Keith Roberts Interview

A postal interview with Keith Roberts by Paul Fraser, June 1978. This is a slightly revised version (question order and formatting) of one that originally appeared in Matrix, one of the BSFA magazines.

Children and adolescents play a large part in your work (teenage girls and young woman in particular). Take ‘The Godhouse’, ‘The Beautiful One’, ‘Susan’, ‘The Signaller’, ‘The Ministry of Children’, ‘The White Boat’ and the ‘Anita’ stories for example. Could you tell us about your own childhood and adolescence, and why you think it appears in your work to such an extent? Do you have any children of your own?

Children, and young people generally, tend to have strong and simple views about good and bad, right and wrong, etc. I find this refreshing, and so tend to talk a lot about young characters. I use ‘primitive’ or unsophisticated communities for the same reason.
I suppose I do use female characters more extensively than is common in SF, which is still very much a male-oriented area. A lot of SF still tends to sublimate women as either angels or demons; while there’s nothing intrinsically wrong in this, it’s a challenge to try and show them as real people with lives of their own. This is a problem I tend to come back to again and again. Also of course with many stories it’s easier to get reader sympathy by using a girl as a central character. One of the stories you mention, ‘The Ministry of Children’, is a case in point.
My own childhood was overall fairly ordinary. I don’t think it has much relevance. I ‘m not married; I don’t have any children of my own either.

What did you read in your youth? What do you like reading now? Do you think any of it has influenced you?

Everything I could lay my hands on. These days I sometimes feel I don’t read half as much as I should, though I suppose my top modern author is still William Golding. Kipling and Wells were certainly the people who first showed me what words could do; and my love for the Bard survived doing him for O-levels, which may or may not be an achievement. On influences, gestalt philosophy teaches that we’re the continually-altering sum of all our experiences. I rather go along with this, so I suppose it’s all influenced me. Or none of it.

What made you start writing SF?

Strictly practical considerations. SF was booming in the early sixties; there was a call for new authors, and what seemed at the time to be an ever-widening market.

Do you find that SF restricts you in any way?

All genre-writing is restrictive in sense. SF I’ve found less restricting than most; or maybe I’ve just been lucky with my editors. Right now there isn’t a good regular market for SF stories in the UK at all, and precious few in the States. I find that very restricting, of course.

The first editors you sold to were [Ted] Carnell (for New Writings in SF) and [Kyril] Bonfiglioli (for Science Fantasy. What were your impressions of them?

Ted Carnell was my first agent as well as my first editor, and I maintained a personal relationship with him that only ended with his death. I sometimes had the feeling that the movement he had fostered had passed him at the gallop, and that he had difficulty keeping pace with the many new writers in the field and all the new work that was being done; but his achievement in keeping his two magazines running for so many years must never be under-estimated, and right to the last his enthusiasm was undimmed. Bon of course I worked with as assistant editor for some time before taking over the final phase of the magazine. He was, and is, unique; a man of acute perception and taste, backed by a remorseless demand for accuracy in the use of language. He taught me to work with the Concise Oxford at my side. I still do it.

Later, Science Fantasy changed to Impulse and you became its associate editor. Have you any anecdotes about your dealings with writers as an editor? What was it like to be on the other side if the fence?

Anecdotes, of course, abound. Like the lad who always submitted his stories on opened-out Woodbine [cigarette] packets, because he couldn’t afford a typewriter. But every editor could tell that sort of tale.
I never really saw myself as being on the other side of the fence at all; I sympathised strongly with what the serious contributors were trying to do, and dealt with them as fairly as I was able. When the magazine finally folded several of them wrote to thank me for my efforts, so I couldn’t have done too badly on the whole.

What did your editorial work consist of? Did you enjoy it? Impulse lasted only a dozen issues, unfortunately. Did you ever do any more editorial work?

Practically everything. There were no other staff, just me; so I found myself overseeing all stages of production, writing blurbs, reading proofs, laying out covers and doing artwork when I could find a moment to tie a brush to my right foot. SF Impulse wasn’t the only title Roberts and Vinter were handling of course, I found myself involved with the production of at least two other paperbacks a month. So overall it was a fairly hectic period. I’ve never been sure whether I enjoyed it or not; I didn’t have time to sit down and decide.
I never did any more editing, though in the main I enjoyed working with other writers. Looking back, I’m doubtful whether the functions of writer and editor could ever be properly combined. Each, if it’s to be done well, makes full demands on one’s energy and time. If I was given the chance to edit again, I don’t know what I would decide. There’s never been a more crying need for good SF editors than right now.

