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John Crowley’s Little, Big, the most recent selection for The A.V. Club’s Wrapped Up In Books virtual book club, is the kind of complex, richly layered novel that inspires fans for life. The fantastical story of a family living under the influence of an unseen world, Big won the World Fantasy Award in 1982, and literary critic Harold Bloom called it “a neglected masterpiece.” A 25th-anniversary edition of the book, with an essay by Bloom and art by Peter Milton, is coming out this fall. The A.V. Club recently spoke with Crowley through e-mail and a phone interview about Little, Big’s influences, the curious myopia of fairies, and the ways in which a writer’s intentions aren’t always what they seem. Crowley’s latest novel, Four Freedoms, was published by William Morrow in May 2009.
The A.V. Club: In Little, Big, you go to great lengths to avoid spelling things out. How important was it to you that readers understood the central narrative?
John Crowley: I write in expectation that readers want to participate in a kind of two-sided game: They are trying to guess what I am up to—what the story’s up to—and I’m giving them clues and matter to keep them interested without giving everything away at the start. Even the rules, if any, of the game are for the reader to discover. It’s very important to me that readers win the game: i.e., come to understand what’s at stake, perhaps all in a moment (James Joyce’s “epiphany,” which happens both to the character and the reader) and perhaps in a gradual accumulation. I can’t guarantee readers will win in that sense, or that all of them will; and I of course want to leave some mysterious and unresolved remainder. Otherwise, a novel isn’t very much like life, and even novels with fairies in them ought to be like life. I thought the central narrative was clear by the end, when Smoky understands just as he dies that the Tale is “back there”—that is, within the book you’ve just read, the final place to which all the characters are headed.
AVC: How hard was it to maintain forward momentum while keeping things so oblique? Did you find yourself telling too much in some places, and having to trim bits down?
JC: I assumed that the forward momentum was the characters’ various puzzlements as to what kind of universe they were in, which led them in different directions, and through different adventures. The obliquity was the story: What will they learn, and by what journeys? Getting annoyed that the author doesn’t simply lay out the terms at the beginning is like asking that God do the same with the universe before we take up our lives; the author is the god of a novel’s universe, and neither the universe nor a great novel (which this was in ambition, at least) is like checkers. Realistic novels simply pretend that the rules of their invented worlds are identical to the rules of actual life, but that’s a ruse. I’ve always had a compassion for characters in novels—the sense that they are, whatever they might think, living in a world that has a shape they don’t know and can’t finally alter. I wondered what it would be like to write a book in which they almost—though never quite—understand their condition. I thought it would be both funny and touching.
AVC: Did you have a clear idea of what was going on behind the scenes, in the fairy world? Were there elements that remained ambiguous even for you?
JC: Of course there were. Part of writing any novel resembles constructing those old-fashioned realistic stage-sets where up front are solidly made trees and house-fronts and doors that open, and farther back, painted ones, and then scrims and vague shapes. I knew what I needed to know. I was once asked by a reader if I could supply the remaining cards in the Least Trumps, and of course I had no idea what the others were—I made them up as I needed them. Like the fairies, I had a good idea of the future (where I was headed), and had to rack my brains to construct the past that would lead to it. The idea of a war between the fairy world and our world, I never tried to work out, or even decide if in fact there was one going on—it was only important that some on both sides thought there was. Lilac, I think, doesn’t believe in it, and only uses it to draw her family on.
AVC: The central conflict in Little, Big is less a matter of discovery than one of trust and patience. Were you trying to create a more realistic fantasy novel?
JC: This is kind of odd to say, I suppose, but I never really thought of it as a fantasy novel. It’s not like I thought it was realistic. But I never—it started to be written in the early ’70s. I had never really read much science fiction, fantasy. I hadn’t yet read Lord Of The Rings, or any of the standard things that were coming out. I was just getting interested in it. They were just reappearing. The classic fantasies were appearing in Ballantine editions, and some of the new writers were coming along who would form the new fantasy fiction that we know today. But I wasn’t really reading any of that stuff. I didn’t really know much about it at all. So I wasn’t thinking of this as within or in opposition to an ongoing trend in genre writing. I didn’t really know much about any of that. I just wanted to write what I wanted to write, I guess.
