Photo: Locus Magazine

Michael Swanwick

Ismo Santala interviews Michael Swanwick

Since his first short story appeared in 1980, Michael Swanwick has been one of the most consistently inventive authors of American science fiction. He is a restless, intensely ambitious writer whose novels and short stories have won him the field’s most prestigious accolades, including the Nebula, Hugo, Theodore Sturgeon, and World Fantasy Awards. Swanwick revels in exploring the full spectrum of the genre’s potential, with stories ranging from hard science fiction to Tolkienesque fantasy.
Swanwick’s fiction teases out exciting variations on such archetypal SF themes as first contact between humans and aliens, the development of alternate worlds, and the vagaries of time paradoxes, while at the same time playing mind-bending games with reality (such as to be found in the short story “The Transformation of Philip K.”). Considered one of the field’s masters of the short story, his powerful and often humorous short work can be perused in the collections Gravity’s Angels (1991), A Geography of Unknown Lands (1997), Moon Dogs (2000) and Tales of Old Earth (2000).
Compared to the fecundity of his short story writing, Swanwick’s novelistic output may seem sparse. Yet each of his six novels contains a fascinating world realised by adventurous and richly evocative prose. After the shaky debut of In The Drift (1985), an atmospheric but ultimately flawed panorama of America after a nuclear meltdown, Swanwick published Vacuum Flowers (1987), a full-blown space opera with hints of cyberpunk. A figure known only as “the bureaucrat” carries on a quest in the near-apocalyptic world of Stations of the Tide (1991), while The Iron Dragon’s Daughter (1993) weds high fantasy with the industrial revolution. Jack Faust (1997), Swanwick’s greatest novel, reworks the Faust legend with an emphasis on the impact of science and technology on society. His most recent novel, Bones of the Earth (2002), centers around the paradoxes of time travel and the physicality of dinosaurs.

Ismo Santala: You’ve said that when you decided to become a writer, your literary ambitions wavered between wanting to be J.R.R. Tolkien the Second and James Joyce Jr. When did this bifurcation take place, and how did you resolve this dire dilemma?

Michael Swanwick: Oh, those were my high school and college years, which I spent writing bad fantasy and worse modern symbolism. Tolkien and Joyce seemed to be each standing on the top of his own private mountain, and that was where I wanted to be: on the top. My loyalties shifted from moment to moment, depending on what I was putting my pen to.

As for the resolution . . . I could be smarmy and say that I decided to be the next Vladimir Nabokov – all my early literary heroes trended toward the grandiose – but the truth is that I finally stopped trying to leapfrog the first ten years of literary growth and began writing simple narratives that I could learn from and build upon. This would have been sometime in the early 1970s when I first came to Philadelphia and met Gardner Dozois and Jack Dann and other science fiction authors and got to see how real working writers approached their craft. Writing is a lot like architecture, in that there’s a lot of unromantic, unglamorous grunt-work that’s got to be done before you can achieve the grand effects. That wall is going to require more bracing, that character needs a stronger motivation. My first eleven years as a writer, I wrote constantly and yet never managed to finish a story. When I finally mastered the basics of craft, I could. And of course the first good story you write is like a wind in your sails. It sets your course. You want to write more like that – only better. You head for the horizon.

One unexpected benefit of my unconventional start was that when I first started publishing, I knew more about fiction than most beginning writers do, and so my first two published stories (“Ginungagap” and “The Feast of Saint Janis”) both placed on the Nebula ballot. This got me a lot of attention. But I don’t recommend that any gonnabe writers emulate my early career-path. It was a terrifying thing to be closing in on age thirty with nothing written and no discernable career skills.

Who are your favorite writers; old or new, established or emergent?

