Literary Hub

Samuel Delany: “If You’re Going to Write Anything, Try to Take it Seriously”

For part one of Samuel Delany’s conversation with Adam Fitzgerald, head here.

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Adam Fitzgerald: Looking at The Journals, it’s very clear to me that there’s a lot of architectural planning of novel writing in these books. Not just drafting of names, themes, young erotica or musical playlists. Not just recordings of one’s thoughts. From the outset, there’s clearly an architectural investigation about how to plan for then attempt writing a book’s structure.

SD: Two things. One of the things, of course, that causes that or gives that effect is the way the journals have been edited. There are lots and lots of first drafts, lots and lots of false starts that are not included because Ken James wasn’t interested in putting in alternate versions of things that were later published. So that’s one way in which it tends to veer towards the super-structural. Two, one of the things I do remember is at age 17 reading Moby Dick in the car on my way to Oak Bluffs with my parents, and in the introduction to the paperback edition, it said that novels were great because of their form. The introduction even said that works of art are great because of their form—and I thought yeah, that’s true. And from then on I did become something of a superstructuralist. So that’s where that may have even come from. You did have to take care of the form. We’ve talked about why Another Country seemed so sloppy to me because it didn’t seem to adhere to a form. It did seem to be a relatively formless novel vis-à-vis Giovanni’s Room. And I began to look for form in the artworks that I thought were important, and when the form seemed slovenly, I was less likely to be enthusiastic about the work.

AF: Today, a student could take a creative writing class, they could go into an MFA program, they could read dozens and dozens of books by people of all kinds of talents or backgrounds (hopefully). How did a novel writer then plan for writing a story of hundreds of pages without those resources?

SD: Well, most of those early novels were not that long. I grew up thinking of a novel as 60,000 words.

AF: Right, which you’d say in paperback is about how many pages?

SD: 148.

AF: That sounds like an incredibly ambitious, intimidating length!

SD: We had paperback books. Paperback books were just coming in starting in the early fifties. We had cheap books—they were 25 cents then—and the Signet Giants was 50 cents. I was just out of elementary school. We also had Vintage paperbacks, and the first Vintage paperback that I bought was The Rebel by Camus, and the next one was Stewart Gilbert’s Ulysses: A Study which I read some of, and then pretty soon I actually had the modern library Ulysses itself. When I bought it, I thought I was getting the real thing, and I felt very cheated, but I read it, and indeed I read Ulysses about the same time I read Moby Dick. I also realized there were certain things that happened that were not formal, there were things that happened just because of the wonders of the actual writing.

When I first started reading Ulysses, I opened it to the sentence: “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan” and suddenly there was a reference to this oakpale hair, and there I am in the middle of my bedroom on the third floor of my Harlem home, and Buck Mulligan is in the room with me. There’s a man with oakpale hair. And that’s not form, that’s just a metaphor that happened to work. I knew what oak looked like but I’d never seen hair compared to pale oak before. I thought, How did he do that? That’s what I wanted to do. Very soon, somebody told me—a mentor of mine, a guy named Richard Enton said—make your writing as clean as possible unless you’re doing something special. And when you’re doing something special, do it. That lapses into a formal restraint, but I was aware that the precision of all of the writing was to support the parts of the writing that were magic.

Later on, I recognized this same notion again when I talked to people in the Berkeley Renaissance in my early twenties. Part of that aesthetic platform was good art makes great art looks better, so that’s why it was the poets of the Berkeley Renaissance and the San Francisco Renaissance held as part of their aesthetic platform to foster younger writers, especially the good ones. All of that came very early, all of that came before computers, and so I followed it. Joyce’s writing is very clean, and then every once in a while he does something quite amazing. And the amazing to the clean is of a proportion enough to make the notable, and that’s kind of how it had to work, I think.

“The precision of all of the writing was to support the parts of the writing that were magic.”

AF: I guess I’m just interested in how you trained to achieve those effects, embedded within the larger structure of the novel.

SD: The training comes in the parts of Ulysses: A Study that are simply Stewart Gilbert’s; the training comes in the introductions to Melville that say, you know, great art is a formal. Today we are all formalists, there’s no way you can’t be a formalist, but at the same time you can appreciate that formalism gives you a setting to appreciate these verses of poetry, if you will, of Melville.

AF: Were teachers available, or was the literary and formal knowledge you sought come from being self-trained?

