Welcome to the perpetual motion machine of John Crowley interviews. Our exclusive conversation with the master of Edgewood, Old Law Farm, Blackbury Jambs, and Little Belaire is designed to be open-ended and every subscriber to Incunabula’s 25th Anniversary Edition of Little, Big is invited to join in.
If you’re a subscriber, and you’d like to help us interview John Crowley, here’s how. Before you send any questions, please read the entire interview to make sure that some form of your question has not already been answered. Then, please send no more than three questions (once those have been answered, you can ask more, but we have to keep things to a manageable level so everyone who wants to can participate) to me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and put “Crowley Interview Questions” in your header. Also, in the body of your email, let me know if it’s okay to use your name when your questions are posted. And, of course, by submitting questions you give the Little, Big project and John Crowley perpetual permission to use, print, and reproduce your questions. All questions will be processed in the order received. Of course, John Crowley reserves the right to not answer any given question.
We will endeavor to regularly update this page with new questions and new answers, so keep checking back!
Although we will eventually open the floor to questions about any part of John’s life or career, for our first round let’s keep the focus on Little, Big.
Following my seven opening questions, you will find questions from the following subscribers:
RON DRUMMOND: As I re-read Little, Big, it often seems to me that, through the care and thoroughness of your invention, you are trying to convince yourself, more than any of your readers, of the efficacy and — dare I say it? — truth of the cosmology or worldview that’s explored / invoked / created in your novel. The same feeling characterized my experience of reading the Ægypt Quartet. What are your spiritual or religious beliefs vis à vis Little, Big and your other novels?
JOHN CROWLEY: There is a distinction here that relates to the kind of books I want these to be. Fantastic fiction proffers all kinds of beings that exist for the characters but not for the readers — gods, demons, fairies, witches. This is appropriate for the kind of fiction that most such tales are: distant relations of the saga, the fairy tale, the epic, the ghost story. I wanted to write novels with the breadth and depth of the greatest realistic fiction — my models were Dickens and Flaubert and Nabokov — yet with an element of the non-mimetic, or irreal, or preternatural, whatever the best word might be. And that meant not just positing such things but giving them the ambiguous and never-fully-plumbable depth that things have in realistic novels. I myself don’t believe in fairies, or ancient magic, or secret histories — any more than I believe in the Pickwick Club, or Gormenghast, or Winesburg, Ohio.
DRUMMOND: How have your spiritual and religious beliefs evolved over the course of your life, and how have they changed or been refined through your experience of writing these novels?
CROWLEY: I was raised a Catholic, which is a little different from being a Catholic. I was pretty unmoved in general by thoughts of God, heaven and hell, and generally unconflicted about moral imperatives — I had no dreadful impulses to fight off and generally approved of my own feelings of, say, sexual desire; I went through a James-Joycean conversion to Purity once, and it lasted about a week. I have very little imaginative access to the religious impulse in life, though I find I can use it in fiction. It was only when I discovered the Gnostic religious mythology (initially from Hans Jonas’s The Gnostic Religion, which I now know to be a little unreliable, or better say a personal view) that I was truly moved by a system of belief — I was deeply intrigued and touched by this weird epic, and insofar as it could be combined with the (probably factitious) religion of the White Goddess as articulated by Robert Graves it seemed a complete spiritual analog to my inner being — which is very different from a belief in it — it would be absurd to believe in it as I believe in, say, evolution or world history.
DRUMMOND: To what extent are you a practitioner of the Arts of Memory? How have your researches into, and your imaginative explorations / evocations of, the Arts of Memory affected your own memory or your relationship to it? How have they affected or changed your life?
CROWLEY: I’ve never practiced the Art of Memory as described in my books. Indeed one of the things I found amazing and attractive about it was that — at least in its wilder forms — it seemed entirely impossible to use, and yet in fact was used, or claimed to be used, by people of the past. The array of arcane symbols brought to bear on simple questions (remembering texts or facts) was so out of scale that I found it at once moving and hilarious — a perfect instance of human mental enterprise at its strangest.
DRUMMOND: Who is that man behind the curtain?
