On Tuesday the 9th of April I interviewed Alan Moore. This is the fifth time I’ve interviewed him, but I still get nervous every time, so if you could hear it, my voice would be a bit more high-pitched than usual, there at the start. In the first half of the interview we talk about The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, his forthcoming twelve-part series Providence, to be published by Avatar Press, his recklessly enormous novel Jerusalem, how he writes stuff, and then The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen again. Here goes…
PÓM: I’ll tell you what I want to do, is I want to start with… The League.
PÓM: Now, Nemo just came out.
PÓM: And Nemo is… am I right, there’s going to be a few of these little mini-episodes?
AM: I’m about sixteen pages away from having finished the second one in the series, which is called The Roses of Berlin, and Kevin [Kevin O’Neill] is about twelve pages into the artwork, so I shall be hopefully getting on next week and finishing that off. As for the third one, I’ve got no idea what we’re going to do for that, but that’s part of the charm of them, that it keeps it fresh. We weren’t sure if we were going to do three Janni Nemo stories when we commenced Heart of Ice, but we were so pleased with that, that that seems to be the way that our thoughts are going. It’ll probably be three individual 48-page volumes of the further exploits of Janni Nemo.
PÓM: OK, great. And do any of the rest of them turn up, or is it – does she meet any of the rest of the League?
AM: Not in the second volume, although she does meet with some of the League’s adversaries – only ones that have been mentioned in the Black Dossier and the [New Traveller’s] Almanac. So, in the third one, I don’t know. I mean, we’re having quite a lot of fun being able to do something away from the strict continuity of the League – that’s not to say that we don’t still enjoy the League, and we’ve got a blockbuster Volume Four lined up for when we finally finish these little… intermissions. But, at the same time, it is very refreshing, and I know that Kevin feels the same, to do a book without Mina in it, and without the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen brand upon it, and especially with the way that it’s been received. Me and Kevin are both very cheerful. From what I was hearing from Tony [Tony Bennett, of Knockabout], it had gone to number one in the graphic novel charts, and then had gone to number sixteen in The Bookseller fiction chart.
PÓM: Yeah, I know it went to number one in the graphic novel – I don’t keep up with this, but I saw on the Internet…
AM: Yeah, that’s the first time a comic book, as we used to call them, has actually been in The Bookseller top twenty.
PÓM: Is it? OK, good, good.
AM: So we must be doing something right. I mean, me and Kevin are very proud of the story, but it might be more the format that is drawing in readers, or even conceivably the fact that for the first time we’ve got at least a part of the story which is set in the United States, which might be attracting some of the American readers. I don’t know.
PÓM: The Lovecraft thing probably always pulls in a few as well.
AM: Well, yes, it’s never a bad thing. I mean, on the screen in front of me at the moment I’ve just got page fifteen of Providence number four.
PÓM: I’m going to come back to Providence actually…
AM: At the moment I am swamped in Lovecraft books about – I’ve got nearly every book of criticism that’s been written, that I’ve accumulated over these last six months, so I’m living and breathing Lovecraft. It’s a different take on it to the take that we had in Heart of Ice, which was more of the grand Antarctic adventure.
PÓM: OK, seeing as we’re talking about Providence… Is it a biography of Lovecraft, or what is it? Or a fantasised biography, or what is it exactly?
AM: I don’t want to talk too much about it, because, well, sometimes I have had problems in the past with – I’ll talk enthusiastically about whatever project I’m on, which won’t be coming out for at least another year, and the next thing, I’ll see some projects that are perhaps similar, and get out there. But what Providence is, is an attempt to write – at least, my attempt to write what I would consider to be a piece of ultimate Lovecraft fiction, in that it will be fiction, it will be a continuation of Neonomicon, it will in a sense be a prequel to that book, but it will also – slightly – be a sequel as well. It will be dealing with the world of Lovecraft’s American-based fiction, which tends to sort of rule out stories like The Mountains of Madness which, although, yes, it does have a strong Miskatonic element in it, is largely based in Antarctica.