SD: It was from being an autodidact and assuming that there were other autodidacts out there to find. I found Marilyn Hacker. Going to the Bronx High School of Science, being part of Dynamo, the club that produced the school magazine. Getting a bunch of people to perform a play by Marilyn upstairs while Diane de Prima and LeRoi Jones were downstairs producing their work. Diane came up to watch our little show. But I had heard about Diane Di Prima from my friend Judy Ratner, my downstairs neighbor eventually for 40-something years.  I bought Diane’s first book This Kind of Bird Flies Backwards and memorized some of the poems because I thought they were wonderful.

AF: When you were finishing up at the Bronx High School of Science, were you thinking about college?

SD: Oh sure, yes, I wanted to go to college. Marilyn was a year ahead of me, and she left school two years earlier, basically when I was starting my third year. She had already gone on to NYU, and socially I followed her even though she was in another school at that point, and she was meeting much more sophisticated and older people. So I followed her, and that was my social scene. That was where I met Marie Ponsot who gave me, when I was 16, a copy of Nightwood by Djuna Barnes.

There’s a reason why it’s a brilliant modernist novel. It has all of those language things that she does and it deals with homosexuality in a way that makes it seem pretty depressing, but also quite magical. It’s probably now the single book I’ve read the most times. I’ve read it certainly more times than Ulysses. It’s shorter, very packed and very rich.

AF: Given the sumptuous, almost Elizabethan language of Nightwood, can you talk to me about your own interest in language creation? How you started inventing languages and fabricating grammars, even.

SD: Well, the study of language in my elementary school was very different from the study of most language today in elementary school. We got a lot of grammar, we knew all the names of all of the parts of speech. I was a terrible speller but I was a whiz at diagramming sentences on the board. So I was aware of how structures work in language from the very beginning, and I enjoyed it. I think I may have mentioned that we got an unusual history development of both one term, in the fourth grade, of Greek history and another term of Asian history—Chinese and Indian history. We got a whole year of French instead of a year of science. Which again, was wonderful. We memorized great stretches of French fairytales, some of which I can still recite today—il était une fois une petite fille de village, la plus jolie qu’on eût su—and so on, and so forth. I still don’t speak French but I did come off with a better vocabulary than most so that I was able to read magazine articles and things like that without ever grasping or mastering any subtleties of French style which Marilyn could. Marilyn, by the time she was out of high school, was very fluent in French. A Francophile, she lives in France today.

AF: I doubt many of your classmates grew up to invent their own languages in novels.

SD: Well, one of the things that’s interesting about Dalton, and it was a very small class, is that I would say fully three-quarters of the people who graduated from my class in Dalton have written books of one sort or another. Not necessarily in the guise of academics, although many of them have. I’m the only one who chose, dare I say, a popular genre, i.e. commercial science fiction, and somehow I think my reputation grew with the reputation of science fiction per se, and I added a little bit to it myself. And Marilyn was a very well-known and a very good poet, someone who still writes rhyme and meter. In her first book, there’s almost equal amounts of rhyming and non-rhyming poetry. She just stayed with the more formal verse as she moved on; that’s how those things go. And it didn’t hurt that her first book got the National Book Award.

AF: One of the notebooks in the new Journals records you and Marilyn being on a bus ride and laying down the rules of a fabricated language. Finally, it says, by the end of the trip you both were able to say certain sentences to each other.

SD: The bus ride was the trip we took to get married. It was the bus ride out to Detroit to get married. The activity was to entertain Marilyn, who was a little depressed about the whole thing, and we were also happy that we had decided to do this, but it was a complicated situation. None of it gives itself over to easy analysis, I don’t think.

AF: Were there specific writers who had invented languages you used as models?

SD: In my book about writing, I have a chapter on imaginary languages, and I talk about James Keilty as a kind of limit-case for experimental writing. He did invent his own language, and not only that he wrote plays in it, he translated a volume of Proust from French into his own language.

Marilyn and Bill Brodecky and someone else I can’t remember did three of Keilty’s one-act plays in his own inventive language that they memorized and they performed. They had already done Les Bonnes which I had directed in our Théâtre du Sorbet (the theatre of sherbert), which was our front room at our flat on Natoma street in San Francisco. Then they went on to do this other one. I went and saw them and I really enjoyed them, they were lovely. It was a good afternoon of a language; you had no idea what they were talking about.

AF: There’s a beautiful picture of you in the Journals dressed up in costume for Barber’s opera Anthony and Cleopatra. You had mentioned the theatrical work that was happening spontaneously both in the village and then later in San Francisco that you were part of. I didn’t grow up reading Tolkien, but I was always interested in Shakespeare and perhaps baffled, fascinated by him most because I felt like I was participating in another language. Baldwin has that spirited, complicated essay on what it means to be using the language of Shakespeare and how at a very early age he went to see Macbeth in Harlem. I wonder who baffled and fascinated you?

