Richard Morgan was winner of the Philip K Dick award for Altered Carbon, the John W Campbell Award for Market Forces and the Arthur C Clarke award for Black Man before moving to fantasy with The Steel Remains, the first volume of A Land Fit for Heroes. On Saturday 15th October, while touring to promote the second part, The Cold Commands, he took a few moments out to enjoy a beef pastrami and Emmental sandwich and talk to Geek Chocolate about painting with words.
Geek Chocolate – You were very much a modern science fiction writer who switched overnight to fantasy. Why did you feel the need to pick up some new weapons and move to a new playground?
Richard Morgan – I had always wanted to, I think. I grew up reading SF and fantasy without discriminating. I had never really thought about the division between the two. I read a lot of Michael Moorcock, some of Poul Anderson’s fantasy, The Broken Sword, stuff like that, and I’d always loved the very dark sword and sorcery end of fantasy. I bailed out of the genre in the early-mid eighties, when stuff like The Belgariad was in ascendance, because it all got a bit pastel-shaded for me. There was a lot of Tolkien retreading going on at the time, and that was the point at which I left, because what I’d loved was the exact opposite of that stuff, it was the very dark, lightning fast blasts of magic, all that.
But I’d always loved it, and I’d always wanted to write some, and before I got published, I’d written these character vignettes which ended up being the early chapters of The Steel Remains, and I took those along to my editor one day and said “I’ve got these,” and he said “Yeah, alright then, so how many books is this?”
GC – Your science fiction can be somewhat bleak, which isn’t to say your heroes don’t have their challenges, but fantasy does give you greater scope for adventure. Was that a factor in the change?
RM – No, I don’t think so. I think the major change for me to fantasy has been about the possibility of creating stuff without having to explain it. I can throw things in, and the big case in point is the Helmsman, these creatures that the Kiriath used to navigate through the veins of the earth and also act as part-time advisors for them, and everyone in the blogsphere is going “oh, these are artificial intelligences,” whereas the characters in the world as written perceive them very much as demons encased in iron. And the thing is, I don’t know what they are, I’ve never actually bothered to work it out. I just wrote them, and I thought they were really cool the way that they were written, and I’ve just left them there.
If someone asks me if they’re artificial intelligences, I say I don’t know, and more to the point, I don’t care, because the great thing about fantasy is that you don’t have to nail it down. I think in SF there’s more of a requirement. So if you’re reading The Steel Remains or The Cold Commands and you read these things, the Helmsman, and you go “oh, those are artificial intelligences,” and you need to decode it in that sense, work out what it means, fine, that’s cool, that’s a sensibility you bring to the novel. If you’re more of a fantasy reader and don’t need things to be explained or make modernistic sense, okay, so maybe they are demons that were summoned up and trapped inside iron vessels. It doesn’t matter. To me they are what they are on the page. The fun of writing them is the impact that they have, and I don’t have to explain them.
And that’s a real power, that gives you so much leeway. You can throw in almost anything. It’s almost like you become a painter rather than a writer. You just create this image, and you love that image, bang, it’s going in. What is it? It might be a god, might be a demon, who knows, maybe it’s the leftover remains of an alien creature. It doesn’t matter.
GC – When you write from the perspective of the characters, you only know as much as they know.
RM – Exactly. And for anyone who’s out there still asking, don’t ask me what the Helmsmen are, because I don’t know.
GC – Ringil certainly puts a new spin on a very old genre in a crowded marketplace, although one that I understand is a better seller than science fiction. How did your agent and publisher feel about that?
RM – Oh, you mean the gay character thing. To be honest, they didn’t really mind. I think that I’m blessed with an editor who delights at controversy and pushing the envelope. He’s the guy who gave me the three book deal on the strength of the character vignettes, and Ringil was pretty straight out, this guy’s gay and in your face with it, and he didn’t mind at all, he thought it was really cool. He was all, “let’s do this, let’s see what the response is,” and that was great, he was instrumental in clearing a path for me. My agent never said anything about it either, she read the book, loved the book, didn’t really mind.
