Tag Archives: neil gaiman

David Mitchell, author of Cloud Atlas and Booker nominee, is a true geek

David Mitchell is one of the world’s most successful literary novelists. He has been twice nominated for the prestigious Booker prize, and his novel Cloud Atlas was adapted to the Tykwer and Wachowski film starring Tom Hanks. He’s also a huge sci-fi fan with a long love of geek culture. Damien Walter sat down with the bestselling author to discuss his SF influences, which D&D character type he plays, and the future of the novel in a multi-media age.

This interview is brought to you courtesy of Damien’s Patreon backers. Become a Patron for $2 a month to help support independent writing.


Damien – Hello David. Sci-fi and fantasy fiction have a huge and very dedicated fanbase, who over the years have come to love your work. I think many fans see parallels between the metaphysical ideas in your writing, and common ideas in genre fiction. I’d like to ask you a few questions about this.

David – Cheers Damien. Good to meet you, and thanks for your interest in my work. The Geek Shall Inherit the Earth.

Damien – The relationship between literary fiction and sci-fi has been discussed a lot recently, including a fascinating dialogue between Kazuo Ishiguro and Neil Gaiman.

David – Gosh that was an interesting article – one of the most ideas-buzzing conversations about genre I’ve ever read, don’t you think? I was fascinated by NG’s anecdote about China. My own experience is that while the Party has relaxed regarding SF & Fantasy, it still censors alternative history SF. Of course, if the past is rewritable, the Party’s place in it, and in China’s present and future, is more arbitrary than inevitable. Makes you think of the famous Orwell quote about whoever controls the present controls the past, and whoever controls the past controls the future. There’s something deeply subversive about SF, in part because of its camouflage – “Hey Mr Grownups, don’t worry about me as an art-form, I’m just kids’ fantasy rubbish, they’ll all grow out of me in a year or two…”

“my longest-lived character was a Ranger based on, and possibly even named, Aragorn.”

Damien – That must be why so many writers were inspired by sci-fi as kids. You’ve admitted to a totally normal white middle class upbringing in the past. Did this include such geeky things as Doctor Who, comic books, Dungeons & Dragons, video games?

The Bone Clocks

David – I’d use the verb ‘assert’ rather than ‘admit’. Protected solvent normality with sane kind parents, is a stroke of luck, not a misdemeanour. But yes; yes; yes…and yes! Tom Baker was my formative Doctor – someone that batshit crazy simply had to be real, a trick that Capaldi borrows to great effect. 2000AD was my comic – I loved THE STAINLESS STEEL RAT stories particularly, and JUDGE DREDD provided great training in long-form episodic narratives. AD&D, yes, until an age when I really should have been doing something more pro-active about my lack of a girlfriend – my longest-lived character was a Ranger based on, and possibly even named, Aragorn. (He’s still out there, somewhere…) Video games – not so much playing them as programming them. I made an epic on my 48k Sinclair Spectrum called THE SPHERES OF CREATION. (It was a load of balls. I know, it’s the way I tell ’em.) It was a quest-based adventure game, and for a short time a software house in Stockport was interested in developing it, though that fizzled out. I think of it now as a kind of proto-novel.

 “Just because you deploy genre for the book in hand doesn’t mean you’re married to that genre ’til death us do part.”

Damien – You’ve listed Ursula Le Guin and Issac Asimov as early writing influences, two Big Guns of science fiction. Are there any others you might add? Which scifi authors impress you today?

I remember collecting the RIVERWORLD books by Philip Jose Farmer; the ‘Gil the Arm’ stories by Larry Niven, about a detective with a psychic arm; Theodore Sturgeon’s MORE THAN HUMAN; Harry Harrison, author of THE STAINLESS STEEL RAT; JG Ballard; HG Wells; EE ‘Doc’ Smith’s LENSMEN books, though I now suspect the Chris Foss covers were better than the books themselves; Ray Bradbury. I’m sure there were more. Like Neil Gaiman, I enjoyed reading Asimov’s (slightly self-congratulatory, but never mind) introductions to each of the stories in his volumes of COLLECTED STORIES – these short passages provided insights into the craft and business of writing which were unavailable elsewhere. I had a cheaply-printed second-hand American anthology called 100 YEARS OF SCIENCE FICTION that I bought from a shop in Upton-on-Severn, and I still remember some of the stories in it, even if I don’t remember the authors.

Number 9 Dream

These days I’d add the names Neal Stephenson and William Gibson and Margaret Attwood to the list, but there would be many more individual books than names of individuals: Kazuo Ishiguro’s NEVER LET ME GO; Emily St John Mandel’s STATION ELEVEN; EM Forster’s (seriously) SF novella THE MACHINE STOPS; Michel Faber’s THE BOOK OF STRANGE NEW THINGS; Gary Shteyngart’s SUPER SAD TRUE LOVE STORY; Kate Atkinson’s LIFE AFTER LIFE. Something’s afoot. For literary-ish writers of my generation – and the freer-styled writers in the generation ahead of ours, like Kazuo Ishiguro – the assumption that only social realists are allowed into the throne-room is falling into disrepute. Just because you deploy genre for the book in hand doesn’t mean you’re married to that genre ’til death us do part. It’s not like Dylan going electric. Or, it is, but it doesn’t end with electric; it can then veer country-wards for NASHVILLE SKYLINE, before wellying up the bass-lines for JOHN WESLEY HARDING, before …

Damien – Before going as far and as freely as the author can imagine. A great imagination must be a basic criteria for a good novelist, but people sometimes frown at wilder flights of fantasy. Do you see anything fundamentally different between mapping imaginary archipelagos and describing the detailed lives of real people and real places?

