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Some Moments with the Magus:
An Interview with Gene Wolfe

by Nick Gevers, Michael Andre-Driussi, and James Jordan


I have interviewed Gene Wolfe before, early in 2002, for SF Site. Here is the summary of his literary career I offered then, together with an estimation of the uncertainties inherent in interviewing so consummately subtle a literary artist:

"Gene Wolfe (born in 1931, an engineer by training, and long resident in Illinois) has been described as the best or most significant of contemporary SF writers; and to those well acquainted with his work, the judgement is hard to fault. Since the mid-1960s, he has contributed to SF and Fantasy a host of stories and novels of profound depth and provocative ambiguity; a Roman Catholic of Thomist inclination, he tests his readers' insight and attention to detail like the subtlest of theologians, weaving dense webs of allusion, implication, and sheer wonder. A master parodist, he possesses an extraordinary stylistic breadth, writing alternately with limpid simplicity and with a formidable baroque density of diction; and all this in the service of oblique, many-layered, endlessly surprising and beautifully structured fictions. He is simultaneously the Dickens and the Nabokov of the speculative genres: the author of huge, memorious novels of great psychological and spiritual penetration, and the ludic confectioner, the playful deployer of every trick in the literary compendium. Chesterton, Borges, and Kipling, John Fowles and Jack Vance and Damon Knight might equally be cited in analogy; but ultimately Gene Wolfe is sui generis, an ineffable magus of prose. Kim Stanley Robinson and Tim Powers may vie with him for supremacy as novelists within the genres of the fantastic; Lucius Shepard and Michael Swanwick may have his measure in the short fiction field; but across the full spectrum of textual length, Wolfe has no authentic qualitative equal -- his multi-volume novels and his intricately crafted short stories are all of a commanding piece.

"This said, there are perhaps three distinct threads running through the Wolfe oeuvre, embodied respectively in the vast neo-classical novels, the contemporary fantasies, and the puzzles in miniature. The first bracket: Wolfe has a fascination with paganism and the rise of Christianity that eclipsed it, and has worked this into a series of related epics: The Book of the New Sun, made up of The Shadow of the Torturer (1980), The Claw of the Conciliator (1981), The Sword of the Lictor (1982), and The Citadel of the Autarch (1983), along with a sequel, The Urth of the New Sun (1987), collectively the account of the rise to power on a dying Urth of an itinerant torturer, Severian, messianic bringer of a New Sun; The Book of the Long Sun, composed of Nightside the Long Sun (1993), Lake of the Long Sun (1994), Caldé of the Long Sun (1994), and Exodus From the Long Sun (1996), relating the parallel reluctant ascendancy of an obscure priest, Patera Silk, on board the generation starship Whorl; and The Book of the Short Sun -- On Blue's Waters (1999), In Green's Jungles (2000), Return To The Whorl (2001) -- in which Silk and his biographer, Horn, achieve a mysterious communion on the colony worlds at journey's end. This huge twelve-volume cathedral of words is of infinite fascination, one of the most complex religious allegories ever set to paper; the incomplete Latro series, set in Ancient Greece and so far consisting of Soldier of the Mist (1986) and Soldier of Arete (1989), covers not dissimilar ground with no less ingenuity and focus. And the 1972 novella cycle The Fifth Head of Cerberus, Wolfe's first major book, hangs ominously in the background of all these series, an experimental foundation or doubtful master key.

"Even though the neo-classical novel cycles have probably attracted most attention, Wolfe's books with a roughly contemporary setting (call them, with minimal accuracy, Peacehis fantasies, his second career thread) are also of some note. Peace (1975), his early, vaguely autobiographical novel, is an intense sinister labyrinth of meanings; Free Live Free (1984) is the story of Oz retold with many a compelling bizarre spin; There Are Doors (1988) is a brilliant sexual fable in which nothing is what it seems; and Castleview (1990) is a weird Midwestern-Arthurian screwball comedy of recruitment ... perhaps. It is always hard to pin Wolfe down. Indeed: his numerous stories, collected in The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories (1980), Gene Wolfe's Book of Days (1981, later incorporated into the 1992 omnibus Castle of Days), Storeys From the Old Hotel (1988), Endangered Species (1989), and Strange Travelers (2000), form a third thread of entrancing formal deviousness, the most intellectually intriguing and exacting body of short fiction to appear since the heyday of Borges. In the Wolfe canon, all the mature texts, novels or tales, plainly or baroquely narrated, are rich with recomplicated significance; and even after many readings, the ferments of speculation they cause will never truly close.

