In a Genre of his own
An Interview with Neal Barrett, Jr
by Nick Gevers
Neal Barrett, Jr. was born in 1929, and published his first SF story in 1960. He demonstrated considerable storytelling skill in early novels such as The Gates of Time (1970) and The Leaves of Time (1971), but began to express his mature gifts clearly only with Stress Pattern (1974) and the remarkable ironic "Aldair" quartet (1976-82). From there, he proceeded to his masterworks: the bleakly savage and compelling post-holocaust sequence made up of Through Darkest America (1987) and Dawn's Uncertain Light (1989); the disturbing but hilarious posthumous comedy The Hereafter Gang (1991, reviewed elsewhere on this site); and the finely crafted short stories now collected in Perpetuity Blues (2000, reviewed elsewhere on this site), published by Golden Gryphon Press. The vigorous and witty novel Interstate Dreams (1999, reviewed elsewhere on this site), a return to fantastic modes after some years devoted to the production of well-received crime thrillers, shows Neal Barrett's continued profound significance for the genres of speculative fiction.
But this is not to say that Barrett works in conformity with the prescriptions of any given popular genre. As he himself emphasises, he creates, and works within, a genre of his own, one compounded of conventions drawn from many sorts of literature and co-ordinated by his exuberant "off-the-wall" Texan's narrative voice and profoundly deliberated melancholy. Barrett is simply himself; comparisons with other writers, like Howard Waldrop and Joe Lansdale, are possible, but never truly satisfactory.
I interviewed Neal Barrett, Jr. by e-mail between May and July of 2000.
NG: Reading your work generally, and reading Perpetuity Blues in particular, one is struck by how convincing, how deeply felt, your portrayals of Southern settings and characters are. Two questions arise: How closely do these depictions draw on your own experience? And do you consider yourself a Southern, or Texan, writer, an exponent of a particular regional literary tradition?
NBJ: I think nearly everything a writer writes mirrors his or her life, right down through the heart to the very soul. It's most certainly true for me. I was born in San Antonio, Texas, grew up in Oklahoma, and have lived all my adult life in Texas. You mention Perpetuity Blues, my collection by Golden Gryphon Press. Every story in there, with the possible exception of "Stairs" and "Highbrow", reflects my heritage, my experience, the people I've known, in this particular part of the country.
How closely does my work draw upon my own experience? About as close as you can get. Read The Hereafter Gang. A lot of that is real. A lot of it happened to me. And if it didn't, it happened to somebody, because that's the kind of things that happen around here. Some of it, of course, is fantasy stuff---things you wish to hell had happened, or happened more often than they did.
Anyone who has read The Hereafter Gang very likely will brand me a Southern, Southwestern, Texas or regional writer. That's fine with me. If you grow up in Wales, Japan, or Montana, you'll very likely reflect that background. And I think that's what's especially fine about writing. If you're reading a writer's honest reflections of his life in his home setting---and in the period in which he's lived---you're getting a picture you couldn't possibly get anywhere else. That's what good fiction (or non-fiction) is, isn't it? Something that opens the heart of the writer, and lets his reader see how different he is, or, hopefully, how much the same.
My off-the-wall fiction such as The Hereafter Gang and my new novel Interstate Dreams, as well as my SF work and my mystery novels, all reflect what I am, where I've been---and, with exceptions, of course, what I believe. Some of the outrageous and totally awful things some of my characters believe also reflect me---and some of them don't.
NG: Another feature of your oeuvre is its diversity of subject matter, its ranging across a variety of genres: mystery fiction, SF, Fantasy, Horror, Westerns, media tie-ins, etcetera. Of course, the level of ambition of your work has varied in correspondence with this versatility, from quite light entertainments to demanding literary novels like The Hereafter Gang. What has guided the movement of your career? And is there a genre that you particularly enjoy working within?
NBJ: You're right except for Horror, I think. If I've written anything you can directly call Horror, you'll have to call it to my attention. I never did so on purpose, however.
You mention, and quite diplomatically, I must say, that the "level of ambition" in my work has varied. What has guided the movement of my career? A great deal of any writer's career, unless he be so fortunate as to consistently strike literary gold in the economic vein, has to do with surviving to keep himself and his family reasonably intact. I sold my first couple of short stories forty years ago---or at least that's when they came out, in 1960. Two at once, to Galaxy and Amazing, one novel-length to The Toronto Star and another one to Galaxy. They all came out the same year. Being a reasonable person, I knew, from these successes, that I had landed on Easy Street. What could possibly stop me now?
