Interviews With The Fantastic
InterGalactic Interview With Robert Silverberg
by Darrell Schweitzer
SCHWEITZER: Let me start with what is doubtless on your fans' minds these
days. Have you really retired from writing fiction? If so, why? Maybe it's because
I haven't been at it as long or with such intensity, but I find it hard to understand
why someone would stop writing when they still could.
SILVERBERG: The only thing I've retired from is writing novels. After I wrote
The Longest Way Home, somewhere around 2002, I said I would not write any
more novels, and I haven't, despite several offers from publishers. I just don't
want to make the big commitment of time and stamina that a novel would require.
But I've continued to do short stories and even the occasional novella, like the
recent Last Song of Orpheus, and in fact I finished a new short story this very
month. And I still do essays for Asimov's SF and introductions for other people's
books. I won't deny, though, that I'm far less active as a writer than I once was.
I'm 76, after all; writing takes time and energy; there are still a lot of things I want
to do in the time that is remaining to me, other than writing more science fiction.
And it isn't as though my existing bibliography is a skimpy one.
SCHWEITZER: Is fiction writing for you a job or a compulsion?
SILVERBERG: Probably both. The fact that I've written so much over the years,
even after economic pressures ceased to be a driving factor, very likely indicates
that something within me keeps pushing me to move words around on paper. I've
been doing it, after all, for seventy years or so, if you count the little stories I was
writing in the third grade. And I don't seem to stop.
SCHWEITZER: Has this changed for you over time?
SILVERBERG: I write more slowly than I once did, and I spend much less of my
time each year doing it. I don't think there's anything unusual about that. Some
writers stay prolific to the end, like Frederick Faust (Max Brand), but Faust died
when he was in his fifties. I wonder if he'd still have been knocking them out at
the old rate if he had lived another twenty years. Another of my prolific heroes,
Georges Simenon, was 68 or so when he wrote his last novel. (Though he did go
on compulsively writing autobiographical works to the end of his days.)
SCHWEITZER: Do you find yourself, after all this time, comparing your career
with those of other writers? (Here you are citing Frederick Faust and Georges
Simenon.) I suppose we must all look with envy on the career of Jack Williamson,
or on Gene Wolfe, who seems to be at the top of his game and turning out novels at
great speed at80.
SILVERBERG: Envy is not much of a psychological issue for me, and never has
been. I've been able to sell everything I write and have it appear in the places
where I want it to appear, and the success of other writers is something I cheer, not
bemoan. Sure, I'd like to have Stephen King's income or Neil Gaiman's
popularity with huge crowds of readers, but my work is not much like theirs, is not
likely to appeal to great multitudes of readers outside the central SF audience, and
so be it.
The only writers I ever compared myself with were Philip K. Dick and Robert
Sheckley, back at the beginning of my career nearly sixty years ago. They were
quick, clever, prolific writers, and I wanted to have the same sort of careers they
had. I kept count of the number of stories they had published, studied their work
carefully to see how they did it, watched their progress with immense admiration
that I guess could be seen as a kind of envy. In time I became as prolific and
widely published as they were, they both became my friends, and I stopped
keeping count of their published stories. (And I hardly envied the courses of their
lives as they unfolded, with Dick dying young and Sheckley going through all
manner of career and financial problems. I could never have imagined, back there
in 1952, that they would finish so badly).
Simenon and Faust also were writers I admired rather than envied. I saw them as
gifted predecessors whose productivity over an extended period I hoped to
emulate. But emulating Jack Williamson would be a fool's game: Jack was a
unique figure in our field, endowed with extraordinary longevity and remarkable
lucidity of mind right to the end of his long life, and I applaud him without any
expectation of doing what he did. Staking any emotional capital on the notion of
following his path and winning Hugos and Nebulas in my nineties would be just
plain silly. As for Gene Wolfe, yes, he's doing great things at an advanced age, but
I regard Gene as a late starter: I began publishing in my teens and have been a full-time writer for nearly six decades, whereas he entered the field ten or twelve years
after me and continued to hold down his day job until he was in his fifties or
sixties. Writing is something he does for the love of it; to some degree that's true
of me, of course, but it has also been my only job for all these years. I've done an
enormous amount of hard work over those six decades and it should surprise no
one that I want to cut back on my output now.
SCHWEITZER: In any case, any retirement you declare for yourself now must be
on a very different basis than the last time, circa 1977. Then the backlash against
the New Wave was in full blast, and the publishing world's idea of SF seemed to
be Laser Books or Star Wars knockoffs. It must have been a very grim time to be
a science fiction writer with any serious ambition. Was it?
