A Conversation With Roger Zelazny
8th April, 1978
(Talking with Terry Dowling and Keith Curtis)
Reprinted with permission from Volume 1, #2 (June 1978) of Science Fiction
It is a grey, overcast Saturday afternoon in April, and we are sitting downstairs in the enormous "games room" of Ron Graham's home in Sydney, directly beneath "the best science fiction library in the world", and before that splendid "bubble" window, modelled on some Heinlein story. Rain is falling in the valley beyond the glass, the tape recorder has just been turned on, and Roger Zelazny is pulling on his pipe.
We catch him midstride, discussing one of his own favourite themes - mythology, though here it with regard to Wilson Tucker's use of Gilgamesh as an immortal character in the novels The Time Masters (1953) and Time Bomb (1955), a character who has clear parallels with his own hero of "Call Me Conrad". We pick up the thread with mention of Tucker's present undertaking -- a novel actually set back in Sumerian times, a technical point being made that Tucker does not have to force himself to write....
Do you have to force yourself to write?
Sometimes. I don't have any system. I've said this in the past but it's true. I try to sit down at the typewriter four times a day, even if it's only five minutes, and write three sentences. And if I feel like going on, or if something turns me on I'll just keep writing till I'm written out. The next time I might just sit down and write the three sentences and nothing else will come. It's static, so I'll just leave it. The next time I come back I'll go through three more. This might go on for a few days, just three sentences at a time. Then suddenly, I'll find a part I really like and I'll just write and write. It sort of averages out. The short pieces are different. I usually have the entire image of the story in my head, and I'll just sit down and write it very quickly. That's pretty much the case.
What about themes? Do you find yourself coming back to a particular theme? The mythology angle, for instance....
Yeah, the mythology is kind of a pattern. I'm very taken by mythology. I read it at a very early age and kept on reading it. Before I discovered science fiction I was reading mythology. And from that I got interested in comparative religion and folklore and related subjects. And when I began writing, it was just a fertile area I could use in my stories.
I was saying at the convention in Melbourne that after a time I got typed as a writer of mythological science fiction, and at a convention I'd go to I'd invariably wind up on a panel with the title "Mythology and Science Fiction". I felt a little badly about this, I was getting considered as exclusively that sort of writer. So I intentionally tried to break away from it with things like Doorways in the Sand and those detective stories which came out in the book My Name Is Legion, and other things where I tried to keep the science more central.
But I do find the mythological things are creeping in. I worked out a book which I thought was just straight science fiction -- with everything pretty much explained, and suddenly I got an idea which I thought was kind of neat for working in a mythological angle. I'm really struggling with myself. It would probably be a better book if I include it, but on the other hand I don't always like to keep reverting to it. I think what I'm going to do is vary my output, do some straight science fiction and some straight fantasy that doesn't involve mythology, and composites.
You're really into this idea of relocating the myths, re-setting the archetypes.
It's always seemed to me that one of the most natural areas for an American fantasy author to work in would be American Indian mythology. Or might it be a case of the opposite reaction, of avoiding the obvious? And you've got to feel the attraction of that mythology, haven't you? With your move from Baltimore to Santa Fe, have you considered doing an American Indian mythology? You're in the area.
I have thought of it, yes! I would still like to learn a lot more about it. I'm picking it up as time goes on. And things have occurred to me.
There's the fantasy possibility of the Hopi-Kachinas, for instance. No one has ever really utilized that.
There's a mystery novel that won the Edgar a few years ago, called Dancehall of the Dead, by Tony Hillerman, which involves a Navaho detective working to solve a murder which occurs on the Zuni reservation. It's run by the Navaho -- pardon me -- it's the Hopi. I drove through there once and stopped at Second Mesa and bought two kachinas. The Hopi's reservation land is surrounded by the Navaho's, but they're very dissimilar in their religions and their personal living habits. The Hopi's all live bunched together in apartment-type things, and the Navaho's are spread out more. To solve this mystery, the Navaho detective has to learn things about the Hopi's, about their religion, that he did not even know himself. And this murder involves the Kachinas, and the Kachinas are supposed to dance beneath this dead lake in a place called the "Dancehall of the Dead". It's a very interesting book. Tony Hillerman has done other mystery things, but this was the one that he really did well.
Then there's Andre Norton. She is of Indian descent, and she's used this in Lord of Thunder. And Phil Farmer also has some Indian ancestry, and he's occasionally referred to it. But it hasn't been central to the stories I'm thinking of. It's been peripheral. The Kickaha stories, for instance....
Is there an attraction for you in American Indian mythology?
