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INTERVIEW: James Morrow

James Morrow published his first novel, The Wine of Violence, in 1981. His efforts since then include The Continent of Lies (1984), This Is the Way the World Ends (1986), Only Begotten Daughter (1990), City of Truth (1991), Bible Stories for Adults (1996), and The Cat’s Pajamas & Other Stories (2004). He is best known for the Godhead Trilogy — comprising Towing Jehovah (1994), Blameless in Abaddon (1996), and The Eternal Footman (1999) — as well as The Last Witchfinder (2007), a postmodern historical epic about the coming of the scientific worldview. His latest books are The Philosopher’s Apprentice, about a young ethicist hired to implant a conscience in an adolescent amnesia victim, and The SFWA European Hall of Fame, an anthology he co-edited with his wife Kathryn.

SF Signal had the opportunity to talk to James about his recent work and genre fiction in translation…

SF Signal: Can you tell us about the genesis of The SFWA European Hall of Fame and how you came to co-edit it with your wife Kathryn?

James Morrow: Way back at the turn of the millennium, my French publisher encouraged Kathy and me to attend a new and innovative science fiction event, Utopiales, closer in spirit to the Cannes Film Festival than to an American SF convention. In the autumn of 2000, scores of writers, translators, editors, publishers, filmmakers, and fans from all over the world descended on Nantes. Over the course of several lunches and dinners with this extraordinary group of people, Kathy and I gradually became aware that the average non-Anglophone SF writer is caught in a Catch-22. He can’t get translated into English unless he already has an English-speaking readership, and he can’t acquire an English-speaking readership unless he’s already translated into English.

Kathy and I looked at each other and said, “Maybe we can short-circuit this vicious cycle.” So I wrote a proposal to SFWA, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, and received a $1500 grant. This seed money was sufficient to finance a half-dozen professional translations, and these stories formed the nucleus of our pitch to prospective publishers.

Before turning the proposal over to our agent, Kathy and I made every story the object of intense editorial fussing. We always convened a protracted three-way Internet conversation among ourselves, the translator, and the original author. The idea was to polish each translation to a fare-thee-well, so it would read smoothly in English while still retaining the style, voice, nuances, quirks, and Je ne sais quoi of the original text.

SFS: Does translated science fiction get shortchanged in America?

JM: Worse than shortchanged. Pretty much ignored. The American publishing establishment is simply not set up to deal with other languages. The typical European editor is bilingual or trilingual and has at his or her fingertips contact information for a half-dozen translators, and it goes without saying that translations will figure in the budget. His or her American counterpart is much more parochial in this regard.

Of course, many American SF editors would love to publish stories and novels in translation — I think especially of Gordon Van Gelder at F&SF and David Hartwell, who ended up acquiring The SFWA European Hall of Fame. But the money simply isn’t there. A U.S. magazine editor will occasionally receive an English-language piece from abroad, but typically it will be an amateur translation or a self-translation, awkward in ways practically guaranteed to alienate the reader. If the editor were to publish such a story as it stood, everybody would likely lose — author, editor, audience.

SFS: How popular is American science fiction in countries where English is not the predominant language?

JM: Whether it deserves this status or not, American science fiction enjoys a global hegemony at the moment. The case of Poland is fairly illuminating. After the fall of Communism in eastern Europe, you might think that the Polish SF houses would have reveled in their newfound freedom of expression, encouraging indigenous authors to write prolifically and audaciously. But as far as I can tell, these publishers have instead put most of their energies into translating and importing the ever-reliable American product.

Of course, some European countries do a pretty good job of nurturing indigenous SF. The French SF infrastructure is almost as complex as what we enjoy on these shores. But even the French don’t have a system of literary agents focused on getting their clients’ works translated into English. The Finns have the right idea. FILI — the Finnish Literature Information Center — will pick up the tab almost every time a native author can arrange to appear in translation in any serious venue.

SFS: How is European genre fiction different from American genre fiction?

