Interview: Thomas M. Disch

By David Horwich

Thomas M. Disch

Photo by Jamie Spracher

This week in Strange Horizons we present another of our periodic author focus issues; this issue features the novelist, poet, and critic Thomas M. Disch. In his career of almost 40 years, Disch has distinguished himself as one of the most original and versatile writers to emerge from the new wave of speculative fiction that transformed the genre in the 1960s. He's best known in the SF world for his novels Camp Concentration and 334, as well as many outstanding, often satirical short stories. He's also written widely in poetry, horror, and criticism.

I first encountered Disch's work in Samuel R. Delany's collection of SF criticism, The Jewel-Hinged Jaw; Delany's evident admiration for Disch's writing led me to begin working my way through Disch's stories and novels. On Wings of Song is probably my favorite of Disch's novels, although I'm also quite fond of The Genocides. I was delighted to recently have the opportunity to talk with him on the phone at his residence in upstate New York about his life and career.

David Horwich: Let's begin at the beginning. When did you start writing?

Thomas M. Disch: Is there ever a beginning? I remember walking home from Incarnation kindergarten, in Minneapolis, with Dennis White, my best friend at that age, and telling him stories of Ronald Rabbit. They were serial adventures, and I'd even have cliffhangers that we'd part on -- I had a longer walk home than he did. Those are the first stories I remember telling, but who knows what stories I told my parents? Storytelling is just absolutely natural to me. It's my way of getting along with people, I guess.

DH: So you've always been telling stories. When did you first start writing them down?

TD: I suppose they ask you to do that sort of thing in grade school; I don't remember stories I wrote then. I did keep nickel tablets full, not of stories, but of plot outlines that simulated Asimov; my inspiration was The Caves of Steel. I'd just discovered science fiction, and I thought, oh yes! galactic civilizations in conflict with each other! So I filled tablets full with character descriptions, plot outlines, and future histories of my own galactic empires, about which I remember nothing. This was around age 11 or 12.

DH: That's when you'd first encountered science fiction?

TD: At about age 11, yes. I discovered it through my friend Bruce Burton, with whom I played Story Tag -- a more elaborate version of the Ronald Rabbit tales, in which we exchanged cliffhangers. He started coming up with ideas that just blew me away. It was a long time before I found out that he was getting them all from Astounding Science Fiction -- plagiarism in Story Tag! [laughs] I thought he'd suddenly become some sort of genius or something. He stopped winning Story Tag once I realized where it was coming from.

In Fairmont, Minnesota, you could only get SF magazines by subscribing to them, so I got my own subscriptions. I think I subscribed to Galaxy before I did Astounding; anyhow, those were my science fiction magazine years, 1951, '52, '53. When I hit 14, I was living in the Twin Cities, and in 10th grade we had to read Julius Caesar. When I discovered Shakespeare, and realized what poetry was, and how it worked, I was just wiped out. Before that, I had just thought of it as greeting card stuff. So I abandoned science fiction, and flew to the stars. My ambition then was to become Shakespeare, and Thomas Hardy, and Dostoevksii, and whichever volume of the modern library that hit me on the head next.

DH: Was that about the time you started writing poetry?

TD: I started writing poetry before I started writing short stories, as such, but I started doing both in high school. But I knew that what I was writing simply was subpar -- one of the curses of intelligence -- so I didn't pursue literary ambitions farther than school assignments and the high school literary magazine would take me. That was also true in college. I took a short story writing course with one great professor, and he encouraged me; I also had other classmates to measure myself against, but I knew that still I wasn't really quite ready.

Then, when I was 22, and a junior in college, I had what we then spoke of as a nervous breakdown. I didn't want to take my finals. I hadn't studied for them, and I couldn't ace a calculus test without studying, so I was faced with this crisis. At the same time, I knew, somehow, that if I sat down the weekend that I was having my nervous breakdown and wrote a story, it would be publishable, that I was ready to write a publishable story. So I wrote "The Double-Timer," which was seven and a half thousand words. It was the first story I wrote thinking, "this could be published." And it was. And I never took my make-ups.

