Behind the Face-paint
An Interview with Richard A Lupoff
by Nick Gevers
Born in 1935, Richard A Lupoff has had an energetically varied career, including highly successful stints in print journalism, information technology, radio-show hosting, and book publishing; his contributions to SF, Fantasy, and Horror have a similarly protean quality. His colourfully varied novels include One Million Centuries (1967), The Triune Man (1976), The Crack in the Sky (1976), Sandworld (1976), Lisa Kane (1976), Sword of the Demon (1977), Space War Blues (1978), the interrelated alternate histories Circumpolar! (1984) and Countersolar! (1986), Lovecraft's Book (1985), The Forever City (1988), and the space operas Sun's End (1984) and Galaxy's End (1988), in addition to many mysteries. His short fiction has been assembled in Before…12.01…After (published by Fedogan & Bremer in 1996) and in his new book from Golden Gryphon Press, Claremont Tales.
I interviewed Richard A Lupoff by e-mail in March 2001.
See also: Behind The Face-Paint 2: A Supplementary Interview with Richard A Lupoff by Nick Gevers (2002).
NG: As your new collection, Claremont Tales, demonstrates, you're an author of many voices; The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction entry dealing with you notes your versatile ability as a pasticheur. Why do you wander so restlessly between genres and styles?
RAL: I'm not so sure that I'd put it that way -- wandering restlessly between genres and styles -- but I think I see your point. I've always thought of myself as a story-teller rather than as a science fiction writer, or a mystery writer, or a mainstream writer. Those category and subcategory designations are useful. I'm not opposed to taxonomy. But I think that existence does indeed precede essence.
What I do then, is approach each story as an entity unto itself, and try to write it as best I can. If that calls for a formal, stylized approach, then that's what I use. If a story is best told in a naturalistic, informal manner, I'll do that. Similarly, if a given notion or feeling or image seems best expressed as a supernatural horror story or a humorous fantasy, I'll write it that way.
Some critics [including yours truly -- NG] have suggested that I'm forever hiding behind masks, a great variety of masks, and they would like to see the "real" Dick Lupoff who's lurking behind those artificial personas. But in fact I think it's more a matter of face-paint than of masks. The colors and patterns of the paint may change but the face is always the same.
NG: No masks, perhaps; but are there any literary influences you'd especially acknowledge?
RAL: In a sense any author is going to be influenced by every other author he reads. For that matter, this is true of any artist, whether a musician, choreographer, sculptor, whatever. Thus, at times I've picked up little bits of technique from authors as varied as Jorge Luis Borges, JG Ballard, Joe Gores, Edith Wharton, and Dashiell Hammett. Now I'm not talking about overt parodies and pastiches, I'm talking about learning very specific and concrete lessons. For example, I learned from Joe Gores how to bring a character through a doorway and switch viewpoints in a novel. I learned in a class conducted by Caroline Wheat about "story arc," and used that lesson to organize the ingredients of a novel into the structure of a novel. I learned from a book by old-timer Jack Woodford how to interweave plot and subplot in a manner that sustains reader interest and suspense for several hundred pages.
I've learned from Norman Mailer and from James Lee Burke and countless others, and I'm still learning all the time.
NG: Why is Claremont Tales so named?
RAL: Oh, I've lived on Claremont Avenue for more than thirty years and almost all of Claremont Tales was written in this house. Also the title has a vaguely literary feel to it, I think. Wasn't Claire Claremont the half-sister and paramour of Lord Byron? Think of it as a modern version of Dr Keller's Tales from Underwood.
NG: Claremont Tales opens with "Black Mist", a Hard SF mystery story set on Mars's moon Phobos. It's interesting that you choose the Japanese as your protagonist culture here; you obviously know their history and traditional social structure well. They also feature in your novel Sword of the Demon and your Sun's End sequence; why does Japan fascinate you so much?
RAL: I grew up in a sort of generic, middle-class, mid-Twentieth Century, East Coast America. Up to a certain point I think I assumed that everybody lived more or less the way I did. Of course this is far, far from accurate. As I broadened my perspectives I became fascinated by other societies, other ways of life, both in the contemporary world and in the annals of history.
