The Ceremony of Transmutation Has Begun: John Kenny talks to Paul Di Filippo
Originally appeared in Albedo One #36 (2009)
Paul Di Filippo is the author of over two hundred short stories and several novels, including Ciphers (1997), Joe’s Liver (2000), Fuzzy Dice (2003), Spondulix (2004) and most recently Cosmocopia (2008), which comes in a limited edition boxed presentation including a 513-piece jigsaw by artist Jim Woodring. His short fiction has been gathered in over a dozen collections, including The Steampunk Trilogy (1995), Ribofunk (1996), Lost Pages (1998), Little Doors (2002) and most recently Harsh Oases (2009), which is our featured review on page 56 of this issue of Albedo One. He has been a finalist for the Hugo, Nebula, BSFA, Philip K. Dick, Wired Magazine, and World Fantasy awards. He is renowned for his diversity of theme, subject matter and style, often characterised by a unique and wide-ranging sense of humour.
John Kenny: Before we talk about your writing, I couldn’t help noticing from your website that you seem to have your fingers in a lot of pies. Can you tell me a little about Weird Universe and The Inferior 4+1?
Paul Di Filippo: Both of these blogs sucked me in by their sheer black-hole mass of talent! Liz Hand wanted to start a blog, but did not want to shoulder all the effort on her own. So she recruited me, Lucius Shepard and Paul Witcover. I came up with the self-effacing title for the blog. I used to contribute more heavily there, but have tapered off due to Weird Universe activities. Again, I was invited into that institution by my old pal Chuck Shepherd, master of weird news. I thus got to meet and befriend Alex Boese, of The Museum of Hoaxes. We try to provide a day’s worth of laughter or incredulity every 24 hours.
And while typing this, I just realized: I’m in blogs with a Shepard and a Shepherd!
JK: I’m also fascinated by the mail art you send to Andy Watson, apparently four or five times a week. You must spend a fortune on cartridge toner, gum and postage. When did you start this new art form and when can we see an exhibition of your work touring the art galleries? And who is Andy Watson?
PDF: Surprisingly, all my mail art is entirely old school: cut and paste from old magazines and other sources. And I never digitize the finished compositions either; just launch them naked into the world.
I’ve been doing this for about fifteen or twenty years or more. At the pre-internet height of zine culture, I sent out 3-5 pieces a day. Nowadays, I’m lucky to have reason to generate one item daily. Working with these visual icons provides a nice contrast to dealing with words all the time.
My pal Andy Watson is the recipient of most of the current ones. He ran a small press, Cambrian, that published several of my books. But our relationship extends beyond the professional, down to music swapping.
One of the collages is already in a museum: the SF Museum in Seattle, thanks to the kind interest of curator Jacob McMurray.
JK: Actually, in some ways the posts to Weird Universe and your mail art provide a key into your writing, particularly your short fiction. In a way, they’re a more visual manifestation of the wide variety of themes and ideas you explore in your fiction. Do they feed off each other?
PDF: I generally think blogging is a Good Thing for readers and authors. It allows a fresher, more intimate relationship between them. And it allows for insights into the inspiration and conception and creation of the fiction that we all enjoy. But I would not want to establish a lockstep one-for-one link between idle interests of mine and subsequent creations. The relationships are too mysterious for such linear chains. For instance, just because a reader sees me blogging about, say, actress Maria Montez in Cobra Woman, he or she can’t assume the female protagonist of my next story is based on that icon.
JK: I know you have several novels under your belt, but you seem to favour the short form (with something like a dozen collections published). What is it about short fiction that attracts you? And given the financial realities concerning novels versus collections, is it something of a vocation to keep writing short stories?
PDF: I love the challenge of compression, the quick hit of accomplishment, the ability to switch modes, and the avid readership that all go along with short stories. But they are indeed a losing proposition financially. I have many ideas for new novels, but sometimes the research is daunting, especially as I focus on trying to earn a living day to day. Also, I don’t currently have a big publisher or agent solidly behind me. If anyone reading this interview wants to throw money at me for my next book, please do so!
JK: I think the thing to do is get the right agent onboard first, then let them do the hard work of securing a bigger publisher for your work. Do you think, though, that the big publishers of genre fiction are getting more conservative in what they consider SF, fantasy and horror? And is the small press the place to go for the more interesting stuff?
PDF: The one time I had an agent for a year – an entity who shall remain nameless – that person did me more harm than good, not responding to offers, etc. I seem to recall that Asimov never had an agent, so he’s my model.
