From the Parallel Worlds archives.
Michael Butterworth is a science fiction and fantasy writer and publisher based in Manchester. He was a key contributor to New Worlds magazine, author of the Hawklords and several Space 1999 novels, cofounder of Savoy Books, and publisher and editor of Corridor, Wordworks and later Corridor8 magazines. Jean-Paul Garnier chatted to him.
Tell us about your latest books, and about working with NULL23 and their unconventional approach to publishing.
I’m at work on a memoir of living with my father, who had OCD. Called The Sunshine Island it has a fantastical element in that he almost took my mother, pregnant with me, to a Caribbean island once occupied by Captain Morgan and later romanticised by the Pirates of the Caribbean films. We were to join a colony of escapees from the world who, like Dad, were obsessed with diet and health and wanted to found a utopia. He was a vegan, food reformer and bodybuilder. This was in the 1940s, when veganism was still a diet of the future.
One of his principle gurus was Edmond Székely, a Hungarian polymath and experimenter in natural living. In the mid-1930s Székely was mounting human-ethnological expeditions to the South Sea Islands in search of remote human tribes who might provide evidence of a mythical tree-living human ancestor he hypothesised, called Homo Sapiens Sylvanus, which lived on the raw food of the forest and [enjoyed] incredible lifespans. Accordingly, he surmised, fruits, herbs and vegetables were humankind’s natural diet, from which we had strayed. The island colony was devastated by malaria before it even got going, and we never went there; but throughout Dad’s life he tried to recreate what would have been, and ended living in a remote property high in the Welsh hills where he planted trees and grew his own food. When his energies failed him, he refused to accept reality. In my book I say a lot about early veganism, and also mental health. It’s got a very disturbing psychological story to it that I won’t go into here, but if you have read or seen The Mosquito Coast you will get an idea of how that father’s obsessions affected his family in a similar way.
In the new movements of the time the would-be colonists saw themselves as men and women of the future, every bit as much as science fiction (SF) people do.
“There is not much difference between writing memoir and my other New Wave writing.”
Gareth Jackson, who runs NULL23, is a UK artist-author who sometimes wears a publisher’s hat. He recently did two of mine: Butterworth, a collection of my New Worlds-era writings, and My Servant the Wind, a new novel based on my 1971 writing notebooks when the UK New Wave of SF was just past its peak. He has also published books by himself and American author William Weiss that sound warnings of environmental collapse, utilising the fold-in, cut-up techniques of William Burroughs. In addition he runs an online magazine called Speculative Fictions, comprising micro-texts by himself and others. These he designs in ways that bring out or complement meaning. Quite frankly he is a breath of fresh air, because without him I wouldn’t haven’t seen my work collected together like this, and illustrated with drawing and collage that could have come straight out of the pages of New Worlds. The books are produced through Amazon’s self-publishing platform, and are only available from there. He is ‘unconventional’ because he treats the titles as extensions of his art practice, in the sense that once published, that’s it — he’s finished with them. He’s not interested in the business side of conventional publishing, and won’t get involved in post-publication stuff like marketing in any shape or form.
You were a regular contributor to New Worlds magazine. Did you identify as a New Wave writer, and what was the most exciting thing about working within a new movement in literature and science fiction?
I contributed throughout the journal’s Michael Moorcock-related history, from the small compact paperbacks through the large-format editions of 1967–1970 (its high point), to its New Worlds Quarterly paperback phase and the very last samizdat editions in 1979. As a young person leaving school during the 1960s it seemed the world was about to change radically for the better, and we could be a part of it. New Worlds epitomised this for a writer already steeped in satire and science fiction, as I was. It was a very exciting moment in my life.
The New Wave as manifested in New Worlds was, at its apex, a self-contained blend of art, fiction, illustration, non-fiction and, not least, design. It was totally unique. There had been no other literary magazine like it before. The young writers like myself felt privileged to be taking part. The older writers saw it, like we did, as an opportunity to experiment, away from the expectations of SF orthodoxy and the market place. And of course it ended up influencing the market place, and the development of science fiction generally.
Tell us a bit about your literary experiments along the way, such as your work with Circularisation, and your motivations behind the work?
I’m a short-sprint writer, more expressionist poetic than narrative in the conventional sense, and very early on I learned to collage these texts to make longer works. This process has become more conscious as I’ve got older. At the time, I denied my works were experimental. I said portentously they were the “…precise, if non-rational statements of the moods and life of a literary outlaw”, but I can see why they were seen the way they were. For a start, I was behaving like an artist, but with text. It was actually the only way I could write, which is another reason why New Worlds was so important. Without it I doubt whether I would have found a platform.
“My main argument in the book is that ‘Blue Monday’ is arguably a product of the New Wave of SF, like cyberpunk and Alan Moore.”
‘Circularisation’ came about after I took a printing diploma and learned about planographic printing and applied the concept to writing, thus the revolving spokes of poetry on a flat circle that I collaged together with some whimsical text I’d written about a narrator and a vicar crossing the Channel in a small boat. The fragmented poetry is about a nuclear war, and contrasts with the chatter about conventional war in the boat, the first world trench war in particular when combatants were alleged to have been able to join together to celebrate Christmas. The point being made by the collage is that there is no Christmas at “white holocaustmas time”, and this thought may dawn on the conversationalists as the coast of France looms before them, their crossing almost complete.
You’ve collaborated with many authors, such as Michael Moorcock and J.G. Ballard. How did these collaborations come about, and what were some of the strengths and challenges of working with other authors?
