Agony Column Interview


"They're lying to you."
An Interview with Richard K. Morgan
The Agony Column for October 27, 2004
Interview Conducted by Rick Kleffel

From his website.
Richard K. Morgan is the author of the acclaimed novels 'Altered Carbon' and 'Broken Angels', both featuring detective Takeshi Kovacs, and set in a future where the mind/body division is a technology for uploading consciousness into a new body when the old one dies. His latest novel is 'Market Forces', a savage satire set about rapacious businessmen who literally kill one another for customers. I talked to him when he was in San Francisco earlier this year. (MP3, RealAudio)

But recently I noticed that he'd written the script for a Marvel Comic, that the movie of 'Market Forces' was moving forward and that his new novel was done, so I decided to get in touch with him again. Coming out early next year is 'Woken Furies', a new Takeshi Kovacs novel, which, according to his editor over at Victor Gollancz is his best yet. He kindly consented to update my readers as to where to look for what he's doing and why he's doing it.

RK: Richard, can you tell us what's happening with the film adaptation of 'Market Forces'?

The novel upon which the movie will be based.
RKM: Well, I can tell you the film deal has gone through – Warner Brothers again, though not this time in conjunction with Joel Silver. The project is in development now with a director/producer whose names I wasn’t familiar with when they were mentioned to me. Obviously I’m delighted because Market Forces, though it started life as a short story, was a screenplay long before it became a novel.

RK:Will they be using your screenplay?

RKM: No – to be honest with you, the original screenplay was never really that good. I cannibalized it while I was writing the novel, and while the ideas behind it were solid enough, I found myself constantly dismayed by the poor quality of the writing. I guess I was a lot younger then – you’re talking a good ten or eleven years ago, after all. So I destroyed it when I finished the novel – to borrow a quote from the end of the movie Mad Max 2, it exists now only in my memories.

RK:I noticed the other day that you had written a comic for Marvel, Black Widow. Can you tell me why you did it; I mean did you seek them out or did they seek you out?

RKM: Very much the latter. Jenny Lee, an editor at Marvel, had read Altered Carbon and was apparently very taken with the way I’d handled the female characters. She liked the fact that they were good, bad and indifferent human beings independently of their sex, and she wanted to see if she could get me to import that approach into a Marvel comics series. She ran a couple of characters by me, and I fixed on Black Widow immediately.

RK:And tell us about why a novelist would want to write for the comics.

Art by Bill Sienkiewicz, script by Richard K. Morgan.
RKM: Well, I’ve always had a liking for good comic book art. I’m not a collector or even a big fan, but I had some of the classic milestone graphic novels on my shelves – Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns, some Judge Dredd, some Preacher, that kind of thing – all pretty grim, dark stuff. So when Jenny offered me the chance to give that kind of treatment to a female Marvel character, I jumped at the chance. I think both of us (Jenny and I) were sick of female superheroes who acted as little more than thinly-disguised wank fantasies for male readers and writers, and the deal was that this would be something very different. And it’s always nice to be doing something different.

RK: Could you tell the readers a bit about the process of writing for the comics and how it differs from writing prose in either short stories or novels?

RKM: It’s very different. Above all what you notice is the extreme economy of the process. Any prose you lay down is purely descriptive of what a given panel is going to show, so it’s a stripped and strictly communicative form of writing, without a great deal of polish. By far the bulk of your writerly attention is going into the dialogue, not least because you’ve got a very limited amount of space in which to play with and you have to pare it down to a razor’s edge of delivery. An average comic is twenty two pages, with about five to seven panels a page – when you’re used to turning out four hundred page novels, that seems like an incredibly small scale to work on. But the discipline required is fascinating to learn, and I’ve been lucky enough, in Jenny Lee, to have a fine instructor.
RK: Who creates the storyline?

RKM: That’s mine. Obviously, where you’re working with an existing character, you need to take prior history into account, but that’s really just a springboard, especially when you’re taking things in a new direction like this. I put in a six issue story arc, plus notes on what I wanted to do with the character, and we took it from there. Then you go back and write it, panel by panel, page by page, issue by issue. And obviously there are quite a lot changes once you start doing that, especially when you’re as new to the whole game as I was. For example, my sketch of what I thought would be Issue One turned out to have more than enough material for two full issues, so we had to split it in the middle and still pare it down a bit.

