Q&A with Ian R. MacLeod

Ian R. MacLeod, whose new novelette you can find in our current issue [on sale now], gives us some insight into his influences and inspirations—for “Ephemera” and his writing career in general.


Asimov’s Editor: As our readers will see, Jane Austen’s work plays a role in this story. Can you talk about how that came about?

Ian R. MacLeod: I have to admit that I’m not a great fan of Jane Austen. Yes, I can admire what she does in a technical sense, at the very least, in that she set a template for a certain kind of fiction (not to mention movie) whose popularity continues to this day. I can even appreciate that it’s no small feat to be frothily light and mildly funny. If she were described of as an interesting minor author, I’d probably be in agreement. But does she really say anything that was particularly interesting or new about humanity, even at the time her work was written, and within the narrow social confines within which she chose to set her works? I would argue not. Then there’s all the heritage nonsense and reverence which now gathers around her novels . . .

So, and having said that, I guess I’m left with the question of why I chose an early scene from Pride and Prejudice as the way to introduce KAT, the robot protagonist of my story, who’s basically a very lonely librarian. I think it was because I could see that, living with the rather grim realities she has to deal with all alone on her asteroid, I could fully understand why she might want to seek out some light relief. For me when it comes to humorists, it would probably be P.G. Wodehouse, but KAT’s not me. Then, of course, I wanted to choose a well-known classic which most readers will be generally aware of, even if they hadn’t read it, which considerably narrows the field. I suppose I could have had Kat imagining herself fighting against Napoleon in War and Peace, but somehow Pride and Prejudice seemed like a suitably daft yet reasonable book for an intelligent robot to have a particular fondness for, especially as it deals with the romantic love she clearly longs to experience.

AE: What is the story behind “Ephemera”?

IM: Another literary work was a kind of trigger for the idea—not Pride and Prejudice, but Shakespeare’s The Tempest. I wanted to portray this lonely figure existing on a kind of magic island amid some odd yet faithful recreations of works of fiction, and maybe a few monsters as well. From there, and after a couple of dead ends, the idea of an orbiting repository of all the world’s data of which KAT is the lonely custodian slowly evolved—not so much as a sudden aha as through finding a means that would make the idea work.


AE: Do you particularly relate to any of the characters in this story?

IM: Having already said that KAT’s taste for Jane Austen doesn’t reflect my own, a lot of her other preferences are very similar to mine, especially the musical ones. That, and she loves books, and works of fiction especially, and has found them to be the best way to make sense of life, in much the same way that I have. Then, of course, she has endless time on her own to do nothing else but read and appreciate great works of art. Which is one of those things you might dream of doing, but probably wouldn’t actually want to become real—at least without turning you a little mad, which I think is what has happened to KAT.


AE: How did the title for this piece come to you?

IM: Ephemera’s one of those words that you come across now and then, and understand in context, but have probably not given much thought to what it really means. At least, unless you’re a collector of ephemera, that is—and it dawned on me that that’s what writers (and readers, and human beings, and even some robots) are. They’re the small things that aren’t meant to last, but sometimes do, and often tell us more than the supposedly important stuff. I give the example in the story of the notes on scraps of wood that centurions sent from Hadrian’s Wall which the peaty soil somehow managed to preserve. There are party invitations, complaints about the weather, a request for a better pair of socks . . .


AE: What made you think of Asimov’s for this story? 

IM: Seemed like the obvious choice. I’ve always been happy to have my work appear in Asimov’s, ever since I made my first sale . . .


AE: What is your history with Asimov’s?

IM: . . . which was back in 1990, believe it or not, and a story called “Green.” I’ve been published semi-regularly, if not exactly prolifically, in Asimov’s ever since.


AE: How did you break into writing?

IM: It was basically something I always wanted to do. Either that, or become a professional musician or soccer player, and, even when it comes to typing. my hand-eye coordination isn’t that great. Then, I read a great deal, and tried to imitate the stuff I enjoyed, and kept on stupidly, doggedly writing my own stuff in my spare time, and found the courage to send that stuff off.


AE: What inspired you to start writing?

IM: Other writers, or at least their works. That, and the real world not seeming quite enough on its own.


AE: What other projects are you currently working on?

IM: A novel set in the near future. It’s provisionally called The Problem of Other Minds, because that’s what it deals with.


AE: If you could choose one SFnal universe to live in, what universe would it be, and why?

IM: When I was a kid, I always rather fancied moving to the Shire in Middle Earth, but then there’s the whole Dark Lord business going on, and the social structure does seem rather rigid. If I could widen the question slightly, I think it would be nice to live in Springfield as Homer Simpson. He and his family seem to have a lot of fun.


AE: What SFnal prediction would you like to see come true?

IM: SF to be more widely recognized as great literature that it is.


AE: How can our readers follow you and your writing? (IE: Social media handles, website URL . . .)

IM: I have a website at ianrmacleod.com and my Twitter handle is @ianrmacleod1.



Ian R. MacLeod has been writing award-winning fiction, and appearing in Asimov’s, for the best part of thirty years. He lives in the riverside town of Bewdley in England.

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