Wow! We could be here all week. Let’s see. Established masters: Gabriel García Márquez, Ursula K. Le Guin, Gene Wolfe, Djuna Barnes, A. S. Byatt, Jorge Luis Borges, Joanna Russ, the early John Barth (particularly The Sot-Weed Factor and Chimera), Julio Cortázar, Italo Calvino, John Fowles, Samuel R. Delany, Donald Barthelme, Muriel Spark, William S. Burroughs, and inevitably Thomas Pynchon. That’s only off the top of my head. Then there are those writers like Kafka and Salinger and Twain who are so familiar they’re easy to overlook. Recently, I picked up a collection of Hemingway’s short fiction and skipped over all the iconic stories like “Hills Like White Elephants” and “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” to read his second-tier work, and the man really had chops! But his public persona is so overwhelming that’s easy to overlook. Then there are the quirky and wonderful and usually overlooked writers like R.A. Lafferty, Avram Davidson, E.R. Eddison, Mervyn Peake, Michael Ayrton, Anthony Burgess, and Alasdair Gray, who in a better world would be as famous as that first batch. And those writers who only produced one major work like Emmet Grogan with Ringolevio or Hope Mirrlees with Lud-in-the-Mist.

New and emergent: Greer Gilman, author so far of one novel (Moonwise) and two shorter fantasies, all difficult and exhilarating; I conducted an interview with her about “Inside Jack Daw’s Pack” which was longer than the story itself. China Mieville, who’s getting a lot of attention lately and deservedly so. Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman who’ve co-authored a startlingly original fantasy, The Fall of the Kings. Andy Duncan, whom many have characterized as “the Howard Waldrop of his generation.” Is Sherman Alexie still new? Terrific writer in any case.

Charles Stross, whose Accelerando stories aspire to the state of having a new idea in every sentence. Ian R. MacLeod. Geoff Ryman. Paul Park. Gwynneth Jones. Ken MacLeod. Michael Chabon, of course. Kelly Link. Ted Chiang is startlingly original and completely different from story to story. But I’m only scratching the surface here. I was in the Ateljee Bar in Helsinki recently, being interviewed for a Finnish fanzine, and my interviewer asked if I didn’t think this was an extraordinary time in genre, comparable to the New Wave but larger because there are so many writers doing fantastic work in both science fiction and fantasy. And I thought: Yes! Absolutely! It was that old Shock of Recognition thing, déjà vu all over again. I had to travel all the way to Finland to have the obvious pointed out to me, but it was true. There is a huge and unremarked and not-yet-named (there’s an opportunity for somebody here) upwelling in the literature that is absolutely without precedent, and it’s going on right now. If I were to attempt a fair and unbiased listing of all the best writers currently at work, you’d run out of patience long before I ran out of enthusiasm.

I’ve left out everybody from my own generation, though their work is particularly close to my heart, just because I’m pals with most of them. But they’re the core competition. They’re the guys I try to live up to.

Do other artforms play a big part in your creative life? For instance, do you listen to music while writing?

Sometimes, when there’s music that expresses a difficult emotional state I want to achieve in what I’m writing, I’ll listen to it as I’m writing just to challenge myself to rise to that level and as a reminder of how far I’ve yet to go. I’m far more directly influenced by the visual arts. Those times I’m running low on inspiration, I’ll hit up the museums and check out the modernists. “The Blind Minotaur” was directly based on Picasso’s Vollard Suite and “A Midwinter’s Tale” grew out of a Chagall retrospective at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. “Wild Minds” ended with the protagonist contemplating an Ad Reinhardt painting. But more importantly, because so much of my work is set in strange physical or mental spaces, I need a lot of visual input. I can’t write a story if I don’t believe in it, and I can’t believe in a story if I can’t visualize it. So I need the artists’ vision in an almost literal sense to enable me to see beyond the quotidian world.

I use poetry in a similar manner, to replenish the language when my prose is feeling stale. If you poke around in my fiction you can finds lots of quotes, paraphrases, and swipes from folks like Dylan Thomas and Sylvia Plath and Wallace Stevens. Whether that’s a good thing or not, I don’t know.

One of the appeals of science fiction is that the genre offers a set of core concepts (plot devices, etc.) the writer can accentuate or pervert, according to his or her wishes. Would it be fair to say that you’re also interested in commonplace literary clichés (worn-out sayings, etc.) for the same reason?

