On the Edge, from the Heart
An Interview with Richard Paul Russo
by Nick Gevers
In a quiet, dedicated way, Richard Paul Russo has for more than a decade been one of American SF's underrated masters. His novels and short stories are characterised by an understated intensity and an affecting compassion; their deft painterly depictions of the extreme edges of human emotion and experience are carefully observed and crafted, darkly accurate in their insights and strong in their supporting invention. The publication of his first collection, Terminal Visions (2000), signals his abiding importance for SF.
Russo's first novel, Inner Eclipse (1988), concerned a quest for the alien on an exotic world, but his attention has since been focused on America's bleak future urban realities. Subterranean Gallery (1989) features a Californian artistic underground; life in the infernal cities is further evoked in the connected thrillers Destroying Angel (1992), Carlucci's Edge (1995), and Carlucci's Heart (1997). Terminal Visions, powerful and moody, explores more variously the melancholy freight of the times to come.
I interviewed Richard Paul Russo by e-mail in May 2000.
NG: After producing five well-received novels, you're now publishing your first short story collection, a milestone for any writer. How does this feel?
RPR: Wonderful. Short fiction entails as much work, word for word, as novel length fiction (sometimes even more), yet it often doesn't get the same attention as books do, and unless it wins a major award or appears in book form in a collection like this, it seems to disappear and become almost forgotten. When novels go out of print, copies continue to circulate and are available through used-book stores, but stories published in magazines are available for a month or two and then are for all practical purposes gone except in a few circumstances.
I've learned over the years that, due to commercial considerations, single-author collections are rarely published unless the author is fairly famous. Although I am proud of my short fiction, I had resigned myself to not publishing my stories in a collection until I had become a lot more well known than I am (which might have been never). So when Marty Halpern contacted me and asked if I would be interested in having Golden Gryphon Press publish a collection of my short fiction, I was thrilled. The fact that it will be published as a high-quality hardcover is a real bonus.
NG: Now, speaking of your entire career: what personal experiences have most strongly informed your work? Is much of what you write to any degree autobiographical?
RPR: None of my work is autobiographical in the sense of characters or story events being based on anyone I know or anything that has happened in my own life. However, they are all autobiographical to the extent that they reflect my views about people and society, my ethics and values, and my attitude towards life. Although I have never based any of the characters on myself, the main character usually (though not always) reflects something of my own beliefs and values, directly or indirectly, sometimes minimally, sometimes extensively (Carlucci, in the novels bearing his name, may come the closest to embodying my overall views about people and society). But even if none of the characters are reflective of my attitudes, the story itself will at least express something of my thinking at the time it was written.
While I can easily see writing a story with a main character whose values and ethics are in complete disagreement with my own, it is difficult for me to imagine writing a story with a point or moral that is antithetical to what I believe -- I might write a story about a racist, but I could not (or would not) write a story that made the argument that the racist attitude was the right way to live and to relate to others.
NG: What of literary and other creative influences on your work, both mainstream and specific to SF?
RPR: This is a difficult question to answer. There are a number of writers I greatly admire, and whose work I will read and reread, but I don't think they influence my writing in the way many people think. I don't write like any of the writers I admire, and I don't think anyone would read my work and say that my style is like so-and-so's. In fact, I don't think I write like anyone except Richard Paul Russo, which I believe is a good thing. But there is something about the writers I most admire that does influence my work -- the way they take the writing itself, and the subject matter of their writing, seriously. I don't mean to suggest that you can't be funny or clever or entertaining, but I have learned from them that whatever kind of writing you do, you must believe in its worth and importance. Your subject matter should be worth writing about, for whatever reason (and that includes entertainment); and if it's worth writing about, it is worth writing well, and the time and energy spent to hone the work, to revise as often as necessary to make it the best possible story or novel, are both well worth spending.
Within SF, a short list of writers I most admire would include Gene Wolfe (particularly his short fiction and The Book of the New Sun); James Tiptree Jr.; John Crowley; much of the work done in the late '60's and early '70's by the New Wave writers like Zelazny, Delany, Russ, Silverberg, Wilhelm, Ballard, Le Guin, and Disch; and of course many individual works by writers too numerous to list. I actually read little SF these days; I have trouble finding the time to read, and there is so much non-SF that I also want to read.
