F. Dear Michael, thank you for your time. I am honored to have the opportunity to pose my questions to you.
These are the first lines from Wikipedia on you: “Michael Lawson Bishop is an award-winning American writer. Over four decades and thirty books, he has created a body of work that stands among the most admired in modern science fiction and fantasy literature.” You have won Nebula twice, Locus Award four times and had various nominations for the Hugo. Would you like to comment? How do you tend to consider yourself in SF?
M. I feel fortunate that I still have such a reputation in the sf and fantasy fields, primarily because I’ve focused so much of my attention, over the past several years, on writing other kinds of work, principally contemporary stories that I find it hard to market (although a few have found homes in literary magazines) and a mainstream novel set in the early 1980s that has received many, many “respectful rejections,” as my agent sardonically terms them.
F. You received a Bachelor’s and then a Master’s degree in English. At what age did you start writing? Was that by chance, or was it planned? And, why SF?
M. I started writing with the conviction that one day I’d become a real writer in the seventh grade, I believe, when I was twelve or thirteen years old. At that point my favorite writers were Edgar Allen Poe, Jack London, and a host of authors of young-adult dog stories, like Marshall Saunders, Albert Payson Terhune, Eric Knight, and Jack O’Brien. I started writing fantasy, or horror, in large measure because I later graduated to the work of H. G. Wells and Ray Bradbury, among others.
F. Anthropological and exoticist themes are a fundamental part of your work since your very first novel ("A Funeral for the Eyes of Fire"), rewritten and republished 5 years later as "The Eyes of Fire". Is there a specific reason for this peculiar interest as a writer?
M. I had a terrific course in anthropology at the University of Georgia, in Athens, Georgia, with a professor by the name of Charles Hudson, who wrote a landmark work on the Indians of the American Southeast. In his course I read Colin Turnbull’s remarkable study of the pygmies in the Ituri rain forest in the Congo, "The Forest People", and that book and Hudson’s enthusiasm for his subject fueled my interest in other cultures, other peoples, and the adaptive ingenuity of human beings in extreme environments, whether jungle, desert, or taiga.
F. You have probably been told dozens of times that U. K. Le Guin and you share a certain way to look at human beings. A common anthropological approach. Do you think it is true? And more generally, who are sci-fi and non sci-fi authors, if any, that you consider important or have loved in particular?
M. After I began reading sf deliberately – my own program of self-education in the field, one could say – I found the work of writers who took an anthropological approach congenial to my imagination. Among these, I’d count Ursula K. Le Guin, of course, especially her Hugo- and Nebula-winning novel "The Left Hand of Darkness", but also such precursors as Wells ("The Time Machine"), George P. Elliott (“Among the Dangs”), and Chad Oliver (a host of anthropologically savvy stories). But Le Guin remains a favorite, and a story like “The Word for World Is Forest” resonates with me even today, probably because it manages to evoke my private debt to Colin Turnbull’s The Forest People while simultaneously making a strong necessary statement about the waste and the basic immorality of the Vietnam War in which the United States was then enmired.
Let me add as a footnote that I have always loved Jonathan Swift’s "Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, in Four Parts by Lemuel Gulliver, first a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships". These four voyages, whose recounting Swift of course attributes to Gulliver, offer grist for more than four acute ethnographies of several fanciful societies, and so I regard this satirical work as an imaginative foundational anthropological study. You cannot read it without astonishment, nor can you reread it without hitting upon something seemingly brand-new to your apprehension.
F. The growing need of a dialogue between different cultures in the world in the 70’s probably stimulated and encouraged sci-fi writers to be particularly sensitive to these themes? Can you comment? What is left of that attitude as of today?
M. I began writing at a time when sf writers – especially those who inaugurated or became involved in the New Wave movement of the early to mid 1960s through the early ’70s – recognized the wisdom of taking a more cosmopolitan approach to their subject matter. How could they write about sentient species on other worlds without weighing the demonstrable fact that our Anglo-American culture constituted a very small percentage of human activity – art, language, music, agriculture, scientific discovery, and self-sustainability strategies – here on Earth? How could we explore other solar systems, other galaxies, and/or the nature of infinity, in short, without first deliberately exploring the contributions of our own species, far and wide, to our longed-for, curiosity-fueled drive to the stars?