"When I interviewed Gene Wolfe by e-mail in January 2002, I came to the conversation aware that Wolfe the person is not unlike his books: genial (of course), accommodating, plain-spoken at times to a surprising degree; and yet a magician, a poser of paradoxes that, however simple on the surface, are in fact like the Labyrinth at Knossos, the mazes so many of his characters tread, as enormously involved and logically convoluted as reality itself. One cannot expect direct answers, at least about his books: they will speak for themselves, or not at all, and any candour is deceiving. But on certain practical topics (publishing, possibly engineering problems), all is clarity. For allowing me to be the latest interviewer errant to tilt at the windmills of his mind, a tourney of much fascination, I am very grateful to Mr. Wolfe."

And I'm doubly grateful to Mr. Wolfe now, for permitting not only a second such tilt, but one by a trio of enthusiasts and critical scholars of his works: Michael Andre-Driussi, author of the noted Lexicon Urthus, a major glossary to the Urth novels, and a number of penetrating articles and chapbooks centring on the Wolfe oeuvre; James Jordan, erudite theologian and extensive commentator on religious motifs, meanings, and allusions in Wolfe's novels; and, again, myself. The present focus is partly on Wolfe's previous writings, which continue to excite fascinated interpretation and debate; partly on The Wizard Knight, a notable new epic, of which Book One, The Knight, appears from Tor in January 2004; and partly on Wolfe's current thinking and personal circumstances ...

We conducted the following interview with Gene Wolfe by e-mail between August and October of 2003. Henceforward, Wolfe is GW, Michael Andre-Driussi is MAD, James Jordan is JJ, and I am my familiar NG.

-- Nick Gevers.


MAD: Read any good books lately?

GW: Yes. Adventures Among Books, by Andrew Lang; Being Gardner Dozois, by Michael Swanwick; and The New Wave Fabulists, edited by Peter Straub.

MAD: What would you do with NASA?

GW: What would I do with NASA? Obviously that would depend on how much money I had to work with. But basically I'd put more effort into spaceboat development and less into flying missions of dubious worth. NASA has suffered two disastrous crashes, the Challenger and the sainted Columbia. Both were vehicle failures. It needs a better boat.

MAD: What conventions are you planning to attend? Would you go to one overseas?

GW: The only convention on my schedule now is Windycon. That's quite near here, in November. I wouldn't attend an overseas con, or any distant con. Rosemary isn't up to travelling, and I'm not about to go away and leave her here alone.

MAD: Tell us about your dogs.

GW: We only have one dog now. Calamity Jane had to be put down. She was very old, and her medicine no longer controlled her seizures. Dilly is five now, I think. He's a neutered American Pit Bull Terrier, very gentle, about the color of buckskin.

MAD: What are your thoughts on the US military actions going on around the world (Afghanistan, Iraq, Liberia)?

GW: The US military is already spread too thin. Sending American troops into Liberia was not only foolish but foolhardy.

The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other StoriesMAD: In the last few years world events have brought a new urgency to a few stories that you wrote in the 1970s: "The Blue Mouse" (1971, collected in Gene Wolfe's Book of Days); "Hour of Trust" (1973, collected in The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories); and "Seven American Nights" (1978, also collected in IODDAOSAOS). "The Blue Mouse" is, in part, about the willingness to fight in murky, international conflicts; "Hour of Trust" involves the same, but adds suicide bombers; "Seven American Nights" is set in a fallen America that could well be a result of the conflict in "Hour of Trust." "Hour of Trust" is the most haunting: it shows not only suicide bombers, but also their recruitment from an incoherent mass of variously disaffected people, and how they are used as tools for a coherent policy of terror; it shows a schism between Europe and the US; it shows the power of amateur video being broadcast. These stories were all written before the hostages were taken in Iran (1980), another moment which seems a part of the same picture. What inspired "Hour of Trust" in particular, and do you think that this 30-year-old nightmare is unfolding today in the post-September 11 world?

GW: "Hour of Trust" was inspired by a Damon Runyon story, "A Light in France." It's basically an early WWII story, written when most people expected that world war to be much like the first one. (We tend to forget that the first and second world wars were only about twenty-five years apart. We are losing the last WWII veterans; when Hitler's army marched into France, there were still a whole lot of WWI vets around, including Hitler.) Anyway, I read "A Light in France" and started playing with the idea in an SF setting.

