On Summer Isle with Ian R. Macleod – Interview

This week I have a talented author who excels and has been recognized for both his novel length efforts and his short story offerings.

My introduction to Ian R. MacLeod’s work was the The Light Ages, the 2004 Nebula Nominee for Best novel made me an instant fan and the story continues in The House of Storms. In 1999, MacLeod garnered the World Fantasy Award for Best Novella, with Summer Isle (also nominated for the Hugo), a novella that this year we will see in its full length novel version MacLeod’s short fiction can be found in collections like Breathmoss and other Exhalations.

Ian R Macleod

The House of Storms, the sequel to the critically well received The Light Ages was released earlier this year. Can you please take a moment to inform readers that perhaps have not read them yet what they should expect from these novels?

Ian R. Macleod — My aim with both books was to write a “realistic fantasy” — a book which dealt with real concerns, real people and real-seeming events in a world which was nevertheless magical and fantastic. I wanted to create a world which would seem much like ours on one page and on one street, but, around the corner along the next street or page, would turn into somewhere far more beautiful, or strange, or scary. What readers will find in these books is a place which is recognisably England, but where history has worked out differently.

The premise I used to create this effect was that a substance called aether — essentially magic — was discovered in the Age of Reason in the late 1600s. The Industrial Revolution turned out rather differently as a result. The setting of The Light Ages is broadly Victorian, whilst The House of Storms moves on, with entirely different characters and plot, to something like the 1900s. Both books stand entirely on their own.

Forthcoming from AIO Publishing, you have a novel length version of your previous novella Summer Isle. What was it about this particular novella that made you want to expand it out in this format?

Ian R. Macleod — It was the other way around. Summer Isle was written as a novel, which I then abridged into novella form at Gardner Dozois’ suggestion to get it out into the world. He and I both felt that the novel was by far the better version, but it’s proved hard to sell. Alternate history novels don’t do very well, apparently, and the fact that the main character was gay and male, and also elderly, was also an obstacle.

The book’s very English, and very much about England, but is now due for publication by AIO Publishing in the States as a very attractive limited edition, and in translation by a major publisher in France. I think that the fact that other countries are prepared to take it and we’re not says a lot about the state of the publishing industry in the UK!

Before writing full-length novels, you were (and still are) a well-regarded short story writer. I was wondering what are the difficulties you encountered with that transition, or were there none at all?

Ian R. Macleod — When I started out writing, I started with novels, but shifted to short fiction after a big book I’d spent my twenties writing didn’t sell, and I got rather stuck in the middle of the next. Then the short stuff started to sell, but it was always my intention to produce novels

The fact is, I seem to find it hard to do both at the same time — or even in the same year. Every writer’s different, and individual writers change with time. I’m sure I’ll return to short fiction, but I’ve found that if helps for me to concentrate on one thing at a time.

When I read one of your books or stories, I invariably get the feeling that whenever you take on conventional genre ideas; you always manage to twist them in some delightful way or to run in a completely unexpected direction with them. Is that something you consciously set out to accomplish?

Ian R. Macleod — Nope, it’s certainly not magic! I don’t read a great deal of SF these days, but I’m pretty strongly grounded in the field, and I’ve never wanted to re-do something I’m aware has already been done by someone else.

I think the other factor is probably that I tend mainly to look outside the genre for inspiration — especially in terms of writers. I’d urge anybody who wants to write to read as widely as they can, and keep trying different genres and authors. If you do that, I reckon there’s a far better chance your work will come at things with a fresh slant.

I read an interview with you, in which you stated you are working on a book that you described as an “attempt to write serious fiction which is also SF.” I was wondering if you could update us on this new project?

Ian R. Macleod – The new project is now more done than not done; I’m hoping another two or three months will see it finished. I’ve been calling it various things as provisional titles, but the one with currently seems to fit and stay put is In Another Place.

It’s set at the end of this current century, and deals with a time when technological immortality has become available. The main character is considering the leap into this virtual paradise, whilst also constructing a memory palace of her life to take with her.

The main thrust, though, is more theological than technological. The life story part of the book has proved relatively easy to write — I’ve had a lot of fun, for example, creating a Paris in the 2020s similar in some ways to the Paris in the 1920s where Picasso and Hemmingway hung out — but to make the social aspects of having the dead still around has taken a lot of hard work.

To me, making some technological idea fit socially seems to be particularly important. I guess that’s because if it doesn’t work on a broad scale, it won’t work for the main characters either. I remember similar struggles with aether, for example

Your work has fantasy, SF, and distinct alternative history elements. Do you give any thought to such categorizations as a writer, or is it merely a publishing concern in your opinion? Also due to the existence of these varied elements, whom do you count as your influences?

Ian R. Macleod — I try not to give much thought to these things. Once you’re out in the public domain, however, your work does tend to get categorised whether you like it or not. To be honest, I have no problems at all with being thought of as “an SF writer” (or “a fantasy writer”), but I don’t like some of the preconceptions which come with that kind of title, nor the way otherwise intelligent people turn their backs on fiction of this kind.

I’m also a literary writer, and I’ve never understood why the two should be seen as being in opposition to each other. As I’ve already said, I’m always trying to suck up new influences and themes. At the same time, I think there’s a period in your life which tends to define the creative path you take.

For me, reading writers like J G Ballard, Aldiss, Silverberg when he was experimental, Ellison and Delany and so forth in the genre, whilst also discovering the greats of mainstream fiction such as Dickens, Hardy and Lawrence when I was in my mid to late teens was crucial.

Can you please share with us some novels or authors regardless of genre that you enjoy?

Ian R. Macleod — In the genre, I’d have to say that Keith Roberts, and in particular Pavane and The Inner Wheel, are two books I’ve returned to more than any other. He showed me that SF could also be literature. At the risk of sounding pretentious, my all-time favourite work — the one I’d take to a desert island with me — is probably Proust’s Recollection of Things Past. He creates a whole world. I’m also a huge admirer of John Updike, especially the Rabbit books.

Otherwise, I’d strongly recommend that readers who enjoy big books and are perhaps looking for a break from SF and fantasy try Larry McMurty’s Lonesome Dove. It’s a Western, but don’t let that put you off! With its quest theme, wide range of characters and love of landscape it has a lot in common with big fantasy books. Above all, though, it’s an absorbing read, and a totally brilliant book.

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