Gene Wolfe Interview

Part 2

conducted by James B. Jordan


Being a Novelist

JJ: Let me ask you about being a southern Catholic novelist. You wrote me one time that you do like to see yourself as a southern novelist, or perhaps a Catholic novelist. Those can be two different things, though overlapping. How would you define a southern novelist, and how you see your work in that school? Or is that a fair question?

GW: It is the kind of question that a critic would answer much better than I can. I think there is a great deal of regional background that southerners tend to have that northerners don't. There is the experience of growing essentially as part of a conquered population, which is something that northerners frankly deny. But nevertheless it is quite true. As for being a Catholic novelist, I think the interesting thing about the Catholic novelist today---or maybe I should say should be the interesting thing about the Catholic novel today---is that it is the Christian tradition which is urban rather than rural. And I think that your type of Christians are very largely rural people. I think my type of Christians are very largely urban people.

JJ: Among Catholic novelists who would you consider in that field? Francois Mauriac? Shusaku Endo? Or are you thinking mainly of Walker Percy, Flannery O'Connor?

GW: The latter, I suppose. I haven't read widely---I haven't read the Catholic novels specifically as a genre. Perhaps I should. The problem I have is that there are a thousand directions in which I ought to be going, and I generally can't go terribly far in any of them.

JJ: Urban versus rural: I wonder if you would continue with that.

GW: I think the Catholic tradition is derived largely from people who got here after the farms had been claimed. The early settlers---some Irish but mainly Scotch, English, German and so forth---came here, and being intelligent and reasonable people staked out claims to the good land and started growing corn and such. The Catholic strain in the American life comes from Poles and Italians and so on, and the later wave of Irish immigration during the potato famine, who arrived after the good farms were pretty much owned already. You couldn't go out and get those, and so these later people became policemen and hod carriers and building contractors and school teachers and so forth. And that is where the American urban Catholic tradition is located, as far as I can see. Father Andrew Greeley, whom I have never met, is probably nevertheless my favorite priest, and he is very much aware of that and tends to write about it. I think he is right.

JJ: Does that conviction show up in any of your writings, or is that just what you believe a "mainstream" Catholic novelist should devote his attention to?

GW: I think that the mainstream Catholic novelist is not going to be able to avoid that completely even if he tries. If you are a Christian you cannot help writing as a Christian. You can disguise it, but there are still acute people who will see through the disguise and say, "Aha, back in here is a Christian background." And I think if you're Catholic the same thing is true: people will say, "Back in here is a Catholic background." Somebody was describing a Brian Lumley novel to me today and I said, "Is he Catholic?" I have not read the novel. (I have read very little Brian Lumley; I wish I had read more. I intend to read more after meeting him here at this convention.) But the outline as it was being presented to me made it sound so much as if he were writing from an English Catholic tradition.

Of course, before I ever went to England I thought that there were no Catholics there, and if they were they would reflect the same kind of thing that we have in Northern Ireland today, which is just horrible. Incredibly awful stuff: people putting bombs in cars and killing little kids in the name of Jesus Christ on both sides! You can't imagine a more unchristian thing than this neighbor-killing-neighbor thing that Northern Ireland goes through! But when I went to England I found there were plenty of Catholic churches and that nobody was scrawling graffiti over them or throwing rocks at the people who went to Mass, or any of that sort of thing. Mary and I went to Mass whenever we were so inclined. So Lumley might very well be Catholic. Chesterton obviously was and so was Tolkein: both were English Catholics.

The New Sun Books

JJ: In the Urth Cycle (let's call it that), obviously memory is a large theme and you have brought the sacraments, at least the sacrament of baptism, into play repeatedly in the book. There are an awful lot of occasions where people pass through water and experience some type of death and resurrection. There also seem to be images of the eucharist.

GW: There are diabolical eucharists: people who are eating corpses in order to get the memory of the dead person. And of course when the Catholic receives communion he is receiving the flesh of Christ in a mystical sense. He is doing what Christ asked him to do, which is to absorb a little piece of Christ into himself to make himself more Christlike; and so we go forward in the Mass and we consent to that, saying that I wish to be more like Christ. Whoever is giving out communion, the priest or someone assisting the priest says, "The body of Christ" and holds up the host, and you say Amen, meaning "Yes, I agree this is the body of Christ," and then you take it and eat it.

