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"I am a bill collector disguised as a tree" said the bill collector disguised as a tree


This interview by David Wingrove comes from Vector #89 (Sep/Oct 1978). Vector is the journal of the British SF association, and this issue was a "Special Robert Sheckley Issue". Thanks to the Memory Hole for giving me a copy.

BS: = Robert Sheckley

DW: = David Wingrove

AS: = Abby Sheckley


BS: This is a test recording. Mr Sheckley is not here yet but his stand-in is going to warm up the tape recorder for you. Blah blah blah blah, Okay. where were we, Dave?

DW: I forget. Talking about the ending of stories...

BS: Finishing stories. I know that you just have to go along for a while, before the thing gets going again.

AS: You shouldn't have told him it was on...

DW: Yeah. I should have sneaked it on at first and just got on with it. They're unreal things, interviews, aren't they?

BS: Yeah. Well, it's hard getting over the up-tightness of being interviewed for the record as it were.

DW: I think you rarely get to the things you want to talk about, anyway.

BS: Yes, well, it's up to you to direct it when it starts rambling. You have to be provocative, I think.

DW: I don't know. I like the rambling better than the provocative bits.

BS: Yes. you have to be judging it also, because this recording is, in my opinion, your composition.

AS: You're trying to get him uptight...

BS: I just want him to realise the gravity of the situation. I know that if I were interviewing somebody I would think of myself as trying to elicit certain things from them. I would hope to find the mainstream of their preoccupations. Something of that sort. I don't know...

DW: It depends upon your perspective, doesn't it?

BS: Yes, and varies with the person you're interviewing too, of course.

DW: I always find myself asking questions about books and music: the things I'm interested in. Also, because I'm interested in the mechanics of writing, those are the sort of questions I ask.

BS: Well, I'm interested in the mechanics of writing also. But I find them inextricably bound up with the personal situation, you know. Science fiction is interesting that way. Sometimes it seems like science fiction is the last great refuge of impersonal writing in an increasingly personalised writing world.

DW: But it's becoming increasingly personalised itself isn't it?

BS: In a way.

DW: The whole New Worlds experiment - which was an attempt to take it that way, into the mainstream.

BS: Yes.

DW: It's also difficult interviewing you. because you're not a very typical science fiction writer.

BS: No, I guess I'm not. And I never have been, really.

DW: You realise I shall probably ask the same questions again, even the ones I'm finding tiring...

BS: On the other hand, I can probably turn any question into what I want to say about something, so you shouldn't worry about what you ask me. You know, I'm probably going to say what's on my mind anyway.

DW: Diverted away again...

BS: Yes.

DW: Okay. As an interesting line to set off on, this business about the American culture that we were talking about earlier...

BS: American culture, yes...

DW: Why you miss it.

BS: Well, it's simple really. You do over here, for example, a number of very good BBC plays about the English situation, and they're terribly well done, but I can't really get into them. Although they're on a human level, what I can empathise with best is American situations, and I miss exactly that thing - our own American versions, you might say, of Play of the Week. I miss our own sports too. I'm a basketball fan and a football fan and an ice hockey fan. You know, the only thing I can really watch over here is Wimbledon. I don't really care about soccer. I've tried to get interested in it but I like different types of sport. My sport is really basketball because it's so fast and beautiful. But even Sports is only a small part of it. Sometimes I just miss American ways. Our great big Open roads and our large cars. And I miss our hot dogs and sky high malts so thick you can't get them through a straw.

DW: Basically, just New York culture?

BS: I have been greatly influenced by New York. In fact California is populated, as far as 'thinking' or 'creative' people, by New Yorkers. Who often don't begin as that... Most New Yorkers began as people from Ohio or Kansas or whatever. Just as I started out as a New Jerseyite. And then we go to the Big City and it puts a permanent stamp on us, and we can live anywhere in the world as New Yorkers after that. The technical name for what afflicts me, I think, is called Weltanscauung. I always like to get In the three or four long German words I picked up in College... Weltanscauung is very much it. All exiles are caught up in Weltanscauung.

DW: Do you feel yourself exiled?

BS: Oh yes.

DW: Self exiled?

