Go to Homepage   The Periodic Prime of Michael Swanwick

Michael Swanwick (far right) challenges the assumptions of fellow writers Brenda Clough and Peter Heck during the SF Protocols Panel of Capclave 2, held October 18-20, 2002, in Silver Spring, MD.

According to Michael Swanwick, it takes ten years for a writer to become an overnight success. He should know. He wrote for ten years before he sold "Guinungagap" and "The Feast of St. Janis," both of which became finalists for the short story category of the Nebula Awards in 1981. They didn't win -- an experience Swanick highly recommends to new writers. Of course, he also writes a column on his Web site purportedly designed to "cut new talent off at the knees and thus keep down the number of writers I have to compete against." So follow his advice at your peril -- or with a pinch of your favorite element from his Periodic Table of Science Fiction.

However you choose to look at it, Swanwick not only survived his near-misses, he profited from them. Since his first publication in 1980, Swanwick's awards and nominations number almost too many to count. His honors include that temporarily elusive Nebula Award as well as the Hugo, Theodore Sturgeon and World Fantasy Awards. However, 2003 may mark a new peak in a remarkable career. His novel Bones of the Earth, his novelette "Slow Life," his short stories "'Hello,' Said the Stick" and "The Little Cat Laughed to See Such Sport" are all nominees for this year's Hugo Awards.

Crescent Blues: Bones of the Earth and the award winning short story "Scherzo with Tyrannosaur" both take the reader on a journey to the age of dinosaurs. What keeps drawing you back to the pre-human past?

Michael Swanwick: The cover of the New Yorker for the day I was born was a Charles Addams cartoon of a night watchman in a museum pointing his flashlight at a freshly hatched dinosaur egg with small footprints in the dust leading away from it. So maybe it was fated! I've loved dinosaurs from infancy, and they were one of a number of subjects I always meant to get around to writing about but never had any ideas for. Then I attended a dino symposium and was nailed by the passion and intensity that paleontologists brought to their science, and that shift of focus from the object of study to the people doing the studying was enough to open up a world of story possibilities.

Book: Michael Swanwick, Bones of the Earth

Time travel was just a necessary evil. Despite what the physicists say, it's hard to believe it could ever happen. Just the fact that the Bible says nothing about Jerusalem being flooded with tourists in Bermuda shorts at the time of the Crucifixion disproves it.

Crescent Blues: You are still going strong with Michael Swanwick's Periodic Table of Science Fiction. What prompted you to take on such an enormous project?

Michael Swanwick: It was the challenge, the very real possibility that I might fail, that appealed to me. It made the sequence into a kind of performance art, something akin to being a trapeze artist, which is a possibility not normally open to a writer.

This project has made me a figure of terror and superstitious fear to other writers. They turn pale and cross themselves when I enter the room. I can't deny that's been a big part of the fun as well.

Ironically enough, for those very reasons this is a wonderful time to be a short fiction reader, at least in science fiction.

Crescent Blues: Is it becoming more difficult to find story ideas for the later elements? And has any one put up odds on whether you'll finish the series or not?

Michael Swanwick: It has always been difficult! But nobody's offered odds on my finishing because after the first couple of months everybody's assumed it was easy as pie for me.

I began, of course, simply hoping I could come up with something -- anything! -- on each element. Some of which, like hassium or vanadium (don't talk to me about vanadium!), were more trouble than others. But as the series progressed, the attempt to keep the stories varied and unpredictable imposed a sort of overall shape on the series. I now picture the totality as being a sort of crazy-quilt portrait of the science fiction genre.

The delight of these stories, as I'm writing them, lies in the frequency with which I get to write "God sits weeping in a corner," or "Shakespeare was an electric pickle," or "At night the water in the Ocean of Dreams is phosphorescent." In a novel, it can be a long wait between such nuggets of concentrated estrangement. But short-shorts are all effect and very little scaffolding. Every story gives me the chance to come up with "The vitriol of London is very, very strong," or "Upload a copy of the Baltimore Catechism into this poor heathen soul," or "This must be the luckiest penny in the world!"

Crescent Blues: Yet another series you're working on is the Sleep of Reason for Infinite Matrix, based on Los Caprichos, a series of prints by Spanish artist Francisco Goya. How does writing stories for series like these compare with creating individual, one-off pieces?

Book: Michael Swanwick, the iron dragons daughter

Michael Swanwick: It's a lot easier, in part because Goya was there first, creating emotionally-charged scenarios, and in part because there are so many recurring characters who evolve over the course of their stories. Some of them, like Prick the Donkey and Elena the Man-Hearted were a positive joy to return to. Grace, though... She started out as a blameless victim, like the condemned woman in the three parts of "A Sad Story," but as her sorrows continued and multiplied and she consistently made every bad choice she possibly could, I lost all patience with her. When she came to her inevitable bad end, I felt glad she was gone and then guilty that I felt glad. Which is exactly the reaction I wanted to evoke from the readers. We've all known people like Grace, alas. Prick, on the other hand, started out as a mean-spirited parody of a certain president of the United States and through a kind of alchemy became sweet and lovable. Elena started out as a mere destroyer but, to my surprise, grew into a complex and nuanced character.

