Last year, I interviewed China Miéville for Weird Tales’ 85th anniversary issue. Yesterday, I posted a short excerpt of the interview on Omnivoracious as part of an announcement about China blogging there. (For those of you living under rocks and on distant planets, his The City & The City was released recently.)
I’m posting the full interview now, on my blog, because I think it’s relatively unique, in that China was between books and the point of the interview was more about discussing “weird” fiction. So the emphasis is a little different than in some of his other interviews. And, because it was conducted via IM, there’s an interesting flow to the conversation. Besides, you gotta love an interview that mentions not only Cloverfield and Vin Diesel but the aesthetics of the weird, and ends in a face-off between reptiles and mammals.
This version doesn’t reflect the final copy-edits made by Weird Tales, and also includes snippets cut from the printed interview. I hope you enjoy it…
The publication in 2000 of China Miéville’s second novel, Perdido Street Station, galvanized and challenged the fantasy field with its potent mix of pulp and literary influences, fantasy, horror, and SF, its commitment to “the Weird,” and its epic scope. Since then Miéville has published two more novels set in his New Crobuzon milieu, The Scar and Iron Council, along with a YA novel, Un Lun Dun. Along the way, he has won the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the British Fantasy Award, and been a finalist for the World Fantasy Award and the Hugo Award, among others. Many critics consider Miéville’s contribution to modern Weird fiction (and the “New Weird moment”) as important as Clive Barker’s in the 1980s with the Books of Blood. In February of this year, I talked to Miéville about Weird fiction and many other topics via instant messenger.
VanderMeer: First off, thanks for agreeing to be interviewed for Weird Tale’s 85th anniversary issue. Can you tell readers a little bit about where you are as we’re having this conversation?
Miéville: Please, it’s an honour. Weird Tales is an indispensable part of my history, and Happy Birthday to it. I’m sitting at my desk, looking out over my North West London street, with a stack of students’ stuff to read, sipping a cup of tea. That’s just how I roll.
VanderMeer: Now, because it is the 85th anniversary, there will be a lot of questions with the word “weird” in them, but the word “new” will be nowhere in evidence. So: “What does the word ‘weird’ mean to you?”
Miéville: I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently. I’m teaching a course in Weird Fiction at the University of Warwick, so this has come up a lot. Obviously it’s kind of impossible to come to anything like a final answer, so I approach this in a Beckettian way–try to define/understand it, fail, try again, fail again, fail better…I think the whole “sense of cosmic awe” thing that we hear a lot about in the Weird tradition is to do with the sense of the numinous, whether in a horrific iteration (or, more occasionally, a kind of joyous one), as being completely embedded in the everyday, rather than an intrusion. To that extent the Weird to me is about the sense that reality is always Weird.
I’ve been thinking about the traditional notion of the “sublime,” which was always (by Kant, Schopenhauer, et al) distinguished from the “Beautiful,” as containing a kind of horror at the immeasurable scale of it. I think what the Weird can do is question the arbitrary distinction between the Beautiful and the Sublime, and operate as a kind of Sublime Backwash, so that the numinous incomparable awesome slips back from “mountains” and “forests,” into the everyday. So…the Weird as radicalised quotidian Sublime.
VanderMeer: So theoretically people should see “the weird” in every day like. But most don’t see it–or aren’t prepared to see it, possibly because they’re too inward-turning, not really experiencing the world moment-to-moment? Is that what you mean? Or is that too New Age-y for what you’re talking about?
Miéville: I’m talking about it as a literary/aesthetic effect–my impression is that a lot of us do experience it quite a lot, in everyday life. But given that part of its differentia specifica is that it is AWEsome, beyond language, expressing it is very difficult. I think a lot of what we admire in Weird Fictioneers is not that they see, but that they make a decent fist of expressing.
VanderMeer: That’s the theory side, in a sense, but expressed on a more personal level, what appeals to you most about the weird tale?
Miéville: The awe, the ecstasy. I was reading Blackwood’s “The Wendigo” the other day, and the moment when Defago is taken by the Wendigo and wails from above the trees this astonishing moment of unrealistic speech, “oh, oh, my burning feet of fire! This height and fiery speed!”, the strange poetry of it, I found very affecting. Of course we all have our favourite iterations of Weird, and for me it dovetails a lot with a love of teratology, so I also hugely love when the Weird is expressed by radical monster-making, the strangeness of strange creatures, but some of my favourite Weird Tales contain no monsters at all. It’s the awe and ecstasy that gets me.
