Geoff Ryman Interview, in Four Parts

  1. Carolyn Hill

    Carolyn Hill Brown Rat, wandering & wondering

    Apr 8, 2006
    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.


    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.
    Jun 29, 2006
  2. Carolyn Hill

    Carolyn Hill Brown Rat, wandering & wondering

    Apr 8, 2006
    Geoff Ryman
    Date: June 2006
    Interviewed by: Carolyn Hill for the Chronicles Network

    Part Two of Four: Mundane Science Fiction and Rhetorical Techniques

    Mundane Science Fiction

    CN: Some of the Chronicles Network members prefer fantasy to science fiction because they think of science fiction as 'cold,' driven too much by hard science and too little by character. Your fiction, with its strong emphasis on character and inside point of view, would appeal to them. Some of that emphasis on character comes from your interest in what's known as mundane science fiction. Would you please give us a quick definition of 'mundane science fiction,' tell us its main ideas, and explain its history?

    Ryman: My heart sinks. Mundane SF grew out of a Clarion class. One of the more political writers there, Julian Todd, was pointing out that we weren't really facing up to the death of oil and climate change. It rang bells. I was particularly struck by how the ease of Faster Than Light Drive has become an unexamined cornerstone of SF. It not only made stories happen faster (and in one person's lifetime). It also encouraged an attitude of 'Oh well, we'll burn through this planet and go on to the next one.' Oh really? How. There will be no FTL. Simple. Can we go back and start leaving all the tired old SF tropes out so that we can invent some new ones, and begin to look at futures we might actually have.

    I wrote a jokey Manifesto, to throw out all the old tropes. It was supposed to work like Dogme, a series of rules that forces filmmakers to avoid studio trickery, special effects and manipulative storytelling. I can tell you, writing to the Mundane Manifesto is tough tough tough. Those old SF magic wands do so much work for you, if you let them. We promise not to.

    I don't think anyone except the group supports the manifesto, and most of the group is American. I think it has struck a nerve with most people in SF either pro or con because SF knows perfectly well what science says about FTL. People find it grumpy and unnecessary and just plain silly to say so. How could I be so serious? I think most authors fear to lose their autonomy and so don't like to sign up to any movement. The first Mundane Manifesto had a mocking tone (self-mockery as well) and that seems to have got up some people's noses.

    I came up with the idea of calling it Mundane and the basic concept of privileging the likely over the unlikely, but it's gone through many revisions since as smarter people than me have gone through what the movement might mean or do. We need a new manifesto urgently.

    CN: In your 2004 interview with Kit Reed, you said that mundane science fiction will probably be more conventional and technically conservative in form, in order to emphasize the ideas and characters. Has that happened?

    Ryman: Hmm. More conservative than what? More conservative formally than New Worlds magazine in the 60s, but practically all commercial SF is very conservative formally. There's a reason for this. Just like in SF art, you have to be very very clear what is actual in your world and what is a metaphor.

    There was a trend in the early 60s to use abstract expressionism for SF book covers. It was artsy, but not SF. SF is photorealist. Its aim is to make that new world as convincingly present visually as a photograph of it would be. So does SF prose. One of the things Clarion does is knock muddy prose out of you and clear, simple prose in. That means it can also knock experimental prose out.

    My nightmare is that SF, pioneering as it did with first Milford then Clarion the workshop/peer critique pedagogy, is one of the sources of literature lite. Literature lite is mainstream fiction so clear that it needs no interpretation. There is no subtext or symbolism to be unpacked, no deep layers, and the language is utterly conventional. I mean things like The English Patient and other books that are literature aimed at Reading Groups. My nightmare is that a.) WE taught the world how to write literature lite and that b.) literature lite is costing the mainstream its ability to read between the lines. You have to be able to read between the lines to read SF at all. If your heroine's food comes in bamboo packaging you are meant to think: ah, metal has become rare; if it's that rare can they use steam engines for transport? Mainstream readers can't do that, won't do that, and they'll never learn how if they just read Sebastian Faulks or Michael Ondjatee. In other words, we are losing more of the general readership every year.

