Michael Swanwick Photo by Beth Gwinn
HEIDI'S PICK SIX
1. Which of your characters is your favorite?
Tough call. Johannes Faust in my criminally-underappreciated Jack Faust was my single best-drawn character, though a loathsome human being. Darger and Surplus, the Postutopian con men who appear in a number of short stories and in a novel I’ve just begun, are certainly the most lovable. And Esme, the demon-child in my forthcoming novel, The Dragons of Babel, despite being a supporting character, pretty much steals the show. But pride of place has to go to Jane Alderberry, the girl who was stolen by the fairies and forced to work in a factory building dragons in The Iron Dragon’s Daughter. She was so brave and so resilient. Every time life slapped her down (and when you’re in one of my novels, that happens a lot), she got right back up and tried something new. She was practical and level-headed in a way that I’m not, and over the course of the novel I had the privilege of seeing her grow up. I’m extraordinarily fond of Jane. Sometimes I think of her as the daughter I never had.
2. Tell me about your travels.
Earlier this year, Marianne and I spent two weeks in Moscow researching my next novel. Moscow is a difficult and wonderful place. We had a flat on the Garden Ring (Moscow has several ring roads, for which its mayor is jokingly called “the lord of the rings”) and on our first day there, we strolled a couple of miles to Red Square. The walk is all gently downhill until you come to a rise and pass through the Resurrection Gate and into the square. Which is a huge space paved with granite blocks, with the Kremlin to the right, GUM to the left, and St. Basil’s straight ahead, and hardly a scrap of green to be seen. It’s one of the most artificial – in the sense of constructed – places imaginable. Something about it, possibly the way the square rises up before you, makes you feel like you’re standing at the exact center of the Earth. People stand about at random spots taking each other’s pictures. Because – you can’t help it – you feel important just being there.
Everything that we saw was profound and moving. We had dinner in a piano restaurant named Dissidents with a beautiful nighttime view of a full moon floating in the sky over Lubyanka Prison. We went out one day to discover the city flooded with OMON thugs – and nobody could explain to us why. We saw a vigorous and hard-charging city whose people (those we met, anyway) we liked a great deal.
Everyone who comes to Russia ends up being conquered, one way or another. This was my second trip to that country, and I both love it and fear for its future.
My solo trip to China for the Second International Science Fiction and Fantasy Conference in Chengdu was a very different but equally rich experience, which I’m not sure I’ve fully assimilated yet. China is far less free than Russia. You can’t so much as buy an English-language magazine anywhere in the country. But it didn’t feel oppressive. The relationship between the government and the people is not as antagonistic, I think.
Then again, maybe it’s simply that the people from Science Fiction World, which sponsored the conference, took extremely good care of their Western guests. We were treated like rock stars. They took us to the panda breeding facility and arranged for us each to hold a juvenile panda in our laps, which it turns out is an astonishingly blissful experience. Every meal was a feast; and the food in Chengdu is famous throughout China. We were taken to museums and temples and entertained by traditional musicians and mask dancers. Best of all, Rob Sawyer and Neil Gaiman and I (Nancy Kress was suffering from exhaustion that night, unfortunately) got to spend a long evening in a tea house, just talking with Chinese writers, sharing ideas and comparing experiences. That was the highpoint of the trip for us all. Better even than the panda or the day I went off with the parents of a family friend and visited the poet Tu Fu’s thatched hut, which has been a tourist attraction for over a thousand years.
But the downside was that I never did get to know Chengdu well enough that I dared go out into it, as Marianne and I did in Moscow, and get deliberately lost.
I could go on and on about China and Russia – and Finland and Sweden and Croatia and other places science fiction has brought me where I have friends and feel particularly strong connections to. But there’s no need. Eventually, it will all come out in my fiction.
3. Coffee, tea, or milk?
4. What else can you do besides write?
Well? Close to nothing. For a hobby, I write non-fiction.
5. Who are you reading right now?
Far too much. I’ve got an ever-growing stack I’m reading for research, not all of which I’d recommend to anybody. Then there are books that come in the mail for blurbs or the like. This week, it’s Gene Wolfe’s An Evil Guest which, as of page 230, is terrific, and The Surgeon’s Tale and Other Stories, a self-published mini-collection of stories by Cat Rambo and the very energetic Jeff Vandermeer, some in collaboration with other writers. I’m looking forward to reading that because Cat was one of my Clarion West students, and I’m interested in her work. Plus books that fellow readers urge on me, such as Votan, a classic fantasy that Neil Gaiman was horrified to learn I hadn’t read, and Wild Girls, a book about Natalie Barney and her circle, which Henry Wessells (who published my short-book-length essay on James Branch Cabell) knew I would be interested in, because of my earlier essay on Hope Mirrlees.
