Almost as Big as The Hollies… An interview with Ian R MacLeod

Ian Hart as an aging John Lennon

Ian Hart as an aging John Lennon in the Sky Playhouse adaptation of Ian’s story ‘Snodgrass’.

Your alternate-Beatles novelette ‘Snodgrass’ has been filmed as part of the Sky Playhouse series (first aired in the UK on 25 April, with repeats over the next few days). Tell us a bit more about the story.
The story features an embittered John Lennon who quit the Beatles just before they became famous, and ended up living a life of urban obscurity whilst his band became “almost as big as The Hollies.” In it, a rich and successful Paul McCartney attempts to make contact with his old friend, who meanwhile is trying to get work. It’s set in the 1990s. I’m not a great Beatles fan, although my sister was very much part of Beatlemania, but I’ve always been fascinated by those people who left big bands just before they became famous. To put John Lennon in this situation, and see how he got on, seemed like an interesting and amusing way of examining ambition, talent and failure.

How did it come to be filmed by Sky?
It was thanks in part of Kim Newman, who apparently gave the scriptwriter David Quantick a copy of the In Dreams anthology that he and Paul McAuley put together with a recommendation that he read the final story, “Snodgrass”, knowing he was a Lennon freak. I don’t think that David and the production company North of Watford Films were actively looking for Lennon material, but if fits in with some of the things they seem to like and I can see why it might have intrigued them.

What was your involvement in the screen adaptation? Were there many changes between print and screen versions? 
I had very little involvement. With some other stories of mine which have had some interest displayed (all of which, so far, have yet to make it any further) I’ve expressed some interest in working on the script, but to be honest I couldn’t quite see how Snodgrass was going to work at all – there are just so many flashbacks. I have been up to the film set and what they were doing looked very impressive, and I’ve seen the script but I haven’t yet seen the finished piece. The emphasis is somewhat more on the humour, I think, but we’ll have to see if that’s really the case, as that’s the hardest of all things to judge. This is actually only about a third of the whole story (which isn’t that long) so the hope is for further productions. Unlike me, David Quantick who wrote the script is also a huge Beatles fan, and he and the people at the production company really revere Lennon. Talking to them, we agreed that someone like me, who admired Lennon’s work but didn’t have a very strong connection, could have written debunking such as Snodgrass. Having a story you’re written bought to life and dramatised by someone else is a bit like being invited back by the new owners to take a look at a house you used to live in. You’re really interested to see what they’ve done, but at the same time, you’ve got your fingers crossed and you know it won’t be quite the same. I’m hoping they haven’t knocked down too many walls or installed purple toilets, but we’ll see.

“Snodgrass” is also the title story for your ‘greatest hits’ collection, published by Open Road this month. Tell us how you went about selecting them for the book. 
Not that easy, especiSnodgrass and other illusions - the best short stories of Ian R MacLeodally as not many writers have “hits”, me included. I thought it would be good to go for a variety of themes and settings, and a selection which covered my of my career. To be honest, I am most fond of my oldest stuff. But I think that’s what happened with most writers, musicians and artists. So I’ve done my best to cover the ground. To be honest, I don’t really like looking back. You either think the stuff you’ve done is great, and wonder if you can do anything as good again, or not so good, and wonder why you’re bothering. But perhaps that is just me!

What else is recently or soon out?
I have a couple of novellas due out, both in the autumn. One, The Discovered Country, is in Asimov’s and the other The Reparateur of Strasbourg is being published as a stand-alone chapbook from PS Publishing. Also I’ve just done a Borgesian fable that I’m not quite sure what to do with.

What are you working on now?
Just finished another longish SF story, this one set in a happy future where the human condition has seemingly been solved, and I’m exploring more of the vampire theme from The Reparateur of Strasbourg, but in other parts of history, which should end up as a novel. I have hopes that the world of The Discovered Country, where the virtual dead dominate the living, will also work as a novel. And I have a beta version of a young adult novel that I’d like to try out on anyone who’s prepared to read it. It’s called Lisa Moon and the Leonardo Timepiece. E-mail me via my site if you’d like to see and/or comment on an extract – although the plan is to put up a link to a pdf so people can download it direct pretty soon.

Describe your typical writing day.
If my day is free, ideally (ie – it doesn’t happen as often as it should) I write in the morning, do other stuff in the afternoon, and reflect a bit in the early evening. Oh, and I walk the dogs.

What would you draw attention to from your back-list?
Wake up and Dream by Ian R MacLeodEr – I think I’d say everything! But, if there’s one novel of mine which I feel deserves more attention than any other, it would be The Summer Isles. I think it deals with important issues, especially about being English, and reflects some of my best work. But good luck in getting hold of it – at least until the e-book comes out as  part of complete set of my work, which is also in the channels from Open Road Media, so should be within months. Otherwise, I think my alternate LA novel Wake Up and Dream should provoke thought and enjoyment in equal measure. Go out and buy a paper copy, or listen to the excellent audio book.

Which other authors or books do you think deserve a plug?
I’ve just enjoyed The Islanders by Chris Priest, but he probably doesn’t need my plug. I think Maureen McHugh is an interesting writer. Also Elizabeth Hand. I like thoughtful, well-written fiction. But I’m terrible with keeping up to date, and a lot of what I read comes from junk and charity shops. Not because I’m mean (or not entirely) but because I like to find things I’m not really meaning to look for. I’m just discovering D G Compton at the moment, and his stuff is well worth a look. I read much more outside the genre than in it, although I do keep coming back.

If you were to offer one snippet of writing advice what would it be?
At least some talent and a feel for language is necessary if you want to be a fiction writer, but it’s pretty common; probably five or ten percent of people have it. What really makes the difference in getting yourself known and published is being stupidly determined. It’s the same with footballers. The ones who make it are the ones who have the drive. Oh, and don’t – there are enough writers already. Just move on and do something else.

So… the easy one: what’s the future of publishing? How will writers be making a living and publishing in five or ten years? What will readers be reading?
I still think, as I’ve thought throughout my career and most of my reading life, that “SF” is a silly and outdated term. I’d like to think that the way other media have moved on with the fantastic, films especially, some broader sense of what can be done with non-naturalistic fiction, and what it should be called, will gain currency. I know the western had to pretty much die before it was resurrected, but nowadays no one dismisses that genre as shallow escapism. Meanwhile, I reckon the rise of e-books is unstoppable, and that I’ll miss the paper ones as much as I miss vinyl, although paper books will probably have a similar niche collectors’ following. Some inroads seem to have been made in preventing illegal downloading, but the main worry remains that the “for free” culture of the internet will mean that us writers will be reduced to wandering from village campfire to village campfire, telling tales in exchange for some food and a bed. I mean that figuratively, of course – unless things carry on getting worse.

Ian R MacLeod has been an acclaimed writer or challenging and innovative speculative and fantastic fiction for more than two decades. He grew up in the English West Midlands, studied law, spent some time working and dreaming in the civil service before moving on to teaching and house-husbandry, and now lives with his wife in the riverside town of Bewdley. His most recent novel, Wake Up and Dream, won the Sidewise Award for Best Alternate History, whilst his previous works have won the Arthur C Clarke, John W Campbell and World Fantasy Awards, and been translated into many languages.

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About Keith Brooke and infinity plus

Keith Brooke is a writer of science fiction, fantasy and other strange stuff, and editor and reviewer of same. He is also the publisher at infinity plus, an independent imprint publishing books by leading genre fiction authors. View all posts by Keith Brooke and infinity plus

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