VanderMeer: But not necessarily epiphany? I.e., this awe and ecstasy is a cumulative effect of the story or it’s what it culminates in?
Miéville: I don’t think I can distinguish [between] the two. I think for me the best Weird fiction is an expression of that awe, which permeates the whole thing, but because you can’t structure a story as a continual shout of ecstasy (at least not and expect many readers to stick with you) it sort of pretends to be an epiphany. But I think it’s the epiphany of realisation–that the real is Weird–rather than change or irruption–that something Weird occurs. Lovecraft for example is always back-projecting his mythos into history. We don’t know it, unless we’re one of the select unlucky few in his story, but it’s not that these things have suddenly arrived to mess about with previously stable reality, but that we’re forced to realise–there’s the epiphany, it’s epistemological, rather than an ontological break–that it was always Awesome.
VanderMeer: Yeah, but you are talking about visionary fiction to some extent–some of it is hardwired with ecstasy, and that’s why the best examples are short stories, no? Because you can’t sustain that “reverie”?
Miéville: I think that’s true–it’s much harder to maintain Weird, or, certainly, ecstasy, over a longer form. Which is why these stories are about the revelation–not because it’s a surprise (we expect it) but because it’s a necessary kind of bleak Damascene moment. There are Weird novels and some brilliant ones, but they’re harder to sustain.
VanderMeer: What do you think most surprises your students studying weird tales?
Miéville: I think for a lot of people who don’t read pulp growing up, there’s a real surprise that the particular kind of Pulp Modernism of a certain kind of lush purple prose isn’t necessarily a failure or a mistake, but is part of the fabric of the story and what makes it weird. There’s a big default notion that “spare,” or “precise” prose is somehow better. I keep insisting to them that while such prose is completely legitimate, it’s in no way intrinsically more accurate, more relevant, or better than lush prose. That adjective “precise,” for example, needs unpicking. If a “minimalist” writer describes a table, and a metaphor-ridden adjective-heavy weird fictioneer describes a table, they are very different, but the former is in absolutely no way closer to the material reality than the latter. Both of them are radically different from that reality. They’re just words. A table is a big wooden thing with my tea on it.
I think they also are surprised by how much they enjoy making up monsters.
VanderMeer: Who doesn’t? But you say they’re surprised? They think that’s too childish to start?
Miéville: Yes, to some extent. It’s something you need to grow out of. Or your monsters are only legitimate to the extent that they ‘really mean’ something else. I spend a lot of time arguing for literalism of fantastic, rather than its reduction to allegory. Metaphor is inevitable but it escapes our intent, so we should relax about it. Our monsters are about themselves, and they can get on with being about all sorts of other stuff too, but if we want them to be primarily that, and don’t enjoy their monstrousness, they’re dead and nothing.
VanderMeer: Right–nobody likes a monster piÃ±ata
Miéville: Yeah–it’s what Toby Litt brilliantly called the “Scooby Doo Impasse”–that people always-already know that they’ll pull the mask off the monster and see what it “really” is/means. The notion that that is what makes it legitimate is a very drab kind of heavy-handedness.
VanderMeer: Do you think a lot of writers create monsters, though, that they don’t mean literally? I mean, do you think writers sit down and go, when writing the rough draft, “This is going to be a metaphor for 9-11?” Or is it just that readers and academics think they do?
Miéville: Well I think this is one of the big distinctions between genre and non-genre traditions. I think, for example, that when Margaret Atwood invents the “pigoons” for Oryx & Crake, part of the problem with them for me is I think they are primarily a vehicle for considering genetic manipulation, and only distantly secondarily scary pig monsters. I think plenty of monsters get hobbled by their “meaning”. The Coppola Bram Stoker’s Dracula vampire had to shuffle along, so weighed down was he by bloated historical import. None of this is to say that monsters don’t mean things other than themselves–of course they do–but that to me they do so best when they believe in themselves.
VanderMeer: Good point–and of course writers often look at their rough draft and like oracles pull things out that look like they have meaning.
Miéville: [But going back to the metaphor-for-9-11 thing,] I haven’t seen Cloverfield yet so can’t judge.
VanderMeer: Yeah–I was thinking of Cloverfield, although handhelds for a whole movie make me nauseous.
Miéville: I gather a lot of people have had that problem. I’m fully expecting to dislike it. I don’t enjoy many films these days.
VanderMeer: Anything you have particularly enjoyed, in any genre?
Miéville: Good question. Nothing recent is coming to mind, to be honest. I’ve largely stopped going. Lots of things I haven’t enjoyed. Hello Transformers you despicable piece of shit.