Cloud Atlas

David – (1) The mapping of made-up archipelagos is imaginary cartography. (2) Describing the detailed lives of real people and real places is biography and history, respectively. (3) Describing the detailed lives of imagined people in places you can find on Earth today is an act of fiction, and if the laws of physics in this fiction pretty much correspond to those of our world, then the label ‘social realism’ is applied by those who care about these matters. (4) If the novel is set on a place not on any map (and “true places never are” Melville writes in MOBY DICK) or if the laws of physics have been monkeyed about with, then the label ‘SF’ or ‘fantasy’ gets applied, depending if the monkeyings are of a techno or a magical nature. So, to answer your question: (1) and (2) are fundamentally different from each other and from (3) and (4). (3) and (4) are not so different from each other, no. In both cases, fiction is being written and it’s either good or bad or somewhere in between, according to the talents of the writer and the tastes of the reader. Frown if it’s bad, frown if you have to take it to the charity shop after only 40 pages in, but don’t frown just because it’s a wild flight of fantasy. GAWAINE AND THE GREEN KNIGHT is a wild flight of fantasy. So is much of Shakespeare. So are key chunks of Dickens. So is Borges.

Damien – Your debut novel Ghostwritten seems to flirt with many forms of afterlife – ghosts of course, and the idea of reincarnation. Do you play with supernatural ideas for fun, or does the book express any part of your true beliefs?

David – Ghostwritten – If I remember correctly, it’s been years since I looked at it – incorporates various forms of the afterlife because the novel wouldn’t have been the novel I wanted it to be if it hadn’t done so. The novel’s the boss, every time. I’m a content-enough agnostic with a now-common built-in wariness of both mega-religions and cults. I’ve read books about Buddhism that I’ve found instructive and helpful for my relationship with my mind, but I have little doubt that Buddhist institutions in East Asia are every bit as capable of mafioso practices and predatory violence as the Catholic Church has proven itself to be in Ireland.


“Novels can no more compete with films and video games than Led Zeppelin’s The Battle of Evermore can compete with a weekend mini-break in Palermo.”

Damien – Cloud Atlas also interwove multiple story-lines, and took the reader into a future dystopia and the post-apocalypse. Are these serious predictions about how you see the future unfolding?

David – They are possible futures. I have no idea if the futures portrayed in Cloud Atlas will come to pass or not, and neither does anyone else. All futures are possible until they cull the competition by becoming the singular present. Aren’t time and reality fascinating things?

Damien – The Bone Clocks has been called your most explicitly sci-fi novel to date, with elements of the paranormal, the alien, and conspiracy theories. But I’m most struck by your repeated interest in teenage characters. What draws you back to the adolescent experience?

David – Not sure if I’d totally agree with the premise of the question, Damien. There’s the whole of Black Swan Green and one-sixth of The Bone Clocks where my narrators are adolescents, and… I think that’s my lot? That said, adolescence is an interesting threshold in life, with one foot in childhood and one in adulthood, don’t you think? Adolescents are neither fish nor fowl, they have a lot to learn even if they think otherwise. They tend to be seeing the adult world for the first time and thus have fresh eyeballs, and everything they do is a journey of one type or another. Gold dust for novelists.

Damien – The Bone Clocks also revealed more clearly than ever the “meta-narrative” that appears to stitch all of your novels together. Have you been planning this from the beginning?

David – It has been quietly mutating as I’ve gone along.

Damien – Some people argue the novel is in trouble, that it can’t compete with the spectacle of films and video games. Your novels are experimental and challenging, but also commercially successful. What makes the novel relevant for people today?

David – For people who don’t have the novel habit, novels couldn’t be more irrelevant. Just occasionally a HARRY POTTER or a GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO or a DA VINCI CODE comes along and ram-raids the leisure time of people who don’t normally read, and maybe then they experience a ‘relevancy-surge’ and that’s great (and hats off to those authors). A few non-readers may be converted long-term to the pleasures of novels, but most aren’t, and that’s okay too and anyhow it’s the way of the world so what can you do, eh? Novels can no more compete with films and video games than Led Zeppelin’s THE BATTLE OF EVERMORE can compete with a weekend mini-break in Palermo. To novel-readers, however, the novel is rather more than ‘relevant’: at its best, the form brings pleasure, solace, knowledge, bonding with other readers, intrigue, escapism and who knows, maybe just occasionally a few dribbles of wisdom worth storing away. Yes, the novel’s business model has taken a hammering from the Internet – too many people are too pleased with themselves for downloading books without paying the writer – but a business model being in trouble is not the same thing as an art form being in trouble.

Damien – Thanks for your time David. Any final thoughts?

David – My pleasure, Damien. I suppose my final thought is that our artsy sub-corner of the big wide world would be better if the question “To what genre does this novel belong?” were utterly irrelevant to that novel’s critical or commercial reception. I’m heartened by the signs that we’re getting there, and I sense that we are on the same side.

Will the next wave of publishing technology favour writers?