I think you're the only person who has ever asked me about that story, Michael.

MAD: You've had several stories published online -- how do you like it? Is the technology up to speed, really "consumer-ready"? Is there a stigma or barrier about online publications with regards to reviews and award considerations, or does it seem like it is equal with print sources?

GW: Online publication is fine with me, in part because I hope to collect those stories later. Whether the medium is ready for consumers is better judged by those consumers. I sometimes read online -- but not often. The stigma is attached to pay scales. Much online publication is no pay or small pay.

NG: Is ambiguity a necessary property of your work? Does the richness of a Gene Wolfe novel or story depend, to some extent, on its simultaneous stimulation of multiple interpretations in the reader's head, so that thematic closure is never attainable?

GW: Ambiguity is necessary in some of my stories, not in all. In those, it certainly contributes to the richness of the story. I doubt that thematic closure is never attainable.

NG: A number of your readers have speculated on how your Korean War experience has fed into your writing. Certainly the events of 1950-1953 seem to find resonance in the war of Severian's Commonwealth against the Ascians, and in the war of Blanko against Soldo in In Green's Jungles. Your comments?

GW: My whole life experience feeds into my writing. I think that must be true for every writer. Clearly the Army and combat were major influences; just the same, you need to understand that many of the writers we have now couldn't load a revolver. I've crossed the Atlantic and the Pacific on ships. I've crewed on a sailboat. I've ridden a lot of horses and one camel -- his name was Tank, and we loped across the Australian desert. I've flown in a light plane and a helicopter. (As a passenger. I'm not a pilot.) I've boxed, though not professionally. And so on and so forth.

NG: The Book of the New Sun: Sword and CitadelAn interesting distinction between the New Sun and Long Sun novels relates to the directness of divine presence or intervention. Severian learns the will of the Increate via intermediary beings -- Hierodules, Hierogrammates -- while Silk appears to communicate directly with the Outsider, as his people term God or the Increate. Is Silk more intrinsically holy than Severian?

GW: I don't think anyone is more intrinsically holy. People experience God in many ways; and it seems to me that God does what the rest of us do: He chooses the means that best gets His message across. He's not rewarding us by talking to us. He's talking to us because He has something to say to us directly, as opposed to the things He says to all humanity.

NG: At the recent Readercon, many observers were impressed by your impromptu rendering of the inner nature of a "bad man". In your view, does evil genuinely, consciously, exist? Can you perhaps expand on the points you were making at Readercon?

GW: You seem to think that the only genuine existence evil can have is conscious existence -- that no one is evil unless he admits it to himself. I disagree.

NG: Although the Latro novels have no declared connection with the New Sun/Long Sun/Short Sun sequence, the gods of Latro's Hellenic world do recur to some extent in the Long Sun and Short Sun books, the same pagan archetypes acquiring far future flesh as prevailed before Christianity. Pas is Zeus, or aspires to be, etc. Is this recurrence simply a reflection of inevitable similarities between pagan pantheons, or is a more literal, material, continuity of "divine" pagan personae involved? Is Pas Zeus indeed?

GW: Pas is certainly not Zeus. (No doubt he would like to be.) The classical gods are, in general, not as people today imagine them. Ares is the soldier god, not the war god, for example. Aphrodite is the sex goddess, not the love goddess; the love god is Eros, her son.

NG: There's a lot of uncertainty as to how the twelve New Sun/Long Sun/Short Sun volumes should collectively be titled. Would The Briah Cycle be an acceptable overall moniker?

GW: The Briah Cycle seems to me to be as good a label as anyone is apt to find.

JJ: Angel-like creatures interact with Severian; the Outsider grants direct illumination to Silk; the Narrator of the Short Sun books is applying Silk's life in multiple ways. This looks like an extended "spin" on the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the Church afterwards. There are numerous parallels between Jesus and Silk, and after Silk's burial and "resurrection" we find in Exodus From the Long Sun long sections of "evangelism" for the "message of Silk," finishing with a fiery apocalypse -- all of which looks like the Gospels, the Book of Acts, and the Apocalypse. Did you have this kind of overall scheme in mind, either at the very beginning or when you came to write Long Sun and Short Sun? And if not, do you think it is a useful way to think about these works?

GW: No, the Biblical parallel had never occurred to me. I think it may well be a useful way to look at those books, however.

