Reality Break Interview

This is a transcript of an interview conducted by Dave Slusher and aired on Reality Break in January of 1994.
© Reality Break and Michael Swanwick 1994.

Used with permission of Reality Break,

You live in Philadelphia. How did you make it through the storm this week?

[laughs] We've spent the last three days chopping ice. I'm weary all over but otherwise unharmed.

Tell us a little about your new novel, tell us about the plot and the style and tone.

Iron Dragon's Daughter is basically the story of Jane. She is a girl who is stolen by the elves and forced to work in a factory building dragons. She steals a dragon, she escapes, and things don't get better for her. I'm not sure what else to say. I threw in a great deal of traditional fantasy literature, a great deal of elves and dunters and knockers and green men and such but I put it into the 20th century. The land of faerie has been fully industrialized and is reaping all of the benefits of it.

As far as the style and the tone of the book goes, I've read it and enjoyed it but I find it almost impossible to explain to anybody else such that it does it justice what the style is like.

Well, thank you.

It defies description. It's a combination of 20th century phrases and slogans mixed in with the normal language of faerie.

It seemed like a good idea to me. It started out as a joke, basically. I was driving to Pittsburgh with my wife and we were talking about locomotives and we were talking about fantasy. I made a joke about the Baldwin Steam Dragon Works and Marianne laughed. We drove on for a couple of miles and I said "Write that down." I recognized that there was an idea, that there was a story there. By the time we got to Pittsburgh I knew that it was at least a novella and by the time that I wrote it I knew that it was a good solid novel. And everything basically followed from that. If you have somebody working in a factory they have to be dealing with the language and issues of the 20th century. At the same time, if the elves put her there you've got to deal with all the expectations of that. It was a very rich experience for me.

Did you find it difficult to keep one aspect of it from jarring the others and from predominating?

It took off. It wasn't easy to write, but it just fit together. I think it was a great idea and I'm very happy with it.

You also do a lot of exploration of contemporary situations, specifically when Jane goes to college...

Obviously, I was thinking of my own experiences and those of my friends. She had to go to college because at the end of the novel she has to stand before the powers that be and demand an explanation, and for her to demand this explanation of God essentially, she can't be a child, an innocent. She had to grow up in the course of the book, she had to go out into the world, she had to have sex, she had to have friends and relationships and she had to know loss. She needed a great deal of experience before she was qualified to demand an answer.

I noticed in the review in Locus that the book was referred to as having "a high scatological content." Do you think that that is valid?

Well, I think the reviewer missed the word there. There is practically no scatology there but there is a great deal of vulgarity throughout and there is a lot of strong language and such. I can't really go into detail over the radio but what was intended was fairly spoken. She is living in a very harsh world, a working class world. When I was writing it, I clipped out a picture of the Sex Pistols and hung it up over my desk just to remind myself that if she was living in a harsh fantasy world that the creatures, the demons and goblins she would have to deal with would be at least as threatening as people that you could run into on the streets of New York and London.

Let's talk a little about your background. You've been selling fiction since 1980.

1980 was my first publication, and I had been writing for ten years before that and during nine of that I never managed to finish a story. I decided to become a writer and trashed my life entirely. I made sure that I had no other skills at all and I kept writing. I wrote for ten years and one day I finished a story and it was if a switch had gone off and I said "Oh, that's how you do it - finish the stories and then you can sell them." It became much easier after that.

What had made you decide you wanted to be a writer? A lot of people get attracted to the idea of sleeping late and then find out that it's a tremendous amount of work.

It is a tremendous amount of work and certainly you couldn't be a writer if you didn't want it desperately enough to do all of this work. On the other hand, I've had jobs that were worse. In fact, when I decided to become a writer it was the summer between high school and college. I was working in a furniture factory on the loading docks ten hours a day and I could not sit down according to the rules there. I had to look busy but since there was a slowdown in the economy there wasn't a lot of work for me to do. There was this quarter mile long wooden conveyor belt and at one end was the factory where they made chairs and sofas and they would put them onto the conveyor belt. My job was to take and peel off these enormous baggies from these huge rolls they had and put them over the chairs and slide them into the proper slots on the loading docks. This was a very tedious job and there was a long space between each chair but if I were to go into the factory and work productively, it was such a long distance that by the time I walked to the factory and then walked back there would be a mound of chairs at the end of the conveyor belt like a huge logjam where they had piled up on each other. So, I had to spend 10 hours a day basically looking busy. I would walk around looking busy and pick up little pieces of brown wrapping tape off of the floor and I would write invented words on them, words and phrases and sentences. By the end of the summer, I had moved on to paragraphs. There was something about it, and I decided I was going to be a writer. I said I was a writer and that I would make my living from it. How I knew then, I do not know.

