Editor's Note: This interview (under the title California Daydreaming) originally appeared in Æon #7, published in May, 2006. At the interviewee's request, minor changes were made to this article after publication.
You may or may not have heard of Bruce McAllister. If your thing is reading well-written literary science fiction, then you should have read Mr. McAllister's works. If you haven't heard of Bruce, then I want to introduce you to him. His publishing credits include such classic magazines as Asimov's and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and the legendary OMNI magazine, as well as The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror and The Year's Best Science Fiction anthologies. His work appeared in the Joyce Carol Oates-edited anthology, American Gothic Tales. He has edited anthologies with one of SF's luminaries, Harry Harrison, and was nominated for both the Hugo and the Nebula awards. His novel Dream Baby (Tor/St.Martin's) laid bare the horror of the Vietnam War through the eyes of the fantastic. He has also written on popular science and sports topics for such magazines as Life and International Wildlife.
Bruce is a multi-faceted person. In addition to being a writer and a former professor, he's also a screenplay consultant, public relations specialist, lay archaeologist and marine biologist, poet and father. He is definitely a renaissance man for these troubling times.
ML: You have an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of California, Irvine, and taught creative writing at the University of Redlands for twenty years. Do you believe that an MFA in Creative Writing is essential for a science fiction writer?
BM: Thanks for the very kind introduction, Michael, and for a great set of questions. You've made me red-faced; but, actually, now that I think about it, I do think being a father takes being a "renaissance man" at times. As far as your MFA question goes: Absolutely not...that is, until MFA programs—the majority and the best—become receptive to genre fiction—which I doubt will ever happen and which I'm not sure is necessary or even a good thing. MFA programs are part of academe and the literary community; they're attached officially or by spirit to literature departments; they reflect a literary-"canonical" way of thinking—which is important to literary art, sure—but that way of thinking just doesn't include genre fiction. There are a few MFA exceptions to this these days, but they're the less influential and less prestigious programs. The main reasons to get an MFA are (1) to be able, if you want this experience, to work with other literary-fiction-minded writers for two years in a workshop-intensive program and (2) come away with a graduate degree that allows you, if you have publications, to teach in a national college and university system that ranges from community colleges to private and public four-year institutions. But very few science fiction and genre-fantasy writers want or need this kind of experience, and that's as it should be.
However, science fiction is the only genre of genre writing that has ever wanted to be "literary" or experimental (see the New Wave of the '60s and '70s), and it also shares its soul with three literary traditions that have been blessed by academe and the literary community: the utopian/dystopian novel, the gothic novel, and, more recently, magical realism. This makes sf the only type of genre fiction that ranges from highly genre storytelling (storytelling that wouldn't be of any interest whatsoever to the leading MFA programs) through quite literary, character-driven, realistic, magical, gothic or political-satirical fiction that academe and the literary community do bless. Have I written in my career sf or fantasy that I might use in an MFA workshop? Yes. Like Michael Bishop, John Kessel, Karen Joy Fowler, Barry Malzberg and countless others in our field (not to mention those New Wave writers of the '60s and '70s), I've written a few f&sf stories that could sneak their way into an MFA workshop and, depending on the program, get away with it. But I wrote those stories simply to write them—as a writer, and as one not aware until afterward that I'd written something that might be "literary". All of those stories in my case, in fact, would, yes, be classified as "magical realism". The strange thing about literary fiction—and we're talking here about MFA programs and literary quarterlies and the mindset of the literary community—is that you can have the same story, and I mean literally the same story (this has happened to me recently), and if you use the word "witch" in it in only four places, the literary community considers it a genre story; but if you remove the four instances of the word witch (while of course keeping the witch's behavior the same), it's now a literary story. That's pretty silly if you think about it, and speaks more of publishing categories and sub-cultural schools of thinking than it does literature or storytelling; and to make the entire either/or duality even sillier, literary fiction that is new and attracts readers these days often is fiction that borrows from genre motifs and ways of thinking. At the same time, highly "genre" storytelling is just that—highly "genre" storytelling, storytelling in which the goal is to tell very directly (with a transparent style that serves story and doesn't call "artistic" attention to itself, and with characterization that is sufficient for reader engagement but would never claim to be a full exploration of the human condition)—a story that engages and continues to engage the reader in an entertaining but also often educational way. That kind of fiction has no place in current MFA programs, and that's okay. That kind of fiction is glorious enough because it's got a much, much larger readership and its ancestral roots are in the most powerful storytelling of all—myth, legend, fable, fairytale, Gilgamesh, Homer, metaphysical and scientific speculation, on and on. The literary novel as we know it has been around for less than 500 years.
