Gene Wolfe Interview

conducted 3/20/94

by Brendan Baber

Q: What is the difference between science fiction and fantasy?

GW: Plausibility, really. Science fiction is what you can make people believe; fantasy is what people have to suspend disbelief for. Many physicists believe that there will never be a faster-than-light drive -- it's impossible. But you can make people believe in one, since they don't know much physics. And there are some physicists who believe it is possible. If you talk about somebody genetically engineering unicorns, it's probably fantasy, because people don't believe in it. But it's so close that you can almost touch it; we're almost at the point where we can make a unicorn.

So it's all a matter of plausibility. Do people think, "The future might be like this?" If so, it's science fiction. If they think, "This could never happen," that's fantasy.

Q: Magic realism?

GW: Magic realism is fantasy written by people who speak Spanish.

Q: Horror?

GW: Horror is all over the map. It's one of those umbrella things, where you can write any type of material with "horrific" elements, call it horror and sell it as horror. Read the complete works of Stephen King, and you'll find fantasy written as horror, science fiction written as horror, horror written as horror, autobiography written as horror, and so forth.

Q: Why write books at all?

GW: The easy, cheap answer is, "To make money."

Q: There are better ways to make money.

GW: Yes. If you're trying to make money you shouldn't do anything as chancy and hard as writing books.

The only real answer is that you can't help it. A real writer writes for the same reason a real songbird sings. Somehow it's in them to do it, so they do it. A human singer, for that matter, who can't make a dime singing, will sing in the church choir, sing at parties and sing every chance he or she gets. They like doing it.

I like writing. It's hard work. I get tired doing it. I've been writing five pages a day, and that is a lot; it takes a lot out of me. But I can come back to it the next day and still like it.

Q: How have you contributed to or changed science fiction?

GW: Oh lord, I don't know that I have. That's the kind of thing you ought to ask John Clute, for example. I've tried to do things that seemed to me should be done and nobody had done yet. But everybody who's worth reading is trying to do exactly that.

Q: What are those things that you've tried to do?

GW: Oh for heaven's sake -- I had to lead with my chin like that.

I've tried to use a lot of standard scenery and props of science fiction in a new way, and I have tried to rip off a lot of rubbish we inherited from the utopian and dystopian novels.

Q: Rip off?

GW: I don't mean steal; I mean tear it off and throw it away.

Utopias in the utopian novels work because everyone is good and reasonable. But everybody is never going to be good and reasonable and want utopia to work.

Q: Except on Star Trek.

GW: There you are. The dystopian novel is just the other side of that: Everybody is lousy and rotten in all their relationships, and they're lousy and rotten to everyone they know. There are probably some people who really are that bad, but there aren't very many of them, and most rotten people are only rotten selectively. They're not lousy and rotten to their kids, or they are, but they're nice to their drinking buddies.

Q: So the goal is to make complex character? How would you describe that?

GW: I think that's what real human character is. I used to argue this with Damon Knight when we were still friends. Damon felt that you should write science fiction primarily by reading other science fiction and thinking about how the author should have done it. I felt that you should write science fiction primarily by sitting in a place like this and looking out in the street -- looking at the real world and saying, "What's going to happen, what might happen, what would happen if."

Both approaches can produce good stories, and I honestly think that Damon was using my approach some and I used Damon's some. There were some instances where I had read a story, and I said, "Gee, that's a great story, but what he should have done is ..." And then I sit down and write that story. Why not? And of course the other people are doing that to me. Why not? That's the way we play the game. I hit the ball over the net and they hit it back.

Q: But you're specifically interested in cross-pollination?

GW: Oh yeah -- to my detriment, at times. I wrote a book called Free Live Free; it's a science fiction novel, a time-travel novel, and there's a private eye. People say, "You can't do that. This is a science fiction novel! You can't have a private eye."

So I say, "Look, there are real private eyes. Look in the phone book." My father used to have a business partner who was a private eye. This is a real business; it isn't just in the novels of Dashiell Hammett. As a matter of fact, Hammett was a former private eye -- he was a Pinkerton.

And they say, "Well, you can't. And there's a witch in here! You can't have a witch in a science fiction novel!"

And I say, "Yeah, well I've had witches give me their business cards." They're real people. They're around here. Go to the nearest occult bookstore, strike up conversations with the customers. I'll bet you hit a witch within the first ten conversations. Okay, so I've got one in my story.

And they say, "Oh, you can't do that. You're mixing genres."

I'm not trying to write genres, I'm trying to write a book.