CROWLEY: One of the most interesting aspects of writing a book, and the one that in a way is the most like doing magic, is that the person that the reader apprehends as the writer — the voice you listen to, the submost voice, below even the first-person narrators we are supposedly listening to in say Catcher in the Rye or Huckleberry Finn — that person is not the writer, that is, he is not the guy who got up in the morning and put pen to paper or finger to keyboard. He’s a creation too, smarter, funnier, wiser, probably better-looking than the poor little man behind the curtain. Readers of my books who divine things about HIM may think they divine things about ME and maybe they do — but maybe not. To be discovered in my own person as the author (as D.H. Lawrence and a dozen others can often be discovered) is to blow it. As Dorothy said to the man behind the curtain, “You are a very bad person,” to which he replied, “No, my dear, I’m a very good person; I’m just a very bad wizard.”
DRUMMOND: Why Emperor Barbarossa? When did you first encounter the stories and myths surrounding him and what was it about him/them that captured your imagination?
CROWLEY: My interest in Barbarossa predated Little, Big. In the 1960s as I was beginning to conceive of a career as a writer of fantastic fiction I thought of writing a series of occult detective stories, wherein a detective wise about world mythologies and magics would solve puzzles others could not. I think the idea was related to Avram Davidson’s Dr. Esterhazy, but the discoveries were to be grander, and the magician more capable of magic of her own. Well, she became Ariel Hawksquill, and the first story I planned to write about her was about how she figures out that an enigmatic/charismatic/trickster politician is the reawakened Emperor Barbarossa, whose tale I had come across I don’t know where. So I simply included her in a book that seemed to need a subplot, as huge books of its kind do. I’ve always been sorry that I didn’t make clear one connection that’s so evident most readers have probably made it for me: Russell Eigenblick/Barbarossa is the our-world cognate or avatar of Brother North-wind, whose role he will take when he too reaches Faerie at the end. Ah well.
DRUMMOND: On April 10th 2006 I finished my third reading of Little, Big, not quite 16 years after my second reading and about 22 years after my first. (I’m looking forward to reading it three or five or seven times more in the coming year, in the process of editing, proofreading, and preparing it for publication.) But back on January 5th, when I was only pages into my third reading and had not yet come upon any mention of a banquet, and having entirely forgotten it from prior readings (and failing to recognize it), I had a dream and wrote it down, thus:
“I saw a frozen tableaux of characters and themes from Little, Big gathered at the ends and along one side of a long table, quite like the disciples and Jesus in so many depictions of the Last Supper. At one end (on my right, though I only viewed the scene and was not in it) was a cherubic man with a bushy white beard. Or maybe I was in it: for everyone at that table looked out at me with various frozen expressions. And I thought to myself, still dreaming, ’Can I resuscitate them with the breath of sustained attention?’”
CROWLEY: It’s possible the book is uncanny. I remember when I moved from New York to the Berkshires, after a year or two of writing about the country, I found on the grounds of a big Berkshire house a big stone birdbath, the basin supported by a crowd of obscure gnome-like figures, exactly as I had described in Little, Big, never having seen or previously thought of such a thing.
DRUMMOND: Is it possible that you, the author, are the Smoky Barnable to the Daily Alice of your creations?
CROWLEY: A question that the (historical or physical) author can’t answer: only the reader who creates the story and encounters the “author” can determine that. Though I admit I laughed to read it (laughter of surprise and delight rather than of contempt).
MARY PAT MANN: Where did They go after leaving the Wild Wood?
JOHN CROWLEY: They went one step within. “I want a clean cup,” interrupted the Hatter: “let’s all move one place on.” Fairy land is a universal retreating infundibulum, except that the farther in you go, the bigger it gets. Edgewood’s inhabitants move to replace the departing fairies, the fairies having moved to replace the persons in the next (larger) sphere contained within their own. And those beings (having undergone a story we’ll never know, or I’ll never tell) move one space too, and so on throughout.
MANN: Who lives now in Edgewood?
CROWLEY: Apparently no one does. As the book ends, a visitor enters there (“whose dog is that?” must be that visitor’s question), and I suppose he or she might be thinking of buying (but from whom?). Who do you think? If the world is arranged as I describe, then of course there must be those who come to replace the fifty-two who went one place in. Violet Bramble said that “any door, once passed through, ceased to be a door ever after,” though you needn’t believe that.
