Gene Wolfe Interview

Part 1

conducted by James B. Jordan


JJ: A lot of what you publish comes out from small presses and sources. If you are not an insider to the SF fantasy world, you would not know where to get it or even know it had come out. Is there any comprehensive outlet for Gene Wolfe's stuff?

GW: Not that I know of. Mark Ziesing handles some of it, but he's probably as close as they come, and he has far from everything. I just don't think there is a good answer to that. I have done some stuff with Dan Knight's United Mythologies in Canada.

JJ: Is he the one that did Young Wolfe?

GW: Yes, he did Young Wolfe and Letters Home. And we may do another one, I am not sure. And then there was Cheap Street. The problem with Cheap Street is that they are anything but cheap! I would like to subscribe---get the Cheap Street series of books and so forth---and to be honest, I cannot afford it. I can't afford every few months to spend $75-$100 on a collector's piece, or at least I don't think I can. I have got better uses for the money.


JJ: My audience---the people that I write for---as I guess you've gathered is what is usually called evangelical Christians, a conservative, Protestant audience. And I am interested first of all is discovering a little bit about your religious beliefs, if you're willing to talk about that. Were you brought up within the Catholic Church?

GW: No I am a convert. I was raised in a rather lax fashion as a Presbyterian. I don't think my father had any particular religious convictions. My mother had been raised as a Presbyterian and so I was nominally a Presbyterian. It was largely an answer to give when people asked you.

JJ: And how did you become a member of the Roman Catholic Church?

GW: I married a Roman Catholic and had to take instruction in it in order that we could have a Catholic wedding. I think that is still a rule of the church, although those things are so laxly administered that you cannot always be sure. I became interested in it, read and studied, and talked to people about it and so forth, and eventually converted.

JJ: Became persuaded of the truth of it?

GW: Yes.

JJ: At that time what kind of theologians did you read, or did you read theology as such.

GW: I didn't read a lot of theology. I read some modern books of explications of Catholic theology for laymen and that sort of thing. I would like to be able to say I read St. Thomas Aquinas in the Latin and so forth, but I didn't. It would be a lie. I read some books of Thomistic theology and autobiographies of St. Thomas Aquinas.

JJ: Chesterton's?

GW: Yes, I read Chesterton's book on St. Thomas Aquinas. I discovered Chesterton and ended up reading everything of Chesterton's that I could find. I had gone through very much the same thing earlier with C.S. Lewis.

JJ: Ignatius Press is reprinting all of Chesterton in a whole set. Are you collecting those?

GW: That is right, so they are. In fact they have reprinted a lot of newspaper columns that I had not seen in my initial sweep through Chesterton when I read everything I could find.

JJ: I imagine at that time it was hard to find.

GW: It was fairly difficult to find. I have also since discovered that some of those newspaper columns had been heavily edited by someone other than Chesterton for book publication. I detest that sort of thing, particularity when there is no indication given in the book that it has been done, because you think that you are reading what Chesterton wrote for a newspaper in 1905, and in fact the history paragraphs have been changed almost out of recognition.

JJ: That has happened with C.S. Lewis too, according to Catherine Lindskoog, and she seems to have the facts to back it up.

GW: Oh, yes, The C.S. Lewis Hoax. With Lewis it is posthumous stuff that apparently is not Lewis at all. I was one of those people who read The Dark Tower and got very suspicious because I was familiar with Lewis and I think I am pretty good at spotting styles. I used to belong to a chain letter that included Gardner Dozois, Jack Dann, Chelsea Quinn Yarborough, Mike Bishop. And we would write long newsletters about our doings and then put them in a packet and they would be sent around. This was before they had computer bulletin boards and all that sort of stuff. And I could almost invariably identify the writer from the first paragraph or two. The writer was only overtly identified with the signature, because it was done in letter form. But the styles of the people who were writing were sufficiently different that I could very easily pick out most of them without difficulty. And I am a good imitator. I could write imitation Shakespeare that you would think was probably legitimate Shakespeare because there is a lot of Shakespeare for me to look at. I have sort of knack for doing that sort of thing. I think I could write much better imitation C.S. Lewis than a lot of this supposedly posthumous stuff that is coming out. I could do it better than this guy does and I think practically any decent writer could do it better that this guy does. The reason that there is not more of that than there is, is that the people who can do it would rather write under their own name and take the credit for them- selves. Why should they waste their talent in forging work for a dead man?


