APEX MAGAZINE: You’ve written both SF/Fantasy and literary fiction. Did you begin with one and stretch out into the other? Or have you always written a broad variety of genres/styles?
GEOFF RYMAN: I wasn’t differentiating at the time. I started reading fantasy as a child, then SF as an adolescent. My first published story was indeed SF but SF is a particular variant of fantasy, I think anyway. For me, a genre in marketing terms is a matter of kinds of content, but for writers it’s more a matter of how readers read and what they need from writers to be able to do it. And the reading protocols for fantasy and SF are pretty similar. Things like they need more description than mainstream fiction because you have to be able to see the world, and the emotions of the characters have to be strong enough for us to relate to… but be part of a different culture as well.
AM: Many authors seem to become pigeon-holed into a specific genre, or even sometimes become stuck in reworking the same themes or personal perspectives over and over again in their works. You, however, seem perfectly comfortable shifting styles, genres, and philosophies (I’m thinking of Mundane SF here, per the early 2000’s). Has it had any impact on your readership–critical or general–(that you’ve noticed) because you aren’t afraid to change your own stance and perspective? Is it a deliberate, conscious effort on your part to move beyond perspectives you may have held one or five or ten years ago to find new thought territories, or is that simply the way you live life, and the fiction you writes merely demonstrates your own growth and versatility?
GR: I have to get very excited by a novel or story before I can write it. That usually means that, for me, it needs to be different and a challenge. It doesn’t really make sense in career terms… or so people in publishing tell me. Then you look at very successful writers in publishing and critical terms like Neil Gaiman who does graphic novels, novels, or movies, some for young adults, some for SF fans. People and critics like variety.
As for Mundane… well, stories can be mundane because the author agrees to play a particular game while writing it… leaving out certain old tropes. I’m not sure which of my stories you think aren’t mundane. Hero Kai is an outright fantasy, but the SF stuff is pretty mundane. I am currently writing a story that is not Mundane… but let’s see if it’s any good. J
AM: You research extensively for your books, so what’s your research process? Do you begin research with a writing project in mind, or do you let your research interests drive your writing projects?
GR: I write the story first. The few times I’ve had a great idea that I needed to research before I could write, nothing happened. Rule of thumb: if you need to do research before you can write it, it’s not for you. If the story works first, then I go places, take notes, read books. I once wanted to write a book about a clone of a successful Pope. I went to the Vatican, read history, read about Catholicism–but I didn’t have the story. I think I needed to be Catholic in my bones to write it. I don’t think research can give you the heart of a story. If you are the person to write it, the first draft will be there for you. Research will contradict you, make you change the plot and the characters and what they say…but the heart of the story must be there first. I am never as happy as when I’m doing research. The happiest I have ever been was being in Manhattan, Kansas, doing the research for Was. Manhattan, Kansas was my Wonderland…and there I was, in it.
AM: You write a great deal about Cambodia, and in the interview with SFFChronicles, you mentioned an interview with a Cambodian newspaper where you were asked to define what was historical and what was fictional in the book (Air, I believe), given the deft intertwining of fact and fiction. What challenges have you faced writing about a country that isn’t (directly) your own, and how has your fiction been received locally there? Has anyone ever expressed concerns of cultural appropriation, and if so, how have you addressed those concerns?
GR: The Cambodian Interview was for The King’s Last Song… a historical novel about Cambodia in the era of Angkor Wat, the 1980s post-Pol Pot, and in a version of 2004. That did take a lot of just being in Cambodia, learning enough of the language, and reading all kinds of sources, talking to lots of Cambodians, and being with excavators and historians in Cambodia. Writing it took five years.
The interview you’re talking about was with a European ex pat in Cambodia for an English language paper, and was around establishing what was accurate, particularly in the historical material, and it was background information for a review. I’m a writer and not a scholar, so I found myself at a bit of a disadvantage when quoting chapter and verse on historical sources. The new American edition from Small Beer Press has a new section on sources, and differentiating between what was historical and what was fictional. I had to do the same thing for Was, write an outro, to establish what was Kansas history and what was made up for the story.