RK: How different is the collaborative process between a writer, an artist and the editors for a particular series from the process of writing a novel and turning it in to an editor at a publisher?

RKM: Well, there’s a lot more to-ing and fro-ing, certainly. When you write a novel, it’s a bit like becoming a hermit. You disappear for a year, and when you come back you’ve got your finished product, which you turn in and hope your editor likes. With a comic, you put in the draft, which is usually a couple of days’ work, then you wait to see how the art turns out. Sometimes, the artist has ideas about how to depict something that may short circuit your original plan and so you’ll have to cut or amend dialogue, sometimes the editor will make logistical suggestions that require changes. At one point Jenny Lee asked me to cut a fight sequence by about fifty percent because it was just taking up too much of the comic and so the balance of the thing was out. I think in writing a comic, as with screenwriting, it’s important to see what you’re writing as no more than a blueprint for the finished product. And you can’t get too precious with a blueprint. It’s a collaborative process of which you’re a part – not the kind of control freak obsession that writing a novel requires.

RK: Do you have other comic projects plans?

RKM: Not as yet. To be honest, there’s far more of the obsessive control freak in me than the collaborative professional. Right now it’s fine because on artwork I’ve been lucky enough to get comics legend and dark art meister Bill Sienkiewicz and another guy, Goran Parlov, who’s got a firm grasp of where we’re going with the tone of this thing. These guys, plus the enthusiasms and tastes that I share with Jenny Lee have ensured that writing Black Widow is turning out to be a great experience. But whether that could be duplicated with a different team of people is by no means certain – and I don’t want to give up more time from my novel-writing unless I can be guaranteed the same ride I’m getting now with Jenny, Bill and Goran.

RK: How's the pay?

"..this was never really about the money anyway."
RKM: Well, it’s work for hire, which means a different order of magnitude to the kind of money I’ve been getting for movie advances and foreign rights deals. But it’s still a decent wage for the work, and to be honest this was never really about the money anyway.

RK: When 'Altered Carbon' was optioned by Joel Silver, producer of The Matrix movies, you were able to devote yourself to full-time writing. Has that project gone alone any further?

RKM: Hard to say. The option was renewed in May for another eighteen months, so there’s still enthusiasm out there for making the movie, and that’s always good to know. I understand there’s been a change of writer for this draft of the script, but aside from that, I’ve heard nothing more.

RK: Finally, Simon Spanton over at Gollancz tells me that you've just turned in 'Woken Furies'. Is it a new Takieshi Kovacs novel?

RKM: It is indeed!

RK: What can you tell us about writing this novel, having written the first two then diverted to 'Market Forces'?

RKM: I think it was good to get away from Kovacs and his world for a while – but it’s good to be back! Writing Market Forces, apart from allowing me to get a furious political critique out of my system, gave me the chance to step back and assess the Kovacs series at a distance. That in turn helped me decide what I wanted to do with it next.

RK: What can you tell us about the novel itself -- without giving away any more than we'll read on the dust jacket?

Richard K. Morgan's next novel.
RKM: Woken Furies is set on Harlan’s World, and deals with the ghosts of Kovacs’ past as well as carrying forward a number of the other peripheral themes in the first two books. In some ways it’s a return to the noir staples of Altered Carbon, it’s largely urban in focus and the military context is consigned to the back seat again. But at the same time, Woken Furies is a far more intensely personal character novel than Altered Carbon was. The mysteries that Kovacs has to deal with and the solutions he finds are bound up tightly with the more existential questions of who he thinks he is and what implications that has for his actions. The sex and violence are still there in force, but they cast far longer, grimmer shadows this time. Guess I’m getting old, huh?

RK: And having finished this novel, can you give us a clue what novel is next?

RKM: Well, not much of clue because I’ve only just started writing it and I’ve yet to see where it’ll go myself! The next book won’t be Kovacs, it’s another near (or at least nearER) future novel, though not a political allegory in the way Market Forces was. There’ll be a number of themes, including genetics and the nature/nurture debate and it will be, like all my stuff, fast moving, violent and character driven. Watch this space!

