The OF Blog: February 2007

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Interview with Paul Di Filippo

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia:

Paul Di Filippo is a science fiction writer born October 29, 1954 in Providence, Rhode Island. He is known for being a prolific, wide-ranging writer of everything from steampunk to cyberpunk, and for his gonzo writing style. He has been published in Postscripts. He is also a regular reviewer for almost all the major print magazines in the field, including Asimov's Science Fiction, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Science Fiction Eye, The New York Review of Science Fiction, Interzone, and Nova Express, as well as online at Science Fiction Weekly. He is a member of the Turkey City Writer's Workshop.

Dear Paul, thank you for agreeing to do this interview for us.

Could you please tell us a bit about yourself and how you started writing?

I've been an inveterate reader since age 5, starting with all the usual talismanic works: Dr. Seuss, the Hardy Boys, Tom Swift, and then, upon discovering hardcore SF at age 10, rapidly exploring that genre. Somewhere along the way, I got the notion that creating such works would be a fun and noble enterprise, and that I could do the same. I began my writing career by producing satirical essays for my highs school newspaper. (At this time, I was living in Lincoln, Rhode Island.) In college, I wrote a few similar pieces for THE ANCHOR, the paper of Rhode Island College. During the same period, I sold my first short story to UNEARTH MAGAZINE, and an opinion essay to THE NEW YORK TIMES. These affirmations from editors convinced me that I was not entirely deluded about my own talents, although it would take another ten years or so before the rest of the world began grudgingly to concede the same. If they even do so today at all!

What's a "typical" writing day for you?

When I first began writing, I used to dive right in around 8:30 or 9 AM every morning, finish by 1:00 PM, then go out to enjoy the real world. Nowadays, I'm at the computer at the same early hour, but spend two hours goofing around online! Then I write from about noon to 3:00 PM, whereupon I venture out into society. I used to aim to produce 1000 words a day, based on Ray Bradbury's famous manifesto, and I often still do. But I'll happily accept a 500-word day too!

I try to work on only one fiction project at a time. I find that immersion in a single imaginative world is about all I can take. But reviewing handily fills in the gaps.

You've been a writer for more than 20 years. What are some of the highlights of those years?

Well, selling that first story to UNEARTH felt splendid. The same feelings, perhaps even intensified, occurred when I almost simultaneously sold to TWILIGHT ZONE MAGAZINE and F&SF for the first time, at the true start of my career, circa 1985. Placing my first book, THE STEAMPUNK TRILOGY, with Four Walls Eight Windows was a milestone moment. And lately, seeing the Jerry Ordway art for my TOP 10 comics script for the first time was mind-boggling. My few awards nominations have generated a warm glow, tempered by the realization that my chances of winning are slim.

Generally, I try to remain unjaded, and not take any experience, positive or negative, for granted.

How would you describe your stories to a reader who is only now learning of you?

I'm all over the map. I do serious stuff, gonzo stuff, fantasy, science fiction--call me a gadfly or polymath kind of writer. If this hypothetical reader picks up my collection THE EMPEROR OF GONDWANALAND AND OTHER STORIES, he or she or it will get a sampler book designed to highlight almost all my facets.

Do you have favorites from the short stories you have written?

I'm fond of "The Mill," because it's quasi-autobiographical. It's about an alien textile mill, and my relatives (and me!) all worked in that trade. I think one of my newest pieces, "Wikiworld," is quality hardcore SF, creating a tangible world out of solid, realistic speculations. Generally, like a lot of writers, whatever I'm working on currently is my favorite.

M. John Harrison recently wrote a blog entry that generated some controversy on a few sites that said "Every moment of a science fiction story must represent the triumph of writing over world building." What do you think Harrison meant by that and would you
agree or disagree with that statement?

That's a killer statement from MJH which I had not yet seen. Basically, I think he's amping up Chip Delany's famous notion that "style" or word choice and syntax, etc., is both a writer's only unique stock in trade, and also the necessary and inevitable lens
through which any reader perceives the narrative or story. If this is MJH's point, then I'm solidly in his camp!

How much, if any, of an effect has your personal experiences have on the tales that you have written?

A recent reviewer called my story "Wikiworld" an "economic fantasy," leading me to realize that my own struggles for an income have caused me to focus on this theme: how does one stay monetarily afloat and what are the social structures that determine wealth and poverty? If I had been independently wealthy, I'm sure none of this would matter
quite as much to me!

If you were given the One Ring, what would be the first thing you would do?

I'll have to offer multiple options here:

1) Get all the sexy elf ladies into bed
2) Cast a glamour spell that shaved fifty pounds off my appearance
3) Fill my hobbit burrow with a year's supply of delicious Shire foodstuffs
4) Enforce world peace with an iron fist.

If you were to own several monkeys and/or midgets, how many would you own, and what would you name them?

I would have to opt for helper monkeys, such as the one that Homer Simpson once employed. I'd take five, and name them Groucho, Harpo, Chico, Zeppo and Gummo!

