For the first Throwback Thursday of 2016, we present our interview with Michael Moorcock on a career spanning seven decades which originally ran in Tripwire Annual 2008
Sailor on the Seas of Fate
Michael Moorcock, SFWA’s 25th Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master for 2008, is a singular creative talent whose influence can be felt in science fiction, fantasy, rock music and possibly even quantum physics. He is widely considered one of the most important British writers of the 20th (and now 21st) century. His luminous career spans decades from his earliest days as the teenage editor for a Tarzan magazine to the present day and his latest work The Metatemporal Detective published in hardback in October 2007. Inbetween he’s edited the seminal British magazine New Worlds credited with helping found the so-called ‘new wave of science fiction’, written dozens of award-winning novels and fantasy series, and even penned songs for bands such as Hawkwind and Blue Oyster Cult. However he is best known for his most beloved creation the puissant albino anti-hero prince Elric of Melnibone. With the success of several big budget fantasy pictures like Lord of the Rings and the Chronicles of Narnia and even the lesser hit The Golden Compass it appears that an Elric film has been greenlit making it high time Mr. Moorcock got his due. To that end, TRIPWIRE recently embarked on several conversations with the author to shed some light on his creative process and discuss his general position on the great characters and worlds he has created.
TW: As a fan of the material, how did it feel taking over as editor on the Tarzan Adventures at such a young age? How seriously could you take it at such a young age, and how seriously were you taken?
MICHAEL MOORCOCK: I had been editing fanzines for so long that the transition was pretty easy. Essentially, I went on doing what I’d already been doing. I think they were impressed with me and they were certainly pleased when the circulation went up. I think this was as much to do with the introduction of interactive features pages, something I was to do on Sexton Blake and New Worlds. I’d learned the importance of such pages from the pulps, really, both UK and US.
TW: Can you talk about editing New Worlds; what was it like at the time being at the forefront of the new wave of science fiction in Britain; did it feel like you were on a mission, or was there a feeling that you and Aldiss and Ballard et al were doing something special?
MM: What Ballard, Bayley and I had talked about was a magazine that wasn’t strictly an SF magazine but which borrowed the best techniques from SF to try to produce a new kind of contemporary fiction which would replace, for us at least, the moribund social fiction which was dominant in the early 60s. We weren’t interested in improving SF as much as we wanted to find forms and methods which would allow us to write about the real world around us. The first editorial we ran had a title something like ‘a new fiction for the space age’ and argued that so far only William Burroughs was getting close. We wanted to find ways of condensing narrative, or packing the maximum number of narratives into a piece. We were as much involved with the contemporary arts — i.e. the pop art of Paolozzi, Hamilton and others — modern music as exemplified by Messiaen and so on —as we were with SF. We wanted to see what we could do with all this stuff. SF as such was just the engine which dropped off the rocket once it was spaceborn.
TW: On a related subject, New Worlds was seen as something quite subversive at the time? How much did you enjoy the subversion in New Worlds and how important was it to what you were trying to achieve?
MM: Like most people who find themselves in this situation, we never set out to be ‘subversive’ —we were interested in what we were doing and how best to do it. We were confrontational, but only because we were attempting to get rid of a lot of deadwood. We certainly didn’t set out to be ‘controversial’ — indeed, we were shocked when people started displaying this attitude. We were honestly surprised by the puritanical attitudes of those who attacked us (mostly unread, of course) in the tabloid press. Much of the press supported us, because everyone was fed up with Smiths and their censorious practices. We weren’t publishing language you couldn’t read elsewhere, but they chose to ‘ban’ us for some reason. Ironically, much of the material they banned in magazine form they published cheerfully in paperback ‘Best of’ anthologies.
TW: How has Mervyn Peake’s work influenced yours over the years? What is it about his work that makes it continue to have a resonance?
MM: Like Burroughs, he was more an inspiration than an influence. His work continues to inspire because of the powerful originality of its language, its superb visual imagination — it is, as I’ve said before, sui generis. It is a fantasy with no supernatural elements, entirely the creation of an individual mind. This is partly why it isn’t imitated in the way Tolkien is imitated. It is original in the way that Blake was original.
