Angry Old Men: Michael Moorcock on J.G. Ballard From The Ballardian
Author: Mike Holliday • Jul 9th, 2007 •
Michael Moorcock, J.G. Ballard and JGB’s partner Claire Walsh in September, 2006 (photo courtesy Linda Moorcock).
Interview by Mike Holliday
Michael Moorcock has been a prolific writer and editor for the last five decades. Born in London, he was editing his first magazine by the age of seventeen, and started writing genre fiction professionally as soon as he left school. In 1964 he took over the editorship of the British science fiction magazine New Worlds, gradually transforming it into an outlet for imaginative fiction that caught the contemporary zeitgeist. Under his editorship, New Worlds published many of J.G. Ballard’s most innovative stories, including several of those that would later be included in The Atrocity Exhibition.
The Elric novels are possibly Moorcock’s most popular books, featuring an anti-hero who reverses many of the usual fantasy genre clichés. His Jerry Cornelius character is also an anti-hero of sorts, who reflects the uncertainty and ambiguity of the modern age and features in numerous short stories and four novels, including The Condition of Muzak, which won the Guardian Fiction Award. Many of Moorcock’s writings over the last thirty years or so are more mainstream literary, rather than genre, fiction; his best-regarded novels include Behold the Man (1969), Gloriana(1978), Mother London (1988), King of the City (2000), and the recently completed Between the Wars quartet, which explore – through irony and humour – the events and mind-set that led to the Holocaust.
Rock music has always appeared in Moorcock’s fiction, and he has collaborated on a number of occasions with Hawkwind. Members of the band also helped with the recording of Moorcock’s own album, New World’s Fair.
Moorcock has known Ballard since the early 1960s, not only as editor and fellow writer, but also as a personal friend. For this interview, I asked him about Ballard’s influence, the significance of New Worlds, and his musical activities and latest writing projects.
Can I start by asking how and when you first met Jim Ballard?
I think it was in E. J. Carnell’s office in Grape Street. Jimmy was working for one of the other MacLaren magazines (publisher of New Worlds, which Carnell then edited) — Chemistry and Industry, I think. We had a nodding acquaintance for a while. Then John Brunner and I (this would have been about 1960) decided to call a conference of SF writers, with a view to starting some kind of association. The meeting was very disappointing to me, Barry Bayley and Jimmy. We’d hoped to hear some stimulating stuff about, as it were, a new literature for the space age. Instead all these guys were interested in was ‘how to break into new markets — how to sell to TV’ and so on. United in our disappointment, we started meeting regularly once or twice a week, mostly at the White Swan in Knightsbridge, near where Jimmy was working. After I was married, we became even closer, seeing Jimmy, Mary and their kids pretty regularly. We all got on very well.
LEFT: Image taken from The Science Fiction Encyclopedia (Doubleday, 1979).
You’ve said in the past that both yourself and Ballard were reacting against what you saw as the sterility of modern literature, and especially the ‘English social novel’. Given this, what were your aspirations when you took over the editorship of New Worlds in 1964?
Well, Jimmy and I were both great fans of William Burroughs. We weren’t so much influenced by him as inspired by him. We were also interested in condensing narrative, of finding forms which would enable us to carry as many narratives as possible in as short a space. We were, I suppose, anti-modern rather than post-modern. Our ideas didn’t come out of academia. They were answers to the problems of working writers trying to find the best ways of dealing with our particular experience. Burroughs pointed the way, as we saw it. We talked about creating a new magazine which would run our more experimental work. When Jimmy did ‘The Terminal Beach’, Barry Bayley and I talked Carnell into running it in New Worlds. When I did ‘The Deep Fix’, Jimmy talked Carnell into running that. So we had a pretty good idea what we wanted to do. When I took over New Worlds our aspirations were reflected in those enthusiasms and the kind of work we’d started to do. I told Roberts and Vintner, the new publisher, what I wanted to do. They told me what I could do. So it was a slower process than we’d hoped. Also, we assumed there were dozens of writers out there champing at the bit, just waiting to submit the kind of stories we’d talked about. Sadly, it seemed at first there were only the three of us! It took a while to get the material we wanted. It even took time to formalise what we actually wanted to do. From the beginning Jimmy was my ‘star writer’ and complained I pushed him too hard — to write our first serial, for instance, which was Equinox, which became The Crystal World.
