Michael Swanwick‘s been around a long time, seen a lot of things and written a lot of stories. In fact, to use a classic cliché, he’s probably forgotten more about writing genre fiction than most authors remember and he’s got the hardware to prove it – how does 5 Hugos, a Nebula (along with a few more nominations), a Theodore Sturgeon, and a World Fantasy Award sound? On top of all of this, he’s got to hang out with a Koala at some point in his life and had stories published by Penthouse. If that isn’t enough to qualify him for your attention, I don’t know what is.

He’s known for taking conventions of the genre and spinning on their head, often with thought provoking and comical results. His latest novel, The Dragons of Babel is his riff on the classic quest-fantasy, only this time it includes Dragons that double as fighter jets, motorcycles and a post-industrial version of the Fey World.

So check out the interview and you’ll find out why Michael Swanwick is the best author you’ve never heard of… yet. And when you’re done, be sure to head on over to his terrific blog, Flogging Babel, to further find out just why you should care about him.

So, without further adieu, Michael Swanwick, everyone!

The Interview

Michael, it’s an honour to have you here on A Dribble of Ink! Thanks for taking the time to stop by and answer some questions.
    I’m virtually happy to be here.

The Dragons of Babel seems to be your take, with a typical Swanwick twist on it, on typical quest/epic fantasy.
    There’s a kind of an archetypal story about an attractive young person who’s treated badly by the world but is rightfully its proper ruler which we’ve all learned how to write far too well. I wanted to salvage that story by taking it down to its` component parts and reassembling them into something more useful and interesting. I was trying to return fantasy to its roots, to recapture that essential strangeness that drew me to the genre in the first place. No other form allows you to talk with dragons, run with centaurs, fall in love with an elvish bureaucrat, or ride a motorcycle through the tunnels under the Tower of Babel. If you’re not willing to revel in the possibilities of fantasy, then why write it?

Why do you write?
    Because I’m the only one who can write certain stories which I very much want to read.

Do you remember the first story you wrote?
    As a boy, I intended to be first an inventor, and then a scientist, so the stories which I wrote in the same way any other child does, didn’t leave much of an impression. But by my freshman year at William and Mary, I had been bitten by J.R.R. Tolkien and was rabid to become a writer, so I vividly remember the first story I ever completed as a college student. It was an earnest young effort by an earnest young man about virtual life called “The Theoretical Man,” and its first line was, “The sky was a cathode-tube grey.” So, much later, when Neuromancer came out and everybody made a fuss about Gibson’s first line (“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel”) I felt a strange sort of cognitive bemusement. Because I associated that image with an inferior and far more callow writer.

Among numerous other awards throughout your career, you’ve managed to take home 5 Hugo Awards. How did the thrill of winning the fifth differ from winning the first?
    Surprisingly little. You don’t get blasé about it. Okay, Joe Haldeman comes close. He told me once that when fans ask him how many Hugos and Nebulas he’s won, he says, “I think it’s eleven. But whether it’s five Hugos and six Nebulas or the other way around, I honestly can’t remember.” Then he grinned and said, “They hate it when you tell them that.” On the other hand, when I related that story to Chip Delany, he said quick as a flash, “Two and four.”
   A couple of years ago, Gardner Dozois couldn’t be at the Worldcon, so Jack Dann accepted the best editor Hugo for him. Immediately after the ceremony, he gave the trophy to my wife, Marianne Porter, to bring to Gardner and since I’d won one of my own that year, we were walking about with matching his-and-hers Hugos for the rest of the evening. People would see Marianne coming down the hall, smile, and say, “Congratulations.” They didn’t know what she’d won for but they were happy for her. I honestly believe she got almost as much joy out of her temporary Hugo as I got out of mine. Those gleaming rocket statuettes generate a surprising amount of good will.

About half a year ago you started a blog, Flogging Babel. How has this changed your relationship with your fans and what keeps the drive going to continue upkeeping the blog?
    It doesn’t really change my relationship with the people who read my work because I don’t see them as being “my” fans, but rather as people who enjoy reading the same sort of stuff I do. Because I approve of their reading matter, I tend to think of them as being intelligent, rather likeable people. And the posts they’ve made on my blog so far support this impression.
   I started my blog because David Hartwell, my editor at Tor, told me I should, in order to promote the novel. Hence the name – I didn’t want to be sailing under false colors. I’ve kept to it steadily because I committed myself to doing so, and I take my commitments seriously. But it was never intended to be permanent. In another couple of months I may have to take it down. Either that or only post once weekly. Because it does eat up a lot of time and I have a novel to write that could use all the time it can get.

