Today, December 18, is Michael Moorcock‘s birthday. In celebration of this event, I am re-publishing (in two parts) my lengthy interview with Mooorcock. The piece originally appeared as part of the defunct Scifi.com webzine Science Fiction Weekly and was reprinted in my 2003 book Geek Confidential. I’m presenting the interview as it originally appeared back in 2001.
"Dreamthief’s Daughter" by Robert Gould
Michael Moorcock is one of the most prominent, prolific and popular writers in the Western world. His prodigious output includes rock songs, comics, screenplays, essays, and over seventy novels. Best known for his multiverse of interlocking heroic fantasy characters, Moorcock was recently awarded the World Fantasy Grandmaster Award For Life Achievement and is the recipient of many literary awards. Several years ago Moorcock moved from London to Lost Pines, TX, Science Fiction Weekly recently caught up with him at his home to discuss the latest Elric novel The Dreamthief’s Daughter. What we got was oh so much more.
How has the response been to The Dreamthief’s Daughter?
MOORCOCK: Oh, it’s been brilliant. So far everybody who’s read it has loved it. The weird thing about it is that every woman who’s read it, and this is really strange, has had vivid dreams as a result of reading it. Not bad dreams, just very vivid dreams.
Why do you think that is?
I have no idea. A writer never knows when he’s hit the chord. I mean, they know when they’ve done a good job, but they don’t know when they’ve hit the chord with the public. You never know that. I mean, you can think you’ve done it, and you publish it and wait for applause and the public says, “Bugger off, you sad old fool.” I mean, I thought I did that with The Final Programme, and it took about 20 years for it to get through. I thought, “Wow! They’ll love this,” and they thought, “What the hell is this?” So you never know. All I can really say is that the people who really like furry animal stories are still not going to like this any better. It’s not going to be a happy, sentimental tale of how a lot of really nice people get together to solve a problem against a lot of really, really nasty people. All the villains are nicer than the heroes.
It’s been nearly a decade since the last Elric novel, Revenge of the Rose. What made you decide to come back to Elric?
It’s a bit like a homing instinct. About once every ten years, I write a couple of Elric novels. This time I’m doing three. I seem to get fresh ideas for Elric novels about once every decade. It’s as simple as that. To some extent, the ideas for these novels came out of working on the comic [Michael Moorcock’s Multiverse]. You know, doing an Elric story for the multiverse comic and thinking about that and sort of locking that in to real historical periods, I realized that I could develop that a bit. And so, in a sense, a lot of my recent stuff, you can find a sort of template for it in that multiverse comic. It’s where I tried out a lot of ideas.
So you would suggest the Multiverse comic for your fans, then?
Well, not really, no. They’re completely baffled by it. But from my point of view, it’s a kind of seedbed where a lot of the other stuff has been coming out of. And certainly you can look back to the Elric story in the Multiverse comic and see some of the ideas that are beginning to…Also, in Tales From the Texas Woods there’s a kind of an Elric story which refers to the same underground world and so I developed some of those ideas further. In a way, it’s bringing together a number of ideas I’ve been working on, knocking around for some years
Art by Walter Simonson
Why do you think it’s Elric that you keep coming back to, as opposed to your other fantasy characters?
Elric simply does work on more levels than any of the other characters. When you think about it, there’s more Elric figurines, more Elric comics, more Elric product. And when you look at Amazon, it’s all Elric. The best-selling books of mine are all Elric books. So clearly there’s a lot, you know. He’s certainly a character I identify with much more closely that any of the others, personally. I really do. And no matter how many people say, “I prefer Corum,” or, “I really prefer Hawkwind,” I always think, “Well, they’re all right, but here’s my best lad. Here’s Elric.” And Jerry Cornelius is really a version of Elric more than he is a version of Corum or anyone else. So again, Elric is really one of the dominant figures in the whole thing. Someone asked me about Elric, and I said, you know, in a way he’s Pierrot. A romantic, tragic but, from another viewpoint, a comic figure. In Commedia D’ell Arte, Pierrot is essentially someone who’s constantly striving for something and constantly failing, so that’s why your sympathies are with him. A failed trickster. On one level that’s what Jerry Cornelius is, and that’s what Elric is, i.e., their failures are magnificent. What that says, what that’s constantly saying to the reader is that it is worth striving to do things, but there’s a price you pay for things. There’s always a price, and my characters always have to pay a price. They don’t come home in the end and everybody gets a piece of cake, a nice cup of tea and they all say, “Hooray, hooray, we’ve saved the day. The rings are all back in the box or whatever and we’re a finer, wiser, and happier people since saving the world from this terrible evil of people who speak with funny, bellowing voices and thus immediately identify themselves as baddies.”
