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Twenty Questions with Ian R. MacLeod
An interview with Kilian Melloy
July 2004

© Ian R. MacLeod
Ian R. MacLeod
Ian R. MacLeod
Ian R. MacLeod was born in Solihull, near Birmingham, in the West Midlands in 1956. He decided to study law and to attend Birmingham Polytechnic. After various jobs, he ended up working in the Civil Service. When his wife Gillian became pregnant in 1990, he thought the idea of being a full-time house-husband and writer was a worthy one. His first sale, "1/72nd Scale," was nominated for the Nebula Award for the year's best novella. Other stories have appeared in the Year's Best SF and Year's Best Fantasy and Horror. His first novel, The Great Wheel, won the Locus Award for the Year's Best First novel and his second, an alternative history story titled The Summer Isles, won the World Fantasy Award as a novella. He now teaches English and creative writing part-time.

Ian R. MacLeod Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Breathmoss and Other Exhalations
SF Site Review: The Light Ages

Breathmoss and Other Exhalations
The Light Ages
The Light Ages
The Great Wheel
Voyages by Starlight

Ian R. MacLeod lays it all out in the preface to his latest collection of short stories, Breathmoss and Other Exhalations, from Golden Gryphon Press. "If all stories are interesting lies," MacLeod writes, "and if the whole genre of fantastic fiction were to be boiled down to one overriding principle, it might be: If we're going to tell lies, we might as well make them big ones." Since his first short story sale in 1989 right up to the present day, including his hefty novels The Great Wheel (1997) and The Light Ages (2003), MacLeod has been spinning big ones, all right -- powerful, provocative stories scintillating with a palette of colours and moods that no one else quite matches.

"The future was a fact that had arrived and had already been forgotten," reads a line from MacLeod's story "Marnie," an entry in his previous collection of short fiction Voyages by Starlight. This is a sentiment that crops up here and there throughout MacLeod's work, in various guises, and bespeaks a wistfulness that contains murmurs of weariness and pungency. In "The Perfect Stranger," included in the same collection, MacLeod's narrator briefly fantasizes about escaping his problems by going into stasis for thirty years, only to come back to reality with the bitter reflection that "the future was a joke. The only guarantees were that the climate would be worse, and that everything apart from wristwatches, computers, and disposable umbrellas would be more expensive." MacLeod does not write about utopias or dystopias so much as about the eternal twinges and melancholy humours of the human creature; and yet, in his hands, the future and the past take on urgent, perhaps seismic, new meanings. In "Verglas," which appears in Breathmoss, issues of technology and exploration may not, after all, sum up the be-all and end-all of human life; if, in fact, the drive to unravel mysteries and tamper with our environment and ourselves is a fundamental part of human character, so too, MacLeod observes, is an appreciation for familiar, atavistic things. Even the primitive and outmoded has a place somewhere in the entirety of the human experience.

It's possible to catch glimpses of classical influence in MacLeod's writings. The main character's three mothers in "Breathmoss," for example, loosely conform to the old literary triad of the crone, the mother, and the maiden. But there's no question that MacLeod is at least as keen to re-invigorate familiar themes and forms as he is to break fresh ground in the territory of fantastical literature. The theme of family recurs in ways that might initially seem grotesque -- a young boy builds a model airplane, in one MacLeod story, that becomes possessed by the soul of his dead brother; elsewhere in the MacLeod canon, a family sell their young child to finance a vacation; and again, in still another tale, an old codger finds himself as bemused by his freewheeling grandchildren as he is by his stodgy, reluctant son -- but hope forever finds ways around the psychological scar tissue carried by his characters. Underneath, these are people who want to be good, even if goodness is not necessarily rewarded.

Ian R. MacLeod generously took the time, recently, to chat with SF Site about his short fiction.

You're a hard writer to categorize -- you seem at home with science fiction, horror, fantasy, and all the nooks and hollows between those genres. In general, however, you seem drawn to the fantastic. What attracts you to the fantastic side of fiction writing?

The same thing which always attracted me as a young reader. There's that "flavour" which I think anyone who likes fantastic fiction will know about, even if they find it hard to explain. More broadly, all fiction is about attempting to improve on reality in some way, even if it's only to make it more grim and grimy, and fantastic fiction is a more ambitious expression of this desire. Once you're aware of that gateway, it almost seems a shame not to see what lies on the other side.

