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New Fantasy & Science Fiction

Interview with Phyllis Gotlieb

Here is our complete interview with Phyllis Gotlieb. It also appears in Challenging Destiny Number 8.

interview by James Schellenberg & David M. Switzer

CD: How did you get started writing, and why do you write SF?

PG: I started writing when I was about 10 or 11. I remember the exact impulse was when I was watching a movie called Charlie Chan at the Opera. My family ran movie houses, and I of course was an attender on Saturday afternoon -- so much and so intensely it was almost religious. I was watching this movie and the opera singer said, "I had just finished my aria when I heard this terrible scream." And I thought, "Aria. What a beautiful word, I've got to use it." So I wrote a little story just to use that word.

As far as SF, I did always have a taste for the fantastic. If you see a lot of movies, you're going to have popular tastes. We were fairly secular Jewish people. My father had to work six nights and Saturdays, so that kept us fairly secular. Being surrounded by this populist stuff, I never really got an education that I would call -- in my youth -- writing of real quality. All my parents had around were library discards and things like that. Nevertheless I still wanted to be a writer and I thought, "I can't tell my parents I want to be a writer and sit around and do nothing -- I'll be a journalist." In university I took honours English, and as soon as I finished university I got married, so that took care of that idea. It took the strain of having to earn a living by writing. At that time I got a really bad writer's block. I didn't know what to do, and I was flinging myself around a lot. My husband was one of the earliest computer scientists in Canada, and had graduated in math, physics, and chemistry, and he said, "Try SF." So I did. It took me about seven years to make a sale. I'm a slow learner.

CD: When you were starting out it was mostly men who were writing SF.

PG: Yes, there were a few women but not many. And some of them used male names. When I first got published it was due to Cele Goldsmith, the editor of Amazing Stories -- she bought my first story. Goldsmith was publishing stories by Gene Wolfe and Ursula Le Guin then. I'd been sending to Galaxy with H. L. Gold and to Analog. John Campbell once told me that a story of mine which did not end happily negated the whole premise of SF.

CD: Do you think that the imbalance of men versus women authors at the time impacted you at all?

PG: No. Everyone was paid a cent a word. No one paid me a half cent because I was a woman. If there was prejudice, I didn't know about it. I can't remember anyone ever complaining of prejudice. As long as they produced the goods they got paid for it.

CD: How was the experience of editing Tesseracts 2?

PG: I did that with Doug Barbour, and I enjoyed it very much. I read all of the French stories. It kept me busy -- I feel that the more you do, the more you do. Otherwise you're just sitting there trying to think of something to write and not doing anything else except playing stupid computer games.

CD: What do you think of the recent volumes in the Tesseracts series?

PG: I think it's a very good series. I know that people have tried themselves out in that, as they have in TransVersions. I don't read much SF, mainly because I'm always afraid of stylistic or plagiaristic leakage.

CD: The goal of the Tesseracts series seems to be to promote Canadian SF. How do you see where that's at now?

PG: As a publishing business I don't think it's anywhere. I don't think it's ever been anywhere. I admire Tesseracts and On Spec for their efforts, but the thing is SF has never been part of the publishing canon in Canada. We don't have the kind of creative energy that the US has with this sort of ebullient muscle. That's what you need to promote this kind of writing.

CD: When you were starting out did you read SF?

PG: I read just about everything that was there. I didn't read the real space stuff -- the Lensmen stuff, and those kinds of things. When I was a kid there was a candy store attached to the theatre -- just like Isaac Asimov's candy store -- and they would, instead of returning unsold stuff, give it to my father. It would be Doc Savage, Black Mask, movie magazines, Weird Tales, that kind of thing. I read all that -- I had this very pulpy background. When I went to university I did Tenneson, Swift, Chaucer -- nothing modern at all. My husband felt that if he went through university not knowing something about literature he wouldn't be getting a proper education. So he read all of the modern novels -- Huxley, Koestler, and the rest. I read everything that he had. And then I read all of the SF that was available.

