Interviews

Samuel R. Delany, The Art of Fiction No. 210

Interviewed by Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah

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The first time I interview Samuel Delany, we meet in a diner near his apartment on New York’s Upper West Side. It is a classic greasy spoon that serves strong coffee and breakfast all day. We sit near the window, and Delany, who is a serious morning person, presides over the city as it wakes. Dressed in what is ­often his uniform—black jeans and a black button-down shirt, ear pierced with multiple rings—he looks imperial. His beard, dramatically long and starkly white, is his most distinctive feature. “You are ­famous, I can just tell, I know you from somewhere,” a stranger tells him in the 2007 docu­mentary Polymath, or the Life and Opinions of Samuel R. Delany, Gentleman. Such intrusions are common, because Delany, whose work has been described as limitless, has lived a life that flouts the conventional. He is a gay man who was married to a woman for twelve years; he is a black man who, because of his light complexion, is regularly asked to identify his ethnicity. Yet he seems hardly bothered by such attempts to figure him out. Instead, he laughs, and more often than not it is a quiet chuckle expressed mostly in his eyes.

Delany was born on April 1, 1942, in Harlem, by then the cultural epicenter of black America. His father, who had come to New York from Raleigh, North Carolina, ran Levy and Delany, a funeral home to which Langston Hughes refers in his stories about the neighborhood. Delany grew up above his father’s business. During the day he attended Dalton, an elite and primarily white prep school on the Upper East Side; at home, his mother, a senior clerk at the New York Public Library’s Countee Cullen branch, on 125th Street, nurtured his exceptional intelligence and kaleidoscopic interests. He sang in the choir at St. Philip’s, Harlem’s black Episcopalian church, composed atonal music, played multiple instruments, and choreographed dances at the General Grant Community Center. In 1956, he earned a spot at the Bronx High School of Science, where he would meet his future wife, the poet Marilyn Hacker.

In the early sixties, the newly married couple settled in the East Village. There, Delany wrote his first novel, The Jewels of Aptor. He was nineteen. Over the next six years, he published eight more science-fiction novels, among them the Nebula Award winners Babel-17 (1966) and The Einstein Intersection (1967). Even then, his exploration of issues of sexuality, ethnicity, and gender—like the polyamorous love between three spacecraft navigators in Babel-17, or alien colonization and the relationship between the marginalized and history in The Einstein Intersection—­distinguished him from other authors working in the genre. Even when set in fantastic worlds, like the Star-Pit, a city that squats at the galaxy’s edge, or Nevèrÿon, an ancient, dragon-filled land whose inhabitants are just learning to write, Delany’s work mirrors the generational shifts and concerns of his times.

In 1971, he completed a draft of a book he had been reworking for years. Dhalgren, his story of the Kid, a schizoid, amnesiac wanderer, takes place in Bellona, a shell of a city in the American Midwest isolated from the rest of the world and populated by warring gangs and holographic beasts. When Delany, Hacker, and their one-year-old daughter flew back to the States just before Christmas Eve in 1974, they saw copies of Dhalgren filling book racks at Kennedy Airport even before they reached customs. Over the next decade, the novel sold more than a million copies and was called a master­piece by some critics. William Gibson famously described it as “a riddle that was never meant to be solved.”

When we talk, Delany still seems humbled by that novel’s success, yet he mentions more than once that it did not change his life in any real way: he still struggled to publish his more controversial works. One of these was “The Tale of Plagues and Carnivals,” from the Return to Nevèrÿon ­series, four volumes comprising eleven interlocking pieces. Written in 1984, it was the first work of fiction about aids published by a major publisher, Bantam. During the mid-eighties, Dalton Books, then the largest bookseller in America, refused to stock his books or those of other science-fiction and fantasy authors who dealt with gay content, since novels in those genres are often read by high-school students. As a result, Bantam backed out of publishing the fourth book in the series, and much of his older work wasn’t reprinted. Delany, however, turned to small presses and academic publishers, and to date he has nearly forty books in print.

Over the course of almost a year, I met with Delany eight times. We ­never returned to the diner; as we finished that first interview, the waitress informed us they would be closing forever that afternoon. We conducted one of our longest interviews in a café-bar in Philadelphia called Woody’s, where the walls are painted bordello red. Young men milled about in leather vests, and someone kindly picked up our bill. I had been reading Octavia Butler’s essay “Positive Obsession,” in which she mentions that when she started out as a writer of science fiction, Samuel Delany was perhaps the only black author writing in the genre. “What good is science fiction to black people?” Butler asks. “What good is its tendency to warn or to consider alternative ways of thinking and doing?”

I pose these questions to Delany, and he responds excitedly: “Science fiction isn’t just thinking about the world out there. It’s also thinking about how that world might be—a particularly important exercise for those who are oppressed, because if they’re going to change the world we live in, they—and all of us—have to be able to think about a world that works differently.”

—Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah

(Additional questions posed by Jenny Davidson.)

By Samuel Delany’s request, this interview is dedicated to Joanna Russ, 1937–2011.

 

INTERVIEWER

Between the time you were nineteen and your twenty-second birthday, you wrote and sold five novels, and another four by the time you were twenty-six, plus a volume of short stories. Fifty years later, considerably more than half that work is still in print. Was being a prodigy important to you?

DELANY

As a child I’d run into Wilde’s witticism “The only true talent is preco­ciousness.” I took my writing seriously, and it seemed to pay off. And I ­discovered Rimbaud. The notion of somebody just a year or two older than I was, who wrote poetry people were reading a hundred, a hundred fifty years later and who had written the greatest poem in the French ­language, or at least the most famous one, “Le Bateau Ivre,” when he was just sixteen—that was enough to set my imagination soaring. At eighteen I translated it.

In the same years, I found the Signet paperback of Radiguet’s Devil in the Flesh and, a few months after that, the much superior Le Bal du Comte d’Orgel, translated as Count d’Orgel in the first trade paperback from Grove Press, with Cocteau’s deliciously suggestive “introduction” about its tragic young author, salted with such dicta as “Which family doesn’t have its own child prodigy? They have invented the word. Of course, child prodigies ­exist, just as there are extraordinary men. But they are rarely the same. Age means nothing. What astounds me is Rimbaud’s work, not the age at which he wrote it. All great poets have written by seventeen. The greatest are the ones who manage to make us forget it.”

