Interview of Michael Moorcock

from Imagine Magazine #22, January 1985

For readers of sword and sorcery stories, the name of Michael Moorcock is synonymous with all that is best and most exciting in the genre. His character Elric is much loved by lovers of fiction and gamers of all kinds. In this exclusive interview, which took place in October at Forbidden Planet Bookshop in London, IMAGINE magazine brings the man's career up to date.

IMAGINE Magazine: The project that you've done for this magazine (MM helped write a D&D scenario published in the same issue) revolves around the character Earl Aubec, a hero first written about in the story The Master Of Chaos - originally entitled Earl Aubec and the Golem. Why was this hero chosen?

Michael Moorcock: We're going back about twenty years to the days of the magazine Science Fantasy. At the time I thought about writing a series of novels and stories about Earl Aubec, and about the Young Kingdoms. When IMAGINE magazine asked for the game scenario, I thought it a good idea to use the Aubec material as it relates to Elric, and readers will be familiar with the lands on the map - they are the same ones which feature in the Elric stories.

I: In an article entitled Elric reprinted in the book Sojan you wrote: "If Cele Goldsmith likes the next one, I'm planning the first of a series showing the development of the earth from a rather unusual slant... Vaguely possible that Elric will appear in future stories." Can you enlarge on that?

MM: The scenario is based on one of the stories, but Elric doesn't appear in it - though there are references to him. I did the scenario recently from one of the original ideas of that time, and I don't think, if I'd written the story back then, that when I got down to it I would have put Elric in. I shan't be writing any more stories of that period. I've always worked on the principle that if it doesn't excite me as a writer then it won't excite the reader. I've always adhered to that. Also, there's a distinct danger, if that danger hasn't already occurred, of repeating yourself.

I: The Elric story The Last Enchantment; could you tell us something about it?

MM: It was written in 1962 and was going to be the last Elric story after While The Gods Laugh. Ted Carnell (editor of Science Fantasy) wanted more. I believe that he suggested that he, as agent, should submit the story in America. I forgot it until long after Ted died. Eventually, Les Flood, who had taken over Ted's agency, found the manuscript and sent it back. Ariel books were asking for a story at the time, so I sent them that one.

I: Where does it fit into the Elric saga?

MM: I now see it as an episode between While The Gods Laugh and Kings In Darkness, I suppose.

I: The idea of paradox features prominently in this story. Can you enlarge on this concept.

MM: The paradoxical games played in the story are all in some way prefiguring later stories and also The Dancers At The End Of Time. Chaos enjoys paperboard paradox (in itself boring). While Law permits no paradox at all (also sterile). A world in balance is a world permitting both a degree of congruity plus a degree of paradox.

I: What is your personal knowledge of the games world, and why do you think it has become so popular?

MM: (chuckles) I've played Monopoly... And Ludo when I was younger. Unfortunately for me it's the time factor, but I know a lot of people who are actively involved. If you look back to the 20's and 30's, the people then were enjoying the popular magazines, they contained the same types of fantasies but they weren't so formalized. It's also linked to the times we live in. Large numbers of people feel disenfranchised, and if people haven't got any effect, or feel that they haven't got any effect in the real world, they go into religion - or perhaps role-playing games. Both are substitutes for the person who feels that he has no effect on anything.

I: Will you get involved in role-playing games, or computer games?

MM: Actively, no. I'll write the odd scenario, such as the outline I did for IMAGINE. It's a good way of adding too the Eternal Champion romances, plus I'll provide storylines for comics. Granada are doing an adventure role-playing game book based on Elric; there may even be a series. I don't know much about it, but it comes out next year, I think.

I: Why was the Elric set of mythos associations withdrawn from the TSR Deities and Demigods handbook?

MM: I was asked by TSR if they could use the deities, etc., and quite cheerfully said yes, not realising that Chaosium (producers of the Stormbringer game) was a rival firm. It was all settled amicably in the end, but it did mean that TSR had to drop that section from the book.

I: Can you tell us something about the concept of the Eternal Champion, your inspiration and your favorite characters?