All of this is terribly "academic", I realize, and for a little more excitement here's fodder for those who wish to bash MFA programs and the literary community (as I did when I was younger and saw things a little less "contextually"): the first night of my MFA workshop in 1969, as a young sf writer, I sensed something I'd never felt in the f&sf field, namely, that the enemy wasn't outside that room but inside it. In the f&sf world I'd grown up in, editors like Fred Pohl, Ed Ferman, Terry Carr, David Gerrold (yes, David Gerrold), and Judy Merrill (and later, after the MFA, Harry Harrison and Barry Malzberg; and much much later, Ellen Datlow and Gardner Dozois) had been incredibly generous, caring and supportive. Readers had been too, and in fact the entire field, because of that be-loyal-to-your-own attitude of the often-mentioned "ghetto" roots of the field, felt like family. The "enemy", if there was one, was outside. But that night I sensed something different. I also sensed an incredibly dismissive attitude from some of my classmates—one of them who would go on to win a Pulitzer for minimalist fiction—toward genre fiction, if not downright contempt and antagonism.
Besides, we've got Clarion if we want workshops that take both (1) artfulness of fiction (character, style, etc.) and (2) genre elements seriously—which no prestigious MFA program anywhere in the nation does.
More ammo for MFA bashing? Sure, why not: the MFA student handbook at the time said that one's MFA thesis needed to be of "publishable quality". I'd managed to get a contract from Terry Carr at Ace Books to do a science fiction novel (Humanity Prime, the last "Ace Special”), one that while it had its experimental elements (narrator with a racial memory and multiple identities throughout and a stream-of-consciousness style) was very genre. I told the MFA program director I wanted to use it as my MFA thesis. He was a good guy—full of heart and conscience and generosity of spirit—and he'd written a psychological western and a ski-scene novel, so was at least "mainstream" rather than "literary"—but of course he was uncomfortable with this. The novel was going to be a mass-market paperback, for Pete's sake. But what could he do? My thesis was going to be publishable because I had a contract to write it and therefore it would be published. I'll never forget the day, having finished the novel and given copies to my committee members, I went to the two main people on my MFA committee to get their feedback. Conscientious souls without a mean streak in them (they simply didn't know what to make of either me or genre fiction), they'd both read it; the director, who had a copy of Dune on his desk (he was making an effort), had done his best to engage it. In his defense, the novel was a bloated, meandering mess, and it would take Terry Carr, bless his soul and editorial gifts, to edit it (single-handedly—I was no help) into a workable shape—which means of course that Terry Carr earned at least a part of an MFA degree and never knew it. I then went to my other guy—who was a vice chancellor of the campus, a former literary writer himself and a man who'd seen much (perhaps too much) in life. He stared at me across the big mahogany desk, looking a little lost in his job, and said, "I'm sorry, Bruce, but I really can't get into this kind of fiction; but I wish you well and I'll sign anything you need to have me sign."
More ammo? Okay. When I first visited the campus the year before I attended and spoke to the then-director of the MFA program, he looked at my resume, my publications—f&sf magazines, wire-service articles, a couple of other things—and said, "Are you ready to come to our MFA Program, Mr. McAllister, and do some serious writing?" I was offended. My f&sf stories were very "serious" to me; any writer's writing is serious to him. Even at UPI, the wire service, I'd worked my ass off on the little racing roundups and baseball summaries (I got really good at lines like "Queen of the Stage took the spotlight tonight at Green Mountain, paying $3.40, $2.30 and $1.90") that no else was willing to write. I was terribly hurt—for a moment—and then like any writer worth his salt bounced back and took my revenge by writing another f&sf story. But that's not the end of it: while I was in the program, the new director—the kind soul who'd written mainstream novels—asked me for a list of my publications. Why? Because he needed a healthy publications list for graduates of the MA program to use to defend that program's existence. My publications (yes, mine)—all those "un-serious" f&sf stories and articles, even if they'd been published before admission to the program—became 75% of the list he used to justify the program. No one else had any publications. He was embarrassed, yes, but that says he had heart; he'd never have been as insulting as the first director. He just knew I was a fish out of water, and appreciated that my publications from another sea could help him in his one.
More? Goodness. At the MFA graduation party a year later I happened to ask the director why they'd ever admitted me—me, an f&sf writer. He looked at me, beer in hand, took a deep breath, and said, "You were younger." "What?" I said. "Two science fiction writers applied the year you did—you and a forty-year-old. We opted for youth. We also thought we should experiment with a science fiction writer whether it worked out or not..."
