To mark the 77th anniversary of her birth, I am proud to make available a never-before published interview with Angela Carter. The interview was carried out on the 10th August 1979 by David Pringle during an Arvon Foundation writing workshop. The conversation focuses mostly on the topic of science fiction, and includes discussions of the seminal publication New Worlds, writers such as J. G. Ballard, John Wyndham and Michael Moorcock, and whether or not Carter would consider some of her own writing as science-fiction. I would like to express my deepest gratitude to David for allowing me to publish this fascinating interview and for assisting me with the editing process.
Introduction by David Pringle
I met Angela Carter for the first time, together with her fellow writing tutor John Sladek, when I attended an Arvon Foundation writers’ week at Lumb Bank, Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire, in early August 1979. It was an enjoyable few days, and several of us stayed up late on three consecutive nights chatting to Angela and John about all manner of things. This attempt at an interview with Angela was recorded towards the end of the week, on the Friday. I originally conceived of it as one of a set of interviews with various writers talking about New Worlds magazine (edited by Michael Moorcock from 1964 onward). Alas, that project never came to fruition — although I did conduct never-published interviews with John Sladek and Christopher Priest in the following weeks. Here is a transcript of my conversation with Angela, published now several decades late.
David Pringle: Did you read New Worlds in the late 1960s?
Angela Carter: Yes, I put an order in for it. It was in a different format at first, wasn’t it?
DP: It was in a paperback format.
AC: Yes. Well, that must have been how I read it. I was then living in Bristol.
DP: You weren’t a subscriber?
AC: No, I wasn’t a subscriber. I suppose I had a gut feeling that a subscription to New Worlds might leave me the poorer in the long run. It always had, like, a peculiarly fly-by-night quality [laughs].
DP: Yes. As I recall, my last subscription got me about two issues and then the magazine expired…but you were already a published novelist. We’re talking about the late 1960s…1968 or so?
DP: Your first book had come out in 1965…
DP: Yes. So of course you weren’t influenced in the beginning, as a writer, by the New Worlds school. It just happened that there was something in common?
“I’d read science fiction on and off since I was about […] 10 or 11. John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids was serialised in […] The Daily Express […] I remember being frightened by it.”
AC: Yeah, I liked it. I mean, I’d read science fiction on and off since I was about – God knows, I suppose about 10 or 11. John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids was serialised in, I think, The Daily Express – somewhere like that – I remember reading it as a serial. It was ages before I realised the limitations of the genre. I remember being frightened by it. It was fantastically popular in the early 1950s…
DP: It was still very popular in the early 1960s when I came to read it…
AC: Yes. But I mean it was serialised in mass-circulation newspapers. I remember liking very much the one that was called The Chrysalids…
DP: Oh yes. That’s the one that many people reckon to be Wyndham’s best.
AC: That’s the one where he nearly gets out of his limitations.
DP: So which writers appealed to you in the pages of New Worlds?
AC: J. G. Ballard. But I’d already read his books. My first husband was a chemist who was a bit of a science fiction buff… Indeed, I bought the first Ballards in hardback. This is all a bit hazy in my memory, but I thought they were wonderful. Truly.
DP: This was The Drowned World, The Four Dimensional Nightmare…?
AC: Yes, The Drought was the first one I read. And…yes, The Terminal Beach. Much more exciting. Although I find his vision virtually intolerable, he really has this gritty feeling of the freeway, and it’s very English as well, although it’s got this particular American overlay. He’s really captured the high-rise, the freeway, that really bleak landscape… It was a very, very barren time. It still is a barren time! But it was, I suppose, the beginning of the barren time. And then basically what happened was that suddenly I discovered this lode, this seam of intensely imaginative and very exciting fiction. I’d read some Brian Aldiss…but Ballard and Thomas M. Disch – I remember following the serialisation of Camp Concentration. Oh, it was wonderful…What I thought was, really, that seemed to me one of the most exciting novels I read in the 1960s, actually.
“Although I find [J. G. Ballard’s] vision virtually intolerable, he really has this gritty feeling of the freeway, and it’s very English as well, although it’s got this particular American overlay. He’s really captured the high-rise, the freeway, that really bleak landscape.”
DP: Have you met Tom Disch?
AC: No, I haven’t. It’s all very much like sort of low-level fannishness, isn’t it? It seemed to me that working in that genre allowed the writer a great deal of freedom – which is always the attraction of genre, truly.
DP: The attraction of genre is that it allows you freedom?
AC: Immense freedom.
DP: That’s a paradox.
AC: Well it is and it isn’t. Did you ever see a movie called Witchfinder General?
DP: No. I’ve heard of it.
AC: Well, people always cite that as an example. The director, Michael Reeves, died but he was a very, very talented director, who was able to do things in genre, which has got a built-in audience. I mean, you can’t make a really bad horror movie, to be hooted off the screen. And so, because he was certain of – admittedly, at a very low level – he was certain of finance, he was certain of the cast, he was certain of production – he could do, within the very rigid limits of the genre, exactly what he wanted. And this is the attraction of genre: within the limitations you have immense freedom.