But we’re going more for Lovecraft’s New England fiction, and a couple of the New York stories. We are kind of connecting these up intro what I think is an ingenious whole, even though I say so myself as shouldn’t, and it’s – and what we’re also doing, as well as answering all the problems, all the questions raised by Neonomicon – even if the readers hadn’t noticed that those questions had been raised – we’re going to be detailing this hopefully fresh view of Lovecraft’s universe, or at least its American component, and we’re also going to be working not only from Lovecraft’s published fiction, and his poems, and his letters, but also from his biography. I think that there’s a way that there could be a sort of parallel world biographical strand in this, that is never the less researched so thoroughly that it could have happened. It could have happened. I mean, the research on this has been – this is the most demanding research I’ve done easily since From Hell.
PÓM: Yeah, because a lot of your work isn’t, let’s say, heavily research-based, I mean, it’s coming out of your head…
AM: Obviously, if I’m doing something like Heart of Ice, I’m going to be checking out things like The Mountains of Madness, and a few old stories, and bits of stuff about Frank Reade Jr and Jack Wright Jr, and Antarctic fiction of the 1920s, of which there was quite a lot, because we didn’t know much about Antarctica then, and it was possible to say all sorts of things back then. With Providence, what tends to be happening is, it’s reminding me of an awful lot of my early work. In some ways, because it is the first extended horror narrative that I’ve done in an awful long while, it’s reminding me of Swamp Thing, particularly of the American Gothic narrative. Not that I thought that the American Gothic narrative was entirely successful, but the intentions of it were, in a rather callow and young fashion, to try and connect up American horror icons with American morality, American politics, American society. Like I say, I don’t think I did a really good job of that, but the intention was there…
PÓM: I – respectfully, I disagree…
AM: Well, thank you.
PÓM: I regularly take them down off the shelf, and to me they represent a point at which things changed, American comics changed. I know you have a difficult relationship with your old work…
AM: My old work, yeah, I do.
PÓM: … but, for me, I have a wonderful relationship with your old work.
AM: Well, I’m glad that somebody does, Pádraig, you know, and it’s good that it’s you.
PÓM: [Laughter] Thanks, Alan!
AM: It’s the thing that – with Providence, what I am doing is, I’m looking as much at American society in 1919 as I am looking at Lovecraft, in terms of my research, and I am connecting up Lovecraft’s themes, and Lovecraft’s personality, to a certain degree, with the tensions that were then incredibly evident in American society. So, there’s that element of it, but the amount of research that I’m doing into America 1919, into the gay culture of America 1919, into the way that American society was just beginning to cohere around that point, and the research upon the actual places, because this is set in a real America – there’s no Arkham in it, there’s no Innsmouth, but there are real locations which I believe are coherent sites for the Lovecraft stories that I’ve connected them to. Which means that, for example with issue four, I’ve been accumulating a huge wedge of reference material relating to the town of Athol in Massachusetts. I know more about Athol than probably people living there do. We’ve got the entire history of the town, its current situation, maps from different periods – I am doing my best to make this absolutely authentic.
Having run on at the mouth relatively recently about the appalling standards of research that exist throughout the rest of the comic book industry… I’ve said some very scornful things about some of the other writers in the industry and how – in my opinion – they are completely lazy, that they obviously do not have the respect for their own work that would lead them to actually put a bit of effort into it, and research some things, you know. Don’t just copy everything from an episode of Deadwood that you’ve seen, actually research the American West, find out how people talked. So, having been incredibly nasty and high-handed about many of the other professionals in the industry, I have kind of left myself wide open. If I don’t get every detail of this completely right, then I deserve to get a taste of my own medicine. But I don’t think that’s going to happen. We have been devilishly thorough in researching this. In the first issue there’s a brief glimpse of a gramophone record, and we’ve got the actual label to paste in, with the record’s serial number on it. I think we briefly see somebody reading a New York Times in the first issue, and it actually is the New York Times for June the 19th, 1919. I’m even – I’ve not actually done this yet, but I’m even trying to check out what the weather was like, which is difficult to establish other than in broad generalities, but I can at least sort out what the sky looked like, and what the phases of the moon were – which is something that Lovecraft used to take pains to do, so I feel that I should as well.
PÓM: Find out if the moon was gibbous, or something like that?
AM: Yes, that was it, he used to – yeah, gibbous, the gibbous moon, which is nearly, what, three-quarters full, waxing or waning?
PÓM: Yeah, three-quarters full. It’s a wonderfully Lovecraftian word.