But as far as thinking of them as having a certain degree of action within a fixed framework that’s determined by the Tale, yes, I think that’s true. But rather than trying to oppose it, to attach the strictures, the structures of fantasy literature, where everything is a fixed form the beginning, I’m not sure that applies so much. The book is a kind of re-imagining those forces in a new way. [Author and critic] Roz Kaveney said about the book at one point, about genre literature in general, it’s not that the writer struggles to make everything come out newly in a different way. The struggle is to come to the same conclusions with passion and originality that make them seem new. I think that’s really more what I was up to. I was trying to make something even I knew of, a variation of old fairy tales, and make them come out new. So that you could read them and not know for a long time you were existing in a fairy tale, just like the characters don’t know.
AVC: If you weren’t reading much modern fantasy, what were some of the big influences for this novel?
JC: The novels whose company I wished mine to join—I was young and impertinent—were Joyce’s Ulysses and Thomas Pynchon’s V. and Vladimir Nabokov’s Ada. Like mine, these are books with occult shapes to discover rather than unfolding plots to follow. I had in mind also those long family-chronicle novels like, say, John Galsworthy’s, which I really hadn’t read much of. Only instead of beginning in the past and reaching the present, mine would begin in the present and go on into the future. It was published so long ago that this aspect is now very muddied, and in the end wasn’t so important even to me.
I was influenced by Lewis Carroll, whose work (including the little-read Sylvie And Bruno) is much referenced. My fairies in general come from the work of the illustrator Arthur Rackham—I wanted to see if I could get readers to take those Victorian sprites seriously as agents of fate. Northrop Frye’s book The Secular Scripture, I read in the midst of the writing, and I can’t say it was an influence so much as an explanation of what I was up to.
It’s not an influence, exactly, but midway through the work of conceiving the book and writing its beginnings, I discovered the mystical Sufi text “The Parliament Of The Birds.” It’s very short, and anyone wanting to know what I was up to in general might want to read it. Insofar as there is a plot to my book, it comes directly from there.
AVC: Pynchon’s V. has a very definite perspective on the negative presence of the inanimate in the natural world. Is that a perspective you shared in Little, Big?
JC: I think the opposition between city and country, between technological created world and natural world, has to be part of any story of this kind. What I thought was interestingly new about it was that the City in my book was actually described in the rubric of the wild woods. So the country, and the woods, in all fairy tales and fantasies, that’s where you strike out to get your desire and get the gold and defeat the dragons and have adventures. Whereas in the city, the town, someplace that you’re surrounded by walls and human habitations and people and order and government and things like that, everything is safe. However, in the world that I picture, and the world that the characters think they entered into, the woods and the country are safe, and without any danger, really, whereas the City is the realm of danger and confusion and evil, but also the realm of adventure and success and treasure. That’s what younger Auberon goes to the City to find out, as though he’s an adventurer entering into the wild wood. That was just an opposition I enjoyed reversing. I don’t think I have any opinions about it, if you see what I mean.
AVC: The latter half of the book, with Auberon in the City, has a stronger through-line, like a longer narrative we’re just reaching the climax of. Was this by design?
JC: I think it arose out of the writing. The book took almost 10 years to write, overall, from the first intimations that I had of it, so it changed a lot during the course of its evolution. When the story turned to Auberon in the City, you’ll notice that the previous chapter ended with baby Lilac being snatched by the fairies. Then you go to the next section of the book, and the first line of the next chapter is, “25 years passed.” As though by waving my authorial hand, I can just get rid of 25 years. I really enjoyed doing that. And I was new to a lot of these kinds of novelistic tricks, and I enjoyed manipulating them, so I enjoyed seeing 25 years pass. But then I realized, of course, I couldn’t get away with that, and had to back up and tell the story of those 25 years anyway by means of flashback, so the pleasure was short-lived. [Laughs.] I think that, sad to say, it does narrow it down, it does tighten down, and the family does get left behind a bit as Auberon and Sylvie work out their destinies. I suppose you could say that it does do that, and it does it in the city rather than in the country.
One funny thing, biographically speaking, is that I wrote most of the earlier scenes, the whole earlier part that’s all set in the country, while I was living in the city in the 1970s. It was when I moved to the country—I moved to northwestern Massachusetts in 1977, and it was after that that most of the city scenes were written. I dunno what that means, but there you go.
AVC: Little, Big is practically the definition of a “timeless” narrative, and yet it references modern technology. Was this an attempt to integrate the world today into the myths of the past?
JC: As I said, it was supposed to begin in the present (roughly 1970, when I began working on it) and go on into the future, though I don’t think I worked out that aspect very completely, and by this time, it all looks like sorta-now. I suppose it’s fair to say that it integrates myths of the past into the world today, but a lot of those “myths” are simply the common elements of story, or what Northrop Frye calls “romance”—journeys, and prophecies, and magic helpers, and Destinies, and divided lovers, and hidden princes (or princesses!) who come at last into their kingdoms. I don’t perceive a disconnect as radical as, say, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, or even [Stephen King’s novel series] The Dark Tower.