“[T]his is the attraction of genre: within the limitations you have immense freedom.”
DP: But in your case, although you obviously have been attracted towards the genre of science fiction, you have never actually become a genre writer. I don’t think a single one of your books has ever had an SF label on it, even in paperback…
AC: Well, this is really because, first of all, I had established a reputation as a “straight” novelist, and also because, you know, before I did a novel called Heroes and Villains, which was taken up by the…I mean, that was reviewed in science fiction publications…
DP: That was in 1969.
AC: Yes, and in fact that did acquire an SF readership even though it was in a “class” fiction list. As you know by now, David, I’m furiously inarticulate. If you look at the first Picador list, though it’s very interesting because it’s, like, the spirit of ’68. The first dozen or so novels that Picador published are very weighted towards, you know, imaginative fiction as opposed to the naturalistic novel which was the mainstream of English fiction at the time.
“I specialised in Middle English literature, which is one of the reasons I’m interested in science fiction.”
DP: Were you aware when you wrote Heroes and Villains that it was more easily classifiable as SF than your previous three novels had been?
AC: Well, it’s only very loosely SF…like you say, it’s only very loosely so. It has a post-apocalyptic background. But I knew what I wanted…I mean, it’s got elements of the erotic in it, but the idea of this blasted landscape, some of it is derived from medieval descriptions of hell – oh, truly. I specialised in Middle English literature, which is one of the reasons I’m interested in science fiction.
DP: Another paradox.
AC: Not really. I suppose “speculative fiction” is what some of my novels have been. But then, I discovered that in the States that meant another kind of genre, like, you know, sword-and-sorcery, which Heroes and Villains, in a way, is. And then I discovered that that’s not a very precise definition at all. Yes, of course, I was aware that Heroes and Villains had got an SF sort of quality. I mean, how could one not? It wasn’t just a novel that was set in a blasted Britain. It was a novel in which all the characters had been created by that landscape and they were the products of a post-blast, of a blasted civilisation, of a post-blasted culture. I still like the book, even though when I read it lots of the style makes me wince…
“I was aware that Heroes and Villains had got an SF sort of quality. […] It was a novel in which all the characters had been created by that landscape and they were the products of a post-blast, of a blasted civilisation, of a post-blasted culture.”
DP: I like the book; it was the first thing of yours I read. You say the style makes you wince: is that really so?
AC: Yeah, I thought…my actual style has got much purer, I think personally. It’s less embarrassing…
DP: Has anybody ever accused you of being gushy and sentimental, which is what you’re obviously not?
AC: No, nobody’s ever accused me of that! [Laughs]
DP: At first glance, that’s the last thing you should be accused of, but do you think you are, in any way?
AC: I try not to be. Why do you say that?
DP: I’m just thinking something like Heroes and Villains is less austere than, say, the disaster novels of Ballard, it’s lusher in its descriptions…
AC: Oh, I see what you mean. I suppose this is one of the differences between…I mean, I’m not writing for the genre after all. Am I? And therefore, you know [I allow myself a certain leeway]. I mean, although it has a lot of SF qualities that novel is really about…It’s not about human beings in extremis, after all, is it? Ballard, really, is always [that]. Maybe it’s just a personality thing. In Heroes and Villains the characters are in extreme situations but in a way there are solutions to them…In their different ways, they’re working on solutions to them – not perhaps very satisfactory ones…Some people would regard that as sentimental.
DP: One obvious question: if you were an admirer of New Worlds why didn’t you get published there? Did you in fact submit anything?
AC: I wasn’t writing short pieces at all at that time. And I would have thought they wouldn’t have had me, and I will tell you why. It’s because I personally, myself, still perceive a kind of girlish quality… This kind of thing is always an invitation to narcissism, but I myself still perceive a quite pronounced girlish quality to my writing – really, until Heroes and Villains. In that one, the girlishness is actually being overlaid by, you know, by…This novel’s really about ideas, you see, I was quite precise about the ideas I was talking about in Heroes and Villains. I think I thought they would turn me down, and I was probably right. I mean, Disch especially has got this fantastic intellectual sprightliness, and…I mean, I’ve never been a hard-edged writer. I was sure they wouldn’t be interested in me and I wouldn’t have anything which I felt was suitable…
DP: I think perhaps you would have been accepted.
AC: Well, I don’t know what would have happened to me if I had been, I must say. No, I suppose I felt that although I was very excited and stimulated by this, and perhaps I wouldn’t have embarked on a post-apocalyptic novel if it hadn’t been for Ballard – although there was a lot of it in the air at the time! There’s also slightly this air of the closed…there’s this slight air of exclusiveness about it… You know the famous Bug Jack Barron controversy…
AC: I suppose these sorts of girlish fantasies about forests – because I’ve always been fond of landscape – I suppose I felt it wasn’t right. That’s all. I wasn’t sending stuff around anyway.
DP: You did start writing shorter pieces in the early 1970s?
