Interview: Robert Silverberg
By David Horwich
11 December 2000
Robert Silverberg is one of the notable figures in the history of science fiction. He has published an astonishing array of outstanding work in his long and productive career and won numerous awards, including 5 Nebulas and 4 Hugos. He has also edited numerous story anthologies, and served as the president of SFWA for a time.
During his most prolific period, from the mid-60s to the mid-70s, he published over twenty (20!) novels and many short stories. The novels of this era tend to be short, intense, tightly written works. Some of my favorites include A Time of Changes, Tower of Glass, Nightwings, and The World Inside, but this is hardly an exhaustive list. Pretty much everything from this period is well worth reading, although most of it is out of print.
After some time off in the late 70s (see here for a more extensive biographical sketch), Silverberg has continued to write and win awards; the best known of his more recent work is probably the multi-volume Majipoor series. Mr. Silverberg currently lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife, author Karen Haber. Before starting on his newest project, he took the time to answer these questions by email:
David Horwich: You've had an impressively prolific career as a writer. How do you maintain a high level of creativity and productivity? Do you have particularly disciplined working habits?
Robert Silverberg: Absolutely. When I'm working, it's Monday to Friday, week in and week out, at my desk at 8:30 AM and finished at noon, never any deviation. I work flat out all that time, no phone calls, no distractions. This is my schedule from November to April; I rarely work at all between April and November, but when I do, in some special instance, I maintain the same steady daily schedule until the job is done. Until 1971 I worked a longer day -- nine to noon, one to three -- and my output was accordingly greater, but after that year I saw no need to push myself quite that hard. But even now, when I'm relatively inactive as a writer compared with my furious pace of decades ago, I feel no alternative but to keep to the steady schedule while I'm working: I simply know no other comfortable way to work.
DH: Have you ever run into writer's block? If so, how have you dealt with it?
RS: There are plenty of days when I'd rather not go to the office and write. I write anyway, on such days. Once I get started, the reluctance usually disappears.
In 1974, after years of prolonged overwork, I found that I simply didn't want to write any more at all. How much of this was due to changing reader tastes (the tilt toward comic-booky stuff like Perry Rhodan), how much to simple fatigue, how much to various upheavals that were going on in my non-writing life, I can't say. I hesitate to call it a writer's block, because I define such blocks as the inability to write when the writer genuinely wants to write, and I simply didn't want to write any more. After four and a half years I felt I wanted to return to work and I sat down on Nov. 1, 1978 and started Lord Valentine's Castle without any difficulty at all, and continued on for the six months needed to write the book as though there had been no intermission at all.
I feel less and less like writing these days, but I don't think of that as writer's block either, just as a desire to make life easier for myself as I get into my senior years. Whenever it seems easier on me to write than not to write I always have the option of writing something, which I'll be doing in a couple of weeks when I start the new novel.
DH: You've written in a variety of genres -- what draws you to speculative fiction?
RS: It lit me up as a small boy and I've wanted ever since to contribute important work to the genre that meant so much to me as I was growing up. It's more than light entertainment in my mind; it seems to me the thing I was put here to create, and though I have indeed done an inordinate lot of writing in many genres, I've always felt I was dabbling, rather than really pursuing a career goal, when working at anything that wasn't s-f. (One exception was the archaelogical writing I did, archaeology seeming to me the reverse side of the coin from s-f, exploration into the mysterious past instead of the unknowable future. And I've crossbred a lot of my archaeological work with my s-f.)
DH: Which writers, if any, have had the greatest influence on you?
RS: Within s-f, Jack Vance, Philip K. Dick, Robert Sheckley, Henry Kuttner, C.M. Kornbluth, Robert Heinlein. (Plus others, but those are the obvious names.) Outside, Joseph Conrad, Graham Greene. (Ditto.)
DH: How does the process of collaboration compare to writing solo? Which collaborations have been the most and least successful?
RS: I really haven't collaborated that much. When I was just starting out I did a multitude of stories with Randall Garrett, who was living next door to me: his skills complemented mine. (He was good at plotting and had an extensive scientific education, but couldn't stay sober long enough to get much work finished. I had greater insight into character and command of style, and better writing discipline, but lacked his scientific knowledge.) We worked together for a couple of years, 1955-57, and then never again. My subsequent work has been virtually all solo except for a couple of stories I wrote with Harlan Ellison as a lark, and the three Asimov-Silverberg novels, in which I did nearly all of the writing because of the deteriorating state of Isaac's health. I don't particularly like collaborating and am not likely to do any again.
DH: The Majipoor series represents a different direction in your work -- an ongoing series that explores one enormous world, in contrast to the tightly constructed novels and stories that characterize much of your speculative fiction. Did you plan to write a continuing series, or did it grow in the telling?
RS: Originally I intended to write only Lord Valentine's Castle, though I was aware that I had ended it with the question of Shapeshifter unrest unresolved. A year or two later I began writing the stories that made up Majipoor Chronicles to deal with various bits of Majipoor history that I thought were worth exploring, because it bothered me that there had been no occasion to deal with them in the original novel, and then, finally, I decided to do the actual sequel to Castle, Valentine Pontifex, to handle in a realistic way the questions I had raised in the first book.
As the series became popular I felt the temptation to return to Majipoor, and, since there was material in one of the Chronicles stories that seemed to call out for examination in detail, I conceived the idea of the second trilogy, which in fact takes place a thousand years before Castle.
