"In Prayer The Whisper Of The Void"
An Interview with Michael Bishop
by Nick Gevers
Born in 1945, Michael Bishop has been an author of ambitious and eloquent SF and Fantasy for thirty years, a highly significant figure on the humanist, literary side of American speculative fiction since early in his career. His many fine short stories have been collected in Blooded On Arachne (1982), One Winter In Eden (1984), Close Encounters with the Deity (1986), Emphatically Not SF, Almost (1991), At The City Limits of Fate (1996), and, most recently, Blue Kansas Sky, published in 2000 by Golden Gryphon Press. These volumes, combining the sublimely exotic and the drawlingly familiar, satirical humour and timeless tragedy, constitute one of the finest short fiction oeuvres in SF's history.
But Bishop has also achieved great success as a novelist. His mastery of the extravagant otherworldly odyssey found commanding expression in A Funeral For The Eyes of Fire (1975, revised as Eyes of Fire in 1980, with that revision achieving hardcover publication under the original title in 1989), And Strange At Ecbatan The Trees (1976), Stolen Faces (1977), and Transfigurations (1979). Also in his first decade as a writer, he began to delineate the potential destinies of his home region, the South, with the sequence made up of A Little Knowledge (1977) and Catacomb Years (1979). And this was only the beginning.
Bishop's mature novels were to unite his by now well-honed strengths of sociological insight and the vivid evocation of Southern places: No Enemy But Time (1982), which won the Nebula Award, takes its protagonist to a superbly realised prehistoric past in person and in dream; Ancient Of Days (1985), in neat reversal, brings an ancestral hominid to the hectic present; Who Made Stevie Cry? (1984) is a Horror parody which had strangely little impact, but Philip K. Dick Is Dead, Alas (1987, also published as The Secret Ascension) is an exhilarating tour through literary alternate worlds, and Unicorn Mountain (1988) is a telling fantastic commentary on the milieu and menace of AIDS. Count Geiger's Blues (1992) is a full-blown satire, and Bishop's masterpiece, Brittle Innings (1994), introduces SF's first and founding Monster into wartime Minor League baseball. These are all remarkable novels: forceful, individual, well written and well characterised, works of power and wit. And Bishop is a noted poet in the bargain...
(Although many of Michael Bishop's novels are out of print, ElectricStory.com is making No Enemy But Time and Unicorn Mountain available in e-book form; in addition, No Enemy But Time has recently been reissued in the UK by Gollancz in trade paperback.)
I interviewed Michael Bishop by e-mail in July 2000.
NG: You had a very peripatetic childhood, didn't you? Why was this? And do you think that travelling so much at an impressionable age has influenced your mature writing?
MB: I travelled as a child because my father enlisted in the military during World War II and remained in the service even after the war concluded. My parents separated while he was on assignment in Japan in 1950, when I was not yet five, and then I did a lot of travelling because even though my mother had made a home for us in Mulvane, Kansas, south of Wichita, and worked in the personnel department for McConnell Air Force Base, every summer, as soon as school let out, I took off for my dad's current duty station and spent the next three months with him. In this way, even within the U.S., I became familiar with several different cities and their environs: Memphis, Tennessee; Cheyenne, Wyoming; St. Louis, Missouri; Denver, Colorado. And every summer my dad carried me with him for at least one visit to my grandparents' farm in eastern Arkansas, near Harrisburg, Marked Tree, and the minuscule Bay Village. And, yes, this exposure to so many different places as a crewcut kid shaped my outlook and consequently my writing. It gave me a sensitivity to the power of location over daily behavior and simultaneously to the fact that human beings can adapt extraordinarily well to places unfamiliar to them, given time and open minds.
NG: Considering your work as a whole, your authorial philosophy seems liberal and humane, very moral in its emphasis much of the time. Is this assessment accurate? And what influences -- personal and literary -- have made you the writer that you are?
