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Interview (English)

   Thomas M. Disch is a quite difficult writer to classify. He became a very important personality in fantastic literature, mainly for his inusual talent, despite of the genre used to communicate us his inner world. Novels as The Genocides, Echo around His Bones, 334, The M.D. or The Businessman are good examples of versatility, intelligence and narrative skill. To a faithful fan as I am, the opportunity to publish an interview like that, was something inthinkable and irresistible.

   But it isn't "my" interview. I sent to Mr. Disch a very very long collection of questions, that almost frightened him...; he told me that most part of them were answered time ago in other interviews. Afterwards I found, among others, one marvellous and exhaustive made by David Horwich, Consulting Editor of the e-magazine Strange Horizons. We asked him his permission to use it, and he, very kindly, let us copy most part of his questions. And we include ours between theirs, to create a continuum of sense. Thank you very much David, for your attention. The original interview made by him in 2001 was too long for us, but we include here the link, so you can read it at full length. It's something I recommend heartily, it's so nice...

 

   So you can see, our interview is actually a collection of Mr Disch's answers to Mr. Horwich's questions,others he sent to some of ours, and others we caught from other places, about On Wing of Song, recently published by Bibliópolis. I know you are going to think it is a bit large, but you probably forget that when you'll enter into the marvellous world of Mr. Disch vision about life and literature. I hope you are going to enjoy it.

Nacho

 

   This month, Bibliópolis will publish On Wings of Song, which has been considered by critics as your best novel. Would you mind summing up its plot?

   Daniel is raised in Iowa in the last years of this century. In the Midwest, the descendants of the New Right are in power: women know their place, sex is dirty and the arts are strictly regulated. But in New York, people can fly. Their bodies are hooked up to a special apparatus, they sing, and in a moment of self-transcendence they achieve flight. They're called fairies. Daniel marries Boa, the daughter of Grandison Whiting, an influential millionaire fully capable of articulating and defending his power. The two leave for New York, a city which, by the year 2000, is a catalogue of corruption, madness and starvation.

   Knowing some facts of your own life, in this novel stands out a sort of autobiographical mood. To what extent can we see Daniel Weinreb as Thomas Disch?

   On Wings of Song is the story of my life transposed into science fiction, and made rather more glorious [laughs]. I mean the way Hemingway idealised himself in his novels so I idealise myself in On Wings of Song.. You know Daniel Weinreb comes to New York when he's very young; he's already been in prison. I could say the same thing. And he had the job at the Majestic Theatre. I worked at the Majestic Theatre checking coats. I wasn't a Faux noire [laughs]. But in a Way I was, because I was a supernumerary at the Met performing with all the best sopranos of the day - I was on stage with Margot Fonteyn, the Bolshoi Ballet, Eleanor Steber and Lisa della Casa. I was an extra in a lot of very good productions. In Spartacus I was a black slave, in body paint. And I was also a black slave, face paint only, in Don Giovanni.

   One of the highlights of On Wings of Song could be flying, seen by its practitioners as a way of escaping reality and feel themselves far above it. What could we find behind this metaphor?

   It works in so many different ways. It's not an exact counterpart of any particular thing that you could make a comparison to, yet I think it works very effectively as a metaphor for a number of things that are quite important and that we all know about.

   Flying is every form of transcendence. It's all the ways in which you feel that the soul can leave the body. The Caesars of the world, the powers-that-be, try to control the possibilities for the peak ecstatic experiences because it's socially disruptive in its potential. People who experience something deeply and profoundly will no longer believe the bullshit they're handed, because they've had an experience that contradicts it. Sex is one of these transcendent moments. Clearly people who have had ecstatic sexual relationships aren't going to think sex is evil, the way the armies of oppression assert that is. Another is drugs. The issue of the Sixties is still somewhat an issue today. People have a right to control that freedom, to do what they wish with drugs.

   Religion itself is another. What's the first big revolution that starts modern history? It's Luther. It's the insistence that I'm going to believe what my own inner voice tells me is the divine, and I won't listen to the authority of the church. That was the big revolution, and from it all the others have sprung. Nowadays the Protestants are scarcely in the vanguard of liberation, but they began it., and it was an unalterable process once it began. That's why theology plays such a part in On Wings of Song - that's where flying starts.

   Flight is due to the song, which allows people to get into that state. Art and the creative fact appears again in one of your novels as a source of freedom. Which relation are between art and freedom?

