Bewildering Stories interviews
Michael E. Lloyd
part 1 of 2
Michael E. Lloyd has been a Review Editor since 2006. His career in information-technology quality control has given him a keen eye for detail and made him our ace proofreader. Bewildering Stories takes pride in its distinctively easy-to-read visual appearance; we’re grateful to Mike for doing much to make it not only as consistent but as tidy as possible.
It’s even more important that Mike is also the author of several subtly nuanced and thought-provoking short stories. His classic trilogy, the Observation novels, is distinguished by his trademark voice, which is both gentle and genteel.
is scheduled to appear soon at Bewildering Press
Mike, let’s begin by asking when you started writing, and why?
Well, for fifty years I wrote many “important” things to please my teachers, and my employer, and all my customers!
But I finally started writing for myself just six years ago, soon after I’d opted for early retirement. There were three main enablers:
At last I was free to use my time largely as I wished; my wife had just completed a children’s novella in her own spare time; and air fares and hotel prices were at rock-bottom in those bad old post-9/11 days. I suddenly realised I could try and write a story of my own, based on a modern-day Candide-style “grand tour of Europe” and my fairly strong views on the way things were moving in today’s society.
Thus Observation One: Singing of Promises was conceived, and the baby was born, interestingly, just nine months later.
So rather unconventionally, my first piece of fiction was not a short story, but a 100,000-word novel.
You’re an engineer by training, right? How did you come by your expertise in the fine points of English grammar and punctuation?
Actually, I’m not an engineer in any strict or traditional sense of the word. My business career was certainly spent working for a major IT supplier, and my main job title was indeed “Systems Engineer” (providing technical advice and guidance to sales colleagues and customers). So for thirty years I did get a lot of training and experience in the exploitation of large computer systems and networks.
But my university degree was in Spanish and French language and literature. So the “fine points” of grammar and punctuation and so on, in several ancient and modern languages, were truly my first and most important area of “training” at school and college, and now I’m simply deploying them even more actively than before!
So who are your favorite mainstream literary authors? What makes them great for you?
I’ll need to be very selective here! And I’ll restrict my choices to fiction.
Jane Austen first and foremost, for the elegance of her language, her carefully crafted stories, and her rounded characters with their socially encumbered relationships.
Gustave Flaubert for his daring in subject matter, and his perfectionism and sophistication in the great language of Style.
Frederick Forsyth for his consistency in modern-day, big picture plotting and his utterly compelling narratives.
Tom Sharpe (Rabelais fused with Voltaire!) for his rumbustious and mercilessly satirical farce-novels.
And Ian Rankin for his intimate portrayals of a very idiosyncratic Scottish detective and his cohorts.
How about your favorite sci-fi and fantasy authors?
I’m afraid I’ll dismay Don by starting with J.R.R. Tolkien, for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, which I have always admired and adored (but I can live without the rest of his work, which I do find hard to digest).
Next in time, Arthur C. Clarke, my archetypal hard SF guru. Then Douglas Adams, the most entertaining SF humorist I’ve ever read, and Sir Terry Pratchett, master chef of all things fantastic.
And finally, our very own Colin P. Davies, whose short stories are world-class; his evolving Pestworld will one day rival many famous fantasy universes.
I know this is a purely English Authors list! But I make no apologies for that!
Who are your favorite poets, and why?
Shakespeare, at once the source and the culmination of all Western literature. If anyone disagrees, please pick your fight with Harold Bloom: he’s bigger than me in all dimensions!
Molière, for his portrayal of humanity’s glorious failings with a humanity that even Shakespeare lacked.
Wordsworth, for his ability to carry us into his rapture in the contemplation of our existence.
And Lorca, for encapsulating the passion of life in the southern lands of blood and sand.
And I would naturally want to include my favourite modern songwriters here, too. But I’ll hold them back for another specific question, further down ...
Which are your very favorite literary works?
This can only be answered with a simple list! I’ll keep it as short as I can ...
- Machiavelli’s The Prince
- Shakespeare’s King Lear
- Cervantes’ Don Quijote
- Molière’s greatest comedies (esp. Le Misanthrope)
- Voltaire’s Candide
- Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Emma
- Wordsworth’s The Prelude
- Flaubert’s Madame Bovary
- Carroll’s two Alice stories
- Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest
- Lorca’s plays
- Camus’ L’Etranger
- Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings
- Yardley’s The Education of a Poker Player
- Clarke’s classics
- Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal
- Sharpe’s Wilt and its sequels
- Stoppard’s Professional Foul
- Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and its sequels
- Pratchett’s complete Discworld series (esp. The Truth)
- Rankin’s complete Rebus series
- Bloom’s The Western Canon
- Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything
What was the last book, other than your own, that you read and really enjoyed?