    Who knows what Mundane will do? It could be the meeting ground for hard SF (since it privileges the likely technology) and humanist SF (since it privileges every day life). That could get interesting. If it has more room for a character-driven story, maybe it has more room for stream of consciousness, etc.

    I wonder if in fact we need something more like New Worlds, more concerned with blowing apart all the lies embedded in traditional story structures.

    CN: Would you please name authors and books that seem particularly good examples of mundane science fiction? (Are there noncontemporary authors you would include on that list?)

    Ryman: I don't think it's fair to claim as mundane authors who didn't sign up and can't now because they are dead, or who simply haven't been able to take part. Air has a bit of something like magic in it, but it's near as dammit Mundane SF. We've had a couple of mundane writers, for example Bob Angell, in Asimov's. There is stuff in Bruce Sterling's Distraction that I would sign up to immediately.

    For me the great writer who most embodies mundane sensibilities is Kim Stanley Robinson, but he has refused to be in any way identified with the movement. Another writer I keep thinking of who I find writes following SF's better rules is Greg Bear. And then there is the great John Brunner, who is one of the few SF writers to make predictions that came true.

    CN: Have your views toward mundane science fiction changed in the past year? What's its status now in your writing, thinking, and reading?

    Ryman: I'm bored by it. I've said the same thing more or less since at least 2002-2003 and I think people just want to see the stories now. It's rumoured that Anil Menon is about to unleash the first properly Mundane SF novel about India and published in India. He's both a mundane AND a post-colonialist. Since he can write with equal facility about science and grieving for a dead wife and has done actual cutting edge research on evolutionary computing, I fear that most of us old fogies will be out to grass soon. I can't imagine anything more necessary than beautifully written, non-Western science fiction based on real science that plays tennis with the net up.

    Rhetorical Techniques

    CN: Your novels and novellas have clear messages; each conveys attitudes or a philosophy about the world and how people should or shouldn't act toward one another. How conscious of your audience and intent are you as you write?

    Ryman: I'm very conscious of writing for someone, often a real person, or maybe a group. I don't think anyone thinks about a philosophy when they write a story. Too much of a story consists of specifics, objects, time of day, distance between places, how things look and feel, the outer signs of people's emotions or choices in life.

    Then there's emotion, which drives how your characters behave. Ideally you are feeling what they are feeling. None of this has very much to do with philosophy or moralising. I'm just not that aware of it when I write, though I guess I may do when I revise and I'm using the editing part of my brain.

    CN: Your prose throughout most of the books is what I think of as clean: straightforward, relatively uncluttered sentence structures. Is this your natural prose style, or a conscious choice on your part?

    Ryman: I write to be as clear as possible, particularly in SF which consists of sprung metaphors. You have to be crystal clear about what the characters are actually seeing, what is actually present. There're no rules. I also read my stuff aloud a lot when revising, and that privileges simplicity and clarity.

    Sometimes I notice doing that overemphasizes clarity. My mom doesn't like my writing; she says it's boring, I work too hard to make clear who is speaking.

    CN: Your works have a literary flair. In Was, you use rhetorical techniques to reflect characters' points of view, as when you use alliteration and sentence fragments and short sentences to reflect Millie: 'Millie's shoes clicked on the concrete as she walked to the trailers. Cold this hour of the morning. Her gum clicked too. Millie liked the sound of punctuation and progress. She liked things to move, for herself and other people. Why she was good at her job. Lots of people around who could do makeup. But there was more to the job than that' (Was 108). And in Air, there are tiny unmarked parallels between description in the early part of the novel and Mae's stomach-pregnancy later in the book, which in turn mirrors Mae giving birth to a village that can survive the change to Air.

    I assume that you use these techniques consciously, but are they in full flower in your initial drafts, or do they appear during later stages of your process?

    Ryman: I have no idea. Making the third person prose sound like the words that the point-of-view character would use themselves is a relatively useful way of conveying who your character is and how they see the world. It avoids explaining their emotions in the narrator's tone of voice, which can be horribly distanced, pompous and patronising. But you have to be careful using this echoing technique. As an editor, I've caught myself getting exasperated with how rough and informal the prose is being and only then realised that the style is echoing the PoV character.

