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Interview: Michael Swanwick on “Ghost Ships”

Michael SwanwickTell us a bit about “Ghost Ships.”

“Ghost Ships” is one of those stories where the writer claims that “this story is different from all other ghost stories because it all really did happen to me.” Which, of course, nobody ever believes. But unlike all those other stories, every word of this one is true. I didn’t see the ships myself but I knew the people who did and I believed them. The ships were seen on the ocean in broad daylight on a calm and clear day, and I never came up with a rational explanation for them. The incident niggled at my imagination for over forty years before I found the right context for it.

 

What was the inspiration for this story, or what prompted you to write it?

I am not a reunion-going kind of guy. But I went to my 41st college reunion, the first I ever attended, because an old pal of mine from my College of William and Mary days had died and our mutual friends were having a memorial for him. “Rabbit,” as I called him in the story, was a good man who led an admirable life. By coincidence, I had just learned of the death of another old friend who had behaved very badly in his last years, trashing several lives in the process. So I wanted to celebrate all that Rabbit had been. In part, at least, to get the taste of that other life out of my mouth.

Exactly how that played out and what I learned from the experience became the matter of “Ghost Ships.”

 

Was “Ghost Ships” personal to you in any way?  If so, how?

When my wife, Marianne Porter, read the story, she said, “This is an essay.” She’d heard my stories and reminiscences over the years and knew that everything in it happened exactly as I wrote it down. So, yes, “Ghost Ships” is intensely personal. But at the same time, it’s not about me at all. It’s about the people I knew and what became of them and, ultimately, what becomes of all of us. Despite the fact that that I’m at the center of it and everything is filtered through my perceptions and emotions, I think I’m the least important, least interesting element of the story.

I realized much later that I began writing “Ghost Ships” shortly after the death of Gardner Dozois. So there’s a subtext of mourning his loss in there as well.

 

In this issue, you story is paired with a story your friend Gardner Dozois wrote just before he passed away last year. Everyone knows him as an editor, but no one knows him better as a writer than you do. Would you mind talking a little bit about his writing? What are the qualities of a Gardner Dozois story? What are the stories someone new to his writing should go find and read?

Gardner was one of the master stylists of science fiction. His peers, people like Joe Haldeman and George R. R. Martin, held him in awe. His prose was exquisite. Sentence by sentence, his best writing can go one-on-one with the best of Gene Wolfe or Ursula K. Le Guin. When Jack Dann or I collaborated on a story with him, he always had the final draft. That’s something I don’t think either of us would have entrusted to any other writer.

Gardner’s stories were unflinching and often dark, yet always deeply compassionate. Mostly, they were achingly beautiful. They showed just what prose could do.

For those unfamiliar with his work, any of his collections would be a great place to start. I’d give pride of place to his first, The Visible Man, with Geodesic Dreams (a “best of” collection, so there’s a lot of overlap) a close second. I recommend starting with “A Special Kind of Morning,” which was an anomaly for him in being a far-future war story, crammed full of bright invention and a wonderfully warm vision of what an extraordinary gift life can be. And it begins with the absolutely terrific first sentence, “Did y’ever hear the one about the old man and the sea?” Then read “Machines of Loving Grace,” one of the bleakest stories imaginable, and contemplate the fact that Gardner considered the ending upbeat because the protagonist never gives up on her determination to commit suicide. And then, well, all the rest.

Gardner only wrote one non-collaborative novel, Strangers, but it’s a stunner. Tom Purdom called it one of the best science fiction novels ever written. Adding, “It may well be one of the best novels ever written about the importance of culture.”  I can’t argue with that.

 

Why do you write?

Because I can.

 

Who do you consider to be your influences?

I was part of the last generation of writers to enter the field having read pretty much everything of note that had ever been written as science fiction and part of the first generation to read everything (a much easier task then) that had been written as fantasy. Privately, I imagined their authors as one single, multi-talented genius capable of writing The Left Hand of Darkness, Have Space Suit Will Travel, Mistress of Mistresses, and The Incomplete Enchanter with equal ease. That’s my greatest influence.

If I get specific and mention writers like Gene Wolfe, A. S. Byatt, Samuel R. Delany, Joanna Russ, and Vladimir Nabokov, I’m just boasting—who knows with what validity? But those (and many others) are the people I’m trying to emulate.

 

What are you working on now?

Next year, Tor.com is going to publish The City Under the Stars, the novel that Gardner and I were working on when he died. As anyone who has ever read our novella, “The City of God,” which became the first half of the book, will attest, it has some of the darkest writing Gardner ever committed to paper. But it also has an upbeat ending—both for the protagonist and for the human race as a whole. I ended up writing that by myself but the vision was entirely Gardner’s. It mattered to him that his character would find safe haven and joy at the end of the ordeal that he had no idea was actually a pilgrimage.

I think it’s important for everyone to know that Gardner ended on a positive note. As, come to think of it, “Homecoming,” his final short story, does as well, though in a less straightforward manner. It was a joy to read it for the first time in F&SF.

 

“Ghost Ships” appears in the 70th Anniversary Issue of F&SF.

You can buy a paper copy of the issue here: https://www.sfsite.com/fsf/toc1909.htm

You can buy an electronic copy of the issue here: https://weightlessbooks.com/authors/kelly-link-authors/the-magazine-of-fantasy-and-science-fiction-september-october-2019/

You can subscribe to the print edition of F&SF here: https://www.sfsite.com/fsf/subscribe.htm

You can subscribe to the electronic edition of F&SF at the following links:

Weightless Books (all formats): https://weightlessbooks.com/format/the-magazine-of-fantasy-and-science-fiction-6-issue-subscription/

Amazon US (Kindle edition):http://www.amazon.com/dp/B004ZFZ4O8/

Amazon UK (Kindle edition):http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B004ZFZ4O

Photo credit: Mikey Mongol

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