What do you do best?
Conceive and create fictions that are real — emotionally engaging and thought-provoking – and that draw on elements of the unreal for their power.
What makes you the best?
I somehow from earliest childhood had a facility for language: a memory for words, sentences, scenes from fiction and plays and from poetry. Grammar and linguistic structures came to me like music to a prodigy. That facility – that gift – that tool – that wonderful power that could take in the words of others and permit me to do original things with words myself – is rare. It’s a power not necessarily possessed by the writers of novels or stories — most novels have other goals than exercising the powers of language: they aim to entertain, tell stories quickly and clearly, meet readers’ expectations, give the illusion of actuality, and so on. My books and stories haven’t been tremendously successful in numbers sold, but what they do – and what a number of critical writers have seen and said that they do – is unparalleled.
What are your aspirations?
I am 74 years old, and “aspirations” are no longer what I have; what I aspired to I have accomplished, to the best of my powers: to write the books I conceived, to love and be loved, to see the last years of life ahead without regrets or things undone.
My biggest success was a long novel called Little, Big, about a family that believes in fairies – and the fairies who believe in them. It took ten years to write, was published in 1981, has had a somewhat checkered career (appearing sometimes as a fantasy novel, at other times as a “literary” novel) and is still in print. It has won several awards, and critics (and more importantly to me) writers, including Harold Bloom, James Merrill, John Hollander, Ursula Le Guin, Neil Gaiman and Michael Chabon have praised it. Numbers of readers have called it their most beloved book. Others have found it hard to read, too full of description, without a headlong plot, and I take that as success as well.
Most Challenging Moment?
In 1987 my wife of two years and I decided to have a child. I was then 45 years old. The child turned out to be two children, twin girls, and through ultrasound we learned that one would be born with a congenital disability (spina bifida). It was impossible to know how disabled she would be. The challenge, then, began with that knowledge, and continued through the pregnancy, the possibility of “fetal reduction” (rejected), birth, and several early operations – say ten years – as well through a childhood as much like any childhood as we could provide. The moment was a huge challenge and the following years a huge joy, the sweetest years of my life. The girls are 30 years old this year.
The things that make us happy make us wise. (A motto embroidered on a sampler in the house of an old woman in the novel Little Big.)
Favorite People/Role Models?
I’m very old, and several of the people most important to me are dead. The poet and novelist Tom Disch is one of those. The poet John Hollander is another. Still alive as of this writing are the critic John Clute, and the writers Terry Bisson, Paul Park, and Elizabeth Hand. I can’t say any of them are role models – unless we are models for one another, in a slippery business that rarely pays well but can display as great literary worth as any other: fantasy and “speculative” fiction. As a teenager I adopted Vladimir Nabokov as a role model or mentor – which may have been a mistake, as I learned from him to despise certain kinds of writing and writers that I have had to change my (inherited) opinion about.
My favorite place is home: an 1848 Carpenter Gothic house in a small New England town, with neighbors near but also woods and hills, and beloved of course because it is also the home of my wife, and was the home of my daughters until recently. I have loved touring the world – as far as I got in it – but that was mostly long ago and I’m sure that the coffee-houses on the plaza in Palma, Majorca; the “lanai” apartment buildings of Los Angeles, with the swimming pool in the middle and the smell of eucalyptus, aren’t the same. I want to return to Barcelona, the strangest and most beautiful of European cities I’ve seen. I like colonial cities: Santiago de Chile; Salvador de Bahia, Brazil; Melbourne, Australia – but these remain imagined destinations.
I have used the word-processing program WordPerfect since I began using a computer in the late 80s. It was and remains a brilliant invention, a far more usable product for writers than musclebound and arcane Word, which of course I must also use because the world does. But my most recent work was typed using WP 5.1, the last and best DOS version, modified by myself (it’s easy) after the book was drafted with a Pilot Plumix calligraphic fountain pen, or several (they’re as wonderful as they are cheap), on long Rhodia yellow pads, like legal pads that have gone to finishing school – so lovely.
I am currently excited about a course I will be teaching at Yale in the fall with another professor (a real professor – I am a lecturer): Utopia As Fiction. I am engaged with my wife Laurie Block in raising finishing money for a two-hour documentary biography of Helen Keller, an amazing film for American Masters on PBS. I am writing a long essay-review for Harper’s magazine about the Library of America’s two-volume collection of the Hainish novels and stories of Ursula Le Guin – a monumental oeuvre, I think the greatest in SF, comprising works I began reading in the early 1970s – just when my own first book was published. Re-reading them at this remove is immensely touching, and the chance to say what I feel about them is a great privilege