    As for subtext, a linking of imagery and metaphor into another consistent layer underneath the plot level... well that's the difference between literature and literature-lite. It's literature-lite that sells. It sounds like it's going to be literature, but it's all on its incredibly worthy surface.

    I could get bored with clarity any moment and suddenly begin to write floridly. Who knows?

    CN: At the end of most of your novels, ecstatic catalogs of memories and events mirror your message about the coexistence and commingling of past, present, and future. In 253 and The Child Garden, commingling is elevated to a structural principle: 253 is comprised of the character descriptions of 253 passengers on a single train, and The Child Garden's chapters and sections are comprised of flashforwards and flashbackwards in Milena's past, present, and future as she is read by the Consensus. In one passage in The Child Garden, you offer many details about people who aren't characters in the novel as you attempt to describe the moment of 'now,' then you state explicitly that such description isn't possible, 'so we tell stories, histories, instead' (345). What's going on here?

    Ryman: All of this comes from a distrust of storytelling. First, most stories or myths get social support because they enforce desired attitudes or behaviour. They are a control mechanism. Second, stories make us sick. Neuroses and psychoses are just stories we tell ourselves and believe. Third, traditional storytelling in chronological order privileges consequences, or karma.

    It's almost impossible to stop stories about consequences turning into moralising. You did this thing and so you reaped what you sowed. So I distrust story. Life doesn't really happen in stories; it just is, right now. Any story, even one that sticks to the facts totally, is made up, constructed and a bit false.

    So I keep trying to break stories up in ways that don't confuse people. The chapters from different historical eras in Was, the turning of people into identified spaces in 253, and the moments in which people act or feel or think all at once in concert in Air and The Child Garden.

    Life is time bound and we are bound to one little arrow shooting through it--ourselves. One of the reasons we read is to get out of ourselves, hitch a ride on someone else's arrow. As soon as you start to work in any art with a narrative or even just a progress, you have to deal with issues of time. Movies have to decide how much they can cut out of the character's real lives. In prose you are forever skimming over slow bits and slowing down to really look at the exciting bits. Things really do happen all over the world, all at once. That really gets me outside of time and the self, and that feels liberating.
    Jun 29, 2006
  3. Carolyn Hill

    Carolyn Hill Brown Rat, wandering & wondering

    Apr 8, 2006
    Geoff Ryman
    Date: June 2006
    Interviewed by: Carolyn Hill for the Chronicles Network

    Part Three of Four: Recurring Themes

    Recurring Themes

    Theme: Childhood and Home

    CN: Much of your writing deals with children, the importance of childhood, and how childhood experiences--in particular, parents or lack of parents--affect adults. What drew you to this theme?

    Ryman: Oh, it was something I was into at the time of The Child Garden and Was. I'm not so into it now. It was something that was in the spirit of those times; lots of people wrote about it, and I got caught up in it. It was interesting if you took a child-centric view of things, say on airplanes.

    Say that you just let children play in the space around you in the airplane. Very quickly, an officious adult, nothing to do with the airline staff, would come up and tell them to get back into their seats, talking slowly at dictation speed. 'Now I want all of you to go back to your seats...'

    Why? Does the adult think they'll grow up to be gangsters if they hang around with each other? It was something that was very clear to me at the time. Less so now. You see what you look for. Since then I've become very aware that often people who appear to be child-centric turn out also to be paedophiles, so I'm much more cautious about how I think about these issues.

    CN: Many of your books and your novella 'The Unconquered Country' depict characters who are searching for a home (one they've never had, or one they've lost). Why is this theme so powerful for you?

    Ryman: Oh dear, I can't answer that. I have no idea. It seems to me that home is such a universal theme that it's in many, perhaps even most stories to a certain extent. People need a home, where they can be themselves. To have a home they therefore need to have a sense of who they are. A sense of self that is the real home they carry round with them. At the end of the Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the book, Dorothy actually says, 'It's so good to be AT home.' Which just means feeling comfortable where you are.

    Theme: The Coexistence of Past, Present, Future, and Absolutely Everything

    CN: A major philosophical theme in your writing is the coexistence of the past, present, and future or of reality, fiction, and dreams. Drawing upon quantum physics, you emphasize the point at which everything exists all at once, in a realm without time, where gravity is thought, and where anything is possible. What drew you to this theme?