I also got C's in some of my grad lit courses—which are the equivalent of F's—and was generally a bad and irreverent boy. But that's another story. The point is, my f&sf got me into an MFA program, and that MFA (though I didn't workshop f&sf stories for it), plus those f&sf publications and some lit mag ones, got me full-time job offers at four-year colleges. So the Muse of f&sf has always been there for me, whispering, "If you pay me obeisance, Bruce—if you write out of your love for f&sf no matter what the rest of the world says—I'll make sure you are rewarded."
ML: As a literary academic, what is your opinion of the once-termed dime-store science fiction or fantasy novel, i.e., the Dungeons & Dragons-influenced trilogies, the Buffy the Vampire Slayer serials, X-Files serials, the Star Wars and Star Trek serials et al.? Do they have cultural validity beyond frivolous pop culture fodder?
BM: My mother was an underdog-championing cultural anthropologist who also taught sociology and psychology. She was without snobbery or pretension, and she was half of the parental influence on my brother and me as we traveled in a Navy family whose head was an apolitical, totally non-jingoistic gentle Cold War warrior. That means that I was raised in the behavioral sciences with a real sense of diversity and democratic embrace. Which means that I have always had a great interest in popular culture. Which means that it's impossible for me not to be interested in what you call the "dime-store" product. I enjoy it, but in addition, like literary critic Leslie Fielder (more about him in a moment), I'm also mesmerized by it intellectually—by what it is as a product and relic of our wonderful evolutionary wet-wiring and as dynamic elements in culture and society. Sure, I got tired of Buffy the TV show after watching a couple of episodes, but that's fine, and I've never been a D&D fan. But I was a Star Wars fan, and I wish I liked the new Battlestar Galactica, but I don't (the people I've known in disaster/crisis situations didn't act like that—so soap opera-ish—in fact, disaster/crisis research shows that people cooperate remarkably in such situations). But I can watch any low-budget creature feature and watch it again and again while those around me go numb and leave for more beer and pizza. But because I'm a "jaws & claws & paws" addict, low-budget creature features—because their craft (yes, they have craft) is so transparent—have taught me a lot about storytelling. And one of my idols anyway is fiction writer and filmmaker John Sayles, who not only has won O. Henry Prize awards for his fiction, but also made films as varied (genre through family through character-driven "art") as Alligator, The Secret of Roan Inish, and The Return of the Secaucus Seven. He too knows no snobberies and is interested in storytelling more than anything else, its craft, its human heart—my kind of guy.
So, yes, I take all the pop culture stuff seriously as a lay sociologist and anthropologist. Not taking it seriously in that way is like going to the Calico Early Man site in the Mojave Desert—where the surface of the alluvial fan is covered with at least 30,000 years of tool-workshop artifacts and 60 feet below that with at least 150,000 years of artifacts—and ignoring a crudely done tool (yes, some of those guys were more talented than others, while some never got out of midlist with their tool publishers) simply because it's crudely done by high-tool-art standards. Hierarchical canonical artistic thinking—a relic of the humanities—has little place in the sciences, as we know; but if we didn't want to create beautiful things we wouldn't be human, and as Joseph Campbell once said (for those of a transcendental bent), "We create the most beautiful things we can in order to touch the face of God." (I confess, I have a mystic's transcendental bent and always have. In fact, I'm one of those people who in any argument over whether sf is mainly "theological"/transcendental or secular/rational/atheistic—and there have been such arguments—argues on the side of sense-of-wonder's being transcendental and of Einstein's' "cosmic religious feeling," i.e., "As a scientist I have spent my life discovering that what I thought I knew I didn't know, that there is always something beyond." The use of reason to achieve the mystical. Anyway, my own f&sf over the decades shouldn't leave anyone surprised by this confession.)
