Monday, July 1, 2024

Interview with Cory Panshin


Science Fiction Book Club

Interview with Cory Panshin (June 2024)


Alexei and Cory Panshin are science fiction writers, and critics. Alexei authored the 1968 Nebula Award-winning novel Rite of Passage.” He also authored three novels in his Anthony Villiers series and a short fiction collection Farewell to Yesterdays Tomorrow.” The Panshins cowrote a novel Earth Magic.” Alexei published a study of Robert A Heinlein, Heinlein in Dimension”. Most of this work was originally published in fanzines, for which he won the Best Fan Writer Hugo Award in 1967. The Panshins coauthored critical works on science fiction SF in Dimension” (1976), and The World Beyond the Hill: Science Fiction and the Quest for Transcendence” (1989), which won a Hugo in 1990. Alexei passed away in 2022.

John Grayshaw: How did you and Alexei become writers and critics of science fiction?

We both started off as SF and fantasy readers from an early age and then as  fans. Alexei has written detailed accounts of his pathway in a couple of places, but the short version is that as a teenager he began subscribing to fanzines. Then he received a typewriter as a high school graduation present and the idea struck him that he should be a writer. He started out by writing a novel which was very amateurish. (As I recall from the one time I read the manuscript, it was something like a spaceship full of librarians seeking refuge from an evil empire.) He made better progress doing book reviews for fanzines, as well as short stories, of which he wrote about twenty between 1960 and 1965.

As for me, its a little more complicated, since I didnt launch right into writing the way Alexei did. When I was twelve, I started trying to write a spy novel, and only got a few pages in. I recently found that old notebook and discovered to my surprise that I’d kept adding pages on and off for the next four years before giving up entirely and launching into a science fiction story about a spaceship crew that goes astray in hyperspace and finds itself battling a jabberwock that attacks them with its eyes of flame.

That might have been the beginning and end of my abortive science fiction writing career, but that fall I started my freshman year at Harvard College, where my roommate Leslie Turek and I discovered we had a lot in common; but also that Harvard was not particularly geek-friendly, being primarily dedicated to grooming the scions of the ruling class. So instead, we found our way to the MIT Science Fiction Society, where we were quickly drafted to co-edit the MITSFS fanzine and from there got drawn into science fiction fandom.

There weren’t a lot of women in fandom at that time, so it was easy for us to get noticed. Alexei spotted me in costume at the 1966 Worldcon and we were married in 1969. Around the same time, my fellow MITSFS member Fuzzy Pink married Larry Niven, while Leslie became actively involved in convention-running and eventually chaired the 1980 Worldcon.

Except for occasional con reports and other fanzine articles, I wasn’t doing much writing in the late 60s, but once I married Alexei we discovered a mutual interest in theorizing about the nature of science fiction and began to do critical writing in collaboration.

Connie Marshall Thompson: I found an article on Alexei and Cory's, old but existing website under the sections "My Den" then "Following My Nose." Here he described Science Fiction as extrapolative or as speculative; what an observation! My question: Did he ever come firmly on the side of Science Fiction best served by extrapolation or speculation or some amalgamation of the two?

Really its neither of those. Those words may have been useful to categorize early 1960s science fiction, most of which was either realistic near futures or else wildly speculative like Phil Dick, but they werent terms that we continued to rely on as time went on.

John Grayshaw: Who were some of the authors that had the biggest impact on you and Alexei when you were growing up?

For Alexei, his biggest early influence among science fiction writers was Robert Heinlein. As a child, he was also fond of both the Oz and Dr. Doolittle books. In his 20s, he became passionate about Georgette Heyer, which strongly influenced the Villiers books.

For me, I was a huge Tolkien fan. The SF I liked best was the stuff closest to the fantasy end of things and I spent a lot of time thinking about how to merge fantasy and science fiction—as in that story I tried to write about a spaceship crew battling a jabberwock. I was also fond of spy stories and novels of political intrigue, particularly Upton Sinclair’s series of Lanny Budd novels about a young man who gets involved in every significant political event of the early 20th century. I tried to merge that with fantasy as well in my private daydreams— think fae battling Nazis—but never managed to turn it into stories.

John Grayshaw: What current science fiction authors did you and Alexei enjoy reading?

We both drifted away from reading SF by the 1970s. We’d never latched onto the British New Wave, although we were both big fans of Roger Zelazny. But 1970s SF didn’t push our buttons at all, and our interest turned more toward speculative non-fiction.

John Grayshaw: Did you and Alexei have favorites of your own works?

I dont know if Alexei did; but when the first Villiers novel came out I enjoyed it so much I wrote him a fan letter about it, even though we were already friends at that time. It was the quirky sense of humor he displayed in that book that ultimately brought us together and led to us getting married.

John Grayshaw: What are some of Alexeis and your works that you feel should be better known than they are?

I guess The World Beyond the Hill. It won the Hugo, but it seemed to intimidate people and even a lot of our friends confessed they’d found it too serious and dense to actually read. We’d anticipated it would lay the groundwork for later studies of the foundations of SF, and although certain people have told us they love it a lot, it was never influential in the way we hoped.

John Grayshaw: Can you tell us about how you and Alexei worked on your collaborations? Did you have a fixed process or did this change from one work to another? Did it get better over time? Did you both have particular writing routines, and did you have to adjust these for a collaboration? How did you research your critical works?

Alexei was always the word person because he had a more developed sense of style. The general way we worked on all of our collaborations is that he would do a draft, and I would critique it, making notes and giving it back to him to rework. The fiction was always largely his, but when it came to our non-fiction, I was the primary historical researcher. I read and analyzed everything we owned from Verne and Wells to H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard, as well as working my way through a set of bound volumes of Astounding Stories that I had access to one summer. At the same time, Alexei was focusing on the autobiographical materials from people like Williamson, Asimov, and van Vogt that were being published around that time. I recall doing initial drafts of some of the chapters in The World Beyond the Hill, but Alexei would pick things up at that point and we would go back and forth as usual.

John Grayshaw: What was the driving impetus that led you and Alexei to spend more than a decade researching and writing such an ambitious work as The World Beyond the Hill?”

