China Miéville is one of the bright lights in the new breed of fantasy/weird fiction writers. His works often take place in cities, where the cities are characters as much as their inhabitants.
King Rat, his first novel, was a reboot of the Pied Piper set in London's underground rave scene. His next three novels, Perdido Street Station, The Scar, and Iron Council, were all set in a world called Bas-Lag, with the city of New Crobuzon a central part of particularly the first and last books. Next came a collection of short stories, Looking for Jake, followed by a fantasy for younger readers called Un Lun Dun. The latter featured two Londons — the London we know, and the surreal underground Un Lun Dun.
Now Miéville is back with The City and the City, a crime noir set in Eastern Europe, in two cities separated by a very unusual border. Doug Brown spoke to Miéville by phone in his London home, discussing writing, reading, the mistrust of allegory, and why influence is like an iceberg.
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China Miéville: I definitely wanted to write a book that was completely faithful to the crime paradigm, that obeyed all the rules of a crime novel, that was a police procedural. So, yes, it was deliberate. I knew perfectly well what it was going to be, and I was trying to bring something to that paradigm that was something of me. It had my kind of approach, so hopefully it remains faithful to all of those tropes and ideas, but it also tries to do something new with them. I like the idea of trying my hand at lots of different genres, and crime was one I'd wanted to try. I knew this was going to be the noir sort of thing.
Doug: What was the genesis of the idea for The City and the City?
Miéville: It was a triangulation of three things. One was, as I say, this desire to write a crime novel; one was an interest in the Eastern European aesthetic of literature and film — people like Kafka, Paul Leppin, Jan Svankmajer, and Alfred Kubin; and the third was the idea for the actual cities themselves. It was just an idea I'd been chewing over for some years, trying to work out how to do it most effectively, and I just fleshed it out and it took shape from there.
Doug: How present was Kafka's ghost for you when you were writing The City and the City?
Miéville: Kafka's a very big, very important figure, not just for me but for loads and loads of writers of the fantastic. In my case, Bruno Schulz was actually at least as powerful a presence. Bruno Schulz's stories in Sanatorium under the Sign of the Hourglass, The Street of Crocodiles, and so on, were very present. So, yes to Kafka, but I wouldn't want to underestimate the power of Schulz, and various others as well. There's no point or desire to escape these people.
Doug: Is it an overanalysis to say The City and the City is an allegorical version of "The Emperor's New Clothes," as the citizens of Beszel and Ul Qoma have learned to unsee what is right before them?
Miéville: I don't think it would be an overanalysis. I'm a bit suspicious of the term "overanalysis," because I think it's always legitimate to analyze things. As I've said many times, I don't think writers are necessarily the people who know what's going on in their own works. It may very well be that things I hadn't necessarily picked up on are still going on.
But I get slightly nervous about the idea of the book as an allegory. I think any decent fantasy/fantastic/unreal/dreamlike book has metaphoric resonance, and probably has quite a lot of metaphoric resonance, because that's the way the human mind works, by processing and creating metaphors. I'm very strongly a believer that these resonances are there. But the difference between metaphor and allegory is that metaphor begats more metaphor — metaphor is intrinsically unstable — whereas allegory is designed to have a one-to-one reading. To that extent, allegories are really only interesting to me at the point at which they break down.
Tolkien has a line that he has a cordial dislike of allegory, and on that I agree with him firmly. I think if you want to write a book that is an allegory, where the narrative is subordinated to a point you want to make, then it is unlikely to be a particularly persuasive point and it is unlikely to work well as a narrative. For that reason I don't want to subordinate the idea of this as a crime novel, or as a description of imaginary cities, to the idea of the political allegory. None of which is to say that those readings are not legitimate — that's what I mean about metaphor. I think these are legitimate readings. It's a question of cause and effect; if the book doesn't believe itself as a story, then how can it possibly get on with the job of meaning anything else?