VanderMeer: Impressively bad?
Miéville: I have to say I think part of the problem here is that we don’t have a precise enough vocabulary. I think a lot of the time when people complain that a film was “bad,” we need to unpick what it means. What is the purpose of big films? To make money. If they make a lot of money, they succeed. In what sense are they bad? Well, they may be aesthetically incoherent, offensive, anything like that, but that’s contingent to their purpose, whatever the intent of the director. So I think Transformers may well have done exactly what it set out to do – make a load of money and push an aggressively crass offensive agenda. So was it “bad”? Well, I loathed it, but that’s not the same thing. Oh I know what I liked–Pan’s Labyrinth I thought was terrific.
VanderMeer: Yeah, me, too. Wow: consequences to actions.
Miéville: And I disagreed with lots of people who enjoyed it–our readings of what went on seem radically different. I liked Pan’s Labyrinth because it was so merciless about fantasy. I didn’t think its ending was “uplifting” at all, I thought it was admirably unsentimental and unforgiving.
VanderMeer: This does actually bring me to one of those “weird” questions I’m contractually obligated to ask for this interview: What’s the weirdest (in any sense) movie you’ve ever seen?
Miéville: Weirdest movie? Probably either a Jan Svankmajer–The Flat–and/or a Jean Painlevé, Le Vampire. Also, Terror in a Texas Town. [And] Yeah–Pan’s Labyrinth–this is spoiler territory–but I know a lot of people who said they thought the end was a lovely escape into the healing power of fantasy and I was thinking OH REALLY?!?! I had a similar argument with those people who thought the ending of [Stephen Spielberg's] AI was “sentimental.” I was thinking, fuck, did we see the same film? That was some sadistic shit I just saw. Not that I much enjoyed AI, but I was fascinated by the astoundingly cruel last half-hour.
VanderMeer: Do you find that some readers, related to what you’re saying, don’t recognize a monster, a human monster, when they see one? And I agree–AI is a very cruel movie, unnecessarily so. Whereas Pan is cruel only because it has to be.
Miéville: I totally agree–AI sadistic, Pan’s Labyrinth politically unsentimental. Very different. What do you mean [about not recognizing a monster]?
VanderMeer: I have a current theory that writers become so in love with their characters that they don’t always recognize when they’ve written a sociopath, for example. And then their enthusiasm blinds readers who aren’t careful and who go along with the ride, thinking “oh this person is great.”
Miéville: Ah. It’s an interesting question, and I’ve not thought of it in those terms. I’ve certainly been aware of the consideration of certain characters as admirable, or, in other ways, as despicable, when read from a different optic, they are not. I loathed Tess of the Durbervilles because I got the strong impression that hardy and I disagreed about Tess. Similarly Simmons The Terror, with several of his characters.
VanderMeer: Did you like The Terror?
Miéville: No. I kept wanting to find out what the giant polar bear was. When I discovered it was, indeed, a giant polar bear, I was deflated. I found it fairly page-turny, but I found it much too long, too bogged down with its historical research for its narrative, its disclosures and teratological money-shots too contingent to its narrative, and its embedded politics–particularly vis-Ã -vis homosexuality–offensive.
VanderMeer: You don’t believe those embedded politics were part of the historical research?
Miéville: No, because I’m not talking about the politics of the characters, but about the politics of the text, as I read it.
VanderMeer: At least he was honest. In that sense.
Miéville: Specifically, the obsessive locus of the evil character’s evil in the fact that he was an engager in anal sex. I know lots of people point to the fact that there’s a “sympathetic” gay character too (who reads, incidentally, to me, very like someone invented because an editor said “we really need a counterbalance to the evil gay”) but that character is explicitly defined as a goody because he doesn’t have sex on the ship. That’s nothing to do with historical research or attitudes (and parenthetically the idea that in a crew that size two men only would be fucking is ludicrous) but to do with the text’s pathological Terror of anal penetration which is (spoiler!–hello The Sparrow) the usual way culture gets to have a deep-seated pathologising of gay sexuality alongside putatively liberal attitudes to desexualised gay men.
VanderMeer: You’ve just ruined the innocence of perhaps 85% of Weird Tales readers.
Miéville: Hurrah! My work here is done.
VanderMeer: Please take a bow. I really liked the book, but I didn’t catch the subtext you’re talking about, in part, probably, because I was turning pages too quickly.
