Interview with Michael Swanwick (THE IRON DRAGON’S MOTHER)
Michael Swanwick is the author of modern Fantasy classic The Iron Dragon’s Daughter (1993), which reimagines the world of Faerie as a post-industrial wasteland. It was followed by The Dragons Of Babel (2008), and the third book in the trilogy The Iron Dragon’s Mother (2019) was released this year. As well as reinventing Fantasy, Swanwick has also written science fiction, collaborating with William Gibson on the short story ‘Dogfight’ and winning the Nebula Award with Stations Of The Tide (1991).
Michael Swanwick was attending WorldCon in Dublin, and was kind enough to speak to The Fantasy Hive via Skype while he was there.
Welcome to the Hive, Michael. Your new novel The Iron Dragon’s Mother is out now from Tor. Would you be able to tell us a bit about it?
To begin with, 25 years ago I wrote The Iron Dragon’s Daughter. And that was a novel about a girl who’s stolen by the fairies, and forced to work in a factory building dragons. That was written as a standalone novel. 15 years later, I had an image of a boy running up the hill to watch the dragons fly by, and that became The Dragons Of Babel. When you have one novel, it’s a novel; if you have two novels in a series, it’s an uncompleted trilogy. So, I kept waiting for an idea for a third novel – thesis, antithesis, synthesis.
Finally I came up with this idea of a dragon pilot who ends up with the soul of a dying woman from our world inside her head. So effectively she’s got her mother in her head, in essence. This woman, who’s much older than her, who’s able to give advice on what she should do, and criticises her taste in men. And everything kind of expanded from there. I was pretty much inspired by a class I taught in Annapolis, and I was fascinated by the young female midshipmen who were all very tightly wound, and they were pretty much everything I wasn’t. I thought, that would be an interesting kind of person to write about, and that’s where Caitlin came from.
Both the first book and the new one have an interesting relationship to our reality. Where did this approach come from?
Well I think it was reading too many Fantasy novels that had no relationship to reality whatsoever. They were just there in their world, and they were playing out their little power fantasies, and never connect with the world, never have a real point. I think all the great fantasies have, whether you can see it or not, a strange type of relationship with the world that is the real world, which is hard to define but you can feel it. Lord Of The Rings, Gormenghast trilogy and so on. I just wanted to anchor it to real things. I wanted there to be a sense that what was at stake was every bit as important as what’s at stake in our own lives.
Rather than the traditional medieval Fantasy setting, the books are set in post-industrial Faerie…
Well I’ve told this story before but I’ll tell it again. In 1982, the first time that I came to Ireland, I was seeing castles for the first time—I was seeing stone ruins for the first time, I was seeing medieval buildings for the first time. And none of them looked the way I had imagined them. Because all my experience of them had been from books.
At one point, my wife Marianne and I were looking at a ring fort, and a ten year old boy came up and said, “What are you doing?” And Marianne said, “Oh, we’re photographing the fairy ring.” Now it has to be said the board filter signs said ‘fairy ring’, so that’s why those words came to her mouth. He was disgusted, he said, “Don’t tell me you still believe in fairies!”
I was really struck then that people in the British Isles grow up with these things sometimes literally in their backyard. And America grew up reading their books about these things. And at that point I thought, I’ll never write a Fantasy novel. Because I’m not qualified to. If you read the British and the Irish Fantasy novels you’re struck by the depth of history, that they have a sense of time, and Americans don’t. Then I had this idea to write about Faerie after its been industrialised. All of a sudden, I could throw in all these things that were from my own experience. Junkyards, and strip malls, and high schools, and go-go bars, and so on. And all of a sudden the possibilities became exciting again, and the possibility of doing something that nobody had done before was in front of me, so of course I was very excited about that.
The Iron Dragon books do have that sense of history, in that they are drawing both on folklore and a lot of the Fantasy books that make up the genre as we know it.
