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Sunday, March 18, 2018

My interview with R.A. Lafferty

R.A. Lafferty in his library By Keith Purtell - "Okla Hannali", CC BY-SA 3.0,

[Robert Anton Wilson is not the only "cult writer" I've tried to promote over the years; I've also been a longtime fan of R.A. Lafferty, who actually hailed from my hometown, Tulsa. I recently noticed that a link to my interview with Lafferty, first published online in the Sandusky Register, did not work. (The links at my newspaper always seem to become broken when we switch content providers.) I am reprinting the interview here, with only slight changes, because I want it to remain available on the Internet. BTW, I noticed recently that a new collection of Lafferty's early stories, THE R.A. LAFFERTY FANTASTIC MEGAPACK, is available for just 99 cents on Kindle. I haven't read the book yet, but judging from the stories I remember, it's worth reading.  -- The Mgt.]

Although science fiction and fantasy writer R.A. Lafferty died in 2002, he's retained his cult following. His fans include Neil Gaiman, who says that at one point, Lafferty was the best short story writer in the world. (Gaiman once posted a photo on his blog, reprinted here, of himself holding one of Lafferty's best books, short story collection "Does Anyone Else Have Something Further to Add?")
Although much of his work has gone out of print, Lafferty has retained a stubborn following and an Internet presence. There are R.A. Lafferty websites and Twitter accounts. The Science Fiction Encyclopedia has a long entry devoted to him.
I've always been a big fan of Lafferty, and I interviewed him more than once. This interview with Lafferty originally was printed in the 39th issue of science fiction fanzine "Lan's Lantern" in 1991. I've taken a PDF of the interview and reproduced it here with a new introduction to make it easier for fans to find it and for new readers to find out about  him. I think the interview captures a bit of Lafferty's originality and humor.

Tom Jackson:  What are some of your short stories and novels that you especially like? Are there any which you think have been overlooked?

R.A. Lafferty: Short stories of mine that I particularly like are "Selenium Ghosts of the 1870s," "You Can't Go Back," "Continued on Next Rock," "All Pieces of a River Shore," "Narrow Valley," "Configuration of the North Shore," "Golden Gage," "Old Foot Forgot," "Rainbird," "Faith Sufficient," "Bird-Master," "One-Eyed Mockingbird," "Great Tom Fool or the Conundrum of the Calais Custom-House Coffers" "Snuffles."
Novels of mine that I particularly like are "Okla Hannali," "The Fall of Rome," "Half a Sky," "Archipelago" (none of these four are science fiction), "Past Master," "Reefs of Earth," "Space Chantey," "Fourth Mansions," "Arrive at Easterwine," "The Three Armageddons of Enniscorthy Sweeny." The most overlooked of the novels is "The Three Armageddons." It was published as the second novel of a two novel book "Apocalypses," and it may have been that many readers stopped after the first novel and never got back to the second one. The most neglected of my favorite short stories is "Bird-Master." The reason for this is probably that it was published in a Chris Drumm booklet that maybe reached 500 readers, whereas many of the other stories published in magazines reached one hundred times as many readers.

Tom Jackson: Have some of your novels been inspired by books of theology or philosophy? Haven't some of  your novels been inspired by the works of writers such as Thomas Aquinas and St. Teresa of Avila?

R.A. Lafferty: Several of my novels have counterparts to specific works of theology, yes. The book "Aurelia" (Donning-Starblaze Books, 1982) has parallels with the "Summa Theological" of Thomas Aquinas. The fourteen-year-old girl student Aurelia (in the bottom half of her classes) is completing her tenth form schooling, The last item of her tenth form is "World Government" in which the students must literally go out from their "Golden World cultus" to an inferior world and take control of it and govern it for a period. If a student should fail to master and govern a world, that student would die, of course, and would also fail the course. Aurelia comes down (more by accident than competent navigation) on the world Gaea (sometimes confused with Earth.) There she quickly becomes a cult figure, believed by some to be a girl messiah. She does give striking and reasoned homilies or orations or sermons that make her sound a little like a messiah. In fact, they form a mini-outline of the great (3011 double column pages in my edition) "Summa" of Aquinas. But is is only a coincidence that the balanced sanity of the "Golden World Cultus" of Aurelia's home world should parallel the "Summa" of the Angelic Doctor. Aurelia was no messiah, but she was a very nice girl, and I regret that my story line required her failure and death.

And then there is the book "Fourth Mansions" (Ace, 1969) which I worked into the context of "Las Morada" ("The Mansions") of Teresa of Avila (the English translation is usually called "The Interior Castle.") There are seven sets of Mansions or steps to perfection, but the Fourth Mansions is the perilous step, the midpoints where the devil and his principalities counter-attack with all their fury. And that counter-attack, really the scenario of today's world, is the theme of my book.

