Items Tagged: Interviews

An Interview by J.G. Stinson

This interview was originally published in the SpecFicMe! Market Newsletter, Issue 14, March/April 2003, and is re-used here with the permission of the editor/publisher, Doyle Wilmoth. A minor update to the last question has been added. SpecFicMe! can be found on the Web at www.specficworld.com.

Since the mid-1980s, science-fiction writer Paul DiFilippo has been piling up an impressive list of published fiction, both short stories and novels. He’s most noted for detailing the daily grind of working-class folks and the decidedly extraordinary intrusions of odd things into their lives. His works have been short-listed for the Nebula Award at least nine times (and finalist stories appeared in at least two Nebula anthologies), and won the 1994 British SF Association’s award for best short story with “The Double Felix” (Interzone, Sept. 1994). He lives in Rhode Island.

Q: Who are your fictional writing influences?

A: As an inveterate reader from childhood, I fixated on a number of writers who imbued me with various instincts and dreams and preoccupations, in regard to my own later writing. Brian Aldiss, A. E. van Vogt, Philip K. Dick, H.P. Lovecraft, Samuel Delany, Robert Heinlein, and a host of others. Wider exposure to “literature” in college brought me into contact with others just as important: William Faulkner, Jack Kerouac, Vladimir Nabokov, Thomas Wolfe (the elder) and, most crucially, Thomas Pynchon.

Q: Why Pynchon?

A: He is central, both to me and to SF in general, because he has proven conclusively that any book which embodies SF themes in the sophisticated, artful fashion which he employed, can be both good SF and also a masterpiece of literature.

Q: Who was the first person to call your stories “trailer park SF”?

A: The coiner of this wonderful term is my mate, Deborah Newton. She’s my first reader on everything I write, and a sharp critic.

Q: Have you had the seemingly usual laundry list of “regular” jobs while you got your writing career started?

A: I’ve been lucky enough to go without a day job for about the past four or five years, although my finances are always shaky. If it weren’t for Deborah’s support in all ways, emotional and monetary, my job would be impossible. Before that my career of mundane jobs was not too wildly varied. Clerking in donut shops, 7-11s, and, best of all, a bookstore. I did the refreshment stand at an X-rated drive-in, but that doesn’t count, since I wasn’t a writer then, just 17 years old!

Q: Did you ever attend any of the “major” SF writing workshops (Clarion, Odyssey, etc.) or take any other creative writing courses?

A: Nope, never did any of the usual workshops, and just a single creative writing course in college. I’m a self-taught loner by nature!

Q: Is there a specific aspect of writing that is more difficult for you than other aspects?

A: Actually, it’s all equally hard or equally easy for me. I think I have a pretty good grasp of all the techniques and components of fiction writing, but any individual story may of course present unique difficulties during its creation. The hardest thing for any writer, I think, is not to repeat yourself when you find a groove, to force yourself to try something different, in terms of characterization, plotting, etc.

Q: How long have you been writing science fiction?

A: Although I sold my first story in 1975, I did not seriously sit my butt down in front of the typewriter (and it *was* a typewriter at this primitive date!) until 1982, when I decided to quit my day job and attempt to follow the Ray Bradbury method of writing one thousand words a day until I taught myself something. About 350,000 words later, I sold my second story.

Q: What’s the name of your latest book and who published it?

A: Two new titles are just out. A Year in the Linear City, from PS Publishing, and A Mouthful of Tongues, from Cosmos Books. The first one is SF about a strange artificial world, kind of like Ringworld snipped and unrolled. The second is an erotic dark fantasy set in an imaginary South American land.

Q: Who is Philip Lawson?

A: Good ol’ Phil is a schizophrenic kind of guy, half Southerner, half Yankee. Naturally so, being a combination of me and Michael Bishop. Mike’s middle name is Lawson, and we turned Di Filippo into Philip. We thought the resulting name sounded a bit like Philip Marlowe as well, a good move for a mystery writer. If we’re together at a book signing for our two mysteries — Would It Kill You to Smile? and Muskrat Courage — I sign “Philip” and he signs “Lawson” in addition to our real names.

Q: What kinds of nonfiction writing have you done?

