If speculative fiction traffics in the dream of bright and better lands “beyond the fields we know,” to use Lord Dunsany’s phrase, then John Crowley takes this penchant for escapism and gives it a Borgesian twist; his writing pushes beyond the traditional boundaries of fantasy and science fiction into both everyday realism and evocative allegory, sometimes leaving the genres altogether but nevertheless retaining a shimmering dust of possibility. Thick with redolent prose and heady thought-excursions, his stories conjoin medieval and modern forms.
His first novel, The Deep, at first seems like a relatively straightforward sci-fi narrative about a planet of warring kingdoms, yet finally reveals itself to be a far more metaphysical fiction, dislodged from any scientific reality. Engine Summer, a visionary postapocalyptic tale in which the inhabitants of future Earth know only fragments of the history of the twentieth century, is more strictly SF, but contains gnostic overtones and musings on the nature of time, memory, and the mythic role of the storyteller. Little, Big, perhaps his best-known novel, charts the Drinkwater clan from nineteenth-century America to a dystopic twenty-first century, delving deeply along the way into the lost art of memory, the spiritualist world beyond the veil, and the realm of faerie.
Crowley’s skill at transcending genre has had its pitfalls, too, as illustrated in the publishing saga of the Ægypt cycle, his four-volume opus that navigates through both the intricate romantic affairs of an Aquarian-age cluster of upstate New Yorkers and an occult re-reading of Western history. Though the original books were slowly released over two decades by various publishing houses—some parts marketed as fantasy novels, others more as literary fiction—a complete, definitive edition of the series was finally published between 2007 and 2009 by Overlook Press.
While Crowley has garnered numerous literary laurels—ranging from three World Fantasy Awards to an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Literature—few of his readers probably know that projects he’s worked on have also won the Special Jury Prize at Sundance and been nominated for an Academy Award. In addition to his novelistic pursuits, Crowley is a longtime researcher and writer for documentaries; given the palpable textures he creates for his speculative novels, it’s fitting that he has one foot squarely in the world of recorded facts, the other in more imaginary realms.
I spoke with Crowley over the telephone last year. At the time, he was still working on his latest novel, Four Freedoms, which comes out this summer.
I. SLIPSTREAM, INTERSTITIAL, FANTASY
THE BELIEVER: Your novels exist somewhere between fantasy and science fiction and naturalistic fiction. Do you have any interest in the way the term slipstream has been circulating in the last few years to describe this kind of moving among genres? Would you ever think of yourself as a slipstream writer?
JOHN CROWLEY: I think this is something for critics to determine rather than for writers to do. I mean, I just write books. If they have names for them, the names can seem more or less convincing to me. I think the difficulty with slipstream and interstitial fiction and all those kinds of terms is that they tend to be used only by people who are in one of those sub-branches of fiction. They’re used by genre writers who are interested in adopting mainstream techniques or adopting mainstream values or getting mainstream readers to read their books. You will notice that it’s mostly genre writers who even use the word mainstream. Mainstream writers don’t use the word mainstream—they don’t know there’s a mainstream and these tributaries or whatever they are.
I don’t have much of a literary theory, in the sense that I would never subscribe to a manifesto about these things. But certainly the kind of fiction that always interested me is stuff that somehow manages to be convincingly actual—in the sense that you believe that truths are being told about the world you live in—and are also somehow connected to the imaginary in some way. If you read Pale Fire you can think either it’s a fantasy about some guy who once had a kingdom in some far-off land that he’d lost—or that he’s crazy. Because of the way it’s written, the book is not going to make that decision for you. I think that’s great. I think that is in a certain sense the way the world works, and the way that fiction can model that feeling that there are other worlds, that there are parts of reality and actuality that we don’t know.
BLVR: Brian Aldiss recently said in an interview that he, Arthur C. Clarke, and Kingsley Amis juried an award for best science-fiction novel the year that Salman Rushdie’s first book, Grimus, came out. They liked the book so much they decided against giving it the award— precisely out of fear that Rushdie would be ghettoized as a science-fiction writer rather than a literary novelist, and thereby limit his potential.
JC: Maybe they did save him from “a fate worse than.”
BLVR: But you seem to have escaped that fate as well.
JC: Well, I’m not sure I have. If [Rushdie] had appeared first as a science-fiction author and done well and put a little bit of a science-fiction spin to his next book, too… I don’t remember if that was Midnight’s Children—which actually is very much like a fantasy novel. It could have been published in the fantasy genre also. But then he would have had a very hard time getting out of it and establishing himself as what we in the genres call a mainstream writer.
