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An Interview with Paul Di Filippo
conducted by Trent Walters

© Paul Di Filippo
Paul Di Filippo
Paul Di Filippo
Paul Di Filippo lives in Providence, Rhode Island. He is the author of several story collections including Destroy All Brains, The Steampunk Trilogy, Ribofunk, Fractal Paisleys, and Lost Pages. Paul Di Filippo's first novel, Ciphers, was published by Cambrian Publications and Permeable Press.

Paul Di Filippo Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: After the Collapse
SF Site Review: Four Stories
SF Site Review: A Princess of the Linear Jungle
SF Site Review: Cosmocopia
SF Site Review: Shuteye for the Timebroker
SF Site Review: Babylon Sisters and Other Posthumans
SF Site Review: Little Doors
SF Site Review: A Mouthful of Tongues: Her Totipotent Tropicanalia
SF Site Review: A Year in the Linear City
SF Site Review: Strange Trades
SF Site Review: Strange Trades
SF Site Review: Lost Pages
SF Site Review: Ribofunk
SF Site Review: Fractal Paisleys
SF Site Review: The Steampunk Trilogy

A Princess of the Linear Jungle
Shuteye for the Timebroker
Babylon Sisters and Other Posthumans
Little Doors

Franz von Stuck
A Mouthful of Tongues: Her Totipotent Tropicanalia

Edward Miller
A Year in the Linear City
Strange Trades
Lost Pages
Ribofunk
Fractal Paisleys
The Steampunk Trilogy
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What are your writing habits or rituals? Do you have to be at a certain place at a certain time with a certain furniture arrangement, or do you write happily any time, any place?
I tend to lead a rather monastic existence, as far as my writing goes, doing the same thing at the same time every day. I get to the computer around 9-9:30 AM, after reading two print newspapers, breakfasting, walking the dog, etc. Then I spend the first hour or so tending to online duties: posting on my two blogs, reading more literary and other news (the BBC feed is addictive), answering email, proofreading manuscripts in preparation for print -- doing interviews. Finally, I can buckle down to the actual fiction writing or book review work which, as many authors have noted, seems to command less and less time the longer you labor in this field. I used to aim for 1,000 words per day. Now, I'm happy with 500. Of course, the other day, to finish a story for a deadline, I did 2,000. Then come all the rituals of the evening. More dogwalking, a third newspaper, music and movies to enjoy. You could set your watch by me.

Although I've written a couple of stories outside this schedule and enclave -- one in a hotel room, one in a summer cabin -- I don't really enjoy working outside the house, or seek the stimulation of a different environment such as a coffee shop, as do others. The environment vanishes when you're in a writing groove anyhow, so why bother.

Do you travel for story inspiration? Or do you simply travel in your mind or online?
I do a moderate amount of travel: less than Bruce Sterling, more than Michael Bishop. Aside from personal travels, in my 30+ years or professional writing, I've been invited to France, Hong Kong, and Germany, as well as US sites in California, Georgia and Washington state. My one magazine article for WIRED had me flying to Chicago and Florida. And in February 2012, I get to go to Medellin, Colombia. I count myself awfully lucky. I've found all of these locales inspirational, if only in subliminal ways. Hong Kong was the most exotic, and I whomped up some notes for a cyberpunk style story set there, but never did anything with them.

However, the best travel I ever did, in terms of writing, was to go to New York City once a week for a year, back when my mate Deborah was working there part-time. I explored on foot every inch of Manhattan that I could reach, and that sense of urban territory and urban living has been invaluable ever since.

What sparks your stories? You credit Gaia Vince for her article in New Scientist for "Life in the Anthropocene." Do most of your stories come from science? Can you give an example of how a story came to life?
Sources of story inspiration are myriad. As you deduce, science journalism plays a big role, as does regular, more mundane journalism. I don't consciously rely on autobiography a lot. The biggest exception to this is my novella "The Mill" (collected in Strange Trades), which was an attempt to deal with the textile mill culture of New England that played such a big role in the life of myself and various family members. My story "Rare Firsts" is about the only one I ever did deriving from a dream. Once in a while I get polemical, with something like "Time Travel Fantasies 1 & 2." But I think the slightness of that particular effort proves that propaganda is not my metier. And of course, there's always a vital source of inspiration: an editor requesting something specific.

