31 July 2004

A Conversation with Cheryl Morgan

Cheryl Morgan is currently nominated for two Hugo awards: for best fan writer and for her fanzine Emerald City. I've been reading Emerald City for a year or so, and corresponding with Cheryl for nearly as long, but knew very little about her. An interview, I thought, might clear some things up.

So I started out by insulting her.

I have the impression, which may be inaccurate, that you are Scottish but live in California. Should I have paid better attention and not make assumptions?
Yes, most definitely. My family is Welsh, but they had the bad taste to have me born just over the Severn Estuary in England. I know that many Americans don't know where Wales is, but if you think about how upset Canadians get when you describe them as American you'll understand how I react to the usual American habit of conflating Britain and England.

I have no connection with Scotland whatsoever, aside from being very fond of their whisky. I strongly recommend that you avoid all Scotsmen for the next few years as they will have taken your question above as a mortal insult to their people.

As for living in California, I used to, but since losing my job there I am now homeless again. I do still spend as much time as I can in California, but I cannot be legally resident there. Technically I am resident in the UK, but I can't afford a home here so I have to scrounge off family and friends.
Did Emerald City begin as a print fanzine, or has it always been on the Web?
Neither. Emerald City began when I had just moved to Australia. I wanted a way to keep in touch with folks back in the UK, and the new American friends I had made at the Glasgow Worldcon, so I started a fanzine. Not being able to afford to print it and post it around the world, I took to emailing it to people instead. Little did I know that I was treading on sacred fannish traditions by doing this. Some time later I discovered HTML and thought it might be fun to put the zine on the Web, thereby getting myself into even deeper trouble with fanzine fandom.
How has Emerald City evolved since its early days?
Well, it wasn't intended to be a book review magazine. I thought it would probably be more of a "Pom's view of Australia" thing. But I discovered that I enjoyed doing book reviews. Also I wanted to promote some of the really good Australian writers that I'd discovered. And probably the most significant evolution is that I've learned a lot about book reviewing.
You keep up a monthly schedule, and each issue is filled with reviews and interviews and news. A lot of work for one person. How do you still manage to go to conventions, do other work, and live?
I'm self-employed, and currently have very little work, so I have nothing else do to. And I am gradually sinking deeper into debt.
Various reviewers have certain creeds -- some won't review books they don't like, some won't review books they like, some see their job simply as telling readers whether a book is worth buying, etc. Do you have any such goals or taboos for yourself?
I try not to review books that I know I won't like. Everyone has their blind spots. Some books, no matter how well written, don't appeal. And other books, no matter how popular, don't fit my definition of a good read. Romance is a good example. I've tried reading Catherine Asaro, but I keep ending up wanting to slap the heroine round the head. I knew that my parents should never have let me read Swallows and Amazons when I was a kid. I did once say in the zine that I didn't review military SF because I didn't enjoy it. I got hate mail about that.
Are there any British books that haven't made it to the States that you think we should be more aware of? Any U.S. books you think non-U.S. readers should strive to find?
I'm pleased to see that M. John Harrison is now getting published in the US. The Course of the Heart, just out from Nightshade, is one of the best fantasy books ever written, and Light is a brilliant piece of SF. The British writers that the US is most missing out on right now are Justina Robson (whose Natural History recently placed second in the John W. Campbell Memorial Award) and Jon Courtenay Grimwood. However, both will be seeing publication from Bantam in 2005 and I look forward to US readers being able to enjoy their work.

The main problem for people outside of the UK is that they find it difficult to get hold of books published by small presses. Big name US writers such as Neal Stephenson, George RR Martin, Lois McMaster Bujold and Dan Simmons get re-printed around the world. But much of the best SF&F being published in the US today comes from publishers such as Prime, Nightshade, Small Beer and so on. Even specialist SF bookstores in the UK (of which there are very few left) tend not to carry that stuff. Some of the small press output doesn't even get onto Amazon UK.
Conventional wisdom is that meeting writers whose works you admire can be dangerous, since most good writers are not as interesting as their books are. Have you met any writers whom you like as much as their books?
I guess I must be unconventional then, because I find most writers to be very interesting people. I've got on well with almost all of the big name writers I have met. I should put in a special word here for John C. Wright who has been very friendly and gracious in email exchanges even though I panned his books. But I suspect that "conventional wisdom" comes out of the mainstream. I'm sure that readers are disappointed at discovering that not all thriller writers are like Hemmingway, for example, or that not all chick lit writers are drop-dead-gorgeous twenty-somethings with a string of male model boyfriends. The great thing about the SF&F community is that both writers and fans are fascinated by ideas. No one expects Larry Niven to have a lifestyle like Louis Wu, but they do expect him to know a bit about physics.
Do any current trends in SF&F excite or frighten you?
Squid. Squid are very exciting. And frightening. They taste good too.
Finally, who would you like to write the SF/F novel of your life?
Lyda Morehouse.

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