Lunar man – Pádraig Ó Méalóid talks to Steve Moore
Recently we mentioned on the blog that Steve Moore, scribe of many an essay, book and comic, friend and mentor to Alan Moore, had a fascinating new novel, Somnium, coming out, and as it is a book that carries an endorsement not only by Alan but also from Michael Moorcock it is quite obviously a fantasy novel we should be paying attention to. Spurred by the imminent appearance of Somnium from Strange Attractor Press that man Pádraig Ó Méalóid asked Steve if he would mind answering a few questions about it and his other work, and I am delighted to say Steve agreed:
Pádraig Ó Méalóid: What’s Somnium about?
Steve Moore: Without giving away too much of the plot, it’s a historical fantasy about a young man called Kit Morley in 1803 who, fleeing an impossible romance, arrives at an inn on Shooters Hill, where he’s intent on writing a story set in Elizabethan times, titled Somnium, which means ‘a dream’. In that story, a courtier named Sir Endimion Lee arrives on Shooters Hill and finds a lunar dream-palace called Somnium, where he encounters someone who appears to be a moon-goddess. Then there are various other stories embedded within these, set at various times, written in various styles and providing a number of layers, while Morley himself starts to question the nature of the world he’s living in. So it’s a fantasy, but a long way away from the sort of Tolkien-type adventure that a lot of people think of as fantasy.
As to what it’s about … myth (particularly that of the moon-goddess Selene and her mortal lover Endymion) and dream and the fluid nature of reality … lost love and redemption … the psychogeography and psychohistory of Shooters Hill, where I’ve lived all my life … about writing, and real and imaginary books … and goddesses, and Romantic Idealism. It’s poetic, and it’s very, very pagan …
SM: I think the short answer to that is that the book just wouldn’t have been written at all, if I hadn’t spent my life on Shooters Hill. It’s a pretty strange place, especially when you start digging into its history. There’s a burial mound here that’s three to four thousand years old, and the woods that cover the hill are thought to be eight thousand years old. That’s almost back to the Ice Age. And there’s something about living on top of a hill that moulds your viewpoint. It’s not that you ‘look down’ on the people living around you, but it makes you feel different. There’s an awful lot of sky and a very wide horizon. So there’s geographical breadth and temporal duration. And I’m part of that. A native. Anyway, I think what I’m basically trying to say is that if I didn’t love the place, I wouldn’t have set the book here; and the setting’s generated a lot of the material in the book. Without that … probably no book.
PÓM: To what extent is Somnium autobiographical?
SM: Well, as far as the main character and the plot are concerned, it’s clearly not autobiographical. I’m a long way past being 20 years old, and I’ve never gone to an inn to write! And besides, it’s always a mistake to assume that an author’s characters reflect his own views and feelings; we make up characters after all, and I’ve certainly got no desire to go round assassinating people like Laser-Eraser & Pressbutton used to do. But as anyone who’s read or listened to Alan Moore’s Unearthing will know, at the time I was writing the novel, a few years ago, my emotional life was fairly turbulent, and I was also engaged in various mystical exercises centred on the Greek moon-goddess Selene. Somnium was written in parallel with the mysticism and was, to a certain extent, part of it, so the two have definitely fed into each other. In a way the mysticism, the novel, and Alan’s Unearthing, all became part of a vaguely-defined ‘Somnium Project’. And apart from all that, there’s a lesser character who appears briefly in the book called ‘S’, the author of one of the embedded stories, who is, quite plainly, me. It’s a bit like an Alfred Hitchcock walk-on. When the whole book is so self-referential, how could I resist being in it?!
PÓM: You are legendarily reclusive. How did you feel about Alan’s Unearthing, which is essentially a tell-all biography of you? Or is the reputation for reclusiveness exaggerated?
