Subtitle: Imagination taking power

John Crowley: “Imagination actually alters the world”

One of the perks of running this website and of writing ‘From What Is to What If‘ has been the opportunity to speak to some of the people who have had the biggest impact on my own imagination. Today’s interviewee, John Crowley, is one of those people. I first read his novel ‘Little, Big’ sometime in the mid-1980s, and it blew me away. About a year later, I met the woman who was later to become my wife and it turned out that, prior to our meeting, she had not only read the same book, but the actual same copy I had read!

‘Little, Big’ is an extraordinary work of fantasy, which the Washington Post described as “a book that all by itself calls for a redefinition of fantasy”. Crowley has written many other novels, short stories, screenplays and essays, and also teaches creative writing. It was such a thrill when he responded favourably to my request for an interview. He opened our conversation with some reflections on the imagination and times in which we live: [here’s the full audio, not the greatest quality, followed by an edited transcript]:

“The older I get, and I’m now 76, the more I think that the imagination, really, in a possibly never-able-to-be-described way, actually alters the world. I posted to my Facebook page this notion, or feeling, that I have had lately, that it is really very weird and disorientating to feel, or think, that as I get older, and get around to dying, so is the world.

It changes around you so mysteriously.  I live in the most beautiful environment in New England, but all around us trees are dying at incredible rates, and the weather doesn’t behave.  You get this sense, “Oh my God, we’re going to go out together” and this just can’t be possible.  It just can’t be!  But you feel it anyway.

It’s not like I suppose that this is going to be the case.  But at the same time I’m haunted by the sensation of it, which I wouldn’t have in any other time period before we knew that the Earth was in this kind of trouble.  It wouldn’t have happened.  You died of course.  Effectively one of the greatest things about dying was everything will go on as it was before, whether you’re there or not, and they’ll remember you and think about you and so on and so on.  I don’t have any guarantees of any of that anymore!

I read a recent blog that you wrote where were talking about the Cuban missile crisis and you said “the end of the world seems far less likely now”.  And you wrote as well about climate change.  You said, “I’ve no idea how we will survive climate change, but we will.”  Not necessarily a confidence that I share I guess…

It was whistling in the dark in a certain sense.  I don’t know that we will actually even though I might have said it once.  I suppose – I mean, you know far more about this than I do – that there must be ways forward, in some way that we can identify.  And maybe some are illusory.  Like the new plan to drag out millions of tonnes of carbon out of the atmosphere with some sort of engine that is supposedly on the drawing boards.  But often these contexts remind me of a science fiction novel I read, I think it might have been at High school, I’m not sure.

But the premise of this novel, whose author I cannot remember, was that astronomers had discovered that the sun was about to increase in temperature or send out a sudden huge vast heatwave toward Earth, and it was going to do us in.  It was just going to kill everything.  People start thinking of ways to escape this fate.  People dig down under the earth and put in air-conditioned shelters and stuff like that.  Other people say, “Oh no, no.  The sun would never harm us.  If this is coming from the sun it has to be good” and they go out and sunbathe constantly in order to build up their strength to receive the new heat from the sun.  And other people do other things.  The government is focused on building a gigantic spaceship that will take us away from Earth.

At a certain point – most of the novel has to do with the space travel.  I didn’t even read that – but I got to the point where the sun thing really does happen on the date given, and the sun tanner or worshipper people rush out into the sun to greet the new sun and get burnt to death, or so blistered they can’t go on.  The guys down in the holes in the ground with their air-conditioning, the air-conditioning of course stops working very quickly and they suffocate and die in their holes in the ground.

Every single hope that they had was absolutely human stupidity and absurd hopefulness and reliance on human value or human knowledge.  It was just terrifying.  I remember this feeling of just awe at this elimination of human beings from their own silliness and wrongness, and actually the impossibility of surviving this thing.

At the end the rocket, which was sort of looked at as a hopeless adventure, is the only one that survives, and the cover even showed a picture of this rocket ship, with huge masses of people rushing toward it and trying to hold on and grab hold of the machine as they send it into the air.  They’re all falling off as the machine takes off in outer space.  It was the kind of crap science fiction that can have an enormous effect if you read it at a certain time!