This photo is believed to have been taken in 1968 at the Brighton Arts Festival. From the left, Moorcock, Brian Aldiss, Mike Kustow (director of the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London), Ballard (photo courtesy Michael Moorcock).
Did Ballard fully share those aims or were there significant differences between you? And what do you think were the main differences between you and Ballard in the way you reflected your dissatisfaction with modern literature in your own writings?
The differences were mostly to do with personality, I think. I was a lot younger than Jimmy (almost ten years) and I’d had a lot of practical experience not only editing popular fiction magazines but changing them. I’d started with Tarzan Adventures, when I was 17, and had learned how to take an initially conservative readership with me. The same had happened on Sexton Blake Library, which I worked on when I was 19. I had to build the circulation as well as change the policy. That was one thing. Another was that Jimmy had, if you like, a narrower notion of the kinds of experimentalism he wanted to see. I really wanted to open the doors, as it were, to whatever was out there — not just writers who thought as Jimmy thought! I tended to write character-based fiction. Even Elric was that. When I came up with Jerry Cornelius — who was a personality and a technique combined — I don’t think Jimmy was altogether sure of what I was doing, partly because I tended to use comedy and had a far more sardonic voice. I was also far more politically focussed. I didn’t share Jimmy’s commitment to the Surrealists, though we’d both been impressed by the first Surrealist exhibition at the Whitechapel in the mid-fifties (I think). My influences included Firbank, whom Jimmy wasn’t interested in at all.
But these were very minor differences. What we both talked about all the time was the possibility of creating, out of the techniques and conventions of a certain kind of SF (most of which appeared in Galaxy magazine), something which could confront the subject matter and sensibility we felt wasn’t really being addressed by the conventions of Modernism. We felt that Modernism had had its day. We also thought we could reunite popular and ‘literary’ fiction through the medium of SF — or at least what we made of SF. Burroughs had shown us one way of doing this.
Jimmy had been through that Japanese prison camp. I had been through the Blitz. These were, if you like, extreme experiences, yet seemed to us to have a lot to do with how it was in the world we lived in. Neither of us were bothered by the H-Bomb, for instance, as such. Jimmy felt it had saved his life, probably. I saw it as keeping the peace; Brian Aldiss, too, saw the Bomb as having saved him being involved in the invasion of Japan. We were both impatient with the themes of the chattering classes of our day. I think our main differences were probably generational. Rock and roll was very much part of my life, as was the music, say, of Messiaen. Jimmy had no real interest in music at all. That said, we still had more in common than not. And still have, for that matter, for all that we developed very different styles.
LEFT: New Worlds for May/June 1964: the first issue edited by Moorcock, with Ballard’s story ‘Equinox’ and his article on William Burroughs both featuring prominently; the cover is by James Cawthorn.
In your account of New Worlds, reprinted in the recent anthologyfrom Thunder’s Mouth Press, you wrote ‘Ballard remained the backbone of New Worlds’ policy. His influence was seminal and it was profound.’ Can you expand on why Ballard’s influence was so important for yourself and the other writers gathered round New Worlds during the 1960s?
Jimmy, as I said, was almost ten years older and had reflected longer on the issues which concerned us. Disch, Sladek, Langdon Jones, Spinrad and the rest were all roughly my age. Jimmy wasn’t so much ‘influential’ as ‘inspirational’, as I said in reference to Burroughs. Though we often disagreed superficially, he had already developed a vocabulary which identified problems I was still trying to identify and challenge. I got as much non-fiction out of him as I could. He was, I suspect, a bit disappointed that I didn’t follow his lead more closely. Indeed, he tended to be disappointed that all the writers didn’t do versions of what he was doing! But it was his presence, the quality of his work and the quality of his mind which was influential.
He inspired his contemporaries, like Aldiss and Brunner, for instance, to concentrate increasingly on contemporary imagery and issues. He was so far removed from even the best genre writers, such as Dick or Pohl and Kornbluth, that he was our finest model in showing new writers how to develop their own vocabularies. I didn’t want to write like Jimmy any more than the rest of our best writers, but he showed that it was possible to write idiosyncratically about what we saw as the urgent issues of the day, that genre conventions need only be employed where they were useful to the individual. Previous to that I think Jimmy would argue only Bradbury had managed that transformation. Bradbury was Jimmy’s inspiration before Burroughs. I had seen Bester and the Americans who influenced him as a similar inspiration. Neither of us could read what is generally called ‘Golden Age’ SF.
