Thomas M. Disch - Paul Di Filippo Interview
"THE MAN WHO HAD 334 CONCEPTS OF SANTA CLAUS"
Science Fiction Eye #11, December 1992
by Paul Di Filippo
An average summer day in Union Square, NYC.
Sunny haze-laced skies are unobserved by the scurrying "million-footed beast" threading its composite form down sidewalks and through the half-acre of greenery, cleansed a few years ago of its more egregious junkies and dealers. NYU students play a spirited game of tar-court volleyball in the empty carslots alongside the park. Fourteenth Street is undergoing perpetual construction. The old-line department store that used to occupy the whole south side of the Square has become a "Buyer's Club." No hint on the surface of this complacent afternoon of the tragedy that will strike a few days from now, when an intoxicated subway driver will derail his train at Union Square Station, killing a goodly number of passengers and seriously injuring even more. Nor are there any foreshadowings of Wigstock, the annual transvestite celebration which, having been ejected from St. Mark's, will relocate imminently to Union Square.
But these kinds of modern media spectacle, bloody or farcical, are always just around the corner here in the Square, as representative a neighborhood in the City of Eternally Vital Decay as one might imagine. Anyone whose windows overlook these few heterogenous blocks, whose door opens directly onto this Forever Shifting, Forever Static Parade, is going to experience a heavy daily dose of double-bore urban terror and crystalline epiphany.
Hence a fine place to live for a man who first fell wings over Broadway in love with the "city so nice they named it twice" nearly thirty-five years ago.
Thomas M. Disch, that is. Critic, poet, dramatist, and author of a unique cor¬pus of SF unmatched for literacy, wit, depth and emotional impact.
On the western side of the Square, a nondescript door in a nondescript facade leads into a narrow, somewhat rundown lobby. A surly doorman in rumpled street-clothes phones up to the Disch apartment. We're allowed to proceed. ("We" are me and Technical Assistant Deborah Newton.)
The elevator, of course, is the same one featured in Disch's 1980 story, "Josie and the Elevator," a malevolent device that once literally carried a young girl to Hell. We ride it trepidatiously, but emerge unscathed.
The corridor leading to Disch's apartment is tiled in an Italianate style bespeaking the craftsmanship of a vanished era, the kind of architectural detail which occasionally escapes the heavy hand of time here in the City of Progress.
The man himself is waiting at his open door. Barefoot, wearing an open-necked pale yellow knit shirt and black jeans, he radiates a cordial hospitality from his impressive bulk. When he speaks, his resonant yet soft-spoken voice conveys each precisely enunciated syllable firmly. Tall and well-padded, tattooed and poll-cropped, Disch boasts an imposing, yet unthreatening physical presence. A gentle giant, Chewbacca shaved and coached in drawing room manners, but with an undercurrent of primitiveness.
We are led down a narrow hall, lined from floor to ceiling with books, which debouches onto a high-ceilinged kitchen/dining/work area, where a power-user's mM sits on an antique roll top desk, its monitor tripping through some anti-bum-in psychedelic routines. From here, we move to the sunny living room: leather couch, TV and VCR, a wall of classical albums. A large oil of various Grosz-like figures hangs above a closed door. On the arm of a chair sits a stuffed toy mouse, a few sunflower seeds scattered before its whiskered nose. A shrine to some rodent god, complete. with placatory offerings. . .?
PAUL DI FILIPPO: Were you the typical sort of dreamy, book-oriented child / who has the potential to turn toward writing? Or were you out there on the baseball diamond every day?
THOMAS M. DISCH: Neither. I managed to get through high-school by developing a passion for ballet. I wasn't out on the baseball diamond, but at the barre.
I was working at a library one summer, and they were having a lecturer come in. There was no audience, so they recruited all the pages from the library to attend the lecture so the lady wouldn't feel like she was neglected. She was Anna Andahazy, a former ballerina with the Ballets Russes. She ran a ballet school in the Twin Cities, and I fell in love with her then and there, and I thought, "Okay, I'm gonna study ballet." And I did for the next two years.
Ballet did the same thing that sports would have. It channeled all of that physical energy that can drive you crazy as an adolescent, and I just exhausted myself every night, dancing. I wasn't that good. If I had spent more time on' the baseball diamond, I would have been a better dancer. I lacked the athletic component. In those days there was no tradition of macho dancers, as there is now.
DI FILIPPO: Do you still have family back in Minneapolis? Do you still stop in to see them?
DISCH: Yes. The last time was last summer. I have three brothers and a sister. Two of the brothers are in that area. My sister is presently working as a librarian in Phoenix, Arizona, but she hates it, so she's going back to the Twin Cities. I have a brother in Canada, who went there because he was an Army deserter during Vietnam, and he's had to stay there ever. since.
DI FILIPPO: Are your siblings big fans of your work?
DISCH: Well, they're friendly toward it. I think the ones who read generally do read my work. I have one brother who I don't think reads much, and I don't think he's read much of mine. He just doesn't like to read, and I don't blame him. I .have friends who don't read me.
DI FILIPPO: Your parents scraped up the money to send you to a Catholic school.
DISCH: Yes, but they could do that because nuns were free. Nuns aren't free anymore! So the institution will die, even with support. The Catholics are an endangered species. They have their backs to the wall, and it's something they're hysterical about. You can't blame them, really. They're facing extinction.