DH: So it was a personal crisis that led you to a moment when you ready to move the next level?

TD: I don't think it really was a personal crisis, I think it was an unconscious decision. That's what I've always felt about nervous breakdowns, if you're not really whacked out, or schizophrenic; basically, you're making a decision that is so hard that you need the excuse of neurosis. I think nervous breakdowns were much more common in the late '50s and early '60s, and the world is more hip about those things today, so that people can make decisions without claiming that excuse. But it works both ways; it was a great advantage having nervous breakdowns.

DH: Once you were first published in the early '60s, were you planning on trying to make a career of writing?

TD: Pretty much. It was 1962, and I had sold the first story to Fantastic. I started writing other stories in quick succession, and they were getting better, gradually, perceptibly. The range of stories was also naturally increasing, and I thought -- hey, I can do this; in fact, I think I can do it pretty well.

DH: Were you writing mainly science fiction at this time?

TD: Almost all, because it was an open field. I wasn't going to go up against Saul Bellow, or even the people at The New Yorker. I've never sold to The New Yorker. I have a class theory of literature. I come from the wrong neighborhood to sell to The New Yorker. No matter how good I am as an artist, they always can smell where I come from. I guess the only one of all of us who ever found her way into The New Yorker was Ursula Le Guin, and even then she was like a visiting alien.

DH: Is that still true today?

TD: Oh, yes. It's more true today, because I think I'm more true to my vision -- I know what it is, and I know I'm their class enemy. That's true for the poetry, too. I've known the poetry editor at The New Yorker in a friendly way -- Howard Moss, back then -- and he would never take anything of mine. But there are places that do, because they're less committed to fulfilling a vision of their audience as they see it. The New Yorker has a very good sense of who its audience is -- it's John Updike's, it's upper-middle class, it's people of a certain income. And if you're not writing to comfort those people, they don't want to hear. That's true for virtually everything written. It's all directed to a certain age level, sex preference--

DH: Advertising market.

TD: All of those things. All the demographics. Those are realities. Sometimes they're realities one bloodies one's forehead by butting against, but -- older and wiser -- as long as I have somewhere to publish, I can be blasé about it.

DH: Was it a struggle to establish your career? What was the science fiction field like in the early '60s?

The GenocidesTD: Wide open, for me. I quickly got pretty good, to the degree that it sent out warning signals to some people. Even the dislike of those who didn't like me was a kind of compliment, in the form that it took. Algis Budrys talked of me as a "nihilist." That's the word people use when they want to say, "this is our enemy. He believes nothing." Meaning, he believes nothing that we believe in (and we believe a lot of crap). So you have the advantage over them that way, even in their enmity.

DH: Were you trying to do something different--

TD: I didn't have to try. If I just followed my vision, that was different. There were lots of people my own age and generation and background who were writing similarly to me, and so I was scarcely alone -- I was part of the "New Wave," which meant: college-educated smartypants. The old kind of smartass writer had only had a high school education. Science fiction in the '30s and '40s was a working class literature, like the detective pulps. The whole country gradually was becoming more educated, and I was part of that whole transition.

DH: How much of this was also a product of, or influenced by, the cultural and social changes going on in the '60s?

TD: Well, we were the cultural and social change going on. We were part of it, we reflected it in our own lives, we mirrored it, and we stimulated it by our writings and other vehicles. It was mutually reinforcing. It's nice to have been part of history that way.

DH: Did you have a sense at the time that you and your colleagues were doing something different and new?

TD: Oh, sure, we knew it. It was rather a glorious sensation. We knew we were kicking ass. And that was fun.

DH: So the reception was positive at the time, within the field, within fandom as it existed then?

334TD: Well, it was positive and negative. Always, the older generation that's being shoved aside isn't too happy about that. The older ones had a choice -- they could join us, or they could try and fight back. It was really a case of which ones were going to decide to be fuddy-duddies, and which ones were going to move along.

