All the Blue Apes
an interview with Phyllis Gotlieb
by David Mathew
Author of the recent novel Violent
Stars, a slippery, sexy, intricate piece about a long-running court
case, prostitution and murder, set in a farflung existence, Phyllis Gotlieb
is a poet of renown, and a resident of Toronto, Canada. Her work is beautifully
written, and the short story collection Blue Apes is especially recommended
as an introduction.
David Mathew: Please tell me something about your early life and how you became a writer.
Phyllis Gotlieb: I was born in 1926 and from around age ten or eleven I wrote poems and stories and decided to be a writer. I guess I didn't quite know at that time that there was any difference between "genre" and "literature". My family worked in the movie managing business. The movie house my father managed had a candy store next door (shades of Isaac Asimov) and its proprietor gave us the pulps and movie mags he couldn't sell; I was attracted to these because they had colour and action, and these qualities appeared in whatever I wrote up until I went to University, where I learned more about what literature really was, and developed the more literary style I had just been beginning to use.
By the time I graduated I found myself in a protracted dry spell; I married soon after and my husband, a physicist originally and later a professor of computer science, suggested my trying science fiction. I'm a slow learner, and it took me some years to write a saleable story. H.L. Gold kept saying my work wasn't original enough, and John. W. Campbell sneered because my story didn't have a thrillingly happy ending ("denies the whole premise of science fiction!").
While I was plugging away at sf my poetry mysteriously returned, around 1955, and I got to be a quite respected poet, even shortlisted for the Governor General's Award, but there was always in my audience a bit of reluctance to take my work seriously because I wrote science fiction, which has never been greatly respected as a form of art in Canada even to this day.
Still, I was lucky to be writing poetry in the late sixties and seventies when there was an outburst of interest in poetry here, and as a member of the League of Canadian Poets and with the generosity of the Canada Council, I and other poets were able to give poetry readings in all the provinces and half the small towns in Ontario. I really loved going around to these places, travelling by plane, train, bus, truck or whatever else had wheels, and reading in schools and libraries. During this time I wrote half a dozen verse plays that were commissioned by the CBC, and they were taken up by high school drama teachers, and their productions won several prizes--I consider these my greatest successes and was happiest as a poet then.
Popular literature had been creeping into poetry, fantasy, children's rhymes, song lyrics, and eventually it all got absorbed into my science fiction, and by the end of the seventies (just about the time the great outburst of interest in poetry began to shrink) I stopped being a productive poet simply from lack of poem-shaped ideas. Now my aliens write poems, and I produce them very occasionally. I miss them, but if I tried to force them I'd produce only empty stuff.
DM: Your first novel was Sunburst...
PG: Yes, my first published novel was Sunburst, which came out both as a magazine serial and a paperback book in 1964.
I guess at the time I was thinking about children with supernormal powers, because the theme was in the air: Arthur Clarke's Childhood's End, Sturgeon's More Than Human, Wilmar Shiras's Children of the Atom.
I started with a short story idea about a group of children born with psi powers after a nuclear reactor blowup in their town (after which the town is closed off from the world), only these children would be violent, brutal and without conscience (in the term popular then, juvenile delinquents) who were damaged in the first place by heredity or abuse (the theme being that psi is no good to humanity and it would emerge most likely in the damaged). These were to be caged within barbed wire and electrical fields that would make them harmless to the outside (the cage is called the Dump, and the children are the Dumplings.).
However, just one of them would be a young girl about twelve named Shandy Johnson who remains free and unknown because except for these powers she is normal and has never been in any trouble. But the Dumplings are calling to her telepathically, tormenting her with longing to be one with them. That was a not-bad story idea, except for being just like all the other stuff, until it occurred to me that it would be far more interesting if Shandy not only had no psi power but could not be reached or manipulated by anyone who had it. Then I started writing the novel. Shandy aged a year and became thirteen because Lolita had just been published and I didn't want twelve-year-old-girl connotations. Of course the Dumplings are not all evil, there are other good psis not in the Dump, the Dumplings are eventually going to escape and you-know-who helps sort it out. And Shandy learns that her moral spine makes her super in some ways. It should be clear that when I use telepathy in my writing now it is shorthand for understanding and communication, not because I believe it's any kind of good thing.
DM: How long did it take to write?
PG: Just over a year and a half. I wrote a mainstream novel after that which took four years (rave reviews, few sales) and the next four or five books took a couple of years each at least. Flesh and Gold took three years, all of 1987-89, plus six years to sell it, Violent Stars four years, 1990-94, sold 1998. I was writing those on spec, like most of my other novels. I'm too old to do that now.
DM: As you know, I rate Blue Apes extremely highly. Perhaps you could talk about that collection a little bit.
PG: Blue Apes, 1996, is my second collection (after Son of the Morning and Other Stories, 1983) and four of the stories in the first one are repeated in Apes along with seven other unreprinted pieces.
DM: You deal with the different approaches to forms very well. Not every novelist can be a good story-writer, and vice versa. But to write good stories, novels and poetry is by no means unique, but it is unusual.
PG: Some years ago the CBC put on a program called, "Running, Jumping and Standing Still". I never watched it, and I'm not even sure what it was about, but the title immediately struck me: novels run, stories jump, and poems stand still. Of course, Finnegans Wake sleeps and dreams, a modern New Yorker story stands still, and Byron's Mazeppa runs like blazes, but I still think it's a good general idea. It occurred to me this morning, while I was thinking about this question, that what shapes an idea into a particular form is the amount of clarification I need to communicate the vision I have. Not too deep a thought, but, for instance, the vision of an old crumpled alien begging in a market-place hung around in my mind for seven or eight years, and when a story finally formed around it, it was short and quickly written ("Among You" in Blue Apes - available elsewhere in infinity plus). But a vision of a woman sitting on a floor trying to soothe a baby, when a robot dog runs in and grabs the child in its mouth--well, that's a novella, took over a year. And when I started to think about Khagodi, a species I've used as characters for over thirty years, and realized I knew nothing about their world Khagodis and it would be interesting to explore, that became the novel Flesh and Gold.
