INTERVIEW: Ian Watson, who wrote with Stanley Kubrick!!
An interview with Ian Watson
Hi Ian. Thanks for agreeing to do an interview for Ultimate Adventure Magazine!
UAM: First, would you like to tell us a little bit about yourself and your writing career? I believe it is long and orgasm(achine)ic?
IW: I suppose in one sense it´s already quite long since my first SF story was published in 1969, which seems a while ago, but to me 1969 still doesn´t seem particularly long ago. Maybe I manage my mitochondria and telomeres better due to Real Ale and instead of accumulating errors I accumulate stories and novels. This said, I realise that I write in order to put my insights into external storage in the form of books and stories, so that I don´t have this burden of enlightenment constantly pressing upon me, which enables me to live merrier as time passes by. The fact that progressive enlightenment should be a burden is a paradox which I must now consider. Essentially, I write stuff in order to explore and discover (and reveal unto others, if they´re interested) rather than in order to generate a heap of publications — and there isn´t really such a heap, either; I just happen to have been doing this for quite a while, so it puzzles and even sometimes irks me (not that I´m very irkable) when people say that I´m prolific, since my most recent short story, sold to PS, took about 18 months to write for the sake of that always impossible perfection, although not continuously for 18 months, granted; and I did a few other things in the meantime too. The most important thing about career is that it is NOT sodding well careen, which means to turn a ship on its side so as to scrape off barnacles; thus you do NOT careen along a corridor, an illiteracy which besets more and more fiction by folks who ought to know better; you career along a corridor. Nor does actinic mean a bloody bright, ravening, aching light such as caused by an explosion or by an eldritch portal; it merely refers to the chemical action of sunlight, and I do wish the same folks would stop poshing up their prose actinically.
UAM: And I believe you worked with Stanley Kubrick. That must have been an insane situation to find yourself in! Can you tell us how that came about?
IW: It would be quite boring rehashing all that because 10,000 words on the subject are on my website entitled “Plumbing Stanley Kubrick”, but to what´s already there I should add my amazing discovery that I also wrote several versions of the carnival of destruction of robots Flesh Fair scenes, and completely forgot about this because Stanley told me to exclude such stuff from my final Screen Story when I came to write it up. Spielberg found these scenes in Stanley´s bottom drawer or filing cabinet or in his heap of discs. In about 2007 Jane Struthers of the University of the Arts, London, where Stanley´s archives have been enshrined, contacted me to do an interview for a huge coffee table book she was preparing with Jan Harlan about A.I. “from Stanley Kubrick to Steven Spielberg”; and lo she revealed this unto me, whereupon I delved deeper in the big box of 17-year-oldish printouts, and behold!
UAM: So what was he like? Go on. What was he really like?
IW: I genuinely liked him. In fact I couldn´t have worked with Stanley eyeball to eyeball for 9 months if we hadn´t got on pretty well. And I didn´t feel inhibited by the pie-in-the-sky bonus because I never imagined that the film would actually be made (until this happened and the pie descended from the sky). He was droll and could be a tease, and a magpie too. At the same time, he was very focused, convinced of his vision regarding the tale of Pinocchio for robots, but he was also very patient, willing to wait for years till the story became perfect and foolproof; although fools he did not suffer gladly, or not for long. I was honoured when he actually phoned me personally to say goodbye, instead of just walking away as happened to others; but then three months later he changed his mind and phoned again: “You know, this is one of the great stories of the world…”
I deduced that Stanley liked me fairly well too, yet he couldn´t possibly maintain an ever-extending family of acquaintances, a mistake which Malcolm McDowell made. I wish I´d had a chance to play chess with Stanley.
UAM: You attend a lot of conventions. What’s your opinion of conventions? Great fun or a waste of intellectual energy?
IW: In the UK they aren´t writing conventions, they´re reader conventions — I don´t go to viewer conventions — and usually they´re great fun even when the committee neglect to lay on good Real Ale, as opposed to bad or not enough Real Ale; and gossip with fellow scribes as well as with the rest of the fan family which can be richly illuminating, on all topics ranging from artificial intelligence design to Real Ale, just for instance. Since I never prepare what I´m going to say on any panels but allow my mouth to speak spontaneously, as though controlled by imaginary Gods in accordance with the theories of Julian Jeynes about the bicameral mind, often I discover insights that I never previously knew I had within. Therefore conventions generate energy rather than dissipating it. I abhor dissipation, as I´m sure you know, hic. Although the time when my body did disobey Standing Orders, at a Heathrow Eastercon about 4 ago, and reached for a bottle of Scandinavian fire water, despite the 10 hours of subsequent amnesia which endure to this day filmed evidence demonstrates that I can also dance the tango while singing opera, of which I was unaware previously.
UAM: You also seem to spend a lot of time in Spain. Are you a bank robber on the run? What’s the appeal? What adventures do you get up to out there in the sun?