    Ryman: Hard work. It's a theme I came up with for my first unpublished story after a lot of thinking. To an extent, Air and The Child Garden, with just a bit more work and tweaking, could have been made part of the same universe. I then got validated by reading The Four Quartets over and over, which says more or less the same thing and even uses the still dimensionless dot at the heart of the universe around which everything spins. It's not a trope I will be working with again. It's served me well, but I want to move on.

    CN: Your quantum philosophy states that anything is possible, that the world is 'a story, twisted by gravity out of nothing' so that a character can 'take the story into her hands' like 'mere fiction' and tear a fence with her mind (Air 214). Is this philosophy at odds with mundane science fiction, which says that some things aren't possible, or, at least, aren't likely?

    Ryman: That's a different trope than the 11 dimensions meaning everything happens at once and in one tiny dimensionless dot. It's that kind of stuff, along with the pregnancy, that means Air is not quite mundane. Quantum mechanics works at a quantum level. It doesn't work on ours. I don't believe in a parallel universe being born every second. It's so wasteful, and it's another wonderful out for storytellers. It came along a while before Mundane.

    CN: In your novels, events occur that, despite their scientific underpinnings, look much like magic, which blurs the distinction between fantasy and science fiction. In a sense, your novels themselves demonstrate the coexistence of genres: fantasy, science fiction, historical fiction, realism. Are you consciously playing with genres in this way?

    Ryman: No. I think playing with genres is a really boring thing to do. It means you're making art about art. In my own mental map, SF is a subbranch of fantasy. But it has great potential to be something completely valuable, particularly for a world being so jerked about by change.

    CN: Because the coexistence philosophy recurs in your novels, I found myself trying to make a consistent whole of the various statements. I notice that being without time, experiencing connectedness and coexistence, is sometimes a good thing and sometimes a bad thing. Memories and dreams and stories, which require time in which to occur, seem generally palliative or instructive but can become overwhelming and harmful.

    This simultaneity of valuation fits the philosophy: good and bad exist in one. But then I get tangled up. 'Bad' seems defined by a lack of change or inability to deal with change, as implied by Milena ultimately rejecting the Consensus because it places too much constraint on the individual selves and prevents them from changing, or when Mrs. Tung's memories overwhelm Mae and prevent her from dealing with the changing present. And yet Heaven and Hell, outside of time, are 'where nothing ever happens' (Air 381), where nothing ever changes. So Heaven and Hell are bad? The point at which all is connected is bad?

    I've just deleted a bunch of quotes here . . . maybe it all boils down to choices and taking responsibility for one's own life, as Michael does when he twists reality to resolve his personal issues, or as Milena does when she creates the Eden-like garden of light out of herself rather than by Consensus or by virus. Would you please clarify whatever I've fumbled here?

    Ryman: Any reading is what the reader makes of the book for her own ends. It seems to me you are doing a pretty good job here on your own. Any intervention from me at this point would bust what I think books do, which is provide a platform for the audience to tap their own dance.

    It's not a philosophy; it's related to what those characters are feeling, how life seems to them at that time. If it is moving, that's why, it comes out of someone's loss or regret or joy. It's not meant to work out of context as a logical argument that builds up step by tested step into a coherent philosophical statement.

    CN: Although your books don't seem to take place in one single universe or timeline, several of them reference one another or interconnect. Are you just having fun, winking at your readers, or are these interconnections an extension of your philosophy that absolutely everything is connected?

    Ryman: I sit writing these things. It takes years. They stay in my head. They echo. They echo into the other stories. They add a little flavouring to the stew. They hint at other images, avenues, feelings. They are there for the reader to play with.

