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Les Utopiales 2010 : une interview avec China Miéville

Par Linaka, le mardi 14 décembre 2010 à 08:00:00

L'interview en anglais

How have you liked your stay in France so far? Do you enjoy contact with your French fans? (For example, what are the differences with the Comic Con?)
Well, I've only been here two days, but it's been great. I've never been to Nantes before, I don't know France very well, but I have been to Paris a few times. The con is very interesting: it does have a different flavour somewhat to Anglo-American cons which is mostly what I know. Though it's funny you ask about Comic con, because that's a special case. Comic Con is not like other cons – you're talking about a hundred twenty thousand people, it's giant, and very few people are there for books, it's mostly video games and movies...
My impression is that the discussion here is more intellectually-driven in some ways than some of the American cons. I don't want to parody, there are very serious American cons, and I'm sure there are very frivolous French conventions, but that's my impression. My French isn't good enough to be sure, I try and keep up but that's my broad impression.
And it's been great meeting my fans, it always is, it's lovely – though I have to sign the books in English. There's a few phrases I can write in French, but mostly I sign in English and apologize.
Un Lun Dun has just received the Elbakin.net award for the best 2010 foreign novel in the children's book section. What does this book represent for you, in your whole career?
It was written very quickly, very abruptly, three years ago maybe, and it was a great joy to write. It felt like a hommage to, above all, Alice in Wonderland and Alice through the Looking-Glass – but particularly Alice through the Looking-Glass: you're either a Wonderland person or a Looking-Glass person, and I'm a Looking-Glass person.
It was the first book for younger readers I had written, and so I wasn't sure if I could do it, and it was the first book that I've illustrated, so again I wasn't sure if I could do it, because I've always drawn but not at a professional level. I found the whole process very... well, the only word I can use is joyful – I know that sounds ridiculous, but it was a very joyful experience. And I was nervous, because I have no record in children's fiction, nor as an illustrator, so I was worried that I would put it out and a lot of people would think: What the fuck? So I found the response very moving.
And you end up getting fan mails from eight year-olds: that's really lovely, that's really something. Because of the way books impact you when you're a very young reader – no book ever impacts you the same way, you know. The books I loved when I was eight, no matter how much I love a book now, it's not the same. So to think (maybe it's just an egocentric thing) that the book will be part of the mental furniture of a generation of adults in twenty years time, it's really really lovely.
The City & The City has received the most prestigious awards, with just recently a World Fantasy Award. The novel is universally acclaimed; what does it mean for you?
It's not universally acclaimed, there are people who don't like it (laughs). No, it's had wonderful responses. Again, in some ways it's a similar answer, because although it's a totally different book from Un-Lun-Dun, it's a book that feels I think somewhat different from my other novels, because it's written in a very different style. It's a hommage to a different tradition; it's an attempt to be a hommage to a noir tradition, and a certain tradition of kind of eastern-european modernest writing – like Bruno Schultz, Kafka, people like that.
And I've never written a crime novel before, and it is a crime novel – although also a fantasy novel of some sort. So again there was a question of it being very different, and I was very nervous about that.
I think I'm extremely lucky with my readers, because I think people who read my books are very indulgent of me, and very willing to let me try different things – they don't always ask for the same thing, which is very lovely. And to be rewarded for that means a great deal - also because this book was written at a difficult time, it's dedicated to my mother who died. There are all these personal reasons that this book is very meaningful to me, so it's been very affecting on that level.
This novel will soon be published by Fleuve Noir. In a general way, what do you think of the French versions of your books? Are you sent them?
Oh yes, I'm sent them all, and I work with the translators – I've worked in particular with Nathalie Mège. Again, to be honest my French is not really good enough to judge: I can read French, but slowly, and I'm not in a position of feeling the language. I can make sense of it but I can't for example work out with any facility how puns have been rendered, or how games have been played.
But there are two things that make me feel very poppy about the translations: one is the simple fact that a lot of French people who read both have said: Oh these are great translations! But the other is the kind of questions that the translators ask when they talk to you. It's very interesting because they aren't necessarily things that would have occurred to you – but they'll ask these very specific questions about nuances and stuff. It gives you a good feeling, because you feel like if they're paying that much attention to these very nebulous nuances of language, that inspires the hope that it's a very careful piece of work.