Yeah there’s no getting round the fact that there’s a strata of meta-commentary on the Fantasy genre in that. It largely comes from the fact that I’m a very slow writer, so when it takes you three years to write a novel, there’s plenty of time to put detail in it and references to other things, so I did.
Was there anything in particular that drew you to put the works you do in? The Dragons Of Babel references the E. R. Eddison books, Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint, and Anglo Saxon horse poems, so quite a wide range of influences and texts…
Well it was 1966, my sister sent home from college a box full of books she was done with, and one was The Fellowship Of The Ring. I picked it up one night after doing my homework, and I read it—I did not sleep a wink that night. And that turned me into a writer. That gave me the determination; I wanted to write that book. Not something like it, I wanted to write that book. It also turned me into a Fantasy reader. I started reading every piece of Fantasy I could find. It took me about two years to read everything that had been published. And at that point, because there was so little else, I started reading science fiction, because it gave a Fantasy-like kick.
But all these Fantasy books are very important to me, they were formative books when I was young. So, in a sense, they’re part of my autobiography. John Paul Sartre wrote an autobiography, and it was in two sections. The second section was writing, but the first section was reading, and it was just about what books he had read at which age, until he started writing. I thought that was quite perceptive of him. Writers don’t really have the same kind of biography that adventurers do, people who go out and do things. To us, it’s the books that are important.
It’s interesting that you started out reading Fantasy, because your earlier published works, like In The Drift (1985) and Stations Of The Tide, are all science fiction…
Well I love science fiction too, so I won’t apologise for that. But it was also I could not find a way to write Fantasy. It wasn’t until I was driving to Pittsburgh with my wife, we were talking about steam locomotives, and about Fantasy novels, and I made a joke about the Baldwin Steam Dragon Works. I said, write that down! She wrote it down, and by the time we got to Pittsburgh, I had at least the beginning of what became the novel in my head. People ask where writers get their ideas. I think that idea was no better than an idea anybody has had this past week. It’s just I recognised that it was a story idea.
All three Iron Dragon books form a trilogy, but each individual book stands alone. Is this your preferred method of approaching sequels?
That is, except my two Darger and Surplus books. They’re my post-utopian conmen. And out of necessity, they have to be in a series because the stories began in London, where the two of them met, decide to run a scam on British royalty, and ended up accidentally burning down London. At the end of that story, as they’re sailing away with the city burning behind them, Surplus says, “I cannot help but feel in part responsible for this.” And then Surplus says, “Woah, lift up your spirits, we’re off to Russia, and we’ll make our fortune there.” And because of that chance comment in the first one, as I wrote more stories and eventually novels, it became clear they were on an accidental journey around the world. So, they’re always headed East. And eventually, if I write more, they’ll eventually come back to London, to find that it’s totally transformed, and that they’ve changed the world. They are agents of chaos, they’re destroying the old world. They’ll come into the new world, and they won’t realise they’re the ones responsible for it.
But, for the Fantasy trilogy, the books were written so far apart that I became a different writer between them. So, the tone of no two of them can be the same. It was very important that they be standalone, or else it would feel like a story starting in one direction and then veering off in another. But they can be read in any order whatsoever.
Your science fiction novel Stations Of The Tide won the Nebula Award…
That one was a Fantasy flavoured science fiction novel, where The Iron Dragon’s Mother is a science fiction flavoured Fantasy novel. So in Stations Of The Tide, I set a standard for myself that there would be an escalating series of acts of magic, one per chapter. And the standard I set myself was that I would be able to convince Isaac Asimov that these acts of magic were actually possible. So it starts with a piece of stage magic in the first chapter, and then it escalates into tantric sex magic. Which is demonstrably real in our world.
