An Interview with Paul Di Filippo
by Jeff VanderMeer
One of the great pleasures of my stint as a Philip K. Dick Award
judge in 1998 was reading a book called Lost Pages by Paul
Di Filippo. Although I had read individual Di Filippo stories
before, I'd never really understood the extent of Paul's comic,
pacing, and stylistic genius. In Lost Pages, Paul postulates
alternative lives for writers such as Philip K. Dick and also
mimics their styles. The book was funny, wise, tongue-in-cheek,
respectful of its subject matter, and just wonderful. The effect
of reading it was similar to the effect of a cold glass of water
after a hot day spent mowing the lawn. Lost Pages wound
up being the runner up for the Philip K. Dick Award and garnering
all sorts of praise from critics.
Since then, I've read a lot more of Di Filippo's work--including
the marvelous Steampunk Trilogy--and I've come to the conclusion
that the man can do just about anything he wants writing-wise.
He's a polyglot and a protean talent. Other works include Joe's
Liver, Ciphers, and Ribofunk, as well as stories in
every major or important publication in genre: Asimov's SF
Magazine, F&SF, Semiotext(e), Interzone, etc. To top it
off, he writes reviews for, among others, Asimov's SF Magazine
and The Washington Post at a rate that makes you wonder
when exactly he sleeps--or if he sleeps at all. Paul has also won
the BSFA 1994 award for Best Short Story for "The Double
Felix" and he was a Nebula finalist for "Lennon Spex".
He is a native Rhode Islander who lives in Providence with the
enchanting and talented Deborah Newton. The following interview
was conducted via email in three separate sessions and then edited
Since then, I've read a lot more of Di Filippo's work--including the marvelous Steampunk Trilogy--and I've come to the conclusion that the man can do just about anything he wants writing-wise. He's a polyglot and a protean talent. Other works include Joe's Liver, Ciphers, and Ribofunk, as well as stories in every major or important publication in genre: Asimov's SF Magazine, F&SF, Semiotext(e), Interzone, etc. To top it off, he writes reviews for, among others, Asimov's SF Magazine and The Washington Post at a rate that makes you wonder when exactly he sleeps--or if he sleeps at all. Paul has also won the BSFA 1994 award for Best Short Story for "The Double Felix" and he was a Nebula finalist for "Lennon Spex". He is a native Rhode Islander who lives in Providence with the enchanting and talented Deborah Newton. The following interview was conducted via email in three separate sessions and then edited together.
What is your typical writing day like?
Deborah Newton and I have rented at the same location now for twenty years. We began our life here on a single level, but about ten years ago became bi-storied. When we outgrew the original apartment, where I wrote in a corner of the parlor on my trusty Commodore 128, we simply rented the recently vacant third-floor apartment. Now each morning I trot upstairs, accompanied by my cocker spaniel assistant, Ginger, and plonk down in front of my elderly Mac, facing a stimulating white wall. (The window off to my right beckons with a lofty view, but I resist.) The former kitchen of this apartment functions as my mailroom, full of collage material for my "mail art." After starting at nine each morning, I try to be done by one PM, in order to have the luxury of walking out to the post office, followed by various chores, supper, an hour of The Simpsons, and a night's reading.
Does Deborah read most or all of your work? Is she in essence your first reader?
I have indeed employed Deborah as my first reader since the start of my writing life, over eighteen years now. At first she would read each day's output, whether paragraph, section, or (once or twice when lightning struck) a whole story. But within the past five years she's switched to reading finished units: entire stories or chapters. She's changed an ending or two and pointed up hordes of inconsistencies or confusions, and generally boosted my ego when needed with, I hope, honest appreciation. Every writer should be this lucky.
Do you ever work on more than one piece of fiction simultaneously? And do you try to set a goal of so many words per day like some writers?
I dislike working on more than one project at a time, but have learned to handle one non-fiction assignment and one ongoing story during the course of each working day. I doubt my brain would be up to doing justice to two or more fictional narratives at once. I like to inhabit my cast of characters 24 hours a day when writing, and would find it hard to swap sets on some rigid basis. I originally hewed to the Bradburyian standard of 1000 words a day production, but lately find myself happy to pile up 500 by day's end.