Leslie Fiedler, by the way—a guy whose spirit I've always liked—was a literary critic but a social scientist at heart, too. He viewed anything produced by popular culture as worth looking at and taking seriously from a cultural-product point of view even if it didn't meet the hierarchical paradigmatic standards of high art or high literature. Congenitally I'm unable not to share this view of things. Does it mean that I don't like high art? Of course I like high art—because aesthetics when they're met in sophisticated ways are wonderful things. It's just that, like Fiedler, I'm also fascinated by society, culture and the human psyche. I also can't imagine that most science fiction writers, given their interdisciplinary reflexes and sense of wonder and everything else, aren't more Fiedlerian than Hierarchical Scholar-Critic. It's in the nature of the genre, I think. Which is not to say you have to like TV's Buffy or X-Files or comics or graphic novels or The Animatrix (which I do, since it was created by very bright, very creative people who love Japanese comic art as art, and many of the best popular-cultural products are indeed produced by people like that, e.g. Lucas and Jackson). Within science fiction we have our tastes and standards. There are sf and fantasy writers I just can't read, but that's more about me than about them. Some f&sf writers I loved when I was very young I just can't read now; but I love imagining the sixteen-year-olds that are in love with them the way I was in love with their predecessors. There are first kisses in life, first boyfriends and girlfriends, but also first senses-of-wonder... If we're not impressionable early in life, life doesn't take, as the feral raised-in-the-Black-Forest children of history could certainly tell you (if they could speak or interact socially, which of course they can't).
ML: One reviewer of your seminal work, Dream Baby, called it an "Apocalypse Now meets X-Files" novel. Do you feel that analogy is a fair assessment or does it unfairly trivialize the novel?
BM: I work with new screenwriters a lot, and with a few more established ones, and Hollywood pitching is part of it whether it's in meeting or in query letter or schmooze. The reviewer you're quoting is simply doing the "Jaws meets dogs" kind of pitch and description Hollywood is both famous and infamous for. He is trying economically to convey to his own readers a sense of the novel; and that phrase is probably going to make readers more excited than "a novel that is a mixture of horror, sf, fantasy, war novel and psychological thriller" would. Dream Baby is, as I think I said earlier, a novel written years later by that kid in the MFA program who, after getting that MFA and writing both experimental fiction and poetry for a while to find a place in academe and the literary community, couldn't get f&sf (and horror and thrillers) out of his system. So he brought it all to bear, as writers do, on and in a novel years later. That novel was reviewed in the media as horror, war novel, sf, fantasy, and psychological thriller—all of those genres and separately—and that's all I needed to hear to know it was the book I'd hoped it would be. Also, I was indeed an X-Files fan—how could I not be (thriller genre, gothic claustrophobia, gov't-conspiracy paranoia, f&sf elements)?—but I have been known to complain that actually I beat both China Beach and X-Files to their territory with DB in 1988—but Hollywood failed to notice. Sigh….
Since it may be of interest to young writers if not older and wise readers, I'm going to say a few words about Dream Baby: DB was a fifteen-year project. I started it for two reasons: (1) survivor's guilt—feeling that others had gone in my place to the Vietnam conflict while I had creatively avoided it; and (2) a desire to really learn what that war—which I'd avoided—had been about. While #2 remained for a long time, #1 disappeared pretty quickly as the Vietnam vets I began to interview (200 in all by the time everything was done, with 30 of them serving as fully involved consultants on the novel—after all, I hadn't gone, so I couldn't write a one-man's-war novel, could I—and I needed them—and they were happy to oblige) had no problem accepting my '60s young-man's politics. As journalists discover all of the time, and as George in Winesburg, Ohio made famous, people want their stories told and politics just don't matter when someone comes along who really wants to hear them. Before long I was counting among my best friends a one-armed former Green Beret captain who'd buried gold leaf in the mountains of Laos, a 101st Airborne light weapons specialist who'd come back mysteriously untouched from six major battles (read a used copy of the novel to find out why), a former Air Force intel captain who'd briefed the Oval Office and gotten into trouble for telling the truth, a CIA nurse (yes, there were CIA nurses) and others who wanted, as I did, to get at the Truth—to get it into a novel that was on the one hand about the perceived paranormal experiences that had kept soldiers alive in Vietnam and, on the other, the strategic and tactical realities of that conflict. But that's not really why I'm taking this tangent. What I want to say to new writers and to any other curious readers is this: the story behind that novel is as interesting and fantastic as the novel itself. It got to a point where if I needed a character, that character would call. I invented a main character for it—Army nurse/Vietnam vet Mary Damico—then found her a few years later. To a T. When I sent her the short story version, which was first-person narration, too, she wrote back, "Yes, this is me. And by the way, I'm an f&sf fan. Would you like me to be a consultant on the novel?" And when I couldn't get information about Hanoi's Red Dikes in North Vietnam from the CIA under the Freedom of Information Act, let alone my intel informants, another consultant (a rice expert no less) somehow ended up on the Red Dikes taking pictures and asking the soldiers questions for the novel—something that should have been impossible—just when I needed it. The moral of this—and this is just the tip of the fifteen-year-iceberg—is that if you write a novel that is "true" to you in the right way, it will make magic. Always. There's a reason that two atheist writer friends have both told me independently, "When I write, I feel closest to God. I know that sounds crazy, Bruce—I don't believe in God—but that's how it feels when odd things begin to occur to help, all of them good." When we're writing truest to ourselves—and this goes back to the Muse I invoked earlier in this interview and to a young man writing the fiction he needed to write to get where he needed to get thirty years later—miraculous things do happen. Einstein would have no trouble with this idea. Particle physicists don't seem to either. You can put it as simply as Bradbury's or Campbell's "follow your bliss," but in its dynamics it's closer to Jung's "synchronicity". In any case, it's very real and a wonder to behold when it happens. You may think you're in charge of your novel, but the best novel is one that drags you and it kicking and screaming to your shared destiny. Just make sure it's a profoundly right and true novel for you.
