Geoff Ryman Date: June 2006 Interviewed by: Carolyn Hill for the Chronicles Network Part One of Four: Reading and Writing Influences, Writing Process, and Teaching Geoff Ryman is an award-winning novelist and short story writer (three awards for short fiction, eight for novels) and wrote 253, one of the earliest online hypertext novels. Born in Canada, he attended university in California, and now resides in London. He has taught many writing courses, including a workshop at Clarion, four workshops at Clarion West, a week's writing course with Colin Greenland for the Arvon Foundation at Lumb Bank, and three writers' workshops in Cambodia. In 2003-2004 he was Senior Lecturer for the Creative Writing M.A. at the University of Northumbria at Newcastle, and he is currently Lecturer in the undergraduate and postgraduate Creative Writing programmes at the University of Manchester. Besides fantasy, science fiction, and mainstream novels, he has written and produced two plays: The Transmigration of Timothy Archer adapted from a novel by Philip K. Dick, and Disappearing Acts adapted from the short stories of Alfred Bester. He was part of a group of writers who improvised and performed USEXCO at the Edinburgh Festival in 1991. He also memorised the epic of Gilgamesh, the Sumerian/Babylonian/Akkadian epic, which he would recite at conventions. He is a frequent traveler to Cambodia, with an abiding interest in that country and its people. His first published long novella was about Cambodia, his latest novel is about ancient and modern Cambodia, and he has written two 12,000-word stories about Cambodia for publication in the United States: 'Ten Years in the Life of Hero Kai' and, forthcoming in November 2006, 'Pol Pot's Beautiful Daughter.' He also produced a 90-minute radio documentary on Cambodian arts, broadcast on Resonance FM in London, wrote a piece on Cambodian literature for the Guardian, and wrote about a statue of King Jayavarman VII for the Guardian Saturday colour supplement. He has a personal interest in archaeology. He has stayed with the Australian dig team at Angkor Wat in Cambodia. He recently visited Syria and was shown the Hittite Temple of the Storm God under the famous Mameluke Citadel in Aleppo. And he has had the privilege of ducking into a newly discovered, undisturbed royal tomb at Mishrifeh (ancient Qatna). And now he has stepped (virtual) foot on yet another shore--the Chronicles Network--and kindly consented to an interview. Reading and Writing Influences CN: What's the first book you remember reading? What's the first book you remember someone else reading to you? What grabbed your interest or caused an emotional response? Ryman: One of the first I remember was a lovely little picture book called Space Cat. I was very, very fond of Space Cat. It was a bit slow for a picture book, but had lovely charcoal grey drawings. He went to the moon and found all these living glowing spheres, and his space-paw stuck to them. I also remember loving Treasure Island, though I think Dad read that to me, and Curious George because it seemed to really be for kids. My first proper grownup book, as I thought of it, was The Magician's Nephew. My Dad was so alarmed that he read it himself... and promptly fell over backwards at how good it was; that made me feel very proud. See, Daddy, I read good books too. Loved Oz, but really my favourite favourite was Huckleberry Finn. I think I had a yearning for magic from the beginning. I loved fairy tale collections, which were much more common in those days. I remember I went to hospital with one book allowed only, and it was Mickey and Donald Go to the Moon... a Golden Picture Book with full colour illos. I read few books, but over and over. I had a collection of Greek myths I loved and several editions of the Jungle Books, all the Mowgli stories. In those days children's books if not Disney were all magic and myth. CN: What books are you reading currently? Why? Ryman: Oh God, everything is research. I reviewed AND LOVED Oh Pure and Radiant Heart by Lydia Millet, which I would recommend to everyone. She is a writer with a knack of saying very simply worded things that go off in your head like bombs. A kind of very stately, ruminative Philip K. Dick. Other than that it's pop science too late, like Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell. Because I met her at Wiscon I'm currently reading Kate Wilhelm's history of Clarion and her writing advice... that will help me in my day job. CN: What's the first story you remember telling yourself? Ryman: No memory. My mom wrote a weekly column in the local paper, and when I was six or seven she used it to print part of a Sinbad story I'd written. He fell overboard and swallowed a magic pearl that made him have a fish's head. Only a fish-size fish head, which I said at the time was very 'oncomfortable'. CN: Is there a connection between that story and what you were reading at the time? Ryman: The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad was on at the Brampton cinema. I was all set to go, but an unpopular kid had a birthday party that nobody had come to, so my mom made me go to be nice. They showed a terrible old Sinbad cartoon to make up for it. It didn't. When my 'aunt', a creative woman in the village, took me under her wing, she told me that the film had a 'real dragon' in it, it just looked real. I wanted to die. So I think I wrote about Sinbad instead. CN: Did you tell stories to yourself as a child, before you wrote stories? Ryman: I don't remember telling stories. I remember reading them and starting to write them. I played games. They had scenarios to them... I played house a lot, which was pretty diagnostic, basically let's pretend. Rural Canada was great for that. There was the Credit River to splash in, forests to fill with Indians, fields to turn into long marches... I don't know, you need somebody who wants to sit and listen to you tell stories. That didn't happen. CN: What made you want to write later in life? Ryman: I would go through periods where I wanted to be a writer or something. I remember I got advanced a grade, which was fine for my verbal skills but killed my math, never strong, for good. I got bored and sat writing and illustrating a Tarzan comic book... Tarzan in a lost land with dinosaurs and temples. He drops a sacred stick and La of Opar condemns him to something or the other. I