M. John Harrison

Interview by Paul Kincaid

(c)1986 Paul Kincaid - photograph by Paul Kincaid

From Interzone #18 (Winter 1986/87)

M. John Harrison's books The Centauri Device and Viriconium Nights have just been reissued in paerback by Unwin (2.95 each). The former is a rousing novel of interplanetary adventure which dates back from 1974; the latter is a recent collection of atmospheric fantasies, three of which appeared in Interzone. In issue 13 of this magazine we said of Mike Harrison that "he declares he has now abandoned science fiction forever." We were pleased to learn otherwise, from what follows... (The Editors)

How do you react to being described as a stylist?

I don't think I am a great stylist, and I'm very pleased to get the opportunity to say something about this. As far as I can articulate it now, writing is a heavily technical business. It is impossible to say anything without using linguistic techniques so complicated that they have to be taught to a child from the age of whatever it is, 5 to 18. That makes it at the base a very technical business. It is further complicated by the fact that you're not simply using sentences across a novel. A novel is a kind of sentence. You have to learn to use very large structural units as nouns and verbs, compact them into clauses, concatenate them.

I'm not a stylist, I like percision. I'm a perfectionist. I'm not interested in a perfect surface, if I've got a good surface it's because I've got a good technique. You see, the surface is evidence of the technique, not just at the level of composing sentences one would hope, but at the level actually of composing that sentence which is a story. In a way, too, so that every individual sentence will feed in some way into the mass, and the mass will feed back into that sentence. I'm not a stylist, I'm a technician. I very firmly believe that. It's very difficult when you're a younger writer to articulate distinctions like that. People say to you: "you've got a really good style," and you go away thinking "Yes, I've got a really good style, great." You don't analyse that. I don't think I have, and I certainly wouldn't want one. I wouldn't want to be known as a man who can write a sentence, because that seems to me to have very little to do with this larger sentence which is the work itself, and which is obviously what counts.

I describe you as a stylist because I find it impossible to separate the surface structure of a sentence from what's going on underneath it and how the story is shaping up and developing, as if each word, each sentence is perfectly shaped in order to fit exactly within the story at that point.

One would hope that it works out like that, but that does not mean to say that there is not a separation between the deep and surface structures. There is. I'm very glad if the reader perceives there to be a seamless surface across which he skims, but I know that it doesn't work out like that, because it's my job to get pleasure out of writing not as a reader but as a writer. Somebody who doesn't decode but encodes it, someone who doesn't take it apart but someone who puts it together. It's very important for me at the moment to think of it in those terms.

So you do actually enjoy the process of writing?

I wouldn't do it so poorly paid for so long if it wasn't one of the only things I enjoy. I mean in the instinctive sense, for instance, that it's the thing I do if I'm bored, even if I don't want to be doing it. But also at a very much more conscious level.

I was brought up in an engineering town with the myth of precision engineering. As a lad I built model airplanes, got a technical education which simply didn't stick because my leanings were elsewhere. But I've obviously been left with the legacy of trying to look at a piece of fiction as if it's a racing car. Basically, a jet fighter or a racing car look the way they do because that's the way they have to look to do what they do. On a racing car the only thing that isn't functional is the colour they paint it - even the glossiness is a necessary part of the function. If you can look at fiction like that, as something that is produced by almost mechanistic techniques, then you're a long way towards getting control of your method of expression.

The great big rider to put on this is that it is no damn good doing that unless you've got some spirit as well. You can't simply be a technician, the only people who can afford to look at it like that are romantics who've got plenty of soul to start with. I started as the most starry-eyed romantic of them all, so I don't need to worry about becoming obsessed by technique. There are writers whose names I will not mention who shouldn't think technically in their lives otherwise they will become to mechanistic. There are hacks for instance who shouldn't be let into this wonderful secret that writing is mere technique, otherwise God what a flood of rubbish.

Were you always so intent on being a writer then?

Oh yes, first romantically, then doggedly and in misery as it were, and now with a kind of light heart and a mission to convert the world to technique.

You seemed to arrive at a time when the outlets for fantasy and science fiction were things like New Worlds, which were just exactly geared up to a writer like yourself.