SM: Reclusiveness is relative! I prefer to think of myself more as ‘private’. I love seeing my friends, and I like going out (though with the state of 21st century culture, it has to be said that there isn’t really a great deal to go out for, except perhaps dinner) … but I just don’t like making public appearances, and I’m not at all interested in fame or reputation. All I want to do is write. I don’t have the slightest interest in the game of being ‘a famous writer’ and I’ve no liking for Conventions, so nobody sees very much of me. Which suits me …
Anyway, as for Unearthing … Alan was invited to contribute a piece to Iain Sinclair’s anthology London: City of Disappearances, and really the only part of London he knew anything about was Shooters Hill, as he kept visiting me here. He then decided, for reasons best known to himself, that he wanted to make it a biography of me as well, so I just said okay. I told him I’d correct any factual details, which I did, but apart from that he could write anything he liked about me, which is what he did! Apart from the comic exaggeration in places, it’s all true, so I said fine and thought the piece would disappear as one of Alan’s ‘minor works’. Obviously it didn’t happen like that! Now it’s become an audio-recording, been performed, will soon appear as a coffee-table book photo-illustrated by the brilliant photographer Mitch Jenkins and, apparently, will even be coming out as an app. How do I feel about all this? Well, I imagine that like most people I tend to judge what’s ‘normal behaviour’ pretty much against what I do myself, so I’m just sort of bewildered by all the attention it’s getting. But overall, it’s been a lot of fun hanging out with Mitch and his photographic team, meeting the musicians and attending the performances. And the whole thing has rather surprised my friend and relatives!
PÓM: I suppose there’s an enormous irony in a piece about a private man becoming the subject of such an amount of attention, particularly in a book apparently about disappearing. There’s a section in Unearthing where Alan dictates what happens next, and then has you do what he’s said you would. Did this actually happen, or is that just Alan entertaining himself?
SM: Of course it happened! I read through the manuscript when it first arrived and knew I just had to go for my usual walk, as described. And, yes, I hung about for a while by the burial mound, as described, and there were actually rain showers that morning. Unfortunately I couldn’t quite disappear, as the manuscript prescribed! But you have to remember that Unearthing was both about magic and, to a certain extent, was a magical piece in itself, with the writing and world described merging together. So I naturally acted out what was described, just to ‘make that real’. And Alan knew I would when he wrote it, even though he hadn’t told me in advance what he was intending to do.
PÓM: Inevitably, the name of Alan Moore was going to come up here, and already has. You’ve been variously described as his oldest and best friend, the man who taught him all about writing comics, and his magical partner – and, famously, as ‘no relation,’ as in ‘Steve Moore – no relation’. How accurate are these, and is there anything else you think the world needs to know about Alan?
SM: Ah, yes … I think they’ll probably put ‘Steve Moore – no relation’ on my gravestone. Still, I get my own back on the jacket copy for Somnium! As for all the other things I’ve been described as, I think you’d be better asking Alan about them. Oh, and by the way … we’re not related …
PÓM: Are there going to be more novels, or have you said everything you want to say in Somnium?
SM: The next thing I really need to finish is my non-fiction book about the mythology of Selene, which I’ve been researching and writing off and on for 35 years! It’s very nearly done, so that will probably be the next book to appear. Apart from that, I’ve been idly working on a comic (funny, not graphic!) fantasy novel, which may get finished sometime. About a third of that’s written. So if I can overcome my inherent laziness, I see a future split between non-fiction and prose fiction.
PÓM: Can you tell me anything more about these two books? Are there any tentative publishing dates, anything like that?
SM: The book about Selene is almost complete, and basically just needs revising, so I’m hoping that might see print next year. It’s one I owe my Goddess, so it needs to get done before I die. I don’t want to say too much about it, but essentially I’m going back to the original sources for the mythology and stripping away a lot of modern rubbish about ‘triple moon-goddesses’ and ‘women’s mysteries’ to find out what the stories really refer to, which is much stranger and much more interesting. It’s extremely scholarly and densely written, so it’ll probably sell about nine copies!
As for Scrollwork, the fantasy novel, I’ve really no idea when that might be finished. I rarely work on it for more than an hour at a time, usually last thing before I head for bed, and sometimes weeks go by without my touching it. So who knows when that might get finished. It’s set in a world quite similar to that of the Tales of Telguuth stories I used to write for 2000 AD a decade ago and has a hero who’s really stupid, which is something I’m not used to writing about, so it’s an interesting challenge.