Thank you for your time and patience, Paul. We wish you the best of luck with your work.

Thursday, February 08, 2007


Ever since I made those posts a week ago on wotmania and then Westeros (and writing the blog entry below this), I've been reflecting quite a bit on what I've learned about myself while engaging in those discussions. It isn't a good discussion if nothing is learned, right?

I learned, or perhaps recalled is a better word for this, that I have a lot of pent-up anger and frustration. Not exactly towards those who were taking opposing sides to me, but for the direction in which my thoughts were taking and what I was perceiving as underlaying much of the passing comments.

I am not one of those who engages in "literature/art" debates, as I see the two as being just merely facets in particular material cultures. That is my background, that is my take on matters. How things can be applied and why they have come into being to be applied are what interests me most. No story exists in a vacuum. There must be something "out there" driving it to be told and/or written. Even if it is just for the author's eyes/ears alone, there is something almost compelling about this transmission of ideas and the codification from thought to spoken and/or written language.

This is probably why I find claims of reading for "escapism" to be frustrating. It shortcircuits any real responsibility on the part of the reader. If the author cannot write in a vacuum, then I believe neither can a reader do the same. All sorts of cultural baggage is being brought to the table every single damn time someone reads or listens to another's thoughts. There are those who might read this post and others by me and immediately dismiss it as being idle twaddle, just because it runs counter to their own Weltanschauungen. They may do so, but I think in a sense it would be QED, since my words would not have been read in a cognitive vacuum.

Which I guess brings me around to the issue of "worldbuilding" that has been kicked about here and there for a while. I find it not just odd, but vaguely worrisome that what ought to amount to being just a plausible background setting for a story has been raised in the eyes of many to the level of paramount importance in certain types of storytelling. Not just because of those "unhinged" people who actually believe in such "worlds," but that the indulgence in such worlds can be used as an excuse, subconscious or not, to "escape" from the responsibilities of dealing with our own. If there are no vacuums in truth, then there may not ought to be any attempts to claim that one can just "go away" from the surroundings around them. It just cannot be - the baggage is going to follow them.

So if that is the case (presuming, dangerous as that might be, that one cannot "escape" in reality or from reality), then what is being explored by the reader? What is it that draws them to such creations in which a lot is spelled out that usually isn't in other subgenres of speculative fiction or in the other genres of literature (and by extension, this facet of material culture)? Could it be that some are drawn to the notion that the author ought to explain or tell everything to the reader, so as to make it little more than an authorial puppet show? If so, then what would that say about the mindsets of many readers? I shudder to think of those possibilities.

Or perhaps it is just simply a desire not to have to think too much, because after all, we have to use our noggins quite a bit in this world at work or at play. But again, the issue of why the reader is bothering to read that particular work or style and not another would be raised. Is there a difficulty in processing certain styles and therefore one might reject out of hand that which is not easily conceived? Could that be an explanation in part of the increasing struggles that students as a whole have (outside of a very shitty home life, which more and more is the case of those I've taught over the years) with dealing with concepts that are foreign to them? Reject that which is alien and accept only that which is familiar and comforting? Perhaps, but there might be even more to this.

I could not help but think this week as I was formulating my responses elsewhere to others that here I was, a youngish (32 is still very young for a teacher!) post-graduate-educated male who has lived between various cultures much of his adult life. Gringo, yet with a passion for the various dialects and cultures of the Spanish-speaking world. Someone who has never starved or slept on the streets at night to avoid beatings, but yet who had worked at length with those that have. Someone who is idealistic, yet dealing with those that find hope to be a luxury too expensive to indulge oneself. Here I am, with my nice clothes and ready high-speed computer access, living in a different type of world than most of those that I teach. And then those have been the lucky ones, as many have known others to have been shot or stabbed to death in American urban centers or who had suffered from the hands of corrupt government officials back in their home countries. What would they make of these imagined "worlds?"

I became quite angry thinking about it. Spilled out in my afternoon 7th grade Geography class today. Discussing the effects that oil has had on Nigeria's people, especially along the Niger River delta. Reading the current issue of National Geographic to them, seeing those images of the downtrodden and those rising up against their perceived oppressors. No time for leisure or to try to "lose oneself" in an imagined "world" - it was fight or die season for many there and elsewhere in the world. There are no vacuums. We exist in this world as well, as spectators or perhaps even unwitting supporters of those who are too corrupt to care for the welfare of their people.

And here we've been, arguing at length on "worldbuilding." I feel disgusted with myself now. This world of ours, this very real world, is suffering and we just don't seem to want to own up and to take increased responsibility for it. I feel almost damned as a result...but then I do recall, that in some stories at least, people do confront these demons amongst us. And people have taken hope from that. That is what I think is the most important aspect of literature as a subset of material culture - offering up possible solutions to those waking nightmares around us. I just hope others will wake up and push for changes, rather than being content to dream of other idealized situations that try to distance themselves from the realities of this world. Something to reflect upon some more, I believe...