I've never wanted to write fantasy. Fantasy is often filled with kings or princesses or dukes or lords, and my characters are proletarian. In the SF there's usually somebody going out beyond the stellar limits. I'm more interested in writing about common people -- I mean people like you and me -- struggling through some kind of situation in which there are great powers around and they don't know what they are and don't want to know but have to find the way through just the same. And people have said this to me, that my idea of a happy ending is if the people are left standing -- and that's just about it.

CD: Of the SF you read when you were getting started, were there any particular authors who influenced your writing?

PG: No. My influence had all been laid down by writers like Browning, Kipling, Mark Twain, and then later on maybe a bit of Virginia Woolf and James Joyce. Reviewers are always saying I write like Cordwainer Smith or Raymond Chandler. I don't write like any of them -- some of them write like me, but I don't write like anybody but myself.

CD: What are you reading these days?

PG: I read detective stories, and I read nonfiction -- popular science books. I reread some old things I like. I can read Neuromancer -- I think Neuromancer is the best book in the last 25 years. I can reread that and be happy with it.

Each time I think I've found someone like Bruce Sterling -- The Difference Engine that he wrote with Gibson, I thought that was a really good book. Then I read something like Holy Fire -- he takes an old woman who has some interesting things in her character, makes her young, and makes her a stupid ditz. William Gibson I find disappointing now, though I still read his books for their style.

Believe me -- I still look forward to a good SF book. I'm always thinking that someone's going to be the great author. I've read so much that I guess I'm easily disappointed.

CD: How did you become poetry editor for TransVersions?

PG: I heard they needed a poetry editor, and I volunteered. I was pleasantly surprised at the quality of poetry. I know people are not as interested in poetry now as they used to be, say in the 70s. I used to travel around to all the schools in Ontario and the other provinces. That was a great decade for poetry.

CD: What were you goals in that role?

PG: I had no goals. I just wanted to find the best poetry and have them publish it. They never refused a poem that I chose, so I'm satisfied with what was done. I only wish they had a wider circulation.

CD: How has the publishing industry changed over the years?

PG: When I sold my first novel Sunburst I got $2500 for it. It cost 40 cents a copy and they gave me 2 cents of that, they printed 125000 copies and sent them all over the world. I was completely satisfied with that. At that time it was a pretty fair price. Nowadays they'll put everything into a hardback, but they'll print 3000 copies maybe or up to 5000 and then they'll give you a trade paperback that costs what you used to be able to buy 3 hardbacks for. And you don't get the exposure. Of course, I never had any promotion to speak of. I never had a real ad. I still don't get one -- I might get an ad in Locus that's lumped in with a bunch of other books.

CD: Has your relationship with publishers changed over the years?

PG: I'm an awfully slow writer. I've written 9 or 10 novels. Agents, editors, publishers like my work well enough -- but it doesn't sell in large amounts. No matter how well they like it, if they can't sell it to the public in large amounts they can't afford to promote or pay me much. I'm kind of a special taste.

CD: Have you seen a big change in the SF community?

PG: The fans haven't changed. The writers have. I was the only SF writer in Canada for many years. I was asked to join the Science Fiction Writers of America in 1965 and there was one other fellow from Canada, William Bankier, who lived in Montreal -- but he went into true crime. Now there's a lot of them. We have a group here in Toronto. I'm on a listserver for Canadian SF writers.

CD: When you were the only SF author writing in Canada, did you think you'd rather have some more people around?

PG: Yes. I got a fair amount of attention from the fan clubs, because I was a professional. The professional.

CD: You've got your continuing universe of the Galactic Federation, or GalFed.

PG: Why write new universes for everything?

CD: So this was a conscious choice, then.

PG: It wasn't a conscious choice to only have one universe. It was: this is the universe.

CD: That's why you've used it since then.

