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Interview with Michael Swanwick: On The Iron Dragon's Daughter and Fantasy

August 3, 2017       Meaningful Life
Interview with Michael Swanwick 

On The Iron Dragon's Daughter and Fantasy

by Michael Rene Kanoy

Many sci-fi fans including myself are big fans of sci-fi author, Michael Swanwick's award winning The Iron Dragon's Daughter because it surpassed expectations in spite of bad reviews by certain literary reviewers who claim to be sci-fi fans flaming the book for being unfit for YA readers because of the horrible characters, all the sex drugs and rock-and-roll going around, and that malevolent Melanchthon jetfighter-dragon: who is like this Satanic-altar for sacrificing all the dupes of the story heroine, Jane Alderberry, as she worked on repairing and healing its supernatural cybernetic wiring.

As fantasy story with heavy sci-fi elements, The Iron Dragon's Daughter reads better than most cyberpunk because it doesn't get dated like most sci-fi-slash-fantasy stories.  Renowned sci-fi writer and editor, John Clute even praised the book as an anti-fantasy--a story that works with the opposite of good-versus-evil, heroic and noble winning over the Big Boss Bad, happily-ever-after--all the generic themes you read in most fantasy or even sci-fi stories.

Many fans of the book like myself prefer its cyberpunk over Matrix-like precursors.  Even Neuromancer.  Swanwick is known as a writer of great ideas and he values them over slick prose selling some old sci-fi theme.

We talk to Michael Swanwick and ask him about his writing process as a sci-fi and fantasy author and his development work creating The Iron Dragon's Daughter.

REACH:  Hello Michael!  We're obviously a nuts-all-over fan of The Iron Dragon's Daughter and were ecstatic you accepted the interview request.  First off, we know that around the early 90s, cyberpunk was already becoming such a diluted theme for futuristic stories about artificial intelligence and cyberspace adventures that when you set out to write a sci-fi story with fantasy elements, you claimed should be  better than:  "The recent slew of interchangeable Fantasy trilogies has hit me in much the same way that discovering that the woods I used to play in as a child have been cut down to make way for shoddy housing developments did."  --you wanted your novel to be its own, if I may say so, True Norwegian Black Metal (dark forest thing)  than be aping Neuromancer or Voice of the Whirlwind because the genre was wallowing in pulp cheesy after a fashion.  The Iron Dragon's Daughter read like a tech-fantasy and became its own polarizing book for  sci-fi fans to remember you by.  Before dystopian YA fiction with teen sex, and nihilistic future worlds were cool, The Iron Dragon's Daughter came out in 1993 and may still be the standard for a high fantasy noir, spiked with illicit technology, drugs and rock and roll.

The Swanwick chimera of sci-fi and fantasy is supposed to have an upcoming third book to tie up loose ends as you mentioned in an Amazing Stories interview.  Can you give us a lowdown or sneak peak on what to expect about jet-fighter dragons and their pilots coming up in The Iron Dragon's Mother

MS: The hero of The Iron Dragon’s Mother is Caitlin of House Sans Merci, a half-human dragon pilot who, returning from her first soul-stealing raid, discovers first that an old woman from our world is now living in her head and then that she’s being framed for the murder of her brother. What option does she have but to blow up her dragon, steal a motorcycle, and hit the road?

Thematically, the novel is about lies, death, storytelling, and mothers – and why we can’t live without them. Beyond that, it gets very, very complicated.

This may possibly be the first fantasy novel that includes the birth of a locomotive.

REACH:  In an interview with Fast Forward with Mike Zipser, you were shown explaining your story outline, writing process with plot diagrams that show how characters weave in and out of your narrative along with scene description stuff.  You have a kind of jigsaw puzzle, work process where you actually build a book, line by line, fitting dialogue wherever it punches the gut, and fleshing out characters histories before actually writing the book from start to finish and then cleaning up after.  I can understand now why your books have that feel to them of being put together yet all is seamless and even disjoints are part of the reading flavor like chunky soup.  Is this the work process an offshoot you learned off Gardner Dozois and Jack Dann who helped you rebuild your first  short story into something publishable?  What other things have you picked up from other authors about story structure, say Gene Wolfe and Ursula K. LeGuin?

