A dream-logic London squid riff: an interview with China Miéville (part two)

Read part one here.

Angela Meyer: Just going back to what you were sort of talking about, the excessive nature of Kraken (Aus, US, UK) and chucking everything in – I’m really interested in your writing and I just find it so rich but at the same time I found I still was reading it quite quickly. I’m just wondering how long you’d spend on a sentence? Like is it very much in the first draft that it all comes out or do you go back and really work on a paragraph?

China Miéville: Oh I do, I do – with Kraken I worked quite a lot, it went through several drafts. It varies book to book but I do pay a lot of attention to the prose. I mean, I like prose and I don’t mind prose that asks the reader to make an effort, and that sort of knotted prose. I really wanted Kraken to have this sort of peculiar register almost as if the book was kind of absent-mindedly chatting to you. It’s very much kind of a homage to Pynchon, really. I like Pynchon a lot. I always like the way his books have these incredibly powerful rambles. And so, yes, I work quite hard at the sentence level and I wanted to try and create a kind of prose register which felt a bit odd.

AM: But it’s still has a hip, kind of *snaps fingers* pacy thing to it, like it has a rhythm…

CM: Well I’m glad you think so. I mean, it’s a comedy, y’no, and so I wanted it to be quite…

AM: It’s very fun.

CM: A lot of the rhythm is *palms table like a drum* – y’no there’s a certain kind of set-up, delivery, set-up, delivery, set-up, delivery type thing…

AM: Yeah – boom boom ching…

CM: Yeah exactly, and also it’s a London rhythm and a lot of it is to do with the street rhythms of London. I spent a lot of time like some kind of creepy old man listening to teenagers on buses and stuff, listening to the way they talk to each other, and the *click click click* creativity of *click* slang is just constantly joy-making to me, so yeah – I was trying to work at that, trying to kind of triangulate between modernism and slang.

AM: So like stream-of-consciousness, rambly but…

CM: But riffing, but riffing. Y’no, like when you’re with a mate and you know each other really well, and you maybe might be like slightly drunk and…

AM: Yeah, you have your own language…

CM: And you’re kind of riffing off stuff, and one of you will say something and you’ll get the jokes and you’re *click click click* kind of riffing.

AM: Yeah like my boyfriend and his best friend call each other Daddy.

*crickets*

CM: Yeah, like these absurd rants – you’ll start talking about Russell Crowe and then the next thing you’ll marry each other to Russell Crowe and then you’ll talk about this crazy stupid stuff, so I wanted to kind of riff on that.

Benjamin Solah: Whereas, with The City & the City, some of the language is more true to the hard-boiled detective genre which I really liked – I read a fair bit of detective fiction when I was in high school. Another thing was that you took the point of view of a cop – Marxists and socialists are against the police, but I didn’t find that compromising or anything, like I still sympathised with that cop character and I thought that was about being true to the genre…

CM: Y’no people have talked about this before and to me, it’s kind of a non-issue. I mean there is a tradition amongst some on the left of having a rather fallacious notion of what culture is and how it works and what fiction is, and so you get this kind of pious and unconvincing sense of, y’no, ‘if you are a socialist you shouldn’t…’ or whatever, and I think – it’s not a job recruitment form, it’s a novel, it’s doing a different thing. I’m not asking you to agree with him. I’m not asking you to agree with his choice of job, I’m not asking you to agree with a single decision he makes in the entire book.

I mean for me, and this would be a *spoiler*, for me the decision he makes at the end, you know the structures he becomes part of, I think is crazy – but that’s not what fiction’s for, and it’s particularly the case with this book, from people on the left. Other books, like Perdido Street Station, I have people saying to me: ‘well you know I didn’t agree with the decision you made at the end’. I didn’t make a decision – one of the characters did something. And I’m not trying to cop out – I think you do have a certain kind of political responsibility, to think about the ramifications of what your book is saying. But the idea that narrowly, if a sympathetic character does it you support it, is just bananas, it’s just crazy, so…

AM: Christos Tsiolkas was going through that in the UK, the media calling him a misogynist and things like that because his characters are misogynistic.

CM: Yeah, it’s tricky because sometimes it can also be used as an exoneration, it can be like ‘well, look, I’m just depicting someone who’s a horrible rascist’ and it’s like ‘yeah, there’s something about the way you’re doing it that’s making me really uneasy’, but it’s a case-by-case thing, you know?

BS: Yeah. Like with Tsiolkas’ book, there are misogynistic characters, but I think you’re meant to hate those characters…

AM: Oh yeah, absolutely, it’s supposed to say something about the era. I was going to ask you just a bit about the characters. I suppose through some of them you’re exploring that language aspect, like through Collingswood, for example, she’s really great. For some reason the one who stayed with me was Wati, I don’t know why – something about his being persistent through the ages, but fragile. I imagine it’d be different for different readers because there are so many different characters. Marge – she stayed with me too, I think because she was the ordinary one who was fighting. She didn’t quite know why she was, but that was really great. I was just wondering, did you have a soft spot for any of the characters? Or was it hard to let that particular cast of characters go?