I mean we knew, we always knew, it would run up against a certain amount of overt homophobia, and then a certain other amount of covert homophobia, which I found almost more distasteful, because in a way I can deal with the ranting guy from Alabama saying “I’m burning your book because it’s a disgrace before God and man!” And I’m not kidding, I’ve had a few emails like that. You can almost respect that, because it’s like he’s out and proud, he’s like “fuck you, I hate gays, gays are going to burn in hell,” at least you know where you are with that guy.
What I found a little less easy to grapple with was where there were people who were clearly made very uneasy by the context and the subject matter, but what they did was they retreated and hid behind the idea “Oh, Morgan is being gratuitous, the sex scenes are unnecessarily graphic, he’s just trying to shock.” But if you look back through my other books, the sex scenes in all my books are graphic, it’s just that they’ve been straight up until now. So we knew there would be that element, we didn’t think it would matter that much in terms of sales, I don’t think it has mattered that much.
I’m never going to be in the same league as guys like David Eddings or Patric
k Rothfuss in terms of sales, but I’m aware of that, and it doesn’t really matter what I write, whether my protagonist is gay, straight or celibate, that isn’t going to make any difference. Whatever the sensibility is that I bring to my writing, it clearly doesn’t chime with the vast numbers of people who read Rothfuss or Tolkien or whatever.
I think Richard Thompson was once interviewed about his music, and he said “I clearly don’t have mass appeal, but I’m communicating successfully with a sufficient number of people, and that’s good enough for me.” That pretty much is how I feel. I’m selling enough books that I’m happy, and I clearly am communicating with the readers. It would be nice to sell mass appeal numbers, but I wouldn’t know how to go about making that happen, and I certainly don’t think restricting the sexuality of the characters would do it.
GC – Strangely, for all the manlove in display in The Steel Remains, I honestly thought the gayest scene in the whole thing was the scene between Ringil and his mother.
RM – Well, absolutely! Here is a man who, to some extent, has been made by his mother, far more than by his father. He rejects his father because his father can’t deal with what he is, and there’s obviously a scene in The Steel Remains that deals with that as well. And yes, ultimately because he’s just unacceptable in this world, his mother sees that in him, tries to shepherd him as best she can, and so there is a bond with her.
It was funny, because in a couple of cases I got called out for the fact that the quest he eventually embarks upon, his mother comes to him for a favour, and everyone seemed to think that this was ridiculous, “woah, a hero going on a quest because his mother asked him to do it!” and I was thinking, are you fucking kidding me? Come on, I’ve set this character up so that’s exactly why he would go on a quest, it’s probably the only reason he’d go on a quest.
GC – I imagine research for fantasy and science fiction authors can be challenging at the best of times, but this must have been a whole new level of roughing it up.
RM – I always find it quite funny that people in genre, they never say to you, “So have you ever killed any dragons? How many men have you murdered in cold blood?” But they don’t seem to think that it’s a problem that you then write about that stuff. Soon as you start to write a certain amount of male on male sex, and they suddenly want to know “Oh god, how did you manage that?” Well, I managed it the same way I write about guys killing each other with swords, I invent it.
That said, obviously I don’t have to answer to a community of bladed weapon murderers, whereas you do to some extent have to answer to a gay community, and if I wrote something which was just crap, then you’ve got a whole bunch of gay people who are going to look at it and just go “this is shite,” and you don’t want that. So what I did was, when it came to the gay sex scenes, I wrote them and then I rewrote them, and then I thought about them a bit more, and sort of revised them several times, and then finally I sent them to a friend of mine who is gay, and just said “Look, please read these through, and just tell me that they don’t make you fall about laughing.” And he emailed me back and he said, “Actually, they come across as quite horny, so I think a lot of people will want to know where this came from.” So, job done.
GC – You didn’t feel the need to go Iain Banks on us, and have one stream as Richard Morgan and one as Richard K Morgan?