Independent author Susanna Shore expresses the bottom line on the state of independent publishing in a well thought out post on Kindle Unlimited.

As a KDP author, it’s impossible for me to remain completely neutral, even when keeping outside the dispute. Generally, I tend to favour the opinion that all big companies look for their best interests. For now, Amazon’s interests are favourable to me, but that doesn’t mean they are on my side, or that their interests will continue to be in my favour. Moreover, I don’t have to be on their side to benefit from their desire for profit. In this, I’m firmly on my side, which doesn’t mean I didn’t feel sorry for the authors affected by the dispute.

Read more of So…Kindle Unlimited

The high emotions engendered by the transition from print to digital publishing often cloud the basic facts. As Shore bluntly states, that transition, lead by technology innovated by Amazon, has fallen firmly in favour of writers, and particularly those writers with the energy and skill set to publish independently. Digital eliminates the entire print, distribution and retail chain that once sucked so much value from the wealth generated by publishing books. Now a writer can write and then publish a book to one of a half-dozen ebook marketplaces, Amazon Kindle being by far the largest, and keep hold of most of the wealth the book generates. Even after a substantial cut has gone to the marketplace, the author still gets a far higher percentage return.

But we live in fast moving technological times. The model of a few centralised ebook marketplaces is likely to disappear as fast as it appeared. I personally doubt it will last beyond the end of this decade, 2020. But what might replace it, and will the next wave of publishing technology continue to favour the author?

One way to understand the success of the Amazon Kindle marketplace is as a byproduct of the limitations of internet search. What do I mean by that somewhat jargon heavy statement? We need a central marketplace for ebooks, because Google search doesn’t quite fulfil that function. A Google search can help you find an author or book, but it quickly hands you over to anther information source that actually holds more extensive meta-data on that author or book. Amazon, or the Amazon owned Goodreads, are nearly always the top returned result for any ebook search. And of course it’s in the Amazon marketplace that you actually buy the book, and download it to your e-reader.

But the next stage of internet search has the potential to entirely bypass the Amazon marketplace, and other similar marketplaces for digital goods like ebooks. The semantic web is a simple idea made complex by a somewhat off putting name. In brief, it is the idea that every piece of information on the internet is tagged with the meta-data that describes it. For example, my name “Damien Walter” would also be tagged with my place and date of birth, web address, email etc etc and thousands or millions of other pieces of “meta data”. An ebook, let’s say Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, would be tagged with all the meta-data relevant to it. For instance, it’s current sales data, recent related tweets, reviews, and all kinds of other useful information. Once you have extensive semantic data on most ebooks, Google can effectively displace Amazon as the marketplace for ebooks.

Why? Because when you search, say, for “Science Fiction” on the semantic web, Google will return a far more useful result to you than the current Amazon science fiction category. It will be able to show you bestselling titles, top authors, most talked about books on social networks, and a huge amount of other data tailored to your needs. And all of this data will be decentralised. It will be provided directly, by publishers, by authors, and by readers. And of course, with it’s own robust payment systems, Google will happily deal with the translation to buy this product directly from the author, again without the involvement of Amazon. Instead of uploading an ebook to the Amazon marketplace for a 35-70%, authors might instead upload their new book to their own website, tagged with all relevant semantic data, and sell it via google for 97%, minus only Googles 3% transaction fee.

This is of course speculative. But given the current trends in our technology, there’s every reason to believe that the next technological developments in publishing will give even more power to authors than the Amazon marketplace has done already. Authors are, until computers start writing fiction, the only essential worker needed to create novels. As such the tendency of technology to automate all kinds of work will also tend to shift more and more power away from publishing professionals of all kinds, and towards the author.

On being bossed around by Neil Gaiman

I’ve been outlandishly busy in recent weeks. So much so that I haven’t been able to post anything personal here on my blog. One of the costs of having more freelance writing than you can do is that it squeezes out the personal projects that you love. So here’s a round-up on some of what I’ve been doing recently.

You may have noticed (unless you are reading this in the Andromeda galaxy) that Neil Gaiman has a new book coming out. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a remarkable story, that I was lucky enough to receive a very special edition of some time ago. My review is over on Medium, where I’ve been posting occasional things because I like their platform so much. I feel like Ocean is the start of a new phase in Neil’s fiction writing, and I’m excited about where it’s going to take him next.

Today Neil has been guest editing the Guardian books section, for which I write. He also edited SFX magazine, to which I am a regular contributor. Which kind of means Neil Gaiman has been my boss for the last few weeks. So what’s it like being bossed around by Neil Gaiman?

Well. I got to go on a tour of Weird London, chat with M John Harrison about weird fiction, and record the experience as an audio documentary.

And I got to interview Harlan Ellison. I have been reading Harlan’s fiction since I was a teenager, and I think All The Lies That Are My Life is possibly the only great meditation on being and SF writer ever written. It was an intense interview. You’ll have to go read it to find out what happened.

On Monday I’m heading to the Royal Society of Literature event ‘Magic, Memory and Survival’ where Mr.Gaiman is talking and copies of the new book are being sold. Super-excited about this, and will be live-tweeting the whole event at @damiengwalter

In and around all this I’m continuing work on my book, and also a couple of side projects. And teaching my course in creative writing at University of Leicester. And tweeting too much! It’s a pure joy making my living from writing and teaching writing at the moment, and getting to spend so much time around writers I admire. Happy days.