A: The bulk of my nonfiction consists of hundreds of book reviews for various outlets, such as Asimov’s SF, Realms of Fantasy and Science Fiction Age. I’ve done one substantial piece of journalism for Wired magazine, but it was chopped up so brutally during the editorial process that I have more or less disowned it, and in fact could never stomach the thought of reading the published version.

Q: Where can a reader find a bibliography of your published fiction? Do you have a personal Web site?

A: It’s all available at paul-di-filippo.com .

By Marshall Payne

Paul Di Filippo is a protean writer, able to blend disparate fictional elements in his own unique, wildly inventive way. As Cory Doctorow refers to him in the introduction to Paul’s most recent collection, Harsh Oases, “He’s like baking soda in the genre’s fridge, soaking up all its flavors, mixing them together.” Paul’s fiction has appeared in SCI FICTION, F&SF, Cosmos, and many anthologies such as The New Weird and Salon Fantastique, to name just a few. He is the author of ten novels and 13 short story collections, as well as being a regular reviewer for almost all the major print magazines in the field, including Asimov’s, F&SF, Science Fiction Eye, The New York Review of Science Fiction, Interzone, and Nova Express. He lives in Providence, Rhode Island, with his partner, Deborah Newton, a calico cat named Penny Century, and a chocolate-colored cocker spaniel named—according to the author, in a highly unimaginative fashion—Brownie. I am pleased that Paul was able to answer a few of my questions for The Fix.

You’ve been a full-time writer for the past 15 years. What is your writing day like?

My days, like those of most writers, I suspect, attain a startling uniformity, averaged out over time. I arise between 6:30 and 7:00 AM. After chores and breakfast and the indulgence of some newspaper reading (still via old-school print medium; someone has to pay for your free Internet browsing!), I’m at work between 9:30 and 10:00.

Online work—browsing news sites, researching topics, blogging, and answering email—takes up from one to two hours. Then comes some actual creative stuff.

I try to work on only a single project at a time. If a review assignment is on the docket, I might have to devote some time to reading the text for discussion, although a lot of the reading gets done at night. But otherwise I dive into the writing and finish by about 4:00 PM. Then I have to have a walk of an hour or two, to decompress and get some beneficial exercise and do chores.

It’s all rather like the lives of the math monks from Stephenson’s Anathem.

I used to follow the Bradburyian dictum of striving for 1000 words a day in my youth. Now I’m happy with anything upwards of 500. That still allows for 180,000 words a year. Probably more verbiage than any mortal should be allowed to produce. Although just a couple of years ago, I completed my Creature from the Black Lagoon novel—80,000 words—in 70 days.

Can you tell us about your first couple of sales and how your career developed from there?

My actual first sale, while I was still in college, was something of a fluke, to UnEarth magazine in 1977, the same venue that hosted the first stories of Rucker, Gibson, Blaylock, and others. It was a parody of Barry Malzberg’s work. I’m happy to report that after we became pals, Barry was kind enough not to hold this youthful offense against me.

Then I abandoned attempts to write for five years, until 1982, when I decided to push on seriously or perish trying. After nearly three years of constant rejection, I sold two pieces almost simultaneously: one to Ed Ferman at F&SF and one to Ted Klein at Twilight Zone Magazine. Those sales gave me the confidence and courage to soldier on, although rejections still outnumbered sales by a large margin for a long time thereafter.

This meant a succession of days jobs, until about 1993 or so. By then, I had learned how to cobble together any number of small sales to make a bare living. Getting my first book out in 1995 was another milestone and source of income, however small.

During all this, the fiscal and emotional and critical support of mate Deborah Newton made everything possible.

Nowadays, I’m pretty much guaranteed to place any short fiction I write, which makes me feel as if I’ve actually gotten a little better at this odd craft. Or maybe editorial standards have lowered!

For those unfamiliar with the term you coined, “ribofunk,” tell us about it and your fiction based on it.

During the waning days of cyberpunk, I half-jokingly tried to predict the next big movement in SF. I took the prefix “ribo” from the cellular component ribosomes and the musical genre of “funk” and mashed them together, positing hot, passionate, sweaty fiction about speculative biology. I xeroxed a broadside touting this alleged genre and circulated it by mail, and it also appeared in a couple of fanzines.

