The other day I found an old radio interview of SFF grandmaster Jack Vance from 1976 and did a little bit of tweeting as I gave it a listen.
In case you’re unfamiliar with him, Jack Vance was listed in D&D’s Appendix N and played a singular role in inspiring the game’s magic system. Though he’s probably best known for his Dying Earth stories, which are quite impressive, Vance was a prolific writer who churned out a large amount of both SFF and mystery/thrillers. Since plunging into the world of obscurified greats, he’s become one of my favorite authors.
Learning more about him has raised my estimation of the man. Like so many other writers and creatives, he comes across as kind of an odd bird. He was certainly an interesting character, at any rate.
I’m not quite sure why Vance decided to do this interview. He was of the mind that authors shouldn’t overexpose themselves; that they should let their works stand on their own and not bring their own personalities (or perhaps politics) into potential conflict or overshadowing of their stories.
Here are some notes from this interview, in case you don’t care to listen but would like a little bit of a glimpse into Vance’s life and mind. Keep in mind this is all from the 1976 interview, so it’s possible that some of his thoughts and opinions may have changed over the years.
On writing and the industry:
– When asked what he thinks about the scifi field, Vance says he doesn’t know what to think because he doesn’t read scifi!
– When asked why he doesn’t read scifi, Vance pauses for a moment and then replies with a “no comment.”
– He later expands upon this, saying that he doesn’t know and doesn’t care where the SFF industry is going because he’s too occupied with his own work to concern himself with other people.
– Vance talks a lot about money. To me, this suggests that he may have been doing a bit of publicity work because of financial concerns.
– He seems to resent that some writers have gotten breaks (with Hollywood deals, for example) without earning their stripes.
– Asked about a deal Lin Carter had made with Hollywood to produce a Throngor movie, Vance comments that “Carter’s a hard worker” and “has paid his dues.” Despite approving, Vance can’t comment on Carter’s books because he hasn’t read them. Incidentally, the Throngor movie was later cancelled.
– A caller asks him if the Demon Princes series will continue, and Vance tells the caller that it’s all plotted out, but that financial/logistical concerns are tying his hands for the moment. This sheds a little light on the complications of working out deals with publishers.
– Vance muses that science fiction is not mainstream literature, just as jazz is not classical music. He later laments that both “science fiction” and “jazz” are bad names for two beautiful genres.
– On writing, he says that he wishes he was more disciplined. He starts writing in the morning and always decides that he’s going to buckle down and start doing a set number of words per day, but never does.
– On story plotting, he says sometimes he will plot out before writing. But sometimes he discovers new ideas as he is writing and the stories change.
– Vance mentions that often about 2/3 through a book he will experience writer’s block. Once he was hung up working on a 6-8k word story for about two months.
– Talking with a caller, he comments that he usually doesn’t write about societies with super advanced technology because it then becomes difficult to craft conflicts of man vs nature, because then mankind is too powerful for nature to contend with.
– On writers conveying worldviews or biases in their stories, Vance says to an extent it can’t be helped. Personally he values traditions and customs and doesn’t want to see the old ways of things disappear.
– Vance also wrote mystery books under the name “John Holbrook.” He tells the interviewer that he probably won’t be doing any more murder-mystery stories because he’s got too many scifi projects he’s working on. He also says he makes more money with scifi than mystery.
– He comments that he’s not very pleased with his earlier works but chalks it up to learning.
– On his personal valuing of traditions, he says they add a positive complexity to the world, giving baseball vs soccer as an example. He enjoys baseball because the rules are arbitrary and that makes it interesting. Soccer, on the other hand, is very structured and straightforward and boring.
– Vance seems dismissive of Star Trek.
– On hippies and nonconformists, he comments that “nonconformists flourish when they’re economically able to.” Says “If you’re broke or if you’re a peasant, you can’t afford to be a nonconformist.” He points out that countries like China probably have very few nonconformists.
On Cugel the Clever
– It’s pronounced with a hard “c” and a hard “g” – like “Koogle”!!
– Regarding Michael Shea’s Quest for Simbilis story, he says Shea wrote to him and asked if he could do a Cugel sequel. He wanted to send Vance his story to see if he approved. Vance says he had no idea who Shea was and didn’t want to read his story, but he told him “Sure, go ahead. If it’s good enough to publish, good on you.” He told Shea to do anything he wanted except for killing off Cugel.
On Vance himself
– Asked about his fears, Vance says that he is claustrophobic.
– On travel, he says “I’m tormented by wanderlust when I’m home and I’m homesick when I’m away. So I can’t win.”
– Vance mentions at one point that he has many projects going on, not just writing.
On John Campbell, Martin Gardener, Isaac Asimov
– Vance is asked about John Campbell, who was an influential scifi editor often credited with shaping the “Golden Age” of science fiction. Vance says that he didn’t know Campbell very well though they only lived a few blocks apart!
– He says Campbell used to host poker games, but Vance was never a big fan of playing poker.
– Asked about other writers, he says “Some of my best friends are writers. I wouldn’t want my daughter to marry one, but.”
– Vance says he isn’t interested in writers’ circles or conventions. He finds them artificial and boring.
– He says when he was young he thought he might want to be a mathematician. Asked about mathematician and writer Martin Gardener – “I don’t like him personally.” And “I think he’s smug.”
– He says that Gardener is closed-minded. “Campbell was an open-minded man. Gardener has a closed mind.” […] “Although Gardener is a much more valuable, clever man than Campbell.” […] “But Campbell was a much deeper man than Gardener could ever pretend to be.”
– Vance on Gardener: “It irritates me to read him.” He throws Asimov in with Gardener here. He continues to say that he can understand Gardener being the way he is, being white collar and working at a “fannish” New York magazine.
– But “Asimov oughta know better!” he says. Perhaps Asimov adopted Campbell’s dogmatism, he muses.