SD: Yes, with Djuna Barnes, that was an exposure to a different kind of language. Charles Doughty, the Arabia Deserta, those kinds of things. Pater, Ruskin, and Carlyle, all three of those,

I think of them as the Barthes, Foucault, and Derrida of the 19th century because they were stylistically different, and you couldn’t mistake them for each other. I’m a great Walter Pater fan. And it’s interesting because I still remember Woolf’s initial response to Ulysses in her diary is very dismissive. She says it’s Pater all over again, how people who have a real level of language don’t show off like that. I believe these are two quotes from the diaries, and I know what she’s talking about, but on the other hand, the young don’t mind the showing off. They don’t recognize it as showing off, they just know that you’ve done something different, so it’s okay. It’s only when you get a sense of the whole that you finally have to judge it some way or not.

AF: Did the science fiction community of writers, mostly commercial, that you were meeting and learning from early on traffic in Joyce, Barnes, Carlyle, Ruskin, Pater, etc.?

SD: Some of them did and some of them didn’t; James Blish was a Joycean and couldn’t write worth a damn, with all due respect. For me, the two great science fiction writers are Theodore Sturgeon, who turns out to also have been bisexual, and actively bisexual or actively gay. And the other one is Alfred Bester. Sturgeon wrote a lot; Bester wrote comparatively little and wrote two extraordinary novels. Bester has a handful of very fine short stories of very different sorts than Sturgeon’s. He left the field and then came back, and the stuff that he wrote later is considered not all that good.

AF: How early did you read those two?

SD: I read Sturgeon first when I was in elementary school, and he maintains an interest for me that’s lifelong. Bester I first read when I was, oh, 14 or 15, and he maintains an interest for me, at least his early ones. They are not the ones who are popular with academics, which is to say Philip K. Dick is far more popular with the general public and what have you. I think what’s popular about him is his politics and his blandness. Now, the politics is actually pretty good. He wrote 11 non-science fiction novels. I edited one of them, and I find the non-science fiction novels more interesting than the science fiction, but that’s just me.

AF: I’ve never been able to be interested in his sentences. I assumed that was my fault.

SD: No, it’s not. I think you’d have a much easier time getting immersed in either Sturgeon or Bester, I really do, than you would in Dick. I mean, I did, which is to say in both cases there seems to be something going along in the language. In Sturgeon and in Bester, something is happening in the language that does not happen, and is precisely what is not happening, in Dick. Although I knew a lot of people who thought that Dick was the greatest thing since sliced bread. My friend, the late great Thomas Disch thought Dick was a great novelist, but like you, my eyes glaze over. One of the things that tends to happen in the marginalized genres is, when they come into prominence, the people who come into prominence are never the people that those within the genre feel are the most important. This is the way that it happened.

There is always some extra thing that has to happen to bring the attention around. “As to the worth of my own work, I cannot know and you cannot tell me,” said Thomas Mann. And that’s basically how it is. I look at Guy Davenport who is basically one of my favorite writers of, quote, “literary fiction,” and in his own self-evaluation as well: “I’m a minor stylist.” And he also did an amazing amount of research. He was a classic language teacher and he knew his Greek and Latin, and he could bring those things to life in various interesting ways. He is one of the writers I go back to really because his sentences give me so much pleasure, in the same way that I go back to reread Sturgeon and Bester because their sentences give me pleasure in very, very different ways.

AF: When you were publishing Hogg or Dhalgren, did you want people to take that as seriously and ambitiously as anything they could possibly be reading? Because when you describe first writing science-fiction short stories and being paid for them, you talk about how at some point, like all writers you needed to make a living. I think of Dr. Johnson’s “No writer writes except for money or else he’s a blockhead.”

SD: But there an awful lot of blockheads around. For me growing up was to learn to be a blockhead. And just hope. There are probably other writers that do write for money or have written for money like Dr. Johnson, who we still read too. I don’t know where any of what I do is going. I just don’t.

AF: Is that something that you have to learn to accept about not knowing what one’s doing?

SD: I think that’s about all that you can do. Yes, in a word.

AF: So, and again, I want to move on, but I think what you’re saying to me is that these anxieties of labels and genres and reception, they did not prove to be much interference to you.

SD: I wouldn’t say that they didn’t prove to be . . . they interfered, but they were the material that I worked with. And they offered resistance.

AF: Is resistance something that excites or inspires you as a writer?

SD: It’s there. It’s there and you do what you do with what you can. My friend—and I think a very, very fine writer, Joanna Russ—says you work from an oppositional stance. I have always felt that you do have to work from an oppositional stance just because most of the positions I was in were marginalized positions that required opposition in order to do anything of interest at all.