TW: Why the Michael Kane books (currently being reprinted by Paizo Publishing, LLC)? Was it straight genre homage or was there something more to be gained by sort of wearing Edgar Rice Burroughs’s smoking jacket so to speak? Was it an exercise? And frankly how is it possible you wrote so much in so short a time?
MM: It was fun. It was an exercise (not the only one —The Ice Schooner, written around the same time, was also an exercise) and the money it earned helped me pay authors reasonably decent rates on New Worlds. All my early fantasy books were written in a maximum of three days. I had been a working journalist, used to turning out copy for the next day, let alone the next week. I was used to getting copy out at speed — feature, comic strip, fiction and so on. Journalism paid so much better than novel writing, three days was the economical amount of time I could take. The most time I’ve ever taken on a generic fantasy novel is three weeks. Until the early 70s I wrote all my fantasy books in three days, including Hawkmoon, Eternal Champion and Elric. Adrenaline, coffee and a tight deadline. I’m by no means the only author to write at that speed. With the Kane books I also tried to see what a hero with John Carter’s ‘gentleman soldier’ ethos would really be like if he followed that ethos to the letter. I learned quite a bit from writing those books.
TW: Regarding Elric. How did the idea come about? Were there any parallels in your life at the time? (It’s been alleged by sources I can’t recall that Stormbringer was actual an allegory for alcohol or drugs — any truth to that?)
MM: Elric was a hero of his time, without doubt. The same sort of troubled hero was very prominent at that time — James Dean, Elvis, Gene Vincent — and I no doubt picked up on the zeitgeist. Stormbringer is about dependency. Never any doubt. But whether you depended on junk, booze or a set of bad ideas was not that relevant. The idea of carrying a lot of ideas on a set of images goes back to what I was saying re: New Worlds. We wanted sturdy metaphors which could carry a lot of symbolic weight.
TW: Elric as an anti-hero changed perceptions of the fantasy character phenotype and may have helped other writers open the door to role reexaminations such as Zelazny’s Corwin of Amber or more recently Croaker from Glen Cook’s Black Company series. We see the reluctant hero but also clothe him with mercurial notions of good and evil, or let’s be honest the character is evil by our perception but of course not by his own. Was it your intention to sort of explore Adolf Hitler as a boy, in the sense that you got into the mind of this demonic (for lack of a better word) sorcerer to see what made him tick?
MM: I haven’t read Roger’s fantasy work or Glen Cook’s. It sounds interesting. To be honest, Elric was a version of myself as a teenager of around 18. A couple of early articles I wrote on this theme are reprinted in the new Elric: The Stealer of Souls (the one illustrated by John Picacio). I have always been interested in amorality or those who live according to different moral perspectives. I certainly didn’t have Hitler in mind. I’ve written elsewhere about Hitler (see The Metatemporal Detective) and you find Elric in direct opposition to Hitler in several later stories. I did wish to confront certain fascistic elements I’d noted in the likes of Robert E. Howard. As a result of a discussion on this theme, Norman Spinrad wrote The Iron Dream. It was in an effort to counter those elements that I devised Elric, who is by no means sure of himself. Hitler was pretty sure of himself.
TW: Perhaps “Hitler as a boy” was a bad simile. I didn’t want to associate Elric with Hitler only with iconic evil. What I meant was more about using Elric to explore notions of evil from the inside or finding its origins so that it made sense. With bad events or evil people we always find a need to understand and have a tendency to ask, “How could this happen? How could this person be like this?” With Elric we do get to explore his inner workings.
MM: I understand that. As I think I said elsewhere — a writer of my temperament needs to go to the heart of evil, if you like, and see what makes it tick. That way, you have a better understanding of what you’re fighting. But Elric was never seen by me as evil, just, if you like, troubled. The Pyat books address this, however, pretty directly. They are about what made Hitler (and the others). Elric, in those last three books, is exploring his own psyche in ways that couldn’t have happened in the earlier books. But I think a generic fantasy book is probably better able to address generalities than specifics. My own experience is that you lose fantasy readers in droves the more you introduce serious specifics into the books. The earlier Elrics still sell better than the latest ones. People want escapism bad! Especially if it has a slightly fascistic taste.