AVC: Near the end of the book, Auberon has taken to churning out soap-opera scripts that use elements of the Tale. Is this a criticism of modern storytelling?
JC: I don’t think it was a criticism of anything. I had the idea at the time that the soap-opera format—endless complications punctuated with partial resolutions—could be turned to serious artistic purposes, and I was right, though it’s taken ’til the present decade to be proved, via Deadwood and Six Feet Under and the like. And of course as Auberon writes it, it is simply the Tale in another form—inescapable. I liked it that while all the characters in the “upper” story had allegorical/symbolic animal/nature names, all the soap-opera characters had ordinary real-life names.
AVC: Has anyone ever approached you about trying to adapt Little, Big into another medium?
JC: A couple people have. There was one woman who tried for many years to get interest in it, and was never quite able to, and now, someone else has taken it up. An agent in Hollywood is trying his best to work it out. I mean, I think it’s a somewhat impossible job, in some ways, to re-create it on film. I think you could pick out a thread out of it and follow it and make it satisfying.
There’s actually one movie that resembles it that I found very gratifying. In fact, I think there’s a scene in it that’s actually taken from my book, though it’s not enough to sue anybody or anything. It’s called FairyTale: A True Story, but it’s actually a movie about those two little girls—it’s a true story—who took fairy photographs. One Australian girl, and one English girl who she was visiting in England, and the photographs they took of fairies. The movie assumes that the fairy photographs are actually really of Faery. Those photographs are actually the source of the photographs in Little, Big, that the older Auberon takes. Everybody was interested in the fairy photographs; Arthur Conan Doyle was very big on the photographs, and he thought it proved that they really were real. There’s one scene in the movie when a guy from the Theosophical Society is talking to some of the people about these fairy photographs, and he’s talking about the different kinds of beings in the world. There’s dryads for the woods and naiads for the water and salamanders for the fire, and there’s a passage from my book where Dr. Bramble says the same thing. [Laughs.] I was kind of amazed. Anyone could say it, it really is in theosophical literature. I didn’t make it up, so I guess you could find it someplace else. But somehow I suspect it came out of my book.
AVC: Were the photographs the older Auberon takes of the girls a reference to Lewis Carroll’s photography and his relationship with Alice Liddell?
JC: Oh sure, definitely. Sure. And his relations with other worlds altogether. Beside the fairy photographs, it was also connected to Charles Dodgson [Lewis Carroll’s real name], and that Victorian thing that was quite common, that you could photograph little children naked, and nobody seemed to mind. There was a sense that up to a certain age, you weren’t really a sexual being, so naked pictures of little kids didn’t bother anybody. So no matter what your feelings were, you could get away with taking pictures of naked children, and people didn’t mind.
AVC: The women of Little, Big are more connected to the Tale than the men—most of the male characters either disbelieve or struggle against their destiny. Is the gender split intentional?
JC: That’s very perceptive, that’s very true. You know what, I think that people ascribe more intentions to authors in some directions than they actually ever had, and less intentions in some other ways. I think things happen because the story dictates it, where you’ve actually done it just because you feel like it, and made the story fit. But in that case, I don’t know, I couldn’t say. It probably arises out of my own feelings about women, that they somehow know more stuff than men do. Men tend to try to struggle to be more rational and reduce things to simplicity more, and are more impatient with ambiguity than women are. I don’t know if that’s even true, but I think that’s probably the way I felt at the time. So yeah, it’s in there, at least in that sense, on purpose. I knew it was there, I guess. It’s interesting to have it pointed out, or discovered by others. The one male character that does see and know fairies doesn’t even recognize that it’s happening to him. August gets snookered by the fairies into doing their bidding.
AVC: That’s one of the few cases where the influence of the fairies is wholly negative.
JC: Yeah, right. The funny thing—the characters that really ponder the fairies, like Violet, Bramble, and Cloud, are never sure what the fairies’ purposes are at all, whether it’s good or bad, whether they have any intentions to us at all, whether they’re just trying to bring about their own plots. But I think to me, the interesting pattern in the book, it’s just infundibular in a way, funnel-shaped, going both directions at once. The interesting part of it is, human beings can remember the past. They can’t really see what’s going on in the future, and they ponder all the time, what is the Tale, what is going on, what are we headed toward, how is it all going to work out. Is there anything really going on at all here, or is it just random nothingness that we enter into and make up as we go?