RK: Are there any magazines that you see as key reading or influential?

RKM: Not really – I’ve got a subscription to a British political magazine called Prospect, which is quite informative, I buy the Guardian more or less daily, and I read the New York Review of Books from time to time. But in the end these just form part of a spectrum of data that sits and stews in my head and sometimes coughs up an idea. In general, I’d say it’s vital, not just as a writer but as a functioning member of society, to be well informed politically, but how you go about that is pretty much an individual thing. Key approach: if your news sources are telling you that everything’s hunky dory and under control – then change them, because they’re lying to you. Oh yeah, and avoid the Economist like the plague – fucking free-market Moonies.

RK: Are there any websites you see that have a corresponding power?

"...a useful counterbalance..."
RKM: Not that I can think of off-hand. I spend some time at which documents what’s really going on in Iraq and provides a useful counterbalance to the general fading of interest in the western media as we’re assured by our leaders that the fighting is over, the democratic transition is achieved and all is now well (Yeah, right.). I also find Michael Moore’s site informative, and I’m at a loss to understand the sudden reversal of enthusiasm for him in left-liberal quarters. Maybe as leftists, we’re not meant to approve of him now he’s rich and successful? Go figure. But in general I think if you surf the web with a careful eye and an idea of what you want information about, you’re better off making your own connections. As with print media, it’s an individual thing and you have to find your own answers.

RK: How do you feel about the state of web publishing now, and what do you see as its potential for the future?

RKM: I don’t really know enough about it to have an intelligent opinion – but off the top of my head I’d say the potential for the future is immense. It always is with media technology.

RK: How do you see the market for fiction shaping up over the next couple of years?

"...increasing numbers of mainstream novelists wandering into genre territory – David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is at least one third science fiction."
RKM: Seems to be in pretty rude health, at least on this side of the Atlantic. There’s also a general loosening of boundaries that I like – increasing numbers of mainstream novelists wandering into genre territory – David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is at least one third science fiction, Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake is a hundred percent (albeit not very good) SF. And then on the other side of the coin you’ve got obvious genre writers like China Mieville (Iron Council), Ian MacDonald (River of Gods) and Paul McAuley (White Devils) having their books marketed as mainstream. It’s a good time to be writing, no doubt about it.

RK: We've been hearing a lot of horror stories about the decline of reading. Do you buy them?

RKM: No. Again, I can’t answer for the US, but book sales are up in the UK. We appear to be reading (or at least buying the books to read) more than ever. Only a couple of weeks ago, I was in Madrid and I heard the Spanish minister of culture there citing book readership figures in the UK as something for contemporary Spanish culture to aspire to. Nice to hear that in fact – usually the only things the British are famous for in Spain are appalling cuisine, football hooliganism and loud and offensive drunkenness.

RK: Is the increasing market for graphic novels going to have an impact on the market for pure fiction?

RKM: Well possibly, but not, I think, the negative influence that everyone assumes. I’m reading far more graphic novels these days than I was a couple of years ago, but I haven’t noticed a corresponding drop in the amount of prose fiction I read. It’s a different form, so it’s unlikely to act as a substitute. And it doesn’t take long to read a graphic novel, so it’s not that you’re displacing valuable time from reading other things. Hopefully, what will happen is that there’ll be some cross-fertilisation and people who habitually read comics will start to pick up novels by authors who work in both fields (like me!). You can see this already happening with the huge success Neil Gaiman (Sandman) has had with his prose fiction in recent years. And of course we’ve also got to hope that some of the snobbery from literary quarters about the comics will start to burn off under the realization of how much really very good stuff there is out there in the graphic form.

RK: How about the market for video game scripts versus movie scripts versus fiction?

"I loved the Max Payne games..."
RKM: Yeah, increasingly the lines are blurring between big budget action movies and video games (and action-driven comicbooks), but I think that’s a self-contained thing. They’re forms with an awful lot in common, and I think their impact on prose fiction is going to be limited. Not that the same people won’t consume them all – they probably will. But those people won’t generally substitute one form for the other. I loved the Sin City graphic novels, and I’ll probably go and see the movie, I loved the Max Payne games and if they ever make a Max Payne movie, I’ll probably see that too – but none of this is going to stop me reading Arundhati Roy or Anne Michaels. It’s not a zero sum game.

