GENE WOLFE interviewed by David Wilbanks (2005)
Gene Wolfe is the author of THE FIFTH HEAD OF CERBERUS, PEACE, THE DEVIL IN A FOREST, The Book of the New Sun, CASTLEVIEW, THERE ARE DOORS, SOLDIER OF THE MIST, SOLDIER OF ARETE, The Book of the Long Sun, The Book of the Short Sun, and others. His work has won two Nebula Awards and three World Fantasy Awards, the Deathrealm Award, the British Science Fiction Award, the British Fantasy Award, and others. His short fiction is collected in THE ISLAND OF DOCTOR DEATH AND OTHER STORIES AND OTHER STORIES, CASTLE OF DAYS, ENDANGERED SPECIES, STOREYS FROM THE OLD HOTEL, STRANGE TRAVELERS and INNOCENTS ABOARD. STARWATER STRAINS will appear soon. A two-volume fantasy, The Wizard Knight, is complete now with the publication of THE WIZARD.
HELLNOTES: At what point in your life did you consider yourself a writer? Did you write as a child?
GENE WOLFE: I considered myself a writer when I started trying to earn enough for Rosemary and me to make a down payment on some furniture. That was in 1957. I wrote a tiny bit as a child, and wrote three or four little pieces for a college magazine before I went into the army. I started writing seriously when I saw that I needed to earn more than my salary so we could move out of our furnished apartment.
HN: Who were some of the influences on your writing and your life? And how were they influential?
GW: My mother; she had never finished high school, but she was an intelligent woman and a voracious mystery reader. I'd read her mysteries behind her, and we'd talk about them. My father; he had read a lot of history and biography, and was an H.G. Wells fan. The first Wells I read was THE ISLAND OF DOCTOR MOREAU. Fred Pohl; my second sale was to him, and it was that sale that really began my career. My wife, Rosemary; she tolerated my writing when I hadn't sold anything and has been my secretary, PR woman, and cheerleader ever since. Lloyd Biggle, Jr.; he got my into SFWA. H.L. Gold; he was the first editor who encouraged me to write. And Damon Knight; he bought my work regularly and taught me a great deal.
HN: Who are some of your favorite horror or dark fantasy writers, and why?
GW: Neil Gaiman, of course. He's the master of the quirky idea and the great guru of dialog; and he has more talent and energy than a whole page of the HWA Directory. Brian Hopkins, my friend and a thoughtful writer who knows more about horror than anybody else I've ever met. M.R. James, the Past Master. William Seabrook, for the horror of his real life and because he wrote "The Caged White Werewolf of the Sarban." Jean Ingelow for MOPSA THE FAIRY. Carolyn See for DREAMING. I could go on and on.
HN: Where would you recommend a horror enthusiast begin reading your work? For instance, The Book of the New Sun has its darker moments; the main character is a torturer and the action takes place beneath a dying sun. Would this be a good place for a new reader to begin exploring?
GW: …I agree that would be a good start. Other readers might prefer to begin with a few shorter pieces. If so, I would suggest STRANGE TRAVELERS, particularly "Bluesberry Jam," "One, Two, Three for Me," "Counting Cats in Zanzibar," "The Death of Koshchei the Deathless," "Queen of the Night," "And When They Appear," "The Haunted Boardinghouse," and "Ain't You 'Most Done?"
HN: If a publisher asked you for a collection of your darker stories, which ones would you include?
GW: I've already named a few. Some others are "The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories," "The Hero as Werwolf," "Three Fingers," "The Death of Dr. Island," "Hour of Trust," "The Doctor of Death Island," "Seven American Nights," "The Tree Is My Hat," "The Friendship Light," "How the Bishop Sailed to Inniskeen," "Houston, 1943," "A Fish Story," "The Eleventh City," "The Night Chough," "A Traveler in Desert Lands," and "The Walking Sticks." Recent stories: "The Card," "The Vampire Kiss," "My Name Is Nancy Wood," "Pulp Cover," "Hunter Lake," and "Black Shoes."
If any editor would like to buy a little ghost story, my agent has "The Gunner's Mate." Inquire at the Virginia Kidd Agency, Inc.
HN: What's an average work day like for you? Do you take any time off from writing?
GW: My radio is set for 5:30; but if I wake up any time after 4:00, I generally stay up. I brush my teeth, make tea, take my eye drops, shave, do some exercises (sometimes...), make coffee, pray, eat breakfast (generally toast or cold cereal), and look at my email. After that I write, usually until eleven. Eight thirty to eleven is pretty typical. After that I take vitamins and play chess against a little computer. If I lose, I let myself know in no uncertain terms that I am a %$&*@#! And a caitiff knave to boot. If there's still time before lunch, I check for email again. After lunch, things get flexible. I may write more, write letters, shop, garden, pay bills, read, research, or what have you. Eventually I take a shower and go to bed. I don't write much on Sunday -- not at all, some Sundays. I don't write when we travel or at cons.
HN: What are you currently working on, and what can we look forward to in the future?
GW: I'm working on SOLDIER OF SIDON, a third novel about Latro. I've almost finished the third draft. I think I'd call the Soldier books historical fantasy. A pirate novel is in the works. Please understand that neither may sell, though I hope they will.
HN: I'm a bit of a music nut, so I always want to know everyone's favorite piece of music. Yours?
GW: Rosemary's the musical one. I like songs, and they are
generally songs most other people don't much like. Read "Bluesberry Jam," "Ain't You Most Done?" and "Flash Company." Also CASTLEVIEW. I like Blow Ye Winds in the Morning, Little Black Kiss, Witch of the Westmoorland, Barrette's Privateers, Claire de Lune, Spanish Ladies, Santa Anna, and such like. Hey, I never said I was perfect. I like The Washington Post March because I marched to it so often in high-school ROTC, college ROTC, the Texas National Guard, and the Army. I can hear the sling-swivels jingle again, the rattle of the drums, the tramping boots, and the shouted orders. I like China Night and Don't Let the Stars Get in Your Eyes.
HN: Could you recommend five books everyone should own and tell us why?
GW: Yes and no. The books: The Bible; Rawlinson's four-volume translation of Herodotus' HISTORY; Pope's translations of Homer [THE ILIAD and THE ODYSSEY], and a good dictionary. Explaining
why I picked those five would take a lengthy essay.
…I’ll be happy to furnish other titles. What about THE NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC ATLAS OF THE WORLD? Or THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE?
It's been a pleasure. I'm excited about your upcoming work, especially the pirate novel. The world needs more pirate novels.
GW: I feel the same way. Run out the guns! Signalman, run up the black ensign!