DP: Presumably after you’d written The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman?
AC: Ah, no, I started writing them concurrently with Hoffman, actually. I had this tremendous burst of activity…Certainly, had there been a New Worlds in existence about 1973 I’d probably have [thought seriously about sending them some of those stories which appeared in my collection Fireworks].
“Certainly, had there been a New Worlds in existence about 1973 I’d probably have [thought seriously about sending them some of those stories which appeared in my collection Fireworks].”
DP: A great shame. There was a New Worlds in existence. It appeared as an occasional paperback.
AC: Yes. And I had good reasons…It was [Anthony] Cheetham, wasn’t it? I had complicated reasons as to why… [Laughs] Anyway, go on. Shall we get on to Hoffman, which really is a science fiction novel and was intended as such…?
AC: Oh, yes. Absolutely.
DP: Would you like to justify that? Why do you think that one really is SF, as opposed to Heroes and Villains?
“I’d been reading quite a lot of social science in the late 60s, like Erving Goffman – there’s a terrific book, The Social Construction of Reality by Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann. So, you know, the prevailing late 60s thing about the nature of reality was very much with me.”
AC: First of all, it’s not a fantasy. Any fool can see it’s not a fantasy. Whereas, I would classify Heroes and Villains as actually a romantic novel – but I don’t want to get into the definitions. Well, Heroes and Villains isn’t hard-edged; the whole point of it is the lushness, its heavy romantic quality. Indeed, possibly it’s the only SF romance anybody’s ever done. Really. I’m sorry, I realise that’s like wild narcissism, but it is a [?], and there’s nothing like that about Hoffman at all. It’s got this, like, very lush, you know, Oscar Wildish thing about killing the thing you love through it, but in fact it’s not about killing the thing you love at all, anyway. It’s about, ah, the greatest good of the greatest number. Ah, I’d been reading quite a lot of social science in the late 60s, like Erving Goffman – there’s a terrific book, The Social Construction of Reality by Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann. So, you know, the prevailing late 60s thing about the nature of reality was very much with me, though not from the purely scientific angle, From the social science angle, from, you know, the nature of perceptions, and, you know, what Hoffman’s about is obviously the nature of, the social nature of, reality. It’s also…I’m sorry, this is like an extended plug for it, but I still think it’s quite good – I mean, it’s pure speculation, it’s a what-if novel really. This whole thing about the social sciences – it presents a set of different societies, I mean, different social groups that are organised in completely different ways, and that…you know, the hero travels through them. And finally, in that miserable compromised way that we all do, he has to come down, you know, on the side of rationality even though he doesn’t want to [Laughs]. You know, he has to come back to the city; it’s only partially satisfactory to everybody. I don’t know how it feels like to other people. It’s a long time since I wrote it.
“[W]hat Hoffman’s about is obviously the nature of, the social nature of, reality. It’s also […] pure speculation, it’s a what-if novel really.”
DP: What is impressive about your writing is the visual quality, the landscapes and things seen. You do have a hard-edged imagination compared to so many fantasy writers, especially female fantasy writers. I’m thinking of the Americans. There’s nobody to compare you with in Britain because there just aren’t that many female SF or fantasy writers…
AC: I don’t want to be sectarian but, you know, I wouldn’t want to be compared with other women, not because I don’t want to be compared with other women…but, you know, I don’t want to be compared with other women, not because of me so much but because of you… [Laughs] I don’t think there’s anything special about women’s writing, in other words.
DP: Sorry. You can only be compared with people like Ballard and Disch…
AC: Thank you.
DP: …whereas, though you’re probably not very well up on it, there is this large body now of specifically female SF in America. Some of these female writers are trying to be like you, they don’t want to be labelled female writers. On the other hand, there are others who are very much writing for women, writing romantic SF. You said earlier that Heroes and Villains is perhaps the only romantic SF novel…
AC: No – science fiction romance.
DP: SF romance, yes. Well, that’s not…Well, I don’t know exactly what sense you meant that in, but almost certainly that doesn’t sound like the truth now, because there are people like Vonda McIntyre and Anne McCaffrey – at various levels of competence – turning out an awful lot of SF romance. It appeals to both sexes, but it certainly seems to have a strong base in the female readership.
AC: Ah. Well, as somebody like yourself with quite a heavy academic background in Eng. Lit. I think maybe the point about the romance is that – really, romance isn’t a term like that, it isn’t about libidinal gratification, it’s about the impossibility of the satisfaction of desire – which is what Hoffman is about, and any romance worth its salt is about the destruction of its own object by desire. As I get older, I get more inclined to this idea and I find it less distressing, but I think it remains a basic human truth. That’s how I would define romance. And from what you’ve been saying about these ladies in America, they’re not writing this kind of thing.
“[Romance is] about the impossibility of the satisfaction of desire – which is what Hoffman is about, and any romance worth its salt is about the destruction of its own object by desire.”
DP: No. Have you read Ursula Le Guin, who’s the most distinguished of them?
