Inside the Head of D. Harlan Wilson

D. Harlan Wilson Peckinpah Goatheads

 It is harder than you might think to write good Bizarro fiction. Practically anyone can conjure up a weird scene about people with goat heads or a beard crawling off someone’s face, but few can write about it with the crisply entertaining panache of D. Harlan Wilson. Wilson’s novel, Peckinpah  (2009, Shroud Publishing), is described by the legendary Alan Moore as “a bludgeoning celluloid rush of language and ideas served from an action-painter’s bucket of fluorescent spatter.”

Read reviews of Wilson’s books and you’ll see phrases like Cyberpunk, surrealism, irrealism, wicked humor, believe the hype, rollicking splatter flange, funhouse mirror, unnerving celebrity, clothes-lining tombstones, crazed precision, brain stem, Franz Kafka, guaranteed to never win the Pulitzer, Philip K. Dick, flashing LED sign hat-band, William S. Burroughs, and sci-kung-fi (hyphens mine). I especially like the Peckinpah review by JoSelle Vanderhooft in The Pedestal Magazine:

Wilson’s blood-bucket descriptions and wild imagination together would be enough to make Peckinpah a delightful Bizarro novel, and a pretty good parody of Peckinpah’s style (at least, as I understand it). But Wilson does not stop there; rather, he mixes camera angles, stage directions, and, most astonishingly, digressions into film criticism to make his novella not only a gleeful send-up/homage to Peckinpah’s work, but a thoughtful study of it. In fact, film school graduates (and first year English literature students) will probably note that Wilson has ingeniously woven a lampoon of the infamous “five paragraph essay” into his book, through five chapterlets about the “Theory of Ultraviolence.” At the beginning, these appear to be little more than aimless scene descriptions or puzzling non-sequiturs. But in the fourth theory, he pulls the theories and the entire book together.

Peckinpah: An Ultraviolent Romance

Wilson has a Master’s Degree in English from the University of Massachusetts-Boston, a Masters in Science Fiction Studies from the University of Liverpool, and a Ph.D. in English from Michigan State University. He is a professor of English at Wright State University-Lake Campus.

Cue the interview.

Bill Ectric: I really got a kick out of the video, The Cocktail Party. Can you tell me a little about the making of it, the collaboration between you and Brandon Duncan?

D. Harlan Wilson: The film is based on a story of the same name from my first published collection of short fiction, The Kafka Effekt. I can’t remember how Brandon and I got together. I think my publisher, Raw Dog Screaming Press, hooked us up. Yes. He illustrated the cover for my fiction collection Pseudo-City, a futuristic rendering of Rene Magritte’s Golconde, back in 2004, and thereafter we decided to collaborate on a short film, which he made for his MFA thesis in graphic design. The Cocktail Party had a lot of weird, visually dynamic potential. I wrote the screenplay for it and then Brandon and I did some editorial back and forth. He finally went to work. It took him a year or two, and the end product is a surreal, black-and-white, rotoscoped picture that, in my opinion, far outshines my story. It won a bunch of awards at various film festivals in 2007, among them an official selection at Comic-Con. There are more details at http://www.dharlanwilson.com/films.html. The film is also available on YouTube. Originally Brandon and I planned to collaborate on another film based on a story in Pseudo City, and I wrote a full screenplay, but it never happened. We both got too busy and the project slipped away. Brandon, however, has done a lot of other stuff for me, including illustrated author photos and book cover designs. And right now he’s doing some artwork for the third and final installment in my scikungfi trilogy, The Kyoto Man. A very talented guy. Check him out at www.corporatedemon.com.

Pseudo-City by D. Harlan Wilson    The Kafka Effekt

BE: As an English professor, do you tell students that before they write bizarro or irrealism, they first need to develop a solid foundation in writing basics? Or does it not work that way?

DHW: I actually don’t teach many creative writing courses. There’s only one right now, in fact, where I currently work, “Introduction to Short Fiction” and it’s purely online. Mainly I teach composition and American literature. In the short fiction course, I expose students to some transgressive stories, but I don’t require them to write in that vein. That’s the last thing beginners need to do. I try to give them a taste of everything and then encourage them to focus on the basics, as you say. They have considerable freedom and can more or less do what they want, but I’m concerned with instilling a command of things like description, character and plot, in that order. If nothing else, I want them to recognize the value of SHOWING over TELLING, i.e., using imagery and descriptive passages to propel their narratives, rather than exposition. Baisez-vous, Exposition!