DM: But your new novel is Violent Stars, and I was interested in the political and judicial cobwebs, the intrigue... not to mention the sexy blue aliens, as I even wrote in the review. The book made me wonder if you had ever read, or more specifically been influenced by, Bleak House by Charles Dickens.
PG: That's an interesting idea, but I can't even remember whether I ever read Bleak House.
DM: Oh well.
PG: Several of my earlier books seem to have a fair number of trials and enquiries in them, I'm not sure why, maybe watching too much Perry Mason on TV, maybe the Jewish education I scrabbled up for myself during the time my children were learning it. (I had little of it in childhood, though my parents did what they could, but my father had to work odd hours that made it impossible even to keep a Sabbath.) At any rate the Talmud is one long legal examination, you can dip in and find a trial anywhere, even in my small supply of books on it. Some years ago I read in a short article in Locus that the books of several sf writers were being used as teaching materials at the Duane University law school, including mine. I was gratified but wondering what I had contributed. Trying to capsulize me views is difficult. I can only say that my interests are omnivorously universal, as I hope my science fiction shows.
DM: Perhaps we can talk about a few of the subjects that appear in your work, or seem to at least. I'll probably get these wrong as well. But did the study of history play any part in the way you approach fiction?
PG: I can't say that the study of history had direct influence on my work. I took Latin for many years in school and university, and became interested in Greek and Roman history from that, but in high school I was always pestering and annoying my teacher for information on what kind of cooking utensils, underwear, handkerchiefs, socks and plumbing the Romans had and she just didn't know. I liked Horace and Catullus and enjoyed translating them into English verse, but except for an admiration of Julius Caesar's writing style I cared nothing for wars, treaties or epics.
After I married and had children I became more interested in Jewish history (my grandparents were Russian and Polish Jewish immigrants), but the kind of history I cared for was, again, the homely one of the villages where they lived. Now that I write science fiction I make sure I know what kinds of cookpots, underwear, etc. my characters use even if I don't mention them.
DM: What about surrealism?
PG: Well, I like surreal art, but I also think that surrealism is something you have to learn to write half-decent science fiction, the ability to look at the world sidewise, upside down or inside out! But my heart doesn't belong to Dada.
PG: As a theatre manager's daughter I was delighted to be nourished on Mickey Mouse, Popeye and Betty Boop but they didn't feed my work.
PG: A kid brought up on the contents of Hollywood, the Disney studios and pulp fiction is hardly likely to find it easy to develop an interest in the formal study of philosophy. What my basic Philosophy courses at university gave me was information on Kepler, Copernicus, Brahe, the scientists who may have contributed to my conviction that a scientist would be a good husband for me!
DM: What are you like when your work is criticized?
PG: My husband is my best critic because he's a good sharp reader who can tell me what's wrong, and if I agree (as I do most of the time, not all) I fix it. I'll also take criticism gladly from my agent and editor. I respect review critics if they're thoughtful even if they don't like my work, at least I can swallow their dislike more easily. But there are all kinds of critics, and I don't know many writers who haven't raged and frothed over a poor review. I throw out bad reviews so I can't tell you the worst, and only rarely look at the good ones, to give some reference somebody might ask for. When a book has been out for a year it's shucked off my consciousness.
Once in a rare while someone will come up to me at a con and tell me that Sunburst meant a lot to her when she was young, and that's a really good review.
DM: Do you have a treasured book, of someone else's?
PG: I could say Browning's poems, Woolf's The Waves, Neuromancer, Lord of the Flies, Darkness at Noon, Huckleberry Finn, Ulysses, The Man in the High Castle -- but I think in the end it comes down to Kipling's Kim.
I know that too often Kipling comes on like a brass band played too loud, but just the same he is one writer who very well knows and best expresses the deeps of the mind and even better, also its joyfulness. In my opinion, of the others who know the territory, Dickens is too operatic, Woolf in too deep, Dick out of control. But Kim travelling down the Grand Trunk Road with fierce delight is the nearest you can come to Huck Finn on the Mississippi, and without the cruel satire and bitterness of Mark Twain. And Kim's relationship with the mysticism of the Lama is as good a map of the territory as I could wish for. (A thought just occurred to me--is it possible George Lucas got Yoda from Kim's lama?) You can see other examples of Kipling's delicacy in poems like "The way through the woods" and such stories as "They" and I admit they come too seldom even for me, but there is always Kim to encapsulate nearly all of the feelings I have about writing.
DM: And lastly, what is your opinion of the publishing industry at the moment?
PG: I've read about publishing finances wherever I could find information, and my conclusion is that there is not enough money to gobble up in the pub. business. Books like mine (euphemistically called the "mid-list" but really lower on the scale), that sell for U$22-25, and have print runs of 3-5000, probably don't yield a profit of more than $1 per volume, if that. The writer gets 10% (less on paperbacks), the retailer gets 40%, the distributor gets some percentage, there are all kinds of price-off deals, and the publishers must pay for staff, writers' advances, huge rents, advertising and publicity (tours, etc.). Multimedia and spin-offs help pay for books, that's why they try to grab all those rights, electronic, audio, translation. And best-sellers like Stephen King and Robert Jordan bring in the money that helps pay for my books, which get published because my agent and editor are devoted to them, as long as they can show half-decent sales. Huge publishing conglomerates may make big profits on multimedia, and that's why not many publishing establishments selling only books are around any more.
DM: Phyllis Gotlieb, thank you very much.
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