DI FILIPPO: I want to start a new rumor. I've been spreading it locally, but I'll count on you to launch it in New York. The reason the Pope went into the hospital was because he was pregnant. It was an act of God. He just woke up one morning -
DISCH: [laughing] He had an abortion!
DI FILIPPO: Yup. As an ex-Roman Catholic, I'm morally obligated to make these kinds of jokes.
DISCH: Right now, I'm obsessing on the subject because I'm writing The Priest: A Gothic Romance. I'm dealing with everything that concerns the Catholic Church. It's fun. I've never done a book that involves me in culturally hot controversies. There's an excitement to dealing with that kind of material.
DI FILIPPO: You could be the next Salman Rushdie.
DISCH: Well, until it's published, I can just have fun.
DI FILIPPO: Does the Church still excommunicate authors?
DISCH: They've stopped doing that because there's just too many.
DI FILIPPO: They still maintain the Vatican Index though, don't they?
DISCH: No, I think they've even given that up. The glut of information .in our culture is just too large. They probably can't afford to maintain it anymore.
DI FILIPPO: Minneapolis is portrayed lovingly in The M.D., and with a lot of detail. But the Catholic school is just so brutal.
DISCH: That's just what those schools provide. I don't think of the book as a particularly unflattering portrait of a Catholic school. Sister Symphorosa's thing with the kindergarten class-telling them there's no Santa Claus-my kindergarten teacher told the class there was no Santa Claus. I think I give her honorable reasons for doing what she did. In fact, I think she's right. I think that the myth of Santa Claus is a cultural device for instilling disillusionment, teaching them that it's a nice fantasy that we have to entertain for the sake of the children. And later many adults teach children about God in the same way. They know there's no God-just as they know there's no Santa Claus-but they understand that it's a fiction that has to be maintained for the sake of the social order.
So Sister Symphorosa's right in saying that Santa Claus is pernicious, that teaching people to believe some¬thing you know they're going to find out is a lie is teaching them disbelief.
DI FILIPPO: Minneapolis is your hometown. And you return to it at intervals for your fiction. And yet you left it for New York when you were quite young. What are your feelings about Minneapolis?
DISCH: Minneapolis has changed as much in the thirty-five years I've been away as I have. If I were now growing up in Minneapolis, would the urge to leave it be quite the same? For one thing, the magnet isn't the same. New York doesn't have the glamour it did. It's much more forbidding now than it was then-and scary. It still has its attractions, but. . . And Minneapolis in the meantime has improved and become very-to put it crudely-yuppified. It is now possible to lead a reasonably culturally upper-middle class life in Minneapolis.
But I've changed too. I'm not tempted to go back to the city it's become. I've been shaped by New York. I find that much of what is genuinely nice in Minneapolis seems to me a little Pollyanna-ish. I like the brutality of New York. It seems part of history. What I like about the city, even in its ugliness, is what you'd call vitality. The historical process is happening here at maximum intensity.
DI FILIPPO: Would you care to call The M.D. a tribute to Minneapolis? The fact that you've chosen to inflict Billy Michaels on the city can be construed as unleashing a monster on Minneapolis as a form of revenge.
DISCH: It could be, unconsciously. But also it's part of a continuous undertaking - along with The Businessman and The Priest - to do a series of books about a supernatural Minneapolis. Sort of my own horrific Yoknapatawpha County. Minneapolis is useful that way, because it's so lacking in definition. I can make my own Minneapolis much more easily than I can make own New York.
DI FILIPPO: I'm wondering if you still endorse this statement you made in the preface to "The Black Cat:" "What is horrific in horror stories an ounce of psychoanalysis reveals to be that old unmentionable, sex." I've said as much in print myself, and I was interested to see you say the same thing. But I didn't notice much of a sexual subtext in The M.D.
DISCH: I suppose that the sexual component of the horror in The Businessman is greater than the component in The M.D. But there is certainly a plot in the latter that is multiply Oedipal.
The ultimate horror has to do with genetics, and that has to do with sex at its most essential. The M.D. is about the horror of physicality as such, about the flesh and the ills that it is heir to. In fact, I think that it's a vein of horror that people have pretty much left alone because it may be more horrifying than individual psychology. Fear of our bodies' treachery. Not just of death, but of disease and the road to death. These are things that people are genuinely afraid of, and that's what The M.D. tries to use.
DI FILIPPO: I had to laugh while reading "The Foetus" and coming across this line: "The Devil has an expert knowledge of medical anomalies and great skill in the manipulation of basic genetic material." It's almost a description of William Michael, the protagonist of The M.D. The book was obviously gestating for some time.
DISCH: I conceived of the book in about '83 or '84. And I didn't start writing it right away. But I was aware at that point that the protagonist was eventually going to be responsible for a terrible plague. Meanwhile, a terrible plague was actually happening, AIDS.
So how was I going to write a story about a terrible plague that isn't AIDS? The only way to do it was to set it far enough in the future so that I could by narrative fiat say, "AIDS has been cured, but the cure has led to another plague." I didn't want to have him responsible for AIDS, because that's not what the book is about. That would be a paranoid trivialization of a real tragedy. The M.D. isn't an AIDS novel, although it connects to a lot of the feelings and terrors AIDS has given rise to, such as the notion of a quarantine police state. . .
DI FILIPPO: Which was an actual proposal that William Buckley put forth, when AIDS was first discovered.
DISCH: Until we knew exactly what shape the event was going to have and how many people would be affected and what the social consequences I would be, it was an epidemic of a size we couldn't imagine at that point. It has ended up to be relatively more containable than people imagined in '83 or '84 when I was starting out. I wanted to avoid making predictions about AIDS that history would render inoperative.
