May 2004
© 2004 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
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John Crowley Interview with Iain Emsley
SFRevu Interview - PubDate: 05/15/04
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Feature Review:  Novelties and Souvenirs

True Transformations of the Word Ė John Crowley Interviewed

SFRevu: What do you read these days?

Jon Crowley: One of the things I regret most about a busy life teaching and writing books that involve research is that I almost never get to read for pleasure. What I read is: my studentsí work, which is deeply interesting and gratifying (no kidding Ė I know more about what smart 20-year-olds are thinking and doing than almost any man my age); books for review (just now Thomas Bergerís latest); and books for research (currently books about Byron or his times.) If I could read books, Iíd read Peter Carey and Phillip Pullman.

SFR: Who is your ideal reader?

JC: Someone who will read every word; who will read it twice, if he liked it once; who doesnít mind (and sometimes gets) my allusions to the body of Western culture and literature; who is willing to play a game with me, and pick up my clues, and follow my thought Ė and who laughs at my jokes Ė and knows theyíre jokes. I have the suspicion that most of them live in the Indian subcontinent, but since my books havenít reached there much, I canít be sure.

SFR: Were you a writer as a child? That is, did you make up your own stories?

JC: The first story I remember writing was called ďThe Bloody Knife.Ē I was perhaps eight. The premise was that an apparition of an enormous blood-dripping knife appeared in the sky over the city, and the next day dreadful crimes were discovered to have been committed. I just couldnít ever figure out how to resolve this wonderful premise.

SFR: What other writers do you feel you have something in common with?

JC: I would think readers would be able to see the genetic relation between books of mine and Walter de la Mareís Memoirs of a Midget, Chestertonís The Man who was Thursday, Richard Hughesís A High Wind in Jamaica, Virginia Woolfís Orlando, Stevensonís New Arabian Nights, and Lewis Carroll, Looking -glass more than Wonderland. They may not, however. But they will see other true connections I canít. (Readers and reviewers have made comparison to Thomas Mann, Robertson Davies, and Ray Bradbury, none of which strike me as relevant.) I resemble Paul Park and Tom Disch in writing books within genre that are worthy of the most perspicuous readerís attention, though rarely getting it.

SFR: Why do you write genre? Do you feel a stronger affinity for one genre or another? Do you necessarily believe in the fantasy world or are you more concerned with reflecting the real world through a mirror?

JC: Nabokov said that the great novels of the realist tradition, like War and Peace and Madame Bovary, are actually great fairy tales. ďGenreĒ and ďrealisticĒ are not opposites, exactly, though they stand at right angles to one another. I have written novels labeled genre, and they follow genre rules; none of my books, so labeled or not, reflect the world as in a mirror Ė except the one that Alice passed through.

JC: I donít use fiction to present any beliefs of my own about the spiritual realm (if any.) I donít believe in fairies, astrology, or alien visitations, and I think it unlikely we will ever reach other stars in person. I write fictions.

SFR: What does genre writing offer that mainstream fiction cannot? Why is gaining popularity among readers?

JC: Genre fiction retains, in a way that mainstream fiction does less immediately, the roots of story. The realm of story is a counter or complementary world where we know ourselves to be at home. The connection between Tolkien and me, or between Star Wars and T.H. White, or The Matrix and The Tempest, is what they retain and bear of the realm of story, which you could say ďnever grows oldĒ but which you could also say can stand endless repetition in different keys. Why we like the same stories repeated endlessly Iím not sure, but maybe itís related to other needs we have, that we donít get tired of. Mainstream stories are less reliable in delivering these things, though their pleasures -- surprise, knowledge, reflection of how we live now, life advice, insight -- are rarer, and maybe harder to achieve. Iím not sure genre fiction is growing in popularity so much as it is multiplying many instances, not necessarily needed.

SFR: How do you write? Do you plan out your books before you start? Do you write every day?

JC: I sort of excavate my books, more than planning them. I tend to see them in advance like a broad sierra I must climb, with foothills, and subsidiary peaks, and a central massif to attack (the climax) and a long decline or sudden drop. I donít write every day, though I would like to be able to. When my children were very young, I used to get up at 4:45 AM and write till they woke up at 7. Now they get up at 6, and it no longer works. I write a lot out of sequence -- I write what I can imagine today, which isnít necessarily the next scene in time order. If you could trace the composition process of a book of mine, it would look a little like the image of your computer defragmenting itself, pulling bits from every part of the disk and putting it in time order. Sort of.

SFR: How did your first book sale come about?

