Phlogiston Forty Four: An Interview with Roger Zelazny
This interview was conducted under unusual circumstances. It was in front of an audience and (as mentioned in the con report in issue forty-three) also had welcome interjections from Jane Lindskold, writer and Roger's companion. I have tried to capture the flavour of what was a very enjoyable hour with Roger. An interview with Jane will appear in a future issue of Phlogiston .
When did you first realise you wanted to write?
Oh, I was about six years old. And I read stories and decided I would have done different things with the characters. One day I realised that "Hey, I could do this", so I tried and I've been doing it ever since. I didn't start selling right away.
What characters did you think you could do better with?
Oh back then it was people like Doctor Dolittle, some of Dr Seuss' characters. I read a lot of mythology as time went on and I used to play games with that too.
When did you sell your first story?
The first time I got money for a story I was fifteen or sixteen years old but I didn't sell another one until I was out of college. This was a contest I happened to win
Let's talk about the one you sold when you got out of college
Well, I decided that as a teenager that I really didn't know enough to describe character well and I was wasting my time. I'd learned as much as I could about story telling techniques and it wasn't a matter of technique any more. It was a matter of substance. As a result I said I was going to wait until I was a lot older and had more experience. So it was that after I got out of college I'd been away from SF for about four years. I'd read SF steadily from when I was eleven until I started college. When I started college I said, "I'm not going to read that while I'm here, I'm going to learn poetry and other things of that sort" in fact I wrote a lot of poetry then.
In the spring of sixty-two I sold my first story. I got twenty dollars for it. The first thing I did was sit down and read ten paperback SF and Fantasy novels, chosen at random. Then I picked up a copy of every SF magazine being sold at the time. Then I made a list of the magazine markets starting with the best paying one, working my way down the list to the cheapest ones the cheapest one was Amazing for a penny a word.
What I'd do was send my story out to the best paying magazine and if they didn't want it, then I'd send it out the second best paying and so on, until I'd gone through the entire list. If nobody wanted it I'd throw it in a box and later on I'd look it over again to see if I could learn anything from it.
So that went on for some time; I started selling fairly regularly. That first year I sold seventeen stories, all short. I didn't get rich that year.
I promised myself that I would not try anything too ambitious at first, because I had so much to learn, that I would devote the first couple of years to just writing short things because they are a lot faster to write and I could learn more writing tricks from doing them.
So that's what I did. I wrote short stories for two years and then during the second year I started stretching them longer and longer, to novelette and novella length, and finally I decided "All right, I think I can write a book".
Then I wrote the one that's called This Immortal , my title was And Call me Conrad (which was what it was serialised under for F&SF). That was my first novel and in the years that followed I interspersed novels and short stories, fantasy and SF. I didn't want to be typified too closely with any particular sort of writing. I hated the thought of getting categorised and then that category would be the only thing they'd buy. So I did vary things a lot, and that's why I think they never bothered me, just let me write pretty much what I wanted. Once I'd established a track record and they saw a Roger Zelazny book would sell x copies
I had a full-time job the whole while. I was a civil servant. I did that for seven years. I promised myself I'd keep the job until my earnings from my writing equalled the money from the job, then I'd quit my job and write full time. I reached that point and I sort of chickened out. I worked another year.
A couple of years before that I'd set things up. I'd had a long talk with Bob Silverberg, who was very influential on my early career. He'd, out of the kindness of his heart, at a convention told me that he thought I'd made several mistakes in the way I was disposing of my stories. And I said, "I don't understand what you mean, but I'll be glad to buy you a few drinks, if you'll tell me about it". So we adjourned to the bar and sat there a couple of hours. He was drinking Bloody Marys back then; I was drinking Black Russians. And he told me all sorts of things which carried me over the next several years; it was a lot of information for a couple of drinks. He told me that the first thing I should do if I wanted to write full-time was to get a really good agent. He said that after a while the business end of writing takes too much of the writing time. Better to pay someone ten percent and find that you're still more than ten percent ahead in the end.
