A Canadian in King Arthur’s Court: John Kenny talks to Geoff Ryman
Originally appeared in Albedo One #33 (2007)
Geoff Ryman is nothing if not versitile. Known primarily as a writer, he has also been involved in a number of theatre productions, including Gilgamesh: a one man show (a memorisation and recital of the complete ancient epic) and is a regular lecturer at Clarion and Clarion West. Amongst his literary endeavours, there are a number of outstanding works, many of which have received awards. Primary among these are The Unconquered Country, The Child Garden, Was, 253 and Air, all radically different from each other and genuinely unique.
John Kenny: You’ve been living in the UK now for many years. What influenced your decision to transplant yourself from Canada to the UK?
Geoff Ryman: I didn’t. At age 11 my Dad was transferred by his company from Canada to the US head office in Los Angeles. I loved being a teenager in LA… the beach and all that… but I didn’t really like LA to live in as an adult… too spread out and isolating. When I went to be a student in the UK for a year, I loved it. This was the part of the early 70s that still felt like the 60s. Everything was still corner shops, small scale. I remember getting lamb and two veg for 34 pence. I remember some of the US students I was with staggering out of a shop near Victoria Station. They were in shock. “What can you say about a country that doesn’t refrigerate its milk?” In those days the pints were in glass bottles and they were delivered in red plastic crates. “A country where people buy their milk every day, so there’s no need,” I answered. Everything seemed on a more human scale. The people were more interesting: feisty, colourful, fun, witty, humourous. Now the UK is a branch of Starbucks, but there was a huge cultural difference between the US then and the UK that made the UK seem very exotic, quirky and fun. Also, I found the people here far more genuinely interested in making friends. Three months in, and I had all the friends I could keep in touch with. So I stayed. IF my parents had ended up in Seattle, New Orleans, or maybe even New York or Chicago it might have been different, as I love those places.
JK: Canada itself, I hear from friends who have visited (and a whole branch of my family that relocated there 40+ years ago), seems to be quite a cosmopolitan, multicultural place. They have remarked on how different they found it to the US. Do you like to consider yourself Canadian, does it annoy you when people inevitably confuse Canadians with Americans, or is the increasingly globalised world making these distinctions irrelevant?
GR: Doesn’t annoy me in the least. If you look at Canadian family histories there is so much back and forth across the border. And Canada’s history isn’t snow-white. We expelled the Arcadians, remember? My memory of Canada in the 50s was a grimly mono-cultural place, except for places like Toronto. But my memory might be wrong.
JK: Is there an element of the ‘exile’ in how you approach your work as a writer? For example, James Joyce and Samuel Beckett seemed capable of producing the work they wanted to produce only when they had exiled themselves from their home country.
GR: It’s too globalised a world for that model to have any relevance. I wasn’t in exile even when I was in Brazil… I just visited the BBC Website, listened to the chart show, caught up with news, e-mailed my friends or rang them on the Internet… from the banks of the Amazon. Nope, sorry, that question doesn’t resonate for me at all.
JK: Your novel, Air, won this year’s Arthur C. Clarke Award and looking back over your body of work it seems that everything you write gathers honours. What didn’t win and why?
GR: Air also won the James Tiptree, the Canadian Sunburst, and the British Science Fiction Associaton Award. The stuff that didn’t win awards isn’t SF. It’s more difficult with mainstream awards not just because there is more competition, meaning more books published. It’s also that it’s a disadvantage come awards time being with a big publisher. For the Man Booker for example, they can only submit five books each. They will tend to submit their giants. That’s why tiny publishers like Tindal Street Press have shortlisted books. There’s other factors too. Lust, for example, probably is not my best book.
JK: You say Lust probably isn’t your best. Which of your books is your personal favourite?
GR: It varies. It would be a three way tie between Was for mainstream, 253 for humour, Air for SF storytelling.
JK: Were they as big a success as you thought they would be?
GR: I always think I’ve written a bestseller except the one that was, 253. I thought Was would be a huge hit. US history, Hollywood, Indians, Judy Garland, AIDS… It has sold steadily and well. But Wicked (hit musical and novel by Gregory Maguire) it ain’t.
JK: Leaving artistic considerations aside, do you think it is possible to sit down and write a ‘bestseller’?
