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Monday, April 2, 2007

Interview with Richard K. Morgan

Official Richard K. Morgan Website
Pre-order “Black Man” (UK) @ Orion/Gollancz and “Thirteen” (U.S.) @ Del Rey

It was a few years ago, I read about a little sci-fi novel that had been optioned for a movie. Since it sounded interesting, I decided to check it out, and I’ve never looked at science fiction the same. That book was “Altered Carbon”, and the author of course, was Richard K. Morgan. From the time that his first novel was published, I feel that Richard K. Morgan – whose bibliography includes “Altered Carbon” (2002), “Broken Angels” (2003), “Market Forces” (2004), “Woken Furies” (2005) and the forthcoming “Black Man” / “Thirteen” (2007) – has established himself as one of today's cutting-edge voices in science fiction, as well as a personal favorite writer. Thus, it was a great pleasure when Mr. Morgan agreed to answer some questions for me. So, read on for a taste of Richard K. Morgan’s upcoming novel, some interesting insights into dystopias, anti-heroes and the disparities between the UK/U.S. book scenes as well as info on a fantasy trilogy and much more:

Q: According to your bio, you went through a difficult period where you were working a day job and writing on the side, with no luck in the publishing world. Then in a short time, your first novel “Altered Carbon” got picked up by publisher Gollancz and the rights were sold to producer Joel Silver (the Matrix). What happened?

Richard: Dunno – just the right place at the right time, I guess. Even a blind hog, and all that. Part of the reason I took so long to get published is, in all honesty, that I’m very stubborn and only ever wrote what I wanted to, rather than what I thought, through intelligent market analysis, might sell. So in part, it may be that the SF scene just wasn’t ready for the full on noirish stuff I was interested in writing – an early story submitted to Interzone was rejected because my characters “could not be sympathized with”. That story later became “Market Forces”, which won me the John W. Campbell award and was optioned for film by Warner Brothers. And I didn’t make the characters any more pleasant, so something market based certainly shifted. Then again, it may just be that I wasn’t a good enough writer back then. Who knows? A bit of both, maybe.

Q: What’s the word on the “Altered Carbon” movie adaptation? Any details you can share?

Richard: Sure – the option on “Altered Carbon” continues to be renewed, everyone from the film world who’s had anything to do with it continues, when asked, to be very enthusiastic about it. And that’s all the news there is.

Q: Going back to the aforementioned “Market Forces”, the novel was the third book of yours that was published, but it originally started out as an unpublished short story and then an un-optioned screenplay. Why the perseverance with this story? How has it evolved from its first conception?

Richard: It wasn’t really a question of perseverance – these things never go away, you keep them in the back of your head even if you don’t retain the actual hardcopy (and for a long time I had those too). And a little while before I got picked up with “Altered Carbon,” I’d already started to novelize the “Market Forces” screenplay. So the framework was always there, and it was an idea I’d always wanted to take for a spin in one form or another. I still think it’d make a terrific movie.

As to how the concept has evolved, obviously the original short story was far more limited in scope than the novel or the screenplay – it was essentially the final duel between Chris and Mike, flash-lit with recall of the worldview that made this insanity possible. When I came to turn this into a screenplay, I was able to back up and create a far more detailed incidental experience of this future, plus develop the characters far more fully. That said, the screenplay version was still fairly stripped down and ragged compared to what eventually emerged in the novel. In the book I had the chance to fully explore the consequences of the actions men like Chris and Mike take, and to bring in secondary figures like Vicente Barranco and Joaquin Lopez.

Q: As you mentioned earlier, after the book was published “Market Forces” was ironically optioned as a movie to Warner Bros. Pictures in 2004. What’s the latest on this?

Richard: As with “Altered Carbon”, there is no news worth printing – the option continues to renew, and I continue to keep my fingers crossed.

Q: Do you have any other unpublished works lying around that you hope to revisit?

Richard: No, I’ve pretty much used up my back catalogue, in SF at least. The fantasy novel I’m now working on has its roots in a couple of character vignettes I wrote a few years back, but those are already cannibalized and the story is barely started, the scene not even fully set, so everything I’m now writing has to come freshly imagined.

Q: In the U.S. your books are published by Del Rey…in the UK by Gollancz. Regarding your upcoming novel, why the different titles (“Black Man” in the UK and “Thirteen” in the U.S.)?

