[Note: This interview first appeared in Science Fiction Weekly, in 2004.]
Richard K. Morgan was born in London, England in 1965, but lives in Glasgow, Scotland these days. He worked for fourteen years in the English Language Teaching industry, then his first novel, Altered Carbon (2002 U.K./2003 U.S.), was sold to major publishers on both sides of the pond (Gollancz/Del Rey) and subsequently optioned by Hollywood for a sum large enough for him to quit his day job…and he’s been writing ever since.
I interviewed Richard via email in April 2004.
Your first novel, Altered Carbon, recently won the Philip K. Dick Award (for best science fiction paperback original). What was your initial reaction when you first heard the good news?
I was at Eastercon in the U.K. and slightly hung-over at the time—suddenly people were coming up to me in corridors and congratulating me. Works way better than aspirin. So as soon as I could bear to, I broke out the Jack Daniels and celebrated in the traditional way. For which I was very sorry the following day.
Let’s backtrack a bit—shortly after you sold Altered Carbon to Gollancz, Hollywood came calling (in the form of The Matrix producer Joel Silver) and plunked down a cool million for the film rights. What was your initial reaction to that?
Well it wasn’t a million in point of fact, but it was still about ten times more money than I’d ever seen in a single lump before in my life, so I was pretty overwhelmed. But being overwhelmed was actually quite a slow process. The thing is the good news wasn’t really a shock, because I’d known for some time that a deal was in the offing. And in the weeks leading up to the agreement, I kept hearing reassuring updates about how things were going, so by the time we hit the final result, I was pretty much all out of adrenalin. That, plus I’d gone to Turkey to give a paper at an EFL [English as a Foreign Language] seminar, so I kind of missed the climax of it all.
Before you wrote Altered Carbon, I understand you tried your hand at screenwriting yourself. Any chance you’ll be working on the Altered Carbon screenplay?
No. I sold my soul on this one. Warner Brothers can do exactly what they like with Altered Carbon and any input I have will be purely a courtesy measure on their part. To be honest, I wouldn’t really want to be involved in the screenwriting process—I didn’t enjoy it much when I did it before. You never really own a screenplay in the way that you own a novel—it’s always only going to be a blueprint for something else, and everyone will want input; the studio, the director, the producer, maybe even the starring actors. Screenwriting is a job that requires immense pragmatism, an ability to compromise and a facility for teamwork. I score low on all of those, which is why I write novels.
Whatever happened to that screenplay you couldn’t sell? Any interest in it now that you’ve become a successful novelist? What was it about?
The screenplay I couldn’t sell is now my third novel, Market Forces. Aside from gaining prose flesh on the bones of plot, its themes are now far more developed and its characters more complex. I’m very pleased with the end result, not least because again Hollywood studios are expressing an interest in optioning it. Watch this space!
We’ll get back to Market Forces later, but first let’s talk more about Altered Carbon. In the novel, humanity achieves near-immortality via digital-consciousness transfer, or “resleeving.” As a result (or perhaps despite this), Takeshi Kovacs, the protagonist, has a rather callous disregard for human life—though he can “kill” his enemies by destroying their bodies, they live on via their digital backups, providing Kovacs a moral “loophole”—he can kill indiscriminately without causing any permanent damage. Kovacs, however, does not shy away from his baser instincts and chooses to inflict “real death” upon several of his adversaries by wiping out their backups. What does this say about Kovacs and the society in which he lives?
Well, Kovacs is really intended to be the UN Protectorate’s chickens coming home to roost. As with all societies past and present, the powers that be in this future have chosen to take certain human beings and warp them into agents of death and destruction for enforcement purposes. Then of course, when this tool starts to turn in their hand, they panic and try to wash their hands of him. They fail. Kovacs comes back and keeps coming back with the same hatred of patriarchal authority figures and the same awful appetite for destruction. He has quite a chaotic personal life as a backdrop anyway and was always likely to be a bit of a loose cannon—but the Protectorate have made the mistake of making him good at this shit. To Kovacs, unless you’ve managed to trigger some of his rather idiosyncratic personal affections, you’re just part of the socio-political landscape, to be trimmed or bulldozed as required. Once upon a time those requirements came down from on high as orders from the Protectorate. Now that they’ve lost the leash, the only requirement that counts is what Kovacs happens to want. So you try not to get between him and whatever that is.