Like everything else, the SF tool kit makes a good servant but a poor master. My series of short-shorts at Sci Fiction, The Periodic Table of Science Fiction, relies heavily on the preexisting stuff of science fiction, sometimes treated seriously, other times as a joke so that taken as a whole it can be read as A Child’s Garden of Genre. I probably couldn’t have written 118 stories based on the elements without that common fund of ideas to dip into.

But there’s a dark side too. There are too many writers looking to work a change on some existing trope, the way a stage magician will superficially modernize one of Houdini’s stunts while keeping its mechanics intact. So you get spaceships based on WWII Merchant Marine freighters, and can-do asteroid prospectors straight out of the great uranium rush of the 1950s, and fiction that no sane person could pretend to believe might actually happen someday. In extreme cases you get novels with astronauts and laser guns and computer hacking whose authors don’t realize that they’re no longer writing science fiction but merely inaccurate present-day fiction.

The real challenge, the Great Game, is to come up with genuinely original ideas. The writer who invents the time machine or the generation ship or cyberspace wins big. The one who comes up with a cute twist on one of the above is going to get published and forgotten. That’s the way this thing is played. If you can’t come up with anything new, if all you’ve got is the strength of your prose line, then maybe you should be writing mainstream.

Though I suspect that there, too, simply writing well is not enough. You’ve got to come up with something new, some reason why somebody might want to read your work rather than using the same time to (say) re-read Proust.

How would you describe the difference between your short stories and novels? For example, do some short story ideas grow into novels, or do you know the form of a certain idea from the get-go?

A short story is a mental object that can be held in the mind and contemplated whole. A novel is too big for that. It’s more like a journey. You can know the beginning and end and overall feel of it, but the incidents are separately recalled. Do you remember the wooden buildings of Old Rauma? The drunk who fell at your feet at seven a.m. in Tampere without spilling a drop of his beer and apologized in a way that let you know he hoped you hadn’t noticed he’d been drinking? Driving down the esker in Punkaharju? Talking to the guard at the Russian border? A short story is a vivid hallucination, but a novel is immersive, something you can move into and inhabit for a season.

When I get an idea, I don’t know that it will grow into a fiction, much less of what sort. But I’ll play with it and think about it and jot down a few notes and eventually, if it’s robust enough, it will reveal itself to me. With the occasional maddening exception, I don’t start anything until I have the opening line written and a clear vision of how it’s going to end. The last paragraph, essentially, the emotional moment it all leads up to. I don’t write it down. But when I have it, I can start writing and drive the plot (I have no idea what’s going to happen; only what has to be established for the story to make sense) as straight and sure toward the ending as I know how. When the reader gets there, it’s going to feel inevitable because the whole work has been dedicated to justifying it. But it should also be surprising because, knowing it’s coming, I can lay down the distractions and misdirections that will keep the reader from seeing it coming.

I’ve never had a short story grow into a novel. That would be too gross a violation of the shape and feel of the idea, like a potter sitting down to make a pinch-pot and ending up with a life-sized ceramic camel. But I did once put a lot of work into what was going to be a novella and ended up as a 425-word short-short. I cut the story into little strips, pasted them across the surface of a life-mask of my wife made from surgical plaster gauze, and hung it up on the wall of our dining-room.

Recently, you’ve also been writing a number of short-short stories. Surely we must mention your on-going project with a 227-year-old Spaniard...

Ah, Francesco Jose de Goya y Lucientes! I will never have a collaborator like him again. The path that led me to writing two weekly series of short-shorts is a long and tangled one, so I’ll simply note that, largely out of a sense of personal obligation, I wound up promising Eileen Gunn that I would create a series for her online zine, The Infinite Matrix, which became The Sleep of Reason. For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved Goya’s Los Caprichos – eighty dark and whimsically fantastic etchings – while at the same time finding the accompanying “explanations” unhelpful and irrelevant. Whatever is going on in those pictures, the author of the captions (it couldn’t have been Goya himself) didn’t have a clue.

