|Ian Watson. Photo by Adrià Guxens|
Ian Watson is a man with a lot to talk about, and maybe because he’s a writer, he talks very gracefully about anything; he is a man who will not let you do the interview like you have planned, he will make you improvise; he is a man who talks so much that you will need to ask the questions while he is puffing one of the two cigarettes he’ll smoke during the interview; he is a man who talks about things that are so incredible that will make you wonder if they are entirely true and he is a man who will ask you to make him look wise, ironic and with a dry sense of humour in the picture. At the Celsius 232 Festival Adria’s News talks to Ian Watson, who has recently published El Inca de Marte and 50 Recetas con Nombre, to know why he thinks there are tides in the Mediterranean, why he hasn’t read The Lord of the Rings yet and, especially, to know how was working with Stanley Kubrick to develop the story of Artificial Intelligence, film that ended up being directed by Steven Spielberg.
When did you say: “I want to become a writer”?
Well, I wanted to be a writer when I was about 10 or 11 years old. However, I had various early ambitions because I lived in a very boring place in the north of England. First of all, I wanted to be a cactus collector in the Arizona desert because there were not a lot of shops full of cacti back then. They were very rare and they seemed to me like the plants of an alien world because they were so different from anything else. I also wanted to be a chemist, but I was terrible at science. During a practical examination, there was an experiment called titration where you suck a tube and mentholated spirit comes and I accidentally swallowed half a litre of mentholated spirit and I thought: “Fuck Chemistry!”.
Did you read science fiction back then?
Yes, I was quite an early reader. Miraculously the public library had the first editions of A. E. van Vogt, Asimov, Alfred Bester… they were in with all the other books and I read those because the names of the authors seemed to suggest wisdom to me, oddity… so I thought: “What could be there?” They were much more interesting than names like Charles Dickens or Jane Austin, bah! Van Vogt! Look at this name…
So the thing about the names was what made you start reading science fiction…
And also, well… in 1956, I was thirteen at the time, we had an intellectual radio station produced by the BBC which was called The Third Program or something like that. One Sunday afternoon for three hours there was a dramatization of a science fantasy novel that you would not have heard of: A Voyage to Arcturus, by David Lindsay. Now this is being republished in English again and again. He was not a science fiction writer, but he was a person of huge imagination. Basically, the beginning is quite normal, but afterwards the characters get to the lighthouse and stare at the star Arcturus. A little after, the characters are transported in a big metal cylinder to the planet Arcturus, a world where each particular local environment represents a different philosophy of life. It’s a book that, like van Vogt, is either read beautifully or very badly and clumsily, so to hear this for three and a half hours on the radio when I was thirteen was, you know? Mind-blowing.
When did you realize you had become a full time writer?
I did write about three very short novels while I was at university, very pretentious and stylistic. Basically, I didn’t have enough life experience in the slightest back then, but I tried to keep my style. I wanted to write the perfect sentence, so anything I wrote back then wasn’t published. However, I had the strong desire to be a writer, but I needed to know what to write about.
It is an important thing.
Yes, it is. However, Oscar Wilde’s aunt said to him when he was young: “Oscar what will you be when you grow up?” And he said: “I will be a writer”. And she asked him: “What would you write about, Oscar?” And he replied: “One does not write about things. One writes!” I was a little bit like that. But then, after university I got a job in East Africa. This was because I did a research degree, but I was not respected enough to get an academic job in England, so I was pushed there.
First Africa, then to Tokyo… They’re quite different, aren’t they?
Very much so. The thing about Africa that woke me up was the non-western world, its alternative beliefs systems, its alternative landscapes and history. There were great cities in Africa in the past. It was not OK that the Europeans arrived to Africa to bring civilization when it was already there! And Tokyo really woke me up to the future, because even in the late 1960s Tokyo was a futuristic city. I was not very interested in the more elegant forms of the Japanese culture, such as kabuki, but I was very interested in the folk vulgarity and brightness of Shinto and the Million Gate Gateways, where you think you are travelling through your own bloodstream.
A nice intersection…
Yes, there was a perfect conjunction between this and robots, advertising. Also, at the time Tokyo was quite polluted, you could only see Mount Fuji three days a year: during the New Year Holidays, when nobody works and nobody drives. The trees had nutritious bottles attached to keep them alive, 20.000 teachers got grout in the vocal cords because of air pollution, there were industrial diseases, so there was a sense of a disaster zone, the mixture between apocalypse, utopian future, and the intersection of traditional Japanese folk beliefs. This is where I began writing science fiction as a psychological survival mechanism while I was living in Tokyo.
How was teaching there?