[Jodi Snyder has written a valuable overview of the Tarot-related aspects of Little, Big, in the context of which she posed several questions for John Crowley. Crowley’s comments are interspersed throughout, beginning with his prefatory thanks. Page numbers refer to the Bantam first / HarperCollins editions; after the new edition is published, I will add page references corresponding to it. — RD]
JOHN CROWLEY: Jodi, thank you for this, and I’ve done some annotating along the way as well as answering explicit questions.
JODI SNYDER: One of the factors in Little, Big, that swept me up back in 1983 was Violet’s deck of cards — I was already reading Tarot professionally and had been studying it for many years at that point. In the years since, after many rereadings of your wonderful book, my curiosity and fascination have only deepened. What follows is a summary of what I’ve learned about Violet’s deck and some of the ways it is different from standard Tarot decks.
CROWLEY: To tell you the truth, I knew next to nothing about Tarot when I began the book, and know not much more now.
SNYDER: First, here is a list of Violet’s lesser trumps, with the page numbers from the HarperCollins edition where early (if not always first) mentions of each can be found:
The Traveller, page 19 (card described)
The Journey, 19
The Sun, 19
The Host, 19
The Bundle, 75
The Secret, 92
The Sportsman/PISCATOR, 112 (card described)
The Cousin, 157
The Gift, 157
The Stranger, 157
The Vista, 157 (card described on 158)
The Knot, 252
The Fool, 253 (card described)
The Banquet, 262 (card described on 263)
These 17 titles are the lot that seemed definite.
CROWLEY: I’m surprised there are that many named!
SNYDER: Also considered as possibilities — in the way that Multiplicity is first implied as a notion within an interior monologue (p. 39) — are the following:
Generation, p. 175
This gives us a total of 20 potential Lesser Trumps. In the section called “The Least Trumps” (pp. 156-157), Violet’s deck is described by Great-aunt Cloud as having twenty-one trumps numbered zero to twenty, denoting Persons and Places and Things and Notions. These trumps are apparently appended to a deck of 52 playing cards (probably Spanish or Italian, although not stated) that have the suits of Wands, Cups, Swords, and Pentacles.
A “traditional” tarot has 22 trumps or greater arcana, including the Fool which is numbered Zero. Although I assume you are already familiar with these, the full list follows:
0 The Fool
I The Magician
II The High Priestess
III The Empress
IV The Emperor
V The Hierophant
VI The Lovers
VII The Chariot
IX The Hermit
X The Wheel of Fortune
XII The Hanged Man
XV The Devil
XVI The Blasted Tower
XVII The Star
XVIII The Moon
XIX The Sun
XX The Last Judgement
XXI The Universe
Your description of the Fool on page 253 is virtually identical to the Fool in the traditional deck, with the exception of the character’s age (generally a young fellow).
CROWLEY: I can’t agree with that. The Fool in my deck, is, of course, Russell Eigenblick, or, in his former incarnation or state, the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, a German (the “links of sausage”) who while on crusade to the Holy land (a “scallop shell”, symbol of the Pilgrim) fell from his horse while crossing a river and drowned because of the weight of his armor. I don’t think the traditional Fool has horse, sausage, armor, or brook. (What he does, or ought to, have is the Fool’s traditional Ouroboros over his head.)
SNYDER: Also, on page 92, at the beginning of “By the Way,” Dr. Drinkwater is discussing the painting called The Traveller with Smoky — Is the painting a recreation of that Trump?
CROWLEY: It’s actually a quite precise description of a painting by Arthur Rackham, called By the Way, showing the traveler and the little row of mushrooms. But I’ll accept it as a card too.
SNYDER: Other points for contemplation: Although Violet’s cards have the expected four suits of Wands, Cups, Swords, and Pentacles, there are a number of references (especially in the scenes between Hawksquill and Eigenblick) to there being a total of 52 cards among the numbered suits and court cards (one for each of the remaining fey creatures in the Dimension Next Door) — but a standard Tarot deck has 56 “small cards,” as there are four court cards each. Some of the Spanish and Italian playing card decks use these four suits with three court cards each (King, Queen, and Page), but they are not Tarots.
CROWLEY: This was beyond my knowledge of Tarot or card decks at the time. I guess I thought the Tarot deck was 52 except for the added trumps. I’m feeling ignorant here.