MS: I’ve never seen Jack or Gardner use a diagram. What they taught me was something far more important: what a story feels like and how to alter my preconceptions about it and change the plot to let it become the story it wants to be. Before they showed me how it was done, I was just slapping words down on paper. From that moment onward, I was writing stories.

What I’ve learned from Le Guin, Wolfe, and a hundred other writers, some of whom would be astonished to discover I’ve even heard of them, is that every story is a new challenge and has to be written differently. Sometimes somebody else’s story will provide the needed template. Other times, you simply have to discover it for yourself.

Just in case there’s somebody reading this who’s looking for clues as to how to plot: The most difficult story there is to write is the most straightforward. One that starts at the beginning, proceeds without flashbacks, flashforwards, asides, or other tricks, and when it reaches the preordained end comes to a halt. You’ll write a lot more complicated stories on the way to achieving this. But once you’ve mastered that kind of simplicity, everything that follows, however innovative or convoluted, will be much easier to write.

REACH:  Has story outlining always been your work process for writing a long form story like a novella or novel?  When do you ever write “on the fly?”   Does your short fiction work also have the same deconstruct-put back together process?

MS: Diagramming and outlining are tools I employ when I’m having difficulty figuring out where the story ought to go. So necessarily they will be used a lot more for a novel than for something shorter. I came up with the idea for “’Hello,’ Said the Stick” while listening to a friend’s reading on a Friday night, started writing it the next morning after breakfast, and got it into the mail at 2:30 that afternoon. No diagrams, no outlines, no sweat. And it placed on the Hugo ballot too! If every story came that easily, I’d be a very happy man.

In contrast, I have a raft of stories that have been sitting half-written on my computer for years, waiting for me to come up with whatever it is they lack. The oldest is “Robot,” which began as a way to use a couple of out-takes from “Dogfight,” a story I wrote with William Gibson over thirty years ago. It’s got some nifty stuff in it. Every few years, I think of giving up on it. But then I look it over and it comes to life again and I start casting parts of it out and adding new material. If I ever finish it, it’ll be a gift from the past, a peek back in time to the dawn of cyberpunk.

REACH: Is it in your nature to write subversive fictions?  Philip Pullman, Kelly Link, Frances Hardinge write in a certain vein of anti-establishment rogue character imprints that have been a celebration of its own among fans of sci-fi.  Pat Mills, British writer of Judge Dredd in our interview with him said that people care more for working class heroes and salt-of-the-earth ruffians than any other archetype.  The Iron Dragon's Daughter was certainly not a Harry Potter, future redeemer kind of story, but almost Sin City and Bladerunner with Cinderella feeding smitten guys to the evil powerplant heart of Melanchthon, her best bud.  Do you prefer reading and writing warped characters in noir and pulp environments as opposed to fleshing out heroes or villains that the average readers are supposed to identify with as noble (hero) or base (villain) characters?

MS: When The Iron Dragon’s Daughter first came out, one reviewer wrote, “Toto, I don’t think we’re on Pern anymore.” I wanted my publisher to put that on the cover of the paperback, but they were chicken.

That said, I’m not trying to subvert anything. But when you’re trying to write something that is both true and satisfying – and, ideally, different from anything that’s been written before – your work is going to look subversive to those who are well-read in the genre. There’s always a lazy way to tell a story, an easy way out of a fix, and a predictable way to wrap it all up. But why bother? A lazy, easy, predictable story is going to be forgotten ten minutes after it’s read. I’m after bigger game than that.

As for heroes... With the possible exception of Buzz Aldren, I’ve never met anybody who resembled the stereotypical hero. All my real-life heroes have been flawed and wonderful people who loved, lusted, farted on occasion, held grudges, and got things wrong. That kind of person is much more interesting to write about.

REACH: Most fans of genre fiction (like me) have this semi-neurotic tendency to judge how good a book is by checking how nasty the villain of the story is.  Like China Mieville keeps on harping in interviews and in his books, it is all about putting together a cool monster--something mind-boggling that everyone wants to read about.  Melanchthon is such a trademark Michael Swanwick villain that we hope you can write more kinds of Big Boss Bad, story character treatments and hope you can tell us more about them!  Which among your other books can reader fans find more insidious villains?

