A Q&A With Michael Moorcock
texasmonthly.com: In your written work, you’ve created fantastical characters, scenarios, and settings. Your imagination stretches in directions and into realms mine never visits. Where do the ideas/inspirations for your works come from?
Michael Moorcock: I guess I can only say ‘from inside.’ It’s just the kind of imagination I have—a peculiar mix of wild romanticism and classical common sense, maybe from being an only child and reading very eclectically. I don’t read much generic fiction, as such, and very little fantasy and science fiction. Mostly I read social fiction and much of that is by the likes of Elizabeth Taylor, Rose Macaulay, Eudora Welty, Elizabeth Bowen, Annie Proulx, and a host of others. While I have a strong dislike of Hemingway and company, I’m a huge Faulkner fan. I seem to move easily between the world of imagination and the world of reality, one inspiring the other. I’ve tended to use my imagination to confront reality, rather than escape it. Maybe that’s the secret.
texasmonthly.com: How do you know when an idea in your head is right for writing?
MM: When I hear its ‘music,’ its special voice. I tend to be inspired by classical music, Mozart in particular for my structuring. Also by Lester Dent’s Master Plot formula; Dent was the guy who gave us Doc Savage and is reckoned to be one of the first ‘hard-boiled’ writers who inspired Hamett and those who followed him.
texasmonthly.com: What is your writing process like?
MM: Very structured. I have to get the form pretty much perfect—not the plot or details of character, but the ‘shape’ of the book or story. Once I have that, it sets the demand—what I have to reach for to make it work. All my fiction is structured before I work out the details of plot and character.
texasmonthly.com: In King of the City, fantasy and reality both seem to find a home. Will you tell us about the novel and how you’ve blended the two genres?
MM: I’m not really blending genres—I’m using elements which suit that particular story. I’m very quickly bored by fiction which resolves into genre. As far as Westerns are concerned for instance, I’ll enjoy The Virginian, say, but don’t like Louis L’Amour at all. I like Holmes, but have very little patience with, say, Christie. I like a genre in its very early stages or its late, usually humorous stages. I like writers such as McMurtry who rise above genre and make a story their own.
King of the City is a kind of male version of the earlier novel Mother London—much more aggressive in tone and coming from a personal perspectives, whereas Mother London has more of a godlike perspective. Really the only fantasy element in the book is at the end where I propose, against all odds, the beginnings of a just and moral society, where the cruel aspects of consumerism are augmented by people actually acting as they speak! Up until the last chapter or two, which can be taken as the narrator’s fantasy or not, it’s pretty much about things as I know them to be. However, whereas I used pretty much all real locations in Mother London, I invented some in King of the City. This was because I’ve grown bored with the modern novel, which tends to use far too much actuality and not enough invention, in my view. So I thought I’d invent (or in some cases revive) chunks of London, as was more commonly done by, say, Victorian novelists.
texasmonthly.com: What’s your mission as a writer?
MM: I’m very moralistic. I think I bear a certain responsibility for the effect of the fiction I write. Anger at injustice, cruelty, or ignorance is what tends to fire me up. I try to show readers where we might all be wearing cultural blinders. I hate imperialism, so therefore much of my early work was an attempt to show admirers of the British Empire, say, what kind of injustice, prejudice and hypocrisy such an empire is based on. I am very uneasy with current Anglophone rhetoric about responsibilities to other parts of the world, for instance. King of the City deals with some of this, especially the destruction of African society by imperial rapacity.
texasmonthly.com: What’s your fan base like?
MM: Very smart in general. I’m always amazed how smart my readers are. And this, of course, is flattering to me. It’s a world readership, with my books being published in a considerable number of other languages, but the readers tend to have that in common. I have very few embarrassing fans.
texasmonthly.com: What sort of feedback do they give you?
MM: Varied, very intelligent. I will frequently incorporate readers’ suggestions, or work up an idea based on a readers’ remark or request. I see myself as a popular writer, but one who writes to the highest rather than the lowest common denominator.
texasmonthly.com: What’s it like to see characters you’ve created become iconic?
MM: A bit weird. Also slightly off-putting, since the characters and other elements of what I’ve done cease to be mine. They become part of a genre, for instance. It’s always a bit off-putting to come up with a specific idea and set of characters to do a specific job (usually with some sort of moral intention) and see the superficial aspects of those ideas and characters incorporated into someone else’s work. I love to see work that takes an idea of mine and improves on it, but it’s a bit depressing to see the idea reduced. The Jerry Cornelius stories were intentionally thrown open to other writers, to add their ideas, and produced some very good stories by others. When I do a graphic novel with my friend Walter Simonson, Walter always finds a way to amplify and improve on my script. I love to see that. I suppose it’s flattering to be so influential—but some of those homages seem more like theft sometimes—like you come into your apartment and see a guy on the fire escape with your new TV set and he says, ‘Great TV, man.’ Somehow it’s not a consolation.
texasmonthly.com: What advice do you give aspiring writers?
MM: I always tell readers who ask this question—if you’re reading a lot of fantasy, stop now. Read everything but—non-fiction, social fiction, other genres, whatever. If you read a lot of social fiction, go for the best fantasy fiction. If you read Proust, look out for some of the contributors to the pulps, such as Texas’s own Robert E. Howard or Jim Thompson. I do believe that most innovation comes through the popular arts first. It might be refined, even improved upon, by fine artists, literary writers, but the initial ideas of narrative and tone tend to come from people with a popular rather than high brow audience. I’m always amazed at high brows lauding people as original, when I happen to know those people are working maybe thirty years after the popular innovators.
texasmonthly.com: How has Texas inspired your work?
MM: I moved to Texas because I didn’t want to move to one of the usual British enclaves—New York, Boston, or San Francisco, say. I wanted to live in a community where there were few or no other Brits, where I could learn not only what people thought but why they thought it, to understand about American politics and social ideas. These means I’m as much inclined to hang out with so-called rednecks as with intellectuals. Tom Paine is my great hero and I have, I think, the same populist instincts which brought him to America. Also I wanted to move somewhere which had its own strong mythology and Texas has that in bucket-loads. The landscape lends itself to a very distinctive mythology which has, of course, influenced much of the world. I moved to the Austin area because the city seemed well-managed and good-looking, with a considerable number of resources, both aesthetic and otherwise.
texasmonthly.com: How do you see your career evolving?
MM: I’m beginning to wonder about it resolving rather than evolving, but that could be because I’ve spent more time in the hospital in recent months more than at any time in my life and mortality, though not imminent I hope, is having to be considered. I don’t think I’ll write any more fantasy fiction, as such, once the last Elric novel is done. I’d like to write more ‘personal’ short stories. Some more funny stuff. Comedy has much in common with fantasy. Both require ‘exaggeration’ and demand a certain suspension of disbelief in the reader. I’ve always seen them as being fairly closely related as forms.
texasmonthly.com: What has inspired you?
MM: Landscape, music, human courage and generosity, in all their myriad forms.
texasmonthly.com: How have you come to where you are?
MM: Sheer folly and blind luck. Oh, and the love of a good Mississippi woman.