RM – No, that has actually happened in the sense that in the US I am Richard K Morgan and in the UK I’m Richard Morgan, but that was just a fuck up. It was because originally they were going to publish me as Richard Morgan, and I asked if I could have the K, because there’s such a precedent, Philip K Dick, Maureen F McHugh, Ursula K Le Guin, it’s such a resonant pattern. I said “Can I have Richard K Morgan,” and everyone said, “Yeah, that’s no problem,” and then what happened was the UK publishers went with a logo type led cover, and they said “Look the K is getting in the way, it’s really screwing up the logo type, so do you mind if we take it out?” and I said “Absolutely not, no problem,” and the Americans didn’t get the memo, so they just went right ahead with the Richard K Morgan, and there was no way to undo it. And so I have got that Iain Banks/Iain M Banks divide, albeit unwittingly, and there seems no way to change it now.
GC – For a reader who is new to your work, where would you suggest the place to start is, and why?
RM – It depends entirely on what kind of stuff you like, what you read. If you’re a fantasy fan, I’d say start with Steel Remains, if you like space opera, then I guess the Kovacs books are probably a good place to start, if you’re a noir fan, probably the Kovacs books as well. If you’re not sure if you like science fiction or not, and you’re more of a mainstream fiction reader, I guess Market Forces is the closest one, because that is almost contemporary, it’s more of a satire than a science fiction novel.
But I’ve got to say, all my work has a certain tone or a backbeat to it that doesn’t really change from novel to novel. I’m always a bit surprised that when I started writing fantasy, I lost quite a few SF readers, they were really upset about the change and there are still people out there saying to me “Oh, I loved your Kovacs books, please stop writing this crap fantasy and go back.” Fair enough, but I find it a bit strange because to me I look through the pages of Steel Remains and it doesn’t read that much different than Altered Carbon. The contexts are different, but the actual tone and the rhythms of the speech and the way the characterisation works and the nature of the narrative, to me doesn’t feel that much different.
What I would really say is what I would say to any person in a bookshop – pick up any of the books and read the first page, and if it grabs you, then that’s your book, and see where you go from there.
GC – With HBO’s adaptation of George R R Martin’s Game of Thrones receiving ratings and great reviews, agents will be looking around for other properties to licence and adapt. Is a production of A Land Fit for Heroes something you would like to see, or would you prefer one of your other stories?
RM – I would love to see Land Fit for Heroes done given the HBO treatment. I’d like to see anything I’ve written given the HBO treatment, because those guys are just so good at what they do. But Land Fit for Heroes for me is a bit of a crusade. It’s an attempt to write in a genre that’s very enamoured of wartime heroics and great big battles, and the whole glory of war crops up time and time again, and I’ve enjoyed bringing in a very low, street level noirish tone to that, not just in the sense of making it gritty, because I think a lot of good writers are out there doing that, and doing it very well, but in the sense of bringing in a genuine sense of protagonist self loathing, a genuine sense that the stakes are low rather than high, or at least the sense that no-one really knows what the stakes are.
The acts of v
iolence, rather than being a call to arms, end up being something that happens almost by accident. The characters are behaving badly, and they bring to bear there prowess in the service of ignoble goals rather than something more valuable. Stripping out the whole idea of war being glorious, and sort of saying “let’s look at what happens after a war has happened, let’s look at the aftermath, let’s look at the mess that war leaves,” I would love to see that in an HBO context. They did it very well with The Wire, The Sopranos, that very powerful undercutting of a genre or an image. I haven’t seen Game of Thrones yet, so I don’t know what it’s like. I don’t want to watch it because I actually want to read the series. When I’ve finished the third Ringil book, I’m then going to sit down and read some Martin. But yeah, I would love to see Ringil in all his grubby glory turned into an HBO character, that would be great.
GC – And while we’re on that, when you’re writing, and the movie is playing in your head, who do you cast as Ringil?
RM – Well, it’s funny. Someone young, slightly louche, dissolute looking, but with that intensity that can really scare you, who suddenly looks in your eyes and you realise, yes, this guy will kill me if I upset him. Do you know Matthew Goode?
GC – He was in A Single Man and Watchmen? He’s a bit young I would have thought.
RM – The movie I saw him in that really sold him to me was this low budget thriller called The Lookout with Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who is always a good go-to for good indie movies. Matthew Goode was the bad guy, and he was this unshaven, unsavoury, but really quite compelling character, and I really remember thinking at the time, yeah, he’d make a very good Ringil, in that he had the context right.