Yes, there is. It's still at that very nebulous stage, though. I'm just absorbing material. Something may come of it one day. I don't like to rush things.
How do you see your work as relating to "Literature"?
Well, I see myself as a novelist, period. I mean, the material I work with is what is classified as science fiction and fantasy, and I really don't think about these things when I'm writing. I'm just thinking about telling a story and developing my characters.
Do you ever plan publishing your poetry, aside from your short stories and your novels?
Oh, that would be fun sometime, I guess, to put together a collection.
Do you only write poetry now and again or are you constantly writing it?
Just now and again, really. I've said before, I think, that shifting from a novel to a short story mode of thinking is a difficult thing. That's why I haven't written many short stories in recent years. But shifting from either of them to poetry is much more difficult for me.
You had that small volume at Discon, of course.
Yeah, that. It has been suggested that I expand that. There are other poems that weren't included in it, and there are some that I have written since which I rather like. I suppose I could put together a small volume, and probably -- yeah, I think I'd like to do that some day.
If you had your 'druthers, what would you rather write? What kind of novel?
Ah, now that's hard to say -- because I never plan ahead, with the exception of the Amber books which had to proceed in sequence. But I don't really like to know what I'm going to be working on a year in advance. So I just sign blank contracts for books and whatever strikes me as a good idea is what I write about. If I had my 'druthers just writing, I think I'd like to quit doing novels for a year or two and just do short stories. I really like to do short stories, and I've done so few in recent years that I'd just like to go back to them -- do a whole bunch of short stories. It may come to pass when I do a couple of books I have under contract that I do something like that for a change. I still tend to think of myself as a short story writer.
How many more Amber novels do you plan? You've got no time limit on it.
The fifth one concluded the story that began in Nine Princes in Amber, so that's five books in the series. I don't really have anything more planned just now. It's set up in such a manner, though, that I could come back to it someday and use the surviving characters in a variety of ways if I wanted to write more Amber books. But I'd be starting a new story. I've thought of telling the story from one of the other characters' point of view -- or points of view perhaps -- I still may do that. I've got the world involved pretty firmly in mind, so it wouldn't be that difficult a thing. Actually, in the series originally, I had intended to tell the different books from the different characters' points of view. It's just that I got taken by Corwin as a character and decided to stay with him. The closest I came was in that section where I had Random narrating an adventure to Corwin and friends, which is in the first person there. I was going to do a little more of that later on with some of the others as a matter of fact, but it didn't fit in with the way I finally conceived it. But the thing is, with so many characters being used in that series, I couldn't really characterize them all the way I wanted to in one book. I wanted to get each one pretty well characterized by the end of the thing, and one way which occurred to me was to shift narrative viewpoints, and I didn't do it. So I tried to draw in other ways of showing them. But it's still possible to do a book from the viewpoint of one of the others.
With so many characters being handled at the one time, how did you keep track of them? By the time you get to the fourth and fifth book, there's been a lot happening beforehand. Did you just rely on memory?
Yes! After the fourth book, I did sit down and ask myself some questions, like, what hasn't been answered so far? And I mean (laughs) -- there are some things -- if I get enough letters saying you never explained this or that, I suppose I'll have to write another book. But I think I thought of everything I wanted to say, and got it in.
Are you yourself pleased with the fact that it went to five books?
Yes. I would not have liked writing them all in sequence. I had to do other things in between. But yes, I have to admit I enjoyed them.
Of your books, which is your personal favourite?
Hm. Probably Lord of Light, if I have to name one. Just because I expended more effort on that book. And I was pleased with the result. It's more ambitious than most of them. I was happy with the way it turned out. I have a sentimental attachment to This Immortal because it's my first book. Of the recent ones, I like Doorways in the Sand because it's different from the others. I like the way it worked out also.
A lot of people have found Lord of Light a difficult novel to get into, possibly because Hindu mythology is so formidable.
Well, I had to edit out a lot of the stuff, of course. There was so much material and I had to be very selective in the parts I was going to use. One of the reasons I chose the Hindus was because it hadn't been done much in science fiction. It seemed that a lot of people liked the Norse and the Celtic mythologies so much. I wanted something a bit different, and I was looking for some sort of philosophical tradition that would justify the employment of some means of reincarnation and transmigration.
It was mentioned in Melbourne that you had said you were collaborating with Jack Vance.
Oh, this was a suggested project. Nothing has come of it. I haven't even spoken with Jack. There was a proposed book that would involve three authors who traded sections of it, with an artist to do books illustrating them subsequently. This was purely a proposal. It's up in the air. It was suggested last summer, and I haven't heard anything more of it since. I'm not collaborating with anyone on anything right now.
