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Darrell Schweitzer Interview

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    Posted: Mar-10-2015 at 7:11am

an interview with Darrell Schweitzer
by Daniel E. Blackston

"Let  the Adept be armed with his Magick Rood (and provided with his Mystic Rose)."  --  A. Crowley

Darrell Schweitzer is the author of ,"The Mask of the Sorcerer", "The Shattered Goddess", "The White Isle", and about 250 fantasy short stories, which have been published in a variety of magazines and anthologies. As an archivist, Editor, and Speculative Fiction writer of poetry and prose, his bibliography and list of distinguished awards are beyond the scope of this introduction to justly present.   Mr. Schweitzer's deserved reputation as a legend-in-progress in the SF field is exceeded only by his warmth and openhandedness.  As Journeymen interviewers, we thank him for putting us at ease and for providing intelligent, candid responses to our questions.  

In our humble opinion, Weird Tales has the best editorial writings. The Eyrie is a consistently great column.  I wonder if you'd talk a bit about what makes good review writing and Editorial writing?

The first requirement of a good reviewer is that he be interesting to read. This means he needs a clear and lucid style. Then he should genuinely have expertise, so he can tell you something you might not have realized on your own. He should never, never pretend to comment on something he has not read. I have done that a couple times, for my sins, and made a complete bloody fool of myself on occasion. I will not point out these occasions to you.

Damon Knight, as a stylist is an ideal reviewer. He is very good in technical criticism, that is, an examination of how a story is put together. But he has a very narrow focus, typical of his fan generation, showing all the prejudices of the Futurians and the '40s, and so is blind in many areas. His review of Lovecraft in, "In Search of Wonder", is particularly notorious. He's allowed to not like Lovecraft, but the passage he quotes as an awful example is not even by Lovecraft, but the work of August Derleth. Knight should have known better then, and certainly he should have corrected this, or dropped the review in later editions.

James Blish, writing as William Atheling, is also a fine, classic reviewer. These two pretty much make up the canon of early SF criticism all by themselves. I think most critics or reviewers of my generation learned most of what they know from these two. Certainly these two were formative influences.

You're certainly not a commercial writer by any means and yet popular would not be a wrong assertion.  Do you feel you've dodged writing formula fiction, or have you simply found a secret alchemical recipe? Is there more form or formula to the speculative fiction you write?

Maybe I don't have the talent for formula fiction. My feeling is that the ability to "creatively type" something you didn't imagine yourself and in which you have no emotional stake is a talent as different from what we presumptuously call "artistic" writing is bricklaying is from ballet. I won't deny that I have occasionally made fiction jump through hoops.  I wrote -- for Crafty Cat Crimes, a Barnes & Noble anthology -- an alternate historical vampire cat detective story.  It's also a period cat narrative, since it is told by a 19th century cat, about Sherlock Holmes's cat battling Dracula's cat to thwart a plan to import vampires into England to overthrow the rightful Stuart king, James VI, and install the vile Hanover pretender, Victoria.

Of course stories like these are stunts or gags. I don't think I could write a whole novel like that. In general, I have found that only when I am at my most original and peculiar, does my fiction have any particular emotional resonance. That is all I have to sell. I am not the sort of verbal technician who could turn out a TV novelization to order and make it good.
Does it bother you to have the name and work of H.P. Lovecraft associated with almost everything you do?

This is very inaccurate if it is true.*

I remember that Kate Wilhelm remarked to me at Clarion, back in 1973, "I understand that you want to write Lovecraftian stories," which was startlingly  imperceptive, both of me and of Lovecraft. A more perceptive comment was the one in the Crypt of Cthulhu review of "Transients", which suggested that of the various writers under review, all of whom had their roots in Lovecraft fandom, I was the "black sheep" who had clearly run away from home and carried very little of the Lovecraftian influence with me, certainly nothing of the style.

Maybe I sometimes attempt to assume Lovecraft's cosmic perspective, but my stories lack his mechanistic materialism, being full of gods, spirits, and apparitions. The style in no way resembles Lovecraft's. I admit that when I reread, "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward" a while ago, I recognized that it does indeed echo through "The Mask of the Sorcerer." But I can also see Mark Twain in it. I was not entirely joking when I said, "Arthur Machen has written the Robinson Crusoe of the Soul in "The Hill of Dreams".  I am writing the Huckleberry Finn of the Soul."