At this point, however, I can’t claim any special insight into what motivates or excites sf and fantasy writers today, although I believe our former emphasis on space exploration has fallen prey to the economic demoralization of much of the world and to the difficulties that protracted manned spaceflight has made clear to us. As a result, it now often seems that fantasy has displaced science fiction as the premier imaginative literature in the marketplace. Even though I never or only rarely qualify as a writer of hard science fiction, I do regret that development a little. Although I believe that good writers have written fantasies of compelling quality and lasting worth – John Crowley’s "Little, Big for one" – I also usually find that many writers using fantasy or horror tropes (elves, fairies, ogres, vampires, werewolves, zombies, etc.) seldom lift them out of the literary recesses of predictability and/or outright ludicrousness.
F. "Eyes of fire" addresses the issues deriving from inter-cultural differences and relevant chances of reconciliation. What is your personal definition of “diversity”? Can hurdles to co-existence be overcome (and how)? In other words, can “humanity” in general be the only real critical factor which is ideally able to abolish all kind of barriers, or does necessarily one cultural / national / religious identity conflict with the others by definition?
M. I have never really thought about positing a personal definition of “diversity.” I would instead argue that diversity, here on Earth, exists as an unignorable fact. We ignore it at our peril. Some cultural barriers to mutual understanding we can overcome, however, by learning other languages (an area in which I am, I regret to admit, deficient); visiting other places; reading other countries’ stories and poetry (in the original or in translation); living for an extended time among people racially, ethnically, religiously, and culturally different from ourselves; and resolving to find at least as much good, useful, and aesthetically enriching in what we encounter as we expect to find useless, baffling and distasteful. We need to step outside the circle of our own biases, tastes, and egos, a step that most of us resist as discomfiting if not wholly impossible. Even if we manage to do so, though, we won’t break down every barrier, and we may even discover that a few practices – our own or others’ – militate against complete acceptance, if not understanding, of the objects of our study because these practices seem evil to us in ways that we can tolerate only if we eviscerate our own identities: a problem at the very heart of the current conflict between the industrialized West and some militant factions of Islam.
F. In the novel "Transfigurations", derived from a shorter novella, which was nominated for Hugo and Nebula Awards, you’ve described a sort of “involution” of an intelligent race.
The story is very intriguing: the reader struggles to understand what happened both to the Asadi population and to missing Professor Chaney. Because of this sort of “regression” of the Asadi, they have lost their intelligence and have gradually fallen to a condition where they still show a “social” behavior with ancient signs of their culture emerging in rites and ceremonies, including cannibalism, which you’ve described in a very realistic and uncensored way. Humans who hate them treat them like animals. Loss of rationality would then be equivalent to a regression to an animal-like condition? What is your thought? And can you speculate on the condition into which the Asadi have fallen?
M. I would call it a variety of “devolution,” but your assessment of the process that the Asadi undergo in this story also serves. Still, I wouldn’t declare that every species’ loss of its faculty of rationality, or mental computational power, would necessarily result in a creature wholly animalistic, in our most derogatory use of that adjective. I can almost imagine a species that might “devolve” to a state enabling it to live more calmly and efficiently in its environment than it did as a so-called rational creature, but as a rational creature whose greater brain power led it to aggressively worry every obstacle in ways that actually threatened its survival. (Isn’t that picture, in fact, a shorthand portrait of Homo sapiens sapiens?)
As for the Asadi, they are an enigma, designed as an enigma, capable of either evolving to intelligence again or falling away to extinction. The presence of humanity on their world may doom them to the latter fate, if the beginning of my story fails to suggest that they are doomed already.
F.How does this mesh with Darwinism?
M. To be completely honest, the devolution of the Asadi may not have very solid scientific underpinnings. I think (and remember that I now view his particular story from a perspective of almost forty years) that I meant this alien species to represent a degraded version of our own humanity, a dramatic metaphor for all the ways that we human beings foul our own nest, subvert our own intelligence, and undermine even our best intentions. In the early 1970s I was undoubtedly thinking of the Vietnam War, racial tensions, the oil crunch, etc., but today I could as easily point to the ongoing oil-spill calamity in the Gulf of Mexico, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the worldwide monetary crisis, among other pending issues. So how can I argue that the Asadi reflect Darwinism, when, in fact, they have their origins not only in my fascination with anthropology but also in my literary debt to the great English-Irish satirist Jonathan Swift?
F. Let’s move to your masterpiece, "No Enemy but Time". I loved it. This is one of the 5 or books I would take with me to a desert island. There’s a lot of your life inside this book, isn’t it? A father in the USAF, an important role of Spain . . .