The origins of what became The World Beyond the Hill go back to soon after we were married in 1969. Alexei had recently been working on a volume to be titled Science Fiction: A Critical Introduction that it had become clear would never be published. Meanwhile, we had purchased a set of Joseph Campbell’s The Masks of God as a wedding gift to ourselves and had become convinced that science fiction was best understood as modern myth. That conviction led to us writing a series of columns for Ted White’s Fantastic Stories which traced the history of science fiction from the nineteenth century to the present day.

As I recall, at that point, an Italian publisher asked permission to publish a translation of the columns in a single volume as a history of science fiction. That inspired us to try to do the same here, so we approached Dave Hartwell, who was agreeable but suggested we needed to take into account newer information that had been coming out on the early roots of SF. So we plunged into doing that but quickly realized we couldn’t just add a couple of new introductory chapters but would have to rewrite the manuscript from the start to incorporate our own evolving understanding of the nature and meaning of SF.

Here the story gets tangled because we struggled badly for several years. We’d gotten bogged down in our rewriting because we couldn’t figure out how to integrate the historical and theoretical aspects of our work. Despite recurring attempts, Alexei wasnt getting any new fiction written. We now had two little kids and money was tight. And when Jean Marie Stine got us a new contract with Jeremy Tarcher, the best we could think of to do was to put one foot in front of the other and beaver away at The World Beyond the Hill until we had a completed work. Even then, we had no idea how long it would take.

Richard Whyte: Regarding 'The World Beyond the Hill', how did its central idea of transcendence as a key theme in SF develop - was there a moment of epiphany or did it crystallise gradually? I loved it, by the way.

The term itself came from Joseph Campbell, author of The Hero with a Thousand Faces and The Masks of God, who defined myth as a metaphor transparent to transcendence.” When we were first married and were looking for a definition of SF that went beyond the unsatisfactory dichotomy of extrapolation versus speculative, we realized that what distinguishes all SF from “realistic” fiction is that it presents objects or beings that (1) don’t exist in the everyday world and (2) demonstrate the existence of a greater reality.

That understanding also led us to identify SF as modern myth, doing exactly what myth has always done throughout history, and there we departed from Campbell, who thought myth had died out after the Middle Ages, when the traditional tropes lost currency.

John Grayshaw: You and Alexeis historical analysis of the field essentially ends with the pinnacle of the Golden age of SF from 1939-1945. Did the two of you ever consider continuing your critical analysis of the field into a second or third volume? What are your thoughts of the subsequent evolution of science fiction in the 50s, 60s and beyond?

We did intend to go on, and had notes for further installments. There was going to be another volume called A Multiplicity of Worlds that would focus on 50s and 60s SF and how it moved beyond a fixation on the near future and space travel to pursue more varied and imaginative directions. We also toyed with the idea of a volume that would explore all the weird stuff from Lewis Carroll to H.P. Lovecraft that The World Beyond the Hill had ignored or touched on only lightly.

But then, in the winter of 1993, we were returning home in a snowstorm from a convention in Massachusetts when Alexei was hit by a car and suffered a shattered leg and a serious concussion. His recovery was long and slow, both physically and mentally, and he never again had the energy to launch into another project of the same magnitude, which required him to work 12 hours a day, day after day.

Lenny Bailes: I was wondering whether Cory might still feel the statement in THE WORLD BEYOND THE HILL that John W. Campbell, Jr's most enduring contribution to the evolution of science fiction was/is a requirement to spell out "Operating Principles for Spaceship Earth" in the stories he published. There has been some recent discussion in this group about whether what Campbell did with this in ASTOUNDING is no longer significant enough to warrant academic discussion. (Or that perhaps his most memorable contribution to the field was the editorial relationships that he established with his writers, encouraging them and working with them to redraft and polish their submissions to create more interesting stories.

The Operating Principles” thing is a phrase from Buckminster Fuller, and it’s not anything I’d focus on at present when discussing Campbell’s influence. I’d point instead to something I wrote at my blog in 2010:

In the 1940s and 50s, science fiction had developed a sophisticated, results-oriented philosophy of knowledge, largely through the influence of one man — John W. Campbell. Campbell, who served as editor of Astounding/Analog from 1937 until his death in 1971, shaped the philosophy of several generations of science fiction readers through his monthly editorials, and though Ive never been able to pin down the connections, Im convinced that he exerted a formative influence on both computer hackers and neo-pagans. …

Campbell saw the universe from the perspective of an engineer, and he was always more interested in whether something worked than in whether or not it had a plausible scientific explanation. He might even express skepticism about the laws of science, suggesting at one point that they were, at best, approximations to a noisy” reality. …

Alexei and I both learned a lot from Campbell as we were growing up, and though we came to reject his mechanistic worldview, we continued to find value in his mixture of skepticism and pragmatic acceptance — especially when approaching paranormal and occult materials.

Connie Marshall Thompson: What was it about Robert Heinlein, a man very different from Alexei, that he found germinal and inspirational?

I think it was the sense that you could take any imagined world and treat it seriously and tell stories about people who felt like real human beings, reacting the way real human beings would, inside this seemingly strange reality. It was that lived texture” that Alexei saw in Heinlein, and which made it into Rite of Passage.

John Grayshaw: Did Alexei ever figure out what made Heinlein so angry about him reading the Heinlein correspondence he researched in crafting Heinlein in Dimensions.” Or was it really just the idea of the examination of his work in general that Heinlein resented?

Part of it was the early piece where Alexei questioned Heinleins sexual attitudes in Stranger in a Strange Land and suggested they were boy scout level.” That pissed off Heinlein, who saw himself as a 1920s-style sophisticate. The other thing was that Heinlein avoided people examining his work. It wasnt exactly resentment, but he was a man with a lot of secrets, and it has never been clear what they all were. Whether it was wife swapping, socialism, occultism, or the fact that he looked down on his readers and saw them as rubes that didnt know how the world really works—and were therefore incapable of reading his books with an understanding of what was really going on in them—he would tuck heresies into his books that he wouldnt admit to and didnt want anyone else to find out.

John Grayshaw: Was Rite of Passage” influenced by Heinleins juvenile novels? Did he want to emulate Heinlein and, if so, did he feel he did so successfully? Or did he feel it became something different, something better?