Now that was something to think about—and clearly it had been said about someone who had not expected to die at twenty of typhoid from eating bad oysters.

INTERVIEWER

What was your daily routine like in those days?

DELANY

At six-thirty or seven I’d get up, scramble Marilyn some eggs—she was eighteen, I was nineteen; we’d been married that August—make toast and coffee. She’d go out to work, and I’d start writing. I’d work all day, with a couple of breaks for extracurricular sex in the local men’s rooms and a stop at the supermarket for dinner makings. Right before five, I’d start cooking again. In general, I believe I work a lot harder today than I did then. Today I’m a five-o’clock-in-the-morning riser. Although I do stare at the wall a lot.

INTERVIEWER

Stare at the wall?

DELANY

I think of myself as a very lazy writer, though other people see it differently. My daughter, who recently graduated from medical school, once told me, “Dad, I’ve never known anyone who works as hard as you. You’re up at four, five o’clock in the morning, you work all day, then you collapse. At nine o’clock, you’re in bed, then you’re up the next morning at four to start all over again.”

Gide says somewhere that art and crime both require leisure time to flourish. I spend a lot of time thinking, if not daydreaming. People think of me as a genre writer, and a genre writer is supposed to be prolific. Since that’s how people perceive me, they have to say I’m prolific. But I don’t find that either complimentary or accurate.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think of yourself as a genre writer?

DELANY

I think of myself as someone who thinks largely through writing. Thus I write more than most people, and I write in many different forms. I think of myself as the kind of person who writes, rather than as one kind of writer or another. That’s about the closest I come to categorizing myself as one or another kind of artist.

INTERVIEWER

When did you decide that sex was important to your work?

DELANY

For my work? Hell, for my life! Although I didn’t start taking advantage of the public sex available to gay men till I was eighteen, with a moderately successful trip to the New Amsterdam movie palace on Forty-second Street. No lightning flashed. No bells clanged. But it was useful to learn that it was available and could make me feel better about small stretches of my life.

Not a full decade on, when I was twenty-seven, Stonewall happened. Many of the political conclusions that became generalized with Stonewall—such as coming out of the closet to end the nightmare of gay blackmail—I’d arrived at in theory at eighteen or nineteen. But I didn’t start acting on them until I moved to San Francisco on New Year’s Eve 1968.

INTERVIEWER

You describe learning, as a young teenager, that a sexual fantasy you hadn’t yet written down could be eked out for a number of days or even weeks, whereas putting it on the page—using what you call “the whole narrative excess we think of as realism”—would make it briefly far more exciting, but then leach it of all subsequent erotic charge. Do you still feel that tug between the urge to put something into language and the urge to fend off writing?

DELANY

I still feel that style is important for reading pleasure, and sex is important for pleasure in life. Each appeases a different type of desire. And while I find nothing shameful in taking direct erotic pleasure from reading or writing, I don’t think they entail a necessary relation. The processes you have me describing are contingent psychological processes. Neither marks one end nor the other of any necessary or even philosophical relationship. Do I still feel the tug between the urge to put something into writing and the urge to fend it off? Less so as I get older. I shall always be able to come up with new fantasies. As long as there are people walking around in the street, as long as I have books to read and windows to look out of, I’m not going to use them up. I assume the universe will go on providing me with many more. The man I’ve lived quite happily with for twenty-two years provides me with much of my sexual satisfaction, physical and psychological. But, no, not all—thank Deus sive Natura, to borrow a phrase from Spinoza. Nor do I provide all his. What an unachievable responsibility!

INTERVIEWER

In your writing, you seem fascinated with cities and the contact they provide. Where does that come from?

DELANY

Doubtless from living in them. I was born in Manhattan. I grew up in Harlem, a block away from what was then the most crowded block in New York City, according to the 1950 census. Something like ten thousand people lived in one city block. Probably that means it was more crowded than Calcutta or Singapore or Yangon—places we think of as inhumanly crowded today. The city gets you used to crowds, used to people relating to one another in a certain way, like strong and weak interactions between elementary particles. The strong interactions only come into play when the particles are extremely close, less than the distance of a single atomic nucleus. Those are the interactions readers want to see in novels. At the same time, paradoxically, cities can be dreadfully isolating places. The Italian poet Leopardi wrote in a letter to his sister, Paulina, about Rome, that its spaces didn’t enclose people, they fell between people and kept them apart.

INTERVIEWER

When you write about Harlem, you give it the allure and glamour of the Jazz Age but also describe how rarefied and suffocating its bourgeoisie could be.

DELANY

Wonderful as it could be, that world was proscribed in some very strict ways. I was a kid who liked art and theater and dance and music, but if you lived in Harlem, high culture was somewhere else, and it wasn’t black. When I was a child, the Metropolitan Opera had no black singers. I was twelve, when, at the start of 1955, Marian Anderson first sang the part of the sorceress Ulrica in Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera—the first black singer to be featured in an opera at the Met, when it was down on Forty-sixth Street and Broadway.

In Harlem, though, there was jazz culture. We lived right down Seventh Avenue from Small’s Paradise, which I never went to, because I was a kid, but I knew it was there. Or the Red Rooster. They were places my parents and their friends went. I knew the Lafayette Theatre had once been right across the street from where I lived, but it wasn’t now. Orson Welles had ­directed plays at the old Lafayette. My mother told me how she’d gone there to see the black actor Canada Lee in Welles’s all-black production of Macbeth, when she was a young woman. Harlemites called it Blackbeth, so that’s what I grew up thinking was its actual title, till I saw some posters for it on display at the Museum of the City of New York.

My childhood was massively and miserably contradictory. I’d been singled out as a smart child almost from infancy. Back in 1947, when I was five, I’d spent six weeks with my mother at the Vassar Summer Institute for the Gifted. The institute was very near our summer home in Hopewell Junction, New York, and my father would drive out to visit us on the Vassar campus on odd weekends. My mother had a sense that I was a really bright kid, and I thrived on the institute’s music, drama, and science programs.