JC: My first published novel was The Deep, an SF novel. I gave it to Ace, which was then publishing a striking series of highly original paperbacks called Ace Science Fiction Specials. After a year of its not being read, I demanded (well, requested) the book be returned to me. On leaving the building, I had a choice Ė I could carry it to Harperís, which then published original hardback SF; or Doubleday. Doubleday was closer, and I went there. They bought it ($1500 advance) and prepared it for publication, not knowing that upstairs in the real books division, another book with the same title was being published -- this one by Peter Benchley. They asked me later if I would consider changing my title (though mine technically came first.) I said no, and never asked them how much theyíd pay -- for which Iím sort of sorry now.

JC: Morrow, part of HarperCollins, evolutionary descendant of Harperís, is now my publisher.

SFR: Of your own books, do you have a favorite? Was it because of the idea, the characters, your life situation while you wrote it, the way it turned out, something else?

JC: I feel fondly about several, for different reasons. Engine Summer (which was the first completed, at least in one form, though the third published) for teaching me to write, and for how I learned to make a world both personal and external to me. Little, Big for being all that I hoped it would be, and for the certainty and delight with which it was written. Daemonomania for being flawed and the hardest of them all to write, and yet (in my view) struggling to shore finally and bravely. Nabokov (my old and original mentor, sorry for how often he intrudes here) when asked what his favorite of his books was, always answered ďThe next one.Ē

SFR: How do you feel about the future? What makes you the most hopeful and the most fearful? Does writing have a role in shaping people's worldview? How did the '60s affect your personal views? Did the opportunities that opened up during that particular period seem to become apparent towards the end of the last century?

JC: My first-written novel, called Learning to Live with it (later appearing as Engine Summer) was about the far future. When I was conceiving it, I thought I knew one thing about the future -- that it was certain not to resemble our imaginings and projections. So I discarded all the things that looked likely, based on current trends: technological advances, overpopulation, international networks of trade and competition, advanced weaponry. I erased cities, governments, even literacy, and yet I imagined that out of the unlikeliest bits of the present, new spiritual trends could arise, and a new language in which to express them. None of what I imagined has come any closer to appearing in our world or our lives, and the book now reads as though the world it portrays could have been conceived at no other time than when it was, 1968. But I knew that it would. Sort of. The future (this idea is the basis of my story Great Work of Time, included in the new collection) stands at right angles to the stream of time, not ahead; futures progress on endlessly in that direction, and we can imagine them, but when the timestream has actually moved on, they are left behind.

SFR: How far is Engine, Summer an exploration of sainthood?

JC: I donít think it is at all. I think itís an exploration of storytelling. At one point Rush says that there is no more unselfish love than that of a young speaker for the old saint he will someday become Ė a line I took from Nabokov (!), who said there is no more pure love than the love of a young writer for the old writer he will someday be. The ambition of Truthful Speakers to become saints Ė to become those who speak in such a way that, through the stories they tell of themselves, we see ourselves, and see that all people are the same Ė is the true ambition of a writer. I donít think I understood this wholly as I wrote the book, but it seems obvious to me now.

SFR: How far is Little, Big a comment upon the fantasy of Tolkien?

JC: Not at all. I can hardly think of two books more different, at least two that reside in the same part of the bookstore. I certainly didnít have Tolkien in mind, the way I did have Arthur Rackham, Lewis Carroll, Watteau, Winsor McKay and Walt Kelly in mind, if not all at once, in various scenes.

SFR: I gather that the sequence which began with Aegypt was originally meant to be one book. How did you come to write three books with a projected fourth based on the Zodiac?

JC: I can hardly trace the process now. I canít imagine how I could ever have thought that the material I had conceived could have been fitted into one book. Itís likely that the change came as I began to work on the modern story -- which was not parent of the original conception. It was to have been all historical. I became so intrigued by the new parts that they expanded steadily in thought, and absorbed more and more material, some of it autobiographical, far more simply fun to think of, including modern werewolves, the ďArs Auto-amatoria, or Every Man his Own Wife,Ē the sex club MM, etc., etc. (Even more was conceived and left out.) The astrological arrangement was self-evident once the book expanded beyond one: it would be two volumes of four parts, then four volumes. I believe now that what it should have been is four groups of three volumes, making twelve in all -- but I canít go back now.

SFR: You almost have a pessimistic Gnostic view of the world, as Frances Yates might define it. Does this come from any one particular episode or school of thought? How did you come to explore Yates and the Hermetic philosophy?