BS: Self exiled, yes. But I think anybody who doesn' t live in his home, if they don't really make a new home for themselves, if they don't love the land that they're in and somehow get with their new place spiritually or on some sort of deep level - then they're exiles. Exiled simply means living away from home. There was a time I thought I could make Ibiza a new home. And I could if Ibiza had stayed static. But it's a tiny island and after a while became completely overwhelmed by package tours. It became more expensive to live there than in the West End even.

DW: I should think the ambience of the place would have been destroyed.

BS: Yes. Exactly so. It was always fragile but now one month of it is to be all that either of us will probably need. But, anyway, that is the only place that I've felt I could perhaps make a home out of. It would be a simpler matter anyway, for me to make a home out of that than out of England. England demands much more participation, because we speak the same language. And if I'm to be really at home here, then I think I must become at home in the way that Henry James did or T.S. Eliot. They...

DW: Became more English then the English.

BS: Yes. In some ways, yes. Otherwise as an artist you can't deal with the genius of the place and its people, unless you can somehow join them. That ought to be a good science fiction theme. You see, all these things are science fiction themes. The exile experience informs me of what the alien planet experience will be. And in a way, my writing on the alien planet thing has become more a sort of exploration of my own feelings as an exile. I do that very consciously in some of my short stories.

DW: When you think of it, there are not a lot of science fiction themes that are anything other than an extrapolation, or a 'metaphoric deformation', using your own term, of what you feel about the various things you encounter. They are nothing more then putting into a nice handy metaphor, if you like, something you've experienced, or a feeling about something very common to your life.

BS: Well, sometimes they aren't even that. I see a great deal of science fiction as being involved in what for me now would be a false objecivity. When I first started writing I could write a story simply because I had a plot. Now that's not really enough for me. I don't care to read objective works any more. I really only care to read felt works, you know. Now Kurt Vonnegut feels that way and says he's not a science fiction writer. I feel that way but I maintain I still am a science fiction writer - but I'm a wierd one, you know, because most science fiction writers, I think, still have a basically crafts approach. They see it as an objective, extrapolative work. DW: Much like a piece of engineering, really, isn't it?

BS: Well, take Arthur Clarke. You know, Arthur's really interested in the future of Earth. I'm not interested in future Earth, I'm interested in the future of the individual. And it's not even the individual. I can only exemplify the individual by writing about one of them: the only one I know and can ever know. The science in science fiction has led me to the problem of knowledge. That's why I say I'm a science fiction writer still. I'm just working in the psychological aspect of science fiction.

DW: It's a very tenuous line though, isn't it? I see your writing more in the vein of people like Flann O'Brien, John Barth... that school. It's metafiction: which isn't really mainstream fiction, nor is it science fiction. It doesn't even want to change the characters - it just wants to explore what they are.

BS: Exactly. Yes, and theres a whole area now into which I think I fit, along with Barth, as you say, Kotzwinkle, Donald Barthelme...

DW: It's a very different emphasis to science fiction though...

BS: Very different emphasis, yes. Oh god, that reminds me of a whole novel idea I got the other night. I didn't even bother writing it down. Basically, I wanted to start a book or a story with a character coming out on stage or on the paper and saying "Hi, I'm the great magician, Albert Magnus, and here's my empty box. A trick. Here's a plain shiny cardboard box. Empty, you see. I puts it down. I reach in. I remove a mountain. I puts it over here. Here's a man. His name's George. I put him here. And here's a spaceship." And... well, just get on with the story. Simply drop the frame until the end of the story. And then when the next story happens, take something else out of the box.

DW: Yes, do a whole series of stories and pack them all away at the end.

BS: At the end he vanishes into the box. And the box vanishes. And it's all trickery. It is all tricks with mirrors, all a trick with words really.

DW: It makes you wonder how people got into the whole idea of fiction in the first place. Why they drifted from just making factual accounts...

BS: Well, I think there has been a very ancient tradition of story telling. People seem to have a need for fiction, whether it's in the form of theatre or greek choral work or roman farce.

DW: Perhaps I didn't make it quite clear. I meant the idea of dressing it up as if it were real: the need for a 'fiction' as an alternate reality. If you're going to have a 'fiction', why not make it nice and clear that it is fiction. Why do they need that - you see it on the box in Crossroads and Coronation Street - that bit? Re-telling their lives and not even adding to them?

BS: Some people are only opened up by that sort of approach. Styles change also. One form is always being over turned for a different form.

