On Saving Books; or Hard Questions – How I Learned to Stop Worrying, Love the Small Press and Write Poetry: John Kenny talks to Ian Watson
Originally appeared in Albedo One #27 (2003)
John Kenny: First of all, let’s get the inevitable AI question out of the way. When you were working on AI, how much of a distraction was that from your other work, your writing?
Ian Watson: When I was working with Stanley Kubrick, it was fulltime. I was the ‘mind-slave’ of Stanley and by contract I was working for him full-time. Nothing else could get in the way of Stanley’s requirements and one of the problems was keeping a niche in my private life, as he would have liked to consume my weekends.
I did make it plain to Stanley that I was working during the week only and I was not going to work weekends and because he knew I was a supporter of the Labour Party, he would make quite a few jokes about trade unions and productivity agreements. One day, in fact, when I faxed him 10 pages instead of my usual three, he said “What is wrong with you? Have you had a Productivity Agreement with yourself?”
Bob Shaw, who had worked with him for five or six weeks only a while prior, and could not take the constant mind tricks, innocently went off to a Science Fiction Convention over one weekend, I think in Vancouver, admittedly. Stanley immediately sacked him because this was not what he ought to have been doing; he wanted mind and body dedicated to the project.
JK: How long were you involved?
IW: Initially, from March 1990. Stanley talked to me about the project and asked me to write a 12,000 word story development of the existing material, which had not got terribly far, doing anything I wanted with it. I did write a 12,000 story which included all sorts of things, such as artificial intelligence in outer space, plus time travel back to ancient Alexandria, and a residual colony of human beings being kept alive in the far future by the aliens.
Stanley called me back to him and I thought, “Gee, I have cracked it”, and he said to me, “Well Ian, the story is no use for the project, but I like the way you went about it, so would you work with me on a week-by-week basis doing story development?” and I said “Yes.”
That story, which is not bad, will remain unpublished forever, because is not my property; it is the property of Warner Brothers. It was called ‘Foxtrot’. Why was it called ‘Foxtrot’, I wonder. After ten years I can scarcely remember. So, what Stanley and I went on doing was working from my scenes and brainstorming what happens next. After we worked out what ought to happen next, we jumped to an entirely different aspect of the movie, different scenes, different settings. I think he indulged in a lot of lateral thinking in order to maintain a fresh intensity all the time, so you did not get into a comfortable rut. It was rather like the little mermaid dancing and experiencing pain the quicker she dances.
So, the stimulus was provided by constant shifts of perspective, which included not just talking about the story, but also shifts into the real world, so that Stanley would suddenly say to me, “So, do you think are they going to nuke Saddam Hussein?” This was at the time of the run-up to the first Gulf War, and for about 10 or 15 minutes we would shift to discussing the psychology of Saddam Hussein, whereupon Stanley would immediately throw from left field a question about another aspect of the project and what happens next and we would be back to the story.
It proceeded like this and was quite intense in the sense that you never knew what was going to happen within the next few minutes. Invariably, by the end of an afternoon, when I was hoping to go home and next morning write up some of the scenes that we had decided upon, Stanley would start plucking away at the logical fabric of what we had created and what was a hair-thread crack would rapidly become the Grand Canyon and the house of cards would collapse.
But that kind of thing actually taught me quite a lot about logical plotting, because Stanley was extraordinarily logical, inclined to have everything seamless. Hollywood movies in general, nowadays especially, with the story or scriptwriters coming last in the pecking order, tend to have vast flaws in the story logic because quite often the story is still being cobbled together during shooting. But Stanley wouldn’t allow anything like that. He needed to spend years and years to have everything perfect, to have the machine, the clockwork impeccable before the shooting commenced. And then of course he would spend about two years shooting, the philosophy being that once you have everything gathered together, you might as well film the same scene 50 times over, rather than just doing it a couple of times and saying ‘wrap’. Because, if you do it 50 times, something “interesting” might happen; this basically involved the actors going so far beyond just being actors that they were either living the role by then in a Zen state of hypnosis, or they might go crazy and do something completely original, fresh and strange.
JK: I suppose in the best case scenario, extra-curricular activities like this can act as a stimulation for your own writing.
