Thomas M. Disch - Greg Feeley Interview
Interzone #24, Summer 1988
"Thomas M. Disch Interview" by Gregory Feeley
Since the appearance of 334 fifteen years ago, Thomas M. Disch has published only one science fiction novel, the baroque yet Romantic On Wings of Song (1979). Nevertheless, Disch has remained active in that fantastic tradition of which sf and genre fantasy are merely subsets. His two novels of nineteenth century England, Clara Reeve and Neighbouring Lives (the latter written with Charles Naylor) and his contemporary fantasy The Businessman: A Tale of Terror have perhaps more admirers inside the science fiction field than in the highlands beyond, where they won critical praise but (except for Clara Reeve) have not yet successfully been brought to a large public.
Disch's other works during the 1980s include opera libretti for “Frankenstein” and "The Fall of the House of Usher," several volumes of poetry (one of them, Here I Am, There You Are, Where Were We?, was a Poetry Book Society Choice in 1984), numerous short stories in publications as various as Playboy, Omni, Interzone, and The Minnesota Review, two forthcoming novels, and a host of other projects, some of which he discusses below.
Since the publication of your last novel in 1984, you seem to be concentrating on ventures other than prose fiction. You have written an interactive computer novel, Amnesia; a script for Miami Vice which was recently broadcast; a children's book in verse; drama criticism for The Nation; and you recently published an investigative essay on Whitley Strieber's big UFO book.
Also a film script for Amnesia. which was half-completed before the project was shelved.
The ontological status of that work is interesting: in its ideal form, is it a game, a novel, or just a dramatic situation that can be presented in any form?
Its ideal or Platonic version is the one that exists on two floppy disks, which is neither a novel nor a game. It is, God help us, a new art form, although an embryonic specimen. In the future, interactive fictions may well not take the' form of text adventures. However, I can't help but think that the basic premise is pregnant with possibility: branching stories that are controlled by the choices of the viewer/participant/ reader. Because the technology is there, art will rush in.
What has been its reception in the literary and computer magazines?
The critical reception has been good, indeed universally approving. Some reviews in the computer press hoped for even more than they could get in terms of abundance and infinite branching possibilities. But Amnesia in fact fills up its disks - the game's designers invented one language in order to condense the language to one degree, and then they invented some other technique for squeezing it still further. At this point each word in the text is probably only a molecule long.
Sales would seem to have had about the same history as my books. Though I haven't seen a royalty statement, I don't think it has done well, and I don't think that interactive fiction, or entertainment software in general, has fulfilled its financial promise. I don't expect to see any more money from Amnesia, and consider it to have been, financially, a great mistake. But aesthetically, I suppose I don't regret it, if only because I am now a pioneer of that art form.
Locus reported that you had reserved novelization rights. Have you given thought to writing Amnesia: The Novel?
'When I first undertook the project, I had in mind the computer-interactive game , the screenplay, and also a book version, so that a successful solution of the riddles would really earn the prize money. All of this came in the wake of A TroIl of Surewould Forest; the pleasure of creating and integrating into that story a set of brain teasers was carried over into Amnesia. I think my impulse for that kind of game-playing with the story-telling has abated. We didn't sell anyone on the idea of a novel with a prize. And really, I'd rather not novelize Amnesia, because I love the idea of insisting that the only way to learn the story is through the peculiar art for which it was created. This way, the story has an indissoluble link to its form.
Your teleplay for Miami Vice, "Missing Hours," seemed to me - especially given the show's traditional storylines - a peculiarly enigmatic work.
You're not alone. (Laughs) I have to explain that it is the nature of the business that the story - in both its treatment and especially the form in which it was broadcast - was, though I bear the sole writing credit, the work of many hands. It went through four treatments, each with a different protagonist and set of events . . . the UFO was what they wanted from the start, it was simply a question of how it would manifest itself dramatically. How much you were supposed to be taken in by "alternate explanations" other than alienness, they always wanted to keep that line blurred. I guess it was blurred, since some people who've seen it thought the story was all a government plot. I can't imagine coming away with that reading: it was just an ordinary story about Aliens Among Us, with Crockett and Tubbs in the cast. I would be hard-pressed to think of any element in the final product that makes a personal statement I'd sign my name to.