Seeing as we are at the Science Fantasy/Impulse stage I think I’ll take the opportunity to ask a somewhat clichéd question: Where on Earth did you get the ideas for the ‘Pavane’ and ‘Anita’ stories?

I’ve always found an ‘idea’ for a story or novel is a fairly complex thing, a combination of factors some of which might have been lying dormant for years. So although there’s a moment when several things click together and you realize you’ve got a book, tracing the notion back to its roots would be a long and tedious affair. With PAVANE, for example, I’d known Corfe and the Purbeck area for years and badly wanted to write something about it, but had fought shy of doing a conventional historical. It was a stray remark overhead in a local pub that set things in motion, and suggested the idea of a double rather than an alternate timestream.
I wrote ‘Corfe Gate’ within a matter of days, and the rest of the book grew from it. Similarly with ANITA; the background was certainly suggested by my own childhood in Northamptonshire, but it’s been overlaid with many other things.

Why was ‘The White Boat’ not included in the book PAVANE? After all, it was a PAVANE story wasn’t it? Also, the stories in the book appear to be shorter than the original versions in Impulse. Did you change the stories in the book version and was it on the request of the publisher?

A sheer matter of publishing convenience. Hart-Davis wanted to keep the novel as short as possible for reasons to do with production costs. ‘The White Boat’ came along some months after the rest, and never seemed to me to be quite in the same spirit; so I wasn’t prepared to fight too hard for its inclusion. The stories in the hardback and paperback versions are not in fact shorter than the Impulse publications; no changes were made at all, except some detail ones concerning place and character names. The only real change was made in ‘Corfe Gate’, which Bon and I both felt was not wholly satisfactory in its original magazine form.

After SF Impulse folded you disappeared from sight until Moorcock started the paperback New Worlds Quarterly. I believe that you took the time to write a historical novel. What made you do this? Was this what stopped you writing SF for those four years?

I didn’t really disappear from sight at all. I agree I didn’t publish in the underground New Worlds, because it wasn’t, as they say, my bag. But I was still doing the odd story for Ted. I did spend part of the time on an historical; but I was also working on THE CHALK GIANTS, which was more or less written by the time New Worlds re-emerged.

How were you involved in New Worlds Quarterly? Were your stories solicited? (I see one of your collections is dedicated to Michael Moorcock—he seems to be a sparking point for an awful lot of writers.)

I wasn’t involved directly in NWQ at all; but Mike has always been interested in seeing material from me, so as soon as he was in a position to accept it I sent the new work along. He’s helped me a great deal over the years, so it seemed only right and proper to give the dedication of THE CHALK GIANTS, which he particularly admired, to him.

Your work in the paperback New Worlds (and another two in New Writings in SF) from ‘71 to ‘76 is all pretty much ‘downer’ stuff. Even ‘The Passing of Dragons’—a fairly light piece, finishes with the death of an entire alien race! ‘Monkey and Pru and Sal’, ‘The Trustie Tree’, ‘Weihnachtabend’—all of these end in death. Why were those stories like this?

This is an interesting word, I hadn’t come across it before. All the stories of the  THE CHALK GIANTS cycle represent explorations of guilt in human relations, as PAVANE had explored the Kiplingesque notion of loyalty. I think it’s natural to the process of writing to chance on a theme and follow it through; and of course there are spinoffs, which lead to stories themselves. So these cycles are bound to occur. Some upbeat, some down.

Is there any chance of ‘Weihnachtabend’ becoming part of a cycle of stories like THE CHALK GIANTS or PAVANE? The author blurbs at the end of New Worlds Quarterly #4 said it was the first of a series. What about the two ‘Canal’ stories, ‘The Lake of Tuonela’ and ‘The Trustie Tree’?

Blurbs always tend to be optimistic. Certainly ‘Weihnachtabend’ could become part of a story cycle, and at one point I planned some of the others out; but whether they’ll ever be written will depend on a lot of other factors. Not least, of course, their potential saleability in these very difficult times. I certainly don’t think there’ll be any more ‘Canal’ stories for the foreseeable future; though of course one can never tell.

I believe that you are also a commercial artist at time. Is there any of your work that we would recognise? What kind of work do you do?

I work, and have worked for a number of years, as a freelance visualiser and copywriter. I was originally trained as an illustrator, though I have never been particularly interested in illustrating my own stories and have only done it on special request. It wouldn’t, I think, he right to specify the clients I work for as an advertising artist. But if you go carefully enough through any caravanning magazine you’ll usually find my initials on at least one advertisement.

