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.)