BE: Something of yours was published in Japan recently. How did that happen? Have you been published in any other languages?

DHW: It was one of my stories, “Digging for Adults,” which originally appeared in my fiction collection Stranger on the Loose, published by Eraserhead Press. It came out in Japan in the August 2010 issue of Hayakawa’s Mystery Magazine. The folks at Eraserhead Press set it up. If I’m not mistaken, some of their other authors had been translated into Japanese and they pointed the editors of HMM in my direction. I’ve had stories translated into a few other languages – mostly Dutch, Spanish and Polish – but it was neat to see a Japanese translation of my work. I haven’t had a full book translated into another language yet. In 2012, a Mexican publisher, Verdehalago, will publish a Spanish translation of The Kafka Effekt.

Hayakawas Mystery Magazine

BE: Some of your stories, “The Arrest” and “Chimpanzee,” for example, seem to point out the transient, arbitrary nature of authority. Is that what you had in mind? Would you consider this a Kafkaesque notion?

DHW: Absolutely. I’ve always been interested in the vicissitudes and whimsical tyranny of the Law, à la Kafka. Virtually everything I write is about the misuses and abuses of power. It’s rampant. It’s always been rampant. Even in the most prosaic contexts, the absurdity of power exerts itself. For instance, the other day I was driving down the road past Walgreens, an American drug store. In the parking lot, tethered between two lampposts, was a giant banner that read: SHINGLES VACCINE AVAILABLE HERE. The fact that there’s a banner like that waving in everybody’s face indicates that there’s some sort of shingles outbreak or epidemic, right? So maybe I have shingles. So maybe I have to get a vaccine. So maybe I should go into that Walgreens and pay to get well . . . The Law. It’s ubiquitous and rears its head in all kinds of ways. It’s not just about G-men showing up at your door to inform you that you’re on some shit list. I guess I’s human nature, and that’s why I’m preoccupied with it. We want to maintain a sense of control and yet we want to be controlled, by words, by images, by bosses, by bureaucratic assholes, by whatever. For me, the human condition is endless abyss of dumb absurdities waiting to me mined.

BE: Do you now, or have you ever, used the Gysin/Burroughs cut-up method in your writing?

DHW: Not formally. That is, I’ve never vomited words onto a page, folded the page over and attempted to connect the dots, etc. I was inspired by Burroughs when I began writing. Naked Lunch, The Soft Machine, etc. I had never read anything like that. The style of his writing appealed to me more than the content. Still, he functioned as a kind of gateway drug for me, introducing me to new possibilities and modalities of narrative invention. Like the cut-ups, my stories and novels employ significant fragmentation and alinearity and often function like cinema, in some cases even adapting the jargon of cinematic movement and spectacle. But as I get older I much prefer Burroughs’ later works (e.g. Cities of the Red Night), which exhibit such a crisp, fluid and rich use of language. When I go back to those formative cut-ups, all I see are artful renderings of sex acts.

BE: Have you ever read an old obscure text and been amazed at how it relates to a subject are interested in? Especially if you’ve only recently turned your attention to the subject?

DHW: Maybe, a long time ago. I used to be so enamored with literature, and I remember being in awe of virtually every book I read, new or old. That doesn’t happen much anymore. With a few exceptions, I’m hardly ever piqued by something I read. It’s all the same shit, the same formulas and/or artifices. I’m talking about fiction. Philosophy and literary theory still holds my attention. But I’m more interested in cinema and far likelier to be rapt by a film than a book. There’s more innovation and dynamism in cinema. Most books are just hundreds of plodding, empty pages punctuated by a few interesting passages. Bile.

DrIdentity   Kyoto Man

BE: Why do you think so many satirists, from Voltaire to Steve Aylett to you, use humor to such a degree, even in the midst of depicting the grievous condition of the human race?

DHW: Humor has less to do with the material than the author’s personal taste and desires. Humor can be tricky, too, because it’s so subjective, and there are so many different kinds, and it can be found anywhere, even in the most dramatic contexts. I think The Lovely Bones is hilarious, for instance. The film, I mean (I didn’t read the book). The premise is so fucking dumb, yet it’s treated so gravely from beginning to end. That’s high comedy, in my eyes. Anything with Marky Mark in it is funny, too. Of course, lots of other people disagree. As for combining humor with, say, dystopia, as in my novel Dr. Identity or Steve’s Novahead (among others), it’s a matter of pushing the limits of narrative and doing new, interesting, entertaining things. Steve and I both have a penchant for slapstick (viz., splatterschtick) comedy as well as a love of language, wordplay and world-building. We have different styles and means of execution, but I think the same key interests lie at the core of our author-flows.