RK: Could you talk about the challenges of writing for media that are increasingly interactive?

RKM: Er – not really, because I don’t.

RK: For example, when you write for movies you now can take into account the fact that at some point, there will be a DVD, with both a commentary track and a media that can be halted, skipped and viewed asynchronously. Video games take this a step further

RKM: Yeah, you can take all that into account. But, in my humble opinion, if you did, you’d be spiking your own creative guns. For example, I’ve been approached by a number of quite big name game companies about the possibilities of a Takeshi Kovacs game, and in a way that’s quite flattering (as well as potentially very lucrative). Maybe it’ll even happen at some point. But if I sit down to write a book and allow myself to think that there might be a video game of it one day, allow myself to worry about that and write accordingly, then it’s going to distort what I really want to put on the page. You stop being a (creative) writer, and become a prose prostitute, a sort of give-the-people-what-they-want word technician. And where’s the point in that? The whole deal with being a writer is that you write what you want, what you feel and then you hope that it’s a valid act of communication and that it’ll connect with other people. If you’re lucky it will. But as soon as you start actively thinking about cross-marketing and product placement, you’ve reduced that act of communication to a street walker’s come-on. It may pay well, but it’s not something you’re going to feel especially proud of. And I think sooner or later that knowledge, that cynicism, will eat into your writing and in the end it’ll kill whatever it was that drove you to be a writer in the first place.

RK: Websites and blogs also allow for new forms of fiction, to wit, Alistair Langston's 'Aspects of a Psychopath'. The writer started a blog, which purported to be the exploits of a serial killer, spelled out in gruesome detail. Eventually, it was developed into a novella from Telos UK. You've just started your own website. What brought you to this point?

RKM: Really, the website was just a point of contact – it became apparent by the time Broken Angels came out that a lot of people were trying to get in touch with me with everything from simple well-wishing and enthusiasm about my work to actual proposals for things like a Kovacs platform game or foreign rights for Altered Carbon. The website seemed like an obvious solution to this – it makes me visible to anyone who wants to find me, maybe answers some of their more basic curiosities about what makes me tick, and offers a coms channel should they want to talk to me. Anyone who hits the contact button on the site will hear back from me at some point, even if it’s simply to say thanks for the interest.

RK: Are you reading or watching anything that my readers should be reading or watching?

"And I’m now just getting into Pete Dexter’s Train, which is purely brilliant so far – well worth a look."
RKM: Well, I’m just back from a month and a half trekking in Peru and Bolivia so my recent intake of current books and movies has been severely limited. I spent most of my dead time out there catching up on books I’ve wanted to read for years – in this case Arundhati Roy’s God of Small Things and Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, both of which were excellent. Since I got back, well, let’s see, there was this quiet little movie called The Station Agent that I saw a few days ago. It has the same flavour you find in work from indie US moviemakers like Jim Jarmusch and Hal Hartley, and it’s superb. I’ve also just read Marjane Satrapi’s new graphic novel Persepolis 2, which is great stuff and a real kick in the head to all those who don’t like to take the comicbook form seriously. And I’m now just getting into Pete Dexter’s Train, which is purely brilliant so far – well worth a look. Oh yeah, and just before I left I got to see Fahrenheit 911, which should be required viewing for any citizen of the US or the UK – I’m a pretty cynical bastard, but I confess it shocked even me, the evidence and footage of corruption Moore was able to dig up. I mean, you couldn’t make that shit up.

RK: Is there anything on the horizon that we should be looking forward to, beyond your own work?

RKM: Again, I’m not really up to speed here – I’d like to say I’m looking forward to the Sin City movie, but I think I’ll reserve judgment until it’s out. I find it hard to believe that a mainstream Hollywood movie will be permitted the extremes of Miller’s original graphic novels –or their brutally grim endings. Still, we live in hope.

RK: Any final words or warnings?

RKM: Uh – vote Kerry, I guess, if you’re not going to already. Please. Thank you.

RK: Let me send you the thanks of my readers along with my own. This is greatly appreciated!