JC: I donít have a pessimistic Gnostic view. The Gnostic mythos, which I discovered some 25 years ago, is of central importance to the Aegypt series; I found it in a classic book by Hans Jonas called The Gnostic Religion. I find it, as mythology, not only deeply poignant in itself, but tremendously useful in fiction: the world inside fiction is indeed a Gnostic universe. I have also come to see how much SF fantasy and romance fiction embodies a (often corrupted or incomplete) Gnostic mythos, from Superman to The Matrix. I donít subscribe to it as a vision of the world I live in, except in dreamtime. I came to Yates through a chance discovery of her book The Art of Memory, which was indeed a turning point, and which has left traces in every book of mine from The Deep onwards; through that book I discovered her work on Bruno, but in both Gnosticism and Bruno studies, I have taken more from Ioan Culianuís work.

SFR: Reality, of varying types, becomes very thin, revealing a secondary world in all of your books. Is this from any particular viewpoint or is just the way that opens more possibilities for your books?

JC: In our shared world, reality thins, and reveals secondary worlds -- inside books or art or human culture. In books, that secondary world (made by the writer) can also thin, and show a secondary world (or tertiary -- secondary to the world the characters think is primary, though writer and readers know better). Therefore the characters experience what we, out here, experience -- that there is a counter-world, and it may be our own creation, or maybe not. Youíll notice how often the way into the secondary worlds that characters in my books discover is through books.

SFR: How far is the Translator about salvation from the personal to the world?

JC: What a good way of putting it. The Gnostics said: I believe in resurrection, but only before death. I think Kitís encounter with an angel (which is one version or vision of what the book is, a vision Kit finds convincing, as fact and then as metaphor) is what makes her return to the world possible -- her salvation. Falin, the poet, dies or disappears or never was -- and in his vanishing, gives Kit a chance to become embodied.

SFR: Can either literature or language, by expressing opinions or rendering abstract ideas into concrete form, bring about change in the world?

JC: John Bayley, the English critic, points out in a review of a poetís work, in which the poet broods on his inability to cause true transformations in the world, that in fact transformation is what poetry can achieve -- itís true description, true limning, thatís impossible to the world of words. Transformationís easy. This seems particularly relevant to fantasy, which might be described as the poetry of prose fiction: transformation is possible but true description lies bound in the land of words. On the other hand, words are things, as Byron says: one drop of ink can kill or save. There are books good and bad (as books) that have done that work. Upton Sinclair changed Americaís meat-packing industry with a story (The Jungle). Itís not a great book. Itís said that The Sorrows of Young Werther caused a wave of suicides in Romantic Europe. But they say the same about Kurt Cobain.

SFR: How far is your writing an exploration of the art of the novel and the idea of Story?

JC: Itís central. Not only does the impulse arise from the kind of romance that I have chosen (or that has chosen me), but the more I have written the more I have pondered the existential dilemma of characters in books, and how far it maybe possible for them to perceive it: that is, that they are in a story, and the ending will determine all that came before, a reversal of cause and effect that we sense in our world only rarely, in dreams and religious visions. It seems only natural to me that characters, like readers, will wonder how the story they dimly glimpse themselves in will turn out.

In terms of the novel, it might be said that I have tried to write novels about what it is like to be in a romance, or a story: many are not themselves romances, but they are about the possibility of romance, and also its terrors: that stories determine us, and that stories end.

SFR: Each character seems to have their own defined roles and take their own parts within the book. Is this a by-product of the narrative or is it a conscious exploration of these roles by yourself?

JC: Christopher Isherwood said that writing a book was for him like a process of separating Siamese twins: when one character, a person somewhat like himself, could be divided into two different characters, and those characters turned to face each other, he was on his way. My stories tend to evolve when two contrary or non-intersecting ideas come together in one, and characters find themselves under the compulsion or desire to live in both. Beyond that I donít think I understand the import of this question. I donít copy characters from the world, for the most part (sometimes I borrow physical persons, or their life circumstances, but itís more like casting them for a part than describing them.) Which means the characters somehow are born of me in some way. I think this is common, maybe inevitable.

SFR: What are you currently working on?

JC: Iím just finishing a novel which could be described as being about Byron, but which is actually odder, or more impertinent, than that: it is a novel by Byron. Iíve always loved Byron -- I once wrote a play about Byron and Shelley, and a story told by Byron is in my new collection of stories called Novelties and Souvenirs. I love his letters and diaries -- more than his poetry. Iíve always wished heíd written a novel -- it would have been great. So now he has.

© 2004 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
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