In Broken Angels, the sequel to Altered Carbon, you radically change gears, from a brutal future-noir crime thriller to a brutal militaristic, alien archaeology tale. Likewise, Kovacs changes careers from detective to soldier of fortune/archaeologist. What has been the reaction to it thus far?
By and large, the reaction’s been good. I think there was always going to be an element who expected me to churn out a series of future detective stories until my toes curled up, and those guys I was always going to disappoint. But most readers seem to have gone with the change without a problem. Some like Altered Carbon more, some seem to think Broken Angels is better. And one guy in a bookshop told me they were both great but in entirely different ways, which of course is the result I was looking for!
That seems to be a bit of a risk, changing gears like that, defying reader expectations. Had you planned on Kovacs switching careers all along, or was this a change that came about naturally, a sort of literary evolution?
I certainly hadn’t planned on Kovacs having a career as a detective—I mean, in Altered Carbon I tried quite hard to show that he’s somewhat out of place doing this job. It isn’t really him, and his clients and associates find this out to their discomfort. By writing a second novel in which Kovacs is practicing the trade he knows best, that of interstellar spec ops psycho, what I was really trying to do was revisit the core of who he is. We get to see a whole new level of savagery, unmitigated by any of the more civilized behavior Kovacs had the luxury of applying in Altered Carbon. And that of course in turn leads to an equally ramped up level of guilt and moral vertigo. As much as anything, that’s what Broken Angels was intended to be about.
One review I read called the book “nasty.” Would you agree with that?
The Kovacs novels have been compared favorably as a blend of Philip K. Dick and Raymond Chandler. What’s your reaction to praise like that?
Delighted. I haven’t actually read that much Dick, but there’s no denying the huge influence his work has had on SF and literature in general, so it’s nice to hear my name spoken in the same breath as his. Ditto Chandler whose novel The Big Sleep was a huge (and perhaps clearly visible) influence on Altered Carbon.
Which authors of speculative fiction influenced your writing?
Above all, probably William Gibson—his short stories were the thing that really drove me to write SF, because I wanted to produce “stuff like that”. But I’d also have to cite some Old School practitioners, notably Poul Anderson and Bob Shaw. And there’s also got to be an honorable mention for M. John Harrison’s The Centauri Device, which is superb.
Speaking of Philip K. Dick—in the U.K., your byline is “Richard Morgan,” but in the U.S., it’s “Richard K. Morgan.” Was that a marketing decision, perhaps to bring Philip K. Dick to mind?
No, it’s pure accident. My initials actually are R.K.M. and while I don’t like my middle name, I’ve always quite liked the initial. When my U.K. publishers were prepping Altered Carbon, I asked to be Richard K. Morgan and they said fine, but then there was a decision to publish my novels in the U.K. under a strong logotype cover, and the extra letter kept getting in the way so we dropped it. Meanwhile, my U.S. publishers must not have heard about the change and just went ahead with my original wishes. So I got what I wanted in the end, albeit only on one side of the Atlantic. And to be honest, I love the logotype covers as well, so who’s complaining.
What’s the “K” stand for?
Your third novel, Market Forces, recently published in the U.K., due out in the States in March ’05, is another departure for you—your first novel without Takeshi Kovacs. In the book, the protagonist describes his job as “Neoliberal commercial management. Global mayhem, remote-control death and destruction. Market Forces in action.” Does that about sum up the novel?
Yeah, pretty much. It’s the in-your-face consequences of in-your-face capital market systems run amok. These days, the global capital decision makers are pleasantly insulated from the real consequences of their actions—not so in Market Forces!
I thought it brilliant, easily the best novel I’ve read in this young century—what was the inspiration for the novel?
Uh, thank you very much. The original inspiration for the unsuccessful, unpublished short story that formed the basis for the unsuccessful, unmade screenplay that formed the basis for the novel (yippee, at last!) was an advertisement for cross-Atlantic business fares back in the late eighties, which portrayed corporate politics as this exciting and dangerous world of macho facedowns across a boardroom table. Whilst watching it, a friend of mine leaned across to me and muttered Christ, they think they live in a fucking jungle, don’t they? That, plus a general revulsion for the whole Thatcher/Reagan era set me to thinking about what it would be like if these guys really did live in that jungle, and along with my enduring love of the movie Mad Max, this formed the basis for the world you see in Market Forces.
As in Mad Max, cars figure very prominently into the storyline of Market Forces. Are you a car enthusiast?