MB: Let me confess real discomfort talking about my "authorial philosophy" because so much of what I do strikes me as intuitive and situation-directed, even though I agree with the much more dogmatic Flannery O'Connor -- long a personal icon -- that fiction should not hold up evil as good or good as evil. I part company with her, though, in seeming to suppose that the distinctions between the two are hard-edged and self-evident, or unequivocally laid out for study and acceptance in Judeo-Christian scripture. I classify myself after a lot of literal soul-searching (some, I know, would call that phrase oxymoronic) as a Christian, but a skeptical one who often picks up in prayer the whisper of the void. (John Fowles once wrote, "An answer is always a form of death," and I believe that.) In any event, it outrages me to see people treat other people as something less than human for any reason at all: race, class consciousness, religious differences, sex or sexual orientation, intellectual pride, etc. But because the human condition, along with ignorance and/or greed, continually triggers brutality, I have no shortage of outrage, and outrage often fuels my fiction.
As for particular literary influences, the first writers I read with enthusiasm as a young person were Edgar Allan Poe, Jack London, Jonathan Swift, Lewis Carroll, and Somerset Maugham, specifically The Moon and Sixpence, Cakes and Ale, and Of Human Bondage. I later came to, and relished, the work of Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, and William Faulkner. Before getting out of high school, I tried at one point or another to write like each one of these models. At the same time, though, I was reading H. G. Wells and Ray Bradbury, and once I got to the University of Georgia in 1963, Flannery O'Connor's wickedly miraculous short stories exploded into my awareness, along with the astonishing tales -- ficciones -- in Jorge Luis Borges' remarkable collection Labyrinths. (Take a look at my stories "Alien Graffiti," "Love's Heresy," and "The Bob Dylan Tambourine Software & Satori Support Services Consortium, Ltd." for fairly obvious examples of Borges' influence.) After college, I read heavily in the SF field, and I especially admired Arthur C. Clarke, Theodore Sturgeon, Ursula K. Le Guin, Thomas M. Disch, Barry N. Malzberg, Robert Silverberg, and Harlan Ellison, whose titles often struck me as pure (if outrageous) poetry. The academic Joe Sanders has written a cogent paper demonstrating parallels between Maugham's Of Human Bondage and my own Brittle Innings, parallels of which I was completely unaware during the writing. I can't begin to sort out the practical stylistic or thematic consequences of my influences, category or otherwise, but I do think that Steinbeck's idealistic championing of the proletariat -- take a look at In Dubious Battle -- also had an enduring impact.
NG: In your early years as an SF writer, you were considered an exoticist, an impression given much weight by the colourful alien settings of novels like A Funeral For the Eyes of Fire, And Strange At Ecbatan The Trees, Stolen Faces, and Transfigurations, as well as of many of the stories in Blooded On Arachne. Why were you so preoccupied then with the possibilities of xenology and highly speculative anthropology? Was this consciously in keeping with the spirit of so much Seventies SF -- the exotic romanticism of authors like Ursula Le Guin (whom you professedly admired), George R. R. Martin, James Tiptree, Jr., Gardner Dozois...?
MB: Another confession: As a teenager and even a young adult, I simply thought that aliens and alien planets were ... neat. Pretty embarrassing, in retrospect -- except that my enthusiasm for the outré and the alien had almost certainly grown from encounters with these qualities in the works of Jonathan Swift, Lewis Carroll, and Ray Bradbury, whose short stories in A Medicine for Melancholy and The Martian Chronicles struck me as the lyrical literary embodiment of the exotic as it manifested itself both close to hand (The October Country) and across interplanetary space. But, yes, the works of Le Guin, Tiptree, Dozois, Ellison, and Aldiss also influenced me, as did those of more "grounded" talents like J. G. Ballard and Thomas M. Disch. In fact, I had a secret ambition -- unachieved -- to write Le Guin-style off-planet tales with the ironic sensibility of Disch. My first novel, A Funeral for the Eyes of Fire, attempted that feat, as did my third, Stolen Faces, and my fourth, Transfigurations. My early work was definitely a product of that supercharged 1970s milieu, though.
