An Interview with Gene Wolfe
Gene Wolfe will tell you the truth, in conversation and in fiction, whether you want to hear it or not. He is perhaps best known for his novels set on Urth, including the four-part Book of the New Sun and the four part Book of the Long Sun. He writes fantasy and science fiction, and a grim blend of both that he insists is not horror.
Overall, he writes a story the way it needs to be written and he does so in rich, textured prose that delights on a first and rewards on a second reading.
“The high quality of Gene’s prose guaranteed him critical attention,” said David Drake, a long-time friend of Wolfe’s and author of The Lord of the Isles series and the Hammer Slammers series. “He’s also a commercial success, though, which is a very different thing. He’s seen enough of life to be able to write about hard places in a fashion to both [speak] to those who’ve been in them, and to make them vivid to luckier people who haven’t personally seen what Gene has.”
It’s those “hard places” and unacceptable truths that inform even the lightest of Wolfe’s narratives. His stories, long and short, can be relentless, brutal, grim, and, word for word, maddeningly beautiful.
I interviewed Wolfe while he was entrenched in the writing of An Evil Guest, which was released earlier this year.
What do you enjoy about writing?
Primarily revision. I like to polish and tidy up, like trying to make good stuff great. First drafts are work. Are fighting, really. I know where I’m going, but I know too that I mustn’t get there too fast.
What happens on the way? How to make the reader see, smell, hear, and feel it?
I struggle against easy writing. Long ago somebody said, “Easy writing makes damned hard reading.” He was right. “Nick was a bad man and a cruel man.” That’s easy. I know I can’t say it at all. I have to show [Nick] being bad and cruel in the context of the story. That’s always hard.
Does there ever come a point when you have to accept that a particular piece is no longer worth fighting with or for?
There comes a point at which I’m no longer sure that what I’m doing is improving the piece. That’s when I stop working on it and send it in. Usually – not always, but usually – I get there after four drafts. A fifth draft may find me reverting to the second or the third, and that’s a bad sign.
You don’t happen to have any examples of, say, a first draft of a sentence and the final draft of a sentence we could compare, do you?
I don’t have a sample sentence now that would tell you anything, although I could make one up:
“It certainly is. We’ll have a bigger cast and more advertising. It will take two or three months to get the new people and get our advertising campaign into high gear. After that, we’ll play here in Kingsport, opening in December.”
“You bet it is. It’s wonderful, and don’t you forget it. The ship gets ten more sailors and Tiny gets twenty more natives. Fifteen girls and five boys. The whole damned show gets a big ad campaign, featuring you. I figure a couple of months, maybe three, to hire the new people and rehearse. Then we play the Tiara for the rest of the year.” India licked her lips. “We ought to be able to open the week before Christmas. There’s nothing like Christmas.”
That’s from, An Evil Guest. Can you see what I’ve done? I turned generalities into hard facts. I made India talk the way she talks. I made it personal to Cassie, the star of the show and the central character in the novel, who was the first speaker: “featuring you.” India licks her lips because her reputation is riding on this show; she’s the director.
Besides, she’s down for a cut of the receipts. It’s longer, but it has a lot more meat.
I was surprised that you made the second version longer. I have been conditioned to think of revision as cutting excess words in order to achieve more effect with fewer words.
Often I tend to write synopsis. When I do, I have to flesh it out in revision.
I write that way when I don’t intend to, trying too hard to get everything down and move the story ahead. When I revise, I realize (sometimes) what I’ve done and fix it.
In general terms, how does a short story work?
By engendering expectations and satisfying them. I told a student once to letter a sign and put it where he’d see it when he wrote: “I AM GOING TO TELL YOU SOMETHING COOL.” Later he reported that he had done it, and it had helped immeasurably.[For instance:] “Long ago in a land now sunk into the sea, there was a brown-skinned boy with eyes like topaz . . . ”
At which point do you realize that a set of ideas would make for a good story? Do you have some sort of litmus test?
When I get a set of ideas that seem worth exploring, I do it. Usually I end up with a short story. Now and then, with a book. Right now I’m working on a novel. The original idea [for An Evil Guest] for was a consultant everybody says is a wizard who really is a wizard.