Well in fact that's an illusion of the process itself. There is a feedback, you gear yourself to the outlets. When I arrived, the only alternative to being published in a science-fiction magazine as an sf writer was the New Wave. I would therefore automatically gear myself to that because I couldn't and didn't want to do the other thing. But the moment you as a writer impact on a school of other writers a feedback process begins immediately anyway. I mean, I actually joined New Worlds in late 1968 and from then on, well I couldn't quite believe it because it was such an amazing thing to happen to me. I became a contributing member of this feedback system that was New Worlds and from then on was making my contribution to shaping these outlets as well as using them.

Has that process shaped your fiction since New Worlds?

Since New Worlds the fiction's been shaped by a deliberately reactionary process against New Worlds. I felt that I'd become extremely limited by the forms of thinking that were current within the New Worlds school - I felt that we were rejecting far too much. Not that most of what we rejected we were not correct to reject, obviously one rejects Robert Heinlein for ever and ever, bad writing for ever and ever - but it became very limiting, especially towards the end of the large-size New Worlds. The range of subject matter which is was acceptable to write about if you were a new-wave author had become very limited. You weren't allowed to be sentimental, you weren't allowed to laugh except in certain ways at certain things, and I found that cramping. Not that I particularly wanted to do anything else, only that I don't like to be cramped. So I have been somewhat in reaction. We had a very considerable myth of being non-literary, and I've been making up for that for ten years. I don't read science fiction any more, I read modern fiction - I don't just read it, I as it were study it.

You are being accepted outside science fiction. I assumt that that reaction pleases you.

Oh yes. It's very hard for me to think of science fiction as a serious literature, very hard even now that I can point to examples by writers like Tom Disch of science fiction or fantasy which is genuinely serious work. I still find it, because of my education, impossible to take science fiction seriously.

And yet you write the most serious fantasy I think I've ever come across.

Obviously, in an attempt to try to do this. So it was welcome to me to have that treated seriously by people who, like me, don't tend to treat fantasy seriously. It was a cross-check, as it were, on the direction I was moving in. But it's also simply nice to have feedback of a less limited, less generic kind than I was used to.

Another process is going on at the same time which is that I seem to have become more acceptable within fantasy and science fiction as well.

Is that part of the impetus behind writing a mainstream novel?

I knew that would give me a chance to do it. It would put a publisher behind me and it would give me critics waiting in the mainstream to see a book of mine which they regard as totally serious. Indeed most of the reactions to the fantasies I've published since I was runner up for the Guardian Award have been "Why is he still messing about? Where's the book?" This is the only thing that will get you going. This is the kind of thing that I need to make me work hard and cheerfully, I need that kind of confidence. Something that was equally useful in that sense was selling mainstream short stories to mainstream outlets. I sold a story to Woman's Journal, which is like the up-market woman's magazine, called "Old Women" which seemed to suit them very well. And when I get time I shall do another one. I would very much like to end up writing only mainstream work - but I believe anyway there is an imp of perversity and the moment it looks likely I could start doing that I shall start some fantasies just to be contrary.

You're writing another fantasy novel at the moment, I believe.

I am indeed. In fact I'm three chapters into it. Having been told by Interzone I'm never going to write one again I decided immediately to do one simply to be contrary.

But you're writing a mainstream novel at the same time

Well, I do one or the other, and at the moment I'm working on the fantasy. The mainstream novel works by a methodology which is crazily documentary. aimost everything in it has occurred. It's material that has been collected by observations in situ. It's about climbing and most of these observations have been collected on the crag. Because of that I had to wait for certain things to occur so I could write about them, and I'm still waiting for a couple of incidents to crop up. I mean I could ham them up but I don't see the point since they will inevitably happen. Also of course if you work by this method you often have to see one incident or a particular type of incident several times before you can really get the feel of it, take several notes, many observations, and layer them on top of one another to give the reader a feel of the complete experience.

Is that the way you work normally?

That's the way I work in everything but the most obviously fantastic Viriconium stories, and even in some of them I use material I've collected in the real world.

So as a writer there seems to be little difference between a realistic novel and a fantasy?

There's not very much. Obviously in a highly realistic documentary novel about or pertaining to rock climbing you use material literally collected from the real world. In a fantasy where after all you're trying to give the reader a feel of a totally alien place, you've two choices: you can make it up or think you can make it up, or you can patch it together quite deliberately from cultural elements, bits of literature. You see I'm a very allusive writer anyway, very self-referential, but also referential to other forms of writing, other writers. Then the difference is that Viriconium tends to be patchworked together from other books in the sense that it is literary patching, whereas the documentary novel is a patching of documentary observations. I'm not naive enough to believe that means I can actually describe reality. 1