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An Interview with Philip José Farmer (1918-2009)
conducted by Dave Truesdale

Philip José Farmer
Philip José Farmer
Philip José Farmer was born in 1918 in North Terre Haute, Indiana. He attended Bradley University, receiving a BA in English in 1950. His novella The Lovers, published in Startling Stories, won a Hugo Award in 1953. He won another in 1968 for the story "Riders of the Purple Wage," which was written for the Dangerous Visions series, and a third in 1972 for the first novel of the Riverworld series, To Your Scattered Bodies Go. Farmer has written also under a number of pseudonyms, the best known being Kilgore Trout. He passed away in February 2009.

Philip José Farmer Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Up from the Bottomless Pit and Other Stories
SF Site Review: Pearls from Peoria
SF Site Review: The Best of Philip José Farmer
SF Site Review: The Riverworld Saga
SF Site Review: Nothing Burns in Hell

Up from the Bottomless Pit and Other Stories
Pearls from Peoria
The Best of Philip José Farmer

Art: John Stevens
To Your Scattered Bodies Go
The Fabulous Riverboat
The Dark Design
The Magic Labyrinth
The following interview took place at Minicon 10, Minneapolis, MN, April 19, 1975 -- in the hotel bar. Its first and only publication appeared in Tangent #2, May, 1975. Interviewers were Dave Truesdale, Jerry Rauth, and Paul McGuire.

Some few months before this interview, Phil Farmer had written Venus on the Half-Shell as by one of Kurt Vonnegut's characters, Kilgore Trout. It was all the rage in the fan and semi-pro magazine press back then as fans and authors alike spilled a lot of ink trying to guess who Kilgore Trout really was. Who was the real author of this whacky, irreverent book that was selling like hot cakes and causing such a stir in SF circles? Thus the chess game of questions and answers below, as we try to get Phil Farmer to officially admit he was Kilgore Trout. As you'll see, we never gave up. Notice as well that during several pauses in the interview it was Phil who went back to the Kilgore Trout question himself, as if he was having as much fun with it as we were. No stuffy, academic interview here, I'm afraid. The atmosphere was loose, highly informal, and filled with constant laughter. I hope you enjoy the piece, and get a brief glimpse into a side of Phil Farmer his close friends knew only too well. He will be sorely missed.

The story by Kilgore Trout. Who was the first person to think of that?

Philip José Farmer: (Laughing) Well, you start off with a hard one. What you're trying to do is get me to admit I'm Kilgore Trout, right?

(Laughing) Right.
Philip José Farmer: Well, as I understand it -- I've had pretty close contact with Dell -- the writer of Venus on the Half-Shell, the real Kilgore Trout, can't reveal his identity until about the end of the year.

Is Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. involved in this at all?
Philip José Farmer: Oh, his permission had to be obtained.

He didn't write it, though?
Philip José Farmer: No. Vonnegut did not write it.

You won't admit that you wrote it?
Philip José Farmer: (Laughing) Well, a lot of people including myself are having a lot of fun with it, you know. I tell a lot of people it's a collaboration between Harry Harrison and Ted White. Or Joanna Russ and Phil Dick -- or Harlan Ellison and Captain S.P. Meek.

On a more recent work...
Philip José Farmer: I am the author of... I am Jonathan Swift Summers III. I got permission from "Kilgore Trout" to do it. Didn't have any trouble.

We heard you were working on the script for the second Doc Savage film.
Philip José Farmer: Not the script. I wrote the movie treatment, which is a prose outline of the story itself. That was for the second Doc Savage movie, Doc Savage, Arch Enemy of Evil. The first one will be coming out in May locally and then generally about August. George Pal and I conferred on that. I wrote it out in Burbank in the Warner Bros. studio. That's going to be a real Doc Savage movie.

Will it follow the book exactly?
Philip José Farmer: Well, no. In the first place, this is my first experience with movie writing and it's impossible to follow a book literally when you're transmuting the verbal form to the visual form. I recommended Murder Mirage as the basis, and then of course we used a lot of elements from other books in it. Shifted the whole thing around and I made up a lot of stuff myself. If the first movie goes well, then the script for the second will be written, and I'll have a pretty good chance to write that. Because actually I'm the only guy that knows anything about Doc Savage out there.