GR: Absolutely the reverse; you do that, you’re dead. You must write from the heart or it won’t be alive. You have to write what your own tricks of mind allow you to write well, with feeling. That’s why every editor always says, we want you to write the book you want to write. The simple fact is that nobody really knows what makes a bestseller.
JK: Can it be done in the SF genre?
GR: You can’t decide to write a bestseller ever, but you can cross over and be a mainstream hit. Ray Bradbury, it must be remembered was a respectable SF author in every US drugstore book rack next to James Bond and Harold Robbins. But there is a trick of mind to being a mainstream writer as well and it’s to do with knowing what is relevant to people now. No trace of the geek or the wonk, nothing of academic interest or anywhere near the edge. Bradbury was an SF writer who wrote about small towns, picket fences, front porches, the contrast between dreams and the life most Americans were still living at the time. He could be published in the Saturday Evening Post in the same way Atwood can be published in the New Yorker.
JK: What would you say are the vital elements to a SF ‘generic bestseller’?
GR: Invisible prose, photorealistic technique, action and scope, nothing too edgy or which relies too much on the genre conversation. Something that invites in the literary and middle brows who can sniff instantly the difference between what they want to read and what we want to write.
JK: There seems to be less and less SF published over the past few years. Do you think the is genre being subsumed by the mainstream?
GR: More like it’s been subsumed by fantasy. John Clute has some very interesting ideas as to why this might be, including, simply, that technology seems to be generating so many problems as well as solutions, so that people are turning away from it to the past and to personally empowering magic. I would have said with David Mitchell, Kazuo Ishiguro, etc., that mainstream writers were feeling comfortable with ideas that were once exclusively SF ideas. They have the knack of presenting those ideas in novels that are acceptable to the non-SF reading public, who have a genius for spotting what SF they will find acceptable. This is nothing new. They spotted Ray Bradbury, for example. I’m not at all sure SF is being subsumed by the mainstream. If anything, the mainstream is finally accepting that SF can be literature, and indeed that some of it is.
JK: I note that your more mainstream work (Was, 253, The King’s Last Song) sensibly does not note your SF awards on the covers. When you’re aiming at a wider audience, it seems to be the kiss of death to announce a book or author as having won the Hugo or Nebula.
GR: That’s what the publishers think. It’s true among a lot academics and some readers too, but these poor souls have only seen Star Trek, have never read, say, Ken McLeod and are a bit unsophisticated about how phantasmagorical most mainstream fiction is, how constructed and made up.
JK: Mainstream fiction does seem to be letting down its guard a little with regard to more imaginative, indeed science fictional, treatment of ideas, themes and characters. Witness Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, Micheal Cunningham‘s Specimen Days, Michel Houellebecq‘s The Possibility of an Island and David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas.
GR: Yup. Margaret Atwood made a useful distinction between speculative writers who extrapolate or work with current issues… Current now including space travel, cloning and thinking about time and those who are SF writers. Interestingly, in her definition, the SF writer allows herself an unexplained jump in science… This is a new scientific principle so I can’t describe it or justify it, it just means we have FTL, OK? It’s those little jumps that worry me… Because the little jumps always solve problems like magic wands, but don’t seem to generate horrible unexpected ones.
JK: Her definition would seem to be at odds with the most generally excepted definitions SF has of itself. I would have thought mainstream writers don’t concern themselves too much with justifications, whereas SF writers can be too hung up on explaining everything.
GR: I don’t really recognize either of those two descriptions. SF writers do all sorts of stuff without explaining it. Sometimes this is a matter of laziness. They inherit FTL and it makes storytelling easier so they just use it. Sometimes it’s a matter of skill. SF writers become very good at showing not telling. Among the many difficulties that mainstream writers encounter when they write SF is info dumps. They don’t know how SF readers systematically parse a few details about batteries, wind-up TVs or food being stored in bamboo into a coherent scenario. They’ve never done it themselves as readers. As writers, they don’t know how to show how a society grew without explaining it. They are also more likely to be concerned about what their mind-experiment shows about real life now, with all its love, sensuality and need to lead a satisfying life. SF writers tend to be interesting in cloning, for example, precisely because it has nothing to teach us about everyday life now. You have to imagine a different kind of everyday life. In other words SF writers tend to be interested in cloning and its new effects on society for their own sake.
JK: You’re credited with helping create the Mundane SF Movement. Can you tell us a little about this? I understand it relates to the promotion of more rigorously thought-out SF. This seems at odds with the bulk of your own work.