You would classify it then with Cassandra Knye's works, as less than canonical? ["Cassandra Knye" was a very early pseudonym which Torn Disch shared with John Sladek - Eds.]
Well, half of the dialogue as finally spoken has been changed. They were really hot to use the script - only a month passed between my delivering it and its going into production - and since I was not on the set, they used their house authors for revisions. These revisions simply carried the story farther in the direction they wanted; I would not, regard them as having altered any vision of mine. As for the final result, I can’t think of anyone who would enjoy it. Canonical? In the way perhaps that my bookstore jobs were. It was a significant and interesting part of my life, but I don’t think anyone could meaningfully relate anything in that script to my "work."
There is certainly a connection with your long piece on Whitley Strieber's Communion.
Oh yes, that was wonderful! The producers asked me to do the script quite fortuitously, after' I had written the Strieber piece. So I had a head full of UFOs at that point, and was delighted to turn them to my financial advantage. I mean it was galling to write what I consider the definitive wasting of the pretentions of million-dollar winner Whitley Strieber, and to do so for peanuts. And to have no attention paid to it! Part of the testimony of that book's success is to the sheer power of money to silence criticism. The kid-glove treatment his lies have received from the media. the reverence given to the money" . . .! A liar in another enterprise would at least have people calling him a liar publicly. But I have been almost alone in criticizing him. When he is criticized, it has always been on the terms he has set: that "I am having some profound spiritual experience, even if it's not contact with real aliens." Nobody has paid scrupulous attention to the logic of the text, and found an alternate and simpler explanation, which is simply that he is hoaxing the world.
I'll tell you what I'd like to write next. It's an essay on the UFO fad going on right now and its relationship to the historical question of religious faith. I think Christianity originated in much the same way: in an invitation extended to say "I saw something impossible." I saw Christ rise from the dead, which is just as unprovable after the fact. So the motive of the first Christian witness would be similar to the kind of bad faith that exists in UFO abductees. I can't imagine anyone publishing this, because it offends not simply the foolish people going through the abductee ritual, but all Christians. Because basically what I'm saying is: All faith is bad faith. [Disch reports he has since written the essay, which is called "On Liars and Their Lies" -GF]
I knew a fellow in Rome who had the most marvellous theory which he was researching at the Vatican Library, a theory he shared with someone in England. They were both afraid to publish it, because if it received sufficient attention, they would be assassinated. Mohammed is generally acknowledged to be the one world religious figure who is supposed without doubt to have existed in historical time. Well, my friend's theory was that the entire story of Mohammed was a fabrication, created a century afterward, and that the Koran and pre-Islamic literature were a literary invention of the most incredible ingenuity. The religion had been invented after the spread of Arabic militarism throughout the Mediterranean. It was a perfect alternate explanation, and he had all kinds of odd facts that would seem to support this. The whole question of "what can we know about the past?" has never been stood more thoroughly on its head. My friend has since arranged his life so that he will never publish his theory, but it was intellectually dazzling. I remain dazzled.
The December 1987 issue of Omni has a cover article on "Missing Time" and UFO abductees. For a supposedly hi-tech and high-minded publication, they too treat the subject as intellectually respectable.
I could say a lot more about corruption in the mundane world of publishing than is prudent, even given the degree of personal dislike in which I am held by much of it. I have for years been accumulating notes for a novel called Average Corruption. which would deal with this . . .
I don't understand how there can be unacceptable truths. I do remember Orson Scott Card writing that if he thought the world was as I portrayed it in "Concepts" he would kill himself, to which my answer has always been: It's just like that. I have a hard time believing he's honest in his expressions of critical judgment, because they are simply too . . . what is the communal word for self-serving? Clubby. And his own work shows that he's someone brighter than the critic in him would have us believe. So I think he's just a hypocrite, and I respect him for it.
