Alan Moore Interview, Part V: Underland, Hancock, Jerusalem, Literary Difficulty

The fifth and final part of my Alan Moore interview.

As I was finishing up the book, I was re-reading an interview with you [in Reflex, December 1991] and there was a one line reference to a project called Underland that I’d never seen mentioned anywhere else.

That may even have been a follow up to A Small Killing for Gollancz. Somewhere around that time. I had a book called London Under London, that Neil Gaiman had sent me when I was researching From Hell. I wanted to do something with Steve Parkhouse, and I came up with the idea of a subterranean world under London that linked up all these interesting underground spaces and had its own inhabitants and its class system. It was going to have a girl whose sister had vanished, been spirited away into this underland, and the girl – I meant it as a grown up children’s story, the adventures of this girl exploring this world and finally rescuing her sister. The same length as A Small Killing, something like that. I mentioned this in that interview and I got a phone call from Neil Gaiman saying he’d signed a deal with Lenny Henry’s production company to do Neverwhere. Given that Neil had sent me the book originally, I felt duty bound to say ‘oh well, you were here first, so I guess I’ll forget Underland’.

You’ve not done many children’s stories, is it a genre that appeals?

I submitted a proposal, I forget who to, to someone who was looking for a children’s book. This was prior to Bojeffries. It was about an unprepossessing, oddly willful child like a younger Ginda Bojeffries who was a belligerent genius who could have adventures on the Moon. It wasn’t what they were looking for, they wanted something for very young children. I got the impression I wouldn’t be that good writing for young children, I’m a tiny bit bitter and ironic. That said, Blanket Shanty with Shawn McManus, that was a Tom Strong story done as a bedtime story.

You’ve got Timothy Tate and Lobelia Loam in 2000AD …

They were still horrific stories. Blanket Shanty was aimed at small children … I probably could do children’s material in the right circumstances. Whether I’ll get round to it now, I don’t know. I avoided it for a while because it was trendy. I like some of the things about children’s stories, but I didn’t want to be jumping on a JK Rowling bandwagon. The whole middle section of Jerusalem is about a gang of children running around time in a four dimensional afterlife. It reads like a children’s book, but it’s not because it’s a much stranger story, it’s adult, it’s not meant for children.

One thing I can’t work out is where your music fits in. Clearly some of the recent work is linked to the magical … project, if that’s the right word. But with things like the Emperors of Ice Cream, is that a hobby, is that you letting off steam, or is that part of your serious artistic endeavours?

I’m basically still at the Arts Lab, it’s just an incredibly enabled Arts Lab with whatever contributors I want. With the Arts Lab all of my needs to express myself, all my urges, had an outlet. I could do comic strips, I could do poetry, I could do music. My emphasis has had to be on writing, but I’ve never abandoned drawing or performance. There’s never been a need to. I don’t define myself purely as a writer. ‘Magician’ is a handy word, as it’s almost the same as saying ‘artist’, but artist sounds so pretentious. Like Tony Hancock in The Rebel. My approach has always been the same, and I’m more mature and capable, but it’s the same impulse.

I don’t feel I’m part of the comics industry, any more than when Jerusalem is done I’ll feel like I’m part of the literature industry. I certainly don’t feel part of the music or film industry. I am probably at an Arts Lab in my head. An enthusiastic amateur. Yes, I get money for it now, but in my heart I’ll always be an amateur – someone who does it for the amour, for the love.

So, do you have hobbies that aren’t artistic?

(Laughs) No. I don’t have time for anything other than reading, and that generally ends up being unexpected research. Just read a book today, by my friend the magician Joel Biroco, A World of Dust. Interesting, really good stuff. I continue to enjoy books and the very occasional film. The last enjoyable film I saw was A Field in England. So, I don’t really have hobbies. I’ve taken to going for walks lately, generally with Alistair Fruish, a very knowledgeable young man, we have walks all around Northamptonshire. I’ve known him since he asked me back to the Grammar School to talk to the kids. He works in the prison system now, he took me over to Wellingborough nick a couple of years ago, the lifers. They don’t get much entertainment, but I’ve apparently got a strong part of my readership inside. And these are ordinary blokes who had a really bad day and did something fucking stupid and after that point they would never be ‘not a murderer’. For the rest of their lives they can’t ever be ‘not a murderer’.

The other day, on a riverside in Northampton, Alistair and me found the source of the industrial revolution and capitalism. Check out the cotton mill founded in 1741, the first powered mill in the world. So there’s the birth of industry. Adam Smith heard about it or visited it, and said ‘all these looms work without anyone to manage them, it’s almost like an invisible hand’. So that’s the central metaphor of capitalism.

[Discussion has turned to Jerusalem, a massive novel Moore has been working on for many years which is set in Northampton.]

You’re nearly finished?

I’m on the last chapter, but then there’s an epilogue. So about one and a half chapters to go.

What are your hopes for it? How do you think it’s going to be received?