It was strongly influenced by Heinlein’s juveniles, but it was also a reaction against them, especially Podkayne of Mars, which Alexei despised heartily. Heinlein tended to portray women as cutsie-poo” and Alexei set himself a goal of doing what Heinlein had not, which was to write a Heinlein juvenile with a realistic female protagonist.

John Grayshaw: Rite of Passage” features intellectuals who live on a spaceship and think of colonists as mudeaters” but yet have a coming-of-age trial in the wilderness of a planet. What do you think Alexei was trying to say with this? How did he conceive of the ordinologists and synthesists as described in the novel and why did he set them up as being so influential in the ships society?

I think ordinologists and synthesists came directly out of Heinlein. The earliest drafts of Rite of Passage were written while Alexei was in the army, stationed in Korea, before we got together. So I dont know what his exact thinking was, but we did agree early on that I was the ordinologist in our relationship and he was the synthesist.

John Grayshaw: There is a lot of debate and analysis over the ending of Rite of Passage”, where the planet Tintera is destroyed. What do you think Alexei meant with this ending, was it purely a comment on the society of the ship or is he saying something wider about humanity?

Its not a comment on either the society of the ship specifically or humanity generally. Its about the self-righteousness of western civilization: people who think they have a right to go in and smash other people flat because theyre culturally superior. It was most directly a reaction to the Vietnam War; but you can look at whats happening in Gaza right now if you want a present-day equivalent.

John Grayshaw: From a writing perspective, what interested Alexei about the Anthony Villiers series? Was it influenced by Leslie CharterisSaint series?

From a writing perspective, it was the chance to do something a little strange and different. There was originally a scene written from the perspective of the spaceship walls, which Terry Carr made him take out (Alexei never forgave him for that). It was an excuse to get out all of the strange stuff hed had rattling around in his head for years.

John Grayshaw: How much of the fourth novel The Universal Pantograph” was written? Fans are still hoping it will be published.

No pages were ever written. There were notes for things that would go into it, some characters and events, but nothing ever put down on paper.

John Grayshaw: Did you and Alexei have much correspondence or meetings with the wider SF community? Did you go to science fiction conventions? Do you have any particular memories of these youd like to share? Where you close to any other science fiction writers?

Alexei and I met at the 1966 Worldcon, and we went to many conventions together over the years. We often had a dealers table where we sold books; both our own and other things that Alexei found appealing, like the first two Elfquest books. In the 1970s we went to a series of academic conventions until we alienated the professors by saying we didnt think SF should be taught in college classrooms and be straightjacked by conventional literary models.

Alexei corresponded with a number of other authors, particularly those who took science fiction seriously, such as Rudy Rucker, Michael Bishop, and Ian Watson. He was also good friends with Chip Delaney when they both lived in NYC in the late 60s. They would often listen to music together and Chip wrote an introduction to the first Villiers novel.

We kept in close touch with the SF community until Alexei was hit by the car, after which we didnt make it to any more conventions. But one memory that stands out is a time when our older son Adam was a year old. He managed to crawl up onto the stage where the Flying Karamazov Brothers were performing, and they threatened to juggle him if he wasnt retrieved.

David Brand: What did you and Alexei do other than write? Your output seemed to stop in later years. What did you both do for a living?

We did keep writing. After we finished The World Beyond the Hill, Alexei wrote a series of short essays for The New York Review of Science Fiction and also began a major piece on Lewis Carroll. That was interrupted by the accident, but he returned to it as his stamina recovered and also wrote several other lengthy articles that were posted on our website and will appear in a collection titled Following My Nose to be published this fall.

During the same period, I worked as an accountant for a small non-profit organization, and after I was no longer employed there I started a blog, which I maintained from 2009 to 2017. Before Alexei died, we had started putting together a volume to be called The Book of Higher Knowledge that was intended to combine some of his essays and a selection of my blog entries along with new material. I’m still working on my side of that and plan on putting it out eventually.

John Grayshaw: Did you and Alexei have particular hobbies you pursued when you werent writing?

Alexei was a big fan of music, particularly Bob Dylan. He enjoyed seeing live music played, and would often have friends over to listen to obscure musicians he collected. He also collaborated in creating music, writing song lyrics for many years with a young musician friend whom he mentored. I’ve never been much for formal hobbies, so I spent most of my free time raising our two sons, taking them to events like renaissance faires and doing casual mommy things like cooking and gardening.

John Grayshaw: What do you see as the legacy you and Alexei have in the SF field? Why was your work significant at the time and why is it still important today?

Our work was significant because we were doing stuff and saying things that no one else was or is. Our working principle was that SF was modern myth, while ancient myth was archaic science fiction, based on what people 10,000 years ago knew about the world and the stars: putting their best hard knowledge about how the universe was constructed into stories about characters going to other realms.


When heroes went into the underworld or traveled to the ends of the earth, that wasnt frivolous fairy tales. It was the hard science of its time. Its always been that way. Its been science fiction all the way down, and the ultimate goal was always to create a perception of transcendence—a sense of a larger and more meaningful reality than the mundane world.

We hoped The World Beyond the Hill would be a foundation that other people would build on, but for the most part nobody has. We felt very invisible during Alexeis final years. But there are a lot of loose ends in our writing that could be picked up and developed by others in a way they never have been.

In closing, Id like to thank you for this chance to be reminded of where I came from and reflect on things I havent thought about in years.

Saturday, May 25, 2024

Interview About Keith Laumer


Science Fiction Book Club

Interview with William Keith (May 2024)

William Keith writes military science fiction and military fiction and related game design. He writes under several pen names, such as Ian Douglas, Robert Cain and H. Jay Riker. He has written new entries into Keith Laumer’s Bolo series and Retief series.

Alan Kovski: Was Laumer tempted to write about the international follies of his time in thinly veiled form? If so, did he ever describe some of those connections between particular stories of his and their real-world inspiration? I can imagine he might have indulged a roman-a-clef element in his Retief stories, but maybe not. Maybe he kept his political and diplomatic views to himself.

William Keith: I think "tempted" is too mild a word. One of the fascinating aspects of Laumer's life was his service in the U.S. Air Force from 1953 to 1956, and again in 1960 to 1965. Between these two stints with the military, he served as a diplomat with the U.S. Foreign Service in Burma.