Look how people regard Ayn Rand in the US — as a profound philosopher only a shade away from Tolstoy… Everywhere else in the world she’s marginalised and regarded as a minor loony. I’m still astonished by the popularity of Lord of the Rings! Many of my generation are. It’s the ultimate avoidance of reality (which real mythology is not); slightly disturbing, really. I suppose I’m more interested in how people justify and rationalise their acts of violence and / or evil. The Eternal Champion is always turning up to represent one group of apparently ‘good’ people only to discover that he’s fighting on the wrong side. That’s why Law and Chaos are much more useful opposites. One can’t exist without the other. Neither are evil, both are capable of altruism. It really is a much better way of looking at the world.
TW: Where did the whole sister / cousin meme come from as we see with Elric and Cymoril and Yyrkoon? I see it also echoed in the Cornelius Chronicles with Frank and Catherine. Was it to evoke the god-king aspect of the Pharaohs?
MM: No. The theme carries strong resonances for me from dreams I’ve had from an early age — at least puberty. I am an only child but I have a ‘dream’ sister!
TW: Speaking of the Cornelius Chronicles, how intentional was the echo of Elric but set in modern times?
MM: Totally intentional. I wanted to find an ‘Elric’ for contemporary times.
TW: As an aside, can you comment on the style of Cure for Cancer? Was it an experimental lark or was there an intentional attempt at some sort of reality channeling like with some of the Burroughs / Gysin cut-up experiments? Were those from real newspaper clippings or fictional?
MM: It was an experiment in structure but while I wrote it in a kind of mad humour inspired by the horrors of Vietnam I wouldn’t call it a lark. The two later books were more mature, I think, having learned from Cure. Over the years, I’ve been surprised by how many people have liked Cure best. The cuttings were all real. The shoutlines and titles are all real, mostly from Bluebook and other sensational US ‘men’s’ magazines. They illustrate what I’m writing about. They save on narrative. They are part of the narrative. All those books are an experiment in how to condense narrative and make it carry the maximum number of often contrasting ideas. While I’m a huge admirer of Bill’s work and it has been an inspiration to many New Worlds writers, I don’t think I’ve ever been attracted much by his methods.
TW: Returning to Elric, what brought about the transition to comics? When Elric appeared briefly in Conan how much involvement did you have? Whose idea was the original Roy Thomas / P. Craig Russell adaptation? Did you have any role in their creative process or was it simply licensed for them to do whatever? Were you happy with their adaptation? What about later adaptations like the First Comics run or the later Marvel ones? And Elric aside, were you happy with how the DC Multiverse project went?
MM: Well, you mustn’t forget the reams of comics I wrote for what is now Fleetway. So I’ve always had an interest in comics. When Roy got in touch with me to draft an Elric / Conan story for the Conan series, I thought it was a great idea but didn’t have a lot of time so, as has often been usual in our working partnership, I asked Jim if he wanted to work on the Elric / Conan story with me. He agreed and wound up doing the lion’s share of the work. The idea we sent Roy was more elaborate. Unfortunately, the only reference to Elric Barry had was Jack Gaughan’s cover for The Stealer of Souls, with the strange pointy hat. So Barry drew a pointy hat…He apologised later and said he’d like a chance to redraw Elric but so far we’ve both been too busy at different times to do anything.
Although Jim [Cawthorn] remains the definitive Elric artist, I’ve enjoyed the work of all the good artists who’ve worked on him. Simonson and I have been a sometime partnership for about ten years and I always enjoy working with him. In the main I was very happy with Mark Reeve’s and Walter’s work [on Multiverse] but the other guy doing the Elric thread simply wouldn’t draw what I asked and so it was very difficult keeping the themes together, since the three sets of characters should clearly be the same people in different situations. I had to modify the story because of his refusals, so the experiment is flawed.
TW: Over time Elric evolved as one of the many-headed aspects of the Eternal Champion. Was this an ad hoc development as you were writing say Corum or Hawkmoon? How did the whole Eternal Champion / Eternal Companion / Tanelorn / Prince Gaynor thing come about? Do you ever find it confusing to have your characters crossing into each other’s worlds this way?