Doug: So what were some of the themes that were kicking around for you when you were gestating this? Borders seems to be one, as there is such an unconventional border between these cities.
Miéville: Absolutely. It is an unconventional border, but at the same time all it is is the logic of a border extrapolated. Borders are absurdities which are true. [Laughter] They are literally absurd. There is absolutely no reason in most cases that a border is here rather than two feet to the left. At the same time, those two feet will kill you if you are on the wrong side of them. They are absurdities, and they are true. The borders in the book are extrapolations from that fact rather than a completely new way of thinking about it. It's an attempt to take the political logic of the geopolitics of borders very seriously, and push it a little bit further.
And then all of the stuff that one would expect from a noir in terms of conspiracy and paranoia — those things feature very large. For anyone who is interested, there is an argument written in the book about issues of world creation and imaginary creation of landscapes. To a certain extent I suppose you could say there's a meta-fantastic argument going on within the book. That is not to say it is a professorial dry tome; those things are there for those who are interested in them. But there are also gunfights and police chases and all that stuff.
Doug: You mentioned there was one thing you agreed with Tolkien on. I get the impression your style of fantasy owes much more to folks like Tim Powers than Tolkien. Are you consciously moving away from that sort of high fantasy that Tolkien is associated with?
Miéville: Yes, although I worry about self-depiction as a kind of radical young punk. There's nothing that radical about trying to do a non-Tolkienesque fantastic paradigm. Michael Moorcock's been doing it for decades, as has M. John Harrison. Lots of other writers. Tanith Lee's fantasies are not particularly Tolkienesque, nor is Leiber. There have always been traditions.
In terms of the name you mentioned, Tim Powers is a huge influence, an amazing figure for anyone interested in this kind of fiction, and certainly for me he looms very large. I think we're at a kind of literary moment where that particular tradition of fantasy is receding before the weight of alternative traditions of fantasy. There's a big, big, interest at the moment in what is called "urban fantasy," which is a pretty moronic appellation [Laughter], as all appellations are, but you can't get too wound up about it. But, you know, the grunge, gritty, urban fantasy with or without vampires, and that's interesting too as a counter-tradition.
The inevitable thing is that all of these traditions which see themselves as oppositional at their high point very quickly become new clichés. I don't think one needs to get one's knickers in a twist about that. That's the passage of time and fashion. There's nothing wrong with that. But by this stage, anyone who is writing a determinedly "anti-high fantasy" fantasy and thinks they're sort of radically kicking against the pricks [Laughter] — and I would include myself — I think we ought to sort of check our egos at the door a little bit. Within a couple of writerly generations, one expects there will be a tranche of new young radicals who will be returning to dragons and elves and dwarves as a way of shaking the preconceptions of the fantasy establishment out of their tree. [Laughter]. That's fine — that's how things move. That's all good stuff.
Doug: Are you finished with— is it pronounced Baz-Lag or Bass-Lag?
Miéville: I say Bass-Lag. No, I'm not finished with it. I find it difficult to imagine writing a new book in that world that doesn't in some way undermine Iron Council, because of the shape of those three books. I'm very in love with that world, and I spent a lot of time working on that world and trying to invent it. I'm committed to do as much as I can to write within it. I fully expect to write more work set there. But I don't want to do so until I can work out a way of doing it that doesn't undermine the books that have been set there already. I think the worst thing to do would be to turn into the Bas-Lag factory. [Laughter] So, yes, I definitely want to do more, but I think it would be a lesser evil to write fewer and better, than more and worse.
Doug: Was the Runagate Rampant [a newspaper in the Bas-Lag world] influenced by any particular underground newspapers that you were familiar with?
Miéville: Within the political tradition in which I have been active, obviously Socialist Worker is a paper that, in its U.K. and U.S. iterations, I have read. But that's just one among a long tradition of radical pamphleteering broadsheets. So, back to the sort of Daily Worker and so on, basically the Runagate Rampant is just an homage — kind of affectionate and sometimes teasing, but always respectful to the radical newspaper tradition. A quick trawl on the net will find you a thousand different versions, but the one I particularly favored was the Socialist Worker.