Miéville: I’m very aware, by the way, that loads of readers of this may think I’m being a humourless or po-faced dick about it. This is how it reads to me, and I have a big problem with it. And I think arguments about “what the writer really means” or thinks are very point-missing, because this stuff isn’t reducible to “intent.”
VanderMeer: True, but–and I’m not saying in this case–but in some cases, don’t you have to be forgiving?
Miéville: It depends of what. Give me an example?
VanderMeer: For example, Philip K. Dick was often a raging misogynist. But if you unravel the stuff about his work that is bad in that sense, you also unravel the good stuff. In a sense I’m playing devil’s advocate because I do believe writers should think these things through, because it reflects on whether they’ve really created well-rounded characters as opposed to stereotypes.
Miéville: This is not about pissing and moaning just because I disagree with the writer’s politics–I love passionately Gene Wolfe’s work, for example, far more than the writing of many people whose politics are more congenial to me. It’s about saying that as a matter of reading, of literary response, when the politics or concerns or whatever of a particular text impinge on it in certain ways, make it pull in certain directions, interfere with other aspects of it, etc. etc., and in my opinion make it not just politically objectionable but work less well as a text, then I feel perfectly free to criticise it on those (politico-literary) axes.
VanderMeer: Sure–I mean, what you’re saying about The Terror makes sense in that–does it make any difference whether the evil guy is gay or not? To the story? Not really. So then you have to ask yourself why it’s there.
Miéville: I don’t think there’s such a thing as “the story” disembarrassed of the other stuff, basically. That’s why I think about ‘texts’ or works rather than the story, versus/and/or the writing, versus/and/or the characters, etc. In art these things are intertwined. Not reducible to each other, sure, but not little just-add-and-stir packets of sauce that you can choose one but not the other. Did I want to get to the end of The Terror and see the bear? Sure. Still, though, I stand by what I said, and I think there’s no contradiction. I don’t mind people disagreeing at all, of course, that’s the point of debate. I do get frustrated when–and maybe it’s my fault for not being clear–people take what I’m saying as “he doesn’t like books by people he doesn’t agree with.” As the Lovecraft, Celine, Machen, Blackwood, Ewers, James, Cordwainer Smith, Blyton, et many al, on my shelves indicate, this isn’t so. And it can operate the other way round too. For me The Sparrow was a big thing there–that’s obviously a book that intends to be very progressive about homosexuality, but in my opinion it, whatever Russell’s beliefs and intents, is deep-structured by anal-penetration panic.
VanderMeer: Since we seem to be approaching this territory anyway, here’s another contractually obligated question. What’s the weirdest book you’ve ever read?
Miéville: God, that’s a merciless question.
VanderMeer: All the weirdest questions are merciless.
Miéville: Un Semaine de Bonté, by Max Ernst. Which means that “read” is a bit of a tendentious verb in this context, but fuck it, I’m sticking with my answer.
VanderMeer: Shifting gears just slightly, in doing some research, I came across an Interzone from the early 1990s, I think, that contained a letter to the editor from you commenting on a couple of stories in the previous issue. How early on did you get hooked into genre magazines, and did you read any besides Interzone?
Miéville: AGH! please eradicate from your memory. I was reading IZ from about 1987ish onwards. I dipped into a few more, but that was my main one. I wasn’t part of the fanzine scene at all, for example.
VanderMeer: Right. But it was kind of nice to see that letter, to see that you didn’t just pop out of a volcano or something.
Miéville: No. I sent poor IZ several lamentable stories in the early 90s. Luckily all rejected
VanderMeer: What else did you read growing up, if you don’t mind me asking? In terms of magazines, etc.
Miéville: Magazines not many at all. It was really just IZ, plus occasionally I’d buy an exotic copy of Locus or Back Brain Recluse or whatever, but in terms of the field, that was kind of it–plus old Galaxies, Weird Tales, old pulp stuff as and when I came across it, but not collected with any rigour. I mean I loved oddities like that when I came across them, but wasn’t systematic about them.
VanderMeer: What about reading habits more generally.. You’re seen as a fiercely intelligent reader–I mean, the comments in this interview and others support that. But what do you read for escapism? Or do you? I know I have times when I cannot focus on something serious or deep and I need my schlocky noir mysteries, for example.