Which is true. My present agent says that he always feels that a good agent during the course of a year should earn back for his client at least the ten percent he takes by way of commission, so the client's really nothing out. And what he should ideally do is make him more money than the ten percent.
So that's what I did; got an agent, quit the job. Wrote for a number of years before I realised I was making a go of it. Then I decided that it was silly. I was living in Baltimore because I was working for a Government agency which had its headquarters there. But I had a choice of living anywhere I wanted, all I needed was an agent in New York. So after a period of time, I moved to Santa Fé, New Mexico. Been out there for twenty years now. It's a kind of dry country. Jane will tell you about the mud.
Jane: It's Brown. The Houses are Brown. The Landscape is Brown. The trees are Brown a lot of the time It's Brown. But it has great sunsets
You said that you sold your first story for twenty dollars, who was it who took the first chance?
A lady named Cele Goldsmith. Oddly enough it was a strange period of time in the history of SF. Because within three or four months of each other she published my first story, Piers Anthony's first story, Ursula K. Le Guin's first story, and Thomas M. Disch's first story (all in 1962). We all just clicked at the same time and all of us agree that she was a very perceptive lady. Even though Cele didn't discover Harlan Ellison, he's always had a soft spot for her
So for a number of years I've lived in Santa Fé, but I don't know that I will always live in Santa Fé, and the only thing I miss in Santa Fé is water. I figure you should either have mountains or water, and Santa Fé has mountains, very pretty mountains (<Jane>: Brown). I live about eighteen miles from a ski basin, so we're up pretty high, about 7000 feet
You sold the story for twenty dollars; just for the historical record how much would twenty dollars buy then?
Well that would have been more the equivalent of selling it for eighty or ninety dollars today. In fact, I sold a story almost exactly the same length, which I wrote in a short period of time, for a hundred dollars. I thought, "This is a quick idea I can dash off in an evening" and it sold.
Partly they are buying the name, I might as well be honest about it. They aren't just saying "Oh gee this is a wonderful story", they're saying "Gee, this is a story by Bob Silverberg or Roger Zelazny. Welllll, it's not his best story necessarily but it would be nice to have his name on the magazine". There's a certain amount of that; I'd be lying if I said there weren't
So why Science Fiction?
I wanted to write something. My first choice was poetry, but no- body was making a living at the time writing poetry in the USA except for Robert Frost and Carl Sandberg. I said the next best thing was fiction, what kind of fiction? Well, I thought about it and I used to like SF a lot. So I decided to try it and if that didn't work I'd try something else.
I have had two books of poetry published, but everyone who told me about it was right. I sold both of them about fifteen years ago and neither one has earned out it's advance <chuckles> which wasn't particularly large.
Poetry just doesn't sell in the States. It's a pity, but one of the facts of life.
So how do you write now? What kind of mechanical process do you use?
Jane uses a computer. I normally compose on a lap-held portable typewriter and I have a lady who does part-time clerical work for me. I give her the manuscript and have her run it through her computer and get her to give me disks if the publisher wants disks or hard copy if they want hard copy.
She's afraid I'm going to learn word processing and put her out of a job. And I'm afraid I am. Jane and I share an office, I look over at her periodically. We both put in well she works harder than I do <chuckles> might as well be honest about it. She puts in a lot of time and effort and she can write a book quite quickly and the quality doesn't seem to suffer from it. Which has impressed me and I've been thinking, I'd kind of like to pick up that speed. Another year or two at most and I'll switch over.
How do you approach your writing? Do you write to some sort of fixed schedule?
I try to write every day. I used to try to write four times a day, minimum of three sentences each time. It doesn't sound like much but it's kinda like the hare and the tortoise. If you try that several times a day you're going to do more than three sentences, one of them is going to catch on. You're going to say "Oh boy!" and then you just write. You fill up the page and the next page But you have a certain minimum so that at the end of the day, you can say "Hey I wrote four times today, three sentences, a dozen sentences. Each sentence is maybe twenty word long. That's 240 words which is a page of copy, so at least I didn't goof off completely today. I got a page for my efforts and tomorrow it might be easier because I've moved as far as I have".