It sounds like it.  I wondered, what for you does it mean to be a writer of stories during the Anthropocene?  During this time when as you said, all of a sudden the things that felt certain don’t feel so certain any more.

I don’t think I paid any attention to it in previous novels, except for one.  My first written novel – it wasn’t first published – it was called Engine Summer.  In which as a result of human stupidities and ruination of the Earth – it wasn’t really climate change as I don’t think I  knew that concept in 1972 when I was writing the book – but that Earth has completely changed anyway.

Because through various catastrophes over the course of 100 or 200 years – I don’t know how far out in the future exactly I pretended this to be happening – but there would be disasters sufficient that entire social structure has just vanished.  Just gone away over time.  Fallen like the Roman Empire.  It’s like rocking around the Roman Empire, rocking around Rome in 1500 and there’s nothing left.

But in my book there’s also the population has stopped growing, which I think is actually foresightful of me in a way.  Young people nowadays are not having children.  They’re not even getting married.  They’re not having sex very much.  In America the young people that I read about in newspapers, I don’t know anything about their sex lives actually, but it seems that this is the case.

In my book what has happened is that the fear of overpopulation caused there to be this general application of a medical genetic change in women such that you have to take another drug or a pill or a medication of some kind in order to start up the possibility of getting pregnant.  Therefore every child has to be desired, or wanted.  And if you don’t get around to it, or you feel funny about it, or scared about it, you don’t have any children.

So this population has shrunk to almost nothing.  It was a book about spoliation of the Earth.  It wasn’t published until, I think, 1979, but I actually wrote in the early 1970s.

As a deeply imaginative person and someone who has spent their life exploring and expressing their imagination, where do you feel like your ideas come from?  And how do you keep your imagination in good health?  Does it require, in 2019, strategies to protect it, or to keep it in good health?

That’s really an interesting question, to which I really don’t have an answer.  One thing that has kept my imagination as fresh as it is, however fresh that might be, is that I’ve always had a profound interest in oddities of human history.  Almost all my books, at least from the first two or three which were straight – one was this futuristic fantasy, another one was a planetary romance.  But ever since then, they have all been about history in some sense, and especially a re-imagining of history.

Not exactly to recover history but to transform it by tools of fiction, so as to make it more revealing … I mean people who know a little bit of history, or read history casually or just whatever, have an idea of what it is but it’s probably insufficient or limited or whatever, so you try to wake them up by casting history in a completely different way, a new way.  Trying to make it profound to the reader that there was once a land or country or time like this, but it’s not what you think it is.  It’s not what I’m telling you, because I’m making it up, but you should know that this history is still waiting there for you to understand it.  If you can.  That’s one thing.

And the other thing, a lot of it is negative.  I don’t want my imagination to be taken over by this general degringolar that’s all around me all the time.  I cannot allow myself to be subsumed in that.  It’s a vigilance more than anything else, to keep your imagination insofar as it can be…  I mean, it’s got some holes in it based on my age already.  But at least I’m going to fight to keep it away from being swept up in that thing.

If you, personally, are trying to say I need a positive way of understanding this awful thing that we have got to fight, you are going in a realm of imagination about what could be possible, what crazy thing might work.  But there’s a whole lot of other parts of that that are being affected by all that.

Like those people in the science fiction novel who are just making a mess of it by trying to defeat it in all the wrong ways, and are going at one another constantly and blaming each other, and thinking it has something to do with politics, or something to do with scientists, or something to do with something else, other than this thing that is beyond and above all of that stuff.  I don’t want my imagination to be caught into those kind of throes, if you know what I mean.

Which doesn’t mean I don’t pay attention to it, or read articles.  I read Bill McKibben too.  I read all that.  I gather information about all that.  But in a certain sense that’s my civic duty to do that.  But it doesn’t really shape my imagination.  I try not to make it shape my imagination.

