John Crowley: Great Novelist and Master of Fantastika
Author of Little, Big—Winner of the World Fantasy Award
John Crowley is an American author of fantasy, science fiction and mainstream fiction. He is best known as the author of Little, Big (1981), which received the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel and has been called "a neglected masterpiece" by Harold Bloom, and his Ægypt series of novels which revolve around the same themes of Hermeticism, memory, families and religion.
Fantasy isn’t a genre I read or particularly like. John Crowley however has hooked me in with his new fantastika novel Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr.
Because I don’t read or like fantasy it was only recently that I came across his first book Little Big through the good graces of a friend, and which I now count as one of the great novels that I’ve read in my lifetime.
His latest book (the title of which includes Ka, the world of crows, and also Ymr, the world of humans) is an epic tale. It takes us on a journey through human history starting with the Celts, moving on to the Romans, then to the Native Americans, further even to the Civil War, and then briefly to a modern civilization, whose people are in the process of destroying it. He does this through the eyes of a very wise crow, Dar Oakley, whose persona he develops with the minimum of anthropomorphism.
Throughout the story of Ka, Dar Oakley tries in vain through many lifetimes, as he feasts on their dead flesh, to understand the ways of People.
“It can’t be they’d ever do such a thing again, though? Would they?” “Well, I don’t know,” Dar Oakley said,” you never know about People. You can never come to the end of what they’d do, or stop doing.”
“He had thought the story was theirs, People’s, that he was in it by chance, somehow impelled into it by reasons not his, that it was a thing torn out of Ymr that shouldn’t be in Ka at all."
“This is what it is to be of the People. It isn’t enough to get sustenance and outdo others and evade predators, engender young, stay alive. Whatever band or tribe or nation of People is yours, some number among you have to do work that protects the others from threats they can’t see; that ensures their safety as they pass from life into death; that earns the favor of beings who can change the weather and raise the winds, stop the sun in the sky to light a path. At the Abbey, Dar Oakley came to remember that he actually already knew this about People, though not how he had learned it; and he has described it all to me, though of course I know it too, we all know it."
I have never read a writer quite like Crowley as he seamlessly hooks you into his narrative, so much so that it’s difficult to put his books down once you’ve started reading them.
I think of Crowley in the same school as another of my favorite writers Gabriel Garcia Marquez. He is to me a writer’s writer and that’s why I wanted to learn more about him.
Felicia Harley: How did you know you wanted to become a writer?
John Crowley: Well, I have conceived and written things since I was eight or nine. My first novel was called The Bloody Knife and turned on the apparition in the night sky above a great city (I lived in a small town) of a huge bloody knife. Next day dreadful things were discovered to have happened. (I think it was four or five pages long—I could never work up an explanation.) Through high school I wrote poetry and fiction and plays. But when I left college I wanted to be a filmmaker. I found out I was better as a writer.
Who are your favorite all time writers and why?
Crowley: In approximate time order as I discovered them: Alan Devoe, a nature writer, for the great calm wisdom and goodness he projected. Kenneth Grahame, whose Wind in the Willows created seemingly effortlessly and exquisite (and in literal terms paradoxical) Eden. Walt Kelly, Pogo, for similar reasons but all-American ones. T.H. White, The Once and Future King et seq. Shakespeare (honestly!). Vladimir Nabokov: I read Lolita when I was 16, assuming it was a dirty book, which it is in its way, and became entranced with the language. But after that age I mostly read authors singly; I have all-time favorite books but no all-time favorite writers.
These would include (in no particular order) Lolita, Nabokov; TheWapshot Chronicle, John Cheever; V., Thomas Pynchon; Shelley: The Pursuit, Richard Holmes; A High Wind in Jamaica, Richard Hughes; The Art of Memory, Francis Yates; One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez; Labyrinths and Ficciones, Jorge Luis Borges; Orlando, Virginia Woolf; The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin; Modern English Usage, Fowler; Giles Goat-boy, John Barth. Not all of these would I care to read again (most I have read more than once, though) and I would not be surprised to remember, suddenly, one or three that I left out, that were as important to me as these.
Would you say Little Big and Ka are in the fantasy or magical realism genre or neither?
Crowley: I’d like to say that they are sui generis but it’s always hard to make a case for that. Both have to be included in what European critics label fantastika, a flexible name which would include everything from Kafka to Marquez, H.P. Lovecraft to Ursula K. Le Guin, Borges to Thomas Pynchon to George Saunders, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to Nabokov’s Ada.
Would you agree that most popular writers nowadays in the science fiction and fantasy genre aren’t concerned with writing literature? But perhaps there are some however that come to mind?