JJ: J. K. Rowling is writing fairly sophisticated stories for young people in her "Harry Potter" series, reflecting her attachment to C. S. Lewis. Have you read these? Do you have any comments on their literary quality and general worth?

GW: I have read only the first "Harry Potter" book. I thought it excellent, perhaps the best thing written for older children since The Hobbit. I wish the books had been around when my kids were the right age for them.

JJ: Could you tell us about your and Rosemary's general health these days?

GW: Rosemary is diabetic and has difficulty walking any great distance. Stairs are very hard for her. I have glaucoma. We're well otherwise.

JJ: What things inspired you to move into writing the "Wizard Knight" books? Was this a long-time desire, or were you jogged into doing it by one thing or another, as thinking about costumes jogged you into creating Severian?

GW: I met a nice little boy named Nick. (He's not quite so little now.) He was very, very bright, and crazy about knights and the whole medieval scene. I tried to figure out what attracted him to it so much, and began to write a book.

Latro in the MistJJ: Many of your books, particularly the Latro and Briah books, portray a dimly-seen conflict or at least interaction of "higher powers" that is in part "behind" the human events. One sees the same kind of thing in the Book of Daniel, chapter 11, and also in the Iliad. I'm wondering about the origin of this interesting theme in your writing, how you came to think of writing this way.

GW: No comment.

JJ: Could you comment on some of the things that motivated your creation of the story of Patera Silk -- such as (possibly) (a) disappointment over people's misunderstanding of the Severian narrative; or (b) a desire to write your own version of The Diary of a Country Priest; or (c) some specific event in your life; or (d) something else altogether?

GW: None of those you suggest. I began with the idea of writing about a good man in a bad religion. That's all.

JJ: Aww, why not? I might as well at least ask one of the $64,000 questions, so I'll just go for broke. (Hmm. I've gotta be very precise here. Okay, here goes:) Which of the following, if any, are physically (not in some merely literary or symbolic sense) the same planets as Blue and Green, in the same order?:

Ushas and Lune
Urth and Lune
Lune and Ushas
Lune and Urth
Two Urths
Two Ushases
Two Lunes

GW: None.

The KnightOn The Wizard Knight:

NG: Apart from your aforementioned meeting with young Nick, what first got you interested in writing a novel incorporating knightly chivalry and Teutonic myth?

GW: The short answer is that I don't know. I started thinking about knighthood, and wondering why that period has an eternal fascination for us. Greek myth is laid in the Golden Age. The Dark Ages are our Golden Age; most fairy tales, and all the best ones, are laid there. I start thinking about a lot of things, including dinner, but I needed a new book just then and wanted to get away from the universe of the New Sun books.

NG: Why did you choose to make the narrator of The Knight a contemporary American? More broadly, why in your opinion are so many authors of Arthurian fantasy (from Mark Twain in A Connecticut Yankee to Poul Anderson in Three Hearts and Three Lions) inclined to insert modern viewpoint characters into novels set in the Dark Ages?

GW: I've no good answer. I felt I needed to bring in someone from outside, who would not have heard about the Aelf and Angrborn from childhood.

NG: You have narrated a number of stories and novels from the perspectives of children, but The Wizard Knight is by far your most ambitious exercise in a youthful vein. What, for you, are the particular challenges of assuming a young, or teenage, narrative voice?

GW: A youthful American voice isn't particularly challenging -- I've been a young American, and they're all around me. I can walk from my house to Barrington High School.

NG: The Knight describes a hierarchy of worlds, the two highest very possibly the realms of God and the angels, the lowest hellish terrains like Muspel. Does this scheme emanate from Teutonic and Celtic myth, from the Kabbalah, or primarily from Christian theology?

GW: I began with Teutonic Myth: Valhalla above, the elves below. When I needed another layer, I added one. The lowest is not Muspel.

NG: Although The Knight is very much a Gene Wolfe novel, packed with cunning clues, oblique touches, unusual viewpoints, searching dialogues, and brilliant prose, it seems more transparent, less veiled, than your previous epics. Could The Wizard Knight be employed as a sort of explicatory Rosetta Stone for the wider Wolfe oeuvre, your open statement of themes explored with greater disguise in the Briah and Latro books?

GW: Perhaps it could be. I'll be interested to see whether anyone does it.

© Nick Gevers, Michael Andre-Driussi, and James Jordan 2003.

The Knight
The Knight is published by Tor in the US in January 2004.
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  • Gene Wolfe links abound, but a good place to start is the Wolfe studies site, Ultan's Library.

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