Why do you think Elric has remained popular for almost 40 years?
I think that he is probably, of all of my fantasy heroes, all of my epic heroes, he’s the one who most embodies my own ideas, my own struggles, my own sort of psyche…my own moral questions and that sort of thing. And he remains a very modern, existential sort of hero. He can quite easily develop as I develop. There’s still plenty of development in Elric’s character, because he’s set up right. He’s already asking the questions, he’s already dealing with the problems. It’s odd, really. I don’t know of very much work of this particular kind that does that, except for science fiction. Science fiction, oddly enough, does a lot more of what I tend to do in fantasy. I’ve noticed I don’t read a lot of fantasy—I never did. I just started writing it. I just happened to have the facility. Pretty much all the other stuff in that form has been published since I started writing it. So I’m not particularly interested in it as a genre. I didn’t start writing it because there was a big genre out there to write into. There was me and Tolkien. Basically, at the beginning, me and Tolkien were selling about the same, which was very very few. Tolkien was regarded as just another writer like [Mervyn] Peake who had an enthusiastic following, but wasn’t in any way mainstream or likely to take off. In a sense, I started writing Elric as much in contrast to Tolkien as I was writing it in contrast to Conan. I didn’t like Tolkien because it had a fairy story quality. It didn’t have what I would regard as a properly tragic quality. It was too sentimental for my taste. I’m attracted to lyrical, romantic, tragic kind of stuff, rather than the 5 people solve a problem together, which is essentially the Tolkien formula. It’s the formula which most people prefer. It’s the one that goes into RPG games and stuff like that. I’m writing about alienated individuals who are fundamentally solitary, who don’t really want do an awful lot with other people. And again, it’s my own experience. I pretty much brought myself up, and I pretty much looked after myself in my own feet from a very early age. I was earning my own living from the age of 15. I don’t think in terms of five friends getting together to solve a problem.
How is producing an Elric novel now different than it was back in the 60’s?
Well, it’s no different in one sense, and that is it’s just as hard. And the reason is because I deliberately make it harder for myself. I don’t make it harder for the audience—that’s not the idea. The idea is to write a book that the audience is going to buy. I mean, these books are also written for money. I’m not trying to put off people, but at the same time, obviously I can’t make compromises. I just have to write what I write. But at the same time, my idea is not to put obstacles in the way of somebody buying it. I’m not going to make it a difficult read. What I’m going to do is make it a difficult write. I’m going to give myself new tasks that I haven’t solved before. I’ve said this about rock and roll before, the thing that gives great rock and roll its quality is that it’s always not quite sure where it’s going. It’s never quite sure it’s going to get there, you know? And everything: voice, instrument, everything, the great rock and roll is just on the edge of… it’s always just expanding itself. Essentially, I was winging it with Stormbringer. I was sort of riding a very fast motorbike but didn’t know quite where it was going. I just hoped to God I could hold on and keep steering over the bumpy bits. So you need to set another standard, a higher standard, that doesn’t interfere with the reader’s enjoyment of the narrative or stop them from getting any pleasure from the book they would normally get. They don’t need to know what you’re doing, but you have to do it for yourself. And the other analogy is essentially how you get a good rock and roll voice on stage. If you raise the mike up above the level of your head, you’re straining to reach the mike and in that act of straining to reach it, you introduce tensions, which are, again, essentially the tensions that are in rock and roll. That’s why operatic voices can’t sing rock and roll—trained voices can’t sing certain songs that untrained voices sing better, i.e., Pavarotti singing a Willie Nelson song is crazy, and yet Willie Nelson could probably just about sing any Pavarotti song and it wouldn’t sound crazy, because he would modify his mouth rather than his diaphragm to change notes and things like that. He would just sing it. He would have found a way of singing it, and that’s one of the things that’s interesting. That what attracts you to science fiction and rock and roll initially, what attracted me, was the fact that they were raw, they were new, and that they hadn’t been taken over by anybody. There weren’t any magazines, websites, and so forth to make me feel self-conscious. That was the ambience in which you wrote and produced. You’ve got to reproduce that in some way. And what I’ve done is I’ve made the narrative harder for me to write, but I know it isn’t harder for anybody to read, because everybody that’s read it has said, ”Great,” you know—zipped through it. So I know that that works. But what I did, what I had to do in order to achieve that was something more difficult than I’ve done previously. What a long answer.
