Mondo Moore: Questions from Hill, Diaz, and More

Mondo Moore: Guest Questions

Century 1910 #3

Our six-part look at Century: 1910 with Alan Moore concludes today. This time out, some special guests ask Moore their questions about writing, and get some interesting insights in return. And you might get a few hints as to what the League will be like in 2009…

Part one here, part two here, part three here, part four here, part five here. Preview of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Century: 1910 #1 here, review here.

Newsarama: Alan, I’d like to wrap this up with a few guest questions. When I got the chance to do this interview, I contacted some novelists I’d interviewed in the past to see if they wanted to ask you anything. So we have a few fans of yours with questions on their minds…

Our first guest question comes from Mr. Junot Díaz, author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and a very big fan of your work. Junot asks about the theme of the apocalyptic in your work – specifically the cataclysm or revelation that marks the end of one world, and marks the beginning of another. He wonders if such British authors in this tradition, specifically John Wyndham, John Christopher and J.G. Ballard were influences on your work.

AM: Well, first off, could you please pass on to Junot that I’ve got a great admiration for his work. He’s a very good writer.

To answer his question, I’d say that these are the writers of the British school of science fiction that I grew up with. I think there’s always been a traditionally apocalyptic side to British science fiction, from H.G. Wells onwards. I mean, most of Wells’ stories are potentially apocalyptic in some sense or another. The Time Machine has chilling visions of the end of the world.

John Wyndham, I can remember reading The Day of the Triffids and finding that a frightening and bleak book – not because of the mobile plants, but because of the chilling picture of a blind humanity and people just reacting with despair.

I remember a sequence in that book where the main character is talking to a blind man, who’s been made blind by the comet, and has just gassed his wife and children and is going back upstairs to join them in a few minutes. That was such a bleak vision of how an apocalyptic event would affect people. I suppose I soaked all that stuff up.

There is also a sense of solace in the British apocalyptic tradition, particularly in the works of J.G. Ballard, who sort of suggested that an apocalyptically-changed landscape would create a new psychological landscape that would reveal new states of mind as the water level rose or sank, as the planet turned to jewelry, or massive winds that rendered society unworkable.

All of J.G. Ballard’s many apocalypses pointed toward a different consciousness, and I think that’s true of many novels that weren’t about the apocalypse, such as David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus, which is mystical, almost indecipherable in places, but is a beautiful, visionary novel that in places seems to suggest a kind of revelatory apocalyptic, almost psychedelic state of mind.

My favorite British apocalyptic novel would have to be William Hope Hodgeson’s The House on the Borderland – Hodgeson also created Carnacki in the League, but he also wrote this book, which is kind of an unconventional fantasy story that has got wonderful visions of the end of the universe, not just the world, but the universe. It’s got planets with faces on them toppling into this all-devouring black sun, which sounds to me like a very early sort of prescient idea of a black hole.

But I think it just has something to do with the climate of the British Isles more than anything else. (laughs) It probably magnifies by 10 apocalyptic thoughts. But it’s a very real tradition, and it’s something that’s been with me all through my literary development, and when I started to become interested in occult ideas and magic, the two seemed to go very well together, because a lot of magic hinges upon that revelatory moment of apocalypse where consciousness changes and illumination occurs.

So yes, my previous readings of British science fiction and fantasy had probably prepared me for that state of mind. That’s how I see them fitting together.

NRAMA: Our next “bonus round” question comes from Joe Hill, author of Heart-Shaped Box and the comic series Locke & Key.

AM: Another very, very good author. I read Heart-Shaped Box and thought it was a splendid book. I was very impressed with it.

NRAMA: Joe writes, “In a recent interview on the subject of episodic television, you said writers working on a continuing series ought to have an ending in mind, that they should know what they're building towards.

“With LoEG - or with any of your stories - do you work backward from a known ending then, or do the characters lead you naturally towards a conclusion you didn't expect? To put the question another way: you've sometimes discussed fiction as a form of magic. With that in mind, do you always get the demon you planned to summon, or are there sometimes surprise visitors?”

AM: Well, I think all of that is true. It’s like, yes, I do generally at least have a vague plan before I commence a narrative. Back in the day, when I was starting out, I used to have everything planned out and nailed down. With Swamp Thing, before I started writing every issue, I had an idea of what was going to go on every page and how it would all tie up.

