Interview with Michael Swanwick
Michael Swanwick is a highly acclaimed American science fiction and fantasy author. With a career spanning over three decades, he has established himself as one of the leading voices in the genre. His work is known for its imaginative world-building, thought-provoking themes, and sharp wit. Swanwick has received numerous accolades for his writing, including the Nebula Award, the Hugo Award, and the World Fantasy Award. His novels and short stories continue to be popular and relevant, appealing to fans of science fiction, fantasy, and speculative fiction.
What was the first thing you remember reading?
My mother taught me how to read before I went to school because, based on experience with my older sister, she didn’t think the teachers were up to the task. So I started young and read voraciously.
The first works I can place in time are the Dick and Jane primers in first grade, which I despised because they were boring, badly written, and lacked any of the pleasures of real books. But I’m pretty sure I’d already read Dr. Seuss’s And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street and If I Ran The Zoo, which I considered the absolute peak of serious literature. I may also have read The Space Ship Under the Apple Tree by Louis Slobodkin and The Wonderful Flight To The Mushroom Planet by Eleanor Cameron, but if I didn’t I did shortly thereafter and now I’ve told you exactly how old I am.
The first science fiction story I ever read whose author I made note of (before that, it never occurred to me that there might be a connection between the author and the quality of the story) was “Recruiting Station” by A. A. van Vogt. Decades later, I wrote “Legions in Time,” which was in part a homage to that story, and was astonished to see it win a Hugo Award.
When did you start writing?
One night in 1966, when I was a junior in high school, I finished my homework at 11 pm and picked up a paperback of The Fellowship of the Rings, meaning to read a chapter or two before sleep. I stayed up all night reading. I ate breakfast reading. I walked the back way to Winooski High School, book in hand, past the marsh, reading all the way. I finished the last page just as the home room bell rang.
That night changed my life forever. Before it, I intended to be a scientist because that was where all my interests lay. After… Well, here I am. I can honestly say that I’ve never regretted that experience, even though I had no say at all in where it took me.
What was the inspiration for The Iron Dragon’s Daughter and Stations of the Tide?
Two totally different stories there. The Iron Dragon’s Daughter first: I was driving from Philadelphia to Washington, PA, outside of Pittsburgh to visit Marianne’s parents, which is a 300 mile trip, and Marianne and I were talking about fantasy and about steam locomotives. I made a joke about the Baldwinn Steam Dragon Works and Marianne laughed. Then, a mile down the road, I said, “Write that down, please.”
By the time we got to Washington, I knew it was a novel and that it was about a girl who’d been stolen by the elves and forced to work in a factory building dragons. The idea was as pure as that.
For Stations of the Tide, I began with the idea of a bicentennial tide that swept over an alien planet’s Tidewater (I used to live in Tidewater Virginia and now I live on the Piedmont, just above the Tidewater, in Pennsylvania) and, because life there had evolved under those conditions, all the land life morphed into sea life when it happened. Humans, being from a different biome, had to adapt differently. That sea-change evoked not only Shakespeare but wizards. And because I had (and have) a strong interest in mysticism that happens to be true in real life, this gave me a platform to talk about things like black constellations and television and tantric sex. So it was a notion that kept on expanding and unfolding, which is to say the opposite of The Iron Dragon’s Daughter, which stayed laser-focused on premise right up to the end.
How did you feel about the adaption of your stories for Love, Death+Robots?
I really lucked out there. After decades of hearing horror stories from my peers that boiled down to “take their money and cover your eyes,” I got directors who understood the stories and wanted to tell them much as I had. Tim Miller made very few changes and they were, I blush to admit, all improvements on “Ice Age.” With “The Very Pulse of the Machine,” Emily Dean had a more difficult task because the internal stream of consciousness within the astronaut’s head, which worked in a prose story, would have driven viewers nuts. I think comparing my story with her animation would be a good exercise for any class in adaptation because she absolutely nailed it.
What story are you proudest of?
Almost all of them, because with few exceptions they’re as good as I could possibly have made them. I’m not being coy here. A haiku by Basho is, on its own terms, as good as Paradise Lost. But I particularly admire two stories which are collaborations in which the other author had no active role.
One is “The She-Wolf’s Hidden Grin,” written for a Gene Wolfe festschrift. I took the opening paragraphs of “Fifth Head of Cerberus” and reversed everything. East became west, evening became morning, summer became winter, and the two brothers became sisters. I then proceeded to write a feminist Gene Wolfe story. The original was, even by Gene’s standards, extraordinary. My version served as a commentary on its delights (and would have had twice as much to say if I’d had twice the time to write it).
When I wrote the final paragraph, I thought, “My God, this is bleak!” And then, “But I can make it bleaker.” So I wrote another paragraph and it is.
The other story is “Vergil Magus: King Without Country.” The story was submitted to Gardner Dozois at Asimov’s Science Fiction shortly after Avram Davidson’s death. It was set in the mythologized Rome of Avram’s Virgil Magus fictions and the writing was spectacular. The problem was that it read like the most brilliant man on earth maundering on about whatever came into his head—until the ending, when the story revealed itself to be as clever and carefully constructed as a Swiss watch. But at the very moment a conventional reader’s interest would be piqued… it ended.