Or, perhaps I should say that some truth was inadvertently uttered in jest.

I think Lovecraft's name sticks to me because he's a lot more famous than I am and is likely to stay that way.

How much Lovecraftian fiction have I actually written? You can count it on the fingers of one hand, even if you are slightly maimed. All of it has been mature work, too. I did not go through my youth writing endless pastiches. This is probably for the best.
* (We direct readers to seek out these connections on their own.  We would point out that Lovecraft's name appears in the 3rd paragraph of this interview, after the introduction, and is repeated three times in close succession, upon Mr. Schweitzer's utterance. -- D.B.)

One thing we love about your writing is its lyricism, the blend of innocence and fatalism in your narrative line.  Lady E. calls it a High Gothic voice in pulp disguise.  Any tips on writing prose that sings in harmony with its theme?

Write for the ear and for the senses generally. Pay attention to what we used to call rhetoric. Why does, "These are times that try men's souls" sound better than, "These are soul-trying times?" Strunk & White go into this in The Elements of Style. The short answer is the use of poetic devices in prose. "These are times that try men's souls." That most of the stress-syllables begin with "T" is not a coincidence.

I actually met someone who didn't believe that prose has rhythm ... believe it or not. Too many people are stylistically tone deaf, so I guess when someone comes along who is aware of the aural aspect of prose, it comes as a revelation.

Read a lot of poetry, particularly older poetry, Shakespeare, the Elizabethans, the Romantics. Read the King James Bible for the style. I encountered, Lord Dunsany's, "A Dreamer's Tales" at an early age and have been influenced profoundly by it. I have a theory that many of the most poetic prose writers are sublimating into prose a talent for poetry, which often isn't as well developed when they write verse. Dunsany is a clear example. Lovecraft is another. My own poetry has only come into its own quite recently, in my middle age, if I may be so bold as to claim that possibly tens of copies of my Groping Toward the Light may be sold eventually.

You seem to enjoy shattering the concept of Time in your writings.  Do you feel that Imagination is stronger than entropy?  Is Time linear? How does this relate to the power of Fiction?

Time is whatever I need it to be in the story. I avoid becoming a guru and advancing specific philosophical ideas about the nature of Time, which I think are more properly the province of physics and psychology -- in the sense of the study of perception. Lovecraft found Time to be the most galling of natural barriers, the one he most wanted to transcend. Indeed, it would be a profound thing to transcend time in any way, scary, wonderful, scary again. It would make us other than what we are, as Sekenre finds out in, "The Mask of the Sorcerer", as the protagonist finds out in "The Sorcerer Evoragdou" -- my one serious time-travel story, which is a supernatural fantasy with wizards in it, but full of the elegant temporal loops we more expect from science fiction.

Tell us something surprising about yourself.

I lost my virginity at age....  No, that sort of thing is never surprising. I bet you didn't know I was a youthful butterfly collector, and that my older brother, Dale Schweitzer, has pursued this throughout his life and become one of the nation's top moth experts. His collection of moths of the eastern United States is the best ever compiled. He went on a trip to Costa Rica recently with his wife, and, as they have no children, his chief concern expressed in a letter instructing me on what to do if the plane went down had to do with making sure the Smithsonian got his bug collection.

I've always had a strong interest in science. I tried to study science quite a bit during my education, but realized I could have no career there because I couldn't do the math. But I am a good person to have along on a telescope party. I have a more than a passing acquaintance with the outdoors and know my way around the night sky. Once, when lost on a country road, I actually did get out and take my bearings by the stars -- using the Big Dipper to find north and knowing that if the Dipper is to the right of Polaris with the handle pointing down, that side is East. I can also, minimally, tell time by the stars if by knowing what time of year it is. If Orion is at zenith in the winter, it must be about midnight. If it is at zenith in the early autumn, it must be nearly dawn.

I am a modestly good numismatist, specializing in ancients. If you picked up a handful of coins in a junk shop in the Middle East, show them to me and I can probably tell you what they are.

Despite some sense of verbal rhythm, which comes out in prose and poetry, I have never learned to play a musical instrument. One does not follow the other. I am a bad, clumsy dancer.

So, what are you working on right now?

