Primarily today known as a publisher, in 1968 Michael Butterworth founded, and for many years ran, the Manchester-based literary magazine, Corridor. He later edited New Vegetarian, a commercial newsstand magazine, and in 1975 with David Britton co-founded Savoy Books, the long-running Manchester-based book publishers. www.savoy.abel.co.uk
Since 2006 he has been experimenting with print on demand and digital publishing. He has also relaunched Corridor as a contemporary arts print journal. Corridor8 is now in its 3rd issue.
Michael has always had a parallel career as an author. He was a regular contributor to New Worlds where his first professional story was published New Worlds in May 1966. (In her 1968 anthology England Swings SF Judith Merrill describes him as a ‘young blood’ of the Science Fiction New Wave movement.) In 1989, he co-wrote David Britton’s first novel, Lord Horror.
A new publishing project from Savoy Books criss-crosses a number of Michael’s interests. Eduardo Paolozzi at New Worlds: Art andScience Fiction in the Sixties by David Brittain (no relation) is about Paolozzi, certainly, but also JG Ballard, Michael Moorcock and New Worlds. The book, to be published in October 2013, presents the journal more holistically than hitherto, and shows how it was a nexus of both writing and contemporary art – not just writing – and has had a wider influence than has been acknowledged to date.
Michael Butterworth Interview
Part 1: New Worlds to Emanations
PML: Where did you first start writing?
MB: At St Christopher’s school, in Letchworth, Hertfordshire. This was the alma mater old scholar Michael Winner complained about during his life, which he did his best to put down at every opportunity. It was – is – a brilliant school that saved me from a much worse education and life. With its emphasis on developing the individual it was where I first started writing at the age of fourteen.
PML: Was there some event there that acted as a trigger?
MB: I was roused to anger there by a teacher who had caught a group of us smoking. This tutor was well known among the ‘bike shed’ fraternity as a snoop, and by following us to one of our smoking dens that day and ‘gating’ us, he had deprived us of the privilege of going ‘down town’ to our favourite haunts, the cafés, cinemas and bookshops where we spent so much of our free time. But it wasn’t punishment for smoking that roused my ire. We knew smoking was against the rules. It was his sneakiness. In the heat of the moment I found myself writing a poem. I wrote quickly, and the poem came out fully formed. Surprisingly, I discovered that somehow the words had shaped and contained my anger.
PML: So that was when you knew you would have a career as a writer?
MB: This ‘voice’ had been around before, but had not expressed itself through words. As a young teenager I had become alarmed about overpopulation and food shortages. I thought I would become an inventor, and discover a way of harnessing photosynthesis to feed the hungry, so I took a keen interest in botany and biology. I also took up chemistry, though for quite different reasons – the explosive nature of certain compounds fascinated me! I thought of becoming a rocket engineer. But now, suddenly, I found I didn’t have to go out and ‘become’ anything. I could write instead, and I began composing stories. Two of which appeared in the school magazine.
PML: How did you get involved in New Worlds?
MB: By coincidence, the future designer of (and contributor to, and sometime editor of) New Worlds happened to be at the school at the same time. Charles Platt was in a class above mine, and was the editor of the school magazine. He published one my stories, and the following term’s editor, Rosalind Ingham, an artist, published the second. When Charles left school, and I followed shortly after him, I kept in touch. And when he fell in with Michael Moorcock, who conveniently took over editorship of New Worlds in 1964, the year after I left school, my work was submitted to him.
PML: What was your first publication there?
MB: I am making it seem easy, but it was far from it. In the two or three years since leaving school I had been writing furiously, and getting rejections. Michael Moorcock had rejected several of my stories. In my frustration I tried writing an epistolary story using Michael as imaginary ‘confidant’. I knew I was more confident at letter writing. And it worked! Michael accepted ‘Girl’, a short picaresque set in a post-atomic landscape and written in the first person. It was about male sex between the last two men. The eponymous ‘girl’ existed only in fantasy. Though more symbolic than raunchy, it was something I didn’t think had been said in English science fiction before. It appeared in the May 1966 edition of the ‘Compact’ paperback series of New Worlds with an illustration by Harry Douthwaite. Michael liked to pay his authors a nominal amount, so it became my first professionally published story.
