Something Like a Phenomenon

Michael Moorcock in conversation with Alexander Glass

What I write is a kind of myth, really, that tells people, young people, Look, you can do this, you can take control of your lives if you want to, and there’s a bit of hope of some sort. I get paid for that. They say, Thanks very much, and they come back for more. I don’t find that morally unacceptable.

Michael Moorcock in conversation with Colin Greenland, Interzone #39

On the occasion of the publication of The Woods of Arcady (Gollancz, 2023), the second volume of The Sanctuary of the White Friars, Alexander Glass came back for more, talking new words, old worlds, and everything inbetween with the living legend known in this shard of the multiverse as Michael Moorcock.

Also here in IZ Digital, Alexander Glass’s review of The Woods of Arcady

Alexander Glass: You’re sometimes seen as a ‘London’ novelist, at least for one strand of your work, mentioned in the same breath as Peter Ackroyd and Iain Sinclair. I think you’re still based mainly in Texas now; does London seem different, from a distance?

Michael Moorcock: It seems different from close-up, too! The West End seems to have become a gigantic shopping mall and the East End is dominated by huge temples to commerce. Always was to a degree, but now St Paul’s is dwarfed by monuments to corporate gods and even the King Lud is gone from Ludgate Circus! I spend half the year in Paris normally, so come to London quite a bit to see my family and a diminishing number of old friends.

Alexander Glass: You grew up in London during the war – watching dogfights illuminated by searchlights – and then in the partially bombed-out city. As you note, the city has changed physically since then. Does the myth of London, the dream London has of itself, seem different to you?

Michael Moorcock: I’ve spent the last 20 years or so trying to put the myths back into London. As the philistines bury the myths I endeavour to put others back. The whole area of Brookgate, for example.

Alexander Glass: Did your experience of London – and of Britain – in that period inform your examination of empires, especially declining empires, in your work?

 I’m still in autobiography mode, still wondering how much better I might have treated those closest to me

Michael Moorcock: Growing up in a city which was in constant metamorphosis gave me the sense of the fragility, as well as the injustice of empires and that has been a theme to many of my books and stories, both sf, fantasy and literary.

Alexander Glass: The Whispering Swarm incorporates autobiography and fantasy; Mother London included autobiographical elements that were more fictionalised. How do the two relate to one another?

Michael Moorcock: Autobiography, notoriously, can’t really be trusted and can also hurt some of those talked about. My answer to the problem was to blend actuality, myth and fiction.

Alexander Glass: In an interview you did with Joel Meadows for Jewish Quarterly, you talked about facing some of your own ghosts and wondering about some of your own actions, and about how you were – the interview was in 2015 – in an autobiographical phase. What phase are you in now, and what ghosts are you still facing?

Michael Moorcock: Oh, how I might have treated certain people better, I suppose. I was very self involved in my 30s, I think, at least in certain ways. Very focussed on my own work. When I look back I wonder how I might have hurt some feelings I now regret. I’m grateful to certain friends for helping me pull out of that mindset. I’m still in autobiography mode, still wondering how much better I might have treated those closest to me, especially my children!

Alexander Glass: How much of The Woods of Arcady had you mapped out when you started writing The Whispering Swarm?

Michael Moorcock: Quite a bit of the ‘reality’ while much of the rest is an homage to my childhood influences, including H. Rider Haggard, Edgar Rice Burroughs and comics. There are dozens of notebooks for the trilogy, much of which of course will never be used, including The Wounds of Albion which I’m currently writing.

Alexander Glass: What most surprised you when finished The Woods of Arcady and looked at what you had created? Did the story change as you wrote it?

Michael Moorcock: I’d planned this for a long time so I didn’t really change a lot.

Alexander Glass: The Whispering Swarm incorporates autobiography and fantasy; Mother London included autobiographical elements that were more fictionalised. London looms large, of course, in both. How do the two relate to one another? 

Michael Moorcock: Mother London is a realistic book whereas The Whispering Swarm is really a mixture of myth and reality.

I am more worried than I was but I feel almost reconciled to my offspring having to learn how to survive a more dangerous time

Alexander Glass: You’ve said that reading The Pilgrim’s Progress – the first book you bought with your own money – made you realise that a book had to provide at least two meanings and not just be ‘a story’, and you’ve also said that you have always been writing on at least two levels. Thinking in those terms, which novelists do you find most rewarding? Who do you read when you want that sort of complexity?

Michael Moorcock: Poets, of course. Woolf, Joyce, Mann and other modernists, as well as absurdists like Firbank, Vian. I like Golding, Peake, Ballard and others.

Alexander Glass: When you wrote your essay ‘Epic Pooh’ – arguing that Tolkien’s fantasy set out to provide a kind of comfort blanket rather than to be challenging in any way – there were already Tolkien imitators; now there are many more: an explosion of Pooh. Could there be an Epic Pooh saturation point, where readers tire, or simply outgrow, the comfort blanket?