AC: No, I haven’t. But she had a heavy anthropological background, didn’t she? And she’s also an anarchist, I understand…you know, that sort of American liberal radical tradition…
DP: Paul Goodman.
AC: Yes, is that not so?
DP: Well, I don’t know. I admire her without really liking her much. Although she’s riding really high in America, she’s the great American SF writer for many people. Would you like to say anything about why you think it is there aren’t more female British SF writers, especially since there are so many in America?
AC: Well, you must remember that I really don’t know very much about the SF world. I’m very glad, you know, that to the extent that it does it reads me. But I don’t think I’m capable of making any profound insights into it because I know it so little. I think what Sheila McLeod was saying the other night is probably true, that women are not encouraged – well, are men encouraged? – to take an interest in ideas. I don’t know, are they? Who can tell? But certainly, nobody has for example ever asked me or even suggested that I should write a novel about women’s experience as such – possibly because, you know, when I was young I was a wayward girl and now, you know, I probably look as though I would slap the face of anybody who suggested it, probably with a wet dish-towel [laughs]. You know, there are advantages to having developed this sort of carapace…
“[N]obody has […] ever asked me or even suggested that I should write a novel about women’s experience as such – possibly because, you know, when I was young I was a wayward girl and now, you know, I probably look as though I would slap the face of anybody who suggested it.”
DP: The fact that you’ve written a book called The Sadeian Woman probably adds to that.
AC: Oh, I definitely think that’s put a stop to any potentiality of that nonsense. In my capacity as a fiction reviewer, which I do sometimes, I read lots and lots of novels by girls, and, you know, they tend to subscribe…Everybody writes out of their own experience, after all, and… Well, I suppose women aren’t encouraged to have intellectual experience really. I think it’s awful, and I hate to have to say it, because I don’t like the idea of being encouraged – I mean, nobody every encouraged me to have intellectual experience. You know, it was just because they didn’t encourage me to have any other kind of experience that I had to read so many fucking books [laughs].
“I suppose women aren’t encouraged to have intellectual experience really. I think it’s awful.”
DP: Would you like to tell me anything about your childhood and background? I gather you were born in Yorkshire?
AC: I wasn’t born in Yorkshire, no. My mother was evacuated to Eastbourne, carrying me, from London. When she went into labour, Dunkirk happened. So I was in fact born on the front line. Because France fell, and of course, you know, the south coast resorts were the front line – which is sort of very Ballardy, you know, barbed wire and ships and ruins. I was a surrealist actually – in brackets – perhaps…because that was an enormous [contribution]…Okay, I’ll do it now. I was reading an enormous amount of surrealist literature, I was reading a great deal about the surrealists, and of course things like [Alfred] Jarry, who’s one of my very favourite writers. And I remember reading Ballard’s description of the assassination of Kennedy, and thinking “you fucker – I know where you got that!” [Laughs] And, you know, I was in fact very excited by the relation of the whole New Worlds movement to the surrealists. Even when I hadn’t read it, I knew where they were getting their images from. But coming out of that parenthesis, then my grandmother, who was from around here, put us all up for the duration of the hostilities. But no, I lived in shabby south London – Moorcock land!
“I was reading an enormous amount of surrealist literature, I was reading a great deal about the surrealists, and of course things like [Alfred] Jarry, who’s one of my very favourite writers.”
DP: Your father was Scottish?
AC: Yes. He still is! [Laughs]
AC: No, he’s become very much more so in the last few years. No, my mother was from London, she was from Battersea.
DP: So what sort of social background would you say you came from?
AC: Upper-working, lower-middle, upwardly, socially mobile. My father was a journalist; we had a weird sort of social background, really! Examination-passing, working-class on my mother’s side. My father [would not acknowledge a social class]; he was a really eccentric man.
DP: Isn’t this, in a way, typical of Scots immigrants?
AC: Yes. We always felt foreign, you see. Certainly, he didn’t understand social class and what’s more he didn’t care. It never occurred to him. He was doing what he wanted to do. He’d come down to London, he was doing quite well. It didn’t mean anything. Although he’d hate me to say it, he was in a sense putting one over on the English. I’m sure you know what I mean.
DP: My father is exactly the same. Very unaware of things like class, goes blithely on…
AC: Yes, absolutely. Certainly, it never occurred to my father that being a Fleet Street journalist – I mean, he knew it was a good job, but it didn’t occur to him…He liked doing things like travelling first class on trains, and staying at posh slap-up hotels. That’s what he enjoyed to do. But he didn’t do it because he enjoyed to do it! That was what he thought was fun. But certainly this feeling of being a foreigner, which perhaps you felt…
DP: You said earlier you weren’t given any encouragement, but your father was a journalist so obviously that suggests some encouragement to write.
“I’ve always written since I was a little girl. My father apprenticed me to a newspaper when I was eighteen. He thought that was a good job for me.”