In The Iron Dragon’s Daughter and Dragons Of Babel and Iron Dragon’s Mother, it’s set in a magical world which is all rationalised, except that none of the rationalisations are consistent with the others. The explanation that is given for the Fantasy world contradicts all the others. And I saw it this way for two reasons: one, was I thought our world is very large, so a religious explanation of the world by a Christian would not agree with the geological explanation of the world by a planetologist. You could get dozens of different explanations, and they do not agree, but they all describe the same thing, without actually contradicting each other. But the other thing is I discovered writing Stations Of The Tide and thinking about that matter, and then The Iron Dragon’s Daughter, about the difference between Fantasy and science fiction, and I concluded that science fiction takes place in a knowable universe. We may not be intelligent enough to know it, but if we were more intelligent we could understand it. And at the heart of Fantasy is mystery. If you over-explain a Fantasy, it will turn into science fiction. It will turn all the magic into an unknown science. And then you’ll rationalise that, you’ll explain it all. And it will just become science fiction. And then it won’t have the satisfactions of Fantasy. At its heart, Fantasy is mystery, and if you take that mystery away, most of the joy goes away.
Writing Fantasy in a science fictional way or writing science fiction in a fantastical way makes me think of Gene Wolfe’s Book Of The New Sun…
He was just brilliant there. I got a review once where they basically called me Gene Wolfe Lite, and I was flattered. The Book Of The New Sun is one of the great accomplishments of science fiction.
Was it something you were thinking about when you wrote your own work?
When I wrote the acknowledgements at the beginning of Stations Of The Tide, I was acknowledging like-scenes that I had stolen from other science fiction. There’s a reference to a C. L. Moore story, so I acknowledged I owed a debt to C. L. Moore, and to this writer and that writer, and I started to write “…and to Gene Wolfe,” and I said, no I didn’t copy any specific thing there, so if I put down Gene Wolfe, I’m just bragging. He was a big influence on me, he was just one of the most important writers of the time when I was reading and trying to write. Wolfe, Ursula K. Le Guin, Samuel R. Delany, Joanna Russ, I think those were the big four. And they all had an astonishing influence on me. But I couldn’t point to any one thing specific for any of them, so you won’t see their names in the acknowledgements. They’re just there in the air that I breathe.
As well as writing novels you’ve also written short stories, some of these in collaboration with other writers such as William Gibson and Gardner Dozois. How is the experience of collaborating with another writer compared to writing by yourself?
A collaboration is like three quarters as much work as writing a story by yourself, so that the only reason to do collaborations really is in order to learn. So when I did the collaboration on ‘Dogfight’ with William Gibson, he had mentioned in a letter to Gardner Dozois that he didn’t work from ideas, he worked from images. He had this one image of a batch of rednecks who were all projected telepaths, and the only thing that they could project was World War I fighting planes, so he pictured them all clustered around a pool table, fighting a dog fight over the green bays. And I just thought, that is fantastic. As it happened, I had a story that needed a central image to build around, and was going to be a story about video games which were a new thing then, but I couldn’t quite find the right video game. But when I saw that, I saw how the story could go.
So I ran across him at a convention and I said, “Gardner told me about this idea”, and Bill, with that preternatural perception of his says, “Well you can have the idea if you want it, or if you want we can collaborate.” At that time only a handful of people knew about Bill’s existence, but they were all really excited about him, and I said, “Ok, let’s do a collaboration,” because I wanted to see what his chops were. I wanted to see how good a writer he really was, line per line. And I found, to nobody’s surprise, that he was really exemplary.
A scene early when we were writing, when we were trading the manuscript back and forth, he wrote a description of the first time the character walks into a pool hall, and describes the smell of hair oil, the squeak of chalk, the strings of old Christmas paper bells still hung up gone pink, a photograph of somebody’s granddaddy’s prize buck, and the slick, sepia colour of cockroach wings. I read that paragraph, and the entire story is right there in that paragraph, this bastard will be written. At the end of the climactic moment, Tiny leans forward and vomits into his own lap. And before he leans over and vomits, he looks up with this look of a deer caught in a headlight, and it was the same deer that was in the photograph in Bill’s paragraph at the beginning of the story. So I learned quite a bit from Bill, writing with him. And from the other people I collaborated with, all of them had things that were worth the extra time and giving up half the money in order to learn.