The university where I taught hired too many staff members for the first year, so I taught one class every week, and the rest of the time, apart from a bit of administration, I played dots with an Indian car mechanic and went swimming to look at the coral reefs… I arrived in Japan in 1967 and in 1970 the security treaty between the American and the Japanese was due for renewal. So three years earlier the Japanese militant students went on strike and they stayed on strike for two and a half years, during which, first of all, me and the other Japanese professors walked through the student lines of occupations to collect our brown envelopes of money and then, a year later, the police seized the university and for another 18 months we walked through the police lines to collect our envelopes of money. And during that time we had five increases of salary. I walked around streets of Tokyo and went to Kyoto as much as I could afford to and of course, I had time to write. These things all intersected.
I’ve heard you haven’t read The Lord of the Rings…
No. I never did at the time. I was a student at Oxford. Tolkien was still alive. I went to a lecture or two by Tolkien’s son, Christopher Tolkien. I was forced to learn Anglo-Saxon and Middle English and Old Norse, and Icelandic, and I was not very interested in the mythology and less did I like the languages so for me The Lord of the Rings was an extension of pain, and I prefer to read the Decadence French writers from the 19th century. Now is far too late to read The Lord of the Rings.
How was getting the call from Stanley Kubrick to develop the story for Artificial Intelligence with him?
Well, I was aware that Kubrick lived in England and that he would not go anywhere by plane or move, and I was aware that a friend of mine called Bob Shaw, an Irish science fiction writer, was working with Kubrick. In fact, he lasted for six weeks because he was too nervous and you couldn’t work with Stanley Kubrick if you were shivering. Bob used to arrive at ten o’clock at the station instead of eleven to have whiskey to set himself up until Kubrick’s chauffeur, Emilio D’Alessandro, became suspicious and went to the train station an hour early. There, he saw what Bob was doing. Bob couldn’t cope with the general stress of working with Kubrick. So I get a phone call and it’s Kubrick’s assistant, who gives out very little information and says: “Stanley Kubrick would like to meet you. We’ll send a car”. And I thought: “No, I would be in control of this meeting”. So I said I would drive there, and so I did.
How was the meeting? He was a legend but he also was known for being a bit antisocial…
Yes, but he was very hospitable and had a dry sense of humour and he was very, very, focused on what he was doing. Stanley and I shared a Chinese take-away and he asked me to write a 12.000 word story. This was the test. He told me: “I’ll pay you 20.000 dollars”. And I thought: “This sounds rather good!” So I wrote the 12.000 words that will never be published because they are owned by Warner Brothers. A little after sending this to Stanley he told me to return. I walked in for another Chinese take-away and he told me: “OK, what you wrote is no use for the project, but I liked the way you did it, so would you work with me week by week?” And we were together for nine months.
Weren’t you afraid of getting get fired like Bob Shaw?
Well, my brain only turned into scrambled eggs twice during this period but two things kept me alive. One of them was that I had pretty much insisted on my own conditions: “Stanley I’m only gonna work on the mornings and only during weekdays”, and of course he tried to encroach, and the secret was not to be burned up by Stanley and not to be scared about being fired and because I never, ever, believed it would be a movie. I actually survived this kind of surrealistic adventure until I wrote my screen story. Stanley read it and said: “Ian, I read it. I feel despondent. I think we should separate. I’m sorry. Take care”. And I said: “Take care, Stanley”. I was one of the few people privileged to be sacked by telephone personally by Stanley. Three month later he phoned me again and said: “Ian, do you remember that thing you wrote for me?” And I said: “Yes I do, Stanley…” And it continued.
How did you react when you were told Spielberg would be the one to direct the movie?
Well, I was sorry that Stanley was dead. I mean, he broke himself finalizing Eyes Wide Shut, and if Stanley had not died he would probably still be working on the project today. I mean Stanley already told me that he had asked Spielberg if he would direct the movie.
Did you like his version?
It was not Spielberg’s version. It was the film Stanley wanted to make, made pretty faithfully by Spielberg, although still with a few intrusions, such as… I think we see a bicycle that wasn’t there. I was asked this question by a Professor at the Moscow University who was writing a PhD about the difference between Stanley’s original version and Spielberg’s. And I said: “Basically, there is no difference”. And he sent me an email saying: “This is unfortunate; all the other people said the same thing. Bye-bye PhD”. In the last twenty minutes of the film, he thought it was some sort of Spielberg’s sentimentalism, but it was exactly what I wrote filmed by him.
Were you happy with the credit “story by Ian Watson”, or you think you deserved more?
I was quite happy about that.
Why didn’t you want to write the screenplay?
