Interview with China MiévillePosted by Goodreads on January 4, 2016
Goodreads caught up with Miéville just days before the release of This Census-Taker and asked him a few questions about his latest offering as well as earlier bestsellers like Embassytown and The City & the City.
This Census-Taker, is no different. The extended symbolism throughout this novella was incredibly powerful and had a cumulative effect on me as the story progressed: the creatures trapped in bottles, for example. When you were writing this story, what kind of emotional experience were you attempting to create for your readers?
China Miéville: An experience of compulsion, of being pulled in against their own skittish tugging like a bat on a string; of feeling, as I did and do, estranged and urgent and full of Sehnsucht. Of that sense that they, we, were being told off for something that they hadn't done yet and didn't know they were about to do.
Thank you for inviting me to this discussion. I'm very glad of what you say about This Census-Taker. And I like the idea of whatever it might have done being "cumulative."
To answer your question from another angle: There's little I want more than for the things I write to be read and to matter to those who read them. That isn't the same as trying to "create" a particular emotional experience for readers. That can be attempted, but even when successful, it's not worth celebrating in and of itself: I can think of many jokes that have made me laugh and films that have made me cry, even as I despise them and the success and polish of their cynical, manipulative algorithms.
Not that I'm indifferent to the reader's response, including emotion. One thing I want to try to do is express some urgent, unstable, evasive signifying tenor within me, for which I never have simple words. The hope and wager is that something of it is communicable. Can be communicated (always imperfectly, which is a good thing) by the writing, through its form as much as its content, by what it doesn't say and disavows as much as by its exposition.
Even this isn't (or shouldn't be), really, about "attempting to create" an emotional experience, for all that I hope that readers will experience strong emotions. Aspects are communicated "by," not "through," the writing—some of what is transmitted is surplus to any intent of the writer. And whatever emotions (and ideas, confusions, drives, desires, whatever) the reader does experience, they'll refract through their own life. The hope is that that affect, that moment, will do something new and compelling in their own mind-soil.
GR: One of the aspects of your writing that I most enjoy is the way in which you conclude stories. The endings are always thought-provoking and very rarely conventional conclusions. I find that when I finish one of your books, I need time to process it. Is this a conscious thing or do you just dislike "easy" endings?
CM: I'm glad you say so. Not least as I think a fair number of readers disagree. I'm a bit skeptical that we could reach a general agreement as to what makes an ending conventional, let alone, to use your word, "easy." That's an interesting polysemic adjective: According to the dictionary, we might be discussing endings that are achieved without difficulty, that are relaxed, even that are vulnerable (I like the idea of a vulnerable ending). As to the idea of opposing it, inverting it, "difficulty," to take one antonym, isn't in essence a virtue any more than "easiness" is—though nor is it a vice, and many of the books that matter most to me are very demanding of me as a reader. I struggle with them and fail and gain more from it than from many I "understand" better.
Certainly it's true that I'm drawn, as reader and writer, to endings (and middles, and beginnings, and titles) that you might call uneasy. I'm not certain why—like most of my drives, it precedes my understanding of it. The estrangement that unease provokes and bespeaks is more interesting to me than its constitutive antipode, the resolutionary, the relief of recognition, the en-neatening.
One of the reasons it's so powerful to stare at an old, found photograph is because of the uncertainty of what's just beyond the edges of the image, just out of sight. Of what's about to happen. You want to know, and/but the wanting is what gives it power: Were that want satisfied, were you, in fact, to know, the power would dissipate. To the extent that what you describe as an "easy" ending is like some posed photograph that forecloses anything beyond the frame, it's true that for me unease is more evocative, more fecund by far. Not automatically—an "uneasy," "open" ending can be pat, crap, incompetent, of course. But most of the stories that I find most powerful conclude with (and middle with, and begin with, etc.) some sense of vastness out of sight.
An "ending" can provide a decoder key or a last piece of a puzzle, allowing components to be snapped together and made visible, establishing conclusively the borders of the scene. That can be done with panache, very well, but I find it diminishing.
Some readers strongly dislike what we're calling "uneasy" endings. Often they relate to them as just incompetently wrought (which they may be, but not by virtue of the unease); sometimes they react defensively—"I don't get it,"—or even with great suspicion—"this is bullshit, there's nothing to get." They have every right to their preferred narrative shapes. I'd only want to insist, against that irate suspicion of the con trick, let alone any unwarranted self-chastising sense of readerly inadequacy, that that wrench of being upended, uncertain, disoriented, poised at an edge can be a feature, not a bug. It's certainly what I read for.
This Census-Taker is just over 200 pages. Do you approach writing shorter stories any differently than, say, Perdido Street Station, which was more than 600 pages?