PG: Because it's there. To me, it was the real universe of writing. Remember, there's only 5000 worlds in this Federation, something like that. And there's the whole galaxy with billions of stars in it. I'm not going to any other galaxies.

CD: What's next for GalFed?

PG: I mentioned something to the editor about the story not being over, and he picked up on that. So I got a call several months ago from my agent saying, "What's up with this third novel?" I'm working on it now, and though it's hard to pick up on old characters I think if I can get it finished it'll be published.

I'm planning on writing other kinds of stories. I have another little universe, with a colony. I've got a story called "Edge City" in Science Fiction Age. It's a forgotten colony world, where they've all been plagued with telepathy. It's driving them crazy, and they're trying to get rid of it. I've written two of them, and one of them I'm still shopping around. I'm thinking of making a kind of mosaic book from them, a series of stories that fit together.

CD: You've also written some poetry.

PG: I had written poetry and short stories in high school and university, mainly poetry. Then I sort of dried up when I was in my late teens and early 20s. After I started trying to write SF, I got the poetry back. I did quite well with it. I had poetry in all the Canadian outlets. And I did a lot of reading -- all around Ontario, and actually in every province in the country. I was short-listed for the Governor-General. But the fact that I wrote SF put people off, because it's not Canadian. People would ask me, "What do you think about landscape, as a Canadian writer?" I said, "I don't think about landscape." I didn't quite get the same respect that, say Margaret Atwood did.

CD: Does your style of writing poetry influence your SF and vice versa?

PG: I don't write much poetry now. Maybe one or two poems a year, as they strike me. Gradually, my poetry began drawing from children's rhymes, comic strips, and all kinds of various popular genre elements -- and SF. Then my aliens started to write poetry, so I thought, "That takes care of that." I like to make up songs, and throw them in. It just got subsumed, or absorbed.

CD: You seem to have a large cast of characters in each book. How do you come up with those characters?

PG: They just come into my mind. If you read Flesh and Gold, you remember Lebedev. I had him sitting playing solitaire in my mind for three months, waiting to come in. And I like to have fun. People may or may not enjoy my work, but I figure if I don't have fun it's not worth doing.

CD: Do you plot everything for the characters ahead of time?

PG: Things grow -- I often find myself in situations that I don't much like, because there are needs. If you're going to have a bunch of aliens, you better put in some Earth-type human beings to centre and focus people, to make people at home before you do it. I didn't learn that until I was in my 60s. I told you I'm a very slow learner. The artist Hokusai died at 89 years old, crying out in tears, "If I only lived longer I could really learn to draw." I feel the same way about writing.

It took six years to sell Flesh and Gold and in that six years I kept thinking, "What am I going to write now? Well, I might as well go on with the story." The story wasn't over, and it still isn't over. It wouldn't be over until I wrote the third volume. As I said, I'm working on it and have some assurance that it will be published if I can only get it done.

CD: Your Galactic Federation has a lot of alien races. How do you go about creating something that's alien?

PG: I don't know if you've read any of the cat books. It started with the story "Son of the Morning" which was short-listed for the Nebula. It has these big red cats in them, who had been genetically modified by this huge powerful energy being. I had long wanted to do a story, like Frederick Brown's "Arena," where you had human and alien, and one of each came together. I wanted that to take place in a Russian Jewish village in about 1812, around the time of Czar Alexander II. People saw these aliens, and they thought they were demons, because they believed in them -- they were quite superstitious. So I didn't know what my aliens were going to look like, and I was lying in bed, and across the darkness in my eyelids I see these two red cats. I thought, "Gee, I guess that's them." Next day I was going across the parking lot with the groceries and I thought, "Their names are Krengh and Prandra." That's it -- it just comes.

