M. John Harrison Interview – You Should Come With Me Now
M. John Harrison’s first story was published in New Worlds in 1968. Since then he has proved himself one of the most interesting writers in genre. His Viriconium stories, beginning with The Pastel City (1971), use a decaying city on the edge of time to explore the very nature of fantasy and escapism, while the award-winning Kefahuchi Tract sequence (2002 – 2012) redefined space opera for the new millennium. You Should Come With Me Now, out now from Comma Press, is his first short story collection since 2003, and demonstrates the continuing evolution and growth of this remarkable artist. M. John Harrison was kind enough to speak to Fantasy-Faction via email about the release of the new collection, and his previous works.
Your new short story collection You Should Come With Me Now is out now from Comma Press. How has your writing evolved in the time between this and your previous short story collection, Things That Never Happen?
I think it’s carried on growing up. The directions it began to choose in the 1990s are more prominent; it’s more amused; it’s less likely to make allowances. There’s an acknowledgement of late style. Late style has a component of return. It’s quite an irritable, quite an objective assessment of the difference between what you would have wanted to say at twenty but didn’t have the technique for, and what you have managed to say since. If you can keep your sense of humour, you can continue to close the gap between ambition and achievement.
A number of the short stories started life on your blog, The Ambiente Hotel. What is it about this new medium that excites you? Do you feel it liberating in comparison to writing traditional short stories?
Well, you can certainly do whatever you like. That’s liberating, after fifty years of trying to compromise.
A key component of the depth of your work is ambiguity, whether it’s your characters’ ambiguity towards the narrative expectations they are asked to fulfil or your own ambiguity to traditional concepts of genre. Where does this come from?
Originally it was because I couldn’t bear the mechanised certainties of popular fiction etc., etc. Now I just write about people who don’t quite know who or what they are, in circumstances which aren’t all that clear. What comes out of that is less “ambiguity” than the narratives of people who don’t quite know who or what they are, in circumstances which aren’t all that clear. If we were honest we’d admit we all meet the criteria for those categories of story. But we prefer the Hollywood monomyth, which supports itself one half on lovely rewarding Joseph Campbell and the other half on the idea that people’s lives come down to demonstrable causalities which can be delivered efficiently by workshopped American Formalism.
You have survived and outgrown attempts to label or categorise your work from the New Wave through the New Weird. Are these movements useful ways of thinking about approaching genre or do they get in the way of the writing?
I have, yes, survived and outgrown, and I hope to continue to do so. Movements, like “influences”, are too Saturnian. Eat Father quickly, before he eats you. The same is true of Mother: go look at “Science Fiction Eating Her Children” in the Tate and tell me that’s not a life lesson.
The new collection features the first Viriconium story for decades. What prompted a return?
I wanted to see what I would do as a seventy-year-old writing Viriconium. I was going to add that the new story’s not really canon; but in fact I think if you’re going to read “A Young Man’s Journey” last, you should read “Jack of Mercy’s” first; and vice versa. The rest in any order in between.
One of the fascinating aspects about the Viriconium stories is that the city is different every time we see it, they actively play games with the reader’s expectations and perception of continuity. What made you want to explore this aspect in a fantasy setting?
At first it was a way of trolling a particular UK SFF editor; then, across the 1970s, the genre fantasy reader. In the early 1980s it got caught up with poststructuralisms of various sorts. Then in the mid-80s, while I was busy with the modernist epiphanic narrative and rather dismissive of the whole Viriconium thing, I realised it had been contributory to a way of constructing stories the Campbellian model won’t permit–indeed, won’t even allow you to *define* as stories–even though they’re happening all round you every day, and everyone’s lives are made up of them.
What does the attenuation of Viriconium by “A Young Man’s Journey” to a mere dream tell us about escapism and our relationship to the fantastic in literature?
I don’t know, but it tells us a lot about frame narratives and context-flipping. Also about how story *is* structure. It’s an attentuation but not to a “mere dream”. It’s a way of telling the reader, right at the end, right in the last paragraph, what the whole thing’s been about. It’s oblique but that’s how it’s true. (You can see the same flip at work in several of the stories in You Should Come With Me Now, especially “Dog People” and “Animals”.) I’m glad to say that I don’t have a “relationship to the Fantastic in Literature” any more, in the sense that I don’t think about what I do in that way. Writing doesn’t come from the context someone else uses to describe it.
You collaborated with the artist Ian Miller for the graphic novel adaptation of The Luck In The Head (1991). How did that experience differ from writing the short story? Was visually representing something as mutable as Viriconium a challenge?
Obviously, Ian was responsible for the visual representation. He didn’t seem to find it challenging. But he was always trying to challenge me, to drive his interpretations and visual surfaces towards their most radical expression. I was delighted, because that’s what I’d been doing with the structures and characterisation of the stories. I have a mixed-media study he gave me, for his cover of the Allen & Unwin 1987 edition of Viriconium. Magnificent. The Barley Brothers never looked livelier.
The Kefahuchi Tract books are your second deconstruction of the space opera, after the much earlier The Centauri Device (1975). How was tackling it different in the 2000s from in the 1970s?
Writing The Centauri Device was like hijacking a milk float as a getaway car. I still felt I had to explain things to the reader the science fiction editors had defined for me, a kind of dependent literalist who would–for instance–need the plot explained in dialogue and the dialogue explained via attribution. But by 2000 I’d finally abandoned the milk float and got hold of a Lancia Delta HF Integrale. By then it had become clear that SF was being read by all sorts of new people; so for the old fashioned sci-fi editors’ model reader it was keep up or get left behind.
