Samuel R. Delany is an eminent writer of literature in many forms, from science fiction to memoir. Born in Harlem, New York in 1942, he has been publishing his writing since the age of 20. He has been awarded four Nebula Awards and two Hugo awards, is a member of the Science Fiction Hall of Fame and a SFWA Grandmaster. His newest book is a collection of his oldest novels, published by Vintage as A, B, C: Three Short Novels: The Jewels of Aptor, The Ballad of Beta-2, They Fly at Çiron.
I was honored to be asked to interview him for SF Signal, and the response was all I hoped for, and more! This is part 1 of the interview, with part 2 to follow in a separate post.
Q: Your new book, A, B, C: THREE SHORT NOVELS, takes the reader back to the beginning of your career by offering up your first three novels. What is it about these works that impelled you to offer them up again?
Samuel R. Delany: With all these books’ clumsinesses and immaturities, I think—I hope—I was trying for something that is probably harder and harder to see with time’s passing. Indeed, it may never have been there. The only thing that might have thrown some highlighting onto it at the time they were published were slight differences between them and what was then coming out in the genre. Because so many changes have taken place in the background against which individual works now register, however, it’s harder and harder to read the signals.
In 1962, the idea of starting off a science fiction novel with an adolescent girl in the middle of a discussion of Da Vinci and Christianity contrasted with Buddhist iconography, against a background of renaissance art history, atomic devastation, and political atrocity, was a way to alert a reader to something a little unusual, and—indeed—that it might be something you had to dig for a bit.
I don’t think it necessarily works that way today. I suspect the closest that the current three- and four-star Amazon reviewers will get is to wonder if this has anything to do with the stuff the various puppies in their several emotional states might have been on about last year—and they would probably be a little surprised that the answer was, “Yes, it actually does,” only not in the way they are used to, so that, as they go on, it doesn’t strike them as terribly interesting. Now I’m the last person who can complain that they’re in any way mistaken. But a few readers who are interested in either writing or the genre’s history may find something there to think about.
Q: How do you think these works function as a potential starting point for reading your fiction?
SRD: Well, for better or for worse, they were the starting point. If, for some reason, that’s interesting to you, probably you’ll find something of interest there. Otherwise it’s the usual crap shoot. And heaven only knows why anyone should.
I suspect all three books are in some way about what can and can’t be textualized: the status of the text, and the more paradoxical problem of what parts escape—or appear to escape—traditional approaches to textualization. That’s an odd thing to find in an SF novel (which may even have made them interesting to enough readers in the decade they came out), but it’s also true it’s not what most second-decade of the twenty-first century SF readers are interested in. And, again, why in the world should they be?
But what I suspect you’re really asking me is, “Are your early works any good?”—and the fact is I have no way to know whether they are or not. That’s at least one of the things that makes it such an uncomfortable question.
As you are the interviewer, I assume you have your own opinion—and that if it was too catastrophic, like a good creative writing teacher you would be gentle enough in presenting it. Though the truth is, at this point, I’m pretty unflappable. If you did say you thought they were dreadful and worth neither the paper they were written on nor the time to read them, probably I would say much the same as I said to your generous praise of Dhalgren on the “Dhalgren at 40” panel at Readercon. Thank you for what you had to say—and I’d somehow try to make use of it; and about everything else keep my counsel.
Q: Your career now stretches over half a century. When you look back at these early works, how do you think they did (or didn’t) open up the writing path that you followed?
SRD: From my answers so far, probably you can guess that I believe they did. Though the full truth is I am not a hundred percent sure there is any path to be followed. But of course I view them entirely through the lens of personal bias. Those are the eyes I have. To reiterate, I don’t have much trouble figuring out how someone might have no interest, however, in them at all.
Q: Both your fiction and non-fiction have had a broad influence on fantastic literature and its criticism. What, for you, is the most satisfying element of this effect of your writing?
SRD: More paradox: The most satisfying element is when I have worked on something as hard as I possibly can, finished it, and realize it has left me dissatisfied–so that I have to go on and conceive of and work on another (and realize that other will be a more difficult) project.
Q: In Kim Stanley Robinson’s introduction to the tribute volume STORIES FOR CHIP he discusses the feeling that there is “a kind of joy” in your writing. I agree, and I wonder where that joy comes from?
SRD: Well, yes, there’s joy—but there’s raw pain, too—as in Hogg—or the frustrations age can impose on love, as we near the end of life—as in Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders. (My most recent novel, along with the one I’m working on now, both deal in different ways with some similar material. But they’re uppermost in mind, because of the position they occupy in my personal time stream.)
Q: Your writing also has a fearless quality to it; even in the most allegorical or stream-of-consciousness moments there is no trace of equivocation or sense of opprobrium. How intentional is the creation of this quality in your writing? How important is it to have that quality in your writing?
To look at things closely tends to settle me into a state of joy—a calm joy—even when what I’m looking at is injustice and pain because the level of granularity that I’m observing it at means I don’t have to look away too frequently—and it suggests that this may be a tool to make life more bearable as well, when pain and injustice intrude, or the tools of observation themselves begin to erode.
