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Rich Christiano

Interview: Gene Wolfe

Gene Wolfe almost needs no introduction: at 75, with decades of writing behind him, he has many published works to his credit and his star shines brightly in the SFF sky. He's most recently known for The Wizard Knight, Book of the New Sun, Book of the Long Sun, and the Soldier series. He took part in the list in March 2007. Shannon McNear, Marlon Clark, and Diane Joy Baker asked questions, and here is an edited version of the question and answer sequence. You can learn more about Gene and his work from the following web pages: http://mysite.verizon.net/~vze2tmhh/wolfe.html (a fairly comprehensive fansite), http://www.fantasticfiction.co.uk/w/gene-wolfe/ (up-to-date info on Gene's works), and http://www.hycyber.com/SF/wolfe_gene.html (an older bibliography).

SM: Tell us about your background, birthplace, where and when you grew up, what your childhood was like, etc.?

Background, Birthplace, Childhood. My father was of Dutch and Swiss descent, my mother Scottish and Welsh. He was from southern Ohio, she from North Carolina. That was the state the Wolfes had left about 1780, and it is the state in which my older son lives now. My mother's family had been written by Wm. Faulkner. The Nobles had owned a plantation and been ruined by the Civil War. John Ayers had been a sailor, a cavalryman, and a circus performer before settling down as foreman in a boatyard. He drank moonshine and owned pit dog. He bred fighting cocks. I remember him sitting on the porch with his wooden leg stretched in front of him, threatening me with his cane every time I got too close.

I was born in Brooklyn, NY. After three days I moved (in Mother's arms) to New Jersey. I grew up, an only child, in Houston, Texas. There was no air conditioning in those days, so we kids stayed indoors, mostly, until evening to escape the stifling heat. We read, and played chess, checkers, and Monopoly. I lived between two mad scientists and admired them both. Mr. Fellows, across the street, had a huge chem lab in which he blew himself up from time to time. J. Miller Porter, Jr., built electrical marvels. By the time I got to college, John Cramer was blowing himself up, too.

SM: Educational background? What did you take, and why?

I attended Texas A&M University and the University of Houston. I have a BSME from the latter.

SM: What is your family situation? (Married? Kids? 1.7 dogs?)

Rosemary and I married in 1956. We have four children, two sons and two daughters. We have three grandchildren, and would like more. Only one dog now, a Scottie.

SM: How did you get started writing?

My roommate at Texas A&M will drawing illustrations for a college magazine. He asked me to write some stories for him to illustrate.

SM: What works have you had published? (not restricting yourself to SF/F titles) Articles, short stories?

Novels, short fiction (short stories, novelettes, and novellas), articles, poems, and what have you. I don't believe I've ever written a nonfiction book.

SM: Of your works, which one is your favorite? (including works in progress)

It changes. Most often, Peace.

SM: Who are your influences as a writer, and why?

I couldn't begin to answer this.

SM: What was the first exposure you can remember having to SF/F as a genre?

Probably the Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon comic strips.

SM: What is your personal all-time favorite SF/F work, and why?

Probably The Island Of Doctor Moreau. The why is tough. Because it takes one simple sf idea and does such wonderful things with it. Because it's pure sf, and the greatest horror novel I have ever read. Because it's full of quiet little bits most people miss. Because it hits so hard. Don't judge it by the awful movie made a few years ago. The Charles Laughton b&w was much better, and the book is better than either.

SM: What is your faith stance, and how does it affect your writing?

I'm not sure what you intend by "faith stance." I'm a Christian. As a Christian, I reject belief in fate. I believe in free will and original sin. I am not a pacifist. I do not believe that it's wrong to dance or to take a drink. (My dancing would make a saint swear, but that's my problem.)

SM: What Christian book(s) (fiction or non-fiction) have had the greatest impact on your thought and writing?

The New Testament. Till We Have Faces. The Everlasting Man. Orthodoxy.

SM: What NON-Christian book(s) (fiction or non-fiction) have had the greatest impact on your thought and writing?

Do you mean secular? Or books in a different religious tradition? If it's the first, I can't say. It it's the second, The Iron Flute.

MC: I recently read The Knight and was wondering how you decided on the plot for it.

Actually, I didn't. I plotted The Wizard Knight. It got to be too long (or I thought it was) so I broke it in two at the obvious place. In other words, the plot of The Knight is really just the first section of the plot of the longer work.

I set out to write about a young man's progress from youth to paladin. He had to fight, suffer, travel, fall in love, deal with an unscrupulous politician like Arnthor, find God, and so on. And I couldn't do any of those all at once, each had to be broken up with the others. The key point is always knowing how the story should end, and I knew that.

DJB: I truly enjoyed Soldier of Sidon (and the other Soldier books). I hope there will be more of this series. I would love to see Latro enter the Middle East; what an opportunity to contrast the Jewish folk and also show their foibles! Not to mention Arabs (who would be polytheistic). Do you plan to have more adventures of Latro? Please say yes!

The Soldier Books: I've been mulling over these questions, with thoroughly unsatisfactory results. Do I plan to continue the series? I have no specific plans now. I may, but I really can't promise anything. Getting Latro across the Atlantic would be easy; the Phoenicians visited the New World in ancient times – they don't teach that in school, but it's true. They crossed from the Cape Verde Islands (where they had trading post for centuries) probably sailing southwest. We tend to forget that almost all of South America lies east of North America. After that they followed the coast south and north, getting as far north Yucatan.

If you decide to show the other tribes of the world (e. g. Aztecs and North American tribes) in subsequent volumes, how would you get Latro across "the pond?" I love that he lives so far back in time.