Strangely enough, not really. I mean, I like pushing a big-engined car fast down an empty road as much as anyone, but when it comes to actual ownership, I’m remarkably unpassionate about it. Until about six months ago, I was still driving a beaten up sixteen year old Spanish Renault that I brought back from Madrid two years before I got published. Everyone was amazed that I didn’t blow my publisher’s advance on a brand new fuel injected something or other, but I couldn’t see the point. The Renault had enormous sentimental value, and it was a perfectly functional ride. Sadly, it finally flaked out late last year and I bought something else—but again, it was a small pre-owned Rover hatchback that a neighbor gave me a good deal on. I’m quite happy with it—it’s a 1.4 liter engine, which means it’ll very easily go faster than I can ever safely (or legally!) drive—so who the hell wants a Porsche? I mean, what are going to do with it? There’s nowhere in the U.K. you can really give a high performance car like that its head, so you’re reduced to tooling about town in it, hoping someone’ll notice you, and occasionally snarling away from the lights faster than the BMW next to you, then having to brake thirty seconds later for the next set. Maybe I’m getting old, but that all of that just seems very sad.
Besides being much more contemporary than your first two novels (that is, set just 60 years in the future rather than 600), I thought I noticed the influence of some writers of contemporary fiction, namely Bret Easton Ellis and Chuck Palahniuk.
Well, I confess I’ve never read anything by either of those guys. I tried Less than Zero but couldn’t make myself care about the characters, they were so fucking spoilt (I know, I know, that’s the point…) And American Psycho I couldn’t get into, not because of the widely publicized violence but simply because the pace was too slow. I can see what Ellis was trying to do, and admire him for it, but I think he bogged down in the brand name details. I’ve also tried some Palahniuk but didn’t like it much. Perhaps not surprising really—I read in an interview he gave that he’s trying to reach, and therefore writing for, people who don’t like to read books. You know, the post-literate, MTV, gaming and movie generation. Well, fair enough and good for him for trying. But I’m someone who does like to read books, so it makes sense that he isn’t going to reach me. Having said that, I thought the movie of Fight Club was among the best I’d ever seen, and certainly it passed through my mind occasionally while I was penning the more furious passages of Market Forces.
You recently signed on to revamp the Black Widow character for Marvel Comics. What can you tell us about that? How did that opportunity come about?
Well Marvel editor Jennifer Lee read Altered Carbon and more or less rang me up out of the blue to ask if I’d like to write something for her. She’d been impressed with the female characters in the novel and thought I might be able to bring some of the same qualities to a revamped female Marvel character, this being the aforementioned Black Widow. Of course, I was delighted. It’s the ultimate compliment, I think, a paid invitation like that. Can’t tell you much about the plotline yet, not least because it isn’t overclear in my own head right now, but I’ve signed on to do a six issue mini-series, and then we’ll see.
What is it about the comic book format attracted you to the project? Have you always been a fan of the medium?
First and foremost, I was drawn by the chance to do something different. I’d never written comic books before, never even tried it, so it was a whole new direction for my writing to take. Basically when I’ve run myself into the ground with whatever novel I’m working on, I can now go and work on the comic book stuff and feel refreshed, then come back to the novel refreshed again. And I’m sure in the long run that the discipline of working on the comic (it’s a very tight, demanding format) is bound to pay off in my prose as well.
I’m not actually a huge comic book fan, but I’ve got some of the greats on my shelves at home—Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns and Sin City, Alan Moore’s Watchmen and From Hell, Joe Sacco’s Palestine, some Preacher, some Sandman and so on (and of course in view of this new opportunity, I’m now collecting like mad—most recently and most brilliant Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis and Mike Carey’s Lucifer series). But in a sense this is all to the good—it feels like a real voyage of discovery.
So that covers movies, comics, and novels—what other forms of media interest you or have influenced you? Music? Video games?
Music—I own about four hundred and fifty CDs, and the collection is growing all the time. Basically, I’ll listen to anything from Puccini to Cypress Hill and I get through a lot of music in a day because I write to it. Current favorites in the player pan are Alabama 3, Ojos de Brujo, Pietra Montecorvino, Oumou Sangare and David Gray, but it changes week to week.