M. Yes, several portions of the novel take their inspiration from life, primarily the year that I spent in Spain with my father from the summer of 1962 to the early summer of 1963. (Thank you, by the way, for describing No Enemy but Time as my masterpiece, an evaluation that I appreciate from you even though I’d point to Ancient of Days or possibly Brittle Innings as more successful works of fiction. Further, I have an unpublished contemporary novel that strikes me as even better than these. At the same time, I perceive all these novels as flawed in different, demoralizing ways that defy correction . . . at least by me.)
My dad was stationed at a Strategic Air Command base about thirty miles from Seville, or Sevilla, in Morón de la Frontera, but we lived in an apartment in downtown Sevilla, in a 3-story building at 15 Leoncillos. We had the second floor (which many Europeans would call the first floor), our landlords lived on the first floor (at ground level), and an American airman named Pete Tanaguchi, his German-born wife Ilsa, and their little girl, Nisei, lived on the third floor [to most Europeans, the second floor]; we all washed clothes on the roof and had a fairly clear view of La Giralda, the lofty tower of the city’s enormous Gothic cathedral. Even so, all the anthropological content of No Enemy but Time comes from my reading of in-the-field paleoanthropologists like Louis B. Leakey, Mary Leakey, their son Richard Leakey, and the Leakey family’s rival hunter of proto-hominid fossils, Donald Johansson. I did a powerful amount of research for this book, but the characterization of its people derived from personal experience or close observation, of a combination of the two.
F. The kind of time travel you have invented in this book seems totally original to me. I think I have never read about time travel based on a sort of “memory” in the flow of time, and aimed at reaching the pre-historic era…
M. The idea also involved the alleged susceptibility of the time traveler to what sleep researchers call vivid dreaming. It’s an imaginative notion, but one not firmly grounded in science and hence a possible flaw in the novel. I could also cite the unexpected dues-ex-machina appearance of Zarakali (a fictional african modern country) astronauts in that Pleistocene dream country as another flaw, given that my main character and the Air Force’s time-transference device have conjured this ghost territory from his sleeping consciousness. Nowadays, if you’ll forgive me, I cringe a little when I read these sections of the book.
F. From an exoticist anthropology to paleoanthropology, from aliens to habilines, and in a way the story goes on in "Ancient of days" (which includes the Locus Award winner novella Her habiline husband), a book which is not available in Italian. Why this passage? And are you interested in the Pleistocene epoch?
M. Over time (as others have noted), I have moved from setting my stories on other planets in exotic, far-removed solar systems to setting them on recognizable places here on Earth. I am still interested in the Pleistocene, yes, but far more interested in trying to track the development of our humanity from the earliest origins of our species to the present day.
"Ancient of Days", for example, follows an intelligent specimen of Homo habilis (maybe too blatantly named Adam), the scion of a lost group of such creatures on an island off the coast of Haiti, as he struggles to earn acceptance among 21st-century Americans in the southeastern United States. I actually prefer this novel to Enemy, by the way, and let me add that the three interrelated novellas comprising its contents work together to create a thematic, if not a linear, sequel to the earlier novel. Just as the human protagonist in Enemy comes to recognize the habilines as more than just funny bipedal soul mates, so do the two principal human protagonists of Ancient of Days come to see Adam as one of them, indeed even as their intellectual and moral superior.
F. It seems to me that this book was a milestone in the evolution of your intellectual work. In other words, this seems a story of sincere faith in the power of human being.
Joshua finds more humanity among “habilines” than dealing with modern humans. Habilines do not speak. Their intelligence is poor. Their capacity to escape danger is the same as animals. They just survive. They are always afraid. But, they have human feelings. I have almost cried at the description of the accident where one of them shoots himself with Joshua’s gun. And also, a very touching scene is when Joshua makes love with his habiline “wife”, and falls in love with her. This historical “regression” is very different from what the Asadi suffered. It looks like the question on what defines a human being eventually found its answer in such a book… the sparkle of humanity is not rationale thinking. It is emotion, it’s the irrational, like friendship, love, or even hate, and jealousy. The non-logical aspects of the intelligence. Please let us know your thought.
M. I don’t at all mean to sidestep your question, but I can answer it only by saying that I believe you have tagged the source of habiline humanity in No Enemy but Time, namely, “the non-logical aspects of the intelligence,” theirs and ours, although scientists would look closely at the near-similarity of habiline and human genetic makeup and also the ability of the two species to produce viable, fertile offspring (an ability that I assumed on faith, not on any solid scientific evidence). I find it gratifying, though, that you accepted the habilines as human on the basis of their poignant interactions with Joshua and of course with others of their own band.