I wanted to ask you about the future.  I read an essay you wrote called ‘The Next Future’.  You wrote, “Instead of growing clearer as we probe it, the future has grown dimmer.  Less solid, almost hard to believe in.  But the past has continued to expand rather than shrink with distance.  The actual things we did have gained rather than lost complexity and interest and the past seems rich.  Its lessons not simple or singular.  A big landscape of human possibility, generative, inexhaustible”, which I thought was just beautiful.

That’s exactly what I’ve just been trying to explain to you.  That guy wrote it better than me…

One of the things in the book that I’ve just been writing that feels really important to me is that at the very time in human history when we should be looking at the future and thinking, “Yeah, we can do that, and we’ve got these challenges but we can do this, we can do this, we can redesign that, we can reimagine everything, we need to do the economy in a different way, we need to do the energy system in a different way, the transport system in a different way” and that time when we should be looking positively towards the future, actually what we’re seeing is this emerging of this retrotopia.  This idea that the past was better and the future seems to be slipping out of our fingers.  I wondered why you feel the future is slipping from our grasp?  Because when I was a kid and I grew up, all the comics were all full of the future.  We’d go on holiday to the moon and we’d all have hover boards and all this kind of stuff.  But it feels like we’re turning away from the future and the past feels safe and more familiar somehow.

I see that very much.  The passage that you read is in a certain sense rhetorical.  But it also is genuine, and deeply felt.  The reason the future seemed so hopeful when I was young, and I was young in the 1950s, post-war, it seemed very hopeful in so many ways, but you didn’t have this other threat that nature was somehow sick, or we had caused it to be sick.  Even though that was completely on-going in the 1950s already, for sure.  But you just didn’t notice that.

You could imagine futures that didn’t depend on any of those kinds of things.  Unless they were made up like this bursting of the sun kind of thing.  But you just didn’t feel it.  There was a kind of hopefulness, or at least intense interest, in what the future would bring.

What’s it going to be?  Are we going to have aliens come visiting?  Finally going to get spaceships and go to other planets?  Or is there going to be atomic bombs and destruction and we’re going to have to live with the results of that.  Or you can have all kinds of possibilities.  They were intensely interesting, all of them.  I feel like – it might be just me, at my age – they have lost interest for me.  Those kinds of possibilities.

A lot of them are now discarded.  ‘The ash heap of history’, as Trotsky said.  But it does not cease to puzzle and interest you.  That’s got to be the case, even though I can’t perceive anything going forward that is anything like the sorts of things we conceived of in the past.

I suppose we’re still going to go back to the moon, of all the useless things you can think of doing!  We’ve been there; we’ve done that.  There’s nothing there!  But I suppose you get a big kick out of big projects like that, but this is a big project we already did and we can look back on it and see it all happening.  Watch all those guys, all those dozens and dozens of computers that are less powerful than your phone, running to the moon.

It was wonderful, it was great, it was passionate, it was delightful.  And we can celebrate it, but can you really get excited about doing it again?  I mean it seems like there are so many other things are of greater necessity that you can imagine doing.  I was asked in that same essay about the future to describe how you can imagine the future.

My answer to my editor’s request, I said, “Well, okay, I think that there’s always a future that somehow stands at right angles to the present.  Never comes to be.  We pass through the future into another future, another future, another future.  And the only way you can predict the future is to take everything that’s predicted right now, and reverse it.”


Yeah, that was great.

Yeah, so none of those terrible things are going to happen.  I went through them one by one by one.  Finally I ended up with, “So, the only answer is universal love and one world government and everybody taken care of, but not in any kind of model based on past utopias or socialist utopias.”  I called it an anarcho-totalitarian state.  I mean, that’s imagination!

If you say that your sense of your future is dimming, like I said in that paragraph, then the only answer to that is more imagination, of some kind.  We know that you can inspire people to do things with the craziest kinds of dreams.  I mean just look at the apocalypse and the 1000 year millennium, Jesus coming back and making everything right.  Those things inspired huge activities on the behalves of people.  And even after they gave up on it as a fact, it still seemed to be an inspiration to social workers and social scientists and divines and Christian social workers in the 19th and early 20th century.  It was a huge thing for them.