Yet from ages eight to sixteen, I had to go twice a week to special tutors and psychologists who tried to help me with my appalling spelling and often incomprehensible writing. The psychotherapy continued till I was twenty-three. There was this bewildering contradiction between my clear intelligence and my extreme dyslexia. And nobody understood why. The fact that I was a black kid from Harlem in a private school full of white kids added its own tangle to the general confusion. In Jill Lauren’s book on dyslexia and learning disabilities, Succeeding with Learning Disabilities, I’m used as a case study, along with my daughter, who’s inherited it.

INTERVIEWER

You were an adult and a published writer when you first came upon the word dyslexia and realized it described some of the difficulties you experienced with writing. Did having or not having a word for it make a great difference?

DELANY

To answer that in any detail, we would have to reanimate the whole discussion over the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, the notion that the lack of the word in the language means it’s all but impossible to entertain the concept, while a detailed vocabulary, such as the Inuits’ fifty-plus words for fifty-plus different types of snow—powdered, crusty, hard, soft, blown-into-ridges, et ­cetera—enables you to perform intellectual feats of winter negotiations unthinkable to temperate-climate folks like you and me.

What’s wrong with the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is that it fails to take into account the whole economy of discourse, which is a linguistic level that accomplishes lots of the soft-edge conceptual contouring around ideas, whether we have available a one- or two-word name for it or only a set of informal many-word descriptions that are not completely fixed. Aphra Behn clearly describes the “numb fish” and its calamitous effects on other fish, animals, and human beings, so that we all recognize it as what we call the “electric eel” today. But she did it in the mid-seventeenth century, well before anyone had thought of electricity or Franklin had sent his kite up into the lightning storm. Thus falls the Sapir-Whorf.

Discourse is a pretty forceful process, perhaps the most forceful of the superstructural processes available. It’s what generates the values and suggestions around a concept, even if the concept has no name, or hasn’t the name it will eventually have. It determines the way a concept is used and the ways that are considered mistaken. The following may be a bit too glib, but I think it’s reasonable to say that if language is what allows us to think things, then discourse is what controls the way we think about things. And the second—discourse—has primacy.

For a couple of years in my early twenties, I was a die-hard believer in the Sapir-Whorf, though I had never encountered the term, or even read a description of it, which begins to hint at what’s wrong with it as a theory. I even wrote a novel that hinged on the concept—Babel-17.

Perhaps the largest problem the lack of a single term imposes is that it becomes difficult to individuate the idea. Where does it begin and where does it end in terms of what it refers to out in the real world? The more complex verbal support there is for a concept, the easier it is to critique.

If I’d had the term Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, it might have been easier for me to realize that it was just incorrect—in the same way that when, at twenty-­one, I first encountered the word dyslexia, I was able to realize I wasn’t the only one with these problems, that it was a condition rather than an ­individual and personal failure on my part, and the stories I’d read about writers such as Yeats, who didn’t learn to read until he was sixteen, or Flaubert, who was so backward in his reading and writing that he was known as l’idiot de la famille, now made much more sense. The realization of the flaws in the Sapir-Whorf, in that they caused me to begin considering the more complex linguistic mechanisms of discourse, you might say gave me my lifetime project.

INTERVIEWER

How did your dyslexia manifest itself?

DELANY

I had, and have, no visual ability to remember how words are put together. I can recognize them when I see them. But unless they’re in front of me, I can’t recall the vowels they contain. I have no command over whether they contain single or double letters. The closest metaphor I can come up with is that it’s like being able to recognize hundreds of different faces but being incapable of producing any sort of likeness of any of them with a pencil and paper. I know all the rules—“i before e, except after c, or when sounded as ay as in neighbor or weigh”—and still cannot put down the words correctly. At the same time, I read omnivorously.

When I was thirteen, I read War and Peace—the first two hundred pages over two or three days, then I stayed up for thirty-six hours straight to read the rest, with my father coming in every few hours during the night to tell me to put the light out and go to sleep. Interruptions aside, it was a wonderful experience—though I slept all Sunday. That’s the point I decided novels were where it was at.

I read whatever books were lying around—Freddy the Pig and William Faulkner, Raintree County and Mandingo and Frank Yerby and Studs Lonigan and God’s Little Acre and the Alexandria Quartet. I tackled Dylan Thomas and The Waste Land before I left the eighth grade and probably every popular-science book George Gamow published. My downstairs neighbor, who was a writer of young-adult novels, in a moment of who-knows-what excitement, enthused to me one afternoon about Colette’s Chéri and The Last of Chéri and Chester Himes, whom he had known personally. By then, I had a library card, so I read them.

The novels that made me want to write them were Huckleberry Finn—my father read it to me one winter, a couple of chapters a night, after I was in bed, one of few truly pleasant memories I have of the man—and A High Wind in Jamaica and Great Expectations. And Pale Fire, a novel that re­inspired me to want to make more such books in the world. The Song of the Lark, My Ántonia, and My Mortal Enemy, along with all of Cather’s stories and nonfiction writing. La Princesse de Clèves, Madame de La Fayette’s wonder­ful seventeenth-century psychological study on which Radiguet modeled his Count d’Orgel, or Sentimental Education, or Lost Illusions, or Mrs. Dalloway or The Waves or The Years. They are all books that have made me—and, oh yes, others—want to write still other books.

The dyslexia didn’t much hamper my reading. What it affected was my writing. I couldn’t spell anything! In an early short story I wrote, a woman who works in a five-and-ten at one point exclaims, “Customers! Customers! Customers!” All three were spelled differently—and all three wrong. I could not spell the word paper three times right in a row!

INTERVIEWER

But you were already serious about writing?

DELANY

I don’t think I was ever any more serious about writing than I was when I was twelve and thirteen. Of course I wanted to do lots of other things besides. I wanted to be a musician—that is, I wanted to be a composer. I played the violin back then. I wrote a violin concerto, from unrequited love for a young violinist, a prodigy my age who was playing solo concerts, whom I had met at a kids’ party up in Croton-on-Hudson. I choreographed dances, wrote stories, directed plays. It was all terribly serious. At seventeen, for a winter, I took ballet lessons. But, one after another, probably because I had a sense of the seriousness of each, I realized you can’t do it all. Finally, writing more or less drifted to the top.