F. Western philosophy, from ancient Greece to Illuminism, (not to mention Christianity) is based and on the idea that every human being is affected by a sort of evil (call it insanity, violence, aggressiveness, or any negative original nature) since its birth, and that only rational thinking lets us control it through restraining of excessive emotions. In "No Enemy but Time" you seem to go far beyond such a perspective: in your stories human beings seem naturally brought to behave and move one towards the other, and not one against the other…
M. That may seem so, on the basis of the observable narrative events, and much of this intraspecies congeniality in NEBT does derive from what I view as a natural reluctance of human beings to kill others similar to them . . . without deliberate pedagogy to reverse that reluctance, as in military boot camps, terrorist training camps, and spring football practice. (A poor sort of joke.) (Forgive me.) On the other hand, Joshua and the habilines bond because he makes an effort to prove himself a friend and they discover no reason to assume him worth either eating or exiling. Often, extant conditions – about which we can do very little – decide whether two visibly similar creatures will fight or unite.
F. On the other hand, a novel like "Philip K. Dick is Dead, Alas" (where you depicted a dystopic future world), as it’s an homage to PKD, clearly tells us your admiration for this writer, whose thought on human beings was much more negative . . .
M. I believe that Philip K. Dick had a great deal of faith in what he might have called “the little man,” that is, that human being who, while lacking great political, religious, or military power, still carries on doing what he or she is supposed to do, whether casting pots, making jewelry, or being diplomatic, even though the world, or evil others, conspires against their modest creativity, and even though reality itself sometimes seeks to subvert them. I admire Dick not for any negative view of humanity he may or may not have entertained, but for his invariably creating heroes, male or female, as persons seeking to put away their weakness in favor of their strengths, despite the overwhelming odds against them. They have a nobility that Persons with Real Power often seem altogether devoid of.
F. "Who made Stevie Crye?", "Count Geiger’s Blues", and "Brittle Innings" represent totally different kinds of work, with comic, fantasy and horror themes… sometimes mixed together…
M. Actually, "Who Made Stevie Crye?" functions as a stand-alone send-up of the horror novels, particularly Stephen King’s "Cujo" that were so popular at about the time that I was writing it. Predictably, Stephen King thought it a virulent attack on him and his body of work, whereas I meant it more as a more or less serious attack on King’s many imitators and as a gentle ha-ha at the ludicrous excesses of one particular Steven King novel. The book has its admirers; in fact, it wound up on a published book listing “The 100 Best Fantasy Novels,” but it could never find a paperback publisher here in the States and is now out of print both here and in England.
"Count Geiger’s Blues", like "Ancient of Days" and the early novella “Death and Designation Among the Asadi,” has a deliberate satirical superstructure. The targets here are comic-book superheroes and the persistent comic-book notion that radiation accidents can somehow imbue those they touch with miraculous abilities, an idea that gets full play in Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s graphic novel "Watchman", specifically in the character of Doctor Manhattan. In fact, "Count Geiger’s Blues" owes a great deal to both Watchman and Michael Chabon’s remarkable Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay". I subtitle the book “A Comedy,” with a tip of the cap to Dante and to William Saroyan, but its conclusion demonstrates the folly of believing radiation a wholly benign phenomenon.
"Brittle Innings" centers on the world of professional baseball in the Deep South (the American Deep South) during World War Two. It is also, by design, a sequel to Mary Shelley’s "Frankenstein". I had fun writing this book, but also expended a lot of sweat researching its background and working out various plot elements. In fact, I devised a complete 1943 summer schedule for a minor-league baseball team, the Highbridge Hellbenders, for which both my narrator, Danny Boles, and his grotesque and mysterious roommate, Hank Clerval, play at the height of the war. Twentieth Century Fox purchased this novel for a film, but could never find a director to spearhead the project. Now out of print in the United States, "Brittle Innings" remains a personal favorite among my novels.
F. How do you deal with “fantasy” genre? I am also thinking of "Unicorn Mountain".
M. This book sprang from my intense interest in the AIDS epidemic of the early 1980s, my admiration for the work of Philip K. Dick, and my fascination with the American Indians of southwestern Colorado, the Utes. The novel posits a species of unicorn that crosses into contemporary Colorado from another dimension, a species afflicted with a unicorn-specific form of equine fever akin to the human AIDS virus in its genetic makeup. It also uses Indian magic – the Ute pole dance – as a plot element. At this late date, I can’t reformulate my daily approach to developing the novel, but do know that if anyone were to express interest in republishing it, I would insist on revising the text – tightening it and gentling some of its overwrought dialogue.