Honestly, I think it wasn’t much more than that Jimmy was there. And when he began publishing the stories which became The Atrocity Exhibition he showed other writers just how far you could go in your own direction. He showed that you could carry an entire narrative on an icon — especially an iconographic name, like Marilyn Monroe. We had also spoken about the new mythology of our times. Again, Jimmy showed how you could employ that mythology to present the reader with a complex fiction in a very small number of pages. Many people, in my view, misinterpreted this idea, or employed it very lazily. Jimmy brought a rigour to his work which was also inspirational. He helped raise the bar, if you like — raise the aspirations of the best writers. You can see this in writers like M. John Harrison, who was not especially influenced by Jimmy’s subject matter, but understood that he could aim to produce his very best work and know it would be published — at least in New Worlds.
You’ve already mentioned Burroughs. Which other authors did you most admire at that point, and how do you believe they influenced what yourself and Ballard were writing?
Burroughs, like Borges, showed us what it was possible to do. Neither Borges nor Burroughs were available to us until about 1960 or so. I first heard Borges’s stories related to me by a Spanish-speaking Swede while hitch-hiking from Uppsala to Paris. It was a while before City Lights, I think it was, brought out the first translations. Burroughs wasn’t a disappointment, when we finally met him, but Borges was. Burroughs pretty much lived as he wrote, while Borges was a rather conservative man with a keen interest in G. K. Chesterton. We were also great enthusiasts of noir thrillers and French nouvelle vague cinema. I was a huge fan of Camus, for instance. I’m not sure Jimmy read much existentialist stuff, but he loved the cinema produced in France at that time, as well as surrealist painting and Dada texts. Jarry was another inspiration to us. And I loved Boris Vian.
I think we were all part of a broad movement which was rejecting, as I said, the played out conventions of Modernism. We were looking for methods which worked for us. Some were eventually abandoned. Some were modified. We now live in a world where many of our innovations, techniques and subjects we considered our own, have become so commonly used nobody even knows where they originally came from. We’ve probably, therefore, achieved what we set out to do, to establish fresh conventions better able to deal with contemporary life.
Front row left to right: stripper Euphoria Bliss, Eduardo Paolozzi, Ballard, Michael Foreman (art editor of Ambit) and Dr Martin Bax, editor of Ambit. We don’t know who the chaps at the back are. This photo was taken in 1972, at the Royal Academy of Art in front of a Paolozzi sculpture that was being exhibited.
During the second half of the 1960s, Ballard was also closely associated with Ambit magazine, and with Eduardo Paolozzi. Was there much interplay between the rest of the New Worlds writers and Ambit or Paolozzi?
Well, I introduced Jimmy to Eduardo. I knew a number of pop artists mostly through Chris Finch, an art critic who began working for New Worlds around 1967, when I changed the format and paper stock so that we could run contemporary art as well as fiction. There was some interplay with Ambit because Jimmy became literary editor and commissioned work from me and Michael Butterworth, for instance. New Worlds was a commercial news-stand magazine. I brought specific experience to it and I had no interest in editing a ‘little magazine’. We had a big crossover audience with things like Oz and IT. We were appealing, I think, to a broader readership than Ambit, yet we took more risks. Ambit, ironically, seemed aimed at a narrower readership, more academic and consciously literary. Our original ideas had involved bringing a more confrontational, risk-taking fiction to a popular audience. I knew how to appeal to the wider market and New Worlds, especially in its larger format, did that. Circulation only became a problem when W.H. Smiths objected to our content, but we remained a news-stand magazine until Smiths found a way of busting us. Then we became a paperback quarterly.
