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Machineries of Heart, Men of Steel
A Discussion with Gene O'Neill
cover of the hardback of The Burden Of Indigoby William P Simmons

INTRODUCTION

In an age where authors are summarized by the type of fiction they write rather than the quality of their efforts, Gene O'Neill's painfully honest explorations of pain and melancholy beauty defy the slip-shod categorizations employed by critics. O'Neill challenges the very idea of genre with texts belonging to the day-lit world of realities structured by the undependable scope of perception as well as to the shadowy terrors of the subconscious. Neither outright fantasy or science-fiction, supernatural or psychological, O'Neill achieves a literary borderland that encompasses several traditions while resisting cliche.

A shaman making meaning from the combined images of archetype and contemporary anxiety, O'Neill treats emotionally charged themes with a tempered narrative voice, sweeping readers through an impressive gauntlet of emotions that, like his fiction's ambiguous depictions of truth and social criticism, entertain and challenge, forcing readers to confront characteristics of the often inhuman human condition through the art of words.

A strange breed of heroism, quite similar to the tragic valor of Nordic myth, accompanies O'Neill's testimonies of men, modems, and spirits, most often found in the ability of cultural Outsiders to laugh, feel, and find for themselves a sense of purpose in environments lacking any. Profane, mad, and pitiful humanity occupies O'Neill's poetic imagination, and if there are machines in this world view, they are the cold mechanisms of an uncaring society, not the glorified technological wonder-machines so often described in classic 'hard' science fiction.

O'Neill isn't writing of steel or pavement or circuits. He is, in fact, sharing what it means to be human -- a thematic arena so large and encompassing that only the boldest of authors attempt to take it on. When found at all, O'Neill's science resides in the emotional, spiritual, and political -- in the animalistic and cultural machineries we use against each other. Similar to Ray Bradbury and Philip K. Dick, the experience of what it means to be alive, or, as often is the case, to struggle, is the primary factor informing the best of O'Neill's work. Publishing in such influential forums as The Magazine Of Fantasy And Science Fiction and Twilight Zone, O'Neill has only recently began writing full time. In the past year, this underappreciated, highly unique personality has published a collection -- Ghosts, Spirts, Computers, and World Machines -- and a novel -- The Burden Of Indigo -- both of which have secured his reputation as an author of ideas, grim beauty, and that desperate kind of hope that only the lost treasure.

THE INTERVIEW

William P. Simmons: Describe for us your early years as an author. What struggles formed you?

Gene O'Neill: I grew up in a Federal Housing ghetto built near a shipyard, exposed to the struggles of the working/lower class, raised by immigrant grandparents with a 2nd and 3rd grade education. Saw and experienced a lot of things early on in that ghetto -- sex, alcoholism, child/spousal abuse, racism, classism, boxing, football, baseball, basketball. What I don't remember is people who were either/or -- villains or heroes, good guys or bad guys. What I do remember is the Grand Struggle -- the attempt to transcend a bad situation, the struggle for something better for yourself or your kids. The struggle to survive. The black mom trying to do her best, raising a bunch of kids on limited resources. A person working their way through college. The struggle wasn't always successful, but I early on realized the 'attempt' was the important thing.

WS: Why did you become a writer? What emotional or intellectual developments inspired you to spend your life telling truths through lies?

GON: I suppose this is the most difficult question for a writer to answer, because most of us do not really know. Perhaps something in our genetic makeup compels us. The Irish heritage I think is a love of the word -- spoken and written; and that was my inheritance from my grandparents, a love of the word. But I think at some point I wanted to comment on the elegance of the Grand Struggle, because it defines man.

WS: What practical or aesthetic steps did you take to hone your craft?

GON: I read from an early age, everything indiscriminately. A book on King Arthur, EC comics, a book about the African Bushman. Eventually developing some taste and direction. I don't know another writer who does not like to read. I probably excelled in the writing assignments in school. But my college degrees are in psychology. Eventually a formal desire to write led me to Clarion at Michigan State in 1979.

WS: What was the hardest difficulty you've faced as an author?