GR: Thanks for that. I came up with the term Mundane. It means you accept that there will be no FTL drive, so no zipping all over the universe. So most of us will have our futures on this planet. This in turn forces you to accept the reality of change. It’s easier to keep things culturally similiar in a standard SF spaceship. People can call their Mom on the FTL and she can ask why you’re not married yet. But an earth with different energy sources, climates, population levels, class system, communications, and technologies. Now that really is tough to imagine.
JK: I guess when you are extrapolating from current conditions (climate, energy, technology, etc.) and not allowing yourself the handy get out clause of FTL travel or an equally gigantic jump away from reality, the focus is more on building credible, three dimensional characters (as should be the case in any fiction anyway).
GR: It’s also on simply coming up with some new tropes… And exploring difficulty. No difficulty, no story. Giving more thought to how we might reach the stars (if we really want to since no way is it ever going to be profitable) means that we need to have a very different kind of social matrix than profit driven capitalism before we go the stars. In telling the story of how we get there, then new kinds of people need to be imagined. The challenge is always to imagine the people. They will be very different. Who in the 1950s would have imagined that in 2006 we would be having perfectly open, socially sanctioned gay civil partnerships? It was unimaginable.
JK: In some circles (the mainstream literati, for example) you are referred to as a ‘gay writer’. Do you find this categorisation a hinderance, irritating and/or irrelevant? After all, you are a writer first and foremost, and your writing is obviously informed by who you are, so why should you be labeled, particularly by others?
GR: Why not Canadian, or Tall, or Male or any combination of the above. It’s all a handle to describe you… or more accurately I think to dismiss you. People really don’t have time to engage with all the writers around them, so a label will put people off, since it always seems to trigger particular and uninspiring images of who you are. The absolute deadener of course is Sci-Fi author. For most people that calls up a wierd geek who can’t get a girl.
JK: I can understand the justification for the James Tiptree Jr. Award, which is awarded to fiction that explores or expands gender roles. But is the Lambda Award perhaps a little misguided? It seems a little strange to give an award that is restricted to writers of a certain range of sexualities. I mean, how do you prove your credentials?
GR: I don’t know enough about the inner workings of the Lambda Award to say, and the award guidelines for next year are not posted yet. I suspect that their awards honour content, i.e. subject matter, and so what gets nominated needs to have a queer theme. Apart from anything else, queer politics has had a very healthy acceptance for years of queer as opposed to gay people… people who transgress boundaries and who couldn’t be pinned down as being gay. So people behind a gay award, more than anyone else, are most likely to be aware that sexual identities move and shift. I suspect they’d also regard interrogating an author’s sexuality as being invidious.
Awards always orbit around coteries and social scenes, including the Hugo (you gotta be a fan or convention goer) and the Nebula (you gotta be a registered SF writer) or the panel awards (you’ve got be Somebody). So all awards by their very nature exclude, are skewed in favour of certain types of person.
People who don’t identify with or who are unsympathetic to minority awards often don’t like the idea of a minority-focused award. It’s because they fear being excluded themselves, especially if they’re attractive, white and the right age. Since they and their forebears have spent generations excluding people they quite naturally fear that others will be as small minded as they and theirs have been. There is an award for SF about or by people of colour called the Carl Brandon Award. People bitch about that award, how reverse-racist it is. Well, the winner this May was a white woman, and the nominees, totally unlike the other major SF awards, nominated South Asian writers. In other worlds the Carl Brandon Award becomes a major entry point into the North American market for the thriving world of post-colonialist SF. It ends up being MORE inclusive. Which a cursory glance at last year’s Lambda Awards will also confirm is the case with that award.
JK: How did you feel being up against Kazuo Ishiguro for the Arthur C. Clarke Award this year? Of course, all the writers on the shortlist deserve equal respect, but it was interesting to note Ishiguro’s appearance at the awards ceremony. It indicated to me that he hadn’t just attempted to add an ‘SF Novel’ to his oeuvre.
GR: My assumption was that Kazuo felt he was a writer first and a subject matter second. Most writers do. I was very very pleased he came and was prepared to embrace winning the award.
JK: Do you find your own ideas becoming more or less science fictional as the years pass?
GR: About the same. I’ve always been interested in writing SF and non-SF. I have the basic SF/fantasy turn of mind and you can’t shake that. I’ve had the SF turn of mind for forever.