CM: To make any piece of writing work, you have to know, or at least intuit, its quiddity and the voice it demands. The length is one important aspect of that totality, the sense of the writing's completeness, and sometimes you can struggle to connect with it. For me it's less a question of "approaching" the writing differently as that a constitutive part of the writing is figuring out the length. This Census-Taker found its voice, in part, when I realized (after an extended gnashing attempt to stretch it to fit a different bed) that it was a short piece. A long novella or short novel. That revelation—that permission to let it be—unlocked it. So it's not that I approach things differently according to the length, but that I try to approach everything distinctly in part to learn the length-potential embedded in it—the telos of its form.
Jeff Newberry asks, "I'd love to ask Mr. Miéville about the two cities in The City & the City. Given the current controversy about immigration in the U.S. and the bigotry many Muslims face, it seems that we are all occupying two cities simultaneously. Was the geography of The City & the City inspired by any historical antecedents? Did the curious layout of the two cities point to anything specific in terms of contemporary or modern politics?"
CM: Yes. The geography—the human, legal, social, sociological, juridical, symbolic and signifying, political, spiteful, aspirational, uncanny, utopian, quotidian, racialized, oppressive, drab, negotiated, formative, transgressive, yearning geography—of The City & the City was born from every city I've ever lived. It is that geography, seen with a particular glint. There's no norm depicted in that book, including in particular the injunction to unsee, that isn't one we know, from our own city. I have only one point of contention with you, I think: I think we are all occupying more than two cities simultaneously. To that extent the book was a winnowing down, a simplification, rather than a fanciful complication.
GR: Goodreads member Judith asks, "Would you speak to the role or influence of political ideology in your work? Has time or experience changed the way in which you think about your writing as an extension of your political commitments and beliefs, a means of exploring the political or social without wholly committing yourself, or something else entirely?"
CM: I'm very intrigued by your formulation of "without wholly committing yourself." I'm sorry—I can't do it justice, because I don't think I understand it—my failure. Ruminating, considering, having it both ways, not coming up with a line—which is what one often does in fiction—doesn't feel to me like a failure to commit. For whatever it's worth, I feel deeply committed. More than ever.
Change? Time and experience have made me more pessimistic. That's not the same as cynical, nor as despairing, nor as immobile, nor as fatalistic. I'm politically more furious and mobilized than ever. I'm pessimistic in that the sense of the scale of degraded, decadent monstrousness that occludes the glimmer of something better is enormous. It may seem paradoxical to some that pessimism is politically energizing, galvanizing, but I find that to be the case, as I know do many others (including those with whom I work politically most closely), and it doesn't feel paradoxical to us. (See salvage.zone for a more systematic exposition of some of these politics, and if you find what you read helpful, please consider subscribing to our new quarterly. Between salvation and garbage there is salvage.) We are more active, more furious, more committed to radical politics than ever, as the horizon of liberation gets more and more obscured by the smog. Yearning in the burning.
The relationship between aesthetics and politics is intimate but/and very knotted, so the question about writing as an "extension" of political commitment and belief is interesting but frustratingly evasive. I'm asked about it not infrequently, and as a vocally political person, it's a formulation that doesn't surprise (or bother) me. It's almost impossible to answer, though, I think in part because it expresses certain nostrums that we've all been trained to accept, that are not, in fact, given. Not least that there is something odd, anomalous, unusual, specimen-like, perhaps even pathological, in politicized writing, as a subset of a politicized life. Something that needs explaining, or explaining away, or curing.
All writers have a relationship between writing and politics, including (especially?) those who consider themselves to have no politics at all. Perhaps with a minor kink of our history, we might be asking them to speak to the role or influence of lack of political engagement in their work, and whether time or experience has changed the way they think about their writing as an extension of their notionally apolitical centrism, a means of refusing to explore the political or social while continuing to not commit themselves.
In other words: Would you speak to the role or influence of political ideology in your question?
Emery asks, "I like all of China's books that I have read, ranging from Perdido Street Station to Kraken and lots in between. But. Embassytown struck me as a seminal book on language and culture—an especially fascinating examination on language and the origins of language. Does he see it that way? Was that his intent? Does that book feel any different from the other books? I believe that all the stories I have read of his—and, actually, all science fiction/fantasy writers—have a deep philosophical bent, but this one seems more serious and more profound by an order of magnitude."
CM: What you say is very flattering and means a great deal. Thank you. I'm not placed, of course, to judge the book objectively. It was intended to be a serious consideration of language—particularly metaphor—and history, and theology, and the overlaps. I'm not sure if that's what you mean by "intent"? It's always my intent to write the most interesting and vivid thing I can about whatever is obsessing me. In this case it was (as it continues to be) metaphor and simile and the fall from grace and a particular affinity between metaphor and money. And so on. It's literally impossible for me to judge how successful the book is at prodding at those things, but I worked hard to make it so.
GR: What books (or authors) have inspired or influenced you as a writer?