Who did you read growing up?
Aside from a few oddball books like Whitman-published dude-ranch YA adventures, my reading diet from roughly age ten till 18 consisted almost entirely of SF. I swallowed vast quantities of Aldiss, van Vogt, Tolkien, PKD, Andre Norton, Heinlein, Ballard, Zelazny, Delany, Moorcock and other classic writers in the field, all of whom succeeded in imprinting themselves firmly on my creative lobes. A non-genre influence would definitely be the work of satirist Paul Krassner, which I discovered in an omnibus volume during my high-school years, and the allied humor of the original National Lampoon, back when it was actually funny.
Do you come from a writing background? What do your parents do for a living?
Although both my folks were/are voracious readers and encouraged their four children to follow their lead, neither had an academic/liberal arts background. My Mom waitressed when I was young, later becoming a bookkeeper, while my Dad spent his entire adult working life in a textile mill, moving up from lowliest laborer into the executive ranks before his retirement. My story "The Mill" draws on his work experience.
When and to whom did you make your first sale?
After placing a Barry Malzberg parody with UnEarth magazine in 1977 (beating William Gibson into print in that venue, I might add!), I had a long fallow period when I didn't really push to write anything else. Then, in 1982, I began to concentrate intensely on my writing. However, it wasn't until 1985 that I sold my first two "pro" stories almost back-to-back: Ted Klein took "Rescuing Andy" for Twilight Zone Magazine and Ed Ferman picked up "Stone Lives" for F&SF. Right from the start, my cognitive dissonance was evident, since the former story was a comic fantasy, while the latter was straight cyberpunk. And I've determinedly followed both paths and many others ever since!
Did you start going to writing conventions back in the 1970s too?
My first convention experience was a Worldcon, Torcon II in 1973. Through that experience I later met Don D'Ammassa, a fellow Rhode Islander, and many other fans, and for several years enjoyed some rich fannish activity that gradually tapered off. My subsequent convention attendance is sparse. Generally, I try to limit these enjoyable times to one (usually Readercon) per year--not out of masochism but in deference to fiscal economy and in order to get some actual work done!
When did you start meeting and corresponding with other writers?
Doing a post-Cheap Truth fanzine for 12 months (Astral Avenue, circa 1986-87) put me in touch with a lot of folks, and my list of writerly friends has accreted nicely ever since. I place a high value on correspondence, whether digital or otherwise, and find the continuing steady contact with my fellow practitioners very valuable, if only as a resource of shoulders to cry upon!
Which of your short stories is your favorite?
Once I thought that many of my Ribofunk stories represented sleek, state-of-the-art SF done to the best of my ability. A story such as "Little Worker" seemed near-perfect to me. But lately I feel that all my past work represents a mere apprenticeship. Hopefully my favorite story has yet to be written.
Some writers see themselves as their own ideal audience. Do you, and if not, who do you see yourself writing for?
Alas, yes. Not to be solipsistic, but the only assertion of any certainty that I feel I can make is that I definitely enjoy my stuff. Therefore, I continue to write with an audience of one in mind. Despite many verbal and written accolades, I'm still amazed and half-disbelieving that anyone else shares my arcane list of turn-ons!
Your style changes quite a bit from story to story, sometimes from novel to novel. Sometimes you even affectionately borrow other writers' styles, as in Lost Pages. Given that your style varies, what provides consistency to your work? What elements, themes, etc. do you feel repeat?
I have no notion of what constitutes the thread linking my fictions, although nonetheless I imagine that a crafty reader could easily distinguish that they all emanated from one person. Certain themes--rebellion against moronic authorities; the folly of ambition; the serendipity of life--seem to recur. But as a good Buddhist I must endorse the tenet that a coherent, consistent personality is in itself a myth. So how could fiction, a second-order phenomenon, consistently reflect such a vaporous entity?
Do any other tenets of Buddhism inform your fiction? And have you written about Buddhism or Buddhist characters overtly?
