Q&A with Mjke Wood

Mjke Wood can trace his interest in Analog back decades, to a 1960s childhood reading hardcover anthologies from the library. Here in the twenty-first century, his own writing graces our pages for a second time, with “Caoimhe’s Water Music” [in our November/December issue, on sale now!], a story that revives his favored themes of music and climate change. Below, Mjke discusses how the story came to be a story, how he came to be a writer, and what his thoughts on climate change are exactly—with pessimism and problem-solving all in one.

Analog Editor: How did this story germinate?

MW: “Caoimhe’s Water Music” is one of only a few stories that came to me whole. Usually ideas come in pieces, as separate scribbles in different notebooks, none of them a story in themselves, each scrap waiting to be pulled together. But this one even came with its own setting, the Hay Festival, in Wales, in 2018, during one of the talks.

I’ve been going to the Hay Festival for years. It’s billed as a literary festival, but Hay is much more than that. Yes, there are books, but there’s also, science, art, politics, philosophy . . . coffee, croissants, eavesdropping on conversations in the food tent while sheltering from the rain (always rain) . . . It’s a festival of ideas. My wife, Sarah, and I take our caravan (you have to take your own accommodation unless you want to share a yurt) and we absorb what we can from the talks and panels, then pretend we understood more than a crumb during random post-event food-hall conversations with academics, students and all-round clever clogs. Full disclosure, I’ve never been any of these things. I left school and went straight to work, no “A” levels, no college, no university, no all-round cleverness.

I digress. One of those talks in 2018 was by Jonathan White, a writer, sailor and surfer, and he told us how tides work. I’d always thought tides were driven by just the sun and the moon, but no, there’s a lot more going on. In fact, the tidal effect of just the moon in the deep ocean is only about eight inches. Resonance and coastal friction are the factors responsible for causing the wide variations in tidal depth and daily frequency of tides we see around the world. I thought a story about tides might be good, and I wanted to set it in Hay-on-Wye, which is just about as far away from the sea as it’s possible to get in Wales.

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

MW: Well, I have always had a soft spot for Irish and Manx names, and been fascinated by their unexpected pronunciations, not at all what you’d expect from the Gaelic spellings. I’m Manx myself, by birth though, not ancestry. (My wife, by the way, is Manx by ancestry, not by birth. A fact neither of us were aware of until long after we were married. Yeah, irrelevant, but an interesting symmetry. At least I think so.) Anyway, the story. I started writing it in 2019 from the outline that had been lurking in my notebook for nearly a year. The Dublin Worldcon was coming up—I’d only been to one other Worldcon, in 2014, when it was in London—and so I thought that giving a character an Irish name might have some resonance within the sci-fi community, or would if I could get the story out in time. I didn’t get it out in time; there was a lot more I had to learn about the science of tides first. But no matter, I kept the character’s name, Caoimhe, which found its way into the story title.

AE: What made you think of Analog for this story?

MW: I have priority lists for sending out new stories, depending on the length or genre. I start at the top of my list and work through it after each rejection in accordance with Heinlein’s Rule #5: You must keep a story on the market until it has sold. I’d already had a story published in Analog, “The Last Days of Dogger City,” a few years earlier, and Analog’s always been high on the list, so that’s where I started, and fortunately, I didn’t have to invoke Rule #5.

AE: What is your history with Analog?

MW: My history with Analog goes back a lot further than “The Last Days of Dogger City.” I can trace my interest all the way back to the mid 1960s. I was just a kid then, and hooked on the Enid Blyton books that I borrowed from the children’s library. Enid Blyton was probably responsible for my poor eyesight, reading The Famous Five by torchlight under the bed covers at two in the morning. My dad took me to the library each week, and while I was working through The Famous Five, The River of Adventure, The Ship of Adventure, etc. he used to borrow sci-fi, in particular hardbacked Analog anthologies, from the grown-up library. I wanted to know why he kept getting all these books with the same name: Analog 1, Analog 2 . . . so I started reading them. So ended my Enid Blyton phase. I’d found my thing. I don’t know if the magazine itself was available in the UK at the time, but it didn’t matter. I got my fix from those anthologies. So, from quite a young age, the words science fiction and Analog became synonymous. When I wrote my first science fiction story, about thirty years ago, I sent it to Analog first. It got rejected. Rightly so. It was terrible.

AE: Are there any themes that you find yourself returning to throughout your writing?

MW: A lot of my stories have a musical theme. There’s the cello-playing climate activist in “Caoimhe’s Water Music,” but also I’ve had a sax player seeking out the discarded shoes of his dead musical heroes, a mathematician seeking to disprove the existence of God by blending chaos theory with the free jazz performances of her mentor, who just happened to be a priest, and recently I’ve had a horror story on Pseudopod, that tells the story of a band leader in a failing swing band, and the attraction of a forgotten and dangerous key. I suppose the musical thread is not so surprising as I’m a sax player myself. I’ve played in big bands, sax quartets and even pit orchestras for shows.

The other common theme that comes up in a lot of my fiction is climate change. I’m surprised to realise that, without any conscious, crusading intention, the disasters of climate change are in the background of every one of my novels so far, and a lot of my short stories. I guess it’s born of anger. In my novels I hide the anger through humour. There’s no point banging on about the impending catastrophe; sci-fi readers, I think, already get it. What’s frustrating is, we know the solutions. There’s nothing scientifically or technologically difficult about reducing carbon in the atmosphere. The only stumbling block is politics, and the collective will to change, and on this subject I’m a pessimist. I live in the UK and we’re about to host COP26, the climate change summit. I’m sure there will be promises and platitudes aplenty. (That has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it? They should adopt it as the COP26 slogan.) But tangible actions? I doubt it. The news cycle it too short. And there you can sense my anger creeping into even this Q&A. The anger’s there, underneath, always ready to get out if I don’t keep a lid on it. I didn’t keep a lid on it in “Caoimhe’s Water Music.”    