Richard: The obvious – Del Rey were unhappy with the title “Black Man” for reasons of racial sensitivity. Race is a far more spiky issue in the US than it is in Europe (which is not to say there isn’t plenty of racism in Europe, because there is) and everyone treads that much more carefully. I’m not too upset about the change, because “Thirteen” is a pretty solid thematic summary of the book in its own way, and “Black Man” wasn’t in any case the original title I had in mind – though I do think it’s very powerful in a way that “Thirteen” maybe isn’t. I think it’s a shame Del Rey have to worry that the title alone will spark an instant negative response rather than trust that people will read the book and then judge – but then again, they’re at the sharp end, culturally, and I’m not, so it seems reasonable to be guided by their sense of things.

Q: What do you feel are the differences between the two publishers?

Richard: Well, I’ve been very well treated by both Gollancz and Del Rey, and I have no other direct experience, so it’s hard to say. Both publishers have been right behind me from the start, neither have tried to pressure me beyond the necessary professional oversight of a good editor. And that’s despite me refusing to play safe and churn out a long line of crowd-pleasing "Altered Carbon" copies. Both houses have been keen to let me write whatever I want, and then, whatever it is, they’ve pushed it for all it’s worth. So I have no complaints.

Q: What about your thoughts on the fantasy/sci-fi book scene in the UK compared to the U.S?

Richard: I think a lot of the differentiation there is a matter of hype rather than truth. Currently, there’s a wave of popular opinion that the UK is producing the real cutting edge of SF/Fantasy and taking the US market by storm – but to be honest that’s just a re-hash of the old “the British are coming, the British are coming” thing that rears its hopeful head every time we win a couple of Oscars or Franz Ferdinand go on tour in the US. As if no-one in America was making good movies or playing good music anymore. Ridiculous. It is true that there’s a lot of cutting edge SF/F coming out of the UK right now, but that doesn’t mean there’s no-one writing it in the US. “The British are coming” speaks for China Mieville and Charlie Stross, for example, but completely fails to acknowledge Jeff Vandermeer or Kelly Link. Grand Old Men of the British genre like M John Harrison and Michael Moorcock continue to receive respectful attention in the US for their contribution, but so do – or should – William Gibson and Joe Haldeman. I think the unvarnished truth is that the genre is in rude health on both sides of the Atlantic, and a part of that strength is cross-fertilisation. If there’s a tendency towards darker, more dystopic fiction in the UK at the moment, then it’s worth remembering where we got it from – I personally owe a huge debt to Gibson’s future noir vision (and the whole American Hardboiled tradition that stands behind it) and so do a whole raft of British writers like Charlie Stross, Jon Courtenay Grimwood and Al Reynolds, to name but a few. And if we’re going to talk about the sort of cheery, optimistic widescreen space opera from the US that is so often used critically to contrast with the British dystopic stuff, well, no-one does cheery optimistic widescreen space opera like our very own homegrown Peter Hamilton. Personally, I think we should all just be happy that we’re working at such a fecund time in genre publishing – I certainly am – and stop trying to create cheap cultural stereotypes from gross generalization.

Q: Back to your forthcoming release, which is coming out soon (May 17 in the UK and June 26 in the U.S.), can you tell us what to expect?

Richard: “Black Man/Thirteen” is set in the aftermath of a century of ill-advised and poorly regulated genetic experimentation, where an otherwise fairly successful global (and extra-global) community is struggling to come to terms with the legacy of the human damage done over the previous hundred years. I suppose you could draw a parallel with the way in which we now struggle with the human consequences of previous centuries of colonialism. Carl Marsalis, the black man of the title is one of a series of engineered humans, in his case engineered for combat, who have been modified not so much in any physical aspect as in the way they think and feel. It’s a specialism based on designed aptitude, and the book aims to show, among other things, that the aptitudes required or desired by our society are often very frightening things. In tone, “Black Man” is quite similar to my Kovacs novels, in that it’s a fairly high velocity crime-and-conspiracy thriller with a noirish lack of obvious good or bad guys – but the book addresses issues that the Kovacs series could only ever really meet obliquely because of the sleeving technology. Simply put, in the Kovacs universe physicality and death are problems that can be sidestepped. In the world of “Black Man,” as in our own, they aren’t. You have to meet them head on.

Q: How do you feel your latest work compares to your earlier novels? What improvements as a writer have you made and are there anything else you want to improve upon?