JK: The thing that strikes me most about your work is the sheer diversity of content and theme. Your books are radically different from each other.
GR: Stupidly. If I’d kept writing versions of The Warrior who Carried Life or The Child Garden or wrote book after book about US history like Was, I’d be making a living. As it stands, I start out again each time… only these days they compare a mainstream, big audience novel like The King’s Last Song with the sales for a literary SF novel like Air. Good sales for SF are terrible sales for them. So the diversity does me no favours with the industry and possibly not with readers.
JK: Do you think this aspect of your work has hindered major commercial success?
JK: Do you take the view that you’ll do whatever you want to do and rely on building a loyal readership?
GR: No. I do whatever excites me and that strikes me as good. I don’t have the knack of ringing the changes on a theme and being inspired by it.
JK: Do you feel pressure from your publisher/s to conform with what is more easily marketed as SF/fantasy/horror? It seems to me a good thing that writers like you are allowed to exist, given the current market conditions for genre fiction.
GR: No pressure from publishers at all, who tend to say write what you are passionate about. It is all so much more draconian than that now. Not only editors but booksellers have access to all sales figures, so if your very last book didn’t sell, publishers will be relunctant to publish it… even if it’s a space opera. If your very last book, even in a different genre did not sell well, the book distributors and bookshops will be reluctant to give it shelf space. If you end up being published by a small press, you will be treated well, have a lovely cover and get egoboo, but you are unlikely to get the distribution. So your sales figures remain low, so bookshops see those…. and you get published; you just have to accept that you won’t make a living writing and won’t see your book in W.H. Smiths or even Ottakar’s.
JK: I’ve noticed that quite a number of genre writers I like (Paul DiFilippo, Lucius Shepard, Howard Waldrop, Jeff Vandermeer, Ian Watson, yourself, etc.) are publishing more and more through small press publishers. Why do you think this is so? Are these the only viable outlets for writers that don’t write middle-of-the-road stuff?
GR: See above. It’s the relentless commericial pressure applied at every point in the chain not to books but to an author’s name. The books, good or bad, are irrelevant, what counts is the author-as-brand and that brand’s ability to sell. Small presses are great for readers and great for writers who accept that they need a day job.
JK: You’ve now built up a serious body of work. Do you think this could help to market Geoff RymanTM? While your work is diverse, there is a certain ‘quirkyness’ that runs through most of the books that is uniquely yours.
GR: Frankly, no. I don’t think I have done. Publishers say when I write mainstream why is he trying to write something other than SF? They don’t like it, they need you to produce a similar box of cornflakes each time, and much more often than I normally do.
JK: You’ve also moved from a full-time job to a part-time teaching position. Will we see an increase in your output? And will this further enable your publisher to create this brand?
GR: That was the whole idea. I can’t wait for publishers to do that for me. These days you do that for yourself.
JK: Publishers do seem to be more reluctant these days to spend money on publicity. There’s more expectation that the authors themselves will promote the books. In an Albedo One interview with Simon Clark a couple of years ago, he said he is very aggressively involved in self-promotion at all times, including utilising various strategies to get himself interviewed on local radio stations, wrangle reviews in newspapers, etc.
GR: I’m probably not that canny. I’m good at publicity, which is different. I did get a few good articles in the Guardian about Cambodian literature, but I didn’t really do that for publicity.
JK: Tell us about The King’s Last Song. You’ve returned to Cambodia 20 years after The Unconquered Country. Why?
GR: Why? Because it was there and fascinating… and things have moved on. King’s Last Song is a fine book that took me a lot of research and visits to get right. It’s half about the Angkor Wat era, and Cambodia’s greatest King, Jayavarman VII. I had to fill in gaps and turn the rather outline dates we have for him into a story. The link with modern times is that a memoir in verse written by him is discovered in 2004 preserved by being written into leaves of gold. It’s promptly stolen by two rather symbolic Cambodians, a slightly crazed veteran who saw the worst of the wars and a modern guy in his 20s who missed most of it.
JK: What are you working on now? Do you take a break between books or do you have a backlog of books in your head fighting to be written?
GR: I don’t talk about current projects since it tends to bleed energy away from them. I’m working on a historical project, and for all I know, it may turn into a series.
Relevant Website: www.ryman-novel.com the site of 253, a novel for the Internet in seven cars and a crash.