Nothing has, as a fact, but Easy Street was full of potholes and detours along the way. I have written a lot of short stories since then, and about 50 novels. I can honestly say that whatever the genre, the tie-in, etc., I've done a professional job on every one. How to fail in this business? The quickest way is to look down upon the project you're writing at the moment; tell yourself it's beneath you, and you certainly don't intend to give the poor bastards that read this anything worthwhile, because they wouldn't appreciate it anyway.
That's the way I feel about writing. Whatever it is, I give it my best. A lot of the time, my best is pretty damn good. And I think it's nearly always a good read.
End of your question: my favourite genre? I like to think that with work such as the Hereafter Gang, Interstate Dreams, and most of my SF stories, I've created a small genre of my own. Likely, some readers will agree, and some won't.
NG: You became well known early on for your "Aldair" fantasies, which featured a remarkable protagonist. What inspired this creation?
NBJ: About Aldair. The Aldair "quartet" was to me a very fun, and satisfying experience. I loved writing those books. I loved the characters, and their real, historical counterparts. I loved the parody of it all, the self-importance and pomposity of these images of Man's madness, the very "serious, earnest" dialogues between the characters. It was an adventure story, a science fiction story, a fun story, and, certainly, a blatant tale of what everyone's done wrong in the past, and what they'll likely do in the future.
It's difficult for a writer who has been writing a long time to say who influenced his work, because there are so many, many who did, writers you can't even recall. I had my own Golden Age, as everyone does, and especially in the SF field. No way I can name the greats of the 40s and 50s. But who is my all-time hero from back then? Cordwainer Smith. Without a doubt, in my mind, the very greatest, the most awesome, the most creative, and, certainly, the writer most ahead of his time. Everyone has their own nomination. This guy is mine. And who else today just knocks me off my feet as one of the great fantasy minds of all time? Moebius. I absolutely adore this guy. His art and Cordwainer Smith's writing go places I want to be.
NG: From the "Aldair" books to your later works, you show a consistent interest in post-holocaust milieux, or at least in settings ensuing upon a widespread economic and social collapse. You're especially telling in your visions of America gone seriously bad, as in Through Darkest America and Dawn's Uncertain Light. Is this a product of genuine pessimism about America's future, and the world's?
NBJ: Yes, I've delved into the post-holocaust milieux a Lot. I honestly can't say why. John Clute, in a Science Fiction Weekly review on that particular web, calls me "The great carnival barker of loss." He says I am utterly ruthless in my understanding that the world we are now entering is downwards from America, that I feel there is nothing for anyone to win but a smaller tomorrow.
I don't know. It's hard to argue with the same guy who said The Hereafter Gang was "one of the great American novels."
(I hope you'll permit me to quote a few of your words above, John. Surely you will.)
Maybe he's right. Among the shorter works I can recall at the moment, "Diner", "Under Old New York", "Class Of '61", "Trading Post", "Ginny Sweethips' Flying Circus", and "Highbrow" come to mind---all in the Perpetuity Blues collection, by the way.
The novels you mention, Through Darkest America and its follow-up, Dawn's Uncertain Light, definitely paint extremely dark pictures of tomorrow. And no, I don't think these works reflect a genuine pessimism about the future, any more than do the works of many, many other SF writers who have delved into the possibilities of a sadder world in the days to come.
One thing to remember is the fact that none of us can write even the boldest, most far-out picture of the future without a strong cord, or at least a flimsy thread, to the past. Where do all these ideas of a horrid tomorrow come from? How about the past? How about last week and the week before that? From Day One, we've had enough world-ending chillers to "suggest the possibility" of disaster. Ask anyone, throughout history, who has ever faced their own apocalypse. A lot of people have seen the end of the world. I haven't read a writer yet who can top the real thing. We've got enough material to try, though.
I'd add, here, again, that I truly don't feel I have any personal affinity to disaster tales. I do think the subject lends itself to bringing out the very best, and the very worst, in a writer's characters. It gets pretty raw and scary there at the end of the line.