I had already tried to write a novel, something called Lost Stars. It was about a very lonely young man named Erik Torrent who wandered around the city, looking at things. I started it when I was thirteen and finished it when I was fourteen. It had about everything wrong with it such a narrative could have. People were very nice about not telling me that. I suspect they were just impressed I’d filled out that many pages with words.

INTERVIEWER

In my opinion, Asimov’s Foundation trilogy seems to have had a much wider and more transformative influence than has generally been acknowledged. That’s something else you read when you were thirteen. How did it affect you?

DELANY

Well, certainly that’s an opinion we share. The first volume—with malice aforethought on Ike’s part, I’m sure: the SF club he belonged to when he was seventeen, the Futurians, was a hotbed of hyperintelligent teenage Trotskyites—taught me what historical materialism was. By the end of the third volume, I had a pretty dramatic picture of what’s wrong with historical determinism, so that when I encountered Popper’s The Poverty of Historicism, say, I’d seen the whole thing on the big screen, as it were, in full color and with stereophonic sound. Why do you think nobody’s ever made a film out of it? It would make Marxists—or, at any rate small-m marxists—of every bright thirteen-year-old in the country. Personally, I think that’s preferable to the demagoguery of Ayn Rand.

INTERVIEWER

When you write about high school at Bronx Science, it almost comes wrapped in gold. The image you give of Dalton is very different from this cornucopia of creativity in the West Bronx.

DELANY

Whatever its problems—and certainly it had them—Dalton was an excellent school, as was the Bronx High School of Science. But one was a small, private institution of no more than 350 students, while the other was a sprawling city public school, spread out between two buildings and catering to several thousand. I remember thinking, You haven’t really learned one thing at Science that you didn’t already learn back at Dalton. Science was an excellent school, but, with few exceptions, what they were doing in effect was going over all the stuff I’d already been exposed to.

One exception was music. Science had a wonderful music-appreciation course, in which I learned all about the Second Viennese School. It changed my life. We listened to a part of Berg’s opera Wozzeck and, after we listened to Webern’s Passacaglia, heard the story of his death, how Webern had been shot by an American soldier when he went out on his front steps for a cigarette after curfew. Webern and Berg have been among my favorite composers ever since. A lot of the students, when our music teacher played the last three scenes of Wozzeck, began to snicker and asked, “What is that? That’s just noise! What kind of music is that?” But I was knocked out by its expressivity. All I could think was, Wow! Our music teacher explained the twelve-tone system to us, and I went home and started composing a twelve-tone piece that afternoon.

INTERVIEWER

Did college not excite you in the same way? Why did you drop out?

DELANY

I wasn’t smart enough. By that I mean I lacked a particular kind of organizational discipline or intelligence. I had the reading under my belt. I had the analytical chops. I was a magpie for picking up facts and dates. But to do well at college—there’s no way around it—you have to be able to organize your time, which I could not do to save myself. I’d get started on one thing, and twenty minutes later I’d be off on another, in the midst of which I’d pick up some book on calculus or archaeology or Galois theory and read the odd hundred pages about that. I was intellectually all over the place. I was writing music, directing plays, acting in them, singing in folk groups, choreographing dances, and if I had a paper due next week, there was at most a one-out-of-five chance I would finish it—some of which, yes, was the bad side of Dalton, because they’d been fairly accepting of that sort of thing and had often been willing to cut me some slack. But I didn’t have the discipline. Still, not once did I ever think, Hey, I’m superior to all of this! I never thought, I know more than these people. When I flunked out, I flunked out miserably, spectacularly, and I was mortified. I thought, The truth is out, I’m an idiot. Now everyone knows.

It took me a while to realize that if a teacher had taken me aside and said, “Come on, Chip, sit down, let’s talk, this is how you have to do this,” probably I would have learned how to negotiate it. But nobody did.

INTERVIEWER

What would they have said?

DELANY

Well, when I started as a comparative-literature professor at the University of Massachusetts, I wrote an essay explaining how you do it—“How to Do Well in This Class”—and I still give it out to students who are having problems of that sort. Basically it’s about what’s gained by living your life in end-stopped time units, both for work and for play. Some of the students I’ve given it to have found it helpful. I wish I’d had it when I entered college.

INTERVIEWER

You have suggested that the writers who influence us “are not usually the ones we read thoroughly and confront with our complete attention, but rather the ill- and partially read writers we start on, often in troubled awe, only to close the book after pages or chapters, when our own imagination works up beyond the point where we can continue to submit our fancies to theirs.” What were some of your “ill-read” books?

DELANY

Proust—until I finally got around to reading most of it in my midtwenties. The Recognitions for the first thirty-some years of my life—I had my first copy at fifteen—until, in ’75, I got snowed in at a Buffalo motel and, over a couple days, lay on the bed and read the whole thing. Early stabs at getting through Nightwood. Moby-Dick, once I realized it was, intentionally on Melville’s part, a gay novel and that at the end of Father Mapple’s sermon Melville swears to the reader to tell us the absolute truth about the relation between male sailors—and does. Sons and Lovers, The Rainbow, and Women in Love—until I sat down and read them through in preparation for a class I taught on them at the University of Massachusetts—along with Lawrence’s great story “Odour of Chrysanthemums.”

Any book you have to work yourself up to read. Pater’s Marius the Epicurean, His Sensations and Ideas, which I’ve now read four or five times and taught twice, and Plato and Platonism, which I also teach. It took me two years to get into the first. I devoured the second over two evenings. When such books influence you, if that’s the proper word for what I’m ­describing, it’s what you imagine they do that they don’t do that you yourself then try to effect in your own work—that, to me, is what’s important. What these books actually accomplish is very important, of course! But the whole set of things they might have accomplished expands your own palette of aesthetic possibilities in the ways that, should you undertake them, will be your offering on the altar of originality.

Before I read Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Conqueror books and ­stories, I really thought they would be the Nevèrÿon tales, or at least something like them. But I discovered that, rich and colorful as they were, they weren’t. So I had to write them myself.

INTERVIEWER

You open Atlantis: Three Tales with a very rich story about your father as a young man.

