The Committed Man

Nicholas Royle talks to M. John Harrison

(c)Nicholas Royle 1997

From Interzone Aug 1997

Nicholas Royle talks to M John Harrison

'He once bought a three-litre Capri with immense back wheels. To no purpose. Somebody had put these immense back wheels on it. God knows why, because every time he went over a bump they ground on the wheel arches, slowing the car down. But it went fast anyway.'

M John Harrison may have saved Loz Francombe's life, but it's Francombe who's one of Harrison's heroes. He became an exemplar for a type of fictional character Harrison would create years later and use in Climbers (1989) and Signs of Life, published recently by Victor Gollancz.

'He took some acid one day and lots of other things and we went racketing down some road in the Peak District. We were going as fast as it would go I can't remember how fast that was, certainly over 100 miles an hour, 120, 130, down a one-lane road, no room for cars to pass, through a forest, early in the morning with mist coming out of the conifers, the larches and the spruces, and the wonderful sunlight boiling down over it, early summer, late spring, bracken just uncurled. Totally perfect morning. He kept saying, It's just so fucking perfect. Suddenly he stopped in about 100 yards, from 120 miles an hour to absolute zero, till I was, like, hung in front of the windscreen from the seatbelt going "What the fuck, what the fuck, why did you do that?" And he just pointed out of the windscreen at a butterfly fluttering about in the road. He said, "I couldn't have run into that". It was only at that point I realised how many drugs he'd taken and what they were likely to have been.'

Loz Francombe was 15 when Harrison first met him. His brothers were about to drive the family car over him, crushing his head and legs, because Loz had decided he wanted to become a stuntman and he thought stuntmen actually did all the things that appear to happen to them in the movies. So he was getting some practice in. If Harrison hadn't stopped the car from rolling forward, the kid would never even have hired another video. As it was, he learned to climb, and he had a good teacher. You talk to people who've learned the ropes from Harrison and they all agree he's a good teacher.

And a committed climber, so it's cruelly ironic that Harrison should recently have developed a form of Ménière's syndrome, an inner ear disorder. Climbing and vertigo are hardly an ideal combination.

Like all good teachers, however, he has respect for his pupils. Loz Francombe wasn't just a teenager with a death-wish. Like all the climbers Harrison hung out with, he was someone Harrison, the writer, could learn from as well.

'A bit later the same day, he's 100 feet up this cliff above a pool and he's put several runners in, so the rope is going through these runners. He's got to the really hard part of the climb. I've seen this and I've been unable to get in touch with him because he's not listening: he's clipped his rope through his last two runners in such a way that, instead of flowing smoothly, every time it pulls, it tightens up harder and he can't get any further. And he's grunting and he's groaning and the more he hauls, the more this system ties him into the rock, until finally he falls off because he can't make the move and do the hauling. And as he falls off, a butterfly comes fluttering past, and he looks down and he says, "Mike, it's the same one. What do you think of that. I mean, there's something in that, isn't there? That's the same butterfly." This man became a legend in his own time, not as a climber but as a steeplejack. He's a great hero, a fine, fine boy.'

Signs of Life, Harrison's eighth novel, is narrated by Mick 'China' Rose. China falls in love with Isobel, whom he meets at an aerodrome; she dreams of being able to fly. Their relationship is complicated by China's relationship with Choe, his partner in a courier business that specialises in shifting materials for the burgeoning European genetics industry. Before long, Rose Services are also moving biological waste, dumping it in the English countryside. Choe is a mercurial character, an awkward customer, unpredictable, uncompromising, as tricky to handle as a van-load of uranium 238.

He's not Loz Francombe, but there's a bit of Loz Francombe in him.

'It would be unfair to anybody that I knew to say that they were the largest part of any character,' Harrison explains. 'The whole thing has been, of course, fictionalised. I wouldn't want to say that Loz was Choe. I'd rather write about Loz. If I wrote about him then I would want to write directly about him, and one day I will.'