Outside of SF, the writer who has most consistently impressed and astounded me in the last few years is Cormac McCarthy. I also read and admire writers like Ian McEwan and Iain Banks, Tim O'Brien and Robert Stone, W.T. Tyler and John Le Carre, as well as foreign writers like Heinrich Boll, Friedrich Durrenmatt, Par Lagerkvist, Kobo Abe, Jorge Luis Borges... I hardly know where to stop. This is the kind of list that seems to go on and on. Sometimes I am amazed to realize that, despite the fact that there is so much crap published, an incredible amount of fine work exists -- more than you can read in a lifetime (more reason to avoid the junk). And this doesn't even touch older works by writers I admire like Faulkner, Conrad, Jane Austen, and so on. Or non-fiction writers. Or poets. See? The endless list.
NG: You've indicated that at the beginning of your career you concentrated on literary fiction rather than SF. What led to your shift to genre fiction?
RPR: To be frank, I became bored writing literary or mainstream fiction. I have not become bored reading literary or mainstream fiction, but I found I had trouble generating excitement for writing it, which is deadly to the work, no matter how talented you are. Perhaps I just never found the right subject matter. But I discovered that when I thought about writing science fiction or speculative fiction, the excitement was there -- an itch to get to the paper or typewriter and begin working on a story, an energy and enthusiasm driving my thoughts and "visions."
That difference still persists today. Occasionally I think about writing a mainstream story or novel, or something in another genre -- perhaps because I've read something non-SF that impressed and moved me, and I have wanted to do something like it -- but as I try to envision writing it, not much happens until I transform the idea into one that can be approached from a speculative angle, and then the sparks fly. For example, I love reading some mystery/detective novels, but could not imagine writing a straight contemporary mystery. So I wrote the Carlucci novels, which are detective/Science Fiction hybrids.
NG: You attended one of the famous Clarion SF writing workshops in 1983, which you've described as your turning point. Was it crucial for personal reasons, or because the course imparted good technical literary counsel? Or both?
RPR: Primarily personal, though you could say both, given a broad enough definition of "technical literary counsel." It has always been difficult for me to articulate what I learned and discovered at Clarion, because it has more to do with the approach to writing than it does with concrete "rules" or "guidelines" of the craft itself, though those are important as well. I did gain some technical knowledge about the craft of writing, but the most critical thing I came away from Clarion with was an understanding and acceptance of what it would really take -- personally -- to become a good writer. An understanding of both the personal honesty and the true commitment that were necessary.
I learned that having a facility for language and beautiful writing were not enough if there was no story underneath it all. And I learned that not just any story will do -- I need to dig deep inside and find a story that matters to me on some level, that I am convinced is worth telling. Because if the writer doesn't believe the story is worth telling, the story will not be convincing to the reader. Additionally, I came to appreciate the need for being open to criticism while at the same time having enough self-assurance to stick to my guns when I feel specific criticism is misguided -- a fine balance, but a crucial one to strive for. Most of all, I learned that not only do individual stories need to be approached with seriousness and honesty, but writing as a whole -- as a career or vocation -- needs to be approached with the same sense of honesty and purpose, discipline and dedication.
How, exactly, I learned all this at Clarion is unclear. It was more experiential than anything. After Clarion, I stopped writing completely for over a year. I was assimilating the experience, assessing my own life, my motivations and desires, thinking about writing in general terms. When I began to write again, my stories were significantly better -- not just in technique, but in some overall sense. In the years before Clarion, I'd had a large number of stories rejected, and one mediocre story published. In the years since Clarion, I have sold nearly every story I have written (though some were drastically revised and re-submitted before I sold them). That's also when I began writing novels, and I've published every novel I've written as well.
NG: Without generalising too much about your works, certain consistent emphases can be detected. For a start, your stories and novels are human documents in a fundamental sense, concerned, not with scientific and technological speculation, but rather with very familiar crises of the heart and spirit. Are Science Fictional props and conventions simply resonant metaphors in your writing? Are you a "humanist" writer in the full sense of the term?
RPR: This is a complex issue. Yes, I suppose I would consider myself a "humanist" writer, although I am not certain that my definition would agree with others. But my primary concern is always with people -- with "the heart and spirit," as you so nicely put it. And yes, I would say that I use science fictional props and conventions as resonant metaphors, but I would not say as "simply" resonant metaphors. In other words, I don't think I am writing what are really mainstream or literary stories with essentially superfluous science fictional trappings. I would argue that the conventions and props, if I am successful, are truly integral to the work, so that my stories and novels are indeed science fiction -- though I will admit that I may have a broader definition of science fiction than some people. While my work generally is not, as you point out, primarily concerned with scientific or technological speculation, it is very much concerned with social and personal speculation of a forward-looking variety, which to me is just as legitimately science fiction.
