Tell me a bit about those early interests in comics, science fiction, weird tales and fantasy.
I first got into comics as a young kid, I read all kinds of comics – Superman and Batman were around then. But I also read Archie comics, and also Harvey Comics, Casper the Friendly Ghost, Sugar and Spice and Baby Huey, all of that stuff. Then when Marvel hit with the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man, I started writing letters — all those books had letters columns — and a few of them got printed. In those days when they printed your letter they put your whole address in it. People started seeing my address and I got letters from other comic fans around the country, and I started getting fanzines. Then I thought, "Hey, I could write something for these fanzines. They're pretty bad; I could write something just as good as that." I did, then my stuff started getting published.
Quartana, one of the fanzines I hoped to write for, was covering mostly sword and sorcery and fantasy. They had a story about this English guy, Tolkien, and his story about hobbits and rings. It sounded cool to me, so when the first pirated Ace edition of Tolkien came out in paperback I snapped it up. I had a very mixed reaction when I started it. I was a high school sophomore by then. I thought this was like Conan? What the hell is all this stuff, Hey nonny nonny, and little guys with hairy feet smoking pipe weed. Conan would always begin with a half naked woman and a giant snake [Laughs], and I was looking for the giant snake. But by the time I got to the Black Riders and Bree, I was hooked, and by the time I finished Fellowship of the Ring, Tolkien had become like my favorite writer, finally knocking Heinlein and Andre Norton off their pinnacle.
Tolkien's books have met with both devotion and condescension over the years. No matter what anybody might think of them, they have a great staying power.
As I read Return of the King, I didn't want it to be over. That last book blew my mind, particularly the scouring of the Shire. I didn't like that when I was in high school. The story's over, and they destroyed the ring — but he didn't write "and now they lived happily ever after." Instead, they went home and home was all fucked up. The evil guys had burned down some of the woods; a fascist-like tyranny had taken over. That seemed anticlimactic to me. Frodo didn't live happily ever after or marry a nice girl hobbit. He was permanently wounded; he was damaged. As a 13 year old, I couldn't grasp that. Now, every time I re-read The Lord of the Rings — which I do, every few years — I appreciate the brilliance of the scouring of the Shire. That's part of what lifts the book from all its imitators. There was a real cost to Tolkien's world. There's a tremendous sadness at the end of Lord of the Rings, and it has a power. I think that's partly why people are still reading and re-reading these books.
When you read the Tolkien books, did you ever dream of doing something that might match that stature?
By the time I finished Lord of the Rings it actually somewhat depressed me, because I didn't think I could ever do anything of that stature. Fortunately, I got over that. In some ways, in my early days as a writer, when I was writing for comic fanzines and stuff, I got my greatest inspiration from bad stuff. Some of these fanzines that I read, the stories were semiliterate – they were terrible. I said, even as a 10-year-old, I could do better than this, and that encouraged me. Indeed, I did do better than that, and when my stories came out in these little magazines, I got praised. I had not been a real confident kid. I was very shy. I was great in school – I always got honor roll and good marks – but there were a lot of things I was not good at, like sports, as I mentioned before. I couldn't hit or catch a baseball. I couldn't run fast, or jump high, or any of these things. It eats at you, you know, and your self-confidence.
Then I found I could tell stories that people really seemed to like. A formative writing experience for me was in a high school English course. The teacher assigned us to write a new ending for Edgar Allan Poe's The Pit and the Pendulum. Poe's ending is actually crap: The guy is trapped, the pendulum is going lower and lower, it's about to slice him in half, then suddenly there's a trumpet blast and the Inquisition was in the hands of its enemies; the good guys have arrived and they save him. I wrote the horror ending; nobody comes to save the character, the pendulum cuts him in half. I described the blood and the excruciating pain; rats come out and are eating him and nibbling at his eyes, and wriggling into his chest. Another teacher might have been horrified and sent me to school psychologist, but fortunately, this particular teacher liked what I'd written, and had me read it in front of a class. It was like I was the class hero for a day. It was an all-boys school, and the boys loved the rats and the eating of the entrails, the blood and the guts. For a day I felt like the quarterback who had just won the big game here. Everybody loved my horrible-ending story. [Laughs] It was in high school when I started deciding that I would try to be a writer.
In 1966, you entered Northwestern, in Evanston, Illinois. I know that in the years that followed you underwent some serious moral and political changes due to your opposition to the Vietnam War.