JJ: You have used a variety of styles in each of your novels. That is one of the characteristics of your work. I assume you will keep going. Is the series you are working on now, Starcrosser's Landfall, to be in any of the particular styles you have used before?

GW: I don't think so. It isn't a highly stylized series at all, largely because it is third person. I basically feel that you should write the story in the style that corresponds to the story that you have to tell, and I have tried to do that; but it comes out as a pretty much straightforward journalistic prose, I think.

JJ: Was Jack Vance's style an influence on the style of the Severian novels?

GW: Oh, I'm sure. I'm sure. A lot of that was my deciding to rewrite The Dying Earth from my own standpoint.

JJ: Wonderful book.

GW: Yes it is wonderful. And of course when you read wonderful books sometimes you think, "Gee, I would like to do that"; and you go off and do it, trying to make it different enough that you are not really ripping off the author, but rather writing something in the same vein using some of the same ideas. I have never concealed a debt to Jack Vance and a debt to Clark Ashton Smith as far as that goes. I think Vance is very much in the debt to Clark Ashton Smith.

JJ: Do you know Vance?

GW: I have met him twice I think. I certainly don't know him in the sense of being on friendly terms with him.

JJ: I gather he is not an active participant in the SF world.

GW: As far as I know he is not. A lot of it, from what I understand, is that he has severe eye problems. He is very nearly blind. I had him sign a book for me one time and I was wearing a name badge and he was asking how I spelled my name. I held out the name badge to him and he asked me again how I spelled my name, and I realized that although it was fairly large type, he couldn't make it out. His vision was that bad. Maybe it is better by now. I certainly hope so.

JJ: So Lewis and Chesterton would have been among the formative influences in your paradigm.

GW: Oh yes, very definitely.

JJ: Could you name others, within the area of theology and Christianity.

GW: The problem with this it is hard to see where to stop. Later you say, "Gee, I should have included so and so," and you didn't think of that person at that time. J.R.R. Tolkein, just to start with. Charles Williams, not as much as the others, but to some extent. David Lindsay's A Voyage to Arcturus, which is really strange, and I think very theologically oriented. Much of the theology I disagree with, but I thought it was marvelous as a work of fiction. It is a marvelous example of someone's expressing his theological beliefs in a novel.

JJ: Now you are reading George McDonald?

GW: Yes, Lilith. I had not read anything except Curdie and the Goblin and At the Back of the North Wind and those types, and they are quite good but they are basically fairy stories. I had read others that were about that good, but I don't think they had any great theological impact, any great feeling from that standpoint.


JJ: Let me turn to political philosophy if I might. Your first novel, Operation Ares, really has that as something of a theme. John Castle: I guess that "J.C." is deliberate somehow. Does that novel reflect your ideas?

GW: I think it reflected them at the time that I wrote it. I don't think it does now. I think I was much more like you said you were. I was much more a doctrinaire conservative when I was a good deal younger. You said that was true of you and it was true of me. I reacted away from the general political current in this country post-Roosevelt and became pretty much a "William F. Buckley conservative" for a while, and then kind of split off from that. I am now in the unhappy position of finding no one that I agree with.

I am big on freedom. Freedom is the bedrock political value that we need to hold on to. Patrick Buchanan said that in his speech at the Republican convention, and he is about the only person that I have heard saying it. Today I think people are so used to being free---to having some degree of freedom---that they don't appreciate it; but people are noticeably less free now than they were, say, thirty years ago.

JJ: Buchanan opposed the war in the Middle East, and I tended to agree. It seemed to me to become involved in a conflict between two Islamic nations was not wise.