Richard: Well, you always hope that you get better with each book. I think “Black Man” is stylistically stronger than anything else I’ve written so far, and it’s perhaps rooted deeper in real science and real politics than the Kovacs books. It’s also the first time I’ve consciously attempted to write a future society that isn’t wholly dystopian. I had this curious experience at Worldcon 2005 when I and a number of other writers were accosted after a panel by an East German woman who told us we had a responsibility NOT to write dystopias, because it was our job as science fiction writers to provide people with some hope for the future. Now that’s a hugely arguable point on a whole number of different levels – first there’s the question of whether writers have any responsibility at all other than to entertain (and maybe not even that), then there’s the small matter of whether a novel should answer questions or simply pose them, and whether a sombre dystopian warning is worth more than a bright didactic future (I tend to think it is). But it did leave me thinking, and when I started putting “Black Man” together, I thought I’d make a concerted effort, if not to create a utopian future, then at least not to make it too dystopian either. So there are a whole slew of aspects to the future of “Black Man” that are really quite positive if you take a general view. It still gets pretty shitty for the individual characters though, so fans of Kovacs and “Market Forces” should feel right at home.

Q: As you mentioned, the majority of your novels have possessed a similar theme of futuristic, cyber-punk influenced dystopias populated by anti-heroes. Where does the inspiration for these worlds and characters come from?

Richard: Well, it’s really not that hard to write dystopias – you only have to take a look around at what’s going on in the real world, and then extrapolate with pessimistic intent. Human beings have a habit of fucking things up, no matter what technological advances are made available, and the worst aspects of human nature never seem to be far from emerging in all their malicious glory. None of the manifest scientific, social or cultural progress of the last century was able to prevent a catastrophic invasion of Iraq for small-minded corporate and geopolitical gain, or to bring Palestine any closer to a peaceful settlement than it was nearly sixty years ago in 1948. Greed and fear continue to dominate our political landscape despite everything we’ve achieved, and the hard won rationalism of the Enlightenment is now under renewed attack from a ferocious array of slobbering religious and superstitious morons. To be honest, you have to be remarkably optimistic to look all that in the face, and then imagine a future that ISN’T dystopian.

As to the anti-heroes – well, I’m very uncomfortable with what we could call the “Mainstream Hollywood Hero” dynamic, in which the intensely tough and violent protagonists we see on our screens and pages are able to switch their anti-social tendencies on and off as required. You know the kind of thing - they rise to the occasion, commit slaughter and mayhem amidst the bad guys and then, when the shooting stops, they collect the girl and step back into their sunny Middle American existence as if it’s all been nothing worse than a tricky day at the office. Now there are really two reasons for my dislike of this kind of fiction – first and foremost, I don’t like it because it’s bad fiction, it doesn’t convince. Anybody with any experience of violence, whether it be in a military or civilian context, will tell you that it marks, and marks forever. No-one – except maybe the odd psychopath – lives as a violent criminal or a cop policing violent crime, and comes away psychologically undamaged by the experience. Equally, no-one fights a war and comes whistling home like a workingman at the end of a job well done. We like to think that the sort of veteran trauma made famous by the Vietnam war is something specific to modern times, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that all wars produce this fallout, and always have – it’s simply that the mucky end of this dynamic has only in the last generation or so been an acceptable topic of public and general discourse. So when I see fiction that fails to take this into account, it pisses me off.

But beyond this lack of realism, what worries me about the standard Hollywood Hero model is that it very easily becomes a kind of propaganda in which we not only accept the cycle of violence, but actively approve of it. Instead of viewing these acts with horror and disgust, we start to believe that it’s fine, it’s eminently controllable and even, under certain circumstances, rather wholesome. Now I won’t deny the sick and exhilarating appeal of violence to the human psyche, nor its great power in story-telling. But what I also won’t do is play ball with the idea that there’s nothing wrong with it. And that refusal to play heroic ball more or less necessitates the use of anti-heroes, rather than heroes, as protagonists. It’s the only way I know that you can deal with the themes and topics inherent in violent drama and stay honest. So sure, you can take the profession-of-violence ride with Kovacs, or Chris Faulkner, or Carl Marsalis, and you can enjoy the exhilarating, unclean thrill of it all – but what you don’t get is the right to walk away clean afterwards, because there is absolutely nothing morally good or wholesome about this ride.

Q: The Takeshi Kovacs novels are a fan-favorite (and personal fave :). You’ve mentioned on your website that “Woken Furies” will probably be the last Kovacs novel. Is this still your same sentiment or is there a possibility of seeing future Kovacs adventures, or at least a return to the world that he inhabited?

