Interview with Michael Coney

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Interview with Michael Coney

from: The Camelot Project  1999

SYDNEY, B.C.
6 JULY 1989

   Like myself, Michael Coney was a guest at the conference of the Mythopoeic Society in Vancouver, but we decided to meet beforehand at his home on Vancouver Island. The house has a fine view of the islands that make this part of the world so scenic, and after a walk along the shore, watching a family of otters at play and an osprey hunting, my son, who accompanied me on this trip, decided he could very happily settle there. I should be just as happy to visit him.
   Coney has written many science fiction novels, amongst which are Fang, the Gnome (New York: New American Library, 1988) and its sequel King of the Scepter'd Isle (New York: New American Library, 1989). The books presented their author with three intriguing challenges: first, they were originally written as one single book, but the publisher wanted it divided into two; second, Arthurian legend had to be integrated into the universe already created in earlier novels; third, he wanted to avoid allowing humor to deteriorate into irreverence towards a legend that he loved. I was happy to reassure him that he had succeeded in all three, particularly the last. The encounter between the peace-loving gnomes and the heroic society of Arthurian legend provides some of the finest comedy in Arthurian tradition, as he demonstrated to an appreciative audience during a reading later at the conference.


RT: Why did you choose to set both Fang, the Gnome and King of the Scepter'd Isle in the same universe that you created in The Celestial Steam Locomotive?

MC: I had these extremely peace-loving genetic engineers, and it struck me how good it would be to pit them against a society that was based on a heroic culture: might is right and all that kind of thing. There was potential for great conflict in their reaction to each other.

RT: Why did you pick the Arthurian legend, as opposed to some other, to represent that heroic culture?

MC: Because I lived in England for most of my life, I'd always been interested in the legend and I'd always wanted to write a book about King Arthur.

RT: What books had you read that aroused your interest in Arthurian legend in the first place?

MC: I had read various versions of Malory. When I started coming across other sources in my very brief research, I had to make a conscious decision to eliminate them because I was getting too much material. I wanted to focus upon certain highlights. In the end, almost all the research was done from one particular book, Malory's Morte Darthur as rendered by Keith Baines.

RT: At what point did you do your research?

MC: I had planned how the gnomish society was going to work. Next came the task of familiarizing myself with the Arthurian material. I was working for the Ministry of Forests at the time and had to take a field trip. This, I thought, is my chance to really get to the bottom of the Arthurian story, and so I took along my copy of Malory and read it every evening while sitting in the whirlpool at the Holiday Inn in Prince George. While I was doing this, I was making rather damp notes on what I did need and what I didn't. Then I produced a precis of these notes.
   At my leisure, I read the text more slowly and reduced the precis to about a dozen pages summarizing the main events. Since I found that they were vivid enough to stick in my mind, I hoped that others would remember them also. I then had to explain them in science-fiction terms and work them into the fabric of a story involving aliens. The gnomes by that time had already been invented, and were probably sitting on computer disk upstairs.

RT: Actual scenes and dialogue?

MC: No. The way they travelled and their culture. Since their three laws of behavior were described in a previous book, I didn't need to reinvent those. So I had one very distinct society that I knew everything about. Then I had the Arthurian society, which I knew enough about by then to recognize where the points of conflict would be with the peace-loving gnomes.
   A major difficulty arose when I sent the book to the publisher who wanted to split it into two. The only obvious place to end the first book was when Arthur arrived on the scene. This meant that Fang had to deal first with a totally different group of people, namely Tristan and his friends. It was necessary for the legend to be already in existence, however, and so we have Tristan and his friends trying to abide by the principles of chivalry. In Book II we have King Arthur faced with a similar problem: how is he going to live up to his own legend?

RT: Why did the publisher want to split the book into two?

MC: The original book was the length that Fang, the Gnome is now, about 120,000 words. When the publisher said they wanted two books, I assumed they meant two books of about 60-65,000 words each. When the contracts came, however, I found they wanted two books of 120,000 words each. This meant a much more ambitious and complex plot throughout. So I had to say, okay, where is the cutoff point between the two books? After I decided that, I found myself with half a story about gnomes, half a story about human beings, and the need to expand them somehow. Now if there's one thing I can't do, it's pad, because I really love plot and action. I virtually rewrote the whole story, putting in subplots that didn't exist before. I think it's a better story now because I've been able to develop the characters more fully. They stuck around for 240,000 words instead of 120,000 words.

RT: When you realized you had to expand the story, did you do further research into Arthurian legend?