Would you ever collaborate on a novel?
I have actually. A couple of years ago, Gardner Dozois and I published a novella called The City Of God. Now this was a very dark story, even for Gardner Dozois; it’s sort of like the Book of Job with an unhappy ending. After we finished it we talked about it, and we said well we could write two more novellas, City of Angels and City of Men, and then combine them and make one novel. And so we talked off and on about it during a decade, we were both incredibly busy during that time. It was only two years or less ago that we got serious about starting it up again. And we were halfway through the second novella when Gardner died. And that put an end to our original plans. I knew I could not write the third novella. But Gardner, who is known as being a depressing writer, he had an ending for the novel which was a happy ending. It was a happy ending for the protagonist, it was a happy ending for everyone in the world, it was an upbeat cheerful ending. And I really wanted people to know that he had that in him. So I took the second novella and I changed its direction, so we skipped over most of the middle stuff we were going to write, and went to the ending and wrote the ending. And then I took the two novellas, put them together, and broke them into chapters, did another draft so they were all exactly in one voice, Gardner’s voice, and it is going to be published as The City Under The Stars by Tor dot com next August. So that is my memorial to him. That’s my thank you to him for teaching me how to write in the first place.
You’ve also written Jack Faust (1997), which is a retelling of the story of the Faust character. What drew you to that particular character?
I read Marlowe’s Faust when I was a teenager, and I was quite moved by it, because I was raised Catholic, so that rang me like a bell. The descriptions, especially at the beginning of him willing to be damned in exchange for knowledge, swearing he washed his hands in the blood of unbaptised infants, thus depriving them of heaven ever, and the description at the end of him going to hell, refusing to repent; these were astonishingly moving. And then in the middle acts of the play, he plays pranks on college students, he humiliates the pope, he just fritters away all these great powers he’s given. I saw this, and I wanted to write a Faust where he sells his soul for knowledge and it’s the knowledge that damns him. And surprisingly enough for a 19-year-old, which is what I was when I came up with this plot, I recognised I wasn’t ready to write it yet. So decades went by, and then one day, I said it’s time to write a novel, and I realised that I was ready to write the Faust novel. And so I did.
We’ve talked about your collaboration with William Gibson, and you also wrote Vacuum Flowers (1987), which is maybe the closest you’ve come to writing a straight cyberpunk novel. Was this a movement you felt a kinship to when you were starting up?
All the cyberpunks were my peers, my equals, the people who came in at the same time. The cyberpunks and the humanists, they all really properly belong together. Because they’re coming at the same time, they all had the same cultural knowledge. We were all influenced by the same things. They were very very similar, except that Bruce Sterling had created this movement, and a movement needs enemies. And those enemies cannot be negligible. So he chose who were going to be his people and said, who are the other good writers of my generation – they’re the enemy, they’re the bad guys. And that’s how the division occurred. It’s not really a natural one. When I was writing Vacuum Flowers I was just trying to write science fiction. I was trying to write space fiction, lots of space habitats and such. Lots of creation. And I threw in two tiny scenes in it, one that was a nod to the humanists and one that was a nod to the cyberpunks, and I thought of all the rest as being not one or the other particularly. When I look back now it’s extremely of its time. A lot of people mistake it for being a cyberpunk novel, but it’s not cyberpunk because it doesn’t have the Bruce Sterling seal of approval. Bruce should have the final word there.