GON: I quit a pretty good job to attend Clarion, then accepted less demanding work -- carrying mail, etc., so I had enough intellectual energy left each day to write. Even though I began selling short fiction to good markets within a year after Clarion, I still had to keep the day jobs, delaying really working on books until my family was raised. I knew by 1985 or so that I should be pursuing a career as a novelist. In fact, I had a lot of interest by NYC agents in representing me then.

WS: Your greatest accomplishment or joy?

GON: Last year I was one of the featured writers at Horrorfind Weekend in Baltimore. Both of my adult children flew from NYC and San Francisco to see me read a story at that event. But my greatest accomplishment has been selling a piece of fiction to a writer I admire -- I have been lucky because it has happened a number of times -- to Algis Budrys, Scott Edelman, Ted Klein and recently to young writers like Brian Keene, Monica O'Rourke, and Brian Knight.

WS: What challenges remain?

GON: I would like to see some of my novels appear in the mass market, perhaps something adapted to the big or small screen. I don't want to start repeating myself, but continue to try different things.

WS: Storytelling, like any art, is partially shaped by past works and artists. Authors serve apprenticeships (whether they realize it or not) beneath the writers who they admire and strive to emulate. Who were your teachers? Which authors or works most influenced you? What works were most influential in helping you develop?

GON: Early on I liked the work of Hemingway, because often he is interested in the Grand Struggle, successful or not (he has a great quote to the effect that man may be destroyed but never defeated). Two books I admire and reread a lot are Hemingway's The Old Man And The Sea and Solzhnitsyn's One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich. Other writers whose work I admire are Shirley Jackson, Roald Dahl, and Thomas Harris. I think Ted Klein is a great writer, underrated because he is not very prolific. I read quite a bit of work by prison writers -- perhaps Edward Bunker is the best of these folks.

WS: Would you agree that to become an author in one's own right, one must stop trying to emulate others and try to write better than their heroes?

GON: I am not sure if we are so original then -- maybe we are still derivative in a clever way, writing in our own voice. I think a writer knows when he crosses over, I mean the specific piece of work where he demonstrates his own voice.

WS: In your career, which has spanned over twenty some years, you've published short fiction in magazines like The Twilight Zone, edited by the great T.E.D Klein. Do you have any particular remembrances you care to share about Mr. Klein?

GON: Ted Klein bounced the short story, "The Burden of Indigo", with a nice cover of Ghosts, Spirits, Computers, And World Machinesnote that the story was terrific, but the subject matter was a little too controversial for a fairly new magazine establishing itself. He did want to copy it and show it around to other staff. Out of the blue, a week or so later I got an exciting phone call from Ted. He said everyone on staff wanted him to buy "Indigo", including Carol Serling who was the original Editor-in-Chief. Unfortunately I had sent the story on to an anthology being edited by Alan Ryan (he liked the story and was sitting on it). Klein contacted Ryan, who eventually released the story, and it appeared in the October 1981 issue of TZ. An exciting professional debut. This began what I like to think is a long range friendship with a great writer -- recently Ted wrote to tell me he enjoyed both "The Beautiful Stranger" and "The City Never Sleeps" in Ghosts, Spirits, Computers, And World Machines. Praise that makes my old heart sing.

WS: In what point in your fiction did you look at a piece and say, "Holy shit! I'm becoming a writer!?" In other words, when did you see evidence of a style or voice emerging?

GON: In the introduction of GSC&WM Stan Robinson details some trips he and I took back and forth from Northern California to Eugene Oregon in the 80s, attending workshops at Damon Knight and Kate Wilhelm's house. In the late 1980s I took the original draft of Indigo to one of those workshops -- it got universal praise, a very rare occurrence, even though many well-known writers were workshopping their stuff in those days -- Marc Laidlaw, John Shirley, William Gibson, Stan Robinson, Steve Perry, to name a few. Anyhow, in the kitchen after workshopping my story, Kate Wilhelm said, "I knew you had something to say." That was all, but I knew I had turned the corner, discovered my voice (and even then it was with what was really a mixed genre story).

WS: Do you write to please an audience, yourself, or the piece itself?

GON: I think that eventually it is all three. But during the initial writing, it is all about the piece of work, getting it down right, using the precise words, not just the first serviceable. In a way, when I am doing good work, I think I do enter what John Gardner calls the "fictive dream." Then I am just a reporter, doing the best job of reporting that I can.