They were in the process of giving up the idea that this would really happen or was about to.  The only ones who thought that were these crazy fundamentalists who they were getting away from, becoming modern thinker people.  But they still had this sense of a good world was ours to earn and it’s going to happen.  You’re on the road to it, and it would get better and better.  That’s the kind of thing that kind of got lost.

One of the things that always stands out to me in your writing is the depth and the size of your vocabulary.  You use words I’ve never heard before and I consider myself someone who reads quite a lot.  In one thing I read you talked about the “vastation of the bomb”.  I’ve never heard of ‘vastation’.  You talked of something as being “full of vatic force”?  If our language becomes simpler and less complex and we lose such words, and we’re seeing this homogenising of our language and our losing of lots of the more difficult words like vastation and vatic, if our language becomes more and more simple, what does that in turn do to our imagination, do you think? 

They’re very, very tied together.  I can’t help but think that.  Maybe I’m wrong.  It’s possible that Native Americans who are speaking English in the south-west of America have imaginations bigger than I can conceive of, but their vocabulary of English words is very limited.  It may not be that big of a deal.  But it is to me.

I do think that the loss of not only individual vocabulary words, but ways of putting sentences together, fullness of rhetoric, fullness of meaning, making sentences longer and meaningful to that extent.  I mean, I don’t have Twitter but I read Facebook posts and stuff on the news.  Things are getting thinner.  They’re just getting thinner.

Partly because there’s less exact vocabulary but also just because people stop the sentence before it’s even gotten underway, and cannot complexify itself by how you end up.  The end of the sentence should reflect what you started with at the beginning.  I mean, go back to the past and look at all the newspapers.  They were so hot.  They’ve always been done as quickly as possible to get done, but they were still better written than now.

I taught creative writing for 20 years and a lot of the students had a great grasp of interesting language and could turn phrases and they could build sentences competently, even interestingly, fascinatingly.  But most of them were only comfortable with a simple kind of language which they could ascribe to a theory of fiction; how fiction could be written, minimalism, all that.  So that would justify their use of no adjectives and short words, things like that.  Which, you can’t argue with them.  I’m unwilling to talk them out of it, except to say, “Well, read this guy.  He does things that you’re not even aware of.  He’s a different universe.”

So, no, it’s very important to me.  I post on my Facebook.  I don’t know if you look on my Facebook, but a lot of things I post on my Facebook are quotes from the New York Times.  “Why do they do it?  Why are they using this word in this wrong way?  Why is this sentence such an awful tangle?”  Today I was trying to post about how one of the Democratic primary contenders had done something or other – a sweeping post, and somehow this had caused all the other candidates to frenetically try to keep up with what they had to do to confront it.

And it’s, “Frenetically, is that right?  Are they frenetic, or are they frenzied, or are they frantic?”  So then I had to go and ponder the words, which all have the same root in Greek, as it turns out.  But is it frenetic, frenzied?  What’s the difference?  You can say there’s frenetic activity, and you can say there’s frenzied activity, but if you say that someone is stuck in a frenetic mode, he’s got to be doing something.  Frenetic is about activity.  And frenzy is also about activity.

But the other – I can’t remember the third word that’s connected to those. This is another problem with being old.  I just wrote these this morning and I’ve forgotten them already.  They’ll come back.  In the course of this, I’ll remember.

One of the things that we’ve seen in recent years is the decline in the amount of reading of books; the sales of books declining.  The amount of time people spend reading books declining.  What do you think we lose in our culture when we stop reading books?

Well, first of all we lose familiarity with most of the thinking and imagination of our species, because there was a point not very long ago when you had pictorial art and plastic art, statues and stuff, and books.  That was it.  If you wanted to connect yourself to thought, and to imagination, and to possibility and to moral hectoring, or prayer, you had to read books.  There wasn’t any other source for any of it.

Then gradually new media comes along and stories become taken over by movies, and then television, and then thought and opinion gets taken over by the internet, and so on.  And you are only familiar with the history of thought up to the last 20 years, or less.  Maybe even just last week is all you remember from the arguments and so on that you read.