MS: There’s Mephistopheles in Jack Faust – which is simultaneously the demon we all know from the Faust legend and an alien race in a parallel universe with a higher ambient energy level than ours which wants to destroy the human race simply because otherwise we’ll outlive them.

Or, on a more human scale, the magician Gregorian in Stations of the Tide who accepts money from people (whom he’s reached via television ads) to adapt them to live underwater and then drowns them. And, of course, there are more dragons in The Dragons of Babel and The Iron Dragon’s Mother. 

REACH:  What is the inspiration for creating such a vile villain?  Prudish book reviewers of IDD told sci-fans that the Iron Dragon villain was just unnecessarily gross on top of IDD not having the tropes an “ideal” story they suppose sci-fi should always have--characters you can empathize with (they hated the raping mafia elves), situations where heroes overcome obstacles (how come every good guy who woos Jane gets snuffed out)?

MS: The immediate inspiration for Melanchthon was the fact that in the wake of Anne McCaffrey, the default setting for dragons became them being lovable, wonderful creatures that made the best of friends. I thought the loss of the traditional Western dragon as a figure of terror was deplorable. So I set about rectifying the situation. But the inspiration behind that was the way that writers tend to soft-pedal evil, to make excuses for it. I’ve seen enough evil that I refuse to cut it any slack.

The problem with tropes is that so many of them are lies. Nobody who’s ever stood in a hospital waiting room praying in vain for a friend to live can believe that things always work out for the best. That’s why I include so many “gross” things in my novels – because they exist in real life. And yet, life is good. A novel that acknowledges the darkness and yet expresses the joy of living is one that aspires to the status of literature.

Jane, you have to remember, doesn’t belong in Faerie. So, try though she does, over and over, there’s no way she can make a place for herself there. As for the high mortality rate among her boyfriends… When the novel was half-written, my wife, Marianne Porter, remarked, “Jane is a spy.”

“What do you mean?” I said.

“Her thoughts and motives are as opaque to everyone in Faerie as theirs are to her. She baffles them. That’s why she spreads chaos wherever she goes.”

Jane doesn’t intend chaos. But being who and where she is, it naturally follows. As for the high mortality rate among Jane’s beaus… That’s just symptomatic of the fact that she’s trapped in a world where she doesn’t belong. Nothing can ever work out well for her.  

REACH:  Short story collections for genre writing are making a comeback of sorts these days with almost every genre writer putting out their anthologies.  You've put together several short story collections yourselves over time.  As a writer of sci-fi and fantasy, what are the recurring themes or ideas that you find timeless that genre readers respond to, who then write back and tell you that story hit them and hooked them onto finding more of the good stuff?  

MS: Wow. That’s a question it would take books to answer. Let’s just say that I’m trying to write truthfully about serious matters – life, death, love, betrayal, sex, identity – expressed in the form of fantasy or science fiction but drawn from experience. If you tell the truth, clearly and in an entertaining manner, the reader will recognize that and respond to it.

REACH:  Would you ever run an anthology series similar to Hot Blood (a horror erotica anthology) with a sci-fi or fantasy theme with your own brand of Infernokrusher ( a coined term by Meghan McCarron who was bemoaning that slipstream was such a lame word for describing the new wave of sci fi)?  What gets you around to putting together a short story collection of your own as infernokrusher stories—stuff that won't get dated?

MS: The chances of me creating even one anthology, much less a series, are pretty much zero. I’ve got a dozen stories partially written on the front burner, maybe another forty on the back burner, ideas for several novels… If I took on an editing gig, it would eat up a lot of time which would mean writing less of my own work. And some of those stories are things I really want to write.

I put together a collection of short fiction as soon as I have enough new short fiction to put together a collection. That’s the plain and boring truth. Will they stay fresh? I fervently hope so. Time will tell.

REACH:  You wrote a critical essay about the work of writer, James Branch Cabell as a fan of his books.  As one of those prose stylists from the early 20th century who wrote humorous adventures in the vein of Quixote for his playboy character, Cabell has been largely forgotten by most contemporary fantasy writers as a study resource for structure, style and character.  