Tom Jackson: I noticed that the ending of "Old Halloweens on the Guna Slopes" is different in the original magazine version from the reprints in your anthologies. Did you revise it after publication, or did the magazine editor change it? Have you made changes in other stories between first publication and reprinting in your anthologies? Have editors changed  your stories very often?

R.A. Lafferty: I revised "Old Halloweens" after the first publication and before its printing in the anthology "Austro and the Men Who Knew Everything." I revised it to give a little more zoom to it, and no editor had anything to do with it. I have made minor changes in other of my stories between first printing and anthology printing, but editors haven't been involved. The only editor who changed many of my stories was Pohl, and none of his changes was fatal. He just had a fetish of leaving his mark on every story he edited.

Tom Jackson: Terry Carr bought several of your early books. What effect did he have on your writing? How much voice did he have in selecting which stories would be published in "Nine Hundred Grandmothers," your first collection?

R.A. Lafferty: Terry Carr taught me that a story must begin with a bang. As a consequence, the first book of mine he edited and published, "Past Master," has in its first paragraph:

... There was a clattering thunder in the street outside ... the clashing thunder of mechanical killers, raving and raging. They shook the building and were on the verge of pulling it down. They required the life and blood of one of the three men ... now ... within the minute.

Well, maybe all stories don't have to begin with a bang, but all Terry Carr stories had to begin with a bang of some sort. Terry also told me that, 'You can lose a reader, completely and forever, in fifteen seconds. Never leave him even a fifteen-second interval without a hook to jerk him back.' Anything else Terry told me is contained in those two very good pieces of advice.

On "Nine Hundred Grandmothers," Terry gave me his preferences of the stories to go in the book, and asked me if I wanted to make any changes. They were all good stories, and I didn't make any changes.

Tom Jackson: Who are your favorite editors? Who do you think have been the most perceptive critics of your work?

R.A. Lafferty: My favorite editors were Horace Gold of "Galaxy," Terry Carr of Ace and of his "Universe" series, and Damon Knight with  his "Orbit" series. They are my favorite editors because they bought more of my stories than any other editors did. I guess it's a quirk of my make-up that I remember the least perceptive of my critics (those who panned me) more than the most perceptive of my critics (those who praised me.) The least perceptive of my panners were James Blish, Christopher Priest (in England), Thomas Monteleone and Spider Robinson. I got back at the Spider a tad in an obscure booklet ("True Believers" by United Mythologies Press) with the stanza:

He cannot write nor yet apprize
He ladles with a rusty ladle
He's neither talented nor wise.
But spider bites are seldom fadle.

Tom Jackson: What was it like winning the Hugo Award for "Eurema's Dam"? What effect did it have on your career?

R.A. Lafferty: Winning the Hugo Award for "Eurema's Dam" puzzled me completely, and I'm still puzzled by it. It was a pleasant little story, but I had four or five better stories published that year. And moreover it was tied by a story by Fred Pohl, which out of common decency I will not name, which was one of the worst stories ever written by anybody, anywhere. Still, I was glad to have a Hugo. I don't believe it had much effect on my career. I think the effect of Hugos is greatly exaggerated. And I've heard four or five different writers express puzzlement over winning Hugos with stories that were pretty ordinary and being passed over on stories which they really believed were earth-shaking.

Tom Jackson: Chris Drumm's "An R.A. Lafferty checklist" indicates that you published four stories in 1972: "Eurema's Dam," Rangle Dang Kaloof," "Dorg" and "A Special Condition in Summit City." Can you clarify which stories you thought were better than "Eurema's Dam"?

R.A Lafferty: My memory was confused about stories published in 1972, and about everything else of 1972, which was probably the worst  year of my life. I was sick that year, and I did not write anything at all in 1972. Some good things were published that year ("Okla Hannali," for instance), but they were written and sold earlier. I had only one short story published for the first time that year, other than those you name. "Once on Arenea," in the book "Strange Doings," had never been published before. But it, and "A Special Condition in Summit City," were my only stories published that year that were better than anything. What I had in mind, I guess, was the spate of really good stories which I had published in 1970 and 1971, the best run of good stories I ever did, that didn't attract any notice at all. Seventeen of them, in that two-year period, were quite a bit better than "Eurema's Dam," and were better than almost anything else around: "Ride a Tin Can," "About a Secret Crododile," "Been a Long Long Time," "Entire and Perfect Chrysolite," "Continued on Next Rock," "Old Foot Forgot," "All Pieces of a River Shore," "Interurban Queen," "Frog on the Mountain," "The Man Underneath," "Encased in Ancient Rind," "Boomer Flats," "Bubbles When They Burst," "Groaning Hinges of the World," "Ishmael Into the Barrens," "Nor Limestone Islands" and "Sky."
"Eurema's Dam" (which was written in 1964 and bounced around to all the markets) simply wasn't in it with this group, although it was a nice little comic story. I cancelled out on the 1972 Worldcon in Los Angeles, although I had fallen in love with the worldcons with my first two (St. Louis in 1969, and Boston in 1971), but I wasn't able to travel in 1972. When I began to write again in 1973 I gradually began to write some pretty good stories again: "And Walk Now Gently Through the Fire," "Mud Violet," "The World As Will and Wallpaper," "By the Sea Shore," but I never again put together a consistent string of superior stories as I had done in 1970 and 1971. At the Toronto Worldcon in 1973, which gave the awards on stories published in 1972, I was well again, and felt it ironic that I had won a Hugo for "Eurema's Dam."

