Mapping The City & The City: an interview with China Miéville

China Miéville is one of fantasy’s most recognizable names and one of its most distinctive, brightest voices. Having made a promising debut with 1998’s King Rat, he is best known for his multiple award-winning novel Perdido Street Station and The Scar and Iron Council, the follow-up novels set in the dark, rich world of Bas-Lag. With 2007’s publication of Un Lun Dun, he became a New York Times bestselling young adult novelist, as well. 

The City & The City is Miéville’s newest novel, his take on a murder mystery tinged with the fantastic. When a woman is found dead in the (hazily Eastern European) city of Bes?el, Inspector Tyador Borlú soon discovers he is not investigating a routine case. His digging into the woman’s identity takes him to the neighboring city-state of Ul Qoma. Only Ul Qoma does not so much neighbor Bes?el in the traditional sense as it inhabits the same geographic space on a different existential frequency. Less baroque than the Bas-Lag novels, more tightly-drawn because of its nature as a police procedural, The City & The City may be Miéville’s best novel yet.

Though his promotional photos make him look deadly-serious, in person, I found an author who is self-deprecating, easy-going, and as eager to listen to others’ opinions as to share his own. At the end of a long day of signings and interviews at BookExpo America, he graciously took the time to discuss his latest novel and more with me.

Can you tell me a bit about the process of writing The City & The City? What was the spark of inspiration that led to the creation of Bes?el & Ul Qoma?

I’d had this idea for the two cities and their peculiar relationship to each other for quite a long time and I’d been trying to work out what story to set there, to investigate that setting. And I sort of auditioned a short story in my head and a romance between one person in one city and one in another. And I just got more and more interested in the idea of doing a crime novel because crime has a very strong tradition of urban writing and so, as an exploration of these two cities, it lent itself quite well. And also because I was very interested in crime as a very rigorous narrative structure and genre and because I wanted to write something as a present to my mum, who was a really big crime reader. So it was a kind of cross-fertilization of this idea of the setting, which I’d been chewing over for quite a while, and the crime thing came later, but I’d always vaguely been interested in crime as it was always in the house. But this research really brought it to the fore.

This novel’s a big departure from your other novels in that it’s sort of set in our world, but not really. Google, Van Morrison, Chuck Palahniuk make appearances in Bes?el. Why have the cities exist almost in this world?
Well, for a bunch of reasons. Partly because it’s just more interesting doing different things. Partly because the aesthetic of weirdness that I was interested in for this novel, the aesthetic of de-familiarization. Rather than being a kind of really, really, sharp, radical de-familiarization of the previous books it was much more an attempt to do a more subtle, uneasy sort of half-familiarity, like something you feel that you almost know, but not quite. So I want it to be very nearly home territory, but a little bit skewed. And because I’d been reading a lot of Eastern European fiction and depictions of Eastern European cities, so that was a very strong aesthetic in my head that I wanted to tap into. I think that you do different things if you try to create the estrangement through radical weirdness or whether you try and create it through half-familiarity and I was just much more interested in doing that for this one. It was a different task to try and invent cities that were realistic, and I hope, coherent and believable but that were also rather than totally fantastic but felt like they intersected with our world. I think it makes for a more interesting book, a subtler book, than it would have been with the shape of its narrative in a completely different world.

There’s a long tradition of creating lands that are in our world. Because when you write within fantasy of science fiction, we tend to think of these totally separate, imaginary worlds. And we forget that there’s actually a lot of writing that we may or may not think of as part of our genre, Islandia for one, that are these very careful works of essentially world-creation, certainly culture creation, but also within our world. And that has its own effects and there are things you can do with one that you can’t do with the other and vice versa. I just wanted to try it out.

So many of your stories touch upon realities behind realities (like The Weaver in Perdido Street Station, the world of Un Lun Dun, etc.) but none quite so apparent as in this novel. Why do you think you keep returning to this theme?
Well, I think that lots and lots and lots of writing has as an idea, a theme, a motif, that the sense that there’s something bigger going on, there are more things in heaven and earth than is part of your philosophy. What you do with that intimation whether you relate to it religiously or whether you relate to it in terms of magic or in terms of secret conspiracies. I mean, The Da Vinci Code has the same kind of logic. For some of us, we think in terms of magical underworld place in our world, but in The Da Vinci Code, thinks of things in terms of enormous secret conspiracies, but it’s all about trying to decode reality at a level behind what we see in front of us.

Now, I don’t necessarily think that’s true in the real world. I mean, I think it’s important to make a distinction between art and fiction on one hand and reality on the other and I am not a religious man and don’t, for the most part, believe there’s a secret cabal running things, at least not in the way people who do think that think about it. No fairies or ghosts, that sort of thing. But that doesn’t mean I’m not really, really interested in fiction about that, so that tradition of trying to tap into something other, something behind things, something numinous, I find really, really interesting. And you’re right, it is something in my fiction, but to be fair, I think it’s in a lot of fiction.