WS: When comparing The Burden Of Indigo, cover of the paperback of The Burden Of Indigoyour new novel from prime, to your older work, where do you see yourself changing as an author? What evolvements of theme, subject, or approach stand out?

GON: Well, this is my first novel, first time working at a longer form. Big difference from writing a short story. The most obvious is there is more room to develop character, subplot, explore various issues. There is also more room for error in a long piece it is easy to lose a consistency of voice (I think that happens often when a writer interrupts a piece of work, letting it set a long time -- there is a seam, a difference of voice). I think that I am still writing about the same things that I wrote about earlier -- perhaps a writer never escapes his own obsessions.

WS: Where do you feel you still need work?

GON: Plot. I think if you are a serious writer you always face the hazard of lecturing, grinding out a point, being too heavy-handed with your message. More natural storytellers have an easier time -- of course, sometimes their work lacks any point.

WS: Your fiction is labeled everything from science fiction and fantasy, to horror and suspense. What do you consider it? Does your work fall into any particular genre?

GON: I am probably a slipstream writer -- if I understand that term properly. Perhaps addressing mainstream concerns but using tropes from genre fiction. This has been a major problem marketing my work. There is a bias in genre fiction, editors wanting 'pure' sf or fantasy or horror. But I think I have been pretty consistent in my approach. I am interested in psychology, the darker side of man, and all of my work reflects this. Perhaps some day I will just be writing an "O'Neill" story.

WS: Is genre labeling harmful to the author? To audiences? To the art of fiction?

GON: I think it is misleading. I suppose I have always enjoyed "horror" fiction, but during most of my reading years it was never labeled horror. For example, Joseph Conrad isn't considered a horror writer, but I like his stuff a lot and feel he investigates and is interested in the darker side of human nature. As are many writers who are considered mainstream. I guess in the end I do not really care how I am labeled, as long as the first word is good sf/h/f writer.

WS: Is it your conscious decision to write dark speculative fiction, working within the parameters of specific literary traditions, or do you simply follow whereever your ideas lead?

GON: I think I am interested in following my ideas, but they usually concern dark matters, focusing on the Grand Struggle. And it is indeed the struggle I am interested in, not necessarily the outcome.

WS: What does fantasy and horror fiction allow you to explore that other literary traditions may not?

GON: Well, of course all writers want no restraints on their work. Most genre writers feel that they work under fewer restrictions within the genre. I am not so sure about that. I think I have spent portions of my career defending my work as to whether it was applicable or not. It has always been dark fiction, and that was my only restraint during the writing. But then I had to deal with marketing it.

WS: Would you agree that the literature of the fantastic uses archetypes and symbols to help us face certain internal impulses and external phenomena we have troubles facing in any other way?

GON: I think all the literary archetypes apply within the literature of the fantastic. I am not so sure about mainstream literature. So in that way, writing within genre fiction may allow a greater literary depth. For sure, I think dark speculative fiction addresses some issues not often addressed in mainstream literature, issues that happen in real life and require investigation. Right now not much is being written about child abuse in fiction per se -- within the genre, editors often say anything goes except stuff about kids. Perhaps with the exception of Andrew Vachss who does deal with all issues of child abuse. I do believe that all writers are influenced by the collective unconscious and there seem to be trends in all writing.

WS: Would you care to share with readers a typical day in the life of Gene O'Neill?

GON: I rise early. My wife and I take an early morning hike, then some stretching/strength exercises. After breakfast I write 2-4 hours depending on how it is going, most days of the week. Take care of non-writing business in afternoon -- contracts, editing something, sending something, etc. Later in the day, I first look to see about what sports are on, about all I watch regularly on TV (unlike a lot of writers I know, I was a pretty good jock, boxed, played basketball in college -- all stemming from those early days in the ghetto). I like movies at the big theater, and go often. In the late evenings I read, often non-fiction (just finished The Elegant Universe, and will read anything by John McPhee). To bed early. I do not drink anymore, so that leaves a big hole in a person's life to fill.

WS: Describe your work process.