How long did it take you to write the Doc Savage biography?
Bette Farmer: Not near as long as it took to write Tarzan Alive.

Philip José Farmer: Well, in the actual writing -- remember I had to reread all 180 novels, more than once...

{Gordy Dickson enters the bar asking for Harry Harrison. He sits down with us to wait.}

Philip José Farmer: (Looking at Gordy, then back to us...) If you want to hear a lot of BS, well just wait. (Laughter around the table.)

How did you get into doing stuff like Tarzan, Doc Savage, Phileas Fogg and the like?
Philip José Farmer: Well, see, biographies of fictional characters are not new. The first one was the biography of the Scarlet Pimpernel, written back about 1937 by Baroness Orky's husband. There was a biography of Sherlock Holmes and Nero Wolfe. I read these and really dug'em, so I got the idea all of a sudden... Why not write a biography of Lord Greystoke? See, all of these biographies are based on the premise that these so-called fictional characters actually exist.

{Harry Harrison comes into the bar, grabs Gordy Dickson around the neck and lets loose with a titanic roar/growl. Much surprise and laughter.}

Philip José Farmer: See, I told you you'd hear a lot of BS...

So, if you take the attitude, that if you're tackling a whole series of novels, then you're committed to a lot of discrepancies, the author has contradicted himself. There are then things you have to explain -- you have to reconcile these discrepancies, which generates a lot of new stuff.

So, it took me quite a while to write the Tarzan biography. That one was about six months, not counting the genealogy which took a lot of time. After this and a few other things I decided to do Doc Savage, and I've had a lot of fun with that, too.

But right now I'm working on the third Riverworld novel which should be out in late 1976. It's going to be a long book.

{Following a pause to order more drinks}

Philip José Farmer: I'm sorry I can't answer more about Trout. I can tell you how I got involved with it. You know, I wrote a short biography about Trout which appeared in a fanzine first and then I rewrote it and it appeared in The Book of Philip José Farmer. And then I have close contact with Dell, and one of the things I had to worry about was just when in the hell was Kilgore Trout born, because Vonnegut's three novels have discrepant items. He was either born in 1906 or 1912 or 1917, so I managed to get the galleys of Breakfast of Champions before they were published and noted that he had put down the date when Trout was born; you know, he had that tombstone illustration. However, it got all screwed up when it came out because the printer made a typo and it came out 1906 instead of 1907.

Sometime then at the end of this year it's going to be revealed who Kilgore Trout is?
Philip José Farmer: Yes. ...Maybe before then, I don't know. I can tell you that Vonnegut has denied permission to write The Son of Jimmy Valentine. I'm not sure just exactly why, but I think he is -- from what he said -- I think he's afraid too many people will think he wrote it.

Do you plan to do any more books like Adventures of the Peerless Peer?
Philip José Farmer: Yes, I'm going to write another one which will be sort of a sequel in which Holmes and Watson will be in Ireland and will meet up with Leopold Bloom. They'll get involved in a mystery. Leopold Bloom, of course, is one of the two major characters in James Joyces's Ulysses. Unfortunately I won't be able to use Leopold Bloom's real name, but the idea is that he was a Baronet and he translates his name into Irish. His name will then be Blatha.

What books of yours were the most fun?
Philip José Farmer: Well, I can't tell you the one I considered the most fun.

Bette (to Phil): I think they'd better talk to you next year.

Philip José Farmer: Well, I don't know. What's my favorite novel? Of course, I really like the Riverworld series, but actually the first two are only preludes to what I consider to be the symphony -- the third one. I liked writing Flesh, and Lord Tyger is about my second favorite one. Now that one nobody paid much attention to; everybody took it for granted that it was just another Tarzan takeoff. It's not. In order to understand the structure and everything that's really going on there, you've got to be familiar with Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces. If you read that, then read Lord Tyger, you can follow Campbell's motif right on through the novel. No critic ever noticed that.

