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An Interview with China Mieville, Ambassador for His SF Novel "Embassytown"


China Miéville’s latest novel, Embassytown, is a fascinating mix of the cerebral and the visceral, a “weird” science fiction novel that features paired ambassadors communicating with aliens on a distant planet. When a new, strange ambassador pair arrives from a more central world, communication between the groups begins to break down, with disastrous and transformative results for humans and aliens alike. It’s an ambitious, heady mix for readers, rewarded with praise in The Guardian from Ursula K. LeGuin and, this past weekend, in the New York Times Book Review. The novel builds on the success of previous books written in a variety of related genres, and, to this reader at least, reflects a continuing quest to break down the barricades between so-called “literary” and “genre” fiction. As ever, his fiction is a potent delivery system for sometimes difficult ideas.

I interviewed Miéville via email at the end of his U.S. book tour for Embassytown, focusing not just on the novel but on his recent tour. Embassytown is, in part, about language and its uses or mis-uses. Have any interpretations of the novel thus far been in your opinion wrong but still interesting to you?

China Miéville: I wouldn't say “wrong”, but there are interpretations which seem to want to come down to a single conclusion, an approach that has never convinced me--the whole “Book X means Y” paradigm. So their interpretations I may agree with, but would hesitate to seeing as the end of the matter. Conversely, a couple of times people have pointed things out that had not occurred to me at all. Someone pointed out the repeated use of the wing-f---ed Icarus trope in several books of mine: had not clocked it at all, and quite true. Was Doris Lessing’s fiction any influence on the novel?

China Miéville: Not consciously, no. But the unconscious is a large country. Is there anything semi-autobiographical (albeit transformed) in Embassytown?

China Miéville: Nothing intentional or conscious, beyond the feeling of close-upness to bigness that I recall--spuriously or not--as defining childhood. You’re also an artist. Do you ever sketch characters or scenes while writing as part of the process?

China Miéville: Yes, but in varying degrees of rigour and particularity. And also I make a huge distinction between art which is intended, even just potentially, at some point, to be seen by others, and that which is a reference to me, and which is a scrawl. And not an adorable scrawl that highlights the loose brilliance of the artist, but an ugly and incomprehensible scrawl. Has your idea of what the novel is changed at all as a result of your tour, and coming into contact with readers?

China Miéville: I am always very cautious of asserting my idea of what the novel, any novel, is, because I'm acutely aware they're always collaborations with readers. So I don't experience it quite that way. I have been very moved, and surprised, by the warmth of the response. I wasn't sure if the book not be too hermetic.

Embassytown--mieville When you tour, what’s the best part about it? What do you find the least fun?

China Miéville: Best part is Q&As. I love talking to groups of readers and chatting about the books and anything. And with a Q&A you know that you’re talking about what at least one person definitely does want to talk about. And hopefully more than one. The least fun is the constant packing and unpacking. And early mornings. Do readers give you things when you tour? If so, any memorable gifts this time around?

China Miéville: They do. It's absolutely lovely. I get a lot of cephalopods, and I'm always happy. Three things in particular this time: I got a collection of illustrations from this book and others; I got a pencil portrait of me; and I got a beautiful little metal octopus. Do you have a standard personalization when signing Embassytown?

China Miéville: With all the books I try to find various quotes by other writers that are thematically related or provocative or in some way relevant, at least to me. These I tend to cycle. In this case, I have six language quotes, of which four are the main ones, of which two are my favourites and feature most commonly. What’s the best response to the novel thus far, from your perspective?

China Miéville: Ursula le Guin's review. We all know which giants' shoulders we stand on, and she is a figure of towering importance to me. To have her warm and thoughtful words for the piece meant more than I can say.


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