Michael Moorcock, fantasy grand master and creator of Elric and Jerry Cornelius, has a career stretching back over seven decades. This month, his new book The Whispering Swarm, is released in the UK. Tripwire caught up with him to find out more about it…
TW: The Whispering Swarm is the first in a trilogy of books. How much can you tell us about the first book and the subsequent series?
MICHAEL MOORCOCK: It’s a a strange book, part autobiography, part historical novel and part fantasy. Much is set in Alsatia, which used to exist behind Fleet Street and in my book is still there. The Abbey is also still there and, strangely, seems to be hiding a group of Jews.. I didn’t need to do much research since I know the area around Fleet Street and Hatton Garden well and set part of it in ‘Brookgate’, an area near Clerkenwell I’ve created for other stories and which featured in my London novel King of The City. Emotionally it was very hard to write since I was facing some of my own ghosts, wondering about some of my own actions.
TW: In terms of how it’s written, what has your approach been to writing The Whispering Swarm?
MM: Rather less carefully structured than usual in order to let the autobiography determine the plot.
TW: The book and the series owes a lot to your childhood growing up in London during the Blitz. You have referenced this in your other work but what made you decide to channel this more directly in The Whispering Swarm?
MM: I wanted to write another London book and this time make it a fantasy. All my previous London novels have been absurdist (as in Jerry Cornelius) or naturalistic and I wanted to see if it was possible to mix realism and fantasy to look at certain moral issues, especially around how we use fantasy to avoid responsibility.
TW: Just how autobiographical is it?
MM: Quite a lot. Especially around New Worlds and my first marriage.
TW: You’ve lived out of London for a number of years now. Is it that distance that has granted you the freedom to create a fictional London that fits your intentions for the story?
MM: Probably, although many of the fictional locations were created before I left London. Brookgate, Sporting Club Square and so on appeared in earlier short fiction published in London Bone.
TW: London has long been an inspiration for writers and artists for decades. What it is about the metropolis that still inspires you as a writer many years after you last lived there?
MM: Cities like London or Paris have rich histories and therefore, combined with existing multicultural populations, makes for inexhaustible narratives. All my books contain layers of narrative but London has always supplied the most for me.
TW: You have had a long and varied career but you continue to write. What continues to give you the passion to still write and create worlds and stories?
MM: It’s what I do. Writers, composers, playwrights don’t retire. Partly because they are driven to practise their skills, partly because the Inland Revenue won’t let them retire.
TW: Even though you are not religious, I was wondering what sort of part Judaism played in your work, if it does at all?
MM: Of course it plays a part, just as almost everything I write touches in some way on the Holocaust and the Pyat sequence tries to answer the question ‘How could it happen ? That book ends in the Princelet Street Synagogue. I don’t subscribe to any single religion but I wouldn’t say I wasn’t religious…
TW: What are your feelings about religion these days as someone who is obviously very secular?
MM: I worry about the way it is again being used to justify the most appalling horrors. We are all all to blame. Somehow we must come together to solve this terrible state of affairs. The Law must be above Religion (or at least beside it) and we need to consider common laws needed to cope with specific modern problems. I respect the many genuinely religious people I have encountered but I loathe people who use their religion to justify brutal, uncivilised behaviour. They defile those they pretend to honour.
TW: With a career that goes back many decades, has it gotten easier or harder to write?
MM: It’s still easy for me to write a straight fantasy story but it becomes harder because I deliberately make it harder for myself — taking literary risks and so on. I have always tried to raise the bar for myself with every new phase. This is my autobiographical phase. I did a long story called Stories in Neil Gaiman’s anthology Stories, which was very autobiographical.
TW: Your work often has an allegorically satirical edge to it. Are you using The Whispering Swarm and its following volumes to critique and hold up a magnifying glass to the real London and the subjects that continue to fascinate you?
TW: The publisher has described it as being a mix of the fantastical and the autobiographical. So is this a hybrid of work like your Multiverse books and something like Mother London?
MM: Although there are no technical fireworks (as in the Second Ether trilogy) I would say there are strong elements of both, yes. The second book The Woods of Arcady will be largely fantasy, though it continues to question the impulse to read and write such fiction. I’ve been doing that, of course, since the ‘Michael Kane’ sword and planet stories set out to question the lure of invented worlds.
The Whispering Swarm is out in the UK on 30th July