Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Interview: Paul Di Filippo

Every Tuesday, I'll have an interview posted.

Paul Di Filippo is the author of hundreds of short stories, some of which have been collected in these widely-praised collections: The Steampunk Trilogy, Ribofunk, Fractal Paisleys, Lost Pages, Little Doors, Strange Trades, Babylon Sisters, and his multiple-award-nominated novella, A Year in the Linear City.

Hi! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. First off, Andy Watson has posted a lot of your mail art on your site. When did you start working on these things?

The exact beginnings of my mailart excursions, primitive as they are, are lost in the mists of time. I would guess that sometime between 1985 and 1990, I began decorating my envelopes to various penpals. Ever since, I don't let an envelope go out naked, if it's to someone I know personally. Let's call it twenty years of collages. Yikes! Thousands of them by now. One is in the SF Museum in Seattle, by the way, composed especially for them. I don't claim to be a master, but I have fun, and so do the recipients. Thinking visually is a nice alternative to slinging words.

Humor crops up often in many of your work, be it your mail art, non-fiction, and fiction. What attracts you to such subject matter and is it natural for you or do you sometimes have to "work" at it?

Humor is my baseline response to the world. Class-clown in elementary school, yippie joker in high school, and so on. I have to work to DEVIATE from humor! "Life is too important to be taken seriously," is my motto. Humor alleviates the continual suffering and grief and angst we all experience. Think about this analogy: are you more grateful for Springsteen's "Rosalita" or his "Tom Joad"...?

In your opinion, what's the power of comedy or satire or black humor or the funnies?

Beside the virtues cited above, I think humor encourages lateral thinking, which is often a method of solving intractable problems that do not yield to earnest logic.

Having said that, I think a big misconception is that Di Filippo can only do comedy when in fact you've written some very effective serious pieces. Do you ever feel confined by that notion?

I would indeed be happy if readers and reviewers acknowledged that I am capable of Big, Serious Deep Thoughts from time to time. But on the other hand, I have no one to blame for my public profile but myself!

You have such a huge body of work and you've written about a lot of topics and sub-genres. Is there a particular sub-genre you particularly favor? Or is it simply a process of appreciating and assimilating everything you come across (that you like)?

I've really enjoyed writing my "ribofunk" stories, and feel that hardcore biological speculative fiction might be my metier. But I'd hate to be confined to that one sub-genre forever. I need the freedom to bop around among all the varieties of narrative--including many I haven't tried yet. Get ready for the DiFi Tolstoy-style family saga!

Currently, what topic of interest fascinates you?

I'd love to channel Philip K. Dick's spirit, to write the novel he would have written had he been still alive and physically and mentally at his prime today. I think he would have abandoned many of his old tropes--androids, reality games, etc--and found new and stimulating metaphors for our current situation.

Also, on a purely topical level, I'm trying to imagine a post-2009 utopia. Being a native optimist, I need to maintain the belief that such scenarios are still possible, despite our current troubles. Having just attended a con with Stan Robinson, the master of the form, I've been inspired to tackle such a project anew.

You've had such a long career. What in your opinion are some of the biggest changes that have happened?

The biggest practical change is the way novice writers break into the field. I came in on the tail end of an old paradigm: publish a lot of short stories in the zines first, while learning your craft, before getting a book deal. Now, of course, it's the opposite. Vanishing zines are a place established writers go occasionally to play. I think this old paradigm had a lot going for it, and miss its gateway effects on channeling new talent into the field.

On an esthetic/consumerist level, the biggest change has been the dominance of fantasy over SF, and the hybridization of SF with mainstream literature. The former makes me sad, the latter happy.

How did you break into the industry? What was the most difficult hurdle you had to overcome?

As I hinted at above, I just barraged the prozines of the time with one submission after another. In my first year of trying, I wrote approximately 750,000 words--that's three-quarters-of-a-million--without selling one story. But as Bradbury says, that's how you burn off the chaff and improve. The biggest hurdle comes from within the writer himself: maintaining confidence and faith in the face of continual rejection. It helps to have a partner as wonderful as mine, Deborah Newton.

What's the appeal of speculative fiction for you? Did you ever wish at times that there were no genre boundaries?

SF as genre provides wonderful rules, vocabulary and tradition. Writing it hardcore is like mastering ballet. But just like ballet, the artform can look arcane and silly to non-fans. So broadening its appeal by adding more "mainstream" devices is good, but runs the risk of dilution and pandering, like staging a ballet to a hiphop song.

You've done everything from writing short stories to novels to comics. Is there a particular format you favor? Any format you're still not comfortable with?

I'm pretty luck, I think, being at ease in a lot of forms. With the comics medium, it took some discipline to get used to a 22-page plot. In fact, the last issue of my TOP 10 series feels rushed to me at the ending. I wish I had had a sixth issue to work with. Poetry is something I love, but suspect I have less facility for. I don't delve into that realm much, although I did write a sequel to Don Marquis's ARCHY AND MEHITABEL free verse, "Mehitabel in Hell."

What is it about the short story format that resonates with you?

In an out fast, short sharp shock, zap the reader with a lot of ideas and sensations without boring her.

How did you end up writing for comics? Any interesting stories with that particular experience?

I've loved comics all my reading life, and after being away from them for 20 years got back into them in the 90s. Like every writer, I conceived that I could write a better script than many a professional comic I saw every week, and so I started casting about for work. Thanks to the good friendship of Warren Ellis and Harlan Ellison, I got a chance to do an authorized sequel to an Alan Moore title. Talk about starting at the top of the ladder! Since then, work has been harder to come by, with the superhero industry being a bit of a closed shop. But I hope to do more scripts some day soon, and have a couple of pitches out at all times.

If money wasn't a factor, is there a project you'd like to pursue that you haven't had the opportunity to do so?

I want to write a "horsepower-punk" novel involving the philosopher Bishop Berkeley, set in Newport, Rhode Island, where he lived for a time. But the research involved is daunting, and so I keep putting it off to earn my living.

How did you end up writing reviews?

I guess through the medium of fandom, specifically with the late lamented zine SF EYE. Then I got some assignments from Michael Dirda at THE WASHINGTON POST. Then came my ASIMOV'S column. At that point, I couldn't have escaped being seen as a reviewer if I waved a big sign during the Superbowl claiming I wasn't!

What skills do you think that a good reviewer should nurture?

Empathy with all writing, even that foreign to your own concerns. Kindness towards fallible human authors mixed with devotion to Platonic beauty.

How did you get involved with the Inferior 4+1? What's your special power in the group?

When the blogging craze began to gather momentum, Liz Hand thought a group blog would be fun and spread the effort around. The exact assortment of writers quickly crystallized. My special powers on the blog is to be a cornucopia of trivial silliness.

What are your current projects? Where can we see more Di Filippo?

My new story collection HARSH OASES is out soon, from PS Publishing. I do daily posts at the blog I share with Chuck Shepherd and Alex Boese, WEIRD UNIVERSE:

Other than that, I don't have a lot in the pipeline. But I hope to remedy that soon!

Any advice for aspiring writers?

Learn to live spartanly, love your work, cultivate like-minded friends for support and camaraderie, and have fun above all.

Advice for aspiring book reviewers?

Remember that every book is someone's baby--but that some babies are indeed ugly--and try to be grateful for free books and the forum to comment on them, even when it's one AM and you're still reading to beat tomorrow's deadline.

Anything else you want to plug?

Support the independent presses!