That will be Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf. The multi-layered structure, and the unpredictable external events and internal “happenings” that Harry experiences — usually despite himself — allow a superb level of reader self-abandon to the surreal world of the story and its essential statement.
For various reasons I was a long time coming to early 20th century literature, especially the German school. I’m glad I’ve got there at last, and I’m actively making amends with this year’s new writing project ...
Do you have a favorite story that you’ve written (apart from the Observation trilogy, of course)?
It’s probably my short story Big Night Out. I wanted to present what appears on the surface to be a very straightforward plot line, but is in reality a much more complex story for our times.
All the hints about what is really going on are there in the text, but they are very easy to miss if the reader (like the malleable Ministers in the story) too readily takes things only for what they seem. As we all so often do!
And that complexity, and the subterfuge exploiting our natural fallibilities, both directly reflect the lifelong mission, and the grand and cunning plan, of the central character, N.G.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever written?
Interesting question. I can think of two or three candidates, including Adventures in Unsettling Times, but the strangest is probably my flash fiction piece Drop to Drink. The bed-ridden but lucid narrator wakes up one morning and watches, in a state of unshifting denial, as the world ends before his very eyes, with images of other people (including Gregor Samsa and maybe Kafka too) silently floating away like waterlogged insects. It’s an otherwise everyday story of country folk. And it certainly represents my view of today’s social reality ...
The Observation trilogy contains many references to Janis Ian songs. Is there one particular lyric or album that influenced it?
Yes, it was Janis’ masterpiece album Between the Lines (1975). Its eleven beautifully crafted songs represent, for me, a perfect summary of the truth and integrity embodied in all of her work. And the business of “learning” (and re-learning) is, I think, its key theme.
So how did you develop the Observations story from the starting point of Between the Lines?
Well, it certainly wasn’t a straight-line process. Carla chooses Toni Murano to join the Doman cause principally because he is a musician. And since the Domans find it easiest to engage their targets while they are enjoying the music they love best, Toni finds himself unwittingly driven to cue up his favourite album. He listens (along with the reader) to each of its songs, as they form the repeating backdrop to his briefing and missioning by Quo, and one after another their lyrics remarkably illustrate and illuminate precisely what is happening to him — although he is only vaguely able to recognise this.
So, to get to the nub of the question: I already knew how Quo was going to engage Toni, and some of the big questions and issues that would be raised in their initial dialogues, and what Paula would be doing while all this was happening, and so on; but the song lyrics themselves then gave me many ideas for how the plot lines and themes would later be fully developed. I think it’s what they call a symbiotic process. Or maybe just a happening!
Once Toni’s basic missioning is complete, and he and Carla hit the road to Rome and beyond, the immediate importance of Between the Lines reduces, of course. But Toni carries that CD (and later, also several other Janis Ian albums) with him wherever he goes; and he often listens to them, for real or just in his head, as an ongoing source of inspiration and a way of maintaining his composure in the heat of his various Doman-enforced trials and tribulations.
Is there going to be an Observation Four?
Well, I guess we should never say “never” ... but frankly, I suspect not.
Then again, I’ve often wondered how Carla and Lucia lived their rich early lives on Dome, before they were selected for training as highly specialised Star-craft Handlers (and what their real names were). And how illustrious Quo’s long career (in what professions?) and many successes at Doman Chess must have been. And how the Mater’s Captain achieved such a position of power and potential glory, despite being so very reasonable and kind-hearted. Maybe one day I’ll be driven to uncover the answers. But that story could hardly be called Observation Four!
I think it’s far less likely that I’ll chase after the Mater to see what happens next back at Dome, with its impending climate crisis. That feels like a very different sort of story, and altogether too complicated for little ol’ me!
But to get back to the specific question: it would be tempting to have the Council of the Regions decide to send the original crew of the Mater back to Earth for a quick nostalgia trip, maybe ten or twenty years on (in 2013 or 2023), to observe how Toni, Maelene and the rest of us are getting on — or indeed to see if there’s any life left here at all ...
Do you feel another artist may ever touch you as profoundly as Janis Ian obviously has? And, if so, is there enough material for another trilogy?!
I don’t think so. I’ve studied the lyrics and the lives of many other great singer-songwriters, but I’ve never seen the same intensity of what I call “the revelation of the universal through the expression of the personal.” For me, Janis stands alone in that regard.