Miéville: On the whole I don’t tend to have “escape” and “non-escape” reading, except that I find fiction in general a lot easier to relax to than non-fiction. Certainly I have plenty of pleasures that I think are less skillful in certain ways than other favourites–Lloyd Biggle Junior, for example–but that’s not quite what you’re asking. I’d say when I’m trying to be “on” I read non-fiction, and I find fiction much easier to kick back to. Which doesn’t preclude getting angry about it, of course, but that’s part of the pleasure, often. The only qualification I’d add is about use of Language–some writers who have very intense knotty language–Beckett, Iain Sinclair, older books which read less naturalistically now–I wouldn’t crack open when exhausted, and would be more likely to read a simpler-written YA book or a PKD or something–but that’s not about a hierarchy of quality than about a stylistic tendency. Sometimes books that demand a lot of effort from the reader are just what you want, sometimes you want it to enter your eyes easier.
VanderMeer: That’s actually a more precise and useful explanation of what I meant. It isn’t necessarily a hierarchy of quality, that’s true.
Miéville: I think Skellig by David Almond, a book for children, limpidly clearly written, one of the most sophisticated and daring books I’ve read for some time, for example.
VanderMeer: Okay, so we’ve talked about weird books and movies. What’s the weirdest place you’ve ever been?
Miéville: Probably the East Anglian coast, where MR James set loads of his ghost stories, and which I have a long family connection with. Very freaky places–Cove Hithe, Dunwich, Walberswick. Second, the outskirts of a big factory in the outskirts of Bulawayo in Zimbabwe. But places are all SO weird, that’s a real embarrassment of riches. Ever been to the coast of the Netherlands? Weird.
VanderMeer: Speaking of strange, have you followed the US presidential race at all?
Miéville: Sigh. Yes somewhat. It is at least rather more interesting than I’d thought it would be.
VanderMeer: I assume you’re a huge Huckabee supporter.
Miéville: Yah! Totally. Go Huck! Me and the karate man [Chuck Norris].
VanderMeer: Now that is weird. But not in an awe way. Maybe an ecstasy way, however.
Miéville: LOL. I preferred it when Vin Diesel was the guy about whom all those memes were spread. You know, when VD does a press-up, it isn’t him going up, it’s the world being pushed down, etc. I really like Vin Diesel, but he’s not done anything I’ve enjoyed for a long time.
VanderMeer: His XXX movie is a guilty pleasure, I have to say.
Miéville: Look at you pretending you don’t remember the name, like you don’t have a t-shirt, the limited edition DVD…
VanderMeer: Well, I stopped with the plushy Vin Diesel dolls. It had to stop somewhere.
Miéville: He’s a good actor. And a committed D&D player. Wrote the foreword to a collection marking its something-or-other’s birthday.
VanderMeer: Not something I would have expected. On that note, let’s wrap things up with a “weird” speed round or two. I’m going to list two “weird” writers at a time and you’ll tell me which you like better with maybe a sentence on why, if you want. Ready?
Miéville: ok, cool. I LOVE the either/or game. People who say “ooh can’t I have both” are terrible cheats.
VanderMeer: Here goes. Jack Vance or Robert E. Howard?
Miéville: Vance because of DYING EARTH. Dying. Earth. And big dying sun.
VanderMeer: Vance or Lovecraft?
Miéville: Lovecraft: (also damn you for making me choose!) Because i) the monsters are revolutionary, and ii) the prose is totally weird. And Weird.
VanderMeer: Lovecraft or Clark Ashton Smith?
Miéville: Lovecraft. Because CAS, to whom all honour and respect, has a post-Dunsanian sort of slightly sentimental archaic singsongism that doesn’t freak me out as much as Lovecraft’s hysteria.
VanderMeer: Surprise! Lovecraft or Ursula K. LeGuin OR Ray Bradbury?
Miéville: A Troika? That’s cheating surely! Lovecraft OW sorry sorry Le Guin and Bradbury. Because he reshaped a form more radically than either of them (to whom infinite burnt offerings and love)
VanderMeer: Lovecraft or Tennessee Williams? (both of whom appeared in WT)
Miéville: (NO! REALLY???) Lovecraft. Though TW closes up close for that weird play where the guy gets eaten by children–Suddenly Last Summer. Also, William Hope Hodgson is pulling ahead of Lovecraft in my head, increasingly recently, workmanlike prose or not. But that’s another discussion.
VanderMeer: And, finally, mammals or reptiles?
Miéville: please. PLEASE. Mammals Schmammals. In ascending order, it goes Mammals and birds equally, Reptiles, Amphibians, Insects, Fish, Cephalopods.
VanderMeer: Well, there you have it. Thanks so much for the interview, and we’ll let you get back to your own weird tales.
Miéville: It’s been a real pleasure–thanks for having me as part of the prestigious birthday bash.