I was, like many kids of my generation, a hawk. I accepted that America was the good guys, we had to be there. When I got into college, the more I learned about our involvement in Vietnam, the more it seemed wrong to me. Of course, the draft was happening, and I decided to ask for the conscientious-objector status. I wasn't a complete pacifist; I couldn't claim to be that. I was what they called an objector to a particular war. I would have been glad to fight in World War II. But Vietnam was the only war on the menu. So I applied for conscientious-objector status in full belief that I would be rejected, and that I would have a further decision to make: Army, jail or Canada. I don't know what I would've done. Those were desperately hard decisions, and every kid had to make them for himself. To my surprise, they gave me the status. I was later told – I have no way to prove this – that I was granted the status because our conservative draft board felt that anyone who applied for CO status should be granted it, because that would be punishment enough: Then it would be part of their permanent record, and everybody would know that they were a Commie sympathizer, and it would ruin their lives.
I don't think America has ever quite recovered from Vietnam. The divisions in our society still linger to this day. For my generation it was a deeply disillusioning experience, and it had a definite effect on me.
Do you think your interest in the books you'd been reading had an effect on your views?
I'd read Robert Heinlein. The early Heinlein – he later became nationalistic – was convinced that sooner or later we were going to destroy ourselves with atomic bombs unless we formed a world government and we all came together. You look back on the science fiction that I grew up with, and of that period, and that unspoken assumption is everywhere. When we spread out among the stars, and we would face other alien races, and some of them might be nice and some of them might be evil, monstrous creatures wanting to conquer us, we would face them and fight them or defeat them, or work with them, but we would do so as earthmen, or as Terrans. You grow up reading that stuff and you start to think of yourself as an earthman, as a Terran, not as an American, or a Californian.
Star Trek comes along and that really codified it. Star Trek had a Russian on the bridge; it had an Asian guy on the bridge; it had a black woman with an African name. All of these were revolutionary at the time. But Gene Rodenberry didn't invent that stuff. In people like Heinlein, with the one-worlders, there was just this unspoken assumption that there's two ways that we're going to go as the human race: completely going to destroy ourselves with atomic bombs, or we're going to somehow overcome our difficulties. That's something that at least the old science fiction really sold, on a very subconscious level. It's an almost idealistic way of looking what our future was like.
Unfortunately I don't really see us heading that way. I see these divisions becoming more and more distinct, and people hunkering down on them, and god, it's scary stuff here. We're not on the path to becoming all earthmen. The idealistic kid who graduated high school, a big believer in truth, justice and the American way, all these great values of superheroes of his youth, was certainly less idealistic by the time I got out of college.
After college you went on to teach writing at a college in Dubuque, Iowa. How did that affect your writing life?
I actually completed my first novel, Dying of the Light, right before I moved to Dubuque, then sent it off to my agent. That was when the science fiction world went crazy, and the whole thing changed. I was in exactly the right place at the right time. Until 1977 or so, for a first novel in science fiction you'd get a $3000 advance. Now, though, it was the summer of Star Wars, and science fiction was suddenly hot and I just sold my first novel for I'd make in three years teaching job.
I kept teaching, though, and I discovered that I was writing very little. I wasn't writing any more novels, and that was bothering in some sense, but fuck, I'm young, I figure. I'm still in my 20s, I've got all the time in the world. Then, in 1977, a friend of mine, Tom Reamy, won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. He was about 10 years older than me. He'd finished his first novel, and then, early in 1978, Tom died of a massive heart attack, at his typewriter. He was writing and was seven pages into a new story, and they found him slumped over, with his head on his typewriter — gone, just like that. It hadn't even been a year since he'd been proclaimed the best new writer in the field. Tom's death had a profound influence on me. I thought I have all the time in the world; how much time do I really have? I gave my notice at the college, and then I went fulltime in 1979. That same year my marriage broke up, and I decided to leave Iowa. I moved down here to Santa Fe. Fortunately it went pretty well, though not without bumps.
Where does your imagination come from?
Ideas are cheap. I have more ideas now than I could ever write up. To my mind, it's the execution that is all-important. I'm proud of my work, but I don't know if I'd ever claim it's enormously original. You look at Shakespeare, who borrowed all of his plots. In A Song of Ice and Fire, I take stuff from the Wars of the Roses and other fantasy things, and all these things work around in my head and somehow they jell into what I hope is uniquely my own. It's the combination of ingredients, it's the details, making the character come alive, adding something to him. I mean there's something of Richard III in Tyrion, but he's uniquely different. But I don't know where it comes from, yet it comes – it's always come. If I was a religious guy, I'd say it's a gift from God, but I'm not, so I can't say that.
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