Your writing is more literary than most writers of speculative or fantastic fiction. What sort of literature informs you as a writer?
If my first experiences as a young reader were of SF and fantasy, they were followed in my mid-teens with studying writers like Thomas Hardy, D.H. Lawrence and T.S. Eliot at school. They meant a lot to me, and I never saw an enjoyment of the giants of mainstream literature as being anything other than useful to me as a writer. I think that I'd been drawn to more literary fiction -- by which we're talking about writing which is concerned with style and nuance, and which deals with its themes in more subtle and oblique ways, and isn't simply aiming to "entertain" -- even before I really knew what it was. I remember being deeply impressed by how the writer Keith Roberts made colours seem more real and feelings deeper in his best works. That's because his concerns were at least as much "literary" as they were "genre". Other writers I return to are F. Scott Fitzgerald and Marcel Proust, and of living writers, I have an enormously high regard for John Updike.

I love how you drop the reader into the fully realized world of your stories, letting the unfolding of events gradually clarify the setting and the situation, rather than using long asides or clumsy dialogue to fill in the backdrop.
That comes chiefly from:
1) a desire not to bore the reader
2) because I generally find myself wondering what's going on, and accept that as a natural and believable state for my characters. After all, there are a lot of things in this world which leave me puzzled, but which no one seems capable of explaining to me.

I think it's interesting how you sometimes blur the line between living creatures and machines. The pack animals in "Breathmoss," for example, sometimes seem to be organic creatures but at other times there are hints that they may be mechanical (one of them is getting rusty at one point); or, in "The Giving Mouth" from your 1996 collection Voyages by Starlight, "steam horses" graze on coal fields and react to the moods of their riders. Is this just a bit of fun on your part? Are you maybe saying something about the role, in future, of artificial intelligence?
Well, we are machines, aren't we? Otherwise, I suppose it's one of the genre tropes I enjoy paying homage towards. You're faced with the ordinary -- say a character who seems to have a pet -- and then you think, how can I improve on that, make it more interesting? Transformation and shifting from human is also something my characters do quite a lot. It's one of the strengths of the genre that you can explore this area in ways which can be literal, philosophical, creepy and fun -- often at the same time. I also tend to switch off a bit when I encounter SF set some time in the future which doesn't attempt to address what we humans will have done to ourselves.

It's also fascinating to see how you take conventional plot ideas and find totally new directions for them. Do you sit down with a recognizable storyline and say, "What are the unused potentials here?" Or do these ideas emerge fully formed for you?
The old saying about there being no plots which weren't explored by Homer is probably true, but literature is a testament to the varieties of shade and interpretation which can be given to them. As readers, we generally recognize plots pretty much on a subconscious level, and I think that as a writer, the process is fairly subconscious as well. Later on, I can analyze what I've done in terms of "this is essentially a story about escape and identity," but at the time I try not to think in that way, as it could obviously be limiting. With novels, the process takes so much longer and is so much more involved that you do have to look the plot and themes more consciously in the eye, but I still try not to be too "knowing". It's often the case, especially when you're toying around with an idea and developing it into something coherent, that what you think is the main theme or plotline turns out to be a lesser aspect.

At the risk of sounding pretentious, I also have to say that I often feel that there's a statue within the stone which I'm chipping away at. Bits of it, often imperfect but nevertheless recognizable, will slowly emerge...

You also have a talent for creating stories utterly unlike anything else -- stories that are conceptually very different, like "Verglas" in your new collection of stories, Breathmoss. It must be difficult to chart out how to put these quite strange, quite lovely ideas across without resorting, as mentioned before, to long asides that explain everything in detail.
Actually, it's a temptation I find very easy to resist. In fact, I'm more often guilty of not saying enough, and then having to track back and put in more explanation. To me, the best fantastic fiction should "float". Fairies, spaceships and vampires are parts of our collective cultural consciousness, and it seems to me silly and nit-picking to ask for realistic explanations for something like a faster than light drive, which we all know is essentially unrealistic. The exception to this would be when you have an idea about one of these things which seems fresh enough to make it important to the story. Otherwise, I like to leave these things in exactly the same sort of background they'd exist in for most of us if they really existed. Imagine if Anne Tyler had to launch into a technological explanation of telecommunications every time a character in one of her books turns on the television. On the other hand, if the character happens to be a TV repair man... And, let's face it, most of us have got vague and often probably quite wrong ideas about how things work anyway. The same reasoning should apply, to my mind, in any kind of writing.