At the same time, I thought James Purefoy in Solomon Kane, but only in the first ten minutes, because if ever a movie betrayed its promise, it was that film. You know, fight evil with evil, and the first ten minutes of that movie were spellbinding, because Purefoy really delivered, you were like, this guy is frighteningly horrible, and then he suddenly becomes this fucking priest, and he’s like “I have agreed not to commit evil acts any more,” and yeah, but we all know you’re going to. It fell at the first gate, and it was very depressing, but I thought Purefoy himself turned in a great performance, and again, he could probably carry Ringil.
GC – Who do you envisage as possible casting for a few of the faces of Takeshi Kovacs?
RM – Oh, well, the thing is that changes with every book. I think in Altered Carbon I always saw him as one of these guys, they’re all dead now, out of the sixties and seventies noir movies, someone like Lee Marvin, Burt Lancaster, big blunt guys, that was the sleeve I envisaged, although of course later on he gets this more Asian ninja, and that would be some guy out a Takeshi Kitano movie, I can’t remember any of those guys names, someone slim and lethal looking.
In Broken Angels, he’s black in that, although it gets very little coverage, and the same go-to as for Carl Marsalis in Black Man, is Idris Elba, who for me is the outstanding British black actor at the moment, a stunning performance in The Wire, but also I’ve seen him in other movies and he’s really very good. He’s got this thing that they always said that Sean Connery had when he took the Bond role, he’s got this panther-like grace in the way he moves, and I remember they said when they interviewed Connery that they knew the minute he walked in the room that they wanted him, just because of the way he came in the room, the way he walked out, they watched him walk off the street after the interview, that’s the guy we want, he’s like this big cat, and Elba does the same in The Wire with Stringer Bell character, he’s got this very powerful grace to him, and so the idea of him as the sleeve that Kovacs is wearing in Broken Angels, that would work.
Woken Furies, again, up for grabs. He’s in an artificial sleeve at the beginning, so god knows what you would do with that.
GC – And in fact you have had work adapted, albeit in a different medium, with Crysis, and you’ve got the possibility of Altered Carbon still floating out there in Hollywoodland.
RM – Yes, yes, it is, still floating…
GC – And an easy question to finish with. What’s the plan for the third part of A Land Fit for Heroes, and when can we expect it, or is something else coming first?
RM – No, I really want to get on and nail this down now. There was this long delay with getting the second book finished, and that was basically because when I wrote Steel Remains I hadn’t expected to be doing three fantasies in a row. The agreement I’d had with my publishers was that I’d alternate, so I wrapped up Steel Remains fully expecting to write a science fiction novel, and then I was asked by the publishers “oh, well, could you do the three fantasies,” and I was like, well I can, but I haven’t thought about the next sequence yet, and I’ve got this science fiction novel up on the blocks, and I was working on that.
They were very insistent, said they would really prefer to, and they said to take my time, bet they wish they hadn’t said that now, so I said alright, fine, but I need to go away and think about it, and at the same time I got offered this work in the video games industry, which was very time consuming and intense, so between those two stumbling blocks, I really was stuck, but the main problem for me was, with The Cold Commands, I’d wrapped up Steel Remains so thoroughly because I didn’t expect to have to do anything with the characters for another couple of years, I’d knocked each character very much into the pocket I wanted them to be in at the end of the book, I’d finished the arc, and it was really hard to find a way to get them back out onto the table and into play. I’d started so many times, and it was like, no that doesn’t work.
It took a long time to get to the point where I really had a narrative that was rolling and I felt all three characters were fully engaged again, so with Cold Commands there is kind of a cross-narrative running through the book. It wraps up again, fairly powerfully, and there is a cathartic conclusion, but there is a bunch of cross-narrative in it that leads directly into the third book, because I’m not going to get caught out like that again. The Dark Defiles is already underway, I’ve already written a couple of prologues, I’m not sure which one I’m going to use yet, and the early parts of the first chapter. We’re on the way, I don’t know how long it will take, but I can certainly promise it isn’t going to be three years this time.
GC – Richard Morgan, thank you so much for your time.
RM – No, my pleasure. Th
anks for the sandwich!
The Cold Commands has recently been published by Victor Gollancz and was reviewed by Geek Chocolate here