AC: I’ve always written since I was a little girl. My father apprenticed me to a newspaper when I was eighteen. He thought that was a good job for me. But it’s like this, if I wasn’t given any encouragement to curl up with volumes of Das Kapital, I certainly wasn’t given any encouragement to do anything else [laughs]. I certainly wasn’t given – when I talk to women of my own age now, I’m really startled when I think back to my childhood – any encouragement (how can I put it?) to be a girl at all. Neither was I – do you know what I mean? [Laughs]. I was treated as this kind of – well, I don’t know. Certainly I had no notions of role-playing. I think I get your drift. Do I get your drift correctly? I mean, is this the sort of sexist thing, was I sexually [role-typed]. But I mean how can one tell? It doesn’t seem to me that I was. I’m probably wrong in that, to some extent at least. But certainly…I did Eng. Lit. when I went to Bristol University, because I couldn’t have done anything else.
DP: When did you go to university?
AC: At 22.
DP: Some years after you left school.
AC: Yes. I’m very glad of that now.
DP: You worked for four years in journalism?
AC: Three, in fact. I was unemployed for a year.
DP: May I ask what sort of school you went to?
“I’m one of the 1944 Education Act meritocracy. Though much good it did me…”
AC: Direct grant, eleven-plus. Eleven-plus to a direct grant. I’m one of the 1944 Education Act meritocracy. Though much good it did me…Why does one, why do you suddenly start to speculate? Why do you suddenly think to yourself “What makes the wind, Daddy?” You know – most small children do it, don’t they? And in fact the whole thing, I think, about intellectual inquiry is probably sort of retarded. Probably, you know, it’s the perpetual child who keeps asking what makes the wind blow, Daddy. What is the nature of the rainbow, Daddy? There are all real questions, you know. One of the things about, one of the things that I must say I – of course, you see it’s always very difficult to interview women because they always start slanging their sisters – and in fact men do it as well – oh, God, it’s just that a lot of people do actually think “what makes the rainbow?” isn’t a real question. You know, they say it is the sign of the rain, and in fact – do you know what I mean? [Laughs] You know, they answer with some sort of lugubrious nonsense, when in fact you want to know about prisms and convector currents…and, you know, “what are flowers, Daddy?” They are the reproductive organs. [Laughs]
DP: Talking of reproductive organs, one of the obvious qualities of your fiction, especially The Passion of New Eve, is that it does have a very high sexual content. This again is one of the things that makes you seem unusual – perhaps people have said this to you many times – as a woman writer.
AC: No, they haven’t, they haven’t actually – probably for fear of – you know, who can tell? I don’t think I look frightening, but…
DP: Sorry if I’m being indiscreet…
AC: No, absolutely. I don’t mind.
DP: One of the first reactions, I know I felt it when I read Heroes and Villains, is “here’s a woman who’s writing very boldly about sex.”
DP: Not just sex, but also there is this interest of course in your work in what we might call the Sadeian themes. Violence too…
AC: Well, that’s probably the Scot, isn’t it? That’s probably the Scottishness in me. People from Calvinistic…you know – not that my old man is in any respect – he’s quite a violent person. You know, that Calvinist tradition, assuming that you’re walking on a knife-edge…
DP: Do you think you’re writing in the tradition of James Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner?
AC: I think it’s a wonderful book. Yes, that’s got that sort of moral knife-edge.
DP: You were telling me earlier how some of your books, New Eve in particular, had trouble finding a publisher. Don’t you think this is partly because people were simply offended? The more traditional gentleman-publishers might be deeply offended that here is a young woman novelist writing rather what might be in their eyes rather brutal books?
“New Eve was in fact calculated to give offence. That’s my feminist novel – though none of my sisters liked the book.”
AC: I’m sure that was true of New Eve, actually. Yes – New Eve was in fact calculated to give offence. That’s my feminist novel – though none of my sisters liked the book. But it is my feminist statement. That’s sort of bio-SF, isn’t it? Metabiological…
DP: Yes. It strikes me as being closest to a New Worlds type of novel, of the three…
AC: Yes, indeed. You’re right, I’m sure. Partly because it’s set in this fictive America. One of the things about the New Worlds group, loosely, was that they had this – well, I have as well…I mean, we were all brought up on this image of America. After all…the future place…
DP: The exciting place.
AC: Yes. The place where it all happened. And this fictive America has taken over the world. The images get everywhere…a landscape which looks like the skyscape of some 1930s American movie, you know, the Manhattan…and that’s one of the things that the book’s about, in fact, the imaginative America.
“[W]e were all brought up on this image of America. […] And this fictive America has taken over the world. The images get everywhere.”
DP: Did some people confuse it with the real America? Did they simply think you were doing the dirt on America?
AC: I really don’t know, but it did sell very badly in America. I’ve always been regarded as a pure fantasy writer in America – I say it in terms of reviews. I understand that Hoffman, at least, I understand has turned into a bit of a cult book in the States, although I’ve got no evidence for this beyond, oh, the odd letter I suppose.
DP: Fan letters?
AC: Very, very often, but…
DP: Films have obviously influenced you a lot. You seem to be steeped in film-lore. That comes over strongly in New Eve.