I had wanted to write a story about the last Jew in the universe. It was in my mind because there had been a novel on that theme, but I wasn't satisfied with it. I wanted to do it the way I thought it ought to be. Jack Dann asked me for something to put in Wandering Stars so I said, "I haven't got anything on hand. Would you like 'Son of the Morning'?" And he said he loved it but he just didn't have room for it. So I missed that one, and then when he was putting together More Wandering Stars he said, "Now how about writing me a story?" So I sat down and wrote "Tauf Aleph" -- it was a gift. Whiz! It never happens like that -- usually it takes 6 months, sometimes as long as a year or more for me to write a story. But I just sat down and wrote it. And afterwards I thought, "I don't like this story" -- because it didn't take excruciatingly hard work. That's the story that's been most reprinted, and translated.

CD: If we do ever meet some aliens, do you think we'll be able to communicate with them?

PG: If they want to, we will. If the army doesn't shoot them down first. If they get to meet some people they can trust. If they're people, they should be able to communicate some way. I don't know if they'll think the way we do, but there are people on this planet who don't think the way we do either.

CD: What's your view of the UFO phenomenon?

PG: Dumb. Bug eyes, that's all an alien needs. It's just the feelings and thoughts in people's heads that bring these visions -- just as they used to visualize devils and demons.

CD: What's your opinion of SF in different media like movies, computer games, comics?

PG: I haven't seen The Phantom Menace but that Jar-Jar Binks -- just look at his eyes. They would get knocked back into his head. Dumb. You can have all kinds of aliens, but if you're going to have an alien vertebrate it's going to have eyebrows. Having a robot with four legs is stupid. All those things are stupid, but I don't fault people for enjoying them. There's a lot of discussion about that on the web.

I just play card games on the computer. I don't like world-building games -- I build my own worlds. That would just interfere with my own world-building. The fellow that sold me my computer, I gave him a copy of Flesh and Gold and he gave me a copy of Myst -- I found it so tedious, I never got the hang of it. I found it so slow. Almost every book I read I'm so impatient to find out what happens I'm always leafing through. So I try to write so that there will always be something happening.

As for comic books, I don't know much about them now. When the kids brought them home I used to read them -- Superman and things. I think I owned the first comic book ever created -- Famous Funnies that came out in about 1936. I still am a great devotee of comic strips. And cartoons.

CD: Do you have any advice for writers who are starting out?

PG: Know the difference between "uninterest" and "disinterest," "phenomenon" and "phenomena," and respect words. Don't write like Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer stories: "When I woke up I felt like my head was in a boiler factory." Learn to write well. Whatever you do. And cut down on the adjectives -- I learned that the hard way.

CD: What's SF good for?

PG: To find out what SF is good for, you have to go way back and look up a treatise called "The Defence of Poesie" by Sir Phillip Sidney, an Elizabethan writer. He tells you that people need to spread their imagination with visions, chimeras, speculations. He was defending poetry as being a non-trivial pursuit. And he said we need that to make our minds develop. I couldn't say it better now.

CD: What do you see as the future of SF?

PG: I couldn't tell you at all. People are bound to their own times, no matter what they say. I don't want to know what the future is. I figure there are going to be people here, maybe one day we'll get to visit some other world. Maybe we'll get a signal sooner or later that tells us there's some other lonely soul out there. I can't believe that there aren't other worlds with life. Because of the way life bursts out of everything -- my daughter who's a chemistry professor says, "Life will out." I can't believe that won't happen on many other worlds. It's just too common. Even the least of all bacteria has thousands of genes. That kind of passion for growth, ability to heal, and ability to reproduce -- that can't be only on one little ball of rock. As for what SF will say about those things, I don't know. I think that the people who write about this universe have something good to say in that they stretch your imagination.

CD: Where would you want SF to go?

PG: Somewhere where I'd want to read it. New Wave did a lot for SF, and Neuromancer was a part of that with cyberpunk. It's amazing how soon they became dead ends. I was astonished. I would have thought people would be more enthusiastic, but it's kind of a special taste, a caviar taste.

Last modified: November 18, 1999

Copyright © 1999 by Phyllis Gotlieb

Crystalline Sphere | Challenging Destiny | Issue #8 | Interviews