F. Are you religious? Do you believe in God? What main cultural factors can you identify in your education and culture as a man and as an artist/writer?
M. If you will send me your mailing address, Francesco, I will send you a copy of an anthology that I edited for Thunder’s Mouth Press, a collection entitled "A Cross of Centuries: Twenty-five Imaginative Tales about the Christ". The introduction of this book will tell you just about everything you want to know about my religious beliefs, maybe even more than you wish to know.
F. I think it is the one including "Behold the Man" by Moorcock… if this is the spirit of the book, I think I will simply fall in love with it, and look forward to receiving the anthology, obviously a signed copy…
M. The anthology does indeed include the original novella version of Moorcock’s “Behold the Man,” very slightly abridged. Others stories in the volume include Isaac Babel’s “The Sin of Jesus,” Borges’s “The Gospel According to Mark,” my own adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s “The Grand Inquisitor” from The Brothers Karamazov (titled “The Inquisitor General” in A Cross of Centuries), Oscar Wilde’s “The Selfish Giant,” and a host of stories, some original, by well-known American writers, including Ray Bradbury, Jeffrey Ford, Karen Joy Fowler, Paul Di Filippo, the late Henry Kuttner (with the title story), Barry Malzberg, Jack McDevitt, and Mike Resnick, among others. I also have two brief stories in the volume, “Sequel on Skorpios” and “Miriam.” And I will definitely inscribe and sign the copy that I send to you, Francesco.
F. Thank you! Can you tell us something about your unpublished contemporary novel?
My unpublished contemporary novel, “An Owl at the Crucifixion”, continues to seek a home, and I still have mild hopes that it will see print in my lifetime. It concerns a teenage boy named Jude Huckaby (fourteen when the main action of the novel starts), who accidentally learns that his high school drama teacher and his youth group's Sunday school teacher, Piet Scarboro, has a male lover. Jude's father serves as pastor of the United Methodist Church in Chinaberry, Georgia, in 1980, and Jude's discovery precipitates a series of events that change Mister Piet's life forever. I think that's all I care to say about the novel at this point.
Oh, yes, I'll add here that Peter Crowther in England has just accepted a 7,000-word chapter from the novel, "Unfit for Eden," for the magazine that his own PS Publishing releases once or twice a year. "Unfit for Eden" is told in the first-person by Piet's lover, Dwight David Colter, who grew up as a Jehovah's Witness in a hamlet on the edge of the Okefinokee Swamp in Georgia. This virtually self-contained chapter has no overt fantasy element, but a feverish narrative drive that may -- let me stress, may -- disguise suggest otherwise to some of its readers.
F. I know you are now teaching a fiction-writing course at LaGrange College in Georgia. How is it to teach writing? Is writing something you can learn from zero? What’s the balance between technique and talent?
M. I think that a creative-writing course can indeed teach others how to write a well-crafted work of fiction and/or a well-crafted poem. It cannot teach genius, of course, but some people, if they work hard enough, may in time create stories, novels, and/or poems virtually indistinguishable in quality from writers of both talent and genius . . . although this conflation of events occurs rarely, just as genius itself occurs rarely. In my writing classes at LaGrange College, I use Anne Lamott’s insightful strategy of giving the students “short assignments” and allowing them to produce, indeed to expect, “shitty first drafts,” so that they can learn from their mistakes and so thoroughly clean up those drafts as to make them acceptable to . . . well, to Editors.
F. What are your suggestions for people who want to become sci-fi writers?
Read a lot. Read a lot of sf. Write a lot. Write a lot of sf. Fail at writing. Fail at writing sf. Try again. And fail better. That’s not my formulation of the best way to break in as any kind of writer, but it seems the only sensible way to proceed, even though it may, and most likely will, take a while. Hang in there.
F. Last but not least. You also write poetry. A SF writer and a poet. How do these two things interact with each other?
M. It depends on whether one incorporates poetry into one’s sf or writes poetry that has science-fictional subject matter. In any case, I don’t see any real conflict or incompatibility between the two vocations.
(photograph taken in Seville by Serena Barbacetto)
(to read the Italian version of this interview, please click HERE)