Doug: Your illustrations graced Un Lun Dun. Have you always done sketches when preparing your books?
Miéville: Yes, although they were much more systematic for Un Lun Dun than for the others. But I've always drawn. I love doing pen and ink work, but I'm a very slow artist. So when I finished Un Lun Dun and I spoke to my publisher about it, and they said we're going to get this illustrated, I said — very shyly — "Well, if you're interested, I've got some illustrations of my own I would be very happy to show you." I didn't want it to seem like a vanity project, and I didn't want them to feel constrained, so, if they didn't like it, they had every right to say, "This is not for us."
I've got doodles and illustrations of various creatures from Bas-Lag and from Un Lun Dun and from all the things I'm working on, and indeed things I'm not working on. So I tend to draw quite often.
Doug: Will we maybe one day see illustrated editions of Perdido Street Station, or do you keep those to yourself?
Miéville: No, they're not secret. They're not private. At some point I would like very much to do more illustration. Maybe do illustrated guides — I've always liked bestiaries and illustrated fantastic encyclopedias and so forth. I'm very open and enthusiastic about the idea of doing that. It's a question of time. As I say, I'm very slow, so it's something where I would have to feel secure enough to take the time to do that. But it's something I would fully hope to do more of.
Doug: You wrote a Hellblazer story for a recent anniversary issue, and you've also done a Hellboy story. How different was it for you writing for the graphic novel format and where the characters and world were already largely defined?
Miéville: The Hellboy story was not for the comic format. It was for a collection called Hellboy: Oddest Jobs. It was illustrated by Mike Mignola, but it was a collection of short stories set in the Hellboy comic universe by various writers. So, in terms of the actual shape of the story, it was much more conventionally fiction in the way I'm used to it. But again, as you say it was a set of inherited characters. That was a blast; it was something I was very happy to do because I love Hellboy. I would do it for some characters; I wouldn't do it for other characters, just because there's no point in doing it about something you're not really into.
Doing Hellblazer was harder because it's a form I don't I know nearly so well. But, again, I like Hellblazer. I like John Constantine as a character very much. I like that mythos. I tried to learn what I could about that comic strip paradigm and try to get a beat at the end of every page, and the constraints because you're relying an awful lot on dialogue, and so on. It was something I'd like to do more of. I've done a couple comic scripts now, that one, and one for my short story collection. I really enjoy doing it, but I do feel very much like a n00b [Laughter] — you can spell that in whichever online way you wish — I'm not someone for whom this is my natural paradigm. I'd love to do more, and I have a couple of ideas for longer pieces, graphic novels and stuff. Ultimately it's something I'd very much like to do. The worst thing I think you could do is crash into this paradigm from outside and not do a good job, and be disrespectful to its traditions and its ways of storytelling, and what works best. I would tread very carefully, but with great enthusiasm — which would suggest an unusual gait.
Doug: I heard a rumor that "Details" [a short story in Looking for Jake] has been turned into a screenplay and picked up. Do you know if it will be going forward?
Miéville: It's true. It is attached to a director, there is a script, and I hope that it is going forward. With any movie news, until the lights go down in the cinema and the credits come up, you hold back on the celebrations. I understand that everything is proceeding according to plan, and that it's all going ahead and so on, and I will be absolutely delighted if that's true. We're still some way off from actually seeing a finished thing. It has been announced. There is a director. It's out there, the information is out there, which I think is a good sign.
Doug: Did you have any input on the screenplay at all?
Miéville: No, they sent me various versions, and Pascal Laugier, the director at the moment, and I have been in touch. He has been very gracious about the possibility of creative input and wanting to work together, and that's terrific. But you have to be realistic about the fact that if it's a film, it is no longer your project. At best it is a collaborative project, which is fine, but is a different kind of thing; and at worst, it is absolutely, completely out of your hands. You just have to be perfectly realistic about that. I don't kid myself that I will be able to dictate any terms. If the director and the producers are open to my input, of course I would be delighted to give it, but I don't think that I can assume that would necessarily happen.