BE: What is your favorite Sam Peckinpah film?

DHW: (answers without hesitation) Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia.

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Interview With Steve Aylett

AylettFlash-386x283

This interview first appeared on Literary Kicks, May 26, 2006

Postmodern novelist Steve Aylett was born in 1967 in the Bromley Borough of London, England. His first book, The Crime Studio, was published in 1994, and his later works include Bigot Hall, Slaughtermatic and his most recent tour de force, Lint. Aylett’s work has been variously described as cyberpunk, slipstream, postmodern, bizarro, or, in the words of Grant Morrison: “The Matrix choreographed by Samuel Beckett for MTV.”

Steve Aylett’s new Lint is to literature what Spinal Tap is to heavy metal music: a brilliant send-up of anecdotal, cult-of-personality biographies. The parody swings freely between the sci-fi genre, the Beats, and classic pulp magazines. We follow a comix legend named Jeff Lint, who lived in the age when “dozens of new magazines appeared, with titles like Astounding, Bewildering, Confusing, Baffling…Useless…Appalling, Made-Up … Thrilling Wonder Stories, and Swell Punch-Ups” and editors would order up “an octopus, a spaceman, and a screaming woman” for the cover of a typical issue.

Lint Cover Snowbooks     Slaughtermatic book cover

I like to call Aylett’s work a combination of science fiction, satire, and psychedelia. His sentences are not only sublimely expressive; they are beautiful in and of themselves. It’s like opening a pop-up book to see gemstones and charms strung together on bracelet chains, rising to display the black noir onyx, the blood-red ruby, the diamond center of the mind, the flaming gold-leaf giraffe trinket of surrealism.

Karloff’s Circus (book 4 of The Complete Accomplice) lights up the town of Accomplice with an anarchic assortment of demons, clowns, factory workers, zombies, politicians, and giant Steinway spiders. The action seems absurd until one realizes that the real world is no less freakish. Even today, we have people kept alive in hospitals against all laws of nature, connected to machines by tubes. We see self-mutilation in the form of extreme piercing and grotesquely overdone plastic surgery. Our children are sent to war by incompetent politicians. Well, you get the idea. Once we establish that our world is crazy, it makes no difference whether Aylett is using surrealism to parody reality, or if he is writing a straightforward story about paranormal creatures in a parallel universe.

Aylett cites Voltaire as an influence, and the influence shows. “Organised religion added Jesus to the food groups,” he tells us, or “Pause any country and you’ll spot subliminal torture in the frame.”

Jacque Derrida maintained that all words have varying shades of meaning to each reader; therefore, every reader brings a certain amount of the story with them to a book. Maybe that is why I like Steve Aylett’s prose so much — he gives us plenty of raw material to process.

I asked the author some questions by email:

Bill Ectric: It seems like you establish patterns of phrasing that are independent of the plot but that the reader can “pick up” on while reading.

Steve Aylett: Yes, there are several threads of sense going through it at different depths. I think the mind picks up which bits link in to which other bits. Some’s almost a subliminal sort of thing going on, and then at the simplest level there’s the running gags or repetitions like the “Snail, Sarge” conversation, which is just so stupid I really like it. And if you don’t like all that there’s always the story to fall back on.

BE: Even though Lint is a parody, I find that you throw in some semi-profound ideas. Like, commands materializing from thin air where someone’s mouth happens to be. The opposite of cause and effect.

SA: The parody thing was secondary to the meanings I was putting in there. I enjoy parody and stupid stuff, but more often than not I’ll use it as a housing for old-time satire, politics and bitter axe-grinding. That thing about authority was about the fact that authority is actually quite arbitrary, and doesn’t manifest any inherent quality. Traced to its root it’s the result of luck, happenstance, crime and the sustaining of a set-up over many years as people hold on to power. It has no moral weight that stands up to a moment’s scrutiny, and is enforced by the threat of violence. Reduced to its constituent atoms authority doesn’t really mean anything. It’s all just people.

BE: When you refer to Karloff Velocet as the “Fall Marshall” is this a reference to the idea of the “fall of man?”

SA: As far as I can recall this was mainly from The Fall’s album The Marshall Suite — and he is marshaling the various falls and collapses in the circus. His circus is all about entropy.