With Jerusalem, I embarked upon it purely because it was the book I wanted to write. It’s about the neighbourhood I grew up in and its very fascinating history, also the history of my family in the area which has its unusual side. Lots of lots of fantasy is mixed in there, and theories of the nature of time and life and death. When I was speaking to Melinda [Gebbie – Moore’s wife (and the artist on Cobweb and Lost Girls)] about it, she very perceptively said that it sounded to her like ‘genetic mythology’, and I thought, after all why should it be only aristocrats and pharaohs and monarchs that have genetic mythology? Shouldn’t people in slums be entitled to their own? So that was part of the urge, and in writing it, I realised that this is exactly the novel I wanted to write.

I am really proud of it, I think it’s sensational. That is, of course, just my own opinion. I am aware that conventional criticism will probably say that it’s about ten times too long, that it’s difficult in places, that some of the passages were deliberately alienating.

Actually I’ve just discovered – I’ve been reading lots of books of literary criticism, mostly about HP Lovecraft to do with Providence, which is a really big job that I’m about halfway through. My armchair is walled in with Lovecraft reference books, I’ve got everything. And I’m starting to pick up ideas from literary criticism, which I’d previously dismissed as poncey because I hadn’t seriously looked at it.

The concept of ‘literary difficulty’ – doing something that will put off a percentage of the audience but will force those who remain to engage with the work on a deeper level. It will challenge people. Now, if I’d had that concept before I’d written the first chapter of Voice of the Fire [told as the first person narration of a Neolithic settler, using a limited vocabulary], I’d have done it exactly like I did, except even moreso. That’s exactly what I did it for, even though I couldn’t have explained it like that.

There will be elements of literary difficulty with Jerusalem – actually lifting the book will be among the difficulties. It’s going to be a very forbidding book in terms of its sheer size and because it’s about the underclass. There is no better way of ensuring that you don’t get a readership of your book than making it about underclass people. In the current climate getting any fiction published is difficult.

I can take unfair advantage of my position. Only I could do this, only I could spend eight years of intense work on it, only I could actually recount what happened in that neighbourhood with those people, and only I am in a position where I could do that without worrying about getting it published. I don’t need to go with a big publisher, they don’t really have anything to offer me. It’s not a big, popular book or a beach read, I’d much rather have a small publisher who had some understanding of what I was doing.

The only ambition I have for Jerusalem is for it to exist. I’m under no illusions that anybody is going to say this is the greatest book of the century. No, no, it’s probably far too difficult for that. It’s just an accurate expression of part of my life and part of my being that also includes lots of other subjects that have become part of that: history, economics, poverty, the Gothic revival, the Gothic movement which started in Northampton with James Hervey, Charlie Chaplin, wars and ghosts, psychological and factual. Family and famous people who’ve passed through this neighbourhood.

Beyond that, fate will have to take its course. I don’t have another prose novel in mind after this. Maybe a really big poem at some point in the future, I have an inkling for one. There’s more League stuff, there’s the book of magic, there’s Providence which I want to be – in my terms – the definitive Lovecraft story. Then there are the films, we’ve got the Kickstarter money for that, and then there’s the possibility of a feature film and TV series after that, both called The Show. Pipe dreams at the moment, they may not come in to land. But a lot of things that have been brewing for years are falling into place.

7 responses to “Alan Moore Interview, Part V: Underland, Hancock, Jerusalem, Literary Difficulty

  1. Thanks for this fascinating series of interviews.

    Now I need to raise a subject that for me is like an elephant in the living room. Let me first say that I do think Moore is an absolute genius, and that Watchmen is not just the best comic I’ve ever read, but head and shoulders above anything else.

    But it worries me that rape plays such a major part in so much of Moore’s work, and I wish you’d raised it with him. Off the top of my head:
    * V for Vendetta: the attempted rape of Evie kicks off the plot.
    * Watchmen: Blake’s rape of Sally Jupiter leads to Laurie’s birth.
    * The Killing Joke: The rape of Barbara Gordon is at least strongly implied.
    * LoEG 1: Almost the first thing that happens is the attempted rape of Mina
    * LoEG 2: A major character literally raped to death.
    * LoEG 3: The rape of Nemo’s daughter is by far the most significant incident in the plot
    I’m sure there are many other that I’ve missed — for example, I’ve not read From Hell, and wouldn’t be at all surprised to find more rape in there. (In fact, that’s one of the reasons I’ve avoided From Hell and generally stopped seeking out Moore’s work.)

    Do you find this as problematic as I do?

  2. Mike, Moore answered the questions about rape in his work in the rather angry “last interview” he did around the same time he was answering Lance’s questions —
    His answers don’t truly satisfy me, but show both that he’s thought about the issue a great deal and that he gets quite upset by the question being posed in a way that suggests he hasn’t…

  3. A very important question, and one that needs a longer answer than I’ve got time for this morning. What I’d start by saying is that I don’t think there’s a single example of rape being treated as anything other than an appalling event with lasting effects anywhere in Moore’s work. The stories are about the consequences of the crime, and the complexities. I don’t think we forgive Edward Blake, say, the way Sally does, and I don’t think we’re meant to.