What about your fictional author series?
Philip José Farmer: Well, I just started that, of course. I got the idea from the Kilgore Trout novel. And that is: Why not write a series of stories by writers who are characters in fiction. Well, of course Kilgore Trout is a character in fiction who is a writer, right? Well, he writes a novel but then his hero has a favorite science fiction author -- Jonathan Swift Summers III. So then you write stories by Summers. And then somewhere in the future Ralph von Volwell stories by Summers you'll find out Ralph von Volwell has written a novel called Some Humans Don't Stink.

That will come out eventually, of course, but I had so many characters that I couldn't handle them all myself, so I asked Gene Wolfe to write a story about David Copperfield. And Leslie Fiedler is thinking about writing a story about Gustav von Auschenbach, the writer/hero of Thomas Mann's Death in Venice. I had to get permission for all this stuff.

Who is the fellow who poses for the pictures of Kilgore Trout?
Philip José Farmer: (After a long pause...) Well, the guy who wrote the novel (laughs). No, that's actually Trout. I mean uh..., because if... uh...

Someone has supposedly seen and talked to Trout who says he looks exactly like in the photographs. What about that?
Philip José Farmer: Well, that's pure fantasy. Yeah, I like to pass around all these rumors I mentioned earlier. Like Joanna Russ and Phil Dick collaborating on Venus. I suppose you're aware of the feud between these two. Joanna threatened to beat up Phil Dick (laughs). Which she can probably do.

Bette: Did you see Geis's article about the Trout novel?

Philip José Farmer: He read the first twenty pages of the abridged magazine version, said that it was Vonnegut, and took off on a tirade against Vonnegut. Somebody mailed it to Vonnegut and it really teed him off. Well, it was obvious that Geis just assumed it was Vonnegut and he didn't like Vonnegut. He said the novel made fun of science fiction readers and writers and it doesn't, not at all. He totally misinterpreted it. Anyway, I guess there won't be any more Trout novels.

You can think of something, can't you?
Philip José Farmer: Well... you have to get Vonnegut's permission as I understand it.

Could you tell us more of the third Riverworld novel?
Philip José Farmer: Not directly on that right now, but I had the idea to write sort of a sidestream novel. Tom Mix, who is one of the chosen twelve in the Riverworld series, will be going up the river to find the other twelve when he runs into people who are representative of each one of the major fields of human endeavor. Like Karl Marx, then Leonardo da Vinci, and then some famous inventor and maybe some famous military man. But all this would have to be separate from the main novel.

Besides the Riverworld novel, what else are you working on now?
Philip José Farmer: Forry Ackerman is driving a deal with some publishing company in Philadelphia to bring out an anthology entitled The Bicentennial Man, which, of course, goes with the bi-centennial theme. All the stories are by science fiction writers. Isaac Asimov I think, turned in a story about a two hundred year-old robot that went all through America's history, and Ray Bradbury turned in a play.

I signed the contract and got the advance and then got to thinking about the shape we're in now and got madder and madder, and finally I called up Forry and said listen, I'm going to have to give you your money back because I don't think I can do it. You want upbeat stories, right? He said right. Then I said well, no, I'd better not do it. He said no, that's alright, I'll give you three more weeks and keep the money.

