Bruce and I have a lot in common. We both love speculative poetry and fiction; as an editor I’ve been publishing Bruce’s poetry for years now in various genre and non-genre anthologies, e-zines, and magazines. We both have worked for several universities over the years; he as a writing instructor (he’s taught fiction at the University of Colorado, the University of Illinois, and the University of Wisconsin, among others), and I as a researcher. And we both have shared childhood memories growing up in Colorado. He is a wonderful, intelligent and very creative individual and it was a pleasure for me to interview him.
Bruce is such a skilled writer that he can flawlessly switch from genre writing such as science fiction and mystery fiction to literary and experimental fiction in the blink of an eye. He’s also a prolific poet. His writing awards are many: World Fantasy, Nebula (twice), Bram Stoker, L. Ron Hubbard, and Pushcart awards.
He’s been published in such prestigious magazines as Realms of Fantasy, Analog Science Fiction & Fact and the North American Review and has published several books including Flaming Arrows, Wind Over Heaven, and Thirteen Ways to Water, among many others.
ML: Bruce, I must say when I began research for this interview I was utterly blown away by the sheer volume of your writing portfolio. How many short stories, including your flash fiction, have you written over the years? How do you focus your creative muse to continually generate so many quality stories?
BHR: I’ve written something on the order of 200 stories to date, with a couple of unpublished novels, three novels for hire under pseudonyms, and some nonfiction. Actually, considering how long I’ve been at it, it doesn’t seem like all that much. But that's how it is for writers: if you write 200 stories, you are liable to look at those super-prolific writers who have produced that many novels and feel like a bit of a slacker.
ML: You’re an expert at writing the short-short story, also known as flash fiction. Please tell us about your short-short story subscription program. I understand there is a French-language subscription as well?
BHR: I'm starting the fifth year of my subscription service. For five dollars U.S., I send a year of short-short stories to subscribers by e-mail. Since most publishers don't see the subscriptions as competing with what they do, I'm able to later publish the same stories in magazines or in anthologies. But subscribers see the stories first, three stories a month. I have over 650 subscribers in about 70 countries, and my subscription list keeps growing. Finding subscribers was a challenge at first, but now the service keeps growing largely on word-of-mouth. Also, I get some publicity in newspapers and even on television since the service is so unusual.
I'm the kind of writer who is motivated by deadlines, and the expectation of 650 paying subscribers is a great motivator. Indeed, this subscription idea has done so much for my productivity that I have also been writing a novel that goes out one chapter at a time to a much smaller subscription list.
ML: You told me that you would soon be moving to England for a short time. Could you elaborate?
BHR: My wife has been offered a visiting appointment to the faculty at the London School of Business. She is a social psychologist. She studies how people behave in groups, and what is a business if not a group, or a group of groups? Since the MFA program where I teach fiction writing lets me do much of my instruction online, I only need to be in the U.S. for two ten-day residencies, so I get to come along to the home city of the mother tongue. I love London, though I've never been able to stay more than a few days at a time. I'm hoping that I will be able to give some readings, attend readings by British writers, and find some other ways to participate in the city's literary life. I also hope to take another excursion to Prague, my favorite city in the world.
BHR: Word Work consists of essays about meeting the psychological and practical challenges that can arise in a serious writer's life. There are a lot of pitfalls for writers, and I fell into most of them, sometimes more than once. My authority for writing that book is my experience of repeatedly climbing out, of repeatedly discovering new ways in which the writing life could be difficult and gradually gaining some insight into the assorted hazards. Word Work is the book that I wish had been available for me to read when I was starting out. It might have saved me time and trouble. Then again, it might not have. Sometimes you just have to fall into the pit in order to learn from the experience, in which case a book like Word Work can at least reassure you that your experience is normal.
ML: So is Eugene, Oregon, really the tie-dye capital of the world? I thought Berkeley, California, or maybe San Francisco held that title?
BHR: Eugene has a strong strand of hippie culture running through it, though there are other strands, too. We have anarchists and radical environmentalists. Arsonists who destroy property as a supposedly pro-environmental protest often turn out to have a Eugene connection. Added to the liberal mix are many of the university students and faculty. But there are just as many conservative strands. Eugene has its developers, its lumber yards, gun enthusiasts, and conservative churches. It's a western town. The economy of this state relies on the extraction of resources from the earth.
Tie-dye is hard to miss in the summer, though. In the summer, we have an open-air market every Saturday that features hand-crafted goods, and tie-dye is a good expression of the colors and feel of Saturday Market in Eugene.
In Berkeley and San Francisco, they have better weather in the winter. They are less tempted to stay indoors for three months dyeing shirts and making beaded beanbags in the shape of frogs.