   Art is the fourth moment of trascendence. For me, it's always been the major one, and I continue to believe that art is, politically, the single greatest source of liberation that exists. That's why the Moral Majority wants to censor rock n' roll music. How do you fly? You sing. If you integrate your body, your feelings and your understanding in such a way that all of them can be united in a single burst of art, you have achieved transcendence. That's what I believe, and that's why the book is about how somebody becomes a singer. To me, becoming an artist is the task. And I think it's what everybody wants - that's why the cultural heroes of our times are rock n' roll singers, or movie stars or writers. There isn't an art that doesn't make deities of the people who succeed in it - sometimes foolishly, because often it's a con. One of the ironies of art is that part of it is technique, and that's one of the ironies of On Wings of Song: Daniel is a singer who never really gets off the ground. He learns to do art. But that's only an irony for people who want God to exist, who want to be assured that transcendence, once they've had a glimmer of it, will stay with them forever and ever. But you can't monetarize transcendental experience, you cannot put quantitative values on it. It happens when it happens, it's a gift of grace. And that's a painful truth, because there's a whole lot of people who want to be artists but who can't make it. That's the main pain that book is talking about.

   Let´s consider in your career. When did you get in touch with scifi?

   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.

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

   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.

   Were you writing mainly science fiction at this time?

   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.

   What was the science fiction field like in the early ´60s?

   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.

   Were you trying to do something different?

   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.

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

   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.

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

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

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

   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.

   Were you publishing poetry at this time too?

   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.

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

   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. 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.

   Is it not that way with prose?

   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.

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

   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.

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

   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.

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

   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.

   You've moved from science fiction to horror with the Minnesota novels...

   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.

   Why did you change after all these years doing science fiction?

   I don't think of it as a radical change of gears, since I've never though SF as "scientific."  That is, as enjoying any closer relation to Reality that my horror novels.  As a non-believer in all matters supernatural, they occupy for me the same fictional terrain as such SF of my own as On Wings of Song.  I don't think there could be out-of-body flight outside of dreams or "vitual" reality.  My rule in the Supernatural Minnesota series was that each book had to have its distinctive and original premise.  The Afterlife, as mapped in The Businessman is not your traditional ghostly realm.

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

   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.

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

   (...) I'm gay myself, but I don't write "gay" literature (...) 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.

   When was that?

   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.

   Have you always been out?

   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.

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

   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.

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

   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.

   Your retrospective look at SF, The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of, won a Hugo. What reactions have you had to this book?

   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.

   We could see your opinion about Heinlein in Spanish prozine Gigamesh where "The Embarrassments of Science Fiction" was published. By the way, why don't you like U. K. Le Guin?

   I admire much of the work of both Heinlein and Le Guin.  I also think both of them are bullies in political matters, and I feel that Ursula has let polemics take charge of her later writing quite as fecklessly as Heinlein..  But she is seldom called to account for it because most academic criticism of SF is written by people who share her political views.  I don't, in ways that I elaborate in my book.

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

   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--

   Is it mainly the lack of markets, then?

   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.

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

   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.

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

   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 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.

   What do you remember about Spain in the middle sixties when you were here?

   Chiefly, the hepatitis I came down, along with John Sladek, after I'd been there a month in Fuengirola, outside Malaga.  But there was also the sweet wines of the Costa del Sol, my week in Madrid, the grim grandeur of the Escorial.  (I deliberately didn't stay with the group to visit the Valley of the Fallen, but stayed in the Escorial cafeteria with a labor union organizer from Italy, who was also boycotting  Franco's monument to himself.  I had my first actual "conversation" in Spanish with him.  I also stayed at an Arthur Frommer-recommended hotel that I didn't realize was also a whorehouse.  The lady I'd been having my breakfasts with was so lovely and so well dressed and so pissed off with me when I left without having sampled the wares.  Some things Arthur Frommer doesn't write about.

   What else?  A sensational bullfight in Marbella, when I had a perfect seat looking over the matador's shoulder at the big moment.  I haven't been to a bullfight since, but a more thrilling one is hard to imagine.

   And the Christmas carolers visiting our rented off-season house all through Advent, singing the most wonderful Xmas carol before they got paid with in glasses of that delectable sweet wine.

   So, despite the hepatitis, a lot of fond memories.  It's where I wrote all of Echo Round His Bones

   What are you working on these days?

   Lately, I have been painting for the most part.  105  acrylics since April of 2002, most of them during the months of sunlight.  An undertaking both exhilerating and quixotic, as I will probably never reach "escape velocity."    But I have also written a novelette, The White Man, for an anthology that Al Sarrantonio is editing for Penguin/Putnam.  It is about vampires and Somali refugess in Minneapolis (there are many thousands!)

   Do you want to say anything to the Spanish reader?

   Nada mas. Que tengan un buen dia!

   Link to David Horwich´s interview

   Note: All of this was possible for Mr Disch affable interest, as well as by the time he employed attending to us, to him our heartful thanks. Our gratitude too to Mr Horwich, who let us use his interesting interview, and to Luis G. Prado, who gave us way to that adventure, and for his help during the month and a half employed in this "birth". And last, but not least, to María Jesús Sánchez, who translate the interview and most part of the messages we sent to the first ones... To confide in my stammering and oxidized English, would be suicidal. She has been a patient and invaluable help through all this time.

 

@ 2003 David Horwich, with permission