JJ: Now the climax of that inversion seems to be when Severian actually eats the brains of the preceding autarch. Did you see that as another form of the diabolical communion? Or something that was necessary? It seems to be necessary to the novel.

GW: What I was doing was to say that in order to be a good ruler you must be familiar with the tradition of that rule---of that country and of the people in the past who have administered that rule. No, not diabolical in that case. The diabolical thing is more Vodalus and the graverobbers.

JJ: Who are into it just for thrills.

GW: Well, yes they are doing it for trivial reasons. Evil is always a distortion or an exaggeration of something that is good. People don't understand that now.

JJ: Are the other sacraments of the Catholic church present in the novel? Are Severian's various liaisons along the way false forms of matrimony, or in some sense symbolic of it?

GW: They are more manifestations of the search for love, which I think is a great quest of life. What we go into life really looking for is love. And as you've said in your letters, I don't think of Severian as being a Christ figure; I think of Severian as being a Christian figure. He is a man who has been born into a very perverse background, who is gradually trying to become better. I think that all of us have somewhere in us an instinct to try and become better. Some of us defeat it thoroughly. We kill that part of ourselves, just as we kill the child in ourselves. It is very closely related to the child in us.

JJ: Is Valeria the ideal love for him?

GW: No.

JJ: Where would you say it lies in the novel?

GW: I think that the true ideal of love for any person is God. It isn't another human being. If my wife were here she would be deeply offended by that. (laughter) I don't mean that God is the only thing that a person can love. I think the final object of love is God.

JJ: Right. But within the horizons of a human life, is Severian still searching in the end?

GW: Very much so.

JJ: "Man is a wolf to man." You actually quote that in Soldier of Arete. You've traded on the wolf idea a lot, obviously, but that brings up the question of horror fiction. Both of the panels you have participated in at this convention have been about horror. You are not really a horror writer, though, and you don't write just to shock. But there are many times in your novels that you have deliberately brought the reader to the place where he is shocked or horrified in order to, hopefully, invoke a reaction against what you are presenting: This is bad and you should be shocked.

So, on the wolf-theme: In your story "The Hero as Werewolf," what were you hoping to get the reader to think here?

GW: I was trying to get the reader to think about the real nature of love between man and woman. In the first place, the girl in "The Hero as Werewolf" is retarded and cannot speak. And, secondly, in the end she has to damage very badly the man she loves in order to set him free. I think I was trying to say, first, that you must not think that the person you love has to be a whole lot like you in order for that love to be real and working. And second, that we all, if we are going to be honest, have to hurt people in order to do them good. We have to tear away parts of them in order to do them good.

JJ: The young man in "Hero" has a wounded foot, as does Severian. Does that come from the Bible, as a sign of the kind of character who receives the foot-wound rather than head-crushing, as Genesis 3 speaks of it?

GW: I'm not sure. If so it was unconscious. I don't think I did that consciously. I think it may very well reflect Biblical reading.

JJ: That is a theme in the Scripture, and Jacob winds up with a limp in Genesis 32. It is as if, as you have pointed out in especially in the Severian novels, it is necessary for God to bruise and wound us in order to make us grow.

GW: This is the same thing. God is the ultimate Lover above the human lover, and God has to do that. It would be very nice for me, I think, if I didn't have to work, and if I never got into any kind of trouble, and everybody thought that I was wonderful, and so forth and so on. In the long-range view, that isn't how you make a larger and better person. You meet people who have really been through it and really, truly suffered---who have been, let's say, a prisoner in the Hanoi Hilton for years, or something like that. Then you discover, yes, they got something out of it that I don't have.

I don't mean that I don't flee from pain and so forth just as all of us do. I'm at least as cowardly as the average, probably worse.

JJ: I don't think we are supposed to embrace pain. On the other hand, we understand the purpose of it when it comes,...

GW: We try to.

JJ: ...whether the dark night of the soul or something else.

GW: You always tend to say, "Why this? Couldn't it have been something else?" It is the problem of pain, which C.S. Lewis has an essay on. I still run across people who talk about pain as if nobody had ever dealt with it before. The idea of pain is to keep you from doing those things that are destructive. And they say "Surely there is another way that God could teach us." Yes, there are other ways, but you would complain about those other ways, too, just as you complain about pain. It would only change the dressing of the situation, not the situation itself.

JJ: And if you believe that God has good intentions, then whatever the pain was, it was indeed actually the best remedy. Now, along these lines, is the torturer of which Severian is the shadow, is that God? Is Severian the shadow of The Torturer?