For example, several years ago, when my third novel, Destroying Angel, was shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke Award in England, I read a piece by a writer who was reviewing the six or seven shortlisted novels. Although this writer praised my novel rather highly, he claimed that it was not really science fiction, that it was a hard-boiled detective novel with essentially unnecessary science fictional trappings. I completely disagree with this assessment, for the following reasons. If the writer was correct, then all of the science fictional features could be removed and the story would be just as successful, and in a real sense just the SAME, as before. But I do not simply take the characters and events of a non-SF story and plop them into some generic near future.
The near-future setting of the novel (and I believe this is true with all of my near future novels and stories) is carefully considered as a possible extension of the directions in which I see ourselves currently moving -- not in an attempt at prediction, but rather as a "thought experiment" involving what I view as important issues and trends for our possible future, things we may well be faced with as individuals and as a society. Just as important, everything about the characters -- how they act and feel and view the world and each other --- is deeply informed by that future. Just as you and I would not be the same people we are now if we were to be born next year and grow up entirely in the twenty-first century, so too, if I have done my work well, are the characters in my books very much a product of the times they have been born and raised in. They would not be the same if they were alive now, faced with similar events. And there are underlying issues of where we are going as a society -- as a people, as a country and as a world -- that inform the setting itself, and the events of the story in ways that will not necessarily be obvious. Whether or not I have been successful at accomplishing these things in any given work is a more legitimate question than whether or not the work is science fiction.
I don't know if I have articulated this very well, but it is something I have struggled to explain before, with varying degrees of success, and you have provided me a good opportunity to try again.
NG: Another hallmark of your oeuvre is a certain bleakness of tone and implication, an absence of utopian thinking. Are you a pessimist at heart?
RPR: Globally, yes. Personally, no. I am very pessimistic about society as a whole. When I was much younger, I had an underlying belief that no matter what problems arose, we (as a country, as a world) would be able to make the necessary decisions to solve the problems, and do the right things by each other. I no longer believe that. I believe we are capable of making good decisions, but I think we are equally capable of making one disastrous decision after another, for greedy and selfish reasons, which can lead us to a place of irreversible environmental or societal catastrophe, or both.
On the other hand, I am basically happy and satisfied with my own life -- I'm happily married, my wife and I have a comfortable place to live in Seattle (even though many people we know seem to think we are somehow missing out because we rent an apartment rather than own our own home); we don't worry about getting enough to eat; and although I cannot make a living at writing yet, I make enough so I only have to work part-time at a "regular" job. I am doing what I most want to do with my life, and my wife, too, has a vocation she likes and from which she derives satisfaction. I believe that as individuals we can find ways to live productive and contented lives within this society, even if society as a whole is on its way down the toilet.
NG: "Going down the toilet" indeed: your novels set in near-future America make something less than pleasant of that time and place. Specifically, then, do you see the USA's future as one inevitably characterised by chaos or repression?
RPR: I don't know that I think it's inevitable, but I do think it's probable. The question is one of degree. A certain amount of repression and chaos already exists. We have around two million people incarcerated in jails and prisons in this country, and the number rises steadily. Individual liberties are gradually being eroded by state legislatures and the decisions of a conservative and divided Supreme Court, all in the name of maintaining order. The disparity of wealth in this country continues to accelerate, disguised by the media attention on people who have made a lot of money in the stock market or through stock options working for the high-tech and Internet companies (though there has been a bit of a bump in that road of late). The numbers of poor people, even those working, and those just getting by, continue to rise along with the number of people without health insurance -- and many of those with health insurance aren't too thrilled with what they now have in the HMOs. And this is just scratching the surface. These social problems continue to steadily worsen, and I don't see the situation improving in the near future. This steady decline only makes eventual disruption and chaos more likely.
NG: The avant-garde artists of Subterranean Gallery and "Celebrate the Bullet" (in Terminal Visions) are not in an easy situation, either practically or creatively. Do these texts portray an inevitable crisis of the artist?