MM: I started work on it when I was sixteen, and originally the influences came from H. Rider Haggard and A. Merriot. The idea being reborn and that of the Champion figure stemmed from those writers, and just grew and grew. Of all the incarnations, Elric is my favorite. Admittedly, some characters I've written about are more sophisticated, but my real love is for Elric.

I: Did you have a masterplan of 20+ books when you embarked on the series?

MM: Not when I started as a lad, but fairly soon after, it started to take shape. The figures form mythology, the ones heard by John Daker, were changed for the characters which I was writing about in the paperback edition. I'm usually thinking about ten books ahead, so I can think about prefiguring stuff that I haven't really begun to write. I think ten books ahead (chuckles) because usually I don't want to write the book I'm actually writing. It's a way of tricking myself if I've got to write that imagined book I escape into writing the book I'm actually writing. I cut down on anxiety that way (laughs).

I: When did you first get involved in sword and sorcery; what did you read when you were young?

MM: Hard to say. I was reading H Rider Haggard and Edgar Rice Burroughs almost as soon as I could read. They were my father's books, and were readily available. I was six or seven, I suppose. After that others followed. I went through a miscellaneous selection, including Dickens, Shaw and school stories.

I: When you wrote the first story featuring Elric, everything was destroyed by the hero. Usually the hero sets out for find rather than destroy. Was it a concious effort to turn the genre on it's head?

MM: (chuckles) He's a sort of Byronic hero. I don't like heroes in the Conan mould who are described as good, but usually create mayhem all around. I suppose I project myself into the position. I'd be extremely upset with myself, and not be self-righteous about it.

I: Is Elric you in your younger days?

MM: Yes, I think so. A horribly exaggerated and romanticised version os an adolescent.

I: Was he/is he a "writers albatross"?

MM: Not now. Ten to fifteen years ago I though that he was, but time mellows.

I: You must be pleased that the Elric books are at last being published in sequence in this country.

MM: Yes I am. Granada are hoping to buy the rights to the first one, Elric of Melniboné, and then they'll have all six. In Germany they're published in one massive volume, and very good it is too.

I: In your books, Law and Chaos is a central theme. Can you tell IMAGINE readers where the influences come from?

MM: I enjoyed the books by Poul Anderson - The Broken Sword and Three Hearts And Three Lions. Basically it's a good metaphor for the human being; the two forces warring inside the individual. Half of us is attracted to the wild side - the romance of Chaos, while the other half is saying that if you spend all your money, you won't have any left for you bus fare. I also used the ideas behind Zoroastrianism. Again, that sort of dichotomy, the sort of ambiguity of light and dark and the different aspects of it seem to me to reflect the human condition. A lot also comes from the thoughts of Jung.

I: Symbolism is prominent in your books. Perhaps we could look at some of the symbols you use. How do you see Tanelorn, that mythical city, in your books?

MM: It's an ideal.... There's a lot of symbolic ideas; the utopian world, lost dreams, dreams of perfection. That's what I write about. In The Golden Barge, I discuss how people completely mess things up in attempting to achieve and discover some sort of Utopia. There's a constant ambivalence around it and Tanelorn is, I suppose, a dream of perfection. Even in recent books, Byzantium Endures and Laughter of Carthage, I'm writing about a kind of horribly debased ideal world which Pyat is talking about.

I: What does the Runestaff featured in the Hawkmoon books symbolize?

MM: I suppose it's a sort of perfect order. It's similar to the Holy Grail in a lot of it's characteristics. It operates on several levels. At one, it's a source of order, on another, a source of disorder, in that human nature is inclined to make an awful lot of trouble just to get hold of it.

I: What does the blind captain represent in The Quest For Tanelorn? Where does this idea come from?

MM: Another image. In a way, it's how I see man. The blind steersman is, in a sense, how we all stumble through life. It's another poetic image with a number of resonances to it. The blind leading the blind is one of the resonances.

I: Each of your heroes has a companion. What role does he play?

MM: It's formalized mythology. In most folk stories there is a companion. His function for me is to take the piss out of the hero; bring him down to earth, see the whole picture and make the hero stop taking things so seriously. He's really the ironic counterpoint. In straight fiction you'd use the ironic counterpoint in stylistic terms; in visionary fiction, it's people or characters supplying different aspects of human nature who take over the role.