DH: The story of Gilgamesh appears in a number of your works. What special significance does this story have for you?
RS: It's the oldest known story we have, and it deals with the most profound of issues -- the reality of death -- as well as the question of the responsibilities of kings. These are matters I've often wrestled with and the figure of Gilgamesh neatly encapsulates them in metaphorical mode.
DH: The novella "Gilgamesh in the Outback" is an ironic version of this story, with the action taking place in the afterlife and the responsibilities of kings being essentially irrelevant. . .what were you trying to convey (besides an entertaining story) with this twist? Incidentally, did the portrayal of Robert E. Howard in this novella create any controversy?
RS: No special agenda. I was simply registering a different take on the Gilgamesh material. I don't recall any controversy over my Howard portrait; the fans, who might be the most likely to take offense at any slight to their hero, awarded me a Hugo for the story. [in 1987 -- DH]
DH: Many of your works have mortality and spirituality as central themes. What brings you back to this theme?
RS: I'm going to die one of these days, and I don't like the idea at all. One of the things that drew me to science fiction as a young reader was my hope that through s-f I'd get some sort of glimpse, however imaginary, of the future that I knew I would not live to see. In my own writing I keep dealing with the problem of the finite life span again and again. As for spiritual matters, well, I am painfully aware of the ultimate solitude in which we all live, and have searched for some sense of connectivity with a universal entity, while at the same time I am utterly unable to connect with any sort of conventional religious faith. The gulf between those two problems has been a fertile ground for fictional exploration for me.
RS: No doubt about it.
DH: Can you talk a little bit about the role of erotic or sexual themes in your work?
RS: There was a strong erotic component to my s-f from 1966 or so on, but only because it seemed appropriate to the kind of fiction I wanted to write that I include sex among the functions of living beings. At the time what I was writing seemed quite daring in relation to traditional s-f, though everybody caught up to me later on.
DH: To take a specific example, The World Inside imagines a society in which casual extramarital sex is a fundamental social custom. Are such depictions of different cultural values meant to serve as critiques of our contemporary standards?
RS: It's not a conscious thing on my part. I have no intention of trying to remedy society's ills through writing science fiction. In most of my writing I'm simply trying to explore the narrative consequences of my own premises: if this, then that. It isn't as though I'm trying to peddle a message; I'm just following down a line of reasoning. And in particular trying to examine varying cultural values just to see where the examination will lead.
DH: How do you view your erotica in the context of your work? Does it have any relation to your speculative fiction, or is it something separate? Has having written in this genre, even pseudonymously, ever caused you any difficulty?
RS: The other erotica I did, the Don Elliott books, etc., was undertaken at a time when I was saddled with a huge debt, at the age of 26, for a splendid house that I had bought. There would have been no way to pay the house off by writing science fiction in that long-ago era, when $2500 was a lot to earn from a novel that might take months to write, so I turned out a slew of quick sex novels. I never concealed the fact that I was doing them; it made no difference at all to me whether people knew or not. It was just a job. And it was, incidentally, a job that I did very well. I think they were outstanding erotic novels.
DH: You've had a wide range of experience in SF, as a writer, an anthologist, and past president of the SFWA. What are your thoughts on the current state of speculative fiction?
RS: It seems to me to be in great trouble these days -- the challenging, speculative kind of s-f that I grew up thinking was the real stuff appears to be wholly swamped by the debased mass-culture product now favored by publishers and all too many readers -- but I am no longer a close observer of the field, having drawn back in horror some years ago, and my opinion may be incorrect. I certainly hope so.
DH: What sort of 'debased mass-culture product' do you have in mind, and why do you think it's become predominant? Is the amount of unimaginative or derivative writing in SF today proportionally greater than it was in the past?
RS: I think there's a lot of terribly-written material being published today, and neither writers nor editors nor readers seem aware of that. Thus the premium on literary accomplishment, which carried such writers as Bradbury and Sturgeon and Leiber to fame, has been devalued: if no one can tell junk from gold these days, gold is worth no more than junk. But we've always had bad writing, and it hasn't mattered in the case of really powerful storytellers -- van Vogt, say. What really bothers me is the eagerness of people to buy huge quantities of books patched together out of dumb or recycled ideas, or out of stale concepts translated from mediocre Hollywood products that have lowest-common-denominator audience goals.
DH: What can you tell us about any upcoming projects?
RS: I'm going to be starting a relatively short book, tentatively called Homeworld, in a couple of weeks. [This interview was completed in mid-November. -- DH] It's the story of an adolescent boy who finds himself stranded on the wrong side of his planet when a civil war breaks out, but it'll be anything but a juvenile novel. Next year I plan to assemble my various Roma Eterna stories into a book, adding a good deal of new material. No plans beyond that as yet. I'm in my mid-sixties now, have been writing professionally for 45 years, wouldn't mind a holiday lasting the next few decades, but somehow I doubt that I'll allow myself that luxury. Nevertheless I've been reducing my writing schedule gradually over the past five years and expect to hold to that slower pace from here on out.
DH: We look forward to seeing Homeworld. Thanks for your time.
David Horwich is Senior Articles Editor for Strange Horizons. His previous appearance in Strange Horizons was "Irony and Misunderstanding in the Stories of Robert Sheckley."
A thorough bibliography of Robert Silverberg's works