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Interview: Chris DeVito on “Anise”

Tell us a bit about the story.

If I had to categorize “Anise,” I’d label it “inner-space opera” — the internal blood and thunder of the mind (with some thud and blunder for comic relief). But the story could also, in a certain conceptual sense, be considered a zombie story. Or at another extreme, it’s basically a mainstream story set in the future. From another angle it’s a kind of domestic cyberpunk. Basically, though, it’s primarily about the final dissolution of a marriage.

The story’s history has some intrinsic interest of its own. I wrote “Anise” almost 20 years ago, around 1992. No one would touch it. It got rejected all over the place until Scott Edelman bought it for Science Fiction Age, but then his publisher refused to print it (see Scott’s blog for an account of this at http://www.scottedelman.com/2011/09/16/read-the-story-that-almost-made-me-quit-science-fiction-age/). The manuscript, along with my other unpublished fiction, eventually went into a box for 15 years or so while I moved on to other things. Earlier this year — for reasons I still don’t fully understand — I excavated the story, dusted it off, and sent it to Gordon Van Gelder. To my absolute, disbelieving astonishment, he accepted “Anise” for F&SF. Life is sometimes strange beyond telling.

What was the inspiration for “Anise,” or what prompted you to write it?

To be honest, I don’t remember — it was a long time ago! But I’ll say this, F&SF has some perceptive readers. On the F&SF forum, Miles McNerney recently pointed out that “Anise” is a kind of reworking of Robert Silverberg’s “Born with the Dead,” originally published in F&SF (April 1974). That made me go “Huh — I’d forgotten that!” I went into the basement and dug out the issue — which I had bought, at age 13, back when it was published, and still own after all these years — and reread “Born with the Dead.” McNerney was right; I even took my main character’s name (and the story’s title) from a description of one of the characters in “Born with the Dead.” But I’ll add that there’s also a few notes of Cordwainer Smith in there (as you might guess from the opening quote); and maybe even, I’d like to flatter myself, a smidgen of Roger Zelazny (specifically, “24 Views of Mt. Fuji, by Hokusai”). I don’t mean to drop names in an attempt to puff up my stature — I know that my writing doesn’t approach what those writers have created — but these three writers are among my primary inspirations, and those three stories specifically influenced “Anise.”

In the end, though, I’d like to think that “Anise” is unique and stands on its own.

What kind of research did you do for this story?

None, best as I can recall, which is very unusual for me — I’m a research junky. This is one of the few stories I’ve written without so much as a single trip to the library.

Most authors say their stories are personal. If that’s true for you, in what way was “Anise” personal?

Writing an account of the end of a relationship is too personal on too many levels to know where to begin, especially as a man who struggled to tell the story from the woman’s viewpoint. I do recall that a lot of the details in “Anise” were things that I either observed or were told to me by women I knew.

Over the last two decades, though, “Anise” has become something else, as well, something intensely personal to me; it was, I felt, the best thing I’d ever written, and it was pretty much dismissed as unpublishable. You can imagine how that might weigh on a writer’s mind. I’m grateful that Gordon Van Gelder didn’t agree with that assessment.

I’m still not sure exactly how I got back in the game. After abandoning fiction I spent nearly a decade on an extremely difficult writing project, The John Coltrane Reference, which involved thousands of hours of research. A follow-up book, Coltrane on Coltrane, took another year or so and was published in 2010. After that I sort of felt an itch. I began reading fiction again — I’d read virtually no fiction of any kind for more than a decade — and at some point, for reasons I don’t recall, dug out my old collection of Roger Zelazny books. Around the same time I discovered a comprehensive Zelazny blog (http://where-there-had-been-darkness.blogspot.com/p/joshs-roger-zelazny-commentaries.html) and the beautiful and essential six-volume Collected Stories of Roger Zelazny. After a few months of Zelazny immersion I descended into the basement and dug out my old manuscripts. “Anise” was still there, and still, I felt, sufficient.

What would you want a reader to take away from this story?

Intense emotion (preferably positive!).

What are you working on now?

A few things that might or might not go anywhere. I’m still working on Metal Machine Music, my attempt at the great American anti-novel — or, as I like to call it, an avant-garde pornographic pulp-gumshoe space-opera/time-travel sf-comedy anti-novel. (I think I’ll be lucky if I only have to wait another 20 years to get that one published.) A slightly less fractured novel called Strategies Against Frank Coffer’s Often Promulgated Wine Coolers & Fish Tins Inc. Plus a variety of shorter pieces, if they come off.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Kate Wilhelm taught me how to write. They say you can’t teach someone how to write, but I know that’s bull because Kate Wilhelm taught me how to write. I went to Clarion a million years ago and mostly it was what you’d expect, except for this one afternoon when Kate Wilhelm took one of my stories — and it was a dreadful story, complete drivel, something she shouldn’t have wasted a second of her life on — she took that pathetic story and went through it line by line, word by word, and showed me every writing sin I’d committed, every wasted word and silly image, all the clunky and meandering and meaningless detours around what I’d wanted to say, every wrong word and cringe-worthy pretension and embarrassing amateurish offense to the language. It was like a vast array of bright lights being switched on in my mind, one after another; it was dazzling. Kate Wilhelm taught me how to write.

 “Anise” appears in the September/October 2011 issue.

comments

One Response to “Interview: Chris DeVito on “Anise””

  1. SF Tidbits for 9/24/11 - SF Signal – A Speculative Fiction Blog on April 8th, 2012

    [...] The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction interviews Chris DeVito. [...]

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