An advance notice of Neighbouring Lives announced that the novel's action would run from 1834 to 1916. Why did you truncate it?
We thought we had not only quite a large enough novel as it stood, but one in which there was more nearly a sense of closure with the death of Jane Carlyle. The nature of the beast is that it's a roman fleuve if ever there was one: it starts and stops on the River Thames, and the book might easily, in an ideal or parallel world, continue on to 1916 or beyond.
We did have additional sequences plotted out. The widower of George Eliot - she only had about six weeks in Chelsea, but her husband lived on there - gets a visit of condolence from Henry James, which leads to a nice Aspern Papers-style squabble over the lady's letters to her passionate lesbian lover. James gets involved between the Reverend Cross and the ex-lover in the suppression of the true history of George Eliot. And that was such a neat story, the one I most regret having left unwritten. I hope someday it will get done.
Anthony Burgess certainly liked the book, though he seemed bemused at the prospect of a serious novel being produced collectively.
Yes. he had serious theoretical objections to the possibility. I have the same objections to Catholics writing good novels, yet both have happened.
Your most recent book was a children's story in verse, The Tale of Dan De Lion, and you are about to publish your first-ever sequel, The Brave Little Toaster Goes to Mars. The attraction children's literature holds for you must be different than for Beatrix Potter.
I've done a couple of others, actually. I have written another one called The Snake in the Manger, a Christmas tale. It's a wonderful story about how all the barnyard animals saw the Star of Bethlehem and followed it to the manger, where they see the Magi presenting their gifts and decide to offer their own. And the snake in the manger, watching them, is filled with envy and wants to give the Baby Jesus an even nicer present. The story is about the present the snake brings. It's written in little quatrains of a mock-naive character, and has been very hard to publish as a children's book, I don't . know why.
What are the attractions in writing for children? I think that in chortling as I told the story I answered your question. Because it's fun. There's a certain kind of delicious tale that is a children's book. They are fun to write in a way that only A Troll of Surewould Forest would similarly be fun, pure and simple. So that's the reason: it's a kick.
You have noted elsewhere that A Troll of Surewould Forest, after some difficulties finding a publisher, has been sold to Doubleday in a multi-book deal that also includes an omnibus volume of poems and your new novel, The M.D. When may these appear?
The M.D.: A Horror Story is set in the same meta-Minneapolis as The Businessman and shares some of its minor characters, although it could not be considered a sequel. I am also contemplating a third novel, The Priest: A Tale of Minneapolis in the Twelfth Century. As for A Troll of Surewould Forest, it is waiting, like the poetry volume, for Doubleday to bring out The M.D. That book is now 700 typed pages, and awaits some revisions.
Are there any other works in progress?
I'm hoping to become a playwright. I've written one little play, which I would say represents not even a toe in the water, more a damp rag on the forehead. It is called Koch on Broadway, a Play in Verse, and will appear in Grand Street. In the course of reviewing I must be receiving some kind of information overload as to the possibilities the form seems to offer, and that stimulates ambition. I don't think I would undertake serious playwrighting until I relinquished the pleasures of reviewing, but I can't continue to see so many plays without feeling a hunger to produce something of my own.
The hunger to work in another form isn't simply acquisitiveness, the urge to add yet another feather to my cap. To see what theatre can do, that's what draws one to an art, the sense of possibilities that have not yet been fulfilled, When I first wrote sf novels, I was writing sf novels of the sort that seemed to me not to exist, but which science fiction, as a genre, needed. That's a self-serving way of looking at one's own work, but I think that sincerely ambitious people, who are not ambitious for money or gain, but to produce- something wonderful that hasn't yet existed - ambitious for laurels and not feathers - will proceed from that sense: that there is something important that hasn't yet been done.
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