Bewildering Stories

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Bewildering Stories interviews...

Steven Utley

Steven is by now well known to regular readers for his amusing and thought-provoking poems and essays. For those who have just joined us, he was officially welcomed to Bewildering Stories in issue 96, and he has contributed to every issue since.

Steven is probably most notorious for his Nebula Award nominated collaboration with Howard Waldrop, Custer's Last Jump, but has written hundreds of stories through the years.

Our interview with Steven is presented in two parts. In part 1 he gives us his literary “bio,” as it were. In part 2, he has some very useful information for aspiring writers. Part 2 will appear in issue 102. Tune in and stay tuned!

One thing we’ve noticed about Steven: he has a well-stocked library and a prodigious memory. And he pays meticulous attention to detail.

When did you first start writing?

According to my parents, I started drawing when I was two years old; once I had learned to read and write, I simply began imitating what I read. I think my first “works“ were steals from Roy Chapman Andrews’ All About Dinosaurs and All About Strange Beasts of the Past.

When did you first discover science fiction?

For whatever reason, I was attracted to the more outré movies and comic books at a very young age. In the mid-1950s, my family acquired its first television set at just about the time that Hollywood opened up its film vaults, and I duly made the acquaintance of King Kong, Tarzan, Flash Gordon, Charlie Chan, The Little Rascals, and The Marx Brothers.

I was crazy about dinosaurs, and anybody who is always harbors the hope that somewhere, somehow, the creatures yet live. That kind of yearning makes you receptive to fantasy, of course. It was a short step from a comic book called Turok, Son of Stone, about a pre-Columbian Indian trapped in a lost valley, to the Classics Illustrated adaptation of Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth, and only another short step to Jules Verne’s novel itself. Classics Illustrated also introduced me to Mary Shelley and H. G. Wells.

In 1959-61 my family was stationed at Naha Air Force Base, Okinawa. Whoever had stocked the base library did a terrific job. The science-fiction section was solidly packed with Winston juveniles and Gnome Press editions, and I soon fell upon Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories, Danger: Dinosaurs by Richard Marsten — one of Evan Hunter’s pseudonyms — and Mists of Dawn, by Chad Oliver, who was to find himself thrust into the role of the Texas sf scene’s Elder Statesman during the 1970s. I also picked things out of the paperback bin, among them: Groff Conklin anthologies, in one of which I must have read my first Ray Bradbury story, “The Million-Year Picnic”; The Lost World, which led me, naturally enough, to Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories; Theodore Sturgeon’s Caviar, A. E. van Vogt’s Away and Beyond, and Philip José Farmer’s Strange Relations, which I don’t think was intended for prepubertal seventh-grade boys.

By 1962, we were Stateside again, I was a freshman in high school, and I latched onto Thuvia, Maid of Mars and The Martian Chronicles within weeks of each other. I’d already been some years at writing stories in imitation of what I read, but Edgar Rice Burroughs and Ray Bradbury sealed my fate.

Then, as ever afterward, though, I wasn’t exclusively a science-fiction reader and didn’t aspire to become a hard-core science-fiction writer. In my teens, I devoured Burroughs and Bradbury and comic books, but also James Bond novels and detective fiction, political thrillers such as Fail Safe and Seven Days in May, plays by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, Lenny Bruce’s autobiography, The Virginian, Great Expectations, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Lolita — and the Marquis de Sade!

Are there any authors you considered as models to emulate at one time or another?

Well, not the Marquis de Sade. Bradbury was my main man when I was in my early teens, and Harlan Ellison, Barry Malzberg, and especially Robert Silverberg were serious influences when I was in my mid-twenties.

Some years before I met Ellison, before I began writing with anything like serious intent, I happened upon The Glass Teat, a collection of his essays about television, but not just about television, of course. One of the ideas I absorbed from it was that writing is a noble chore. Also in The Glass Teat, however, is a corollary to that idea, which Ellison expressed approximately this way: Plumbing, too, is a noble chore — his point being that anything worth doing is worth doing to the best of one’s capabilities.