Q: Both of these elements are unabashedly on display in your novel DHALGREN. A reviewer said of DHALGREN that “it’s not a novel that cares to justify itself.” It strikes me that this is also a characteristic of all your novels, part of their tone, their narrative dynamic, and their effectiveness. What do you think of that characterization?
SRD: I can only be very glad you found those in your encounter with the book, and consider myself very lucky.
Q: At this year’s Readercon there was a panel on DHALGREN at 40 years. Of all your novels, why do you think this one has been so widely-read and is such an enduring work? Do you consider this your greatest work?
SRD: It’s totally outside my ability to make judgments of that sort. (Mark Twain—along with William Dean Howells and Twain’s first major biographer, Albert Bigelow Paine—died believing his greatest novel would be The Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc—his longest piece of fiction and one that that took him a decade and a half to write, but which, in the ten-page plus Wikipedia article on Twain, gets only four lines near the end. Most graduate students these days don’t even know it exists. The Oxford Companion to American Literature doesn’t even mention it.)
Many years ago, I heard Michael Moorcock say, “Why would you work on any piece of writing if you didn’t consider it a masterpiece—at least for the duration you were writing it?” That seemed right at the time. And still does. Currently I feel the one I’m working on now is my best. But the other side of the coin is simply that too many things happen in the world to make you aware, once it’s done, it’s nowhere near a masterpiece. Masterpieces are masterpieces because of the conversations they have with the world. And you lose all control of that conversation the moment the last page is done. You may have personal reasons to be fond of it, because of some problem you solved, some reference you managed to bury in the text, but such successes in both cases are precisely because both are invisible—or at any rate invisible to most.
Q: You’ve written on a variety of subjects in your career, but you keep coming back to science fiction and fantastic literature. What is it about those genres that continues to demand your attention?
Q: What potential do you still see in these genres for future cohorts of writers? Will we still be writing in/about them in a few generations?
SRD: Here, once more, I’ll take refuge in an answer I’ve given many times before to this and similar questions. The one thing that the science fiction writer should probably be more aware of than any other kind of writer is that the future really is unpredictable. That’s what allows our genre to exist, to grow, and to go on growing.
Q: You been interviewed so many times, I have to ask if there’s a question you always wanted someone to ask you? And how would you answer it?
SRD: That’s another question I’ve been asked many times, John. You say you have to ask it. So I hope, if only for friendship’s sake, you’ll consider yourself exonerated from the more distressing implication in anything I might have to say after this. Certainly I do. But I confess, at this point, when the interviewer thinks it up on his or her own, I always suspect she or he is trying to wriggle off some hook that she or he sees him- or herself as having gotten snagged on, however momentarily. But that’s only a guess.
The truth is that most of the questions most interviewers are drawn to ask is some version of “What did X, Y, or Z—presumably in this or that work—mean?”—the joy, the pain, this fantastic thing, or that realistic one.
The answer any writer worth her or his salt learns pretty quickly to give is an answer that’s some form of “It was part of an attempt to put together a text that would most forcefully, vividly, and intriguingly invite you to figure out its meaning.” Sometimes, to the young, you might want to give a nudge in one direction or another. But you know also, every time you do that, you are still sabotaging your own work. If the reader can’t—with less or more effort—figure it out on his or her own, nothing meaningful has happened. Yes, critics—who are often, as in my case, writers themselves, will write criticism of still other works whose purpose is to demonstrate to others how you do it. But that is as much a creative job as fiction itself, if it’s done properly. The best of it is as rare as good fiction.
My message to the world has never been—“Hey, I want everybody who speaks the language to read my work and understand me—and great translators besides.” I know that’s impossible. It’s much closer to: I want the people who find my work interesting to have as rich an experience as I can possible evoke in them, but I’m aware that that always requires as much input from them as it does from me—so that’s going to be a fairly limited set of readers. And when it does happen to some of them—that is, without much input from them other than opening the cover or flipping on the screen and running their eye over the words—I know that even the very sharp ones are probably not reading what I wrote, but rereading the last stories they read, and that that is as close as they are likely to get on a first encounter. It takes a little work to see what’s new, if anything, in a text. I know it, because that’s what it takes me.
Even as I hasten to reiterate your personal exoneration, with which I began this last answer, among possible honest ones, the most direct to the question, “What question are you never asked that you’d like to be asked,” is: “Why do you think the question, ‘Is there’s a question you always wanted someone to ask you? And how would you answer it?’ reflects so badly on both the interviewer and the interviewee—if it’s not simply another impossible one to answer?”
But I think, by now, I’ve suggested some answers: basically they fall under the rubric, “It’s too easy and it’s asking me to do work that should be done by the readers, who include the interviewer.” It’s still nudging the writer to do the reader’s work. But, hey, many thanks, John. I enjoyed this.
—New York City, July 14, 2015