DI FILIPPO: What about the family theme ?
DISCH: Isn't the family simply one of the great topics of all fiction?
Di FILIPPO: Sure. But why do most people in the science fiction field not care a hill of beans about family relationships?
DISCH: So much of SF is a literature for adolescent males who are trying to break away from home and to think about anything but the little circle of the family. So they negate it, ignore it, and look the other way.
But any serious writer is going to want to do a great family saga. It's one of the most interesting things about anybody's life, how their family makes them who they are and how in turn they make other people who they are.
DI FILIPPO: Would you care to tackle the derivation of the figure known as "Brother Orson?" Does he owe his name to anyone in the SF field?
DISCH: Just as you've said it. "Brother or son." One of Mercury's gnomic warnings refers to "father, brother or son." As to any other association - what could it possibly be? I can't think of any science fiction figure by that name.
DI FILIPPO: We'll let the question lie, and let the literary detectives track it down. The figure of Father Youngermann -does he stem from The Cardinal Detoxes, your play that ran into a bit of trouble? [an off-Broadway production shut down by the Catholic Church.]
DISCH: No, I wrote him first. The notion of a priest in detox is scarcely an invention. Half the priests in the country are in and out of detox. It's the chief occupational hazard of being a Roman Catholic priest, because they have to drink wine every morning. They can never become AA members. They can never say, "I'm going to swear off the booze." So once they get the habit, each morning the temptation reappears.
DI FILIPPO: I didn't think of The M.D. or The Businessman as horror. They seemed more like dark fantasies. I dislike the term "horror novel." It's sort of a pejorative, if just from the fact that Stephen King and his ilk have debased the term.
DISCH: That was precisely the problem I had with the reviewer in The Times.
Dear, doddering Marion Zimmer Bradley, who said you can't have a book that's both funny and horrifying. And of course, you could cite any number of such. In fact, it's probably more often the rule than the exception. But on that basis she misread The Businessman.
Certainly the Clive Barker-Stephen King vein of horror writers are scrupulously humorless. Moviemakers aren't so dumb. The public's reading taste doesn't seem to be so hungry for that mix as for what King, et al, do. They earn more money than I do, by a whole lot, and in that respect their formula can't be argued with. It's just that, I write the sort of book that I like to read.
DI FILIPPO: Do you have any thoughts about why the horror novel is so popular nowadays?
DISCH: A writer came along that a whole lot of people just couldn't resist reading. He became hugely successful as a result, and a lot of people imitated him because they could see that this was a gravy train, and a taste was formed. Just the way it happened with Tolkien. There wouldn't have been all the Tolkien imitators if Tolkien hadn't been there first. So we have him to thank for the reams of awful books:
There have been horror writers all through the pre-King period .It's not as though King invented ,anything. There's scarcely a book of his that you can't find a precedent for. He doesn't invent the ideas. Very often the precedents were decent novels, maybe even better novels than his.
To be genuinely popular, there’s a couple of requirements. One, you can never condescend to your audience. You have to write books that you genuinely think are great. King is transparently self -delighted with his own work.
The same with Piers Anthony. He writes these little autobiographical attachments to each book, and he's just so in love with his books. He shares the taste of his audience, who I imagine are mostly eight-to eleven-year-old brats. There aren't many adults who can become psychologically a really authentic eight-or eleven-year-old. Peewee Herman is a good example of the difficulty. Children are different. Somebody who can move into that wavelength is rare. Peewee Herman I'm fascinated by. I think he's delicious. But I suppose if you translated Piers Anthony into a TV apparition, he might be as interesting as Peewee Herman. I don't know. But you can't be popular or successful without being on your audience's wavelength.
DI FILIPPO: I want to keep you up to date on the latest Piers Anthony information. I was leafing through TV Guide recently, and the latest center insert for Franklin Mint - One of my favorite features - caught my eye. It was for a ceramic collection of characters from Xanth.
DI$CH: [laughing] Oh, wonderful! He must be so happy and proud of himself! God, that's terrific. It couldn't happen to a nicer guy.
DIFILIPPO: I just want to know: Has the Franklin Mint contacted you for characters from The M.D.?
DISCH: No, no.
DI FILIPPO: They come in their own little mirrored hardwood display, done in "accents of ruby, sapphire, crystal, amethyst, and twenty-four-karat gold electroplate."
DISCH: Here's a new ambition for me to form, that I hadn't even considered before.
DI FILIPPO: Getting back to The M.D., if you can imagine yourself as Billy Michael and having his powers -
DISCH: [Laughing] I did!
DI FILIPPO: But if you put yourself in a real-world situation of being that powerful, do you have a moral prescription for the world, a way out of some of the fixes we're in?
DISCH: I think that historically both growth and decay go on simultaneously in different parts of the world, and in every part of the world. People get born and people die. Institutions wax and wane. Some get corrupt, and then some few idealists come along and surprise you by showing you just how great people can be. Like what happened with the Russians not giving in to the coup. My goodness, what a marvelous historical event. But at the same time there are forces that lead to misery and injustice and those things are going on and will go on. It's a spectacle without end.