IW: It was very stimulating as a mental discipline in thinking both logically and also flexibly and free-rangingly and not getting stuck in a rut, being able to kick yourself out of a rut into something parallel or in different directions. The remorseless logic of Stanley was a thing that did have an influence upon me.
JK: Seeing as how we are talking about the whole movie side of things, I believe you’re involved in a number of movie development type packages.
IW: I am, but none of them are particularly near fruition. There is a proposed Warhammer 40K movie which has been in development on and off for several years. Last year, I was pulled in by the guys who had the licence to try and develop it to rejig the script, which at that time Dreamworks were interested in. Dreamworks said that this movie has a hero at the beginning and he is a hero at the end and he doesn’t change one little bit in between, so what I was trying to do was to provide some more character motivation, which does not tend to exist very much in Warhammer land, or at least it didn’t.
When I wrote the four Warhammer books, the biggest problem was converting mentally from a citadel miniature and board game with rules and background studies, and characters almost like human machines, and trying to give them some kind of human feelings, emotions, background and motivations, which nobody had managed before.
JK: How did your involvement with the Warhammer franchise compare with the AI project, where, as you say, you had this free-ranging approach to trying to develop the story? Did you feel yourself constrained by that product?
IW: No, I saw the flaws, holes and loopholes in the proposed screenplay that Stanley would have leapt upon immediately and that is where I went to work. I fixed the illogics in it so that everything flowed into everything else naturally and explicably. There are other things I’ve been involved in such as an aborted project for a TV series about hi-jinks in the solar system. At the moment I am trying to do a development of one of my own stories, called ‘The Bible in Blood’, a package that will hopefully appeal to producers in Los Angeles.
In the last few months, I acquired an agent in Hollywood who specialises in trying to develop existing short stories and novels. Well, they don’t develop them, the writer has to develop them and they give guidelines based on their knowledge of what the studios think they want at the moment, and what is just not going to work at the moment. This means I am either wasting my time or not, in the sense that something might actually happen because it will be pitched relevantly at the needs of producers right now.
Otherwise, sitting over in England, you could develop your own stories and you could be pitching at people who have no interest in that particular thing. My movie agent did send me an e-mail asking me if there were any stories or books in the science fiction field which closely resembled V, that series with the notorious, ghastly lizards who invade the earth. Apparently, one studio wants to make a series closely copying V. V works, let’s copy it. I wouldn’t in a million years have imagined that anyone would want to copy V, but apparently somebody does. I myself am developing a story which has strong fantasy elements in it, most of which I have been told to take out and throw away, so I am trying to write it in an entirely different, more realistic way, but still eerie and haunting.
JK: It is interesting to see that Minority Report, for example, is based on a short story written in the 1950’s. AI is loosely based on a story written in the 1960’s. It seems to be that, with the latest science fiction movies, they are going further and further back to look at existing material to use at least as a kicking off point. It’s an accepted idea, certainly amongst science fiction fandom, that science fiction literature is where you go to find the cutting edge of the genre. Whereas the visual medium, TV and movies, seems to be lagging behind by 20 years or so.
IW: That is possibly true. The thing with Minority Report is that Philip Dick has become a very sexy Hollywood name, so that anything you can take from him and develop, no matter how far you wander from the original Philip Dick idea, it is by definition bankable. I believe Hollywood studios are now looking into the science fiction literature because a lot of SF movies have been cobbled together without looking at existing stories. They’ve been creating them from the ground up, basically non-science fiction writers getting together creating a movie from scratch, as witness Armageddon or Independence Day or The Black Hole. The list is quite long of movies that have been generated in Hollywood not on the basis of existing science fiction material.
A lot of the options on existing SF material have resulted in no movies. Though they have resulted in some good ones. LeGuin’s The Lathe of Heaven was optioned about 10 times before it finally became a movie and it was a very good movie as a movie but not a blockbuster. Hollywood, of course, is very much into blockbusters and now that special effects and computer animation have become much more sophisticated, the temptation is to go for massive effects and action, which tends to push to one side the subtleties of a science fiction story, the characterisation, the social background. In a very real sense, Minority Report was put together by a committee. What is the future going to look like? Let’s toss around some ideas. Well, we’ll have those, yes, and those. What else will we have in the future? It does not necessarily present a believable image of the future. It is a collage of picturesque things thrown together.