AC: Yes. That’s also [an aspect] of Americana. I didn’t want to do a sort of Presley one, because I thought that would have been really cheap – you know, to do a sort of Nashville, a [popcorn]…Oh, there’s a thing, she said in brackets, quickly, there’s the thing about Moorcock, opening up all manner of possibilities. That’s what I was saying the other night.
DP: Yes. I remarked to you that we’re all Moorcock’s children and you agreed. Do you think this is absolutely so?
AC: Yes, I do. Although I was, like, doing these straight novels, I couldn’t fail but be aware of this Force of Nature [laughs], which was, like, you know, radically re-structuring the English novel! I’m sure that he’d absolutely blush…You know, that is just what he was doing, just by creating…an environment where it was possible for many, many more adventurous and peculiar things to flourish – though, in fact, New Worlds, of course, Bananas was very much the heir of New Worlds. You see, what they were was the avant-garde, and nobody seems to have grasped this.
“[William] Burroughs is the greatest writer in English of the last half of the 20th century. I think he’s the equivalent of Joyce, there’s no question of that.”
DP: The avant-garde of literature in general, not just of SF?
AC: Yes. They certainly were the avant-garde. Yeah – certainly. That’s all I can say. SF people in the straight, “literary” avant-garde like B.S. Johnson, Alan Burns, Ann Quin – two of these are dead, of course – but they were certainly, at that time, in the late 60’s…[laughs]…I blush. But they all had relations with SF, actually, in a sort of weird way, a weird peripheral way. They did, you know! You know their names…
DP: Well, yes. Alan Burns in fact had an extract published in New Worlds in ’69, from Babel…Of course, another name we haven’t mentioned is William Burroughs, an American of course, who was the name that Moorcock seized on in his very first issue…He had an article by Ballard on Burroughs, and he extolled Burroughs in the editorial. And Burroughs was the link-man, obviously, between SF and the avant-garde in general. Not that he was an SF writer, but he was perceived as such by Moorcock and…
AC: By other people, yes. I’ve got a sort of sociological theory, which I haven’t worked out so I won’t bore you…Since in general, as far as I know, the New Worlds people hadn’t gone through the conventional, anything like the conventional Eng. Lit. background…
DP: Certainly not Moorcock.
AC: Certainly not Moorcock, and not Ballard…
DP: He went through Fleetway House…
AC: I know…
DP: Sexton Blake and Tarzan Adventures…
AC: God, he’s just a…he’s such a…he’s so…I should say he’s such a miracle, but anything more likely to go down like cold sick in…[laughs]…you know, in Elgin Crescent, I can’t imagine! But it’s just this thing, you know, it’s the person who has no preconceptions about what quotes a good novel unquotes is, and what is going to further the tradition of the novel in England, is going to see with absolute freshness. Anthony Burgess has got all kinds of SF…I mean, he’s another of the people who have got a kind of peripheral relationship…I think this is what I’m trying to say…What I was…God, how diffuse! If you haven’t got any of these preconceptions about E. M. Forster and (whispers) Margaret Drabble, well I mean obviously you’re going to see that Burroughs is the greatest writer in English of the last half of the 20th century. I think he’s the equivalent of Joyce, there’s no question of that. Really.
DP: Really? Well, I don’t disagree. I first came to Burroughs through New Worlds. When did you discover Burroughs?
AC: When The Naked Lunch came out, about ’64, whenever it came out…You know, he’s up there. Obviously, I didn’t have the straight Eng. Lit., bourgeois background as well…First of all, I could hardly bear The Naked Lunch, but I don’t think anybody could. It was obviously…I would have thought it was obvious that he’s just a very great writer…
DP: Do you think he’s remained so? Many people cite The Naked Lunch but not many people mention The Wild Boys or Exterminator!
AC: I know. They’ve had Joyce and Kafka…
DP: Sorry, what?
AC: I mean, the New Worlds thing. It used to mention Joyce and Kafka a lot…
DP: Well, they were mentioned, but I don’t think there was any…Well, yes, I suppose Brian Aldiss did a very overt pastiche of Finnegans Wake in his Barefoot in the Head stories…
AC: Nobody can write a pastiche of Finnegans Wake…Umm, [laughs], what was I saying?
DP: We were still talking about Burroughs.
“I read The Wild Boys in Portugal, and there they were smiling. Apparently, only half of that’s ever been published in England.”
AC: Oh yeah. I read The Wild Boys in Portugal, and there they were smiling. Apparently, only half of that’s ever been published in England. The man who translated me into French, translated New Eve into French, has also translated – to my immense gratification, is the French translator of Burroughs – and he said there’s a great chunk of it, that’s never been published in England. And, I assume he knows – I mean, it’s his business. I think that’s a terrific book. It’s just that it’s all sections of an enormous…you know, like Louis-Ferdinand Céline, all his work is sections of an enormous fiction. And, of course, he’s getting blacker and blacker and blacker. You know, you thought nobody could get more than this one. And yet he’s also quite genial, isn’t he?