Aylett Karloff
Click here for more Accomplice trading cards

 

BE: Which is better — for countries to worry continuously about other countries’ ability to build nuclear bombs, or the “stalemate effect” of each country already having nuclear bombs?

SA: As long as America has the ‘preemptive’ policy of attacking non-nuclear countries without provocation, it’s probably better that other countries have nuclear weapons also, as a deterrent to the U.S. (which doesn’t like an even fight) — but in any case there will be a nuclear catastrophe at some point, either through psychotic panic or a technical error. It’s inevitable.

BE: Did you ever hang out with the Krays?

SA: No, I never met the Krays, but I knew their lawyer, and Ronnie liked The Crime Studio.

BE: Now I’m sort of freaked out because I’m not sure if you are serious. The Crime Studio was published in 1994, Ronnie lived until 1996 … are you serious?

SA: Yeah. Actually, Ron liked it so much he wrote a story of his own, which he got to me via a mutual acquaintance. Unfortunately, it was crap. I think I’d got the book to him because the small publisher that did The Crime Studio originally wanted a quote from a ‘name’ of some kind, and I didn’t know anyone in the literary world back then. Unfortunate things used to happen to people when I sent them books for cover quotes. I sent the re-print of The Crime Studio to William Burroughs and he died a week later; I sent Bigot Hall to Stephen Fry and he went insane — temporarily.

Victims of the Aylett  CurseVictims of the Aylett Curse: The Krays, William S. Burroughs, and Stephen Fry

BE: Uncanny! Speaking of insane, did you do the artwork for The Caterer? It is so classic.

SA: It all started out as samples from a lot of 1970s comics — that blonde grinning jock appears throughout those comics. Then I flipped them, changed colors, changed expressions and body positions etc, blended them into different backgrounds and with different characters, muted the colors down again, then added dialogue. Often I was doing so much re-drawing I was virtually drawing the character from scratch, by the end.

The Caterer comic book    The Complete Accomplice book cover

BE: Near the end of Karloff’s Circus we read, “On the bluff behind them an angel landed, fragile as a feather made of bones. Under a sky deep as grief it closed its silent white wings.”
Is Mike Abblatia the angel? And, at the beginning of the book, when Mike Abblatia jumps off the bridge, is everything that happens in the rest of the book happening in the instant that Mike falls?

SA: No, the book doesn’t occur in Mike Abblatia’s mind/dreams or whatever — it happens, after he jumps. Regarding the mystery angel at the end, I wanted to make the suggestion that it might be Barney.

BE: On some level, Bigot Hall made me think of Kerouac’s Doctor Sax, even though they aren’t all that similar. Did you ever read Doctor Sax?

SA: Yes, I’ve read Doctor Sax. Used to be a big Kerouac fan. That one was different from his others of course, being sort of cinematic and constructed.

BE: You write a lot about other dimensions; did you ever read Flatland by Edwin Abbott Abbott?

SA: I have read Flatland, though I still believe he cribbed it from Charles H. Hinton, author of The Fourth Dimension (who I mention often in my books).

A Plane World by Charles H Hinton    Heart

BE: If they made a Lint movie, who should portray Lint as an old man — Patrick McGoohan or Christopher Lee?

SA: McGoohan is more grouchy, so I’d go for him.

BE: I knew it! That would be my pick as well. So, do the English really say variations of “isn’t it” all the time? For example, in reply to my last question, you might say, “Well, Lint is American, isn’t he?”

SA: English people say isn’t, aint, aren’t, innit, wot, and other things.

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A Philosophical Conversation With James Morrow

James Morrow

Originally appeared on Literary Kicks, May 5, 2008

As teenagers, James Morrow and his friends made short 8mm movies based on Coleridge and Poe stories. Morrow went on to earn a master’s degree from Harvard University, then published his first novel, The Wine of Violence, in 1981. His latest, The Philosopher’s Apprentice, prompted the Library Journal to compare Morrow to enlightenment luminary Denis Diderot, “A man who believed that literature and philosophy marched hand in hand and who was not afraid to discuss serious matters in a comic tone.”

For his numerous books written between 1981 and 2008, Morrow has received the World Fantasy Award (twice), the Nebula Award (twice), the Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire (once), and the 2005 Prix Utopia at the Utopiales SF Festival in Nantes, France.

Morrow and I discussed his latest two novels. The Last Witchfinder concerns a brave 18th century woman who teams up with Ben Franklin to discredit her zealous father’s persecution of witches. The Philosopher’s Apprentice is the fantastical tale of a graduate student hired to teach morality to a teenage girl with a blank slate for a conscience.