Probably more accessible for fans looking for retro-swashbucklers may be Flashman, as a turn-of-the-century. spy and philandering hero.

Pulp action adventure for men became popular with James Bond and period heroes sort of became a fringe subgenre until steampunk retrofitted them with cumbersome-tech for a sci-fi flavor.  What worked well for James Cabell as an author that you enjoyed most in his writing and do you think that style of writing or the best parts of his writing can still be useful for today's writers who can study his work for technique and form?

MS: Cabell’s best work, Jurgen in particular, was written with enormous zest and wit. He threw everything he had into Jurgen: erudition, puns, hidden poems, blasphemy, erotic fantasies… and a hero who’s smart enough to recognize the absurdity of his own adventures. The Flashman books are more serious, but George MacDonald Frasier’s hero also recognizes the absurdity of the Victorian age of which he’s a part.

By contrast, Darger and Surplus, my Post-Utopian confidence artists, are oblivious to the madness around them. They think they’re good people who are having an excellent time. In this, they are completely deluded, and that’s what makes them so much fun. And Franz-Karl Ritter, in the Mongolian Wizard stories being published at, doesn’t even have a sense of humor so he completely fails to recognize his actions as adventures. But the reader can see the adventure, the absurdity, and the darkness.

What all these works have in common are engaging, colorful personalities who give the reader entry into engaging, colorful worlds. As for what lesson writers today can learn from Cabell? Jurgen was written to be as entertaining as Cabell could make it, and it has never gone out of print. In later years, as Cabell’s energy waned, his books grew progressively more perfunctory and less interesting and are pretty much forgotten today. This is something that all writers should reflect on at length.

REACH:  You won a recent YA award, where the fans regarded you as an author who will not bore them.  Mike Carey, author of The Girl with all the Gifts, in an interview with us said that he wants to keep writing as long as his work is relevant--aka fans worship his stories--and his greatest fear is not doing enough and having that opportunity to write slip away.  You've been writing for several decades now and many writer wannabes everywhere who want to make a career in genre sci-fi or horror will want to know--do you keep up with what's going on in the community?  Or do you just build your books off your core fans and hope new ones discover you and have the same enjoyment as you reading your own stories?  Do seasoned genre writers ever lose their chops or have you encountered any work as such from other authors or peers?

MS: I do my best to keep up with what’s being written. Not because I want to leap on any trends or movements; by the time such things reach print, the bandwagon has moved on. But because new writers bring new ideas and new twists and takes into the genre and if you don’t keep up, you’ll end up writing stale rehashes of what you wrote when you were young. I could name names here but I won’t. 

As far as building my career off of my core fans, I try very hard not to treat those who like my fiction as a commodity. Mostly because I think that does them a disservice. But also because thinking of the readers in that way has a blowback effect: ultimately, it cheapens the writing.

REACH: We are in an age where genre writers from all cultures are now recognized by peers, like the Hugo Awards choosing The Three Body Problem and Nora Jemsin as their recent winners.  This is also happening in reverse across non-English native language countries: Peter Watts, the Canadian sci-fi writer was shown recently giving thanks for a Japanese sci-fi literary award for his bestselling book, Blindsight--in which he joked he has received more sci-fi literary awards for his book translations than his English language version and was very thankful that fans around the world are smarter readers than his western readers (as an inside joke).  What books of yours have been received better as non-English translations or are more popular outside of America?  What country loves The Iron Dragon's Daughter most as translated in their own language?

MS: Russia, apparently. Early in my career, I wrote “A User’s Guide to the Postmoderns,” an essay about the literary battle between the Cyberpunks and the Humanists and that convinced them that I took science fiction as seriously and as passionately as they did.

Russian translation of
Iron Dragon's Daughter

The Iron Dragon’s Daughter sealed the deal, because it showed that I understood what humiliation and injustice felt like. I feel humbled by this because compared to what Russians have been through in the past few decades, I’ve led a charmed life.

My editors at Science Fiction World tell me that I’m very popular in China. But communications with fans there is extremely difficult and not just because of the language barrier. The Great Firewall is no joke.