MM: One of my first stories was “The Eternal Champion”, which was going to appear in a fanzine, Avilion, but very few copies were ever run off. I was toying with the idea of this character for some time and eventually wrote a novella version for Science Fantasy, around the same time I wrote “The Sundered Worlds” for Science Fiction Adventures, so you could say both fundamental ideas appeared around the same time — recurring hero and, if you like, a recurring multiverse. It didn’t take me long to realise that both Elric and Jerry Cornelius fitted into this idea and thereafter the Hawkmoon, Corum books also fitted, so that by the time I was writing them I saw them all (more or less) as aspects of the Eternal Champion. When I was preparing the omnibus sequence, I rewrote a little to make them all fit. Perhaps the longest rewrite was of the Bastable book, The Steel Tsar. I rarely get confused by my characters because I have only ever read one fantasy book of mine all the way through (and felt it needed a thorough rewrite). I work from memory, instinct and some sort of vague liking for my ‘kittens’ which keeps my characters’ personalities in mind when I come to write about them. In the case of certain characters, of course, I also have the comic versions to work from. I remember Mignola’s Corum better than I do my own. The last trilogy — most of which hasn’t been published in the UK — had a lot of different character threads, including Bastable, Zenith (Elric) and Hawkwind. The White Wolf’s Son is probably the crucial book. That has a lot of resolutions!
TW: Do you feel in some way responsible for popularising the shared universe concept? It was seen in horror with Lovecraft’s pantheon being shared by other authors but haven’t you actually encouraged authors to write Cornelius stories taking Jerry out for a spin?
MM: Nope. To be honest, I don’t take much notice of what’s happening in the genre. I review the occasional good writer, especially if they are still largely unknown to the public, but don’t read fantasy for pleasure. For light reading I’m as inclined to pick up a PG Wodehouse or a good Walter Mosley mystery. But I do come out of popular writing and I’m used to characters being written by more than one person. My interest is in seeing what others make of a character, what aspects they see that maybe I don’t. I don’t ‘world-build’ in the usual sense and don’t really have the pantheon Lovecraft had. I’m not sure I’d be interested in ‘lending’ a world to another author who was just going to write within terms I defined, I don’t know exactly what happens with Lovecraft, but I doubt if he had any intention, any more than I had, of creating a template for other writers to use. Two books were done in the mid-1990s — Tales of the White Wolf and a similar book on other Eternal Champion aspects, Pawn of Chaos. It was noticeable there that the best writers tended to produce the best Elric / EC stories — I loved Tad Williams’s and several others written by established writers. So, as always, what I like depends on the skill of an individual writer, not a system or a specific inspiration.
TW: Many writers see a part of themselves in their work, whether intentional or not. Is there any Elric in you? Any other characters with whom you might share traits? Colonel Pyat? Oswald Bastable?
MM: Elric was me into my twenties, so, yes there were rather exaggerated traits of my own into my twenties at least. Some authors feel bound to go into the kind of material which really scares them (Pyat, for instance, in my case). But they are never exact versions of myself. You tend to take aspects of yourself and exaggerate those tendencies; or you encounter someone who exemplifies (as Pyat’s original did) everything you loathe. You are then fascinated with what makes the character tick. In Bastable’s case, he was Nesbit’s young hero grown up: A decent, liberal imperialist who believes in the ideals of Empire. The books are interventions into Edwardian fiction — specifically Fabian fiction. Bastable does appear elsewhere — in the End of Time sequence and also in the later Elric books, especially The White Wolf’s Son.
TW: Now that there is more talk that the Elric movie is going ahead are you inspired to tell more Elric stories? Do you have any involvement with the film?
MM: Yes, I do have involvement with the film, which is proceeding to realisation very slowly! There’s also an electronic game in the offing. Yes, I have been inspired to write more Elric stories and recently wrote a very short one for a book based on the US national spelling bee! A much longer story appears in the current Weird Tales. It’s called “Black Petals”.
TW: Why does Elric resonate more than Hawkmoon or Von Bek? What is there in the Elric meme that draws you to him as a writer over the others?