I'm not just talking about "Details," incidentally, I'm talking about films in general. I think you have to be reasonably hardheaded about that, or you'll go crazy. [Laughter] Their drives are not necessarily your drives. If they're doing a film of a short story or a novel, you may be tremendously concerned about fidelity to the original, which is of course not one of their priorities. You may have an absolute love for a particular kind of special effect or filmmaking which is not what they want to do. If they're picking up the tab, then that's their prerogative. So you have to be sensible about it. That said, I'd love to be part of it, and if they're open to it, and they seem to be very gracious about it, then of course I'd be delighted to chip in.
Doug: Another format you've ventured into is gaming. Are there plans to do more besides the Bas-Lag game?
Miéville: The Bas-Lag game is not released yet. It has been announced, and it is under development from Adamant Entertainment, which is Gareth-Michael Skarka's company. We'll see what the response to that is when it is put out. I'm collaborating on that a bit. But, again, that's Gareth's baby. I'm helping, and am very honored and glad to help, but it is his baby. That's how it has to be, obviously. That's what he knows how to do; I don't know how to do it. In terms of gaming more generally, I like inventing monsters and settings and things like that, and I'd be happy to pitch in and do stuff for games on that basis. As with all these things, it's a matter of time and fitting it in with other projects.
I'm increasingly interested in video games, although I'm not a gamer myself by some absolute quirk of genetics, because by any reasonable standards I really should be a gamer. If you look at my geek profile I should be an absolute sucker for games, and I don't know why I'm not. I get very addicted very occasionally to a few games. I was addicted to Zelda: Ocarina of Time, and I was addicted to Diablo II. Apart from that I'm very glad I'm not really addicted, because I think I would get absolutely nothing done. But I'm very interested in them. I like watching people play them. I like learning about them. I like the paradigm of storytelling. I like all that stuff. I would be very interested in the kind of, it's a cliché to say, but the nonlinear narrative of a video game, and if there were some way I could do that. I've got a couple of ideas for some stuff I'd like to develop. So these are things I'd like to do in the future, yeah.
Miéville: Yes, but those are two different questions in a way. Within the academic milieu I'm interested in particular kinds of social and political theories from the left, so there is an overlap. I'm still active in what you could call academia and scholarly writing. I publish occasionally in the international law journals and stuff; I've got a piece coming out later this year in the Finnish Yearbook of International Law, for example.
At the same time, I'm still active in left-wing politics on the ground. There's always a difficulty with activism, because there's always more you can do. So there's always a struggle to fit it into your life, which is the same thing all activists have, I think. I'm still active, but not as active as I would probably like to be. I'm still active in the academic milieu, but again not as active as I would be if I were a full-time academic.
Doug: You've mentioned several times finding the time to do things. Do you find you have to schedule time to write, or do you just write as the muse strikes?
Miéville: I don't schedule time to write, although I think maybe I should. I feel very disorganized, very scatty; I go all over the place. I worry about not being productive enough and there are always things I want to do. It's not a question of discipline, I'm quite self-disciplined, I'm quite driven in the moment — it's a question of there being too many things to do. You say to yourself, "I'm not going to agree to do this or that project this year because I've got too much on"; and then something comes up which is really difficult to say no to because it's a lovely invitation, so you say yes. And then the next thing you know you've scheduled six or eight things in the year and your time is disappearing. This is a very common thing; this is not just me. This happens to everyone I know.
But I am going to try to be a bit more rigorous about writing, because I tend to write in a quite concentrated way. If I take four weeks and I just disappear, and I say to people I'm not answering email, I'm not answering the phone, I'm not coming out, I'm not doing anything, I can get an awful lot written in four weeks, an awful lot. But then there may be another four weeks that follow where I won't write a word. It tends to be in short, very intense bursts. I'm not one of those people who can write a thousand words a day, and I hugely admire those who are, but that's just not how I tend to work.