What would it really have been like to live in ancient Egypt, Babylonia, classical Greece or Rome, in the kingdoms of the Incas, the Aztecs, the Mayans? Surely these worlds are fully as rich and as complex as our own. They are in their own ways as alien, as different from ours, as Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom or Austin Tappan Wright's Islandia or JRR Tolkien's Middle Earth.
I'm not sure why, of all the cultures and societies on earth other than my own, I settled on the Japanese. I greatly admired Roger Zelazny's novel Lord of Light, which may have spurred my interest in Asian cultures. Also, moving from the East Coast of the United States, which still looks toward Europe for cultural enrichment, to the Pacific Rim where we face Asia and its marvelously energetic and endlessly varied societies, certainly caused me to "think Asian" rather than to "think European."
NG: Both "Black Mist" and "The Second Drug" are conventional murder mysteries with some fairly unconventional elements. When you write stories like this, how easy do you find it to add novelty to what is after all a very set narrative formula?
RAL: I've never set out deliberately to "add novelty" to a story. In fact, I am not at all certain that I ever add anything to a story, or that I ever create a story at all. People have congratulated me on my wonderful imagination and I've told them that I have no imagination, I just observe and report. Sometimes they think I'm pulling their leg and sometimes they've actually got angry with me, but I mean what I say. I don't tell lies.
My professional training and early writing experience was as a journalist, and I still like to think myself a journalist of sorts. I've heard of something called the creative trance, and to me that's a state in which the artist becomes not a creator but a conduit for essences that exist all around us, all the time, but that are not often visible or tangible to us because they are so subtle, so elusive and evanescent.
They're -- what, ethereal forces, maybe even supernatural powers -- that, if we have the strength and the courage and will to surrender ourselves to them, can take over our minds and our hands and create symphonies or sonnets. The more we interfere with them, the more likely we are to botch what they are giving us.
At the same time there is a pure logic that shapes every story. When a writer tries to override the essential logic of his story and impose his own desires on it, he inevitably wrecks the story. I've done it myself. It's a sin, it is an infidelity, and I regret it with all my heart.
All of this may make me sound like some kind of mystic, which I don't think I am. I'm a pretty pragmatic guy, with a wife and kids and grandkids and a house full of dogs and cats and books and music. I go to baseball games with my friends and I wear blue jeans and sweatshirts, not silken robes and turbans. I guess a less exotic way of expressing my theory of fiction is to say that the author does not so much make the story as find it. Making that story manifest, or letting it manifest is hard work, the hardest part being to learn what the story is.
NG: The third story in Claremont Tales, "At Vega's Taqueria", deals with a man lost between the timelines. You've written quite a lot of alternate history fiction -- your novels Circumpolar! and Countersolar! come to mind. What makes the uchronia such an attractive literary form for you personally? And why do you think it's become so generally popular?
RAL: Stephen Hawking suggests that there may be an infinity of infinities of infinities of realities, and of course fiction writers have been telling stories about these other universes for a very long time. A couple of my favorites are "If Grant Had Been Drinking at Appomattox," by James Thurber, which was published in The New Yorker in 1930, and "The Other Now," by Murray Leinster, which was published in Galaxy in 1951. More recently I wrote another story of multiple realities, called "31.12.99," in which I specifically made homage to Leinster.
I think we all go through life wondering what would have happened if only this, if only that. One of my earliest stories -- written during World War Two, when I was a child -- dealt with an attempt to alter history by travelling through time and killing Hitler in his cradle. I wouldn't write it that way, now. I would rather send a therapist back to Austria in the 1890s, and help that tortured child to channel his undoubted talents into some constructive work.
In fact, my grandmother was Austrian, born just a few years before Hitler. She came to the United States early in the Twentieth Century. She was the strongest and most positive influence in my life when I was a child. What if she had stayed in Austria? What if she had met the young Hitler and seen the seeds of evil in him, and somehow "cured" him of the moral contagion that he spread in later decades?
