An Interview with Pat Cadigan
|Interview by David Mathew
"What I actually work on is clarity,"
says Pat Cadigan,
"and trying to get the reader to
feel as if he or she is there. I have one criterion for a good book, in whatever style or
genre. And that's: while you're reading, if the words go away and you're watching the
movie in your head, that's a good book. And that's always what I'm aiming for. If you've
got that, you've got characterization, you've got scene, and you've definitely got plotting.
If you blow it in any of those areas, the reader steps back out. You have to treat it as a
whole, if that's not too obvious. It's pointless to say that characterization is more
important than plot. And the book will dictate the style to you; it's not something you
should spend a lot of time considering separately."
It's advice that has served her well. Cadigan's fourth novel, Tea from an Empty Cup, came out in 1998, and she is currently working on the next one. Tea from an Empty Cup was originally entitled "Bunraku" -- the word for a kind of Japanese puppet theatre for adults, which features in the book. "Titles should encapsulate everything about the project you're working on, and to be honest, titles have never been my strong point. Meaning: I've always found them a little bit tough to do. Tea from an Empty Cup is obviously a pretty long title, but it's not as long as Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, so I think I'm okay. None of my publishers liked "Bunraku." My British editor, Joy Chamberlain, suggested Tea from an Empty Cup, which had been the title of one of the sections of the novel. The more I thought about it, the more I liked it. It was more descriptive, in the vein of 'one hand clapping' or something like that. I broke the run of one-word titles (Mindplayers, Synners, Fools) because it's ridiculous to be enslaved to something like that anyway. Joy got some flak from the marketing department, but that's what marketing departments are there for: to give flak."
The title, furthermore, sounds nothing like cyberpunk. Cadigan nods and adds, "It doesn't read like cyberpunk either -- in the way that many people think of cyberpunk: on the surfaces. But it uses a lot of the tropes. The idea was to have a crime novel set in the future. I wanted it to be a genuine crime novel and a genuine science fiction novel. I love crime novels; I think mystery writers are among the smartest people in the world. You really have to know something about human nature to write a good crime novel, and when a writer doesn't know much about human nature -- well, it shows. It really does.
"But I like fooling around with the near future; I like second-guessing things, which is not to say that I'm predicting anything. I'm not in charge. I didn't write the novels with the idea that the future would resemble any of them. The only thing I was really trying to do was extrapolate from things I was seeing now, but I wasn't trying to say, 'And this is what will happen.' I really felt that in the books, the entertainment part was more important than getting it right. There are too many wild cards that can come in and change everything. There's no point trying to extrapolate from now until some point in the future because too much can happen to change everything. I'm old enough to have seen the moral tone of Western society swing back and forth several times, and to have heard about several other swings from my parents and grandparents. But looking into a crystal ball is really not part of my vision...
"Tea from an Empty Cup seems to be doing well, but it's kinda hard for me to tell. When you're the author of a new novel, the only thing people ever say to your face is, 'Wow, that's great.' As for reviews, there seem to be more good ones than bad ones, but no one is ever completely honest with you, though, except maybe your best friend, or your partner -- even in print. Although I have to say... a number of people who've written well of the book are people whose respect I've wanted to have. In a genre you have an incestuous situation. The book I'm working on now -- I'm not going to say it's a sequel, but Tea from an Empty Cup is the start of a series."
Tea from an Empty Cup was completed on relocating to England from her native America. "There's such a big gap between Fools and Tea from an Empty Cup, and that had nothing to do with writing. Real life interfered. Personal catastrophes occurred. When I did Tea from an Empty Cup, I didn't get a chance to work on it in a serious way until after I'd moved here, and then I worked on it very quickly. But it was based on some pre-existing material." She has found the move beneficial in terms of her productivity. "Yeah, I write more," she says. "I like living here better than I like living in America. I feel much more at home here than I ever felt in America. The part of London where I'm living reminds me a great deal of where I grew up, in Massachusetts. Very urban; very gritty; very working class. It's sort of South Tottenham. I like the people; I like the area. My husband, Chris, and I can't survive outside an urban area. More cement! More buildings! More people! More brick! I wouldn't care to live in a small English village, but then I wouldn't want to live in a small American village either..."