His diplomatic service obviously shaped his writing of the Retief series--comedies in which the central character, Jaime Retief, is the single person in the story who knows what's going on and is willing to act while those around him, especially senior officers with the Service, are idiots.

His time in the Air Force would have focused his opinion about stupidity among officers higher up in rank. All military service has officers who know what they're doing, but it also has far too many examples of people promoted above their level of expertise, if any, and stuck in positions of authority with no idea as to what they're doing or what is expected of them.

As Laumer put it in an interview in Luna Monthly, speaking about his time as a diplomat, "I had no shortage of iniquitous memories of the Foreign Service." The Retief stories clearly show his disdain for politics, shortsightedness, and outright stupidity among members of a diplomatic service who should have known better.

The Corps Diplomatique Terrestrienne was the perfect stage for Laumer's thoughts about bureaucracy and politics.

Connie Marshall Thompson: I find it interesting that Laumer served in the Army Air Force and the Air Force but when he created a battle machine it was a tank, ultimately a sentient tank, the BOLO series. Why do you think he chose to write about a ground-based unit as the star of the Bolo works?

William Keith: Basically, you can divide military tactics into three venues--ground, sea, and air. Neither sea nor air combat allows for an up-close-and-personal confrontation with the enemy. Sea battles today tend to be fought at over-the-horizon ranges, while the joke about Air Force engagements is that they take off from a base in North America, fly 12,000 miles to drop bombs on the enemy from 30,000 feet, and return to the States in time for a nice dinner with the family.

Ground combat, while often fought at long range, has the possibility of suddenly and dangerously becoming a hack-and-slash at knife-fighting range. You can see the enemy, and interact with him directly.

Tank combat--the closest analog to the Bolos--has intelligent tanks the size of city blocks engaged in the traditional pursuits of the infantry--taking the high ground, holding it, and reducing enemy defenses/cities/fortifications in direct attacks. This gives MANY opportunities for finding out about the enemy--turns out they're human too, most of 'em--and direct interaction between the combatants and their commanders. "The Last Command," for instance, has an aged human Bolo commander actually climbing onto the radioactive hulk of the Bolo he once commanded as it threatens a human city, talking to the Bolo and delivering its last command. You can't do something like that with a guided missile cruiser or a B-52.

These interactions are gritty, realistic, and hard-edged in a way that only stories about the infantry can present.

John Grayshaw What made you want to continue his Bolo and Retief series?

William Keith: I had no desire about the matter one way or another until a literary packager, Bill Fawcett, approached me with an offer to do a book continuing the story of Laumer's Bolos. Until then, I'd not even been aware that such a dream assignment might be handed to me, but when it was I was delighted. I'd long been fond of the original Bolo stories, beginning with "The Last Command," published in Analog 1966.

What I found fascinating about the Bolo stories was the idea, central to many of them, that these sentient machine behemoths came across as braver, more intelligent, more honorable, more human than any of the actually human characters.

I wrote three novels--Bolo Strike, Bolo Brigade, and Bolo Rising in the late 1990s--in which I tried to continue this idea of AI war machines more human than their creators. It was an opportunity to explore just what it meant to be human, and the limitations of human frailty.

In 2007, I wrote Retief's Peace, my one foray into Retief and the CDT, where I could play with my favorite Laumer characters.

John Grayshaw: Do you have personal favorites of his work? And why?

William Keith: My favorite Laumer book of all time was Retief's War, which I discovered in the school library at the age of 14. I'd read nothing of Laumer's until that time, and I was captured by the dashing James Bondesque leading character fighting cool, if somewhat silly aliens on Quopp, a world where native life had evolved with wheels and rotors rather than legs. I was also introduced to the sinister Groaci, which were obvious five-eyed stand-ins for the sinister Soviets.

Retief's War showed me that SF could be written humorously. The fact that the library edition I first read was actually illustrated with drawings of the various species of native life on Quopp. What was not to like?

Retief's War, about attempts to unify mutually hostile tribes, became my jump-off point for my own Retief's Peace, where Retief works with a peace movement with obvious links to the Vietnam War.

John Grayshaw: Can you talk about how after Laumer suffered a stroke in 1971, his efforts to recover and the challenges he faced to still write?

Keith Laumer kept fit, always. It was therefore more difficult for him when he suffered a massive stroke in 1971 that paralyzed one side of his body and part of his brain and therefore his mind. He was unable to exercise as before and gained weight, resembling the Red Bull in one of his stories. He was embarrassed by his weight gain but was able to get along well enough. Keith tried to whip, to control, to overcome the stroke. He spent an enormous amount of time in physical therapy and other exercises in a futile effort to gain full use of his body. He could walk and get around, with a limp but he was never to gain full access of his body. Like a character in one of his stories, his crippled body would not comply, would not work correctly. This drove Keith Laumer to anger and the anger turned easily to uncontrolled rage, apathy, and total disappointment. He was a master of his mind but he could no longer write. He tried, over and again but the paralysis took control of his mind and the rage drove everyone away.

John Grayshaw: Can you tell us about Keith Laumers connection to Pete Townsend of the Who?

Keith Laumer’s stepson was Tom Wright who was a rock photographer and a friend of Pete Townsend. Townsend said A young man who played a huge role in my life and music was Tom Wright. He was at Ealing Art College with me in West London in 1962; he introduced me to a lot of rare R&B and blues. His stepfather, Keith Laumer, was a science fiction writer who had a house in the jungle near Weeki Wachee Springs [in Spring Hill, north of Tampa]. I visited several times.

There was something magical about the place—and also about being around a creative writer who worked tirelessly every day on his books. It’s where I wrote the song “The Seeker,” which was a seminal piece for me about the necessary fruitlessness of spiritual searching. Why fruitless? Because we are always where we are supposed to be.

John Grayshaw: What was Laumers house in Florida like?

In the late 1950’s Laumer purchased a small two-acre island on a lake in Hernando County,  Florida near Weeki Wachee. He would reside there for the rest of his life.

John Grayshaw: What were some of Laumers hobbies other than writing?

Laumer was also a model airplane enthusiast, and published two dozen designs between 1956 and 1962 in the U.S. magazines Air Trails, Model Airplane News and Flying Models, as well as the British Aeromodeller. He published one book on the subject, How to Design and Build Flying Models in 1960. His later designs were mostly gas-powered, free-flight planes, and had a whimsical charm with names to match, like the "Twin Lizzie" and the "Lulla-Bi". His designs are still being revisited, reinvented and built today.