AM: In one of his stories he changed all the dates in it because he found out that a gibbous moon hadn’t happened on the day that he said it had. He said, ‘this is a lesson for all aspiring writers of fiction.’ And I’ve taken that to heart.
AM: Yeah, it’s a very different proposition to Heart of Ice, but – yeah, it’s very much like Swamp Thing, it’s very very much like From Hell, in the creation of a authentically realised historical period. It’s actually a little bit like Watchmen in that it – the basic premise of Watchmen was, if these ridiculous characters, superheroes, actually existed in a real world, then what kind of characters would they be, and what kind of real world would it be to accommodate them. And it was also commenting upon superhero fiction and various other things while it was doing that.
Very similar things are happening with Providence. It’s obviously a completely different animal to anything like Watchmen, but there is that point of similarity. It’s starting from – if Lovecraft’s characters, if Lovecraft’s monsters, if Lovecraft’s locales actually existed in A Real World, then what would they really be like, and what would the world be like? So it’s the same premise, but it’s taken me into some very interesting new directions. So, yeah, Providence is taking up a lot of me time at the moment, as is – when I’ve finished typing – I think I’ll probably do up to page sixteen tonight – that’s very close now. And then, when I’ve had a bit of tea later on, I’ll probably be fed up of typing ‘cause I’ve been doing it since nine o’clock this morning, so I shall probably do a few more stanzas of the latest chapter of Jerusalem, which I’m doing, for some unknown reason, I’m doing it entirely in verse. It’s going to be ninety stanzas of six lines each in totality, and I’ve just finished stanza fifty the other night, so I’ll probably do another couple of them, just to keep that ticking over while I’m doing Providence.
PÓM: Actually, no, I’ll come back to Jerusalem in a minute – no, I’ll tell you what, tell me now! How is Jerusalem getting on? Howe close are we… How close am I to getting a copy in my hands?
AM: Well, it’s really really close. I’m on chapter 33 out of 35. I am more than halfway through chapter 33. I’ll tell you what, man, I deliberated and dithered for a long time on chapter 33. I have this final third of Jerusalem – it’s divided roughly into three sections – well, it’s divided precisely into three sections – but this final third, when I started it, I thought, I am already completely exhausted with this book. I’ve been doing it for years, I am exhausted. The most terrible thing that could happen is that that exhaustion shows in the finished book, because then it’s there for all time, marring the work, so I thought that the best way to avoid that would be to make this third section of the book really really really difficult for meself, by adopting a different style, a different voice, a whole different form, for each chapter, if necessary. So, I’ve been doing my, I’ve done me Lucia Joyce chapter, I’ve done me… I mean, that was years ago I did that. I’ve done my…
PÓM: Samuel Beckett?
AM: Yeah, the Samuel Beckett play. I’ve done a chapter that’s like a mid-sixties New Wave, New Worlds Michael Moorcock-era science fiction story. There’s one that’s like a piece of noir fiction. It’s all these different styles, so I was getting to chapter 33, I know what I’m going to be doing in chapter 34 and chapter 35, but chapter 33, I thought, how shall I handle this? And I was thinking of all these different ways that I could do it, and none of them really worked. People were suggesting things – they were saying ‘well, could you do it in an epistolatory form?’, you know, as letters. I was saying, nah, that for one thing this third book is all in the present tense, and it wouldn’t really work with the plot that I’ve got for this chapter, and then finally, when I was talking to Steve, I said – when I first thought about this chapter, and was wondering what kind of approach to take to it, the first thing that I thought, and immediately dismissed, was I could do it in verse. And I said, I think the reason I said that I immediately dismissed is because it would far too fucking difficult.
So, as I was talking to Steve I said, ‘Ah shit, I said, that’s what I’ve got to do, isn’t it?’ And Steve said ‘Yes, I fear so.’ That’s the most difficult thing to do, so that’s what I’ve got to do. So, yeah, like I say, I’m over halfway through with that, and it’s coming along nicely. I chose an unusual verse form, ABCCBA, which I don’t think anybody’s used before, and I’m starting to understand why, you know? But it has its charms, it has its charms. So, once I’ve got this out of the way, then I shall be getting on with chapter 34, which is actually the final chapter of the book. Chapter 35 is a epilogue that mirrors the prologue, but it’s coming together – the plot is actually all starting to come together in these final chapters, which is what I’d planned, but it’s still quite satisfying to see all the little threads starting to pay off. I’ve still got no idea how long it’ll be, Pádraig, I know I keep saying ‘Next year,’ although those words taste like ashes in my mouth, but when it’s done it will be quite a little barnstormer, I think. [Actually, he always said it was two years away from being finished, every time I asked him – PÓM]
PÓM: I’m looking forward to the day I have an actual copy in my actual hand, you know?