Having established that you wanted to be a writer, why did you pick the field of science fiction?

Essentially, at that time, SF/F were both very exciting and challenging and interesting, intellectually alive fields at that time especially, about 1968 or so, and the mainstream was not. Most serious books were written by college professors and were about infidelity. They were about somebody discovering his wife was cheating on him, or cheating on his wife and discovering that she didn't like this, and they were tedious works. They weren't writing books like Faulkner wrote or Hemingway wrote, or any of the celebradons of the mainstream. They were mostly very dull, whereas in SF there were lively imaginations at work and since I didn't have a wife and couldn't therefore be unfaithful to her, I had no experience that qualified me for the mainstream. In science fiction and fantasy, I could find out things. I could read, I could research, I could talk to people. It was a field that was open and interesting.

Your wife is a scientist. Do you have any educational background in science?

Not much, really. My father was an engineer and I grew up immersed in popular science. I was sure I was going to be a scientist until I got to college and hit freshman chemistry and discovered that you could set up an experiment completely correctly and do everything right and run it and have it bomb out, fail entirely. For complex experiments, even the best researchers can sometimes run an experiment twice and have it come out two ways. It was an extremely frustrating experience for me. In SF, if you set it up right and you have a beautiful theory and you know what you expect the outcome to be, you just write "And it works." and on you go into the story. No, I don't have the qualifications and I'm afraid that I don't have the attitude to be a scientist. I don't have the patience.

You write some very hard science fiction such as in Griffin's Egg, works that require scientific speculation. Is that an uphill battle?

It's a lot of work and a lot of research, but at the same time the intellectual rigor of having to be honest to the material, to the facts as they are known, it provides you with an armature, a skeleton that the story can rest upon and work naturally from. So, if you have a good idea for a hard SF story then all you need is a couple of months of research and a lot of hard work and you'll have a good story. There is no other genre that guarantees that.

When you write fantasy, do you bring the same sort of rigor to it?

I do a lot of research for fantasy, but obviously you can't do the same kind of research. For one thing, the mythological, supernatural characters, if you do research into these things, they all contradict each other and contradict each other. I decided that after writing IDD that the big difference between science fiction and fantasy is that in science fiction the universe is essentially knowable, whether you can actually solve the problem and learn something or not, it is a knowable universe. Given time enough and attention enough, you could delve into it's secrets. In fantasy, the universe is essentially unknowable at it's heart. That's the big difference.

You mentioned your chemistry experiments that may not always work right, despite being done identically. That basically came out whole cloth in the book.

Jane was trying to make a sophic stone, and that was pretty much my experience copied directly there. I actually did do a fair amount of research. The alchemy there is all accurate. I read a few books and as I was reading them I took the same sort of notes that Jane would have been taking in class for it. I can't think of anything else interesting to say about it.

As a chemist myself, I found the whole section where she was studying to be an alchemist to ring very true.

I went to the University of Pennsylvania and got some information from Dr. Van Dyke there for the physical chemistry sections. He was a great deal of help. He also showed me how to make electric pickles. It's an experiment that if you know a little bit of wiring you can do at home. You take a cord and attach the two end to two nails and I would suggest putting a knife switch in there as well. If you impale a large pickle over the two nails and put household current through it, one end of the pickle will fluoresce bright yellow from the sodium in the salt, the ions in the salt picking up the energy and losing it again. It's a great party trick.

In this book, you had the opportunity to write allegorically about contemporary problems and situations. For example, you had racism between the various races of faerie.

The dwarves took the part of African-Americans in this country. They are very easy to discriminate against. They're all short. You can tell at a glance if someone is a dwarf or not. He doesn't have to open his mouth, you don't need to know a thing about him, there he is. In the book, I decided not to give them, they don't partake of African-American culture. That would have been cool. There are these wonderful folk tales about swamp haunts and such that are really rich material for fantasy and I can't think of anybody that's used them yet. It didn't really fit into the scheme of my novel, unfortunately. They have sort of a tolkeinesque ethnic background, but their situation is certainly analogous to that of many Americans.

Do you feel that the tone of this book is nihilistic?

Well, that is one of the tones. Jane is a wonderful character, she never gives up. She has a lot of spunk and courage. She tries everything. She's in a very bad situation at the beginning and it doesn't get better. She tries being brave and daring, she tries being cold and calculating, she tries not giving a damn, she tries nihilism and none of it works. The book is not nihilistic, but there is a major streak of it. The dragon himself, Melanchthon, is extremely nihilistic. He is the voice of nihilism and despair and he is what eventually she has to come to terms with. He is defeated, he is wrong, ultimately. So, no the book is not nihilistic.

In the book, Jane is an outsider to her setting and is basically in over her head all the time, and feels awkward as anyone growing up does.