John Grayshaw: What is Laumers legacy? Why was his work significant at the time? And why is it still important today?

William Keith: Laumer wrote much besides humor, my favorite, perhaps, being Earthblood, about a human child raised by aliens. However he is probably best remembered for his humorous work, ranging from sharp-witted tales with only a taste of humor, to rollicking over-the-top farces like Retief and the Warlords. For me, the Retief stories were proof that SF didn't have to be serious, that it could pack a satirical punch while telling tales with a moral while leaving you helplessly laughing on the floor.

When he wrote about military themes or political situations, it clearly was linked to the social and political chaos of the '60s, making a point by making fun of it. I find it interesting, though, that this message is just as applicable to world politics sixty years later. People are stupid... and sometimes need an outsider like Jaime Retief or a Bolo Mark XXVIII LNE to kick ass and set things straight.


Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Interview about Kate Wilhelm


Science Fiction Book Club

Interview with Richard Wilhelm (April 2024)

Richard Wilhelm is the son of Kate Wilhelm and the stepson of Damon Knight. Richard runs InfinityBox Press a publishing company that Kate started with him, his wife, Sue Arbuthnot, and brother, Jonathan Knight. You can purchase many of her novels and short fiction from their website,

Damo Mac Choiligh: Did Kate Wilhelm enjoy writing the crime novels she produced, especially from the 80s on, as much as her SF output? Did she consider it to be as meaningful? Or was it all still storytelling? Would you recommend this SF aficionado to read her crime work?

From childhood, Kate loved storytelling. She loved compelling characters and complex plots. She moved from genre to genre, never claiming one as her first and only love. It was always about the story that was trying to get out—some were mysteries, some Science Fiction, some a combination, and still some that were less easy to categorize. Her first published novel, More Bitter Than Death, 1963, Simon & Schuster, was a mystery even though she had also, by that time, written nearly 20 shorter Science Fiction stories. The mystery genre stuck with her though her career, but so did the Science Fiction, Speculative, Psychological, and Mimetic Fiction, and Comedy. She combined Science Fiction and Mystery in the first of her 14 edition Barbara Holloway Mystery series, Death Qualified, 1991, St. Martin's Press, and she would also mix the genres in her Charlie Meiklejohn and Constance Leidl series. For her, the wall between genres was porous. If she had a paintbrush, she would paint; if she had clay, she would sculpt. While one may be an aficionado of one genre, I would always recommend trying something new. In this case, I'd recommend Death Qualified for an introduction to the Barbara Holloway mysteries, and I'd point one to The Dark Door, The Hamlet Trap, and Smart House for the C&C Mysteries. And then, the rest.

Connie Marshall Thompson: Kate Wilhelm is a genre-crossing author with success in the science fiction, suspense and mystery genres. Did she have a personal preference for a particular genre or did she equally enjoy them all?

Writing in one genre, while considering another was normal for Kate. It was always about the characters who populate the world she envisioned and how they interact with each other and their situation. She told me once that writing about spacecraft hardware limited the speculative and character-driven nature of the stories she had to tell. What if her characters didn't have a spaceship and didn't have to describe every nut and bolt—what would their story be? Later, in her career, she moved into the serialization of courtroom mysteries with her main character, attorney Barbara Holloway, and in another series, with former arson inspector Charlie Meiklejohn and his wife, psychologist Constance Leidl and the supernatural thread she occasionally sewed into their cases. As Kate summed it up in her introduction to The Infinity Box, in 1975, "The problem with labels is that they all too quickly become eroded; they cannot cope with borderline cases." And she loved the borderline cases.

Damo Mac Choiligh: Wilhelm is often regarded as being a feminist writer, in a similar vein as Joanna Russ, James Tiptree Jr., Josephine Saxton et al. Would she agree with this assessment? Was it an important influence for her in her work? If so, did she regard herself and these writers as forming a trend or coherent group within SF of the time?

Kate didn't consider herself a feminist writer, per se. Although she frequently wrote strong women into her stories, she didn't care much for the label; strong women were natural for her, not special. She would say, "I'm just me, and here's my story." Kate entered her writing career in the mid-50s, when men dominated every aspect of publishing from writing to printing. And though I don't remember her ever talking about belonging to a coherent group of feminist writers pushing their influence, I know she appreciated the company of Joanna Russ, Carol Emshwiller, and others, who in their growing numbers and popularity (read sales), helped to move the publishing industry considerably forward. I don't believe she ever questioned that strong women can and should be the dominant voices in stories.

Damo Mac Choiligh: When I read her work, she is one of those writers whose careful prose stands out for me, like Ursula LeGuin or Ted Chiang. Who would have been her influences for her writing style, was there anyone she tried to emulate or for that matter anyone whose style she would have rejected?

In her teens, Kate told stories to her five siblings after school while their mom worked in a munitions factory in Louisville. That offered the first level of refinement to her storytelling abilities as she had to hold their attention. That was during WWII, the pulp fiction era was in full bloom, and magazines such as Amazing Stories (Analog), F&SF, and others were publishing exciting works by both established authors and relative newcomers. And then there was a push to move science fiction into a more literary tent by a few influential people, especially Damon Knight, Kate's future husband and first reader of her stories. While she never spoke of emulating anyone, I believe her second and most influential level of storytelling refinement occurred after she was invited by Damon to the Milford Writers Conference in the early 60s. There, she met established, hardcore authors, who for two weeks each summer, would tear each other's works to shreds, of course in the mostly congenial, constructive manner possible. It was through these fiery workshop settings that she gained the confidence that she, too, was a hardcore writer. She didn't reject anyone for their style, but she knew what worked and what didn't, and more importantly, how to fix it.

John Grayshaw: Who were some of the writers your mother grew up reading? And who are some writers that were your mother’s contemporaries that she enjoyed/admired?

