The Honest Alan Moore Interview – Part 1: Publishing and Kindle
Honest Publishing recently spoke to writer and comic book legend Alan Moore, creator of critically acclaimed works including Watchmen, V for Vendetta, and From Hell. We’d like to thank Alan Moore for his incredible generosity and for being very open and honest with us.
In the first part of our interview, we picked his brains on the shape of publishing, writing as a full-time occupation, and his take on the Kindle.
What do you think of the state of British publishing at the minute? Is it edgy enough?
From my somewhat distant perspective, it looks pretty wretched. That’s not to say it’s not without really interesting signs of regeneration and recovery, but the mainstream of publishing seems to be locked in a self-negating downward spiral. It’s largely to do with the way the people in publishing have given up any personal integrity in favour of sales returns. This has meant that presumably there are as many great first novels as there have always been, but when publishers insist upon squandering their budgets on people that they believe to be celebrities, they’re obviously not going to have anything left to encourage new talent, even if those are talents that could potentially change the entire literary scene or world of publishing.
In Private Eye, they published a very informative list of sales figures for political biographies. These are all ones that had been trailered in the national press, had been talked about on television programmes, had been given an immense amount of hype. I think from the biographies they talked about, Cherie Blair’s was the out-and-out winner. I think it sold something like 167 copies. John Prescott had sold 65 copies of his biography, Prezza. What the advances were for that book I would estimate would be getting on for the quarter million mark, something like that. For something that sold 65 copies, if there was an advance of a hundred pound, you’d be lucky to make it back.
“Publishers in the old days […] they were prepared to go out on a limb for something they believed in. They weren’t waiting for someone to do a television series about Mrs Beeton so they could get her to write a celebrity chef book.”
Celebrities will always be desperate for money, so you can’t really blame them, although most days I still do, but the fault is really with the ethics of the heart of the publishing trade. Publishers in the old days, people like Victor Gollancz, they were prepared to go out on a limb for something they believed in. They weren’t waiting for someone to do a television series about Mrs Beeton so they could get her to write a celebrity chef book. The landscape has changed and I think that sadly a lot of people have used that as an excuse for changing their ethos. There are some things that never need to change, and ethics should be one of those things.
So that’s pretty much my admittedly ill-informed view of today’s publishing scene. Although, the very fact that people cannot get published by the big-name publishers in the way that they used to has meant that you’ve got some really interesting and often really beautiful little small publishing houses that are springing up and coming into existence. And the stuff that they’re providing is actually a lot better. I’m thinking of people like Tartarus Press, Strange Attractor and various other commendable small publishers that do a beautiful job and that are producing books that are good to have on your bookshelf. It wouldn’t be so good to have something that you can download onto your Kindle. Of course, I have a very archaic and hard-line approach to artefacts. I really like to hold something in my hands.
So do you not have a Kindle?
I’ve got very little connection to technology at all. I’m pretty Amish in most of my approach to technology. Anything after the horse and buggy, I’m a bit suspicious of. I can see that for some people having a Kindle would be a real benefit. I can also see the state of my home, which is pretty much surrendered to books. Me and Melinda, we make our living space around the books. But I kind of like that. I wouldn’t prefer in a million years to have all of them – and I’m pretty sure I couldn’t have all of them – downloaded on a Kindle. Because they’ve got an artefact value. I’ve got first editions that have got beautiful illustrations or are signed; it’s all part of the mystique of books to me. Perhaps people would argue that that’s not necessarily relevant, but I think our emotional attachment to an object is a part of all this.
Like I say, I’m not against electronic books per se. I don’t think they’re the downfall of civilisation or the end of literacy. I just tend to have quite a lot of faith in the book itself as the publishing world equivalent of a shark. Sharks have not evolved in millions and millions of years simply because they haven’t had to. They were pretty much perfect to start with. And I feel the same way about books. I doubt that published books are going to go anywhere any time soon.
“I tend to have quite a lot of faith in the book itself as the publishing world equivalent of a shark. Sharks have not evolved in millions and millions of years simply because they haven’t had to. They were pretty much perfect to start with.”
I can see that the people actually producing technology, such as Kindle and iPad, these are always the people who are telling us that we have to have these things. And being the type of creatures that we are, a fair number of us will naturally fall into that, will perhaps assume that as a status symbol it’s much better to be seen reading a Kindle than a dog-eared paperback. Although I will note that the last two or three times I’ve taken train journeys, everybody around me was sitting round reading a dog-eared paperback. I tend to think that for most people the idea of the book, with its easy portability, where you can turn the corner of a page down, where you are basically working with ordinary, reflected light rather than screen radiance, I think that the book will end up as the reading method of choice.
What was the last brilliant book you read? Which writers deserve more recognition?
I’ve not been reading a lot of books lately, because I’ve been writing my book Jerusalem, which has taken up a lot of time. It’s also meant that I’ve been anxious to preserve the atmosphere and the thought processes of the given chapters. A bit of non-fiction or something that’s not competing with what I’m writing, that’s fine, but the last thing I want to do is read an absolutely brilliant piece of fiction that will perhaps colour my work.