There are writers who sit down at the typewriter one day and make stuff up. Characters, dialogue, plot. Out of thin air. Sometimes it shows.

And there are writers who take their material from life. A little from here, a bit from there. A strand of autobiography, a twist of imagination. There's a passage in Signs of Life that describes in such thoroughly convincing and evocative detail what it's like to find yourself dumped, that the reader inevitably makes a connection between narrator and author. It may or may not be proper to do this, but when writing feels as personal as this, it does become inescapable. Any author even half-aware of the effect of his or her work knows this.

From the short stories that make up The Ice Monkey, through Climbers, to The Course of the Heart and Signs of Life, M John Harrison's work has been characterised by a fusion of some kind of other-worldly element whether it be the occult, the outright fantastical or the product of Harrison's own particular marriage of sf and surrealism with psychologically convincing characters, deeply felt emotion and realistic dialogue. In Climbers especially, verisimilitude was established through dialogue.

'Much of it was got by writing very quickly. I would go into cafPlaces where I could appear to be making notes on a book, only I wouldn't be making notes on a book at all, because I would be taking down what people around me were saying. I spent three or four years doing that in the north. The major product of that was Climbers. But with the climbers themselves I would often just take it down in front of them once they'd got used to me. They didn't seem to mind. Nobody actually punched me out when the book was published. They all read it and they all recognised each other. They were able to take the piss out of one another without realising that they'd missed themselves. People would say to me, how did you invent this incredibly realistic dialogue? And the answer is don't invent it. You know, the answer is get yourself some really good electronics, spend a lot of time on the tops of buses, in cafIndeed, if you've got really good electronics, in people's front rooms and get it down. But after that, you find that you can very rarely use it verbatim. You have to break it up and modify the rhythms for the thing that you actually want to write. You don't know, of course, if people know that you're doing it, how, as it were, realistic the dialogue you're getting is. With the climbers I knew, they were great raconteurs. I knew they were performers. Part of climbing is bullshitting about it afterwards. They perform for one another very ably. If you were to ask me what is the most realistic part of Choe, it's that, it's that general ability to act himself in front of other people. What that says about his mental condition, what that says about you if you're good at that, I don't know.

'Everything that these guys do, they do it. They have an extraordinarily ironic interface with the way they describe the events of their own lives, the adventures that happen to them, which makes you aware even as they tell the story that somehow they're bullshitting even though they've done it. They've been to the top of Siula Grande and half way down they fell and broke their leg and it took them three days to crawl out, but there is something in the way that they narrate it which makes you aware that there's a truth that they can't tell you about it they can only present it as a piece of bullshit, that somehow there's a further truth behind that.'

In a key sequence in Signs of Life Choe describes an occasion when he followed a girl off the bus into a patch of woodland. She had extraordinary eyes: 'Every different green was in them.' Choe relates a transcendental, life-changing experience which he has with the green-eyed girl. China and the reader wonder if it really happened at all. (Interzone readers will remember Harrison's short story, 'Anima', in IZ 58, which used this material before it became part of Signs of Life.)

'The green-eyed girl,' Harrison explains, 'is partly a metaphor for Choe's inability to tell the real truth about himself, because it's too real, it's too central to his own perception. It would wound him too much to pull it out. It would be like pulling your own heart out. What actually happens is at the end he twice denies it. What I wanted to do was leave a certain amount of doubt in the reader's mind about whether it had happened or not. But since the summing up has to come from China, who misunderstands Choe's complexity all the way through, it's a very difficult ending to try to pull off. I think there was a technical difficulty there for me, which consisted in trying to suggest that Choe was bullshitting to hide the truth, which was that it had actually happened.'

Essentially Signs of Life is about three people and their desires or dreams. China's love for Isobel, her dreams of flight, and Choe's desire to re-create the experience of the green-eyed girl.