    Theme: Commenting on Fiction

    CN: In several of your works, you comment directly on the nature of fiction. In 'Reality Check' at the end of Was, you write:

    'I fell in love with realism because it deflates the myths, the unexamined ideas of fantasy. It confronts them with forgotten facts. It uses past truth--history.​
    I love fantasy because it reminds us how far short our lives fall from their full potential. Fantasy reminds us how wonderful the world is. In fantasy, we can imagine a better life, a better future. In fantasy, we can free ourselves from history and outworn realism.​
    Oz is, after all, only a place with flowers and birds and rivers and hills. Everything is alive there, as it is here if we care to see it. Tomorrow, we could all decide to live in a place not much different from Oz. We don't. We continue to make the world an ugly, even murderous place, for reasons we do not understand.​
    Those reasons lie in both fantasy and history. Where we are gripped by history--our own personal history, our country's history. Where we are deluded by fantasy--our own fantasy, our country's fantasy. It is necessary to distinguish between history and fantasy whenever possible.​
    And then use them against each other.' (Was 369)​

    Was certainly deflates American myths such as delusional fantasies of manifest destiny and upstanding pioneers and easily separable good and evil. And it encourages us to imagine a better life--indeed, makes us long for that better future.

    But as the reader progresses through the novel, it's difficult to distinguish between history and fantasy (as witness the necessity of 'Reality Check' itself, to explain where historical fact leaves off and authorial invention begins). I'm not complaining about the difficulty; it's part of the novel's delightfulness. And I love the book; I was deeply moved and cried all the way through the last eighteen pages. I'm just wondering: when you were writing, was that difficulty on your mind, and looking back, do you perceive any tension between your intent, the book's strategies, and its effect?

    Ryman: To an extent Was is about that tension. I don't think it resolves, it just peters out, like a tornado whirling itself out of existence. I think it's good to leave readers as clear as possible about what came from history books, and where you started to make stuff up. That's just serving truth, which is why you write fiction.

    I've just had a very similar interview to this one with someone from The Cambodian Daily. She's trying to pinpoint where my detailed picture of the Angkor Wat era left this historical record and started making up things about the life of Cambodia's greatest king, Jayavarman VII. It's quite taxing because I worked very hard to stick to the history as we knew it, and then fill the holes in the record with stuff I made up.

    There is a lot we know about the Angkor era, and a lot we don't know. I had to decide/make up how old Jaya would be at any point. I had to, for example, come up with a story as to why it took him so long to make himself king. It was interesting that it was so very vital for the journalist to understand what was historically True. I'm pretty sure that's part of the Cambodian situation at the present. They've been so comprehensively ****** by foreigners that they need to know I'm not ******* them over too. But they also need to see Angkor and Jayavarman, and so they like I've done all this work to flesh out Jaya and his famous wives, and desperately need to know what is not true, is just a story.

    They would also want to know how credible the made-up stuff was. It was amazingly hard work for me to sort this out for her. I'm not a scholar, I don't provide footnotes, I don't keep a reference of sources. I sometimes just have to improvise or make things up, particularly in Cambodia where it's difficult to get a completely consistent view on so many things. For example, one scholar was sure the royal palace had a lead roof, another equally sure it did not.

    That goes for the modern story as well. My Khmer teacher told me that women always adopt their husband's family name. Then I meet a family in which not only did she not adopt her husband's name, but her sons get to choose whether they use her family name or their dad's. To backtrack a bit, the journalist for Cambodia Daily is of French extraction, but she clearly was feeling what many Cambodians feel, and was very searching indeed about the distinction between fact and fiction in the novel.

    CN: In Was, Jonathan's mother appears in a vision and says that 'there are only two genres that can deal with family life. One of them is comedy [ . . . ] and the other is [ . . . ] horror' (282). She says that biographies 'never tell you much about the adult's relationship with his parents' (280) because 'people are embarrassed by it' (281), and that you should 'always pay attention to embarrassment' because 'it means there is something too tangled to deal with. And humor, when people turn things into a joke. Or when they make them weird and spooky. It means that there is something people cannot face' (282). But you are dealing with family life and its attendant embarrassments, facing them squarely in your works, which are neither horror nor humor (despite the subtitle of The Child Garden: A Low Comedy). Do you disagree with Jonathan's mother?