But the history of thought, and belief, and knowledge is all contained in books that are much older.  Much older.  Hundreds of years older.  If you cannot pick up a hard book – suppose you pick up the Anatomy of Melancholy, or Plato’s Dialogues, or anything like that – if you don’t have the tools to begin to read them, they’re going to be forever closed to you.

The only way you can have the tools to read them, is to read enough where they are quoted from, or referred to, or at least they use ideas and so on in such a way that you get used to the idea of thinking in ways like that.  And looking up words, like you were just puzzled by ‘vatic’ and ‘vastation’.  You’ve got to look them up.  And that actually is one of the great things of the internet.  You can look them up in a second.  You don’t have to go over to your wall of dictionaries and sort through.  You get it in a second which is a great, great advance in some ways.

It would help you to be a great reader.  I have nothing against eBooks, or listening to books, except that there is a connection to the words on the page that’s different to words in the ear.  Words on the page are an experience that is richer than books in the ear.  I know I’m not alone in this idea.  But I think that that’s so.

Also books are objects in a way that of course nothing on the internet is an object.  It’s just all shadows, so to speak.  Books have a thing you can take in your hand.  You can open it up.  You can smell it.  If you go to my Facebook you’ll see there’s a link to a TED talk by Chip Kidd.  Chip Kidd is one of the greatest modern book designers and jacket cover creators.  The talk is about the books that he made jackets for.  He’ll say, “Oh, I remember that” but he also has this beautiful summation of what this is about books.

He says, “The first thing that I do when I get a book, I open it up and take a great big sniff.”  I was reading about another guy – a Victorian writer, whose name I know very well, but is not available right at the moment – who said that that’s how he knew his books in his library, by their smell.  He said, “I could plunge in anywhere, I remember the time I read the book first, where I got it from, what it meant to me back then, just because of the smell.”  I know what that’s about, exactly.

You’ve got a whole bunch of them over there on your shelf, I can see.  And you can see mine above my head there.  They’re not mere conveyors of information.  They are more.  I don’t know if that’s been lost or not.  Both my daughters, who are both 30 – they’re twins – read a lot, and they’ve read books all their lives.  I’m not quite sure how they got this, except they saw their parents reading all the time of course, that’s one way.

I can remember my daughter, I would say at age 12, trying to read ‘Kidnapped’ by Robert Louis Stevenson.  I can see her in my mind lying on the couch with her sneakers up and reading this up and every once in a while she’d call over to me, “Dad, what does this mean?”  It was some Scots word that Stevenson’s using, or some nautical term that’s in the book.  But she just kept on.  I was never sure she really loved the book, but it was a challenge to keep on going and she was continually interested in the fact of its existence, that’s for sure.  It was really great listening to both of them do this.

Both of my daughters were readers.  They’ve read books I’ve never read, so it can’t be just me.

When I mentioned before about how you keep your imagination in good health, you used the word vigilance.  One of the people I interviewed for this book was Douglas Rushkoff in New York, who wrote a book called Present Shock.  He said to me we’ve ended up over the last 20 years “disabling the cognitive and collaborative skills that we would have needed to address a collective problem like climate change.” 

Do you agree?  We have all these technologies that we’re surrounded by, and smart phones and social media that have this corrosive impact on the attention span, how does one remain an imaginative person and have a relationship with those technologies?  Is that one of the areas where the kind of vigilance you were talking about is needed?

Certainly.  Certainly you have to be vigilant about craft.  Every once in a while it will seem as though it’s just about to sweep everything away in a tide of meaninglessness.  You have to be incredibly vigilant about that.  It doesn’t affect me that much because I use so little of it.  I have a Facebook in which I post to a bunch of friends, and mostly they’re about books or whatever, notions.

I don’t feel that I am as much caught up in this as I might be, and as I know many, many people are.  Vigilance is a great way of thinking about that.  But you can’t spend your life being vigilant about information that’s coming in to you from beyond.  You just can’t do that.  There has to be an almost Buddhist sense that that mess that’s constantly before you is suffering, and the only way you can withdraw from suffering is to say it’s an illusion, it’s not real, it’s just stuff, and I’m not going to admit it into my soul.  And it’s so hard.