SNYDER: I can see why you wanted the twelve court cards (instead of the sixteen in a Tarot) — to represent the twelve months in the year. It’s all a lot cleaner for the purpose of the text than trying to explain the permutations of the Four Elements that the Hermeticists intend. And, as the 52 also follow the “weeks in a year and number of fairy folk that remain” theme it all makes sense metaphysically. So if Violet’s deck is ordered oddly, well, I have in my collection some decks numbering anywhere between fourteen and 168 cards. Each system works as a hologram of the universe in the same way that Violet’s deck provides a map to The Next World Over.
CROWLEY: Oh good. It’s what I hoped.
SNYDER: I continue to be fascinated by Violet’s deck, and I am certain many others are, too — it would be really great to have any additional information you’re willing to share with us about them.
How did Violet’s deck evolve? What kind of research did you do on it? Could you possibly identify the two (or three!) missing trumps, and clarify some of the unresolved issues regarding the differences between Violet’s deck and a standard Tarot deck?
CROWLEY: The deck evolved, basically, as the book was written: while an expert in Tarot (like, say, Charles Williams in “The Greater Trumps”) might start with the cards and organize the story according to their calls or demands, the cards in my story arose when they were needed — like the Sportsman, who of course is actually a fisherman, arising just as August goes to fish, and becomes a fish. It’s like the answers arising from the murk of the Magic Eight Ball, often just in time.
SNYDER: I am assuming that the 52 “small cards” represent the personages of the remaining fairy folk, while the “Least Trumps” of the deck reveal the permutations of The Tale. Is this correct?
CROWLEY: Yes, that’s very well put. As in Calvino’s Castle of Crossed Destinies I wanted to create a situation where it was impossible to know whether the cards were bringing about, prophesying, or summing up the story.
SNYDER: It may be that you intend to leave us dangling with only 20 trumps or so, just to further demonstrate that all gifts from the Faerie realm are temporary, incomplete, and/or downright dangerous. But what you have given us, with Little, Big and the Ægypt Quartet, is beyond all measure. Thank you.
CROWLEY: You’re very welcome, and thank you for bringing your insights to bear upon it.
EDWARD COOK: Are there any anecdotes you care to relate about your experiences of Manhattan/upstate New York that helped to flesh out the imaginary geographies of the City/Edgewood?
JOHN CROWLEY: The geography of Manhattan (all of New York that’s seen in the book) isn’t entirely imaginary. The astrological mural on the ceiling of Grand Central Station really did and does run the wrong way across the sky. The building with the towering archway and the interior courtyard into which Sylvie carries her bundle is real. I actually lived in a tiny apartment that was dominated by a huge folding bed much like the one described. The Seventh Saint Bar and Grill is very much like a bar I used to inhabit called Caliban, on 26th and 3rd — the same huge brown-tinted windows. There really is a sign down in the subway (somewhere) that has a sign that says (or said) HOLD ONTO YOUR HATS. I lived in Manhattan through the sixties and into the seventies, the decade that was in some way the city’s saddest and worst, the most dangerous and degraded, in a century; that’s reflected in the book.
What’s odd is that when writing the first half of the book, largely set in the country, I was living in the city; the country is made up out of scraps of memory twenty and thirty years old, and imagination (the geography, the roads and towns, don’t really make a lot of sense). When I did move out of New York as Smoky does, I moved to western Massachusetts. There I mostly wrote about the city. But I also found, in those environs, a lot of things I had already imagined. On the grounds of a big restaurant I found a stone fountain or birdbath that was identical to one I’d already imagined as being near Auberon’s summer house.
COOK: I read somewhere that you had initially thought to give the central family of Little, Big their own private religion (traces of this still linger I think, especially in the cornerstone of faith in the unseen, the idea of an elect, joyful exodus to the promised land, etc.). What was your decision to dip into the massive well of fairy lore like? A catalyst, a slow evolution, something else entirely?
CROWLEY: I did want them to have a private faith. I had no real idea of what it would be. If you’re not L. Ron Hubbard it’s hard to make up a religion. I can’t remember when that idea evolved into the idea of a belief in fairies, but I believe it happened all in a moment, or a day. It probably came about (most of my seminal ideas do) when I was thinking about two different things (this new book, and Arthur Rackham?) and the two things collided or mixed in my spirit. I thought it would be wonderful because it actually avoided the danger that I would be seen as actually proffering a wisdom system or higher philosophy. It also offered a challenge: could I get readers to take seriously these very standard Victorian fairies as beings of power and scope? So it was a moment of hilarity and also alarm or apprehension, which only made the hilarity richer — could I bring this off? It was somehow unserious as religion, which somehow made it more serious as literary work.