I decided to provide the narration in large part because I didn’t know if I could do it or not. It’s like the tightrope walker at the circus – nobody wants him to fall off but it’s the very real possibility that he might that makes the act so thrilling.

It’s definitely a collaboration. Goya created enigmatic moral vignettes in which wicked people prosper and ordinary folk fall prey to their own passions. For my stories to coexist on the same page, they had to be similarly cynical about human beings and yet have that same zestful amusement at their follies. I identified, or possibly created, several narrative strands (Elena the Man-Hearted, the Sorrows of Young Grace, Prick the Donkey, and so on) and then rearranged the order of the etchings so the plot-lines could intertwine and the whole work build to an ultimate conclusion. You can read the stories at random, but if you start at the beginning and take them in order, you’ll find a coherent and ultimately unified vision.

So these works are far more complex than my other series. But, paradoxically, they were easier to write. Because Goya had done the hard work of putting the characters into moments of crisis. All I had to do was find stories that justified his situations.

My other short-shorts are entertainments. These aspire to the condition of art.

The frequency of literary collaboration is one of the striking aspects of the SF/fantasy genre. You’ve worked with other writers on numerous occasions: how does the process compare with working solo? (And how does it feel to know that you might be teaming up with Gene Wolfe in the near future?)

Every collaborative team is unique. The stories I wrote with Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois, I was very much the junior partner. Gardner and Jack understand writing up and down and I was just a beginner, so it was a terrific learning opportunity for me. “Green Fire,” with Eileen Gunn, Pat Murphy, and Andy Duncan was Eileen’s baby from the start. She’s a great, strange, and lamentably unprolific talent, so it was a privilege working with her and seeing how her mind works. The two stories I did with Avram Davidson were posthumous on his part, worked up from stories he left unfinished. “Over his dead body,” I tell people. “That’s the only way he’d let it happen.”

“Dogfight,” the collaboration with William Gibson, I esteem a complete success but I don’t think he likes it. It’s possible that Bill shouldn’t collaborate at all, that his vision is so specific that other people’s words in his fiction, however good, will never really satisfy him. Midway through the story I came to a flashback section that called for a Gibsonian tour-de-force passage and, thinking he would sneer contemptuously and then effortlessly rewrite it the way it deserved to be, penned a sort of half-assed imitation of his style. I sent it on to him and when he’d had his turn writing, he returned it to me with that section virtually unchanged and an enthusiastic letter of praise for what a great job I’d done! Obviously, he’d been waiting for me to do something right. So I had to bust my hump revising that section up to Bill’s usual standard. Because otherwise everybody would have assumed that he’d written it, and that he’d lost his chops.

Gene Wolfe is, in my judgment, the single greatest writer in the English language alive today. An editor I know thinks he comes in second to Saul Bellow, but I’ve read Ravelstein and I beg to differ. So naturally the prospect of writing with him is thrilling. Of course, it may not come together. Collaborations fail in myriad ways that don’t necessarily reflect badly on the participants. I’m braced for that possibility.

But I think the chances for this particular story are pretty damn good. First because we’re writing in an area where Gene’s already done the research and in addition to being a bear for research, he’s got a great eye for telling detail. Also, it’s obvious to me even in the early stages of the thing that Gene’s the right kind of guy for this sort of work. It’s like working with a master carpenter. You can see he understands his material. There’s no posturing. He’s a professional, not a diva. And, least important but still necessary, I’m aware that he’s the better writer. I’m working on that. I’m hoping to catch up. But if there comes a point where we disagree on something, I’m willing to defer to his judgment.

In your two major essays, “In the Tradition...” (fantasy) and “A User’s Guide to the Postmoderns” (SF), you map out certain trends of each genre. What are your thoughts on the academic status of SF/fantasy?