Kate was a proud library-card-carrying ecumenical reader. When I was very young, she would take me to the main library in Louisville where she would attend "stargazers" astronomy meetings, and I would be set loose among the stacks. We would both return home with our limit of books. There was always a partially read pile of books on the side table next to her favorite couch. Sometimes the top book may be a Garbriel Garcia Márquez title, other times it might be a primer on organic gardening. As with her writing, she didn't favor one genre over another, but she once told me she enjoyed reading nonfiction more than she did fiction, because in those books were the seeds of her story garden.

Damo Mac Choiligh: Wilhelm occasionally collaborated with other writers (especially Theodore Thomas) and she and Damon Knight put out a collection of short stories together, but did they ever collaborate on a novel or shorter work?

She and Ted Thomas collaborated on two books, The Clone, and The Year of the Cloud. It was early in her career, and Ted was a family friend and a patent attorney with a deep science and engineering background. After those two books, she decided not to enter into further collaborations. Although Kate and Damon were each other's first reader, they tried and failed miserably at collaboration. The best they could do was publish their discrete stories in a single volume.

Damo Mac Choiligh: Much of the collection 'Again, Dangerous Visions' seems dated and not remotely as shocking as Harlan Ellison thought, except in the juvenile sense, but one of the standout stories there is the brilliant 'The Funeral' by KW. She said once that she was angry when she wrote it, angry at the way societies treat their young. 'The Village' was even more an overtly angry story. Did an anger at the state of the world inform much of her thinking or her work?

The My Lai massacre had happened a few years prior to the completion of The Village. Kate's ire was laser focused on the insanity of our government's role in pursuing a war it started to prove a policy point. Kate had two sons of draft age, one of whom had already been packed of to Vietnam. She was hyper-aware of the possibility the other would be drafted, too, and wondered, in The Village, what would happen if the geography was switched and it was her hometown that was under threat of annihilation. The Funeral comes out of the same era, but Kate used her own experience attending a girls school in Louisville to craft a story about authoritarianism, which she imagined, even then, being only one election away. She could be a harsh critic and few of her other stories reflect that. By Stone, By Blade, By Fire is another example of her veiled criticism; this time her focus was on religion.

Philip Bonner: Ive been working my way through the Orbit anthologies (which is something anyone into good, solid literary SF should do— these thoughtfully curated books out-dangerous vision Dangerous Visions. Each one has been surprising for me. ) Im on Orbit 4. So far every book has a story by Kate Wilhelm and each one is much better than the last. I wasnt too knocked out by ‘Staras Flonderans’, but I felt she was zeroing in on something with ‘Baby, You Were Great’. By the time she makes it to ‘The Planners’ and ‘Windsong’ theres a really strong voice— great character portraiture, disturbing idea-driven settings with satirical undertones. ‘Windsong’ in particular was great.

Did Kate Wilhelm use the Orbit books as a laboratory for workshopping new ideas and techniques?

While Kate had an "in" with Damon for having her work selected for Orbit, she never assumed that would assure her a spot in the anthologies. She enjoyed stretching her style and poking the boundaries of Science Fiction, and the series was a perfect petri dish for these experiments. Some of her best short fiction was published in those anthologies. In Orbit, she was in the company of the best of the "New Wave" of Science Fiction authors and her skillful wordsmithing shone.

John Grayshaw: What made her write novels? Was she a storyteller at heart?

She started out writing short stories, because she could write them relatively quickly in the middle of the night, as we all slept, and she found a willing set of buyers in the Science Fiction magazines at the time. She was a master short story writer, but sometimes there would be too many side rooms that needed to be explored and a novel or novella was needed for those. She said that the story would tell her. In all, she wrote about 50 novels and about 130 titles of shorter fiction.

John Grayshaw: Did your mom tell you stories? What were they about? Did she read books with you? Which were her favorites?

Owing to her years telling stories to her siblings while their parents were at work, by the time we came along, Kate was already an amazing oral storyteller. She would tell us stories in the evening as we kids, Damon's and Kate's combined, gathered in the living room. We listened to these stories while huddled around the fireplace in a creaky house we all at one time or another—or to this day—believed was haunted. The house was a huge, old Victorian, which Damon bought in the early 1960s, and it had all the spooky, dark nooks and crannies one might imagine in a 100-year-old house. Kate kept the tension high with her storytelling; most tales were Science Fiction-y, and they were rich with characters, set in fantastic places, and plots that wound in unexpected and exciting directions. And, for our added pleasure, she would make them slightly scary. She serialized these with some going on for weeks; each evening's episode ending in a cliffhanger. She always remembered where she left the story and started the next episode at that precise point. The living room was on the main floor at the north end of the house; our bedrooms were at the south end, on the third and fourth floors. After her evening storytelling session ended, it felt as though we had to track a mile through the maze of our house to reach our bedrooms. There was typically a lot of sprinting and screaming involved. And we could all hear the stairs creak for a half hour afterward.

John Grayshaw: Scott Bradfield said about your moms writing and why she didnt have the same mainstream popularity as Le Guin, Russ, or Tiptree (aka Alice Sheldon). Wilhelms fiction couldnt be easily categorized or summarized; she explored people rather than ideas; and her style was-like the style of many good writers-so lucid, seamless and convincing that it seemed invisible.” Why do you think she didnt have the same popularity?

I think Scott pegged it. Kate likely sent her agents and editors into conniptions from one title to the next. She mused that she had a difficult time staying within defined genre boundaries, when people populating her imagination wouldn't stay within theirs. So, while one of her titles may be in the Science Fiction section in a bookstore, another may be in Mysteries. And some were hard to define as either, so they would end up wherever the seller thought they looked good. She was told more than once that if she had only stayed within the borders of one genre, she would have enjoyed much more popularity. That wasn't her goal.

John Grayshaw: Your mother once claimed that her decision to write SF was entirely serendipitous. She said, I was a housewife with two young children, and Id been reading an anthology, and I put it down and said to myself, I can do that.And I wrote The Mile-Long Spaceship,and sold it.” Did your mother fall in love with the genre over time?

