In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle reads a rare but revealing extended interview with one of fantasy fiction’s greatest writers
When John Steinbeck was once asked how he went about writing, he replied, ‘With a pencil.’ Some writers are reluctant to give away too much about their inspiration, their influences, their thinking and writing and editing processes, as if wanting to perpetuate the Romantic fallacy that genius and inspiration just strike and that the lucky, ‘gifted’ individual is driven to pick up a pen and write down what the Muse dictates.
Despite his prodigious gifts and his long-standing success as a novelist, Michael Moorcock is only too happy to share the secrets of his craft. In a 1992 book, Death Is No Obstacle, which is essentially a long transcript of interviews the writer Colin Greenland had with Moorcock in 1990, Moorcock happily reveals some of the ‘tricks of the trade’ of writing genre fiction, as well as thoughtfully exploring his own relationship with various genres of popular fiction. The book isn’t easy to get hold of – copies tend to go for around £50 online. I’m indebted to my university library, which owns a signed copy.
In a previous post on Interesting Literature, I’ve outlined some of Moorcock’s top tips for writing a genre novel in a matter of days, which are taken from the first chapter of Death Is No Obstacle. The rest of the book covers, in order, comedy and science fiction (including a revealing discussion about Moorcock’s own self-confessed failure to write straight science fiction, partly because he has no great love for much mid-century SF), comic strips and commedia dell’Arte, didactic fiction (featuring Behold the Man, Moorcock’s remarkable novel about a time traveller who ends up living in the time of the Crucifixion), non-linear fiction, where it went wrong (featuring, perhaps surprisingly, a discussion of the ‘failure’ of Gloriana), and imitating and remodelling (Conrad et al).
‘Where It Went Wrong’ might almost be a subtitle for Death Is No Obstacle, offsetting that main title’s triumphalism: Michael Moorcock is one of the most self-effacing and self-critical authors, who is always acknowledging that his penchant for experimenting – with genre, with form, with subject matter – doesn’t always result in a successful novel. As he says somewhere, ‘I think of myself as a bad writer with big ideas, but I’d rather be that than a big writer with bad ideas.’
There are some surprising revelations here, such as Moorcock’s assertion that, despite his admiration for the work of Mervyn Peake, he wasn’t all that influenced by Peake in his own writing, occasional works such as The Golden Barge (Moorcock’s first novel, written when he was still a teenager) and his original ‘farewell’ to fantasy, the 1978 novel Gloriana, excepted. Instead, what emerges is Moorcock’s fondness for writers of adventure fiction: Conan Doyle, Edgar Rice Burroughs (whose Barsoom novels Moorcock paid homage to in a trilogy of planetary adventures from the 1960s), and Joseph Conrad.
Indeed, Moorcock talks at length with Colin Greenland in Death Is No Obstacle about his ‘use’ of Conrad: rather than copying Conrad’s plots per se, Moorcock would take his cue from the general form and structure of Conrad’s narratives in order to find a framework for the story he wanted to tell. (There’s a detailed, and fascinating, discussion of how Moorcock did this with his own novel The Ice Schooner, which owes a debt to Conrad’s little-known late adventure novel The Rescue.) What Moorcock advises writers to do here is to find the right ‘plot’, or at least kind of story, in the work of another writer which you, the young writer, can use as a vehicle to tell your story.
Rather than a fantasy author imitating other fantasy authors such as Tolkien, the budding author of fantasy fiction should turn to earlier writers who were writing very different novels, including social realist fiction (Moorcock name-checks figures as different as Benjamin Disraeli, Joseph Conrad, H. G. Wells, and Von Grimmelshausen), and find the right structure for the fantasy novel they want to write. This is why reading as much as possible is important.
At one point in Death Is No Obstacle, Moorcock effectively paraphrases T. S. Eliot’s famous statement that ‘immature poets imitate; mature poets steal’. Rather than plagiarising the exact stories of other writers, the well-read author develops an almost intuitive understanding of the form and shape of the novel, and can then plunder earlier writers – and sometimes, the earlier the better – for ideas.
One of the things to emerge from the book is the importance of writing as improvisation and the ability to think on your feet. True, Moorcock encourages the writer to plan meticulously before sitting down to write – you need a plot outline if not advance knowledge of everything that’s going to happen, and a list of images for your invented fantasy world that makes it coherent and consistent – but as you write you also need to know how to introduce things which you ‘might need later’. Both Moorcock and Greenland praise Dickens for being able to do this so well, particularly in Bleak House, where the opening paragraphs set up a number of details which Dickens will later return to and use as part of the story.
In a sense, Moorcock’s ability to write a prodigious amount of work at a rapid rate, his self-identification as a writer of popular fiction, and his almost instinctive understanding of form and plot, make him much closer to Dickens than to J. R. R. Tolkien.
Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.