AF: Some of those oppositional forces remain, some have changed for you, no doubt?

SD: All of them have changed. All of them have changed their positions and contexts drastically. But the question is how much of that can be followed, and how much of that can’t be followed. I think of myself as an oppositional Facebook writer today. A lot of writing and thought has gone into what I put on Facebook. I try to do stuff with Facebook that other people aren’t doing, that’s all. Part of it is taking writing seriously, which is to say: if you’re going to write anything, try to take it seriously. It’s no more complicated than that, or no more simple than that. I still feel the tension between verbal expression and writing, which is what we started out talking about before we even got started with the interview. We talked about the fact that mostly I do written interviews rather than verbal.

“If you’re going to write anything, try to take it seriously. It’s no more complicated than that.”

AF: But as a teacher?

SD: I did both. I tried to give written lectures, I tried to give lectures with extensive notes, and I tried to do, you know, extemporary lectures. It was kind of question and answer. When I came to the academy, one of the things I would tell my students is, look, you have to use me. I’m not a teacher. I’m a working writer. And more to the point, my mind is not packed the way a teacher packs his mind, or her mind as the case may be. A teacher tends to pack the mind from the simpler stuff at the top and work down to the complicated things. I have the complicated things at the top and the simpler things are down at the bottom. So if you want to get to the simple things, you’re going to have to unpack my mind for me. And sometimes this was useful for some students, and sometimes it wasn’t.

AF: What was the first university teaching job you ever had?

SD: Well, it depends on what you mean by university teaching job. I suppose the first was the Clarion. In the middle sixties, I came to a Clarion science fiction workshop where I came along with Judith Merril, who had been asked to teach, and I came as sort of her assistant. For several years, they had a position where one or so of the full writers would bring along a young writer, and I was the first of those. That was when the workshop was given at Clarion, Pennsylvania and was run by Robin Scott Wilson who wanted to reproduce the Milford Science Fiction Writer’s Workshop. I had also been there, which was not conducted in the academy at all; it was supposed to be based on the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference which I had been at when I was 18. I think I’m the only person who went to all three.

And I liked the Clarion one very much. I think the Clarion one may have been the best or the most effective. Why? Because the genre that it was working in was such that the kids who were doing it were remarkably well informed about it, in a way that is too dispersed in a literary workshop of the time. That was my take back then.

AF: And at what point did you—because I know—when did you retire from teaching?

SD: I retired at the end of 2015, although I have now been out to visit other schools since then, so would you say I’m retired? Am I retired as a writer, am I retired as a teacher?

AF: Oh, I simply mean as a full-time university professor.

SD: Right, exactly. I was one of the ones who did go to take a university job/ I was asked to. I was invited to first when I was in England in ’74, and I was invited to be Visiting Butler Chair Professor at SUNY Buffalo. That was just before Charles Bernstein got the position, and then eventually moved to Pennsylvania, and it didn’t hurt that we lived practically at that time across the street from one another. Then he moved further uptown. The structure of the neighborhood in which you live changes, and all of those things are changed by lots and lots of factors that include weather, like the wonderful weather we’re having now, the cycles of the year, the age of the buildings, and all of those sorts of things.

AF: How many years were you at your apartment uptown?

SD: I was at my apartment uptown for 40 years. I got the apartment because I wanted my daughter to have a stable place to live. I was bouncing all over the place, and I thought she needed that. She had it. This is before I was with Dennis; I was with another man named Frank Romeo, a nutcase, although he worked very, very hard to keep his messiness out of the way. But I don’t know whether it worked or not, I don’t. She does not see him very often, although he was at her wedding, and I used to be the one to say, “You really ought to call Frank.” Recently she said to me, “Dad, I can only take care of so many people,” and apparently Frank for better or for worse is no longer in that circle that she feels like she can take care of, which I understand. I too try to hold on to my friends for a long time, but you can’t hold on to all of them. I’m always surprised at how many I do have that still are with me from a long time ago.

AF: Well, that doesn’t surprise me at all because you’re one of the nicest human beings on the face of the earth.

SD: Well, thank you. And I don’t know whether that—there are people who think that is a necessary thing for being a good artist, and there are people who think, like with Wagner, that if you’re going to have any kind of success in the world, you have to give up love. I don’t know. You hold on to what you think you need.

AF: The last thing I’m going to ask you is what are you working on now?

SD: Right now, I’m working on an oral interview with Adam Fitzgerald, and walking down Eleventh Street getting nearer and nearer to the guy who’s my partner outside the door, and taking the chairs inside.

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