DP: He’s very funny, and that’s his saving grace even in the eyes of those who don’t like him.
AC: And it makes you very distressed, doesn’t it? Because…You know, he’s like Joyce, you can’t actually be influenced by him because the shadow is too heavy…But the way that the English literati just ignore him and instead talk about nice, mild, gentle, talented and sweet genre writers like William Trevor and V. S. Naipaul, and all these…they’re (failures?), and there’s this like, Lurking Shadow [Laughs]. I think it’s extraordinary. I think this is all part of this general proposition, that the magazine and what it represented was kind of the popular front of the avant-garde. And in many respects didn’t realise it was – it didn’t realise its role as such, they just felt, they just thought, presumably, they just felt they were doing something new and exciting, and proselytising a bit…
“I think this is all part of this general proposition, that [New Worlds] and what it represented was kind of the popular front of the avant-garde.”
DP: Oh, very much so.
AC: And also it was like the fiction of ideas, wasn’t it?
DP: Many of New Worlds’ readers were very young in the 1960s. They’re now grown up and have filtered out into the world. Some have gone into publishing, the media, and so on – and so New Worlds will certainly have a long-delayed effect on people’s taste…
AC: Oh, I know, one can see it – in a peculiar way, one can see it beginning to happen…I can’t see how it can not happen.
DP: Well, you’ve paid a considerable tribute to Moorcock…
AC: Oh, not really, it was just that he was, you know, he was just, just, just…No, I don’t see it as a tribute at all, it was just that it seems to me to have been his function: that he did open [these things up]…
DP: You called him a “force of nature”…
AC: Well, I regard that amount of creative energy as – what else can you call it? It’s quite extraordinary. I know it’s hard work; he doesn’t just sit down and go [makes sound of a dollop of mud being slapped on a table], you know, and every time he sneezes he doesn’t sneeze five paperback books. I know it’s all hard work, but what can you call it, but a force of nature?
“Well, there were endless possibilities. Like, [Michael Moorcock] sort of revived the whole thing of pastiche, didn’t he?”
DP: You haven’t actually said anything about his novels. Did any of them impress you before the recent two major efforts, Condition of Muzak (1977) and Gloriana (1978)? He’s written a lot of bad books, as I’m sure he himself would be the first to admit…
AC: Yeah, but they were there. Well, there were endless possibilities. Like, he sort of revived the whole thing of pastiche, didn’t he? The editor’s note – well, that’s always been a staple of sub-literature: “This manuscript was pressed into my hands by a gentleman wearing a false nose, a dirty raincoat…” [Laughs]
DP: You’re talking about things like The Warlord of the Air (1971)?
“My god, I used to feel incredibly pissed off in the early 1970s when you’d get into a railway train and see five different people reading five different Moorcock books!”
AC: Yes. They kind of revived…[laughs] My god, I used to feel incredibly pissed off in the early 1970s when you’d get into a railway train and see five different people reading five different Moorcock books! [Laughs] I began to feel I was in a Jorge Luis Borges story, you know – that all books, every single paperback book in the country was in fact written by Michael Moorcock. So you began to suspect everything for an alias of Moorcock…But this was part of one’s own paranoia, one felt one should be producing [more stuff]…But part of his thing is the revivifying of various genres and pastiches… And there is a terrific piece of Flaubert, kind of SF, actually: The Temptation of St. Anthony. Have you read it? Oh, it’s lovely. And I think you don’t read Moorcock for the beauty of prose, it’s this feeling of – like I suppose Dickens in a curious way – teeming, teeming quality of his imagination, which could only have expressed itself in popular forms. Just that teeming quality…
“[Moorcock] is rather like Dickens, even to the extent of using a Dickensian London in so many of his books.”
DP: He is rather like Dickens, even to the extent of using a Dickensian London in so many of his books.
AC: Yes. What else can one say? And also, there hasn’t been a popular novelist like him for a very long time – not since Dickens, in fact.
DP: In what sense do you mean that?
AC: I don’t know. I think he’s very interesting. I don’t want to talk about [him a lot]. He’s only, god knows, he’s what – three months older than I am. So I don’t want to make any…I could make up some theories on the spot about him…Because, after all, there are tremendous limitations to the whole – not just in the genre of SF, which does have these tremendous limitations – but when one things about it…I’ve just started to read Conrad…
DP: I know that both Ballard and Moorcock are Conrad admirers…
AC: Yes. But what I mean is, one of the things about this whole – I don’t want to sound like Anthony Quinton, but…what they seemed to have managed to do…is to actually get over a very, very rough piece of English history by treating it imaginatively and not actually confronting it – not actually…Do you follow me?
DP: Could you try to restate that? That’s interesting.
“Well, it’s the Marxian thing: a culture cannot do anything else but produce a literature that reflects it.”