Of course, there are things going on that could bring about an end to history. Bill McKibben's book, The End of Nature, is a marvelous evocation of the respects in which we could lose all the money on the roulette table. Humanity could go bankrupt by spoiling the planet. This is possible. Nuclear war was the main dread possibility that I lived with through most of my formative years. It surely affected my imagination; But one of the ways in which it affected it was that it's made me - in my middle-middle age - blithely indifferent to the possibility of universal catastrophe. I've lived with it so long that it just seems like part of "The Story of Mankind." It's an interesting story, I've been following it, I will continue to be interested in it: I hope they don't cancel the series!
But I think everybody of our generation has this view of reality as being somehow just a story we're following. The horrors have been so extreme that we've supped full of them, and now they're just our entertainment. That's one of the reasons why horror movies and thrillers are so popular.
DI FILIPPO: One of the topics involved in The M.D. is genetics. There's a revolution almost daily in that field. What's your take on such things as the Human Genome Project, the patenting of human genes? Turning the human gene bank into a source of profit?
DISCH: It's always been a source of profit, hasn't it? I don't know. It could be a good thing, it could be a bad thing. It'll probably be both at different times. It's such a vast undertaking, that it's bound to have huge repercussions.
I'm more interested in little stories, and the one that got my eye - which I wish had come up before I did The M.D. - was the discovery that there are certain diseases that progress genetically, always in a worse direction. There's one particular disease that manifests in the first generation simply as cataracts and a too-tight handshake. But the children of that person have all sorts of terrible symptoms. Then, if it goes to another generation, it produces congenital deformities of a really horrible sort. So people who have the first symptoms know that if they have children they will pass on the disease in an aggravated form.
DI FILIPPO: This was recently in the news: one scientist is busy taking out patents on human genes without –
DISCH: Having any purpose for them. If he names and numbers them, he owns them. That's pretty unconscionable, and will probably go to court. I can't imagine that his work contributes much to the March of Science. Though there is a part of me that is just such a naive positivist, still, that I think, "Well, if it's good for Science, it's got to be good for us!" Despite everything that's happened in the twentieth century, I still have that "Well, sounds good to me" attitude.
DI FILIPPO: You think, "Surely, they wouldn't do it if they didn't know why they were doing it!" Do you think bioengineering is worse than the unleashing of atomic power? At least all the atomic bomb could do was fry you to a cinder, but this seems to have potential for more arcane kinds' of hells, making people biological captives and such.
DISCH: Oh, undoubtedly that's going to happen in the century to come. I don't see that there's any way to avoid it, and there'll be lots of dramas as a result, and lots of horrible injustices and pain. But think of what gunpowder's done. Yes, all of that will happen, and I'm glad I won't be here.
DI FILIPPO: One of the advances might be increased lifespan, and then you'll have to hang around! You might not have your option out anymore.
DISCH: [laughs] Dribbling on!
DI FILIPPO: Neighboring Lives has been reissued from Johns Hopkins University Press, who I notice is the publisher also for your latest two books of poetry. You wrote this book in collaboration with Charles Naylor. What was the nature of your collaboration here? I'm curious about the mechanics of it, since I've written a couple of collaborative things myself. Was it a straight "you write up to here, and I’ll take from this point, and then we'll go back and refine each other's work?"
DISCH: As you can see, the book breaks off into very distinct sections, so we would talk out the whole form of the book beforehand and the nature of the particular sequences, who the people were. There was an immense body of research that had to be done, and could be shared. There was a constant process of translating research into imagined action. So we had a couple of years of researching and thinking about the book before we settled down to write it. Charles got a head start on me with the writing, because I was doing On Wings of Song. Then once one of us had done a piece of it, the other person would put that through another draft, sometimes considerably. And that's how it finally came to be. It wasn't done as a relay race.
The book isn't structured as a sin¬gle continuous narrative, so some of the later parts could be written earlier because they were about separate sets of people. It's a hybrid. A multi-biographical novel that at no point violates known historical fact, and introduces virtually no fictional characters. Even down to the maids - The Carlyles chronicled their own lives in infinite detail, so there was an immense lode of information available.
DI FILIPPO: The style is obviously a lot different from your contemporary work, in keeping with the spirit of the period.
DISCH: It's plummier. You can allow yourself to do "the big bow-wow." I forget who called it that - I think MacCaulay.
But I did one other Victorian novel, Clara Reeve,'and that also was much plummier. That was written in the first person by a woman of the period. Charlie was with me when I wrote that, so he shared in the genesis of it. He's always my literary conscience. He sees each draft.
DI FILIPPO: Both of your Victorian novels are a little atypical, in that they live female protagonists. I know there are great female characters in Victorian literature, but. . .
DISCH: In terms of the actual sexual balance of Neighboring Lives, if you add the men and the women up, the men still win, simply because that's the way of recorded history. There are some other good women in the book. But as for culture heroes - It's like in a literary marriage: there's the person who's the artist and the person who's the spouse, and the spouse is always aware of being spouse-status. Part of what Neighboring Lives tried to do was correct that balance. To point out that in this case, the spouse was the better person. And the more interesting.
DI FILIPPO: Were you trying to redress some of that imbalance that women experienced?
DISCH: Not just women. Spouses. You can be the male spouse. . . It's about the social reality of being a famous artist, a practicing artist. We had both lived in that world long enough,. and there was a neighborhood in which these real people were all concentrated. If seemed a wonderful way to talk about the social reality of being an artist.
DI FILIPPO: Painters versus writers is a sub text that runs throughout Neighboring Lives -
DISCH: Painters have more fun.