One of my favourite stories in Breathmoss is "New Light on the Drake Equation," which does a couple of things -- it dignifies the oft-put-down dreamers among us, and it celebrates the potential for new kinds of diversity in the human race (something that reminds me, gladly, of George Zebrowski's work). It also raises a point: the question has been asked of alien intelligence, that if they are there, where are they? But your story suggests that maybe they are us, in nascent form at least. You seem to be suggesting that regardless of whether other intelligent species exist out there, the fact that we exist down here makes it an obligation on us to get out and bring intelligent life to the stars.
Well, this is a pretty deep and difficult area. In a sense, I do think we are the alien intelligence we wonder about, because we still know so little about the basic phenomenon of the conscious "I". And then there's the oddness of our happening to be here, despite all the tiny flips and changes in the expanding universe which could have made us and the current laws of physics untenable. Basically, I don't know. The universe is certainly a lot stranger and more complicated than the Newtonian scientists of a century ago would have dared imagine. We're certainly part of all of it, but that doesn't mean we're bright enough to understand it, or even that what we think we're understanding is actually true in anything beyond the small and superficial sense of a baby exploring its playpen, or a bee finding the route back to its hive.

Your stories often feature otherwise unremarkable people embroiled in remarkable times or gifted with remarkable talents. Instead of the King, your story "Green" (from Voyages by Starlight) focuses on the gardener, although the two had been friends as children; or, in "The Summer Isles," (from the new collection, Breathmoss) you show us a complicated alternate history of England in which the central figure is a closet homosexual who had been an acquaintance of a powerful government official. Would you comment on you choices of protagonists? Why the stone that other story builders might reject for the cornerstones in your fiction?
There are very few "kings" in life, but a great many "commoners." It's therefore a lot easier for me (and I'm not a king, either) to write for an audience of other non-kings about characters who exist in more normal roles in whatever society they happen to be in. That doesn't mean I'm not interested in kings. Nor, at least to some degree, that I'm not envious of their power and privilege, but it's much more interesting to deal with all of this by being in the bottom and looking up, at least at the start of a story. Many of my characters end up attaining some sort of fame or status, although I guess it's mostly not worth the price they end up paying.

I also think that this interest in the normal is a necessary offset against settings which may be strange, and also helps with creating a sympathetic character. Tolkien did this with hobbits. In the field of mainstream literature, serious writers have been moving consciously away from writing about wealth and privilege for at least century and a half. Think of Dickens, Hardy, Balzac, Lawrence, "angry young men" like Pinter... This is a movement which I guess I'm pushing forward in my own small way into fantastic fiction.

Otherwise, my choice of protagonists is usually based on the vague idea that I'd like to "do" a certain kind of person, be that gay, female, old, young, etc. As a white heterosexual male, therefore, I often find it more rewarding to try to write about other states of existence. I certainly don't plan never to write about kings and queens; in fact, just making that statement reminds me of just a few of the things it would be fun to do with them...

Although your stories are fantastical in nature, the settings you place them in are so very mundane; even the stories that take place on other planets seem down to Earth...
Essentially, I'm interested in the point where reality and unreality meet. I'm also a writer -- and a reader and a listener and a viewer -- who loves proper attention to detail. Detail can easily become a huge swam of the totally incomprehensible if you set your story too far away from normality. So reality, real reality, is the anchor to which I tie my work. Then, when you have the mundane, the contrast with the weird or the wonderful is all the better.

The title story of your collection Breathmoss concerns a planet inhabited almost entirely by women, who are so independent that they do not even need men for reproduction; in fact, when one young woman in the story takes a male lover, it is regarded as a whim or a passing phase that she will have to grow out of. Is this idea of an all-woman world one that grows out of a logical projection of what survival traits will be selected for in the far future (that is, are men too aggressive to survive in large numbers once human reproduction no longer requires them), or is there an undercurrent of criticism for what we in the States call Identity Politics? (Or something else I've not thought of?)
I do think that men are probably not the way ahead for humanity. Or general psychological emphasis on manual skills and lack of social ones makes us less well suited to a high-tech world than women are. Then, when you learn how much can already be done without male participation, so to speak, in reproductive technology, projection forward isn't that difficult. However, I do think I probably need to redress the excessively feminine balance of the current "Breathmoss" vision, as I think that, from a broader perspective (and don't forget that "Isabel of the Fall" does describe a world capable of considerable brutality as well as all-out war) a female society would be more gender-less (think [Ursula K. Le Guin's] The Left Hand Of Darkness) than gender-specific. When I finally get around to writing more about this future world, this is something I'd very much like to deal with, possibly from the viewpoint of a male character...