I think that’s been a difficulty for me, too. The first three novels I came out with were real science-fiction novels—there’s no way around that. Engine Summer is a science-fiction novel, even a classic science-fiction novel in some ways. But when Little, Big came out, it was at first presented to everyone as a regular book; it didn’t come out as a science-fiction novel, or a fantasy novel, just as a novel. Bantam, who was publishing it, made a conscious decision not to include the subtitle of the book in the title. The full title of the book is Little, Big, or, The Fairies’ Parliament, and they decided not to put fairies on the cover because they were afraid that it would suddenly be relegated to fantasy, and they wanted it to be taken on its own terms. They were very excited to get it a place among the real books in the front of the bookstore. It didn’t do all that well, for whatever reason, and the next time it was reissued by Bantam, the new management said, We can sell more copies of this book if it’s a fantasy novel. So thereupon it moved to the back of the store under a fantasy imprint of Bantam as a paperback. Then, when it was brought out in paperback by HarperCollins, they said, No it’s not a fantasy novel, it’s a real novel, it’s got all this credit now as a novel that anybody could like. So they moved it back to the front of the bookstore again and issued it as a Harper Perennial. The book stayed the same—the book never changed a bit! So it’s a little bit difficult to say that I avoided all that. I haven’t avoided all this difficulty.
II. “THE ROMANCE IMPULSE”
BLVR: So what kind of difficulty does this actually pose? You do hear a lot of authors complaining about these distinctions between genre and mainstream, but in real terms, what’s the impact on you as a writer?
JC: The real impact is that it’s more difficult to be an equal success to both audiences. The fantasy/science-fiction audience is tremendously loyal and tremendously generous in their embrace of the kinds of books they like. They’ll keep you in print and they’ll love you to death. But it can be spoiling too. If you want to keep on writing those kinds of books, you have to supply to those readers the kind of stuff that they want and need in a book. If you keep doing that, they’ll keep on loving you as a writer. But it does not guarantee you any kind of place in the greater world, where standards are different. I’m not saying that the mainstream reviews and the mainstream literary magazines can’t praise a lot of bad books and make a lot of stupid decisions about what’s a good book and what’s not—they do all the time. But somehow in that realm you’re playing in the major leagues, in a certain way. Even if you’re a great fantasy writer—even if you’re a Philip Pullman or a Stephen King—there’s a sense that you’re somehow not included in certain kinds of literary judgments. You feel the loss, you feel that lack of it.
I feel that at sixty-five years old, having written eleven or so novels, I’m starting to work out of this problem. Especially with the Ægypt series completed, there are reviews appearing that are taking it seriously as a literary enterprise. It has nothing to do with the genres, even though most reviews tend to mention that I have this background. It’s like mentioning someone’s bastardy as a condition of talking about their historical importance!
But—I do think, right now, in the history of the world, it’s probably all changing. Just as half the movies you go to see are, in fact, fantasies. Nobody makes any distinction at all if they go to watch X-Men or they go to see some realistic movie: it’s just a movie. Some of them are fantastical and some are not, but audiences don’t make a distinction as to their own moviegoing. They just go to see what’s popular and what looks interesting.
It may be that that kind of thing is going to happen to literature. Maybe it was more likely it was going to happen in film or television first because they’re all romance-based to begin with. But now it may be happening in literature as well—that writers like Philip Pullman are just going to be generally received as writers. It would be nice if that’s the case—it would be good for me, if that kind of blending is happening, which we fantasy writers, and those who promote fantasy writers, have always wanted to happen. We want to write the kinds of books we want to write—we want them read and received by people who just like to read books.
BLVR: I suspect there’s been an impact from The Da Vinci Code. You can tell that certain science-fiction authors like Neal Stephenson are slipping into the front of the store because of it.
JC: Another early example of that is Umberto Eco. You’d have to regard The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum as high-tone books, no doubt about it, but they also share the same materials as many fantasy tales.
I think the central distinction—this is something I’ve written about—that what you’re really talking about is not fantasies and realistic books. I think really what you’re talking about is romances and books that aren’t romances—“romances” in the definition of Northrop Frye: those entertainments that go back to ancient times. The Odyssey is a romance. Books about quests, and mysteries to be solved, and journeys undertaken to solve mysteries, lovers who are divided and reunited in the end, treasures that are found and lost again—all that kind of material as well as talking animals and ghosts and ancient evils and trips to the underworld to learn wisdom and come back again—all that romance material, it persists in literature to a greater and lesser extent. I mean, it can be found in realistic novels too—disguised and displaced in various ways. But novels and fiction whose traction is somehow based on those kinds of subjects and themes and materials are really what we’re talking about when you’re talking about fantasy.