DELANY

When I was seventeen or eighteen, before I’d gotten married, my dad had told me that the main reason he had come to New York from Raleigh was to see the skyscrapers. He hadn’t turned eighteen yet. It was just after Thanksgiving 1923. His older brother Hubert met him at Grand Central Terminal. They didn’t even come out of the station. They went immediately into the subway and got out at 125th and Eighth Avenue. My father looked around, but there were only two-story buildings. He was very disappointed, because he’d expected New York to be all skyscrapers. He said to Uncle Hubert, “Shoot, this ain’t no different from Raleigh. And there, at least, we got a building six stories high what got an elevator.”

And Uncle Hubert, who was a twenty-three-year-old law student at NYU at the time, turned to him and said, “You are a real country nigger, ain’t you?”

When my father told me this, it was just a funny story. But he was so disappointed at not seeing the skyscrapers right away, I decided, thirty-five years after his death, to include the anecdote in “Atlantis: Model 1924.” Family stories provided most of the proairetic material for the tale.

Because Dad wanted to see the skyscrapers, someone told him he should walk across the Brooklyn Bridge. Back then, of course, Brooklyn was nowhere near as built-up as it is today, and as he got to the other side, he saw a big cornfield—where Borough Hall is now—an immense cornfield stretching off into the distance. His first thought was, They told me Brooklyn was supposed to be part of New York City. But coming off the bridge here is like walking right back into North Carolina!

In 1993, when Dad was dead and I started to write my story, I realized that was the same time—year and season—that Hart Crane had moved into his new home at 110 Columbia Heights, in Brooklyn. The first thing Crane did was start writing the poem “Atlantis,” which became the final section of his poetic sequence The Bridge. There’s a reference in it to corn and another to fields. It struck me, That’s got to be the same cornfield my dad saw. It’s got to be!

When Crane looked from his window, he must have seen the same corn my dad saw when he crossed the bridge. So that’s what gave me the idea—and the title. Why, I thought, don’t I write a story about the two of them meeting each other on the bridge?

INTERVIEWER

You wrote the novella “Atlantis: Model 1924” and your essay on Hart Crane at the same time?

DELANY

I wrote the novella first, then the essay. One led directly into the other. That’s because I had all this extra information—specifically textual—that didn’t go directly into the story, and I thought, I’ve got to do something with it, since I read all those books.

Even before the autobiographical impulse, what started “Atlantis” is the idea that the paradigmatic works of our time were The Waste Land, The Cantos, and Ulysses. A vast intellectual armamentarium is presumed to stand behind each one, an armamentarium of cultural references and literary allusions. They’re drenched in intertextual references, to the point where you wonder, Could a writer do all the things that Joyce and Pound and Eliot are presumed to have done in these works? Is this really possible, or is this all critical hype? So I thought, Well, let me try it on my own.

I went and got as many books on Hart Crane as I could. I invaded the library at UMass, where I was teaching. I wrote down hundreds of phrases I wanted to work into the story. There are so many references to other texts, I can’t remember them all! In my story, Crane cries, “Any dull seamy era can throw up an Atlantis.” Well, “any dull seamy era” is an anagram for Samuel Ray Delany—and, yes, the other thing I had in mind was “Vivian Darkbloom,” Quilty’s biographer in Lolita and an anagram for Vladimir Nabokov. Nabat and Kalit and the lines just before them are the code words and phrases the terrorists use to gain admittance in Oscar Wilde’s early play Vera, or the Nihilists. The tale is filled with references to all sorts of obscurities, most of them things Crane might have known. The subway signs on the subway cars, for Naugahyde and Sloan’s Liniment? Well, when Crane worked for Sweet’s Catalogue Service, those were among the accounts he had to write. The subway car Sam and Hubert ride uptown in is, in effect, Crane’s own world . . . except for the Coca-Cola sign.

INTERVIEWER

Now, you’ve said you don’t do research—

DELANY

“Atlantis: Model 1924” is the exception. There I read the weather reports for every day the story covers and reflected it in the narrative. That year saw a blizzard on my birthday, which is in the story. I got hold of astrological ephemerides for the time and read them. The references in the tale to the transit of Mercury and those other astrological occurrences are accurate. I looked at street maps. I knew the nights when the moon was full and when it was crescent. That tale contains as much research as I could get into it.

INTERVIEWER

Was it fun to write?

DELANY

No, not at all. It was a game but it was tiring. And I was aware that it wasn’t reaching after any end. But at least now, when somebody asks, “I wonder if Joyce could have done all the things he’s supposed to have done in Ulysses,” I can answer, “Yes, he could have. I know, because I tried it myself. It’s possible.”

The next question is, of course, Why would he have done it? These are very conservative, backward-looking literary experiments, you see. They are experiments that start with a hypothesis, and the text is used as a way of working out a task, to see what the result is. Other than trying to weave the work, in a practically magical way, into the rest of the culture, I don’t know why. The only reason I can think of is because he wanted to see if he could.

INTERVIEWER

You describe a moment of transition, around the age of twenty, between conceiving of writing as the transcription of a sort of mental movie to ­becoming a writer who felt the presence of blocks of language, so that you were no longer just describing images and ideas but creating a string of sentences and paragraphs with verbal particularity and rhythm and so forth. Has that transition continued?

DELANY

Arrogant and self-flattering as it is, today I really like Lessing’s description of genius from his wonderfully suggestive Laocoön—the ability to put all your talent into the service of a single idea. That’s usually what I’m trying for these days, rather than just describing a movie in the mind—though I still lean a good deal on diegesis, that movie in the mind.

To assume that “putting all your talent into the service of a single idea” necessarily involves something fundamentally different from concentrating on the precision, energy, and ekphrastic force of the single sentence is to commit one of those logical slips Orwell described so well in his essay “Politics and the English Language,” the one he calls “operators” or “verbal false limbs,” assuming there are differences and oppositions where there are really developments and continuities. It’s just a way of starting to talk about the larger project, the bigger picture—and critics are always slipping into the false notion that there’s a conflict between the bigger picture and the details that compose it, when there isn’t. That’s one of the ways they mystify the artistic process. Sometimes these are honest mistakes. More often, however, they are symptoms of lazy reading and lack of thought about what the writer is actually saying.

INTERVIEWER

You—and, indeed, several other SF writers—have called Bester’s 1956 novel, Tiger! Tiger!, the greatest science-fiction novel from that period. What so excites you about Bester?