Harlan Ellison : The Interview

Originally published in The Guardian.

When Damien Walter tweeted he’d ‘literally kill’ to interview the multiple award-winning author Harlan Ellison, Neil Gaiman replied ‘What if the person you had to kill was … Harlan Ellison?’ Here Ellison talks about running away from home, the rights and wrongs of paying to read books and how his job on this planet is annoying people.

DW: Harlan, first of all, can you confirm that you are indeed the great Harlan Ellison?

HE: For all my sins – and I assure you, the only thing that has ever held me back from God-like greatness is my humility – I am the Harlan Ellison, the only one. I’m in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, right between Ellis Island and Ralph Ellison.

DW: Are you the writer of over 1,000 stories, novellas, screenplays, teleplays and essays?

HE: Yeah, it’s probably more like 1,800 now. I find that I have continued to write. I had 10 books last year, and that at my age I think is pretty good. While I always aspired to be Alexandre Dumas, if I reach the level of – I don’t know, Donald Westlake – I’ll be more than happy.

DW: You must have seen and done as much in speculative fiction as anyone, so can you tell us just what is speculative fiction?

HE: I will give you the only answer that there is. It is the game of “what if?”. You take that which is known, and you extrapolate – and you keep it within the bounds of logic, otherwise it becomes fantasy – and you say, “Well, what if?”. That’s what speculative fiction is, and at its very best, it is classic literature, on a level with Moby Dick and Colette and Edgar Allan Poe.

DW: So it’s definitely not fantasy.

HE: Fantasy is a separate genre, and it allows you to go beyond the bounds of that which is acceptable, where all of a sudden people can fly, or the Loch Ness Monster does not have a scientific rationale, but is a mythic creature. It is in the grand tradition of the oldest forms of writing we know, all the way back to Gilgamesh, the very first fiction we know, and the gods. Fantasy is a noble endeavour. Science fiction is a contemporary subset that goes all the way back to Lucian of Samosata, and Verne and Wells, and Aldous Huxley and George Orwell.

DW: It seems to be everywhere, with video games, massive movie franchises and millions of people going to conventions. So why is it so popular now?

HE: Well, we live in a technological age. Time has passed, and we have stepped over the ruins of our own societies, and our own civilisations, and we come now to the fruition of those things about which the human race has dreamed. We have flight and we have electronic assistants. The entertainment media – which are always very timorous and step very carefully out of fear and loathing – don’t know what they’re doing so much. So they go back, and they are catching up on the kind of science fiction – and they call it, in that ugly, ugly phrase, “sci-fi,” which those who have worked in speculative fiction despise, it’s like calling a woman a “broad” – they are catching up on ideas that were covered with hoarfrost 60 years ago. That’s why you have an overabundance of zombies and walking dead, and world war and asteroids from space. They have not yet tackled any of the truly interesting discussions of humanity that are treated in speculative fiction. But they are a break from standard 19th, early 20th-century fiction, and so they seem fresh to an audience that is essentially ignorant.

DW: You famously described sci-fi fandom as an “extended family of wimps, twinks, flakes and oddballs.” But don’t the geeks kind of run the world now?

HE: I am a steadfastly 20th-century guy. I’ve always been pathologically au courant. Even today I can tell you the length of Justin Bieber’s hair. But it has now reduced society to such a trivial, crippled form, that it is beyond my notice. I look at things like Twitter and Facebook, and “reality TV” – which is one of the great frauds of our time, an oxymoron like “giant shrimp” – and I look at it all, and I say, these people do not really know what the good life is. I look at the parched lives that so many people live, the desperation that underlies their every action, and I say, this has all been brought about by the electronic media. And I do not envy them. I do not wish to partake of it, and I am steadfastly in the 20th century. I do not own a handheld device. Mine is an old dial-up laptop computer, which I barely can use – barely. I still write on a manual typewriter. Not even an electronic typewriter, but a manual. My books keep coming out. I have over 100 books published now, and I’ve reached as close to posterity as a poor broken vessel such as I am entitled to reach.

DW: I think I know what you’re going to say as the answer to this question, but I want to ask you anyway. Because a lot of writers today – and I’m thinking of people like Cory Doctorow, and Neil Gaiman, who set up this interview for us – say that they can give their work away for free, and they can still sell it. Do you think there’s any chance that they’re right?

HE: I think without question they are wrong. I don’t know that Neil has ever said that. I think I’ve known Neil so many years, that I think I’ve whipped him, flayed him, and browbeaten him enough that he knows that he gives nothing away for nothing. But he has a kind heart, and so people can touch him, and they will ask him to do something for nothing because, “Well, we don’t have the money.” They have the money to buy drugs, they have money to go to the movies, they have money to buy themselves new shoes, but they don’t have the money to pay the writer. Cory Doctorow’s philosophy I find egregious. Egregious in the extreme. Stephen King tried to give things away for free on the web, and was screwed. I think any writer who gives away his work demeans himself, demeans the craft, demeans the art, and demeans the buyer. It is not only caveat emptor, it is caveat lector. I don’t mean to be crude when I say this, but I won’t take a piss unless I’m paid properly.

DW: [Laughter] What I wanted to talk to you about – and it was kind of the reason for the interview, the starting point – was All The Lies That Are My Life.