PML: As I understand it New Worlds was a reaction to “the traditional English novel (Anthony Powell, Kingsley Amis, etc)”. How conscious were you of this?
MB: I wasn’t conscious of it at all, although I realised of course that New Worlds had an ideological agenda that made it different to, say, Ambit, which sometimes published similar material but actually had a mixed editorial policy. I knew it was attacking convention. But to be honest I was so uninterested in the likes of Powell or Amis that they never even appeared on my radar.
PML: Who were your main influences at the time?
MB: William Burroughs, and classic writers like Poe, Rabelais, Jarry and Machen - writers of a very particular kind. They used words to make a point, describe moods or produce an effect, and were nothing like the “English novelist” as then was. So when I submitted material to New Worlds it was with the strong assumption that its whole operandus modi, right down to its tiniest particle, was positioned against the conventions of the day. But I couldn’t have told you what those conventions were.
PML: You were a sort of unconscious rebel?
MB: I was a teenager who watched James Dean and read the Beats. In keeping with many of the children of the 60s I just wanted to destroy the culture of my parents’ generation in an unthinking way. With New Worlds I had the feeling of having fallen in with a set of cultural brigands who had somehow managed to take over the controls. While it lasted, for a few short years it felt like absolute heaven, but of course I was being narrowly reactive.
PML: How would you describe your writing process at this time?
MB: I was concerned with words themselves, with effect, and imparting certain impressions. I was a ‘conscious writer’ only in the way I used the material I produced. I was an expressionist in the way I generated it. Charles thought that a kind of unconscious fusion process took place on in my head, converting the raw material that went in.
PML: With hindsight, how would you define New Worlds?
MB: At its creative height from 1967 to 1970 New Worlds was a multi-faceted journal, the product of a holistic vision combining different media and forms including fiction, contemporary art, photography, visual writing, poetry, illustration, articles, reviews and a distinctive design. It could be found in almost every newsagent’s in the country. So as a campaigning journal against the cultural norms of Powell & Co it was pretty high-powered stuff. But with the visual elements excluded, as has been the case with subsequent publishers who saw it simply as science fiction, it lost its intended meaning and doesn’t really make any sense. By rights, it ought to have been made into a Taschen book!
PML: It seems that in the 70’s, you turned away from the New Worlds style of writing.
MB: As a single parent, whilst my children were growing up, I wrote commercial novels, including all the second series Space 1999 novelisations (based on the ITV series) and two music fantasies featuring the stage personas of Hawkwind (the 70’s progressive rock band).
PML: You’re speaking about the Hawklords Trilogy? Why did Michael Moorcock’s name appear with yours on the covers?
MB: The trilogy was based on ideas by Michael and James Cawthorn. For this and contractual reasons, Michael’s name appeared on the first novel as primary author, but he is at pains to stress he had nothing to do with the writing!
PML: What do you think of those books now?
MB: They are not well written, though I am still very fond of them. One of the things I did when my writing ‘voice’ returned around 2004 was completely re-write the Space 1999 books for a fan-based publishing company in America. This was thanks to the encouragement of my wife, Sara. I would even consider revising the Hawklords books and completing that trilogy if it felt right. I have a following for them and I am proud of both series.
PML: So your commercial fiction’s nothing you’re ashamed of…
MB: Not at all. But I do not consider them as belonging to my core canon. For me, they will always be flawed as writing, if not as books. And their appearance assisted in the process of distracting attention away from my ‘New Wave’ material.
PML: Around the 80’s, it seemed as if you wrote less and less….