ML: Do you believe literary critical analysis is applicable to genre fiction? How does one critically approach a Western or romance paperback?
BM: Beautiful question, Michael, and one that should be asked more often by the literary community. I remember reading an article years ago in which a literary scholar assessed the "failure" of Arthur C. Clarke's classic, Childhood's End, to be "good literature". What the article actually proved—if you knew that novel well and also knew the literary paradigm the scholar was using—was that while conventional literary paradigms (what makes good literary fiction) could point to failures of a certain kind in that novel (e.g., characterization in a traditional literary sense) those paradigms actually failed to explain what was good and successful about that novel in science fiction terms. One of Clarke's goals, while he attends to other goals, is clearly to show the Big-Picture insignificance of mankind in the universe and of mankind's current human form. Such a goal flies in the face of the Nobel Prize's criteria, namely, humanity's importance. Literary fiction must be about the human condition, about what it means to be human; and in Faulkner's terms (his Nobel acceptance speech) how human beings will not only endure but prevail. In Childhood's End human beings evolve spiritually so that they're no longer human (those weird children!) and we're left (this is brilliant craft—truly brilliant craft) clinging at the end emotionally—out of our own humanity and our need to have it reflected back to us—to the flawed Overlord alien who is at least more like us than the damned weird evolved children are. To my mind Clarke's success in this novel—in the points he's making, in his portrayal of humanity in both its familiar and alien forms, in his Einsteinian and de Chardinian reconciliation of science and spirit, and in his brilliant psychological manipulation of the reader in terms of identification/empathy/humanity—is worth any 500 critically acclaimed contemporary literary novels. Yes, Clarke's style isn't artful by literary-artistic standards, his characterization can't compare with those literary giants we look to for great characterization; but those were not virtues he was after. He was after other things, and that's often the crucial point of science fiction, but one we often don't talk about: What is science fiction after, and how does it differ from what literary fiction is after? In one sense Clarke's novel is a form of "narrative metaphysics", rather than "fiction"in the literary sense of the word. Much science fiction, when it's good and brave and willing to relinquish the comforts of our human condition (even in its suffering it can be comfortable in a mirroring sense), might be called that as well. On the other hand, what those of us who grew up with a sense of alienation from the majority and the mainstream—those with a great sense of "Otherness", those who at fourteen wanted to be the kid in the sf novel who was a mutant and understood by no one but with a great destiny before him—can more easily embrace the alien and even the idea that we're nothing in the universe (even if the great patterns of oral and written storytelling want human beings, at least their heroes, to play center stage in a universe of cosmic stakes and human meaning). In other words, how could a kid like the one I was—who, in his elementary-school file probably was described as "identifying with amphibians"—not appreciate Clarke's novel over so many literary novels with their artful styles and vaguely satirical tones and storylines recounting the mere social interactions of familiar people? Bottom line: as I said before, it's a silly polarity and duality—"literary" versus "genre". Dualistic thinking is what gets humanity into trouble and always has. Writers write what they want to write, are driven to write, and writing because of that refuses to accommodate those dualities, polarities and silly either-ors.
ML: As a writer do you prefer to write in first person or third person? As a reader do you prefer to read first person or third person fiction/nonfiction?