So I've enjoyed the process of collaborating with translators. And then occasionally you have the opposite, in some languages my books have come out and I've never had a word with the translator. In some cases there is a lot of slang, and I'm thinking Well, I don't know what you made of this, but....! But the French ones are not like that at all.
How did you come up with a passion for writing?
I don't really know. I think when I was a kid I wrote all the time, certainly from when I was eight or nine, and when I was about thirteen I decided it's someting I would like to consider trying to do professionaly. But I think a lot of the time the questions about how one becomes a writer, or what inspires one, you can only answer them by kind of trying to reconstruct it afterwards. At the time you're not thinking in those terms.
So I'm afraid the honest answer is that I don't really know, I just always really loved doing it. I can attempt to make sense of it afterwards, but well... I have all these bits of paper and stuff with poems and stories that I wrote when I was a little kid, and they're just exactly the same as the stuff I write now, I haven't changed in thirty-five years. I think one has a certain fidelity to one's obsessions. Those of us who have fidelity to our obsessions often end up: a) very geeky, and b) quite driven by your obsessions. So I think that obsession, that love of world-building, that love of the grotesque and the monstruous, that sort of things: I don't remember a time when that wasn't what was inspiring me to do things.
For a lot of people, Perdido Street Station remains a shock. It had been said a role-playing game was to be made. Is it still under way?
Yes, it's being done by a company called Adamant Entertainment, and it's being done very slowly, which I'm very happy with. It's a very small company, and it's done by a guy who I know somewhat. I'm leaving him to get on with it in his own time – I mean no hurry, I would much rather he took his time and did a nice job. So I collaborated with him, I sent him a bunch of stuff – you know, world stuff, and historical informations, things like that. I suspect it will probably come out late next year, or possibly early 2012, but I don't honestly know. But yes it is happening, absolutely.
You have a blog, but recently you got annoyed by a fake Facebook profile with your name. What's your feeling about these new technologies which have been expanding for a few years now?
It's funny you say I have a blog, I don't know that I would call it a blog, but maybe it's a blog, ok. I'm not on Facebook, I'm not on Twitter, I'm not on Live Journal, I don't blog about myself, I'm not interested in that stuff. But that does not mean I'm a luddite; it's not because I disapprove of these things. I know lots of people who are on Facebook and who love being on Facebook; I know more people who love twitting. Fine, great, enjoy yourself, knock yourself out: it doesn't interest me, it's not what I want to do.
The Facebook thing was frustrating because at least one person was mimicing me on Facebook, and in itself I think it's really creepy and weird, but I don't care. The reason I cared was because I was getting messages from people saying: I contacted you on Facebook and you haven't responded. And I was like: What the fuck?, you know. So that's really worrying, and that was the reason why I reacted. And this wasn't a fan site; there are fan sites on Facebook too, I have no problem with that, that's very flattering. This was purely a question of imitation.
I do have a problem in the sense that I think increasingly you are, as a writer, especially a young writer - if you started a few years after me, if you're a few years younger than me, it is almost de rigueur to blog, to twitt, you're supposed to do this outreach. And I think that's an enormous shame; I think if people want to do that that's fantastic, but I think the idea that this should be part of your role as a writer, I have a huge problem with. What if you have no interest in this, what if what you want to do is write your books, what if you want to be a recluse, what if you don't feel you have a platform – what if you don't think everything you think every minute of the day is worth twitting? It does create a certain kind of solipsism, which I think is really potentially damaging.
I think it blurrs the line between the identity of the writer and a branding exercise, which I really don't like, it's a kind of commodification of the person of the writer. I don't want to sound like a prig about this: if people enjoy it that's fine. What I don't like is the notion that you're being told you have to do this. I think it is a great cultural shame that this is become a default part of being a writer. And I'm lucky, because I'm just old enough – I started publishing maybe four-five years before that started to become the norme. I think if I was four or five years younger, I would have had a lot more pressure to be doing these things.