Which authors did you read most during the writing of The City & The City?
Two different traditions in particular. One was Eastern and Middle European fiction particularly depictions of cities, so that would be Alfred Kubin, Paul Leppin, Kafka, obviously, Bruno Schulz… and representations of the city in films and such. And on the other hand, noir and crime. So above all, Chandler, but also I read Dashiell Hammett. Martin Cruz Smith [Gorky Park] I think is really, really great. That sort of stuff. Plus all the other stuff I’ve read. 

There’s something almost Orwellian about the term “unsee.” Going back to the questioning of reality and perspective in the novel, is it completely out of whack to think of the social contract the inhabitants of Bes?el & Ul Qoma live under as metaphor for apathy, a refusal to recognize different viewpoints, different perspectives, especially on a political level?
Well I certainly wouldn’t disavow that metaphor and I think that’s a perfectly legitimate reading, but I’m very adamant that fiction, at least my fiction I hope, shouldn’t be reducible to allegorical readings because if you want to make a point, if you want to say “The problem with the world is the things that we exclude from our consciousness” and that’s the main thing you’re interested in doing, then just say so. So this this has to work as a detective novel, as a piece of world-creation, it has to keep the pages turning, make you wonder whodunnit, all that stuff. And also I think I would make a distinction between allegory and metaphor, whereby Orwell is a much more overtly allegorical writer, although it’s always sort of unstable, there’s a certain kind of mapping whereby x means y, a means b. With metaphorical fiction, I think it’s more interesting because they’re always more unstable. You can’t settle on one closed meaning. And that doesn’t mean there aren’t any meanings, there’s loads of meanings and the meanings beget other meanings and fractal other meanings. So all this is a long-winded way of saying, yes, absolutely, sure that stuff is in there, but I’d be disappointed if people thought that’s what it was “about” or that’s what it “meant” because you have to want to be able to have it both ways and you want those metaphors to be a bit unstable and to make sense up to a certain point but then also to undermine themselves. So within each city you have rich and poor, so you can’t make a nice stable mapping of one city represents the rich and one city represents the poor, because those elements are there but they break down with the specificities of each city. So “Yes, but,” I would say. 

You’ve been so open about your political viewpoints, so, with my previous question considered, do you feel people may be too quick to pigeonhole your work in light of your activism, like you’re “that Marxist author.” Or even in another way that you’re “that New Weird author?” On one level a lot of your books are about politics, but on the other hand, they’re really genre stories with murder mysteries and pirates and monsters. Lots and lots of monsters.

I don’t mind being categorized, I think it’s something the human mind does all the time. Obviously as a writer, I don’t want people to say, “Oh, okay, China is this type of writer and I don’t like this type of writer, so I’m not going to like his kind of stuff.” But I’ve talked about my political positions, so it’d be a bit hypocritical of me to now object to people relating to me as a political writer. And that’s where the previous question comes in because I have no problem with that at all, but I refute the idea that the one is reducible to the other. I’m a political writer and I’m a writer of science fiction and fantasy and now crime novels. Of course the texture of one will enter the other.

In terms of whether someone calls me a New Weird writer, it depends. If they find it a useful category then why not? I don’t get my knickers in a twist about that stuff. What does sometimes frustrate is that because people think here is that pigeonhole x, this is what I think that means, in a very rigid, narrow way, and because I put China there, or whoever, into that pigeonhole that therefore means that about them. And that kind of reductive thinking irritates me. But they’re using shorthand and as long as we’re not getting hobbled by them, then fine.

You mention the Internet a lot in this book, yet, at your reading the other night you said you were “terrified of Twitter” and you have no official author page. A lot of authors would say you can’t become very well known without it, but clearly your books are selling fine without Facebook. Yet why don’t you have much of an online presence?
For a variety of reasons. Basically because there are quite enough crap-awful webpages in the world without me adding to them. I would only put up a webpage if I could do something specific and interesting and new, like if I was going to blog and it was going to be absolutely outstanding and new. So I’m not saying I’ll never have a presence, but I don’t have anything particularly to share urgently that the world needs to know. I think one of the problems with writers is that we talk too much. I sort of feel like because you write a book, you shouldn’t assume people care about anything else you have to say. Certainly I don’t. So I don’t want to have a website for the sake of having a website…. And I don’t have the stomach for a lot of flamewars. If I had a blog, I’d probably disable comments. I find the tenor of online flamewars and trolling horrifying. Although I read blogs all the time (not naming names) and I love the Internet. There’s no Luddism here.

