Interview with China Miéville

Posted by Goodreads on June 8, 2009
Strange worlds and horrific monsters have always been part of fantasy scribe China Miéville's M.O., so it was a surprise when the author announced that he was abandoning his signature genre for hard-boiled crime fiction. As a gift to his mother—an avid crime reader—the London-born Miéville decided to leave his familiar fictional world of Bas Lag, the setting for his bestselling trilogy, Perdido Street Station, The Scar, and Iron Council, for a tale of two new cities, Beszel and Il Qoma. Although his mother passed away before publication of The City & the City, Miéville's unique blend of crime and speculative fiction should hold up to posterity with its fantastical elements and metaphysical questions. The author talked with Goodreads about this departure in style and whether he'll ever return to the dark, visionary world that made him famous.

Goodreads: The City & the City is set in two fictional cities: Beszel, an impoverished model of urban decay, and Il Qoma, its thriving antipode. What was the impetus for writing about two rival cities?

China Miéville: I'd been thinking about the idea for three or four years. I knew that I wanted one of the cities to riff off Eastern European and Mitteleuropean cities, both literally but at least as importantly as they're reflected in works of writers like Alfred Kubin, Kafka, Paul Leppin, and Bruno Schulz. In terms of the way the cities relate to each other, inevitably and properly there would be metaphoric resonances and readings, but I wanted them not to stabilize into something reductive. I wanted each city to feel as much like a real place as possible, so I did what I could to avoid a kind of narrow allegorical reading. I tried to scupper any possibility that one city might read as East and one as West (ridiculous categories anyway) in any simple way, or one capitalist and one socialist, or one modern and one antique, or anything like that.

GR: You decided to write a crime book as a gift to your mother, whose favorite genre is crime. What elements of crime fiction do you like and dislike, and how have you made the genre your own?

I think it would be very presumptuous to suggest that I'd made the genre "my own"—there are so many amazing writers in the field that to think you might "own" it would be crazily self-aggrandizing. I think the best I can do would be to hope that I've acquitted myself with honor. And I suppose inevitably I'll be stressing some of the elements that carry over from my other stuff. By virtue of being in a city, then another city, that are almost, but not quite, recognizable or real, a bit dreamlike, that sense of unreality would be underlined. Because that unreality function is one of my favorite things in crime fiction: I've said this before in various other venues, but I think the logic of crime novels is not really "realistic," but is a kind of dream-logic. I don't mean that as a criticism but praise—I love the oneiric feeling of logic that is logical but that is punctuated by certain elisions.

What I don't like about crime novels is the tendency in some classic crime—not all, of course—to posit a kind of cultural homeostasis, a sense of the intrusion of some pathology into a basically coherent society, as opposed to a sense of conflict and crisis always being there under the skin of the everyday. And going with that is often a certain sentimental sense of the Good Functionary, the Decent Wing of the State, which I'm very skeptical about. That doesn't mean that one necessarily has to really overtly finger-wag at the end of a book, or that you can't try to play with those ideas, even if you're skeptical of them, or anything: It should be obvious—although it often isn't, unfortunately—that a writer isn't necessarily endorsing the position of her or his characters or that what a narrative implies is a "happy" ending is what the writer would think of as one in the real world.

GR: What kind of research did you do in crime writing, or perhaps in detective techniques or Eastern European culture? Were you previously a fan of crime fiction (any favorite writers)?

I did a fair bit of research on, for example, the police hierarchies of various European states. But mostly I was interested in steeping myself in both Eastern and Mid-European writing, and classic crime fiction. I was focused a lot on fidelity to the paradigm, so no "cheating," no last-minute evidence, no characters appearing at the last second, and so on. I wanted a fan of the genre to feel I'd played fair. That meant a lot of attention to the narrative shape and structure. Also, of course, trying to riff on some of the classic characters of noir. The crime fiction I like above all is—with apologies for a very clichéd answer—probably Chandler. The sheer astonishing oneiric, melancholic weirdness of him. I also very much like Conan Doyle, Martin Cruz Smith, James Lee Burke, Walter Mosley, Sara Paretsky, Flann O'Brien (if I can take liberties with the edges of the genre), among others.

GR: Your editor, Chris Schluep, blogged on that you delivered this manuscript quite unexpectedly just one day after you delivered a fantasy manuscript. How did you accomplish this feat? Did the two novels feed off of one another or was it crucial to keep the two processes separate?

This book worked as an escape valve for the other novel. I don't really think of it as a feat, I wasn't particularly aware of it, I was just frantically writing in whatever bits of time I could scrap. They didn't bleed into each other at all, really, they have an extremely different vibe and voice, and the differences of voice was part of the pleasure.

GR: Any plans to write another novel set in Bas Lag?

Sure. It's a setting I'm enormously proud of and happy with. But I'll only do it when the story is right and when I can write something without undermining the three previous books, in particular the ending of the last book. Which was the book that I know many readers didn't like nearly as much as the others, but remains my favorite of the three, and not—truly—just to be contrarian.

GR: In January 2009, the blogosphere erupted into a heated discussion about race, racism, and cultural appropriation in science fiction and fantasy (a flame war so vast it is now dubbed RaceFail '09). Inevitably, a writer must create characters with identities and experiences different from his or her own. If writing within a fantasy world, should the writer maintain politically correct standards established by our real world? How do you address race (in relation to human or nonhuman sets of characters) in your work?