Bill: You once said it took eight years to develop The Last Witchfinder. When you are writing a book, do you ever worry that someone else will have a similar idea and “beat you to the punch”? Is there a battle between taking your time to get it right vs. getting it published before someone else does steals your thunder, like Tesla vs. Marconi?

James: For me, the greatest pleasure of novel-writing is living inside the same fictive world for several years running, playing with its possibilities. The composition process normally finds me drawing inspiration from the cultural mood of the moment, though by the time the book actually sees print that same cultural mood will have shifted. I can easily imagine some posthumous biographer noting that James Morrow always managed to be slightly out of phase with the zeitgeist.

My satire on the Reagan-era arms race, This Is the Way the World Ends, followed in the wake of a half-dozen Armageddon novels. That’s probably one reason my publisher released the novel with no particular fanfare. I like to think my treatment of nuclear war was unique, but Henry Holt never figured out how to make booksellers understand what set This Is the Way the World Ends apart from Riddley Walker or The Postman or Warday. Had the manuscript landed on my editor’s desk a year earlier, it would almost certainly have generated more in-house excitement.

A similar fate befell The Last Witchfinder, which features an unusual fictive take on Benjamin Franklin. While I was writing that novel, the country in general and Philadelphia in particular were gearing up for a Franklin tricentennial — he was born in 1706 — and I had high hopes that these celebrations would offer me some promotional opportunities. Alas, by the time the book appeared, late in 2006, Philadelphia had been “Ben Franklined out,” or so my publicist was told by an impresario who’d spent the past two and a half years organizing Franklin festivities throughout the city.

Presently I’m writing an historical novel about Charles Darwin, who’s been in the news lately. I’m thinking of both the landmark “intelligent design” court case in Dover, Pennsylvania, and the Darwin exhibit that’s been traveling around among the major natural history museums. Once again, I’ll probably miss the critical period for capitalizing on the media attention being accorded my chosen subject. The Darwin brouhaha will peak early next year, in honor of his 200th birthday, and yet my novel won’t be ready until 2010.

Of course, any serious novel is intended to live outside its time, and the writer who rushes to capitalize on the zeitgeist is probably committing artistic suicide. For whatever reasons, This Is the Way the World Ends remains in print, and it’s still taught in several college classes, to students who weren’t even alive when Reagan was rattling his nuclear saber, so in a sense I’m having the last laugh. And I believe that both The Last Witchfinder and the Darwin novel (tentatively titled Galapagos Regained) touch on universal themes, so in theory they’ll attract future generations of readers who won’t especially care how popular these books were when first published.

Bill: You mentioned on your blog that The Philosopher’s Apprentice is, among other things, your homage to Frankenstein, both Mary Shelley’s original novel and the various movies from Universal Studios and Hammer Films. Which of the Hammer Frankenstein films is your favorite and why?

James: When I read your question, Bill, my answer was immediate and instinctual — and yet I’m prepared to defend it. The Revenge of Frankenstein is not as scary as The Curse of Frankenstein, as cleverly plotted as Frankenstein Created Woman, or as emotionally wrenching as Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, and yet it has a cadaverous elegance not found elsewhere in the cycle. Director Terence Fisher and writer Jimmy Sangster suffused The Revenge of Frankenstein with a graphic sense of the unhallowed Nietzschean bravado, at once diabolical and darkly glamorous, through which the medical profession established itself in the Regency and Victorian periods. This is a wholly subjective reaction, of course, doubtless informed by the fact that I first saw The Revenge of Frankenstein when I was only thirteen, an age when horror movies are especially resonant.

Bill: In his book The Art of the Novel Milan Kundera speaks of “the truth that is to be discovered,” by which he means that, beyond a writer’s conscious realization of their novel’s theme, there is also, as Kundera says, “The poem hidden somewhere behind.” Kundera calls this discovering of truth in one’s own novel “the dazzlement.” Do you experience this dazzlement when you write a book? That is, of discovering a theme or a variation on your intended theme, which you didn’t anticipate?

James: I regard most of my novels as “thought experiments,” analogous to the Gedanken calculations –unstageable demonstrations conducted entirely within the confines of one’s skull — routinely performed by physicists, cosmologists, and philosophers. It’s never enough simply to ask “What if?” You must actually run the thought experiment. You need to write the damn book. And that usually entails being surprised by the outcome.