HE: Ah, All The Lies That Are My Life. One of my great apologias for being the idiot I am. It was based upon – well, there are two legs upon which it stands. One of them is the relationship that I have had with another writer all my life, who was at one time a very, very close friend of mine, who I discovered later was less a good friend than I had thought, and who had held me in some contempt. And then the relationship between Edgar Allan Poe and Griswold, who became his bibliographer after he died, and kept Poe a minor figure in literature for over a hundred years. This was a sort of getting even story where a famous writer talks about another famous writer he knew.

DW: You’ve said that writing is the hardest work of all, harder than being a truck driver. Harder than being in the army?

HE: Well, being in the army is like being in prison. You are not your own person. You are constrained 24/7. You are told what to do. They keep you in your place. You are not allowed to have an awful lot of self-respect, or pride of place, or pride of self. And I’ve been in jail, and I’ve been in hospitals, and I’ve been in the army. They constrict me. They’re a straitjacket. I am a mad thing, and wildness asserts itself. I’m like your average dopey teenager, who lies down in the middle of traffic just to see what it feels like to have a car run over you. I’m blessed. I’m blessed. I’m less than a month shy of the age 79. By all rights – I ran away from home when I was 13, not because I was being abused, just because I couldn’t stand it any more, and I had to get out on my own. I was on the road at age 13, and I should have bought the farm at age 14, duelling with Richelieu’s guards on the parapets, and instead I have lived to this ripe old age.

DW: OK then, I want to ask you a question about one of the stories that seems to haunt people the most, Demon with a Glass Hand.

HE: That’s just been picked up again to be remade as a movie, as a motion picture. But it’s remarkable that something that’s more than 30 years old has had this kind of life. People say, “Well, Ellison is always suing everybody.” Well, I never sue anybody unless they pick up one of my ideas from 40 years ago and do a bad job of it in a movie. Then I say, “Well, if you used me as the source, by God get your hand out of my pocket. Pay me.” I’ve won every lawsuit that I’ve ever gotten into, except last year, there was a movie came out that was pretty close to my famous story ‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman, the one that’s one of the 10 most reprinted stories in the English language, and I started to sue, and then I went and saw the movie, and it was so bad – so bad – I withdrew the case saying, no, let this movie fall into complete obscurity, and the universe forget it, and don’t attach my name to it, the way they did The Terminator, which is a good film.

DW: In many of your stories there is the oppressor or the bully, who wants to have their way with humanity, with whoever is in the story. The worst of these, I think for me, is I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream, which is a story of –

HE: Oh, yes, God. God is a shit.

DW: Yeah. It’s a story you wrote in a single night. I read it in my teens in a hallucinatory state over the course of a single night. Is there something about – you have to be in this state to find that oppressive being out there? You have to find it in the night?

HE: Well, I wrote another story – I’m not steering away from the question, I’m answering it in an ancillary way, but I’ll get right back to it – I wrote a whole book of stories called Deathbird Stories, which are retellings in a modern way of the godlike myths. And one of the short stories that I did, that is in the Best American Short Stories, is called The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus Ashore, and it is in a way my atheist tract. I’m a stiff-necked Jewish atheist, and I, like Mark Twain, do not believe that there is a great bearded avuncular spirit up there watching us carefully to see whether we masturbate or not. He’s got better things to do creating star systems than to worry about whether we do Feng Shui with the furniture.

When I talk about God, I talk about him not believing in him. If there were a God, and you believed in him, and then instead of saying something ridiculous like, well, God has these mysterious ways, we are not meant to know what it is he’s doing, or she’s doing, or it’s doing, I say, in defiance of Albert Einstein, yes, the universe does shoot craps – God does shoot craps with the universe. One day you’ll win £200m in the lottery and the next day you’ll get colon cancer. So when I wrote I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream, I put God in the form of a master computer, AM – cogito ergo sum, I think therefore I am – and had him preserve these half a dozen human beings, after having destroyed the world, to keep them down there and torment them forever, for having created him but giving him no place to go. And I believe – much to the annoyance of my various fervid aficionados – they wish I had more faith.

I say, I have faith in the human spirit, that something noble enough to have created Gaudí’s cathedral in Barcelona is noble enough not to have to go to war over sheep in the Falklands. That’s what I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream says. In fact I did a video game called I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream, and I created it so you could not win it. The only way in which you could “win” was to play it nobly. The more nobly you played it, the closer to succeeding you would come, but you could not actually beat it. And that annoyed the hell out of people too.


HE: I spend a lot of time annoying people. That’s my job on this planet.

DW: That’s a good job to have. You’ve always been a political writer and politically active as well. You famously marched from Selma to Montgomery with Martin Luther King.

HE: Yup.

DW: Why don’t speculative fiction writers today cause more trouble?

HE: Ah, kiddo, I wish I could give you an answer. I sigh woefully, [sighs], because that’s what writers are supposed to do, afflict the contented. But most of them don’t. Most of them just want to tell a story, and I guess that’s a noble endeavour in and of itself, to tell a story. Storytellers can be teachers, like Aristotle, or they can just be storytellers like – I don’t know, who’s writing the trash these days? I don’t know who’s writing trash over there where you are, but whoever it is, you pick the name, put it in for me.

