This is Jean Marie Ward from BuzzyMag.com reporting from Balticom 45 in Baltimore, Maryland. With me today is Michael Swanwick, whose genre-bending and genre blending novels and stories have won just about every science fiction and fantasy award out there many times over. Welcome, Michael.
Michael Swanwick: Good to be here.
JMW: Thank you. Con games and humor, to say nothing of wordplay, play an important role in your fiction. What’s the allure of them?
Michael Swanwick: Con game is very, basically what a writer does is a con game. You get the reader’s confidence, you convince them that you’re his friend, and then you take terrible advantage of them, and hopefully you also relieve them of a little bit of money but not as much as if you’re selling the book.
JMW: Okay, but not as much as if you’re selling a book?
Michael Swanwick: Well, you’re not relieving them of as much money when you’re selling the book as you are when you’re emptying their wallet.
JMW: That’s the comparison there. What do you think readers find so attractive in reading about these things? I mean, you’ve just gone back to the world in Darger and Surplus, and they’re very, very popular among your fans, and they take a lot of people for a ride in those books and stories.
Michael Swanwick: Yeah, the secret behind Darger and Surplus is that they honestly believe that they are good people who are having a very pleasant time. And, of course, it completely deluding in this, but they have this blind spots. And so they’re traveling through the world, they’re perfectly happy, and they have these adventures, and they think they’re really quite splendid. They think that they’re leaving behind nothing but good will on their wake.
You and I and everybody else, we spend a lot of time worrying about our behavior and the consequences of our actions. We want to be sure that we’re behaving well and we’re doing everything that our mothers want us to, and that doesn’t bother them at all. They’re perfectly oblivious; they’re perfectly happy. And it’s sort of nice to take a vacation from our lives into the minds of people who find the world such a pleasant place.
JMW: The people who encounter them may not find it that pleasant, but what the heck?
Michael Swanwick: A lot of those people don’t deserve a pleasant place in the world. I’m very careful. They only steal from people who really deserve to have something bad happen to them.
JMW: And that makes everybody feel a lot better. Justice is served in fiction if not in real life.
Michael Swanwick: That’s true.
JMW: Do you try to have justice happen in all of your stories?
Michael Swanwick: I try to tell the truth in all of my stories. That’s why sometimes my stories are kind of dark because sometime the truth is dark, but you want to make-, you don’t want to mislead people about the nature of the world. Particularly you don’t want to mislead young people who read books in part to help figure out the world. You don’t want to lie to them at all.
Of course, you are lying to them, but God’s given you a license to lie in this one specific case, and the result of that is that when you’re given this extraordinary privilege, you’re supposed to use it well. You’re supposed to use it wisely. You’re supposed to say something worth hearing, and that’s what I try to do.
JMW: Say something worth hearing. Well, you’ve been saying things worth hearing since 1970 and getting paid for it since 1980?
Michael Swanwick: That’s true.
JMW: I’d say that’s a pretty good record. What prompted you to start mixing fantasy in your science fiction and science fiction in your fantasy?
Michael Swanwick: Well, I became a writer one night in 1966 or ’67. I finished my homework. I was in junior high school, and I picked up a copy of “The Fellowship of the Ring” by J.R.R. Tolkien. My sister had sent it home from college because, with some other books she was done with. And I thought I would read a chapter or two before I went to bed, and I stayed up all night.
I read the final page just as I was going into home room. I skipped breakfast to do that. I read all the way to school. And Tolkien just rang me like a bell, and I desperately wanted to become a fantasy writer at that point. And I wanted to read all the fantasy I could.
It turned out that in 1966 or ’67 there was almost no fantasy in print, and within six months I had read all of it. So I began reading science fiction because it gave a fantasy-like kick.
And over the years, reading science fiction, my primary loyalty shifted from fantasy to science fiction because science fiction is harder to write. You have to be able to write well, and you have to know something about science as well. So a young person responds to the harder challenge.