'Let the world be more than it is,' exclaims Harrison, sitting on the edge his seat in the north London flat he shares with Iggy, a black-tipped burmilla cat. 'People like Choe destroy themselves simply out of the need for the world to be more than it is. For me that's the most important thing about Choe and that's the part of my own character that both he and Isobel represent. That combination of bitterness and the tragedy you feel that the world can't be more than it is. I'm always thought of as a super-realist. Just the other day in a fanzine somebody described me as the kind of writer who had always tried to force the reader to face the facts about the world. Somebody who would be considered as absolutely opposite to New Age. But you're only like that because part of you has been wounded when you were younger. And for me, that absolute intensity of feeling that Choe wants to experience is to do with somehow for a minute the world having more value than it's actually got, as it were, the world being more than it is. I experience a terrific need to be more than I am.'

A desire for immortality, in other words?

'No. In a way I think it's quite the reverse. I would like to experience that amount of intensity for an incredibly short period of time and then die. I would like to know for a second before I die somehow that the world was bigger than I thought it was, that there was some intensity to the world which revealed itself just in an instant. I wouldn't know what kind of intensity it was. I wouldn't want to put a name to it anyway. But all my characters have mourned it. Certainly since "Running Down". Before that it was difficult for me to present characters who mourned it because it was too complex a thing for my technique to be able to say, but "Running Down" was the first attempt at it, and "The Ice Monkey" was the first successful attempt at showing somebody who desperately needed the world to be more than it was, and in the absence of that meaning found it impossible to continue, or meaningless to continue. Not that I personally do I'm more like China than Choe. Many of the climbers I've met, that was the only way to explain them. It's nothing to do with a death wish, it's to do with wanting to burn a bit more intensely for a moment. And you certainly do. I mean, 70 feet up and the fall's on to your elbow for a minute there you feel pretty intense. It's not just climbing or driving fast there are a billion ways that human beings look for that type of intensity, and quite a lot of worthwhile ways you can look for it, lots of mystic religions have got ways of looking for it, which probably do your character a lot more good than stoking your BMW up to 145 and taking some more coke. The world is, or ought to be, more than it is.'

It would be a mistake to assume that because in the past Harrison's work has often been set in grim urban landscapes peopled by characters who are invariably dissatisfied with their lot that he is peddling a miserablist, defeatist message. Close reading suggests rather that he is longing for something.

'Certainly the last three or four novels and most of my short stories since the mid-seventies have been about that. The guy in "Egnaro" says it outright and all the poor bastard gets is this kind of postmodern fast-food metaphor at the end, you know, instead of some kind of transfiguration of the world. Which is my way of doing what Choe does, really, dumping on it, dumping on the entire concept, because it means too much to you. In Signs of Life Isobel is the only winner, because she stuck by the dream, however pathetic her dream is.'

But it's not as simple as that. Isobel doesn't just want her dream, she also wants China. Maybe we can't have our dreams as well as an ordinary substructure of reality.

'Linked to this idea of wanting the world to be more than it is is the idea of trying to escape from the world as it is. I think that first appears in "Egnaro". Isobel is yet another fine-tuning of those kinds of issues and concerns. The reason I started to read anything, let alone fantasy or science fiction, and the reason I started to write anything, let alone fantasy or science fiction, was escape, and after having done it for ten years I was forced to confront that idea by my own internal workings. Isobel is just the latest statement of that, but so are Choe and the narrator. They're trying to escape from themselves by making their situation more exciting all the time. I'm being forced more and more to ask, okay, how do we make a distinction between escapism of the shoot-up-40-grammes-of-medical-grade-cocaine-and-try-to-set-fire-to-a-piece-of-glass variety how do we separate that, which is escapism or is it? from a metaphysical need for the world to be more intense than it is, which is almost a religious idea. What's the difference between the two, or what are the similarities between the two? There are no oppositions in my work, in that sense, I wouldn't want to oppose one to the other, but I would like to be constantly moving around the issue, revealing all the sides of the issue that I can.'