In any enterprise, risk-taking decreases in direct proportion to amount of investment in a property. Therefore, big publishers will always by definition be more conservative than little ones. Whether the big guys are more conservative than their own past track records is the interesting question, and I think that is so. Imagine Ace Books publishing something like David Bunch’s Moderan today! So, seek ye the small presses, and be amazed!
JK: Do you think your very diversity of styles, themes, etc. might act as an obstacle to publication by the big publishers? If you have a hit with a particular novel, they seem to want you to do the same thing again and again, or at least stay in the same universe you’ve created.
PDF: Indeed, the pressure to duplicate and re-duplicate past successes is oppressively real in publishing. My hopes would be to find a sympathetic editor who had some job security. Take the case of David Hartwell and Rudy Rucker. While Rudy’s books are always pure Rucker in tone, they veer all over the map, from space opera to steampunk to contemporary gonzo. And David keeps getting Tor to publish them. Alternatively, you could get so big – like Neil Gaiman or Neal Stephenson – that you have carte blanche.
Hey – maybe I should change my name to “Neal Di Filippo!”
JK: Do you get involved in promoting your books at all? There seems to be more pressure on the author these days to do this if they want to stay in the marketplace.
PDF: I always recall a panel at Readercon on strategies for author self-promotion. Lisa Goldstein was sitting onstage, looking more and more distressed with every scheme offered, until finally she said, “I thought if I wrote the book, I had done my part!” I feel some of that. What are publishers for, if not promotion? And they’re failing at it. My job is to write. On the other hand, I will happily respond to publicity-type events if sought out. I just don’t generally initiate them.
JK: Your latest books sound intriguing: Cosmocopia and the upcoming collection Harsh Oases. Can you tell us a little about them?
PDF: When I first began assembling my stories into collections, I was able to group them by themes; I liked having the unity for each volume. But then, as the pool of un-reprinted stories dwindled, I had to assemble each collection strictly by chronology: in other words, here’s a year’s worth of my recent output. Then I discovered that I liked the heterogeneity of each volume! So in the case of Harsh Oases, the book features a bunch of new stuff in various modes, from humour to ribofunk to fantasy to erotica, including two “trunk” stories that I think deserve to be shown.
As for Cosmocopia, it’s my tribute to David Lindsay’s great fantasy classic, A Voyage to Arcturus, which I read as a teenager and never forgot. Maybe folks should dig up Robert Silverberg’s own great Lindsay pastiche, Son of Man, and do a dual reading!
JK: I haven’t read A Voyage to Arcturus, but remember well Son of Man. Of the collections I’ve read by yourself, my favourite is probably Lost Pages, where you group a number of alternate history/reality stories. Which of your own novels and collections are you most happy with?
PDF: Lost Pages is indeed a favourite of mine, as it allowed me to honour a lot of my influences. At the time I wrote my novel Ciphers, I felt it was a majestic milestone. But I’m afraid to re-read it now, some 20 years later, for fear of disappointing myself. I had similar feelings about A Mouthful of Tongues and A Year in the Linear City. But I’m afraid I must repeat a writerly cliché, and proclaim that my favourite book is always the unborn one I am contemplating at any given moment. They’re always perfect and brilliant!
JK: Dick, Ballard, Sturgeon and Bester all turn up in Lost Pages (if memory serves). Along with Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs and many others. All great influences. Who do you read today? And who do you think might be the big genre names of tomorrow?
PDF: I continue to read books by all my old favourite writers – either new publications, if the guys are still alive, or older, unread-by-me items. But I also try to stay abreast of Hot Young Things just entering the field. Recently on the listserv Fictionmags a discussion arose about this very topic: who were the up-and-coming new writers? I’ve seen several genre bloggers try to compile such lists as well. For instance, Jeff VanderMeer was highlighting great new writers who had not yet even signed their first book contract. It depends in part on how new is new. Is Kelly Link still new, or is she already well-established? Jonathan Lethem isn’t new any more, certainly. But he’s still good and influential and younger than Fred Pohl!
In any case, it’s hard to pick someone who a) has a small yet impressive track record and b) seems as if they will endure. The two qualities are not necessarily linked. We can all point to writers who flared up brilliantly, then fizzled out.
JK: Well I consider the likes of Lethem, Shepard, Waldrop and your good self as relatively new writers, which shows you just what an old fogey I am (Dick, Bradbury et al are the old guys). New new for me are the likes of Alastair Reynolds. Do you think the outlets for new talent are shrinking? News of the death of Realms of Fantasy and the reduction in frequency of F&SF spring to mind. Or is the market just changing its delivery mechanisms?