If you were to put out a call for critical papers on science fiction and fantasy to Academia at large, you would be flooded with papers on Stanislaw Lem, Ursula K. Le Guin, Philip K. Dick, and (I’m not kidding) Jane Austen. Because unfortunately most of the people in genre studies are academic hacks who don’t trust their own taste and judgment. They won’t write about Clifford Simak or Leigh Brackett or Jack Vance because those writers – whose work was extremely important to the field – haven’t been sanctioned by the critical consensus and thus might turn out to be not literary at all.

There are exceptions of course, and because there are exceptions I should point out that my own essays lack the intellectual rigor of serious academic papers. They were written as propaganda. I wanted to promote work I thought wasn’t receiving the attention it deserved, and provoke people into arguing over its merits. So I was free to engage in the sort of hyperbole, reckless praise, and unsubstantiated firing-off-of-guns-at-noon that the academic publishing apparatus is (quite rightly) set up to prevent.

The only thing I’ve ever written that might conceivably pass a rigorous peer review is “Hope-in-the-Mist,” a biographical essay on Hope Mirrlees which appeared in Foundation, the British journal of genre studies. Writing it put me in touch with a number of interesting people, including feminist academics, and the one thing they all agreed on was that they loved my footnotes! Because I felt free to insert bits of whimsy, mild irony, and other verbal capers that they themselves wouldn’t dare employ for fear the paper might be derailed by a humorless peer-reviewer.

Finally, to round up the usual suspects, what are you working on at the moment?

I’m never perfectly sure. Two novels, almost certainly. I’m several chapters into a fantasy that begins with a Vietnam-style war in Faerie. The protagonist, Will, becomes the unwilling servant of a downed mechanical dragon and in the aftermath is driven out of his village into the larger and much stranger world, toward a fate totally unlike that which awaits most fairy-tale heroes. This may or may not be set in the same universe as The Iron Dragon’s Daughter. Certainly, the dragons are the same. But if so, it’s on a different continent entirely and addressing a different realm of discourse.

The other novel – which I’m in the early stages of researching – will be straight science fiction, a voyage of discovery to one of the moons of the Solar System with Lizzie O’Brien, the protagonist of “Slow Life,” currently on the Hugo ballot. A lot of the pleasure of that story lay in re-imagining what near-future space exploration will really be like. For example, in the short story – which in the novel I’m going to pretend never happened – the astronauts have to spend a lot of their time providing chirpy upbeat answers to idiotic questions from the Internet. Once said, it’s obvious that the first people who go to Mars will inevitably be stuck with this chore. But I’m hoping to achieve more serious things as well!

I’m also working on many, many short stories. I have forty partially-written on my hard drive and notes and notions for more than I can keep track of. Some will never get finished, others will, and there’s no way of knowing which is which until it happens. Oh, and some very strange projects, both fiction and non-fiction, which I can’t talk about because if I do then I’ll never get around to writing them.

And my much-delayed first collection of short-short fiction, Cigar-Box Faust and Other Miniatures, is finally coming out this fall from Tachyon Publications, just in time for the World Fantasy Convention. Knock on wood.

So I’m keeping busy. The ideas come faster and faster these days, but the writing is still as slow as ever, alas.

Additional Information

Selected Bibliography

In The Drift (1985)
Vacuum Flowers (1987)
Stations Of The Tide (1991)
The Iron Dragon’s Daughter (1993)
Jack Faust (1997)
Bones of the Earth (2002)

Short Fiction Collections
Gravity’s Angels (1991)
A Geography of Unknown Lands (1997)
Moon Dogs (2000)
Tales Of Old Earth (2000)
Cigar-Box Faust and Other Miniatures (2001)


Michael Swanwick Online – The author’s extensive homepage.

The Sleep of Reason – A series of short-short stories based on Francisco Goya’s Los Caprichos. Hosted by The Infinite Matrix.

The Periodic Table of Science Fiction -- Short-shorts based on... well, this one’s quite elementary. Hosted by Sci Fiction.


Email Ismo Santala

--Ismo Santala
26 September 2003

Aleph, alpha: nought, nought, one.