Doug: Do the ideas for your books tend to start with the place, the plot, the characters, or does it vary from book to book?
Miéville: It varies somewhat from book to book, but with the vast majority of my books it starts with an image or a setting. I tend to think not about characters; characters come later. It tends to be a particular image: it might be the image of a particular monster, or a particular place, or a particular event. It will be like a flash image, and I'll think, Okay. It can be really ridiculous, it can be a lion with a snake's head and neck, and I'll just get that in a flash and think, I know I want that in. And you amass several of those, and then you can string them together like beads. Characters will emerge as ways of walking through the narrative that strings those beads together.
That was not so much the case with The City and the City. It's a very different book. It is written very differently; it has a different linguistic feel. It has a different kind of setting. For that it was very much a question of the setting itself, of Beszel and Ul Qoma, these two cities, being the driving force. Then what followed in terms of characters and narrative were a way of investigating those two places, rather than a series of flash images. Which is also because it's my least overtly fantastic book, and I would stress "overtly." So that felt a little bit different to me.
The thing I'm working on at the moment has been back to my more traditional paradigm. But it varies, and it will probably vary as one goes along, because you don't always do the same thing. The way you write, and the way you relate to your writing, obviously changes as you develop as a writer.
Doug: You mentioned Bruno Schulz and Tim Powers. Are there any authors that particularly influenced your writing?
Miéville: You mean for this book, or in general?
Miéville: Absolutely, heaps and millions and loads. The difficulty with the question of influence is always that it is a much more complex question than it appears to be. For one thing, you can only answer about the writers you are conscious of being influenced by. Influence is like an iceberg; the vast majority of it is bobbing along under the surface. I don't for a second claim to be the final repository of wisdom on this issue about my own influences. Second of all, you can be influenced by books that you don't necessarily like or agree with; you can be negatively influenced. You can find yourself writing against a certain book. You could say I was tremendously influenced by Tolkien in a combative or argumentative way. Thirdly, the books that you like and love are not necessarily the ones you find yourself writing to, in an overt way.
In terms of the authors I am conscious of being influenced by, for this book it's a particular group of people: I would say Bruno Schulz, Franz Kafka, Alfred Kubin, Paul Leppin, Jan Morris, Raymond Chandler, Martin Cruz Smith, Dashiell Hammett.
More generally, you can take all of those, but you can add in the weird fiction writers like Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, people like that. You can add Charlotte Bronte, and the new world tradition of the 1970s: Michael Moorcock, Brian Aldiss, Pamela Zoline, M. John Harrison, J. G. Ballard, of course. You can add Dambudzo Marechera, the Zimbabwean writer. Some poets. Increasingly these days I feel quite influenced by the poet J. H. Prynne, although that's a relatively new thing. I could keep going. All the obvious people, plus some others. The London phantasmagoric tradition, so you're looking at Neil Gaiman, Iain Sinclair, Moorcock again, Peter Ackroyd, Thomas De Quincey, Dickens. And you can be influenced by people you've never read. I'm probably very influenced by The Divine Comedy, but it's not a book I know well. It's just become so saturated into our culture you're influenced by it second- and third-hand.
Doug: What are some of your favorite books, some of the books you have read more than once?
Miéville: The Borrible Trilogy by Michael De Larrabeiti, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, Black Sunlight by Dambudzo Marechera, The Course of the Heart by M. John Harrison, At the Mountains of Madness by Lovecraft, Joan Aiken's The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and Nightbirds on Nantucket. Those jump to my mind. There are plenty of others. Philip K. Dick, particularly Martian Time-Slip — and A Maze of Death, actually, which I don't think is one of his best, but for various reasons is the one that really sticks in my head. The short stories as well. The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers. You want more? I got more. [Laughter]
Doug: Are there any books you think everyone should read?