There was one generation right on the cusp -- Brian Aldiss, Phil Dick, people in that generation -- that had the choice of becoming New Wave with us, and taking advantage of all of the liberties of writing -- the adult-rated language, and situations, and comedy. You could finally write for grown-ups! That was wonderful! For lots of the older writers, it was catnip to them, and they had a rebirth; Damon Knight was one of them. But there were a few stick-in-the muds who just couldn't move with the times, like Algis Budrys, and Ray Bradbury, and I think they sort of stayed back in the Paleolithic.

DH: John Campbell was still a one of the major editors in the field when you were starting out. Did you have any encounters or run-ins with him?

TD: No, no. . .I wouldn't have socialized with him, and I don't believe that he appeared outside of his own throne room in public. I was at a lot of science fiction conventions -- never saw him there. I think people who are sufficiently self-important don't mingle with the up-and-comers. I never saw Heinlein.

DH: Do you have a particular favorite from your work of that period?

TD: I actually don't, because for one thing I don't read things over, unless for some reason I have to. When I do have to, I'm usually pleasantly surprised and think, hey, that's pretty good -- and I haven't read it in 40 years. I was just rereading a story I wrote in 1964, "Dangerous Flags," that's the last piece on a CD I made recently (that'll answer your question, an early favorite). It's a perfectly off-the-wall, silly story; when I wrote it, I knew I'd found a distinctive tone and voice and off-the-wall way of writing SF comedy that just tickled me. That was what let me become a satirist, to write just for the fun of it. At about the same time, I found the same voice in my poetry.

DH: Were you publishing poetry at this time too?

TD: Yes, at just the same time I sold my first poem to Minnesota Review, and I've written poetry ever since. It's part of what I do.

DH: The poetry hasn't been entirely science fictional, though?

TD: No, it's not science fictional at all -- it's poetry. There's a certain element in all the world's poetry. . .when metaphors explode, they can become science fiction, but it's not part of the agenda, it's just something that happens naturally in poems. There's a crew within science fiction that thinks there is something called "science fiction poetry," and to me that's always a warning sign -- it's like a skin disease -- you avoid people whose idea of poetry is that there are two separate kinds, science fiction and non-science fiction. There's just poetry.

I suppose ultimately it's the more glorious form of literature, but in our times you're not going to make a living from poetry, and I think I have written as much good poetry as a professional poet can be expected to in this much of a lifetime. I have seven volumes of poetry, and there's a possibility now of a Collected Poems. The Collected Poems would at least double the actual physical mass of the published poetry, and maybe more than double. It would be a book of 500 or so pages, which is pretty healthy. I'm always alive to the possibility -- anytime there's a good poem there, I leave everything else and write the poem. Sometimes it comes thicker and faster than others, but there's never been a period in my life when I haven't had my antennae out ready to receive a poem.

DH: Is it not that way with prose?

TD: With stories, I have an ideas file that is five inches thick. You can't write every story idea that you come up with. For those, it's a question of market -- would it behoove me to write a particular story, would it be published somewhere I want to be published, or would it earn me some nice money -- all of those questions are involved in deciding to go with a particular idea. Also: would I have fun? Some stories are more work than they are fun. They take a lot of professional work. It's like tailoring. I don't think anybody tailors a suit for the fun of it -- it's work. A lot of fiction, and any novel, takes that kind of work.

But with poetry, although there's work, the attention span that's required to bring a good poem to completion is rarely more than a day or two. I wouldn't do a poem unless I thought it was going to be good. I wouldn't sit down and say, oh, I've got to write a poem now, and rack my brains and wonder what to do. It's either there or it isn't. If it's there, I write it. The poetry is like a visitation. That's why they talk about the muse. If she comes, you just say hello.

DH: Do you feel the New Wave achieved its purpose? Did things begin to change after a certain time, or--

TD: We accomplished our purpose, and in one ironic way we failed. Science fiction, in our culture, is basically intended for children, or young adults, as they say, and a certain amount of science fiction has to fulfill the emotional and intellectual needs of 13, 14, 15-year olds. If it fails to do that as a genre, then it won't command its place in the marketplace. So, inevitably, the people who invented and wrote for Star Trek or did sword-and-sorcery were catering to that audience, and that audience always renews itself. It's not the same audience -- people grow up to be science fiction age, then they live through their science fiction age, and then they depart science fiction, and a new generation takes their place.