GW: No, I think the idea there is that of the torturer coming between the victim and God and casting a shadow, serving as the oppressor or as a satanic figure. Severian is engaged in working his way out of his profession, which is torture.

JJ: So although there are analogies between what God has to put us through and what a torturer does, that was not your view. It was rather an inversion at that notion?

GW: Well, I wasn't seeing the torturer as the hand of God, if that is what you mean. No, I don't think so. I think that Satan does what God wishes him to do; it is just that he doesn't want to. And I think the torturer is in the same position. He is frequently doing what God wants him to do but he is not trying to please God by doing it.

JJ: Right. He is the Assyrian that God brings in against the Israelites.

GW: Yes, as the book of Habakkuk teaches.


JJ: Now, in my letter I asked a question that I figured you would not like. I wrote that there seemed to be a number of women who are less sympathetic than male characters in many of your books. You strongly disagreed, which I expected.

GW: Well, as regards some of the characters.

JJ: Let's begin with Ann Schindler. What struck me about her in Castleview was this section where one woman is saying the rosary and Ann Schindler starts to "pray" by thinking through a recipe. What came to my mind was the Biblical phrase "whose god is their belly." It seemed to be a form of idolatry.

GW: But I wasn't showing that Ann was a bad person; I was showing that she was in a barren culture. That the only thing that she could come up with was this, and I intended this to be humorous rather than condemnatory. I thought Ann was basically a good person. I am sensitive about this because a reviewer called her a pitiless satire of the middle aged housewife or something like that, which was in no means what I had intended.

JJ: She is a woman who hasn't taken her husband's name, so I would not think that she is your average mid

GW: No, she certainly is "liberated" in some degree. But she is also courageous, intelligent, inquisitive, and she quite genuinely loves her husband and her daughter. She is not faking that. She actually loves Will, not as much as Will would like, but she loves him. And she loves her daughter Mercedes enormously, fiercely.

JJ: I want to ask you about Laura in There Are Doors. Having only been through it once and scanned it yesterday, I'm still not exactly sure about what Laura is.

GW: Laura is my idea of what a pagan goddess might be who survived into the Christian world. One of the places where I probably split off from conventional Catholic thinking is that I believe that the gods of paganism were real. I don't think that they are entitled to the worship that they received from the pagans. I think what many of the biblical writers are saying is, "Yes, these are real powers, but it is wrong for you to give to them the honors that are due to God alone." And I think that that is exactly correct. Now, if Aphrodite were to survive into the contemporary world, what would she be like? Well, Laura was a shot at trying to show what she might be like.

JJ: Is there an attempt to redeem Laura on the part of the church.

GW: On the part of the author, not on the part of the church.

JJ: I ask because the Italian restaurant is one of the doorways between the two worlds.

GW: Yes. You said that Mama wanted Laura to marry Green, and she does want her to marry Green. That is because she thinks that Green is a nice guy, which he is. He is kind of dumb, but he is a nice guy. Laura is a nice girl, which is kind of true. And she would like to see them get together. She has that maternal married woman desire to see more married couples and children and so forth.

In There Are Doors I wanted to do something that I think has only rarely been done. It certainly has been done, but it isn't done very often. I wanted to present a protagonist who isn't very intelligent. Green isn't. He has almost no virtues. By that I don't mean that he has many vices, but he is not outstanding in any good way. He is a man of very limited intelligence, not terribly courageous, not terribly energetic or enterprising or any of those other things. He is the sort of man who would be quite content to work all his life in a dead end job and never try to get very far outside of that---except that he meets Laura. That is what changes him. Laura is looking for lovers, but Green is looking for love and he has found it, or he thinks he has found it. And whether she loves him or not, he loves her enormously. He can deal with the idea that she doesn't love him, that she doesn't have any particular feeling for him. It makes no difference to him; he still loves her.

JJ: Now, as I read the novel the first time, it appeared to me that Tina and the dolls like her were given to train the men of that world in an idolatrous worship of Laura as the goddess, and that would be an anti-christian idea. And that Green's affection for her and his overwhelming pursuit of her would be similarly problematic.

GW: This is the Christian world. That world is not the Christian world. That world is kind of a warmed-over pagan world. And that is what I tried to show it as. People always fault me on it by saying I did not work out what a world would be like in which men died after intercourse, but I feel that I did.

JJ: You raise that question in the book itself.