On settling in London, "I went from a minimum of activity to more activity than I've had in my entire career. I wrote five books in the last two years. They're not all the length of War and Peace, but they're all books and I wrote them. And that was a great experience: I was busy, I was stressed, and I was very happy. Two of the books were assignments -- books about movies and the making of movies -- Lost in Space, and I just finished up a Making-Of book about the new Mummy movie, which has gone through many different hands, and it's a Universal Studies piece... Originally I got the Lost in Space commission because I was in the right place at the right time; I was an American living in London, who could do the assignment and was familiar with the show. Because I did Lost in Space I was asked to do The Mummy. But right now I'm enjoying the fact that I'm only working on my next novel, not researching another Making-Of book or anything else. One of the books is a juvenile for the Web series that Orion is putting out. I've done one young adult book now, and I believe that is the one young adult book I will ever do. My hat is off to young adult writers; people who can write that way are geniuses, as far as I'm concerned. They have a calling that I simply don't. I can remember all the young adult writers I read when I was growing up, and even now I can pick one up and enjoy it."
In a career that has seen many highs and critical plaudits (Fools won the Clarke Award), it is refreshing to note that Cadigan is not prepared to repeat herself or get lazy; she works hard to sharpen her work. She adds, "I've tried to write a different book every time, and do something I've never done before. When I finished Fools I thought that people would think I'd lost my mind. Or minds. And I didn't really expect it to be as positively received as it was. I put it out there and braced myself to hear things like, 'She's a total lunatic and this is a piece of slop.' And that wasn't the reaction at all. I'm pleased people were able to go with it. It's a similar experience I have when I'm dreaming: things are incoherent and they don't make sense right away. After a while things start to dovetail."
She is referring to the fact that Fools is perceived as an extremely difficult book. It's an accurate perception; but for all of its switches of viewpoint, it is a brisk and highly rewarding read; it is joined-up thinking for adults. For my money it is Cadigan's equivalent of J.G. Ballard's The Atrocity Exhibition, in that the reader must be smart because no punches are pulled and he or she is expected to do 50% of the work; furthermore, it polarized the readership. Cadigan finds the comparison "really flattering. I'd like to believe that that was the case. I read a lot of Ballard when I was younger. He was one of the people who proved to me that science fiction was literature for people who were grown up and wanted to think and stretch their imaginations, rather than pander to them. Fools is not an easy read. But there are people who like it a lot. I would rather get that sort of polarized reaction than a love-fest."
Indeed, Pat Cadigan takes feedback and honest opinion very seriously -- and gratefully. She is particularly fond of one editor: Ellen Datlow. "Ellen taught me almost everything I know about how to write well, and it's because she is a tough editor. She has that eye. She has the eye for needless flab in a story, for words you don't need; and she doesn't write it for you. She'll tell you; she can articulate the problem and it's up to you to fix it or to convince her why she's wrong. I trust her without any reservations at all, and she's very seldom wrong. Like I say, she has the eye. When I had the flu in January, I was finishing up the last details on the Mummy book and I spontaneously erupted with a short story. I sent it to Ellen for the online Event Horizon. I love magazines, as in paper magazines -- if you saw my house you'd know how much I love magazines (we met in a pub in the West End) -- but I want to support a good online production as well, of course. The Internet doesn't threaten paper publishing, as has been claimed. After all, they said movies would replace reading; they said TV would replace movies. There's room for everyone."
The previous sentence seems to represent a most benevolent attitude, given that Cadigan herself has often felt slightly excluded during her life, even years before she was publishing professionally. "I appreciate opinion, and nobody needs to fear me simply because they've rejected something of mine, but of course, there are rejections and there are rejections, and then there is unnecessarily hostile criticism. I saw something on the Internet one day, which said, in essence: 'Chicks can't write science fiction. Cadigan's just trying to crawl up Gibson's ass.' Normally I don't respond to stuff like that, but I feel that it's also good to remind people that when you make statements about someone, it's quite likely that the someone is going to call you on it personally. Well, it then became very obvious that it was a young person; and there'd be no mileage -- I'd be as much as a bully as the people were who picked on me. I'm certainly not going to be able to change his mind.
"And as for critics, there are certain critics who want to claim this and this and this; the arbiters of taste. And they're usually so young or so immature that they haven't been able to observe that in the end, history writes itself. All the critics are saying cyberpunk's dead. Was I supposed to go off obediently and write space opera? I decided to keep my head down and carry on doing my work. And the people who think I'm on a bandwagon are going to think that, no matter what I do; but as a writer, if I'm any good, I'm not going to write what's fashionable. I'll write what I need and want to write. There's no choice in the matter. Actually, Howard Waldrop said once that he was proud to have been chosen by one particular story to write it. It's like living with your muse, in harmony. Identifying what group you fall into is something you do in retrospect, or it's done for you. I've been mentioned alongside some high fantasy writers. Someone who was a Guy Gavriel Kay fan expressed a real liking for Synners. It was about the time that Guy had brought out Tigana -- a very complex piece of work. And Synners is not exactly simple either; so I suspect, in this case, it's a preference for a good, complex story. They want a story that will suck them in and involve them."