Michael Moorcock: Probably not, judging by the amount still being published.

Alexander Glass: In particular, comfort implies the familiar, but there is now much greater availability of international genre fiction – more so, perhaps, than is the case with current ‘mainstream’ fiction. Does that seem a hopeful step to you?

Michael Moorcock: My editorial policy was to incorporate the serious elements of sf into ‘mainstream’ fiction. That seems to have happened.

Alexander Glass: You’ve described yourself as a Left-Anarchist but also as a pragmatist: Anarchism isn’t good at emptying the bins. How did the Anarchism you took with you to Texas compare to the Libertarian form that seems to be common there?

Michael Moorcock: I suppose simply my socialist background and government for the common good separates me from the Texas Libertarians. Also I don’t wear black leather much…

Elric is me, as I said in an early fanzine piece. As my own mind broadens so does his, which makes it a little difficult considering I was 24 when killed him!

Alexander Glass: Seen from the UK, the USA seems to have both moved rightward politically and narrowed and coarsened its political debate. (And the UK has done the same on a smaller scale.) But do you find that that is the case when in discussion with individuals?

Michael Moorcock: There are more young people identifying as socialists these days in the US.

Alexander Glass: In the 1960s you (and J.G. Ballard and Brian Aldiss and others) were developing ways of writing to address a post-war reality that Modernist fiction could not reach; you have suggested, for example, that a science-fictional apocalypse seemed more relevant to someone like J.G. Ballard, with his experience of internment in Shanghai, than the sensibility-driven novels of someone like Woolf. Do writers need to find new ways of writing again, in the face of, for example, the climate crisis?

Michael Moorcock: I think the techniques developed by sf still work.

Alexander Glass: You have said, interestingly, that you and Ballard and Aldiss saw the advent of the atomic bomb as a hopeful development: it seemed decisively to have ended the war, and seemed also likely to keep the peace. I grew up in real fear of nuclear war; the risk then seemed to recede; now, I am not sure of the real level of risk, but the fear has certainly returned. Where do you stand now, after proliferation and particularly in light of the war in Ukraine?

Michael Moorcock: I am more worried than I was but I feel almost reconciled to my offspring having to learn how to survive a more dangerous time. At my age I don’t worry much about my own death. I do worry for my children and grandchildren, however.

Alexander Glass: You’ve noted that science fiction has often been deeply conservative and reactionary – broadly, and with regard to its view of science itself. The New Wave was not afraid of new technology, and celebrated it. In the Pyat quartet, though, you illustrate the dangers of trying to apply technological solutions to a society. What’s your view on current AI technology? And can science fiction contribute usefully to how our use of AI develops?

Michael Moorcock: Pyat’s attitudes are, I’ll admit, based on those of Clarke, Asimov and others, even though I was very fond of Arthur. I see engineering solutions to world problems as one of the great threats to our survival…

Alexander Glass: You’ve been very open to other writers using Jerry Cornelius as a character in their own work; how do you feel about the use of someone’s creation to train a heuristic algorithm, which then ‘creates’ a story or picture or piece of music?

Michael Moorcock: I’m very ambivalent about it and have yet to form a clear opinion. I would guess art will change in response to AI the way it did to photography.

Alexander Glass: Of your fantasy characters, clearly Elric is your favourite. What is it about him that draws you back to him rather than, say, Corum, or Hawkmoon?

Michael Moorcock: Elric is me, as I said in an early fanzine piece. As my own mind broadens so does his, which makes it a little difficult considering I was 24 when killed him! I have to present him with arguments and ideas conceived by others. I have never really reread Elric. His career remains in my memory rather like my own – broad but not always very detailed. It’s the same with all my characters, but of course the likes of Jerry Cornelius develops more easily the more I observe of the world!

Alexander Glass is the pseudonym of an ex-lawyer (now law lecturer) and blues guitarist who is currently living somewhere on the outer fringes of London. He is not a brain in a jar, yet, but there’s still time. His stories have been published in Interzone, The Third Alternative, Black Static, Asimov’s Science Fiction and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. You can read his story ‘The Ghost in the Valley’ here on IZ Digital. and he has another, ‘Sfumato’, forthcoming in Interzone #296.

IZ Digital is Interzone’s online sister zine. Become a member of the IZD Ko-fi for a euro a month to get EPUB editions of stories. Or just buy IZ a digital coffee/tea/raktajino – it is hugely appreciated and helps a lot.

You can also start a 6-issue EPUB subscription to Interzone and get even more amazing writing delivered electronically, bimonthly.

Reader memberships and subscriptions are the lifeblood of zines like IZ Digital and Interzone – thanks for reading, and supporting!