Do you Feel compelled to write?
Yeah. I do. Not just for the mercenary end of things although that is a consideration no, there's something inside. When I've gone for long stretches of time, like when I was sick a while back, I felt very uncomfortable. I read a lot, but I can only read so much before I want to start putting words down myself.
I met Jane, oh over half a dozen years ago I never answer fan letters I answered one from her. We struck up a correspondence. We became friends after a while and she was teaching at college in Virginia. Jane had an opportunity to write a literary biography on me for Twayne Books American Author series. She did not want to jeopardise our friendship you can't write a book about someone and make everything sound really good without the book sounding really phoney and sweet. So I said go ahead and she wrote this book I really like; I'm very happy with it.
Have you ever experienced writer's block?
Not too much. I've slowed down. I can always write and that's the thing with three sentences at a time, even if you're feeling sluggish you can always get three sentences out.
I've never had one of those really bad ones like some writers I've known. But there are times when you'll be writing along and you're not exactly sure what you want to do next. What I do is just slow down and think about it and it's usually not long before you are back on track.
I've heard so many wonderful and so many horrible stories about writer's block that it's always sort of amazed me that I've never felt that bad.
Bob Silverberg, someone once asked him if he'd had writer's block. He said, "Yes, I did. It was about ten years ago for about twenty minutes on a Thursday". And I believe him!
Larry Janifer shared an office once with Bob and almost had a nervous breakdown. They used to go into the office about 9:30 and they had this little partition down the middle. Bob would get in every morning, have a cup of coffee, sit down at his typewriter and start going click, click, click, click. And Larry would be sitting there staring at his typewriter while in the background was this click, click, click, click. And Larry would be sitting there, listening and staring at his typewriter. And sometimes Larry wouldn't write anything all morning.
Then about 12:30 there'd be a knock on the partition and Larry would say "What?" and Bob would say "Let's go get some lunch, Larry". And Larry would have to sit there and have lunch with Bob and then go back and listen to him type all afternoon.
Men as Gods, and possibly poor ones at that, feature in at least three of your works. Why are you drawn to this theme?
As I said earlier in this interview, I discovered mythology at a fairly early age. When I started writing my first novel, And Call me Conrad, they always say write about what you know And I said well if I get a nice sort of combination SF and Fantasy with these resonances from Greek Mythology it might be pretty good. It would also give me a chance to start filling in my background on all those things I don't know much about but should if I want to be an SF writer.
So I sat down and made a list of everything I felt I should know more about. Astrophysics, Oceanography, Marine Biology, Genetics Then when I'd finished the list I read one book in each of these areas. When I'd finished I went back and read a second book until I'd read ten books in each area. I thought that it wouldn't turn me into a terrific, fantastic expert but I'd at least have enough material there to know if I was saying something wrong. And I'd also know where to turn to get the information I want to make it right.
While I was doing this, to keep the words and cheques flowing I wrote books involving mythology. And once I started picking up things involving astrophysics I'd write stories that played with those sorts of things. So that's why I started out with mythology.
A number of reviewers would say things like, "Roger Zelazny's a pretty good writer, but all he writes is these darned rehashes of old myths. It would be nice to see what else he could do sometime".
Then after I'd finally learned all this stuff I'd spent several years catching up on and started writing stories that involved science, I started getting these reviews that said "Gee, Zelazny used to write these wonderful stories involving mythology"
And I said to hell with it and decided to ignore reviewers.
In Isle of the Dead you created your own mythology.
Yeah, I was in a hurry there. I sort of thought it would be fun to make up one of my own. I kinda liked that one. I came very close to using that character again but I forbore. He may well appear again one of these days.
You work in both the SF and Fantasy fields, do you have a preference?
No, not really. I like both so much that I consider it restful to switch back and forth. You can get tired of writing SF, but you can get tired of writing Fantasy as well.
So I just try to vary them. The one I'm writing now is set in the 22nd Century and is a non-cyberpunk world datanet story. Which is very different from anything I've seen so far.
Did criticism ever play a part in your learning your craft?