Where is this train of thought leading? Probably to a story, maybe a good one, although I doubt that it's one I will write. Still...
NG: "I Don't Tell Lies" and "The Tootsie Roll Factor" are both contemporary supernatural tales with strong moral (or perhaps existential) themes, quite quiet pieces by your standards. Is there a certain touch of Weird Tales here?
RAL: That's fascinating -- "quiet pieces," what an intriguing notion. I've never thought of my stories as being particularly noisy or particularly quiet. They're all just stories.
Weird Tales was one of the classic pulp magazines of my youth. I remember vividly being confined to a sickbed with some childhood disease but not feeling sick at all, and my grandmother plying me with a steady stream of newspapers, magazines, and books to help me while away the days. Somehow a copy of Weird Tales found its way into the flow, and I decided then and there that I would someday write a story for it.
Of course by the time I was ready for Weird Tales, the magazine was no more -- but it has been revived in recent years. I happened to mention my longtime ambition of becoming a Weird Tales author, and to my delight editor Darrell Schweitzer invited me to submit a story to the current incarnation of Weird Tales, and to my unbounded delight he and his colleague George Scithers liked "I Don't Tell Lies" and bought it for the magazine.
"The Tootsie Roll Factor" was written for Roger Zelazny, and is largely autobiographical. Mr Cohen's flashback to boys' camp is pretty close to a literal recounting of an experience of my own. However, in reality it was not a question of my winning a raffle but of winning a story-telling contest, and the result was just the same kind of addiction that Mr Cohen suffers. He gambles, I write stories.
NG: "Mr Greene and the Monster" and "The Monster and Mr Greene" are related vignettes written fifty years apart. They present an interesting contrast in perspective -- in the first, the view is that of a young beginner writer in awe of the Gernsbackian pulp magazines, in the second, that of the same individual old and wise but still quite in awe. Autobiography?
RAL: Well, of course, these two stories are absolutely autobiographical, although in an allegorical rather than a literal sense. I did meet Hugo Gernsback once, and I consider him a pivotal figure in the development of science fiction. "Mr Greene and the Monster" was written when I was a teenager desperate to become a professional fiction writer. I was already a professional journalist, I started earning money as a sportswriter when I was fourteen, and hit the sports pages of The New York Times and Herald-Tribune, The Philadelphia Inquirer and Record and other papers regularly, but I wanted to sell to the pulp magazines and at that point in my life I just wasn't good enough.
As for "The Monster and Mr Greene," that of course is a very recent story. I've had a long and rewarding career and I feel grateful to the world of literature, and this story is a little thank-you note.
NG: "Lux Was Dead Right" is an amusingly ironic conflation of space opera with the eccentric fanaticisms of antiquarian book dealers. Is this story entirely fair to said booksellers?
RAL: Fair to booksellers? Hey, I love booksellers. Some of my best friends are booksellers. My wife is a bookseller. But there is a certain paranoid element in the bookselling community. My first job in the world of books was editing for Canaveral Press in the 1960s. That company was owned by two wonderful old-school bookmen, Jack Biblo and Jack Tannen, who also owned a great store, stories and cellars and attics and galleries full of fascinating old books.
On one occasion I was looking for a book on Western Americana as a gift for my wife, and the Jacks recommended a store in midtown Manhattan. It was run by a bookman named something like Mike McGee. I made my way to the store and found that it was laid out with a counter blocking access to the books. From the customer side of the counter you could see rows and rows of fascinating bookshelves but you couldn't get at them.
As soon as I entered the store Mr McGee strode up to the counter and confronted me. What did I want? he demanded. I told him of my wife's interests and asked if he had such a section. He frowned at me and demanded to know what specific book I wanted. I cited a title that Pat had mentioned to me, and Mr McGee said he didn't have it.
I was still gazing hungrily at all those tempting rows of bookshelves. "Could I come in and browse a little?" I asked. "Maybe I'll find something."
