Paul Di Filippo
Claude Lalumière: As a child, were you a voracious reader?
Paul Di Filippo: Indeed, reading was my primary pleasure and joy, which is not to say that I was a pasty-faced, housebound bookworm. I loved being outdoors, often spending hours roaming across the semi-rural, semi-suburban landscapes of Rhode Island, alone and with various schoolchums, playing "war," building "forts," all that good stuff. But this activity often paled when I was presented with the opportunity to visit one of the three or four libraries, which my mother insured we patronized on a regular basis. And I had a favorite green vinyl chair with aluminum armrests that I can still feel and smell, from which I launched many a fictional voyage.
CL: What did you read then?
PDF: I read tons of comics first of all, starting in Grade 2. Dr. Seuss of course. Then I graduated to series books like the Hardy Boys and Tom Swift. Believe it or not, I also loved those "girly" books that concerned kids who owned horses and had horse riding clubs. Then in Grade 5 or thereabouts I discovered the pure quill, genre SF, with an early standout book being Raymond Jones's The Year When Stardust Fell. After that, it was a heady tumble into the whole cosmos: [Ray] Bradbury, André Norton, [Robert] Heinlein, et al. But the thing I've found most curious about juvenile appetites is how non-discriminating they are. I'd pick up odd things like Kenneth Roberts's historical novels that I didn't really understand and work my way through them on a whim. In 1967 I got a subscription to The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and that opened up new vistas of magazine SF to me. This all relates to my fiction reading. At the same time I was prone to devour newspapers and magazines by the armful, everything from Reader's Digest to Natural History.
CL: How have your reading habits evolved over the years?
PDF: When I entered college in 1973, I began to supplement my omnivorous SF consumption with the classics of Western Lit. This was a major opening-up of my sense of what fiction could do. [Vladimir Vladimirovich] Nabokov, [William] Faulkner, [Thomas] Pynchon -- wow! So now I try to supplement my continuing fascination with SF with mainstream work of merit. Another big change, in a practical sense, occurred when I began regular reviewing, circa 1992. My options for serendipitous reading diminished drastically, as I found that most of my reading time was filled with assigned books. This inability to whimsically follow byways through literature is the thing I most regret about reviewing. And lately, within the past three years or so, I've returned to my first love, comics, enjoying lots of contemporary titles and catching up on what I've missed since I more or less abandoned this medium after I discovered SF.
CL: When did you first start imagining yourself as a writer?
PDF: Some success with writing for my high-school newspaper gradually crystallized into a sense that writing fiction was all I wanted to do with my life. Upon graduation in 1972, at age 17, I departed for Hawaii (the farthest portion of the USA I could reach, and ostensibly the most glamorous) with my Sears portable typewriter in hand, convinced I could begin to crank out SF. In reality, I wrote nothing except nostalgic letters home, and after my money ran out in three months' time, I abandoned this dream and returned to Rhode Island to enter college.
CL: Were there authors who inspired that dream?
PDF: I don't think I knew much about the reality of authors' lives at this time, or any particulars of my favorite authors' biographies. I did enjoy seeing the pictures of authors which F&SF used to run on their back covers, and I knew a few fannish legends about Ellison, Asimov and their peers. But I was mainly inspired by their work, and not the associational trappings of an author's existence. Basically, I wanted to replicate the pleasures I got from Delany, Zelazny, and others in new works of my own.
CL: So you always wanted to be a writer of fantastic fiction?
PDF: My course was bent from my earliest reading. Something about all the various non-mimetic forms appealed deeply to me. The usual notion that here was an arena where the really big topics could be threshed out. In fact, before I became a big fan of such confessional writers as [Jack] Kerouac and [Charles] Bukowski, I used to deride all such reality-based fiction as the work of those without enough imagination to compose SF!
CL: In many ways I see you as the inheritor of Philip José Farmer's mantle. Is that something you would agree with? Does Farmer play an important role in your literary pantheon?
PDF: I love the work of Philip José Farmer and would be honored to be deemed his successor. By now I've read nearly everything he's ever written, having discovered him circa 1967. His playfulness, ingenuity, outrageousness, and willingness to tackle religious and sexual topics all appeal to me. In A Mouthful of Tongues, inspired partially by his transgressive novels such as A Feast Unknown, I planted an homage. The character named Peter Jarius derives his name from one of PJF's alter-egos, Peter Jarius Finnegan. So far, only Damien Broderick has caught this and let me know so.
CL: Often, your stories refer directly to other writers and other works of fiction. Did that start intentionally, or was it something you noticed in your work and then decided to run with?