ML: You’ve written many stories that have won awards. In particular, your short story "Don Ysidro” won the World Fantasy Award, your short story “The Dead Boy At Your Window” won both the Bram Stoker Award and the Pushcart Prize, and your novelette “Lifeboat on a Burning Sea” won the Nebula Award. Are there any plans to release all your award-winning stories together in one collection?
BHR: They may not ever appear in a single collection simply because I do so many different things. Readers want to know what kind of book they are picking up, and a book containing a mix of mystery, fantasy, SF, and literary fiction is problematic. In what part of the store would booksellers shelve it?
"Don Ysidro" and "The Dead Boy at Your Window" are both in my new collection, The Keyhole Opera. The stories in that book are all unified by being very short, and I can at least make an argument in favor of shelving the whole collection among the titles of literary fiction. Some of the stories are fantasy, but I think the writing holds up for a literary audience.
ML: Is there any truth to the unsubstantiated rumor that the Stargate-SG1 production people essentially stole the concept of “Lifeboat on a Burning Sea” for the plot for one of their episodes entitled “Lifeboat”?
BHR: Oh, if only that were true and I could wring some money out of Hollywood! Actually, "Lifeboat on a Burning Sea" was made into a low-budget television movie. I did not get much money for that, and the movie wasn't great, but I still loved the experience. I'd like to have more of my work interpreted through other media—TV, film, or even something more inventive. It's fun to see the product of my own imagination shaped collaboratively by someone else, so long as my original vision is still available in print. I wouldn't ever want to write a screenplay because there my own vision might well vanish entirely.
ML: You’ve written a few media tie-in novels under the pen name Hanovi Braddock; are you permitted to name and talk about those novels?
BHR: I've done stories and one Magic: The Gathering novel as Hanovi Braddock. I also wrote a Tom Swift book under the house pen name of Victor Appleton. I've done some other pseudonymous writing. I'm allowed to talk about any of it, but the only thing that I think is really worthy of mention is Ashes of the Sun, the Magic: The Gathering novel. That was a fantasy novel I'd have been happy to take credit for as a stand-alone title. I may yet write some more high fantasy as Hanovi. I was sorry to see Ashes go out of print when Wizards of the Coast revamped their publishing strategy.
ML: You’ve written in just about every genre. You’ve even written romance fiction under the pen name Brenda Holland for Woman’s World. Have you ever written a western story?
BHR: Yes."A Little Shortcut to the Silver" was published in Fiction Quarterly. It was based on a real Colorado con man named "Chicken" Bill Little.
ML: You won the L. Ron Hubbard Award in 1989 for your short story “A Branch In The Wind.” Were you surprised to win such a prestigious award so early on in your writing career?
BHR: It didn't feel early. My first fiction publication had come in 1978, and my first appearance in F&SF was in 1982. There were long years of writing and not selling. There were, frankly, some years of pining and not writing. But winning the contest was wonderful. It confirmed for me that I could do this, that if I kept writing, I'd eventually start to publish more and more of what I wrote. L. Ron Hubbard, by endowing that contest, did a wonderful thing for a generation of writers he would never meet. I'm grateful for that, and I'm grateful to everyone who has been associated with the contest.
ML: In a recent interview you said that science fiction and fantasy were a bit like the country Turkey in the early twentieth century, the "sick man of Europe," and they are on their way out. Do you think anything will come along to take their place?
BHR: I was talking about publishing categories. I think that speculative writing and highly imaginative invention will always be part of literature, but they may eventually be so commonplace in the mainstream that the SF and fantasy section in bookstores will shrink to just a few shelves. It is already happening.
But the audience for books of all kinds seems to be getting smaller. Damon Knight once said to me that it may turn out that this period where a few people could make a living by writing novels will turn out to have been a brief anomaly. And why should we expect any different? But we'll still have novelists and short story writers. Poets can't make a living from their poems, but that doesn't stop them. Meanwhile, selling my work for a little money here or there means that I can keep writing it for now without taking on other work that I don't want to do. That's a satisfactory state of affairs. I didn't choose writing for the money (money is always welcome, though).
ML: You once said that Robert A. Heinlein was a High Priest of Cold Equations. What did you mean by that?
BHR: Did I really say that? The things that interviewers discover about me that I had myself forgotten! Well, Heinlein was a hard SF writer who enjoyed emphasizing the cold, hard realities of the phenomenal world, the physical universe in which mass and energy are conserved, or are exchanged one for the other according to firm rules. In other words, in his work he celebrated the reality that doesn’t care about your ideals, your positive thoughts, or the way you wish things would be.
At its purest, science fiction is concerned with what can really happen. A lot of popular SF, particularly on the screen, has distanced itself from the limitations of reality. In Star Trek, much of the technology is magic by another name.