AM: I’m looking forward to hearing what you think of it. You’ll be probably one of the few people who actually gets all the way through it. I was thinking of having a blurb on the back saying ‘If you only read one book in your life, make it this one, and if you make it this one, you will only read one book in your life.’ No, that’s coming along very very well. I’m really pleased with the way that it’s turning out. Once I’d decided, once I made the tough decision to do it in verse, and decided that was the way to do it, and started to apply myself, I found that it was actually a lot of fun. Kind of brain-twisting fun, but fun none the less.
PÓM: Seeing as we’re talking about that, and you were talking about Providence – when you’re writing, when you start something, do you know basically what’s going to happen all the way through, and how it’s all going to end, or what?
AM: Well, with Providence the answer is, yeah, I kind of know, I know how it’s all going to end, down to some very very fine tiny details. I know the order of the stories that I’m going to be approaching in the course of this twelve issue series. I know roughly the themes that I’m going to be exploring in those issues, like for example in issue three it deals with stories that have got a kind of – it’s a storyline that has got a relationship to Lovecraft’s Shadow over Innsmouth, and I knew that one of the themes of that story would be the fear of miscegenation, fear of interbreeding, the fear of American culture being swamped by the massive wave of immigrants that America had had between 1890 and 1910, bigger than any before or since, and so a lot of the white middle class – well, certainly the New Englanders – were very uneasy about all that. They were frightened of, that instead of being assimilated into American culture, these new immigrant groups would instead assimilate American culture into their cultures, their mongrel cultures, as HP Lovecraft used to charmingly refer to them. So, I knew that that was going to be a big part of the story.
I hadn’t really got the substance of the story in place because, if I’d got everything in place, there’d be no point in writing it – well, there’d be no fun in writing it. So, with all of these stories, yes, I knew this fourth one was going to related to The Dunwich Horror, but I haven’t got more than the vaguest idea of what the plot details will be like. I know what kind of information I had to impart in this story, and I thought it’d be fun to mess around with Wilbur Whateley, or something like that. But, no, I haven’t got the shape in place until I actually started writing the story. I’ve got an overall pattern very well worked out, but I like to leave room for the spontaneous ideas and some space to let them play out properly. So it’s a mixture of the two, Pádraig.
PÓM: Actually, I’m going to go back to the League, because I still have notes here about the League. What did you think about the reception for Century 2009, there was a lot of hoo-hah about it allegedly being about Harry Potter, for instance, all of that? What did you make of that?
AM: Well, [laughs], there wasn’t really much I could make out of that. It was certainly nothing that bothered anybody outside of a couple of writers for The Independent. We never heard any problems from our end. I think it was a quite legitimate storyline, and it said everything that we wanted it to say. The things that I did hear in a couple of the reviews that I got sent of the League 2009, were a couple of people who were talking about, specifically about the line where I’ve got Mina saying, ‘how did culture fall apart in a hundred years?’ and they were saying, ‘This is easily the most reactionary line Alan Moore has ever written.’ This is the equivalent of saying, ‘It were all fields around here when I were a lad.’ They may have understood me too quickly.
I would say, that if you’re talking about a line of progress, if it can be called progress, that runs from Berthold Brecht’s Threepenny Opera, to Donald Cammell’s Performance, to Harry Potter, I don’t think you can really see that as anything but a decline. I will also point out that if you’ve got, I believe twenty percent of young people polled said that they would be embarrassed if their mates caught them reading. That would seem to me to be a decline, and also I would say that if you’ve got the Avengers movie as one of the most eagerly attended recent movies, and if most of those attendees were adults, which I believe they were, then if you’ve got a huge number of contemporary adults going to watch a film containing characters and storylines that were meant for the entertainment of eleven year old boys fifty years ago, then I’ve got to say, there’s something badly wrong there, isn’t there? This is not actually cultural progress. Anyway, that was my feelings. Yes, I’d stand by the sentiments expressed in League 2009. I think that it was something that possibly needed saying. Me and Kevin were very pleased with it, and like I say, we’ve got an absolutely humongous book four.