GON: I think much of my stuff is idea driven at first. But it evolves. I do some outlining of longer stuff, but do not feel compelled for any reason to follow outlines rigidly. My wife forced me to begin using a computer a few years ago. Eventually I learned to do rough and revised drafts all on the computer. What a relief. I still fool around a lot with something before I send it out. Now days I probably spend a larger portion of my time thinking, before writing. Twenty years ago, I used to get an idea and immediately begin writing. Maybe I will go back and reclaim some of that early rejected stuff, because the ideas were pretty good, the development poor.

WS: To what extent does your fiction influence your life, and vice versa?

GON: I think I understand myself as a person better from the writing. You spend so much time between your own ears to write that some understanding and acceptance of self must occur. Natural process. And I think you really discover how you feel about something by writing about it -- the revision process is a clarification process. Of course at some level you write about what you know -- the important thing, with me, is always psychological reality.

WS: Publishing a great number of years, you've only fairly recently became a full time writer. What personal, economic, or artistic reasons led to both the former and later?

GON: When I started writing I was raising two kids. So I worked a day job. I planned on going full time when my daughter graduated from college. Ten years ago. But she decided to go on to medical school and become a Physician's Assistant. So, I delayed going full time until three and a half years ago.

WS: Did keeping one foot in the world of people, deadlines, bills, and little miseries help you to strengthen the scope of your fiction?

GON: Sure I think the more experience -- both external and internal -- a writer can call on, the more his work rings with verisimilitude. The danger is that life will wear you down -- we all know people phased out, who just live to play golf or whatever, but aren't really doing much of anything with their lives. That happens. But it is all part of the Grand Struggle, isn't it?

WS: August Strindberg, author of The Ghost Sonata and A Dream Play, suggested that being a writer was similar to being a vampire, feeding off the pains, hopes, and fears of those closest to him. What is your take on this?

GON: There is some truth to that, I think. Developing as a writer, is an ongoing learning process -- one learns however he can, including by observation of everyone and everything around himself. Damon Knight once said that being a writer was like being a criminal -- because you lived outside conventional society, the normal rules not applying. Work when you want. Get up when you want. An outside observer.

WS: How has the publishing world treated you?

GON: Fairly. Raised in a ghetto by two people who had only gone to the 2nd and 3rd grade. I had no reason to expect much, I guess. In fact, at one time I was told indirectly by the English Department of a little junior college I attended, that going to Clarion was not a good idea, it would just hold out false expectations, because it was unlikely I would ever publish anything. I was considered stubborn then (now I am persistent).

WS: What is your view of the current economical state of speculative and dark fiction? How about its literary condition?

GON: Of course the current financial state of speculative dark fiction from the viewpoint of a writer is not great. Advances are low, publishers go down owing royalties, and there is no mid-list. There are some indications that the literary condition of the field is in better shape. Good work is being produced. Another gauge of this is the number of young writers emerging and publishing good work. I think there are at least a score of solid, good, young writers popping up in the dark small press at this moment. This encourages me, because it is the promise of the future. No doubt, with persistence and a little luck, most of these young writers will mature into top professionals, some perhaps producing great books.

WS: What scares Gene O'Neill?

GON: At my age, not too much, except for heights. I was always afraid in the Marines that I was going to be required to jump from a plane -- they would have to have put a gun to my head, then pried my fingers from the side door. Of course I spend more time than probably healthy contemplating my own mortality. Impossible to avoid, so many relatives passing away in the last few years. There is a quote I heard once that I thought referred to your self, but I know better now: "Growing old ain't for sissies." I think it refers to the stuff happening around you.

WS: What role does story telling play in society? For the individual? For you?

GON: It creates the myths that define our culture, that tell about us as a people. For me story telling details the Grand Struggle, the attempt of man to transcend his circumstances.

WS: How would you answer the recent charge from select critics and politicians that fiction with subversive themes, sex, or violence is psychologically and emotionally harmful to audiences, both children and adults?

GON: Well of course these folks are looking for a simplistic solution/villain for some of society's ills. I am reminded of a newspaper piece I read about a serial rapist here in the Bay Area. The article mentioned that the guy's apartment was filled with both written and visual pornography. My response to reading that is so what. At best it is correlation, not causation of anything. They probably also found cigarettes in the apartment. Perhaps all his shirts were a shade of blue. I don't mean to trivialize this. But I think in our society, with free speech rights, it is important for people to self-censor what they read or view, and for sure what they allow their children to see or read. My daughter has never forgiven me, when years ago, I took all the neighborhood kids down to where we could see the first Star Wars movie. My wife and I judged her too young to see what we thought might be too violent.