Born in 1945, M John Harrison sold his first story, to Science Fantasy, in 1966. His first novel, The Committed Men, appeared from New Authors Ltd five years later. He has since published a further seven novels, three collections of short stories and one graphic novel (with Ian Miller). Although his early work was aimed at least marketed directly at science fiction and fantasy readers, nowadays he is perceived as a mainstream writer. A mainstream writer who continues to appeal to that part of his original audience which considers good writing more important than whether there are spaceships or not. His novels these days attract glowing reviews in the literary pages of the broadsheets he's even been nominated for the Guardian Fiction Prize and he's won the Boardman Tasker Prize for Mountain Literature but somehow he has not become a household name. He does not shift copies like McEwan or Amis. He should be doing. He's getting a little sick of constantly being described as the most underrated writer of his generation. It could get to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Maybe, however, all that is about to change. In Viriconium, its Guardian Fiction Prize nomination notwithstanding, was dressed up as belonging to the fantasy genre rather than, say, magic realism which could have been enough to deter the narrow-minded. Numbskulls might have thought Climbers was a book about rock-climbing and nothing else. The Course of the Heart was an uncompromising narrative, enormously rewarding if you accepted its challenge; it took no prisoners. If Signs of Life can be described as 'easier to read' that is not to say it is inferior to or slighter than anything which preceded it. Far from it. Perhaps 'easier to live with' gets it better. It's not (quite) as dark as The Course of the Heart or The Ice Monkey. Despite some bleak moments, it's not depressing or completely pessimistic. There's some hope in the outcome. There are some survivors for once.

'That's the first time,' Harrison admits. 'It's the first time anybody comes out of it...I mean, nobody comes out of it with much credit...but there certainly are some survivors, even poor old China and Christina have something at the end of it, some sort of relationship, and the only person who doesn't get anything is the person who steadfastly refuses to have any hope, he dooms himself.

'There's a very great difference,' he continues, 'between the human being, the writer, and the writer as implied by a given book. That's to say there are three M John Harrisons: there's Mike Harrison the human being, there's M John Harrison the writer who is actually quite different because I can be something on a piece of paper that I don't allow myself to be in ordinary life and then there's the writer implied by the text. Mike Harrison is really quite an optimistic guy and always was, optimistic in the sense of being constantly cheerful, picking himself up, carrying on with a grin, liking mornings, liking sunshine. My ideal day is to wake up early, make love to somebody, eat a huge breakfast and go out climbing in the sunshine, not risk my life in any way, not have any black moods, finish climbing, then eat a great deal more, then make more love. If we could all live like that I believe that the world would be a better place. But you don't see much of him in the books. I would like us to see more of him in the books. Humour is part of the key for me. The happier I get with using humour, the more I think I'm able to release Mike Harrison rather than M John. M John's been around for a long time.

'There's more. There's a very sentimental Mike Harrison, whose ideas about the world would these days, I think, be considered mawkish and a bit politically incorrect, whose favourite book is Love For Lydia by HE Bates, you know, a book which was out of date when it was written in 1952. All I can do is develop. I try not to run too fast. I like to keep very considerable control of this development. I remember saying to John Clute that if I keep too much control, I'll be dead before I finish the development. I might have to take a risk soon and write what I would think of as an extremely sentimental and mawkish romance. Signs of Life was in a way a test bed for a romance, a romance of the world, no science fiction, no fantasy, no horror just two people. It would certainly be an interesting way to go.'

The generation thing is misleading, and the 'underrated' tag unhelpful. The point is that M John Harrison is one of the most exciting and consistently brilliant writers currently working in the English language and those who haven't yet realised it soon will. If Signs of Life wins him fresh award nominations and new readers, that will be a heartening indication of vitality among both the critical community and the reading public. Ménière's syndrome notwithstanding, it would be good to see Harrison climbing again up the bestseller lists. 1