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L I S A   G O L D S T E I N :
Underground Connections

(excerpted from Locus Magazine, May 1999)
Lisa Goldstein
    Photo by Beth Gwinn

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Dark Cities Underground

Lisa Goldstein's first novel, The Red Magician, appeared in 1982, and the following year won the American Book Award. It was followed by The Dream Years (1985), A Mask for the General (1987), Tourists (1989), Strange Devices of the Sun and Moon (1993), Summer King, Winter Fool (1994), Walking the Labyrinth (1996), and her latest, Dark Cities Underground, just out. Her short fiction has been collected in Daily Voices (1989) and Travelers in Magic (1994). She has been married to Douglas Asherman since 1986, and they live in Oakland, California.

‘‘I like looking at things and thinking, ‘What would this be like if it was slightly different, or if what you saw wasn’t the whole story?’ In my new book, Dark Cities Underground, I wanted to write a novel where things that didn’t seem to fit together actually did. It’s about death and rebirth, such a universal myth, I could make it fit just about anything!

‘‘I was on a BART train once when the conductor said, ‘Your final destination is Colma’ - which is the city just south of San Francisco, filled with cemeteries. I thought, ‘Geeze, I know that, but I don’t want to be reminded of it constantly!’ Then one day my brother and I took BART to Colma and just wandered around. It’s a fascinating place, with far more dead people than living. We ended up at Wyatt Earp’s grave, which is in the Jewish cemetery because his wife was Jewish, and I guess she arranged for the burial. People had left poker chips for him, on the grave.

‘‘I realized that in order to write this sort of thing - a historical fantasy like Tim Powers writes, for example, or the ‘Illuminatus’ trilogy - I had to be very paranoid. I had to look at things and make connections that absolutely didn’t exist. Death and rebirth, Colma and Underground, Egyptian mythology, and children’s books - if you think long enough, it all fits together! And as I was writing it, I realized they actually did connect. I postulated that if you went down far enough into these undergrounds, you would find characters from Egyptian mythology, and it even began to seem reasonable! If you go underground far enough, you also find out where these classic British children’s books come from: that it was the children who told the stories to the adults.

‘‘I started reading very, very early, and I always knew I wanted to be a writer. When I started seriously writing, in college, I wrote a lot of bad stories that all got rejected, but I got some good feedback. And then I took a class at UCLA Extension, with Theodore Sturgeon, on how to write. Why did I want to write? I just liked the feeling of escaping to another world. As an alien, I didn’t feel I belonged in this world, so I wanted to lose myself in a book, and I wanted to create my own world - to be god like other writers and have people do what I wanted. And sometimes my characters do - but not often enough!

‘‘Next, I’m going to do a book set in Prague in the 16th century, because it turns out that the Elizabethan alchemist and astrologer John Dee went to Prague then, at the same time as the rabbi who was supposed to have created the Golem was living there. So I decided to have them meet and have wonderful, exciting adventures. I’m back in the 16th century - seems I can’t escape that! But then, maybe I was born to write this book, because nobody else knows as much about the 16th-century Elizabethans and Jewish customs.

‘‘I’d like to write all kinds of things, but I’d really like to write a science fiction novel. Writing a science fiction novel is like starting over, right from the beginning - you’ve got all these different conventions that fantasy doesn’t have. I’d like to learn that, to work my way up to writing a good science fiction novel. If I wanted to write a mainstream book, it would be the same way - but I don’t. I wouldn’t mind writing a trilogy if I had a big enough idea. (I don’t know if most trilogies have a big enough idea.)

‘‘I’m slowing down, maybe because I’m getting older. Taking time to look around. I’m learning to put in more detail, more character, more conversations, to just spread out, stop, and enjoy what’s happening along the way. Maybe someday I’ll write a trilogy. A short trilogy!’’

© 1999 by Locus Publications. All rights reserved.