JK: Talking about your writing, you seem to be very fond of the short story form. Everything we have talked about in terms of movie developments is mainly based on the short form and a significant number of your books have been collections. It seems to be something you are very heavily involved in.
IW: I am up to nine collections now. Golden Gryphon are probably going to do a tenth collection in 2004. This was not something that I was heavily into at the beginning. I did start out as a science fiction writer by having a couple of short stories published in New Worlds, but basically I was writing novels to begin with. Five novels were published and I had only published about eight or nine short stories. I got out a sheet of paper and ruled lines and wrote down the titles of the stories and I would add a tick if they got sold. I thought one sheet of paper would probably be enough for the rest of my life. I’m basically going to write novels, I thought. How wrong I was.
JK: It seems to me, from reading a mixture of your novels and short stories, that you do most of your experimentation in the short form. There is such a diversity. I mean you really go out there on some of them. Do you look on the short form as maybe offering more possibilities for trying things out?
IW: In the short form you can set up a situation which is internally consistent within the limits of that short story, but for a novel you have to think of the vast ramifications beyond the actual story. Sometimes, I have written a short story which I have expanded, or rather continued into a novel. Expansion suggests you just pump in a lot of air to make it bigger. My novel Converts, a slapstick comedy about metamorphoses, started off as a short story which Terry Carr bought and I wasn’t thinking of turning it into a novel at the time at all.
My story ‘Jingling Geordie’s Hole’ appeared in Interzone, to be voted simultaneously the worst and best story that year. I had no intention when I wrote that story of a novel appearing called The Fire Worm and it was only a year or two later that I thought of other implications beyond the original story.
The Flies of Memory is another case where I wrote a novella and that was published and when I finished the novella, I thought, you know, that’s it. I have done it and what not and then a few months or a year later, it was resurrected in my head and I thought I had to continue this story and develop it further.
The same thing happened with Whores of Babylon. I wrote a story called ‘We Remember Babylon’, which was really a rather brief one, about ten pages. It appeared in a Susan Shwartz anthology and was anthologised in Don Wollheim’s Best of the Year. I then saw many implications in this story and wrote Whores of Babylon, which I sent to Don Wollheim. He thought ‘We Remember Babylon’ was one of the best short stories of the year and I thought Whores was a nifty novel, so what better publisher? But Don sent me a rejection letter which said, “I cannot imagine why anyone would want to recreate Babylon in all its dirt, filth and degradation as you have done, at length”.
The novel only appeared in England and was shortlisted for the Arthur Clarke Award. Being shortlisted for the Clarke Award, you would think it was a fairly okay book, but I re-read it about four years ago because I was thinking it deserved a sequel and I noticed an awful lot of stylistic infelicities and other things which could really do with improvement. It is going to be a re-issue by Big Engine at the end of 2003 and I have re-written it considerably. I quite often use short stories as a test pad for what later becomes a novel.
JK: Considering the way the market has gone in the last 10 to 15 years and considering your involvement with something like AI and the time you devote to short fiction, do you feel any pressure from the publishing world to maintain a presence on a fairly regular basis with novels?
IW: I haven’t noticed that anyone in the publishing world rings up and says “Hey, we haven’t had anything from you for a long time.” In fact, Gollancz kicked me overboard a few years ago now, commenting about The Great Escape story collection that it wasn’t going to sell enough copies to justify printing. This same collection came out from Golden Gryphon in the States, with stunning reviews, the like of which I had never had before. One review on national radio resulted in 1,000 extra orders for the hardback the next day. So thank God Gollancz kicked me out as regards that book and likewise my most recent novel Mockymen, which Golden Gryphon are going to publish this coming autumn.
Mockymen went through some surrealistic publishing disasters. After my extraordinarily efficient foreign rights manager at Gollancz was sacked she told me that it seemed as though the Sales Department was deliberately trying to destroy the careers of several writers, not just me. So off I went to Orion. They were interested in Mockymen, but suddenly there was a mysterious moratorium on buying any new titles and months later, lo, Orion bought Gollancz itself, so now they had a big inventory plus the same old Gollancz Sales Department figures.
So off I went to Virgin Books which was starting up a new science fiction line. Peter Darvill Evans, the Managing Editor, wanted Mockymen as the lead title and we were just about to sign a contract when suddenly his Sales Department told him, to his astonishment, that he already had three books for the launch and could not have another one. Virgin launched with three books by unknowns and the new SF line flopped.