Richard: Well, I’ve never actually closed the door on the possibility of more fiction from the Kovacs universe, or even of another Kovacs novel. It’s just that right now, I can’t see a way to do either without it coming off like a rather tired re-tread of what’s already gone before. I tried quite hard to make each of the Kovacs stories somewhat different from the previous one, and I feel that I’ve mined about all that I usefully can from the character and the scenario. Of course the incentives, both financial and logistical, to keep churning out the same stuff over and over are very real – it’s far simpler to re-use a universe you’ve already built than it is to go away and build a whole new one; it’s far easier to rely on an existing fan base for a character than it is to attempt to interest those same fans in something fresh; and it’s far easier to secure big advances from publishers if they know you’re going to give them more of the same stuff they’ve already done well with. But over the years, I’ve watched almost every series character I know, including some real personal favourites, go down the toilet on this spiral of diminishing returns, and it seems to me the only safe option is to quit while you’re ahead, to leave the vision intact and strong.

That isn’t to say that I refuse to ever write another Kovacs story – if I can just come up with a way to do it that won’t be a replica rip-off, then rest assured I will. I miss the old bastard as much as anyone.

Q: A couple years back you wrote two six-issue miniseries of the comic book character Black Widow for Marvel Comics (Spider-Man, the X-Men, etc.). How did this collaboration first come about and what kind of experience was it working with comics?

Richard: I was invited to write Black Widow by Jenny Lee, a Marvel editor who’d read “Altered Carbon” and liked the way I’d built the female characters. She ran a few different Marvel properties by me and I fixed on the Widow instantly – there was a real sense that this was a character you could do something fresh with. The writing itself was a very steep learning curve – I’d never scripted for the sequential art medium before, and Jenny had to pretty much teach me everything from scratch. Luckily a lot of the skills I picked up writing the screenplay for “Market Forces” were transferable, but still, I learnt a great deal in a very short space of time, and that’s always an exciting experience.

Q: Do you plan on returning to the world of comics anytime soon? How about dream projects?

Richard: The comic-book thing is certainly on hold at the moment, but that’s logistics rather than personal preference. I’ve got some nice ideas, and some sympathetic ears at Marvel and Vertigo/DC, and in fact my own US publishers, Del Rey, have talked about me doing a graphic novel for them – but right now I want to focus on getting my next novel up and running. My genetic wiring is pretty classically male, in that I have a hard time concentrating on more than one thing at any given moment, so sidelines like the Black Widow tend to slow me down badly elsewhere.

As to dream projects, I think the Black Widow experience has made me realize I’m probably not cut out for mainstream Marvel/DC properties – "Black Widow: Homecoming" was very well reviewed, and I certainly enjoyed doing it, but as far as mass appeal goes, well – there wasn’t any! The series didn’t sell very well, and it seems the overt politics and ambivalent attitudes to heroism, sex and violence weren’t that happily received by the core comic-book readership. And those elements are integral to the way I write. Let’s put it this way – Spiderman 2 and Sin City count among my worst ever movies, and both were box office smash hits. Now that’s a serious mismatch of target market and writer. And companies like Marvel and DC are in business to sell product to that market, not stroke the egos of difficult and unpopular auteurs. So while I’d love to write a third Black Widow – have the sketched plotlines in fact – there’s no reason on Earth why Marvel would pay me to do it. I think any future comic-book work I do is likely to be strictly marginal, own-character stuff.

Dream artists however, yes – I was very impressed with both Bill Sienkiewicz and Goran Parlov, and would happily work with them again. And I’m a big fan of Eduardo Risso’s work on 100 Bullets, and Dean Ormston’s weird and twisted imagery in Lucifer. But to be honest, those are only the top names in a whole raft of talented guys out there I’d be happy to hook up with.

Q: You’ve already written a movie script and comic books. Any other mediums (videogames, television, short stories, etc.) you plan on tackling?

Richard: Plan on tackling – no. But that doesn’t mean I might not get round to some of those things at some point. It all depends on time available, and the right project coming along.

Q: In 2005 you signed a 5-book deal with Del Rey, which will follow your “Black Man/Thirteen” release. Two of the books will continue your trend of science fiction, but the rest include a sword-and-sorcery trilogy. Can you give us any updates on these novels?