How many collaborations is that to date? Just the two? Harlan Ellison and....
Harlan Ellison - that one short story. Phil Dick - the novel. And some years ago I did a few short stories with Danny Proctor. And I suppose as a sort of mixed medium thing you can count The Illustrated Zelazny as a collaboration with Gray Morrow. He had his notions of the things he wanted to illustrate and a rough outline of the story, and I bodied it out some more and wrote the continuity. It worked out reasonably well.
Were you pleased with what Morrow did, and actually working with Morrow?
Yes. Actually....Yeah, I was extremely happy with Morrow's work in the book. I didn't work directly with Morrow for that. I was working through Byron Price [sic] who put the project together for Baronet Books. He would get our materials from Morrow, look it over and write me a letter incorporating Morrow's suggestions, and so on, and I would respond to this with whatever I felt best and send it back to them. Then he'd talk to Gray. So it was through an intermediary we were doing this. It worked well, though.
Would you like to do more along that line?
Yes, I think I would. It was fun.
On the collaboration with Dick (Deus Irae), was that through an intermediary or direct with him?
That was with Phil Dick. We live in different parts of the country, so we didn't really get together to talk it over except once, and that was in '68 at the Baycon. We spent the evening talking about it. Phil had written an essay outline for the entire book. He'd also written the first fifty pages of manuscript, and all I did was I would write a section -- I wrote the next section following his -- and send it back to him. He looked it over and did a section himself and sent it back to me, and really it didn't seem that it required much discussion. It flowed very naturally as far as I was concerned. I'd just take his work and continue it from there and he did the same with mine. I don't think we really asked each other questions particularly. Each time I've worked with anyone like this before, it's been very different. I guess that's part of the fun of collaborating. It's not something I'd like to do all the time, but every time I've done it, I've learned something. I've learnt the way another person's mind works. My own approach, whenever I do something like this, is to try to learn how the other person thinks, so that I can anticipate him. It's a kind of Stanislavskyan method of writing, I guess (laughs).
Did it work that way with the Harlan Ellison collaboration ("Come to Me Not in Winter's White")?
That was so short that it didn't entail that much effort. It was just one basic idea. I did a section, he did a section, I did a section, and he took it and finished it and it was all over. In very brief sections. So I didn't have to become Harlan Ellison exactly (laughs).
Science fiction as Art. One of the curliest questions of all time. What do you see as the future of science fiction as a whole, as a form of literature? Do you foresee it becoming more and more incorporated into the mainstream? Or do you see a reversal of the present trend whereas they become separated?
I don't think it'll ever be completely joined up. Maybe I'm wrong. My entire experience with it for about thirty years would be of seeing it as a thing apart. It seems in other ways, in some respects, that the mainstream authors are tending to use more and more science fiction notions. But their books aren't really classified as science fiction and I suppose they're not because they're also doing other things. I personally feel that it is going to stay a thing apart, that it will undergo vogues, as it were. I think there will be periods when it's more highly regarded and then it will slip back again. It seems throughout what I've seen of its history that it's been a cyclic pattern--it rises to prominence for a time. Something will set it off briefly, like the space programme or, well just recently a couple of good movies that got a lot of attention back in the States, like Star Wars and Close Encounters -- and science fiction books become very popular. Then, of course, everyone will jump on the movie band-waggon and produce a crop of grade-B movies, and they'll sink, and then people will slip back to reading other things. But there's a certain residuum that remains.
I suppose the biggest single thing that's happened in the last decade has been an academic interest in science fiction in the States. I get invitations periodically to speak at different universities and such, and I've learned there are science fiction courses being taught all over. Jack Williamson has counted something like 2000 of them, so it has gotten in, and the Modern Languages Association has this special section on the Science Fiction Research Association with their periodical, Extrapolation, so it's got this air of academic respectability that's attached to it. I've heard it argued on both sides that this is a good thing and that this is a bad thing, and some of the arguments are against it. Newer writers may begin writing for an academic market and aiming some of their pieces at satisfying academic criticism, and lose something of its pure quality inasmuch the writer had basically thought of it as entertainment. On the other hand, I've never felt this way personally, and I've spoken to a lot of other writers who say they never think about that sort of thing and are just writing their stories.
The only thing that would bother me, is if anyone were to be forced to read something I had written. That would go against my grain. If you're taking a course and you've got to read Zelazny by Thursday! I sold stories to people who were putting together textbooks involved in science fiction, and I've looked through them to see my stories, and I get to the end and they have a series of questions about what the author is trying to do, and what symbolism it involves, and some of the questions I couldn't answer myself (laughs), and I wrote the stories!