No matter how carefully I outline a novel, it will normally get away from me during the composition process — and that is all to the good. If there’s “dazzlement” in the writer, then there will probably be “dazzlement” in the reader. Indeed, the only reason I go to all the trouble of writing fiction is the expectation of discovering some hidden but astonishing potential in the themes and premises with which I’m experimenting.

One of my favorite James Morrow novels, Blameless in Abaddon, finds the hero, Martin Candle, trekking though the brain of a comatose Supreme Being in search of counter-arguments to the great theodicies, a theodicy being a rational explanation for God’s apparent indifference to human suffering. Martin needs these anti-theodicies so he can successfully prosecute the Almighty before the World Court in the Hague. Strangely enough, God proves perfectly willing to make the case for his own depravity. And as I was writing those scenes, I said to myself, “Of course, wow, damn, yes, that’s exactly what a Supreme Being would do. This is God, after all, not some cleric or politician or demagogue. God’s not out to defend his reputation. God’s out to be God.”

The Last Witchfinder involved a similar moment of dazzlement during its gestation. When I outlined the plot, I knew that my heroine, Jennet Stearne, would write a book that effectively critiques “the demon hypothesis.” But I didn’t realize that, to advertise her argument, Jennet would end up posing as a witch and arranging to be put on trial for Satanism in colonial Philadelphia. I was delighted when I stumbled on that idea, because it elevated Jennet to truly heroic stature.

Kundera has evidently articulated all this better than I could. Thank you, Bill, for drawing my attention to his insight.

Bill: We can both thank Jamelah Earle for hipping us to Kundera’s book on novel writing.

Besides the 8mm movies you made in high school, you also made some 16mm films as a young adult. Could you tell me about those films?

James: Most of these films were sponsored efforts celebrating the Philadelphia Cooperative Schools Summer Program, which ran for four successive summers between 1966 and 1969. The idea was to bring together adolescents and pre-adolescents from the public, private, and parochial schools — students, in other words, whose formal educations had heretofore allowed them to interact only with people from similar backgrounds. Nobody was claiming that the racial, economic, and religious diversity of the PCSSP students would prove enlightening per se, but the program’s directors did believe that if you led such a heterogeneous group through a carefully structured humanistic curriculum, they would learn as much from each other as from the formal lessons. I would describe the movies as poetic documentaries that attempted to show how the students grew in self-knowledge over the course of each summer. You’ll find vestiges of my PCSSP experience in The Philosopher’s Apprentice.

But I also made my own independent films during and after this period. The one that springs to mind is a comedy called A Political Cartoon, which I produced with two of my best friends from high school, Joe Adamson and Dave Stone. I suppose this 16mm short 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 Amazon.com. By the way, both Joe Adamson and Dave Stone went on to success in Hollywood. Joe won an Emmy for his PBS documentary called W.C. Fields Straight Up, and Dave received an Oscar for cutting the sound on Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula.

Bill: Do you think The Philosopher’s Apprentice fits into the “cyberpunk” category? Do any of your other books fit into the cyberpunk category?

James: I must confess to a certain ambivalence toward cyberpunk. On the one hand, the movement was certainly a breath of … not fresh air, exactly — gritty air, I guess. Gibson, Sterling, Shirley, Cadigan, and company recognized that, for most citizens on planet Earth, the future was not going to be a gleaming utopia of domed arcadias linked by hyper-efficient monorail systems, nor would it be characterized by off-the-shelf jackbooted dystopia. Something else lay in store for us, something urban, grungy, corporate, computer-driven, world-weary, hardbitten, and alluringly noirish. The cyperpunk vision was a real breakthrough, and I salute it.

That said, I have always been much more in the romantic-rationalist camp. It’s difficult to find much affirmation in cyberpunk. I felt that the movement contained the seeds of its own enervation — a kind of unearned cynicism verging on adolescent whining. Nihilism, I find, is often sentimentality by other means. Of course, I’m as vulnerable as anyone to the glamour of the abyss. Several critics have argued that my second novel, The Continent of Lies, features some Gibsonesque conceits, most especially in its use of what we would now call virtual reality. As for The Philosopher’s Apprentice, while it indeed contains some hi-tech cyberpunkian imagery — the ontogenerator is the most conspicuous example — I would say that its sensibility is ultimately humanistic.