MC: Yes. I didn't read any one book in particular. I have several books, and I borrowed others from the library. I immersed myself in the legend to pick up a few more ideas for expanding the plot. I did invent a totally new direction by bringing a new gnome onto the scene in Book II to create conflict in their society. In Book I, I expanded the treatment of Tristan and various other characters, and I brought the Baron in to provide conflict among the humans. The Irish already had a role in my original story because Tristan had his romance with the Irish princess.

RT: In the Arthurian material you read, were there any post-medieval writers like Tennyson?

MC: Of course I read Tennyson in school, and my mother has always collected everything Arthurian she could. As a result I have been exposed to the legend since childhood, part of which was lived in the more rural areas of Devon and the southwest. Down there the legend kept cropping up all over the place, even in gift shops. Whenever we'd go out driving in the car, my mother would take me to one of the places associated with Arthur. This went on through the years, and so when I started looking for some humans from a heroic age to meet the gnomes, the answer was obvious.

RT: Did you read any modern novels about Arthur?

MC: I read The Once and Future King by T. H. White though I never really visualized the relationship between the young Arthur and Merlin as he described. As the book went on, it descended into sadness because of the Lancelot problem, and I was never too happy about that. In my story I made Lancelot just unbelievable: I quite treasure the moment in the second book where Arthur and the villagers are battling with the Irish in the forest. Things are going badly for Arthur when Lancelot, whom nobody's ever met before, rides in on his white horse, all in silver armor, and saves them. After a while Arthur, who's a very sensible fellow, says, well, here you came on two warring factions--how did you know which side was right? Lancelot replies, I knew it instinctively. I just love the way there are so many neat things you can do with the Arthurian story--provided that, like White, you don't take it too seriously. He produced a vastly entertaining book, although in the end I found it somehow unsatisfying.
   I also read John Steinbeck's half-finished attempt which was nicely written, but unfortunately it had the effect of exposing the problems with the Arthurian story: it can become awfully boring when people are just fighting endless battles. There are only so many ways they can do it. What I most enjoyed about the Steinbeck book were his letters at the end. They are better than the book itself.

RT: Did you read any studies of the Dark Ages by historians or archaeologists?

MC: Over the years I've read many of them: popular books by Geoffrey Ashe, Michael Wood, Frank Delaney, and others.

RT: Were you conscious that you were working within a tradition which you were going to reinterpret in your own way, or did you just feel that Arthurian legend provided convenient material for your needs in these two books?

MC: It's a really good point you're making there. I'm glad I didn't feel conscious of writing within this great tradition, otherwise I might never have finished the books. During this period I had a couple of conversations with people, the extent of whose knowledge terrified me. Sharan Newman was one of them. I thought, my God, what have I got into here? All kinds of names of different versions came up that I'd never heard of, authors I'd never heard of, books I'd never--and so on. I had this moment of nervousness, but with me it never lasts very long. I thought, what the hell, I'll go ahead and do this thing because it's exactly the right background for the story.
   Because it's science fiction, people will realize that I'm offering rational explanations for magical elements in the legend. Just occasionally I did get unnerved, but not when I was sitting there at the computer. It was always through too much talking, maybe too much research. I believe in doing as little research as possible. I rely upon my ideas, my creative urge.

RT: Since you are not trying to create a setting that is historically authentic, too much detail could be counter-productive, I suppose?

MC: I think so, and to underline the point that this was not the real Dark Ages, I had my people talk present-day language. There was no way I could recreate the language that people spoke in those days. Mind you, I had no idea that the publishers were going to label the book Arthurian fantasy. I thought I was writing a science fiction book about a bunch of aliens who arrive on Earth at a particular time in history, and I took it from there. There's no fantasy in it apart, perhaps, from some telepathy. In that area the dividing line is very thin anyway.

RT: Since Arthurian legend is treated more often as fantasy than as science fiction, did you encounter any special difficulties adapting it into the science-fiction genre?

MC: No, I didn't, apart from the initial problem of how to explain certain legendary events in terms of science fiction. I was, however, able to select whatever I needed to explain the supernatural phenomena in Arthurian legend from The Celestial Steam Locomotive where I had earlier created sciences, situations, philosophies, and so forth, including the Ifalong, the Greataway, and Happentracks. Logical science-fiction explanations for features such as the Sword in the Stone and the Round Table provided much of the enjoyment of writing the book. How do these things happen? How can we work the dramatic incidents from the legend into a science-fiction story?

RT: When your publisher asked for two books, why did you choose to divide the book into two, rather than write a sequel?