Richard: The first of the sword and sorcery novels is underway, working title “A Land Fit for Heroes”, publication some time in 2008, if I make my deadline. I don’t want to say too much about it at this stage, because the story is still pretty unformed and it could move in any number of different directions. As with my other stuff, I’ve started with the characters and a few sketched scenarios and we’ll see where that takes us. Beyond that, I have some very rough ideas for my next SF book, which will take place in the same universe as “Black Man/Thirteen”, and follow up on some of the same themes. And that’s about as far as my forward planning reaches.

Q: Why a fantasy trilogy?

Richard: I grew up reading sword and sorcery by guys like Michael Moorcock and Karl Edward Wagner, and of course the superlative "The Broken Sword" by Poul Anderson, so there’s always been a place in my heart for that darker kind of fantasy. And while I’m suitably respectful of Tolkein and what he achieved with Lord of the Rings, I always itched to tear down that facile dark-versus-light dichotomy that his work is built on. For my money, "The Broken Sword" is a far finer piece of fantasy than Lord of the Rings, and has been unfairly neglected over the – similar number of – years since both were written. It’s the spirit of that book, at least in part, that I’d like to see revived, and I’ll be infusing “A Land Fit for Heroes” with a lot of the same gloomy Norse iron and fire.

Q: You won the “Philip K. Dick Award” for your novel “Altered Carbon.” How did you feel about winning this award? If you had to choose between being an award-winner and a NY Times bestseller, which would it be and why?

Richard: To be honest, I was stunned. To be honoured for your first novel with an international award, especially one with that name on it, goes beyond words. Though at the time, as I recall, I was rather hungover at Eastercon, and the realization percolated through quite slowly. People kept coming up to me and saying congratulations, and I was thinking “What for? Getting up this early? Not being sick?”

That said, the choice between awards and sales is a no-brainer. You can’t eat acclaim. And that isn’t as grubby an attitude as it might seem. High volume sales pay the bills, and that liberates you to go on writing what you want rather than what you – and your publisher – think you might be able to sell and make a living from. And I’m old fashioned enough to believe that you get the best out of an author when they’re writing from the heart, not the wallet. I have never had a bestseller in the pure sense of the word, but the film options I’ve sold have enabled me to take risks with my fiction that would have been a lot harder to live with if I’d hadn’t been financially secure. Success, coupled with a due degree of humility and modest living, is a great facilitator of honest art.

Q: Are there any preconceived notions that you’d like to dispel about being an author?

Richard: Yeah – the chances of you making a good living from it are statistically next to zero. Only a tiny percentage of published authors ever get to give up the day job, and of those, even less get to live like kings on the proceeds. If you want to make a lot of money, go into banking or IT consultancy. You’ve got a far better chance of success.

Q: What advice would you give an aspiring writer?

Richard: Two things:

(1) Have it clear in your mind from the beginning what you want out of this. If it’s money, then like I said, there are easier ways. If it’s fame, then just get hold of a camera and film yourself doing something stupid or obscene. If, however, neither of those are what it’s about for you, if it’s really about the writing, then go to (2) below:

Don’t Give Up. It’s a long, tough road, with very little sustenance along the way. Even once you’re published, it can still be a surprisingly tough and lonely way to live. But if you really are a writer, then what the hell else were you going to do with your time?

Q: What are some of your personal favorite writers and books? What are you currently reading?

Richard: For favourites, check out my website at – there’s an extensive list there of what I read and like. Currently I’m finishing up Cormac McCarthy’sNo Country of Old Men”, and getting ready to dive into Thomas Pynchon’sAgainst the Day.”

Q: Are there any up-and-coming writers that we should check out?

Richard: In genre, I’d recommend Hal Duncan’s stunning debut “Vellum”, and anything by Kelly Link. More generally, you should try Louise Welch, in particular her first novel, “The Cutting Room”, and Anthony Swofford, of Jarhead fame, whose first novel “Exit A” came out last month – I haven’t read it yet, but on the strength of Jarhead, I expect great things.

Q: What other activities or hobbies do you enjoy?

Richard: I’m addicted to rock climbing, which – given local weather conditions – I’m mostly forced to do indoors at the Glasgow Climbing Centre, and I travel as often as possible. Most recently, I was in the Dominican Republic, and before that Peru. Currently laying plans for somewhere in central Asia.

Q: Any last thoughts or comments for your fans?

Richard: Uhm – hope you like “Black Man”, hope it’s been worth the wait. Thanks.

I just want to personally thank Richard for taking the time out of his busy schedule to answer these questions for me and hope that you, the reader, enjoyed the interview. Thanks again to all, and much love & respect…




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