MB: My writing voice had been going in fits and starts throughout the 70s and 80s. But before spluttering out altogether, the ‘fits and starts’ did help produce one more work of importance to me: Lord Horror, which I co-wrote with David Britton. I acted as editor and re-writer, expanding the claustrophobically dense prose he was producing at that time. But I also found myself producing sections of new writing to fill narrative gaps.
PML: Did the events following the publication of Lord Horror have an influence on the loss of your writing voice?
MB: Savoy Books underwent a battle against censorship from the late 70s right up until 2000. It was censorship from both the Left and the Right, and the ‘sneaks’ now were the police. During that time I produced hundreds of letters, press releases and articles and gave dozens of interviews in a campaign to counter the activities of Chief Constable James Anderton and the Greater Manchester Police, and alert the literary world to David Britton’s imprisonments in Manchester for selling and writing books. When this period came to an end in 2000 and Savoy won the ‘Wars’ (but lost most of the battles) the ‘angry poem’ voice that had carried me through it came to an end as well. But by this time, it meant the thread of my early writing was lost.
PML: So the Savoy Wars did in fact drain the energy you might have put into writing?
MB : It was also that I was getting older. The concerns that motivated me were changing. The core message of nuclear destruction, which was what most of my ‘New Wave’ pieces were about, still seemed important but many people of my generation, me included, were beginning to see that ‘destruction’ wasn’t about to happen. The world was more complicated than we thought. So I stopped getting angry about it!
PML: Are you continuing your collaboration with David Britton?
MB: David doesn’t need me to act as Kenneth Halliwell to his Joe Orton any more. I now act as editor only. But writing Lord Horror was a hugely exciting and challenging project that took about four years, and it’s definitely part of my writing I am most pleased with, and…oh, I almost forgot, during these early days of Savoy I also finished two more ‘fits and starts’, two long pieces of fiction, ‘A Hurricane in a Nightjar’ and ‘Das Neue Leben’, written in the years prior to Lord Horror. The latter very belatedly appeared in Carter Kaplan ’s first anthology , Emanations.
PML: How did you come across Dr Carter Kaplan and Emanations?
MB: I think Carter came across me, which is what is surprising about him, as to all intents and purposes I had stopped writing. He had been in touch with Savoy Books sporadically down the years, and one day about four years ago, I think some time in 2009, we each received a personalised post card – David, myself, John Coulthart and Kris Guidio. He was canvassing material for Emanations. His card arrived at the right moment when I was attempting to find a new direction for myself.
PML: Do you see a direct link between New Worlds and Emanations?
MB: In a way, the Emanations series is an entirely unexpected continuation of the ‘New Wave’ spirit. Not in the true original sense, of course, which was the result of a conjunction of so many things that were happening at the time – things that ‘hadn’t yet happened so they could’, if you see what I mean, such as the ‘happening’ in the world of Michael Moorcock! But in the surreal stoical modernist post-modernist sea-of-post-modernism sense that Emanations has made its own. It is still resolutely declaring that there is an avant garde, and it seems happy to publish an increasingly wide range of writers wearing enquiring or experimental hats.
PML: How does your writing for New Worlds and Emanations compare?
MB: My early career writing for New Worlds – and God it does seem a very long time ago now – was still-born, because although it had made an impact at the time, I didn’t find a way of capitalising on that. I now have the opportunity of putting into print the fiction and poetry I wrote in the 60s and 70s that I was pleased with but which never saw publication. Under the tutelage of the expert and surreal Dr Kaplan, to whom I am eternally grateful, these stories are now seeing the light of day.
PML: What are your other current writing projects?
MB: I am writing poetry. I am also doing a lot of non-fiction of various kinds including interviews and memoirs. I have started work on an ‘autobiographical’ book about my father – a very strange man, and a founding member of the Vegan Society in the UK. I am also working on another book about my time with New Order when they were recording Power, Corruption And Lies and ‘Blue Monday’.
PML: Thank you very much, Michael. Good luck with the projects.