Style and voice seem crucial to a short story but are easily turned into abstractions.
Style has become a bucket of worms, thanks to the deteriorating standards of the public schools. The chief style I see in student stories is American Illiterate. It shows up in published stories sometimes too. “Should an enemy warrior cross that line, kill them!” Well, that’s okay if the order-giver is an illiterate. Unfortunately, the illiterate is just about always the author. Other than that, the style should suit the story. Imagine The Wings of the Dove as told by Huck Finn. It would be funny for ten pages, but . . .
If you’re asking about the author’s voice, or the narrator’s, it’s so closely linked to style that I see no point in discussing it separately. If you mean the voice in which each character speaks, each must be different. The butler mustn’t sound like the footman, even though neither is an important character. This is one of those truths that students reject out of hand. They reject it because everybody sounds alike.
Can you describe the process of characterization—from the first glimmers of a character to fully rounded character?
Characterization is easy and rare. It’s rare because so many people can’t be bothered. You characterize by showing the character acting, talking, or thinking in characteristic fashion. That’s all there is to it. Read Dickens, for whom characterization was as natural as breathing.
What makes for effective dialogue?
Oh, my! It must entertain the reader, forward the plot, and characterize the speaker. All pretty much at the same time. It must not be too wordy or too telegraphic; it must sound natural – that is, like something that speaker might say at that time to that person.
Dialogue is action.
“Darling I love you fit to bust, but it’s a week in Paris and I’ll love you just as much when I get home. Ta!”
What are the stories that are done to death by novice writers of speculative fiction?
The archetypical one ends when the hero and heroine reach the pristine planet and are found to be Adam and Eve. Everyone sees this over and over.
Students write these because they think the idea brilliant and it’s an idea they have never seen in print. They never see it in print because editors are so sick of seeing it in the slush.
Another proverbial beginner’s story is the “Mary-Sue,” so named because a woman with that name wrote novel-length Mary-Sues and sent them to every house in the business. The princess (or queen) has a lovely and fantastic name: “Goldenshower of the Stormless Isle.” You know. She is the hereditary ruler of Everything. She is also the universe’s leading scientist and as brilliant as she is beautiful. Everyone is in awe of her. But we never see why. Her brilliance, wisdom, leadership etc. are only talked about. Never shown. This is, of course, female fantasy packaged as fiction.
Male wish-fulfillment is rarer, but you get that, too.
Then there’s the propaganda story, usually for animal rights. Often the causes are good. If the stories were good, too, they would be publishable; but the story is not what the author’s thinking about.
The thinly disguised gay story isn’t so much bad as pathetic. The hero wins the deep and abiding friendship of a young, strong, handsome, rich man who toward the end of the story ditches his wife or girlfriend. It’s a wish fulfillment story, too; but it deserves its own category because critiquing it is so touchy.
The worst student stories as far as I’m concerned are the PC ones. All southerners (sometimes, westerners) are mindless gun-toting slobs and all military officers are evil. So are all corporations, etc. The students have learned to write these because they get good grades from their creative writing profs. The stories get published now and then, too. I read one not long ago in which Italians hated President Bush so much that they killed American tourists to get even with him. In the hope of escaping, some tourists wore buttons: I AM A DEMOCRAT. I’m not terribly fond of Bush myself, but come on gang! Get real.
Your fantasy seems much truer to reality, truer to what we humans experience in this life than most of what passes for realistic, mainstream fiction.
Because fantasy is nearer the truth, that’s all. Realistic fiction is typically about a married couple, both college teachers. He’s cheating on her with a student, so she cheats on him with whoever’s handy. Angst abounds. How true is that story for the bulk of humankind? Realistic fiction leaves out far, far too much. How old is realistic fiction? How old is fantasy?
So mainstream fiction has a tendency to represent a reality that the general public is willing to accept, whereas good fantasy is a reality so near the truth that it must be presented as “make believe” in order to get people to accept it? The only acceptable fantasy is old or distant fantasy. If you are going to look at the sun directly, wear shades—rose-colored sunglasses. Or, you can look at the beautiful image of the sun reflected on a rippling lake.