Having done so, I began to believe my own humorous propaganda, seeing actual story potential therein, and begin to write stories that tried to live up to my prescription. Futuristic stories where the biological sciences are paramount, where human form is mutable, and human-animal hybrids form an underclass.

The movement as such never really materialized, but plenty of writers have seen similar potential in the themes and topics of ribofunk, even if by reinventing my particular wheel. I’d mention Peter Watts, Linda Nagata, and Mark Budz among others.

The titular story of your collection, Harsh Oases, is one of my favorites. In “Harsh Oases,” Thomas Equinas, a part horse “mosaic” or “splice,” is entrusted with the creature known as Swee’pee, who will contain all the genetic material of the mosaics that some humans want to eradicate. This is a wildly inventive story. Where did the inspiration for this piece come from?

After the muted success of Ribofunk the story collection, I always wanted to do a ribofunk novel, and so had been accumulating notes towards something vaguely known to myself alone as Harsh Oases. It was to be organized around a succession of strange terrestrial environments made possible by bioengineering. It occurred to me that one way of plausibly visiting all these environments was by having the protagonist being chased from one to another. But why? After I answered that question, the story fell into focus.

But I kept putting off the writing until I was asked to contribute an original work of fiction for my keynote speech at the Monstruous Bodies Symposium at Georgia Tech. At that point, I said, “Let’s be generous and work up all these ideas into novella form.” This type of ultra-concentrated, jam-packed idea story had always impressed me when Bruce Sterling or Rudy Rucker pulled it off, and I wanted a go at the mode. It does require more focus and invention than single-idea stories, though.

But having done a credible job, I think, of getting the rudiments of this scenario into fictional form, I don’t now feel motivated to expand it to novel-length, so the novel version of Harsh Oases will probably never come to be.

I won’t ask you the hackneyed question, “Where do you get your ideas?” Instead, has there been a bizarre or interesting occurrence in life that led to a story idea that just begged “Write me!”?

I got the idea for my story “Rare Firsts,” about a bookseller who encounters a miraculous library, in a dream, and such incidents are pretty rare for me, so that might qualify. But I’m not certain that the most bizarre things in my stories can be directly traced to real-life events. I use bits and pieces of real-life, like all writers. For instance, I heard of a person, via a friend, who was afraid to make left-hand turns because it meant cutting across scary oncoming traffic, and so that person always had to circle around to her destination, and I used that in Joe’s Liver.

I think you have to have lived Lucius Shepard’s life to have amassed really bizarre incidents that you can then fictionalize.

You seem to move from strength to strength in your fiction, mixing genres and tropes in unique ways, never repeating the same story twice. Do you think this has hurt you commercially, and could you describe how you’ve dealt with finding your own unique path in this field?

I alternate styles and genres simply because I can’t stand repeating myself unto boredom—boredom for me, boredom for the reader. I have to assume that an audience exists that will enjoy my core underlying voice in whatever surface manifestation it currently takes.

But having said that, I must admit that finding a certain limited field and plowing it repeatedly is a much surer and quicker path to success. Other writers such as Richard Lupoff have noted this phenomenon. But we butterfly types flit from one flower to another simply because we have no choice. I wouldn’t known how to write a trilogy if I studied from here till Armageddon!

I like to exhaust an idea in one go. Further exploration is thus foreclosed.

You’ve said that one of the biggest misconceptions about your work is that you only write humor. Yet considering the gonzo, humorous approach you often apply to your fiction, I find this one of your most compelling talents. What are your thoughts on humor in our field?

Humor is my baseline mode in fiction. I started out writing satirical essays for my high school newspaper, after all (almost getting expelled in the process; this was the 1960’s after all) and imprinting on the National Lampoon in its heyday, as well as an omnibus volume of the writings of Paul Krassner. Moreover, humor is my approach to daily life and world events. As someone once said, “Life is too important to be taken seriously.” God, if he or she exists, is the biggest humorist of all.

The SF field has had a fairly large number of great comic writers: Sheckley, Tenn, Rucker, Goulart, Laumer. But we’re in a distinct minority. As Woody Allen famously remarked, we’re perceived to be sitting at “the kids’ table.”

But because we’re in a minority, I think a humorous story stands out when found in the slushpile, and might actually get a better chance at being printed.

