There are wordy conflagrations in Melbourne around about now that are sending occasional sparks up Sydney way. The Melbourne Writers Festival is letting Val McDermid do an evening at Gleebooks, and last night China Miéville, in Australia for AussieCon 4, made an appearance at Kinokuniya. There was a bit of a Neil Gaiman rockstar feel to the event, with a pec hugging white T shirt in place of Neil’s trademark black jacket.
After a brief introduction, China M stood on the tiny stage by himself for an hour, reading and fielding questions.
He read a chapter from his latest book, Kraken, pretty much a self-contained short story that was very funny, though more to be savoured than guffawed at. I loved the term retro eschatonaut: if you can figure out what it means you’ve got the bulk of the story.
An earlier plan to have a fishbowl Q&A session having been ditched, CM chaired the question time deftly. You could tell we weren’t at a Writers Festival because all the questioners had clearly read at least some of his books, and he didn’t have to do any obvious mental gymnastics to come up with interesting answers to dim questions. I noted down a couple of gems.
On atheism: After stopping the questioner in mid-sentence to prevent spoilers, he said, ‘I don’t think you choose whether you believe or not,’ and talked about CS Lewis’s account of his own conversion to Christianity: he had convinced himself that he had to believe, and knelt and prayed, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England. ‘I like the idea of an atheistic character who resents his lack of belief.’
On film adaptations: Any book involving a secondary world invites the collaboration of readers. A film destroys all the readers’ mental worlds – and the author’s – and replaces them with the director’s.
Advice to young writers: Start from an assumption that nothing you write will be worth publishing. Then falsify that assumption.
On writing a book set in an already established universe: Every book you write in someone else’s world is one less you can write in a world you make up yourself. He won’t ever be writing a Star Trek or Star Wars tie-in, but if he gets a phone call asking him to do a Doctor Who script, he’ll drop everything. (That last was delivered with a pinch of salt.) He wondered aloud what would happen if a publisher approached a distinguished author, J M Coetzee for example, asked them to write a Star Trek novel, and kept putting more money on the table until they said yes. (‘Star Wars by Coetzee?’ I muttered to the man standing next to me. ‘Better than Lucas,’ he muttered back. Someone should write it.) It would be a win-win: the Nobel laureate expands his readership, the publishing house cashes in on the controversy, the literati get to read some science fiction and/or enjoy their outrage, etc.
The role of politics in his work: He’s a socialist, and if his fiction introduces people to political ideas he’s thrilled, but a 500 page fantasy novel is a hugely inefficient vehicle for propaganda. ‘If you’re a Red, the Paris Commune is a very inspiring story. If you’re not a Red, it’s still a very exciting story.’ The revolutionary politics is there in his books because it gives their worlds texture, makes them more realistic.
I left, a happy camper, as the audience was transmogrifying into a huge queue for the book signing. My Book Group is currently reading The City and the City (the book of his that he would most like to see made into a movie), so I’ll be posting about China Miéville again in a couple of weeks.