Ironically we reprinted much of the material Smiths objected to in The Best of New Worlds and in New Worlds Quarterly, but since these came from major publishers (presumably) they didn’t object to distributing the same material! Ambit liked what we published and I think it’s fair to say that it picked up on what we were doing. We didn’t pick up much on what Ambit was doing. I have to say we were rather arrogant. We felt Ambit didn’t go far enough. Even when we ran Pynchon, for instance, we tended to think he was a bit weak compared to our most ambitious writers. I never thought his ‘Entropy’, which we ran, was anything like as well done as Pamela Zoline’s ‘The Heat Death of the Universe’. I liked Ambit, but to be honest, except where Jimmy had input, it seemed a bit cautious or — I don’t know, middle class? — in comparison to New Worlds. Only when Jimmy took over the fiction did it seem to perk up.
Eduardo Paolozzi’s cover for New Worlds, August 1967.
As well as more established writers such as yourself, Ballard, and Brian Aldiss, New Worlds published some of the earliest, and best, work of writers such as Tom Disch, John Sladek, M. John Harrison. How did you see your role as editor, and later publisher, to those newer writers?
I saw New Worlds as a resource for ambitious writers. A platform, if you like, from which they could fly wherever their ambition and intuition led them. I also knew that most commercial publishers are very cautious and hate taking risks and that they are encouraged to be a little braver if you put something in print first. In several cases we took work which had been turned down by mainstream publishers and only after we’d printed it did a new mainstream publisher accept it — ‘Report on Probability A’, ‘Camp Concentration’, ‘Bug Jack Barron’ and others were all rejected by the publishers who had expressed interest in them. After we ran them, established publishers decided to give them a go. In the case of Phil Dick, though we didn’t run any of his work in my New Worlds, we did publish the first serious assessments of him and Tom Maschler read these and decided to publish his work with Cape. Previous to that, Dick had scarcely appeared in England and only in very pulpish editions. Maschler also ‘poached’ Jimmy from Gollancz and would ask me my opinion of who, as it were, was hot. Michael Dempsey, originally with Hutchinson, was also inclined to publish writers he’d first read in New Worlds. We became good friends as a result.
In a recent interview with Ballardian, Iain Sinclair noted that Ballard is ‘seen as a great guru of the West, but the people who are doing that very rarely refer back to the earlier books. They go back maybe to Crash, because they know it’s a film, and they think that’s shocking, but … the real early energy and madness is still not appreciated.’ Which of Ballard’s books do you most admire?
I have to say it’s The Atrocity Exhibition closely followed by Empire of the Sun. For different reasons, of course.
Have you kept in touch with his later books, those that followed Empire of the Sun?
Not much, I must admit. I have no opinion of the later books I haven’t read, and feel very well-disposed towards them from what I’ve read about them. But I think it’s true that the real risk-taking books were mostly done some time ago. This isn’t a criticism, however. If anyone should be allowed to rest on their laurels, he should.
Earlier in your careers, both yourself and Ballard used what’s often referred to as non-linear narrative — most notably in the Jerry Cornelius stories and novels, and in The Atrocity Exhibition. But you’ve both largely forsaken those techniques for more traditional narrative styles — why do you think that is?
I’m not sure that’s wholly true of me. The Pyat books required a conventional narrative to convey the passage of real time, but I’ve continued to write Cornelius stories — see the recent Lives and Times of Jerry Cornelius which has stories about Diana, 9/11 and so on. I’m currently working on a new short novel, Modem Times, which is a non-linear Cornelius story. Mother London was non-linear. Even some of the recent Elrics have been what you might call semi-linear! I don’t know why Jimmy has returned to his pre-Atrocity Exhibition mode in his recent books. No doubt he’s found that he can respond better to current stimuli with more linear forms. I’ve no theory about that.
LEFT: Jerry Cornelius, as conceived by Mal Dean for New Worlds…
What did Ballard think of your fantasy novels and the Jerry Cornelius writings?
Oh, honestly, I don’t think he really read much of them. He never quite ‘got’ Cornelius, though I think, oddly enough, that he understands what I was trying to do better now than when we were younger. He’s always been generous in his praise, but I don’t believe he’s ever read a lot of fiction. He’ll offer lavish praise, but it’s never very specific!
You’ve both written novels about, or set in, London: in your case, Mother London, King of the City, and parts of the Cornelius novels; in Ballard’s case The Unlimited Dream Company, Millennium People, Kingdom Come. Yet there are substantial differences between them; it seems to me that Ballard’s contain a sense of alienation so far as the city is concerned, whereas yours have more of a sense of belonging. Yet it’s Ballard that’s stayed in Shepperton, while you seem to have lived all over the place!