That said, just when I was starting to work on Jerusalem, I did read the first part of Brian Catling‘s unpublished Vorrh trilogy. I’ve known Brian for a number of years now. He’s a fantastic artist in all sorts of different media. His poetry is brilliant, his performance art is always stunning and intense and transfixing, and as a sculptor he’s of course the guy who’s responsible for one of my favourite pieces of modern art, the monument designed for the site of the execution block at the Tower of London. It’s absolutely beautiful. It’s a glass table and, engraved on its edge, there are the names of all of the people, perhaps only 12 people, who were beheaded at the Tower of London. Set on this glass table is a glass pillow. Apparently, it took a year for it to cool down. You have to reduce the heat by a degree a day, over the period of about a year, so that it doesn’t cool down too quickly because then it would just crack. This beautiful glass pillow, with glass tassels at the corner of it, in the centre of it there’s this wonderful, soft indentation that is like an invitation to rest your head.
Brian’s also written a short novel that is about Bobby Awl. He was like a primordial dwarf who was a native of Edinburgh. Apparently his bed, when he was a child, was a boot, a boot that was hung up on the wall. He was a friend of another Edinburgh character called Daft Jamie who was another mentally incapacitated Edinburghian who, I believe, was one of the victims of Burke and Hare. Brian happened to find a cast of Bobby Awl’s skull or death mask, and from this little thing he came across, he researched it and turned out this beautiful piece of prose. I remember reading it and thinking how maybe I shouldn’t have launched into a three quarter of a million-word novel. Maybe I should’ve just written something a lot shorter and better.
But then Brian suddenly went into this manic state of overdrive, and turned out a three-part novel. It was a fantasy novel, probably one of the best fantasy novels I’ve ever read. It was called The Vorrh and it was all set in this primordial forest that does not know any boundaries of time or space. Worked into this incredible fantasy are all these real-life figures, like Eadweard Muybridge, the photographer. Brian has documented a period after Muybridge had been acquitted of murder, which he had actually committed, on the then-unusual grounds of insanity. Muybridge had come to London and been treated by Dr William Gull, who was the Jack the Ripper candidate in my book From Hell. It’s this wonderful, sprawling fantasy. I read the first volume and I thought, ‘Right I’m not going to read the next volumes until after I’ve finished Jerusalem.’ Since then, Brian has gone on to write a load of smaller books but they’re all unpublished. I’m certain that they will be published because they are just too good not to be. Brian is an incredible talent.
“There are brilliant writers who we really need in our present day, when so much of our culture is retroactive and repetitious, where it’s just recycling whatever the last big trend was, indefinitely, or revising a concept from some time during the last hundred years.”
The books of Iain Sinclair, which I can read because they’re documentary, they’re documentary but with the power of Iain’s writing they’re made into somewhat more. They’re like a transcendent documentary. So Iain is somebody I will always find time to read. Michael Moorcock, his Pyat Quartet, an extraordinary series of books. Steve Aylett, for my money, one of the best, funniest and most original of science-fiction writers. He publishes most of his stuff himself these days, after his experience with big time publishing. There are lots of wonderful writers out there and, sadly, a lot of them can’t make a living out of it.
One of my favourite biographers at the moment would be Phil Baker. He did The Dedalus Book of Absinthe. Then he went on to do a biography of the thoroughly unlikeable Dennis Wheatley, called The Devil is a Gentleman, which, despite not having any fondness for Dennis Wheatley’s work or as a person, I found completely engrossing. Recently he’s done the biography of Austin Spare, the 19th/20th century occultist and artist. I think Phil is teetering on the brink of deciding whether he can carry on with a writing career.
This is a little problem. There are brilliant writers who we really need in our present day, when so much of our culture is retroactive and repetitious, where it’s just recycling whatever the last big trend was, indefinitely, or revising a concept from some time during the last hundred years. What we really need is fresh ideas but I think that the current publishing set-up is actually adverse to new ideas because they’re unpredictable. You don’t know which way they’re going to go. You can’t bank on them the way that you can on a Jamie Oliver cookbook.
It’s incredibly hard to make a living from writing…
It certainly is. I’ve done alright. I’ve managed to support myself for a long time by writing. But that has been full-time writing for all of those years. Either I was good or I was lucky, or some combination of both. It’s worked out for me, but I know for a lot of other writers it’s been nowhere near as rewarding. These are writers who are every bit as good as I was but I guess it’s being in the wrong place at the wrong time, something like that.
Steve Moore, who was probably my mentor, in terms of starting to write comics, he’s now retired officially from comics, concentrating on other stuff he wants to do. His very personal novel, Somnium, has just been published by Strange Attractor Press and I know he’s very pleased about that. It’s also good to see somebody who’s been a writer for that long, without great reward, reach a point where he can retire, can live comfortably, if not extravagantly, and he’s still got time to pursue the things that he’s really interested in. But, again, for every story like that there’s probably a lot more that are less happily resolved.
Tomorrow: Alan Moore on the Occupy protests, Frank Miller, and politics
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