DELANY

I picked up Tiger! first when I was fourteen or fifteen, in its Galaxy ­serial publication, and thought it was the greatest thing I’d ever read. Tiger! Tiger! is an extraordinarily colorful and inventive novel. One whole chapter utilizes bizarre typography that sprawls all over the pages. In the climactic chapter, the hero is in the basement of a burning cathedral—St. Patrick’s, in New York—that’s collapsing all around him, and the man experiences this through synesthesia, where he hears smells and sees sounds and tastes what things feel like. It’s Bester’s version of the end of Gaddis’s Recognitions. Besides the nods to Gaddis—he was Bester’s Greenwich Village neighbor and published The Recognitions the year before Tiger!—and Joyce, it’s also very much an homage to Rimbaud’s “dérèglement de tous les sens.” 

Later on, when I was about twenty-four, I read Bester’s book again and realized, while it was very good, it wasn’t the greatest thing I’d ever read. But because of its overall color and energy, Tiger! Tiger! projects a sense that, just over the novel’s horizon, someone is thinking seriously about important modernist questions. What is the relation of the ordinary working man to the privileged man at the pinnacle of culture? What causes modern warfare today? What is the relationship between economics and war? Bester was very definitely a leftist writer, with a sense that economics was behind all wars. For him, wars were the playing out of economic-cum-industrial conflicts.

Still later I found out that Bester himself had been reading and rereading Ulysses for a year and discussing it weekly with two close friends. You could easily say that Tiger! Tiger! was his attempt at a book for bright ­fourteen- to seventeen-year-olds, with some of Ulysses’s textual playfulness. I wanted to see whether I could write something that would be as interesting for a twenty-five-year-old as this had been for me at fifteen. I’ll never know whether I succeeded.

INTERVIEWER

In Nova, your reimagining of Tiger! Tiger!, Prince Red and Ruby Red have an almost incestuous relationship.

DELANY

Yes, they do. You have to remember the book was written before ’68, the moment when innuendo ceased to be a legally necessary literary technique.

INTERVIEWER

Did you intentionally want to make something the reader could only speculate about, rather than be certain of?

DELANY

Certainly as far as the incest goes. Suggestion is a literary strategy. But when, in 1968, works like Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer and Black Spring and Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover were legal to publish and sell in this country, the age of innuendo and the coyly placed line of white space, as the hero envelops the heroine in his arms, ended. Fifteen years later, aids rendered them permanently obsolete.

Today, I watch seminar rooms full of graduate students misread both Bester and Conrad, because they no longer have to wonder about the possibility of such illegal elements occurring in the story and the compensating possibility of suggestion as a writerly strategy for representing both sex and violence. In Tiger! Tiger! the demonic antihero, Gully Foyle, invades Robin’s exploded apartment and stalks across her living room to where she cowers away from him on the couch. There is a line of white space ...

At fifteen I knew perfectly well Gully went on to rape her. Many of my students, however, miss it. As readers who’ve learned to read with texts written largely after 1968, they’re unfamiliar with that order of narrative suggestion. Writers aren’t constrained by law to use it today and many young readers, under thirty-five, have forgotten how to read it.

My students reach the climax of Heart of Darkness, when the pilgrims stand at the steamer’s rail, firing their rifles at the natives on the shore, fifteen or twenty feet away, “for some sport,” while an appalled Marlow blows the boat’s horn to frighten the Africans off. Some of the natives throw themselves on the ground, but among them stands Kurtz’s black mistress, her arms raised toward the boat that carries Kurtz away. From his bed in the wheelhouse, sickly Kurtz watches through the window—which Conrad has made clear has been left open. At the boat rail, the white men go on firing, and with a line of white space, the scene ends ...

Year after year, more than half my students fail to realize that the white men have just killed the black woman Kurtz has been sleeping with for several years. Or that Kurtz, too weak to intervene, has had to lie there and watch them do it.

When you ask, later, the significance of Kurtz’s final words, as he looks out through this same window, “The horror! The horror!,” it never occurs to them that it might refer to the fact that he has watched his fellow Europeans murder in cold blood the woman he has lived with. Suggestion for them is not an option. Earlier generations of readers, however, did not have these interpretive problems.

“If he raped her, why didn’t the writer say so?” “If they shot her, why didn’t Conrad show her fall dead?” my graduate students ask. It makes me wonder what other techniques for conveying the unspoken and the ­unspeakable we have forgotten how to read over four or five thousand years of “literacy.”

Another canonical work that lists toward the incomprehensible for the modern reader under the weight of modernist criticism is Kafka’s The Metamorphosis.

INTERVIEWER

How do you mean?

DELANY

I’ve read interpretations that see the tale as Kafka’s prediction of World War I or II, and it has to stand up beneath interpretative phrases like “that great portrait of the sickness that was Europe.” I’ve even heard one academic give a rather involuted explanation about how the story depicts the encounter of a family with the inexplicable. Well, that’s true, in the sense that a heart attack, a stroke, a crippling accident is, itself, inexplicable. But that sort of occurrence—schizophrenia or some mentally or physically crippling disease—is still the tenor of Kafka’s metaphor.

Whatever you say about the story’s all but infinite higher meanings, just at the level of plot, The Metamorphosis is an allegorical tale about a family, one of whose members, presumably the one who’s responsible for bringing in most of the money, is suddenly stricken by a catastrophe, a debilitating disease that—overnight—renders him homebound and largely unrecognizable as the person he once was and tells what the experience might be from the point of view of the person to whom it happens.

This was a fairly common experience for families before World War II, and it still is. Kafka himself was such a person. His tuberculosis rendered him such a person in his own family, and it struck me as a chillingly accurate picture of the whole process of the transformation that occurred when my own mother was felled with a major stroke that, in an instant, rendered her wheelchair-bound, paralyzed on one side, and without language for the last eight years of her life.

The way the remaining family both recognizes and does not recognize the new and wholly dependent creature as the person he or she once was, and the way the invalid has to be treated—physically and emotionally—as a kind of insect . . . well, it’s a hugely cruel story, even as it details how love for the person metamorphoses, under pressure of the transformative situation, into annoyance and a feeling of entrapment. The title refers to the family’s transformation as much as it does to Gregor’s. When the invalid finally dies—as my mother did, almost a decade on—Kafka explains how at last there is a feeling of freedom and even rebirth.

