Issue 197, Summer 2011
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.
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?
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.
What was your daily routine like in those days?
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.
Stare at the wall?
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.
Do you think of yourself as a genre writer?
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.
When did you decide that sex was important to your work?
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.
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?
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!