COOK: Does Russell Eigenblick truly have his own motives in the story, apart from his necessary place in the Tale as the Opposition? Or is he too much a puppet (or Fool) to be anything more than a trope — brute Power or unrighteous Dominion?
CROWLEY: I suppose he is what E.M. Forster would call a “flat” character — one that can be summed up in a central conviction or commandment that he never violates or drops — just as Sam in The Lord of the Rings might be able to say at any juncture, “I will be loyal to Mr. Frodo, though I don’t understand his task” — he is, and he does, and he doesn’t understand, all the way through. Russell Eigenblick says, “I will recover my kingdom somehow,” and he goes on doing it, and does it. The only roundness I felt in him was an occasional weariness or melancholy at the task (which is of course funny, not sad really) — otherwise he’s flat as a playing card.
COOK: Little, Big is brimming with Intrigue, Romance, and true Wonder; these are the reasons why I have wandered its lovely passages many times and will continue to do so.
CROWLEY: Thank you.
[In the 10,000-word afterword that Harold Bloom wrote for the new edition of Little, Big, four times he poses questions about the novel. Those questions are mostly used rhetorically, as points of departure for his own speculations. I thought it might be fun to put Bloom’s questions to John Crowley directly; Crowley answered them without knowing the identity of the questioner. Later, both he and Harold Bloom graciously gave me permission to post the exchange. — Ron Drummond]
HAROLD BLOOM: Against whom have the fairies been fighting so long a war?
JOHN CROWLEY: They are fighting a war against us, people: the people who supplanted them and hastened their transition into the next circle or inner realm. At the same time (as Mrs. Underhill knows, and probably others) the war is mostly show, and the fairies are just as interested in seeing that we (or some of us) get safely to the next inward realm when they go on even farther, or further. Remember: since the fairies know the future very well but have a hard time imagining the past, the failure of their war is evident to them, but less clear is how it started.
BLOOM: At the Fairies’ Parliament, do all the Big turn into Little, or is it the other way around?
CROWLEY: Both. All the Big become little (compared to the Big) but the little become Big in the new realm they go into. The further in you go, the bigger it gets, or they get.
BLOOM: Are Daily Alice and her daughters, Sylvie and Auberon, George Mouse, Sophie and Lilac, all gone into a Smaller World?
CROWLEY: Well, from our point of view out here it’s smaller — but from their view in there, we’re smaller.
BLOOM: What is the religion of the fairies (and thus of the Drinkwater family clan)?
CROWLEY: The “religion” that Great-aunt Cloud talks about is just a polite or cunning way of describing the knowledge of the fairy realm. That’s why old Auberon can be described as both religious and not: he can’t see them, but he thinks about them all the time. The fairies have no religion at all, really (unless their thoughts revolve on the next realm inward, which maybe some can see — but I know nothing about that).
RON DRUMMOND: In the scene at Eigenblick headquarters [“Something Going,” Bantam/HarperCollins pp. 327-9], a tall sinister blond man gives Sylvie a package to deliver. Do we ever re-meet the “tall white guy with blond hair cut severely”?
JOHN CROWLEY: We do re-meet the blond man but do not recognize him: he is one of those who shoots Hawksquill.
DRUMMOND: What’s in that package, anyway?
CROWLEY: I have no idea. It was something simply intended to bring Sylvie to the gates of the other realm; it changes shape and size because things from there do that, here. It is the package that Mrs. Underhill prepared, of course, when she understood how to get Sylvie away from Auberon.
DRUMMOND: On the subway [“Uncle Daddy,” pp. 329-331], the package Sylvie has been entrusted with vanishes and reappears, seemingly in conjunction with her taking off and putting back on a silver ring. What about that ring? Where did she get it? Is it even mentioned earlier? Is it ever mentioned again? Does it have any connection with Smoky’s ring?
CROWLEY: The ring is described in the very first story Sylvie tells about her Destiny [pp. 215-223], when the man from Brooklyn came and knelt before her. It’s a silver ring embossed with letters, though which letters I don’t know. No connection with Smoky’s ring. It is mentioned twice, per Chip Delany’s rule, and that’s enough. It is potent, however: without it she can’t even see the package that Mrs. Underhill wrapped up.