Why short stories? Why not more novels? Aren't novels better for building careers? Have you ever contemplated taking the road more traveled?
I began my career the old-fashioned way which was still more-or-less extant in the early 1980s: start selling stories to the zines, refine your chops, then move on to novels. I did all these steps in order -- except my novels all went to small presses. The majors didn't want me. So although I've had ten novels published (not a bad total, given that my first book appeared only in 1995), they have remained below the radar of most readers, whereas my story collections had a slightly higher profile. And all of the novels were sold on spec. While I'd like to write more novels -- and fully intend to -- putting aside large chunks of time wherein you are not producing immediate income is not an easy thing to do.

What were the challenges of the genre when you first started? What are they now, as you see them?
There have been endless essays and debates lately about the rapidly shifting nature of the marketplace for books and magazines, given the overwhelming assault of digital platforms. I wouldn't care to add my two cents to that conversation, since I don't think that I nor anyone else is really able to predict this tsunami of change. But on the literary end of things, I think my early challenges were the same as any writer's at any time in history: "to beat dead men at their game," as Ernest Hemingway famously said (in special SF terms, that means to add your incremental improvements to the Great Conversation of Ideas); and to satisfy my own esthetic impulses. Pretty much the eternal beacons for writers since time began.

How do you shape your narratives: are they organic, intuitive, or carefully set on a trajectory (either before or after the writing)?
I used to plot things out in much more detail than I do now. Of course, I was never someone like Poul Anderson or Hal Clement who created immense binders of background info and character sheets for their projects. But I still used to have step-by-step breakdowns for plots. Now I'm much more looser and organic. I usually know beginnings and endings (mostly), and a few select key high points in between. But the passage from step stone to stepstone is Brownian motion. If I can steal this big quote from Rudy Rucker, I will, because he says it perfectly.

  "And if the material takes on a life of its own, it leads to what I call the gnarly zone. In short, a gnarly process is complex and unpredictable without being random. If a story hews to some very familiar pattern, it feels stale. But if absolutely anything can happen, a story becomes as unengaging as someone else's dream. A gnarly tale is lies in between. It's not predictable, but it's not random. Gnarl is midway between logic and madness.

"Note that fictional gnarl isn't really hard to achieve. It's just a matter of relaxing. If you set your tale free, it becomes a simulated world in which the characters and tropes and social situations bounce off each other like eddies in a turbulent wake, like gliders in a cellular automaton graphic, like vines twisting around each other in a jungle. It's alive, and it's gnarly."

 

Rudy and I both admire the heck out of Jack Kerouac. I will probably never attain his "spontaneous bop prosody," and might be uncomfortable with so little structure. But it's a star to shoot for.

Jeff Vandermeer interviewed you back in 2000, where you wrote, Once I thought that many of my Ribofunk stories represented sleek, state-of-the-art SF done to the best of my ability. A story such as "Little Worker" seemed near-perfect to me. But lately I feel that all my past work represents a mere apprenticeship. Do you still feel this way? Have you reevaluated your feeling toward Ribofunk? Have you come up with work after Ribofunk that resonates with you as it once did?
I still greatly esteem those Ribofunk stories, and think they hold up well and have not been matched for vision or tone by many other authors since. But I now know how to write even more immersive and denser near-future, hi-tech stuff. If you look at my story "Specter-Bombing the Beer Goggles" in the MIT-sponsored anthology, I think you'll see what I mean. The Di Filippo of twelve years ago could not have written that. So I like to think I'm still learning and improving. All of life is an apprenticeship for death anyhow. What you have to be careful of is a trap Bruce Sterling once identified. He said, paraphrased, "When you're young, you're bursting with stuff to say, but have poor tools. When you're older, your tools are great, but you've lost the urge to say stuff."