At the time she began to write the space race had just started. We lived on Star Lane in Louisville, and Dr. Moore, a professor of astronomy at the University of Louisville had built an observatory—round, white, silver dome, 20-inch telescope, and all—just a couple hundred yards up the hill from our house. I remember a number of cold nights when he would invite us to peer into space, and it was fantastic! That was during the 50s and the world was in the middle of a technological sea change, and the stories being written and published in the magazines at the time reflected that. Most were 'nuts and bolts' Science Fiction. The Mile-Long Spaceship [1956] was Kate's first published story and was solidly Science Fiction. ("The Pint-Sized Genie" was also published that same year, and there is some question about which came first. She told me she wrote "Genie" first.) She wandered among genres a little during that time, but her Science Fiction stories were selling. But she was already showing signs that she might not be contained within the Science Fiction genre with her short stories from the 50s and early 60s, including "A is For Automation," "One for the Road," "The Last Threshold," "The Ecstasy of It," "Brace Yourself for Mother," and "Gift from the Stars." They reflect her earliest interests in the decisions people make when confronted with difficult predicaments. I don't know that she ever fell in love with the Science Fiction genre as much as she did being genre-fluid.

John Grayshaw: Did your mom talk to you about having a harder time getting published because she was a female writer? 

Of course she did, especially at the beginning of her career. She was told as she started out, that she should write under a pseudonym—male, of course. She didn't follow that advice, and in time, she was recognized for her talent—and her own name. As quoted from a Bob Thaves' "Frank and Ernest" cartoon: "Sure he (Fred Astaire) was great, but don't forget that Ginger Rogers did everything he did…backwards and in high heels." One note Kate added to her bio sketch: The "Mile-Long Spaceship," my first story, sold to Astounding Science Fiction in 1956, [and was] chosen as the best short story of the year. I had to have an affidavit notarized that I was the author before I received a check. I used the money to buy the portable typewriter I had rented to copy the story, written on lined notebook paper. Women were not supposed to write Science Fiction, plain and simple. But she and others did, and the publishing industry slowly changed. Just a few years later she could afford an IBM Model B typewriter.


John Grayshaw: What was it like when you were growing up, were your mom and stepdad talking about science fiction stories and writers workshops at the dinner table?

Kate and Damon tried to keep their work lives separate from family life, so at dinner time, they talked more about the mashed potatoes than about their work. It was a different story when they invited guests to visit. Most were also writers or had some kind of connection. Those conversations, although I don't remember specifics, were always entertaining and usually involved names of people I knew, heard of, or read the works of. But, after dinner, if I had nothing better to do, I'd sit with them in the living room and listen to their critiques of stories they had just finished or complain about a stinky contract they had been offered, or whatever else was on their minds. Damon was considered one of the country's leading Science Fiction critics in those days, and though I wasn't especially aware of his stature, I was amazed at his depth of knowledge and the ease with which he could connect dots between the arcane and obvious. In the middle of his occasionally savage dissection of a story, he'd compose a limerick or tell an elephant joke to clear the air. Kate was equally sharp with her story analysis, and it was a real education, far more interesting than the American Lit classes I suffered through in high school. Each summer, Kate and Damon hosted the Milford Science Fiction Writers Conference, and I would sometimes sit in the adjoining library to listen to the discussions, critiques, laughter, and yelling that would go on into the wee hours. The next day, everyone would make their way to our kitchen for coffee and some kind of treat Kate would make, and the conversation, argument, rancor, resignation, and agreement would start anew.

John Grayshaw: What are some of your fondest memories of your mother and what are some of the funniest memories?

There are things that parents keep from kids, for whatever reason. Sometimes, it's to protect, sometimes it's not particularly important and just doesn't come up. In 1979, Kate invited me to collaborate on a book with her. She didn't know what it would be, just that she had the idea of borders and boundaries crashing around in her head for some time and wanted those words—borders and boundaries—to crash around in my head, too. What do those words mean to each of us? I was a developing photographer (sorry, couldn't help it), and she thought each of us could use our medium to express our ideas, then combine those into a volume. So, off we went. Over the several years, we traveled together around Oregon for a week or two at a time, exploring and camping mostly on public lands far away from towns. I knew many of Oregon's backroads by the time we started our project, so I plotted our trips, chose our campsites, and checked the weather regularly since many of the roads I wanted us to travel on were considered all-weather roads, but in reality, were impassible after a rain. We saw places and things most people living here their entire lives have not seen, including some of the gnarliest roads I'd ever been on to reach some of the most magical locations. Kate was game and seemed to always be scanning the horizon when we were fortunate enough to have one. Toward the end of one of our final trips, I asked what she was looking for as she would stare straight ahead. She said, "A way out!" She then told me of her near paralyzing acrophobia suffered since childhood. The aha! moment for me was that that information had never come up in conversation over the decades. Within seconds, my mind drew a detailed picture of every bad-to-worse road I had taken her on over the past four years, all the non-guard-railed, switchbacked canyon two-tracks we had climbed, all the summits we drove to the edge of for a better look at the terrain a mile below, and of the huge windows in my VW van to see it all through. We stayed on lower-level roads through the end of our travels. And she forgave me, which was about the fondest memory I have. Oh, and the book is titled, The Hills Are Dancing, 1985, Corroboree Press.

John Grayshaw: When did you first read your mothers writing?

I wasn't much interested in Science Fiction as a kid, and I didn't begin to read her work until about the mid-60s, when I pulled a copy of More Bitter Than Death (a mystery) from the shelf and read it. After that, it was hit or miss on reading her work. I would read several in a row, then take a break for a year or two, then go back in. Since opening InfinityBox Press in 2012, I've reread most of her stories.

John Grayshaw: What are your personal favorites of your mothers works? And why? And did she have favorites of her own?

It's tough for me to choose favorites among her nearly 200 titles. Without going into detail, I appreciate some more than others on a given day. Then they reshuffle.

John Grayshaw: What are some of your mothers works that you feel should be better known than they are?

Of course, I believe everyone should read Kate's work—all of it. As I mentioned earlier, her cross-genre approach to writing was a bit of a bane for publishers and shop owners. But somehow, Kate's stories continue to find a wonderful audience of new readers and her long-time fans. Since we opened InfinityBox Press in 2012, we've reintroduced dozens of her earlier titles in collections, novellas, and novels, including first editions of her last two Barbara Holloway Mysteries.

John Grayshaw: What can you tell me about your mom and stepfather establishing the Clarion workshops?