When we were coming back from the cemetery after my mother’s funeral, my sister, who truly loved my mother—as, indeed, did I—said to me, “Chip, that is the end of eight awful, awful years,” and a breeze blew momentarily through the trees. I had to answer, “Yes, it is.” And I remembered Gregor’s sister, in the last sentences of Kafka’s tale. It’s a portrait of the human processes which constitute that awfulness.

I’d never argue that the historical resonances that so many analysts see in the tale are not there, but I point out that what I have described as the events of the story and their general significance is how those historical suggestions manifest themselves. How we treat our invalids—our mad, our physically or mentally compromised family members—does tell you something about who we are politically, historically, culturally. But until we can respond to the story as an allegory on that level, those historical suggestions are just not anchored. The commonplace reading, under the supernatural event Kafka has given us, is what keeps the meaning-generating mechanism of the tale functioning.

INTERVIEWER

Like Birth of a Nation, Dhalgren tells the story of a black man who is ­believed to be a sexual predator and whose act of transgression becomes a fixture in the public conversation. Why were you interested in unpacking that particular story?

DELANY

What can I tell you? Many black writers, from Richard Wright in Native Son, to Chester Himes in his novella A Case of Rape, have tried their hand at it. The fact is, it is a many-layered process. I wanted to give the several participants, the white woman and the black man, the opportunity to speak where desire can freely articulate itself, without the judicial pressure of capture or incarceration. 

INTERVIEWER

Forty years ago, when you were traveling on the West Coast, you lost a notebook with some forty-two pages of a late draft of Dhalgren. What was it like to reconstruct the novel? Did the story change as a result?

DELANY

No. I plan things out pretty meticulously. It was simply three weeks of hard, boring work, re-creating the lost pages. If the National eighty-page spiral notebook had ever turned up in the back balcony of the Empire theater on Market Street in San Francisco, where inadvertently I’d left it, many of the paragraphs would be, I suspect, all but word-for-word identical with the reconstructed version now in the book.

INTERVIEWER

What led you to write Times Square Red, Times Square Blue?

DELANY

I had written an academic essay called “Street Talk/Straight Talk,” and an editor at Out Magazine asked whether I would like to pursue the topic for general readers. I wrote them a not terribly specific profile piece that ­described the corner of Eighth Avenue and Forty-second Street, just ­before they started tearing things down. But the editor, as I recounted in a preface to the book, said, “You’ve mentioned the theaters. Let me see what goes on in them.” I asked, “Are you sure you want me to do that?” and she ­answered, “Yes,” so I said, “All right.” I tried for a representative range because I had thirty years of visits to tap. The second essay, “Times Square Red,” is the theoretical underside that supports the general observations in the first half, “Times Square Blue.”

INTERVIEWER

In your 2007 novel, Dark Reflections, the protagonist is haunted by embarrassment over a gay pornographic novel he once wrote.

DELANY

Yes. As was common in the 1960s, a friend of the main character, Arnold, gets a contract for a porn novel, which he actually hires Arnold to write. During the sixties, pornographic publishers often turned to young poets and writers who were not making any money to speak of and got them to write sex novels. Some of the results were quite astonishing. David Meltzer, Diane di Prima, Gregory Corso, Michael Perkins, Marco Vassi,  and Alexander Trocchi are some of the ones who did. Others, like Arnold’s, were done anonymously.

INTERVIEWER

A number of critics have called the work autobiographical.

DELANY

Oh, the differences between me and Arnold Hawley could fill a book! In fact, they already have filled a book—The Mad Man—and a book three times the length of Dark Reflections.

Arnold Hawley is married for not quite twenty-four hours before that relationship falls catastrophically to pieces. For the rest of his life, he lives alone. Since I was a teenager I’ve always been partnered with someone. Maybe four years in my life—from ’75 to ’79, when I was taking care of my daughter—I lived as a single man. But Dennis and I have been together for twenty-one, going on twenty-two, years. I’ve seen him through a serious drinking problem and his recent half-dozen years of sobriety. He’s seen me through prostate cancer and a few other medical emergencies. I’ve always lived in open relationships and generally had lots of sex. I’ve been quite lucky, with some small public reputation.

Arnold is an adjunct university instructor and a poet. I’ve been a full professor since I started full-time university teaching in ’88, and I’m a prose writer. Really, my life has been the opposite of Arnold’s. Certainly when I conceived Arnold’s story, I wanted to write about somebody who was as close to my opposite as possible. The only way I could have made him any more different from me was to make him white—and perhaps a woman. But I really wanted to write about another black gay male writer, a different black gay male writer from myself.

INTERVIEWER

In some of your real autobiographical writings, you’ve taken care not to name or identify others who appear in the text.

DELANY

Back in the mid-sixties, I lived for six months in a Lower East Side commune, called Heavenly Breakfast, named after a rock group I was part of, that lived and rehearsed there. I kept a journal at the time, and a few years later, after he’d accepted a short story of mine, Theodore Solotaroff, the editor of The New American Review, suggested I next write a nonfiction article for him about commune life. I broke out my old notebooks, and soon I had a ninety-five-page article on life in and around Heavenly Breakfast. It took about a year to assemble, but by the time I’d finished, New American Review had gone under. There was no chance of its appearing there. I didn’t show it to anyone for a couple of years after that. When I did, I had moved back to New York City. More on a lark than anything else, I showed it to my editor at Bantam Books, at that time a young woman named Karen. I was surprised when she announced that she’d fallen in love with it and wanted to publish it.

Much of Heavenly Breakfast deals with the day-to-day minutiae of minor drug sales. As much or more deals with sex, much of it polymorphous. Since much of that was illegal, as a matter of course I changed the names. Besides, as I made clear in the introduction, I had not kept characters strictly apart. There’d been a fair amount of fictive mixing and amalgamating.

I was a little surprised, then, when I ran into a woman who had been a character in the narrative and who, as we stood on the corner of Sixth Street, somewhere in Alphabet City, told me how much she’d enjoyed the book. Then, after a moment’s pensive silence, she added, “I wished you’d used my real name. That way I could prove to some of the people I know now that we really did things like that.”