BM: Another interesting question, Michael. I seem to be a better first-person writer than a third-person writer. Both of my novels were first-person; and as I think my editors would agree, much if not most of my best short fiction has been first-person. I know this sounds arcane and is probably boring to two out of three of the people reading this interview, but this kind of thing does matter to writers. On the one hand you're supposed to learn to do what you don't already do well; on the other, to exploit (use) what you already do well. For whatever reason, though I've tried for years to write third-person, first-person comes out of me more naturally and more effectively than third. An exception would be the fable-like third-person stories I've been writing over the last couple of years. But those stories depend on an author's "voice"—an older author speaking on behalf of children—and in that sense they are, like first-person, more "voice" than a conventional third-person style would be for me. First person is voice, and without first-person voice, a highly colloquial one, Dream Baby would be nothing; and that first-person influence came from the oral histories of the Vietnam War I read during those fifteen years of research. Those oral histories—edited tape-transcription voices mainly—hit me harder (often because their language "failed" in literary ways to capture what they were trying to say and therefore "succeeded" better in a shock-of-recognition human way) than all of the nicely done, traditional-literary-paradigm third-person (or literary-first-person) Vietnam novels I read at the time. But again, this is taste, personal preference, how we're individually wired. The mystic, the kid raised in the soft and hard sciences, the lover of "voices" on the page—all the things that make one particular writer what he is. Like any writer, I do what I do and am happy doing so, and couldn't not do it anyway.
ML: Do you believe the popularity of the subgenre of military science fiction has diminished in recent years? What is your favorite military science fiction novel?
BM: That's a tricky, dangerous and too-inclusive term, I'm afraid. If you mean very-genre military-adventure sf, I don't know; it comes and goes, I think. I'm reminded of the Great Depression, when heroic genre fiction soared in sales because, social scientists tell us, the American male felt so emasculated, so powerless. Maybe we don't have as much military sf right now because we've actually got a war...and it's not doing so well. My favorite military science fiction novel? Joe Haldeman's The Forever War, but I'd also list with it a novella and a novel like Barry Malzberg’s Final War and Elizabeth Ann Scarborough's Healer's War. Science fiction novels that use war, even if they don't use it for the adventures of hale-and-hearty heroes, will always be around because war is always around, and is both fact and powerful metaphor for the darkness against which the light shines brightest.
ML: Do you feel horror fiction is a viable form of literature?
BM: Sure do. Not only because I happen to love it (how much darkness does one need to make the light show up?), but because I also agree with Brian Aldiss (Billion Year Spree) that just as strong a case for sf's roots can be made in the gothic novel (The Monk, Frankenstein) as in social-scientific extrapolation (H. G. Wells) or the adventure novel with technological extrapolation (Jules Verne).
Horror fiction, then, has literary credentials. And so does utopian/dystopian fiction (1984, Anthem, Brave New World). Horror fiction and utopian/dystopian fiction have been around with literary respectability for so long, in fact, that the literary community tends to want to hold on to them and not cede them to f&sf's genre domain. Which is silly, too. Homer was a great writer, but also entertained. Shakespeare was Shakespeare, but also wrote fantasy…and entertained. Some of the novels of Nobel Prize winners William Golding and Doris Lessing are pure sf even if written in the way that Anglophile writers of literary bent would write them. To label sf only sf that has American "pulp era" or "Golden Age of SF" roots makes no sense. Taxonomical thinking is crucial to being human—and to Mind and Reason—but past a certain point it can become insane, lose its usefulness and even be misleading as hell since it distracts from larger truths.
ML: My favorite short story of yours is "White Heron". What is your favorite short story that you have written? Why?
BM: Good Lord, Michael. You're starting the Unfair and Impossible Questions. My favorite McAllister short stories from the 80's, before I stopped writing for ten years for health reasons, were "Dream Baby" and "The Girl Who Loved Animals". My favorite stories from the last couple of years, since getting back to writing at last and very happily, are perhaps "Ombra" (Winter 2005-6 Glimmer Train), "The Seventh Daughter" (F&SF), "Kin" (Asimov's), "Stu" (SCIFICTION) and of course "Filming the Western", which appeared in an issue of Aeon. My stories aren't as dark as they once were; that I've noticed and people do mention. Why? Because the '90s were a decade where, for near-death and other reasons, as the head replicant Roy in Blade Runner would put it, "I saw things you wouldn't believe”; and having lived through them (dark night of the soul) the light seems a lot more real to me. I still believe that "the light shines brightest against the darkness", but I don't see the darkness as intensely as I did before, i.e., I see many reasons for more light in the background of our lives and the universe itself. But again, that's me after a life's journey up to this point…and once you've gone past something it's hard to go back. It's impossible to write effective fiction without "darkness" to play the "light" against (which is why, I suppose, utopian novels are so damn boring and have never sold as well or meant as much to us as dystopian/anti-utopian novels, right?); but everything is relative. You can't have ballet mean anything without gravity.
ML: What do you believe is the best science fiction novel ever written? Why?
