Terry Bisson Click here to read more or purchase the book Terry Bisson
conducted November 6, 1997

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Jim Freund: Welcome to OmniVisions. Terry Bisson is author of about five original novels, a great many brilliant short stories, a scattering of plays, and a few movie novelizations. Most recently he completed the last 75 pages of Walter Miller's St. Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman, a sequel to the classic, A Canticle for Liebowitz.

Let's start right in: How did your "collaboration" with Walter Miller come about?

Terry Bisson: I was recommended for the job by Alice Turner, the fiction editor of Playboy.

JF: Can you give us a bit of the background of what you had to do -- was Miller still alive, how much research did you have to do, did you know where he was going with the final pages, etc.?

TB: When I got the book Miller had written 600 pages and outlined the ending. he just didnít want to actually write it.

Then to my surprise Miller killed himself. I had never met him and was very upset. but I knew what to do with the book. I went to work after rereading Canticle several times.

The research I did was studying his style and his world -- the geography and the characters.

JF: Can you give us a brief description or precis of the book?

TB: Sure. The book is about the struggle between the world and the spirit. Specifically, it's about a very unworldly monk who wants to get out of the monastery

This monk's problem is that heís a holy man (a man of God) even though he doesnít want to be. So that everything he does, no matter how worldly or selfish, as a spiritual dimension

Blacktooth works for a gun running cardinal and falls in love with a mutant.

It's pretty much your standard monk loves mutant tale.

JF: Oh, another one of those. :) What are you working on right now?

TB: Right now I'm working on a very sweet little teen love story. She's a member of a school club called the kevorkians. The idea is, there IS a life after death. But itís only for teenagers who kill themselves.

JF: Is this a short work?

TB: Not too short. I think it may be a noveleenie when itís finished.

JF: Ooh, a noveleenie! A new category for SFWA to worry about. This brings me (earlier than usual) to my favorite question: What are the differences for you between writing short fiction and novels?

TB: Novels tend to be longer.

JF: Uh-huh. (Two can play this game. :-)

TB: Seriously, short fiction is held in imaginative RAM while you are working. Even if you donít know how the story will end the STORY knows. With a novel it's different. It gets BUILT as you go along. It changes (at least mine do). You work without seeing the end. (At least I do.)

It's more like farming than gardening. Novel writing, that is. You go out to the same field, day after day. Nothing much changes from day to day. It takes patience and endurance.

Writing a novel is also a big investment of time and work. You are never sure a novel is going to work. With a story you know. A story only has to do one thing. It can be a big thing or a small thing. It only has to do it well. A novel, if it's any good has to do several things. And they all have to be related, in unexpected (sometimes) ways.

JF: So would it be fair to characterize your short work as being character and/or premise driven, rather than story twists?

TB: Story driven and character driven is the same thing to me. I guess that means mine are character driven, yes. Though I think what really drives a story is a search for symmetry. There is an arc and an exit point that, if found, can turn a piece of writing into a story.

Pirates of the Universe -- Click here to read more or order

JF: What are the kinds of things you try to do with your novels? Let's say, Pirates of the Universe or Voyage to the Red Planet?

TB: In my novels I try to do what every novelist tries to do: to create a pattern of character, language and incident so compelling and wondrous that everyone on Earth will stop what they are doing and pay attention.

In the short run, I try to predict the future, seduce all the women, and rob all the men.

JF: But not necessarily in that order. Would you consider yourself a satirist?

TB: A satirist? Occasionally, in short work like "The Toxic Donut". But in general, no. A true satirist -- and I would consider Jim Morrow and Kurt Vonnegut to be true satirists -- A true satirist has to be a bit of a puritan, I think. I'm a wishy-washy liberal.

JF: I guess some of this hinges on our definition of satire. I think "Next" might be considered to be satirical, for example, whatever the politics from which it arose. And some aspects of Voyage might also run into that turf. Whaddya think?

TB: The novel itself started as satire -- Don Quixote, which was a send up of the sword and sorcery romances of the day. And SF in particular started as satire -- if you call Gulliver's Travels SF. But along came Mary Shelley and SF started taking itself very seriously.

Satire has to be mean. Miller is always funny, mordant, but never really satorical. He is too compassionate. And in a sense he never saw a sin he didnít share.

JF: I do call Gulliver's Travels SF, fwiw. How's about your plays? Do you set out to write in that form, or does a story somehow tell you that is how it would best work. (Does this question make any sense?)

TB: Typo: Miller is always satorical, but never satirical.

I only set out to write a play once: a teleplay which will be published in F&SF next year. In general, a play for me is just a short story that looks like it will work on the boards.

JF: And yet, you've had an evening of theatre produced in NY, and at least one radio drama (so far).

TB: Yeah, but as you know itís very hard to get small theatre produced in NY. It's an unfortunate side effect of the theatre boom.

JF: Indeed, but there's always hope and opportunity. I think we'll see more of your work on the stage. Have you considered writing a full-length play?

TB: I hope to never write a full length anything.

JF: [grin] I meant a feature play. So far, they've mostly been short works.

TB: I could never write a three-act full-length play. I don't know how (or why) anybody does. Why would anybody sit through a play when they can go to a movie?