From what I've read -- from the Linear City series, "Wikiworld," and the After the Collapse collection, I agree that you are doing some of you best work now. For instance, the Linear City series of stories (A Year in the Linear City and A Princess of the Linear City) has a uniquely compelling world. Did you do all the world-building before writing, world-build as you went, or just followed the creative muse?
Of course, the first volume required more intensive work than the second, for which the template was already laid down, though I did introduce new regions of the world in Princess. It was definitely a 50-50 proposition. About half the world conceived ahead of composition, and half discovered -- with sweat and anxiety -- during the writing. But again, if there are no surprises in store for the writer himself, the work becomes sheer drudgery.

So what came first then in A Year in the Linear City -- an image, a character, the world, a snippet of dialogue? Do you recall some of how that story grew?
I had a vague memory of a J.G. Ballard story involving a long, linear metropolis, and that was one seed, to desire to create a similar sense of estrangement. But the prime motivator for A Year in the Linear City was the contemporary explosion of New Weird, and my desire to do something in that vein, to join in an exciting new movement. The next step was to come up with a protagonist and his circle of friends. I figured that such a weird world would still have SF writers, but of an odd kind. Finally, the actual plot came last.

While you've won the British SF and Imaginaire awards, A Year in the Linear City ranked highly on four very different award lists -- some judged by professionals, some voted for by popularity. Given its broad appeal, why did it take so long to return to this world, and do you have plans of returning again soon? A novel perhaps, poking into all the mysteries you've created in these first two novellas?
I resist sequels instinctively. With a desire to test myself and enlarge my skill set and achieve new visions, going back to an old venue seems like a waste -- despite readerly demand for repeated thrills in a favorite universe, a longing I fully understand and sympathize with. So I only returned to the Linear City when I felt I had something sufficiently different to reveal. I'd love to do a third book and then get all three published in a single volume, but I don't yet have a clue as to what it would be about.

In a 2001 interview with Nick Gevers for Infinity online, you wrote, Writing near-future SF is probably the purest task an SF writer can set him- or herself.... [V]ery few people nowadays attempt such work, and this development represents a huge failure of nerve on the part of the SF community. My admiration for Bruce Sterling knows no bounds for his willingness to tackle such scenarios. My own record, as you say, is spotty at best, but I am convinced that I need to do more in this vital area.

Q) Why is it a pure task and vital area? Is "Wikiworld" such a contribution to this? Does it fill that niche? Do you feel any remorse for stories that do not match the future? Can such stories still serve a function even if their prophecies don't come true?

Science fiction is an immense field, capable of doing many things. But its core function since the days of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, around which everything else has grown, is still the realistic extrapolation of current technology and societal attitudes toward technology. Not only do such scenarios offer rich entertainment possibilities, they also educate and inspire. Much of our current landscape derives from Golden Age SF. Note that Neal Stephenson feels the same way, and has embarked on a new project to encourage such visions. My "Wikiworld" was indeed a move toward honoring this tradition, as were my Ribofunk stories and a few others along the way. Recently, I've done "Life in the Anthropocene" and "FarmEarth," both of which deal with climate change issues. Note what a vigorous welcome a novel such as Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl receives, for its hardcore extrapolations, even when they paint a supposedly "depressing" and disastrous future. At least such SF doesn't close its eyes and live in airy and improbable fantasy worlds. Not that there's anything wrong with that, from time to time.

You state in a 2003 Locus interview that you're a stringer for News of the Weird. Do you still do this? How has the shaped the development of your fiction or of yourself as a writer? Does it shape or warp or bring different aspects of human society into focus?
One of my blogs is Weird Universe in which I actually partner with Chuck Shepherd, originator of News of the Weird. (And with third pal, Alex Boese, of The Museum of Hoaxes.) Culling the media for examples of mankind's cussedness, stupidity, contrariness, obliviousness, stubbornness, and perversity not only provides infinite laughter, a good tonic to the grimness all around us, but also gives insight into creating characters and plots for fiction. Always remember to introduce chaos and self-defeating short-sightedness into any world you create,