BM: Impossible to answer—partly because I can't possibly choose but also because in some strange cosmic way it makes no sense to choose and may in fact be a violation of Goodness in the universe to do so. And besides, what I'd choose now wouldn't be what I'd have chosen (and did for teaching purposes) twenty years ago. Lots of major science fiction novels—ones that have influenced me, ones that I'd teach, ones that I'm grateful for, ones that I think are brave and worth remembering for a long time—have better ideas than they have styles or characterization; and some of the more critically acclaimed "literary" sf novels have better characterization and styles than what I'd call extrapolation or cosmic courage. Eon-spanning Homerian storytelling versus the literary novel again. Childhood's End versus the Nobel Committee. It would be a strange mix of apples and oranges, but my short list of twenty would probably include The Left Hand of Darkness and A Canticle for Leibowitz, if that's any help, which I doubt it is.
ML: Putting you on the spot, who do you believe is the most overhyped, overrated novelist of any genre?
BM: I'm not a saint, and I'm not trying to appear to be one, but as a writer I just don't think in terms like that. Why? Out of my own self-interest. What does that mean? I happen to believe that it's the responsibility of any writer—any writer who wants to communicate with readers, and the larger the audience the better (even if it's "literary art" one is writing)—to figure out why a bestselling writer is a bestselling writer. Not in order to become that writer—which isn't necessary and is impossible anyway—but in order to see how craft works. I'd never been much of a fan of Stephen King—though I loved his early shorter novels (The Body, Carrie) and I liked very much his Dark Tower series—but it was my duty to myself, to the Muse, to my own writing, to King, and to my own readers why he could reach millions of readers with his fiction. It wasn't going to be the obvious stuff: vampires, et al. Lots of writers do that. It had to be something else. Since I'm slow, it took me about a year and quite a few of his novels, but then I saw it and I felt much appreciative awe: King is no stylist, but he knows the human heart and psyche. He also loves popular culture and uses it more in his novels than most horror writers do; but even more importantly, his ordinary characters placed in extraordinary situations are more ordinary than almost any other horror writer's. Has he calculated these things? Not really. They're in him to do and so he does them. He's actually a surprisingly "normal" guy and this, in turn, has benefited his fiction. What did I take away from that year for my own fiction? I'm odder than he is, always have been, and can't fake that, but I could, I realized, not exclude the ordinary human heart and psyche as much as I sometimes did; I could give my protagonists more company; and I could also use popular culture more—if I wanted to. In other words, King reflected back to me things about myself that I'd forgotten, by neurotic impulse perhaps, to use; and I'm both a better writer as a result...and also now a fan of King's work. A few years after that I chose Danielle Steele as my next assignment. That one wasn't easy. I'm not female and I'm not the segment of female readership romances are intended for; I don't read them and I don't like them; I just can't get into them (now, of course, I know what my MFA committee member meant that day sitting across that mahogany table). But I'd lived enough life to know that you can always learn something from the best practitioners of any genre. So I read the first 100 pages of a Steele novel and was actually blown away by the craft of it, what she was doing, what she was setting up, what she was getting away with. The same feeling you get when you look at the early novels of a mystery writer like John D. McDonald—ones where he follows all of the rules like a good boy—and compare them to his last ones, where he breaks every rule imaginable (a twenty-page talking-head dialogue? you've got to be kidding) but knows how to do it.
I tried the same assignment with Harold Robbins years ago and did fail. That's the only time the assignment hasn't worked. He's the only bestselling writer I've never been able to learn something from. (Sidney Sheldon I can, yes, understand, appreciate and learn from, even though there absolutely no Sheldon in me.) I know I've lost all of your respect now, but it's true. Overrated literary novelists might be easier targets for me. Why? Because it's easy, I think, for the publishing world to fall in love blindly with a new literary novelist—the way Hollywood gets excited about projects—who has no real staying power, when in genre fiction a bestselling author is one because a million readers can't be wrong. Call it fads and trends and the Emperor's Clothes. I've read—partway anyway—over the past decade some literary novels that just aren't as good as everyone, standing around the Naked Emperor, thought they were; but I also suspect that those who stood around would probably agree with that at this point, too. The literati and glitterati—inhabitants of the literary community and Hollywood both—are more easily tricked, it would seem, than those million genre readers who know what they want and buy it. As you can see, I have no idea how to answer that question.
ML: Being an academic with an interest in cultural anthropology and archaeology, what is your take on the alternative archaeology movement created by writers such as Graham Hancock, Dr. Robert Schlock, or John Anthony West? Do you think there is validity to the claims for the existence of a "first civilization"—an Atlantis or Mu, as it were?
