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Interview with China Miéville

15 June 2012 Tom Hunter

Award-winning writer China Miéville's latest novel 'Railsea' launched last month to critical acclaim. As the dust begins to settle, London Calling's Tom Hunter catches up with the author.

London Calling: So to start, what’s your new book, ‘Railsea’ about?

China  Miéville:  It’s Moby Dick, only with moles instead of whales and railways instead of the sea... and shenanigans ensue.

LC: Why moles? Why not squid?

CM: I’ve done squid and one doesn’t want to become too boring, and I like the idea of the silly gag of transplanting it to the ground, so that was the take from there. And what’s more I like moles!

LC: Did you explicitly choose to write the book for Young Adult? Is that where the playfulness comes from?

CM: It is for Young Adult, but I’d encourage people of all ages to read it! I do feel much more playful when I’m writing for younger readers: I feel more relaxed linguistically, grammatically and in terms of invention.That doesn’t make it about not taking it seriously, but there’s more room to expand, and to be more experimental in a light-hearted way.

There must be a moment when you’re writing for Young Adult that you suddenly realise things, but what I would say is that you’re aiming for that moment in every book. You realise you’ve got the voice - whatever the voice might be - and it might take you a few thousand words, it might take you days, but there’s a point where you’re in that voice and then it starts to just really flow.

The idea in this case, of transfusing Moby Dick to moles, is a joke, a silly idea. But I hope it’s an enjoyable silly idea.It’s funny, and you can have a lot of fun with it, but it felt to me that it was more light-hearted. There are a few magic ideas about the railways too, in the inevitability of things and leading towards an ultimate outcome. There are people who can write that with more of an adult theme, but I quite like the relaxing playfulness of it. You can play around with all kinds of serious ideas in a different register: some of the wordplay wouldn’t work for me as an adult, but I would enjoy it as a younger reader. So it was fairly clear to me from early on that that’s the way it was going to look.

LC: People read your stuff with a sense that it began with King Rat, and then read the books in sequence. But they don’t necessarily follow the order of publishing do they?

CM: No you’re right, this is a book that I’ve been thinking about for a long time and working on for a long time. There was a ruckus of ordering for the last few books so people were saying that something was slightly missing. The original draft of Embassytown (2011) was written before that of The City & The City (2009), which was written before Kraken (2010), but this was written after. I was playing around with the idea of it for a while and I wrote the first chapter of Railsea years ago, just because I thought it was a funny idea and I wanted to get it out and then move on from there. I kept coming back to it and doing a little bit more, and so on, but this is its moment; I have had this in a drawer for years.

LC: Does it bother you that people want to slot your work into a sequence?

CM: I don’t really mind, but I think it’s very often misleading. You can have the tendency to move one way and then another; people say you are moving towards a certain way, but then you might move back again as the voice and dynamic changes. I think it’s inevitable - people are taxonomic animals, they like to order things. I don’t have a problem with that as long as people are aware that you can always turn around and change your mind at any second.

LC: You’re obviously hugely prolific in terms of writing output, but how do you handle the public persona? Do you particularly manage talks and interviews around the release of books or are you always asked to do them?

CM: You definitely get asked to do more things than you can and you do have to learn to say 'no, I can’t do it’. But I really like doing talks and meeting new people; I love it. It can be very difficult to fit it all in so I end up having to turn down a lot of things that I wish I could do. I always allow three or four weeks around the release of a book for interviews; it can be work, but it’s a privilege really. It’s coalmining!

LC: A theme of yours is cities. Since we’re from London Calling, is London one of your favourite cities?

CM: I guess it is, but it doesn’t really come to my mind, because it’s like asking which your favourite leg is; it feels so embedded in me. I feel like a product of London, whereas I can objectively say I like New York more than Paris, I like Chicago more than San Francisco, because I’m experiencing those from the outside of London, and I can choose that. So London is the most important city to me, but ‘favourite’ isn’t a word that I would use.

LC: Where would you recommend going in London? What are your favourite places?

CM: That’s an interesting question. I love museums, I know it’s not an original thing to suggest, but I like the Wellcome Collection. I like to wander around; I find London a very good walking city. I like Holborn and looking at the slightly decrepit but very lovely popular deco. Roundwood Park is a really nice little park up in Willesden, and aquariums are always good. I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with the London Aquarium, because the aquarium bar is very high for me, but I would recommend going there. I like galleries a lot too; I like small galleries.

LC: Going back to the writing, can you tell us any more about what you’re working on at the moment? Are there any film-type projects at all?

CM: We’re at the bookshop tonight doing a collaborative talk about a film that we’ve done. I’m doing a comic at the moment and I’ve started work on the next novel, but I can’t say anything about that! I seem to be doing quite a lot of collaboration these days, which is very unusual for me.

LC: How do you find that process?

CM: It’s really good; if you approach it without too much ego it’s terrific. It’s a question of learning how to collaborate. If you’re not too precious about your own stuff and you’re open-minded, then it’s great. I wouldn’t want to do it with novels though; never say never, but I can’t see myself as someone who would write a joint novel. Things like scripts and comics are fine, and I’m enjoying doing the comic too although it’s very, very different.

LC: Do you get offered these things?

CM: Yes you get offered various things, and occasionally things that you approach. I pitched this comic when we were doing other stuff and the filmmakers contacted me to collaborate, and so we worked together. But it really varies. Unfortunately you always get asked or invited to do more than you can but you just try to fit it all in.

Railsea is available from Foyles, as well as from a wide range of websites and bookshops across the UK.

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