NG: You seemed to undergo a transition in the early 1980s, shifting from xenology to palaeontology -- thus, No Enemy But Time and Ancient Of Days still deal with strange hominid beings, but within the constraints imposed by Earthly locales and the plausible ancestral scenarios drawn up by palaeontologists. Why this move to the (relatively) mundane?
MB: Thomas Disch once referred to some of the most common science-fiction conventions -- tropes, not weekend gatherings -- as Dumb Ideas. He was alluding to aliens and telepathy in particular, I think, but may have had a whole gamut of such notions in mind, ranging from time travel to the Nietzschean superman concept. (I'm paraphrasing Disch from memory and don't have a text to corroborate the accuracy of my recall, but still believe my characterisation of his point of view summons its spirit.) He contended that SF would never escape from its perpetual adolescence if it failed to set aside these allegedly awe-inspiring concepts in favor of an approach yoking credible characterisation, a mature consideration of the impact of technology, and deliberately literate writing (as opposed to the humdrum journalistic style or pyrotechnic whiz-bang fustian, the other two camps into which it usually seemed to fall). In the early 1970s, a number of writers, including Disch, Samuel R. Delany, Le Guin, Joanna Russ, and Robert Silverberg, among others, actually wrote as if science fiction teetered on the brink of universal acceptance, as if an ambitious and accomplished writer might not only attain best-seller status but walk away with a National Book Award or a Nobel Prize.
Ha ha. A couple of circumstances militated against this (naive) scenario. First, most SF readers, and most of its writers to boot, quite rightly did not want science fiction to mutate into the respectable younger (or even older) brother of conventional mainstream literature. Part of its appeal lay in its edge-running or outlaw status, even its juvenility ("the Golden Age of Science Fiction is twelve"), and no one really wanted Robert Heinlein to start writing off-planet John Updike tales of xenophobic adultery (or whatever). And second, Star Wars burbled along and turned SF into a popular-culture commodity that not so subtly undercut the aspirations of those writers, including even me, who foolishly wanted to transform science fiction into a "mature literature." To be fair, maybe we didn't so much want to transform the entire field as to carve out an ecologically viable niche within it. And the Star Wars phenomenon, big-screen pulp sci-fi, grew to such proportions that that niche shrank rather than enlarged -- to the point, in fact, that it seemed almost crazy to try to eke out an existence within its diminishing circumference.
What does this have to do with your question about my shift from writing about aliens in off-world settings to writing about paleoanthropological topics? That shift occurred -- as I now realize -- about the time that Hollywood's version of what constitutes science fiction took the ascendancy in our popular culture. Rightly or wrongly, I wanted to reclaim it, at least in some of its literary manifestations, as a legitimate medium in which to examine age-old human concerns. I don't think I succeeded either in writing exemplary "mature science fiction" or in enlarging the niche for that kind of SF, but I tried. Others who tried (and succeeded far better than I) include Brian Aldiss, Ballard, Disch, Le Guin, John Crowley, Gene Wolfe, Kate Wilhelm, Kim Stanley Robinson, Paul Park, and even Bruce Sterling, alpha cyberpunk, who might well puke to find himself listed among these crypto-humanists. Well, too bad.
NG: Throughout your career, you've been a fairly prolific writer of short stories and novellas, despite the less than lucrative financial rewards for such activity -- for example, all of your collections have been published by small presses such as Arkham House. Why are you so loyal to the short form? Where does its particular appeal for you lie?
MB: I love the short story. I love it not only because you can read it in much less than time than it takes to read a novel, but also because you can conceive, write, and even (almost) perfect one in a fraction of the time it takes to write a good novel. I lack real patience, at least for the long haul, and prefer instant to delayed gratification. (The juvenile in me, if not the infantile, lifts its ugly head again.) I find a precision watch more beautiful than even a well-tuned internal-combustion engine. And more of my short stories come closer to achieving what I wanted them to than do any of my novels ... except maybe Brittle Innings.