Well, to the extent that I did attend graduate school. My under graduate work was in Psychology. But I took a Master's degree in English and Comparative Literature and that gave me criticism in connection with literature.
What about criticism of your own work? Did that ever help you?
Not really. I got comments from critics that I really didn't like and so I worked out ways of working in more of those things they really didn't like in my next story.
What about criticism from editors and other writers?
That's different! These people are pros. They are not out to destroy your aesthetic and refashion you in their own image. Editors are just out to make as strong a book as they can. I've learnt some very nice things from editors I've learnt some dumb things, too. But John Douglas, is a prince. He's at AvoNova, he's a very fine editor I've been with for years. In fact he's been Jane's editor on her last several books.
Every now and then you just pick tricks up from editors. Even if you have no connection with them, you just happen to meet them at a convention and have a beer together and sometimes they'll tell you a thing that comes in handy.
I think criticism from authors and editors is important if it's good. And after a while you get to know which ones have some common sense.
Reviewers and critics often miss the boat about what you are doing, and that sets your teeth a little on edge.
Jane: I've read a lot of criticism of Roger's work. Most of it misses the boat completely. I think one of the strongest one of the neatest things about Roger's work is that he worked very hard early in his career not to get pigeon-holed and there are a number of critics who seem to have no delight whatsoever except to try and pigeon-hole him! And then they get mad when he doesn't fit into a pigeon-hole that they've designed or write this dynamic article that touches on three or four books for their entire thesis. Roger has written, if you count collaborations and poetry books, close on fifty books now. So to come up with this entire critical theory from some four books is a little like analysing your life based on the years between one and five. So I think critics have more trouble with Roger than they have with a lot of writers because he does not pigeon-hole easily.
You've written some very good short stories and some excellent novels. Do you see a benefit in one length over the other?
My favourite form is the short story. From an aesthetics stand point you really have to pare down to the bone. You can't write a throw-away scene.
Whereas in a novel see in my first book I could have Conrad walking along a street late at night trying to figure out what he's going to do about some problem. And have him stop in a cafe and have him listen to a singer for about a page and then walk on.
I don't like stories to be completely deterministic and something like that helps to show that the story is partly a random process and the fellow just happened to stop and have a drink and listen to some songs and felt better.
I would maintain that provides a certain texture to the book. It's giving some of the background to the setting and also deepens the characterisation to show some of the things he likes.
In a novel you have more elbow room. You can get away with a gratuitous scene so long as it's close enough to the rest of it so you can say "Well, yeah, it doesn't advance the action at all but it does tell you a little more about this person's life".
I prefer short stories for technical virtuosity, very compressed, very economical. How to say everything in as brief a span as possible.
[Aside to Jane: I never asked you, which do you prefer, novels or short stories?]
Jane: I feel pretty much the same way as Roger does. Only I don't think of it that way. Some stories demand to be told at novel length, you couldn't do them credit as a short story. And some stories are short stories and if you padded them into a novel, they'd be very bad novels but they make really cool short stories.
You've written some collaborations. What motivated you to get into that area?
The first one was kind of a fluke and it happened to be Phillip K. Dick. Who I thought was a very interesting writer, so I took the publisher up on the offer. Phil had been blocked for a number of years, but once I wrote a few chapters and sent them to him, he got unblocked, he liked what I'd done and wanted to write a few chapters. And he did and I wrote a few more and we switched back and forth until it was finished.
Fred Saberhagen is an old friend of mine. I first met him 1961 and some years back we were walking through the Zoo. We stopped outside the giraffe house and Fred looked at me and said "Do you want to do a collaboration?" So we did Coils .
Fred is a terrific fan of Edgar Allan Poe; every January he gives a birthday party for Poe. So after a while he said let's do a book about Poe and I said "Sure why not?" So I went off and read that of Poe I hadn't read previously.
But Fred and I did it a different way. Fred's a very good outliner. I can take an outline by Fred Saberhagen and run a chapter's worth of outline through the typewriter very quickly. So I'd send that back to him and he'd alter it, while I was working on the next section of outline. And before long we had a book.