You don't hide your political opinions – but you said before you do no write to set them out. Still, isn't it tempting to do so? Especially for someone with your eloquence.
It depends on the book – some books are more overtly political than others. I have to try to be clear: I get asked this question in some form not infrequently, so I know it's something that people are very aware of, but it's not something I ever think about. I never ever think: How do I mediate my political views in my story?, it simply never comes up. Occasionally, like with Iron Council, there is a story which revolves around politics in some fairly-overt way, and in that situation the politics may become more overt in a novel. Most of the rest of the time, there is a kind of political texture, a political hinterland, and if you're interested in that you can find things, but if you are not then the story also has to operate at the level of a story, and keep you turning the pages.
I think there is a big difference between looking at political ideas in fiction, examining them, using them as texture, playing with them, and try to consider your fiction as a vehicle for pushing forward certain political ideas. There is a cliché which is: Oh, I'm propaganda opposite. Well, there is some very good propagandistic novels, but it's difficult to do, and it's not something I'm interested in doing. I don't write fantasy because I want to make a case of socialism, I write fantasy because I like monsters and invented worlds, stuff like that. But yes, sure, some of the stuff that comes into the texture of the world will be informed by my political opinions, which are of the left. But there's never been any moment of conflict for me, and if you look for political themes, you'll easily find them, but if you don't, it shouldn't, hopefully, preclude you enjoying the books anyway.
Could you say a few words about one of your favorite authors, Michael Moorcock? A new Elric is about to be published next year. Do you think you'd have been able to rewrite such a character in your own way?
I'm an enormous admirer of Moorcock, on many levels. I grew up on his work, I think he's one of the great figures of English letters. I met him and he's delightful, he's always been very nice and supportive to me.
I think I would be very scared to touch Elric. I'm not that interested for myself in writing tie-in fiction, or writing fiction in shared worlds on the whole, because I love these characters that I want to read about. And the idea of someone as iconic as Elric.... I would have been tremendously intimidated to try to actually voice. Instead, I want to read it, read about what Elric is doing – but I'm not in a position to say what he's doing. I would rather, on Michael Moorcock and otherwise, write things inspired by him, write things that riff off his ideas, and indeed I have done that, you know. But I think I would be really nervous to do something in a shared world with him.
Towns in general are very important in your novels; they're living entities. What makes the environment so important for you?
I grew up in a city, I love big cities, I've always have. There's certainly a very strong tradition of city-writing in general, and London-writing in particular. I like the kind of chaotic, palimpsest nature of the city, particularly something like London which has a kind of both catastrophic and wonderful lack of urban planning. So you have this bizarre patchwork of history and aesthetics, very different from something like Paris, you know, where Haussmann broke everything. Everything that doesn't fit gets pushed out to the banlieue, it's a very different topography. Whereas in London it's all mixed up and munched up, and I really like that. I like patchworks, and I think that London is a patchwork city.
So you ask about cities and I would say yes, cities in general, because they are fraught, dramatic, there's a lot of political action, there's a lot of aesthetic action. But London in particular also is something that means a lot.
A few years ago, the New Weird as an emerging sub-genre was very discussed. How do you think it evolved?
I really enjoyed the New Weird, I thought it was really fun. I didn't invent the term, it was invented by M. John Harrison – a lot of people think I did, but I didn't. I thought it was a brilliant term. Any moment, any literary movement, any manifesto, is a performance and a provocation. It is not an active science in the same way as geology or paeleontology: it's a different kind of thing. So I got very pissed off with people saying: Oh, but you say there's this new movement, but if you look at this writer, this thing that you're saying is not exactly the same. And who gives a fuck? Honestly, that is not the issue. The issue here is: was this fun? Was it swagger? You know, it's about swagger: a manifesto is a swagger, and swaggers can be very enjoyable, very provocative, but they're also I think useful epistemologically. You can hopefully, to be meaningful, to be interesting, you also learn something about a moment of fiction, a moment of literature, by looking at it through the prism of a movement, or a moment. And to me New Weird did point at something that was happening and made a basic effort to try to grope at some explanations to what might be happening, and to suggest what made some kind of fictions more interesting than others.
