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"I am a bill collector disguised as a tree": Part Two

DW: How long have you been in England now?

BS: About three years now. Three years going on four, I think.

DW: Do you find you've assimilated a little bit of the culture, though not as much as you've rejected?

BS: It's not exactly 'rejected'. I'll tell you this, I have a very great and very true appreciation of England and the English, I would probably have to be gone from here to write about it. It's hard to state, but I find it utterly fascinating here because to me you people are strange as the Japanese, perhaps stranger. You certainly have got a more complex character structure, both individually and socially, than the Spaniards say, whom I feel to some extent I know something about... and something about the French also. And you've certainly got a beautiful country.

DW: I suppose with the English character you almost have to have it in your genes to understand it...

BS: Well, even then, all the places in England have meanings already. I can Impose a meaning on Big Sur, because it only has a fifty year history. But I can't impose any meaning on Dorset or Westminster. These things been around since before Alfred. They are already a complete world system. But that, I think, hangs up English writers also because of this difficulty of clearing away the past and seeing Westminster, for example, as a structure right now, forgetting all about how it was built and which king was there. Simply seeing it as a fact, now, which is all we can do in the States. Our buildings don't have any histories. We build them up and tear them down so quickly. So, for us, everything is a temporary structural fact. But over here your buildings and your trees go on and on. Your lawns were laid before California was a State. Two different realities.

DW: Reality wars. BS: Yes, that's the only metaphor I can find for a certain way in which I actually see, actually feel, that life is. For me there is no commonplace life that I lead anymore. Everything is being improvised. And I just see the whole world as collapsible stage sets, and we just nod and say "oh yes, that's how it is." And we'll accept anything. If we read in the Standard that a colony of Martlans has just been found in a part of Scotlandt where they've been camping out for ten years - "Oh, isn't that interesting. I see that attempts have been made to establish contact. And they're going to have several of them at a rock concert...

DW: And it relates to education too. There are no foundations for what we are shown. We live in what Frank Herbert called "primitive times".

BS: Yes! Very much so. I would say it's very much a primitive and romantic time and there really isn't any interest in the classical continuity and the whole idea of the continuity of a classical, humanistic civilisation is too heavy an idea for people to get their heads around - except if it is made of cotton candy in science fiction. The only way anybody's going to read about the fall of the Roman Empire is if we fictionalise it. And the only way anybody's going to learn anything about Ancient Rome is when the BBC films "I, Claudlus". Now, all of a sudden you meet a lot of people who know a hell of a lot about Ancient Rome.

OW: That's a way for TV to go, in a way, isn't. it? For them to - by selectively taking things like "I, Claudius" and, perhaps, some of the H.E. Bates stuff they've done, things like that, to get people to know how other people thought, how they acted, what societies they lived in. Whether it's fifty years ego or a thousand-five hundred years ago. Put it in cotton-candy fair enough, but unless you push the button in the first place, nobody's going to move.

BS: That's lovely. Oh, I'm for it. I know that people are not going to sit through a course in Roman Lit anymore, if they can possibly avoid it. So, I'm all for the popularisation of culture - at least as a holding action, until the times change.

DW: I see that age as having died with the first World War, because before then you can see certain strains of literature where there was a very romantic movement - which seemed suddenly to have died. The World War seemed to have killed off any notions of romanticism. It also killed any ideas of the whole pantheist thing - of Man and Nature coalescing. It was then man against nature. Perhaps we're moving back that way - but through another dark age...

BS: It's very possible. Certainly the conditions look right.

DW: It's a long way downhill first.

BS: Well, it seems that on a worldwide level we don't know how to run ourselves socially.

DW: It is a problem. I was thinking particularly of the old social institutions - the church, marriage. The British have taken up, it seems, the American attitude to marriage - that it's more like a contract than a full-time, 'til death do us part thing. And yet we haven't really come up with a decent alternative to it. One that works.

BS: No. Well, I think that a lot of recent experimentation in this way has been based upon ideas of how humans work which aren't really valid. There's been an enormous amount out about satisfying sexual needs, for example, but very little out about how to fulfil your love needs. I don't mean romantic love, I mean eros in the Freudian sense and the Platonic sense also. The urge to get together with a person, which includes sex but is not entirely ruled by it. We've almost given up the possibility of loving each other, and we think, well, let's shelve that one and let's get on with what we can get on with - and we'll carry our love buried deep in our hearts.

DW: You've been through a lot of changes; a lot of different lives. Do you feel just as impotent in each one? Do you feel that you can't change much of it. You can direct yourself a little way but it's all going to change anyway? Your basic sense of Free Will - is it being eroded over the years?

BS: No. No. My feeling on all that is that if you want to be happy, you have a lot of learning to do. At least, I do. And you learn, after all, that a lot of life is a viewpoint problem and that it has nothing to do with your circumstances or how well your stuff sells or how well your love affair is, or anything of that. To some extent you can choose your own psychological set. You can choose almost - well, this is a very American thing I guess, also, but I think it's so - you can make a solid choice as to how you're going to take things.