At this very instant I have to set my sights very close at hand: the next Weird Tales editorial, due next week. Three articles for an encyclopedia of supernatural fiction writers due next week -- I don't think I'm going to make it.  I am doing: Thomas Ligotti, David Schow, and Thomas Disch, and I am trying to get an extension. I have two conventions in as many weeks, including a 4-day trip to Chicago for World Horror, where I will present the awards for the short story contest which WT is sponsoring. This is the very contest I myself won in Denver, when someone else was sponsoring it.

Then I will think about something longer than a short poem.

I have a novel on the back burner. I tried to write it some years ago and it never jelled, but it never went away either.

What's a dream project -- in your mind?

All my books in Library of America? Hell, I'd settle for Easton Press. But seriously, I guess the dream project as far as writing goes is simply writing something better than anything I've ever done before and having someone notice.

As an editor, I'd like to re-edit the Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series or its equivalent, and do the same in horror. The public needs to rediscover the classics. Yes, there really was fantasy before Tolkien and horror before Stephen King. But of course I can only do so much. Weird Tales is doubtless my chief editorial legacy. Through it I have achieved footnote immortality, in that now, until the end of time, reference articles about Weird Tales will say: "among the later editors were..." That I was listed as sole issue for a few issues assures this.

I wonder if you'd speculate a little on the future of print magazines and your feelings about electronic publishing.  Future of Weird Tales?

This is a very big subject, and possibly a touchy one. It sounds catty to say that I regard something which has been on the Internet, then has been taken off, as unpublished. A more realistic analogy is to newspaper publishing. A story published in a newspaper may be seen by millions of people one day, and be utterly gone the next, unless you want to dig it out of an archive. Even archives are perishable, and require transfers to new formats, microfilm, etc. I ask you: in 25 years, what are you more likely to be able to lay hands on, a copy of Weird Tails or an e-zine of this period?

Indeed, in the 19th century, many of the more permanent magazines, which were often on glossy or book paper in those days, and bound in leather volumes, often reprinted stories from newspapers. And it took scholars like Sam Moskowitz to dig up whole lost careers of writers who published only in 19th century newspapers, and were not reprinted.

I think paper publishing as a future. People want to have a physical product they can hold. It's also true that fiction, in particular, is easier to read on paper than on a screen, because the act of reading fiction is quite different from reading a news report. I could see the Internet or CD ROMS completely replacing newspapers or encyclopedias -- but I still have no inclination to read a novel that way.

Possibly this is a generational thing. The most conservative prediction I will make is that paper fiction magazines will be around until the last decrepit Baby Boomer topples into the grave clutching his love-beads . . .

What print magazines do you like?  Anything outside of SF?  Heroes in publishing?

Well, there's The Celeator, which is a great magazine about antiquities and ancient artifacts... I try to read what I can. Interzone is very good. I have yet to find an issue of F&SF with nothing worth reading in it. Night Cry was great while it lasted, as was The Horror Show.  Playboy used to be quite a good magazine before it was dumbed down.  I greatly admire the early '60s humor magazine Help!, which is sort of a whops who of people who were going to be famous within five years. Daniel Pinkwater, Terry Gilliam, Gilbert Shelton... Gloria Steinem, even.

Some of the great editors in our field have been Farnsworth Wright, John W. Campbell (in about the first ten years of his career), Boucher and McComas, Frederik Pohl, Robert Lowndes.  Alan Rodgers, at Night Cry, was hugely talented. He was the only editor I've ever dealt with who would routinely call me on the phone and say, "I want you to change this and reconsider that...."  and make the story better every time. Most editors merely receive stories passively. They either accept or they don't. That is probably for the best, because the ability to insert oneself creatively into someone else's story, without meddling, is very rare indeed. Note that I have not included Horace Gold in the above list. He was a great meddler. From the testimony of his writers, he could take a poor story and turn it into a pretty good one. The problem was he could also take a great story and turn it into a pretty good one.

I read The New Yorker, but not always the fiction. There's a lot I don't have time for. Like most people of our avocation, or affliction, I live in a house crammed with books and magazines I have largely not read. When am I ever going to read a complete run of Planet Stories? In my Copious Spare Time, of course.
Last question -- Will you come back to the W&E Cafe and have a drink with Lady E?

Yeah, sure. Is it possible to get drunk over the Internet?

Firebrand Fiction Reviews: all content © 2002,  Daniel  E. Blackston

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