Now, any category like that will also very quickly become a marketing term, and become a commodity. This is inevitable, this happens with all literary movements, all artistic movements. You have a very short window during which time it may have some kind of aesthetic use, as I say an epistemological use. And while that was going on, I thought it was great. The point at which it started being used as a marketing category, and people were saying on the backs of books: Great example of the New Weird... Marketers have to do their job, I'm not giving them shit, but that was the point to which I say: Ok, I've lost any kind of control over this, I'm no longer interested in it. So, a few years ago, I enjoyed very much the debate about New Weird, and then they reached a point, about a year later, where I said – I mean explicitally, I wrote a piece in which I said: I won't talk about New Weird anymore. I don't think I can talk about it anymore, because I think it is become to ossified within a certain kind of marketing thing.
I really don't like the kind of brusk, common-sensical antagonism toward literary movements, this kind of: Why do we have to use labels? Fuck off, we all use labels, all the time, it's a way of thinking, it's a heuristic, you know. The question is: is it helpful, is it enjoyable, did you like the swagger , was it a good provocation? And I thought New Weird was, and if somebody wants to debate on those terms and say to me: No, it wasn't. fine, that's a real debate, but don't tell me: Oh, there's just good books and bad books.
Just out of curiosity, do you still give lessons at the Warwick University? How would you define the China Miéville as a teacher?
Yes, I do. I think I'm a good lecturer, I like giving lectures. I don't know how good I am at doing close situation. And I don't mean I think I'm bad, I literally don't know, you'd have to ask my students.
I like lecturing a lot, but the close stuff is difficult. And when you try to teach creative writing it's particularly difficult, because it's not a science, it's very nebulous and subjective. There are people with whom you feel that you work very very well, and others with whom it doesn't really click. And you couldn't assertly predict it, it's often the people who write most unlike you who you work well with, you know. But I hope I'm decent, but you'd have to ask my students.
Which are your last top choice readings? Fantasy or else.
I've been reading a lot of old books by a writer called Jane Gaskell – she hasn't published anything for about twenty years, but she started publishing when she was very young, she was fourteen. I've always loved her first book, that she wrote when she was a kid, which is called Strange Evil. But I finally got hold of a couple of her other books: a vampire novel called The Shiny Narrow Grin, which is very difficult to find, and another book called A Sweet Sweet Summer, about London with aliens in it, and they're very very strange books. She's not really writing within the genre, but she uses a lot of fantasy and science fiction ideas, and writes these books – they're not like anything else I've read.
So I would say the book I've the most enjoyed recently within the field was A Sweet Sweet Summer, which is forty years old, something like that, but I thought it was terrific.
And out of the genre?
I wish I'd known this question was coming, because I keep a record of everything I read, since I was thirteen, but I haven't got it with me. I'm trying to remember... because I don't read that much when I'm writing, I find it very difficult, I'd have to focus. So I read a non-fiction book by Alex Callinicos, Bonfire of Illusions, which is a book about the financial crisis and the geopolitics today, which I thought was very good.
Do you have anything to say about your coming plans, after Kraken? I've heard about a space opera...
I said it was a science fiction novel, set in space – I think I said space, and people added opera. The book is coming out next year, it's called Embassytown, it's set in far future, and I'm working on something else now. That will be out in Britain in May, and in the States in May, and I'm trying to work on something else now – I won't say too much about it, because I'm nervous about talking about work in progress.
But I'm working on two books for the future. One of them, I'm sure, will be out in 2012. The one thing that I get asked a lot is wether I'm gonna do more set in the world of Perdido Street Station, and the answer is still yes, but I don't know when. I'd far rather write too few than too many. So often in geek culture we destroy what we love by being unable to leave it alone, we do too much of it. So I don't want to do that.
As a conclusion, do you have a few words to say to your French readers?
Alors les mots... J'ai honte parce que je trouve ça très difficile de parler en français, donc je vais parler en anglais, mais quand je reviens ici je vais parler en français. Ce sont les mots!
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