    Ryman: I think I disagree now. At that point, as a vision, she's really coming from Jonathan, and the riff is an image of his own guilt and mixed feelings about ending up a horror star, and quite why he's so good at playing Mortimer. He'd rather be the scarecrow, a comic turn, and he loves I Love Lucy. I'm not sure I agree with the vision about biography not dealing with how the child related to parents in later life. Certainly biographies of Judy Garland, to take one example, always do.

    CN: Have you ever considered writing a horror novel?

    Ryman: Yes. One hasn't come. I worry about a genre that tries to scare people. Scaring people is the best way to control them.

    CN: Does Milena's speech as People's Artist in The Child Garden reflect your view of your own work? Is your work, too, 'not much different from a virus,' making 'people feel and think in the ways' you would like them to feel and think (295)?

    Ryman: Milena's speech is about her not me, and about the whole grammar of making a speech in a socialist society about art. I do think that if you try to be political you won't write literature, you'll write propaganda.

    Theme: Commenting on History

    CN: You received an A.B. in history and English, and your interest in history is evident in your work. Mostly, you seem mistrustful of history and its constraints: history fools your characters (as in 'O Happy Day!'), or your characters become mired in history, incapable of change or incapacitated by its weight (as in The Child Garden and Air). But you also seem nostalgic, aware of the value of what we've lost in the past and of the instructive warnings history can offer about the present. What drew you to study history?

    Ryman: That degree... the story behind it is that when I was at UCLA I took as many courses as I could in everything from physics to African Tribal History. And they were going to throw me out without a degree because I'd taken too many courses, without taking what I needed for any one degree. Somebody kind in registry was able to fix a compromise where I got a mixed degree in both.

    In all those examples you give, you first have to decide what the word 'history' is being used to mean. Sometimes it just means all the stuff that's happened in the past and sets the context in which you have to operate. Sometimes it means the story we make up about history, the record we construct and how that controls and shapes us.

    I guess it would be fair to say that one of my riffs is history, the gap between that reality and the stories we tell that we call history, and the effects these stories have on us.

    Theme: Imposing One's Will on Others

    CN: Your books and novellas take a stand against individuals, corporations, and governments who impose their will upon others without (or even with) the others' consent; that sort of imposition invariably leads to harm or stagnation. Your works suggest a healthier, more equitable distribution of power: 'It wasn't enough to have love. You needed to have power. The two were so much alike. Love and power only exist between people. Both come from inner liveliness. Perhaps they were the same thing, since to fail at one seemed in some way to be bound up with failure in the other' (Lust 301). Does this theme come from your study of history, your observation of the present, or personal experience?

    Ryman: First off, I hope that this is coming out of Michael's point of view at the time, and maybe not so much from me. My novels are meant to be about particular areas of concern without coming to any conclusions for the reader. They are not exactly, I hope, mouthpieces for me. This quote comes from a man who is impotent. He has a high sex drive but can't get it up.

    He lacks this basic power and for him, love really isn't enough. He lacks the necessary power. And to fail at one for him, really is to fail in the other. At this moment, he's seeing the broader implications of his conundrum. But you are free to find this poignant or funny self-aggrandizement; something worth thinking about (or why waste so much time on an impotent man); or simply muddled thinking.

    Theme: Death

    CN: People die in your works. A lot. Important characters die, minor characters die, masses of unnamed characters die. Sometimes the dead come back to life. Why so much death?

    Ryman: We tend to forget that dying is the one thing that absolutely everybody does. We forget it, because we don't like to think that we will die. Lord of the Rings would have been a better book if more of the Fellowship had died. You can't have a credible action fantasy without a lot of people dying. You don't need death in comedy (though many of the funniest, say The Ladykillers or Kind Hearts and Coronets, are full of death). When someone dies, you see more clearly what is precious about them. So it clarifies your perspective and brings you closer to the truth. People almost always talk to their dead in my experience, so that's why I have ghosts and visions or new forms of revenant.

    CN: Even animals die. In fact, for some readers, the animal deaths will be more poignant than the human deaths. Do you have any theories about why animal deaths affect some readers more emotionally than the death of human characters?