In a certain sense, my books are not exactly those kinds of books either, even though they frequently depend on those impulses. I think of my books, especially Little, Big and the Ægypt books, as being about that impulse, the romance impulse, more than they are actually romances themselves. So, what is that, “meta-romance”? Can I get away with that? So Dan Brown’s book—what’s the difference between that and Foucault’s Pendulum? Dan Brown’s book depends upon people wanting to indulge the sense of perceiving a mystery or chasing after a mysterious secret that can change the world, something that will remake the whole past if you can only find it, and then being chased by bad guys on the way to finding it. Foucault’s Pendulum is about people like that, people who want to feel those feelings, and get obsessed with those things. In fact it’s a condemnation of people like that, a condemnation of that impulse. So it itself can’t be a romance. It’s a book about the romance impulse. I think mine’s like that too, although it’s not as caustic or critical as Foucault’s Pendulum.
BLVR: I do love the moment in the fourth Ægypt book, Endless Things, when Dame Frances Yates—the historian of the occult whose works are heavily referenced not just in Ægypt but also in Little, Big—actually appears as a character herself. But then she confides to Moffett that she’s quite embarrassed by that particular “sort of person” she sometimes encounters because of her work: true believers, who think the Rosicrucians secretly run the world and so on. Have your books brought you in contact with similar types—people who don’t see such things as astrology or hermeticism as fantasies or folklore at all?
JC: I think it’s related to the stance I’m taking: that these books are about the romance impulse, and in certain ways critical of it. Or indulging it in a kind of ironic way. I don’t get those kinds of people following after me. The people that come and write on my blog, and people I meet in the realms of fantasy conventions, they’re interested in fantasy literature, they’re interested in romances, and that’s fine. Then there are people who are interested in ideas and intimations of occult possibilities, and interested in thinking about gnosticism and hermeticism and such topics. But actual believers, no. I don’t think actual believers in either fairies or alchemy or astrology or discussion with angels—I don’t think the real believers can find much sustenance in what I write. There’s too much giving with one hand and taking away with the other for them to be satisfied.
I did sort of provide that in Little, Big, where there is a kind of redemption, a kind of entering-into of a new world and paradise, however ironically conceived and created. It was meant to be touching, as well as ironic. But in the Ægypt series, which is so much about more standard kinds of magic possibilities—alchemy, astrology, angels, and so on—I didn’t want to leave it within that realm. I wanted to return to this world. There’s a moment in the last volume of Ægypt in which a little girl is singing the wedding. The text says, “In her singing and our listening was completed the renovation and atonement we all needed, whether or not we knew we had longed for it and sought for it, or would ever recognize we had it. It was the Great Instauration of everything that had all along been the case.” I wanted to restore the world to what it had been, to this world we know, not make a new one.
III. “I JUST LOVE LOOKING AT OLD PICTURES OF PEOPLE
WHO ARE NOW DEAD.”
BLVR: So many of your books have a strong research element to them, whether it’s written into them with characters who are themselves researchers, like Pierce Moffett, the main character of Ægypt, who scours the world finding materials for his own book, or simply because the novels themselves are obviously the result of meticulous, extensive research. What’s the relationship, if any, between research you do for your novels and doing research for documentaries? Do they feed off one another in any way?
JC: Maybe I just have a taste for research. Most of the films that I have worked on and enjoyed doing have been based on archival footage. And I’ve found that I just love looking at old footage. I just love looking at old pictures of people who are now dead. There’s something intensely attractive and gripping in looking at these pictures of people who are gone. The images that we looked at for a film about the Depression included scenes out of newsreels of people who had won the Irish Sweepstakes, which was the great lottery of the 1930s, these really ordinary people who had won a lot of money. They would say things like “Well, I bought these tickets for years and never won and now finally I did and now I’m going to take care of my parents real good and get annuities and I’ll be OK forever and this is my little dog, and I’m sure she brought me luck and I bought the tickets when she barked.…” It was crazy stuff and you’d never suspect these people had been preserved in film.
I don’t know whether this research actually combines with my writing, but I do know that there is a real thrill to it. I’ve completed a book [Four Freedoms] set in the 1940s about people who are building a bomber in a war production plant, and the research I’ve done for that offers the same kind of fascination with the lives of ordinary people. You can find lots of memoirs of people who worked in these factories, especially women, how they felt about it, what they did every day, how their husbands viewed it, how scared they were to go to work, how they learned to do things they thought they never would. It’s enormously touching.