GW: How different would it be? I don't think it would be as different as a lot of people want to think it would be. You would have a lot of men who would refrain from intercourse either throughout their life or at least until the very end of their lives. And you would have a more feminine oriented society. A feminine viewpoint would have more influence than it does in our society. Although it does have a great deal in our society, it would have still more there.

JJ: And you believe that there are significant differences between feminine and masculine viewpoints.

GW: Absolutely. We're too biologically different not to have differences in viewpoint. Of course, we have to get away from the idea that one side is good and the other bad, which we have been struck on now throughout recorded history. The great majority of men have held that women are somehow innately evil; and the great majority of women saying when they dared, and often thinking when they dared not speak it aloud, that men were all beasts and brutes and so forth. The terrible thing is that so much of the bad stuff we say about each other is true. But we keep yelling for other people to be good without trying to be good ourselves. We are the only people we can make good. I can make me good, or I can at least try, and you can make you good; but neither one of us can do much for the other.

JJ: At the end of the novel Green goes off in pursuit of Laura in Manea near Overwood, and that leaves the novel open. Do you intend to come back to it?

GW: I might. I didn't intend to go back to it at the time I wrote it. JJ: Does he make any mistake running after her?

GW: Oh no, no. I don't think he's making a mistake. I think he is making a great correct decision of his life, which is to go after such love as he sees.

JJ: Even if what is there at the end is likely to be hollow? Because she doesn't really love, does she? She just wants lovers.

GW: But how is going to be at the end, and how much is that going to matter to him? He has found something to love. I think the trouble with a whole lot of people in this world is that there is nothing at all that they care deeply about. And it is certainly the trouble with Green. But now he has found something to care deeply about and he is making the correct decision. He has not made the mistake of saying, "It is too much trouble and so I'm not going to do it." I have a friend named Paul Marksa who is only a little bit younger than I am. I am 61. Paul must be about 50. And he is training now to be a missionary and he is going to go most likely into South America and do missionary work. And I think he is absolutely right. I know Paul, and he has finally found what he needed to find all his life and he is making the right decision. It is not going to be comfortable and it might be painful, and it is darn hard for a man his age to throw off everything and start studying all the things he has to study in order to be ordained in his church, the Church of Christ, and become a missionary, but that is what he is going to do. That is the right decision for him.

JJ: North in this book reminded me of Gordon Liddy.

GW: Very much so, very deliberately so. I originally started out with the idea of modeling him on Oliver North. He had a different name at that time. And I later came to realize that North was not the sort of person I thought he was. But Liddy really was and I read Liddy's book Will, which is an astonishingly good book, and I sort of caricatured Liddy to some degree.

They aren't very many of them, but there really are people like North. North is unconsciously oriented to a death-wish that he can't control. He is trying to get himself killed. Because he is, he raises every confrontation to the level of a life and death struggle. He is the sort of man who shoots the policeman who stops him to give him a speeding ticket.


JJ: Another thing that I raised that you didn't like at all was from the novel Peace. Let me make a case and then you show me where I am wrong and we can maybe discuss how this comes about. But as I reread Peace, I reread a lot of it and I found that you have a story in there, you have four suitors for Olivia. Olivia is Olive Branch Peace. That reminds me of the fairy stories where several brothers pursue something.

GW: Well, we do on those fairy stories in the course of the book.

JJ: Julius Smart is the one who wins her hand. He is a man who takes over a pharmacy. A pharmacy dispenses drugs. Dispenses grace. The man who was there before was giving out drugs that were very damaging and Smart doesn't like that idea. He cleans the place up. She is unfaithful to him but he forgives her. He is said to be a symbolic figure and the central figure in the book. He owns the company for which Weir works but when he comes around to inspect Weir and all of the fellows fake up as if they were doing good work and are not willing to be seen for what they really are. And all of those things pointed in the direction that Julius Smart would have symbolic weight attached to him and is something of a revelation of a Christ figure. However you objected to that idea. I wonder why...

GW: I certainly wasn't conscious of doing it while writing the book. I guess that is about the best that I can say.

JJ: Is he symbolic and central to the book?

GW: I didn't intend him as a symbolic figure I don't believe. I intended him as an ordinary, middle class American. If he symbolizes anything he symbolizes the mass of ordinary working class, lower-middle class America.