Mr McGee's frown turned into a raging snarl. "Get out of here!" he shouted, "Out! Out!" He pointed furiously to the doorway, screaming at me.
Okay, I could take a hint. I made my way back to Biblo and Tannen's store and told them what had happened. Obviously, I was puzzled by the incident and hoped that they would have some explanation. They did.
"McGee is worried about book scouts. He's always afraid that a scout will come in and spot a good book that he doesn't know and get it away from him for a bargain price."
As I said, I love booksellers -- most of them. But there are some crazies in that business, and I have to tell you that there are some villainous characters, too, and it was these folks that I was thinking about when I wrote "Lux Was Dead Right."
NG: Both "The Child's Story" and "Discovery of the Ghooric Zone" demonstrate an exceptional flair for portrayal of the distant future -- poetic exoticism is obviously your metier. Have any particular writers influenced you in this? Which authors in your opinion have succeeded best in this decidedly baroque sort of writing?
RAL: Some grand stories have been written in this vein. Probably the all-time champion was Olaf Stapledon, whose Last and First Men has more pure science fictional ideas in it than a hundred books by anybody else I can think of. I will also confess to a great fondness for some of the pulp space opera writers -- Doc Smith, Jack Williamson, Edmond Hamilton, even Clifford Simak in his early Cosmic Engineers period.
There's also JG Ballard. Although he tends to write a near-future, minimalist sort of science fiction, he achieves a dreamlike, poetic atmosphere in many of his works. Brian Aldiss has done some admirable far-future stories, and one cannot ignore Jack Vance, a fine "writer's writer" who never quite achieved the wide recognition that he deserved.
NG: "Documents in the Case of Elizabeth Akeley" and "Discovery of the Ghooric Zone" clearly indicate one of your major literary allegiances -- to HP Lovecraft, about whom you've also published a novel, Lovecraft's Book. Why do you think Lovecraft remains so influential? And in what spirit do you write stories set, like these ones, in his version of the universe?
RAL: I've heard it said that Lovecraft is one of those writers best encountered at an early age, and I encountered him when I was eleven. My mother had died when I was quite young, and after a few years of struggling to maintain our household my father finally sent my older brother and myself off to a dreadful boarding school. I know that he was grief-stricken and that he was at his wits' end when he did that, but I'm afraid that neither my brother nor I ever fully recovered from being deprived of a normal childhood and a normal family life.
Among the many ways in which this school oppressed its students was its requirement that they attend church every Sunday morning. Now it happens that I'm Jewish, and while I'm not particularly religious (and never have been) I was most unhappy about being required to attend services at the First Baptist Church in a small New Jersey town. I wish I'd had the courage to stand up and protest loudly at the time, but I was too young and felt too powerless to do so, but I found other ways to get around my oppressors.
One thing I did was make up my own lyrics to the hymns we were required to sing. Another was to sneak outside reading material into church with me, hide it inside my hymnal and read it during the sermons. One such book was The Avon Ghost Reader, a wonderful little anthology. The lead story in the book is Lovecraft's "The Dunwich Horror," which absolutely enchanted me. I thought it was a great story and Lovecraft was a great writer. I had no idea that he'd been dead for nine years by the time that book was published, and I vowed to look for other stories with his by-line on them.
Only decades later did I recognize the parallels between Wilbur Whately's situation and my own, and the extent to which I had identified with Wilbur. His mother was for all practical purposes dead, he had a "big brother" whose company he did not get to share, and he was a bookish, frightened loner who desperately sought to find his distant, mythologized father. I suppose a Freudian would have a field day with this story and with my fondness for it.
Understand, when I reread the story as a man, that had so captivated me as a child, I could see all its crudities, its contrivances, its silliness, its narrative shortcomings. It's hardly a subtle or polished piece of literature. But it still retains the power that it had when I first encountered it. It may not even be a good story, but in its own quirky way it may actually be a great story.