NG: Coming to your very impressive collection, Perpetuity Blues, I have any number of questions specific to individual stories, but I'll try to discipline myself. First, and generally, is Perpetuity Blues indeed a considered "Best of Barrett"?
NBJ: Two people, at least, think Perpetuity Blues is "The Best of Barrett," at least in the SF vein. When the late Jim Turner asked me to do the collection, he sent a list of the stories he wanted to use. To the letter, they were exactly the stories I picked myself.
It's a hard question to answer objectively. What do you think?
NG: Some of the stories in Perpetuity Blues involve a sort of economic irony: America become poor, the shoe of exploitation on a non-American foot. Thus, aliens dominating the pecking order of trade in "Trading Post", the Chinese playing a similar role in "Diner", and American whites facing immigration difficulties and menial employment in "Under Old New York". Is this an aspect of your wider America the Fallen theme, a straightforward inversion of existing hierarchies?
NBJ: No, it's not intentionally an "inversion." The basis of many stories, SF or otherwise, is the process of putting the current winners on the bottom and the current losers on the top, and see what happens. I assume that's the inversion of hierarchies you're talking about; I just never thought of it that way.
NG: In a not dissimilar manner, "Perpetuity Blues" (online elsewhere on this site) itself conveys a harsh reversal of dreams of prosperity, placing such dreams in radical question. How ambiguous is this story? How deeply should a reader doubt Maggie's coming into fortune?
NBJ: Any reader who takes Maggie's adventures seriously needs to wake up and take a good look around. Maggie's story is a fairytale. The princess is plagued with evil doers, is befriended by a kindly mythical being (the alien) who gives her a magic amulet, is rescued by knights (of the road), taken to the King's great city, is plunged into hardship again, and, of course, finally achieves totally unbelievable success through her own unbelievable talents and good fortune---as all princesses do---and is then carried off by the handsome (Mafia) Prince. Her father, stolen away by a magic spell, is restored to her in the end. Her evil aunt and uncle, of course, are punished.
It's a fairy story, and a parody of the Great American Success Story as seen on the silver screen---or, at least, it used to be seen there. Scarcely anything is seen there now.
NG: "Ginny Sweethips' Flying Circus" is gentler in tone than most of your other stories, a post-holocaust comedy really, the lighter side of economic Depression. Should it be read as comforting?
NBJ: I don't know that I'd say "Ginny" is comforting. It was written for fun. You pinned it down: "a post-holocaust comedy" that gave me that rare chance every writer longs for: an excuse to write about large possums, and depraved insurance men.
NG: Two stories that had an especial impact on me were "Cush" and "Class of '61", ventures into dark supernatural territory, Southern Gothic in essence. But they diverge: "Cush" becomes a sort of grand epiphany, rapturous in tone, while "Class of '61" communicates a kind of scalding retrograde dubiety. Are these stories necessarily in contradiction, though?
NBJ: I don't think the two stories are contradictory. One involves a variation on the Christian story of the final destruction of sin, and the ensuing rapture. The other, "Class of '61," is a ghost story with aliens. (Note to editor: Hey, Nick--watch it with the "scalding retrograde dubiety". Where I come from, we lock people up for that.)
NG: You employ surrealist techniques sometimes, notably in "Highbrow", which describes workmen carving a monumental statue of Richard Nixon, and in "Stairs", which reads like a step sideways into a sort of dyslexic delirium. One senses, though, that very real dilemmas are being couched in this indirect manner; are these tales further encapsulations of the bleak implications of life in late Twentieth Century America?
NBJ: The stylistic manner of these two stories is a favorite of mine. Everything is so far out in nearly every respect, both the writer and the reader have to be in sync to "get it." I'm very fond of doing work such as this, because I like to give the reader some chance to use his or her imagination. All through both of these stories, questions are raised that are never answered. Generations of craftsmen building an immense statue of Richard Nixon is a totally bizarre idea. Yet, several people have come up to me and asked, "Why are they doing that? What's the story behind this?"
These are people who---bless their hearts---simply shouldn't be reading this sort of thing. If I ever even imagined some logical reason behind all this, what's the point?
I've been disappointed several times when someone has written that the girl in "Stairs" lives in an immensely high condo. Give me a break. Enjoy what's there--don't try to analyze it. Read something else. Write Terry Bisson, and ask him how bears could possibly discover fire.
