David Howe speaks to author M John Harrison about his new collection of short stories.
M John Harrison is one of those authors who can best be described as a quiet phenomenon. It was for this reason that he became the first recipient of the annual Richard Evans memorial prize last year, a fund set up in memory of the popular and much-missed British genre editor to award authors whose work has been of a consistent high quality and yet who have so far not been recognised for their contribution.
Harrison is foremost a novelist and only manages to write one or two short stories a year. ‘Writing novels is my profession,’ he explains, but he also prefers the shorter form: ‘It must be tighter and denser. It encourages economy and sharpness of image.’ Fitting the short work in around the novels is not easy, and as Harrison admits, he does it for selfish reasons, without any final market in mind. ‘I write the short stories purely for my own pleasure, so whether I sell them or not isn’t really the point for me. They’re a luxury. I rarely work on commission for the same reason. Editorial requirements are a limitation. If, when I finish a short story, someone wants to buy it, that’s a different matter. I’m always happy to sell it to them.’
Travel Arrangements, Harrison’s fourth collection of short work, features several tales bound together with the very loose theme of people travelling to get somewhere, whether spiritually or physically. I wondered what Harrison was exploring with the collection, other than the obvious. ‘I think the usual bundle of Harrisonian obsessions and neuroses,’ the author responds with a smile. ‘Worlds that are bigger inside than outside. Love and the loss of love. Sex. Adventure sports. Characters who destroy themselves out of a feeling that they could be more than they are, or a need for the world to be more than it is. The undercutting effect of desire, and how it moves us forward into the world. These are fantasies of escape (impossible countries – journeys guided by the random fall of a tarot card – lovers caught between worlds, they hope forever) and at the same time, paradoxically, rants against the “virtual” life most of us live nowadays. Sort of Existentialism meets Arthur Machen in West London and they slug it out inconclusively and eventually wander off.’
Given that the stories must have been written over a long period, there are occasional collisions of characters, names and themes running through them, almost as though they are part of a wider picture. Harrison admits that these resonances are in part intentional. ‘Painters do studies: sometimes the studies are more interesting than the finished paintings. Often there are scores of them, one very slightly different from the next. Some of my stories are like that – narrative shapes repeat and are developed. Others are testbeds for moods or ideas I will use in a novel. I am an obsessive, so I tend to return to the same significant groups of images again and again. Two of the stories in Travel Arrangements, “The Gift” and “The Neon Heart Murders”, are actually linked. In the eighties I was trying to develop a more modern version of Viriconium, the world in which two or three of my early books were set. These two stories are what remain of the experiment.’
The stories in Travel Arrangements seem to occur as glimpses of people’s lives, their anxieties and problems. Often they loom as dreams, with vague beginnings and endings which hint at hidden depths. This hints at a strong element of observance taking place, and Harrison admits that he draws on watching others for his fiction. ‘I think the characterisation in most modern fantasy stinks. If you’re going to write people you might as well make them recognisable. I try to use biographical structures for the stories too. There’s no narrative in “real” life, but there are epiphanic moments. Short stories like “Old Women”, “Gifco” and “Science & the Arts”, bring characters up against some weird defining moment that breaks down their idea of the world and themselves – hopefully causing the reader to do the same. I also love fantasy. I love the way it offers a mystery that can’t be solved by the appeal either to “ideas”, as in SF, or to humanism, as in mainstream fiction.’
Harrison’s exploration of these ‘defining moments’ in his characters’ lives can also lead the reader down paths which perhaps they would rather not tread. Harrison is pleased to guide the way, however. ‘I hope they read my work and take away a sense of the amazingness of things. A sense of something happening in every stone, something worthwhile buried at the heart of every bad situation: a rage that we haven’t found yet and never will. A sense of the injustice of our limitations and the shortness of our lives. I don’t know. Some of the stories are meant to be funny. And of course I hide in them a lot, and like the Minotaur I’m always hoping that people will come in and find me lurking…’
Travel Arrangements is published by Orion Books, £9.99, trade paperback.
David J Howe