SILVERBERG: It certainly was. A bunch of us tried to remake the field in the
1967-72 period with a burst of original and creative science fiction, and we were
greeted with vast indifference and even overt hostility by most of the readers. It
became very difficult for the best people of that group -- Joanna Russ, Chip
Delany, Tom Disch, Norman Spinrad, John Brunner, Barry Malzberg, to name just
some of them -- to earn any kind of livelihood writing SF, and most of them
turned to other fields of endeavor. Because I had built up more economic security
than most by virtue of my prolificacy, I shrugged an angry shrug and walked away
from writing altogether, and stayed away for nearly five years. This time around,
as I slide gradually into retirement, I'm still not happy with the course that
commercial SF publishing in the States has taken since the collapse of the New
Wave a generation ago, but I'm not angry -- just interested in slowing down,
relaxing, living the sort of life that most people my age do.
SCHWEITZER: The story goes that when he was very old, Picasso was asked by
a reporter, "What are you doing now?" and he said, "I'm looking for a new style."
Are there always, likewise, new horizons for the writer?
SILVERBERG: I suppose. Not for this one. I've had my turn as a revolutionary.
Any writing I do from here on in is going to be very much like the sort of writing I
did in the past.
SCHWEITZER: If you've been writing for seventy years and are now seventy-six, that means you must have started writing when you were six? That does
suggest it's inborn, doesn't it? How long before you knew that this was to be your
SILVERBERG: My earliest published work was done for my elementary-school
newspaper when I was, as I said, in the third grade. I also began writing little
stories about the same time. (I continued to do school-newspaper work all the
way; I was the editor of my junior-high paper and my high-school paper, and when
I was at Columbia I was the drama reviewer for the university paper.) I was fairly
late discovering science fiction -- I was about ten -- and didn't write my first SF
story until I was nearly thirteen. But I made up for that slow start later on.
Somewhere along the way -- probably in junior high school -- it occurred to me
that being a writer was probably what I was going to do when I grew up. By the
time I was in my late teens, it was clear to me and everybody around me that a
writer was what I was, and I never deviated from that path after that.
SCHWEITZER: Let's talk a minute about being a "revolutionary." During the
New Wave era you weren't particularly given to rewriting Finnegans Wake as
science fiction or constructing a story entirely out of typographical tricks (the way
Donald Barthelme has done on occasion), much less any of the extreme oddities of
J.G. Ballard. It seems to me that when you were writing things like Nightwings or
Downward to the Earth or Dying Inside, you were writing what was recognizably
science fiction, only better, with more emotional depth and maturity. So what
exactly didn't the readers want?
SILVERBERG: I was never as radical an experimenter as some of the New
Worlds crowd in the Moorcock period, say, or as downbeat as Ballard, or as radical
in my world-view as Delany, but Son of Man, which I wrote in 1969, was far-out
plotless stuff, some of my short stories of the period had a distinct Barthelmian
absurdist flavor, one ("Many Mansions") was a pastiche of a Robert Coover piece,
Dying Inside was mainstream in tone though built around a science-fictional
concept, and Book of Skulls was or was not science fiction, depending on how you
interpreted the ambiguous information about the immortals in the Arizona desert.
So, all in all, I had moved quite a distance from the standard pulp tropes and what I
was writing, though I regarded all of it as recognizably science fiction as I
understood the term, was very far from what Asimov and Heinlein and Clarke had
done. (It was not that far from Sturgeon or Bradbury or Leiber.) Nightwings was
still straight SF and won a Hugo, but I wrote that in 1968. By the time of Skulls
and Dying Inside, a few years later, the majority of the readers had turned hostile to
my work, or so it seemed to me, and that was when I decided to give up writing.
SCHWEITZER: In any case, when you do something innovative, isn't it inherent
in the nature of such an enterprise that you are going to leave some of the duller or
lazier readers behind? Surely when Bester wrote The Stars My Destination he left
Captain Future fans behind him in the dust. Is this a problem?
SILVERBERG: It was a long way from Captain Future to The Stars My
Destination, sure. But for all its verbal and conceptual brilliance, Stars still
followed the pulp conventions, sturdy hero triumphing over his adversaries. In a
lot of my work of the period the hero wasn't all that sturdy and he didn't always
SCHWEITZER: Or was it more of an economic issue, that, say, Son of Man or
The Book of Skulls did not sell as well as the latest post-Tolkien knockoff trilogy,
and publishers were beginning to notice?
SILVERBERG: Nobody ever expected those two books to outsell the standard
kind of SF. (The trilogy boom had not yet really begun.) My publishers were still
willing to buy from me. But I had lost heart. I was very tired, having done
something like fifteen novels in just a few years and most of them very exhausting
things to write. I just wanted to go away and rest. And I did.
SCHWEITZER: Would you say then that Lord Valentine's Castle and sequels
were a successful compromise, then, i.e. something which fit the current taste but
which you could still write with integrity?