Though all of Breathmoss might be taken as a meditation on history and the place of individuals within it, two stories in particular stand out for me. In "Isabel of the Fall" your central image presents a challenge to the story's status quo in dealing with how a little less sunlight on an artificial world characterized by perfect weather every day proves to add something to the colours of life, and eventually leads to an embracing once again of seasons. The person who brings this change about becomes an outcast, accused of treason, and yet she has a remarkable impact on history. Are you hinting, symbolically, that life without some element of trespass or challenge to received wisdom and authority is lacking?
In philosophical terms, I pretty much take that as read. We're born to ask questions and challenge things and try new approaches. If we didn't, our ancestors would never have climbed down from the trees -- or climbed up into them in the first place. In artistic terms, I guess we're back to my point about contrast -- and also conflict. You simple can't write a story which exists entirely within the status quo. It would have no light, no interest, no shade. Having said that, of course, I'm sure that someone somewhere can point to exceptions, but I'd still argue that they prove the rule rather than overturn it.

Another story in Breathmoss that strikes me in terms of individuals and their roles in history is, of course, "The Summer Isles," where you envision England in the aftermath of losing World War I -- an England where the Holocaust takes place, rather than in Germany. Are some of humanity's most evil and regrettable mistakes inevitable? Were the historic prejudices against the Jews so entrenched that the concentration camps could not have been avoided, even if history had played out differently?
I hadn't thought about that in these precise terms, but I think that the answer is probably yes. Institutionalized hostility to the Jewish race has existed in Europe for centuries, and, in the age of mass politics, it was probably inevitable that someone would take that a step further, initially for the sake of getting elected. Then, with the sort of power and also the stresses which are brought to bear by the running of a modern totalitarian state, and its constant need for someone to blame, the next step tends to follow. But this isn't exclusively about the Jews and Hitler. Look at Stalin. Look, also, at the rising prejudices which 9/11 has unleashed. Politically, mass hatred and anger are too powerful and tempting not to be exploited.

What seems to have happened is that, sixty years ago, the unthinkable was thought of, and then done on a massive scale. We've now kidded ourselves into believing that the Holocaust was so terrible that it could never happen again. But of course it has, (Rwanda, Yugoslavia, etc.) and the more we tell ourselves that we know better, the more likely it is to recur. The so-called Enlightened Despots in Europe such as Louis XIV commonly indulged in a little minority-bashing. The only difference then is that the state was less efficient. Now, we've simply got better at it. The human capacity for denial and self-deception certainly hasn't changed.

I do also think that we're essentially a tribal animal, and that anyone outside the tribe we see ourselves as being in is always going to attract hostility when things aren't going perfectly. I know that's not a particularly optimistic view of humanity, but I can't really see how history can support any other view And at the end of the day, no matter how far you choose to travel in a story, you still have to deal with the human condition as it is, even if you also write about how you'd wish it to be.

Is this part of the reason you chose to tell that story from the perspective of a closeted homosexual, an outsider who has made a dual career of interpreting history as well as of pretending to be an insider in a xenophobic, homophobic culture?
The outsider is always an interesting role to assume in fiction, and especially fantastic fiction. James Blish suggested that, once you have an idea for a change in the world, you then ask yourself as you think in terms of creating a story around it, "Who will this harm the most?" Obviously, and although I didn't actually come at it from that route, a homosexual is likely to suffer under a fascist regime. The twist in this case is that he doesn't actually suffer at all -- in fact he benefits -- but he does see all those around him suffer.

I notice that "Isabel of the Fall" seems to be set in the same female-dominated future universe as "Breathmoss." Another parallel with "Breathmoss" is that the world, or confederation of worlds, seems to be entirely Muslim in terms of religious faith. What was your reasoning there? Do you foresee, as did Pamela Sargent in her Venus trilogy of books, that humanity will one day reach a place of universal agreement in terms of faith, and that faith will be Islam? (And if so -- is such "Surrender" really a good thing for the species?)
I suppose that what I'm foreseeing is a continuation of humanity as it is now, which means that the old will re-emerge and continue even as the new arises. In this case, I thought in terms of a sort of loose empire which was more based on Arab standards and themes than it was on Western ones. Islam of a sort survived, for most people as a kind of background noise an accepted cultural mode. But I don't see it as a place where people are all in agreement about religion. On a personal level, I'm pretty hostile to any belief system which decides things for you, especially if that system pretends to be based on supposedly historic events which probably didn't happen in anything like the way they're portrayed, if they happened at all. But it's also an area which draws me, and one which I enjoy exploring, and perhaps even showing a sympathy towards it which I don't personally feel. As a writer, you have to be prepared to promote viewpoints other than your own. It's part of what makes the process interesting.