RPR: For many artists, yes, though probably not all. They reflect my own struggles, both with my creativity and with the practical aspects of writing. Creatively, I sometimes go through periods of self-doubt, occasionally even despair, believing I will not be able to finish a particular story or novel, or that even if I finish it, it won't be any good at all. I always work through those periods, and knowing I have been through them before does help. On the practical side, it is extremely difficult to make a living in any of the arts -- after more than ten years of selling my work (five published novels, more than two dozen stories, and several award nominations), I still can't make a living at it myself. The more time spent at a "regular" job, the less time and energy there is available for writing. On top of that, friends and family often think your time outside of your regular job is completely open and flexible -- after all, they think, you can write any time you want -- so it is sometimes difficult to maintain the regular schedule and large blocks of time necessary for productive work. But I continue to write, because the rewards far outweigh the difficulties and frustrations.
NG: Your more recent novels, in the Carlucci series, are exercises in noir or cyberpunk, or certainly give that impression. Why have you moved so definitely into this idiom?
RPR: Actually, I have never considered myself a cyberpunk writer, although I understand why the label has sometimes been applied (rarely, however, by any of the cyberpunks themselves), because the Carlucci novels have some of the surface features of cyberpunk -- the gritty, declining near-future, for example. Noir is probably closer to it. The reason I have never considered myself a cyberpunk writer is that I don't think my writing embodies a "punk" sensibility (there is a reason for that being part of the term, after all).
I hate to generalize, but many of the cyberpunk novels and stories have as protagonists young, hip, marginalized, and subversive people who seem bent on, if anything, tearing down or undermining the established social and political structures, or at least making their livings in criminal or quasi-criminal ways outside of those structures. In the Carlucci novels, on the other hand, the main protagonists -- Tanner in Destroying Angel and Carlucci in Carlucci's Edge and Carlucci's Heart -- work within the establishment structures; not to maintain and bolster them in their current form, for they both recognize those systems as corrupt, but to do whatever it is they can to help other people who are at the mercy of society, to mitigate the effects of the corruption, and to live as best they can in their own daily personal and professional lives without compromising their ethics and values.
But as you say, I did move definitely into this idiom, however one might define it. One of the reasons I have written several novels like this is as a response to the cyberpunk novels -- not an antagonistic response, but to present an alternative approach to dealing with and living in near-future societies like those portrayed in the cyberpunk novels. And, frankly, because the cyberpunk novels and stories capture certain declining and chaotic and corrupt qualities to culture and society that I think we are very likely to be facing in the years ahead.
Just as I moved into that idiom, I have, with my current novels, moved out into different areas. But I suspect I will revisit these issues, either in another Carlucci novel or something else.
NG: Regarding your short fiction now: as Karen Joy Fowler notes in her Introduction to Terminal Visions, there's a certain minimalism to its stories, an economy of description and the sketching of character that is intriguingly subtle; it provokes the reader into contributing his or her full share of effort to the literary transaction. How did you develop this spare style of narration?
RPR: It isn't something I consciously developed, although I think a lot about general principles of different writing approaches. I have a tendency to overexplain (I am more guilty of this in my novels than in my short fiction), so I work hard during revision on paring things down, because the last thing I want to do is either bore or insult my readers by explaining too much. I try to keep this in mind while working on first drafts, but the overexplaining, or simply telling too much, always creeps in. So I constantly consider and reconsider what scenes are truly necessary, and then within each scene I think about what individual pieces of description, dialogue, characterization, or action would be most effective, and what is merely filler.
With characterization, for example, I prefer to show character through dialogue and gestures and action, rather than simply trying to describe what kind of person the character is; if I do my job well, the reader will be able to put the pieces together and form a stronger sense of the character than if I told the reader what to think about the character. When it comes to description, rather than simply describe the entirety of a scene, I focus on what the viewpoint character would actually notice about his or her surroundings, and combine that with minimal but key concrete details that will work together with the reader's own imagination and intellect to produce an effective, overall picture.
These are not hard and fast rules, of course, but they give an idea of what I think about when it comes to the way in which I tell my stories. In sum, I would rather err on the side of showing too little than showing too much. The more that a reader can bring to the story, the more active the "literary transaction," the more impact the story will have, because the reader will have participated more fully in the experience.
NG: Coming to the contents of Terminal Visions: three stories, "Listen to My Heartbeat", "Lunar Triptych: Embracing the Night", and "Telescope, Saxophone, and the Pilot's Death", associate space travel with romantic loss: only one of a pair of lovers can leave the Earth; a man's love of space ruptures his marriage; her past as a space pilot kills a woman and leaves her lover to celebrate her through sculpture. Why this sense that aspiring outwards is inherently destructive?