Science fiction’s readership is in decline, and it may be that in the U.S. this is partly because of the dominance of magical thinking in our political and social discourse. Real science fiction is a literature of possibility, but also of limitation. I think Americans in particular, on both the left and right, want to be unfettered by reality.They prefer pure ideology to shabby and practical details. So a literature of the fantastic suits the times better than a literature that limits its dreams according to what is physically possible.
On the global stage, then, I see a connection between a reading public that isn’t much interested in the limitations of hard SF and a foreign policy that predicts that an invading and occupying force in the Middle East will be welcomed with flowers. And I am speaking as a person who adores fantasy and mostly writes fantasy. I’m sorry to see that the inheritors of Heinlein in our own time, writers like Wil McCarthy, Linda Nagata, and Kathleen Ann Goonan, have small readerships and disappointing careers compared to what their writing deserves.
Heinlein could over-learn some of his own lessons, in my view. Sometimes “cold, hard facts” become an excuse for oppression. As John Gardner observed, Heinlein was at his best when he kept his fascism in check.
ML: Can you tell us anything about your forthcoming novel, Steam?
BHR: With Steam I am attempting to demonstrate that steam locomotives, bipolar disorder, and the futures market are all the same thing. I expect the novel to be 135 chapters long, and I am only about 30 chapters into it. I've been thinking about this novel for perhaps ten years and have been actually drafting chapters for a year. In fact, I've actually been distributing the novel a chapter at a time to a different list of paying readers. Steam is an ambitious novel, and I periodically worry that I'm not up to it, but with readers waiting for it a chapter at a time, I have no choice but to hang in there and give them their money's worth. I feel like a high-wire artist. That's sort of the writer's situation all the time, but sending chapters to readers as I write those chapters is walking the high-wire without a net. Performance anxiety is a good thing. I do my very best with every chapter.
ML: What does the concept of Schrödinger’s cat mean to you?
BHR: Between the revelations of Schrödinger and Heisenberg, we know that there are some limits to how much we can know. The universe doesn’t have the hard edges of classical physics. The universe is rather fuzzy. But probability and uncertainty don't mean what a lot of people have taken them to mean. The universe could yet turn out to be deterministic. Free will could be an illusion. The paradoxes of quantum physics definitely don't mean, as some people seem to think, that in the end nothing is knowable, that wishful or magical thinking are tools equal to a screwdriver. My screwdriver beats someone else’s wishful thinking any day of the week.
The universe will always be at least a little mysterious to us. But there is a lot that we have figured out, too.
ML: So what’s the story about Donat Bobet and will we ever see a collection of stories about him? Could this character potentially develop into your version of John Updike’s Rabbit?
BHR: When I wrote the first Donat Bobet story, I had no idea that I'd keep coming back to him so often. He is a Montreal poet who lives a very rich life thanks to his imagination and the forbearance of his friends. Donat Bobet's magic is a kind that I definitely believe in. He weaves a spell for himself and others, even while he lives in the real world. He chooses an extraordinary reality. His is the reality we all share made something extraordinary simply by the way he chooses to attack each moment. He enjoys his creative lies but still has to figure out a way to get dinner.
I don't know if I will keep writing his stories. I would like to meet Donat. But I wouldn't want to be him. I couldn't be him. I am too anxious.
ML: We need to wrap things up here but before I go, I just got to ask you, what is your “Born Free Manifesto” and what the heck is a symmetrina?
BHR: The “Born Free Manifesto” is based on a little riff that I did when I was a panelist at a science fiction convention where other writers and I were asked to speak about the freelance lifestyle. The topic reminded me of the language and politics of sexual preference: Do you choose your preference, or are you born with it? I played with the idea that some of us are born to be employees, some of us are born to freelancers, and a few bi-lance individuals make a living as both employees and freelancers.
A symmetrina is a fixed form of narrative. I have published some examples of the form. Other writers who have written symmetrinas include Deborah Layne and George Guthridge, and several writers have collaborated with me on symmetrinas that have appeared in Indiana Review, Polyphony, and elsewhere. The form has some rather involved rules, which can easily be found by Googling the term. I’m attracted to forms of fiction writing that make the writing task more difficult. I think artificial constraints sometimes push me in interesting directions that I would not have otherwise thought of.
ML: Thanks. This has been fun.
BHR:You’re quite welcome.
ML: If you want to know more about Bruce and his writing, go to his website.
Subscribe to a year's worth of Bruce's short-short stories for just $5. This is an excellent bargain, in my opinion. (More information here).
When next we meet up with Bruce Holland Rogers we’ll be going to Guadalajara, Mexico with a truckload of those priceless Eugene, Oregon tie-dye t-shirts and beaded beanbag frogs for trade at the local farmer’s market. One truckload of those hippie trinkets should bring in a butt-load of Tecate beer, cheap tequila, pilfered Mayan artifacts, and at least a couple cleaned up second-hand hookers.