She learns from this as she goes through these awful experiences. Halfway through the book, my wife said to me "You realize that she is a spy. Nobody in this world can comprehend her. Her motivations are totally opaque to them. She is putting on a false face, acting as if she belongs with them." It really is what happens to her. She has to be, as an outsider, some sort of spy. At the same time, by doing so, she makes herself as strange to the rest of the world as it is to her.

You do a very convincing job of writing of the teenage years. Do you have a special empathy for that time?

I was unhappy as a teenager and I swore to God that I would remember it. It was an extremely unhappy time. I don't think that it was just me or my situation, although I was living outside of Richmond Virginia and I would not recommend that to any teenager in the world. It was such a difficult time and yet there were a lot of people who would say that your young years are the best years of your life, which is obvious nonsense. I swore that I would remember this and that if I wrote about what it was like to be a teenager, I would put in all of the hard and difficult parts so that if a teenager were to happen to read this, her or she would know that somebody would see it every bit as bad as they might be experiencing it and lived through it. There was something beyond and just the fact of writing about it as being a particularly difficult time indicates that things will get better, as they do.

I read "U F O" several years ago, and find the images popping into my head at odd times for odd reasons. Is this one that you enjoy of your own work.

That is probably the least popular story of my entire career. It was a comedy, a bleak comedy. That one really was nihilistic. I was taking on a punk voice. I knew a few people who were punk in aesthetic and I thought it would be interesting to try it out. It was interesting and I liked it a lot, but by and large people did not like that story at all. It was written as from the viewpoint of someone going through the hard teenage years. The other things where I've written about young people are from the viewpoint of somebody who has lived through them and found that things do get better on the other side of the tunnel.

You've received award nominations from your very first published story.

Actually my first two published stories were nominated for the same award. They were competing against each other. That was a big thrill. I recommend losing awards to any new writer. It's a great feeling. At some point, I lost thirteen major awards without winning one, and it was pretty cool. You could brag about it and bring it up yourself in conversation without seeming conceited because you say "I've lost so many." Really, it's a brag.

Obviously, it would be nice to win these things. Did that ever occur to you as a writer that "I'd really like to win once."

I know enough about the field that I've been able to watch other people's careers, and my perception is that if you are good enough (and I've got faith in my own work) sooner or later if you keep on producing good work they feel sorry for you and give you an award. In the long run, it doesn't matter. Did Fritz Leiber win one of every award available to him? I can't guess, I'm sure he won several awards, but that's not really important. The work is the important bit. Someone like Avram Davidson or Joanna Russ must have won some awards somewhere because they are so good.

You've written about Picasso several times. Recently, you wrote the collection of story beginnings about him.

That was just a joke. I was on GEnie, one of the computer nets, and I had just gone to see an exhibit of Picasso still lifes. Good art shows always inspire me to write and I made a remark about this. In a fit of bravado, I said that I'd prove this by writing a couple of paragraphs for a story opening every day for a week. I proceeded to do that, basically as a trick. Gardner Dozois saw these and told me I ought to polish them up and number them and sell them to him as a story. Eventually, there came a day when I was depressed and needed something to cheer me up, so I did. I had a story called "The Man who Met Picasso" which lost a World Fantasy Award. I had gone to get a bobache - a gripping plate on a chandelier - and the man who made the repairs was a saintly old man with a white halo of hair that the afternoon sun caught and made blaze. He told me the story. He told me how he was in Paris studying to be an artist in his youth and he had met Picasso, who had sent him on a wizard quest to the Prado to look at one painting and come back and tell him what he saw. It's a wonderful story that takes 45 minutes to tell, a magical story. I came back and told it to my wife, who loved it and told it to a friend and she loved it. I realized that I was losing a great deal of my life this way, so I wrote it down and added a fantasy element and it sold to Omni. That one was pretty much forced into my hands. The other thing I like about Picasso, that I identify with him, is that he worked a lot. He was probably not a good human being, but he got out every day and he worked. He painted, and tried something new. If it didn't work, he'd paint several more paintings and he kept on working. I identify with that, that you have to do a great deal of work to bring out what is good. All of my heroes are hard working sorts.

I sold a batch of stories to Asimov's and I think they have all been printed. The last of which was "The Changeling's Tale" which was my homage to J. R. R. Tolkien. I'm writing a lot of stories now. I have one about a man who is dead and exists running upside down on telephone wires at night. I've written a fantasy essay called "In the tradition" which I confidently expect will offend everybody. That will be in Asimov's. I've got about 40 stories lying around the house in various states of repair and disrepair. I'm doing the research on another novel. I can't say much about it because I'm such a slow worker. I've got a cool idea, a good astronomical setting that no one has ever used. I'm going to write a hard science novel and I expect that it will be great. Whether anyone will like it or not is another story.

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