Yes, I heard about RaceFail '09 some time after the event, and rather regret not having been there while it was going on. The category of Political Correctness is so nebulous that it's rarely very helpful, particularly because it is often used disgracefully as a stick with which to beat anti-racists or progressives. In the broader sense, I absolutely do think that the implicit politics of our narratives, whether we are consciously "meaning" them or not, matter, and that therefore we should be as thoughtful about them as possible. That doesn't mean we'll always succeed in political perspicacity—which doesn't mean the same thing as tiptoeing —but we should try. So for example: If you have a world in which Orcs are evil, and you depict them as evil, I don't know how that maps onto the question of "political correctness." However, the point is not that you're misrepresenting Orcs (if you invented this world, that's how Orcs are), but that you have replicated the logic of racism, which is that large groups of people are "defined" by an abstract supposedly essential element called "race," whatever else you were doing or intended. And that's not an innocent thing to do. Maybe you have a race of female vampires who destroy men's strength. They really do operate like that in your world. But I think you're kidding yourself if you think that that idea just appeared ex nihilo in your head and has nothing to do with the incredibly strong, and incredibly patriarchal, anxiety about the destructive power of women's sexuality in our very real world. These things are not reducible to our "intent"—we all inherit all kinds of bits and pieces of cultural bumf, plenty of them racist and sexist and homophobic, because that's how our world works, so how could you avoid it?

So I'd suggest that one should be open-eyed about the facts that the categories with which we think and write and read, are not innocent, and that we should do our best not to use them to replicate the worst aspects of the cultural bumf that put them in our heads in the first place. Does that mean being politically correct? If that is deemed to mean being conscious of and careful about the political ramifications of our writing, then surely that's the only decent way to proceed.

GR: Describe a typical day spent writing. Do you have any unusual writing habits?

I don't really have a typical day. Sometimes I'll write for 14 hours a day, sometimes I won't write at all. It just varies day to day and context to context. I tend to write very intensively when I do. Having spent a decade or more writing with a word processor, I'm tentatively starting to do a few drafts in pen first. I have the worst handwriting in the world, but I am enjoying using pens and paper for the first time in a long time.

GR: What authors, books, or ideas have influenced your writing style?

This is a much more complicated question than it might seem. Because what you're aware of as influences is only one small part of the question: Inevitably you're influenced by all kinds of things that you're not aware of, or that are too close for you to see—like you don't notice the glasses you're wearing, but you couldn't see—or write—at all without them. Then there's the fact that you can be negatively influenced, by ongoing arguments with particular books or whatever. Then there's the fact that sometimes books you love don't particularly directly influence you—it's not the same question as your favorite works, in other words. There are books the style of which you dislike a lot but you love for ideas. And the works that I'm aware of as having influenced the writing style varies a lot book to book. And the ones that loom largest at a particular moment would change.

With those caveats in place, the works that particularly loom always in my head include: Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, Dambudzo Marechera's Black Sunlight and Mindblast, H.P. Lovecraft, J.H. Prynne, Philip K Dick, Chandler, the films of Jan Svankmajer, Bruno Schulz, 2000 AD, AD&D, Michael De Larrabeiti, Joan Aiken, and countless more.

GR: What are you reading now? What are some of your favorite books and authors?

I'm finally reading Fredric Jameson's The Political Unconscious properly, as opposed to the dipping I've always done up to now (several times). My favorite books include the ones listed above, as well as a whole lot of nonfiction—Chomsky, Mike Davis, Pashukanis, and a bunch of others. Fiction—Clark Ashton Smith, Poe, M.R. James...I'm flailing. This question always makes me throw my hands up in despair, because everything I think of begets four others, and each of those four others, and on and on and on.

GR: What's next?

I'm doing a bit of last editing on a manuscript that is much more like the more baroque stuff in the Bas Lag books, and then I have a couple of texts that are in a slightly less completed phase. There's a couple of young-adult things I'm thinking about, and some stuff about ghosts, and an early version of a Bas Lag book. And some nonfiction, some literary criticism on early Weird Fiction stuff.

Many thanks for having me!

Comments Showing 1-8 of 8 (8 new)

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message 1: by Brad (new)

Brad I wish you'd been able to get in ten more questions, but I'll take what I can get. Thanks for giving us this peak into one of the finest minds in Speculative Fiction. Great interview.

message 2: by Hollis (new)

Hollis Good interview. I have to admit: I haven't actually read anything by Mieville although I have been meaning to for ages. I've ordered 'King Rat' from the library but it still hasn't arrived yet...

message 3: by seb (new)

seb Thank you so much, Goodreads, for interviewing Mieville. He is one of my favorites and one of the best writing today. This made my morning!

message 4: by Eileen (new)

Eileen Just got The City & the City for Mothers' Day and loved it as I have everything else he's written. Mieville is a very special young man who, lucky for us, is a very special author.

message 5: by Nate (new)

Nate Thanks for the great interview! I should receive The city & the City today, and I can't wait to dig in!

message 6: by Natalie (new)

Natalie Sherling I picked up Perdido Street Station while working at a book store and have been hooked ever since...I've read everything of Mielville I can get my hands on. I can't wait t buy The City & the City. Thanks for the interview.

message 7: by Suzanahhh (new)

Suzanahhh The City and The City is marvelous
I'll be right in line
for the next Mieville offering;
keeping my read collection complete

message 8: by Katherine (new)

Katherine I've only read The Scar, but he is already MY HERO. Want to be just like him when I grow up. :P

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