Miéville: Well, those. [Laughter] It's a difficult question to answer, because there are books that I think particular people should read, that would work well for particular people. I'm not the police. It's not really for me to start laying down the law on what is or isn't required reading. Most of the books I really would like people to read actually tend to be nonfiction, because fiction is so subjective and taste-driven. Although I'm very happy to make recommendations, I think you have to defer to what people like, but you can always argue with it. In the case of nonfiction, there are lots of books I would really like people to read. Avi Shlaim's The Iron Wall, The Gun and the Olive Branch, pretty much everything Chomsky's ever written. Lots of political books, particularly around issues of corporate power and particularly around the Middle East and the Palestine/Israel issue. These are books that I think deserve a great deal more attention than they get.
Doug: Have you read any good books recently?
Miéville: I've been reading a book by Christopher Caudwell called Illusion and Reality, which is an old cultural history and cultural critique from the 1930s; it is very good and very underrated. So that's terrific. He died in the Spanish Civil War, and he deserves a lot more love. In terms of fiction — I haven't read any fiction for ages, actually. I don't tend to read that much when I'm writing. It's kind of a problem. The more I write the less I read, which is something I really want to overcome; because I haven't been reading nearly enough for some time, and it makes me very uncomfortable.
Doug: Are you worried it will influence what you're writing?
Miéville: No. People say that quite often, one hears that as a concern, and that's not, to be honest, my thing. I don't tend to get too worried about that, partly because I have faith in my ability to disguise my own acts of thievery. [Laughter] And partly because I think such thievery is inevitable and is part of being a writer; and as long as it is done with respect, love, and a bit of care, I don't think you have anything to worry about there. I'm not talking about plagiarism, obviously — that's a different matter. But in terms of influence, no, that's not what worries me. It's more a question of focus. When I'm writing I don't have the focus to sit down and read; my attention drifts. It's a real problem because my mind is constantly looping on whatever I'm writing. That's the reason I don't read as much as I would like when I'm writing; but as I say it's something I'm trying to overcome, because I don't feel comfortable with it at all.
Doug: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
Miéville: The only advice I can give aspiring writers is — if we're talking about people who want to write book-length fiction — I would say don't tell yourself you're writing a novel; you'll get intimidated. Spend a couple of weeks or however long it takes thinking about that up front, planning it out, having a sense of where you're going. I know a lot of people think that it will get rid of the spontaneity of creativity if they don't just start writing. Personally I am not convinced by that. I think particularly when you're starting out it's very helpful to have a framework, a basic shape. And then what I would say is once you've got all that done — and you have to think about it as a novel while you're doing that — stop thinking about it as a book. Don't tell yourself you're writing a book. Your best chance of writing a book is to do it behind your own back. [Laughter] What that means is saying to yourself, Every day I'm going to write 500 words, because 500 words is not very long, it's about four-ish paragraphs. So you say, I'm going to get up, have a cup of coffee, I'm going to write 500 words, and then I'm going to go and do what I have to do in the day. All you ever think about is your 500 words, and don't think, Oh my God, I'm writing a novel, that's 120 pages... Don't think that way. Just think 500 words, four (and a bit) paragraphs. And, eventually, a few months down the line, you will have written a novel behind your own back. And that way you won't get intimidated.
Doug: Are there any questions you wish I had asked you that I didn't?
Miéville: [Laughter] I don't think so, I'm never the right person to judge. I don't know what's going to interest people about whichever book it is. I guess I'm interested to see how this book is received among people who liked my previous books, because it is quite different and it is less overtly fantastic. So I hope people are prepared to go along with that for a while. I'm interested in that relation. But I don't have a way of smuggling that into a question, so I guess not, really. No. [Laughter]
Doug spoke with China Miéville by phone from his home in England on May 7, 2009.
Books mentioned in this post