Years earlier, Cadigan had grown up in poverty. "It's one of those things that when you articulate it, it might encourage people to say, 'Oh, get over it.' But I grew up very poor. And I had to fight to get what I wanted. Growing up below the poverty line is not much fun. Getting the basics; getting the opportunities. I was a very intelligent student living in the wrong part of town, and a lot of smart kids who grow up is poor places just never get out. You're judged by your address. I'm not trying to sound melodramatic. I went off to college in 1970 on a full scholarship, and that was about as likely to happen for a woman in 1970 as it would have been for a woman to have been elected President. Or maybe not quite that unlikely. Whereas if you were a guy and you wanted to go to college but were too poor, you could get a spot on the football team. They didn't have a lot of the stuff that we have today. No athletic programme for girls -- not that I would have got in that way, probably, anyway. When I was in school, I felt patronized a lot; and it wasn't because I was oversensitive or anything. It was, 'Oh, isn't she cute.' And it wasn't just me. Or personal. But that sort of thing made me angry. And it still makes me angry when I hear people say you make your own future, you make your own destiny. The idea that you get the life you deserve."
These days she confesses to having remained angry, but adds: "I like to think I'm a bit more sophisticated these days, and that the rage comes out more often in a kind of irony. I'm still pissed off. When I walk around the streets here and there are people begging on the streets, and there are people walking past, pretending not to see: I hate that. I've been too close to that to look away. So if I have money I'll give them something. When my son was still living in London with us, we came up the stairs from Turnpike Lane and someone was begging on the stairs. We gave the person something; and my son took my hand and he didn't know how to put it, but he was so proud of me. We talked about it. Chris refers to beggars as a mark of shame for any civilized city, and I refuse to believe that anyone is begging on the street because they want to. Not here in England, and not in America either, where that polarity exists as well; but I think the attitude in America is a little bit tougher. You have to be angry at some level, but that doesn't mean you have to go around foaming at the mouth all day. At least in this country, if you criticize your government you're not going to be tortured or have your arms and legs blown off."
When she first began publishing, she was often included in among the cyberpunk crowd: Gibson, Sterling, Shiner, et al. "But there are genre lines and there are genre lines, and not everyone means the same thing. At the time I really wasn't aware of what was going on, for the most part. I lived in Kansas, and at the time I didn't even have a computer. The last thing, I think, I wrote on a typewriter was something that became part of Mindplayers. Then one day in the mail was a rag called Cheap Truth (edited, pseudonymously by Bruce Sterling), and I realized I'd been missing out on stuff by being real busy and having a baby and stuff.... I was very flattered to be mentioned in the same breath as the group of people who came to be known as the cyberpunks. I didn't feel as though I was at the heart of it. I'm pretty sure Bruce likes my Mindplayers better than any of the other books, and then there were those people who objected to Mindplayers being included as cyberpunk.
"I sense really, in retrospect, that there was a lot of sexism (inherent in the cyberpunk movement). I was the only woman in Mirrorshades (probably the definitive cyberpunk anthology), and I was the only woman to be mentioned in that group of writers. Some people thought of that as tokenism; other people didn't know that Pat Cadigan was a woman; and other people completely ignored me and left my name off everything. It was one of those things that occurred to me quickly: that I had to put my head down and do the best work that I possibly could, rather than getting confrontational. Because this would all blow over and only the work would remain. There were people who would confront me at conventions -- and there was an element of hostility -- and they wanted to take issue with me over something, often, that Bruce Sterling had said. I thought, 'Why don't you go risk a punch in the nose from Bruce.' So they'd get me to explain. And they'd go off feeling like, as Harlan Ellison once said, the banjo player who'd had a big breakfast. For a while I went round saying that Lew Shiner was the pacifist in the group -- go talk to him -- whereas I'm more likely to meet you in the alley with a piece of pipe. Which isn't quite true: my piece of pipe days are over. I haven't ambushed anyone in an alley for ages. Generally now, people will sometimes still take issue with me over something."
David Mathew studied English at university, worked as a teacher in Cairo and Gdansk, and is now a full-time writer and journalist. He is working on a biography of Ramsey Campbell and has recently completed a novel. He is also co-designing a game show.
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