I'm convinced that the most successful art form of the second half of the 20th century was the soap opera. It's pretty much swallowed up all the other narrative forms. Look at the various Star Trek series and Star Wars movies, and then all those serial novels that never do end. For the most part, it's been a bad influence, but working within that format (disaster piled upon tsurris, absurd plot twists, frequent crossovers), I've come to appreciate its appeal. It's very much like how we view our own lives.

A while back, when the series was half-finished, I sat down in a kind of frenzy and wrote the last forty stories in three days. There was a gathering logic to each of the separate plot lines, so I was able to drive the main characters to their individual destinies, and the series to a collective conclusion. Prick ends up much better than he deserves. Elena reaches an odd sort of apotheosis which may or may not be a good thing. The witches, who have caused so much evil but must be forgiven because they take their clothes off frequently, are consigned to the dustbin of history. And so on. The series ends on a note of hope, for which there is no justification in the etchings, but like it or not prose is linear and the sequence inevitably built toward a conclusion. An ending that came down like a giant thumb to crush the reader flat would have permeated the whole with a feeling of sourness that the Goyas, for all their anger, simply do not have.

Book: Michael Swanwick, Jack Faust

Crescent Blues On your Web site there is a short entitled "Scribble, Scribble, Scribble," where a short story writer goes on display in a zoo because of the rarity of short fiction writers and outlets for their works. How much more difficult is it to be a short fiction writer today compared with when you sold "Ginungagap" and "The Feast of Saint Janis?"

Michael Swanwick: It's always been a hardscrabble thing. When I came up, the expectation was that you'd supplement the pittance you earned writing short fiction by living in abject squalor and not eating as often as you liked. That's the approach we all took, and it explains why at public functions you could always find the writers standing around the refreshments buffet, wrapping wedges of cheese in paper napkins and stuffing them in their pockets.

Even that can't be done today, however, because the markets are dwindling. It used to be that girlie magazines bought up a lot of quality fiction because the courts had ruled that a magazine had to be considered as a whole when deciding whether it was pornographic. If it was just unclad women, that was obscene. But a story by Harlan Ellison or William Tenn negated a lot of naked breasts and made the magazine an artistic endeavor. In practice, it was kind of a libertarian government subsidy for the arts. That's gone now. Penthouse has given up on fiction entirely and Playboy, which used to be one of the most respected fiction markets in the world, has downplayed it enormously. Maybe among the lesser magazines you could find one or two that still publishes fiction, but I wouldn't pick up a copy of Juggs expecting to find something really cool by Howard Waldrop.

Ironically enough, for those very reasons this is a wonderful time to be a short fiction reader, at least in science fiction. Because the people writing short fiction are doing it for the love of the form. Opportunistic hacks have very sensibly gone elsewhere.

Crescent Blues: How did you first get published on the Internet?

Michael Swanwick: I was invited. When Eileen Gunn began The Infinite Matrix, she solicited a weekly series of short-shorts because I'd done Puck Aleshire's Abecedary, one story for every letter of the alphabet, in The New York Review of Science Fiction and she knew I was capable of it. Then, one story into Michael Swanwick's Periodic Table of Science Fiction, the dotcom crash hit Eileen's sponsor, and her e-zine folded. She took it on herself to contact Ellen Datlow at Sci Fiction and see if she wanted to adopt the series (this sort of selfless concern for their writers is typical of the successful editors in this field - wannabe editors, take note!), which Ellen did. Sometime later, Eileen was able to restart The Infinite Matrix, and asked if I'd create another series for her. The thought of doing two stories a week was a little daunting, but I figured I owed it to her. I had another idea, that of writing stories for each of the eighty etchings in Goya's Los Caprichos, that I meant to get around to sometime years and years in the future, so I sold her on the idea of The Sleep of Reason.

A short story can be as keen and ruthlessly efficient and as perfectly suited to its task as a knife

Of the two, the Periodic Table is the more popular. But the Goya series is more literarily ambitious.

Crescent Blues: Do you see the internet being a powerful potential market in the future, or will it just become a "bed of thorns?"

Michael Swanwick: The Internet has really stood Adam Smith on his head. There's an enormous demand for "content" and an extremely limited supply of material that people want to read. So theoretically writers like Lucius Shepard and Terry Bisson ought to be rich. But in practice what happens is that I get tons of requests from people who want to post my life's work on their site for free. And because all this Web stuff is still being invented, I've had stories commissioned, accepted and then bounced by editors who suddenly discovered that they had been given neither full editorial authority nor a clear description of exactly what they were supposed to buy. To say nothing of Steven Brill's attempted theft of other people's copyrights. This sort of treatment never happens to me with books or magazines. So an editor of an online zine is going to have to work a lot harder to get a story from me than Shawna McCarthy or Stan Schmidt will.