How do you perceive the use of irony in our field? Is it often misperceived by readers in your work or in the work of other authors?

Irony is dangerous and slippery. People with no radar for it misapprehend the writer’s motives and desired effects, frequently leading to a lynch-mob mentality. But then again, such folks are probably immune to any form of communication other than a two-by-four upside the head.

I think we must distinguish between “pure” irony, which always has a component of rueful empathy, and cruel snarky irony. I try to stick to the former.

You’ve been known to use pop culture media and show business tropes—50s TV and old movies, etc.—in your fiction for speculative extrapolation. What is it about these tropes that appeals to you?

As a boomer, I was raised during the explosive expansion of mass media into all niches of life. The sheer volume of music, TV, films, advertising, comics, etc., that poured into my life—and the lives of my generational peers—and which thrilled me means that when I’m casting about for a touchstone or narrative format, I often come upon pop culture items first.

The good part of this is that you can make an instant, shorthand connection with your audience—if they possess the same reference points. The bad part is that you can lose your audience if they don’t. And also, such shorthand allusions can make a writer lazy in developing his or her own descriptive or inventive powers. You rely too much on a consensual shared image created by someone else.

If you were stranded on a desert isle and only had a few books by one author as your literary diet, who would that be?

I would certainly have to select the complete oeuvre of Thomas Pynchon. He encapsulates good writing, a keen wit, and a probing dissection of history, character, and insanity in the twentieth century.

Name a few writers who have influenced you more than others as regard to craft and technique? How were you influenced?

Looking at my shelves, I see vast quantities of all the great SF writers of the twentieth century: Brian Aldiss, Michael Moorcock, Robert Heinlein, Poul Anderson, Andre Norton, Clifford Simak, A. E. van Vogt, Philip K. Dick, Samuel Delany, J. G. Ballard—dozens of others. I ingested their work at a rapid pace as a teen, internalizing story structures, styles, themes, tropes in a sponge-like fashion. I just knew from the start that I wanted to emulate these great writers, reproducing for my as-yet-unknown readers the same frissons the masters gave to me. Hopefully, I’ve distilled all their nectar into my own brand of honey.

Once in college, I glommed onto such luminaries as Thomas Wolfe, William Faulkner, J. P. Donleavy, Henry Thoreau, Charles Dickens, and Vladimir Nabokov, bringing their currents into my ocean of story. It’s hard now for me to discern individual motes from each writer. But I can only attest to the subconscious influence and psychic debt they have all left in me. It’s hard to imagine being a writer in a vacuum, 100% self-taught and self-created. I think that’s an impossibility, in fact.

How do you think short SF/F has changed over the last 25 years? For the better? For the worse?

As genre fiction has gained greater respect and technical chops, and begun to blend with the mainstream, it’s come to resemble the mainstream more. Less van Vogt and more Kelly Link. Also, the shapes of stories are less pruned and diagrammatic, more nebulous and shaggy. As critic John Clute told me, when I mentioned that the stories in Harry Harrison’s anniversary collection, 50 in 50, were ineluctably of another era: “The world is not narrated that way any more.”

SF’s pulp genes are becoming recessive, in both theme, content, form, and style. I guess we’re all adults now.

Tell us about Weird Universe.

Weird Universe is a new blog formed by me, Chuck Shepherd of News of the Weird fame, and Alex Boese, proprietor of the Museum of Hoaxes. Basically, we just strive to amuse and enlighten by presenting a daily mix of oddball news and cultural arcana. People seem to like us—assuming they’re as warped as we are!

Do you have any advice for younger writers trying to break into the field? Not only the business aspect, but as to learning craft and technique as well.

1) Read Bradbury’s Zen and the Art of Writing.
2) Find and follow Heinlein’s five simple rules for the professional writer.
3) Read Jack Kerouac’s “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose.”
3) Be tough and compassionate, on yourself and others.
4) Don’t give up too soon.
5) Have fun.

What are you working on now?

I need to begin my long-delayed sequel to A Year in the Linear City, to be titled A Princess of the Linear Jungle. I think there’s enough idea-space left in this universe after the first book to merit one of my rare sequels, but I’ve still been hesitating because newer ideas beckon more alluringly. Charles Stross just blogged about how the book after the one you’re working on always is more appealing than the current project, and I think that’s true.