With Jim Ballard, the collaboration came about when I submitted work to him for Ambit magazine, where he had just started as Literary Editor. He liked the contributions but thought I had crowded out their essence with unnecessary writing, and showed me how to condense them, or rather ‘sub’ them, in the manner of William Burroughs, whom he knew influenced me. He went through the MSS underlining lines and paragraphs he thought worth saving, and told me to “ditch the rest”. I did as he said, but after Jim had done all that work Ambit’s editor Martin Bax didn’t like them. They ended up being published in New Worlds, as ‘Concentrate 1’ and ‘Concentrate 2’. At the time, Jim had commenced writing his ‘condensed novels’ that would eventually make up The Atrocity Exhibition, so he treated my pieces in the same way as that. I was very lucky. I had caught him at the right moment.
The Moorcock collaboration was quite different. Having been sacked from two advertising jobs in Manchester where I lived with my two children (like Ballard, who was bringing up children as a single parent), I was set on a career in writing that I could do at home, to enable me to focus on my family. To help, Mike very kindly offered me a contract he had signed for a three-book SF fantasy series based on the rock band Hawkwind. He didn’t have the time to write the books. I accepted, and based them on his one-line description of the books: Hawkwind rocking in the ruins of London. He lent his name to the first book, and gave help with the names of the guitars, and scattered a bit of special dust over the opening chapter, but other than this he was very hands-off with me.
I learned a great deal from both authors, with Jim how to condense, and with Mike how to write a full-length book! The Time of the Hawklords is composed of dozens of short-burst texts that conform to a narrative thread. It was written to a tight deadline, and unfortunately I didn’t have sufficient time to rework it as I should have done. It’s very uneven, but it was my first novel. Unfortunately too, while it earned me the money I needed to look after my kids, it was reviewed as a Moorcock novel, and got a panning. Only one reviewer (Time Out) saw my flawed intentions and responded to them. He gave it a very positive review.
Along with writing many books, stories and poetry of your own you also wrote many of the tie-in novels for the Space 1999 franchise. As an unconventional author how did this job come up for you, and what was the experience like?
The Space 1999 Series Two novelisations arrived hot on the heels of the Hawklords books. I authored all six, with help from Jay Jeff Jones who wrote one of them. Piers Dudgeon, the editor at Star Books who commissioned the Moorcock/Butterworth books, asked me if I would like to take on these as well, and I accepted. They had to be written to even tighter deadlines, six books in five months, to tie-in with the televised broadcasts. I had no time to post-edit, and they were published as first drafts. The order in which the programmes were broadcast was not chronological, and the scripts I was given weren’t the finished shooting scripts, so the books differed quite considerably from the programmes. These errors were rectified when Mateo Latosa of US-based Powys Books commissioned me to re-write the books in the correct order in 2006.
The experience of writing both versions was fraught; working on the paperbacks I felt hell-bent, on the omnibus it felt like writing Homer’s Odyssey or Iliad in terms of length. I had to unpick the overarching narratives I’d given the episodes in the paperbacks (four episodes to a book) to make them read like self-contained works and restitch them into their new order, plus novelise an episode that had been left out of the broadcasts.
The ‘paperback writer’ experience was a phase in my career that lasted about two years. It served my purpose, my children grew up, and while I enjoyed writing the books I moved back to more ‘experimental’ writing.
“I was behaving like an artist, but with text. It was actually the only way I could write.”
How did you come to write a book about the band New Order, and what were the main differences between writing fiction and a book of this nature?
The Blue Monday Diaries was written a lot later in life, when I had enough experience to be able to write memoirs. The accounts of my father, and soon my mother, are other examples. I became friends with the band through Ian Curtis, when they were known as Joy Division. Ian shared an interest in Burroughs with me. The filmmaker Malcolm Whitehead lived above my room at my mother’s house, and through the floorboards I heard him making what turned out to be one of the first Joy Division films. The band came round to the house with their manager Rob Gretton to view the film at different stages, and I got to know them that way. Years later, after Ian had died, while New Order were recording Power Corruption and Lies and the hit single ‘Blue Monday’, I hung out with them for a couple of weeks. The book is based on a diary I kept. As well as the band, there is a lot about Manchester and Factory Records in the book, and the recording side of my own company Savoy Books, but my main argument in the book is that ‘Blue Monday’ is arguably a product of the New Wave of SF, like cyberpunk and Alan Moore (Watchmen) are.
There is not much difference between writing memoir and my other New Wave writing. My fiction has an autobiographical base, so I can move from one mode to the other quite easily, and sometimes intermix them, as I have done in My Servant the Wind where, amongst other things, I have intercut parts of a short memoir I wrote about Jim Ballard’s collaboration with me.
What current projects do you have going on and what can we expect from your upcoming books?
My main projects at the moment are The Sunshine Island, which is the memoir of my father, and Withersoever, a new novel that has developed from My Servant the Wind. I have also been commissioned by Mateo (Powys Books) to write an original Space 1999 episode, but that’s at least a year off. I plan to finish The Sunshine Island first, and then maybe work on the other two in tandem. I am also continuing to write for Emanations, Carter Kaplan’s bumper annual of SF-orientated writing, art and illustration that comes out of Brookline, Massachusetts. As well, I am compiling a collection of my poetry, The Complete Poems 1966–2020, which will be released by Space Cowboy Books in ‘21 or ‘22. Butterworth and My Servant the Wind can be bought from Amazon through my website at: www.michael-butterworth.co.uk.