Again the Kefahuchi Tract novels play with the reader’s assumption of continuity and how everything will or won’t fit together by the end of the trilogy. What makes loose ends more compelling than tied knots?
Well, you know, they do and they don’t. Actually, there aren’t any loose ends. It’s that the stories which make up the story aren’t Hollywood mono-stories. They’re more like the indistinct, incomplete chains of events that happen all around us. The clue is in Empty Space, where the text describes Irene the Mona’s life as a series of “Levy Flights”. This, after all, is science fiction, you would expect some science in it. Human activity as a Markov-style process, a Random or almost-Random Walk, is one of several science-based metaphors I used throughout as chassis. And there’s a lot of messing with scale and perspective, so that one minute you’re inside a life, the next you have a more historical or statistical point of view. Novels used to do these sorts of things before they learned to be one-trick ponies.
The Kefahuchi Tract novels use space opera tropes to interrogate the genre’s colonialist attitudes and assumptions of the importance of human agency. Is this something SF could be doing more of?
You use found dialogue from snatches of overheard conversations in your work. Where did that idea come from and how did you start using it?
In the mid-1970s I began to keep notebooks. I was interested in found material of all kinds. I was sitting in cafes and on the top decks of buses, getting other people’s lives down verbatim. I wanted the real, but at the same time I wanted to dissociate. I was taking Polaroid photographs of people and then describing the photographs rather than the people themselves; I was using text from old postcards bought at random from flea markets. I didn’t want to be involved. I didn’t want to run the risk of ending up a diarist, except perhaps the wonky diarist of vanished lives. I needed to edge up to my own life via other people’s. While I was learning to salt invented dialogue with the found kind, I realised it could also be used to dope the settings with emotional information that would convey itself indirectly.
Your novel Climbers (1989) won the 1989 Boardman Tasker prize for mountain literature. Was the process of writing this different from writing your more fantastical or SFnal works?
It was looking and writing, which turned out to be a very invigorating process. I went climbing and I wrote it down. I redistributed the events, and redistributed characters between events, and then redistributed the characteristics of the characters. The rule was: when it seems most autobiographical it must be least, and vice versa. “The Ice Monkey” and “Old Women” are direct predecessors in terms of method. After Climbers, some of those techniques were encouraged to leak back into the F/SF/H, until by the mid-90s, with stories like “Gifco”, I began to find the kind of fluid traffic I was looking for between the real and the imagined.
One of the answers to your first question above is that by You Should Come With Me Now that crossover has become second nature.
How has climbing influenced your other writings?
It confirmed my theory that you need to know what you’re doing, especially on the difficult moves.
The Course Of The Heart (1992) explores the idea of the Coeur, a magical land in Europe that can only be accessed under very specific conditions. How do you feel about the novel now given Europe’s increasingly fragile topography?
By the late 80s you could already see the “elastic boundaries” of Europe shifting, rebounding, reordering themselves. Who knew what would become visible as a result? When Lucas the meddler, the eternal ephebe, follows the book of his blood out of my book and into the book of Eastern Europe, what can he expect to find? Well, a new fascism, I guess. That’s where people who believe their blood is a book always end up.
Signs Of Life (1996) explores a kind of thwarted metamorphosis. What attracted you to this idea?
Isobel’s metamorphosis is not the subject matter of the story, it’s an allegory of desire. Desire and narcissism saturate the text, and are the actual subject matter of the story. Isobel’s desire founds the toxic capitalism of her lovers. Signs of Life is a novel that, as it ages, seems to become more not less appropriate to the times. I got the idea in the Thatcher period: it’s amazing how Maggie and Isobel managed to trap us all in the early 1980s. I never thought of it as an exploration. More a convulsion.
Your first novel, The Committed Men (1971), plays with the tropes of the apocalypse novel and the disaster novel. Was this something you were fascinated by at the time?
Yes, but not as a manipulated suite of tropes. I was less interested in shuffling and dealing than in saying something. I got an offer for the film rights of The Committed Men, but when I saw the treatment I found they had reversed its conclusions. Books are about meanings, not tropes, so I said no.
Your prose is uniquely beautiful. How much crafting and rewriting goes into the process to write like that?
Lots. But only because it has a job to do. Without words organised on a page there is no subject matter. You spend 50 years taking care with language so that sci-fi reviewers can misquote it in the same breath as they call it “style over content”. It’s the great utopian fallacy of that community that a *proper* story somehow communicates itself between lovely writers and readers via the astral plane. When I have a readerly problem with the relationship between style and content, it’s usually the opposite of the common one. Their delivery is so bad, I can’t actually work out what Dan Brown or Robert Ludlum are trying to sell me: I can never get past that first confusingly illiterate paragraph. I loved The Bourne Identity, so I tried to read the book. Have you ever compared its first few paragraphs with the opening scene of the movie? Do yourself a favour and don’t bother. In that case a picture really is worth a thousand words.
I was very interested by something you said in a recent interview about how the fantastic and the horrific can only exist in relation to the mundane, and was wondering if you could elaborate a bit on that for us.
Hard, really, to have the one without the other to foreground it. Not without them both becoming something different.
What’s next for M. John Harrison?
I’m working on a novel that will cover some of the same territory as You Should Come With Me Now. I’ve also got a couple of ghost stories on the go; and discussions about a mystery project, a collaboration which, if it comes off, will fairly catapult me out of my comfort zone.
We would like to thank M. John Harrison again for taking the time to speak with us. You can learn more about You Should Come With Me Now and his others works on his website or you can follow him on Twitter @mjohnharrison.