I once had the Joycean notion of letting Sylvie fall asleep on the train while brooding over her life; she’d start think-dreaming in English, then Spanglish, then modern Puerto Rican Spanish modulating into classical Spanish, and finally Latin before she woke with a start.
JOHN CROWLEY: These questions are as hard as any that have been put to me about the book, harder in some ways than questions I’ve put to myself. Let me try.
RACHEL BONACCORSO LINDSAY: Violet’s descendants seem to have free will, but do they have freedom of action? Why them?
CROWLEY: Well, they are characters in a story. Do such beings have free will? Oddly enough I think that characters in a story, while they obviously have no free will but have to do what the author or the story demands of them, can seem to have more free will than we do, here outside of story (if indeed we are outside). I think it’s because everything in a story — even the passage of time — expresses the characters, their needs and hopes and defeats and desires. They can feel trapped — like Grandfather Trout — but even that feeling seems to make their world. Why them? Well that’s like the Anthropic Principle in cosmology: why are the basic physical laws such that they make a universe in which we can live? They needn’t, but they do. And the answer? Because if they weren’t as they are, we wouldn’t be here asking the question.
LINDSAY: Why must the roles they take remain filled; what impetus drives this inward-moving process?
CROWLEY: I don’t know. I really don’t know, and have never given it thought. All that the beings who are one step inward do is plot how to bring those from one step away farther inward, so that they can go inward even farther. According to Dr. Bramble, there’s no end to how far in you can go, getting larger all the time. Why? Maybe “nature abhors a vacuum” and they can’t leave their circle or space empty. But I don’t know. Why these roles? Well, one is Mother Nature, and another is something like Father Time, and you’d expect those; and two are Love, or Sex anyway, likewise. But the others? I don’t know.
LINDSAY: What is the nature of death, in the world of the story? What is the significance of death, when considering the instances where it occurs (Smoky, the false Lilac, the older generations, especially Violet) and the instances where it is forestalled (August, Ariel, the true Lilac — if you consider youth retained as equal to death forestalled)?
CROWLEY: I think that in the world of the story death is death, extinction. There is one moment, as Lilac is crossing the graveyard where the Drinkwaters and Brambles are buried, when she can sense the waiting dead relaxing, satisfied that she’s come and the story will be over. But it’s the only moment I think when death seems other than final. (The false Lilac wasn’t a person at all but a manufacture, soulless.) Why the ones who do transcend death do so, while others don’t, is related to your other questions: Why these people, taking these roles, and not others? And that has no answer, I’m thinking, though that’s as unsatisfying as the question Why am I me, here and now, and not some other person elsewhere? Which is perhaps a variant of the question Why must I die? In the last panel of an R. Crumb comic I cherish, the sun is setting and a line of ordinary Joes of the kind Crumb draws so well are passing by; the narrative says “It’s never really THE END — except for these guys!” The reverse of my story.
MELISSA DOOLEY: Harold Bloom says about Little, Big that it’s as if you brought it back from Elsewhere whole. Does it feel that way to you, especially after all this time? Do you remember the immediacy of writing it? Do you still think of who wrote it as you?
JOHN CROWLEY: To take these in order (though fairy questions are usually answered starting with the last):
I can't myself say that I brought it back from Elsewhere whole, as I can remember distinctly all the labor that went into creating it – I have the notes, the false starts, even the discouragements and despairs. Maybe I brought it from Elsewhere in pieces – because yes, it does seem to have come to me in certain moments from a realm not my own – and then put it together here.
I do remember the immediacy of some parts very well, the same way you would remember the immediacy of any great event in your life (and this one was, in mine, or moments of it were.) I can remember the beginning pages, and learning to write in a way entirely different from my earlier writing. I can remember the adding of August's adventures in love (they came well after the first third was done). And I remember the last of Daily Alice, written in Florida in the winter of 1979, a kind of exaltation.
I think of the me who wrote it as me in the same way I think of the me who fell in love at 27 as me, and the me who got married at 43 as me. In other words, yes and no. It was not written in Fairyland in a day, after which I returned 20 years older. But I can view that fellow as another, too.