Games—I’ve got the inevitable PS2 [Sony PlayStation 2], and I’m a sucker for good First Person Shooters, of which there seem to be surprisingly few. This overwhelming dominance of third person games perplexes me—who the hell wants to be a doll when you can actually be there yourself? Ahem, anyway. Good FPS games—Time Splitters 2 is superb, Turok Evolution has a lot going for it (tho’ not, I have to say, the infantile script—I tend to be quite demanding in that area and lines like you can kill us but you’ll never rule us just make me cringe—or the rather suspect blood-and-violence-lite option). After that, I find I’m falling back on old favorites like Doom and Quake. Can’t wait for Doom 3!
And now, having dissed third person gaming, I’m going to have to put in a word for Max Payne, which gets my vote as the best game I own. I think it has something to do with the lovingly wrought noir feel to the whole thing and the bleak lack of morality throughout. That plus some truly disturbing nightmare sequences that you really desperately want to play through and escape ASAP (but instead find yourself stuck in for quite a while). Truly stunning stuff. Max Payne 2 was a valiant attempt at a follow up, with some really great developments in play, but still it never quite hit the same spot. Too much cautious morality, too little to unnerve you. The nightmare sequences no longer disturb and you’re out of them in a flash. You can almost hear the product testing guys—ah, look people, in the first game people found the nightmares difficult to exit and quite unpleasant. Let’s solve that problem. Fucking morons. By prettying up the raw edges, they’ve managed to lose the noir feel and the intensity of the first game almost totally.
Prior to selling Altered Carbon, you worked for fourteen years in the English Language Teaching industry. How has that experience contributed to your writing?
Well, I suppose it’s given me some exotic cultural insight which always comes in handy, and a very real appreciation of what I’ve got now I no longer have to do a day job. But most of all, I think my years in ELT fuelled a lot of the darker side to my characters. See, there’s this prevailing tree-hugger ethic in teaching English as a Foreign Language—training manuals abound with titles like Caring and Sharing in the EFL Classroom. Worse still, if you’re going to do the job well, you really have to buy into this, at least to a certain extent. Getting people to speak a foreign language necessitates creating an atmosphere of relaxation and trust, and you can’t do that without a degree of hippie sensitivity. The downside of all this is that into your classroom frequently come individual students who suffer from no such reciprocal sense of humane respect and mutual obligation. You find yourself having to be pleasant and supportive to people who all too often you’d really rather strangle with their own guts. I suspect that Takeshi Kovacs leaked out of me somewhere along that fourteen year path as an avatar of all the dark, suppressed urges to do violence that I could never permit myself to give in to.
This career allowed you to travel extensively. Any favorite places?
Yes. Istanbul and Madrid—both beautiful cities, in entirely different ways. If you get the chance, go see them. Istanbul is like an Arabian Nights version of San Francisco, skylines out of a fairy tale, prayer calls from mosque towers, water everywhere and a mess of ships and boats plying back and forth. Near the end of the month when I used to run out of salary, I’d spend my weekends riding the Bosphorus ferries back and forth, watching the Med/Black Sea shipping plough past in both directions and drinking tea with the crewmen. It’s amazing how having a sea ride like that available in mid-city can clean out your head of all the day to day shit and leave you with a sense of peace like you’re on holiday. Madrid in many ways is the exact opposite—it’s dry and dusty, the Manzanares river is a string of puddles, and the level of noise in Hispanic cities is of course legendary. But the architecture is beautiful (even the modern stuff—the Spanish have this knack for getting the surface of things right), there are fountains everywhere, and the nightlife is second to none in the world. The Spanish understand how to enjoy themselves at a level that Anglo culture just doesn’t seem able to do, and Madrid is like a worked example—there’s a myriad variety of bars and yet practically no stupid public drunkenness or aggressive behavior. Arrangements to meet and plans for the night are fluid and flexible, and no one cares if you don’t turn up because they’ll get on just as well without you and they’ll assume that you just found something else to do. Going out in Madrid is an utterly stressless, infinitely pleasurable, and, on the whole, very cheap way of life.
So, what’s next? Any other forthcoming projects in the works you can tell us about?
Well, Kovacs 3 is now well on its way to completion, now titled Woken Furies. This one’s set on Harlan’s World, Kovacs’ home planet, and involves something of a reckoning for Takeshi as he faces up to his own past and present depredations as well as an assembly of highly motivated enemies and confusing allies. In some senses this is a return to some of the noir staples of Altered Carbon, but with far more exotic travel and a mystery that’s less criminal than historical and metaphysical. Speaking of which, I’d better rush off and get on with it. I hear the shrill whine of a deadline approaching….