Q: And yet the genre of science fiction has been good to you.

GW: Oh sure. Absolutely. So what? I write a book or a story, and I write it the way I think it ought to be written. Then I say, "Where can I sell this?"

Q: What's available to an adult, adventurous reader in science fiction? Why should they read that genre? Why should they move past realism?

GW: The adventurous reader has probably already moved past realism. I realize that sounds like a smart remark, but I mean past the kind of fiction that is called "realism" as a literary genre, and that's what it is: a literary genre. It is archtypically the story about the college professor who is married to the other college professor.

Did you read Ursula K. LeGuin's novel, The Dispossessed? It was about the college professor who's married to a college professor, only science fiction, and this planet is Russia and this planet is the United States. When I read it I was so disappointed. I'd had a dozen people tell me how wonderful it was.

Q: Yeah, I heard that too. Then I read it.

GW: I've read that book before; I've read it as realism many a time. It's a John Updike kind of book. I've read that story so many times ... now I read a book until I can recognize the story, and say, "This is what it is," and that's as far as it goes, since I have no urge to finish it. I'm long past feeling so guilty that I have to finish everything I start. I don't finish ninety percent of what I start.

Look, the reason someone should go past that sort of realism is that it is narrow, stultifying and ultimately false.

Q: And the fantastic genres aren't?

GW: No, not the better stuff. We're dealing with the truth of the human experience, as opposed to what we are willing to accept from other people.

Q: Wait, I don't see that distinction. The truth of experiences versus other people's experiences?

GW: That you are willing to accept.

Q: You must forgive me; I don't follow that.

GW: I mean that if you were to tell me the pivotal events of your life, as they actually occurred, I wouldn't believe you. And vice-versa.

Q: [laughs] That's a pretty radical viewpoint!

GW: I think it's the truth. Have you ever tried telling people the pivotal events of your life, as they actually occurred?

Q: Usually edited down so they'll believe it.

GW: See? See? Okay.

Q: But that's a pretty radical point.

GW: You're dumbing it down for the audience! Let's write literature in which we don't dumb it down. Let's "smart" it up.

Q: That's a wild spin on reality ...

GW: Yeah. There's a great scene in one of [Neil Gaiman's] Sandman books. Do you remember the Emperor of America?

Q: Emperor Norton the first.

GW: Yes. And there's a scene in one of the Sandman books where he and Death are walking off into the sunset, and she's wearing his hat. That's real. Yeah.

Q: So realism is dumbed-down reality?

GW: It's a dumbed-down part of reality -- an acceptable part. It's mid-twentieth century upper-middle-class reality.

Q: Would you call it "materialism"?

GW: It is materialistic, but it's not materialism. Materialism is one of those things that's so barren you can't do much with it.

There was a materialist philosophy student who used to write to me, and would argue all of this stuff. He'd get enormously mad. (Do you know Tree's Law? Sir Tree, the famous British actor, coined the law, "Madmen write eight-page letters.") So this guy would send me these philosophical tracts, and they were full of outrageous pieces of bullshit, like, "Everybody wants to live!"

And I would say, "A guy jumps off an eighteen-story building. What could he do to convince you that he wants to die?" I tried to get him to answer that question, and of course he wouldn't. He'd dodge around, and he'd get madder and madder.

So he'd say, "A piece of paper is really just hydrogen and oxygen and six other elements, and that's all it is."

And I said, "I believe it's actually a piece of paper."

And he'd say, "No no no, it's a bunch of elements!"

So I wrote him, and said, "Okay, but remember now, every day of your life you'll have to adopt my viewpoint to live, to go down to the store and buy a ream of paper."

Then he said, "We cannot get along without logic."

Hell, half the people I know are getting along without logic! Most of 'em are doing just fine! All of the animals do it, except on a very basic level. No, the one thing that we really can't get along without is the realization that a piece of paper is a piece of paper. If you're a mouse you've got to say, "That's cheese. Nobody's fooling me about that. That's not chemicals, it's not gas, it's not some sort of fake cheese. I know cheese."

That's what you've got to do to live on the animal level.

Q: Identifying things in their relationships? On a "thing" level? Knowing what's useful, what's functional, what you need?

GW: Knowing what it is. It is paper. It is cheese.

What I realized -- years after this correspondence was over -- the thing that made him the way he was, was that he had never tried to take the piece of paper, and reduce it into carbon and hydrogen and whatever. If he had done that he would have learned that it was really a piece of paper, because he would have found out how resistant it was to being broken down.