Many of your novels clock in under 400 pages (many don’t even break the 300 page mark!), which is a bit of an aberration in the genre you work in. Is this a conscious decision on your part?
    Four hundred pages appears to be my natural length. I noticed at some point that my novels tend to be twenty chapters long, with each chapter being twenty typescript pages or roughly five thousand words. When the chapters in The Dragons of Babel began coming in shorter or longer than that, I was afraid for a time that something was wrong. But of course that was mere superstition. All that’s important is that the novel tells a complete story, that it says something worth hearing, and that on the final page it ends. The ending can open out in a way that lets the reader’s imagination travel beyond it, to speculate about what might come after. That’s fine. But I’m adamant that, one way or another, the story has to end and the ending has to satisfy. I won’t start a novel until I know exactly how it’s going to end.

Andrew Wheeler recently reviewed The Dragons of Babel and had this to say, “Each episode is well-told and compelling, but they are each separate episodes, not stages in a single plotline.”. Do you think that this is related to what you were just speaking of in regards to the length of the chapters in The Dragons of Babel?
    I don’t want to make a big deal of this, because what Wheeler had to say was extremely positive and it’d be curmudgeonly to take offense at it. But his observation was based on the mistaken assumption that The Dragons of Babel was a fix-up, cobbled together from pre-existing stories. Quite the opposite. The novel was written as a novel and the stories were excerpted from it as it was being written and revised to make them stand-alones. The shape of the book was intended from the first.
   What he was responding to was the fact that The Dragons of Babel is a picaresque, like Tom Jones or Don Quixote or The Adventures of Augie March or pretty much anything by Thomas Pynchon, and picaresques are by their nature episodic. The ending, and indeed the point, of the novel depended on that episodic one-damned-thing-after-another quality and both the ending and the point of the novel depended on its philosophical argument being hidden from the reader until everything comes together at the resolution.
   Formally, this is a very unadventurous period for fantasy, and so more and more books adhere to the “well-made plot” and indeed to a specific type of well-made plot, one that the reader understands so thoroughly that he or she can pretty much predict what’s coming. (I get a lot of grief for the fact that my dragons are evil from readers who don’t think that’s even allowed.) I wanted to shake things up, so that particular shape of novel with its dread predictability was one of the first things to go.
   But it’s not as if I were doing anything experimental. The picaresque novel goes right back to the beginning.

You had an interesting post on the death of Gary Gygax over on your blog. What did Dungeon and Dragons mean to you growing up and now as a writer?
    It would have meant a lot to me, had I been born later. By the time it came out, I’d graduated from college and was out in the world, trying to teach myself how to write. Which made me wary of entertainments that want to eat up as much of your time as you’ll allow them to, particularly those requiring the same kind of imagination writing uses. I avoided D&D exactly the way I avoided soap operas and crack cocaine. They all three seemed like things I’d enjoy way too much for my own good.
   But Gary Gygax’s influence on our culture, and particularly on fantasy literature, has been pervasive. He took all the world’s mythologies, dumped them into the metaphorical blender, and hit Purée. This changed the tightly-structured and rigorously worked-out systems of traditional fantasies into something far more exuberant and expansive. Before Gygax, magic was a pretty rare commodity – go back to Tolkien’s books or E. R. Eddison’s and you’ll be amazed at how little of it there is in them. After Gygax, it’s as if there’d been a magical industrial revolution. It was everywhere!
   As a result, I honestly cannot say to what degree I may have been influenced. It seems to me that I can trace everything I’ve been doing back to its origins, and that I’d have put it all together as I have with or without Dungeons and Dragons. But I could be wrong. Maybe without Gary Gygax, the extravagant complexity of The Dragons of Babel simply wouldn’t have been thinkable. I don’t know.

What’s some advice you wish someone had given to a young, aspiring Michael Swanwick?
    Believe it or not, the only useful advice I have to offer, the younger me was already following: Read everything you can. Write all the time. Stay true to your vision – write only the sorts of things you want to write, rather than the sorts of things you think will make money. Oh, and as soon as you’ve started to sell, get a good agent because you have no business sense whatsoever. But I did that too.