Then I need to pick up an as-yet fragmentary novel to be titled Up Around the Bend, a post-apocalyptic headtrip.

After that, all is grey churning fog of potentiality!

What’s are your plans for the future? Aspirations? Goals?

I’d like to write a book that would do honor to all my influences, and to the genre, and which would illuminate this inexplicable condition we call life, and which would make readers ecstatically happy and terminally sad, and which would make me rich!

by Chris Bell for Words Shift Minds

(Originally published on the NZBC blog, Sunday 12 November 12 2006.)

He’s been described as having “irrepressible humour, a stand-back imagination, a wondrous facility and control of the English language”. Paul Di Filippo is the author of hundreds of short stories — some of which have been anthologised in The Steampunk Trilogy, Ribofunk, Fractal Paisleys, Lost Pages, Little Doors, Strange Trades, Babylon Sisters — and his novella, A Year in the Linear City. As well as his short stories, di Filippo has written a number of novels, including Ciphers, Joe’s Liver, Fuzzy Dice, A Mouthful of Tongues, and Spondulix. He lives in Providence, Rhode Island, USA. In this interview, di Filippo describes his goal as “to be some weird mix of Flaubert and Gandhi”. It’s been a while since NZBC five-minuted anyone, so we ordered tall lattes, kicked back and asked the man who invented the word ‘ribofunk’ to tell us what it’s all about.

Di Filippo is the kind of guy other writers love to hate: as if his prodigious output were not enough, it is said that he managed to write five of his novels and many of his short stories on a Commodore 128 computer. He apparently regards himself a “quasi-Buddhist” and is a member of the Turkey City Writer’s Workshop, a peer-to-peer, professional science fiction writer’s workshop in Texas.

He coined the word ribofunk to describe the sub-genre of science fiction in which he specialises, and which uses elements of the hard-boiled detective novel, film noir and post-modernist prose. His manifesto defines the sub-genre thus:

“Speculative fiction which acknowledges, is informed by and illustrates the tenet that the next revolution — the only one that really matters — will be in the field of biology. To paraphrase Pope, ribofunk holds that: ‘The proper study of mankind is life.’ Forget physics and chemistry; they are only tools to probe living matter. Computers? Merely simulators and modellers for life. The cell is King!”

A search on ‘ribofunk’ generates around 20,000 Google hits.

Your biog says you’ve been a finalist for a lot of awards, but have you ever won any?

“I have indeed broken my loser’s streak just once, by winning a British SF Association Award for best short story for 1994’s The Double Felix. The story title was misspelled on the official ballot, and my name was misspelled on the official trophy, which arrived years later and looks like Monty Python’s Holy Grail. I currently use it to hold sticks of incense. All of which is not to negate my gratitude to BSFA.”

Rhode Island: Red state or Blue state, state of denial or state of fear?

“Well, with the recent election the whole country starts to resemble a more regal purple, sensibly blending red and blue. But RI remains more liberal than the average. The citizenry seems more hopeful than fearful, although we do live continuously under the dire threat of colonisation by rich Bostonians to our north.”

You once wrote an exposé of the frustrations involved in having work accepted by Wired, in spite of the magazine briefing its commissioned contributors in detail. Has Wired bought any more work from you since you wrote this article?

“I think a whole new regime has taken over the magazine since my experiences, and with any luck they wouldn’t hold my past outburst against me. And although I have not placed any long pieces with the magazine since that first ill-fated one, I did recently secure an entire page (!) in the November 2006 issue for my six-word short story, commissioned along with almost three dozen others: ‘Husband, transgenic mistress: wife, “You cow!”’”

You’re a prolific author of short stories, particularly of speculative fiction. Good, paying markets for short stories around the world are in decline. How does the market for your own work look in the States?

“The demise of magazines that pay a ‘living wage’ is not good news for me or any other writer whose focus is short fiction. I’m heartened by a prevalence of original anthologies, and classy small-press magazines, but it does become more difficult to sustain oneself by writing just at these lengths for such markets. And of course the invention of webzines is another cheerful development, although their mode of existence is yet shaky. A certain online monetary inflation calculator that I occasionally use indicates that the penny-a-word rate obtained by the pulp writers of the 1930s, once derided as chicken feed, should translate to twenty-cents-per-word in modern terms. So even the top mags that pay, say, ten-cents-a-word are paying half what used to be standard during the Depression!”