Bill: In The Last Witchfinder, when Jennet finds herself surrounded by bottles displaying embryos with birth defects, in the wagon of Dr. Cavendish, it made me think of being down among the unfortunate “unblessed” people, those who would tell the Church, “We are human, too.” It reminded me of the story of when the Buddha left his safe kingdom of his father and walked among the common people. It also reminded me of the bottled people in The Bride of Frankenstein, although I know it’s not the same idea.

James: I’ve always been wary of Christ figures in fiction — it’s too damn easy to create parallels between your protagonist and the hero of the Gospels. Much as I love John Irving’s work, I really thought he dropped the ball with A Prayer for Owen Meany. Beginning with that inversely symbolic name (get it?), in the very first chapter, that damn kid jumps in your lap like a puppy, licks your face, and says, “I’m so eccentric, I’m so vivid, I’m so wise, I’m so pure, I’m so Jesus-like, love me, love me, love me,” and it never lets up, for 543 pages. I much prefer The World According to Garp and The Cider House Rules, two edgy masterpieces that never try to sell us on the presumed transcendent truth of the Christian argument. These are strange words, I know, coming from a man who would write a novel like Only Begotten Daughter, which at one level is a sequel to the New Testament. My only defense is that I had some dark, sardonic, passionate, and satiric things to say about the ministry of Jesus, and I could dramatize these ideas only through a kind of low-key allegory. As for The Last Witchfinder, I swear to God, I never thought of Jennet Stearne as a Christ figure until well after the first draft was written. But I think you’re on to something, Bill. My heroine’s fascination with Barnaby Cavendish’s Museum of Wondrous Prodigies, her embrace of those poor bottled freaks – those unblessed people, as you say – does indeed suggest Jesus comforting the damned and the downtrodden. I’m also realizing, for the first time, that Jennet’s love for the deformed embryos parallels a scene in which Julie Katz, protagonist of Only Begotten Daughter, journeys to hell and helps her half-bother, Jesus, give the gift of oblivion to damned souls. I love James Whale’s The Bride of Frankenstein, so I imagine that Dr. Pretorius’s bottled homunculi may have influenced Barnaby Cavendish’s museum, though I wasn’t conscious of this parallel at the time. It just now occurs to me that the Last Witchfinder embryos foreshadow the immaculoids – the “adult fetuses” in Philosopher’s Apprentice. I guess a novelist is always stealing from himself.

Bill: That mangrove tree still haunts me! For those who haven’t read The Philosopher’s Apprentice, here’s an excerpt from the book about a tree named Proserpine:

 Just then a mild tremor passed through the mangrove’s limbs and roots. Edwina and I exchanged freighted glances.

“You didn’t imagine that,” she said. “I couldn’t excise the entire nervous system without causing death. Every so often, Prosperine shudders.” Curious, I rose and picked my way across the salt water pond, one stepping-stone at a time, then leaned toward the mangrove’s trunk. “She’s breathing,” I said. “Her heart is beating.”

“Vestigial reflexes,” Edwina said. “She’s no longer sentient, I promise you.”

Later, when Edwina encourages the young philosophy student to intervene in her amnesiac daughter’s moral development, the mangrove shudders again, exposed roots vibrating “like the plucked strings of an immense lyre.” Fascinating and chilling. Was the mangrove mainly a mood-setter, or a metaphor for something? Forbidden fruit? Still sentient? Maybe a foreshadowing device? Or just an interesting and creepy addition to the story?

James: You’ve done a great job of articulating every notion that ran through my head when I was drafting the Proserpine scenes. So great, in fact, that I feel no need to answer your questions beyond offering a succession of yeses, and inviting our readers to revisit what you just wrote.

End of Interview    Return to Bill Ectric’s Interview Page     Return to Bill’s Home Page

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Magical Night at Chamblin’s Uptown: My Favorite Bookstore Turns 40

Tim Gilmore reading at Chamblin

Tim Gilmore reading excerpts from his latest book, We Are All Used Books: 70 Conversations With Ron Chamblin (photos by Bill Ectric)

To use an old cliche, a good time was had by all at Chamblin’s Uptown, celebrating the 40th anniversary of the opening of legendary bookstore Chamblin Bookmine. There was food, drinks, readings, celebration, and camaraderie, all surrounded by books of every kind, both new and used, on shelves, walls, countertops, and in people’s hands. I saw several good friends and made some new friends.

My first visit to Ron Chamblin’s used book store in the late 1970s was magical, like walking into Olivander’s Magic Wand shop in the Harry Potter books (although, of course, Harry Potter would not be introduced to the world until many years later).

