Excerpts from the interview:
GW: “I’m not nearly as good a writer at e-mail as I am on paper. I’m an old-fashioned guy. I need time to print it out and look at it and revise, scratch my head, pencil out words and pencil in words. The computer drives me nuts. I always remind people who talk about how writing is going to be revolutionized by the computer that Shakespeare wrote with a feather that he had to resharpen every page or so, and look what he did!”
NG: “And you, you started writing in college?”
GW: “I started writing at Texas A&M, for The Commentator, which was the literary magazine. I wrote three or four little stories for it. I wish to god I could remember the name of the editor, because I learned more from the student editor of The Commentator than I have ever learned from any other editor.
“He was an upperclassman and I was a sophomore, and I expected to be beaten. We were beaten all the time at Texas A&M. You had to take it bend down, and they whaled away at you with a big wooden paddle. This happened with alarming frequency, and you never got time to heal. What he did was worse. He got my story and he got a blue pencil, and he edited it there in front of me. As I was standing there, with the drops of blood coursing down my face, I said to myself, ‘I see what he’s doing. He’s taking out every word the sentence doesn’t require. I’m going to write the next story so he can’t do that.’ And I tried to do it. I didn’t succeed, but he was crossing out less in that second story. If it wasn’t for that, I would probably be a bitter old retired engineer, whereas now I’m a bitter old still-active writer."
NG: “Is feedback important to you? I thought the Washington Post article made some very sensible points. It said, ‘This is how good Gene Wolfe is, and this is why you haven’t heard of him.’ One point was that you make no effort in your fiction to be user-friendly.”
GW: “What would I do that I don’t do, if I were being user-friendly?”
NG: “It goes back to that line I’ve been using ever since I read it in a letter where you defined good literature: ‘My definition of good literature is that which can be read by an educated reader, and reread with increased pleasure.’ While ‘user-friendly’ may have been the wrong word, there is a level on which a lot of fiction these days is expected to give everything up first time to somebody, whether he knows something about the subject or not. You do not do that.”
GW: “Phooey! I don’t want to write that kind of thing. Rats! I don’t like it and it would bore me to write it and I’m not gonna write it. And besides, I don’t know everything to give it up. You’re going to see things in there that I don’t see consciously. I like those things.”
NG: “I take enormous pleasure in the fact that people are still arguing about the first four in the ‘Book of the New Sun’ sequence to this day. ‘Was the Autarch Severian’s mother?’ ‘Is the Clute theory valid?’ ‘Oh, we’ve got another Australian theory....’ You have these dueling theorists, pointing to the text and trying to second- and third- and outguess.”
GW: “Yeah, but the thing is, too often people want me to go in and settle their argument. That’s exactly what I should not do. I am dealing from this position of presumed expertise. We don’t have a level playing field. If Arthur Conan Doyle had gone in and settled all this ‘Holmes’ stuff, there would be no Baker Street Irregulars today, yet people have made whole hobbies out of being Baker Street Irregulars why shouldn’t they? There’s no sacredness to the text.”
NG: “What’s the most important thing about fiction?”
GW: “The most important thing is that it assures the reader that things need not be as they are now. In other words, the most important thing is hope.
“Sure I’ve read Barry Malzberg. Barry is very black, but it seems to me one of the things he is saying to people is ‘Your life could be much worse. You could be like these lead characters but you’re not.’ So that’s hope too.”
NG: “The various things SF can be include being predictive, but it can also be cautionary. Much of the bleakest fiction is cautionary ‘Don’t go there.’”
NG: “Not only can you lie in fiction, but I think Gene is the master of lying in fiction, both directly and indirectly. Peace is built on lies. And assume that, being who he is, Gene is pretty damn sure what the truth and what the lies are in Peace. The rest of us have to get through that as best we can. After three or four times through that text, you begin to be able to say, ‘I think he’s lying about this or that.’”
GW: “I never lie.”