Next I went to Pumpkin Books, run by David Marshall, a small press producing very high quality books designed with love and rather like Golden Gryphon in the States. Bizarre personal chaos increasingly afflicted Mr Pumpkin. He got as far as an actual setting copy of Mockymen and the cover art when accumulating disasters finally brought Pumpkin Books down.
Then I contacted Golden Gryphon — where doom has not yet occurred! Nor does it look as though it will. The story collection is out and has done extraordinarily well. It seems certain that Mockymen will appear as well.
To a large extent, the future of interesting SF written by people who do not necessarily sell vast numbers of copies, is in the small presses. New technology makes it possible for the small presses to do really beautiful jobs on relatively small print runs, which will sell and an example of this Peter Crowther starting up PS Publishing specifically to publish novellas, reasonably priced, and it is doing very well. That is why, I suppose, Albedo One is launching into publishing books. This is totally viable now and, increasingly, people who love SF are not going to go down to Smiths, because they will just get wall-to-wall David Eddings or Robert Jordan or whoever else. For the innovative stuff, you are going to be looking at the small presses, which are no longer small in production values.
JK: Certainly, with the big publishers, the back-list has disappeared. If you want to explore the classics of the genre, you have to hope for a publisher like Gollancz to bring out the Masterworks series, otherwise you can forget it. And the mid-list has vanished.
IW: It has vanished. There are, at the moment, a lot of excellent new novels by very good mid-list authors going around New York much praised by editors but unbought. One answer to this is print-on-demand and that is certainly the answer to the misfortunes of the back-list. More and more back-list is now becoming available through print-on-demand. The problem with POD, though, is that at least in the short term writers are unlikely to earn nearly as much.
JK: It is a double-edged sword, though. The ease of publishing now facilitates good work coming out from mid-list writers and allows classics to stay in print, but particularly with the Internet, I find it is almost too easy in some ways to become published. There is an awful lot of dodgy stuff out there.
IW: There are some e-publishers who will publish anything, without exercising any real critical or editorial control. This was bound to happen. At least it’s better than vanity publishing where you pay to be lumbered with 5000 copies of a book no one but family and friends want, to store in your garage! Conversely, it can be rather a problem for even a good e-published book to get the attention it deserves. A friend of mine published a jolly good book with Cosmos Books, who are particularly friendly to British writers. The reviews of this book are excellent. Sales remain extremely low. Maybe this doesn’t matter in the long run, because the book is going to remain permanently available and as that particular author picks up more reputation through short stories and being anthologised in ‘Best Ofs’, people will always be able to get a copy, whereas after quite a short while most traditionally published books are no longer in existence — and if the first or second book does not do well right away the author is doomed in the traditional market. I think I prefer the situation now, even though it does mean that a lot of mediocre stuff will probably be out there.
JK: I suppose Theodore Sturgeon’s law of 90% of science fiction is crap, but then 90% of everything is crap, will always apply.
IW: 90% of mainstream novels are crap, but for some reason they are not generally treated thus. Whereas a bad SF book is good excuse for being rude about the genre as a whole.
JK: We are still fighting for recognition, which is possibly not a bad thing.
IW: At the same time it’s irritating when mainstream writers condescend to attempt something science-fictional without knowing the field, and produce a botch of a book, which then gets good reviews in The Sunday Times or wherever. I think China Miéville says that in your (Bob Neilson’s) interview with him in Albedo One (issue 26).
JK: So, what’s on the cards for you next?
IW: I don’t know. I hope I surprise myself. It’s even possible that I might write another Warhammer 40K novel in my Inquisition War series, because I left a lot of loose ends and I did have such fun writing those books. You can go completely over the top in gothic lunacy.
JK: We’ve spoken mostly of the professional side of your life. On the personal side, you went through a very difficult time when your wife was dying.
IW: I was a disabled carer, increasingly full-time, as emphysema progressively becomes worse. This is so constraining. There’s a continually constricting cage not only for the victim of the disease but for the carer as well. The ability to go places and do things diminishes constantly. This is one reason why I didn’t start another novel as well as the fact that I wanted to find a home for Mockymen, in the midst of its various publishing disasters, before starting anything sustained. You get this sense of the whole world closing in on you, a dark tunnel you might be stuck in for years. Everything becomes so ritualised and time-consuming. You scale down.
