[GUEST INTERVIEW] Bradley P. Beaulieu Chats With Michael Swanwick
Michael Swanwick has received the Hugo, Nebula, Theodore Sturgeon, and World Fantasy awards for his work. Stations of the Tide was honored with the Nebula Award and was also nominated for the Hugo and Arthur C. Clarke awards. “The Edge of the World,” was awarded the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award in 1989. It was also nominated for both the Hugo and World Fantasy Awards. “Radio Waves” received the World Fantasy Award in 1996. “The Very Pulse of the Machine” received the Hugo Award in 1999, as did “Scherzo with Tyrannosaur” in 2000. His stories have appeared in Omni, Penthouse, Amazing, Asimov’s, High Times, New Dimensions, Starlight, Universe, Full Spectrum, Triquarterly and elsewhere. Many have been reprinted in Best of the Year anthologies, and translated for Japanese, Dutch, German, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, Swedish, French and Croatian publications. His books include In the Drift, an Ace Special; Vacuum Flowers; Griffin’s Egg; Stations of the Tide; The Iron Dragon’s Daughter, a New York Times Notable Book, and Jack Faust; his short fiction has been collected in Gravity’s Angels, A Geography of Unknown Lands, Moon Dogs, Tales of Old Earth, The Dog Said Bow-Wow and a collection of short-shorts, Cigar-Box Faust and Other Miniatures. Dancing With Bears by Michael Swanwick will be released in trade paperback in January.
Bradley P. Beaulieu: Dancing with Bears tells the story of Darger and Surplus as they head from their adventures in London to a post-Utopian Moscow. I have a strong attraction to Russia, and my debut novel with Night Shade was based loosely off of the Grand Duchy of Moscow. I haven’t, however, had the pleasure of visiting the country. What is it about Russia that attracted you to it?
Michael Swanwick: Russia captures the imagination. Pretty much everyone who visits it falls in love with it, and I was no exception. It’s a beautiful country with a tragic history and a brooding aura of mystery about it. There are no facts in Russia, only conflicting conspiracy theories, which makes it a natural setting for fiction. Then, too, the Russians are serious people in a way that Americans are not. They possess the gravitas that good writing requires. There’s always a sense that they’re leaving things unsaid.
Moscow is one of the great cities of the world but filled with contradictions. They’re currently finishing the summer palace that Catherine the Great, midway through its construction, decided she couldn’t afford, but the tap water isn’t safe to drink. The hotels are flashier and more expensive than those in Manhattan, but the air pollution is appalling. There are racks of leopard-skin coats for sale in GUM and people with besoms sweeping the sidewalks. It’s an old city and as hard-charging as anywhere I’ve ever been, and yet there’s a feeling of impermanence about it, as if everybody might pack up the buildings tomorrow and disappear into the steppes. Charles Dickens could spend a lifetime there without beginning to use up its possibilities.
BPB: Was there ever a part of you that wanted to gloss over its dark and tragic past or was it Moscow’s very history that drew you to it in the first place?
MS: The history is so much a part of what Moscow is that it would be unthinkable to leave it out. When Marianne and I visited it, we went to Patriarch’s Ponds, the park where Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita begins. We took a roundabout path back to our flat, referring frequently to our guidebook, and came upon Lavrentiy Beria’s mansion. All the time that Bulgakov was writing about the Devil walking about Moscow, he was living mere blocks away from a real-life devil! That’s the other thing about the city – how intimately Russian literature is woven into its streets and buildings.
(This has nothing to do with your question, but I can’t resist mentioning that I visited Novodevichy Convent, where many of Russia’s greatest figures are buried, and discovered that while there were no flowers on Nikita Khrushchev’s grave, Bulgakov’s was buried in them.)
BPB: You might have chosen any location for Darger and Surplus to visit. Was there some synergy between the evolution of their characters that led you to explore Russia? If so, what was it?
MS: For such shrewd characters, Darger and Surplus have one enormous blind spot – they think that they’re good people who are having a splendid time. The truth is exactly the opposite, of course. But it means that they can think it the very easiest thing to waltz into Russia and steal whatever they want. The fact that Napoleon and Hitler both suffered from this delusion and learned better never occurs to them. This blithe refusal to acknowledge the danger they’re in and the impossibility of the task they’ve set themselves is the very essence of comedy. So the combination was irresistible.
Also, it gave me an excuse to read more and think more about Russia.
MS: By the nature of the fall, a rebellion of artificial intelligences that still exist in the deeply-buried Internet, humanity doesn’t dare dabble with electronics or machinery yet has made great advances in the biological sciences. As a result, exoticism has returned to the world. Distant countries are hard to reach and their cultures are totally unlike those back home. A man who wishes to can escape his past – in their first story, Darger and Surplus accidentally torched London, their version of original sin – and reinvent himself as someone else. Which is a recipe for adventure.