PÓM: I know that yourself and Alan are writing The Moon and Serpent Bumper Book of Magic, which I’m looking forward to immensely. How is it coming along, and are we anywhere near getting any sort of publication date for it?
SM: It’s coming along very slowly! That’s mainly due to the fact that Alan has so many other commitments right now and, of course, that he lives in Northampton and I live in London. Close to half of it’s written, and it’s a big book of 320 pages. But when it’ll appear … well, like so many things Alan’s involved with, it’ll be done when it gets done. And I’m afraid that’s about as much as I can tell you about scheduling at the moment.
PÓM: Of course, if you could persuade Alan to embrace the internet, the two of you could probably work on the book faster, but that’s never going to happen, is it?
SM: No, it’s not! And frankly I wouldn’t have Alan any other way. More to the point, though, we need to actually be in the same room to talk about what we’re going to do and toss ideas around, or to pull books off the shelf and look at stuff. Once we’ve got the basics sorted out, one of us will then write up the piece on their own. Email wouldn’t help with the way we work, and I don’t think even Skype would, either.
PÓM: I wanted to ask you, how did you become involved with the Fortean Times, and the Fortean Studies project?
SM: Steve Parkhouse and Barry Smith introduced me to Bob Rickard in 1969 when the four of us were working on a little magazine called Orpheus … which you might call a fanzine, except it was dedicated to publishing new work. Eventually Steve moved to Carlisle and Barry to the States, and we rather drifted apart, but Bob and I stuck together, and he remains one of my very closest friends. So when he started Fortean Times in 1973, as a small magazine of 100 copies, I just joined in, contributing news-clippings, helping mail out copies and writing stuff for it. For a while I was an assistant editor.
Come the 1990s, Bob had a new partner in Paul Sieveking and they turned the magazine professional with John Brown Publishing, and I spent a fair amount of the decade as a contracted writer/editor, though I was still working from home. I compiled things like the first Fortean Times Book of Strange Deaths, etc., produced FT’s four-volume set of the books of Charles Fort, and edited and produced Fortean Studies, which was perfect for me. I’ve always had a strong interest in researching and writing non-fiction, and Studies gave me the chance to do something extremely academic, publishing individual articles of a hundred pages or more, with reams of footnotes and extreme detail.
Apart from the actual covers, I edited the book, compiled the indexes, designed it, typeset it and dealt with the printers, all from one little home PC. Unfortunately, when it got to volume six John Brown decided they wanted to take the design in-house and give it to one of their people, who made a complete pig’s ear of it, whereupon I instantly resigned (I’m rather prone to quitting when publishers upset me). That’s when I went back to comics, writing for ABC and 2000 AD for a while, before the final Hercules books from Radical. But I still see Bob and Paul and the other Forteans pretty regularly, and still occasionally contribute to the magazine.
PÓM: Hercules is your most recent comics work. What is it about, beyond the obvious?
SM: I actually finished that two-and-half years ago now, and it seems like an age. The people at Radical asked me to do a Hercules book, and to set it in historical times rather than make him a 21st century hero; which was just as well, as I wouldn’t have done it otherwise. So I told them I wanted to do it as authentically as possible, which meant trying as much as possible to give it a correct Bronze Age setting, circa 1200BC. Thanks to all the research I’d been doing for the Selene book, I was fairly well up on ancient Greece, so that was fairly easy. The architecture and weaponry, and so forth, is as authentic as I could make it, and I gave the artists lots of reference material (although there were occasions when they still managed to get it wrong!). I also gave Hercules a bunch of companions who were actual mythological figures who were his contemporaries, as far as traditional genealogies were concerned: if Hercules, Tydeus, Atalanta, etc., were real people, they would have been around at the same time.