I had about four or five ideas that I rejected. One of them was an idea I got while in the Men's room at the L.A. airport. The original title was "Men's Room, USA." Right now it's called "Fundamental Issue." (Laughs) It's about a U.S. Supreme Court Justice who has come back from a vacation in Tahiti with his young wife, and he's suffering from constipation. And while they're waiting in the airport, he goes into the Men's room, and it's sort of a microcosm of what's happening today. While he's in the toilet he sees and hears all sorts of things. In the meantime, he's pondering this big decision he has to make about a laser-fusion reactor they're building in upper New York, in a town named Wahoppe. He can't make up his mind what the heck to do with it and he sees this drunken U.S. senator he knows and he thinks that -- but he's not sure -- that this guy who's trying to build this plant is trying to slip him an attache case full of money -- but he's not sure. Anyway, it gets stolen by an Italian. Oh, and also when he goes into the toilet he sees a whole bunch of workmen hammering on a wall, and he wonders what the heck they're doing. First, he thinks they're looking for a bomb, but he says to himself no, it can't be because they'd be evacuating everybody -- in more than one sense. So, he decides simultaneously with his BM -- you know, his decision comes through. The two are very closely connected. And he leaves feeling better, but as he goes out he sees the wall is torn down and the passage between the Men's room and the Women's room is open now. Which is a recent appellate court decision, and he knows damn well he's got to get that case pretty soon. (Laughs) So he goes out to his wife -- and I use a little bit of Bette here -- and she's doing a crossword puzzle and she says, "Are you going to believe this coincidence? I've got the word Wahoppe in my puzzle." And he says, "Well, I'll believe anything today." She says that it's an old Indian word from the Oneida/Iroquois meaning He Sat Down. (Laughs) But uh, I don't know if Forry is going to take that story or not.

But I thought that everything that's going on in the Men's room is sort of a microcosm of everything going on today; ideals, as opposed to the constitution, and so forth, and you can see the contrast. And also, I had some graffiti but I cut that out because it wasn't really relevant, and also because the story was getting too long already.

There's really not much moving up until the end when the Supreme Court Justice finally gets rid of his constipation and comes to his decision. I think Forry's going to have a hemorrhage when he sees it. We'll just have to wait and see how it all comes out.

{Phil pauses to order more drinks around}

Philip José Farmer: Sorry I can't tell you more about Trout right now. I did get a letter sent to me by Ed Ferman because he knew I was interested in it. He knew I'd get a kick out of it, from a fan in New Jersey who swore up and down that Trout had to be a Yiddish writer because nobody but a Yiddish writer would be able to do that big standup cosmic comedian scene at the end where, you know, Why Not? He's in for a shock, too. (Laughs)

Well, we'll anxiously await the unveiling of Kilgore Trout.
Philip José Farmer: Well, Vonnegut can't write a takeoff on Trout now, because everybody would think the real Trout did it. I mean, you know, when he finally unveils himself.

Bette: The funny thing is, that nobody here at the convention, the writers, is giving an opinion on the Kilgore Trout novel. And I think it's because nobody knows who wrote it and they're afraid they'll say the wrong thing to the wrong person… or the wrong thing to the right person. The thing that worries me is that you'd think if they liked it they'd say so.

I think you wrote it and you're a devious old man.
Philip José Farmer: (Laughing) You think I'm incorrigible?

You did notice that Kilgore Trout will be revealed in a year, which is then when you can tell us which novel you had the most fun writing?
Philip José Farmer: Yeah, well, Dell is going to have a Who Is Kilgore Trout contest -- said they were anyway -- but you can take my word for it, it's not Vonnegut. And if you'd like to see The Son of Jimmy Valentine, write to Vonnegut.

Well, I've got to find a Men's room and then I've got to eat some lunch.
Philip José Farmer: Well, don't come to any important decisions.

(Laughter from all.)

*     *     *

So did Dell have their Who Is Kilgore Trout contest? If so, who won? When was it officially revealed that Philip José Farmer was indeed the pseudonymous Kilgore Trout who wrote the irreverent, hilarious Venus on the Half-Shell? All of these questions were soon answered, and in the same issue of Tangent in which Mr. Farmer's interview appeared. Herewith, my editorial, written barely three weeks following the interview, titled:

"Farmer Revealed as Kilgore Trout"

Well, friends, the gig is finally up. Officially and formally and finally. For about six months or so the question has intrigued, enraged, and brought fun and hours of speculation for many as to just who the author of Venus on the Half-Shell truly was: Kilgore Trout himself, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., or none other than Philip José Farmer.