That’s really why I became a science fiction poet in the last three or four years. Poems are short enough to do in between changing the oxygen cylinders, pushing a wheelchair around, and all else. Poems are like extremely condensed stories (mine, anyway).
JK: I suppose you would need to have something that you could devote even a tiny amount of time to when somebody close to you is very ill.
IW: For a writer not to write is to go mad. You have to maintain some contact with the external world. In this respect e-mail was a complete blessing; you can communicate with editors by e-mail when it’s a question of poems. Obviously editors don’t want stories as e-mail attachments unless they invite this, but you can e-mail attach your poetry and get almost instantaneous responses from people.
As life scaled down, I was adapting to this, which to my surprise and pleasure turned me into a science fiction poet and two of my poems have been finalists for the Rhysling Award, the Science Fiction Poetry Award. I had written poetry before now and then, usually because I had a character in a novel who was a poet, so I would need to demonstrate this. In Deathhunter Norman Harper, a deliberately banal parody of Robert Frost, gives vent to saccharin clichés in the style of Frost and Vladimir Nabakov’s Pale Fire poet. In fact he’s such a bad poet he gets murdered early on in the book. In Whores of Babylon one of my characters goes to the Greek Theatre in Babylon to see a production of the Andromeda of Euripides, which unfortunately has been lost, so I needed to invent it, in the style of a 19th century translation – one long soliloquy, at least. There was a funny sequel to this. I was invited to be Guest of Honour at a science fiction convention in Tel Aviv. Tel Aviv is one of the places that claims to have Andromeda’s Rock, where supposedly she was chained as a sacrifice to a sea monster. I told the organiser in Israel about Whores and we kicked off the convention in Old Jaffa, overlooking Andromeda’s Rock, with me reading out my invented soliloquy from Euripides then an Israeli actress declaiming a Hebrew translation of it, which was great fun.
JK: It is incredible how things can go through so many filters and end up at a stage where you ask yourself ‘Did I write that?’
IW: Most things turn out to have a use somewhere sometime. My big two-volume Book of Mana, which is actually one long book cut in half, features a poetess. Some of my existing poems became her works and I wrote one or two others specially for her. But I hadn’t imagined that I would have a flair for writing poems about, say, Isaac Newton. I was very pleased and glad. It isn’t exactly a way to make a fortune, as Gardner Dozois of Asimov’s kindly pointed out to me when I sold the second of my science fiction poems to him. “Are you determined to earn as little money as possible?” he asked.
JK: In terms of money, presumably you still have a lot of your work in print.
IW: Not all that much. In the last year, three books have come back into print with Richard Curtis’ e-writes programme, Hard Questions and Converts and The Fire Worm. I just picked up a batch of copies because I had almost none left and the books could have vanished. Curtis told me that they were going to be sourcing in the UK as well as the USA, so I asked “where exactly, because I know that Cosmos Books are printing in Milton Keynes, which is half-an-hour’s drive from where I live.” It turned out to be exactly the same place, about five minutes from where my daughter lives. That saved on postage! Now those books are saved and alive again.
It looks quite likely that a new American publisher, BenBella Books, will reissue my Book of the River trilogy as one fat trade paperback volume. The Science Fiction Book Club in America did an omnibus volume years ago under the title The Books of the Black Current. BenBella might rename the trilogy Yaleen, after the main character. Incidentally, the trilogy features a feminist utopia.
JK: That is a constant struggle then. I mean, you have got to really keep an eye on your work, what is out there. It is sad to think that certain of your novels have not seen print for a number of years.
IW: As applies to so many hundreds of other writers. Keeping the things in existence is extremely important. Gollancz retained a few of my books when I reverted the rights to everything out of print. Miracle Visitors is due out again in June 2003 with a beautiful cover, a UFO that is a kind of coruscating, a three-dimensional Star of Bethlehem coming low over a desert with a crescent moon behind and a guy on a camel reacting with great surprise. Maybe they should be bringing it out next Christmas — people might mistake it as a suitable stocking filler.
JK: Good thinking! Though I think you would be loath to say delay.
IW: Never say that. Never say that.