MC: The book comes to a huge climax in the far future, and that is the finish of the story: the whole purpose of the Arthurian legend has been explained; the whole purpose of the gnomes has been explained; Fang himself finally dies after a long and happy life; the human race is saved; and the almighty being is saved. You can't write a sequel to all that! That's, like, the end!

RT: True, true. So, your only option really was to expand the book?

MC: Right. The book, as originally conceived, was a biggie. It explains the universe!

RT: You generate considerable humor by exploiting the gap between romantic expectations on the one hand, and practicality on the other. Is deflating pretentiousness a common feature of your writing?

MC: Actually, it's relatively new. The fourth book I wrote, called Winter's Children, is a humorous story of the struggle to survive a catastrophe. I figured that this hadn't been done before: post- catastrophe novels are usually fairly grim. I thought that it worked, but the only reviewer who recognized it was funny was Christopher Priest in England. In it I created a kind of gnomish society. They were going to save the world, but things kept going wrong for them in the most stupid way. The book never succeeded and wasn't even published in the United States. In fact, one American publisher rejected it as offensively sexist because one of the things I was deflating was the reverence surrounding motherhood.
   I was left with the realization that I could write a funny story but had never really had the chance to do it. I was getting dissatisfied with science fiction before I wrote The Celestial Steam Locomotive, partly because my books were growing more and more serious, more and more dull. Then I wrote The Celestial Steam Locomotive and Gods of the Greataway, which make up the series The Song of Earth. Towards the end of the second book, I wrote a funny scene about a tradition that went wrong: two groups of people perform a dance that is supposed to symbolize the triumph of good over evil, but the evil side wins accidentally.
   So when I came to Fang, the Gnome, I wondered, why not make the gnomes amusing and argumentative and make the humans incompetent? They're not usually presented that way in Arthurian books; they're normally pretty damned sensible people who are good with their swords. I wanted a change. King of the Scepter'd Isle probably includes a little more humor and, ultimately, a lot more seriousness, and so there is more contrast in that book than in the first. The two books I've done since have both been pure comic fantasies. I'm experimenting with the comic form for a while.

RT: Did you feel that the Arthurian legend lends itself to comic treatment?

MC: No, I honestly can't see anything funny about Arthurian legend in itself. The actual events and the purpose of the events are very serious, and I tried not to lose sight of that. My point was that although the intention was serious, the people involved in carrying out those intentions were ordinary incompetents.
   I tried to explain my feelings on that subject in the episode where Tristan rows out to get the sword that was being waved above the water. He has some difficulty doing this, and there is a contrast between the traditional story and the actual way that he messes it up. Everything goes wrong and the boat almost capsizes, but eventually he retrieves the sword. Avalona, however, points out that this doesn't matter; the important thing is the image that people remember and pass on. This was what I was trying to get across. The legend is important, but people foul up on their way to creating it.

RT: So underlying the humor is a basic respect for the legend?

MC: The legend wouldn't exist if it wasn't worthy of respect. It would have disappeared years ago. So much of it is important, and that is why I was so anxious to retain the incidents within the legend that appealed to me.

RT: Arthurian legend does, however, offer a contrast between human achievement and human aspirations, and that gap can be exploited for comedy, can't it?

MC: Yes. I can think of examples that I never used. I could well imagine a conversation between one of my characters and a knight who'd spent his entire lifetime guarding some ford, which they seemed to do a lot in those days. When guy A tries to apply logic to guy B's feeling that this was his life's mission, I could imagine all kinds of comic possibilities. I do get irritated by blind acceptance of things that are really pretty stupid, and I do make fun of it from time to time.
   Yet while the innate pomposity of certain things within the Arthurian legend was a marvellous target, this didn't occur to me until I started putting together my cast of characters and they started to do their thing. We had Tristan the idealist, which is fine. Then I said, how would the others behave towards this idealist? Well, you know, they'd look on him a little bit oddly; they'd think, my God, we've created a monster here!

RT: Did you find your sympathies unexpectedly engaged by some character who then took on a larger role than you had initially envisioned?

MC: This always happens. Amongst the gnomes, the Miggot of One was supposed to be a relatively minor and nasty little character, but he developed into a major and ultimately fairly sympathetic character, with very good reasons for being the kind of gnome he is.
   Amongst the human beings, Governayle was supposed to be a bland, know-it-all type of character, but he developed into a young enthusiast. He is the one who always has the good ideas: a brilliant mind, but not too practical. One of my favorite episodes, which I usually do for readings because people always want it, is the expedition to raid the Baron's castle. Governayle invites along the village dogs because he thinks they'll swell the numbers a bit. Most of the things he does are for a good reason, but they just doesn't work out. He's very clever but impractical, and this builds up as the book proceeds.
   Just as some characters can take over, others never come alive. Iseult never came alive in my mind. It was a pity because Nyneve came alive tremendously; I thought she was great.