I believe that another of your interests is machinery and firearms in particular. Could you tell us about both of these?

Old machinery is often beautiful and usually sad. Which makes it an interesting subject to write about. And of course it’s always intriguing to try and suss out how it worked. I certainly admire antique firearms, in a purely aesthetic way; but I’m not a ‘gun man’ in any sense at all, this comes from another not very accurate piece of blurb. I’ve explored the ‘gun fetish’ a couple of times, in ‘Weihnachtabend’ and of course THE CHALK GIANTS; but guns in real life are another matter. They tend to kill the person in front of them and deafen the person behind, and I’m rather afraid of them.

Do you compose by typewriter or by longhand? How many drafts?

Always by typewriter. Longhand, I get cramp; also I become impatient, and end up not being able to read my own writing. There are usually at least four drafts, though it can be more.
Working directly onto a machine can cause curious problems. It must be an extension of my hand, rather like a brush; if I’m conscious of it at all it aggravates me, and I can’t get going. So when I change my machine, which I do as infrequently as possible, I usually drive my local stationers crazy trying all the stock like a lady in a hatshop. I’m in the middle of one such bout right now.

Novels don’t seem to be your strong point as you have only produced two, THE FURIES and THE INNER WHEEL, and those were about ten years ago. Do you find that you get more power out of a cycle of stories?

I don’t know why it should be, but most sf ideas seem to run out naturally to a length between ten and twenty thousand words. Which is why we have the novella, a form not paralleled in any other genre. Unlike many writers, I never pad; I might make more money if I did. So what comes out at novella length stays that way, and if the material has suggested other stories they get tagged on. Hence the story cycles; which do in fact have connected themes, and can be read as continuous narrative if you so choose. I don’t know about more power; they certainly cover more ground than conventional novels of equivalent length. Which should add up to more value for money, though publishers don’t see it that way. They find them, in the language of the trade, ‘difficult to place in the market’.
The kernel of PAVANE, as I’ve said, was ‘Corfe Gate’, the climax story. The kernel of THE CHALK GIANTS was ‘The God House’, from which the novel was constructed forward and back. In the latter case it’s done in such a way that the reader could, if he or she chose, read the stories in reverse order without affecting their individual quality very much at all. The ‘multi-girl’, on whom the feelings of guilt are variously focussed, remains central throughout.

You seem to show concern for the countryside in more than one of our stories. Do you think that urban sprawl is still a serious problem?

I’m very concerned about the countryside; what there is left of it. I’m also concerned by oil pollution, horticultural chemicals, the neutron bomb and practically everything else modern society seems to find essential for its wellbeing. If enough of us shouted, perhaps something could be done to stop turning a pleasant, unassuming little planet into a slagtip for a fast buck. But enough of us, I fear, will never shout.

Have you ever been involved in SF other than by writing it? Have you ever written any articles or criticism, attended any conventions? Is this by choice?

No, hardly ever. I think with every human activity there are two groups of people; those who engage in it, and those who talk about it. I always stand back in amazement at writers who, knowing from bitter personal experience the difficulties of their craft, can bear to put on a critic’s hat; to me, it’s a state approaching schizophrenia. Equally, I don’t go to writers’ workshops; I reckon I’ve got enough problems with editors and publishers without taking voluntary hammerings from my peers. About conventions: obviously it’s my choice whether to attend or not. I don’t attend for a variety of treasons; the only one that’s relevant here is that I don’t feel I cut a very good figure as a public speaker.

Are you writing full-time at the moment? (If you are not, would you if there were a regular market for your work?) How prolific are you?

I’ve never written full time, and can only take my hat off to those who do. I need the breaks too much, and a separate source of income. By the same token, there’s no way of saying how ‘prolific’ I am. I can write ten thousand words a day; but there are hundreds of days when I don’t.

You mentioned [in a letter] that you have a new collection going the rounds. What are its contents and title?

I’ve got at least two books in circulation at the moment; one story collection, and a non-sf novel. But I never like talking about things before they’re sold. Otherwise it becomes like one of those pieces of blurb; promised, but never delivered.

How much work do you have on offer?

Two novellas, at the last count; as well as the books previously referred to.

Have you any work awaiting publication anywhere? Is there anything being published in the states that the UK won’t see for a while, if at all?

I don’t have any work awaiting publication at the immediate moment; though that situation might very well have changed by tomorrow. My last American publication was a novella, ‘Molly Zero’, for Robert Silverberg’s TRIAX.

Anything else I should have asked you?

That’s up to you!

Thank you Mr Roberts.