As I did it issue-by-issue, I had an idea of where the overall narrative would be going. I can’t claim to have had the entire Swamp Thing story worked out from issue #1, but I had an interesting idea about redefining the character that I thought could take in into some interesting territory, so I left that fairly loose.

The other books up through Watchmen, From Hell and Lost Girls…I had everything in place, but that still leaves an awful lot that is open to change. Just because you’ve got a rough idea of where the plot’s going, that doesn’t tell you how you’re going to express those ideas, or what you’re going to make of them.

And so, with Lost Girls, I knew from my first conversations with Melinda that it was going to take place in a series of 38-page episodes, and that the plot outline would be building up to these three climaxes at the end of the three books that would end up with the First World War

But in writing the book, so much rich material starts to emerge, so that as long as you’ve left yourself room to tie it back in, it will probably fit with your original conception of the book. I don’t think I’ve ever done anything where I came up with an ending that I completely hadn’t expected, but there have been plenty of times where I was pleasantly surprised by something that had been there potentially in my approach to the story all along.

There were very, very nice bits in the bit I’m working on now, Jerusalem. There were elements I threw together into the original mix. But the original mix was basically 35 story titles! I’ve got a vague idea of what’s in each chapter, and a vague idea of the order the chapters would be appearing in, and therefore roughly what this vast novel would be about. But it’s only with this current chapter, 25, that I’ve comprehended the entire shape of this enormous thing, I’ve realized the scope of what I’m doing.

That, in itself, has changed the shape of these final 10 chapters. I didn’t know when I started out that I’d be writing a chapter in an approximation of James Joyce’s language, because it’s a story about his daughter. It wasn’t until I was halfway through this chapter that I realized the next chapter would be about the development of economic policy, since Isaac Newton was put in charge of the mint.

I think that the important thing is, in my experience as a writer, I’ve come to recognize a workable skeleton, just by sight. I can see that yeah, this story, it’s got four legs, it can stand up, it can move, it’s articulated in the right way. What the flesh will be like, and the eventual meaning of that flesh will be, that’s a surprise that I probably won’t know until the end. I won’t know what Jerusalem is exactly until I’ve finished the last page and the last revisions.

But it’s a mixture of those things. I do like to have enough of the story worked out so I can trust my abilities as a writer to finish the story in a way that is satisfying to me and the reader. But I do like to leave room open for serendipity, because it happens a lot, and it can be so wonderful. Leave yourself the space for that, but do it within a predetermined structure. It’s the best of both worlds, really. Leave room for nice surprised, but try to get rid of any nasty surprises before you commence the narrative.

NRAMA: Our next question comes from young adult writer Barry Lyga, author of The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl, among several others.

AM: I don’t think I’m familiar with that, but it sounds very interesting.

NRAMA: Barry writes, “In a project as research-intensive as LoEG, does the process of research ever interfere with the flow of crafting a narrative?”

AM: No, it doesn’t. It always enhances it. As an example, from the current LoEG I’m writing, which is the third part of Vol.3, set in 2009, I’m finding that the research really enhances the story, rather than gets in the way.

I mean, I have to do as much research on 2009 as I had to do for 1898, because I don’t really live in this world culturally any more. I don’t watch much modern television, or modern films, or read much in the way of modern culture. I’m very isolated, and I mostly work upon my work.

However, with modern culture being what it is, you tend to absorb what a lot of modern culture is about without reading the books or watching the shows. So in creating a League of Extraordinary Gentlemen for 2009, we’ve got a scene where Orlando, recently returned from the ongoing war from Kumar, which I believe is a surrogate Iran/Iraq from The West Wing, a program I don’t watch, but I’ve seen a couple episodes of and got the gist of, and he’s back from this war, an analogue of the Iraq war to an England he hasn’t seen in many years – London, Oxford Street in 2009.

And so I’ve been mining contemporary culture for references I can drop in. We’ve made up this really exciting tapestry of what looks like a whole culture just made up of imaginary things. There’s a poster for a new movie with Vince Chase, who I believe is the main character in Entourage, which is, again, a show I don’t see.

There’s a poster in a music shop window for a new album from a band called Drive Shaft, which – I’ve seen about two episodes of Lost, it didn’t appeal to me, but I caught the name of the band.