Do you read much outside of your own field? Do you read criticism?
No. Not too much. I've never been that interested in critical appraisals of my work. Most of my reading is outside of science fiction actually. I read about six or seven books at a time, and I read something of each of them every day to keep them all moving. But most of them are non-fiction. I keep one on the physical sciences, one on the life sciences, a history book, other things of the sort. I keep one science fiction book going at all times just to keep abreast of the new things that are happening, and to catch up on some classics that I've missed out on. One work of general fiction....
Do you have favourite science fiction writers?
Ah. Not really. It varies. I mean, I like a lot of the new ones who are coming along. Of the older ones, my tastes are probably pretty much the same as most people who have been reading it for a long time now. Phil Farmer is a favourite of mine. I read most of Heinlein at a fairly early age. And I like Ray Bradbury. Of the newer ones -- Ed Bryant, Tom Monteleone, Michael Bishop, George R.R. Martin....
It sounds a bit churlish, but Farmer's Tiers novels -- were they in your mind at all when Amber was being written?
Yes! Yes, they were.
Which means that you had to consciously avoid any kind of similarity?
Well I didn't really have to try to avoid that. I couldn't do it quite that way. But one of the things that had occurred to me about the Tiers novels was that I liked the fact that Farmer had these nearly immortal Lords who tested one another, and I was thinking that the family relationships involved with something like that would have been more fun to explore. That's why I dedicated one of the Amber books to Phil Farmer -- I told him about it -- and possibly why he dedicated the last World of Tiers novel to me. There is a relationship, but I was trying to do different things with it. Yes, I'm a great admirer of Farmer's. A very fertile imagination. A fine writer!
Do you ever see yourself as being anything other than a writer?
No. I can't conceive of doing anything else the way I do writing. I can see myself doing something else along with writing. I don't have to write. There are plenty of things to spend my time with.
Were you a science fiction fan before becoming a writer, or vice versa?
I was a fan before I was a writer. I had a few things in fanzines in the early 50's actually. But I'd been reading science fiction before that, and reading fanzines. The first convention I attended was in 1955 -- the Worldcon in Cleveland. I didn't attend another one for eleven years. We lived too far away.
Did you ever do any fanzine work?
I was assistant editor of a very brief-running fanzine in the early 50's. That's '52 and '53.
How do you feel about the film of Damnation Alley? No?
A bad subject?
I was not happy.... I wasn't connected with the production so I don't feel it's a personal failure.
Did they give you a chance to be involved with it?
Not really. They let me read the script a couple of years before it came out. But it was a different script, and it went through numerous revisions after that and I didn't see the final version of it. I think they could have done a better job.
Have there been other approaches made about doing films of your work?
I've got some other options. There's the short story, "The Keys to December". The Dream Master is under some option. All of the Amber books, there's a possibility there might be an Amber movie.
How do you feel about that? Do you think it loses by being a film?
I don't know. The guy had an interesting approach. He thought he might do it the way George MacDonald Fraser did The Three Musketeers / The Four Musketeers. You have the one long script for the story, shoot about eight hours, and then edit it down into two or three movies. I'd like to do this.
Would you like to be involved with that? Is that the way your mind goes?
I don't like to get involved with scripts. Unless I had to agree for the contract. And if we did that, used all five Amber stories, and they shot the entire thing, made a few movies, and they were successful -- if they wanted to do another one, then I would work on a sequel to the existing Amber books and work on the script. But I wouldn't really like to do scripts as I understand the process right now.
Other than films, have you been approached to do the Amber stories in any other medium? Like comics?
Marvel Comics was interested at one time. But my agent didn't like the agreement and the approach, and they apparently didn't like the alternatives. Nothing ever came of it.
The Morrow-illustrated book can't exactly be called a comic, because it's more than that. Yet, do you yourself want to work in a comic medium?
I wouldn't mind doing that as much as I would movies. With the one I did in mind, I can see that it's not as restrictive as I think film scripts would be. But talking so much with Harlan about how much your work would have changed between composition and its actual appearance, I just don't like to think of my stuff going that route. But a comic is okay. There's just one other person involved and you can work things out with him to your mutual satisfaction.
The preceding interview has been presented exactly as it took place -- the substantial part of a longer and more relaxed conversation. Editing has been kept to a minimum, used mainly to standardize a three-way exchange into a simple question-and-answer format. The question sequence is as it occurred, determined, alas, by the length of the tape.
-T.D. and K.C.
Erratum: The name Byron Preiss has been transcribed on page 17 as "Byron Price".