    Ryman: Absolutely none. I've never thought about it. If people do care more about the deaths of animals than people, I'm not sure it's something I would admire.
    Jun 29, 2006
  4. Carolyn Hill

    Carolyn Hill Brown Rat, wandering & wondering

    Apr 8, 2006
    Geoff Ryman
    Date: June 2006
    Interviewed by: Carolyn Hill for the Chronicles Network

    Part Four of Four: Miscellaneous Questions

    Miscellaneous Questions

    CN: One of the members of Chronicles Network complains that gay and lesbian characters in science fiction and fantasy don't often end up in happy relationships (rather than dead or 'reformed' or alone) at the end. Do you agree that unhappy endings are more prevalent than happy endings for gay and lesbian characters? If so, do you have any theories about why?

    Ryman: So whose life exactly does end up happy? Divorce, the curse of heterosexuality? You have a choice, the relationship lasts until one of you dies, and then one of you ends up on your own. Or. The relationship fails and you end up on your own until you find the next relationship. It's only storytelling that gets us into such a muddle about love. It's not just that there are no happy endings in life, more like there are no endings at all period. Life just goes on.

    The above is a complaint. When you think something is missing from stories, it's your cue to go and write something to fill in that gap. You'll probably find all kinds of people never realised they were waiting for that gap to be filled. In fact, what I complain about is all those TV-movie/Philadelphia gays who are so totally perfect, lest they offend.

    CN: Is there really a Mind the Gap performance troupe, and did you ever participate as described in 253?

    Ryman: Yeah, there was. It really did have a comic actor leading it, we really did sell tickets, he really did go running off and leave us when the police showed up.

    CN: Did you really think of yourself as 'ravaged' (passenger 96 in 253)?

    Ryman: Yeah, and that was in 1995... now the wrinkles are even deeper.

    CN: A footnote in 253 (on pages 161-162) says that Canadian writers now express 'difference' instead of alienation. What's the difference between difference and alienation?

    Ryman: Difference: you're a Canadian who was born in Hong Kong, lives in Vancouver and you've fallen in love with a moose.

    Alienation: you're a presbyterian and everyone around you for miles in a frozen waste is also a presbyterian, only they think comic books are for kids and won't read one and so you're alone.

    CN: Are people submitting to Another One Along in a Minute, the follow-up project to 253?

    Ryman: They did. I blew it. I was faced with editing almost all of them since nobody followed the rules. I didn't have time to edit them, essentially write them all over again. Many of them were set in New York, not London. Or they were way too many words or way too few. People just didn't believe or see the fun in following the rules. So I just left the stories and wondered what to do about them. Then my Apple died completely and I moved to PC, most of the stories trapped like the passengers themselves, in a stalled machine.

    CN: What book or novella would you recommend as a starting point to readers new to your work? (I'd recommend Was.)

    Ryman: I would recommend Air if people like SF, Was if people are serious literary types, and 253 if they sound as though they like jokes.

    CN: Your books are shelved under Fiction/Literature not Science Fiction/Fantasy in Barnes and Noble here in California. Where are your works shelved in the U.K.?

    Ryman: In the UK the SF is under SF, and 253 and The King's Last Song are in mainstream. The problem is Was, which is not fantasy but was saved from extinction when Gollancz did a new edition in their wonderful Fantasy Masterworks series. So that's shelved with the SF.

    CN: Please tell us about your latest work, The King's Last Song, which has recently been released to positive reviews. Give us a sales pitch?

    Ryman: It links the era of Angkor Wat with modern Cambodia and the recent terrible history of the place. Cambodia's greatest King, the saviour of Angkor and its first Buddhist king, has written a fictitious memoir on gold leaves. In 2004, it is discovered and then stolen by ex-Khmer Rouges in protest at the direction the country is going in.

    Two modern Cambodians work to get the book back. One is a policeman, an ex Khmer Rouge who fought from the time he was 12 in 1970 until the civil wars ended in 1998. He loves war and is not quite sane, but he's still a respectable man. William is a younger Cambodian who doesn't really remember the wars. He's canny but commercial and in his heart, peaceful. The two become friends, but William doesn't know that the policeman shot his parents at the end of the Pol Pot era.