Crowley: All genre writers have a larger allegiance to the stuff of their genre than they do to literary aims. They are aware that their work can have huge power and reach, even if the writing-as-writing is somewhat workaday. But some who write mostly in genre can and do have great literary power, and some use it in work that’s unambiguously genre: Elizabeth Hand, Gene Wolfe, Thomas M. Disch, N.K. Jemisin.
Describe your writing style and how it’s evolved over the years to someone who has never read your books?
Crowley: Writing style and manner, how a writer achieves effects, seem to be part of a writer’s soul—even in moments when they’re cribbing or imitating other writers. None of my books (except for the four volumes of the Ægypt Cycle) resemble the others in style, or manner. On the whole though I have a concern with language and its possibilities, a belief in its richness and a trust in it, I guess. I want to show what language can do.
What advice would you give to young writers just starting off?
Crowley: Read. Read everything. History, science, biography, memoir, fiction, fictionalized history. Read as a writer: Ask questions. Why was this done in this way? Is this way of telling this story right or wrong? Why is this so boring/interesting/hopelessly complex? In the meantime, write your own stories. When you can’t create, imitate.
Could television series be a primary medium through which writers could promote their books? For instance Margaret Atwood’s books are gaining new audiences because of the two recent TV series.
Crowley: First write the book. A book, if popular and shaped in certain stereotyped ways, can be a transmission medium to TV and films.
Most people, other than the retired, have little time to read books, and many of these older audiences don’t want to read fantasy or science fiction, would you say that’s true or false?
Crowley: It may be true. On the other hand, fans of science fiction and fantasy young and old are the greediest consumers of books I’m aware of. They devour books at a great rate, both the commonplace and the offbeat. They read far more than I do, God bless ‘em.
Why did you choose the Faery World to write about in Little, Big? And why a crow to tell the story in Ka?
Crowley: It might be more true to say that the fairies chose me. I was trying to write a long family chronicle novel, and I wanted my family to have some sort of special thing, some secret knowledge passed on from generation to generation. I couldn’t think what it could be. I can remember the day when somehow thoughts about the book intersected in my mind with some Arthur Rackham fairy pictures I’d seen, and the two just fell together. I can almost remember the street I was on.
As to the origin of Ka—well, all of my books seem to have very long lead time: an intimation of something—a gang of crows in a city, like a pirate crew—can take years to ripen. I have long loved and admired crows as smart, snarky, vociferous, and loud. The idea of a crow who earns an ambiguous immortality came when it was time to write the book.
What is it that you most like about Ka?
Crowley: What I like most is that it’s done. For some reason it was very hard to write. (My previous novel, Four Freedoms, was the easiest and pleasantest book to write of all my brood.) I’m happy with how it evolved; I am happy that I could imagine an ending for it that (in my opinion anyway) instead of surprising is simply right.
Tell me a little more about Little Big and Ka?
Both books are grounded in the human condition and the human situation as it is now—most novels are—and a grounding in actualities both of the heart and of the social world seems necessary to me, as it does to most others. But both books aim to be works of art—and the rubric I take from my first master (whom I have rarely obeyed in any literal way), Vladimir Nabokov:
“For me,” he says, “a novel exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being somehow, somewhere connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm.” If books (my books) “hold a mirror up to human nature” as Hamlet says, then it is an image that (as Lewis Carroll knew) is always reversed.
What purpose can writers fulfill in moving us forward in our understanding of ourselves?
Crowley: In answer, I think the purpose of writers is to produce work that has no designs upon us, that do not aim to convince or convert or instruct us; works that follow their own aesthetic imperatives and no others, works that are good but can’t really be said to do good, that are superfluous to the economics and politics of utility, though they may be commodities, even popular ones in high demand. They may seem to have no purpose, but when arts die, when they are perverted to propaganda or mere profit, our lives grow worse, even if—and this is the worst—we can’t discern this.
Anything else you’d like to tell me?
Crowley: Looking over what I did tell you, I seem to have said all that at the moment I can think of. Writers, and other artists, have as much right to opinions about the world as anybody, but—except for their opinions about their practice—are as likely as anybody to be foolish or wrong. So I’ll stop.
Writer Felicity Harley is the author of The Burning Years.
"This brilliant book gripped me from beginning to end. The author has extrapolated a vision of the future that is based on her extensive scientific research. This illuminates her vision with plausible future scenarios that both fascinate and alarm. Thank you Ms. Harley, for this journey into a dystopian future that also weaves hope in the resourcefulness and creativity of your finely drawn characters, while at the same time awakening your readers to the present day urgency of climate activism."
About the author
Felicity Harley is a polished public speaker, published journalist, and writer. Along with her career as a nonprofit executive, she served for twenty years on the board of Curbstone Press, an internationally recognized publishing house.