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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.


Sad Songs, With Lots Of Drumming – a guest post by Ian R MacLeod

The White Heather ClubYou have to be of a certain age to remember The White Heather Club. Back in the times when the TV was still in just one room in the house and you had to wait for it to warm up, vague grey shapes sword-dancing to tiddildy-dee music or singing about speeding bonny boats was what passed for light entertainment. Not that there was any choice, but it was a favourite in our family, my father being a typically nostalgic expat Scotsman. The first record that was bought for me (rather than that supposed landmark; the first you buy yourself) was a single of Andy Stewart’s A Scottish Soldier, which I remember enjoying a great deal. I also liked the theme tune to The Lone Ranger, which I didn’t then know was Rossini’s William Tell Overture. That, and Perry Como singing his way through the states of the USA (although I didn’t realise that either) in What Did Della Wear?

It’s easy to groan and try to shut the doors on the embarrassing things we thought we liked before we really knew about music. The novelty records and one hit wonders. But they’re there — they’re part of all our heritage — and their influence remains. My co-ordination is poor to this day, but apparently one of my favourite toddler pursuits was to go into the lounge and bang the poker against the coal scuttle and the fire grate; I’ve always been a frustrated drummer. I think I can still just about remember the noisy pleasure of those sessions, and perhaps that rat-a-tat martial drumming was the appeal of Andy Stewart’s song. That, and the solider dying.

Music was played each day on some big old gramophone as we marched into assembly at infants’ school, and again as we stomped around pretending to be dinosaurs or curled up like the seeds of flowers in something called “Music and Movement”. I have no clear recollection of what the music was, but it was “improving” and classical, and I reckon it may well have included some of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, and the much more jagged Romeo and Juliet. He’s still a favourite composer. There always did seem to be something about classical music that I found interesting. My next “bought for me” single, actually an EP, came from my elder brother after I’d been to see Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, which takes its music from Tchaikovsky’s ballet. I remember being a bit disappointed as we sat waiting for “the tune”… but also how much I liked the nice lady ballet dancer photographed on the cover. One of my pleasures was to dress up in my sister’s old ballet costume, and pretend to be a fairy. I even went to school dressed that way once or twice when the occasion seemed to demand it. In those days no one seemed to worry about such behaviour.

After that, up through infants’ and on into secondary school, music, and dressing up, took a back seat. I had no great interest in what was becoming the “Top Ten”, but listened as most kids then did to Junior Choice on the BBC Radio’s Light Programme. I enjoyed songs such as The Little White Bull and The Ugly Bug Ball because they told a story, and particularly liked Puff the Magic Dragon, because it ended so sadly — “a dragon lives forever, but not so little boys…” But my two biggest favourites were Feed The Birds from Mary Poppins, and Somewhere Over the Rainbow. Great songs by any standard, and both filled with sad yearning. I suspect that this was the first music to make me cry, and to realise what an oddly glorious feeling that was.

A still from SnodgrassMy elder sister, meanwhile, had noticed this group called the Beatles, and I was very happy to dance along with her to the singles she bought and played on our new radiogram that sat in the lounge on the far side of the fireplace from the telly. Jolly, melodic stuff, and Mum and Dad liked the Beatles as well. In fact, everyone seemed to like the Beatles. But that very likeability made me wary. That, or perhaps their songs simply weren’t sad enough, and lacked the right kind of drumming. But I played Rain on the B side of Paperback Writer often, fascinated by the hypnotic way it drawled and jangled. My elder brother’s tastes went in the direction of Harry Secombe and Andy Williams, but there was one track on an LP of his that I also played and played. It was from an “original cast” (i.e. – not the people from the movie) recording of West Side Story, and was called The Rumble — a modern ballet piece, all jagged angles and mis-shaped chords. Then, and now, it struck me as fresh and sharp and brilliant.

School, being school, still involved random bits of exposure to music. We even used to get so-called “music lessons” each week for no reason any of us could understand, least of all the teacher. Still, one day he set about demonstrating the capabilities of his nice new stereo by playing us a surprisingly lengthy piece of classic music. To his credit, he explained how this symphony started sadly because the composer had had to travel to America without his family, and how it might help if we imagined him arriving on a big steamer into New York harbour, and to try to feel his spirits lifting as he sees the city skyline. I thought this was fabulous stuff, a story told in sound. And there was this churning sadness, those slow drums rolling…

A week or so later, I bought my first record with my own money, an LP of Dvorak’s New World Symphony, and the music was even more fabulous than I remembered. In those carefree days, and I and most of my mates used to go home for lunch from our secondary school. As everyone else was out, I’d take my white bread and mashed banana on a tray into the lounge, turn on the radiogram, and let this music flow around me. This is it, I thought. This is something that I love. The sixties had moved on, and my mates were also buying records of their own. Not classical LPs, but singles from the charts by the likes of Herman’s Hermits and Sonny and Cher. I didn’t have any problem with much of this — I watched Top of the Pops just like everyone else — but at the same time I was happy to tell them that it was all a bit… well, simple.

So there I was, my head in the clouds and following on Dvorak with Holst’s Planet Suite and a compilation called Classical Fireworks which wasn’t quite on the same level. No easy decisions, seeing as LPs cost a lot. I liked being different — I liked liking stuff that other people didn’t know or understand or care about. As the radiogram had to remain in its sacred place in the lounge, I was also regularly inflicting my music on the rest of my family, or being told to turn it down, or evicted so they could watch telly. The Beatles, meanwhile, had gone a bit odd, and my sister seemed to have lost interest in them. Another of my random musical experiences at school was when our geography teacher took it upon himself to play their new LP called Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band instead of telling us about towns of the Potteries. I can remember hearing Lennon singing For the Benefit of Mister Kite, and thinking it was strange and wonderful, and like nothing I’d ever heard, least of all She Loves You and those other sugary hits. Not that I bought the record, of course. After all, I only bought classical stuff, didn’t I?

