie than stay on the ground and tell the truth. This led to perhaps a stronger need in me to know and tell the truth than most. Something else I’d rather use my talent to do. Usually by putting myself into the mind of people who might be my worst enemy in real life – like Colonel Pyat, the anti-Semitic Jew in the Between the Wars books or the roué Ricky von Beck in The Brothel in Rosenstrasse or even, in simpler form, John Daker in The Eternal Champion. I’m inclined to try to look at my natural enemies from inside just as I try to see a political argument from another’s viewpoint. So I spent as much time as I could examining what Harold Wilson and his boys were doing and organizing resistance if I thought it was necessary and so on. In the 50s I belonged to the West London Antifascist Youth Committee but by the 60s I was growing out of joining stuff. As an anarchist I was able strategically to support whichever party I wished. I had not consciously anticipated the Thatcher revolution. When it came I wrote THE RETREAT FROM LIBERTY in which I argued that she was a true reactionary as indeed was Reagan. Most of our current woes date from the days when Reagan/Thatcher ruled the world. I resisted them with all I could marshal writing for the leftwing NEW STATESMAN as well as the Tory SPECTATOR . I’d say I experienced a great deal of it while it was happening – and in France as well, I suspect. Very depressing to see old moral values replaced by the idea of money as a moral force. I went from being a journalist with ideas and writing central to my culture to being marginalized as the language of liberal humanism was destroyed, I have spent decades trying to discover and use a rhetoric for people who believe as I do. Who reject older forms of conservatism and radicalism as being no longer useful to democratic politics, I suspect the momentum has increased and we’re moving towards a new form of both. .
- I hear these days you live between Paris and Texas.But while we are all the better to have had you and Ronnie Lane and Ian McLagan here in Austin…why here? Even with all its flaws, London still feels more like the center of the world than Austin. What do you like about Texas that made it home for so long?
I could list Austin’s many virtues but we moved there for practical reasons mostly. A few friends lived there and Linda’s sister and her family lived in Houston. Her ageing mother was in Mississippi. Well, we didn’t want to live in Houston or Mississippi so we settled on Austin. We meant to stay for a couple of years or so but then I got an auto-immune disease because I had built up such a good auto-immune system in London it had nothing to do and it turned on me savagely. As a result I entered a cycle of illness which is still, unfortunately, ongoing. We were good friends with Ian and Kim McLagan, both of whom died in tragic circumstances in terrible ways and Rick Klaw is moving. I have other friends in or moving to Austin but it’s not cheap any more because of all the Californians pushing up prices. We will probably move to Paris if Brexit won’t be too complicated for us!
- I’ve read about your friendship with Mervyn Peake, and how you published Ballard, Aldiss, and Burroughs. Are there other writers whose work you admire, especially years later when you re-read it?
Swift, Sterne, Dickens, George Meredith, Marjory Allingham. Elizabeth , Bowen, Angus Wilson, Alan Moore, P.G,Wodehouse, Edwy Searles Brooks, Gerald Kersh, some Sartre, all Camus, Michael CHABON, Don Delilo, Walter Mosely, China Mieville etc etc etc!
- I read the recent New Yorker piece, and I see how you are often called “the anti-Tolkien”. How does that make you feel? Is it flattering? Tedious? Missing the point?
Tedious mostly. Check out a New Statesman interview from last year. I liked Tolkien the one time I met him, New Worlds was the first magazine to run an interview with him – including a portfolio of pictures by Cawthorn. I really am tired of that debate. I have argued from his pov as well as mine. He produced a monumental and highly influential book. there have been others. Some have survived to this day. I have great respect for him but find his fiction virtually unreadable. I feel the same about LOVECRAFT. I also dislike Bach and I’m not fond of Queen or Tchaikovsky and many other popular artists. Just a matter of taste and generation.
- Do you read science fiction and if so, what do you think of the genre today? Is there anything or anyone who stands out as particularly good or bad?
I could list some of the ones I know, the ones who send me their stuff, and so on but I can’t possibly judge such a huge genre. I try to select something from the pile but it all feels the same. I hate to sound like this but most of it seems to take a line or two I wrote in 1967 and expand it into a bloody trilogy! Everything I ever thought of as mine — language and imagery, everything – has been appropriated. They don’t even know they’re doing it. It’s flattering, of ourse, but how do you nourish the roots ? Not like that.
One can’t possibly judge such a huge genre. I try to select something from the pile but it all feels pretty much the same. A pile of fading Xeroxes. Are they better or worse ? A few burn brighter. I’m unconvinced by enthusiasts or copy-writers telling me what a wonderful idea this brilliant writer has come up with. Yet nothing I find fills me with the sense of wonder I received from White, Peake, Brackett, Anderson or even Burroughs. If I want to feel a buzz of nostalgia, I just return to the originals, not a copy of a copy. There are a few writers I published in NW whom I admire still – M.John Harrison, for instance. John Clute as a critic. James Sallis, who now writes strange, literary thrillers. I still read Aldiss. .Sans genre fantasy like Brian Catling’s The Voorh or Moore’s JERUSALEM still attract me. .
- Can you tell us anything about Book Two of “The Sanctuary of the White Friars”?
It’s as accurate an autobiography as I can possibly make it which then goes to 17th century Paris and from there to the Mediterranean of the Corsairs where Rose von Bek rules a pirate island, To the Maghreb and from there to a mysterious plateau ruled by an English lord whose allies are apes and a tribe of magnificent warriors. They then continue until they reach the home of PRESTER JOHN where all the religions of The BOOK have come together to defend the kingdom against the Five Kings who rule the Congo. Eventually – well, I haven’t written that bit yet.
- I can’t help but ask at least one process question. What’s the fastest novel you ever wrote?
THE LSD DOSSIER was a rewrite (2 days). The Russian Intelligence (2 days). Both Nick Allard comedy thrillers originally done in 1965.
- What advice would you give a young novelist?
Stop reading your favourite genre and read everything you can, especially the ‘classics’ from Shakespeare to Dickens, to the Moderns.
If you can’t face doing a novel start with 5,000 words and work up using the LESTER DENT MASTER PLOT FORMULA (check it out). Almost every generic fantasy I wrote uses the normal 3-part formula: Introduction, Development, Resolution.
- Do you still play music and do you still perform?
Yes. We’re currently making a Cajun-flavoured album in Paris, LIVE FROM THE TERMINAL CAFÉ – the Terminal Café is in my BLOOD stories and in the Multiverse Comics. We’ve two tracks to finish. And there’s Alien Heat album coming out from Spirits Burning which I’ll be contributing to. My neuropathy means I can no longer easily play fretted instruments, so I’m doing it all on harmonica, these days.
I think the world of your big ideas and your devotion to the craft. I’m extremely grateful for your time. Thank you!