Well, if that's the truth, then writers who aren't by temperament suited to write for that audience aren't going to be welcome or successful in the science fiction field. So, partly, science fiction writers age out of it -- Ursula kind of did -- or they make an accommodation to it, like Silverberg, doing the Majipoor books after he'd done his New Wave stuff. I mean, that was definitely retrogression, and it was done to make money. He was a writer, a professional, and he had to, finally, go where the audience was.

Other people find new audiences elsewhere in the culture. I did, sort of, although the horror novels are a lateral shift -- it's a different audience, and presumably an older audience, and it's a different cultural audience. The emotional needs you're catering to are different. Also, all of these genres themselves are shifting in terms of the audience over time. Science fiction shrank noticeably after the New Wave. There are fewer magazines to publish stories. The short story was always the way that a new young writer made himself known, and that is now harder to do. I was just at Readercon, in Boston, and you look out at an audience there -- it's shocking how much older it is in general. Of course, Readercon is aimed at the reading audience, rather than the television-viewing audience that seems to be the focus of most SF conventions.

DH: Do you think this is inherent in the genre, or is it more a result of the marketing/publishing demands of our culture?

TD: It's never been an esthetic necessity; you could always write adult science fiction, the question was, could you make a living writing it? If you write very good fiction, and it's science fiction, you can usually find somewhere to publish it, unless you write a peculiar sort of novel that creates its own special audience within science fiction. I'm thinking of R.A. Lafferty, who wrote as though he were Piers Anthony writing for grown-ups; there simply is no audience outside of SF for that particular combination, it's a taste that only exists within SF. I suppose there are a few writers like that, who are so sui generis that they can only be published within the ghetto walls.

Then there's Philip Dick -- couldn't get his mainstream work published, and he had a hard time getting his good SF published, too. It was nip-and-tuck whether he would survive long enough to become recognized properly for what he did. He was very well thought of through his creative heyday, but the admiration of his peers wasn't enough to put a meal on the table for himself. He had lots of responsibilities, and I don't think he met them all very well; it was constant anxiety for him.

DH: You've mentioned the SF ghetto. How much have you run into those walls?

TD: Snubs? Lots. There's a certain kind of academic who relies on that kind of defense, but it's become more passé in time, and those academics are now more careful of their snobberies than they were, say, 20 years ago. The most effective snobbery is simply not to read the people that you snub, and not to write about them, and not to have them at your awards ceremonies and all that. The ghetto is still very effective in that way, in that the doors of most establishment publications are closed to science fiction people. However, there are very few science fiction people rapping on those doors. So there seems to be a general agreement that we live in two different worlds, and we only marry our own kind.

DH: You've moved from science fiction to horror with the Minnesota novels--

The SubTD: Well, there are those, but a good part of my attention has gone into criticism, and non-fiction, and theater. . .all over the map, really. I took a year or two out of my life to write a computer interactive game. There have been movie proposals, that sometimes don't pan out, but earn a bit of money. There have been two historical novels that were both sort of successful, and those took a lot of work.

When you give something a lot of work, your own sense of who you are changes, but rarely does the audience follow from one thing to another. So I never know -- if somebody calls up and says, "Hello, is this the Thomas Disch?", I'll say, "I don't know. What's your idea of the Thomas Disch?" I could be a poet -- for lots of people, I only am a poet, and they're surprised when they hear that I do this other stuff. Similarly with the horror novels, with the science fiction -- each of those audiences doesn't read outside of their own set of interests, so rarely are there faithful followers.

DH: So it's not enough to have a brand-name name?

TD: Not unless the brand name is establishment to begin with. Somebody like Updike could write all over the map, and people would follow Updike. Disch, that is not true for.

DH: You see mainstream authors try to write science fiction novels occasionally. . .