With a number of your works taking a humorous slant such as your humorous pulpy version of feminism, "Return to the 20th Century," have you ever had trouble with people not taking your work seriously, or conversely, too seriously?
Jokers get no respect. Woody Allen reminds us, "When you do comedy, you're not sitting at the grownups' table." And George Kaufman advises, "Satire is what closes on Saturday night." Nonetheless, I have been writing humorous stuff since my days on the high school newspaper, and it's my default mode for handling the universe. I have seen reviews of my work which express surprise when I do something serious. But hell, Shakespeare did both comedies and tragedies, and I aspire to no less.

From a 2009 Charles Tan interview, you said, humor encourages lateral thinking, which is often a method of solving intractable problems that do not yield to earnest logic. Do you mean it aids you the writer or the reader in solving intractable problems? Do you simply write stories, or do you have to think if the story would be best served from a humorous angle?
Humor helps a writer come up with gnarly narratives, as I alluded to above in a couple of questions. But reading a humorous story also allows the reader to put aside his or her blinders and see different attitudes and approaches to life's dilemmas and conundrums. Kind of the way a Zen koan reboots your brain.

You go on to state your then commitment to democracy despite misgivings due to inequity. How does "Wikiworld" play into your idea of the possible future for democracy? Have the Wall Street protests changed your feelings?
"Wikiworld" was a utopian outpouring that imagined a fairer distribution of wealth and power than currently exists. Whether we are on that path, or on a different route to worse conditions, only time will tell. I found the Occupy Movement -- whose Providence camp is still intact after others have crumbled, as of this writing -- to be a heartening harbinger of better times. Eventually, I think the internet tactic of "routing around blockages" will prevail. One day governments will wake up and find that the majority of citizens are printing their own money, hosting their own self-defense forces and paving their own roads, and then big top-down governments will be extinct.

In a 2006 interview with Word Shift Minds, you wrote, I don't think, despite all the headwork by such visionaries as Cory Doctorow, that we yet know the ultimate model for the vehicle that will connect writers and readers, to the profit of both! Has that changed? Are ebooks now becoming a significant source of income?
For me, ebooks are just a tiny blip so far. I have a few stories available from the Italian firm 40K Books. A novel from Necon Press. Wildside plans to do a story collection in ebook form soon. And that's it. Theoretically, a lot of my story collections are still in print and unavailable to reissue. The small press novels could be done, but by whom? I know folks such as Dean Smith say how easy it is, but others are not so sanguine. Rudy Rucker had a blog post in which he outlined his process for doing so, and it was about 20 tedious steps. If I do it myself, that's X number of new stories that don't get written. And to tell the truth, not having an e-reader myself and being unconvinced of the pleasures of reading on a screen, I'm unmotivated to do so. I don't deny those readers who enjoy ebooks, I just can't muster the initiative or excitement to produce them. Of course, if some publisher wants to do all the work and pay me for the rights, I'm onboard!

Since you appeared both in Bruce Sterling's original Mirrorshades cyberpunk anthology with "Stone Lives" (which also appears in Babylon Sisters) and in John Kessel and James Patrick Kelly's Rewired with "What's Up Tiger Lily?", what is your view of the way cyberpunk has been reshaped either for you or the genre?
Cyberpunk, at the 25-year mark (or perhaps 30-year mark, depending on how you source its origins), was the last true revolution in the SF field. Its visions reshaped the literature and the world at large, so much so that now they tenets and tropes and styles of the movement have become part of the invisible substrate of the literature and reality. This makes people minimize the impact. I was and remain proud to have been the smallest part of the movement, and only wish that the genre could experience a new such revolution, to shake things up again.

As for personal impact, "Stone Lives" might have earned me more than any other story of mine. Bruce Sterling just sent me Russian royalties for it this week.

