Michael Moorcock

Michael Moorcock: The Wet Asphalt Interview

This is part of my series on the work of Michael Moorcock.

Today marks the 70th birthday of Michael Moorcock, and for more the vast majority of those years the man has been publishing fiction read by millions. For more on his career, refer to my review of The Best of Michael Moorcock, from earlier in this series. Our interview took place via email over the course of a few months, and ranged widely in topics, including genre, ethics, feminism, imitation, comics, Jung and more.

In my initial email to him, I described my own introduction to his work. Normally, I would edit this sort of thing out of the interview, but I leave it here because it becomes important to his initial responses. In some cases where multiple questions were asked in one email and responded to in another, I spliced the emails together, or moved follow ups next to the questions they referenced, to make the whole thing read more fluidly. I apologize for any clumsiness caused by this technique.

Michael Moorcock's most recent book is Elric: In the Dream Realms.

Review: The Best of Michael Moorcock

This article is part of a series on the work of Michael Moorcock that will culminate in an interview with the man himself. The story collection The Best of Michael Moorcock is his most recent book.

Considering the work of a writer like Michael Moorcock can be a little intimidating if only because of the sheer volume of material one is dealing with. Over the course of his fifty-year-plus career, Moorcock has written dozens and dozens of books in nearly every genre, and his influence has been broad and immeasurable. His books were formative to the New Wave SF movement that he himself spearheaded in the sixties and seventies, which in turn helped define the SF (and much non-SF) that would come after. His books influenced the creation of Dungeons and Dragons and the plots of children's TV shows. His character Elric was parodied by Dave Sim in the comic Cerebus, his literary fiction novel Mother London was called "one of the most astonishing London novels ever written ... a tour de force" by Alan Moore, and Michael Chabon dedicated his Moorcock-esque historical adventure novel Gentlemen of the Road to him. In the seventies Moorcock even performed with the rock bands Blue Oyster Cult and Hawkwind, who both based songs on his work (in Hawkwind's case, a whole album), as well as with his own band The Deep Fix. The man is an eclectic talent, and a prolific one.

So How'd I Do?

About a month ago, I wrote about Michael Moorcock's methods for writing a book in three days. This past weekend, I made the attempt myself, moved from my original date (two weeks from now) to Labor Day weekend for solidarity with the three-day novel-writing contest—though I didn't actually participate in the contest because I didn't want to pay the entry fee and didn't think whatever I wrote would be worthy of the publishing-contract prize anyway.

Right off the bat, I'll admit that I did not succeed in writing what I would consider a whole novel. Someone get a picture of a book and put the word "FAIL" over it for me. First off, I cheated; in preparation for the contest, I wrote a 6,500 word (about 26 page) short story in one day, two weeks ago, and then, as the date loomed, I decided it would be easiest if I used this story as a launching-off point.

A couple things to keep in mind: before two weeks ago, I'd never written more than about 2,000 words of fiction in one day (about 8 pages at 250 words/page), and at the time I had considered that a laudable feat. My growing fascination with writers like Moorcock and Lester Dent has a lot to do with their legendary prolificity. Lester Dent boasted of writing 200,000 words (that's 800 pages) a month for 4 years, though he suffered a nervous breakdown at the end of it. For me, writing 6,500 words in one day felt like winning a marathon. Yet it wasn't close to the 15,000 words a day I had to write to get the relatively modest sum of 45,000 words (180 pages) I'd assigned myself for a short novel in three days. (And which is fewer words than in most of the novels Moorcock claimed to write in 3 days.)

Formula, Fiction and the Work of Michael Moorcock

This is the second in my ongoing Series on the work of Michael Moorcock, which will include a review of his latest book The Best of Michael Moorcock, and finally an interview with the man himself.

Some readers may have been surprised at my admiration for Moorcock's formulas for writing fantasy novels, considering previous statements I've made disparaging formula in fiction. I've been especially critical of the tyranny of the three-act structure in film, because so many films are shoe-horned into it that it becomes predictable and rote.

However, I don't think there's anything inherently wrong with formula in fiction per se. No less than William Shakespeare used them quite often, and even the strictest literary fiction will often use structural conventions, such as the "moment of epiphany". It occurs to me that a good comparison can be made between music and fiction here— stories that hew closely to formulas, such as the typical closed-door mystery, can be compared to Blues, where the structure from song to song is almost identical and the interesting stuff is what you do on top of it. Looser, say, would be rock music, with its standard forms like ABACAB but no hard-and-fast chord structures, and then there are any number of other forms with varying degrees of complexity and looseness, from the classical sonata to the most experimental out-jazz. What forms you use depends (obviously) on what kind of music you want to make; for someone like Frank Zappa, the ever more bizarre song structures is what makes the work interesting, while for B.B. King, what he plays and sings over the standard structure is where the magic lies. Which is all to say that formula is only bad if you do it in a boring way.