JJ: Okay. I wanted to ask you this about this book too. It came up in the discussion yesterday when one of the panelists said that he tried to write a main stream novel and when he finally added a fantasy element to it then it took off in his mind. So often this novel has been interpreted not as a ghost story or as having any supernatural elements but simply the ruminations of an old man. Why isn't it that? Why didn't you just write it as an old man thinking over his life. What added dimension is there to it that caused you to want to make it a man who is already dead thinking over his life?

GW: Because I wanted it to lend to the memories certain supernatural strengths that ordinary memories that the old man thinking over his life wouldn't have. I wanted to do the rooms that were recreations and rooms that he had known as a very young man and I didn't think that anybody would actually do that. That it had to be a supernatural stick or a mental quirk or something of that sort. I wanted some interplay between the remembered figures and the present reality. And so on that I could not have gotten with just reminiscence.

JJ: Okay. It is a very pristine novel all the same I suppose. I think it is pristine and I am a great _________fan. I have read Remembrance of Things Past I think about two and a half times. I don't read it more because when I start reading it I stop reading everything else. Unfortunately I am in a position of having a lot of things that I have to read or owe it to other people to read so that I can give them promotional quotes or things that I need to read to research something I am writing currently: non-fiction and so on.


JJ: I know you have to make a decision among the novels to be awarded prizes at this conference so you have to read all of them.

GW: Well, I had to at least start all of those. The World Fantasy Award was not only for best novel but for best non-fiction and for best story collection and for best short story as well.

JJ: Oh, my, you had a lot to read.

GW: All that. And the only way that you can possibly do it is to begin each work and stop as soon as you say to yourself I am not going to vote a prize for this work and then go on to the next one. And if you find that you can't stop then you had better rethink this decision I am not going to vote a prize for this work because if it is not that good how come you can't put it down? But I finished very few of the books that I started for that. The best one by the way which is a very Christian (very Catholic though) novel is Mojo and the Pickle Jar which was my top pick for the World Fantasy Award and I couldn't convince any of the other judges it should even be in the running, I think probably because it is too Christian.

JJ: Who is the author of that?

GW: A man named Douglas Bell who lives down in Texas around Dallas somewhere who I have never met and know nothing about him except his name and that I saw a jacket picture of him on the book. But it is about a young, not very good man in Texas who has worked in his uncle's road side cafe when a Mexican girl comes in with something in a jar, in a pickle jar. The heart of a saint. And she is being pursued by the minions of a cocaine baron because she has been involved in a drug deal that has gone wrong. And the young man Mojo, the girl's Jane I think, is Juanita. Right out he tries to help her. They go on the lamb from the people who are trying to kill them. But they are carrying with them this miracle working religious relic and it is a good piece, I would have been very happy to have written it, I didn't.

JJ: Do you read Timothy Powers or Jane Blalock (?) much?

GW: I certainly haven't read Blalock much. I have read Powers a little bit more than Blalock.

JJ: Just curious. Is this man in purgatory working toward peace?

GW: Yeah, I think probably he is.

JJ: Is that something you thought about when you wrote it or...

GW: That was not the way I conceived it when I wrote it. I conceived it more that he was a ghost trying to make sense of his own life. And I think that is another way of saying that. Goodness knows we don't know much about heaven and we know even less about hell and we hardly know anything about purgatory at all. What is it? And if you believe in ghosts, and I happen to believe in ghosts, what's going on with them? Long, long ago, was it ________- _____ one of Shakespeare's contemporaries said that hell is not a place it is a state: wherever I am hell is. Dr. Faustus: who wrote that?

JJ: Faustus, that was written by... you asked so I can't think of it. Marlowe.

GW: Marlowe, yes that is who it was, Christopher Marlowe. And I think that he is right. The old attempts to locate heaven, you know, above the clouds, and hell in the bowels of the volcano and so forth. I think are not only obviously naive but they are fundamentally wrong in that they are looking for countries in the sense that North America or Ireland or whatever are countries and I don't think that is what those things are. They are states.

JJ: The book of Revelation uses the image of the lake of fire in front of the throne of God which I think implies that everyone winds up in the same place except some like it and some don't.

GW: Well, I think that may very well be.

JJ: At least in part. That is an image that at least in part explains.

GW: Its a question I think of the souls relationship with God after death. If that relationship is fundamentally good then the soul is in heaven. Jesus kept saying the kingdom of heaven is here. It is not in the far future, it is here and now. And it is here and now for those whose relationship with God is correct.

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