I don’t think Jimmy ever liked London much or he and Mary wouldn’t have moved to Shepperton when they did. He got out the first chance he had, partly, of course, because he thought they could give the children a better life. On the other hand I felt I owed it to my children to keep them at Holland Park Comprehensive where they could learn about life and survival! I couldn’t bear the idea of leaving until the whole city seemed to me to become commodified. Moving to the suburbs simply wasn’t an option for me. When I moved to Fulham around 1983 Jimmy welcomed me back and said, ‘You must come and visit me in the suburbs.’ I replied: ‘I’m in the suburbs, Jimmy. You’re in the bloody country.’ It felt odd, even then, not being in easy walking distance of the West End. I was born in the suburbs and got to the centre as soon as I could.
Don’t get me wrong, I think Jimmy has made something wonderful and original of his environment, but I can’t think of anything much worse than living in Shepperton. I’d wither and die there. Similarly, ‘my’ London is West and Central London, say as far as Holborn, while Iain Sinclair has made the East and the City his territory. No doubt we use the material we find wherever we settle, but we also have a rough notion of which environment suits us best. I’m tending to use Paris more and more, because I prefer contemporary Paris to contemporary London. In other circumstances, though, I’d be happy in LA or NY — any large city — but I’d rather live in the country if I couldn’t live in the city. I admire Jimmy for the creative use he’s made of that environment and his circumstances, but we’ve always been pretty much confirmed in our preferences. In both cases, we’ve recreated our environment in our own image, I’m sure.
Until 1980 Ladbroke Grove was the centre of my universe. As it was gentrified I went elsewhere for my stimulus, to places where, if you like, it was a little less comfortable to live (than modern Notting Hill); I was amused when Martin Amis and George Melly moved into an area they considered rough. When I first moved there, taxi drivers refused to take you north of Westbourne Grove and there were knife fights in the streets. I realised at one point that I was what Amis referred to as a ‘denizen’ of Notting Hill. For a while Queens Club Gardens, surrounded by council estates and largely hidden from the gentry, suited me, but once that was ‘discovered’ I had to move again. If I hadn’t started getting ill in Texas, I would have moved to LA or Paris long ago. I’m moving to Paris, but there’s nowhere in London I’d like to live any more. The parts of Paris I like still offer the mixture I prefer of classes and kinds of people.
Jimmy has no choice but to feel alienated. Consider his history and circumstances. I’ve never felt alienated at the heart of the city, only at its fringes. In a way I feel he, Iain and myself have divided up the city between us, each taking our preferred territory. Iain’s territory is almost as alien to me as Jimmy’s and Iain doesn’t know West London the way I do. I think, in his adoption of the suburbs, Jimmy is the most original of us. But it takes a Ballard to make Ballardland. I know of no other writer who could do what he’s done. I have a curiosity about centres of power, too, which has led me to live in LA as well as Texas — places with a highly developed mythology of their own which fascinates me. Jimmy tends to adapt his environment to his own, internal mythology.
What do you think of the film adaptations of Ballard’s work?
LEFT: …and Cornelius as conceived by Robert Fuest, director of The Final Programme.
When the film of your novel The Final Programme was released in 1973, you quickly disowned it. Simon reckons he read something where you vowed never to work in film or allow any of your books to be filmed again, yet today we hear news of a possible Elric adaptation. Why the change of heart?
I don’t think I swore never to work in film again. Indeed, I did the script for The Land that Time Forgot precisely to get experience script-writing and I’ve done various scripts (see Letters from Hollywood) over the years, none of which have been filmed. I have to admit that I find working in film even more boring than working in rock and roll. At my end, anyway. I realised that the reason people like Faulkner or Fitzgerald had so much trouble working in film was because there’s always someone else involved ready to mess with your ideas!
What I was reluctant to do was let a film-maker get hold of another of my major characters as they’d done with Jerry Cornelius and distort it, meaning that I would have a lot of trouble continuing to work — as happened after The Final Programme was released. I was out in California when I was convinced by the Weitz brothers that they could do a decent movie of Elric and I felt that movies were no longer in the hands of the effects department, that now the effects could be part of the narrative. Lord of the Rings showed that was now possible and the Weitz brothers approached me shortly after the first film (maybe more) had been out. I’m still a bit wary, though …
What fiction are you reading at the moment?