Photo by Charles N. Brown
It seems like in the last 10 years or so you’ve made a conscious effort to make the multiverse a smaller place—to have the characters inter-relate more.
Well, yeah, to some extent that’s true. But what I’ve also been doing is expanding. It goes both ways. And really, partly, it’s chaos theory. The more I’ve understood chaos theory as such, and I don’t mean this kind of fashionable stuff they call chaos theory, but the actual mathematics involved in Mandelbrot, the more I’ve understood that, the more rational the irrational world becomes. I’ve been able to produce a much more coherent, as it were, version of the multiverse. And it’s almost like there are zones in it now, whereas there weren’t before. Again, it goes back to the comic and War Amongst the Angels, which has Elric in it as well. But the other thing I discovered I could do through writing those books, and this is very deliberate, how to write a story about the same character, one story could be just straight realistic, set in Austin, say, and absolutely no element of fantasy in it at all, and the next story be about the same characters but completely fantastic. Because for me, both things are true, i.e., my imaginative life and my real life are as vivid as each other. I want to describe that experience in a story without having to rationalize it or explain it in any kind of generic way except by my own logic, my own rationale. What you’re looking at in my fiction, is not so much generic work as such, but individual work that is in a sense its own genre, attempting to solve its own generic problems. The genre developed after I had started.
When you say, “its own genre,” just like fantasy and science fiction have their own set of rules within the genre, does it have its own set of rules?
Yes, that’s right. That you have to follow to fulfill reader’s expectations. To give the customer what they want. My readers have certain expectations of me. Any new reader can come into my multiverse with any new book and not feel they’ve got to read all the other books. But that is exactly the same as you read your first novel about real life, you don’t feel you’ve got to know everything about the real world. You only need to know about the real world of that book. In To Kill A Mockingbird, you need to know what’s going on in that town with those people and so forth. You don’t think, “Oh my God! I can’t read To Kill A Mockingbird until I have read the entire history of the south,” and etc., etc.,–you just don’t do that. So I don’t want readers to be put off by seeing that kind of coherent body of work and thinking, “God, where do I start out, and where do I finish?” What I offer is the same as what maybe a movie director offers: if you fancy this aspect of my work, this aspect of my life, then go for that. I don’t expect you to like Elric and Pyat. I’m very glad when you do, but I don’t expect you to. One of the things I said to Betsy Mitchell [editor of The Dreamthief’s Daughter] before I even began these was, “I want you to know if you have never read an Elric book and your reps have never read an Elric book and your editorial people and your advertising people have never read an Elric book, it doesn’t matter. This is going to be a book that you will never have to read another Moorcock title to enjoy.” I’m offering a broad range of entertainment here. I’m like a TV channel.
Are you waiting for the Moorcock section at the bookstores?
I used to be the Moorcock section, and this is unfortunate. The bookstores used to have a Moorcock section. That was in my heyday, before all these other f—–s came along. But at one point, it was just Tolkien, and he didn’t really have a section as such, and then there was me. And it’s absolutely true, everybody said this at the time, I was a category. I was sold as a category. I was sold, essentially, to the distributors as a category: “How many Moorcock’s do you want this month?” Since then there have been some fine new books and an awful lot of bad xeroxes, but I’ve never been out of print anywhere in the world, really. I mean, 40 years and I’ve stayed in print—that’s not bad. And most of them are readable. The other thing I’m proud of, and again, people say this and I feel it’s true, but obviously I can’t propose it myself — my books don’t actually go off in quality. Again, it’s a question of personal pride. I couldn’t do anything but my best. Just because you produce a nice line of furniture that’s very good and lasts and everybody says, “Oh, I’ll buy Moorcock furniture,” you don’t immediately cut the quality down so that people fall down and their tables fall apart. I feel that special relationship that I have with the reader. My deal with the reader is that I deliver the best quality I possibly can. Furniture you can use. That does the job it’s supposed to do. I mean, there’s a chance I’ll get senile and lose this ability, but while I’m not, that’s what I do. It’s an old-fashioned family business which takes pride in what it produces!
More in Part 2