DI FILIPPO: It becomes quite explicit late in the book. Do you side with Rosetti's model, Fanny, when she says, "There’s something kinder in painters somehow."? Do you really view painters as less vindictive and jealous than writers, less-backstabbing? I've heard that from other people - mostly painters - by the way.
DISCH: The painters I have known have been very nice people. That may simply be the luck of the draw. But I think there's something in the actual work of painting that is more gratifying. It's a sensuously rewarding pastime. And painters will regularly spend eight or nine or ten hours a day painting from the sheer joy of it. I know that's true, because I've been involved enough in painting to know that it's a hunger that grows by what it feeds on. It can be mesmerizing. If you got to have good sex every day for about three hours, wouldn't you have a nicer, kinder disposition as a result? Painting is as near good sex as an art can get. Because you're involved with something physical when you're painting. More into your senses. There's something very Spartan about sitting and writing. It's not inherently pleasurable to sit at the typewriter. It is inherently pleasurable to paint. I like painting even if it's just the wall. I like to see the color change. There's a simple basic satisfaction to that.
It has larger payoffs too. I know one painter, Alex Katz, who likes to talk about painting, and he says that his criterion of when he's painting well is when the strokes fall on the canvas and he feels like he's dancing as he does it. He feels physically graceful. He feels a physical integration of his whole body that translates into a brush stroke. And that's what I think action painting - the Abstract Expressionists - was all about. The physicality of the painting. They became larger, and they became mooshier. The reason for that is, the painters wanted to paint with their whole bodies, not just their fingers.
DI FILIPPO: Someone like Blake must have had the best of both worlds.
DISCH: In an odd way, his art much more approaches the condition of literature in that it was so painstaking. I wouldn't think there was a lot of sensuous gratification in the work that he did - it's so finicking. I think there's more of that "wahoo!" kind of excitement in the long poems than in the etchings.
DI FILIPPO: In The M.D., Billy Michael's curses and acts of generosity are only effective when delivered in rhyme. As a practicing poet yourself, can we infer anything from that? Perhaps poetry is the root of all evil? Poetry has magical powers?
DISCH: There is some sense in which a curse is more effective when delivered in rhyme-traditionally they were. So part of it was just evoking magic in a literary context. Rhyme relates to the irrational side of the mind. When people get sleepy, they start free-associating by rhymes, rather than by logical associations. Rhyme exists at the unconscious level, or nearer the unconscious level.
DI FILIPPO: Do you take more pleasure in writing poetry than prose?
DISCH: Not necessarily. There's a certain kind of flow when you're writing a hard poem at full steam - when you're feeling at full stretch, like an athlete who's running a marathon. There's a sense of using every .ounce of artistry you have. But you can get something pretty close to that in an equivalent work of fiction. So I wouldn't say that I get a bigger kick out of poetry.
DI FILIPPO: Why "Tom Disch" on your volumes of poetry instead of "Thomas M. Disch?"
DISCH: Ah, thank you for noticing. "Thomas M. Disch" is the name on the check. It means that I'm being paid for doing a job of work. Nobody writes novels for fun. I don't write poetry for money, I write it for its own sake. "Tom" is the person you shake hands with. That's the distinction.
DI FILIPPO: We talked a little bit about the theme of death in literature. The Businessman has that great life-after-death theme. You continue this exploration in your poetry .I’m thinking of "The Eightfold Way" and "La Venganza de Los Muertos Vivientes," the latter being a good mix of humor and horror. Do you see poetry as another angle to approach this great subject?
DISCH: Any subject is approachable by poetry or prose.
DI FILIPPO: But do you get a different slant on it through your poetry? Are you working on something you can't attack in your novels?
DISCH: Poetry does things that prose doesn't. Poems are very different creatures. Although there's an area of non-fiction, art writing, that's non-narrative and which you could say is like poetry. Indeed there's the gray area of prose poems, though they tend to be dull.
For a lot of people, poetry tends to be dull. It's not read much. It takes a special kind of training and a lot of practice to read poetry with pleasure. It's like learning to like asparagus.
DI FILIPPO: I haven't read all seven volumes of your poetry. But in what I've read, it strikes me that at the same time you're trying to meet all your own artistic standards, you're determined to be very "accessible." It seems to me you're hoping to reach out to as many people as possible. Your stuff couldn't be labelled obscure or unfriendly to the general reader.
DISCH: I hope not. My impulse as a poet is not to write something obscure. It's not like I'm reining in my obscurantist impulse. I'm just writing the poems I want to write. I think there are poets who add a coat of opaque varnish, who strive for difficulty. Which I think is bogus, if you have to work to be obscure. Dana Gioia, a poetry friend of mine, paid me the compliment of saying that my latest book - Dark Verses and Light - offends conventional notions of what poetry should accomplish these days in as, many ways as it has poems. There is ,nothing in there that isn't somehow outside the pale of conventional n6tions of the task of poetry.
DI FILIPPO: The centrepiece of the book for me was the hybrid-half story, half sample poems - that forms Part Three: "The Joycelin Shraeger Story." I'm curious about the history of it. Did you have Nabokov's Pale Fire in mind ¬ that mix of fake biography and poetry?
DISCH: Oh, goodness, no. The poems came just as an afterthought to the story. I'd written the story in '73 or so. And then, at a certain later point, Joycelin started writing poetry. She just had a way with words, and I let her have her way. It's fun to have characters who produce their own art.
DI FILIPPO: Were any of Joycelin's poems ever published anyplace?