    So it has quotes from the ancient book, all very poetic. It has scenes from Jayavarman's extraordinary life. There's 20,000 words of the policeman's life in the 1980s, fighting the civil wars, and of course a lot about trying to get the book back in 2004. There is no chapter set in the Pol Pot era, as there are so many fine books translated into English about that time written by Cambodians.

    The novel covers quite a lot of ground. I think people going to Cambodia would get a much more 3D view of the country if they read it. The Cambodians are delightful, but they are still going through ****. You won't know that as a tourist, but you might like to know that. It might explain why some of the beautiful smiles are fading.


    CN: Thank you, Geoff, for spending so much time and energy answering these pesky questions!

    Bibliography and Awards

    The Unconquered Country, 1986, novella with separate book publication (British Science Fiction Award, World Fantasy Award, and nominated for the Nebula Award)

    The Warrior Who Carried Life, 1986

    'Love Sickness', a separately published extract from The Child Garden (British Science Fiction Association Award for short fiction)

    The Child Garden, 1989 (Arthur C Clarke Award, John W Campbell Memorial Award; shorter magazine version British Science Fiction Association Award)

    Was, 1991 (Eastercon Award for most enjoyable novel)

    253: A Novel for the Internet in Seven Cars and a Crash, 1996, interactive novel on the World Wide Web (Philip K Dick Award for best novel not published in hardback)

    253: The Print Remix, 1998

    Unconquered Countries, 1999, short story collection

    Lust, 2001

    V.A.O., 2003, a novella published separately by PS Publications and in a themed collection of four novellas for Gollancz

    Air: or Have Not Have, 2005 (Sunburst Award in Canada, James W. Tiptree Award for best novel on gender issues in the United States, British Science Fiction Association Award, Arthur C. Clarke Award, nominated for the Nebula Award, and placeholder in the John W. Campbell Memorial Awards)

    Tesseracts 9, 2005, edited with Nalo Hopkinson, an anthology of original Canadian SF stories

    The King's Last Song, 2006
    Jun 29, 2006
  5. Teresa Edgerton

    Teresa Edgerton Goblin Princess Staff Member

    Nov 1, 2004
    Excellent interview! You asked great questions and received some fascinating responses.

    (I don't agree with what he said about storytelling being unhealthy, but find his reasons for thinking so ... interesting.)
    Jun 29, 2006

    GOLLUM Moderator Staff Member

    Mar 21, 2005
    Very comprehensive interview indeed.

    I saw King's Last Song in the local bookshop and noticed it was by Ryman. Has anyone read this yet??
    Jun 30, 2006
  7. j d worthington

    j d worthington Moderator

    May 9, 2006
    Thank you very much for the interview. While I have some areas of strong disagreement, I also find it all fascinating and thought-provoking, and very informative for people who wish to do their best at writing. Great interview!
    Jun 30, 2006
  8. Mark Robson

    Mark Robson Dragon Writer

    Aug 31, 2004
    Daventry - England
    Not read The King's Last Song, Gollum, but I agree it was a most insightful interview. Thanks very much, Brown Rat. I thoroughly enjoyed reading through that. I shall read through it again later.
    Jun 30, 2006
  9. Teresa Edgerton

    Teresa Edgerton Goblin Princess Staff Member

    Nov 1, 2004
    Yes, he does seem to have a lot of Opinions, but he expresses them well.

    And Carolyn, you really managed to draw out some fascinating insights into his writings.
    Jun 30, 2006
  10. Carolyn Hill

    Carolyn Hill Brown Rat, wandering & wondering

    Apr 8, 2006
    Geoff is an extremely easy person to interview--very polite, thoughtful, and responsive.

    Another thing I'd like to mention: his writing would make an interesting thesis topic for a university student. The literary layers in his published works reward analytical reading, giving readers plenty of room "to tap their own dance" (as he puts it).
    Jun 30, 2006
  11. Milena

    Milena Child Garden Graduate

    Jun 11, 2005
    I really enjoyed this illuminating interview; as you may guess these are some of my favourite novels but I knew very little about the writer. Thanks....
    Aug 28, 2006
  12. MeccaJoost

    MeccaJoost Science fiction fantasy

    Oct 12, 2007
    Great interview - novel 253 is one of my favourite books
    Dec 3, 2007

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