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Why is this "worldbuilding" such a big deal to some?

A week ago, M. John Harrison wrote a short piece in his blog about why he is wary, or "afraid," of some of what "worldbuilding" represents. I posted a link of this both on wotmania and Westeros' messageboards. The responses, on the whole, have been rather critical of Harrison's stances (and by implication, some of my own comments on the subject). I would suggest reading each of the sites' commentaries before continuing on.

Although I've given my basic opinion in some of the threads there, I felt like elaborating a bit on a related issue away from the heat of the MB battlefields. It is not surprising, of course, that on sites which are devoted, more or less, to the works of authors who wrote secondary-world fantasies that there would be fairly impassioned defense of this nebulous thing called "worldbuilding." In fact, that very word, "defense" I think lies at the heart of the so-called debate on the issue.

Most of the people who responded with criticisms of Harrison's position tended to state that they couldn't imagine a fiction existing without "good worldbuilding." OK, that's very nice, I thought, but what is "worldbuilding?" Are these people, and others like them, defining it as being most everything that deals with scene-setting? Or could it be that this "worldbuilding," which as far as I know wasn't a commonly used word until the past few years, ought to be restricted more towards its apparent original sense of describing the process of creating a secondary world?

I myself tend to take the latter approach when using such a word and I would suspect that Harrison was referring to such a thing as well. And oddly enough, in spite of or perhaps because of some of the comments made, I would imagine that it is quite possible, "arrogant" as Harrison may or may not be (I leave that to the jury, as I have no dog in this hunt), that an argument could be made that the responses end up justifying Harrison's last comments. A very odd QED, if it were.

But I think many of his critics on this issue are not looking far enough afield. If Harrison meant secondary-world creation (with its often laborious exercises in writing "histories" for characters that are in the end just figments of a single person's imagination) for "worldbuilding," then what about all the other types of fiction that are out there that most certainly do not depend on a lengthily-described "world?" I wonder if it might be a case of there being a great many more things in heaven and on earth than are dreamt of in the philosophies of a myriad Horatios.

I read a few secondary-world creations. Some, like Tolkien or R. Scott Bakker's works, are enjoyable, but I do not find myself wanting to be "immersed" in imagined "worlds." I read for the story and to see what the Text communicates to me, being the medium by which an Author might wish to share his/her ideas with me. I do not read to "lose myself" in a world, even if it might be richly described. Characters are often appealing to me and I would like to see more authors having more representative ones in their stories, but even they ultimately are but roles in a Story. The better written a Story, or perhaps better told would be more suitable, the more likely I shall recall the Story within the book's pages later. Macondo might be a fascinating imagined village and the Buendias might be intriguing characters, but it is the story contained within the pages of Cien años de soledad that ultimately was the deciding factor in my love for Gabriel García Márquez's masterpiece. It was a triumph of communication, of writing, of storytelling that made that book as beloved as it is today, not how his "world" was constructed.

When I read a story, I don't want the surroundings described at length, unless it is absolutely necessary for the story to be told in full. I do not think of characters as being any more "real" than those that populate my dreams - good for a sometimes-provocative thought, but secondary to the communication with myself that might be taking place within. When I hear of people at certain sites talk of "writing" a fantasy novel, it sounds more like someone who is just laboring over trying to make something imagined sound as exciting and as dense as a Lonely Planet guide to Timbuktu. I think Harrison should have gone further in what he put down in his article (but then again, it seems from reading other entries that his blog is more for passing thoughts than for long treatises). I do agree that there is indeed something almost stereotypically "nerdish" about expending so much time and energy on what ultimately should amount to a few brief supporting "details" to what ought to be a well-written/told Story.

I recall reading something somewhere that Jeff VanderMeer (I think) wrote about dialogue. All too often, the dialogue in many secondary-world fantasies sounds like nonsense to me. It is as if a great many authors are tone-deaf when it comes to nailing the "humanity" of the conversations. Perhaps this is related to a desire to emulate other such works in these imagined "worlds," where people don't sound like people bullshitting, but rather like a pale xeroxed copy of imagined archaic talk? If only some of the authors (and Erikson can be used here as an example, although he does have his good points in other areas, as I see his dialogues generally lacking in a "genuine" feel) would spend as much time working on polishing their prose and considering how most human beings actually speak, perhaps the subgenre of secondary-world fantasy wouldn't have such a pejorative ring to it.

But these are merely my opinions. I am not one who heavily reads within the types of fantasy being criticized here. There are others, I know, who prefer seeing what another has imagined and spending hours poring over drawn "maps" and extensive glossaries of invented places and characters. More power to them. Sounds more like a weak and twisted version of studying history, without the desire of those that do study history to apply that knowledge toward a greater understanding of ourselves. I wouldn't be surprised if that is part of what frightens Harrison so. I know it frightens me on occasion.
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