Michael Moorcock has always shown an obsession with structure and an eagerness to play with it. In his early fantasy writing, he took his lead from Robert E. Howard, who wrote relatively simple stories about heroes fighting monsters in which the innovation lay in making the monsters and settings weird and fascinating. Conan the Barbarian may have been the star of the show, but it was the soul-sucking devil-dog or the tortured, blind elder-demon-thing that kept you reading. To this Moorcock added a hallucinatory, sixties sensibility and moody, unpredictable characters, especially the doomed albino Elric. A decade later he followed the lead of a very different writer, William Burroughs, and created the absurd, plotless book A Cure for Cancer, part of the ever-more-experimental Jerry Cornelious series. Even A Cure for Cancer, though, follows deliberate structural decisions; a note at the beginning describing it as being "in something approximating sonata form." Further, all the Cornelious books (which each take place in a different, parallel universe) have ripples and patterns flowing through them, characters and situations following similar courses or being reinvented in intriguing ways. Likewise, the entire Cornelious series references and is referenced by the rest of Moorcock's work, with, for instance, the first part of the first book (The Final Programme) being essentially a rewrite and update of the first Elric story with elements of the psychedelic (and Philip K. Dickian) short story "The Deep Fix" thrown in for good measure.

Throughout his career Moorcock made a project out of mastering different forms and styles, refusing to stay still or stop experimenting, and in this, he is comparable to Pablo Picasso or David Bowie. In one sense, Moorcock's work can be seen to be a reflection of the entirety of 20th century literature, a map of modernist, post-modernist and pulp sensibilities. In another sense, Moorcock's work is a complete, self-contained universe, a game of mirrors, connections, clues and red herrings. And it's Moorcock's obsession with structure which allows him to create his narrative puzzles, and to blueprint so many different styles and fill them up in new and interesting ways.

How to Write a Book in Three Days: Lessons from Michael Moorcock

This article is the first part of a series about one of my favorite writers, Michael Moorcock, which will culminate in an interview with the man himself.


In the early days of Michael Moorcock's 50-plus-years career, when he was living paycheck-to-paycheck, he wrote a whole slew of action-adventure sword-and-sorcery novels very, very quickly, including his most famous books about the tortured anti-hero Elric. In 1992, he published a collection of interviews conducted by Colin Greenland called Michael Moorcock: Death is No Obstacle, in which he discusses his writing method. In the first chapter, "Six Days to Save the World", he says those early novels were written in about "three to ten days" each, and outlines exactly how one accomplishes such fast writing.

On writing...

"You have to get rid of the self-consciousness, that particular egotism that stops you working, and stops you finishing work. When I started writing professionally, as a teenager, a lot of my effort went into developing the ability to keep working, to keep producing readable copy. I had to get used to thinking on my feet, and sophisticating things as I went along. You see, I wasn't writing for an editor, I was writing for a printer. The press was ready, waiting for my copy; and it would be ready for more copy tomorrow, and more this time next week. There was always the chance to do better tomorrow."

Michael Moorcock
Death is No Obstacle

More on Moorcock coming soon...

Elric and Michael Moorcock

I've recently become addicted to the Elric novels of Michael Moorcock. For the uninitiated, Elric was created as a reaction against the kind of Conan-the-Barbarian/Lord-of-the-Rings style fantasy that still dominates sword-and-sorcery novels today. He is the anti-Conan; a frail, albino sorcerer from the decadent kingdom of Melneboné, addicted to drugs to stay alive and to the demon black sword Stormbringer, which both fills him with strength and compels him to kill so that it might eat the souls of his victims. Adjectives frequently used to describe him include "cursed," "tortured" and most of all "doomed." He is totally emo. Elric was most popular in the 1970's, when Blue Oyster Cult wrote a song about him ("Black Blade") and Dave Sim parodied him in the comic book Cerebus as "Elrod of Melvinbone." Yet, with new additions of the books coming out, the prospect of a movie and Moorcock now writing new Elric adventures, the albino seems to be having a resurgence of attention.