PDF: As the sometimes tedious, sometimes exhilarating exigencies of a writer's life began to seep into my consciousness -- through becoming one myself -- I became naturally more interested in what my living and deceased compadres had gone through in their own lifetimes. So I began to read various author biographies and that led to a "what if" kind of speculation, which is second-nature to SF writers. How could these tired, tiresome, inky wretches have led a perhaps more stimulating existence? [Franz] Kafka as caped crime fighter? Why not! Of course, once I had done a couple of these stories, I began to imagine that, with enough, I could assemble a book. And that book did indeed materialize as Lost Pages.
CL: In the current novel-dominated world of fiction publishing, your bibliography stands out with seven collections in as many years (including your first book, The Steampunk Trilogy, 1995) and already an eighth announced for 2003, Neutrino Drag, and a ninth for 2004, a collection of your Plumage from Pegasus satires. All of these are thematic collections, as opposed to being assembled chronologically. Was this planned from the start? Did you intend to build a library of thematic books that showcased your myriad literary identities?
PDF: Something about thematic collections always appealed to me. They just seemed stronger than grab-bag assemblages. Almost novelistic in their impact, without quite being "fix-ups." So I always wanted to present this kind of unified vision to the reading public, in any one collection. But that said, I never set out to produce stories to fit any particular mold. I usually just sit down and write whatever I feel like writing at the moment, without any game plan toward future publication in book form. Perhaps Ribofunk was the exception here, as I consciously began turning out ribofunky stories once I reached a critical mass toward a volume. I'd love to be known as a novelist, but I had the old template engraved into my brain: start out small in the SF zines, build your name, then have a collection, then move on to novels. Unfortunately -- or maybe fortunately -- I haven't fully moved on to the final step yet.
CL: In order, your seven collections have presented you as a steampunk, a cyberpunk, a counter-culture satirist, an alternate history biographer, a "working-class hero," a posthuman speculator, and a whimsical fantasist, while in your two upcoming collections you will assume the mantle of trash-culture pulpster and postmodern literary humorist. Do all of these identities still apply? Or have some served their time? And are other identities still lurking?
PDF: As hinted at above, I gratefully and gleefully accept all of these handy designations you've coined. I like to wear any number of literary hats. The fun is in the swapping back and forth among them! It keeps the daily grind from getting boring. One area I'd like to venture into is the kind of postmodern space opera turned out by [Alexander] Jablokov, [Alastair] Reynolds, [Iain] Banks, [Colin] Greenland, et al. This area of the genre seems really vital right now, and I still dream of creating something as fine as [Samuel] Delany's Nova.
CL: Your first novel, Ciphers, was, in many ways, a synthesis of all these aspects of your writing career. Are other such synthetic novels in the works?
PDF: I continue to accumulate notes for what I think of as a companion volume to Ciphers, to be called Dakinis, a sprawling romp across the twentieth century with an all-female cast. (A dakini is a Tibetan goddess of sorts.) But this project is still very inchoate, and the amount of work involved necessitates abandoning my review work. And my review work is a major source of my paltry income at the moment. So I'm caught in a bind, and can't predict when I might tackle this book.
CL: Joe's Liver, your second novel, was, surprisingly, a mimetic comedy. Did it receive any mainstream attention?
PDF: Alas, no. Joe's Liver got very few reviews overall, and no mainstream attention. So much for my future as the next Tom Robbins!
CL: Are you planning other forays outside of fantastic fiction?
PDF: The novel I'm currently working on is titled Roadside Bodhisattva, and is 100 percent mimetic. Not a trace of even magical realism in it. But much as I'm enjoying its composition, I'm starting to feel like I'm wearing a straitjacket when I'm writing this. How do people limit themselves like this, in book after book?
CL: Which of your fictions, at whatever length, do you consider either your signature pieces or the works you are proudest of?
PDF: Like most authors, I'm really proudest of the newest stuff. I think my novel A Mouthful of Tongues and my novella A Year in the Linear City represent a new maturity in my work, a newfound ability to really move beyond all my old worn-out grooves and push for more startling, more impactful stories. On the other hand, I've called my humorous SF my "default mode," the kind of fiction I write easily, without really straining. So if I'm only remembered for the stories in Fractal Paisleys and the forthcoming Neutrino Drag, I'd still call that a fair assessment and reputation.
CL: So you consider your third novel, A Mouthful of Tongues, a turning point in your evolution as a writer?