Go into a laboratory, start working on it with re-agents or heat or whatever, and break it down into its constituent elements. That's how you learn that the theoretical stuff is all very well, but you're going to get an awful lot of glassware dirty.

It's a thing garage mechanics know. It's the difference between them and politicians.

Q: Who's exciting in science fiction right now?

GW: You're asking the worst person in the world. Just possibly, Robert Devaroux. He's written a kind of pornographic horror novel, and a wonderful story about a divorce between two clowns. The clown story is perfect as it stands, a monument for all time. The horror novel has all sorts of stuff wrong with it, but it's the kind of stuff you get when somebody has so much talent that they get published before he really ought to be. You know what I mean? Things are going too easy for him. Sometimes that's fatal, of course, but I hope not. He has an enormous amount of talent.

Q: Who are the science fiction authors living in Chicago?

GW: Phyllis Eisenstein is here. Algis Budrys is here. He's editing his own magazine now -- Tomorrow -- and I've been told that many of the stories are Budrys writing under pseudonyms. I don't know it for a fact, but when I look at the table of contents there are a lot of names I don't recognize.

Budrys was involved in the Writers of the Future Contest for years and years.

Q: So he'd have the resources.

GW: He's in contact with tons of people who won prizes in it and never made a mark since.

Q: That's too bad.

GW: In most cases it's simple justice. The stuff they were writing and sending around wasn't that good. People do that, and they do it for years. Sometimes they make a breakthrough, and they do a good deal better.

Q: You had that period, didn't you?

GW: Oh sure, absolutely -- something like six years between the time I started writing and the time I sold anything. For one thing, I was sending stuff to markets where I had absolutely no chance. You know, I was sending fantasy and science fiction stories to Atlantic Monthly. With new writers, you're so close to the material that you can't see it for what it is.

Q: Seeing it for what it is ... that goes back to the point you were making earlier.

GW: Oh, yes, it does. You see it as hydrogen or something -- floats right off the table!

Q: [laughs] Hmmm ... what do you think of Chicago? Do you like the place? Does being a writer in Chicago do anything for you?

GW: I like it as much as any city I know. I have an urge to get away from it and be a rural writer, but that's not Chicago's fault; that's something in me. The Tribune shines and stinks. It may be the worst thing about Chicago, but Dan Rostenkowski is a runner-up.

Q: He got re-elected, you know.

GW: Oh yes, I know he did. But Chicago has a great deal going for it. A lot. All you have to do is visit St. Louis and you realize what Chicago has going for it. You know? It's paradaisical!

We used to have the most wonderful supermarket in the world in Barrington. It was called Bockwinkles, and I'm sure you never heard of it. It was like you had stepped into a higher order of reality. It was absolutely incredible -- unbelievable. They moved in a baby grand piano and had a man in evening clothes playing Christmas carols. They had a waterfall -- and this is a supermarket. Everybody who worked there was good-looking.

Q: They only hired beautiful people?

GW: Yeah! Absolutely! The box-boy was handsome; the check-out girls looked like they could be models or actresses! It closed, of course. It was too good for the area it was in.

So Chicago is probably as good as it can be without going the way of Bockwinkles. You've got to have a certain amount of dirt and noise and so forth or else people are going to say, "This is fake." People would look at that store, and say, "This is very high-priced," but it wasn't. It wasn't any more expensive than anyplace else. But it was too good for them to shop there.

Chicago is about as good as it can be without being so good that something in us -- the thing that hates things that are extraordinarily good -- destroys it. The same thing is true of Sydney, Australia, which is a beautiful city. I can't think of another American city that compares. Seattle, perhaps.

Q: The thing in us that destroys the exceptionally good?

GW: Sure. It's a part of original sin. It's the desire for ugliness and evil in human beings. Who was it that said, "Sex is only dirty if you do it right?"

Q: Woody Allen.

GW: Ah! I didn't know who said it, but it's a great line. And it embodies that entity. I wonder what Mia Farrow has to say about that.

What are the movies worth seeing?

Q: Hmmm ... I've missed most of the first-run films. I should make it out to see them. Schindler's List is supposed to be very good.

GW: It's supposed to be great.

Q: The Piano is supposed to be very good.

GW: It's a very good romance novel done as cinema. If you're familiar with the romance novel genre, you'll recognize all sorts of genre mechanisms in it. It's very much a genre piece of writing. But people who aren't familiar with the genre don't recognize it.

It's like the revenge play. Hamlet is a revenge play, but nobody knows revenge plays. It's a genre work.

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