On the other hand, Sci Fiction pays well and treats its writers with respect, as is reflected in the quality of fiction you can find there. Part of that is Ellen Datlow, who is both highly regarded as an editor and very supportive of her writers. But a lot of it is that the zine is sponsored by SciFi.Com, which exists to publicize and promote the Sci Fi Channel. (And, judging by the fans I know, doing an extremely good job of it.) The parent corporation assumes the role that five hundred years ago was filled by Renaissance princes like the de Medicis or the Borgias, who supported Michelangelo, Da Vinci, et al. in order to enhance their own prestige. All the other fiction sites are underfunded labors of love. So right now it looks like corporate sponsorship is the only functioning model.

This could change, of course. Everything about being a writer does.

Crescent Blues: You have written a great number of short stories and several novels. What do you consider the biggest thrill about writing in each format? What do you consider to be the biggest challenge of each format?

Michael Swanwick: A short story can be as keen and ruthlessly efficient and as perfectly suited to its task as a knife, while a novel can be as commodious, inclusive, and full of surprises as a house. A lot of people neglect short fiction for that latter reason, preferring fiction they can move into for extended periods of time. This is a mistake because short fiction is the forge wherein literary innovation is created. Those of us who were reading short fiction when Neuromancer came out were astonished at the public acclaim it received because everything it was praised for already existed, in parvo, in "Burning Chrome. Not that their excitement was misplaced. But where were they when "Chrome" came out?

The biggest thrill to any work of fiction is the moment it's done and you can say, "Okay, this is as good as I can make it." Points to short fiction there. But a novel gets lots more attention. A mediocre first novel from one of the major houses -- Eos, Tor, Baen, etc. -- is guaranteed to get more reviews that whatever wins the Hugo for best novella, novelette, or short story. And each of those reviews is going to be longer than anything the short work gets.

As for challenges -- wow. All serious fiction is a challenge (and I'm not being a snob here; I'd include the early Jeeves novels, before the plot was reduced to a formula, in this category) in very much the same way. You have to invent a new form for each one, the same way the sculptor has to find the shape within the stone.

Book: Michael Swanwick, gravity angels

The smallest thing can derail a short story, because its structure is so stripped down that a minor bit of roughness will make the gears freeze up. The novel ambles forward like an amiable bear but for that very reason is prone to going astray. If you don't keep a vigilant watch on it, it'll wind up in the wrong county, halfway up a tree with not the slightest idea of how to get down.

Other than that, I don't know. Each work of fiction is its own animal. Or mechanism, as the case may be.

Crescent Blues You said in previous interviews that you write very slowly, between two to four pages a day. What do you see as the benefits and the disadvantages of your writing pace?

Michael Swanwick: The big benefit is that when I finish a novel there's a great deal of interest in it, simply because it's not something that happens every year. The big disadvantage is economic. Writers exist in a hunter-gatherer economy. When you finish a novel, it's like landing a whale, and you eat big for a long, long time. Then there are years when you subsist on chipmunk stew.

Artistically, there's enough time to polish a sentence to a fine sheen, and -- in the case of novels -- to throw in little treats, references, symbolism (something I was taught in college and never saw the point to; but what the heck -- it doesn't hurt anything and maybe another English major will get a kick out of it), hidden jokes, things that not everybody will catch but that will amuse those who do. This comes at the price, however, of all the books and stories I'll never get around to writing. When I die, there will be as many stories begun but not finished as there were published, and (scrawled, cryptic, indecipherable) notes for hundreds more. Because you can't judge the merit of a story until it's finished, some of those left unwritten might even be my best work.

Crescent Blues: Do you follow a set routine in your writing, or is it something that you fit in around your family life?

Michael Swanwick: Both, really. As a freelancer I had the incredible privilege of being able to walk my son to school every day, and holidays and minor illnesses weren't the crises they can be when both parents work outside the house; those were great perks. Now that Sean's in college, my schedule is astonishingly boring. I have breakfast and then slog upstairs to my office and write for eight or nine hours, with a break for lunch. It's like having a desk job without the office gossip or paid sick leave.

Then again, when the weather gets warm, I can get out the fishing gear and take my work down to Wissahickon Creek. So I don't expect anybody to feel particularly sorry for me.

Crescent Blues: You have an impressive collection of signatures on the petition for SF Professionals against the War on Iraq. What kind of effect do you think the war, with all its high tech and terrorist emphasis will have on the SF/Fantasy publishing world?

Michael Swanwick: In the short run it'll probably be good for people who write science fiction and fantasy war novels, like my friend David Sherman does. Real war is not much fun, as David himself can tell you, and the horrific televised images from the Vietnam War really depressed that segment of the market for a long time, so those guys deserve a break.

In the long run…

Michael Swanwick -- Continued