REACH:  Is your writer workspace a permanent location and do you subscribe to Einstein's opinion about messy desks: “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?”  

Can you send us an image of your writer workspace?  Do you even have one of those outdoor workshed style writer workspace or do you have the old school, extended library office?  Writer's workspaces are a kind of a popular fetish for making into a man-cave or princess-room that all wannabe writers and fans want to see what their favorite authors look like in their natural habitat.  What are your most important work tools and reference books or inspirational favorite sci-fi authors in your personal workspace?

MS: I have an extremely cluttered home office – photographer Kyle Cassidy uses it as the standard of untidiness – filled with memorabilia (a bundle of rope samples from a factory in Kolomna, a West African sword, globes of real and imaginary worlds, trophies, Swanwick-brand soup cans that Jason Van Hollander made for me, and so on), drifts of paper from dozens of projects, various tools of the trade, and of course shelf upon shelf of books – most of them double-stacked and almost all non-fiction. (Fiction and poetry are shelved elsewhere.) Marianne calls it a wizard’s den.

Michael Swanwick's writer workspace

Basic reference works kept by the desk are a thesaurus, a standard dictionary, Barlett’s Familiar Quotations, and the Oxford English Dictionary – the condensed version that you have to use a magnifying glass to read. Close to hand are various foreign dictionaries and specialized reference books on fairies, saints, demons, and so on. Plus lots and lots of books on the sciences, religion, folklore, whatever. A pretty standard batch, really, for a writer.

I also have a “devil stone” that a Siberian shaman gave me, to unlock my powers he said. When I don’t feel like working, I hold it in my hand to remind myself of all the things and experiences my writing has brought me.

REACH:  Men's action adventure pulps are making a comeback of sorts and they used to be a fan favorite for young boys in the 50s to the 80s, grabbing what they could from the local drugstore or the newstand.  Were you ever a fan of stuff like Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, Magnus Robot fighter, Elric of Melnibone, James Bond, or the 70s sexy spy thriller books like The Executioner and Stony Man?  Guilty pleasure reading has its place among young reading fans and dreaming writers who may want to do the writing gig today.  Even sci-fi living legend, Robert Silverberg and Michael Moorcock had part of their early writing career engaged in the 20th century version of penny dreadfuls.  Do you have any kind of sci-fi, hero worship novella out there in the pulp tradition that fans can check out?

MS: I’m still a big fan of Elric of Melnibone. Most of the others you mention were before my time. But this gives me the opportunity to share an anecdote which has nothing to do with your question. When I was working on a slim biography of Hope Mirrlees, the author of Lud-in-the-Mist, her nephew, Count Robin Ian Evelyn Milne Stuart de la Lanne-Mirrlees, told me that his mother was a friend of Ian Fleming. One day, Fleming approached the Countess and told her that he was writing a book. Putting down her martini, she said, “Oh, Ian. Don’t write a book. You haven’t the brains for it.” If he’d listened to her, we’d never have heard of James Bond.

I enjoy pulp fiction. But with the exceptions below, I don’t write much of it. It’s a pleasure but a costly one, because it takes up time that could be spent writing something that might win me more literary acclaim.

Darger and Surplus action heroes

I mentioned Darger and Surplus before. There are five short stories scattered about and two novels – Dancing With Bears, which chronicles their adventures in Post-Utopian Russia and Chasing the Phoenix, in which they accidentally conquer China. Darger is the cerebral type and embarrassed when circumstances require that he act heroically, but Surplus, who is a genetically-modified canine given human stance and intelligence, is a Dog of Action and rather enjoys it.

Swanwick's pulp hero adventure

The Mongolian Wizard stories, set in a wizard war in a Grasustarkian Europe, follow the adventures of Franz-Karl Ritter, a member of the Werewolf Corps and an agent for British Intelligence, as he strives to help save civilization and keep from losing his soul in the process. Seven stories have been published so far. There will be twenty-one when the series is done, telling the story of the war from start to finish.

REACH:  Thank you sir for giving us the opportunity to get a correspondence interview with you.  We hope to grab a couple of copies of The Iron Dragon's Mother when it comes out, for ourselves and for hooking dear friends onto the best sci-fi reading going around today.


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