DW: When you were starting out, and you’d run away from home, and then you were in the army for a short while, and you were writing through the night to get all of this stuff done, did you expect, did you dream, of becoming as famous and as successful as you have as a writer?

HE: Absolutely. At one point in my career – I don’t think I was married at the time. I’ve been married to my wife for 27 years, and God knows how she’s been able to stand it. But she’s my fifth wife. At one point I had a T-shirt that said, “Not tonight dear, I’m on a deadline.” And you stop and think how many movies you didn’t go and see, how many parties you didn’t attend, how many concerts you didn’t get to hear, because you were working. And I’ve worked endlessly through my entire life. I’ve never been a sluggard, and yet I’ve never felt that I’ve done one twentieth of what I was capable of doing.
And when I stopped at some point – and I’ve done this on numerous occasions – and said, “Why? Why am I doing it?” I am reminded of the quote from Heinrich von Kleist, who said, “I don’t stop writing, because I cannot.” And it is a compulsion. It’s like breathing. It’s systole and diastole. I just go in and out, and I do it. I do it because it is part of what I do. But the reason I do it is because I want it to last. I live in vain hope that one day, 50 years from now, or 100 years from now, when taking down Dumas, or Chaucer, or Colette, or somebody really worth reading, they say, oh, let’s try another Ellison, and they take down Angry Candy or All the Lies That Are My Life, and they say, he did know how to write. He knew how to put words together. He knew how to transform the human condition into translatable prose that could draw a smile or a tear. And that’s hoping for fame. That’s hoping for longevity. That’s hoping for reality. It’s the same thing that drove Magellan and drove Julius Caesar and drove Imhotep. It’s the hoping that you last beyond the shell.

DW: Harlan, I have no doubt that you will. No doubt.

HE: You are enormously kind and gracious. Just for the record, I never, ever threw anybody down an elevator shaft.

DW: [Laughter] I didn’t want to ask you that question, because I’m sure you always get asked that, Harlan. Everyone always seems to ask you, have you killed anybody, did they survive?

HE: Well, that’s a different question. That’s a different question. I’ve never thrown anybody down an escalator shaft, and I did not grab Connie Willis’s breast.

DW: I didn’t want to ask you that question either.

HE: Oh, that just infuriates me. That just infuriates me.

DW: Do you want to – do you have anything you want to say about it?

HE: About Connie Willis? I think she’s a brilliant writer.

• Harlan Ellison’s graphic novel 7 Against Chaos launches from DC in July. Volumes three and four of his unproduced television scripts, Brain Movies, are available at harlanbooks.com

• No one was killed in the making of this interview

Walk with me through Weird London

UPDATE : Joining me on my walk through Weird London will be Tom Pollock, author of The City’s Son, Geraldine Beskin, owner of the Atlantis bookshop, and none other than M John Harrison, arguably among greatest writers of science fiction and fantasy literature of all time.

On Thursday 16th May I’m taking a psycho-geographical tour of the sights to see in Weird London. The nation’s capital has been made weird in some incredible fantasy stories, perhaps most famously today Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere. To celebrate the release of Mr. Gaiman’s new novel The Ocean At The End Of The Lane, I’m helping The Guardian create an audio special on Weird London. What are the London locations that have been most memorably made weird in fiction? And who are the best writers making up Weird London?  I’d love to know, and if any of you are free on 16th May, I’d love you to come and tell me about them.

Suggestions for weird locations below, and if you would like to join the tour of Weird London, pop me an email at: damiengwalter@gmail.com

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Selling Out is about trust not money

Imagine you are a doctor. The population you treat are sick. You have two medicines. One tastes bad and has some horrendous side effects but will over time make your patients better. The other tastes like honey and gets you high as a kite but has no real medical value, unless you count dying with a smile on your face. Oh, also the first one is very expensive, whereas the second is cheap and hence profitable.

Can we all agree that if you choose to sell your patients the second medicine, you are a shit doctor?


Your response to the idea of an artist Selling Out – recently under discussion here at io9 and here at John Scalzi’s Whatever – is likely to relate to whether you believe artists have any responsibility comparable to that of a doctor. For many people, and many artists, what the artist does is entertain. If it makes you weep or giggle or just occupies some spare time then the artist’s duty, as such, is fulfilled. The rest is accountancy.

In his book The Examined Life, psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz tells how twenty years professional practice and 50,000 hours face-to-face with patients have shown him how human beings use stories to deal with pain.   By placing pain and suffering in to the context of a story we give them meaning. And through that meaning we turn suffering in to experience, and fuel for growth.

Amazon.co.uk Widgets

Grosz’ is just one of hundreds of insights of how art is important to life. I spent a decade of my early career using books and reading to help people develop and grow, so I’ve been lucky enough to observe it in many people and in many settings. Books aren’t just an idle distraction or entertainment. They help us process life, deal with trauma, develop empathy, and overall to grow as healthy human beings through all stages of our life. Stories of all kinds do this, and art of all kinds, each in its own unique way.

Good stories. And good art. This is what people mean when they apply the word ‘good’ to art. Art that has purpose in our lives as part of our growth and development. Like a good doctor sells good medicine, a good artist sells good art.