Gardner, with the permission of Avram’s estate, handed the story to me, thinking I could extend it. I saw immediately that if I did that, everybody would know where he stopped and I took up. I couldn’t possibly out-Avram Avram.
So I broke the story into sections. I let Avram begin with his seductively beautiful prose, then introduced an action scene involving wizards and a black magician (from Africa! but not what you think) ending with a cliffhanger. Back to Avram. Then back to the pulp action of Avram’s youthful reading. I studied his original text and figured out almost all of its implications and let them lead me to places I think he would have been only slightly disapproving of. Where I needed a touch of his prose, I lightly borrowed from his non-fiction essays.
A critic who knew Avram Davidson’s work very well indeed wrote that he couldn’t tell which parts were mine. Standing in the shadows, I silently took a bow.
Do you think your environment, where you live, has an effect on type of art you create?
I think my environment, where I lived when I was young, had a tremendous effect. Right now, living in the Roxborough neighborhood of Philadelphia, not so much, though I have set a few stories here. But Winooski, Vermont, was everything I wanted to grow up and get away from. It was a mill town whose fortunes had peaked decades before and was in a decades-long decline. It was small, it was provincial, and when you walked into Winooski Memorial Library, the librarians looked at you suspiciously, wondering what you were up to. Nothing of consequence was going to happen there. When I found my voice, I wrote of everything Winooski was not.
With age, judgments grow less harsh. “The Bordello in Faerie” (which borders on the pornographic, so be aware!) and “Triceratops Summer” both look back on Winooski with fondness and even, yes I admit it, love. One of the novels I’m considering writing is set in Winooski.
But when I lived there, fantasy was my way of escaping what seemed an impossibly and unavoidably dreary future.
Is it easier for you to create if given an assignment or does it get in the way of your creativity?
Contrary to my experience with “The She-Wolf’s Hidden Grin,” I usually cannot write to order. Janis Ian asked me to contribute to her anthology, Stars, of stories based on her songs. Because I loved Mary’s Eyes and understood it in a way that only an Irish-American could, I said yes. Alas, the story I wrote, “For I Have Lain Me Down on the Stone of Loneliness and I’ll Not Be Back Again,” was finished two years after the anthology came out.
I sent her a copy anyway, to let her know that I’d taken the task and the song seriously and Janis very generously opted to add it to the audiobook of the anthology as an extra. Cool, I thought. But it gets better. Janis decided to put a song that Mary sang to music, and did, and gave me a co-credit. The words weren’t mine but a 19th century Irish clerk’s and I told her so, but it seems that ASCAP’s arcane rules are such that I now have a co-writing credit with Janis Ian.
How wonderful is that? I have a co-writing credit with Janis Ian! The writing career rewards you not with money but with joys you never could have imagined.
Where do you think the world of literature/popular culture will be like in ten years?
Slicker, glitzier, more sentimental, and more predictable. We’re creating so many tools to help new writers, all of which encourage stories that look like everything that came before them only more so. The “hero’s journey” is the worst of them, but there are others. I know of a writer who gives prompts to Chatbot and lets it write the first draft. Fortunately, there will always be writers like Howard Waldrop and Kelly Link who go their own way and these are the writers who will create new art and new readers. Look for them, seek them out, and be happy. A hundred years from now, the merely publishable will be forgotten.
What was the oddest thing you’ve ever been asked to do in your writing career? A specific assignment/books for a publisher?
Back when Gardner Dozois and Jack Dann and I were collaborating on stories and selling them to the slicks, we wrote a comic fantasy about a computer salesman in Faerie. Penthouse decided they wanted to buy it, but only if we would cut the story to 5,000 words.
The story was 10,000 words long.
Gardner and I got together one afternoon (Jack was safely away in upstate New York) and started cutting. We cut scenes. Then we cut paragraphs. Then we cut sentences. Then we cut phrases. Then we cut adjectives. Then we cut adverbs. Then we changed every “did not” and “could not” to “didn’t” and “couldn’t.” With each pass, the story got leaner.
Somewhere toward the end, Gardner lost the will to live. I remembering him shaking his head like some great shaggy beast, saying, “I don’t know, I don’t know… Maybe we should just…” But I was ruthless. I wanted the sale, I wanted the money, and I didn’t like the story as much as he did.
We cut it to 5,001 words. I counted.
Our title for the story was “Golden Apples of the Sun.” Penthouse (which, remember, was the highest paying fiction market in the country), in its infinite wisdom, changed that to “Virgin Territory.”
What projects are you working on now?
Oh, my God, everything. Like the introduction I’m working on with Ellen Kushner for the French edition of E. R. Eddison’s Mistress of Mistresses. Some is simply for the pleasure of it, like the essay I’m writing on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, an interpretation which runs contrary to all popular wisdom.
But I’m also working on several stories, including keystone works about Darger and Surplus and Ritter and Sir Toby. Also a few stand-alones, though they can wait. Mostly, I’m writing the opening chapters of three different novels to decide which one I’ll want to devote the next two years to writing.
If all goes to plan, I’ll have a novel and two fragments which I can eventually turn into novellas.
Keep your fingers crossed for me.
Oh yeah. I’ve got a couple of books coming out this year. But neither has been announced, so I’m not free to talk about them yet.