I spend most of my time with my beloved Cristina, translator of A Song of Ice & Fire, in Asturias on the north coast of Spain where, contrary to My Fair Lady, most of the rain falls rather than on the plain, causing green meadows and hills where dancing goblins play bagpipes and swig the local artisan cider. I don´t care a piss about sun, sand, and sangría — the sea tried to drown me a few years ago off Andalusia! Actually I don´t much like cider either, but the wines here are gorgeous, and just 200 metres from our flat is beer paradise (see http://www.facebook.com/LaBuenaBirra for a photo) with a laudable stock of going on for 40 of the most delicious beers of the world, just one of which, for example, is an excellent Porter from Colorado of all unexpected places, not to mention the top stars of Belgian Trappist breweries including some rareties hard to find in Belgium itself. Quite a few of the other pubs in Gijón have Grimbergen and Affligem on draught. I need to watch my waist, though, since Asturian restaurants cater deliciously for the huge traditional appetities of miners who, in fact, no longer do any mining. Gijón´s long curving sandy beach, favoured by surfers, is where the Vikings first came ashore in Spain to ravage and pillage. Where better to come ashore? Gijón also contains a People´s University which is the biggest building in Spain, bigger than the Escorial Palace, and definitely impressive in appearance — inside of its courtyard easily fits a twin of Oxford´s Radcliffe Camera with added statues of saints. In collab with Cristina I just finished perpetrating my first cookbook, of 50 meals named after famous people, due to amaze the Spanish-reading world in the run-up to Xmas 2012 for the 50th anniversary of big Spanish publisher Círculo de Lectores. In writing the stories of the meals I learned a lot about the Secret History of the World previously unknown to me, as seen from a gastronomic viewpoint. Did you know that Caruso was fined $10 for monkeying with a lady´s behind in the monkey house of New York zoo? Caruso claimed that a monkey was responsible, although possibly he was set up. This, in connection with Salsa Caruso which was invented in Uruguay commemoratively a mere 40 years after a thrilling visit by Caruso to Montevideo. Such things should be better known, and soon will be — in Spanish, anyway. Maybe an English language edition might follow, pushing Jamie off the best-seller list.
UAM: My favourite books by your good self are Orgasmachine and The Beloved of My Beloved. Can you tell us about these particular titles?
IW: Inspired while I was living in Japan by Japanese comics and by Mikimoto´s Pearl Island, as well as by the Essex House line of suversive “speculative” pornography written by American poets for about 18 months in the late 70s (before the controlling Brandon House realised and suppressed Essex House), and by Female Liberation, I wrote the first version of Orgasmachine under the title The Woman Factory in Oxford in 1970-71.
An agent sent it to various very unsuitable publishers until I demanded that he walk upstairs to the next floor of the same sodding building he himself was in, where highly suitable Olympia Press had their London office. (Thus began my deep respect for literary agents… I did not say that!) Olympia rapidly read the book and rushed it to their New York Office, an event which could have happened months earlier without any agent. But then, disaster! I was in a train when I read over another commuter´s shoulder (mean bugger that I am) an inside news story in The Guardian: Girodias Goes Bankrupt. (He of Olympia Press, no less.) I could have been up there with Henry Miller, Nabokov, Burroughs, and Pauline Réage… Anyway, thanks to Maxim Jakubowski, my early version of the book did at least appear in French, entitled Orgasmachine.
Fast-Forward to the early 80s when I rewrote TWF, now entitled The Woman Plant, and sold it for $10,000 advance to Playboy Paperbacks edited by the very excellent Sharon Jarvis. Disaster again! The Playboy empire lost its gambling licence for its London casino, from which a lot of its profit came, and to scrape up some cash Playboy sold Playboy Paperbacks to Berkley, who emphatically did not want my book. (But I kept the advance.) Out of a job, Sharon Jarvis nevertheless volunteered to agent the book because she loved it, and she tried really hard; but a politically correct climate was a-dawning and The Woman Plant was becoming anathema.)
Fast-Forward to the end of the 90s when the excellent Mr Kawamura of Core Publishing emailed me from Tokyo. Core Publishing, as in hardcore, mainly produced Japanese clones of Penthouse, but Mr Kawamura adored SF and would sneak it in at any opportunity. The result, skipping an intermediate stage or two, was the beautifully illustrated Japanese edition of Orgasmachine of 2001, rewritten once more (bannered with my credit for A.I. Artificial Intelligence) which was a hardback best-seller and shortlisted for a Japanese award. A.I. had earned very well in Japan because a lot of Japanese housewives went back to see it two or three times, excited about my Gigolo Joe.