If you restrict “the public” to the upper middle class, I’m in agreement. I might add that it’s far safer to look at the sun reflected in the lake.
Do you enjoy teaching writing? When you walk into a creative writing class as the teacher, what is your role, your job?
Yes, I enjoy teaching writing. (Unfortunately, most students don’t enjoy having me teach them.) My chief job as teacher is (usually) to inspire the students to write. I must make them understand that they can be successful if they are willing to work hard enough. My secondary job is to get them to write better.
The hard part of teaching anyone to write is getting him to believe you. It’s very different from teaching (say) differential calculus. The calculus teacher is never in doubt; his problem is to get the ideas across. The writing teacher is presenting very simple ideas–which are generally rejected whenever they disagree with the student’s preconceptions.
Most would-be writers fail because they’re not willing to do the work and learn. They have a computer with a spell checker, and what more do they need? Everything they write should be bought and published. Almost anybody who’s willing to write a lot, to try to write well, and to market what he writes succeeds.
Most of writing is easy. Characterization and plotting, which seem to scare a lot of beginners to death, are easily learned and soon become almost automatic. The hard things are telling a good story and writing graceful grammatical prose.
My frustration has been getting anyone to say anything of substance and to say it directly.
Academics make a fetish of speaking in abstractions; I suppose they like it because it’s unnatural. Like poetry and song, fiction demands the concrete.
“The vessel, bearing fuel to the New World, met with misfortune shortly before its arrival. The command structure was nearly decimated.”
“He was the captain of the Nightingale,
Twenty-one days from Clyde in coal.
We could smell the flowers of Bermuda in the gale,
When he drowned on the hard-rock shoal.”
This stuff is what got me into trouble [at a conference a few years ago]. Some of the students were writing publishable material. I tried to encourage them to keep at it. (One of them now has a multi-book contract.) Some were writing unpublishable material. I tried to show them what was wrong with what they were doing.
One young man was writing pornography under the impression that he was writing fantasy; that is to say, the main interest in his stories was in sexual adventures which had little to do with the fantasy background. I explained to him that he was writing one genre under the impression that he was writing another.
A man of sixty or so was clearly avenging some wrong (which I suspect was largely imagined) done him by a middle-aged woman. I told him that his writing might be therapeutic, but it could not be sold. To put it briefly: I Made Enemies. I’m not sure how many.
A good bit of what you and David Drake write about is difficult for people to accept. Much of what Mr. Drake experienced in Vietnam is difficult for him and for others to accept. It seems to me that there is, on your part and Mr. Drake’s part, a realization and acceptance of those unacceptable truths, those very things left out in much literary and mainstream fiction.
Perhaps when you were shot at in Korea you were forced to accept what the vast majority of the population has the luxury of not accepting? And it is written all throughout your fiction.
Certainly my writing was very different after I left the Army. I was twenty or so the first time and twenty-six the second. Those are a long six years. (Remember, I spent two and a half years at the U. of Houston getting a degree after I left the service.) I was much more mature, and what had been a sort of hobby had become a serious attempt to augment my salary.
The biggest difference combat made is difficult to describe. A lot of it is fatalism, “I’ll fight this thing until it’s as good as I can make it. When it is, I’ll send it out, reload, and resume firing. I’ll keep on doing that as long as I can.”
There’s only one good thing that comes out of war. It is that the people who fight it are forced to see the lies that others tell them and the lies they tell themselves for what they are. It can be hard on some people – very hard. I wish I could say that it lasted for life; quite often it doesn’t.
The overall effect of your fiction on me is exhilarating—perhaps because it gives me access to truths I did not have to learn about on my own the hard way . . .
Thank you! That’s a great, great compliment.
Jeremy L. C. Jones is a freelance writer, editor, and teacher. He is the Staff Interviewer for Clarkesworld Magazine and a frequent contributor to Kobold Quarterly and Booklifenow.com. He teaches at Wofford College and Montessori Academy in Spartanburg, SC. He is also the director of Shared Worlds, a creative writing and world-building camp for teenagers that he and Jeff VanderMeer designed in 2006. Jones lives in Upstate South Carolina with his wife, daughter, and flying poodle.