Number one, I’m not a screenwriter. Number two, I think Spielberg hoped to get an Oscar nomination for this because it was the second time he had written a screenplay at least for a science fiction movie. No such thing happened, partly because the film was much more intelligent and poetical than the Americans were capable of understanding. It was the fourth highest grossing film worldwide that year. Also, Spielberg found things that I had written which I had forgotten about and Stanley told me to exclude from the story.
You have recently published your novel The Martian Inca in Spain, translated as El Inca de Marte. Why Mars? Why the Incan Empire?
Hum… I don’t know if I chose Mars or the Incas first. The thing is I wasn’t very interested in the Mayans and people were beginning to get excited about that calendar, but it was banal, and nobody was bothering about the Quechua people. Except that, by coincidence, the same year my book was published Star Wars came out, and in the famous bar scene they are talking in Quechua because this was so little known that it was perfect as an alien language. And they didn’t have things as typical as blood rituals and gods named with very strange names, such as Tezcatlipoca, Quetzalcoatl…
And then you have the water story…
Oh, God! At first, I said that there was water in Mars, but then I did all my research and I discovered scientifically that it didn’t, like ordinary people would have thought. I had to correct my mistake in the same number of spaces, letters and characters as the version of the novel that had Mars with water. But then, I got my copy of New Scientist magazine. The headline: “Water raises on Mars”. Fuck. If I had not bothered to do correct research I would have been correct! Nothing about my book has yet proved to be complete nonsense, which after forty years it’s quite pleasing, so that may still be true!
Talking about water, I heard another story related to this, but it also involves the South of Spain and swimming.
Oh, yes! Well, I stopped swimming forever. This was a beach in Almeria and within about a hundred meters of the shore there was a nice sandbank, so I stood there and looked around. And it only was one meter further down that I went into pre-drowning panic, “glu, glu, glu”. This proved to me that there are tides in the Mediterranean. I read a book by Stephen Baxter called Flood, about how subsurface water comes welling up higher and higher and finally it covers Everest, and this had a bad effect on my brain. So I wrote a short story in which the reverse happens, in which a significant amount of water drains down, closing the Mediterranean. I sent the story to Nature magazine, which is the mecca of real scientists, but which published a short science fiction story in the last page, and my friend who was editing that section told me there are no tides in the Mediterranean and I said: “What is it that advances up the beaches twice a day and then goes back down again?” Anyway, I triumphed over the scientific orthodoxy of Nature and I published it, but I’m not going to the sea again.
You are married to Cristina Macía, the Spanish translator of Gameof Thrones. I have to ask, do you like the books?
“I adore Game of Thrones”, unquote. I haven’t read it [Whispering], I adore the HBO series. I don’t normally like heroic fantasy; I prefer science fiction, so I have not actually read it any more that I have read The Lord of the Rings, but I absolutely adore the TV Show. I mean, I like a lot of George R.R. Martin’s other things, which I have read. For example, when his first novel was published, Dying of the Light, I read it almost immediately with admiration and bla bla bla…
Cristina and you have recently written a book together: 50 Recetas con Nombre.
I researched and wrote the stories, Cristina did the recipes, and somebody else translated my stories. We had an enormous amount of fun because I was discovering so many strange facts of history, and after a while they were beginning to join up so it seems there was a secret history in the middle of the 19th Century from the point of view of gastronomy. A lot of events were driven by gastronomy. For example the Duke that threw the British out of Mallorca discovered mayonnaise in Maó and, therefore, it was carried back to France and developed. And a French chef called Olivier carried mayonnaise to Russia and he was the creator of “Russian Salad”, which in Russia is called “Olivier Salad”. In Spain, Russian Salad was very popular, but the name had to be changed to National Salad because of the Franco Regime.
What is your favourite me al in the book?
Chicken Marengo, because there are so many lies about that. Napoleon used the untrue story of the battle of Marengo, and the untrue story used the meal to aggrandize Napoleon, but it became terribly identified with this military success and he almost lost the battle of Marengo.
- Interview with George R.R. Martin (A Song of Ice and Fire).
- Interview with Patrick Rothfuss (The Kingkiller Chronicle).
- Interview with Neil Gaiman (American Gods).
- Interview with Brandon Sanderson (Mistborn)
- Interview with Tim Powers (The Anubis Gates).
- Interview with Joe Abercrombie (The First Law series).
- Interview with Steven Erikson (Malazan Book of the Fallen).
- Interview with Adrian Tchaikovsky (Shadows of the Apt).
- Interview with Dmitry Glukhovsky (Metro 2033).
- Interview with Lisa Tuttle (Windhaven).
- Interview with David Simon (The Wire).
- Interview with Christopher Priest (The Prestige).
- Interview with Ian Watson (Artificial Intelligence).
- Interview with Robert J. Sawyer (FlashForward).