But all the time I was writing science fiction I also wanted to write fantasy. I just, I could not find a way to do this. I went to Ireland in 1982 with my wife, Mary Ann. And everything in Ireland looked different from the way that I imagined it. The castles were smaller, the rooms were older. We saw Newgrange and it looked like it had been built by a race of conquer hobbits. It’s huge and magnificent and cute all at once.
And I came away from this and I said, I can’t write fantasy, high fantasy at all because I didn’t grow up in high fantasy country the way the Brits did and the Irish did. I grew up reading their books.
And then one day I was driving to Pittsburgh with my wife, and I made a joke. We were talking about dragons that were talking about steam locomotives, and I made a joke about [inaudible 06:36] and Mary Ann laughed. We drove on for about a mile and I said write that down.
I realized there was a story there, and when I went to write it, what became “The Iron Dragon’s Daughter”, I realized I finally found a way for an American to write high fantasy set in a world that had strip malls and high schools and other hideous places, factories, go-go bars and so on. And I could be writing from primary experience rather than doing an imitation of books, so that’s how the important merger for me came.
JMW: But getting back to the subject of the challenges now, the challenge of science fiction, you’re also famous for big sprawling unlikely series, such as “The Sleep of Reason” which was based on 80 prints by the Spanish artist, Goya, and “The Periodic Table of Science Fiction” for scifi.com. Were you ever scared when you undertook to write these?
Michael Swanwick: Well, the first one I did was the Periodic Table, and I was commissioned for that. I had done an [avis] scenario or two before, one short, short story for every letter of the alphabet, and always thought that I might do something similar.
And I thought, well, I’ve proven that I can do the [inaudible 08:04], so there’s really no challenge to it and there’s no difficulty to it. I have a very hard time doing it as a result of it being a boring thing, but I found the idea of one for every element, and I said that’s difficult and that I would respond to well.
And it’s like when you go to the circus and you watch the trapeze artists and you don’t want them to fall, but knowing that if they did fall that would be a very bad thing and it brings a kind of excitement. So as I was writing these, it was very important to me to know that I could crash and burn if there was an actual and real danger, and that kept it all alive for me.
As it turned out, I only had one moment when I almost did. It was in The Periodic Table. I came to vanadium. Well, it sound like [vins] but there’s not much story there. It rhymes with Canadian, or almost rhymes with Canadian, but there’s no story there either. And I researched it and researched it, and the most interesting thing I could find out about it was that it was an essential element in the diet of chickens.
And fortunately when I went into the project I had written myself one get-out-of-jail-free card, and I pulled it out now. And I said vanadium is the couch potato of the periodic table. It never hitchhikes naked to the West Coast. It never goes mountain climbing and is saved from falling off the side of Everest by a single [pytan] and the quick thinking of his friends. It never does this and it never does that and it never does the other thing.
It got to the end and I said, okay, I really ducked a bullet on this one. Did I get letters? It turns out that vanadium has a lot of fans. I read this letter and the guy says it’s a catalyst, for God’s sake! How boring can a catalyst be?
It was only long after the fact that I discovered, I was researching some other element that was giving me trouble along the way, and I discovered almost by accident that the Periodic Table of Science Fiction is being used, is included in a list of tools that chemistry teachers could use to turn kids on to chemistry. So I had just stabbed every chemistry teacher in the world in the back.
Rest Of Interview On Videos
Michael Swanwick Interview
With me today is Michael Swanwick, whose genre-bending and genre blending novels and stories have won just about every science fiction and fantasy award out there many times over.
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Jean Marie Ward writes fiction, nonfiction and everything in between, including art books, novels (2008 Indie Book double-finalist With Nine You Get Vanyr), and short stories such as WSFA Small Press Award finalist “Lord Bai’s Discovery” and “Personal Demons” in the award-winning anthology Hellebore and Rue. Her videos include author interviews and tutorials.