We all have authors whom we feel are criminally under read. Who should I be reading, that perhaps I’m not?
    Paul Park appears to be pretty well read now that he’s writing fantasy novels, but nobody seems to have noticed his short fiction. His 2002 print-on-demand (I think) collection, If Lions Could Speak, was just stunning. It was one of the best collections of the decade and, sadly, almost nobody noticed. I wish some small press would reissue it, maybe in an expanded edition. Eileen Gunn and Greer Gilman are two very different, very brilliant writers who suffer from the fact that they’re neither of them very prolific. Tom Purdom published his first story in the 1950s and he’s still going strong, fifty years later. It’s a crime there isn’t yet a Best of Tom Purdom collection out. And Gregory Frost has never gotten a fraction of what he deserves – but I’m pretty sure that Shadowbridge, which came out about a month ago, is going to change all that. That’s just off the top of my head. I’m sure I’m omitting many deserving writers.

Related to that, what are some novels you’re looking forward to in the next year?
    I’m not really up on what’s forthcoming; I can barely keep up with what I already have in hand. I’m sure I’ll pick up Paul Park’s The Hidden World, the final volume of his Princess of Roumania series to see how it all comes out, and I’m eager to read Cory Doctorow’s YA novel, Little Brother. Greer Gilman’s Cloud & Ashes: Three Winter’s Tales is a collection of three shorter pieces, not a novel, but a book from Greer – this is only her second – is cause for celebration. I believe that Cat Rambo, who was one of my Clarion students, has her first novel coming out soon, and I want to read it. Andy Duncan’s also rumored to have a novel out soon – I’d walk through fire for a copy of that one. Most avidly, though, Gregory Frost’s Lord Tophet which is subtitled A Shadowbridge Novel but is in fact the concluding half of the story begun in the first book.

Can you give us any hints about what’s next in the pipe for you?
    I can tell you outright. I’m one and a half chapters into a novel about Darger and Surplus, my post-Utopian con men. They first showed up in a story called “The Dog Said Bow-Wow,” in which they accidentally burned down London and then set out for Moscow. I’ve written two or three more stories for them and discovered that at the end of each adventure they set out for one destination and at the beginning of the next, they arrive somewhere else. The lads are infinitely distractible. But always, always they’re ultimately headed for Russia, where they intend to make their fortune. I’d planned on writing a book’s worth of stories, chronicling the European leg of their inadvertent journey around the world, and I figured that if they ever actually reached Moscow, that would merit a book all of its own.
   Then I finished The Dragons of Babel and decided to start on their novel, simply because it was the best of all the projects I had in mind to write. So last year I went to Moscow to research it, because prior to that I’d only spent four hours there. It’s a beautiful, terrifying, tragic, and difficult place, which I know Darger and Surpus will love, just as I do.
   Darger and Surplus have been intensely popular characters and, more importantly, they’re characters who can survive one of my stories and immediately be up for another one. That’s a rare quality, and I’m grateful to them for it.

Michael, thanks for dropping by and taking the time to answer some questions! I wish you the best with The Dragons of Babel and everything else that comes after it.
    From your lips to God’s ears.

  • Robert April 13, 2008 at 9:20 pm

    That was a wonderful interview Aidan, thanks!

  • aidan April 13, 2008 at 9:30 pm

    Thanks Robert, but really the credit should go to Michael. He was awesome to work with and a true gentleman, any thanks and kudos should directed towards him.

  • […] and Jamie Bishop, as does St. Petersburg Times. [via Locus Online]A Dribble of Ink interviews Michael Swanwick: “I’m the only one who can write certain stories which I very much want to read.”Fast Forward has […]

  • Robert April 14, 2008 at 9:25 am

    I’m not surprised. Michael was really cool when I had the chance to meet him :)

  • Simran April 15, 2008 at 5:20 am

    Hey Michael Swanwick sounds really cool to me.. I’m really dying to get my hands on that fantastic new novel of his! And World Fantasy Award is what sounds coolest to me coz i’ve been reading a lotta fantasy recently (and absolutle loving it!!, the latest being the Chronicles of Narnia. I’m absolutely spell-bound by the phenomenal imagination and creativity of the author-CS Lewis. In fact these books are sooo good that Disney and Walden Pictures are coming out with the latest Narnia movie-Prince Caspian, this May 16th!!! It looks awesome by the looks of the trailers. U can watch it here-http://www.disney.in/narnia
    I hope Michael Swanwick redefines fantasy for me!!

  • […] you ask? Several months ago I was in a similar position. I had just worked on an interview with Michael Swanwick and found him to be a gracious and hard working fellow, nice enough to personally send me a copy of […]