Twittering, I said I was afraid of it, slightly tongue-in-cheek, but not totally. For me there’s no point. Now I’m not saying there’s no point to it because clearly for thousands of people it’s terrific. It’s just nothing I get any pleasure or use out of.

I do believe that if you’re a new writer now, particularly in the genre, there’s such a strong expectation to have a web presence. I have the luxury of having been doing this for over a decade, so I have a certain presence that to a certain extent takes care of itself. Now, whether that remains the case forever, that’s a different matter. So occasionally, I’ll go to readings or whatever and, once or twice, fans have been even kind of annoyed and sort of implied that I owe it to readers to have a web site. I just don’t think that’s true. I think the worst thing in the world would be to have a really lame website. Plus, anyone who’s interested in me can find out pretty much anything on a two-second Google search. I just don’t know what I’d add to the sum total of the universe. I just don’t want to be more pointless noise.

I think that a lot of authors’ website are awful. Embarrassing. Pointless. Self-important. “And some are great,” he added, frantically. [laughter]

You’ve said you’d like to write a novel in every genre and The City & The City is your police procedural. What other genres have been catching your eye recently?
I like spy thrillers, ghost stories, although that’s not as far from the stuff I’ve done before, but I’ve never written a ghost story at novel-length. Those are the ones that jump to mind. Other than that I’ve done sort of a take on the western and a romance. Oh, and the historical novel! I’ve got some ideas for historical novel. But I’m also open to suggestions, so anyone who thinks there’s a genre I should have a go at, I’d be interested to hear about it.

Sometimes characters are mouthpieces for the author and I was wondering if that wasn’t true of, say, David Bowden [The City & The City] the author of one really big book or Lin [Perdido Street Station] the artist thinking about her creative process. Do you have a character in one of your books you feel is closest to your heart?
Well those are two different questions. There’s the question of which character is closest to you and one of which character is closest to your heart. For example, I really like Borlú. I think that Borlú is a character I really enjoyed writing, rereading him. But I hope we’re not terribly alike and I think that it’s very important to stress, repeatedly, because it should go without saying, but unfortunately it doesn’t, which is that you don’t necessarily endorse what your characters do. Even the sympathetic characters. I’ve repeatedly had readers say “I really want to argue with you. I think you’re completely wrong about the moral position you took at the end of Perdido Street Station.” And I’m like, “Dude, I didn’t do anything at the end of Perdido Street Station. I wasn’t there.”

I love Bellis in The Scar, she’s one of my favorite characters. And I like Cutter [Iron Council]. I think Judah’s an interesting character, but I don’t like him very much. But Cutter I like very much. Which character is most like me? That would probably be, I don’t know if you’ve read the short story “Reports of Certain Events in London?” There’s a character called China Miéville. That would be the one most like me. [Note: World Fantasy Award-nominated, published first in McSweeney’s and reprinted in the collection Looking for Jake.]

Are you planning on returning to Bas-Lag?
Sure. [shrugs and laughs] I don’t want to be a Bas-Lag factory, so I need to let the dust settle. I think any time you go back to a favorite setting, structurally it’s very difficult not to bleed out the novels that are already there in that setting, you undermine them simply by doing it. So I don’t want to do that to those three books.

So I’ve heard your a fan of RPGs and I see that New Crobuzon will be the setting for a

new one

this fall. As an admitted former gaming geek and as a writer, how do you feel about your world being adapted for a game?

It’s. Fucking. Awesome. It’s fantastic. I’m really excited. I’m helping the guy who’s doing it, Gareth-Michael Skarka, by peering in a bit occasionally, giving bits and pieces, drawing the odd picture and stuff. So it’s really a big compliment. I think RPGs are a very important constitutive part of my brain and without them I would not be who I am, for better or worse. AD&D, RuneQuest, Call of Cthulhu, Bushido. So it’s a great enormous compliment to think that you might be that to someone else.

Do you have any desire to write for other media? You just did issue #250 of Hellblazer, which seems perfect. John Constantine, famous Londoner—

He’s a Liverpudlian! Everyone always always thinks he’s a Londoner, but he’s from Liverpool. Yeah, I’d like to do more comics and I have some ideas and friends at DC, so chatting about possibilities and stuff. The other thing I’d really be interested in writing for is videogames.

Any other projects you’re working on now that readers should keep an eye out for? Are you the kind of writer that can work on many different projects at once?

Loads of books. I’ve got about four books on the go right now. One should be out next year… I’ve turned into that kind of writer. I didn’t used to be, but I am now. I tend to have two or three at different stages.

Thanks for your time!


Check out the Random House website for details on China’s upcoming West Coast tour.


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