Kate first met Damon in Milford. After she submitted a manuscript for the Milford Science Fiction Writers Conference, he invited her to participate. It was her first workshop and her story was deftly, but brutally taken apart by the others. Damon had started the Milford Writers Conference a few years earlier with Judith Merril, also a Milfordite, and by time Kate was invited, the workshoppers included many of the brightest stars in the Science Fiction universe. So, into the fire she was thrown. She came out of it relatively unscarred but with a much better sense for how the world of intense critical review sessions works and became a huge promoter of the constructive critique. Robin Wilson invited Kate and Damon into a conversation about starting a six-week long, intensive writing workshop at his college, Clarion, in northwestern Pennsylvania. Robin envisioned having prominent writers lead the workshop for one week each. Kate and Damon said they would do it with one condition: that they would lead the last two weeks together, which was immediately agreed to. The workshop moved around the country as funding and school policies shifted, landing it in Michigan, New Orleans, and finally California. Kate and Damon were the anchor writers of Clarion for 27 years. Kate's 2005 book, Storyteller, is all about Clarion. Side note: I designed the Clarion Foundation's logo.

John Grayshaw: What can you tell me about your mom and stepfather establishing the SFWA?

Damon Knight was the force behind SFWA (Science Fiction Writers of America). He started his career when pulp fiction was still the thing. In fact, when we moved into the Anchorage in the early 60s, the huge old Victorian house in Milford, there were two walk-in closets along the third-floor hallway that were stuffed to the ceiling with ratty boxes filled with pulp fiction magazines that Damon had collected over the years. He had read each cover to cover, often adding notes in the margins. The pages were dark yellow and close to disintegration by time I found them. Damon had plotted for years to raise the public's and the publishers' view of Science Fiction from pulp magazines to a more mainstream acceptance. After all, how can a story be considered important if it has a lifespan only slightly longer than a mayfly before it turns to dust? By 1965, when he started SFWA, he had been one of the most influential critics in the genre, and he knew everyone. He found a lot of encouragement among his colleagues, and soon many of these contemporaries joined his new organization. Aside from helping with the organization of this new start-up, one of Kate's contributions to SFWA was the illustration she doodled—literally on a napkin in a restaurant—which would become the basis art for the Nebula Award. Damon succeeded in his dream of pulling Science Fiction out of the pulps and into mainstream. He disdained the term "sci-fi," because it cheapened the genre, in his mind: it was Science Fiction! And he remained a fierce champion of the genre throughout his life.

John Grayshaw: Who are some of the authors your mom mentored?

Kate taught two weeks of Clarion for 27 summers, so the numbers of writers she mentored in those workshops would be in the hundreds. She and Damon also hosted monthly workshops at their homes in Madeira Beach, Florida and Eugene, Oregon from the early-70s onward. After Damon passed away in 2002, Kate continued these workshops until 2017. These workshops witnessed 40+ years of writers filtering in and out. And then, there were the annual Milford Writers Conferences plus their overseas workshops and conferences. Her influence and mentoring spanned more than a half century. Among her students, workshoppers, and colleagues, whose stars have risen markedly, are Nina Kiriki Hoffman, Kim Stanley Robinson, Vonda McIntyre, George Alec Effinger, Lucius Shepard, Cory Doctorow, Ted Chiang, Leslie What, Edward Bryant, Octavia Butler, and many others.

John Grayshaw: Who are some of the science fiction writers she had correspondence/friendships with? Any stories about those relationships?

Kate's friends mostly included the people she interacted with during workshops and other teaching sessions, but there were others, too. She favored a meaningful conversation over small talk, although she could carry a conversation on just about any topic. Many of her long-time friends were participants in critique sessions she would lead, where emotions run high and invite deep connections. The names I provided under the previous question provide a good start to a long list.

John Grayshaw: Did you go with your mother to science fiction conventions? Any memories of these? Did you and/or your mom attend the ceremony when she was inducted into the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame in 2003?

I've never attended a Science Fiction convention. When Kate told me about her upcoming induction into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame, in 2003, I invited her to go on a road trip with my wife, Sue, and me to Seattle for the ceremony. We sat with Neil Gaiman and shared stories for a couple hours. At the same ceremony, Damon was also inducted (posthumously) into the Hall of Fame, along with Edgar Rice Burroughs. Pretty good company, I'd say.

John Grayshaw: Do you know of any future adaptations of your mothers works in TV or movies?

Unfortunately, I can't talk about any options or plans for adaptations that might be in the works. But if some were interested, we own the rights to all of her and Damon's stories. Among those titles are many gems waiting to be adapted for screen.

John Grayshaw: What were some of your mothers hobbies other than writing?

With each move—Pennsylvania to Florida; Florida to Oregon—Kate's main decision on the precise location was based on good soil, good sun, and space; all for her garden. Her garden was her story nursery; it's where she would work the soil and nurture her characters, plotlines, and locations. In earlier years, she was drawn to astronomy, even to the point that she ground and polished her own telescope mirror, which she traded for a stereo system with her brother. Years later, the mirror found its way back to me. Kate was also a crack chess player, who beat Damon so often that he stopped playing with her. In earlier years, she would also play chess remotely with her brother by way of writing moves in the corners of postcards they would send to each other, waiting weeks or months for the next move to arrive.

John Grayshaw: Did your mother have a writing routine she stuck to?

Kate's routine was built around her family schedule. When we were young, she would work late at night. During our school years, she would work mid-morning to mid-afternoon and then return to it after we'd go to bed often keeping at it until 2 or 3 A.M. She more or less kept that schedule through the rest of her life.

John Grayshaw: What is your mothers legacy? Why was her work significant at the time? And why is it still important today?

Kate etched her name and those of other women writers in the glass ceiling of the publishing industry. She didn't do it alone, but she worked hard, through a transition time for publishing to make sure the voices of women and others would be heard equally. Her mentorship of new writers and sharp critical analysis of their stories helped shape at least two generations of excellent storytellers. Her own work spanned genres, but her fascination with the psychology of humans' decision-making processes helped to grow the genre of Speculative Fiction and free it as simply an "alternate" name for Science Fiction, as Heinlein had defined the term mid-20th century, or as a catchall name for other genres such as fantasy, or apocalyptic tales. She helped to set it on its own trajectory. And the genre hopping she performed opened a huge door for other restless authors with stories not fitting neatly into an existing template.