WS: Have you ever censored yourself for fear of negative reaction or the possibility of influencing someone by your words?

GON: No. I feel that nothing I have ever written could have had undue influence on a stable adult. I have been asked to change or censor material in my work by publishers -- usually only sexual material. Sometimes I changed stuff, made it more offstage, sometimes the request was something I didn't want to do -- a deal breaker. The only thing I can think of that might require censoring would be something in the national interest, but I am not privy to any great classified material.

WS: How do you feel the events of September 11th will influence the craft of writing, or, indeed, the freedom of statement? Do you see us headed, as Orwell and Bradbury have before you, to a society of fear, governmental tyranny, and enforced artistic lethargy?

GON: I think the biggest danger any citizen, including writers will experience is, that in the heat of the times, we may be forced to relinquish too many civil rights. Our society is open, and that is a strength; we have to be careful about what we close off. A time of national crisis can be dangerous because of overreaction in this area. As a matter of fact, what good does all the inconvenience do at airports?

WS: In The Burden Of Indigo, a novel of pain, redemption, and one man's self delusional quest for forgiveness, you manage to combine the universal with the extremely intimate, interweaving Everyman's need for identity and forgiveness, for company and sense of self alongside characters' minute feelings of emotional strains and urges. How difficult is it to adequately represent both the cosmic and the earthy ... the big picture, if you will, with the tiny details that comprise it?

GON: I am not sure about the difficulty, because I think that what you detail is exactly what a serious writer is about. I like to think that everything I write, at least recently, is involved with the big picture and its impact on the common man.

WS: In Indigo, you describe an American society in a not-so-distant future that has suffered what you refer to as a "collapse," a disintegration of the morals, traditions, and laws which we currently support. For what aesthetic, personal, or practical reason did you leave the exact cause and details of this "collapse" unspecified?

GON: Well, I was not really interested in going into the details of an economic/ecological collapse, regardless of the present danger -- this wasn't a, IF THIS KEEPS UP warning type of book. I did not want to explore this issue -- nor defend my reasoning, like in so much traditional science fiction. I was more interested in developing the context for exploring the psychological impact of this on my main character (but not letting society off the hook completely -- I feel strongly about some of the environmental and economic issues briefly raised in the book, also about racism, classism, genetic mutation, and some of the other ideas). Interestingly, because no one to date has mentioned it, somewhere in the book, which was finished almost three years ago, I do mention that the ecological/economic disaster worldwide was precipitated by a war in the Middle East (at least I think that is in there).

WS: Why did you never specify if the state of the rest of the world was in a similar condition in Indigo?

GON: I think it is implied, but if not, I did not care about anything except the environment of the indigo man. I know that if this was a science fiction novel all these types of issues would require more explanation. But I guess all I can say is that The Burden Of Indigo is not just a sf novel.

WS: Was your painfully honest, scathing view of the future influenced by an extrapolation of events and philosophies prevalent in our current time? If so, please explain.

GON: Yeah, I think there is some fair warning here, even though this is not my main thrust. It is absolutely true that the air in the Bay area and most cities is polluted. The richest farmland in the country has been built/paved over. Racism, classism is still a problem despite the civil rights movement successes. We ostracize the lower class, criminals, the handicapped, a lot of people who are just a little different. Government grows at all levels, and Big Business, as we have seen recently, is every bit as unethical as the Company (I wish I had called the Company Enron). Could government be this repressive? And so on...

WS: In Indigo, three classes of culture exist. The elite men and women who live in the Shields, places of wealth and plenty; Freemen, the simple peasants who forge an earthy existence in the Wilderness which surrounds these Shields; and the exiled criminals identified by colors representing the nature of their crimes. Which do you feel the most affinity with?

GON: Well, I grew up a Freeman, didn't I, exposed to all his fraility, superstitions, and bigotry, admiring his struggle to survive, build something better for his kids, and continue the journey. But I think I have observed a lot of DPs, too. And then we have an Edward Bunker, a lifetime in and out of prison, discriminated against, then bam, all his great books. I have a little trouble identifying with the rich, elite.