A pair of 2008 YouTube videos describe a movie script called Chimera. [Part 1 and Part 2]. They describe a movie where genetic splicing in commonplace, complete with an underclass of animal/human hybrids. Have you gone anywhere with this?
A few years back, producer Tom Engelman, best known for The Chronicles of Riddick, approached me with a scheme to turn my Ribofunk stories into a script. We picked one called "The Bad Splice" as the central narrative, then added original characters and plot points. For almost two years we worked to perfect a script. Then, just as we were starting to search for backers in 2009 came the film Splice, which touched on the core conceits of our script. Tom backburnered The Bad Splice, and there it sits to this day, a much more daring and interesting tale than the Adrien Brody film, in my opinion, since it created a near-future world where all the splicing stuff was a given. But so it goes.

What's the coolest thing you ve read recently and why?
I loved Jean-Christophe Valtat's Aurorarama, for its unique steampunk vision. Neal Stephenson's Reamde was the most gripping and funny and wise thriller I've ever read. And Philip Reeve's Fever Crumb was just a knockout on so many levels.

Do you see maximalist SF as SF's more important growth fields right now? What makes it appealing?
I like a dense kind of SF, chewy with almost an excess of ideas, but I realize it's not for everyone. I would not limit myself or the field to one subgenre anyhow. Let a thousand flowers bloom! But definitely someone like Neal Stephenson, a maximalist if there ever was one, points to the efficacy and power of such a mode. Doesn't a lot of narrow SF pale next to his books? But the critic James Wood has dubbed this kind of stuff "hysterical realism," and hates it, so it's obviously not everyone's cuppa.

Have you taken any heat from people who disagree with you about maximalist SF?
No fan or fellow writer or reviewer has really lashed out. Maybe no one's reading my stuff, or they are just too polite to laugh at my pratfalls. I think I mentioned earlier that one review of a story of mine did say that it had "too many ideas." I acknowledge that when a writer is given a certain finite word length, the ratio among all the elements of fiction -- plot, character, setting, theme, ideation -- can suffer if one particular dial is turned up too high. It's just part of the fiction-writing tightrope-walking exercise we all live with.

What's next for SF? Is something not currently on people's radars that may balloon?
If only my crystal ball were working efficiently. I'd write up such trend-setting SF immediately, and leapfrog the market. Here, however, are a couple of guesses.

Neal Stephenson -- again with the role model of a Modern SF Author -- is trying to promote the rebirth of realistic, optimistic SF. In a sense, he's rewiring Geoff Ryman's Mundane SF movement to be more wild-eyed and positive. I'd bet on this kind of writing taking off.

I've often said that I'd like to write a novel about the present/near future while channeling prime-career Philip K. Dick. In other words, take PKD's high-functioning sensibilities and look at our world anew, not just with the tropes he derived from his own life in the 1950s and 1960s. Despite the reverence paid to PKD by readers, very few writers have followed in his footsteps. One fine new novel, Blueprints of the Afterlife, by Ryan Boudinot, moves a bit in this direction.

Basically, I think that all the old modes of SF -- the "power chords" of SF, as Rudy Rucker calls them -- are all ripe for reinvention and hybridization. All it takes is one genius to spark a new Promethean fire where we can all light our own torches.

What's next on your plate -- both publishing- and writing-wise?
2012 should see the appearance of my second collection of humor columns from F&SF and elsewhere, More Plumage from Pegasus (PS Publishing). And early 2013 brings a new story collection, Wikiworld and Other Imaginary Latitudes from Chizine. I have a novel currently stalled out, Up Around the Bend, which I describe as "postapocalyptic slipstream with aliens, sex and 1970s rock music." I intend to pick that up soon, and then I'm sure a bidding war between Hollywood studios will erupt.

Copyright © 2012 by Trent Walters

Trent Walters teaches science; lives in Honduras; edited poetry at Abyss & Apex; blogs science, SF, education, and literature, etc. at APB; co-instigated Mundane SF (with Geoff Ryman and Julian Todd) culminating in an issue for Interzone; studied SF writing with dozens of major writers and and editors in the field; and has published works in Daily Cabal, Electric Velocipede, Fantasy, Hadley Rille anthologies, LCRW, among others.


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