Photo by Beth Gwinn
Geeks love sci-fi and fantasy novels. Spaceships and sorcery? What’s not to love?! You get to explore the outer reaches of the imagination from a comfortable seat in your living room and all without a degree in particle physics or aptitude for the arcane. One such purveyor of the of the fantastic has settled right here in Philadelphia, and he is truly a legend of imaginative fiction.
Michael Swanwick has been dazzling readers with with his unique imagination for decades. His stories have won him an unprecedented amount of awards and fans. Best known for his novels The Iron Dragon’s Daughter and Stations of the Tide, Swanwick is also a prolific writer of short fiction. You can find them collected into volumes or occasionally appearing on Tor.com.
When he isn’t contemplating nanotechnology, the existence of time, sealing stories into bottles, writing on leaves, or diligently working on his newest novel, he can be found updating his blog with all sorts of things from cat pictures to how to win a Hugo award and the truth about science fiction fans.
He was kind enough to spare some time for another budding writer and share with us some secrets from the mind of one of science fiction’s most beloved authors.
How did you find yourself in Philadelphia?
Magic and Brownian motion. I was at loose ends after college and working at a McDonald’s in Kingston, New York, when a friend said I could sleep on his couch for a few weeks. To survive, I wrote term papers, sold my blood, took temp jobs, and lived off the charity of art students, until I finally found work as a clerk-typist. Center City was full of cheap rents in those days. I got a room next door to a whorehouse and across the street from a flophouse. It was a vivid environment, and there were lots of ambitious young people about with big plans. So I fit right in.
When did you first know that you were a writer?
I knew I was going to be a writer at age sixteen, when I read Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy and decided that someday I was going to write something every bit as good. I knew that I was a writer when I made my first professional sale at age twenty-nine. That was a dramatic year: I also lost my job, came down with writer’s block, and got married. Turning thirty was, by comparison, a snap.
Armani-clad elves and jet fighter dragons are just a few of your creations. Where do you find inspiration for the fantastical?
I’m inspired by the real world and driven by the desire to bring as much of it as I can into fantasy. Most of the classic fantasy I admired when I was starting out was written by British authors, people who grew up with castles and ancient ruins all around them. The conventional stuff of fantasy was real to them in a way that it never could be to me. So when I realized that I could write a post-industrial kind of fantasy, it was extraordinarily liberating. I could bring in malls and strip clubs and dry cleaners and junkyards and all manner of places I actually knew something about.
Fantasy offers enormous artistic freedom and opportunity, more so than most writers realize. I’m convinced there are tremendous untapped possibilities in it.
What sort of writers influenced you?
Ones with huge ambitions. Vladimir Nabokov, Thomas Pynchon, Ursula K. Le Guin, Gene Wolfe, Joanna Russ, A. S. Byatt . . . the list goes on and on. When I started out, it was still possible – just – to read every major fantasist and science fiction writer who had ever lived, and so I did, almost as if they were one writer of protean genius. I remember finishing the last Philip K. Dick novel and weeping, like Alexander, because there were no new worlds to conquer.
You’ve been doing some interesting projects lately using different mediums. What have you been working on?
Odd things. It started when I used surgical gauze to make a life-mask of my wife, painted it white, and then covered its surface with a short-short called “The Mask,” laid out in a demi-mask. I wrote a story on autumn leaves, one word per leaf, which I photographed and then left in place. For a season, you might run across a “graveyard” or a “love” or a “werewolves” in Gorgas Park or Laurel Hill Cemetery and be briefly puzzled by it. I’ve written stories on lighting fixtures, on a carafe, on all manner of objects. Occasionally, for charity, I’ll write a piece of flash fiction, put it into a bottle which I then cork, seal with wax, and sign with a diamond-tip pen. Then I’ll destroy all other copies, physical or electronic, of the story so that the one in the bottle is unique. The person who buys it has the option of reading the story or possessing the object, but not both. These projects are all done for the joy of it, and not for profit.
I’d like to write a Halloween story on a tree, one word per leaf, so that when autumn came and the leaves fell, people could wander by and take a part of the original manuscript home with them and maybe press it in a book. I’d really love to write one on the sides of a locomotive. I think those are projects that could help make the experience of reading a story as wild and strange to the reader as the experience of writing it is to me.
Photo by Beth Gwynn
What is it like having one heck of an awards cabinet?
It’s useful when somebody needs to know if I’m to be taken seriously or not. I can say, “Well, I have a World Fantasy Award and a Nebula and five Hugos,” which usually suffices. On the other hand, I won the Hugos during a six-year period, one after another. My poor mother-in-law tried very hard to be impressed. But she figured they had to be like bowling trophies – nobody wins real awards that often.
Do you have anything coming up that you’d like our readers to know about?
Currently I’m working on Hunting the Phoenix, which is a light science fiction novel, an entertainment, but has serious depths. It’s set in the same mad, post-Utopian world as Dancing with Bears, my last novel, and also features Darger and Surplus, two conmen, one of whom is a genetically anthropomorphized dog. In Bears,they accidentally set fire to Moscow. In Phoenix, they unintentionally conquer China.
Depending on how fast I finish it, Hunting the Phoenix should probably appear sometime next year.
Do you have any advice for young writers?
First and most important, write every day and as much as you can. Don’t wait for inspiration. Second, aim high. When I wrote my first novel, all I wanted was to be a published writer. My friend William Gibson, meanwhile, wanted to rewrite the syntax of science fiction from top to bottom. He failed and I succeeded. But because he aimed so much higher, his failure – a book titled Neuromancer– is now a classic of the field, while my own In the Drift is not. Third, learn to turn off your inner critic while you’re writing. Even if it’s not successful yet, it may very well be by the time you’re done with it. I never let anyone see my first drafts.
Those are all general rules. Here’s something specific: Start your story going with the first line and keep it moving. Don’t set the scene. Don’t explain what’s going on. Your first page should be one of the best two in the story or novel (the other is the last one) for the simple reason that the first page is the entrance into the work. The physical page even has the proportions of a doorway. The reader encounters your work in a magazine or a bookstore and glances at the opening. You don’t want to put a stumbling block of exposition in that person’s way. You want to make it as easy to enter as possible. As the writer, your job is to come up to that reader who’s trying to decide whether to go in or not, place a friendly arm across his or her shoulders – and then throw that bastard as far down the stairs as you can. So deep into the story that it’s easier to read the rest of it than to give up on it.
That’s the way Proust and Calvino and Russ and Borges wrote, and it’s the making of a great book and the saving of a mediocre one.