Having decided to make the characters a band of mercenaries, in the first series I took them to the relatively barbaric country of Thrace, north of Greece. Of course, the story was basically an adventure, but I also wanted to show in that story that Bronze Age warfare, using edged weapons, was actually very brutal and unpleasant, and not at all romantic, so it ended up very downbeat. With the second series I decided to take them to Egypt, which I knew much less about. So I had to research what was going on there in 1200BC, and found some wonderful, historical characters, like the Pharaoh Seti II and his wives, who I worked into the story, along with a real civil war between Seti and his brother. On top of that, I added a much more romanticised tale of magic, to give it a change of pace from the first series, and ended up with a sort of H Rider Haggard adventure. I was quite pleased with the stories, but having had a certain amount of trouble with Radical over the female costumes, which they wouldn’t allow me to make as authentic as they should have been, I was also quite pleased to just leave the whole thing behind after two series.
(interior page from Hercules written by Steve Moore, art by Admira Wijaya, publishd Radical Publishing)
PÓM: Have you retired from comics now, or are there other projects you have in mind?
SM: Definitely retired. My circumstances changed a couple of years ago, leaving me with no need to work in comics any more. And frankly I’m glad to be gone. I became disenchanted with the business and lot of the people in it quite a while ago, and as a writer I find prose a far more satisfying challenge these days.
PÓM: How did you end up with Strange Attractor Press as your publisher for Somnium?
SM: I’d been quite happy to show the manuscript to friends, one of whom was Val Stevenson, who’s the reviews editor for Fortean Times and also runs a literary website called nthposition. A little while ago she told me she wanted to do an ebook of Somnium, so I said sure … and that will be out shortly after the hardback. Having told Alan about this, he then very kindly offered to write an afterword, and also suggested doing a hardback that we could both sign.
That sounded like a good idea too, so I talked to Mark Pilkington at Strange Attractor, who I also knew through Fortean Times … and I’ve also written stuff for his Strange Attractor Journal in the past. He was interested, but as Strange Attractor mainly publishes non-fiction, we decided the best way to do the book was as a co-production between Strange Attractor and my own Somnium Press, which published Technical Vocabularies, the collection of poetry Alan and I put together a few years ago. And as Mark’s been doing all the hard work, like typesetting and dealing with printers, it just seemed like a marriage made in heaven to me! But he’s done a beautiful production job, and the jacket illustration by John Coulthart is just gorgeous, so I’m really pleased with the way things have turned out.
PÓM: Are Somnium and Technical Vocabularies the only publications from Somnium Press? And are we ever likely to see anything else published by you on it?
SM: Somnium Press is basically my private press where, generally, I just run off little booklets of verse or odd stories to give to my friends, in very limited editions. Somnium and Technical Vocabularies are the only public things that have appeared so far, but Somnium will actually be the seventh title from the press. As for your second question … well, there may be further titles. I don’t really know. Whether anyone apart from my friends and relatives will actually see them is another matter entirely!
(Petals, one of the poems from Technical Volcabularies by and (c) Steve Moore)
PÓM: Can you tell me something about how Technical Vocabularies came about?
SM: It was pretty much a spur of the moment thing. Alan was visiting me for the weekend and the Saturday was 1st May 2004, and we just decided we wanted to do something creative. So we decided to produce a booklet of poems in a single day. We decided to use four traditional verse forms … Alan wrote a pantoum and a sestina, I did a sonnet and a villanelle … which explains the title, ‘Technical Vocabularies’. That’s actually a quotation from Théophile Gautier’s biography of Baudelaire, where he mentions this in a definition of the Decadent writing style.
The sub-title ‘Games for May’ comes from a Syd Barrett song and was obviously applicable to the date we were doing this. So we wrote the poems and then I designed and typeset the pages while Alan drew the cover illustration, and we had the whole thing assembled by the evening. It took a bit longer to actually print, of course, and then we had to get together again to sign the copies. So we ended up with a ‘private edition’ of 26 copies to give to our friends, which had silver covers, and a ‘public edition’ of 75 copies with cream covers, which were then sent over to Chris Staros at Top Shelf to market, and they sold out in two hours. We used to do things a bit quicker in those days!
PÓM: Thanks very much for taking the time to do this interview with me, Steve. I really appreciate it, and I’m really looking forward to seeing the book.
FPI would like to thank both Pádraig and Steve for taking the time to share their thoughts with us. Pádraig has, with permission, posted up scans of Technical Vocabularies on his Alan Moore Glycon site, which you can see here. Somnium can be ordered from the Strange Attractor site.