PDF: Absolutely. This book was directly inspired by my reading at age eighteen of Delany's Tides of Lust, and so it represents a culmination of thirty years of longing to match this landmark book with a work of my own. The writing of it taught me a number of ways in which I could craft new kinds of sentences -- new to me anyway -- and achieve new effects. Even if I never write its like again, its legacy will influence all my future work.
CL: Your PS Publishing novella, A Year in the Linear City, sees you joining the ranks of China Miéville, Jeffrey Ford, and Jeff VanderMeer as a creator of postindustrial fantasy worlds. Are more such works to be expected from you?
PDF: Pete Crowther, PSP's publisher, has asked me to do a sequel to this book, and I wouldn't mind. But I've always been leery of returning too often to the same well, and don't have any immediate plans for such a venture. I do have a novel in mind called Temple Bells which inhabits a world where landscape plays an important part. But again, no firm plans to begin this project.
CL: Your two forthcoming novels, Spondulix and Fuzzy Dice, have rather tangled histories. Will their long-delayed releases unveil yet other literary identities? Do you feel they are still representative of your work?
PDF: Spondulix at novel length will not present any great surprises, since it follows the exact narrative arc of the short version, to be found in my Strange Trades collection. All I've done is flesh out the backstory and the characters, and add some real-time incidents. Fuzzy Dice might be another matter. This, I freely confess, is my Rudy Rucker novel. At every stage I asked myself, "What would Rudy do here?", then tried to torque the action through my own sensibilities. In a sense, it's more gonzo stuff like the stories in Fractal Paisleys, but with more transreal and scientifically adventurous components.
CL: Babylon Sisters and Other Posthumans includes two stories in your Babylon universe. Is that a setting you're planning on further exploring?
PDF: I mentioned my desire to attempt a space opera along the lines of Delany's Nova, and since these stories were directly inspired by Delany's Stars in My Pocket like Grains of Sand, then I suppose they point toward that certain same direction I hope to follow. Actually, my newest story, "Shipbreaker," just posted at SciFiction, is another foray along these lines. But I doubt I'll return to the specific locales or characters of the Babylon stories.
CL: How did your crime fiction collaborations with Michael Bishop come about?
PDF: Mike and I have maintained a good correspondence, supplemented with weekly phone calls, for some years now. We had begun to talk about our fondness for mysteries, specifically the work of Ross MacDonald, and then one day we just took the plunge and said, "Hell, let's try to write one ourselves." Both were done on spec. We have a third volume in mind to round out the series, but since no one's tossing money at us to write it, it's drifted to the backburner. The tentative title is Who Wrote My Name on Water?.
CL: Are you planning solo ventures into crime fiction?
PDF: I'd like to do a solo crime novel set in the Southwest and based on the tequila industry, of all things. No working title yet. But to do it authentically, I'd have to spend some time in Mexico and parts of the USA I've not yet visited, and such a research trip is beyond my means at the moment.
CL: You've gone on record as saying that you endorse capitalism, while at the same time writing fiction that is highly critical of it, its practices, and its consequences, from your early "Stone Lives," to almost every story in Strange Trades, to A Mouthful of Tongues. Could you explain this dichotomy?
PDF: I suppose invoking the old cliché about the USA's political system is my only response to this paradox: "The USA's governmental apparatus is unfair, illogical, screwed-up, demeaning, and brutal -- and it's the best one on the planet!" Capitalism has a host of things wrong with it, but so far it's proven itself as an unparalleled generator of wealth, inventions, art, and leisure time. Capitalism is like a relative with a lot of bad personal habits but who just happens to be a genius musician, say. You'd like him to reform, and you try to coax him to, but you don't want to destroy his creativity and sometimes you get lost in the beautiful vibe he creates. Then he pukes on your rug. Until I see a system that appeals to me as much as western-style capitalism, I'll have to stick by my old buddy, at the same time chastising him when appropriate.
CL: The most unifying aspect that I perceive in your work is a passionate desire to pervert consensus reality and imagine better worlds. Could you comment on that?
PDF: I think, Claude, you've correctly identified a utopian strain in me and my work. I 'fess up to such a starry-eyed nature and program. Perhaps because I had what I like to recall was an idyllic childhood, I continue to believe that life on this Earth is infinitely improvable. The tragedy comes in how bad we mess up, and why we can't get out of our own way to make the world a better place. (This is true on both the global and personal levels.) In my Buddhistic moments, I also recall the saying "Samsara [this mortal life] is nirvana." If only we could see it. And what's so funny about peace, love, and understanding anyhow?
Claude has also assembled a critical chronology of Paul Di Filippo's fiction.