Not long after that, I ran into Eeyore, called Grendel in the first edition. He was still selling pot off this bench or that in Tompkins Square Park. “Hey, man—that was a really cool book you wrote.”

“You read it?” I asked.

“Yeah, sure. But how come you called me Grendel? Nobody believes it was me.” He, too, grew pensive. “You know, I ain’t done a lot to be famous for. About the only thing anybody could know about me who ain’t one of my customers is being in your book. It would be nice if I could point to that and say, Hey, that’s me. People who read it would see my name and know.” So when I next got the chance to change it, I did.

INTERVIEWER

Do you revise every day?

DELANY

Pretty much so, except the days or the hours I devote to writing a first draft. Eighty-five to ninety-five percent of my work is rewriting and revision. Probably that started as a strategy to deal with the wages of dyslexia. Now it’s habit, but it was a fortunate habit to acquire.

INTERVIEWER

Is it a difficult regimen?

DELANY

Finding time to work is the main problem. That’s why I want to retire—so I can really get to work. One of my favorite quotes is from Goethe—“As soon as a man does something admirable, the entire universe conspires to see that he never does it again.” This is frighteningly true. You write a decent book, and you’re hired as a creative-writing teacher. The next thing you know you’re director of the program, which basically means you get less time in class and more administration, which nobody likes, so that you can hardly write anything anymore.

INTERVIEWER

Your teaching gets in the way of your writing?

DELANY

It doesn’t completely halt it, but it slows it way down!

INTERVIEWER

Is the teaching worth it?

DELANY

No. It’s not.

INTERVIEWER

Why not?

DELANY

I’m not that good a teacher. I’m decent, maybe even better than average, but I believe I’m an even better writer. The trade-off between doing a job that you only do moderately well for one that you do very well can’t be justified simply because the former pays the bills. When I was thirty-five or forty, I envisioned myself doing a kind of ideal version of the teaching that a Lacan or, yes, a Foucault did in their French seminars. That was before I had a steady position as a professor at UMass. I was going from research institute to research institute. Here, I was senior fellow at the Center for 20th Century Studies at the University of Wisconsin, then I was a senior fellow at the Society for the Humanities at Cornell’s Andrew Dickson White House, then I was a guest at the Center for Humanities at Wesleyan, next, the Institute for the Humanities at the University of Michigan. The pay was usually munificent.

And I’d think, This is going to be it! They’ll give me a lecture hall and some graduate students and turn me loose. I’ll be able to do some real thinking and some significant teaching for them. Then I’d get there and dis­cover that maybe three people had read any of my scholarly nonfiction, and while they had talked it up a great deal to the others on the faculty, what the school wanted me to do was take a class of freshmen and sophomores and introduce them to American science fiction—which, of course, was Asimov and Heinlein and Bradbury and maybe Pohl and Kornbluth’s The Space Merchants. “You’re teaching that, aren’t you? We had a graduate student here nine years ago who begged us to let him teach a class in science fiction, and when we finally did, that’s what he taught. So I guess that’s an important book, right?”

They were sure that’s what it was all about, because fifteen or twenty years ago perhaps they’d actually read some. Their views of SF basically came from some monumentally uninformed articles on the genre that would ­appear every ten years in Harper’s or even, slightly less so, The New Yorker.

Or they’d want a creative-writing course for undergraduates. Most were surprised—and, I could tell, resentful—when I’d explain, “These are all moderately interesting, middlebrow texts. I have nothing against any of them, not to mention Philip Dick, another entirely middlebrow writer. But none is rich enough to support the kind of reading I want to do with my class.” A few times I got to sit down and argue my way through to something a little more interesting. Repeatedly I got Sturgeon and Bester, Zelazny, Russ, and Disch on my reading lists—and not just single stories by them, but two and three books by each. Eventually, though, I learned that the kind of teaching I wanted to do just wasn’t supported in this country. Even in France, Foucault complained repeatedly that there was never really time for post-lecture discussion.

Once I was invited to give a lecture at MIT. David Halperin invited me, and I warned him it would be a three-hour talk, with only a ten-minute break in the middle. He must have thought I was crazy. Still, he said yes. I delivered it to a jam-packed lecture hall, with students sitting up and down the aisles. It went over very well. From the student response afterward, I got a sense it was the kind of thing they were hungry for.

But I’m seventy, now, not fifty, and arthritis prevents me from standing for more than twenty minutes at a go. Were I offered that sort of lecture venue today, I’d have to turn it down. Even my public readings at universities these days have to be done seated. But that was back when I was thinking seriously about teaching.

My book The American Shore, an analysis of Thomas Disch’s brilliant and exemplary short SF story “Angouleme,” was an attempt to provide something I felt could stand up to the new approaches to reading that were burgeoning all around me back then. In at least three classes, Shore provided me with my own theoretical textbook, before I made the transition, in ’88, to professor of comparative literature at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Shore and About Writing are my two stabs at creating textbooks for my own students.

INTERVIEWER

At Temple University, where you currently teach, you place a lot of importance on the individual sentence.

DELANY

Yes. It goes back to the notion that what happens in the mind of the reader when the reader moves his or her eye from word to word on the page—that’s what a story actually is. What the language calls up in your mind can also make you think in a rich and vivid manner. How it makes you think about what it evokes, including its place in the world—that’s particularly important. And how it makes you think about it must be supported by certain discourses. If those discursive models are rich enough, they inculcate the sophisticated idea of discourse itself that I’m striving for. For forty years, that has been and remains my project.

Frequently, those discursive models are in conflict with simpler discourses. When that happens, for some people it will be as interesting and as exciting as a good chess game. Others will not pay that much attention to the discursive conflicts. For them it’s not so interesting. But, as I did, listening to the students after my MIT lecture and reading what some of them went on to write me about the experience, I have the impression that a certain number were hungry for the kind of experience they had there and took from it something I can recognize as what I’d wanted to give. It’s not a message, but an experience of seeing the world and the topics it comprises at a certain level of complexity, of potentiality, of relationship—a complexity and relationship that intricately entails, even as it empowers, the pursuit of beauty and joy.