I: Linked with the companion, why do the letters "J. C." feature so prominently in the names of your characters?

MM: Ted Carnell (John Carnell, the editor of Science Fantasy) picked the initials JC for James Colvin from his own initials (James Colvin is a pseudonym used by Michael Moorcock). I never thought about Jerry Cornelius having the same initials, it just happened. I then decided to make something of it and use it for several other characters. One thing led to another. But in the beginning it was coincidental. I believe that you never produce a theory until you've actually done it. It certainly wasn't planned from the beginning.

I: In the Corum trilogies there are several Celtic ideas, associations and myth references. Was this intentional?

MM: I was in Cornwall at the time and it was a rainy holiday, so I decided to look at the Cornish language and the Celtic myths. The idea came from there and the inspiration behind the books is Cornwall. Moidel's Mount is based on St. Michael's Mount. As a kid I spent a lot of time in Devon and Cornwall with relatives like great aunts. Now I recall images of the places but I was so young I can't remember the places where I stayed. It's the landscape which I like so much and which I used as a background for the books.

I: How do you set about drawing and planning the maps and stories and thinking out the names for the people and places?

MM: They come naturally. The map was the first thing I'd do; I've always enjoyed drawing maps. Whilst drawing the maps I'd be thinking around the story. I don't start with a preconceived beginning, middle and ending. Images are the important part. The plot tends to come naturally as do the names whilst I'm writing. What I make sure of is that the whole thing coheres as a piece. The landscape, the creatures, the swords - the general inventions, that is, all have to be parts of the same and feel right. They have to resonate. They must all fit. Once I have the images I let the plot take care of itself as I write.

I: How long did the sword and sorcery romances take to write? Were they written for the love of the theme or because you needed the money to fund New Worlds of which you were then editor?

MM: Absolutely both. There's no line you could draw between them. I enjoy story telling. I'm fairly unique in the science fiction/fantasy circle where the short story is the supreme form. Most of the best writers are best at short stories. I'm best at novels, just by sheer luck. The Hawkmoon books were each done in three days. I never re-read them after I'd finished them. Straight off the typewriter and off to the publisher. When writing a new book with links back to others, I would skip-read the previous books to check up on facts. Now I spend a little longer.

I: Will you ever return to the sword and sorcery genre?

MM: Scenarios for comic books and role-play adventures satisfy the urge to return to The Eternal Champion. There is one last novel - the final Eternal Champion book. I've owed the novel to Granada for about four years and I'm planning to write it next year. It'll be based on the comic book Swords of Heaven, Flowers of Hell which Chaykin illustrated. I'll add more to that one, but essentially it'll be the same story... I'm still writing fantasy, it's just that it's getting a bit more away from sword and sorcery.

I: Have you ever had offers from other publishers who would like to base more books on your sword and sorcery characters but written by other authors?

MM: Yes. From time to time that happens, but I've turned it down so far. I've permitted them to be used in comics and games, but I've drawn the line at a story or novel by someone else. You can completely dissipate something by doing that, or by allowing it to go on and on, whether it's by you or someone else. (Chuckles) I've got my price. If someone offered me a million quid to take over Elric I'm sure I'd accept. But up to about a million quid I've still got my principles. (the chuckle turns to a laugh).

I: If we can turn to The Warhound And The World's Pain, how did that one come about?

MM: The editor of Timescape Books (American) wanted another book from me. I wanted to get away from straight sword and sorcery with imagined landscapes, so I wrote this one. There are another two in the pipeline, which follow on so to speak. Not the same characters, but the same family - the Von Bek. The second one is set some one hundred and fifty years on from The Warhound. It's in the period of the French Revolution. The books are set around the change from, as it were, the age of religion into the age of science. I'm finishing off the second one now and the third one is partly drafted. They're called The City In The Autumn Stars and Manfred; or The Gentleman Houri.

I: You enjoy working in threes, don't you?

MM: (laughs) Yes I do. It comes from working in three day stints when I did a section a day on the romances.

I: Do you read much fantasy?

MM: No. I read and like M John Harrison and the Fritz Leiber stories when new ones appear. It's very swiftly becoming a debased form of literature. The titles are becoming more and more ludicrous. (laughs) I thought I'd gone as far as one could go there.