Here, I’ll let Charlie Patton of the Florida Times-Union tell you what it was all about:

Over the last four decades, Chamblin has moved the Chamblin Bookmine twice and opened a second store, Chamblin’s Uptown, half-a-block from Hemming Park,while buying almost every book he can… With 33,000 square feet of retail space — 23,000 in his store on Roosevelt Boulevard and 10,000 downtown — and an additional 22,000 square feet of storage space in two warehouses, four tractor trailers and a barn at his house on Fleming Island — Chamblin accumulated what he estimates is about 3.5 million books… Because this is his 40th anniversary in the business, some of his friends and employees have organized a “BYOB and Buy-a-Book Block Party” that will take place from 7 to 10 p.m. Saturday at Chamblin’s Uptown, 215 N. Laura St. One of those friends, Tim Gilmore, has written and published a biography, “We Are All Used Books: 70 Conversations with Ron Chamblin.”

Read More We Are All Used Books cover

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The Aylett Project: Rachel Kendall Interviews Bill Ectric

AylettCoverMedium72

Rachel Kendall of Sein und Werden interviewed me about the new collection of essays on the work of Steve Aylett, edited by me and D. Harlan Wilson. Here’ an excerpt:

Rachel Kendall: A number of writers in the anthology refer to Aylett as a writers’ writer. What does that mean to you, and do you think it is significant?
Bill Ectric: Serious writers do a lot of reading. We pay attention to style, theme, and plot. We’ve seen just about every variation of theme and plot imaginable. We’ve seen detailed flowery prose and terse compact sentences; romanticism, realism, modernism, postmodernism, and all manner of genres and sub-genres. Steve Aylett, apparently bored with what’s gone before, moves past it all, often in a humorous way. Other writers get it. It’s not that he disdains what has come before him, he just doesn’t want to read what seems to him as the same books over and over again. Here’s one example: A few years ago I got interested in astronomer/alchemist John Dee and his working relationship with spirit medium/occultist Edward Kelley. I read books, articles, and essays on these men. Much later, in the Appendix to Aylett’s Shamanspace, I found a single sentence that cracked me up with laughter, because it summarized everything I’d read about Dee and Kelley with, “Elizabethan alchemist John Dee witnessed the scarab star of god blooming with a creak from the wooden table at Clerkenwell – a vision immediately waylaid by the arrival of unwitting holy man Edward Kelley who wasted years of Dee’s time with useless signs and wonders.” It was like, that’s all you need to know! You know?  If I call someone a “guitarist’s guitarist” it means that because I play the guitar, I can see just what they are doing, even though I can’t do it myself. Maybe I can learn to do it, but I would have never thought of it.

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no absolute future: Bruce Sterling interviewed by Rachel Haywire

Left: The Hacker Crackdown by Bruce Sterling, Right: Rachel Haywire

I’ve found an interesting new internet presence.  Trigger Warning is a California LLC that was started in 2015 by Rachel Haywire of INSTED. It is a new media entity that houses a unique network of writers, artists, journalists, and cultural innovators; offering a provocative alternative to the liberal paradigm of our current media narrative. It is a platform for controversial and thought-provoking material, expanding into the physical space for private parties and intellectual salons.

Here’s an interview with cyberpunk author Bruce Sterling, conducted by Rachel Haywire. It begins:

Bruce Sterling, one of the first cyberpunk authors to receive mainstream attention, is no stranger to radical tech. With titles ranging from The Hacker Crackdown to The Difference Engine to Schismatrix to Distraction, his pertinent social commentary and visionary ideas have remained influential to this day. His critically acclaimed work has won several Hugo Awards. When I saw that he was following us on Twitter, I knew that I had to ask him for an interview.

Rachel Haywire: Throughout your various writings, you have made some predictions that have turned out to be true, both on the Internet and in the flesh. Do you think you are able to foresee the future, or do you have more of a knack for predicting trends based on present experiences? Maybe a combination of both?

Bruce Sterling: It’s simpler than that.  There is no absolute “future.”  There isn’t any boss in charge with a stopwatch who can keep accurate track of the so-called future and the so-called past.

If I’m already sick of Facebook, and I “predict” to you that “some day you’ll get sick of Facebook,” and later you do get sick of Facebook, then I have told you your “future.”  That is it.  If you didn’t know about it now, and it hits you later, then that is your “future.” When you finally catch on, that’s when I become the futurist who predicted that you would get sick of Facebook.

Read the complete interview

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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