MM: I put a lot of myself into Elric. I suffered with him, if you like, in ways I did not suffer with some of the other characters. Yet you have to remember that a lot of people prefer Corum or Hawkmoon to Elric. What draws me back to Elric is a need, I suppose, to incorporate the older Elric (myself again) into the picture of a character I’ve been living with for well over forty years.
TW: As an interviewer’s aside (and strident wish) will we ever get to see more Oswald Bastable or Dancers at the End of Time books?
MM: I’ve just done a short story for PS magazine which features the End of Time characters as well as War Amongst the Angels characters. Bastable, as I said, already features in the last Elric book. I’m certainly planning more comedy. In, for instance, the new ‘big’ novel I’m planning to do after I do the Peake memoir. It’s called Alsatia and is based on a real London location which acted as a sort of thieves’ sanctuary into the 18th century, since it was on land granted to the Carmelites (thus Carmelite St, Whitefriars and so on around Fleet Street). It’s a part of an invented London which allows me to talk about London in general. Pretty strange book, though. Makes King of the City seem simple. Also it has a very different intention. King was about my contempt for what ‘Thatcherworld’ had become. This will deal more with time, memory, romance.
TW: How do you feel about popularizing the term “Multiverse”? Do you find it interesting that it shows up now in areas as diverse as string theory and advanced quantum physics as well as in Peter Carroll’s so-called Chaos Magick? On the latter tack did you know that people calling themselves chaos magicians are using Arioch and others of Elric’s pantheon in their magic rituals as well as the larger concepts of Law versus Chaos as some central tenets of their beliefs? ‘
MM: I think it was the zeitgeist. We didn’t much like the idea of a dissipating universe so some of us created a constantly recreated multiverse. Quite a bit of this stuff was ‘in the air’ I think. When I started reading about Chaos Theory, this was the final link in what proved to be a working map of my own mind! Mandelbrot provided the images and language I could use to describe the multiverse, make it logical. You start seeing this emerging in the early 90s and by the mid-to-late 90s I had written the Blood trilogy, which is the most sophisticated version of the multiverse I’ve been able to come up with. It was a joy to see the multiverse mapped, expanded, made logical. Oppenheimer said theoretical physics and poetry are almost identical. Somehow, by trying to deal with the second law of thermodynamics (entropy, chaos) I came up with a notion which a few years later began to fascinate physicists. I don’t know why so many of us were feeling around in a new direction, but that’s what happened and somehow my notions (which included black holes) resonated with other notions and so we all came up with similar ideas. This isn’t unusual in SF where engineering notions were once predominant and Heinlein or Clarke could take a pretty good guess at how things were going and could come up with the ‘waldo’ or satellite communications. Those of us more interested in the poetry of physics came up with the likes of the multiverse.
TW: You’ve written many highly acclaimed non-genre works of fiction. Compared to Elric, Jerry, or any Eternal Champion-type fantasy stories, do you find one more satisfying than the other? Do you worry about being pigeon-holed to this day as a fantasy guy? Is non-genre an escape from genre for you?
MM: I’ve always argued that science fantasy / fantasy is better able to handle certain themes than, say, social fiction. Good writers have frequently turned to SF techniques to express an idea (The Machine Stops, Brave New World, The Old Men at the Zoo). We live in a world where we feel some urgency concerning the fate of the human race and some of us need to address that subject from time to time. When Behold the Man was first published it was as ‘straight’ fiction and reviewed in the main as such. As was The Final Programme.