NG: "Sallie C" and "Winter on the Belle Fourche" are alternate history Westerns, featuring unlikely encounters between well-known historical figures, in the Howard Waldrop fashion. Historical ironies are struck here; what effect do you intend?
NBJ: In the two stories mentioned, I intended to write interesting stories about the historical characters concerned. Not, however, "In the Howard Waldrop fashion" as you mention. Sorry, I can't let that one go by. I dearly love my friend Howard, and he's terrific, but even he doesn't take credit for inventing alternate histories. He did, however, invent Howard Waldrop, which is a worthwhile accomplishment in itself.
I don't know that I struck any historical ironies here. "Unlikely encounters," yes--that's the fun part. "Sallie C." is one of my personal favorites. I don't know why, except I'm obsessed with Billy the Kid and Pat. I'm writing a novel about this pair, also in later years. I'm also fond of The Desert Fox, and the Wright Brothers. And scorpions and snakes. And the godawful hard times of the West.
"Winter on the Belle Fourche" brings out another old favorite, Liver-Eating Johnston. I think he and Emily D. [Dickinson] were made for each other.
NG: "'A Day at the Fair'" is a slyly implicatory story set off-planet. Is "A Day" in fact one story in the garb of another?
NBJ: "A Day at the Fair" is another favorite of mine. Is it one story in the garb of another? I think that's so. I think the people on this forlorn planet, the aliens, the severely disabled spacers, the junkyard technology, etc., leave the reader (I hope) with a far larger picture of terrible wars, unthinkable distances---a great many stories, secrets, lost causes and fears, that we'll never know. I think every good story should do that. My favorite stories and novels are those that come off well on their own, but leave such a sense of wonder behind. The untold parts of the stories are often what make the stories themselves so wonderful. Terry Bisson is a master of this. So is William Browning Spencer, who tells awesome tales with great depth, clarity and humour. Zod Wallop is a masterful fantasy. So is Bill's collection, The Return of Count Electric. Terry's "Bears Discover Fire" is a wonder. And I've already mentioned my love of Cordwainer Smith and the art of Moebius.
Yes, in answer again---I'd hope that most of my work is one story in the garb of another.
NG: Turning to your longer works of the last decade: much of your more recent fiction--The Hereafter Gang, Interstate Dreams, your mysteries--is extremely funny, full of daft characters and improbable incidents, hilarious cameos and throwaway lines. What inspires your wit? Is it simply life itself?
NBJ: Certainly, I'd have to say I'm constantly amazed by the insanity of life itself. Who isn't? It's the only way to keep from going totally nuts. You ask what inspires my wit, and perhaps a partial answer does come from the act of living. Wit's a near impossible thing to explain; I don't have an answer. I might have a tome or an essay, but not a quickie answer. It lies within, okay? It's a part of what I do, what I am. If that seems nebulous, it's because it is.
And, regarding the "daft characters," "improbable incidents," etc.... Characters are daft, because characters are based on people. A great deal of the incidents I witness, on the street, on the news, are possibly improbable---but, in regard to what? Some kind of reality somewhere? I write deep and dark, and I write light and funny. And, they're both the same, in my mind. Tragedy contains funny; funny contains tragedy. Serious things happen to my people, and funny things as well. Like life, okay? The way I write is simply my perspective on whatever the hell this living stuff is all about.
NG: Can the term "magic realism" accurately be used to describe your later works, especially The Hereafter Gang and Interstate Dreams?
NBJ: Publishers can't seem to get along without naming everything they print. It confuses the hell out of them, and keeps them up nights. If a book doesn't fall neatly into a category of some sort they don't have the slightest idea what to do next. It's as if they think the readers lack the intelligence to pick out a book without a label on it. Magic realism, as far as I'm concerned, is a term invented by some goofy publisher to cover work he doesn't think fits anywhere else, and possibly doesn't like or understand in the second place. If someone wants to call my works magic realism, fine. A label won't tell you much. The best thing to do with a book is read it, if you think you'll like it. Good books and horrible books all have a label on the spine. How are you going to know which is which? Open it, you'll find out soon.
NG: The Hereafter Gang features an optimistic vision of the afterlife, complete with Christ as the Man in Charge, "the Chief". Does this reflect any specific beliefs of yours, or should the hereafter of the novel be read purely metaphorically, as an expression of your themes of character and memory?