I’m surprised to realize that, without any conscious, crusading intention, the disasters of climate change are in the background of every one of my novels so far, and a lot of my short stories. I guess it’s born of anger.

AE: What inspired you to start writing?

MW: Although I’d dabbled since primary school, I was never conscious of being engaged in that thing called “writing.” The Almanack changed all that. In the UK there’s a publication called Old Moore’s Almanack, a strange booklet that comes out annually, full of astrological predictions for the year ahead. In the early 1980s, as a dissatisfied and voiceless employee of a local bus company, I decided to produce my own rival publication, Old Mick’s Almanack, just for internal consumption in the workplace. I did it as a protest, using humor and hyperbole to make mad predictions in the same format as Old Moore’s—things that might happen if the company stayed on the same slippery path to ruin. I changed names, but not so much as to hide the real identities, and I used cut-and-paste to replicate the look and feel of the original. When I say cut-and-paste, in 1980 that meant cutting with scissors, pasting with glue, hiding the joins with correction fluid, then photocopying. I made a dozen or so copies and left them in strategic places around the offices. It went viral. (Viral on a pre-internet scale.) Hundreds of copies were made. Old Mick’s Almanack became the topic of conversation in the canteen and in the corridors for weeks. People loved it. Few knew who’d written it, which is probably why I didn’t get sacked. But it was a lightbulb moment. A taste of what could be done with words. I’d caught the bug. I followed it up with a couple of letters to a local newspaper using the same style of humor, and they were printed a by-line attached. I didn’t need to be secretive anymore. I tried some short stories, including that first one to Analog. Three decades later I started to get published. Not quite an overnight success, but hey.   

AE: What other projects are you currently working on?

MW: In 2020 I published my fourth sci-fi novel, Old Man in a Spacesuit. I’m working on the sequel, The Oneiromancer of Mars. It sounds from that like I’m a slow writer, doesn’t it? Okay, I am a bit, but I write with two hats. I alternate. A sci-fi book then a travel book. A few months ago, I published Flying in a Box, the third in my humorous travel book series. They do especially well over here in the UK, and it’s one of the reasons I choose to indie-publish my novels; I doubt if any traditional publisher would let me wear those two hats together. They’d crack the whip and tell me to stay focused on one thing. That’s where the odd spelling of my name comes from. I use Mjke for sci-fi and Mike for the travel books.

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

MW: I’m going to stay with my climate-change Mr. Angry persona and say nuclear fusion. It would solve so many problems, not the least of which would be my own heating bill. Okay, so fusion isn’t exactly science fiction; we know all about the science and we know how to do it on paper. But we can’t do it in practice, not yet, and even though there’s JET at Culham, in Oxfordshire, and the NIF project at Lawrence Livermore, we’re still reliant on putting more energy in than we take out. There’s some progress. The ITER tokamak being built in the south of France is hoped to produce net energy by 2035, but only on an experimental scale. It seems that useable power production has always been about forty years away (some say thirty, others fifty), at least since as far back as I can remember. So top of my SFnal wish list is a simple, compact, fusion reactor ready to use by Christmas, perhaps gifted to us by aliens. Yeah, aliens. Number two on my wish list is aliens.  

AE: What are you reading right now?

MW: I’m reading To Sleep in a Sea of Stars by Christopher Paolini. It’s early days yet, but I’m loving it so far. I’m a slow reader, and it’s a hefty enough book to make even my Kindle feel heavier. It’ll keep me happy for weeks. I like to keep a non-fiction book on the go at the same time though, so Anaesthesia and the Practice of Medicine: Historical Perspectives, by Keith Sykes and John Bunker is my research reading at the moment, for a short story idea I have brewing. I get it all wrong when I read for research. The right way is to focus just on the chapters needed for specific elements of a story. My way is to read the whole book and then allow it to take me down entirely different paths to the one I envisaged in the first place. The original story idea will then evaporate, but I might come up with something even better. Or not.

AE: What careers have you had and how do they affect your writing?

MW: I used to be an accountant, a job that may have had some influence on my three-book series that begins with the novel, Deep Space Accountant. Actually, I had a fancier title than accountant. I was a Finance Manager, even though I never really managed anybody, and still need my wife to balance the chequebook. Before that I was a bus scheduler. That’s the person who creates the bus timetables and the duty rosters to make sure there’s always someone available to drive each bus each day. Did that have an influence on my writing? I think so. Public transport seems to crop up in my stories, and when it does, it must be right. Not only the practicalities—I geek-out on timetables and schedules to make sure everything is consistent—but also the economics. You won’t find trains rumbling around my worlds with no apparent economic or social purpose, apart from when there’s a comedic reason for it. 

AE: How can our readers follow you and your writing?

MW: My website is www.mjkewood.com

I have a Twitter handle, @mjkew, and a Facebook page, www.facebook.com/mjkewood but I use social media much less than I used to, in order to preserve what’s left of my frazzled mental health.

Mjke lives in the UK, on the green and leafy Wirral peninsula. His short stories have appeared in several print and online venues, and this is his second appearance in Analog. In 2007 he won the Jim Baen memorial prize in its first year, and he is also a Writers of the Future winner. Mjke’s longer fiction includes the Sphere of Influence trilogy, and the stand-alone novel, Old Man in a Spacesuit.

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