GW: The war in the Middle East was fought for oil. The idea was to keep oil at market prices available to the United States. Saddam Hussein was also fighting for oil. His idea was that if he could corner a large proportion of the world's oil market he could pretty much set prices himself and get a great deal of money with which to finance his war machine. He was right; he could have done that if he had succeeded. Like so many dictators including Hitler, he tried to be his own strategist. Remember the man that, when asked if he could play the saxophone, said "I don't know; I've never tried." If you have never done strategy---if you have never meddled around with it---you can't do it because there is a whole science that has to be acquired to be a decent strategist, and he didn't have it. He very clearly didn't have it. Hitler didn't have it either. And instead of leaving these things to people who are competent, the people with the power try to do it themselves. One of the great things that is wrong with American business is that whose with the power to make decisions are often not those with the ability to make those decisions correctly.


JJ: From things you have written in the past, I wonder if you feel it might be just as well to have the price of oil double or triple so that we would be forced to come up with different sources of energy.

GW: I think we might very well say, fifty years down the road, "Boy, that was a good thing that happened to us." I think the private automobile has been a disaster, quite frankly. You saw Gay Haldeman last night who came up to our table. Her mother has just been killed in a automobile accident. The private automobile has squandered enormous resources and enormous energy and I think it has developed a very ugly civilization in which everything has to be built around automobile roads and parking---which isn't necessary; it just happens to be what we've got.

JJ: What could we have as an alternative in our kind of society?

GW: In our kind of society. Well obviously we could have public transportation for the longer range: railroad, some air, although I think we have too much air now. We could have less travel, because I think we have an awful lot of unnecessary traveling going on now. And bicycles for shorter range. All of those are very viable alternatives. I once wrote a little piece on this and I am not sure where it appeared. The thing that most people don't understand about it is that you can't rely wholly on public transportation, because if you rely wholly on public transportation you are at the mercy of the unions who control the mechanism. So you have to have private transportation; but I don't think you have to have one man sitting in 5000 pound machine, which is the system that we have today.

JJ: Are there people who write in the area of politics that you read now, or do you spend your time reading fiction and doing research for your novels, and let that mainly pass by?

GW: I don't read a lot of political essays because I find most of them very predictable. I know by and large what these people are going to say after I have read a little bit of it and I generally disagree with them violently. So no, I don't read much in that area. What I read is much more news than political essay.


JJ: In the Castle of the Otter you mentioned Lamarckianism and I had written down here to ask if you've kept up with the scientists who were working with that area today.

GW: I didn't know that anybody was working in the Lamarckian area, today to be honest with you. I think somebody should be because I have never been convinced that Lamarck was wrong. I have never seen any convincing evidence that Lamarck was wrong. What we do is we set up Lysenkoism, which is a straw man, and we call it Lamarckianism and then we disprove it---and it is very easily disproved and is in fact very unpersuasive to begin with---and then we say Lamarck was wrong. Or we say Darwin was right and therefore Lamarck cannot be right, which is not true at all because the two theories are not mutually exclusive. It's like saying that Newton was wrong because Einstein was right. Newtonian physics really is the way that you calculate a whole lot of things. Billiard balls and bullets and railroad trains and so forth are all answerable in terms of Newtonian physics. So to put Einstein against Newton says something that Einstein himself would never have said.

JJ: I'd actually asked you about Rupert Sheldrake's work, with which you are not familiar, but in his second book, The Presence of the Past, he critiques the modern atomistic view of causality. He argues, from research and testing, that aside from genetics there is also the form and shape of things, a sort of platonic doctrine of form, but one that is embedded in history. He presents evidence to show that there are ways in which plants, animals, crystals, etc. can undergo changes as a result of changes in the environment. I'd thought you might be familiar with that.

GW: It certainly sounds interesting and probably like something that I would tend to agree with. Because though I think that Darwin was right, I don't think that Darwin had the whole answer and I don't think he has it now. The kind of thing that he postulated does take place but it seems to me clearly that there are other mechanisms involved as well.

JJ: I asked in the letter if you were familiar with Frances Yates's book The Art of Memory, which is a treatise on the entire business of building a house in the mind and the impact of that in the renaissance, particularly in the pre-literate world.

GW: I am familiar with the memory palace concept, which originally derives from Simonides, a Greek poet of the fifth century B.C. I have made use of the memory palace system in the Soldier books, of course. I have The Memory Palace of Matthew Ricci, and have read parts of it.

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