I just finished Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union. And I’m about to read my daughter Kate’s first novel, The Waiting List.
Do you appreciate any current writers of imaginative fiction? Are there any out there that are as appropriate to the world today as Ballard was to the 1960s?
There are a lot of talented writers developing, if you like, what Ballard pioneered, but we’re not living in especially innovative times. There are a whole lot of reasons for that. I read quite a lot of new fiction and much of it is very good indeed. I’m probably not the best person, however, to say if there is work as appropriate to today as Ballard was to the 1960s. Chances are I wouldn’t recognise them. I do my best to read and encourage new writers, still. I have to admit, much as I admire many of them, no one has struck me with the impact that Burroughs and Ballard struck me with when I first began reading them.
The mighty Hawkwind, frequent collaborators of MM, and famously described by Moorcock as ‘like the crazed crew of a spaceship that didn’t quite know how everything worked but nevertheless wanted to try everything out’.
Unlike yourself, Ballard is notoriously uninterested in music, once saying ‘I think I’m the only person I know who doesn’t own a record player or a single record. … that gene seems to have skipped me.’ And yet there seems to be a cottage industry in discussing Ballardian music. Is there such a thing as ‘Ballardian music’? And why doesn’t there seem to be a ‘Moorcockian music’?!
I didn’t know there was Ballardian music. Maybe there isn’t Moorcockian music because I’m not working the same deep, singular vein in the same way. Or maybe it’s because I make my own music. That said, there are a bunch of bands who do claim to take inspiration from me: Cyrith Ungol, Blue Oyster Cult, Human League. In the past there’s been Hawkwind, Marc Bolan, Graham Bond, Deep Purple… My memory’s not great for band names… There was another Manchester band called An Alien Heat; Tygers of Pan Tang; The Damned…
Since I’m unfamiliar with the idea of ‘Ballardian music’ I’m not entirely sure how to answer! Roy Plumley, of Desert Island Discs, hated me and refused his producer’s request to put me on the show several times, yet he had Jimmy on. That always struck me as unfair, since Jimmy’s notoriously tone deaf, as he says. I felt a strong sense of injustice when Jimmy got to choose a bunch of records which I knew he wouldn’t listen to even if he was stranded on a desert island.
Moorcock on stage with the Blue Oyster Cult.
How did you come to write the novelisation of the Sex Pistols film, The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle? Did you see any parallels between the punk scene and the Ladbroke Grove/Hawkwind scene you were so much a part of?
I knew various punk bands or members of bands, though not especially well. Punks were just urban guerillas, if you like, with different haircuts. Hawkwind/Motorhead were about the only bands the punks still reckoned to have kept the faith, as it were, so I got on well with them when we happened to meet. I’d go to a lot of gigs. I had a nodding acquaintance with people like Siouxsie, whom I liked a lot. So when Maxim Jakubowski of Virgin Publishing suggested I do The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle I had no problems with the idea — especially since I’d always seen Irene Handle as Mrs Cornelius and I wanted to give Glen Matlock a bit better press than he was getting from some of the others at that time.
LEFT: Cover for the Deep Fix single ‘Dodgem Dude’.
Is your band Deep Fix still active?
No. From time to time we talk about doing a tribute band version of ourselves …
Why did Deep Fix record just the one album — New World’s Fair?
Though we had a three-album deal with UA, I got a bit bored with what we were doing. Eventually, Pete Pavli and I began a working partnership which put out a few tracks, mostly with Flicknife, but we had problems with producers, who didn’t really understand what we were trying to do, which was a lot different to the standard bass-and-drums-down-first sort of production and we felt we were wasting our time. That bit of work I did for Brian Eno, on Robert Calvert’s Lucky Leif and the Longships, made me want to work with him, but he went to the States soon afterwards and various circumstances meant that I lost interest. I always gave writing priority.
Are you still making your own music these days?
A bit, for my own pleasure. But I have painful neuropathy and my old fingers aren’t what they were. I started playing the harmonica more recently!
Michael Moorcock and J.G. Ballard at a signing for Empire of the Sun (presumably in 1984) at Forbidden Planet. We’ve no idea who the enthusiastic interloper is in the middle (photo courtesy Michael Moorcock).