As for Lovecraft's continuing popularity, I suspect that it has something to do with the sense of alienation that he clearly felt, and that pervades his stories. Obviously, he was not a particularly good craftsman of fiction in any conventional sense. His plots are often weak and static, he's verbose, and his pacing is either dreadful or nonexistent. But he saw something in the human spirit and soul, and in his own, and he expressed what he saw there in his stories, and readers still resonate with that. Paradoxically, while he was deliberately old-fashioned, even retrograde, in his writing, he was an unconscious "post-modernist" in his self-view and in his world-view, which gives him as much relevance in the Twenty-First Century as he had seventy-five years ago. Maybe more.
NG: On a much lighter note, "The Adventures of Mr Tindle" is a two-part humorous account of a henpecked husband's escape into virtual space. How did you become so well acquainted with computers and the neuroses of their owners?
RAL: Once again, I must point out that I don't really invent anything. I have the greatest respect for people who can, and do, but I am not one of them. The story or stories about Mr Tindle are very much influenced by the works of James Thurber in theme and tone.
The Department of Social Assistance where Mr Tindle works is based on an agency of the United States government where I labored for several years. It was a dreadful work environment where the management style was based entirely on negative reinforcement. Every worker had a supervisor looking over his or her shoulder at all times, keeping a gimlet eye out for any mistake the worker made. If you made a mistake you were "charged with an error," as if you had committed a crime. Score was kept, and you were subject to severe penalties if you exceeded the permitted number of errors.
Another layer of supervisors were watching over the shoulders of the supervisors watching over the shoulders of the technicians. If a technician made a mistake and the supervisor failed to catch it and "charge the worker with an error," then the supervisor would be charged with an error. It was a terrible, inhumane place to work -- and we were supposed to be helping people!
When I finally quit that job my daughter looked at me and said, "Dad, you don't look gray and dead any more. You look like you used to before you went to work there."
As for the computer element in the story, I guess that's what I picked up during my twelve years in the computer industry. After a long time away from that world I got reinvolved some years ago, and every so often I get summoned back for a special project. It's amazing how fast the technology changes, amazing and fascinating.
NG: Along with Claremont Tales, you have an illustrated literary history, The Great American Paperback, coming out soon. What's the thesis of this book? And do you have any further novels in preparation?
RAL: The Great American Paperback traces the history of mass-market publishing from 1837 to the present. Despite the title, major elements in the book deal with events in Germany and England. If the book has a thesis, it's that there has long been a tug-of-war in the publishing field between "class" and "mass."
On the one side is a certain element with a missionary attitude, the feeling that they have a duty to educate and elevate readers morally and intellectually by putting the great literature of all time into their hands. On the other side there are editors and publishers who feel that they are not superior to their readers and it is not their job to "improve" the readers. Rather, they are in business to make a living by giving their customers what they want, whether that is exotic adventure stories, exciting and colorful action tales, romance, horror, or any other kind of entertainment.
The result has been a long-standing tension. I do come down on the populist side, but I draw a distinction between entertainment and pandering. I believe that a work of fiction can be amusing, thrilling, glorious -- and at the same time intelligent, sensitive, and I think unavoidably informed by the author's moral sensitivities and social convictions.
As an aside, let me mention that in my radio work I don't consider myself political at all. My program deals with books and authors and that's what I focus on whether I'm conducting an interview or reviewing a book. Yet my producer laughs at my claim to being apolitical. He says I'm the most political broadcaster on what is, in fact, a very political station, KPFA in Berkeley, California.
As for further novels and other future projects, I've got a very busy schedule. A high priority for me is a second volume of Claremont Tales, for which I've promised my editor, Gary Turner, a new novella about Mr Hajimi Ino, the protagonist of "Black Mist." I've got the new story, "Green Ice," pretty well worked out in my mind but I need to set aside some time -- I figure, it will take me about a month -- to find all of it and understand it. Then I can write it, or let it write me.
My radio producer, Richard Wolinsky, has compiled a wonderful oral history of science fiction in the pulp era, based on interviews that we've conducted over the past quarter century. We're negotiating with a publisher right now for rights to that book.