DISCH: A few of them appeared in an English magazine' named Quarto. But mostly, nobody would touch them. The only places where they would be understood would be the places that would publish the kind of poems I'm satirizing. I mean, Joycelin is the world's worst Beat poet. Who's going to want to publish her? You know the St. Mark's crew? I was sort of peripherally among those people. Finally, I didn't qualify. But I got to know them well enough, and I certainly know the way they write. A particular kind of slack, lazy, doped-out way of writing poems, which Joycelin perfectly captures.
DI FILIPPO: It seems like her two guiding lights are Archy the cockroach and e.e. cummings. Is that an accurate as-sessment of her influences?
DISCH: Joycelin has many. influences. You wouldn't know some of them. Some of her dedicatees are the people who have been formative influences. Bernadette Meyer and others. Anne Waldman was a huge influence. Some of these are people whom I like, and whose poetry I enjoy, but who are nevertheless capable of being satirized. And I just couldn't resist the impulse to make fun of them.
DI FILIPPO: We have to talk about one. of the central works in Joycelin's oeuvre: "When I Am Sick, Science Fiction. "
DI H:. A tribute to SilverBob.
DI FILIPPO: It seems like a capsule description of a certain kind of SF reader, and the kind of fiction that's turned out to meet their needs. This poem cites Lord Valentine's Castle -
DISCH: Joycelin loved Lord Valentine's Castle.
DI FILIPPO: I'm glad there were many sequels for her. Do you let this poem stand as a statement of what's still going on in the field?
DISCH: It hasn't changed, has it? Why be upset? Just make fun of them, enjoy them. They're there, they're part of the human comedy.
DI FILIPPO: I'm learning to be dispassionate, but I find it hard.
DISCH: If you can laugh at Joycelin instead of getting angry with her, that's a beginning.
DI FILIPPO: What do you think of the notion of America finally having a Poet Laureate?
DISCH: There's one every year. Now it's Mona Van Duyn. They gave it to a woman, as they had to. Next it'll be a Black.
It's all part of the same cultural system that runs the National Endowment for the Arts. My feeling about the NBA is, eliminate it! I'm right with Jesse Helms on that. I think it corrupts the artist and creates mediocre art. Most really good writers would disdain to apply for such a thing. Or they would think there's no chance, the dice are loaded. I've never applied for such a thing. In a way, it's sort of like begging. I'm too proud to do it, and I expect other good writers would be too, unless they're destitute. There's a respect in which the good things are selected out of such a competition, and it's not a measure of writing in the culture at large.
I don't think there's much good fiction writing in the short story these days, mostly because of the writing schools and the ease of creating minimalist fiction.
DI FILIPPO: The M.D., like so much modern fiction, is lull of talismans, things that ground it, such as tradenames, references. to Burger King. The soup of tradenames that we swim through in the twentieth century. How do you see this as a kind of device to ground the reader? Why, when we pick up a Victorian novel, is it rare to see a tradename? You don't read, "So¬and-so picked up a bottle of Doctor Smith's patented Stove Blacking."
DISCH: The advertising era was only just beginning. You don't even hear reference to its reality until H. G. Wells's Tono-Bungay. Writers apparently weren't aware of the importance that brandnames would come to have. Once you live bombarded with media messages about different brandnames, the code that they refer to becomes common knowledge, so that one understands which products cater to which income levels. Such a thing as the brandname of a car says how much that person earns, and the way he wants to spend his discretionary money.
I think that if a brandname is used tellingly, it's worthwhile. It's ephemeral information, but I like ephemeral information. People are flooded with information. It comes at us faster, and we're trying to keep more of it in medium-range memory. That entire spectrum of questions people get asked on Jeopardy. If you've got all that stuff in your head, it behooves a writer to write something that relates to it as significantly and from as many directions as possible, since that in a sense valorizes the contents of the audience's media-drenched psyches.
DI FILIPPO: It's always been a science fictional trick, to toss a brandname into a future setting to ground the reader. That was one of the big impacts the cyberpunks had. Every object was an extension of the present, everything had a trademark stamped on the side. It wasn’t just a cyberdeck, it was a cyberdeck from Sony or General Electric.
DISCH: It's true that we would think of things in this way. If you look at me and look at my watch, you take in that it's a Casio-which means cheap, right? As against a Rolex. These are entirely different. When I have writing students, I always talk about "generic detail." It's the death of fiction. Generic detail is, "He looked at his wristwatch." Precise detail is, "He looked at his Casio." There's more information there. It requires that the reader share with you a system of interpreting this information.
It's perfectly possible for a stupid writer like Ellis, that American Psycho guy, to fill up a novel with reams of spurious gourmet type details, which is overkill. It's not that I'm against yuppie consumer choices. But to spend two hundred pages cataloguing every kind of choice. . . It seems to me the only pleasure one could have is simple recognition. "Oh, yes, I know what that product is. Oh, yes, I know the store where you can buy that." It's a base appeal.
If you're in the consciousness of a twentieth-century person, you have to know at what moment a brandname or a piece of contemporary trivia or a news anxiety will be needed. What I enjoyed in The M.D. was tying the whole story to contemporary events in a way that there seemed to be an emblematic relationship between the history of the country at a national level and the small events - without trying to underline it.
DI FILIPPO: In a recent issue of SF EYE, Charles Platt had an interesting article about the demise of privacy.
DISCH: Oh, I'm all in favor of eliminating privacy across the board. I think everybody's bank account should be public. There should be no such thing as financial privacy. Should we always be able to see into each other's bedrooms? I might stop there.