How do you find the experience of interacting with your fans on the Moorcock’s Miscellany website? What prompted you to take such an active role with your readership?
I always have liked interacting with readers. I enjoy signings, readings and events of that sort. We used to mix with the audience when I did music. It’s just my nature. I suppose I’m a dyed in the wool populist. I’ve never felt apart from my readers. They, after all, allow me to earn a decent living. Why shouldn’t I like them? Attitudes like that are entirely to do with temperament, however. Some people feel intimidated by their audiences or intruded upon. I don’t. While I’m essentially a pretty solitary person, as Jimmy is, I find the net to be a great substitute for dropping into the pub. One can socialise without becoming too involved, if one wants to. When I’m working, of course, I tend to ignore the net completely. As it is, I still only use it as a kind of extension of my old methods. The WP is my typewriter and Google is my Encyclopaedia Britannica and OED. I don’t use my computer to play games, for instance, and very rarely to play or find music. Oh, it’s also my radio, of course, since I can’t get BBC radio in Texas!
In stark contrast to you, Ballard has often said he doesn’t use the internet. Has he never been tempted in the slightest?
I really don’t think he likes it. He’s perhaps a tad less suspicious of it than he was. But he’s by no means the only author I know who doesn’t have email or use the net. Harlan Ellison is another. Until very recently Iain Sinclair didn’t have email. Some authors don’t even own electric typewriters. Jimmy recently started using his old manual again! Mine is standing by in a corner, even as I write! You get settled in a preferred way of working and living. Jimmy has made his own world at Shepperton where his house is rather famously still fixed in the 60s and 70s! For my part, I always have to have my desk and office pretty much in the same configuration I’ve had it in since 1965. I completely sympathise with his preference. If a games company in Austin hadn’t come along and set me up with state-of-the-art equipment a few years ago I’d probably still be looking for spare parts for my old IBM Selectric. As it happened, I took to the net naturally and with great joy, but that wouldn’t have come about if that company hadn’t wanted me to write a game and a movie for them. (That was what became Silverheart — EA decided it was too expensive to produce).
As a writer, you’re famously prolific. I understand there’s a collection of your non-fiction writings in preparation, Into the Media Web, to be published by Savoy Books. How did that come about?
It was Savoy’s idea to get John Davey to collect my non-fiction and publish it. I haven’t seen the collection yet and probably won’t until it appears. Personally I didn’t think there was enough of my non-fiction worth reprinting, but they seemed to think there was. It will be strange to see so much of my forgotten past coming up in print.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m working on the Jerry Cornelius story I mentioned, Modem Times. Coincidentally, Jimmy has been very insistent on my having Jerry return to take a look at modern London, which he does, though it’s also a return to 60s London, a sort of reassessment. My publisher has suggested I write a memoir of the 60s. I’m not sure I want to, really, but I’m making notes. I’m still working on the memoir of Mervyn Peake and having a bit of a hard time. Certain memories are very painful and Mervyn’s decline and death is still hard for me to get a grip on. I’m writing an Elric story for the new Weird Tales, for the fun of it. I have a set of Seaton Begg stories, The Metatemporal Detective, coming out in September or October. I’m supposed to be doing a Conan comic for Dark Horse. I’m probably going to give reviewing a bit of a rest, unless something really engages me.
Ballard and Moorcock at the London Hilton, September 2006. We suspect this is not JGB’s usual haunt of the Heathrow Hilton, but the one in central London (photo courtesy Linda Moorcock).
Like Jimmy, I think I’ve grown angrier and more radical in most respects as I’ve grown older. We’re both as disgusted with what’s going on in politics and business as we ever were. I just did a ‘fighting editorial’ for Interzone, calling on writers to take the kind of risks Burroughs (from whom Interzone took their title) took. The kind of risks Ballard took, for that matter. We’re living in cautious, retroactive times and I think we need to make an effort to resist what we too easily accept as the zeitgeist. I know this is also how Jimmy feels. I don’t think either of us is especially nostalgic or querulous, but it’s comforting to know that when we get together we’re a couple of Angry Old Men with as much invested in the present and, indeed, future as we ever had.
Thank you, Michael Moorcock.