CM: This question is much more complicated than it appears. The difficulty is that there are books that you know loom large in your mind and those that loom large in your mind but that you don't know do so. Those latter may influence you just as much, but you don't realize, for years, maybe, that you're influenced by them. Sometimes it's the ones closest to you that are hardest to see. To further complicate it, you can be influenced by books you hate, because you have an ongoing dragged-out argument with them, over years. And you may or may not be aware that you're doing so. There are books you love that have very little impact on your work. You can be influenced by books you don't understand (very easily influenced by them, and powerfully). You can find a book almost entirely uninteresting and forgettable but for one moment, one image, one sentence, and be influenced by that alone. You can be influenced by minor, seemingly unimportant things, or things for which the writer isn't celebrated, or which pull against the trend of their writing. You can be influenced by books you've never read—particularly by ones that have great cultural traction (think The Bible, The Divine Comedy), but not only them. Someone described to me a Joan Aiken short story they read several years ago, and it stuck with me very hard, and I found myself trying to catch in writing something of the emotion that told-story evoked in me. When I finally read the story, I didn't like it nearly as much as the told version, not least because it was missing that throat-catch moment.
So. The list of authors I'm aware of as influences contains a lot of obvious names. (No one in the world who's read me and them will be surprised that Lovecraft and Le Guin, among many others, are there, for example.) For that reason, when asked this, I have to say that of the authors I'm aware of (see the caveats above), I'd rather give a short (highly inadequate) list of those that i) spring to my mind right now, and hopefully ii) are slightly less than the most obvious.
Jane Gaskell; Roland Topor; Jane Gardam; Dambudzo Marechera; Charlotte Bronte; John Berger; Julian of Norwich; Christine Brooke-Rose; Gamal el-Ghitani; St John of the Cross; Jacqueline Rose; Evgeny Pashukanis; Virginie Despentes; Beatrix Potter; Gayl Jones; Benjamin Péret; Hans Henny Jahnn; Charlotte Perkins Gilman... and on and on and on.
Of course I love this game: We all love the list game. But wonderful as it is, it always leaves out more than it puts in.
GR: Goodreads member Angelica asks, "What is the thing you are most afraid of and why?"
CM: The growing toxicity and viciousness and punitiveness and decadence of politics in late neoliberalism, the surges of a kind of not-very-crypto-fascist sensibility, the mainstreaming of truly breathtaking levels of racist spite. Statements that would have been beyond the pale 20 years ago—hardly a time of liberty and justice for all—are now standard fare. I doubt I need to explain why it frightens me.
GR: Goodreads member Daniel Eig writes, "Presumably in jest, you mentioned some ten years ago that you were going to write one book in every genre. Now it looks like you're actually achieving that. Are you going to continue to push your writing into new territory in the future? If so, what genres can we look forward to you branching out into next?"
CM: I truly don't mean to sound facetious: I just hope I'm not alone in thinking it would be a bit depressing if I said "No." "No, I'm not going to continue pushing. No more new territory for me. I'm going to fix on something and keep doing that thing, that same thing, over and over again."
I want to keep trying to write things in new ways and trying to use writing to do things I couldn't do before but realize, as I learn to write, that I might be able to and want to.
Of course I could be more specific, and outline the ideas I have, the kinds of books—I know I'm being a pain, and I apologize, but I hope you'll forgive me not doing so: The rabbi warns that the best way to make God laugh is tell him your plans.
GR: Perry Watson (and dozens of other Goodreads members) asks, "China Miéville is one of my all-time favorite authors... Is [he] going to write another book in his Bas-Lag series? In my opinion, that series is his best work, and I miss it dearly."
CM: I get asked this not infrequently: It's very moving that people feel close enough to the books to want this.
M. John Harrison or Ursula Le Guin who has the rigor to torque their own creation through a remorseless revisiting, actually strengthening them, and their work, there are a thousand settings turning ever more into pastiches of themselves. Becoming domesticated.
I return—with joy—to settings whenever there's a story that will improve or be improved by the setting. That won't thin it, or be going through motions. That makes something better. That's a promise. To myself as well as to any readers.
GR: What are you reading now?
CM: Terry Eagleton, Hope without Optimism; Catherine Mavrikakis, Flowers of Spit; Michael Cisco, Animal Money; Annie Rogers, The Unsayable. (And some books for research for a project, which I won't mention, because they'd be spoilers.)
GR: Thanks for taking the time to answer all of these questions, China, and best of luck with This Census-Taker!
Interview by Paul Goat Allen for Goodreads. Paul has been a genre fiction book reviewer for the last 20 years, working for companies like BN.com, PW, The Chicago Tribune, Kirkus, and BlueInk, to name a few. He has written more than 8,000 reviews and interviewed hundreds of writers, including Anne McCaffrey, Michael Moorcock, Dean Koontz, Terry Goodkind, Laurell K. Hamilton, Patrick Rothfuss, and Charlaine Harris. He also works as an adjunct faculty member in Seton Hill University's Writing Popular Fiction program.
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