It's not every writer who is equally at home in both the short story form as well as the novel. But you now have two collections of short stories out, as well as two quite hefty novels, and all your books have garnered you critical accolades. Do you have a preference between the shorter form and novel length stories? Is the process for writing the one different from writing the other?
The "preference" has changed as years have gone by, basically in terms of my ability to write in one or the other format. I started writing seriously in my twenties on a big novel, which I actually saw through and finished, although it remains an apprentice piece. Then I tried another couple of novels, which didn't work out quite so well, and drifted towards short fiction, which was the area in which I started to sell. Getting back into consistently writing novels from there proved a hard thing; I got there in the end, but it took many years. Now, it's the idea of writing short fiction which is hard, and I did in fact take a conscious decision about four years ago that I wouldn't write any short fiction for a while and concentrate entirely on novel writing. In writing, it's generally the case that you loose old skills as you acquire new ones; things don't stand still in terms of your abilities. Then, there are only so many hours in the day and so many thoughts and ideas you can process in your head.

Those are the practical reasons why I wrote novels or short fiction at certain stages in my career. As to which is better, I have to say that I've never been a great reader and enjoyer of short mainstream fiction. There are exceptions, and certain writers such as Tobias Wolf and Raymond Carver whom I admire, but generally short fiction about the supposedly real world doesn't do it for me. I much prefer it to explore a bigger canvas which allows themes and characters to develop. I have, however, always been a great reader of short SF (and horror, and fantasy). In fact, over the years, it's probably been the area of the fantastic genre from which I've obtained the most enjoyment. We're all aware of the arguments that short fiction is the best method of approaching fictions of the fantastic and of ideas, and I do think there's some truth in them. On the other hand, the great majority of novel-length fantastic fiction has always struck me as unsatisfactory in terms of the way it develops its ideas and characters, and handles resolutions. It often lacks the philosophical rigour of good mainstream fiction, and the plot models -- the quest, for example, or the tribal history, or the world-change -- are often relatively crude ones which literary fiction discarded as its main inspiration a century or so ago. I'm not saying that they should have been discarded, but I don't think that, as a whole, the genre has really advanced as good a case as it could have for their continuance.

Where do you get the "kernel" for your stories? For some it's a moment of What If? For others it's an image that pops into their heads that they have to write their way toward. How does inspiration come to you, and how do you follow it?
It varies. I'm more of a romantic than a classical, linear thinker. So it tends to be a feeling and perhaps a place, and from there comes the rationalization.

In recent years, Hollywood has begun to take more notice of high quality science fiction. Any nibbles from the film world in terms of your work being translated to the screen?
My short story "Past Magic" has been optioned for many years -- there's even a full script -- and there have been a couple of nibbles for my novel The Light Ages, but as yet no one's taken, and to be honest, I think it would prove a difficult and ambitious project. I'm not sure that my work, which isn't ideas and action based, would transfer into what currently passes for SF in most of Hollywood. Still, I do think that all the recent movies must have stimulated the public appetite for this kind of thing and, as with Westerns, you'd like to think that as the years go by a more mature type of film and fiction will emerge more fully. And there have been good examples in recent years -- or at least brave attempts: Gattaca, Solaris, AI...

What are you working on currently? When might we expect to see your next work published?
My next novel, The House of Storms, will be out next year. I've just given it its major edit. It's a successor novel to The Light Ages, in that it's also set in an alternate England which developed under the discovery of a magical substance called aether. But the time and the characters and the settings are all entirely different, as are the themes with which it deals -- or attempts to deal.

With that done, I'm returning to a new novel which charts this century -- or a version of it -- from the viewpoint of an woman -- an English/Asian violinist -- who was born near its start. I'm also sorting out a third short story collection, which, along with Voyages by Starlight and Breathmoss, should pretty much cover all my best work at that length, unless I can write some more of it. There's one short story, an unresolved half-idea, which I'd like finish off. It will be interesting, at least, to see if I still have anything resembling the knack...

Copyright © 2004 Kilian Melloy

Kilian Melloy is the Editor at Large for wigglefish zine, and a columnist and reviewer for Hoping to make a living at this some day, for the moment Kilian is thrilled just to be talking to the creative, intriguing people he has the chance to interview for these and other web publications.

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