liked drawing a lot as well, and loved comics. By 12 they were about all I was reading. CN: Which writers have most influenced your work over the years? (OK, some are obvious: Dante, Frank Baum. But which others?) Ryman: Mark Twain, Philip K. Dick. I loved Dracula and Mowgli and then when I was older and got stupider as a teenage boy, Edgar Rice Burroughs... just about every Tarzan book. It was great in the mid 60s; all ERB came out in beautiful books redolent of the 1930s. I loved everything about the 1920s and 30s style of film. I imagined that Metropolis and King Kong were absolute masterpieces. I very suddenly got Jane Austen when I came to England. I read and loved Milton in university, that great booming voice everybody talks about. Brian Aldiss's Cryptozoic was a turning point in my reading. It combined dinosaurs with a tragedy in a Welsh mining village with a knockout SF idea at the end (we see the flow of time backwards... we remember the future). Amazing Stories was my favorite magazine, but in retrospect I see I never really finished the stories. Except, I remember, for Edmond Hamilton, whose pulpy stuff I loved, and Cordwainer Smith, who read like a 60's rock cover. Then about 17 or 18 I got a membership to the SF book club... and the free gift was Dangerous Visions. I had no idea what I had, but boy did I love it. The rest of modernist SF followed on. But what got me writing in my 20s was A Pocket Full of Stars edited by Damon Knight and Kate Wilhelm. It was a collection of stories workshopped at Milford, including the story and a piece about how it was written and the input of the workshop. You have to remember that it was very difficult to find anything sensible about the writing process in those days. It was all lit crit nonsense about symbolism. This was the first book that put me in touch with the reality of writing. Writing Process CN: What's your writing process? Ryman: I stare at a wall in despair. Sometimes it's for years. Suddenly I get inspiration. I write the first chapter in blinding inspiration. Then I sit and wait in despair. IF something magic happens and the idea suddenly clicks I write the first draft as a sketch in a haring great hurry warts and all. I have first draft! I read it. I sit and stare at the wall in despair. Gradually ideas for new and better scenes or stories flow in. I start to revise. I think I can do it in three drafts. It takes 8. By the 8th draft I know it doesn't work. I sit and stare at the wall in despair and consider giving up writing. I grind out the revisions, reading the text aloud and polishing, polishing. If the text suddenly reads well, I'm getting there. If after all that revision, it still doesn't click, it means there is a plot problem. There is always a major plot problem. I re-imagine at least a third of the novel or simply cut 30,000 words. I sit in despair. CN: Do you ever suffer writer's block, and if so, what do you do to overcome it? Ryman: Frequently. I sit and stare at the wall in despair. CN: In what ways has your writing process changed over the decades? Ryman: Basically, the writing process has to be different for each novel. If it's not, then you are just repeating yourself. Some books keep getting knocked sideways by research, others you have to go so far inside yourself for material you wonder by three quarters of the way through where the rest of it will come from. There is no way to learn how to do it except by doing it and making terrible mistakes. Then it's like riding a bicycle. It's different to describe what you are doing to stay upright. It's difficult to describe how to write. I do see that I can quite speedily spot that something's wrong and define what it is. I have a series of proofreading marks that highlight particular kinds of problems. 'R' means Rymanism, for example, something I know I do or say all the time. Teaching CN: When you teach at Clarion and elsewhere, what do you emphasize in your courses, and why do you emphasize those things? Ryman: The students show me what to emphasize. Each group is different and has different things they need to practice or don't know that they don't know. CN: Do you assign reading: books, short stories, or writers' essays about writing? Ryman: There too many good books about writing out there. Everything from classics like Enemies of Promise and Dorothea Brande's On Becoming a Writer. John Braine's Writing a Novel may not help most people, but it showed me my particular way of writing... just write the first draft all the way through as fast as you can and don't revise. That helped me get better and better at the overall construction and shape of a novel. I actually find Robert McKee a pretty good compendium of good advice, just get the book Story. Almost any book on writing, even the dullest, will have something to teach you. CN: Do you assign any favorite exercises, ones that you find are particular helpful to your students? Ryman: I tend not to repeat. The classes are all so different. Some of them need to be told there is such a thing as literature. They've never read any. I'm serious. They've read summaries and excerpts for school. They actually hate reading. Many classes in England, particularly, know NOTHING about quotation marks, indents, apostrophes, verb tenses, commas. You can be asked on the last day of the course 'So what is a paragraph and when do you use it?' They're much better in the States. Almost always the last thing people learn is overall structure. What is or is not a story. What the difference is between a novel and a story structurally. My most recent class, for example, I asked them to outline the plot of The God of Small Things. The plot meaning the cause and effect all the way through. I wanted them to see how tight the story was, how everything in the book contributed to the destruction of the family. I then mapped out the presentation to give them an idea just how much the presentation jumped around the core central events, saving them for the end... though the roots of the story are in the 1840s and the last incidents mentioned are in the 1990s. CN: What's your advice to students about writing and the writing process? Ryman: It's another language than English. It's more like riding a bicycle than figuring out how one works. The only way to do is to do it. The more you do it, the sooner, the better you will get. Just doing it will make you better.