CM: I’m not sentimental about my characters as in I’m not one of these writers who says: ‘I had a conversation with my characters’. I’m like, ‘no you didn’t – they don’t exist’, or I’m not someone who says that I don’t know what my characters are going to do. But that said, you get affection towards particular ones, but they exist within the bounds of that book, so I really like Collingswood, I think she’s a bit horrible but I really enjoyed writing her, I enjoy the riffing. I really like Wati – those two probably, above all others, are the ones that loom largest for me in that book. But it’s not a problem for me to leave them behind when the book ends because they don’t for me exist beyond the bounds of that book, y’no, they’re very much functions of a particular text, so they were a great pleasure to write, but I was fine when it ended. Having said which… there has been some talk about doing more books based around Collingswood and I’m open to that, so – it doesn’t preclude going back, but yeah, those were probably the two that were the most fun to write and I think that generally means the most fun to read.

AM: We don’t have much time left. Flexible time – I love that in the book. The Star Trek phaser – that awesome intertextual…

CM: Well the book is a kind of loving, teasing of fandom, y’no and I was never a Trekkie…

AM: My Dad is, so I totally got it. This will be my last question: did you do any research into religious lore or cults or anything like that as you were planning it?

CM: Somewhat, but more at the meta-level, I’m very interested in faith per se, more-so than the specifics of individual cults. I don’t particularly sign up, it always seems to me that there are a few religions which get treated as whipping boys for the kind of craziness of religion among a certain group of rather vulgar atheists, so people would be like ‘oh God y’no Scientology it’s really crazy, and Mormonism it’s really crazy’ and I’m always like ‘well have you read the Bible?’ I mean, if you’re not a religious person, any set of religious beliefs is crazy, and you’ve got two ways of dealing with that: you either do the kind of Dawkins thing and say ‘well, it’s all stupid’ which I think is really unhelpful and disrespectful and it’s based on a  bad theory of religion; or you can say: I don’t care what the content of what you believe is, because there’s all kinds of complicated reasons why people believe all kinds of things, y’no, the question is: what do you do? How do those beliefs impact your behavior? You can be a Christian and firmly committed to social justice; you can be a Christian fascist – you know? And that’s my issue – if it’s in the name of Christ that you’re doing something that I politically agree with, then I’m not going to argue with you about that, I mean – that’s a separate discussion, we might have that discussion, but I’m not gonna sit there like Christopher Hitchens and say ‘this is all stupid’.

So I’m very interested in faith and the way it works, and sociologically what religion does, psychologically what it does – and I say that completely respectfully, y’no? I’m an atheist but I have no interest in dissing faith, it seems faith is often a very beautiful thing – people have created some of the most wonderful works of art in history through faith, faith can move people to do unbelievably heroic acts. So I’m interested in the way it works as a function. The specifics of individual cults don’t interest me that much which is why I had fun inventing my own. I’m not overly interested in existing real-world religions – more than a social phenomenon – but there is always this tradition in science fiction of the ‘strange cult’ and that’s a great tradition to feed in on, and then I could just invent my own ridiculous cult, so that was a huge amount of fun. So the cults are not allegories for really existing cults, they’re intended to be crazy…

BS: I was curious about how you negotiate being edited as a political writer because I’ve had various experiences. I was wondering, when you started out, how could you tell when people were changing the way political ideas were expressed through the fiction – or whether it was just that people disagreed with you and wanted to take ideas out?

CM: I’ve never ever had a problem with political editing, that’s all I can say. I mean, I like being edited – and I don’t always agree with my editors, but it’s never a political disagreement, it’s always, y’no, ‘this sentence would work better with a comma’, or ‘you need more of Collingswood, she disappears for this chapter’, it’s that kind of thing. I can honestly say I’ve never had a situation where I’ve suspected that the editing is a political thing. I’m not saying it couldn’t happen, and maybe if you were dealing with a particularly contentious political issue – if you were writing explicitly about, I don’t know about Palestine or something and you had an editor who disagreed with you about that then maybe it would happen – it’s never happened to me, and I can be pretty sure it wouldn’t happen with either of my editors at the moment.

I think, fundamentally, what they’re interested in is, do they think you’ve done as good a book as you can? In any professional publishing, the question of ‘good’ is a kind of uneasy oscillation between commercial and quality, which are two different things, and obviously they want to sell as many as possible, but it’s also not true that publishers don’t love books. Most of them do, and many times I know full well they might say ‘it would be more popular if you did this, but I think this is beautiful as it is, let’s leave it’. Y’no, there’s no point parodying them. When I wrote Iron Council if it had been purely a commercial thing they would have said: ‘this is a fantasy novel about gay trade unionists, stop it’, y’no? So it’s both those things, and your editor’s not your enemy, most of the time – and maybe I’ve just been lucky with editors but I’ve never had a political issue with it.

Thank you China Miéville and PanMacmillan Australia.

4 thoughts on “A dream-logic London squid riff: an interview with China Miéville (part two)

  1. Pingback: Book News, Reviews, and Musings 20 October 2010 | Read in a Single Sitting - Book reviews and new books

  2. Pingback: A dream-logic London squid riff: an interview with China Miéville (part one) – LiteraryMinded

  3. Pingback: Guest review: Lyndon Riggall on Embassytown by China Miéville | LiteraryMinded

  4. Pingback: A dream-logic London squid riff: an interview with China Miéville (part one) | LiteraryMinded

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