NG: Coming to your later novels, now: they share with earlier works like A Little Knowledge, Catacomb Years, and some of the stories in One Winter In Eden a strong geographical particularity, that of the American South. Certainly from Ancient Of Days onwards, your characters often speak a very recognisable Southern idiom, to frequently comic effect. You live in Georgia, of course; how quickly, how readily, did you perfect your literary mastery of this folksy (?) diction?
MB: Thanks for noticing. But I haven't yet achieved "mastery" in this area. Although I listen to real people speaking and try to pick up on their word choices and phrasings, some of what I do has its origins in literature, from Twain to Faulkner to O'Connor to Cormac McCarthy. In fact, I have no clear idea where all of it comes from; occasionally, a character speaks from a source of which I have no knowledge at all, probably as an esoteric conflation of my reading and my daily experience.
NG: Who Made Stevie Crye? is your only Horror novel. What drew you to that genre, and how successful do you now feel your venture in that direction was?
MB: I meant this novel as a horror parody, but the story itself took over and the parody yielded at a number of points to horror qua horror. A scene in which a mournful-looking bassett hound has my heroine Stevie trapped in a VW microbus burlesques, as you may have long since realized, an extended sequence in Stephen King's Cujo. Writing parody or satire is always an arrogant thing to do, and I endeared myself to almost no one by writing Who Made Stevie Crye? Had that been my goal, which unhappily it wasn't (at least, not exactly), then I would have to admit that I was gloriously successful. Editors and publishers here in the States claimed that they had no idea how to "market" the book, and it has had only two editions, a lovely first-edition hardcover with photo illos by J. K. Potter from Arkham House and a British trade paperback repro of that edition from Headline. I think it deserved a mass-market paperback, but it never got one. "Market it as horror," I wanted to yell at the people in publishing in New York. "And let the buyer beware -- just as you usually do."
NG: Philip K. Dick Is Dead, Alas is a remarkable phenomenon: an SF novel written as an explicit tribute not simply to the oeuvre of another SF writer, but, further, featuring the object of homage as a major character. How important was Philip K. Dick for the SF genre in general and for yourself in particular? And was it easy to inhabit someone else's literary cosmos so convincingly?
MB: When I first encountered Dick's work, probably in 1970, I recall thinking that the guy wrote the most abominably flat sentences and tossed the book -- Ubik? Counter-Clock World? -- aside, with no intention of ever going back to him. Then, on the recommendation of a friend, I read The Man in the High Castle, and Dick's unique vision slipped over my head like an invisible VR helmet, at least for the duration of that remarkable book, and later for my readings of Ubik, Martian Time-Slip, Dr. Bloodmoney, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, etc., etc. When I wrote a review of A Scanner Darkly for a journal once published by writer, critic, and fan Richard Delap, Dick wrote me an enthusiastic letter -- I found out later that he wrote lots of enthusiastic letters -- praising my insights and giving me to suppose that no one had ever understood his intentions quite so thoroughly as I. Which actually did lead me to suppose that I fathomed his unfathomable thought processes.
In one sense, Philip K. Dick didn't write science fiction at all. He wrote vividly dramatized and paranoiacally imagined narratives about his own bodily involvement in, and psychic estrangement from, the major U.S. cultural neuroses of the 1950s, 1960s, and early 1970s. His work gives an even more acute look at the schizoid America of those times than Peyton Place, The Last Picture Show, Fail-Safe, or Portnoy's Complaint. In fact, I would even go so far as to say that Dick was a mainstream novelist wholly successfully disguising himself as a science fiction writer -- so successfully, in fact, that tatters of this disguise flapped into even his "straight" mainstream efforts, rendering them unpublishable as (ostensibly) realistic novels, at least in his own lifetime. I probably romanticise the real man a little, but I regarded him as a brave soul, the real-world objectification of the "little people" whom he championed in his own fiction. I got into his head only insofar as I acknowledged the love in him for these people and fashioned living simulacrums of that love and those people in my tribute to him. I can't begin to judge the degree of his importance to the field as a whole.