But when my fantasy novels began appearing in hardback they sort of confused the critics of the day and this made some of them wonder if they hadn’t been mistaken in reviewing my earlier work as they had. By the early 70s, you can see that happening, but with Byzantium Endures and Mother London, they were talking about me having put science fantasy ‘behind’ me. So that when the next book to turn up on a literary editor’s desk was, say Warhound and the World’s Pain, they saw it as a kind of backsliding. As if I had managed by hard work to pull myself from the fantasy ghetto and then willfully went back in there again! I think they’ve sort of got it now, though there are few literary editors as widely read and sophisticated (i.e. read classics, contemporary fiction, sf and comics with equal relish or criticism) as Sam Leith at the Telegraph. The Daily Telegraph’s literary pages have been edited very well for years — Nicholas Shakespeare and John Coldstream preceded him. You are as likely to see a full length review for, say, Bryan Talbot as you would for Salman Rushdie. Michael Chabon has done much to improve and expand literary pages in America. He is now in a position where he can win a Pulitzer one year and get a Nebula award another. One for a book about crazed Jewish comic book originators and for another which is pure SF. All this, including what Ballard, Aldiss and others have done in the past, has helped to ensure that these days a good SF novel has a much better chance of getting a long, serious review in the posh press. I think things are changing for the better. I still think some very bad SF can be produced (Children of Men, the novel, is old-fashioned straight SF with all the tired tropes which used to fill 1950s SF). Dave Eggers, a friend of Chabon’s, feels the same passion for good popular fiction as I do, but he also addresses a highbrow audience. The debate is still going on. The fact that it is going on probably means that the main battle for writers of ambitious fantasy is over.
TW: You are pretty influenced by rock and roll much like Mick Farren. Can you tell us a little about your collaborations with Hawkwind and Blue Oyster Cult? How much influence did you have on Time of the Hawklords? What can you tell us about the Deep Fix?
MM: Again, I am who I am. I grew up with rock and roll. I was in a skiffle group by the time I was 15. I could play a guitar well enough for me to do a (dreadful) demo for EMI in 1956. I played washboard (twice) for the Vipers (who became the Shadows) I was in and out of bands while at the same time writing and editing. When Hawkwind asked for material, I was happy to write it and perform it and so slipped back into the music scene. My priorities always were my family, my writing, my music. So music had to take a backseat a fair bit of the time. Eric Bloom of BOC came to see me in my hotel in New York and asked for material, which I was happy to give him. I’d always known a lot of musicians and so it was natural for me to go back on stage when asked to perform my own stuff.
I didn’t have a huge amount of influence on Time of the Hawklords. I know the publisher gave Mike Butterworth a lot of shit.
The Deep Fix was a band I started to work with but which never came to much. Then United Artists wanted me to do an album (actually it was a three record deal) and I agreed, so I gathered some mates together and we became The Deep Fix again. Pete Pavli, Graham Charnock (contributor to New Worlds), Steve Gilmore, Snowy White and the rest. We did a few live gigs, including the one for Nik Turner’s Bohemian Love In at the Roundhouse (we were down to Pavli on cello, Adrian Shaw on bass and me on guitar and going in a very different direction — ”Brothel in Rosenstrasse” was a taste.) There was some talk of working with people from Joy Division but it never worked out. Finding it very hard to work with the kind of engineers we were offered, we slowly came to the point where we were losing heart and eventually, after a few ventures with different people, we gave up. I still play the guitar and still play with a few musicians from time to time. I have friends in Austin, Paris and London who are all working musicians. My main astonishment is that the New Worlds Fair album keeps being reissued. There’s now a ‘de luxe’ version from Japan which I’ve yet to see.
TW: The market for science fiction and fantasy has changed so much since you began. How healthy do you think it is now and do you think the popularity of the forms on TV and in movies has led to it being seen as more legitimate?
MM: The trouble with commercial success is that experiment and development tend to be discouraged because now the publisher has information on every aspect of a book’s sales and since they know what sells, that is what they will sell. So you get thousands of LOTR replicas. It’s the same in SF as in fantasy. Even the more interesting SF series tend to get dropped. I’d got into New Amsterdam just in time to learn they’d only made eight. It probably is a healthy enough form, but top-heavy. I probably get 90% of my SF and Fantasy from the screen, though. I got hooked on the first run of Heroes. But when I look at the published Fantasy, there is so much I’m appalled. When I started, rock and roll and SF / Fantasy were in their youth and offered possibilities — you could make what you liked of them. But now it’s everywhere, most of it mediocre, and I’m not sure I’d even think of writing Fantasy now. Star War/ Star Trek didn’t do SF for grownups much good. Bladerunner was more successful, as was 2001. I do believe things are improving now, though. A few more grownup little parables like V for Vendetta and things should get a lot better. We should soon be judging SF by its best examples, not its worst.