WS: Are your "colored" people of our culture's continuing habit of judging and reacting to people based on outward appearances?

GON: If I did a good job of anything in the book, I think I made it pretty clear how strongly I feel about this. A Dyed Person is a walking stereotype -- how everyone reacts is defined, right.

WS: One refreshing aspect of your carefully constructed, poetically layered fictions, from Burden Of Indigo to your collection, Ghosts, Spirits, Computers, And World Machines, is your refusal to make caricatures of your characters. No one in your fiction is either Good nor Evil. Rather, each is an ambiguity. For what creative or personal reasons? Is it perhaps reflective of your own approach to the world?

GON: I don't believe people are good/bad; I believe people react to situations and we can describe their behavior as good/bad. Things happen; we can give them a psychological or supernatural spin. So maybe I am just a realist, at least my endings. I will say that I value my reader as part of the process, expecting him to make some kind of an active contribution to the piece. I am not going to summarize everything for him.

WS: Have we as a culture been taught to perceive such moral ambiguities as good and evil, ugly and desirable in strictly one dimensional ways?

GON: Yes, I think so, and I think the cultural notions of the last answer to an above question apply equally here. I think a lot of pop entertainment requires instant judgments -- the closure of 30 minute sit-coms. Much of it is really not very intelligent. If Congress or some governing board want to look at something, how about a critique of what young people learn by watching typical TV programs?

WS: Your collection Ghosts, Spirits, Computers And World Machines features several characters who seem to be fighting against overwhelming odds to keep true to their own sense of an almost Nordic tradition of heroism and principles, suffering as a result. Is this intentional?

GON: I think so. I believe in a certain ethical code of conduct. Of course I do not always adhere to my own code, but I try, so do my characters with varying success. I am not really interested in heroes per se, although I recognize one when I see them. A single-parent, working mother in the ghetto, for example. I think my characters struggle, try to hang in there, and ultimately do the best they can. About all we can expect.

WS: What sort of characters most interest you as a reader? As a writer? What sort of fictional dullards inspire you to toss a book across the floor?

GON: Well, this is interesting because I am obviously out of touch. For example, super heroes, especially in movies, do not interest me. I liked the English movie about the boy who lived in a mining region and wanted to dance, better than Spider Man (although the common man angle is well done). I think it is a question of identification. I know who I am, and who I can identify with. I liked the miners in the above movie, their support of the boy was grand, indeed, made me feel proud for them -- what was the movies' name?

WS: What is your general opinion of literary criticism? Of reviewers and reviews?

GON: I haven't been reviewed much. Once, two of my stories in a collection were reviewed in the Washington Post. I felt my name had been mistakenly shifted to two other stories -- I sure didn't know what the critic was talking about, especially all the fancy symbolism. I think a reviewer is entitled to his opinion.

WS: Do you feel the speculative and fantasy fields are treated unfairly by the land of academia? Why might this be?

GON: Yes. I think it is ignorance, more often than not. I wonder how many folks who criticized King in the early days actually read any of his work. It is interesting that King's work is rising in academic/critical regard now. But I guess the NYC literary establishment is entitled to their low opinion of genre work, just as I am about most of what I read in The New Yorker.

WS: Gaetan Nuccion, the dyed man in The Burden Of Indigo, has his name and freedom stripped from him after he sexually attacks an underage boy. This defacement of personal identity is repeated throughout the novel (and appears in much of your shorter work). Is this indicative or expressive of a belief that we as a people are in part formed by symbols?

GON: Yes, and I think one of the more serious things that society can do is strip a person of their name, their identity, who they are. When a person is incarcerated, all he has is his "good" name. That is why it is so demeaning to stereotype a person by race, class, or whatever. It is easy to pigeonhole someone then: Lazy, criminal, bad, stupid, immoral, etc.

WS: Why did you choose a child molester as your protagonist (hero/anti-hero)? Have their been any negative personal, familial, or professional consequences?