TD: They usually suck. Paul Theroux, oh my god -- that O-Zone is terrible. Likewise Doris Lessing, and she's done a lot of it. She's about as much fun as L. Ron Hubbard. I don't like her work. But she's got this identity as a socially concerned, responsible writer. . .the people who liked the early work she did, that put her on the map -- I can't believe many of them like those Canopus novels. But they got respectful attention.

DH: Because she's Doris Lessing?

TD: And also because she's a feminist icon, and if you're an icon of a particular movement, then you can do no wrong. Like the gay contingent that follows certain other writers. [pause] I'm gay myself, but I don't write "gay" literature.

DH: Have you been held up as an icon or model for the gay community?

TD: Scarcely at all. I was pleased when a book called The Gay Canon included On Wings of Song; I thought, well, finally! they seem to notice me. But just as the book was published, and its author was to go on tour, he was almost killed by a gay-basher in Dublin.

DH: When was that?

TD: Oh, three years ago now. He's still in the hospital. Very sad. It was a nice book, though. And it's the only time anybody ever said, oh, this is a gay writer.

DH: Have you always been out?

TD: Yes. . .well, as soon as I knew it, I was out. From, let's say, about '68. It started to appear in the poetry more than elsewhere. I've never been one to write confessional or autobiographical fiction; there were some gay-themed stories from that time forward, and I suppose On Wings of Song is the first novel which is quite clearly the work of a gay writer writing about gay experience. But there is a lot of it in 334, too.

Science fiction writers were able to take advantage of the new liberties of the culture -- and people didn't notice. One of the advantages of being a science fiction writer, in terms of artistic freedom, is that people don't pay attention to what you do, and so you're free to be audacious. That was true for writers in the '50s, when the audacity was of a political sort.

DH: Do you think there's been a political dimension in your own writing?

Camp ConcentrationTD: I daresay there has. I did things that were obviously anti-Vietnam, Camp Concentration, and Echo Round His Bones, even earlier. I think politically, so it has to be there in a lot of the fiction that I've done, but I was never a crusader; I don't have some cause that I'm trumpeting, and I don't suppose most readers would think of me as a political writer. But it's there in virtually every novel, and probably more in the horror novels than the science fiction.

DH: Why did you choose your native Minnesota as the setting of the horror novels?

TD: Well, the first one was set there, and then my idea was to make a sort of Balzacian comédie humaine, with overlapping characters. Also, Minnesota is a more probable circumscribed environment. A horror novel needs a kind of glass dome over it, geographically. You need an area that isn't the world, and a city like New York, to my mind, is the whole world.

DH: You've also written some children's stories -- The Brave Little Toaster is the best known.

TD: Yes, and others. And others still in the works. I'll tell you one of my favorite ideas that I haven't found a taker for yet -- maybe there's a publisher out there who wants me to write it for them -- a book specifically for young girls titled So You Want To Be The Pope. It would resemble a career guide, explaining that, well, yes, nowadays girls aren't yet allowed to be the Pope, but so many other barriers have fallen: so here is your plan for how to set about becoming the first female Pope. A perfectly serious book on the subject, that would talk about the history of the papacy. . . [laughs]

DH: I can see why some publishers might be a little wary.

TD: . . .and talk to a sensible, ambitious, idealistic young girl who would want to be the Pope. I think it would be a wonderful book.

DH: It would certainly have a political dimension. Do you set out to write a children's story per se, or is it sometimes decided by the way things develop as you write them?

The Brave Little ToasterTD: Well, at the beginning of a particular story you know if it's going to be a children's story, because the tone is that way. I've done several such stories that I've published as science fiction short stories, because there's no book publisher ready for them. All the book publishers who saw the proposal for The Brave Little Toaster said, "No. The notion of appliances talking and having characters is just too far-fetched, and children will not accept it." They can accept talking animals, but they can't accept a talking toaster? even after I'd sold it to Disney, and Disney had it in production? Children's book editors -- talk about conservative! The most conservative people in our culture are children's book editors. They simply won't do anything that hasn't been done to death a hundred times before.