DW: Perhaps it's simply because realism doesn't appeal to me much in the things I read.

BS: No. Realism is a fairly recent trend and I look upon it as a form romanticism. Emile Zola who thought he was such a realist was in fact a wild romantic in thinking that what he wrote was 'reality', when it was simply his selection out of all the facts in the world. To say writing about the contents of garbage cans is realism and about angels, for example, is really a fallacy.

DW: It's just how you see it.

BS: Well, in science fiction we owe it to ourselves, I think, to see things in as many ways as we possibly can, because in effect, I think all us who write it and read it and are interested in it share the desire to be opened up by it, to see more, to understand more.

DW: To broaden the horizons.

BS: Yes, and broaden ourselves. Something like that.

DW: I like that idea. A selection of all the various things that are going on around you. Do you find there are certain things you get obsessed with at times? Are there certain aspects of life you keep finding yourself focusing on? Can you think of any examples?

BS: Well, I have various themes I return to, over and over again. I've got one whole thing I keep getting into. I keep on visualising for example a Reality War, a war between conflicting realities. I've been writing that one up in a dozen different forms for many years. It's also a theme within a lot else that I do.

DW: It's like philosophy these days, I suppose...

BS: Yes,it is. And it's like mysticism also. So maybe I'm doing next century's science fiction.

DW: If there's going to be one, do you think science fiction has much of a future?

BS: Oh, absolutely.

DW: Not the kind you write, but the kind we were talking about earlier, the very heavy 'engineering' type of science fiction. Or do you think it's going to evolve into metafiction? Because a lot of the stuff that the hard science boys are writing now is quickly overtaking them: the stuff you see in Science Journals is more the hard core of science fiction than stuff the genre's writers can turn out.

BS: My feeling is that it's going to be around for a long time because there is a readership for that level of things. Most readers aren't interested in metafiction, I don't think.

DW: Else you'd be very rich.

BS: Yes, and Barthelme and Barth probably would also be, and I suspect they're not. And Coover and all those guys. They're doing dazzling work sometimes. But most people don't like to read anything that is in the slightest difficult, and will not give themselves to a fiction that demands very much of them. Probably most science fiction reading is escapist reading, after all, stuff you can read while you're riding the underground to work, stuff you can put down and pick up without a thought. Stuff you can finish and never think about again. Now, there will always be a market for that, and the market will probably grow as the population of half educated people increases.

DW: When you meet somebody for the first time and they don't know that you are a writer and you say "I'm a writer" do they start telling you "Oh, I've got a book in my head" and "I've always wanted to do that"?

BS: Very often, yes. Frequently not on first meeting. But often after a while. You know, people are terribly shy about that. I sometimes ask people, "Have you ever thought of writing this up?" and often they say "yes, I've thought about it and..."

DW: "...and my wife would think I was mad if I went into a back room and started scribbling away". Instead of tinkering with the car on a Sunday.

BS: There are many ways of working it out you know. One needn't be a freelance writer to be a creative and happy person, I think.

AS: It seems to work against it.

BS: Yes, it often does, you know. I can't say that being a writer has been an especially happy way of life for me. I would have done a lot better happiness wise if I'd stayed in band work. I played in bands until the age of about twenty, and it was a great life. I loved being on the road. You knows, this was before rock, but it's the same life... well we got less girls than the rock guys do. Still, if I'd just waited instead of going into this dreary line of work in which you have to lock yourself up in a room most days of your life if you want to achieve anything.

DW: It sounds like committing yourself to a long prison sentence, doesn't it, if you look back on it?

BS: Yes, yes.

DW: You will produce X number of books in the next ten years...

BS: Exactly so. I can look back upon a long history of dreary rooms that I've done writing in. I mean, it's rarely done under pleasant circumstances.

DW: It's not a question of choice, though, really, is it? You don't really choose to be a writer. Some little nagging thing inside...

BS: You don't choose; it chooses you. You know you're a writer because you're writing, basically. And you don't even know you're a writer, even when you're writing, because one never loses all doubts. But I think that if you're called to writing, as it were - that's very religious phraseologyg, 'called to', but writing is a vocation and it's probably so for most men who have a high output, or a regular output, no matter what they write...


Vector Interview: Part Two | Index