The hard part would be getting the cultural situation(s) right. It would be absurd to assume that Native American cultures we as the Spanish found them for almost two thousand years. In fact, one thing we know for certain about them is that they were not. The Aztec Empire was quite recent. The cultures of the North American tribes seems to have peaked around one thousand A.D. – a long, long time after Latro's period. The Pacific Coastal tribes were only just arriving from Central Asia then. I'm not saying it couldn't be done, but it certainly would not be easy.

Will he ever get his memory back? (If he represents someone who has no sense of history, do you think this is something that can change?) If not, how do you plan to finish the series?

Will he ever get his memory back? If I finish the series, yes. But I may not – see above.

DJB: Let's discuss the Long Sun and Whorl series. It's fascinating to think of a generational ship that's been in space so long, complete with gods, forgotten technologies and other contingencies. What led to this conception, and how does it connect to faith?

My original thought was to show a good man in a bad religion. If you have read the books and see no connection to faith, nothing I can say will help.

How does Long Sun connect to Short Sun? I get the sense that centuries intervene. Am I wrong?

Centuries intervene in the sense that the Whorl left Urth centuries ago. It was sent out by Typhon, whose digitized personality took the name Pas. All this is in the books.

DJB: Your stories so often take place very far in the past or very far in the future. What attracts you to this kind of character and setting?

What attracts me to the far past and the far future? I don't know that anything does. I've written a good deal about the present and the near future, and about an alternate universe in The Wizard Knight. Pirate Freedom jumps back and forth between the great age of piracy and the near future.

DJB: What's going on with Seawrack in On Blue's Waters? She almost seems like a rape victim. What does her character's reactions signify? I can understand the vampiric folk are in need of mercy; it's a powerful symbol of our fallen state. What do the different worlds give to their inhabitants, and does each world need the other?

If you can't understand Seawrack, I can't make you understand her.

DJB: Questions on writing: Name five classic books any writer should read.

There are hundreds, probably thousands. I'd like to stick with books you've probably never heard of, but if I don't say the Bible, you'll jump me. And it is, of course. Try Idylls of the King, The Napoleon of Notting Hill, The Lost Sea, and a thick collection of Kipling's short stories. Try Huckleberry Finn, if they didn't make you read it in school. Try the collected short stories of Ernest Hemmingway.

DJB: Every book you write is different; no one can predict what you will come out with next. Do you deliberately set out to consciously challenge yourself in terms of style, content, viewpoint and other writing considerations?

No. I set out not to bore myself. If the book bores me, it's going to bore you. Besides, it's terribly unpleasant to write boring material. For a lesson on not boring, read just about anything by Lewis Carroll.

DJB: How do you decide whether an idea you have is worth developing as a story . . .

It isn't hard. There are two questions. First, do I have an ending?

If the answer is no, the idea goes back on the shelf until I get one. While I'm writing the story, I sometimes think of a better ending. If so, I use both if I can – it's surprising how often one can do that. If I can't, I use the new and better ending.

Second, would I enjoy reading this story? If the answer is no, I pitch the idea out.

DJB: . . . or if it will be short or long?

I don't. I look at the idea and guess. Sometimes I'm wrong. More often, I'm right. Here's a question for you; I hope you'll answer it. Why should I be concerned about length before the story is written?

DJB: Do you outline, go with the flow, or some other combination?

I rarely outline on paper. I have a rough mental outline in most cases.

DJB: Do you write to the finish, then cut a lot, or edit each chapter shortly after you write it?

The second is closer to the truth. Before I start each day, I go over the most recent pages. When I've finished the first draft, I start again at the beginning.

DJB: How do characters present themselves to you?

They pop into my consciousness, looking as they will look and speaking as they will speak. Unfortunately, they don't know their names. I try various names until the character smiles. It's a lot like casting a show.

DJB: Thanks so much for all the hours of pleasure you've given me. I read all of the *New Sun* books at once, saving them until I got all four, then went on a reading frenzy! I did the same with the others---except the *Soldier* books. I read each one with avidity. Then when *Sidon* came out, I read that. I'm glad I did, because I didn't know I'd have to wait so long for the *Sidon* book!

Thank you Diane, for your comments but even more for your questions.

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[David R. Beaucage][Kathy Tyers][James BeauSeigneur][Jefferson Scott][Walker Chandler][Alton Gansky][Ray Hansen]

[Emily Snyder][Randall Ingermanson][Theodore Beale][Steve Laube][Laura Lond][Frank Wu][Donita K. Paul][Brenda W. Clough][Bryan Davis][John Granger]

[Karen Hancock][Miles Owens][Robert Liparulo][Bryan Davis, part 2][Chris Walley][Kathryn Mackel][Gene Wolfe][Sharon Hinck][Wayne Thomas Batson][Lars Walker][Christopher Hopper][Jeffrey Overstreet]

Rich Christiano

[Home] [Creativity] [Genres] [Resources] [Links] [About Us]

[Audio] [Biographies] [Books] [Events] [Film] [Interviews] [Mailing List] [Publications] [Store]

[David R. Beaucage] [Kathy Tyers] [James BeauSeigneur] [Jefferson Scott] [Walker Chandler] [Alton Gansky] [Ray Hansen] [Emily Snyder] [Randall Ingermanson] [Theodore Beale] [Steve Laube] [Laura Lond] [Frank Wu] [Donita K. Paul] [Brenda W. Clough] [Bryan Davis] [John Granger] [Karen Hancock] [Miles Owens] [Robert Liparulo] [Bryan Davis, part 2] [Chris Walley] [Kathryn Mackel] [Gene Wolfe] [Sharon Hinck] [Wayne Thomas Batson] [Lars Walker] [Christopher Hopper] [Jeffrey Overstreet] [Rich Christiano]