I've written seven mystery novels about the team of Hobart Lindsey and Marvia Plum, and I'm committed to one more novel which will wrap up that series. There will also be a collection of short stories about the same characters, Lindsey and Plum: A Casebook. And I've promised a couple of editors stories for anthologies.
At one time I had planned a very ambitious six-volume project comprising two interlocking science fiction trilogies. These were to be Circumpolar!, Countersolar!, and Transtemporal! ... and Sun's End, Galaxy's End, and Time's End. Well, I got four books into the planned six and got kicked out of the science fiction field. This was a couple of decades ago. That was when I started writing murder mysteries.
Every so often I play with the idea of writing the two missing novels of that sextet, but I'm not sure I could recapture the atmosphere or the narrative rhythm of the earlier books. It's been something like twenty years, the world has changed and I have changed. Could I even write Transtemporal! or Time's End if I tried?
That's a moot question right now anyway, as nobody is waving a contract at me or pleading with me to write those two missing books. If and when anyone does, I'll have to consider the project.
NG: It's rather a downbeat note to end on, but: can you expand on how you "got kicked out of the science fiction field"?
RAL: I told you that I consider myself a story-teller and that I don't wish to be type-cast in terms of one genre. This is true, but at the same time it's true that I have always been attracted to the transcendent. As a child I loved fairy tales. I loved super-hero comics, horror movies, and radio dramas with a high content of the fantastic.
In my life I had a long-term affiliation with the science fiction milieu, first as a reader and collector, then as an active member of the fan community. Once I became a professional I did just about everything. I wrote novels and short stories, compiled anthologies, taught science fiction as literature at the university level, did some work in Hollywood.
I think I did everything that could be asked of me, and the community responded. My sales figures were not spectacular but they were pretty good, the critics were very receptive to my work, the fans honored me at their conventions. Then suddenly everything went ice cold.
At that point -- around 1980 -- I had a contract with Dell Books for four novels. Pocket Books had also given me a contract for a four-volume anthology series, and they were so pleased with the reaction to the first two volumes that they asked me to extend the series to five. I had a proposal at Bantam for an epic tale that could have been written as either a three-decker or a single, massive novel. A high-level Bantam editor phoned my agent and said that he loved the proposal and intended to make a major offer for it, but he wasn't quite satisfied with the ending and wondered if I would "tweak" it a little.
That was when the sun went out.
Dell cancelled everything.
Pocket Books sent me two letters that arrived on the same day. One congratulated me on the spectacular reviews that were coming in from advance copies of the third volume of my anthology series. The other informed me that they were killing the book in press and canceling my contract.
And that editor at Bantam kept asking for revision after revision of the proposal that he'd said he loved. He was never quite able to articulate just what it was that he wanted, and every "tweak" that I offered failed to meet his requirements, so the "major offer" never came through. Another editor offered a contract for the epic as proposed, but the offer was so poor, it was obvious to me that the intent was to use the book, or books, as nothing more than literary cannon fodder. I turned down the deal.
I'm afraid I was a little bit slow in figuring out the message that was coming through, but I finally took the hint. I rebuilt my finances by returning to a day job, a very humbling experience and one that took a bite of several years out of my career, but finally I got back to writing. I've done something like ten or eleven novels since then, two volumes of short stories, two nonfiction books, and have enough work on my calendar to keep me occupied for several more years.
I'm not suggesting that there was any kind of conspiracy against me. I still have friends in the science fiction world and I still write an occasional science fiction story for the various magazines and anthologies. But as for my writing a lot of science fiction, that's over. Maybe I'd just overstayed my welcome. Maybe the field had passed me by and I was stuck in an earlier era. I can name a few people to whom that happened, and they are well and happy pursuing other careers while a new generation of science fiction writers has taken over.
Whatever happened, I'm definitely committed to other kinds of work. You can see that I'm a pretty busy guy. I'm having a great time and I'm earning a living, and I think that's a great reward for my labor.
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© Nick Gevers 21 April 2001