Cultural Appropriation is a vivid issue. A lot of the unease around cultural appropriation is a product of a specific time and historical conditions: the fallout in the USA of slavery, indigenous genocide, the legacy of the Civil War (or should that be the War between the States?) not to mention the spectacle of Pat Boone covering Little Richard records. Understandable, and it must be taken on board, but as I understand what’s being said, it boils down to “don’t rip off other people’s creative work, don’t misuse if for shallow ends and don’t write lightly about things you have no experience of or respect for.” Some people didn’t like “Pol Pot’s Beautiful Daughter…” but from the things I was able to read, they were taking on the role of speaking for Cambodian people. I’ve only had very nice things about my work said by Cambodians, but then they might be being polite. Some of them have made efforts to have the work translated in Khmer–there was a move to serialize The King’s Last Song in Khmer, for example, but that boils down to funding. I was much more worried in that story about writing about someone who does exist, a real person who did not ask to have Pol Pot for a father. That’s why the story came festooned with “A Fantasy” in the title, and all the references to the story being a lie. It was to make very plain that it was all a fiction. I certainly wasn’t trying to make a hero of Pol Pot. The model for the story was as much Stalin’s daughter, who wrote a most illuminating book on what it’s like to be in such a situation. Cultural Appropriation comes with some powerful feelings attached, and demands consideration, especially by me, as I need to write outside my own cultural heritage. I have no idea why. I feel an urge to break down ethnocentrism and I don’t know any other way of doing that than to go outside my own cultural background.
AM: While some authors lean heavily on characters who are much like themselves, you write many characters that are very different from yourself. How do you approach creating a character outside of your personal experience? Are there any specific challenges you face when creating characters whose history and personal experiences differ greatly from your own?
GR: It’s a rule of thumb for at least one editor that a story needs something called displacement. If it is too close to your own experience or actual friends, it lacks a gap or difference. The imagination needs that gap to bridge before it can be engaged, really start doing its job of coming up with new characters or a new story. Certainly that’s true for me. But make no mistake; it has to come out of your experience of life in one way or another. But it’s displaced, made general, transformed, translated and made specific in new ways.
AM: You worked full-time for many years and now work part-time (after having–it sounds like–squeezed writing into the weekends and spare moments for years). Has your writing process changed now that you have more time to devote to it?
GR: Yes, I got a lot more writing done when I worked full time. Time is fractal; it’s a Tardis. The more you pack in, the bigger it gets. But also teaching people to write, you can’t do it if you parse your time. You have to put your creativity into someone else’s work… and that does tire that particular part of your mind.
AM: What is your editing process like? You’ve said in other interviews that you typically work through at least three drafts. Do you have specific goals in mind for each revision, or is it highly dependent on the individual project itself?
GR: I’ve never written a story in three drafts. More like at least seven or ten. Three drafts are way too few. You do have to polish the words but that’s not the time-consuming part. The redrafting comes when you realize that the story doesn’t really go somewhere and you need to rework the plot. The chain of cause and effect, who the character is and what she wants, all of that has to be changed… and that new material then polished in turn. Whole sets of characters may have to go and be replaced. Sometimes what you wanted to happen simply can’t or won’t happen. That’s where the real work comes: on the structure. And often you don’t see the structure until you think you’re nearly finished. So at draft three or four, there can be a horrific realization that the story really doesn’t work and needs deep re-shaping… so get rid of a lot of the story and all that polished writing.
AM: Having been a writing instructor at Clarion and also at university level, what is your perspective on innate talent verses perseverance and practice for the new writer? Can good writing be taught, in your experience, or does a writer need a little inherent spark of talent for writing in order to build upon?
GR: An inherent spark? Probably. But it still takes ten years of hard work to bring it out. I have a theory that geniuses are simply people who started young and frequently have a parent in the business to push them, like Picasso or Mozart. Possibly Jesus Christ if you believe that “carpenter” is a mistranslation of the Greek, and the word means something closer to scholar.
AM: What are you currently reading?
GR: Lots of African or diaspora novels. I help run an African Reading Group that meets once a month in Manchester, alongside Jennifer Makumbi, a Ugandan fiction writer. So Helon Habila’s Oil and Water, Aminatta Forna, Helen Oyeyembi–particularly recommended for fantasy fans (she’s an outright genius, but still forming in my view), Black Mamba Boy by Nadifa Mohamed, short stories by Petina Gappah from Zimbabwe, my teaching partner Chuma Nwoloko’s wonderful novel Diaries of a Dead African and probably best of the lot so far, Nii Parkes’s Tail of the Blue Bird. That starts out as CSI forensics reset in Ghana, combined with a leery narration from an aged traditional African. It has a wonderful idea at the core… but it’s fantasy only if you’re a Westerner. Don’t call it magic realism, don’t call it Afripolitan… it’s something else, though like all of the above, a hybrid product of African experience with Western language and form. Sozaboy by Ken Saro-Wiwa after all these years for its gutsy language that aims to get the sound and humour of Nigeria. I have, but haven’t been able yet to get to his daughter Noo’s book Looking for Transwonderland: Travels in Nigeria. I find it very touching that the writing torch gets passed on. It’s as if a Nigerian rapper did a version of Fela Kuti.
AM: What (if you can say) are you working on now?
GR: As little as possible? A non-Mundane SF story? Last year over four hundred student pieces? Cheers.
AM: Thank you so much for this interview, Mr. Ryman, and for letting us share “Blocked” with our readers!