Structo talks to Ian R. MacLeod

“I wasn’t consciously treading in anyone else’s footsteps. I was aiming for pure snow.”

This interview appeared in Structo issue one, published September 2008.

Song of Time was published in July 2008 by PS Publishing.

For the last few years, author Ian R. MacLeod has been doing his best to wrench modern fantasy away from its precious magic rings and orphans-who-have-a-hidden-power-but-don’t-know-it. In the process he has won a Nebula, a Hugo and two World Fantasy Awards.
Did you always know that you wanted to be a writer?

No, but the idea came pretty early. If, however, I’d become a professional footballer, or an archaeologist, or a secret agent, and you were interviewing me now, I’d have given you the same answer. Of all the ridiculous dreams, it just turned out to be the most realistic.

When did you first get a story published?

It was the late eighties. I sold a couple of stories, first to Weird Tales, and then to Interzone. They came out the other way around, with Interzone first, although the Weird Tales story, ’1/72nd Scale’, was the one I wrote first, and the one I sold first, and it also ended up getting a Nebula nomination. So that’s the one I tend to think of as my first.

How many novel-length stories had you written before [first published novel] The Great Wheel was picked up by Harcourt?

Just one, which I actually finished. That was in the early to mid eighties, when I was in my early thirties. Which I tried to sell, and failed to do so. In retrospect, rather predictably. It was the first serious writing project I really put all my heart and soul into. Only a couple of short stories came before that – which were also rejected. So I really learned how to write, partly in technical terms but also as a discipline, by writing that novel. Another couple of novels I tried wouldn’t finish, so I returned to short fiction. Eventually, I started selling.

Can you describe a typical writing day? Is there such a thing?

No, there isn’t. The dream day is get up, have breakfast, sit down, start writing. Maybe get a thousand or two words written, so I can do other things with the rest of my day. Things not necessarily separate from writing — but then one of the joys and terrors of being a writer (not to mention working from home) is that there is never any clear distinction between working and not working. I certainly work best in the morning, though. What that work often entails can often be pretty frustrating, but I guess, as I’m still writing, and although I’m scarcely prolific, I must be getting some of it right at least some of the time. Basically, you have to keep researching, dicking around with ideas, trying fresh tacks, walking the dog, banging your head against the wall. All of that can be surprisingly time-consuming, especially the wall-banging. It’s a balance between pushing yourself on and not just doing stuff for the sake of it.

You also teach English and creative writing…

Yes, and as I always say in creative writing sessions — and still keep having to remind myself — the writing part is actually the easy bit. Or it becomes so. Putting some nice-looking sentences on a page is a craft, a skill which, if you have a moderately good ear of language, can be learned. The real trick is to find something to write about, and a way of expressing what you want to say about it. As far as teaching creative writing is concerned, and although I’ve worked with most kinds of groups, I now do most of my work in schools, with kids between the ages of about 8 and 15. And there, as well, I try to put the emphasis on the ideas and creativity side of writing rather than the nuts and bolts. There’s more than enough nuts and bolts being taught in schools already without my adding to it. I’m a completely self-taught writer myself, though. I’m not much cop at paying attention to what others have to say about things which are dear to me, although I’d like to think I’ve got a bit more receptive as the years have passed. I used to do some English. Mainly adult literacy. But no longer. At least at the moment.

Are you a very organised writer, with the whole book planned before you start writing the first chapter, or do you tend to discover the story along with your characters?

No. I’m probably more organised than I was, but still I like not to know things, to find them out through writing. I’d warn any potential writers to be careful of getting too sucked in to the whole planning/outline business. Sure, they can be useful and I can and have written outlines, but they’re only one of many ways in to the creative process, and are often prepared after the event, when the ideas are already blossoming, and nobody, publisher or writer, expects a book to turn out in a way for which the outline is an exact template. I think that the SF genre seems to exert a particular attraction to budding writers who imagine that a story can somehow be created and worked out before it’s actually written, with little cards and flowcharts and chapter outlines and so forth. I reckon that’s because the science part of SF itself is very much about trying to impose order on the chaos of the world, and the genre often tends to reflect this, and appeal to readers who like things to be linear and logical, even when they’re wildly speculative. But fiction doesn’t work that way. The very idea of having something made before it’s there is essentially illogical.

Can you tell us something about Song of Time?

It’s a book about the near future — the future that, if we’re lucky enough, we’ll live to see ourselves. And it’s about the possibility of the leap into machine intelligence, the whole business of transferring the memory and essence of a personality from flesh to circuitry. The main character is an elderly concert violinist contemplating that very leap, who discovers a strange man lying on the beach beneath her Cornish home, and looks back at the life she’s lived through this current century. It’s about art, and love, and religion, and death, and music, and families, and redemption, and the end of the world. All the usual stuff.

What prompted the move to [Song of Time publisher] PS Publishing?

Basically, the need to find a publisher who’s prepared to go with an SF novel which is also (or attempts to be) a work of literature. So much of what gets to the shelves these days from the major publishers tends to fit into certain kinds of pigeonhole.

Was Song of Time a conscious move away from the world of The Light Ages and House of Storms, or simply the Next Thing?

In a way, yes. But I’ve always been interested in doing new stuff. For me, that’s what fiction in general, and SF and fantastic fiction in particular, is supposed to be about.

Do you think you will ever return to the world of aether?

I’ve written a novella set in the same world called ‘The Master Miller’s Tale’ which came out in Fantasy and Science Fiction last year. I would like to return there again, too, but the big idea of another novel which might push the whole thing on to a new level hasn’t come. Not yet, anyway. And I don’t like re-heating old cuisine.

Both The Light Ages and House of Storms feel very real, like an account of what might have been, rather than what most people think of when they imagine a fantasy tale (i.e. a hero waving a magic sword around). Was that a conscious aim when writing the books?

Yes. You’ve expressed it exactly.

Are there any other books that you think manage to pull off this kind of fantasy realism?

Um, this will sound arrogant, but I’m not sure there are. There are other books which do a whole variety of things, and most likely far better, which I raided, but I wasn’t consciously treading in anyone else’s footsteps. I was aiming for pure snow. I always do. I really don’t see the point otherwise.

What do you say when people ask you “where do you get your ideas from”? Philip Pullman used to tell people that he subscribed to Ideas ‘R Us…

The key thing for me is the desire to write. From that, and then from grabbing hold of the sort of odd thoughts which pass through all of our heads, and then hanging on to them for dear life, I sometimes find that I get somewhere. It’s a bit like catching a fish. Sometimes you have to reel in hard and really work at it. Others, you just have to sit peacefully (or try to) and wait. Even when you get a bite, a nibble, you just watch it for a while. Eat a sandwich. Count the ripples. Let the river run past you. Sometimes, it’s just an old boot that’s waiting down there in the depths, anyway.