Now Robert Sheckley I'd always been very interested in his brand of humour which is really off the wall and bizarre. It was our agent who brought us together by suggesting he could get us a pretty good contract to do three books together. So we talked it over and said "Okay". Robert pointed out that he was not good at outlining, but I'd learned so much from Fred that I said, "I'll run a bunch of ideas by you, you find the ones you like best, grab the top one, I'll outline it, you write it in quick draft, I'll rewrite it". And that's what we did.
So it's whatever feels appropriate when you collaborate with someone else. And I've learned something from every collaboration I've done.
The most recent one is that I've just finished the novel Alfred Bester was working on when he died. I'm a great admirer of Alfred Bester's and I thought "Well, I can be off writing something else for more money, but I'll never have another opportunity to finish a book by Alfred Bester".
It's called Pyschoshop, about a shop in Rome where you can actually pawn parts of your psyche that you're unhappy with or want to replace. It has a very unusual proprietor I couldn't resist that.
Bester had written ninety-two pages and that was it. There are also about four pages missing from the ninety-two. What I did was treat the missing pages as a black box experiment. Something went in here, and something came out here, and I just had to figure out what I needed to make it happen that way.
I picked up the story where Bester had stopped in mid-sentence, same thing I did with Phil Dick. I picked up Phil's in mid-sentence and I completed the sentence and went on writing. I did the same thing with Bester. I hope that bodes well
[Interjection] Why did Bester end in mid-sentence ?
Bester was in pretty bad shape. He was pushing himself along just to keep his mind off his pain and such. He was a strange man, he didn't have any living relatives. He used to stop at this one bar every night for a beer. And he owned a little farm in Bucks Country, Penn sylvania and he had an apartment in Manhattan. Every night he'd stop in at this bar and have a chat with the bartender. When Bester died the bartender discovered he was Bester's heir. It seems the bartender was the only person Bester talked to regularly.
It's sometimes a lonely business writing
You said that the whole first Amber series was planned out in your head in rough. Were you surprised at how big the project turned out?
Yes! I thought it was going to be one book, maybe a book and sequel later on. I had no idea how much the story would embellish itself and just keep growing longer. But I'd do other things of that size, even bigger.
Was Doorways in the Sand fun to write?
Yes! It's one of my five personal favourites in all my work. Possibly because it was the first humorous novel I was able to finish. I loved that book. I was cackling away while I was typing.
Jane: He laughs at his own jokes.
If they're good ones especially if they're ones I haven't heard before.
Jane did not understand at first. She'd hear this mumbling and didn't know that I would sometimes rehearse dialogue kinda sotto voce while I'm sitting at my typewriter.
Jane: That's a polite way of saying he talks to himself.
One of your most fascinating novels was Roadmarks. It was a very large concept. Have you ever considered writing a sequel?
No. One of my main reasons for writing it was to set up this futuristic writer's conference by a fellow who's a fan of the Marquis de Sade so that when the Marquis left under duress he could take some of the manuscripts from the writer's workshop Think how it would feel if you were really working hard on a story and you turned it in and you get a rejection slip from the Marquis de Sade. There was something about that concept I found real funny says a lot about me I guess.
You've said you prefer He Who Shapes to the novel The Dream Master. Why?
And Call me Conrad had to be cut for serialisation in F&SF and I was always disappointed because I didn't realise the hardcover publisher kept some of the cuts. I didn't know for years that I was missing some scenes, until it became a SF bookclub choice and the editor there told me that after looking at the magazine version and the book version that a bunch of stuff was missing and then asked me if I could go over the text and produce a definitive version.
The opposite was that I'd written He Who Shapes and I'd liked the story. Damon Knight was positive he could talk a fairly big name publisher into doing He Who Shapes as possibly a hardcover novel, which in those days were quite prestigious.
So to get it into a novel form frankly, I padded some of the scenes. Aesthetically I don't like that, but at the time there was a lot of money involved which I needed. So I did some scenes I'd thought of which I wished I'd done initially, and there were a few others I wasn't overjoyed with.