DW: You mean attitude?

BS: Yes.

DW: Whether you're going to be serious about something or laissez-faire?

BS: Not that. It's in your own hands whether you interpret your present experience as you having a good time, or you having a bad time.

DW: The same event, but just how you see it?

BS: Yes, the same event, and all that life is made up of is the same event. What changes is not the events as much as your own emotionality within them.

DW: It seems actually that the more successful you are in getting near to the 'realities', the more it demands of you, the more it drains from you. BS: If you're doing it right it does not drain you, it charges you. You know, when I'm writing right I come out of it with more energy at the end of the day. I get positively energised as I write - if I really write as I please. But it's not easy to write as I please even if I believe in it. For one thing, I'm very complicated and there are lots of different me's who want to say things, so it's not as simple as opening up my heart and spilling it out on the page.

DW: Do you remember what people's attitudes to you were when you were first writing? The only decent thing I've ever read of Robert Heinlein's was when he said that writing was rather like masturbation, it was okay if you did it in private and washed your hands afterwards. Did you find that you had to fight against some sort of hostility or were you in a position where you didn't need to do that?

BS: Well, when I was starting off I was very single minded on what I was doing and I shrugged disapproval off. Also, I was lucky, I started to sell fast so it became an okay thing, to write. I was selling one year out of College, so I didn't have to spend very long with the "what's he doing?" sort of thing. Also, when I started - before I even sold, I got hold of an office and I simply went there every day and wrote.

DW: It' s very much something that is considered anti-social until you actually make a living out of it.

BS: Yeah. Well, you see, I'm a long way from having any experience of that. People now usually simply envy the life they think I must have and wish they could have it also.

DW: Have you ever felt compelled to get out of it?

BS: Yes.

DW: Frequently?

BS: No. And not recently. But I went through some years in which I really wanted to just give it up. It was just too impossibly hard and I was trying and trying and just getting my wheels jammed. I just wasn't getting anything out.

DW: Not a block necessarily, but...

BS: I was blocked. I didn't know what to write anymore and I didn't like anything that I was writing.

DW: It goes back to 'feeling', you said you liked reading what was 'felt'.

BS: Not entirely. I often like very dry intellectual exercises, also, but I couldn't do either thing then. I was paying, you might say, for getting into writing so easily. Most people do all that in their first years. I just sat down and started writing. For years I could not understand how anybody ever got blocked, when all you had to do was what I did - sit down and write. And, obviously, that impression of the ease of it had to be corrected: and it got corrected very thoroughly. I went through seven to ten years or so in which the most I would do would be a story or two a year.

DW: Were you finding those stories were publishable?

BS: Oh yes. What I finished was always fine, But I didn't finish much because the conviction that made the story an entity would leak out of me before I got it all done, and I would be left with a mass of words that I couldn't make sense out of, even though you could make sense out of them. They didn't give me the proper signal back: "Here's work, here's the way it should go".

DW: It must be, once again, what you were talking about earlier - seeing things in different lights - whether it's good or bad depending on your mood. Are you as productive now as you were?

BS: Yes, but I find it harder to satisfy myself.

DW: A case of the more you know the less you're satisfied with what you do?

BS: Yes.

DW: Do you find you're more aware, in a way, of your own imperfections in your writing? As you read all the styles and various different philosophies of writers, do you begin to become aware of the things you do wrong and the things you neglect?

BS: I've always had a very over powering awareness of all that. It's only recently I've started to get a feeling of what I'm doing right, in fact. I've always been able to see what fails. I shudder to think of the reviews I could write of some of my own things. Its part of a total process. I can only get things as right as I'm feeling. My writing is inextricably bound up with my life situation and I seem to have a great need, or have had, anyway, to keep that pretty well unstable.

DW: It rather tends to bugger up your writing schedules as well, do you find?

BS: It does. My excitement urge gets in the way of my 'get the work out' thing.

DW: And you've never tried to discipline yourself... or, if you have, you obviously must have failed, because you still feel the same way.

BS: Yes. Well, you can't separate it. It's just part of my make up, and I just have to find a way to handle it. Fair enough, in a different sense it isn't a problem. I get, over the years, somehow, a respectable amount of work down and I can earn what I need - so there really isn't any problem.

DW: The problem's just up there, yes?

BS: It's a viewpoint problem. There isn't any reason why I should get all that work done. What could it do? It wouldn't alter anyone's life, I might get wealthier, which would probably be very bad for me because it would put me off work which would make me unhappy. So... so, everything is going along exactly as it should, actually. I think I quite like having a big file filled with unfinished things. It gives me a great sense of security, you know. I used to worry, when I first began writing - I worried that I would run out of ideas, so I kept notebooks filled with story ideas and plots and one day - I was about three years into all this - I found that I had filled up 40-odd notebooks and that I rarely used anything out of them because I always had something new I wanted to do.

Vector Interview: Part One | Index