AC: Well, it’s the Marxian thing: a culture cannot do anything else but produce a literature that reflects it. I mean, you can’t. And of course it’s going to get rougher, it may not be getting rougher. It may be getting physically rougher. It may be getting morally easier to grasp… But, if you take the…I mean, all this, that I’m going to say, has got nothing to do with the picture of the novel in the last ten years that you get in The Sunday Times, say…You know, my peers don’t feel that the battle is over, they feel the battle has scarcely begun! It’s curious the way that you want respect, you want the respect of the establishment, and all your energies are…There’s this residual desire to actually run things. In fact, you know that unless you’re incredibly supple the institutions are going to destroy…You know, they’re not going to become like you, you’re going to become…But apart from that, if the – say, take the last 15 years, it’s been an extraordinary…in terms of the history of this country it’s been the final transition from being an imperial power to being a post-imperial, virtually post industrialised – and to being, in effect, a Third World country. A Third World country with the advantage of institutions which on the whole are not, you know…I mean, our police are not as brutal as the French police, though…
DP: The good old British bobby?
“[T]ake the last 15 years, it’s been an extraordinary…in terms of the history of this country it’s been the final transition from being an imperial power to being a post-imperial, virtually post industrialised – and to being, in effect, a Third World country.”
AC: Well, I don’t mean that at all, I mean they’re not as brutal as the French police. Our laws, our law courts, are not as unjust as some other law courts, and schools are on the whole much more literal than – you know what I mean? Nevertheless, we’re a Third World country now, and the quicker we realise it the better, but this like incredibly rough period has been reflected in fiction that people like yourself have been reading, in terms of sets of images in a purely imaginative way, because – I’ve got a number of theories about this. One is that our society has been so fragmented that it’s been impossible to have a focus of identification, from one social group…
DP: Some writers carry on as though it were possible – Anthony Powell, Margaret Drabble, etc.
AC: In that case, it’s very nice for them, but – You remember the man on the Clapham omnibus? Which was, you know, the Edwardian idea of the absolutely rational person, the jury-member…Well, a typical man on the Clapham omnibus today actually believes that Haile Selassie is the new messiah. Really, you have to have a very firmly entrenched feeling of class superiority, of the divine right of the middle class, not to acknowledge that this, our society, is going through an absolutely seismic upheaval. And it has actually – it’s gone through it. And now, you know, it’s all shaking out again. And that’s all I wanted to say – because it’s only really just occurred to me, though I’ve often thought about this from the other way – this [business] of there being no focus of identification, and therefore for people tending to write fantasy (for want of a better word) – you know, tending to write in non-naturalistic modes, which is the academic way of saying, which is actually more or less what you mean, isn’t it? I mean, I am a non-naturalistic writer, and therefore the only home I can find is in SF really – until, you know, until…
“Really, you have to have a very firmly entrenched feeling of class superiority, of the divine right of the middle class, not to acknowledge that this, our society, is going through an absolutely seismic upheaval.”
DP: Until the battle is won?
AC: Yeah, but…but then, you know, then there will probably be something very fishy about the non-naturalistic novel, because it will have become a way of evading reality instead of a way of approaching it more directly. Do you follow me? God knows, one can imagine a Nazi fantastic literature – indeed, you know, it would be the easiest thing in the world. I mean, Wagner is really the great – though there was nothing wrong with Wagner as a human being – it’s just, you know, the Third Reich adopted Wagner as the great SF…you know, that is Nazi SF…
DP: Some would say that it still exists, and it’s called Sword-and-Sorcery. The American brand particularly…Not Moorcock, of course…
AC: Well, is it German? …Oh, certainly not Moorcock…I mean, politically he’s so utterly impeccable! [Laughs] Well, that’s a very unpleasant thought, isn’t it? Do you see what I mean? In Latin America, probably for the same reason…all fiction in Latin America is non-naturalistic. Even in their sort of straightest novels, there’s always something funny, there’s always a bit of voodoo going on in the back room. You know, it’s always askew…But, God, that’s just a thought…but that would be it, there would be something very fishy about that, an establishment fantasy and there must be some literature already…
DP: Wouldn’t you say that this describes Tolkien?
AC: Yes, absolutely.
DP: I know that’s Moorcock’s line on Tolkien. You agree with him?
AC: Yes, exactly.
Afterword by David Pringle
Our conversation petered out, rather incoherently. Although Angela had had many interesting things to say, on listening to the tape I decided at the time that the interview was not really publishable as it stood. I forgot about it for a number of years, but now I feel it’s worth rescuing, and I’m grateful to Caleb Sivyer for his help in its transcription and editing.
David Pringle was born in 1950. He served as the editor of the academic journal Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction from 1980 until 1986, and was editor-in-chief of the science-fiction magazine Interzone from 1982 until 2004. In the early 1990s, David also edited and published a magazine entitled Million: The Magazine About Popular Fiction. David has written extensively about J. G. Ballard, and his works include Earth is the Alien Planet: J. G. Ballard’s Four-Dimensional Nightmare (Borgo Press, 1979) and J. G. Ballard: A Primary and Secondary Bibliography (G. K. Hall, 1984). More recently, his writing on Ballard has appeared in Rick McGrath’s “Deep Ends” series of critical anthologies (2013-2016).