Just today, I received a stack of mysteries by Boris Akunin from my Russian friend, Alexei Bezougli. And of course I can’t drop by a bookstore or go to a convention without coming out with an armload of books. Last Sunday it was Martin Amis’s criticisms, A. A. Milne’s light essays, two Olympia Press paperback pornographic novels from the 1950s (not very good, I’m afraid), and a Connie Willis novel I’ve somehow never gotten around to reading. I also subscribe to two or three genre magazines at any given time, just to keep in touch with what’s happening.
For pleasure, I’m reading War and Peace, a novel I’ve had to quit halfway through several times in the past when things got so busy I couldn’t spare the time for it. An extremely easy book to read and enjoy, but one that you can’t help but linger over, for the sheer pleasure of its company. When that’s done, I plan to tackle another book I had to give up half-read, What Are We Fighting For?, which is Joanna Russ’s historical history of contemporary feminist theory. Put that way, it sounds dull as dishwater, but it’s anything but. It’s a fast and exciting adventure in ideas – about our lives, our society, and what it means to be human. But one indulgence at a time. First I’m going to finish the Tolstoy.
6. Pop culture or academia?
7. What is the toughest scene you ever wrote?
In “Empire of the Air,” a story original to my new collection, The Dog Said Bow-Wow, there is a scene where young Will visits his father in the mental ward of Pennsylvania Hospital in early nineteenth-century Philadelphia, and finds that his father no longer recognizes him. That was extremely difficult to write because it came straight from my life. My father contracted early-onset Alzheimer’s, which comes on fast and hard, when I was a teenager. So I got to see a man whom I loved and who was admired by everybody he met, destroyed from within. By the time of that visit in the VA Hospital in Roanoke, Virginia, all that was left of him was the awareness that something was terribly wrong and that in some way he had failed his family. I was crying when I wrote those paragraphs, thirty years later, but it was something I had to start to come to terms with.
The trauma of that experience would be hard to exaggerate. For years I wasn’t able to even talk about it. It made me into a different person, and that person made himself into a writer. I’d been published for over a decade before I made that connection. John Gardner used to say that a writer is hurt into being. I didn’t believe that until I saw it in myself.
8. Where do you find your inspirations to write?
9. Food you could eat everyday.
10. Are you into sports or other physical activities?
11. What kind of music speaks to you?
12. Do you outline your stories or do they just take you along for the ride?
I am, alas, a very slow and deliberate writer. So when I’m bogged down for a long time on a particular part of a novel, I’ll make diagrams as a way of analyzing the situation, figuring out what the problem is, probing for a way ahead. I’ve posted a dozen out of twenty or thirty such for The Dragons of Babel on my blog. For short stories and novelettes, though, never. They’re short enough to be held in the mind, whole and entire. A diagram wouldn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know.
13. Celebrity crush.
14. Who are the biggest influences on your work?
15. Do you still watch cartoons?
Michael Swanwick is one of the most acclaimed science fiction and fantasy writers of his generation. He has received a Hugo Award for fiction in five out of six years – an unprecedented accomplishment! – and his has been honored with the Nebula, Theodore Sturgeon, and World Fantasy Awards as well and receiving nominations for the British Science Fiction Award and the Arthur C. Clarke Award.
His stories have appeared in Omni, Penthouse, Amazing, Asimov's, High Times, New Dimensions, Starlight, Universe, Full Spectrum, Triquarterly and elsewhere. Many have been reprinted in Best of the Year anthologies, and translated for Japanese, Croatian, Dutch, Finnish, German, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Swedish, Chinese, and French publications.
His books include In the Drift, an Ace Special; Vacuum Flowers; Griffin's Egg; the Nebula Award-winning Stations of the Tide; The Iron Dragon's Daughter, a New York Times Notable Book; Jack Faust, and Bones of the Earth; his short fiction has been collected in Gravity's Angels, A Geography of Unknown Lands, Moon Dogs, and Tales of Old Earth. His flash fiction was collected in Cigar-Box Faust and Other Miniatures. A new collection, The Dog Said Bow-Wow, is out with Tachyon Publications and his new novel, The Dragons of Babel, is scheduled to be published by Tor Books in early 2008.
He lives in Philadelphia with his wife, Marianne Porter.