Bewildering Stories interviews...
Part 1 appeared in issue 101.
Steven, some — even many — of our readers enjoy writing, and they’ve found that Bewildering Stories is a place where their works can be read and will look good, too. What advice would you give anyone who is just starting out or even thinking of a career in literature?
I think any truly ambitious writer almost by definition has to be an ambitious reader, so the best advice I can give aspiring writers is, Read; read omnivorously, courageously, and ambitiously; read challenging, difficult stuff that may have no apparent bearing on the stuff you aspire to write.
Don’t think that because you mean to write only your favorite kind of genre fiction, you don’t need to read anything else. Good genre writers such as Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Ray Bradbury brought to genre fiction things it didn’t already possess or that had been only latent in it before.
Read stuff you don’t think you’ll like; you may always be pleasantly surprised to learn, say, that there are solid reasons Hemingway and Fitzgerald, Joyce, Faulkner, Wharton, Flannery O’Connor, Nabokov, the Thomases Mann and Wolfe, are regarded as Important 20th-Century Writers. An ambitious writer will learn from them.
The ambition of the ambitious writer should be to write the stories he wants to write exactly the way he wants to write them, and examples of how, and occasionally how not, to do this are a portion — but only a portion — of what Important Writers have to offer.
Are there authors you’ve tried to read but found too much of a penitential chore?
I’m not afraid of difficult reading matter. Ulysses, Gravity’s Rainbow, and Proust are not easy reads, though they aren’t as difficult as semiliterates make them out to be, and I patently got something from sticking with them — not the least, a sense of accomplishment.
The same is true of quantum physics. My grasp of mathematics doesn’t extend far beyond simple arithmetic, but I became fascinated with quantum physics just as I was getting seriously to work on Silurian Tales, and once I had grasped the essentials of the uncertainty principle and the “many-universes” hypothesis, thanks to certain serendipitously acquired popular works on physics, the project’s real possibilities opened up before me.
I came close to throwing in the towel while reading Bulfinch’s Age of Chivalry and Legends of Charlemagne — the endless succession of iron-encased louts endlessly tilting at one another were enough to make me root for the Saracens.
One more word
and I shall say
“goddamn” a lot.
But the only work of fiction I recall giving up on in despair — in my adult life, anyway — is The Beast in the Jungle, by Henry James, and that was a quarter of a century and more ago. Other writers whose judgment I respect, from Edith Wharton to Lisa Tuttle, admire James, so I mean to take another crack at him one of these days. His Portrait of a Lady and Complete Short Novels await my pleasure even now.
In the meantime, I have been reading Varieties of Religious Experience, by Henry’s brother, William. It’s been said that William was a psychologist who wrote like a novelist and Henry was a novelist who wrote like a psychologist.
How would you characterize your own writings in terms of topics and themes? Do you have any theories why you might have chosen them rather than others?
My first collection, Ghost Seas, is packed with stories in which characters going blithely about their business suddenly if not always unexpectedly have their lives disrupted by more or less catastrophic events — a murder, interference by extraterrestrials, the collapse of the Confederacy, whatever — much as I was and did at the age of 17, when my sister, who was about a year and a half my junior, died of cancer.
My second collection, The Beasts of Love, is full of stories about characters in the grip of powerful and terrible emotions: love, hate, love-hate. I suffer from clinical depression, and the stories in Beasts, written during the 30-year period I went undiagnosed and untreated, partake of that. This isn’t to say that the stories are without exception downers, that there are no happy endings, but only that while writing them, I was, consciously or otherwise, trying to Deal With Stuff.
The stories in Silurian Tales span 25 to 40 years in the lives of a number of recurring characters, scientists and other visitors to mid-Paleozoic time, who are trying to do the work that is important to them while coping — or failing to cope — with isolation, boredom, privation, their own and one another’s shortcomings, and the implications of so-called time travel in accordance with the many-universes hypothesis advanced by quantum physicists. It is, in short, a book of stories about folks trying to be happy.
Whether we’re talking about Jay Gatsby or Emma Bovary, Jo March or Holden Caulfield, all fiction, like every other human endeavor, is about people trying to be happy. No two people’s definitions of happiness are identical, of course, and often they are mutually exclusive, so, as characters pursue happiness along different paths, the paths entwine bewilderingly, and collisions and wrong turnings are inevitable. Whether their ostensible objective is to kill the Great White Whale, though, or to possess the Maltese Falcon, or, as in the oldest extant literature we have, the Epic of Gilgamesh, to become immortal, whether they’re trying to preserve the status quo or to destroy one another and/or themselves, or simply to float down the Mississippi on a raft, whether they realize it or not, they are after some kind of satisfaction, contentment, fulfillment — happiness.
What is your favorite story among your own?
A tough question, and the answer depends on the mood I’m in when you ask it. Among those that spring readily to mind, however, are “Two Women of the Prairie,” originally published in the lamentably short-lived Louis L’Amour Western Magazine, and “The Country Doctor,” published in Asimov’s Science Fiction.
What is your favorite story by someone else?
An impossible question to answer. When, however, my own writing is going badly, when it’s pure self-torture, when it’s like trying to crap a cinder block, and I ask myself, Why are you doing this? I recall Faulkner’s “Dry September” or O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find” or some such thing, and then I know why: To be, somehow, great.
Copyright © 2004 by Steven Utley