I also liked the notion that our own times would be looked back upon wistfully and remembered as Utopia, despite how they feel to us.
BPB: You mentioned in a recent interview that you were planning on visiting China for some necessary research for the next Darger and Surplus novel. Without giving away any spoilers, can you tell us where you’re going and what you plan to research?
MS: The novel’s going to begin in Chengdu, a city in Sichuan Province, and end in Beijing. I’ve spent two weeks in Chengdu and love it (and the food!) passionately. But I’ve only overnighted in Beijing so I must return there to get a good sense of it. For the rest . . . I want to see whatever I can of China, its natural beauty, and its six thousand years of history. I want to see everything that its tourist board would most like me to see. I’m already mad about the country and its people. I want to discover the locations and images (in Moscow they included Red Square and the Metro and the Secret Garden in the Kremlin) that will define the land for me.
So, really, I have no idea what I’m looking for. I look forward to finding out.
BPB: Do you have their future stories already mapped out at a high level, or is this something that will come as more of their adventures (and their past) are revealed?
MS: By the time I started the novel, I realized that Darger and Surplus are on an accidental journey around the world. Sooner or later Surplus has to return to the Demesne of Western Vermont to confront certain mysteries in his past. And Darger must return to London to discover what’s become of it in his absence. Beyond that, I have only a few specific notions and a glimpse or two what adventures they might have. Really, I have the sketchiest of ideas as to their trajectory. The map, to borrow your metaphor, has many blank spaces with the notation “Here Be Dragons.”
(That last sentence is a bit of foreshadowing, incidentally.)
BPB: George Martin speaks of writers falling into two camps: the architects and the gardeners. Architects plan ahead, figure out what goes where, before they ever start writing, while gardeners plant a seed and coax the shape of the plant as it begins to grow. Which of these two camps do you fall into? Or perhaps there’s a choice C. You’ve said that you have difficulty writing a new chapter if the previous chapters aren’t solid, and I wonder if you’re more of an iterative writer, going back and revising to shore up what’s already been written.
MS: I’m a little bit of both. For a novel, I’ll start with an idea and maybe an opening sentence. I’ll write down the sentence and then think about the idea for a long time, inventing characters and situations and details of all sorts, until I have a rough idea of the novel’s shape. Finally, I’ll discover how the story ends, and then I can start writing, making up the events as I go along. There are two advantages to this method. One is that I can then aim the entire book toward that ending so that when it comes, it feels inevitable. The other is that, knowing what’s coming, I can deliberately misdirect the reader, so that the ending will also come as a surprise.
The disadvantage is that sometimes I never do find the ending and so the book never gets started. But that might be an advantage in disguise. At least I don’t have any unfinished novels lying about.
Maybe what I am is an engineer, like my father was. I start with a rough overall plan which I alter in the course of building the device as it becomes clearer what will and will not work. Also, there’s a certain amount of cussing and kicking the side of the thing in the middle stretches of its creation.
BPB: What are the next few projects you’re going to tackle now that Dancing with Bears has been released to the wild?
MS: I have two novels that are in the prep stage – the Chinese Darger & Surplus novel and a third and final stand-alone novel set in the universe of The Iron Dragon’s Daughter and The Dragons of Babel. There’s a Young Adult book I’d love to write and a picture book for adults (not sexual, I hasten to add – “mature” in the original sense of the word) and about a half dozen stories, three of which are very close to done. Plus, Dragonstairs Press – owned and edited by my “nano-publisher” wife, Marianne Porter – will be publishing Sam the Asteroid, a work of black humor for small children. So I am having loads of fun.
Bradley P. Beaulieu is the author of The Winds of Khalakovo and the upcoming novel The Straits of Galahesh. He fell in love with fantasy the moment he started reading The Hobbit in third grade. From that point on, though he tried reading many other things, fantasy became his touchstone. It was always what he came back to, and when he started to dabble in writing, fantasy–epic fantasy especially–was the type of story he most dearly wished to share. In 2006, his story, “In the Eyes of the Empress’s Cat”, was voted a Notable Story by the Million Writers Award, and in 2004, he became a winner in the Writers of the Future 20 contest. Other stories have appeared in Realms of Fantasy, Intergalactic Medicine Show, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and several DAW anthologies. Brad lives in Racine, Wisconsin, with his wife, daughter, and two cats, where he enjoys cooking spicy dishes and hiding out on the weekends with his family. For more, please visit www.quillings.com.
Filed under: Interviews
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