BLVR: Did you dig through even older materials for the Ægypt quartet? Did you look at old manuscripts? Was there any tactile element to your research?
JC: [Laughs] Not really. I did handle a few old books but I never went into it to that degree. There was never the kind of experience that I ascribe to some of the characters in those books, where they actually go in and palpate old books and turn old dusty leaves and things like that. Most of that, I have to say, I constructed for them to experience. Most of my research for those books came out of secondary sources; a lot of the books I read are full of printed reproductions of old imagery and texts, and I enjoyed looking at those. But I never did the kind of deep manuscript research that might have given me that kind of a thrill. Somehow I felt I was doing enough just creating all the universe around them!
BLVR: Documentarians sometimes don’t have an incredibly deep knowledge of a subject until they actually begin working on it. They do the research, gather the footage, put it together, and let the documents speak for themselves.
JC: You’re right about that, absolutely right. And they’re also in the business of—and I’ve done this for years in films—taking small bits of this and that and combining them in such a way that it makes a whole, especially with the narration over it. When in fact the bits and pieces come from wildly disparate sources that have nothing to do with each other. In fact, that’s how historical documentaries are put together—out of bits and pieces, and the editors and producers and directors and writers know that they’ve come from disparate sources and they know what those sources are. They know they’re creating a picture that seems continuous but really is made up of bits. To an extent, that’s how my historical books have been written—and many of them are historically based, the last several have been.
BLVR: Especially in Engine Summer, but also the Ægypt books, you work with the idea that there are these bits and pieces of a lost world, or the concept of memory being composed of little fragments that one must seek to join together. In Engine Summer, it’s the result of your characters living after a global cataclysm. In Ægypt, it’s more the modus operandi of what’s thought of as occult knowledge: attempting to revive the learning of an ancient culture that maybe never really existed in the way its followers would like to think. It’s a kind of gnostic notion, retrieving shards of lost wisdom. Are there any connections for you between these more philosophical themes and the practical aspects of piecing together fragments of your research into a novel?
JC: Again, it’s probably not for me to say, it’s more for a critic to say, but I think a case can be made. When you are putting things together in this way and you have a character who is trying to ponder the bits and pieces he’s found or discovered, what that character—if he’s a thinker, as many of the characters I write tend to be heavy thinkers, hard thinkers anyway—would think about is, How am I putting this together? Is this an actual thing I’m putting together, or am I fooling myself? Is it totally lost and am I creating a new thing out of what I found, or am I actually finding a way back to a lost world? I think that’s what we do in our daily lives, a lot of the time, even when we try to construct our own past. Many novels have been written about people who have an illusory picture, not of the distant past, but of their own past, their own lives, their own marriages, their own childhoods. It may be that to write a historical version of that story stands somewhere between the modern-novel idea of discovering or reconstructing a lost past or a lost system of values and some ancient versions of it, as in the Grail quests and Gilgamesh. It’s probably central to the nature of fiction altogether, to try to enter into lost worlds, or enter into “the lost” in some way.
BLVR: You have a rather active LiveJournal blog now. As you’ve been readying to get each volume of the Ægypt quartet back out in new editions, you mention your proofreading online and ask people to contribute to the process. A pretty advanced tactic! Has that been fruitful?
JC: Oh yes. The people who read my blog are a specialized crowd; among them are people who would know when I make mistakes, people who are passionate enough to notice things. In one case a fellow noticed that I had used in one place the wrong name of a character, which writers tend to do—you’re writing a whole passage about a number of people and you just put in the wrong name in one place. And he wrote to me to make sure I caught this error of this one name that was wrong. That was wonderful. Then I have a couple of correspondents that are better at Latin and classical tags and things like that than I am, who have corrected my Latin a couple of times. That was cool. I don’t want to blow your vision of me as an erudite person or writer or whatever, but a lot of the erudition of those books is not quite as deep as it might appear.
BLVR: What do you mean by that?
JC: Well, my knowledge of a lot of things… I’m not a terrible Latinist. I took four years of Latin in high school and a couple of years in college, so I know my way around. But there are many times when what looks like something I may have found when actually reading some ancient author was in fact a quotation I found in some secondary source. Or I’ve combined bits and pieces out of several secondary sources in order to make a passage that sounds deeply learned, when it’s really kind of an illusion. I don’t see why I should be embarrassed about this. I mean, it’s fiction. It’s all an illusion.