So although I have lots of wonderful ideas for children's books, and I write them, I don't publish them, except for the Brave Little Toaster things. Even then, the editor at Doubleday who finally did publish it, did so only because Doubleday had taken me on a five-book contract (well, Dial had, actually), and the Brave Little Toaster was one of those five. The movie, at that point, was already in the works, but still she told me, "I would never have published this myself. I think that this is not a proper children's book."

DH: Not much credit being given to children's imagination there, it seems.

TD: Oh, no. They are the enemies of the imagination, and I think almost consciously. In a funny way, I guess they're doing the "right" job, because an awfully large part of bringing children up is repressing them. Just the way that schools are penal institutions for the very young, some children's books are ways of stultifying the imagination. You can tell 'em I said so.

DH: What books fire up your imagination? Who are your favorite authors, and has your own writing been influenced by anyone in particular?

TD: Tolstoi. Truly. I read War and Peace in high school, and thought that it was very important. When I was writing The Genocides, I went down to Mexico and brought along a small supply of books, Anna Karenina among them. I don't believe that there's any direct correspondence, except that Anna Karenina was so beautiful, just constantly awesome. It was the only text for the "Beginning a Novel" writing course that I gave when I was artist-in-residence at William and Mary in 1996. It had just the effect I hoped for on my students. It just knocked them out; as soon as they had to read it attentively under a microscope, to look at what Tolstoi was doing and to try and imitate it in a conscious way, it was like putting plant food in a tomato pot.

DH: What is it about Tolstoi that you find inspirational?

TD: There's a quote from Willa Cather's The Song of the Lark -- Willa Cather is another one I love; that's very recent, I found her late in life. She was assigned reading in high school, and nothing could be more. . .averse --

DH: [laughs] I've heard this from other Midwesterners.

TD: -- so I avoided Willa Cather, but in late life I discovered her. In The Song of the Lark she says that in art the most important thing is the ability to tell the truth, and if you can do that, you've really won. But it isn't easy; people think it's easy to tell the truth, that you only have to look in your heart and there it is. But no -- it's the hardest thing to do, and that's what Tolstoi does, more than any other fiction writer. It's astonishing -- I'm just now reading his biography, and he was a horrible person --

DH: Oh, god, yes.

TD: -- he was such a mess, impossible to deal with, and nasty, but he was simply the best fiction writer who ever lived, and you have to study his work, sentence by sentence, molecule by molecule, and see how he builds each character who comes along.

And that's what we did. There were about 12 students in the class, and each one was assigned a particular minor character in War and Peace to track as we read along, and each class they would give a report on what more we knew about their character. We could track each character against the others as the book progressed, something that ideally one ought to do as an attentive reader. Then, the final assignment for the class was to write a new episode of War and Peace about the character they had been studying. Almost all of them did a better piece of work than they'd done on their own up to that point, because they were paying close attention. One of the girls did a story about a battle scene with one of the military characters -- it was wonderful, it was so good that you could have slipped it into the published book. It let her know the truth of what Willa Cather said -- to get the truth, it takes a lot of work, and that's the work that Tolstoi did, and that this girl did; she aced the course.

The Dreams Our Stuff is Made OfDH: You mentioned that a lot of your attention has gone into criticism and other non-fiction lately. Your retrospective look at SF, The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of, won a Hugo. What other reactions have you had to this book?

TD: Well, it's weird, because I know a lot of people must disagree with it very strongly, but they never dare say so out loud in my presence. The reviews sort of hedged, and when they said that I was attacking one of their favorites icons, whether it was Heinlein or Le Guin, they would always say, "Be warned. He's not kind to so-and-so," but they didn't say that I was wrong in the unkindness that they experienced. I really covered my ass very well, through all of the harsh criticism in the book -- it wasn't just easy one-liners, I argued each case that was significant that way.