    There are comics where rape is just backstory to be glossed over, or just some inciting incident in a secret origin, even where it’s played lightly. But not in Moore’s stuff. There is a lot of rape in Alan Moore’s stuff, I don’t think you can point to one that’s titillating or ‘entertaining’. It’s brutal, has consequences.

  4. Thanks, Andrew, for the link. Wow, talk about a long response! You certainly can’t accuse Moore of under-thinking this issue, which at least is encouraging. So far I’ve only made it half way through, but I’ll chip in a thought or two on what I’ve read so far.

    First, Moore seems to be playing dumb in saying that he doesn’t know what people are saying his work involves a lot of rape compared to what. I think it’s pretty obvious that people people “compared to other writers’ work”, and to be fair he does more or less end up answering that question. The problem is, his answer seems to come down to “other people should be more like me, and write more rape”.

    This passage (representative of others) also bothers me, for a different reason:

    “… after our Batman scholar had provoked his excitable audience, whether actually school-age or just young at heart, into what I must suppose passes for a frenzy in this slightly airless world of interconnected back-bedrooms.”

    That seems to me to have a sneering, contemptuous quality towards comic readers, and particularly those who try to read them seriously. Which seems rather off, coming from a man whose job is writing comics that are intended to be taken seriously.

    (Of course, this is reading from a transcript. It’s possible that his delivery was with a nod and a wink, and that this was intended to be jocularly self-deprecatory.)

    Over all, I think Andrew’s reaction more or less summarises my own: “His answers don’t truly satisfy me, but show both that he’s thought about the issue a great deal.”

    Lance, you write: “I don’t think there’s a single example of rape being treated as anything other than an appalling event with lasting effects anywhere in Moore’s work.” It’s bizarre to me that you then go on to talk about Blake/Jupiter, because that’s precisely the example that I would have said does meet that description. Sally herself makes it out to be no big deal; and her actions back that up, as she is voluntarily sleeping with Blake not long afterwards. Worse, that voluntary union gives rise to Laurie, one of the main characters; and worse still, it’s not just Laurie that persuades Jon to return to Earth, it’s the specific circumstances of her conception. In short, Jon returns to Earth because Blake raped Jupiter.

    So you rightly say “I don’t think we forgive Edward Blake, say, the way Sally does” — but I think we bring that attitude to the text with us. I don’t see anything in the text that leads us to feel or express revulsion: we feel it despite the text, not because of it.

  5. Reading on …

    Wow. He really doesn’t like Grant Morrison, does he? “Ms. Sneddon and Grant Morrison’s penetrating insight or earnest concern for womankind. Unless, of course, there is absolutely no substance to that insight or those concerns, in which case we would be talking about persons of almost unbelievable pettiness and vindictiveness; persons who are prepared to trivialise rape and sexual abuse by using them, casually, as bludgeons in their purely personal and career-furthering vendettas.”

    Yikes. I had no idea this bad blood existed. What a shame.

  6. “I don’t see anything in the text that leads us to feel or express revulsion: we feel it despite the text, not because of it.”

    I strongly disagree. Laurie spends the whole book disgusted at Blake, the scene itself doesn’t portray him as anything other than predatory and violent. Sally forgiving him is challenged by Laurie at least twice.

    I’m not Alan Moore’s ambassador on Earth, and he’s a big lad, able to defend himself, but it seems clear to me that Watchmen tackles the issue thoughtfully and with nuance. It’s not, say, Identity Crisis or that subsequent very peculiar thing where Dr Light became a sort of rape-themed villain. It’s not, for that matter, just thrown in there to shock or titillate, or to look grown up. And Sally forgiving him is part of that spikiness. Is she an autonomous woman able to make her own choices, or is she a woman locked into an abusive relationship? Like so many things in Watchmen, we see it from different perspectives, and the answers are ‘yes’ one month, ‘no’ another.

    • “Laurie spends the whole book disgusted at Blake.”

      … except that at the end she becomes reconciled to him (or at least to his memory). Unless (and this only just occurs to me now) she’s lying to Sally to avoid making her feel worse.

      “It seems clear to me that Watchmen tackles the issue thoughtfully and with nuance […] It’s not, for that matter, just thrown in there to shock or titillate, or to look grown up.”

      No argument there. It’s obvious Moore isn’t just using these themes as a flavour-enhancer (in Watchmen, at least). He’s trying to say something. But it’s far from clear what — which admittedly may be part of the point. Here’s the relevant dialogue (from issue XII, page 29):

      Laurie: Mom, I found out who my read dad was.
      [silence; then]
      Sally: You … ? Oh JESUS … Oh LAUREL, I’m so SORRY. Wh-what must you THINK? It … it was just an afternoon, in the summer. He stopped by …
      Laurie: Mom …
      Sally: I TRIED to be angry, but … I mean, I never wanted you to know. I should have TOLD you but … I don’t know, I just felt ASHAMED, I felt STUPID, and …
      Laurie: Mom … It doesn’t matter. People’s LIVES take them strange PLACES. They do strange THINGS.

      Hmm. Pretty ambiguous, I guess. Maybe this is the key point: “Like so many things in Watchmen, we see it from different perspectives, and the answers are ‘yes’ one month, ‘no’ another.”

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