Finally in 2010 the equally excellent Ian Whates of NewCon Press published the book at long last in English, only about 40 years after I started writing it. If people want to know what the fuss was about, let them sally henceforth for a physical copy to NewCon Press´s website, http://www.newconpress.co.uk, or to Amazon, or for a Kindle edition to arrive within a mere 2 minutes either use Amazon or go to http://www.sfgateway.com.
Orgasmachine was very enthusiastically reviewed at length in the BSFA print-journal Vector by the also excellent Justina Robson with only minor quibbles. I was glad that a woman reviewed the book that was originally “The Woman Factory”. When Justina saw her review in print, she facebooked that she regretted even having quibbled; although surely reviewers are obliged to quibble at least a bit, otherwise how will readers trust them?
The Beloved of My Beloved (NewCon Press, 2009; ebook via http://www.sfgateway.com) is, so far as I know, the only full-length genre book written by two authors with different mother tongues — and whose twisted brains seem to fuse seamlessly. Within a framing narrative of a man besotted with a life-size tumour in the shape of his dead beloved are the bedtime stories he tells to the tumour. The Beloved of My Beloved is a perverse encyclopedia of Western civilisation approaching collapse, the “Beloved” being symbolic of the desires we vest in consumer capitalism. The tumour is the sickness of this consumption culture. The stories are illustrations of this, upon an eroticised tumour the size and shape of a woman’s body. “The Beloved” may be a definitive metaphor for aims of Western civilisation taken to perverse extremes already inherent in them. You may care to compare objects of desire as discussed by Baudrillard. The tales are transgressive, hilarious, erotic and anti-erotic at the same time.
The first story in the book was conceived in an otherwise deserted hotel on a wooded hillside very near the Hungarian-Slovak border when Roberto and I were guests at a convention in the 2nd ugliest town in Hungary (thus they put guests in a forest instead), when Darth Vader was late for breakfast, consequently Roberto and I began to talk about virtual necrophilia, as one would. Weird Tales bought the resulting story, one of the mildest in the book, which was much reprinted and translated. The second story to be written, “The Penis of My Beloved”, was conceived during the day while Roberto and I were driving from Romania to Italy via Germany, and went to star in Best New Erotica, then in the Best of the Best New Erotica. So our penis is the best of the best.
Other, more drastic stories followed as we realised the extent of the metaphor, although the tale which won the British Science Fiction Association Award of 2010 in the Best Short Fiction category (“The Beloved Time of Their Lives”) was again relatively mild, and romantic in its way. Amongst people who read and voted for it was a lady who seemed at first to be a regular Lancashire lass but who then revealed that she was originally a Cossack from Poltova, and Roberto had got the recipes of her region exactly right. We cater to many tastes. At the beginning Roberto wrote in Italian then translated himself into surreal English; by the time of this story he was writing directly in surreal English.
Since the book appeared, we´ve had a new tale, “The Invention of Beloved Money” published in Rudy Rucker´s Flurb; wherein the world´s monetary crisis is solved. Economists, pay attention!
UAM: And finally, what are your most current projects, and why should we buy them?
IW: The big current project is revising a very ambitious and long novel called The Waters of Destiny which I worked on intensively for several years in collaboration with Andy West, a fellow member of the Northampton Science Fiction Writers Group which I founded about 10 years ago. Andy has recently (Easter 2012) published with Ian Whates´ NewCon Press an excellent novel all of his own, The Outcast and the Little One, set on a future Venus. Our WOD (for short), set in the very near future and in the medieval Middle East and Ethiopia, is about an 11th century Arab doctor of genius who succeeds — funded by the Assassins of Alamut — in isolating and storing the actual cause of the Black Death, which had nothing to do with rat fleas, as the scientific world is now beginning to realise. This scientific “triumph”, with awful consequences past and near future, was just possible within the mindset and using Arab medical technology of the time. This novel is actually very IMPORTANT (not to mention increasingly timely, and exciting, with great characters) so of course no commercial publisher or agent would touch it with a bargepole. Consequently Andy and I are going to release it an ebook, probably in three parts (it´s quite big) probably with the first part free; probably some time during 2012. Then people will know what I´ve been up to for the past few years, aside from writing short stories, the most recent collection of which, Saving for a Sunny Day (NewCon Press, with a gorgeous cover by Dominic Harman and a long, very thoughtful intro by Adam Roberts ) gathers a dozen or so of my effusions reprinted from mags and anthologies subsequent to my previous collection, The Butterflies of Memory (PS Publishing, 2006). By the way, Gollancz have recently released all of my works — except for Sunny Day and my 4 psychotic gothic space operas set in the Warhammer 40K universe, but including books from other publishers than Gollancz — as ebooks through their http://www.sfgateway.com. So there´s no excuse for not reading almost everything I ever wrote! Except I suppose for time and inclination…
UAM: Thank you very much for your time!!
IW: …and inclination; smiley.
You can read more at Ian’s website, http://www.ianwatson.info/