You’ve written a sequel to a comic by Alan Moore of Watchmen fame. Was this a daunting prospect, and did you get to meet or correspond with Moore during the course of the project?

“I had almost zero contact with Moore throughout the whole project. But he read my scripts, and I learned of his approval through my editor, Scott Dunbier. I also learned that Moore preferred that I not kill off his favourite character, as I had intended, and that I substitute an adoption scene for a woman getting pregnant by her canine husband and giving birth to some sort of doggy hybrid. Good calls, I say in retrospect, on his part!”

In your essay The Infantilisation, Electrification, Mechanisation and General Diminishment of King Kong, you posit that “seriously intentioned sequels and offshoots of the Original Tragedy … fumblingly recast or attempt to extend the material in such a manner as to rob it of all its archetypical force and resonance”, so what did you make of Peter Jackson’s retelling or, for that matter, Russell Hoban’s?

“Although I thought the Jackson remake was exciting and skilful, in the end it seemed superfluous. What really did it add? The Hoban piece, from what I see online, looks a bit more like a post-modern pastiche than a straight remake, so I have hopes for it, especially given Hoban’s talents.”

If visitors to NZBC only read one book this year, which book should it be?

“For sheer fun and pleasure, if you’re a ‘core SF’ reader, I’d have to recommend The Android’s Dream by John Scalzi. I’ve always been a sucker for Keith Laumer’s Retief series, and [Scalzi’s book] is like a supercharged refashioning of those tropes. But I haven’t yet gotten my hands on Thomas Pynchon’s Against The Day…”

What’s on your iPod’s ‘On the go’ playlist at the moment, or are you an iPod refusenik?

“Although a huge music listener, I am an iPod refusenik, mainly because I don’t need portability of music. I take walks ranging from one to three hours every day — trying to do very little driving — and when I’m out and about I like to talk to people and hear birdsong and random conversations and even traffic noise. I don’t care to be insulated in a fake Hollywood soundtrack of my own devising. When I’m home, I like to listen to large blocks of music composed with a scheme by the creator: in other words, entire ‘albums’ or CDs. And actually, when I’m writing, I play the radio! WBRU, the college station associated with Brown University. That way, I get exposed to new music and also experience the serendipity of someone else’s choices.”

You’ve said that writing is a job that provides “no job security with seniority” and freelance writers are always “scrambling to stay afloat”. E-books would seem to dovetail naturally with the sci-fi genre and its fandom. Might technology, after all, be the writer’s life-raft?

“Certainly print-on-demand, as exemplified by Wildside Press and its imprint, has been a lifesaver for me, allowing publishers to take on books of mine with only marginal sales potential, such as my collection of humour columns, Plumage From Pegasus. I have little experience with e-books, but selling some reprint stories through Fictionwise was a good experience for me. I don’t think, despite all the headwork by such visionaries as Cory Doctorow, that we yet know the ultimate model for the vehicle that will connect writers and readers, to the profit of both!”

What do you use for note-taking, capturing ideas and tracking submissions? Are you a proponent of pencil and notebook; do you favour proprietary software; or is it open source everything for the man they call PDF?

“I am old-fashioned enough to still stick with pen and paper for my note-taking. I have a pocket notebook brand that I love, Oxford Memo Books, because it’s sewn together instead of employing a metal spiral, and so when you sit on it, it doesn’t imprint your butt like something out of a Re/Search tribal scarification volume.”

What are you working on right now, when is your next book due to be published and what will it be?

“I’ve just placed two books with PS Publishing: Harsh Oases, a story collection, and Roadside Bodhisattva, a (mainstream!) novel. I’m not even certain which one Pete Crowther intends to bring out first, but there will be one in 2007 and one in 2008. My current work in progress is a novel for the firm of Payseur & Schmidt to be titled either Cosmocopia or Cosmicopia (readers, help me decide!), with illustrations by Jim Woodring.”

(Originally published on the NZBC blog, Sunday 12 November 12 2006.)