PÓM: Yes, I was going to ask you – what are you going to tell me about Volume Four?
AM: I’m not going to tell you much about it. I would say that it would probably continue where volume three left off, time-wise, so it would probably start in 2009, perhaps 2010.
PÓM: 2009, let’s see, what have we got, the Nautilus… am I right in thinking the Nautilus is about to head off into space?
AM: Well, I can’t comment upon that. There’s a nuclear Nautilus mentioned at the end of 2009, and he talks about building a new Nautilus, but the details of that, that’s something that I shall leave for volume four.
PÓM: Fair enough, fair enough. I just kinda thought, it seemed to me that the possibility existed that they might be about to go off into space, but, as you say…
AM: There’s all sorts of possibilities for the League, you know what I mean? We could really take this anywhere.
PÓM: Yeah, of course, of course.
AM: Probably after book four, we would be leaving the present day and the future alone for a little while. We might wanna go back and explore some of the previous eras of the League. Again, we might change our minds.
PÓM: Are we going to see the League travelling in time, for instance?
AM: Probably not. Probably not, because that does raise continuity problems. I know everybody would love to see, oh, I don’t know, the current league meeting the 1890s league, just like the Avengers did once…
PÓM: All the JLAs and JSAs…
AM: It’s a comic book thing, but, nah, it’s not really going to happen. That’s not really where our interests in the League lie. I remember a review of the Black Dossier which was saying ‘oh, this is all so – there’s all this writing in it, and what’s worse is they’ve even written about the French and German groups as a text story, the foreign counterparts of the League, when Alan Moore must have known that all of his fans, they’d much rather see that as a comic strip than read about it in a text piece,’ which is rather missing the point. We included – there’s no point in doing – we’ve done Les Hommes Mystérieux, we know the details of the story as a text piece. Yes, you could have the League against their evil counterparts, which has been done in every superhero team book since Sgt Fury, included. The thing is the League actually isn’t a superhero team book. I know that for some people, old conventions die hard, and it’s difficult for them to see anything beyond that, but that’s not what we’re doing. It’s a much more literary thing than that, a much more cultural thing, and we’ll continue to tell it in the way that we feel that it should be told.
Les Hommes Mystérieux
AM: I was using the Almanac as a source for that story. When I came across that bit in the Almanac, and I thought, oh, this is interesting, this failed journey to Antarctica by Janni’s dad, it would be something that she might feel that she needs to do, and it all came from there. I was particularly pleased – yeah, it’s nice to get in some of those places that are only referred to in the Almanac, like Megapatagonia – did you notice Dogtanian?
PÓM: I did of course, yes!
AM: I thought, if you’re going to have dog-headed humanoids talking backwards French, then Dogtanian probably ought to be in there.
PÓM: Yes, I was – you know, people like Jess Nevins, we all play this annotation game, he compiles them on the Internet and we all do our best to send him in everything we can spot, which is good fun. Jess says hello, by the way.
AM: Do say hello to Jess when you speak to him next. Tell him that book four is coming out I think early next year. That’s what Tony told me last time I spoke to him.
PÓM: Book four of the League?
AM: Oh, sorry, Volume Three, the collection.
PÓM: Oh, yeah. The collection of…
AM: I was getting a bit ahead of meself there! I think that’s out early next year, so I shall look forward to seeing Jess’s next volume of his annotations then.
PÓM: Yeah, the other thing I was going to say to you was, I’ve been actually using the League as a reading list, I’ve been reading my way through all the stuff, which is… there’s a lot of those Victoria-era adventure novels which are crackingly good.
AM: Oh yeah, absolutely.
PÓM: Anyway, OK, I’m leaving all of that behind…
In part two, we talk about Jimmy’s End, Comedians and Scientists, The Moon and Serpent Bumper Book of Magic, Margaret Thatcher, and the impact of the Fibonacci Sequence on Grandfatherhood. Here. Soon.
Outside Mind image by Gary Spencer Millidge