Tom Jackson: Do you read much science fiction these days? Did  you ever read much? Are there any current SF writers  you especially like?

R.A. Lafferty: No, I don't reach much science fiction these days. I never did read very much except for a four month period when I read several hundred of what were supposed to be the best science fiction books ever. This was when I first decided to major in science fiction, as it was selling for me and other things weren't. Well, it was a good crash course, and I was glad that I absorbed it. And I read quite a bit of science fiction during several of the golden ages or "little golden ages." But the present time is not a "little golden age" and I do not read much science fiction.
Of the current SF writers I probably like Gene Wolfe the best. And Gregory Benford, David Brin, Greg Bear (the three busy bees), John Shirley (I don't like his opinions or the movements he attaches himself to, but he can write), Madeleine L'Engle, Robert Bloch (he's been doing it for more than 50 years, but he's still good), James Hogan (I think of him as a young writer, but he's forty-eight), Michael Bishop, Ed Bryant. And Ray Bradbury who is still at the top of whatever it is that he writes. I have no idea why so many writers on this short list have names beginning with "B." I had nothing to do with naming them.

Tom Jackson: Do you think you should be getting more attention from mainstream book reviewers?

R.A. Lafferty: No, I don't think I should be getting more attention from mainstream book reviewers. I've never written any mainstream books, and I'm always surprised when the mainstreamers notice me at all.

Tom Jackson: What do you think of the artwork publishers have put on  your books? Are there any book covers you especially loved or hated?

R.A. Lafferty: The only covers of my books I really hated were those on "Arrive at Easterwine" (Ballantine Books, 1971) and on "East of Laughter" (Morrigan Publishing, 1988).  One I especially liked was on "The Devil Is Dead" (Avon Books, 1971).

Tom Jackson: I liked the cover for "The Devil Is Dead" too, but I couldn't tell by looking at the book who the cover artist was. Can you help me?

R.A. Lafferty: No, I don't know who was the artist of the cover of "The Devil Is Dead." I have wondered, too, but I never found out.

Tom Jackson: Is Bertigrew Bagley in the novel "Fourth Mansions" a self-portrait of yourself?

R.A. Lafferty: No, Bertigrew Bagley, the Patrick of Tulsa, is not a self-portrait, consciously at least. But quite a few people have asked me if he wasn't myself, so I must have some resemblance at least to that shabby old bum.

Tom Jackson: Some of your stories include dream sequences. Would you describe some of your writing as Surrealist?

R.A. Lafferty: I don't regard myself as a Surrealist in the sense of the "Surrealist Manifesto" published by Andre Breton in 1924. To me, that Manifesto is somewhat dated, being a recoil from World War I, and being too heavily Freudian. My own unconscious is more Jungian than Freudian. But if Breton hadn't staked claim to the name, I would probably call myself a Surrealist in the "Remembrance of Things Within" sense, but not in the "world of dream and fantasy joined to the everyday rational world, becoming 'an absolute reality, a surreality'." I suppose that I believe in another sort of a surreality or super-reality, but it would have to be on a wider basis than the encounters of myself and me. As often as not, it is the subconscious that supplies the rational element, and the exterior world that supplies the dream and fantasy feeling.

Tom Jackson: Is it true that you have retired from writing? When a baseball player retires, he is usually asked what his biggest thrill was. What's been your biggest thrill as a writer?

R.A. Lafferty: Yes, it's true that I've been retired from writing, except for a little bit of revision when old and unsold books finally push themselves into the "accepted" category.

Yes, when a baseball player retires he is usually asked what his biggest thrill was. But most of them are uncomfortable with the question, unless they have won the seventh game of a World Series with a homer. And I've never done that. I am reasonably happy with what I have written and with the reception it has had. But I can't think of any work or event that makes it to the "greatest thrill" category. It's a little bit like asking a man who has loved his breakfast eggs for 60 years to name the most thrilling egg he ever ate. He might hesitate a bit and come out with something no better than:

"Oh, there was a really superior egg on June 9 of 1932, and another on Feb. 8 of 1947. And in 1951 (it was either April 4 or April 5) I had two absolutely perfect eggs. But no, it would be presumptuous of me to name the most thrilling egg I ever ate. They were all so good!

(Other interviews with authors also are available.)

1 comment:

Eric Wagner said...

Thanks for posting this terrific piece.