RT: Were you concerned that your portrayal of some of the characters, particularly those who took over, might conflict with their representation in Arthurian tradition?

MC: No, it didn't happen. Different authors interpret the characters differently anyway, but I felt that Kay, Torre, and Tristan in my books were the kind of people that they are usually portrayed as being. Merlin has been portrayed as a bumbling fool before now, and I've no doubt he will again. Tristan, who is the human hero of my first book, is a hero in tradition too, and so he presented no problems. In my book, he was intended to be an idealist, always acting for the best. I liked him, despite his faults.

RT: When we first meet Tristan, Palomides, and the others, they're not at all like the figures we know in tradition, but by the end of the novels they're much closer to what we expect, aren't they?

MC: Well, they've got to be the way the legends say they're supposed to be, even if they themselves don't want to be. They've got to struggle to become the kind of person they think they should be.
   The relationship of Lancelot, Galahad, Guinevere, Arthur, and the others is shaped by the legend, and I really went to a lot of trouble in Book II to pull the threads together. I didn't want people to say: That is not my idea of what Galahad was like. With minor characters it really didn't matter, but it did with major characters. So King Arthur in Book II is the hero who is trying hard--he's a better version of Tristan.

RT: Why did you make Margawse Arthur's aunt rather than his half sister?

MC: I found it in Keith Baines' edition of Malory, where it says that Igraine's sisters were married: Margawse, who later bore Sir Gawain, to King Lot of Lothian, and Elaine to King Nentres, and Morgan le Fay, who was Igraine's daughter, later to King Uriens. In my books, however, Morgan le Fay is a Dedo, like Avalona--an otherworldy being.

RT: Why did you choose Nyneve from among the many the forms of that character's name?

MC: Back in the old days, the Southern Railway in England had a class of steam locomotives called the King Arthur class. I always admired their appearance and their red name plates. They were so much a part of my childhood that I used the same spellings.

RT: In Malory, Palomides is a Saracen knight. Why did you transform him into the figure he became in your books?

MC: He was one of those characters who took over. He wasn't intended to be like that at all. He was intended to be a latecomer in the village, one of these wanderers who shows up. Then his character took over, and he became involved in one or two incidents I enjoyed so much that I didn't want to let go of this view of him. In the end I thought, to hell with it; we'll leave him the way he is, even though he is not true to tradition. Maybe I should have simply changed his name, but by that time I'd grown so used to him that had I changed his name three quarters of the way through the book, it would have made him seem different somehow.

RT: I notice that you borrowed episodes from different places. For example, near the end of Fang, the Gnome Iseult throws herself in front of Tristan when the Baron is about to kill him, and is accidentally slain. This recalls a misadventure that happens to Gawain in Malory, doesn't it?

MC: The death of Iseult was a problem for me because it is such an important event, and it forms the basis of the relationship between the Baron, the villagers, and Arthur in Book II. For me it was worth borrowing for the purpose of my plot.

RT: Did you consider using the black and white sails version of Tristan and Iseult's death?

MC: I did toy with the idea, yes, but it wouldn't have given me what I wanted. I wanted a very, very guilty Baron, and I wanted a dead Iseult.

RT: Did you feel tempted to call the Baron Mark, or give him a traditional Arthurian name?

MC: He was called Menheniot because there is a town of that name in Cornwall. Having chosen my location, I decided to stick with it. In Book II, Castle Menheniot is conveniently abbrieviated into Camelot. Thus I don't have to worry about the River Camel or any of the other theories advanced to explain the name.

RT: One thing your novel does is shift point of view frequently, and you do the same thing in The Celestial Steam Locomotive. Did this create problems in plotting and organizing the story?

MC: No. It was an experiment in The Celestial Steam Locomotive. I wanted to break away from confining myself to one point of view. In the past I think half my novels have been written in the first person. In this particular series I wanted to get right away from that. Differing points of view offer both advantages and disadvantages. You can reveal to the reader information that other characters lack. It does have the drawback, however, that the reader can't get so involved with one particular character and identify with him or her to the same extent. It also means that events may happen offstage that the hero doesn't know about, and meshing these events together, although I enjoy it, is not so easy. It's like the end of a detective story, where suddenly in the last ten pages you've got to provide a whole load of explanations because the hero didn't know all that was going on. Still, I'm very happy with the way it went.