I had the radiogram in the lounge mostly to myself now, as my bother had left to get married and my sister was off at university, and my Dad only had a Black and White Minstrels LP and some Scottish pipes and drums stuff he played at New Year or when he got sentimental. When my sister returned with a boyfriend in tow, they were gracious enough to take me with them to see a film called 2001 A Space Odyssey, and my world was changed. Partly, of course, because of the look of the film, and the mystery of whatever story it was telling, but at least as much because of the music. Not just the iconic stuff by the two Strausses, brilliant though that was, but the other, weirder, pieces. When I played one of my mates some Ligeti from the 2001 soundtrack, I remember him commenting that he would, genuinely, rather listen to Mrs Mills on the piano. Which was great as far as I was concerned. More of this strange and wonderful music left just for me.

But, alarmingly, I found that I now rather liked some of the singles from what was now called the “Top Twenty”. Between buying Richard Strauss tone poems and exploring Karl Nielsen’s symphonies, my secret shame was that I thought some of Deep Purple’s stuff, and Alice Cooper’s, not to mention Cream and the Stones, was actually pretty good. I liked the drumming, and the riffs, and the sense of risk, and the jangling, twisting melodies. And then there was David Bowie. Not because of the way he dressed — my own dressing-up days were behind me — but because of the music. I particularly loved Life on Mars, with its soaring wistfulness, and Space Odyssey, because of Major Tom dying.

Maybe this pop and rock thing had something going for it after all. Not the stuff you heard all the time on daytime Radio One, of course, but by now I was listening to John Peel as I played with my Airfix soldiers on Sunday afternoons, and enjoying a new, different, sense of exclusivity. I never bought singles, but the first rock LP I bought was Emerson Lake and Palmer’s Pictures at an Exhibition. The classical link was obvious, but at least as important was that it came in Island’s cheaper Help series instead of at full price. That, and the cool gatefold cover. But it was great, and I absorbed it with the same edge-of-the-seat enthusiasm I’d had for Dvorak, Richard Strauss and Ligeti. I loved the shrieking, atonal bits where Keith Emerson attacked his keyboard. And then there was the drumming…

Ah! Drumming. It wasn’t something you got much of in classical music. Even Holst’s Mars doesn’t have the same propulsion as Karl Palmer at full tilt. My next LP, and the first live act I saw, was the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Drumming aplenty there, and brilliant solo playing. One of my favourite live musical memories is of John McLaughlin and Jean-Luc Ponty trading fours (although I didn’t then know what it was called) on the stage of the Birmingham Odeon. That, and Michael Walden’s thirty minute drum solo. For a long while after that, by now a sixth-former, then a college student, I bought complex jazz-edged rock music, often with very little singing. This was the era of prog rock, and there was plenty of this stuff to go around, although to my mind, as ever a musical snob, a lot of it was still a bit simple-minded. The Floyd, for example, who I liked for a while, at least until the NME laid into them for being lazily commercial. Not to mention Genesis. And as for Supertramp… Actually, I secretly loved my tape of a friend’s Crime of the Century because it was such a sad album.

From here on in, it probably all gets much more predictable. Step forward Henry Cow. Step forward Keith Jarrett and pretty much anything on the ECM label. That, and Steely Dan, and Joni Mitchell, along with a slow return to the classical stuff I’d always loved, especially the great, sad, romantic composers, combined with all the folk, ambient and avant guard music I began listening to. Thanks in major part to Richard and Linda Thompson’s brilliantly pessimistic I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight, which starts with a song about suicide and ends with the fabulously bleak The Great Valerio, I finally realised that there was elegance and profundity in seemingly simple music. But probably the last great aha moment in my musical life came when I purchased, for no exact reason I can now remember, a copy of King Crimson’s Red. I already had In the Court of the Crimson King, but, if you discount the great cover and Twenty First Century Schizoid Man, that’s a surprisingly quiet album. I took Red from its sleeve, opened up the record player, which still sat in my parents’ lounge opposite the telly, and played it, and played it, and played it, and played it. Again. And again. I could play it now. In fact, I will…

The prowling thunder of the title track. The jagged, free-form of Providence. Above all, the churning mellotron chords which begin Starless, with that yearning guitar theme and those bleak lyrics about grey hope and sunsets that quitens to a riff which builds over clashing drums until the main theme returns in a howl of saxophones. Complex, intelligent music, played with a ferocious mixture of joy, anger and passion. Maybe it helped that Fripp and his band were imploding. Who knows? To me this is still, and always will be, earth-shatteringly brilliant. I could cry. I am crying. It all seems a very long way from Andy Stewart’s A Scottish Soldier. But then, I always did like sad songs, with lots of drumming.

Guest post by Ian R MacLeod

Ian R MacLeod’s “Snodgrass”, a story telling the life of a John Lennon who quit the Beatles just before they became famous, and ended up living in Birmingham and working for a while in the civil service will be shown in the UK on Sky Playhouse on 25 April.

Open Road Media will shortly be publishing all of Ian’s novels as e-books. They’re starting with a “Best Of” collection of short stories called Snodgrass and Other Illusions, featuring some favourites from his whole career, a few rarities, and individual afterwords.

For all the latest news visit Ian R MacLeod’s website.


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