JM: A couple of years ago Kathy heard a joke at Confluence, the Pittsburgh area SF convention. Question: what’s the difference between Europeans and Americans? Answer: Europeans think one hundred miles is a long distance, and Americans think one hundred years is a long time.

In other words, the weight of history hangs probably more heavily on the European psyche than on the American. This fact influences both mainstream and genre literature. When a European SF writer tries to dramatize a totalitarian society, an empire modeled on ancient Rome, a Renaissance mercantile system, or a mechanized invasion of one’s homeland, he is operating in a milieu where such phenomena have actually occurred. On the American shore, we know about these subjects only secondhand. So the political sensibility of European SF is perhaps darker and edgier than in the U.S. equivalent.

At the same time, I would say that European SF gives its readers a kind of unembarrassed romanticism that’s different in tone from what you’ll typically find in Asimov’s or a Year’s Best anthology. In about a third of our stories, the author has invested much creative energy in demonstrating how deeply the partners in a marriage or a love relationship cherish their bond.

It’s also worth noting that surrealism first emerged in Europe — think of Bosch and his many successors — and this movement has greatly influenced Continental literature, including science fiction.

SFS: Are there any plans to make The SFWA European Hall of Fame a recurring series?

JM: Kathy and I would be happy to share what we learned with anybody who wants to propose a follow-up volume. But at the moment we’re exhausted. As you might imagine, that three-way editorial process consumed much time and energy, and now we’re simply waiting to see if our effort finds a readership. Get back to us in several years, and maybe we’ll be gearing up for Volume Two.

SFS: What projects do you have lined up for the future?

JM: My current magnum opus, an historical epic along the lines of The Last Witchfinder, dramatizes the life of Charles Darwin through a plot device that I don’t believe would occur to another writer — at least, I hope it wouldn’t. The working title is Galápagos Regained. And this winter Tachyon Books will publish my stand-alone novella, Shambling Towards Hiroshima. Most of the action unfolds in 1945. A secret Navy research team, working in parallel with the Army’s Manhattan Project, has developed the ultimate biological weapon — which, curiously enough, bears a strong resemblance to Godzilla. My protagonist is a Hollywood actor who must put on a lizard suit and destroy a miniature city before a Japanese delegation. The hope is that such a vivid demonstration of this terrifying new technology will prompt a Japanese surrender.

SFS: Your bio states that you spent some time producing some 8mm movies. Have you ever returned to film or had an inclination to do so? Which of your own works do think would make the best film?

JM: I’ve always been a story guy. As a school-age kid, I wrote fables and drew comic books. Upon reaching adolescence, I scripted and produced a half-dozen 8mm movies in collaboration with my friend George Shelps. These efforts ranged from a Wellsian sci-fi spectacle titled The Futurians, to a Hammer Film homage called Calliostro the Sorcerer, to adaptations of Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Safely ensconced in aluminum cans, this oeuvre still resides in my hall closet along with their open-reel taped soundtracks.

A few years after graduating from college, I made a short 16mm comedy with two other high-school buddies, Joe Adamson and Dave Stone. I suppose A Political Cartoon foreshadows some of the more outrageous social satire found in This Is the Way the World Ends and The Philosopher’s Apprentice, though it’s a much gentler, less sardonic endeavor than those novels. A Political Cartoon combines live action with animation to tell the story of Peter President, a cartoon character who gets elected to the highest office in the land. It was ultimately released on a VHS anthology from Kino on Video called Cartoongate!, and it’s easily available via various dealers at By the way, both Joe and Dave went on to success in Hollywood. Joe won an Emmy for his PBS documentary W.C. Fields Straight Up, and Dave received an Oscar for cutting the sound on Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula.

As for the possibility of a movie adaptation of a Morrow novel, there’s been mild Hollywood interest over the years in City of Truth, This Is the Way the World Ends, Towing Jehovah, and Only Begotten Daughter. But my most sweepingly cinematic work is probably The Last Witchfinder. I think it would make a splashy historical epic that might, just might, find an audience by virtue of its controversial take on religion. Though I wouldn’t bank on it.

About John DeNardo (13012 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.
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