When at Minicon 10 this past April 18-20, we interviewed Mr. Farmer as well as Donald A. Wollheim, Harry Harrison, Poul Anderson, William Tenn, Judy Lynn and Lester del Rey, Gordon R. Dickson, and Clifford Simak. In so doing, we were privileged to learn some valuable information on the subject of Kilgore Trout from Mr. Farmer and his wife. It seems to me that Mr. Farmer gave us everything he could without coming right out and saying that he was indeed the infamous Mr. Trout. Which a lot of folks suspected, to say the least. Well, it seems that by an unfortunate turn of events involving The New York Times that Mr. Farmer was -- not by direct use of his name -- connected irreversibly with the writing of the above-mentioned novel, Venus. It seems The NY Times said that the writer lived in Peoria, Illinois, which, as everyone knows, is the home of Mr. Farmer. Well, to be honest, I couldn't resist the temptation of calling Mr. Farmer personally and finding out what he had to say on the subject, mainly for two reasons: one, of at least attempting to be the first magazine to have a formal statement from whomever the author was; and two, personal curiosity.

So tonight, May 8th, 1975, I called Phil Farmer and asked him about the article in The New York Times. He told me, straight out, that he was the author of Venus on the Half-Shell. I was disappointed. He and many others were having a hell of a lot of fun with this charade, and even though most people by now knew it was him anyway, it took a lot of fun out of the game.

Phil Farmer admitted he was extremely "teed off" by The Times, and said he could have weaseled out of it by saying that it was a joke or hoax, or that there were, of course, others who wrote from Peoria, but then said he might as well admit to the fact because it wasn't worth it anymore.

In our interview on April 19th, Mr. Farmer said that Dell, as far as he knew, was planning on having a Who Is Kilgore Trout? contest, and when asked about it now, said that he didn't know what Dell was going to do, but that the contest was only for publicity anyway. Now that Venus is in its third printing with 250,000 copies already out, it seems that a contest would be virtually meaningless. I don't have to go into it here, but what would Dell, or rather how much would Dell really gain by such a promotion? Answer: Not nearly as much as if the "secret" had been maintained until the desired date -- sometime next year.

So. Well. There you have it. The author of Venus on the Half-Shell is Philip José Farmer. I thought the book was hilarious and worth my time -- and money. It's too bad that The New York Times didn't think it was worth Phil Farmer's respect.

It's been fun, anyway.

*     *     *


Minicon 10 was my first real SF convention. I'd never met an SF author before. I was only 24 years old. Phil Farmer was 57. I am now 58, and recall that Minicon with great joy and fondness. The authors were much younger then and larger than life to me (life-long friends Gordy Dickson and Poul Anderson, also at that Minicon, are now gone as well, dying six months to the day from each other -- Jan. 31st and July 31st, respectively, 2001), their energy and laughter throughout the entire weekend was infectious -- especially that of Gordy Dickson, Harry Harrison, and Phil Farmer. While Gordy and Harry laughed loud and hard, Phil was much quieter in his laughter. His humor took more the aspect of a constant chuckle bubbling just beneath the surface; he seemed always to have a sly twinkle in his eye as he delighted in bawdy puns (some really bad), and I'll never forget his graciousness as he gave "the kid," the newcomer to SF conventions who'd never met an SF author before, an hour or two of his time. First impressions go a long way, and I'll never forget that first impression of Phil Farmer. I will always remember his ruddy cheeks, the mischievous gleam in his eyes, and the impish little half-smile which seemed never to leave his face.

As silly as it might appear in retrospect now, some 34 years later, and not quite so important as back then, Tangent was indeed the first publication to officially announce that Phil had written Venus (though I learned later that Charles Brown of the then fledgling news magazine Locus had known about it for a year; Locus's revelation would soon follow). So in my youthful exuberance and rush to get that Phil Farmer issue of Tangent mimeographed, stapled together and in the mail, I slapped on the front cover, in large, bold letters:


Thanks, Phil.

Copyright © 2009 by Dave Truesdale

Dave Truesdale has edited Tangent and now Tangent Online since 1993. It has been nominated for the Hugo Award four times, and the World Fantasy Award once. A former editor of the Bulletin of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, he also served as a World Fantasy Award judge in 1998, and currently writes an original online column for The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.

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