The nicest compliment I had was in a review that I just read on Frank Wu's website, where the author said that for years he and a friend of his had been arguing about Le Guin and Heinlein, and that in my book I had made all of the arguments against Heinlein that he makes to his friend, and also made all the arguments against Le Guin that his friend makes to him; and that he realized, simply, that I was right. And that's what I like to think I did. I like to think that I just made pretty unarguable cases when I was insisting on something. I suppose the weakest areas of the book are the things that I ignore, but I think that's probably a good policy in writing a book that has a polemical side to it.

DH: What was your motivation for writing it?

TD: I simply knew that this was something, one of three or four subjects, that I could write about with authority. My life had been the research for it, so I felt equipped to write it, and I thought it would flow pretty easily, and so it did.

DH: Was there something that spurred on this retrospective look?

TD: I suppose "the pressure of time" (a story title of mine) -- I felt that I'd reached that point in my life, and that the field had reached that point in its life, where I could reap the harvest.

DH: Do you think if you were a young writer today that you'd be working in science fiction?

TD: No, no. It's sad. I know that there are certain temperaments that naturally move towards science fiction, but I don't think you can make a career starting off in science fiction right now. I don't think the ladder goes up all the way. I may be wrong. I think it some kind of internet thing would be a good place to start--

DH: Is it mainly the lack of markets, then?

TD: Oh yes. Poetry would be just the same, because poetry is not a livelihood. But for fiction, commercial writing, I think you'd have to find a different way, and you'd have to find a way so that to start off in the media -- TV, sitcoms, serials (I don't think anybody gets into the movie business directly). As the market stands right now, mysteries would be probably a better entry-level job opportunity for a good fiction writer, because there's a market for those and you can be as intelligent as you like; right now, there's not room for intelligent science fiction of the sort that I made my way with.

DH: Franchise and tie-in books seem to have become dominant in the marketplace.

TD: And that's just too disheartening; you can write one or two books like that, and think, well, I'm making my way up the ladder, but you will find that the ladder doesn't go higher than those franchise books, or doing real donkey work.

DH: Why do you think that the field has developed in this way?

TD: I think it represents the globalization of the economy, that only creating product is going to be available as a job opportunity; that means that fiction is going to be -- as poetry has been -- written for art's sake. Which means only rich people can afford to write fiction as a life pursuit. If you're a housewife, or you have some other sinecure, that could be a career -- somebody like Carol Emshwiller can be a short story writer all her life -- or it will be a hobby. But to have the kind of career I've had, which has been very good to me, I don't think that's going to be possible as a general thing. I wouldn't want to be eighteen again.

DH: What are you working on these days?

TD: I have a novel that is 40000 words and on, and I can't tell you anything about it; even the title is too much of a giveaway. I have a proposal out for a new non-fiction critical work that is such a neat idea that nobody's done before that I can't tell you that, either. It's something that somebody really could steal; it's timely, and it's amazingly not been a book before. I've told my agent that I'm going to write the non-fiction book only when I've finished the novel, which is going along at a nice rate. Then there's the possibility of the Collected Poems, as I mentioned, and I've got a book of my serious essays -- not just on poetry, but on literature, and life in general -- in the works. In the last few years, I've more and more come into my own as a non-fiction writer. So those are my good intentions.

DH: Do you write more or less than you used to? Does it come in cycles, or do you have a steady level of writing?

TD: I've pretty well maintained the same fairly steady flow, but always with interruptions. I mean, I'm not one of these writers like Joyce Carol Oates, for whom a river runs through it, but I keep my nose to the grindstone.

DH: Is there anything else you'd like to talk about?

TD: Oh, goodness, what a luxury it is to have somebody interested in everything you can possibly think to say, and to record it; that side of being an elder statesman and all is just pure gravy. After I've talked for more than an hour about myself -- who could ask for more? It's almost like a kind of drunkenness, to be asked to do that at intervals. I certainly enjoy it; then I have to go and flog myself for an hour to return to reality.

DH: Back to reality, then. Thank you for your time.

 

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David Horwich is Senior Articles Editor for Strange Horizons. His previous publications in Strange Horizons can be found in our archive.

For more on Thomas M. Disch, visit this fine website.