Bad art is like the bad medicine above. It usually tastes good. More often than not that’s because it appeals to some basic human drives like status, violence or sex. And it gets you high. It’s a thrill. A buzz. A spectacle. Good art is sometimes these things as well. It’s using them to lure you in for the medicine. Bad art is only doing it to capture your attention. Some common examples of bad art? Most advertising. Most pornography.  A lot of Hollywood movies. A lot of TV. A lot of commercial fiction. Most everything created as part of a franchise. That’s not to say these things are morally bad (some are, some aren’t) they’re just bad art.

Like doctors, artists occupy a position of earned trust. Most of us don’t know enough to know if our doctor is selling us good or bad medicine. And most of us don’t know enough to tell good art from bad art. So we rely on artists who have earned our trust. I’ve been reading Neil Gaiman since I was fourteen. Like millions of other people, I’ve found a kind of medicine in Mr Gaiman’s art. Not in all of it. Some works for me, some does not. But I have trust that, under absolutely no circumstances, would Neil Gaiman sell me bad medicine. It doesn’t matter how much money Neil makes from his work, he hasn’t sold out as long as that trust is unbroken.

Selling Out isn’t about selling your work, it’s about selling the trust that fans have placed in you. Popstar Lana Del Rey is a nice example of an artist Selling Out. Her first two singles seemed like an indie artist with talent and some kind of insight. But they were a lure, manufactured by a very smart marketing team for an artist with a nice voice but nothing to say. They built trust, on the back of which much money was made. Bad medicine.

The real question for artists today, I think, isn’t whether you will Sell Out, but whether you will build trust at all. It takes years to learn to make good art, and it’s harder work. There’s a ready market hungry for bad art, who don’t really care whether they trust you or not. Most artists today come pre-Sold Out. Will you be one of those, or something better?

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London Gothic

Mystery is the doorway to fantasy. Dark forests, far away galaxies, roads that wind into the distance: any space that allows our imagination to play without the interference of mundane reality can be a portal. And there are few places more expectant with mystery than cities. Every road, building and doorway is a new unknown. So it’s no surprise that writers of fantasy find endless inspiration in cities, and in no city more than London.

The current trend for recasting London through the prism of fantasy metaphors began, arguably, with Neil Gaiman’s television series (and later novel) Neverwhere. Gaiman imagines a fantasy underworld beneath the mundane reality of London, built around the names of stops on the tube map. Blackfriars, Angel Islington and Old Bailey become characters in the underworld. It’s the kind of simple, beautiful idea Gaiman has a knack for; the sort you feel you might have thought of just a moment before he told them to you.

Read more @ Guardian Books.

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The Density of Words

At anywhere between 80,000 to 150,000 words or more the average commercially published novel might seem like a huge space to fill. I know the idea of creating that many words is often intimidating to my writing students, who may never have written more than 2-3 thousand words on one story in the past. But once you start to work at the novel length, you quickly begin to realise that even with 150,000 words to fill, you don’t have words to burn.

Once you establish the scene structure of your story, the style and structure of your chapters, and the information on character, setting and action you need to give the reader to support the story, there really should not be much dead space on any given page of your novel. In the words of Kurt Vonnegut, “Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.”

(The last time I posted this on Twitter I got a tweet back from @Neilhimself with the addendum “or be funny” which also works for me.)

NaNoWriMo is an excellent exercise. It’s a great way to demonstrate to yourself that you *can* find the time to write around all other commitments. And it’s great fun. But. Whether you achieve the 50,000 words in that month or not, I would suggest that 50,000 words a month is not a realistic writing goal for any writer.

Can you write 50,000 words in a month? Yes. But they will most likely fail Kurt Vonnegut’s and Neil Gaiman’s advice. Can some writers write 50,000 *good* words in a month? Yes. But only under exceptional circumstances, in an established style they can produce effectively at that speed. Do some professional writers produce and publish 50,000 *bad* words a month? Yes. But do you really want to be one of those writers?

I’m personally comfortable producing around 5000 words of fiction a week, or around 20,000 a month. That’s about what I’ve been doing every month for the last three years. At that speed my first draft is 80% of where I want it to be. Any faster and that dips radically to 50% or less. Any faster for me would certainly not be better.

What rate of wordage do you find most productive?

Social media only makes critics more influential

Here’s a not widely discussed fact. Some of the established publishers we now recognise were set up in part as elaborate tax dodging ruses by wealthy people whose real business interests were elsewhere. A little publishing house could run at a loss and still help make a profit by reducing the tax bill. And if you could give your wife an advance for her little novel…or your friends wife…or possibly your mistress…well all the better.

Extreme examples perhaps. But it’s an unfortunate truth that for most of its history the novel has been the plaything of the rich. And while great writers aren’t often born from wealth, middling ones more than often are, and the ranks of the publishing profession are dominated by people with at least a little wealth behind them. As the publishing industry has professionalised, and as society as a whole has become more meritocratic, access has widened considerably. But it’s still dominated by people from a small number of universities, and hence a rather narrow background.

The great leveller in this equation is the internet. Without blogs and social media I can say with certainty I would never have had any of the opportunities to write and publish that I have had so far. So it’s hard for me to interpret the attack by Peter Stothard, chair of that bastion of literary snobbery the Booker prize, on blogging as harmful to literature, as anything more than an entitled whinge. Stothard’s rhetoric is so one sided and ignorant that we might suspect he is out to troll the blogosphere as a publicity exercise for an award that barely generates any significant publicity beyond the book world itself. The Booker increasingly relies on the book bloggers it is attacking to generate any buzz at all. But however calculated the trolling, it reflects a real agenda.

