Michael Swanwick has been dazzling readers with with unique imagination for decades. His stories have won him an unprecedented number of awards and fans. Best known for his novels The Iron Dragon’s Daughter and Stations of the Tide, Swanwick is also a prolific writer of short fiction. You can find them collected into volumes or occasionally appearing on Tor.com. When he isn’t contemplating nanotechnology, the existence of time, sealing stories into bottles, writing on leaves or diligently working on his newest novel, he can be found updating his blog with cat pictures and tips on how to win a Hugo award. (He’s won five.) Currently, he’s writing a light science-fiction novel called Hunting the Phoenix, which takes place in—we’ll let him describe it—“the same mad, post-utopian world as Dancing with Bears, my last novel, and also features Darger and Surplus, two con men, one of whom is a genetically anthropomorphized dog. In Bears, they accidentally set fire to Moscow. In Phoenix, they unintentionally conquer China.”
How did you find yourself in Philadelphia?
Magic and Brownian motion. I was at loose ends after college and working at a McDonald’s in Kingston, New York, when a friend said I could sleep on his couch for a few weeks. To survive, I wrote term papers, sold my blood, took temp jobs and lived off the charity of art students, until I finally found work as a clerk-typist. Center City was full of cheap rents in those days. I got a room next door to a whorehouse and across the street from a flophouse. It was a vivid environment, and there were lots of ambitious young people about with big plans. So I fit right in.
When did you first know that you were a writer?
At age 16, when I read [J.R.R.] Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy and decided that someday I was going to write something every bit as good.
Armani-clad elves and jet fighter dragons are just a few of your creations. Where do you find inspiration for the fantastical?
I’m inspired by the real world and driven by the desire to bring as much of it as I can into fantasy. Most of the classic fantasy I admired when I was starting out was written by British authors—people who grew up with castles and ancient ruins all around them. The conventional stuff of fantasy was real to them in a way that it never could be to me. So when I realized that I could write a post-industrial kind of fantasy, it was extraordinarily liberating. I could bring in malls and strip clubs and dry cleaners and junkyards and all manner of places I actually knew something about.
What sort of writers influenced you?
Ones with huge ambitions. Vladimir Nabokov, Thomas Pynchon, Ursula K. Le Guin, Gene Wolfe, Joanna Russ, A. S. Byatt . . . the list goes on and on. When I started out, it was still possible to read every major fantasist and science-fiction writer who had ever lived, and so I did, almost as if they were one writer of protean genius. I remember finishing the last Philip K. Dick novel and weeping, like Alexander, because there were no new worlds to conquer.
You’ve been doing some interesting pro-jects lately using different mediums.
It started when I used surgical gauze to make a life-mask of my wife, painted it white, and then covered its surface with a short-short called “The Mask,” laid out in a demi-mask. I wrote a story on autumn leaves, one word per leaf, which I photographed and then left in place. For a season, you might run across a “graveyard” or a “love” or a “werewolves” in Gorgas Park or Laurel Hill Cemetery and be briefly puzzled by it. I’ve written stories on lighting fixtures, on a carafe, on all manner of objects. Occasionally, for charity, I’ll write a piece of flash fiction, put it into a bottle which I then cork, seal with wax, and sign with a diamond-tip pen. Then I’ll destroy all other copies, physical or electronic, of the story so that the one in the bottle is unique. The person who buys it has the option of reading the story or possessing the object, but not both. These projects are all done for the joy of it, and not for profit.
I’d like to write a Halloween story on a tree, one word per leaf, so that when autumn came and the leaves fell, people could wander by and take a part of the original manuscript home with them and maybe press it in a book. I’d really love to write one on the sides of a locomotive. I think those are projects that could help make the experience of reading a story as wild and strange to the reader as the experience of writing it is to me.
Read a longer version of this interview at Geekadelphia.com.
Three citywide brainy festivals. One skyscraper-sized game of Pong. Infinite future possibilities. And a 70-year flashback to sci-fi history.
PW's 2015 Philly Spring Guide