JF: Gee, and I just got back from London where one of my prime reasons to go was to see the theatre there. The theatrical mis-en-scene is so unique. I do think theatre can add a dimension to sf the genre would otherwise lack -- more of a potential for sense of wonder and audience involvement, for example.

TB: Sorry I'm such a crummy typist. It's one of the key privileges of being a writer--you get to correct yourself, (so you get sloppy).

JF: It's the nature of chats to have bad tpyos.

(Message to all: We have now opened the forum for audience participation.)

Mike McCoy: Terry, Where do you see science fiction headed as a genre? Is that any particular direction or do you see it getting more diverse in terms of subject matter?

TB: The most hopeful thing, I think, is the new trend toward "hard" SF. I think KS Robinsonís Mars books are very salutary in bringing SF back toward its roots as speculative literature.

Social and technological speculation is something SF does very well. Stan and Wells are both Fabian socialists, each in their own way. This to me is SF playing with its strengths.

JF: What brought you to SF in the first place?

TB: What brought me to SF was SF itself. The first authors I read who actually MOVED me were Ray Bradbury and Clifford Simak's, SF great mid-century romantics.

JF: Ah, Simak. I wish more writers would remember to acknowledge him. Could you elaborate more on some of your antecedents?

Mike McCoy: There was an interesting discussion in one of the forums in the New York Times recently involving "Why does science fiction get such little respect?". I don't really agree with this assumption but I'd be interested to hear your reaction to it.

TB: No writer (or field) gets as much respect as it thinks it deserves. I think SF gets about as much as it deserves. I think you can count the really great SF writers on two hands, and most of them (all but Lafferty) have been recognized. Even if it, as with Dick, a day late and a dollar short

Mike McCoy: What, if any, impact do you think the Internet is having on the writing of science fiction?

TB: The impact of the Internet on the writing of SF? Gee, I don't know. Am I missing something? What do you think it is?

I think the Internet is having an impact on the publication and dissemination of SF. Probably for the better. But the writing ...

I tend to be pretty old fashioned about writing. Fiction writing is a wrestling with dramatic structure that is largely independent of tools. I donít think the typewriter or the word processor changed things much ...

Mike McCoy: I agree. It seems that with every new tool that comes along there is talk of a "revolution", but it's the actual writing that counts.

JF: What about hypertext? Do either of you see that as a legitimate potential for writing sf?

TB: Hypertext to me is like karaoke. I'm out the door.

A writer's job is to find the best way to tell a story. Hypertext says there is no best way. If this is true, it undermines the illusion common to all art, that there IS a best way and that it CAN be discovered.

Mike McCoy: Maybe I'm old fashioned, but I prefer to read a book or story with some kind of 'ending' even if it is open ended at that. To be able to have multiple plots does not interest me that much.

TB: I agree, McCoy. The point of a literary work is to impose a stillness of life. If youíre not going to pin it down, if itís going to keep wiggling, what's the point?

JF: Re hypertext: I really have no bone to pick on this, but I would argue that hypertext doesn't mean just non-linear writing. It can also be a way to add addenda in a manner books cannot, free from serial constraints. However, I'm no fiction writer.

JF: Have you considered writing for other media? Has writing novelizations, for example, given you a taste to try cinema?

TB: You donít have to write novelizations to get a "taste" for cinema. Every writer in America (at least) imitates cinema, whether he wants to or not.

I learned a couple of things: [through writing novelizations] I was surprised when Johnny Mnemonic didn't work. But even the most popular and best known SF writer of the day (Bill Gibson) is a nobody when it comes to film. And look at Starship Troopers. The BIGGEST name in all of SF (Heinlein) and they don't even bother to put it on the posters.

Writing for cinema is something else. I think you have to be there to sell a screenplay (I have written one; unsold). And all the skills you have developed, except for dialogue and pacing, you have to throw away. All that interesting POV stuff you learned at Clarion--chuck it.

JF: Was that screenplay based on any of your published work?

TB: No, the screenplay I wrote was a blatant attempt to write a commercial soft core porn flick, set in VR.

JF: Maybe Fox will pick it up. :) Any chance of a movie or teleplay being done? I recall you had some work optioned.

TB: Necronauts (pub. in Playboy) was optioned by Universal. It looks like they are doing a script for Necronauts. The writer is the same guy who wrote Event Horizon. An unfortunate film.

Mike McCoy: In an Omni chat with Robert Silverberg, I believe he stated that he really didn't read much science fiction currently. How about you?

TB: I just finished Silverberg's latest. But in general, no. I read my friends, of course; they'd know if I didn't. But I don't attempt to keep up with the field.

JF: Well, it's about time to wrap up for tonight. What's coming out in the near future?

TB: I have a new Wilson Wu story coming out in Asimov's sometime next year. And a short in F&SF. And hopefully, a book around the adventures of the mad mathematician, Wilson Wu.

Mike McCoy: Thanks Terry. Enjoyed it very much. Keep up the good work.

JF: I'll certainly be looking forward to these, as always. And of course, to Audience, don't forget St. Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman and Pirates of the Universe are on better bookshelves now. T, thanks for being here!

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