It’s not even serious research. I will check on references to things like that. But it doesn’t get in the way of the graphic story. Everything just seems to work perfectly and fit into the narrative we were trying to create. I suppose it’s a matter of being selective of what you choose to include. For example, if 2009 was one of the years they visited in Back to the Future, we’d look at whether we wanted a reference to that.

NRAMA: Checked – they visited 2015.

AM: Well, we don’t have to put a reference to Back to the Future in, then. But even if they had visited 2009 and it hadn’t been appropriate atmospherically, we could have said, “Yeah, but that happened in America, and this is happening in London.”

So we can be selective. We can cheat a little bit. If there are areas that are disruptive for the story we are trying to tell, then we can ignore them. There were probably a couple of books that were set in 1910 that were perhaps written earlier that suggested that England would have been invaded by some foreign power by 1910. If we felt that was appropriate, we could have found a way to work that in. But we’ve got a better story to tell with history the way we’ve presented it in this current 1910 volume.

So the obsessive mindset required to put together an episode of the League – that can sometimes become very claustrophobic and demented. I mean, that’s clearly on my part, and it’s my own fault. But it’s very enjoyable, just for those occasions where you’ll think of some brilliant juxtaposition that seems to be suggested by the stories themselves.

For example, when I noticed that all of the anthropomorphic British children’s animal characters, such as The Wind in the Willows, Rupert the Bear and all the various other children’s stories with talking animals in them occurred after H.G. Wells wrote The Island of Lost Souls, where he had Dr. Moreau creating animal-human hybrids. That was something that struck me as funny and horrible and poignant all at the same time.

You don’t have to do an awful lot of research, and it doesn’t have to get in the way. More often than not, it provides you with something brilliant that you’d have never thought of by yourself. That isn’t a problem – I could see where it might be, but with the League, the ideas are just lying there, waiting to be put together. They sometimes fit together suspiciously easily, almost as though the authors themselves had been trying to make my work easier for me.

NRAMA: One last question, and I hasten to mention that the author who sent this in admits that this is a complete joke question, not intended to be taken seriously. This is Mr. Austin Grossman, author of the novel Soon I Will Be Invincible.

AM: Good title.

NRAMA: Austin writes – again, as a joke – “Are you aware that for all the formal and symbolic play and historical and literary reference, the number-one reason I finish your work is still to find who kicks whose ass, and who sleeps with whom?”

AM: That is quite understandable! And on that level, that’s what the plots are about! I mean, for all the stuff in the League, we try to write them so the action plot is fairly simple. It doesn’t really matter whether you catch even a fraction of the references.

On one level, we’re writing them for an intelligent 13-year-old kid. I considered myself pretty intelligent when I was that age, and I appreciated comic books that treated me as though I was intelligent. What we are trying to do are stories that would keep a professor of semiotics preoccupied for a lifetime, but if the reader, for some reason, hadn’t picked up on any of those references, could still have an enjoyable time over the course of the story.

In The Black Dossier, even if you don’t figure out who Ms. Night is, you at least know that she’s an MI-5 agent whose father was a big industrialist who had been killed by somebody in a very shady and complicated way. You don’t need to know who these characters are based upon, but if you do know, it will make the story a lot more enjoyable. But if you don’t know, you’ll still be able to know who kicked who’s ass, you know?

I grew up writing comics, and that is one of the first laws of comic writing – make sure that everything is kind of interesting and that everything ties up, and it doesn’t matter whether you’re talking about making it tie up for a 13-year-old or, like I said, a professor of literature. They’d probably have different experiences reading the book, but you want to make sure both experiences are good ones.

So no, I don’t take that at all as any sort of insult! I think that’s a perfectly good way to read any book. I’m not sure who kicks whose ass in the current James Joyce chapter of my novel, and if I do eventually find out, it’ll probably be a word with so many possible meanings that I won’t be entirely sure.

But yeah, generally, even in Jerusalem, where it’s all about notions of history and human behavior and the English Civil War, you do find out who kicks whose ass. In the case of the English Civil War, it was Cromwell kicking Charles the Fist. And not just his ass, either! We had his head off.

So yes, that’s a completely reasonable impulse, and more power to Austin. He’s completely justified in reading books any way he wants, as long as he’s getting some satisfaction out of them, no matter what sort.

NRAMA: Alan, thanks for talking with us.

AM: My pleasure.

Special thanks to Moore annotator Jess Nevins for his help with this feature.

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