The meat of Stothard’s argument – that blogging is drowning out the voices of professional literary critics – is demonstrable nonsense.  Critics who understand how to communicate in the new social media sphere are more influential than ever – I’d put forward Lev Grossman as a prime example of a critic who straddles old and new. The noise generated by the internet means we need effective signal boosting from curators of all kinds, a role critics are ideally suited to fill. But that role has also diversified. Neil Gaiman is a more influential taste maker than any single critic. The roles of writer, editor and critic are increasingly different hats worn by the same people.

None of this is communicated in Stothard’s argument. Likely because Stothard is simply blind to it. And perhaps wilfully so. The literature he sees under threat is a lovely walled garden, for those privileged few allowed to play in it. The online literary world is a vast complex jungle that demands an entirely different mindset from all those navigating it. Stothard is used to a world where a small handful of people could dictate the agenda for everyone else. Now literature is diversifying, becoming thousands of interrelated conversations that no one person or powerful clique can control. That jungle is more competitive and perhaps less friendly than the old literary world, but it is much more open to anyone with the drive to be a part of it. The critics who succeed in that jungle will be the ones worth hearing, not the ones who rely on an entitled background.


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Inspirational words for artists from Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman did not graduate from university. He did not even go to university. Instead he pursued his creative ambitions, and became one of the worlds greatest writers. Here he shares some words of wisdom with graduating students from The University of the Arts.

One or two of my favourite Gaiman quotes from this talk:

“Nothing I did where the only reason for doing it was the money was ever worth it.”

“People get hired because they get hired. People keep working because 1)their work is good 2)they’re easy to get on with 3)they’re on time. You only need 2 of the 3.”

I studied with Neil at the Clarion writers’ workshop in 2008. He told me off for my apostrophes, but also gave me three of the best bits of advice about my own writing I have ever had. If I ever get famous enough to give a commencement speech, I will share them with you.

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Who is the wisest Sci-Fi & Fantasy author?

Over on Twitter and Facebook I asked folk to tell me which SF author they would turn to for life advice, for words of wisdom and guidance through the labyrinth of life. And I got quite a response!

[View the story “Wisest of the wise in SF & Fantasy” on Storify]

Popular choices include Neil Gaiman, Ursula Le Guin, Jeff Vandermeer, China Mieville, Kurt Vonnegut, Harlan Ellison, Philip K Dick and Douglas Adams. Is it just coincidence that these are also some of our most enduring writers?

It makes me wonder, beyond a good story, great characters, cool ideas and amazing worlds to explore, is what we really value in our writers is the wise guidance they offer us through life?

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The answer to a riddle

Last year I wrote a short story called A Vast Bit of Hod, which I published to my blog here. As I mentioned at the time, the story is also a riddle. I have congratulated half a dozen people who emailed me the answer. This evening James Everington tweeted me to ask:

btw, when are you going to post the ‘answer’ to the “Vast Bit of Hod” story? It’s been bugging me ever since (in a good way)

Which I have been meaning to do for sometime. So.

Harold, the central character in A Vast Bit of Hod, is completing a crossword when we meet him, behind the counter in the weird antique / collectibles store where the story takes place. The crossword clue is the title of the story. If you aren’t good at anagrams, here is an anagram server to help you. We’ll come back to what the anagram is momentarily.

A Vast Bit of Hod began life when my friend Dana, fellow Clarion writers’ workshop graduate, sent out an email challenge to write a story about a shop that sells lives. Because I’m working on novel length things, I hadn’t written a short story for a time, but this challenge brought an idea to mind that I couldn’t resist. Our Clarion tutor Neil Gaiman says that novels are like a long journey, whereas short stories are like seeing a tree and deciding to climb up it. So I decided to climb this tree.

For three years now I have been studying Buddhism. I enjoy it from an intellectual perspective, and I’ve found the insight meditation techniques it teaches tremendously helpful. Two linked ideas in Buddhism are karma and reincarnation. These are both hard ideas to grasp from a rational perspective. There is no evidence of any mechanism in nature to make ‘what goes around come around’, and very few people I know believe they will come back to life as a goat, or even an Emperor. But as myths they point towards the idea that our behaviour defines our life, an idea I do believe.

So in my shop customers enter to select the new lives which they will incarnate within after when they are reborn. They deposit their old lives in the form of an object which they hand to the shop keeper, and select a new object which symbolises their new life. I’m afraid I’m not very complimentary about the lives many of us choose. In particular I heap a little scorn on the fantasy lives we escape in to, while our actual lives decay around us. For a writer of fantasy, I’m oddly ambivalent about the role of fantasy in our lives.

A Vast Bit of Hod is an anagram for (excluding the ‘of’) Bodhisattva. This is the Buddhist term for, depending on your translation, either humans well on the path to enlightenment, or those who are enlightened but choose to live in the world and help others reach enlightenment. Harold is a little bit of both.  He isn’t exactly kind to Anthony, but he does what needs to be done to help the young man move from one life to the next. At the end of the story, Harold is left holding a simple wooden bowl, the traditional begging bowl that is the only possession of Buddhist monks who have renounced all worldly things. Harold has another lifetime or two of suffering before he is ready for nirvana. But first he fancies another biscuit…

You can read A Vast Bit of Hod here.