And moving away from just the realm of modern songs: I have plenty of sources of inspiration from the other arts, and the Observation novels highlight many those as well! But I don’t think I could build a major story, let alone a trilogy, around my love of the works of Renoir, or Jane Austen, or Mozart, or any other great artist, alone or in combination! However, I am busy working on a new novel which does have a particular set of literary motifs and real authors and their characters as its inspiration ...
Where do you get your ideas?
Several different questions lurking in there!
In terms of place and situation: well, my favourite schoolmaster used to tell us we should always wash and dry the dinner pots and pans for our parents, half-way through doing our evening’s homework, because when you’re mechanically performing such mundane chores, your mind can wander off into deeper, greater thoughts. And he was right, as always. But now, in these days of the dishwasher, it’s my weekly ironing job that usually generates a lot of story themes and plot lines! The challenge is then to capture them on the PC before they are forgotten.
My recent poem History was just thirty minutes in the making, the first ten of them spent suddenly getting the idea out of the blue, meditating on it, and composing the first draft in my head, while simultaneously pressing four shirts!
In terms of sources of inspiration: at the fundamental level of topics for a new piece of work, I really don’t know. I certainly never sit down and say: “OK, what would be a good idea for a new story?” No, something will just suddenly appear in my mind, asking to be considered as a concept. I’m pretty sure, in most cases, that such an idea is evoked by whatever I happen to be thinking, doing, watching, or in particular reading at that moment. If I feel there may be something in it, I find myself pondering it for a while, and doing a sort of unconscious “viability test” in my head. Often, that’s as far as it goes — I’ll then just get on with what I was doing, and may never think of it again. But if it persists and demands to be looked at more actively, then I’ll get a pencil and some post-it notes, and have at it.
A couple of examples might be helpful here.
One morning on a recent summer holiday, I was idly floating in the swimming pool, thinking about the perils of modern life and how most people try to avoid worrying about them. I suddenly heard a huge splash from the next-door property, as the very overweight man staying there jumped heavily into his own pool.
Those thoughts and that event set me off, and half an hour later I had the concept of Drop to Drink outlined in my head. I wrote the full story, in longhand, while lying on the beach that afternoon!
And on the same holiday, I saw a woman walking along with her mobile phone stuck in her ear, chattering away to somebody and completely ignoring the man alongside her. A little later I saw the same thing in a much younger couple. And then once again. I found it all rather sad, to say the least, and from that came my Betjamenesque poem Never Alone.
Who drives the story: you or your characters?
Both, without any doubt.
I start up the old bus and hit the road. I pick up hitchhikers whenever I need new company or if I spot someone who looks really interesting. Each of them plays nice with me and the others for a little while, but they soon pluck up the courage to tell me what they think of my driving and my route plan, and they often start arguing or necking with one other when they think my eyes are fixed on the road. But I’m watching them all very carefully, and most of the time I reckon they know exactly what they’re doing. So I usually go with their helpful suggestions, or let them run with their own plans (for better or worse), and we all get on just fine.
And when any of them need dropping off, to get back to their own lives, we agree a good place to stop, and they disappear with happy goodbyes.
So, one by one, my characters come and later go ... until eventually it’s just me and the old bus once more. And then I park her up, switch her off, and slink away for a quiet beer — on my own again, at last!
Do you have a favorite character that you write about? If so, who is it, and what makes it your favorite?
I think it’s impossible to pick just one.
I have a secret admiration for N.G. in Big Night Out ... he’s a modern day Machiavelli with some very clear fifth-column goals, and I fear I identify all too well with that! I’m also very frightened that he’s all too real.
And I have to look to the Observation trilogy for my other great favourites. It won’t surprise you to learn that I can’t choose between Toni Murano, Maelene Bay, and Quo.
Toni is my Candide-character, led by the nose all over the world as a hapless co-opted agent, serving the schemes of others but remaining generally stoic and well-mannered despite all that he has to put up with.
Maelene is an embodiment of much that I see and largely respect in the modern woman — and despite her strong and driven personality, she’s really very lovable, as everyone who meets her soon discovers.
And Quo ... well, we’ve all met a convoluted, over-clever Quo or two somewhere, some time, and they’re often quite impressive and kind-hearted when you get to know them!
I think this is also the place to say I’m well aware that every single character in the Observation trilogy (men, women and Domans, both the likeable ones and the far less attractive) is a small part of me brought to life, and that the full set of pieces on that huge chessboard comes pretty close to a complete character profile of this particular Gemini. That’s not how I planned it, and as Maelene might say, “it ain’t necessarily very pretty,” but that’s the way it turned out. As the saying roughly goes, the story often partly writes itself.
Copyright © 2009 by Michael E. Lloyd