Oh, yes, I should probably note that Ursula Le Guin's The Lathe of Heaven had something to do with my reconsideration of Dick's work, for I had fixed on her as a saving beacon in our field long before I began to take Dick seriously. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness, which I first read in 1969, blew me away. I've long regretted that I gave away my Ace Double edition of this book, with the lovely Leo and Diane Dillon cover, to a friend, who didn't like the book as much as I and who then misplaced the copy that I had given him.
NG: Unicorn Mountain was -- and is -- a very topical novel, treating the issue of AIDS with an effective mixture of realism and the fantastic. In the light of the events of the subsequent twelve years, would you now slant this novel any differently?
MB: Probably not. The novel takes place in the early years of the AIDS outbreak/epidemic, and even though I wrote it as a an alternative 1985 fantasy, I take some pride in the fact that Unicorn Mountain attempts an accurate mimesis of the American cultural milieu in that particular year. Rewriting the novel in light of recent developments -- from the discovery of effective drug "cocktails" to the nightmarish proliferation of the disease in Africa -- would sabotage it as a historical document. I know that's a peculiar thing to say about an alleged "fantasy," even a "contemporary" one, but I would argue that Unicorn Mountain nonetheless has validity as history, and that the latest horrific developments in the AIDS crisis demand a brand-new novel, with a completely different focus and, more than likely, both an African setting and major African characters.
NG: Count Geiger's Blues is your purest exercise in satire. What were your specific targets in that novel?
MB: First, critics who dismiss any aspect of popular culture, out of hand, as beneath their notice -- as lacking in seriousness, significance, and even the potential for Quality (with a capital Q in the sense that Robert Pirsig discusses it in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.) Second, the obscene notion -- ordinarily employed as an aesthetic facilitator in both the comics and the movies -- that nuclear radiation can and will bestow either superhuman power or great size on those exposed to it. For, in fact, what it most often bestows is illness and/or death, without appeal or reprieve. Third, subsidiary targets exist throughout the novel: the fashion industry, punk rock, the cult of violent machismo, etc. Despite the (defiantly) downbeat ending, I also meant the book to provoke laughter. In Anne Lamott's phrase, hard laughter.
NG: Brittle Innings centres on an astonishing concept: Frankenstein's Monster as a baseball player. How did you strike upon this idea?
MB: Had Frankenstein's creature somehow survived into the twentieth century, where would it most likely have gone to find at least a semblance of acceptance? It occurred to me that in the American South during World War II, a great many seeming misfits -- male misfits, at least -- found a home playing baseball, for their healthier, completely able-bodied counterparts from 18 to 38 had gone for soldiers, either east to fight the Nazis or west and northwest to contain the Japanese. A 4F giant like Jumbo Hank Clerval would not appear especially out of place to the fans of minor-league baseball from 1942 to 1945, and as Flannery O'Connor -- there's that name again -- once noted, the South has an especial affinity for freaks not only because it seems to produce more than its share, but also because Southerners, being close to the earth, often relate to those whom outsiders would call freaks because they understand in their blood and marrow just how close to freakishness they themselves stand.
NG: Why haven't you published any further novels since Brittle Innings? That book was quite successful commercially speaking, wasn't it?
MB: I felt, and still feel, that Brittle Innings represented a sort of pinnacle for me as a novelist. I accomplished in it almost exactly what I had hoped to, and but for one myopic review -- in the worst possible place, The New York Times -- it met with an almost ecstatic critical reception. Twentieth Century Fox optioned the book a couple of years in a row and then bought it outright, enabling us to put both our children through college, but the film has not yet been made -- a blessing in disguise, I'm sure -- and the book did not sell especially well. The suspicion that I could not top what I had done in Brittle Innings, along with three or four years with no financial burdens to speak of, blunted my ambitions as a novelist, which had almost always taken a back seat to my love for the short story in any case. I then wrote a couple of novellas and several short stories and began teaching one quarter a year at nearby LaGrange College. I also collaborated on two mystery novels with Paul Di Filippo under the joint pseudonym Philip Lawson. (My middle name is Lawson.) But Howard Morhaim, my agent, repeatedly asks the same question, "When will you send me another novel to market? The kids coming into publishing today don't even know who you are." Well, I have a mainstream novel in the works and plan to finish it this year.