I showed it to Damon and he talked to the publisher who said that they didn't like it, the initial description was good, but the novel wasn't. Later on my agent sold it elsewhere
To produce a text I'm happy with there would have to be money involved. It's not just a matter of being mercenary, it's a question of time as well
I did get conned into a similar situation with Damnation Alley, I expanded it and I like the shorter version better. I didn't think much of the film, but I took their money.
[Questions from the floor]
What are your five favourite novels?
This Immortal, Lord of Light, Doorways in the Sand , Eye of Cat, and my most recent one, A Night in Lonesome October .
Do you have multiple projects going all the time?
Often yeah. Unless it's a big fancy book, then it's the focus of my attention, not to say that if someone came along and offered me a place in an anthology of stories based on an idea I liked, I wouldn't be above writing a short story.
Thank you for your time.
Postscript. A few months after this interview, Roger Zelazny died. It came as a shock to those at Conquest as he had kept his illness very quiet. A fuller account of the circumstances of his death and two tributes to him appeared in Phlogiston issue forty-three. A profile by Alan Robson of Roger Zelazny and his works appeared in issue forty-one.
Awards: Balrog 1980, 1984; Hugo 1966, 1968, 1976, 1982, 1986, 1987; Locus 1984, 1986; Nebula 1965 (2), 1975; Prix Apollo 1972; Seiun 1984 GoH World SF Con 1974
Books: This Immortal (1966) [And Call Me Conrad ] [Hugo], The Dream Master (1966), Four for Tomorrow (1967) [A Rose for Ecclesiastes], Lord of Light (1967) [Hugo], Nebula Award Stories 3 (1968) [Edited], Isle of the Dead (1969) [Prix Apollo], Creatures of Light and Dark ness (1969), Damnation Alley (1969), Nine Princes in Amber (1970), The Doors of His Face, The Lamps of His Mouth (1971), Jack of Shadows (1971), The Guns of Avalon (1972), To Die in Italbar (1973), Today We Choose Faces (1973), Poems (1974) [C/poetry], Sign of the Unicorn (1975), The Hand of Oberon (1976), Bridge of Ashes (1976), Doorways in the Sand (1976), My Name is Legion (1976), Deus Irae (1976) [With Philip K. Dick ], The Courts of Chaos (1978), The Illustrated Roger Zelazny (1978), The Bells of Shoredan (1979), Roadmarks (1979), Changeling (1980), For A Breath I Tarry (1980), When Pussywillows Last in the Catyard Bloomed (1980) [C/poetry], Coils (1980) [ With Fred Saberhagen], Madwand (1981), The Changing Land (1981), A Rhapsody in Amber (1981), To Spin is Miracle Cat (1981) [C/poetry], Dilvish the Damned (1982), Eye of Cat (1982), Unicorn Variations (1983) [Balrog; Locus], Trumps of Doom (1985), Blood of Amber (1986), Sign of Chaos (1987), A Dark Traveling (1987), Roger Zelazny's Visual Guide to Castle Amber (1988) [Nonfiction with Neil Randall], Knight of Shadows (1989), Frost and Fire (1989), He Who Shapes (1989) [ Tor Double #12], Home is the Hangman (1990) [ Tor Double #21], The Graveyard Heart (1990) [ Tor Double #24], The Black Throne (1990) [ With Fred Saberhagen], The Mask of Loki (1990) [With Thomas T. Thomas], Prince of Chaos (1991), Gone to Earth (1991) [Author's Choice Monthly #27 ], Bring Me the Head of Prince Charming (1991) [ With Robert Sheckley], Here Be There Dragons (1992), Way Up High (1992), Flare (1992) [ With Thomas T. Thomas], A Night in the Lonesome October (1993), If at Faust You Don't Succeed (1993) [ With Robert Sheckley], Wilderness (1994) [ Non-Genre Fiction with Gerald Hausman], A Farce to Be Reckoned With (1995) [With Robert Sheckley], Warriors of Blood and Dreams (1995) [Edited], Wheel of Fortune (1995) [ Edited]A