SILVERBERG: Yes. It's a cheerful, positive book full of interesting ideas, and
the protagonist comes out okay at the end, but it is recognizably Silverbergian in
style. Nothing experimental about it, but nothing that was written down for a
slow-witted audience, either.
SCHWEITZER: An aside, now that I've mentioned the title. I have seen a reissue
of The Book of Skulls that says "soon to be a major motion picture" or something
like that. But no movie. What has happened to it?
SILVERBERG: It went right to the edge of production -- a director had been
chosen, even. (William Friedkin.) Then the head of the studio, who was Friedkin's
wife, lost her job and all her projects were canceled. You grow used to this sort of
thing when you deal with Hollywood; you cash the check and hope for the best,
and it's foolish to expect anything good to happen beyond that, though sometimes
SCHWEITZER: You've seen movements come and go in SF by now. The early
'50s seems to have been a fairly revolutionary period. The New Wave is surely
assimilated by now, to the extent that writers who grew up on the New Wave are
now influencing younger writers. One might argue that Slipstream is the New
Wave all over again, only with fewer science fiction tropes. So, what do you make
of this? Are we going to be looking at revolution and reaction followed by
complacency followed by revolution over and over, forever?
SILVERBERG: That's what I would expect. This sort of cycle has been going on
since Gernsback days. The Sloane Amazing, in 1933, began running astonishing
semi-abstract covers by an artist named Sigmond. Like nothing SF mags had ever
seen before. (Or pretty much since.) The readers rose up in fury and the magazine
reverted, in 1934 and 1935, to some of the dreariest illustrative covers ever seen in
the field. I know, this is illustration, not fiction, but it indicates that any attempt to
change the formulas brings, usually, a reaction, and often an overreaction.
SCHWEITZER: I've seen those covers and know what you mean. Then again,
Gernsback experimented with abstract covers on Wonder Stories about the same
time. There was one that was little more than a field of dots. It must not have gone
over very well with the readers, because it was soon stopped.
But maybe you're basically right. Robert E. Howard remarked in the middle '30s
that he didn't want to write SF, because it was far more formulaic than other forms
of pulp fiction such as westerns or sport stories, and the readers would howl if
there was the slightest departure from formula. But is this still the case? Do you
think that SF is inherently conservative? If so, isn't it an odd paradox that this
literature which is supposedly about the future and limitless horizons rejects new
SILVERBERG: I do. What a lot of us tend to forget from time to time is that SF
in the United States is a branch of popular entertainment, not a kind of avant-garde
literature. There's a certain core of readers looking for sophisticated visionary
experiences, sure, but most of the audience is just interested in finding an hour's
light entertainment. When that substantial portion of the audience runs up against
fiction that is difficult to read (Aldiss's Barefoot in the Head, for example) or
difficult to understand (a lot of the modern high-tech stuff) or heavily downbeat
(Ballard, let's say) it goes off in search of something more to its taste. I guess it's
paradoxical that so many readers of a kind of fiction that deals in infinite horizons
of time and space want the same old thing every time, but that's the way it is, and
so be it.
SCHWEITZER: If so, then what makes it worthwhile for a writer to struggle
against what he knows the readers actually want?
SILVERBERG: We don't always realize that we're doing that. Even as sharp-eyed an observer of trends and tastes as, ah, Robert Silverberg failed to notice that
he was swimming upstream all through 1969 and 1970 and 1971. Then, too, some
of us write just for the pleasure of it, and don't give a damn about commercial
requirements. To a certain degree that's what I was doing during my big creative
period in the late sixties. And some of us are very obstinate.
SCHWEITZER: Do you read enough contemporary SF to have any sense of the
state of the field today?
SILVERBERG: No. I read hardly any, these days.
SCHWEITZER: Do you have any sense that anybody is standing on your
SILVERBERG: I'd like to think so. When Elizabeth Bear complained that the
older writers don't read the newer ones, I made a point of reading some stories by
three of the writers she cited and saw distinct signs of my influence on all three. It
may have been at second or third remove, but I do believe the fiction I wrote in the
1967-73 period, and some of the later work, had a lasting impact.
SCHWEITZER: As for what the readers allegedly did not like in your work in the
early '70s, I can't help but notice that books like Dying Inside and The Book of
Skulls have shown real staying power. Particularly Dying Inside is now regarded
as a classic. So, what happened? Might it not be that the conventional book will be
easily replaced by another conventional book, but that the unique one, even if it
sells fewer copies at first, can't be and therefore stays in print?
SILVERBERG: They don't stay in print. They have to be brought back, again
and again. Each time they find a new (small) audience, and eventually they slip
out of sight again, and then some adventurous new publisher takes a chance on
them, with the same result. I've been assiduous in finding new publishers for my
books, but, then, I'm alive to do it. Sturgeon and Blish and Kornbluth aren't, and
but for the work of some dedicated small presses they'd be forgotten today.