We notice that the poetry you have sent us is mostly what you call doggerel. We enjoy it very much but have the curiosity of the woefully uninformed: have you written much poetry in a different vein and on other themes? Have you written poetry in classical forms, e.g. sonnet, ballad, etc.?

I love writing senryu, which is Japanese for “tiny little poem.” Senryu employs the same formula as haiku — seventeen syllables, divided five-seven-five — but is wide open, thematically. Apart from that, my preference in poetry is simply for clarity, precision, concision. I write a lot of light verse because it’s easy and fun.

How great an influence would you say Ogden Nash has had on your poetry?

Nash probably is a subliminal influence, but then so, too, Richard Armour, and Shel Silverstein, and the guy who wrote “There was a young man from Nantucket.” As Bob Dylan put it, in almost these words, open your ears and your eyes, and you’re influenced. I can point to a particular poem and tell you that I wrote it after reading, say, Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, but poetry, for me, is incidental writing. I enjoy the work, I do the best I can, I’m certainly gratified when someone likes the result, but my heart is in fiction-writing.

What are your favorite comic books and/or strips?

I have a difficult time imagining how I’d have got through the 1960s without Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s Fantastic Four. I also liked the DC books Julius Schwartz edited: The Flash, Green Lantern, Justice League of America. I love Will Eisner’s Spirit, Jack Cole’s Plastic Man, Carl Barks’ Donald Duck, John Stanley’s Little Lulu, Harvey Kurtzman’s Mad, and his war comics for E.C. William M. Marston and Harry G. Peter’s Wonder Woman stories from the 1940s are big favorites of mine, too — such a heady mix of superheroics, mythology, feminism, and B&D.

Among semi-contemporary newspaper comic strips, I like Doonesbury and really miss The Far Side and Calvin and Hobbes. Among classic comic strips: Little Nemo in Slumberland, Polly and Her Pals, Mutt and Jeff, Roy Crane’s Wash Tubbs and Buzz Sawyer, The Katzenjammer Kids and its doppelganger, The Captain and the Kids — I enjoy just a lot of different things, actually.

How did you get hooked up with Howard Waldrop?

I met Howard at a meeting of the Dallas Area Science Fiction Society in October 1970, just before he went into the Army. George Proctor, Buddy Saunders, and Tom Reamy were at that meeting as well — all at a single go, I met my future Lone Star Universe co-editor and three future contributors. Buddy was the first professionally published writer I ever met, though I didn’t know it at the time; he had sold some comic-book scripts and a prose piece or two. Howard had sold a story to Analog. By the time he got out of the service in 1972, George and I, and Joe Pumilia and Lisa Tuttle down in Houston, had all made our first sales. Tom, who was older and a more deliberate writer, followed suit a year later, getting acceptance letters from Damon Knight and Harry Harrison on the same day.

We were young and excitable and very competitive, which pushed us to work hard at learning our craft, but we were also friends, so collaborative efforts were inevitable. In 1973, we founded the Turkey City Neo-Pro Rodeo, a writers’ workshop on the Clarion model. The rest, as they say, is a footnote to history.

Do you have a favorite author?

Not really, though there plenty whose work I like — off the top of my head, Twain, Borges, Joseph Conrad, Rebecca West, Colette, Nabokov, García Márquez, John Updike, Fay Weldon, at least before she started accepting paid advertising in her novels. I loved Diane Johnson’s Le Divorce, Michael Bishop’s Brittle Innings, and A. S. Byatt’s Possession. Since the mid-1980s I’ve been working my way through a long shelf of books by H. G. Wells, and since the early 1990s I’ve been reading Charles Dickens’ works in chronological order.

I read a lot, though, and widely — I can go from Plutarch’s Lives to Planet Stories to Plastic Man without too much grinding of mental gears.

To be continued...

Copyright © 2004 by Steven Utley

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