But the fairies are exactly the opposite, as posited in the book, anyway. They can’t really remember the past. But they do know exactly what’s going to happen in the future, they just don’t know how it’s going to come about. They know they’re going to end up going further into the world to come, they know there’s going to be a war between humans and them, which is going to end up with an ending which will draw the human beings, or some number of human beings, so that they can go on into the next layer of their realm. They know all that’s going to happen, but they don’t know how, because they can’t remember. [Laughs.] So there’s a moment when they all get stuck, and the fairies are trapped thinking, “Oh my God, it’s not going to happen, we’re just going to go on forever.” This is the winter scene, when Russell Eigenblack has taken over in the city. All of a sudden, Mrs. Underhill remembers what it is that has to happen in order to bring about the spring that they know has to come to be. She suddenly remembers, and that’s when she wraps up the package for Sylvie, which draws Sylvie into the next level of the world, which draws Auberon to follow her to the next level, and all the necessary components of creating this move are made.
So in a certain sense, the remembering and prophesying, or remembering and wondering, you might call it, are running in opposite directions. The interesting thing to me as author, as a writer, as a novelist, is that this is how a novel comes to be. The characters are living in one direction, but the novelist knows how it’s all going to come out, and is constantly planning their paths for them as he goes, and always putting things back in their past that it turns out he needs to have happen in order to bring about the end of the book. This was an instance, to me—I don’t know how much of this was conscious as I was writing, to tell you the truth—but looking back on it now, I can see that I really was giving my characters a chance to ponder this process of how the ends of books come about, and how the lives of characters in books are created. Because that’s what they’re doing when they’re thinking about the Tale, which is the Tale you’re reading. [Laughs.] That’s what happens at the very end of the book, when Smoky looks back and thinks, “Wait a minute, the Tale is back there, back there behind us,” not just back to the gateway that is the house, but back to the beginning of the book.
AVC: And it will always be there.
JC: It will always be there, it will always be the same.
AVC: So Little, Big is a book that knows that it’s a book.
JC: Yeah, I think it is. I’m afraid so. [Laughs.] The great danger of writing a book like that—and I’m sure many readers of your book club probably feel this way—is that books like that can be very annoying. Because they somehow forfeit deep feeling or involvement with the characters because they’re unwilling to let you, the reader, forget that it’s a book you’re reading. I would feel terrible if I thought that happened consistently with readers who read Little, Big. I don’t think it does. I think that it can be—I’ve heard enough people say it, to think that at least the primary experience of reading the book is an involvement with the characters and the feelings and the forward motion of the story. But there’s always, lurking there to be discovered, the sense that the book is aware of itself as a book, or as a Tale.
It was enormously interesting to me to have a large number of people read the book, people who are obviously committed readers, and have very many of them—maybe a majority—either remain unmoved or actually dislike it. I think it's a drawback of its being a "cult novel"—which you could define as a novel that is passionately loved by a small number of people, and ignored or left unread or disliked by everyone else—that I rarely hear negative things said about the book. I hear grateful praise, or nothing. (Lots more nothing, of course.) So I perhaps get a skewed picture of the book's qualities. Of course, I believe that many of those who disliked it here got it wrong, but I certainly can't argue with them—that would be like insisting on a joke that hasn't got a laugh.
AVC: You mentioned Nabokov. There’s a quote from Pale Fire that Little, Big made me think of: “Just this: not text, but texture; not the dream / But topsy-turvical coincidence. / Not flimsy nonsense, but a web of sense.” Somehow, the yearning for meaning becomes the meaning.
JC: Right, right, that’s very well put. I think that’s exactly right. The ones who seem to know what’s going on are the ones who insist on not pondering it. Some of the ones who can’t figure it out, think about it all the time. Yes, that’s very true. That’s why that Sufi fable, variously translated as “The Conference Of The Birds” or “The Parliament Of The Birds,” does exactly that. You long and long and long for this thing that you already are. You fool yourself into thinking that somehow it’s something that you strive to get, when it is in fact with you all the time. Your striving and your desire are holy things, but they’re not what you think they are, they’re not something that draws you out of yourself. They’re something that leads you to finding the deepest part of yourself.
That story was a big influence on the writing of the book. Not as much that aspect of it, the simultaneity of wanting and having, but also the cool idea of these birds heading off to find the God of the Birds, whose name means “30 birds.” And then finding at the very end when they get there, there’s nobody there. And there are 30 of them left. So I said, “Oh, yes, that’s what I’m going to do, that’s the story I’m going to tell.” Up until that point, I didn’t know where I was headed, to tell you the truth.