I: Who are your favorite illustrators, not necessarily sci/fi ones?

MM: Melvyn Peakes an obvious one. Heath and Charles Robinson, Dulac and all of the so-called Golden Age artists. Modern day ones are those I work with, especially Chaykin and Cawthorn. I enjoy the landscapes Rodney Matthews has done and the latest Elric covers. He's got a new book coming out soon and I'm doing the introduction for it.

I: What happened to the two titles which I've seen in catalogues: one by John Clute and the other your book Heroic Dreams?

MM: John Clute was going to write The Cruel World and It's Pierrot, which was a critical look at my books. But he never wrote it. My book is actually written but the publishing company went bankrupt. It's very critical of an awful lot of books which are popular. Tolkien doesn't come out to well. As they say, it knocks the product. Elric At The End Of Time, the short story, which showed him in a comic light - several American publishers turned that down initially because it knocked the product.

I: Could you tell us about your writing routine?

MM: It's a strict nine-to-five day. I tend to be very disciplined when I'm writing a novel. I tend not to drink much and not do anything except work. I'm with it the whole time. At one time I almost worked through the year. This year I took some time off to do some travelling. I keep a general notebook, but not so much as I used to.

I: How do you view your latest work?

MM: What I'm involved in at present is going towards what I term realistic fiction rather than fantasy. Then again what is realistic fiction? A lot of it is still visionary if you look closely at it.

I: Which books would you like to be remembered for?

MM: The current ones - Byzantium Endures and Laughter Of Carthage. Only because they're the most serious type of thing I've ever done. There are still two more to be written in the series so it could conceivably be those.

I: I'd like to move on to the musical side of your life. In Entropy Tango there were several poems. Were these intended for song lyrics?

MM: Yes. Unfortunately the whole thing fell through and it got shelved. We did all the demos for it and also for Gloriana, but they never materialised. Dave Brock of Hawkwind has just asked me if I'm prepared to work on a new LP. I told him yes, but that this time it's got to go all the way through. I don't know how many scenarios I've done for Hawkwind, and songs that fit, but they've never found their way onto record. I don't know what we'll be doing, but it'll probably be sword and sorcery oriented. Over the years I've had a bad deal on the music side. I signed a stupid and doubtful music contract and I haven't received a penny in royalties for the work I've done for Blue Oyster Cult.

I: Are there any ambitions left to be fulfilled?

MM: Gloriana was the best thing we did musically. I'd like to see that get into production. Originally it was done as a potential music/speech dramatization, but the BBC music department said that it didn't fit into their department and the drama department said it didn't fit into theirs. That was that. I'd also like to see an Elric film, but the chances are pretty thin. Producers have found that it's cheaper to rip off ideas than it is to pay for them!

I: Will the audience who have enjoyed your sword and sorcery, Jerry Cornelius, and the End of Time books move with you as you tread the new ground of realistic fiction?

MM: I believe that the public doesn't go for categories. It's publishers and book sellers who go for those. Someone once said about me that I'm a commodity on my name as far as publishers are concerned. As far as readers are concerned, I'm very pleased to find youngsters reading my books. With luck, if they enjoy Byzantium, for example, it may open up a new avenue of fiction that previously they'd thought they wouldn't like. I always get a large number of youngsters and teenagers when I do signing sessions at Forbidden Planet, and that's something which I find very rewarding.

I: To end on a lighter note, you've 'died' twice, yet in an article in 1963 you said: ' I don't want to die. I hope I shan't. Maybe I'll be the exception that proves the rule.'

MM: (laughing) I enjoy life a lot, and it always strikes me as extremely unfair that you have to die.

This was the first time that I'd met Michael Moorcock and I hope it won't be the last. Even though he had a raging dose of 'flu, nothing was too much trouble for him. He is a gentleman in the true sense of the word, completely unassuming and possessing a great sense of humour. Ones heroes are often found to have feet of clay. Not Michael Moorcock. Genuine, sincere and a man of high literary and personal principles.
My thanks also to Forbidden Planet bookshop for their warmth and hospitality in allowing me to carry out the interview on their premises.

David Hill (October 1984)

Cédric / QueST

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