Ian R. Macleod is Birmingham born and bred, and as he tells it in his biography on his site, he wasn’t much of a student — but he was a reader, devouring all manner of science fiction as he grew up. His road to publishing was twisty — novels were the first form he wrote in, but it was when he moved to short stories that he found success as a writer. His stories have appeared in magazines from Asminov’s to Weird Tales, and earned him award nominations and wins — before he found his way back to writing novels.
He was kind — and patient with me — enough to give me an interview about his writing.
Describe your ideal writing environment? Are you a writer that enjoys chaos around you or do you prefer quiet?
I pretty much always have music playing. Generally non-vocal and classical, although depending on my mood it can be jazz or even heavy metal. It’s as much about blocking out the world as getting involved in the music, although music is very, very important to me. I shift around a bit in the house, and will work in coffee houses or libraries, but generally do most of my stuff in one room, my study, with the blinds down enough to shut out the view. The real view you’re trying to find is whatever you’re trying to locate in your head, so anything else can be a distraction.
I’m sure it has. I used to be simpler, clumsier, more naïve. Now, I probably have too much facility, and can write pretty reams which don’t really amount to anything. Part of the challenge is find things you haven’t expressed before, and to find the voice in which to express them.
If you could choose, as a writer, what part of the SF/fantasy genre do you enjoy writing on the most?
I have to be honest and say I have very strong leanings toward naturalistic fiction. Which means I’m very happy when I’m close to the edges of the genre and at the fringes of reality. But also, because it’s a stretch for me, I enjoy closer to the genre’s middle, and writing about imagined lands and far away planets. Which doesn’t happen as often as I’d like.
Your writing features detailed world-building – what’s the most important thing for you to achieve when you’re world-building?
It has to be believable. Not to the reader, but to me. And then I have to find some kind of feeling for it. I’m an emotional writer, and I need to have feelings about the landscape I’m creating. The other thing to look out for is the stuff in whatever world I’m in that doesn’t seem to make sense or work, because that’s either the thing which will destroy your vision, or make it really interesting. A great deal of my world-building uses real-world tropes, names and even locations. I’m not a big fan of making things up which already exist pretty satisfactorily in the real world. Why re-imagine somewhere that’s a bit like Venice or the Sahara when the real places are pretty wonderful? Still, I do end up drawing maps and coming up with names, just as any writer must. Even the most realistic fiction will most likely feature characters and streets and features that don’t really exist and you need to explore those and try to find your own response to them if they’re going to seem real.
As a long-time reader of both genres, I am aware of a difference in emphasis and atmosphere, but I’m really not thinking too much of what category something falls into when I’m writing it, which could be very limiting. Push science or fantasy hard enough, and anything’s possible. And, from what we know of the world, it’s far more plausible that we’ll soon have the technology to create a dragon than it is a starship.
Are there any expectations of both SF and fantasy that you’ve grown tired of as a writer? That you’ve deliberately gone against in your own work?
I do grow annoyed when I read a story which is poorly written or makes no proper effort to create interesting characters or an effective atmosphere. The main expectation which bothers me, though, is that SF is seen as something alien and probably unreadable by most mainstream readers. That, and the way that publishers pander to the smallish current audience they have in the genre with the books they select to publish, which are so often predictably like something that’s already been done, and then the way they are marketed. I grew up thinking SF was at the breaking wave of new art and fiction, not a way of having a cosy three-volume bath of escapism.
You’ve listed Richard Thomson and Robert Fripp as influences on your website. Both are musicians – can you tell us a little bit more about their music and how it’s influenced you?
Hard to say just a little bit! However, the lyrics of people like Joni Mitchell and Steely Dan, as well as Richard Thompson and a great many other songwriters, have been at least as important to me in terms of how I write as any novelist or short story writer. That, and I cherish virtuosity and beauty of tone. Oh, and risk. And the bits of a musical area that I most love are often at the edges of it. I love Mahler and Prokofiev and other such “late” classical composers because you can almost feel the medium breaking apart as they stretch it. Similarly, with rock and bands like Henry Cow and King Crimson. In terms of more modern artists, I do tend to listen to a fair amount of jazz and more experimental stuff. Laura Marling’s great, though, and I thought the latest Daft Punk album was incredibly clever and appealing. I used to get pretty excited about Boards of Canada, too. Bjork as well. But there was a golden age of modern popular music , and, although there’s some great stuff about, it seems clear that we’re no longer in it.
I talk a great deal to my dogs and my budgie. The latter, Groon, starts walking about on the page and jumping on my hand and nibbling at the pen and stomping on the keyboard if I allow him out when I’m writing. That, and I do generally run my pieces past my wife when I think I’ve finished them. She’d be the first to admit she’s only a moderate reader, and no literary expert, but she’s good at pointing out things she doesn’t understand or follow, which is very useful. I love uncertainty and ambiguity too much as a writer, and it can be hard to tell what works, and what needs to be made clearer.
Writer’s block – what are your tips and tricks to dealing with that?
First of all, it’s a natural part of the cycle. You can’t write all the time, and the store of things which will work you have in your head at any given moment is limited. I’ve been pretty lucky with that problem, though. I’m a slowish writer anyway, which perhaps helps, and I’ve never just done just one kind of fiction. I do reckon that there’s probably something you want to express at any particular phase in your life, and the real trick is to find it. And, to find it, that may involve a time of not writing. As the years have gone by, and I’ve still been able to keep going, I’ve got a bit more organised about how I chase things down. I keep lists. I make sure I don’t destroy half-arsed things that didn’t seem to work. I read, and try to seek interesting things out. As I’ve said when I was talking about creating worlds, a problem with an idea can often be the thing which, if you can solve it, makes it interesting. You also need to allow time. The subconscious brain which processes a lot of this stuff needs to be nudged occasionally, then left to get on with its business. So, don’t forget things, but don’t bash them to death with too much conscious processing. Just let a few ideas and impressions lie under the cool, dark stones of your subconscious, and now and again take another look to see how they are going. The process can take days, weeks, or decades. The biggest problem is that, if you’re a writer, you simply want to get on with writing, and all this being patient and a bit organised but also keeping loose about how things are going is extremely frustrating.
Looking back on your career, is there anything you would have done differently? Any plot point that makes you wonder what if you’d gone the other way?
I really don’t look back in that sense. When something’s done it’s done; if it’s still nagging at you, that probably means there’s a new story there, which is great. Although I do sincerely wish I’d never gone to the cinema to see Man Of Steel. That, and Young Victoria. And The Boat that Rocked, and pretty much anything else that’s got Bill Nighy in it.