NBJ: Everyone has the right to pick out his own afterlife. Quite seriously, The Hereafter Gang EXACTLY reflects what I intend to do. No metaphorical stuff at all there, man. I do unmagic realism.
NG: Interstate Dreams foregrounds the issue of Black and White, the legacy of the South's racialised politics. How fully do you think the South of today has overcome the mentality of segregation and prejudice?
NBJ: We're doing better on racial understanding than we were some years ago. We're sure not there, and I fear it'll be some time before we get there. What helps is that each generation that dies off takes some of the bad stuff with them. From my great-grandparents, through my grandparents, through my parents, and down to me, reflects a near miraculous journey. This isn't always true, of course, and sometimes the hatred and misunderstanding is actually fostered by the next generation. But I've seen a lot of change, and I have to say it's been for the better, whether we're there or not. As for your question about the "South's racialised politics," I know the South is in many ways handling all this as well or better than the North, which doesn't always turn in a good report, as far as "racialised politics" are concerned. I took great pleasure in turning the tables and writing about a white hero in Interstate Dreams who wants to be black. Won't make everyone happy, but that's the way it goes.
NG: Both The Hereafter Gang and Interstate Dreams feature characters obsessed with World War One German fighter planes. Why this recurring preoccupation?
NBJ: Easy answer, and true. My characters are obsessed with World War One German fighter planes because I am. That's it. I am nuts about WWI airplanes from all nations. Don't ask me why. You'll also note that everyone eats BBQ ribs in my books. Same answer.
NG: You've published a number of comic crime novels in recent years, all with "Blues" in the title. Why did you choose to concentrate your efforts in that genre so much? And is Interstate Dreams essentially the same sort of novel, only with the supernatural as a major addition?
NBJ: I started writing a series of crime novels because I had some things to say in that particular genre. Humour went along with it, because that's one of my basic perspectives on the world. And no, I don't really think Interstate Dreams is essentially a crime novel, although there's certainly a lot of crime in it. If I have to label it, I'd say it's mainstream off-the-wall fiction, as is The Hereafter Gang. That's the way my work seems to turn out. Good or bad, I write a lot like me. What can I say? As for the supernatural, I think of it in Interstate Dreams as simply another element, not a major addition to anything. It's there. It happens. It's in the hero's head. Part of the story, but certainly not the basic premise, in my mind. The premise is how the major character, Dreamer, handles what he has to face throughout the book.
NG: Regarding your forthcoming works: you have an alternate history novel in progress, as well as a Fantasy series for Bantam. Can you say something about these projects?
NBJ: A couple of years ago I wrote a novelette for Dragon Magazine, titled "The Lizard Shoppe". It's about a guy who makes lizards out of gold, lead, silver, iron, etc. Lizards for work and for the home. Before he came along, there weren't any lizards. Now there are. Lots more to this. No room to go into it here.
The story won an award. Bantam liked the concept, and I'm doing two books for them. One is now finished, and should be out in December. Title of the first one is The Prophecy Machine. The second is The Treachery of Kings.
Magic is a common, everyday thing in these books. What's not so common is that a couple of "outlaw seers" created the "Newlies" about three hundred years ago, which means this particular world has a "minority" population of sub-humans changed from the races of dogs, pigs, mice, bats, horses, cats, bears, cows and badgers. The hero, Finn, Master of Lizards, is in love with a Mycer girl. In the first book, much trouble ensues due to the presence of a prophecy machine.
I've had a lot of fun with the first book, and I'm enjoying doing the second.
So, anyone notice an "Aldair" syndrome here? Or shades of Cordwainer Smith?
I'm into a couple of other things too new to go into now. Upcoming, hopefully this fall, is a novelization of the (also upcoming) movie Dungeons & Dragons.
I mentioned the Billy the Kid project. And there's a couple of SF stories on the way. God knows what else.
The weather? It's June, and it is hot here today. No big deal for Austin, Texas. Had about 5 inches of rain in 4 or 5 days. It's hurricane season again, so we'll be seeing a lot of activity in the Gulf. Thanks a lot, Africa...
Thanks for the chance to get together, Nick.
NG: Neal, thanks very much.
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© Nick Gevers 29 July 2000