NG: You have a parallel writing career as a poet, one of the finest to emerge from SF circles. Which is most central to your life as a writer: your poetry, or your prose?
MB: The prose. As a free-lancer dependent on my writing and my salaried wife to make ends meet, I can't financially justify writing as much poetry as I would like to. Poetry makes almost no money for its practitioners. The cliche -- truth makes it a cliche -- is that one writes poetry for love, not for fame or financial gain, and I give most of my love to my family and my fiction.
NG: Blue Kansas Sky gathers together one early and three more recent novellas, each distinct from the others in setting and manner. However, both "Apartheid, Superstrings, and Mordecai Thubana" and "Cri De Coeur", the one a tale of racial oppression in South Africa and the other a father's account of his Down's Syndrome-afflicted son's experiences on an interstellar vessel, are concerned very much with discrimination, whether racial or genetic in foundation. You indicated previously your detestation of discrimination against people on any grounds: why is this theme so important for you?
MB: Earlier I mentioned outrage as a motivating factor for a lot of my work. The novel Stolen Faces exemplifies an early, rather bitter examination of the same theme, and yet I firmly believe -- as a Christian, as a humanist, and as a writer -- that we have it in our capacity to rectify the unjust situations and attitudes that inevitably produce outrage in the righteous. If the ground under my literary ambition has any solidity, it -- the solidity -- derives from this belief. I could expand this answer by recounting a couple of anecdotes from my childhood, but I don't really want to do that here.
NG: The novella "Blue Kansas Sky", your latest work, has touches of the fantastic, but is essentially a mainstream coming-of-age story. Are you now, in your own eyes, more a mainstream than a genre or category fiction writer?
MB: I seem to be growing in a mainstream direction, but I don't envision abandoning SF and fantasy as an outlet for occasional short-fiction projects. And, in fact, now that I think of it, I have two ideas for longer works that would fall without quibble into these categories. Recently, by the way, I sold a short story to Analog, my first sale to that hard-science market in about twenty years. (I stole the idea from a talk that Bruce Sterling gave and reprinted on the web as part of one of his "Viridian" notes.) Also, I have fantasy or SF stories forthcoming in F&SF and the anthologies Strange Attraction and Embrace The Mutation, the latter -- interestingly, at least to me -- with photo illos by J. K. Potter.
NG: Finally: can you say something more about your upcoming books, both your collaborations with Paul Di Filippo and your individual undertakings?
MB: Paul and I have already published, as Philip Lawson, Would It Kill You To Smile? (Longstreet Press, 1998) and Muskrat Courage (St. Martin's Press, 2000), a pair of mysteries featuring Will Keats, an elementary-school counselor and son of a second-rate ventriloquist. Will's father, Skipper Keats, dies on the first page of the first book. Shortly thereafter the dead vent's favorite dummy, Dapper O'Dell, goes missing, and the mystery proceeds from there. In the second book, Muskrat Courage, Paul and I upped the stakes a bit, for in its first chapter Will's girlfriend Adrienne Owsley's eight-year-old daughter is kidnapped out from under his nose at the height of a spring storm. Muskrat Courage takes its title from the MGM movie version of The Wizard of Oz, when Bert Lahr as the Cowardly Lion sings, "What makes the muskrat guard his musk? Courage!".... We have plans for a third, but probably won't write it until we each make more headway on solo projects of our own. Currently, I have a novel set in Georgia in 1980 under way, and I hope to assemble a series of largely mainstream stories under the overall title Other Arms Reach Out To Me. The title, for anyone familiar with either Hoagy Carmichael or Ray Charles, should immediately identify the setting of these stories.
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© Nick Gevers 7 October 2000