PDF: Thanks for still considering me a young turk, John! I like to think of myself that way as well, although I know that the reality, especially through other eyes, differs. The newest of the new, according to most younger readers, are those folks whose names end up each year on the Campbell Award Ballot.
I do think the available slots for short fiction are undergoing a contraction – especially the best-paying slots. But in the annual Locus summing-up in their February issue, Mark Kelly claims that the number of stories published in 2008 actually increased over the previous year! Maybe 2009 will repeat that feat, but I’m doubtful. Although, the spate of fresh original anthologies – Eclipse, Fast Forward – offers hope. But like monthly comics, which are also an endangered species, monthly magazines offer a timely freshness and steadfast personality that anthologies (or graphic novels in trade paperback form) can never quite duplicate. It would be a shame if the medium disappeared.
JK: A look at the list of your published short fiction reveals that, like most SF writers, you honed your art through appearing regularly in the monthly magazines. I note, though, that you mention somewhere several dates as being the beginning of your writing career. Would I be right in assuming that after each of the earlier start dates you had to go out and get a ‘proper’ job?
PDF: In 1982 I was finally earning some decent money as a COBOL programmer (unknowingly coding millennium date-bombs). I saved up a fair amount of dough, and quit to write full time. After about nine months of this educational stint, I had to take another coding job for a year. Then I did book-keeping for an independent CPA for several years. Then I worked in various capacities at Brown University Bookstore for several years. All of this brings us up circa 1998, when I was finally able to abandon all day jobs. The past decade has been a calculated stumble from one freelance paycheck to another, with the household income being split anywhere from 20-80 to 50-50 between me and Deborah, with the higher percentages always being in her favour. But by living a fairly Spartan lifestyle, we’re able to soldier on. No guarantees for the future, though. But aren’t we all in that same boat now!
JK: You mentioned comics above. You’ve made a couple of forays into that territory with Creature from the Black Lagoon (more an illustrated story I believe) and Top 10. Is this something you’d like to do more of? And what kind of stuff did you/do you read in this area?
PDF: My Creature novel, Time’s Black Lagoon, is pure prose. The only illo is a great cover. My comics work consists mainly of the Top 10 sequel and a Doc Samson miniseries for Marvel. I found the scripting experience very congenial and exciting, especially working with a visual artist, who can take a barebones script and make it something beautiful to look at. I’ve got several pitches out, but no solid work since. Maybe one day soon. As for my reading, I devour practically anything: superhero stuff, reprints such as Little Lulu, Herbie, Gasoline Alley, and indy works. Percy Gloom was my most recent fave in that latter category. A brilliant debut!
JK: I don’t read much in the way of comics or the mainstay of SF these days, but at a glance, it seems like the world of comics is way more varied and experimental than what the big SF book publishers are putting out. Am I right or am I just not looking hard enough?
PDF: Well, yes and no. The superhero comics frequently indulge in recirculated decadence, spinning ever-diminishing riffs on all the old tropes. Confessional indy comics have become somewhat self-parodic. But in the interstices, you get some intriguing work such as Marvel’s Agents of Atlas and Robert Kirkman’s Invincible. Then there’s the great original anthology series from Fantagraphics titled Mome. You could come up with analogues to these titles in SF/F/H prose, but they’d probably be from the smaller publishers, as you hint.
JK: I note that your Wikipedia entry mentions you are a member of the Turkey City Writer’s Workshop. Is this local to you or an internet based workshop? Are there other members we might be familiar with? And do you still feel a need to workshop your work before unleashing it on an unsuspecting public?
PDF: Oh, Turkey City is very famous! It’s Austin-based, having been started ages ago by Chad Oliver, and then continued by Bruce Sterling for a time. The “Turkey City Lexicon” is a very valuable online resource of writerly tips derived form their sessions. My own link to the legend is miniscule: I participated in one session, on a visit to Austin, workshopping my story ‘Ailoura’.
JK: Finally, what are you working on right now and do you have a home in mind for it?
PDF: I’m writing a longish short story titled ‘Yes We Have No Bananas’. It’s an alternate history of sorts, set right in the year 2009, and will appear in Eclipse 3 – if editor Jonathan Strahan likes it!
After that, the sky’s the limit!
Paul Di Filippo’s Homepage: http://pauldifilippo.com/
Weird Universe: http://weirduniverse.net/
The Inferior 4+1: http://theinferior4.livejournal.com/
The Museum of Hoaxes: http://www.museumofhoaxes.com/