RPR: I have never looked at these stories in this way, and I don't know that I would agree that they suggest that aspiring outwards is inherently destructive. Rather, I think they imply that reaching outwards in exploration of the new and unknown, inherently has great costs, personal as well as material. It may seem like a fine distinction, but I think it's an important one. Because I don't think that I suggest in any of those stories that we should not aspire outwards, that we shouldn't strive to travel between planets, between stars. Just the opposite. I think we should. But we must also recognize that there are enormous risks, and we are fooling ourselves if we think we can avoid them. The real question is whether or not the goal of travelling between the stars is worth the price. I personally think it probably is.
NG: Some of your stories depict fantasy -- yearning for the impossible, not the Fantasy genre -- as a desirable escape from despair, as in "In the Season of the Rains", "Liz and Diego", and "View From Above". But these tales do contain an undercurrent of unease about escapism which becomes wholly tangible in "Watching Lear Dream", "Prayers of a Rain God", and "More Than Night", the last a novella repudiating a grand alien vision as not worth the human cost of its indulgence. Where does the balance lie? Should the imagination be restrained, and if so, by how much?
RPR: I don't think imagination should be restrained so much as tempered by a sense of reality, and an understanding of consequences, combined with making a real effort to realize our aspirations. Life without imagination or fantasising, without a yearning or striving for something beyond our current lives, becomes stagnant. And frankly, there are times in people's lives when fantasising the impossible is the only thing that gets them through periods of deep despair or depression. But there needs to be an understanding of reality as well.
In the first two stories you mentioned, the main characters -- Scolini in "In the Season of the Rains," and Liz in "Liz and Diego" -- are quite aware that the escape they are choosing may lead to something no better than the situation in which they currently exist. But they make their choices willingly and, as importantly, knowingly. They "act." They are both willing to risk everything.
On a mundane, everyday level, what I see too often are people who fantasise about what they imagine would be a better life, but without any sense of reality -- they act as if their fantasies will come true, without making any effort themselves to change and improve their lives, or to even understand their lives and what contributions they have made to their own situations; in fact, they often continue to behave in ways that exacerbate their problems, almost as if counting on their fantasies coming true and bailing them out, because they are unwilling to change anything. Just as important, though, is an understanding of consequences of our actions -- much that we might wish for comes at the expense of others, and we need to recognize that, and take those consequences into account as we strive to change our lives.
NG: "The Open Boat" and "Cities in Dust" imply a wider disintegration than that merely of individuals: groups of people, entire societies, can become sick. And yet "No Place Anymore" implies in a quiet, oblique way that redeeming social ethics can be fashioned or rediscovered. Does real hope lie in that direction?
RPR: I would certainly like to believe so. On a personal level, as individuals relating to one another on a daily basis, I definitely think it is possible. Whether that can eventually and collectively develop into a more healthful society is another question. While I personally admire those people who work valiantly to effect large-scale social change for the better, I don't have the energy or incredible patience necessary for such a daunting task, and I don't think most people do. But that doesn't mean we should do nothing. We can find ways to act on a personal level, in our individual relationships with each other, working in smaller community service programs, that kind of thing.
If all the things you do in that direction do nothing more than make one person's life better in some important way, then that is certainly an improvement over having done nothing at all. And who knows what the cumulative effect would be of all of us taking that approach? I may not at heart be very hopeful of the overall effect on society, but I know that giving up completely will not do anyone any good, and can only be self-destructive to the spirit as well.
NG: Your next novel is Ship of Fools, due out early next year. What sort of book is it? Does it mark a new phase in your writing?
RPR: Ship of Fools does mark a new phase in my writing. Hopefully it marks growth in me as a writer as well. After writing three novels in a row that, though essentially independent, were all set in the same near-future San Francisco and with recurring characters, I needed to do something different: to stretch myself as a writer, to maintain my enthusiasm for writing. It's a more conventional SF novel in some ways -- set thousands of years in the future in a starship that was originally either a colony ship or a religious missionary ship, and which is now something in between, travelling between the stars without real direction, struggling to find a purpose or goal.
I am currently at work on another novel, which is different from both Ship of Fools and the Carlucci novels. And the novel I have in mind to write after that is just as different. I think the only way to grow as a writer, and remain excited about writing, is to stretch one's abilities, to continue exploring and making discoveries both in the world and in ourselves.
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© Nick Gevers 2 September 2000