RT: Did you encounter any problems in integrating the Arthurian legend into The Song of Earth series?

MC: No, I didn't. The legend stood alone. I could have had my Arthurian characters encounter the gnomes in the course of their struggle against invaders in historical Dark Age Britain. Because I'd already decided that Happentracks were going to be a feature of the books set in that particular universe, however, I was able to locate the Arthurian story on a separate Happentrack and allow it to join the others gradually. By the time they met, our Happentrack was at the stage of Tristan and Arthur. They merge for a short time, and then later on in Book II the lines separate again.
   The story was so complex, however, that I had to draw a lot of charts. I had to make sure that the joint timestreams are right; and that the history of the gnomes from right back when they left their home planet does in fact lead up to the meeting with the humans at the right time; and that there should be a reason for all this in the mind of Avalona. The whole thing had to hang together.

RT: Were you to rewrite the books, would you make any changes?

MC: The thought of rewriting them actually freezes my mind. No, I wouldn't. The damned things are so complex and took so much thought to attain some measure of internal consistency that I don't think I could face doing it again.
   I suppose I might have tried to rewrite the death of Iseult, but I would otherwise only change small details. The rest of it, I couldn't do very much to. I was a little unhappy with the ending of Book II. It's fine for science-fiction readers, but when we move into the future it doesn't look very much like Britain of the Dark Ages. I felt that the contrast was rather sudden, even though Arthur and the gnomes were there, and so I did my best to make the society of that era more like what it was in the past, rather than futuristic. I don't know whether it worked or not.

RT: What elements of the legend did you feel were essential to include in your story to preserve its Arthurian identity?

MC: Rowing out and picking up the sword from the lake; the Sword in the Stone; the affair between Lancelot and Guinevere, which in point of fact doesn't happen in my version, although everybody expects it to and so it creates sexual tension; the Round Table; Merlin getting locked in the rock--there are a whole list of features that I included in my precis.
   Merlin and Nyneve narrate the traditional story in Book I, then in Book II they find it coming true. In Book I, I didn't have to worry whether the story was going to come true or not. Tristan and his followers were trying to make it come true because they figured that was a good way to live. It was the inspirational effect of the story that I was trying to evoke by showing that perfectly ordinary guys wanted to behave like the characters in the story and were prepared to try. Of course in Book II when the real characters start showing up, they suddenly find they have to live up to these standards of behavior, whether they want to or not. It is no longer a matter of choice.

RT: Do you have any final comments, or are there any questions that I might have asked you and that you would like to answer?

MC: In some ways the books in The Song of Earth series were written for personal reasons, to resolve various problems I was encountering with writing science fiction in its normal form. I was returning to a more humorous style of presentation in place of the rather serious approach that I'd been taking over the past few years. I look on Fang, the Gnome and King of the Scepter'd Isle mainly as funny books that are meant to entertain. I felt almost guilty sometimes at using a myth that I have a very high regard for as a vehicle for trying to be funny.

RT: You feel guilty about it, do you?

MC: Yes. It doesn't always sit too well with me that I have exploited Arthurian legend as a vehicle to examine the totally peaceful, organic-based society of the gnomes. I was more interested in their society than in Arthur and his people to start with. I had masses of background information on the social organization of the gnomes and how the whole business of genetic engineering worked out in relation to them because these had all been worked out in previous books. On the Arthurian legend, all I had was a dozen pages of notes taken from reading a couple of books.
   As the writing progressed, I became more and more interested in the Arthurian side of the story and the characters involved in it. As the Arthurian characters began to take over, I began to feel a little easier about what I was doing. Even so, the last thing I expected was for anybody interested in the legend to take the books seriously as another statement of the legend, or even read the damned things! I thought that all I'd written was a relatively humorous piece of entertainment.

RT: Now you feel you're part of the great tradition?

MC: Now I'm viewing the whole thing in terror!

RT: I wouldn't worry about it. The ironic treatment of Arthurian legend is a venerable tradition that goes back a long, long way and has given rise to some very good works of literature.

MC: It's within myself, though. When I go back to England and visit places like Glastonbury and Tintagel that are at least nominally involved in the legend, the emotions they arouse are so totally different from the emotions that I feel from reading Fang, the Gnome. This is where my disquiet comes from.

RT: I guess your mother has taught you a special love for the legend so that you feel uncomfortable using it as material for a comic novel?

MC: That's right, that's exactly my problem. I have reverence for the legend.

RT: Well now, that's not such a bad thing, is it? Thank you very much.