Only the core two maxims: seek wisdom, and be compassionate. My most overt fictional wrestling with the Buddha occurs in Ciphers.
How did you come to Buddhism?
Idle but fervent reading in the field--luckily, there are tons of good Buddhist books available nowadays--combined with personal turmoil, led to contact with organized Buddhism and individual daily practice. This recipe for spiritual progress is so classic that it's probably hardwired into the human brain!
I know from your review column in Asimov's that you like a lot of different types of fiction. But I'd be interested to know what types of fiction, or individual authors, have the most personal relevance to your own fiction.
I would have to pick about seven saints for my personal hagiography, and confess that while I try to attain to their lofty heights, I almost always fall short. For postmodern complexity and pop culture savvy, Thomas Pynchon. For sheer writerly precision and beauty, Vladimir Nabokov. For ethical/philosophical insights and bold cosmic pronouncements, Henry Thoreau and Walt Whitman. And for comic joy, J.P. Donleavy, S. J. Perelman and Mark Twain. Of course, all of these masters get filtered through decades of heavy reading in the literature of the fantastic, where I have a lesser pantheon, probably resulting in the weirdest chimerical fiction possible!
Has any one book from the authors you've mentioned really had a huge impact on your writing? If so, which book and why?
Ah, the anxiety of influence! Gravity's Rainbow dominated my conception of the perfect novel for many years. Crowley's Little, Big likewise. Golden-Age Heinlein remains a vivid model for SF. On a personal level, Walden and Leaves of Grass mean more to me than any other book.
Lost Pages is a marvelous and gleeful exercise in alternate history and pastiche that rises above pastiche. Did you make a conscious decision to write a series of stories about alternate versions of writers' lives, or did Lost Pages just sort of happen?
Marketplace exigencies soon transformed into conscious scheming in my Lost Pages canon of alternate-author tales. Some remain to be written, but since these pseudo-biographical stories, when done properly, are research time-sinks of Waldropian magnitude, I hesitate to embark on any new ones right away.
The stories in Lost Pages often mimic the styles of the writers they are about. Which style was easiest for you to appropriate, and why--and which was the most difficult, and why?
I thought I did a fairly good Pynchon pastiche in "World Wars III", and a decent PKD in "Linda and Phil". Sympathy with certain of my subjects as intriguing human beings seemed to invoke an ability to channel them. Kafka might have been the hardest nut to crack.
Why was Kafka so hard? And I'm curious how you approximated their styles. Harry Crews once retyped an entire Faulkner novel to see how Faulkner put his sentences together. Did you do research, or just read and re-read the books?
Kafka's supreme ironic and chilly existential despair was hard for me to wrap my basically goofy brain around, though I've certainly experienced my own Kafka moments. I never took the Harry Crews route, but simply sucked down as much of the fiction of my models as I could just before attempting the story, hoping my parrot-like mimic abilities would take over.
What do you currently have coming out in print? What are you currently working on?
My contemporary comedy, Joe's Liver, is now available from Cambrian Publications. This spring will see Muskrat Courage, the second Bishop-Di Filippo mystery under the Philip Lawson byline, appear in stores from St. Martin's. Last year I wrote a short erotic dark fantasy novel titled A Mouthful of Tongues, as yet unsold. I have yet to fasten onto another novel-length project. Short stories and book reviews are useful stopgap projects until then.
What is your favorite word?
Every writer has words which can seduce the writer into inserting them at every opportunity if the writer is not very alert--kind of like vigorous memes. I used to be a vector for "susurrus" but have cured myself of this particular infection. During reviewing, I often wish I could come up with alternative words for common terms--portray/depict", etc.--but without sounding contrived. It's a never-ending search.
If you weren't a writer, what would you most want to do?
I love this question, and in fact once did a fanzine feature on this topic. I suppose I'd have to opt for some sort of back-to-nature Thoreauvian existence contemplating my navel and the Milky Way, and just pray I didn't turn into the Unabomber!
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© Jeff VanderMeer 11 March 2000