GON: I am guessing that I will have trouble generating serious interest from the mass market because of selecting this particular crime. I think, at least in one review, it generated an emotional response. Perhaps this issue is particularly sensitive at this time because of what is happening with the Catholic Church. I did not anticipate that. But I chose the crime intentionally. A child molester is the closest we have to a modern-day pariah like a leper. Also, from my college training I knew that this type of crime is most resistant to "cure." And I wanted it to be a heavy burden. So I figured it would be the most difficult kind of crime to write about, the most challenging in terms of getting the reader to identify with the indigo man's situation. I made no excuses for him, nor does the indigo man himself.

WS: In The Burden Of Indigo, neither Gaetan or the civilization that condemns him is depicted as pure hero or villain, reviled or praised. Did your refusal to condemn or champion your characters make your audience uncomfortable? Or is this the very point?

GON: If I make my audience uncomfortable, I give my self a thumbs up. Making people think is a desired goal by most serious writers. I hope so, anyhow.

WS: Do you harbor a fascination or empathy for the Outsider figure?

GON: Yes, and I think that relates back to my childhood. Also I identify with my Irish past, the plight of those early immigrants here, facing prejudice, especially in economic terms: NINA (the signs that meant -- no Irish need apply). So I sympathize with the outsider, for whatever reason, color, ethnicity, religion, or handicap. I am not too interested in whether a rich kid gets a Mercedes or a Porche when he graduates from Harvard; but I am interested in a Chicano working his way through San Diego State, doing a variety of low-paying jobs, so he can become a teacher.

WS: In your science fiction you appear more concerned with the geography of the human heart than in the technological wonders. Why?

GON: I guess it is just a choice of what I think important, what is ultimately of the most interest. Of course not dwelling on the nuts and bolts has probably cost me some sf readership. I think my highest rated sf story on Fictionwise.com (reprints of some stories posted there) is an adventure story, based on my technical knowledge of seismic work (I worked my way through college on seismic crews).

WS: True to your collection's title, ghosts do indeed coexist with computers, spirits with world machines...

GON: Yes, and I love that title. Stan Robinson has described me painting with a broad brush, ghosts and sprits coexist with computers and world machines. I thought that was a neat enough quote to use as a story collection title.

WS: What does your work contribute to the literary tradition of the dystopian future?

GON: I think I am more interested in exploring the individual impact of these types of futures, rather than making a political statement.

WS: You attended a Clarion Workshop some time ago. What influence if any did it have in shaping your fictional approach or development?

GON: As a kid, the library was a magical place. I did not associate writers with all that magic in those books. The first writers I ever met and had anything to do with were those six I met at Clarion including Kate Wilhelm and Damon Knight, who I consider friends. Indirectly I met Stan Robinson, because Kate gave me his address in Davis, not far from Napa, and we are good friends. I think everything personal just networks out from there. Perhaps, most importantly, Clarion, encouraged me not to be a sf writer, but be a good writer.

WS: What can you tell us about your new novel Deathflash?

GON: It is about 85% complete. Based on something I read years ago. The Russians were taking pictures of the radiation escaping from the body at the moment of death (not Kirlian photography, but something like it). They got a flash 100 times the radiation the body was supposed to contain. What was it? The soul? I write about a refugee from a religious commune who can see this deathflash, becomes addicted, and begins whacking out members of the underclass in San Francisco. In it I explore other addictions. It is the closest to being a definable genre novel of the three -- probably a suspense thriller with a dab of dark fantasy.

WS: What ever happened to the collection of short fiction that was going to be published by Silver Lake publishing?

GON: Actually it was published and available on the usual web spots. Hope no more copies exist, because I wasn't paid for those few that sold before I cancelled the contract. I think Borderlands Books had a pair left when I signed Burden Of Indigo there last month. So, one might find a rare copy there.

WS: Care to share any new projects with us?

GON: In my own way I am exploring the Grand Guignol, trying to do my take on a piece (normally there is little explicit gore in my work). Naturally it has evolved into a story that is a futuristic take on gangs, mixing in fantasy, horror, and a traditional Grand Guignol scene complete with a dislodged bloody eyeball. I can't imagine anyone being crazy enough to publish this. But who knows? Watch for the title: "10th St. Wolfpack is Bad!"

Burden Of Indigo and Ghosts, Spirits, Computers And World Machines are published by Prime Books.

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© William P Simmons 14 September 2002