I did my own video story, "Celebrity Love," which was published in a magazine called Grand Street. The hero is a video conceptual artist, an older woman having an affair with this Sean Penn type. It's my fantasy of what it would be like to be a celebrity artist whose every thought is public data. Somebody who enjoys it, and uses that position wisely.
DI FILIPPO: The history of the SF field is almost non-existent. You have a certain cognoscenti who keep the history of the field alive for themselves. But the average reader has nonotion of a past. I think that's why they accept shoddy merchandise, shoddy fiction. They don't recognize that it's been done before, and better.
DISCH: Yes, that's true - even of most people's sex lives! Sure, people eat junk food when there's better they might have at the same price-if they learn to like eggplant.
In certain moods, I can get very exercised about science fiction being dominated by shabby writers. On the other hand, it's the way of the world. Science fiction isn't different in that respect from other spheres of culture. Look at jazz musicians or rock musicians. It's true.
So? Resign yourself to it.
DI FILIPPO: It seems to be the nature of the culture, though. There's a huge memory hole that everything just disappears down.
DISCH: It's the nature of human life. It takes an exertion to be indifferent to these things, but it's an exertion worth making. Also, it allows you luxuries like scorn and flippancy.
DI FILIPPO: Were you a big reader of SF as a kid? Do you feel, as Barry Malzberg has said, that the Fifties was a pinnacle of SF? Malzberg feels that in a way that period was more innovative than the Sixties and subsequent decades.
DISCH: These are bootless comparisons. It's like comparing' one decade's old movies to another decade's old movies. There's always been a lot of good movies, and there's always been a fair amount of good sf. most of both things are pretty shabby, and the particular quality of what's good in one era is different from what will be good in another. There's a period when film noir is the edge of the wedge. There's a period when westerns were actually terrific. And so in science fiction.
I don't believe in grouping people into generations. I don't think it makes sense. The way to make a career is to be unique-if you can be. Even the bad writers, the writers I have no sympathy with, are usually a very identifiable flavor. There's nobody who writes like Piers Anthony-thank goodness!
The three favorite books I can think of from 1953 - The Demolished Man, The Space Merchants, and Childhood's End - have virtually nothing in common. And then very soon after that there's A Canticle for Liebowitz.
A good writer isn't like another good writer. What's good about him is what's different.
DI FILIPPO: I know you weren't the biggest partisan of cyberpunk. I recall a piece in Entertainment Weekly, I believe -
DISCH: I wrote various things. It was a big media event. When people wanted a "science fiction piece," they'd call me up and say, "Tom, how about five hundred words on cyberpunk?" I'd say, "Fine." I must have done that for five or six different editors. I always tried to think up something new to say.
DI FILIPPO: I read your story "Concepts" when it first appeared in F&SF way back in '78. But upon recently re¬reading it, I was struck by how cyberpunk it appears. I'm trying to get you to make the claim of being there first so we can re-ignite any dying embers of controversy.
Here's your notion of an artificial intelligence which "manifests itself as two lips coalescing out of the winking data." That could have been straight out of Gibson. The central characters are all outfitted with jacks. We get lines like, "She longed to plug into an information terminal. "
In an earlier story, "Planet of the Rapes,” we get, "He found an empty console and connected the jacks in his brainstem for a mind flick." It strikes me as very proto-cyberpunk, like Delany's Nova.
In "Concepts" especially, you get this whole notion of people living out their lives in simulated reality.
DISCH: The whole story is a simulated reality love. affair.
DI FILIPPO: When the whole cyberpunk controversy was at its height, did you
felt any urge to claim precedence. I know that Algis Budrys did this in print. He stuck up his hand and said, "What about my novel, Michaelmas?" You seemed to have restrained your¬self.
DISCH: The thing that cyberpunk did - and the reason that "punk" is attached to the end of it - is that it accommodated the needs of adolescent boys by telling them what clothes to wear, the right sexual attitude to take when courting young women.
DI FILIPPO: You don't buy the argument that there's a huge component of feminism in cyberpunk?
DISCH: [Laughs] I hadn't heard that one.
DI FILIPPO: Molly in Neuromancer, the assassin figure -
DISCH: That's just traditional S&M. To want a dominatrix is to have a feminist component?
DI FILIPPO: Delany claimed that without Joanna Russ, cyberpunk would never have existed.
DISCH: Oh, Chip will claim anything.
DI FILIPPO: So you feel that cyberpunk was merely a new gloss on the adolescent power-trip of SF? Or was there more to it than that?
DISCH: It was a way of realizing comic-book and movie visual fantasies for a particular market. It did so suc-cessfully. I'm sure that neither Sterling or Gibson would tell themselves that that was what they were doing, but it was undoubtedly pan of the reason that they were successful and that Algis Budrys, using many of the same science-fictional elements, but from the point of view of a wasted, fat, middle-aged man, is not going to connect to his audience the same way.
DI FILIPPO: It is amazing how fast cyberpunk became a brandname. .lt got co-opted by the whole computer hacker movement.
DISCH: Right. Historically, too, people were relating to their computers in an involved and committed way at the time cyberpunk became big. So people had a little experience of cyberspace. It had become part of their own everyday reality. They were playing videogames and being mesmerized. They had a book that mirrored their own hobbies.
DI FILIPPO: So you don't want to take credit for starting the whole movement with "Concepts?"
