Michael Swanwick - May 2009

Michael Swanwick     

Drew:

What's better, spring showers or May flowers?

 

Michael:

Anything but winter!  I grew up in Winooski, Vermont, and I’ve had enough of the cold to last me a lifetime.  It gives you some great stories, though.  All that stuff Jack London wrote about what it’s like being in the woods when it’s fifty below zero?  Absolutely true.

 

 

Drew:

Mary Shelley or Bram Stoker?  Or Poe?

 

Michael:

I live in Philadelphia, I’ve lived just outside of Richmond, and I have family in New York City, so it’s got to be Edgar Allan Poe all the way.  The rare book department of the Free Library of Philadelphia has Grip, the raven which inspired his most famous poem, stuffed and on display, and I’ve been to at least five different places that claim to be where he wrote “The Raven.”  Plus, Poe was so many things a great writer should be . . . an extreme aesthete, a plagiarist, an inventor of literary genres, a hard worker, a drinker, a hoaxer, a fraud, a melancholic, a genius.  What’s not to love?

 

 

Drew:

When you're writing, how often can you just lean back and think to yourself: 'nailed it!'?

 

Michael:

More often than is properly humble.  With the exception of a couple of works I’d rather not think about, it’s pretty much once per finished story or novel.  Because I don’t quit working on something until it’s as good as I can make it, until the only way to improve it is to first become a better writer.

 

That sounds so full of myself!  It’s not meant that way, though.  I’ve got dozens of unfinished stories waiting for me to become a better writer, and I’m working hard to become worthy of them.

 

 

Drew:

What's for dinner?

 

 

Michael:

Something delicious.  I had the good fortune of falling in love with and marrying a woman who’s an extraordinary cook.   Marianne – whom you’ll find in the Acknowledgments of my novels as “the M. C. Porter Endowment for the Arts” – is one of those people who can start with whatever’s in the fridge and work up a delicious meal on the spot.  And then it’s eaten.  I can’t imagine working like that; everything I do can be preserved forever.  It would drive me mad to create something that good and see it disappear within the hour.

 

=C 2

 

Every now and then I’ll ask Marianne to provide a recipe for haunch of unicorn, or the like, for something I’m writing.  Someday I’m going to gather them all up in a chapbook.

 

 

Drew:

What was your favorite book as a child?

 

Michael:

It’s a toss-up between Howard Pyle’s Robin Hood and My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George.  They were both about living in the woods and when I was growing up in Vermont, I was the kind of kid who’d grab a canteen of water and a hatchet after breakfast and disappear into the woods all day.  During the summer, I could feed myself there.  So they both fed into my idea of the perfect life.  Pyle’s book has archery and quarterstaff fights but in George’s the protagonist gets to live in a hollow tree and he has a hawk.  Talk about knowing your audience!

 

 

Drew:

What's the oddest encounter with a fan you've ever had?

 

Michael:

Individual fans have been pretty reasonable to me, but I did have one odd occurrence with fandom en masse.  I was in Chengdu, China, for a convention two years ago, and because the fans there haven’t seen a lot of foreign writers, those of us from outside (Neil Gaiman, Nancy Kress, David Hill, Rob Sawyer, David Brin, and myself) were treated like rock stars.  I was signing convention books in a corridor at one point, surrounded by a mob of enthusiastic young people, when my translator placed a chair behind me and, foolishly, I sat down.  Suddenly, I was surrounded by a sphere of open books -- and, because everyone was so anxious for an autograph, it was closing in on me!  It was like that horror-movie scene where the walls close in a victim, threatening to crush him.

 

 

Drew:

If you could have a conversation with one author (alive or not), who would it be?

 

Michael:

Somebody about whom almost nothing is known.  So it would be a toss-up between Hope Mirrlees and William Shakespeare.  I have a small-press book about Mirrlees (friend of Virginia Woolf and T. S. Eliot, and the author of one great fantasy novel, Lud-in-the-Mist, and one great modernist poem, Paris) called Hope-in-the-Mist coming out in July, which I researched and wrote simply because nobody seemed to know very much about her.  Of Shakespeare we know so almost nothing, and what little we think we know is probably wrong.  By contrast, Thomas Pynchon’s life is an open book!

 

Okay, throw Pynchon in there too.  He’d be fun to chat with.

 

 

Drew:

How long did it take you to write The Dragons of Babel?  As I recall, parts of the first segment of the book were published as a short story several years ago.

 

Michael:

About four years.  I’m trying to teach myself to write faster, and I think I’m making progress, but I’m still awfully slow.  Why is writing so difficult?  I’m absolutely baffled.

 

 

Drew:

What's your favorite film?

 

Michael:

Again, it’s a toss-up.  Either Casablanca or The Wizard of Oz.  Casablanca was written as it was being filmed and, not knowing how it was going to end, the actors had to play each scene in a way that left all possibilities open.  Which was a recipe for disaster, yet by a series of lucky accidents resulted in a film that had all the un certainty and inevitability of life.  It’s perilously close to being the perfect movie.  The only way to improve it would be by giving Sam the respect he deserved.  Dooley Wilson played him magnificently.  But it’s a shock when Ilsa Lund refers to him as “boy.” The Wizard of Oz. is that rarest of creatures, a movie that’s superior to its source novel.

 

 

Drew:

Any chance of The Iron Dragon's Daughter - or Stations of the Tide, or any of your other currently unavailable works - coming back into print?

 

Michael:

I’m so unworldly that I honestly don’t give that sort of thing much thought.  Which is probably why they’re currently out-of-print.  But you’re right.  I’ll talk with my agent about that.

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