As well as writing fiction, you’ve also written essays about some of the older, lesser known Fantasy writers like Hope Mirrlees and James Branch Cabell…
When I was reading all the Fantasy, he wrote an enormous number of novels. He’d established that they were all part of the biography of Jurgen, one complete work. So every now and then, I would find in a used book store something like The Rivet In Grandfather’s Neck, and I would buy it for 50 cents, and I would try to plod through it. It would give none of the pleasures of Fantasy, the way that his best Fantasy novels do, so I was really curious about how all these novels fit together. At one point, I decided to just read through them and to write about them as a hobby. There’s no money in science fiction non-fiction really. But every now and then, when I was working on a novel and just one morning I would go, I can’t face working on this today, I’m just tired; I would turn off my computer, I’d go to the university of Pennsylvania, which had a complete set of James Branch Cabell, which was given to them back when he was a very big deal indeed, and I would sit there for a day and read and make notes.
What I wanted to do, and what the monograph did I think, was to basically set out what were the core works, what are the works you might want to read, and what are the ones that you can skip with a clean conscience. And it turns out that the whole idea that they were all one united work was really a work of fiction. What he wanted was a set of the collected works of James Branch Cabell, the way that Robert Louis Stevenson had and Sir Walter Scott. And he achieved this, but that sort of became an extreme sell as it were, and that came pretty much at the end of his reputation. It had this encyclopaedic size set of books that, if you were to appreciate them, you had to read all of them, and at that point the Depression came along and people just went, well who has the time? Who has the money? And he went out of style, went out of fashion.
He was actually a fascinating man. For every good aspect of him, there’s a negative aspect. For every negative aspect, there’s something to admire about him. He was a complicated person. I think it was all summed up by, there was a book put out by Bennett Cerf, called This Is My Best, and he asked all the great writers of the time to tell them which story or excerpt from one of their novels was their best, and he put that all in a book. And what people said to him was really interesting writer by writer. James Branch Cabell was most interesting because what he sent were these anagrammic rhyming dedications to all his novels. Which was the least interesting thing about all his writing was the dedications, I was like, this is the thing you’ve held up to posterity? You haven’t given it much thought!
What’s next for Michael Swanwick?
Right now I’m writing short stories. I’m writing a lot of short stories. I do this, I always take a vacation between novels, and I’ve got four or five coming out from different places. A story coming out very soon from Asimov’s called ‘The Cloud’, which is set in a world, which is our world and is also entirely based upon a cloud. That is rather strange. I have a ghost story in F&SF coming up in their seventieth anniversary issue coming out very soon, and it’s called ‘Ghost Ships’.
I’d gone to my college reunion, 41st college reunion, first time I’d been to one of them, because a good friend of mine had died, and my friends had a memorial for him. So I was there and I told a story about how one night he and I, at 2:00/3:00 in the morning, we were cleaning our minds out on acid, and we were wandering through the college and we came to the television room, in the old dormitory, and there was somebody lying on his face on the floor. And so we looked at him and go, I wonder if he’s ok? Is he just sleeping or what? It’s really hard to think coherently when you’re tripping, I should mention. I thought he was probably ok but Turtle went in and he flipped the kid over and he gasped, because he’d been lying in a pool of his own vomit. Two minutes later he would have been dead. So he saved this kid’s life, and he never talked about it, I thought.
So at the party I told this story. It turned out he had told people about it, or the kid told people about it, because when I said this, there was this little, oh yeah, that was David Townie, yeah, he died in 1984. And that hit me really hard. Because it seemed when you save somebody’s life, that it should last, and even that act is temporary. I drove home from Virginia to Philadelphia that evening in the rain, it really hit me hard. And eventually I wrote a story about it. And the opening goes, this is a ghost story, but it’s different-from-the-other-ghost-stories-cause-it-really-did-happen-to-me stories. Which of course nobody ever believes. But I wrote this story, and I gave it to my wife to read, as I do with everything I write, and she finished it and said, this is an essay. There’s not a grain of fiction in it at all. Except I’ve changed the names. So, but it was bought by F&SF so now it will be read as Fantasy. So I’m quite pleased with that one.
Thank you Michael Swanwick for speaking with us!
Michael Swanwick is the author of the Iron Dragon’s Daughter series. The latest novel in the series, THE IRON DRAGON’S MOTHER, is available now.