You look at the news and somebody has done something unbelievably stupid and cruel, again, and you can’t stop thinking about it, but yet you cannot solve it.  You can’t make it better.  You can feel compassion for the people who do suffer and are hurt.  Of course you should feel that, but there’s nothing you can do to turn the stuff that’s coming out of the TV and out of the internet at you, and turn it into real stuff.  It’s very difficult.  And the Buddhist would say well that’s just exactly what you shouldn’t do.  I’m not a Buddhist, and I don’t know if what I’m talking about makes sense, but yes, I think you have to be vigilant to not be dominated by it.

I mean they are people who are killing themselves because of all this coming on the TV and the awful things that have been done, sufferings that have been done by stupid people who don’t know better.  Or do know just fine that they are causing grief and hurt, or won’t think about things like climate change, or won’t think about anything to do with it, even though some of the solutions, or at least mitigations, are obvious.  Like not using coal.

I mean, quite easy, if we just all got together to do some of those kinds of solutions.  Imaginative solutions to them already exist.  And yet instead you watch people on TV saying, “Yes, bring back coal.”  And your heart just hurts from this.  But you don’t have to think about it.  They’re on, and you know better.  I guess that’s part of vigilance too.

When I read Little, Big it took me into a world that felt utterly credible and believable, fantastical and very real, all at the same time.  If it is possible that we could create a better future it feels like one of the things that is really missing is the people out there telling the stories about what it will be.  You could say, “Well we will cut our emissions by 80% by 2040.”  But what would that world smell like, and taste like, and feel like?  What would we have for breakfast in that world, and how can we bring it alive?  And what would people sing songs about in that world?  I wonder, as somebody who’s spent their life telling stories incredibly skilfully, what advice you would have for people about how they might become better story tellers about bringing a future where it turns out okay to life today.

I wish I could do that in such a way that it would actually make change.  I’m not sure I’m wise enough to do that.  But I do think that one of the things that it entails is to understand that human nature, in itself – love, fear, desire, wisdom, smarts, humour, wit, all that – doesn’t change, really.  I’m convinced that it doesn’t.

If you’re going to write a story about the future, one of the things that it has to contain is realistic representations of human nature in the deepest way.  In the same way that you find them in Tolstoy, in the same way you find in a Dickens, the same way you find them in Little, Big, the same way you find them represented in all their richness and fullness.  Because if you can’t do that, none of the lessons will make any sense.

That’s how I feel because you have not made it a world of human beings.  You’ve made it a world of exemplars, or paradigms, or something like that.  I’ve done a couple of courses on utopia … I always make students write a utopia.  And it has to be a utopia.  It can’t be a dystopia.  It has to be a good thing, or at least, a pretty good thing.  There was one that was very short, two pages, but this one student did this whole thing.

It was a long time ago, and email was fairly new but the story was based on these two guys exchanging emails about some technical subject.  And talking about how we can re-establish what ideas he had about highways, or railroads, of international space travel, I don’t know what it was, but these guys are emailing each other backwards and forwards about this.

But every once in a while this guy would send his friend another email about how his heart is broken because his girlfriend has left him and he doesn’t understand why because he thinks he’s a nice guy and they got along so well.  Then they try to get back on track with the project about bridges or whatever.  Then the other guy goes, “Yeah, I know how it is, but you’ve got to keep up with it.”  I said, “You understand what you’ve done here?”  You’ve said that the future and utopia cannot conquer human hurt and pain.  That has to be part of the imagination.

This guy is suffering one of the oldest sufferings you can ever have, because he loves her and she doesn’t love him.  And that’s the kind of thing that cannot possibly change, it doesn’t seem to me.  There’s a lot of people now who think love seems like a scam, or something.  But if you were to write stories about the future, and stories about possibility, and stories about how it all does actually come out okay, and some of the ground for that.

If I had one piece of advice it would be try to do this.  Don’t forget, if you are writing fiction, your business is creating actual real life living people.  They’re not, they’re just words, but still, the thing you are trying to do is create Anna Karenina, or Madame Bovary.  That’s what you’re trying to do.

John Crowley’s latest book is ‘KA: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr‘. 


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