DISCH: I would no more envy that distinction than I would envy being fifteen again. It would be nice to have a 29-inch waist. But at the price of everything I know? That's the advantage of being older. You know more. I mean, knowing less can be a big advantage. Only very young people can command youth audiences. Frank Sinatra isn't going to command the audiences that Michael Jackson has. Sinatra's a geriatric case. It's a simple fact of age.
DI FILIPPO: 1 want to ask about an unpublished novel of yours: The Troll of Surewould Forest.
DISCH: It's finally coming out, as a serial in Amazing. [Oct., Nov. & Dec. 1992] They're commemorating my thirtieth year as a writer. They did the same thing with Zelazny, and will with Le Guin. Kim Mohan asked me if I had a story, and I said, "I don't have a story, but I have a novel." They're doing it in three parts, complete.
They're also running a two-part autobiography I did for the Gale Reference series, their junior version for children's authors. As the author of The Brave Little Toaster, I wrote an autobiography called My Life as a Child. It's the same tone as The Brave Little Toaster, and sort of the same tone as The Troll of Surewould Forest. This tone of "Well, now, let me explain this to you, children." There's nothing that can't be explained to a child if you take the right tone. So I just told the story of my life for children.
DI FILIPPO: Last year you went to Brazil. How did you find it?
DISCH: Oh, it was interesting. Brazil is filled with cities vast beyond imagination.
DI FILIPPO: Places we just don't know or hear about in this country?
DISCH: Yes! I've never heard anybody exclaim over the fact that Sao Paulo dwarfs New York.
DI FILIPPO: The way that the city limits of Houston are the size of Rhode Island? It just sprawls out?
DISCH: Both sprawls and rears up. As the plane banks, first you see a sea of smaller buildings, just a vast plain as far as the eye can see of buildings. Then the skyscrapers begin to appear among these buildings. Then there's a sea of skyscrapers! You're flying over these at a great height and speed and it just continues! It's like Infinite City! It was truly the most impressive physical production number. Cecil B. DeMille would have loved it. Sao Paulo is fourteen million. I don't know if the city has limits! And it's one of several such cities. I was in other cities I had never heard of. We would travel around in cars on super-highways at tremendous speeds, and it never stopped being highrise time, as fast and as far as we drove. And the whole thing's only been built in the last fifteen years!
DI FILIPPO: I imagine it was quite interesting from a writer's perspective.
DISCH: Oh, I think I got a novel out of it. Right while I was there one morning, in one city, Salvador - the poorest of them all - the idea came to me. I'm sure of the title. It's going to be called Stray Bullets. I can't tell you what it's about, because it's such a neat idea anyone could do it!
DI FILIPPO: You were there lecturing. Did you speak on writing, or the U.S. in general?
DISCH: Oh, everything. All different kinds of writing. On theater, on poetry, on computer-interactive fiction, which actually generated a controversy.
DI FILIPPO: What was the nature of the controversy?
DISCH: Anti-computer. They hated computers, anything to do with them.
DI FILIPPO: This was a local writer's guild?
DISCH: That's what it was. It was part of the leftist position. This was the first time I've ever been attacked – passionately - as being an imperialist. And it was a fascinating experience. It wasn't like they were reasoning with me. I said a few reasonable things, and they were coming up with weird slogans and talking very loud and fast so that nobody could interrupt them. Filibustering. I just sat back and gaped. I thought that this would be something that would be inevitably boring to them! But it evoked raw envy.
There was a fascinating article in Harper's last year called "Bushism." It's about a new pact that's been put together in Uruguay which dwarfs the commercial treaty for free trade. The purpose behind this treaty is that all the environmental legislation that's been written can be unwritten because it falls subject by international treaty to the authority that governs larger international organizations. It's an end-run around Congressional oversight of the entire economy and all regulatory agencies.
The depressing part of it for me is the creation of a world civilization ruled by international corporations, in which the living standards of the Third World are going to be imported into America, along with cheap fruit. I think that that development is bipartisan. I just hope that it proceeds slowly enough so that it will happen after I'm dead.
Everybody says Bush has no economic policy. Well, he does, but he's just keeping it hidden! You have to respect the man for his purposeful, Machiavellian competence at looking bland while he creates the world of Blade Runner as quickly as possible.
DI FILIPPO: Most people write Bush off as a total incompetent. But Peter Lamborn Wilson, for one, thinks that the man is one of the top players in all sorts of conspiracies. I mean, he did head the CIA and he has been around forever. How did he manage to survive for so long?
DISCH: He's terribly competent, and he's a scary person!
DI FILIPPO: Let's talk about the '92 elections. Do you see these as a watershed in any way? Are we entering the same kind of period that foreshadowed the 1960 elections, where the culture in general started to heat up a little bit, and things got more polarized?
DISCH: Oh, I tend to find each election scary, but this one-I'm particularly nervous about it because of the anti-gay element of the Republicans, and what that foreshadows. And also because so much of the behavior of the younger Republicans at the convention was like Blackshirt behavior.
Could the Republicans turn into Nazis? It looks like that's what they'll have to do to win.
DI FILIPPO: It's frightening that, being on the downside of the polls, their strategy has been not to embrace the people they're alienating, but to alienate them further.
DISCH: The word is demonize.
DI FILIPPO: Did you happen to see in The New York Times that Op-Ed piece on the history of Republican cross-dressing?
DISCH: [laughs] Uh-huh.
DI FILIPPO: I thought that was kind of an effective poke.
DISCH: The problem is that we've got a sense of humor and they've got guns. Will we die laughing?
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