SCHWEITZER: Isn't it some cause for optimism that publishers keep trying?
After all, in today's market very little stays continuously in print. I can cite an
example. I found a letter in a 1972 fanzine in which James Blish is bemoaning the
fact that one of his short story collections published in mass-market paperback by
Ballantine (he doesn't give the title but is probably talking about So Close to
Home, 1961) has "died the death" and gone out of print after eleven years. You
know better than I do how that just does not compute in modern publishing terms.
Story collection by a midlist writer? In mass-market paperback? In print for eleven
years? Who could imagine it today?
SILVERBERG: Publishing has changed quite a bit since then. Books like the
Blish collection, and Son of Man and a lot of other off-beat things, were published
by Ballantine before it morphed into Del Rey. Betty Ballantine loved her authors
and coddled them, and was willing to publish things that could be seen a priori not
to have big commercial futures; she would stand behind those books for years. She
ran the company as an expression of her personal tastes and counted on big sellers
like her Clarke books to carry the rest along. Eventually the Ballantines had to sell
their company. There may be a connection there.
SCHWEITZER: I'd like to posit something to you about Dying Inside. Is this the
last major psi novel? Of course you were working in the field when psi was
everywhere and John Campbell seemed to think it was an "essential science" on
which science fiction had to be based, just like physics or astronomy. But while
there have been novels since which have had psi as one component among many, I
cannot think of a later one (within the SF category, not counting something like
Stephen King's Firestarter) in which psi is the primary subject. So, were you in
any sense consciously bidding farewell to this old and tired SF trope? I can well
imagine that John W. Campbell would not have approved.
SILVERBERG: I wouldn't know. Probably there have been psi novels since
mine, but I haven't been aware of them. Campbell, of course, would not have
cared much for Dying Inside, because of its near-contemporary setting, the sex, the
mainstream tone. There was some irony in the book's getting a special award from
the Campbell Award people (not the worldcon award, the other Campbell award.)
And the same year Barry Malzberg won that Campbell award for as
unCampbellian a book as could be imagined this side of Samuel Beckett.
SCHWEITZER: While I've brought his name up, could you describe your
working relationship with John Campbell? Is it true that you and Randall Garrett
used to race each other to see who could sell Campbell a story based on one of his
editorials? Or is this just fannish legend?
SILVERBERG: No, not true. John wanted his writers to pay attention to his
editorials, but he didn't want them simply to feed his own ideas back to him, and
he rejected stories that were of that sort. What he wanted was to establish a sort of
Socratic dialog, the writers working with the concepts in the editorials but adding
their own spin. Poul Anderson was better at this than anyone, though Garrett did it
well. There was a distinct Campbell "slant" and we all knew what it was -- he
disliked stories in which aliens get the upper hand over humans, for example --
but selling stories to him was not the simple button-pushing business fans think it
I did try to push buttons, now and then. Garrett and I used a Scottish protagonist,
Duncan MacLeod, for an early story, and sold it to John. John was always partial
to Scots. I wrote some stories for Horace Gold in which people were confined in
close quarters, as Horace was, and he bought them. But when Garrett and I
concocted a story for Tony Boucher, who was Catholic, a notorious opera-lover
and cat-lover, and an expert on detective stories, about an opera-loving priest
whose cat solved a murder mystery, Tony rejected it with a grin of appreciation for
the stunt -- but rejected it all the same. (Bob Lowndes, who was an Anglican but
otherwise shared Tony's interests, bought it.)
SCHWEITZER: Surely the trick is to not let the editor know his buttons are being
pushed. Besides, that kind of stunt writing is something you do when you're
younger, isn't it? Do you find as you get older that you're less interested in writing
stories which are contrivances aimed at a market?
SILVERBERG: I certainly don't aim at markets, these days. Everything I write is
sold before I write it, so why twist myself out of shape to meet someone else's
slant? But stunt writing -- well, yes, I still enjoy doing that, writing a story in the
voice Jack Vance used in The Dying Earth, or doing a novella interwoven with
"Vintage Season" to tell the other side of the story, or playing around with themes
out of Conrad.
SCHWEITZER: So, what are you writing these days?
SILVERBERG: Not much. I did two Majipoor stories this winter to round out a
collection I'm assembling, and a Time Patrol story for a Poul Anderson memorial
anthology. But I've got nothing on my schedule now except a lot of introductions
to reissues of old work of mine. For the time being I want to take a break from
writing fiction, and I don't know how long that break is going to last -- six
months, a year, forever, maybe. I can't say. And won't. Lord knows I've written
quite a few stories for one human being in one lifetime, and I don't feel enormous
inner pressure to add to the list.
SCHWEITZER: Thanks, Bob.