BM: Years ago I had a good friend, a physicist in the field of aerospace, who had no trouble believing in wormholes and extraterrestrial life, even civilizations, and I think he was also willing to accept Bigfoot; but he had trouble with Roswell, the Loch Ness Monster, Atlantis, and others. I, on the other hand—probably because I'd liked dinosaurs so much at age ten, but also because as a lay archeologist and lay zoologist I'd discovered three species that had never previously been "discovered" and also had in my garage the oldest (confirmed, yes) portable art in North America (20-30K BP)—was willing to accept Nessie (maybe) and, yes, Bigfoot, and certainly, after Dream Baby's fifteen years of research, ESP, but had more troubles with wormholes and alien civilizations. One's man's Nessie is another man's Roswell. Atlantis for whatever reason just doesn't resonate with me as "true" in any way, but I've said the same thing about matters that have indeed turned out to be true. What rings false to me about Atlantis, I guess, is the perfection of it, the beauty; it's just too nice. The same way government conspiracies are just too pretty in a scientist's model sense, politics aside. They speak more of the elegance of the human imagination than they do of actual, stuttering, stammering, staggering government enterprise. As (1) the son of a Cold War antisubmarine warfare Navy officer with a degree in electronics who helped run antisubmarine warfare labs in two countries (secret projects!), (2) someone who'd interviewed and hung out with all sorts of covert types for Dream Baby's sake for fifteen years, and (3) a writer, of course I like the idea of things like government conspiracies and Atlantis, but reason and experience tell me they're just too…pretty. Within my experience anyway, governments, especially democracies, aren't quite so neat, so competent at conspiracies (ask MI-6 and the Israelis why they've had to save our covert asses so many times); and lost civilizations weren't in reality usually lost in such a wonderfully romantic way. (Check the disappearance, for example, of the Anasazi and the Hohokam. Computer models of their demises are pretty complicated and messy, though I suppose elegant in their own way, as all things natural tend to be.) Now, having said this, I'm sure that Atlantis will rise from the Bermuda Triangle in a few weeks, even as more evidence appears to debunk poor Nessie, to whom I cling at least in my young-adult imagination and plan to write about. Every time I consider dismissing something like Atlantis, I simply walk to my shed where the crudely flaked figurine of a reclining Upper Paleolithic bison sits, or I look at the very orange carpenter bee, pink katydid and tiny pecten from Florida which hadn't "existed" until I found them. Mind, after all, is always more arrogant than the surprises of the universe can possibly justify.
ML: There is a precedent for cognate flood myths around the world. I believe the Atlantis and Mu myths are a shared cultural experience, a remnant memory from when the Ice Age ended and the oceans around the world rose rapidly. There could have been a thousand so-called Atlantises that disappeared under the waves at that time.
BM: This I can buy into much more easily. Racial memory. I'm a great fan of—and believer in—hero patterns and other archetypes and patterns wetwired into us for all sorts of wonderful reasons, some of which we have yet to discover. But I've also learned in life that what is metaphorical (a flood myth, say) is often also literal (an actual flood). Why might this be so? Why shouldn't it be? We're of this universe and what lies within us should reflect what lies without. Were we able to model the universe as a chemist models a molecule, wouldn't we find the same "elegance"—symmetries, reflections—in it? When at a professional conference the rather mystic psychologist Carl Jung was asked what he thought of the notion of a "God gene"—the idea that human beings believe in gods only because they've evolved to—he answered, words to the effect, "Yes, and were I God I would have engineered it that way. Wouldn't you?" A mentor of mine, the amazing Faulkner scholar Rebecca Rio-Jelliffe, has discovered that William Faulkner's sentences are constructed in exactly the same way as his scenes, his scenes as his chapters, and his chapters as his novels—much of it unconscious on his part, of course (despite his genius), in a way that we might call "Faulkner's fractals"—and she's discovering the same kinds of micro/macro-structure elegances in other great literary works, just as she is finding chaos theory at work in those same works, too. But of course she is. Why wouldn't the universe reflect itself in all things?
ML: What writing projects, both short story and novel, are you currently working on? Any chance we will see a Bruce McAllister short story collection any time soon?
BM: Thanks for asking. My first collection, The Girl Who Loved Animals and Other Stories, will be out from Golden Gryphon Press in the fall of 2007, but a novel needs to be done and soon. I'm fifteen years overdue on a contracted novel, bless my publisher's patient soul; and though people assure me that if I die before I deliver, they'll simply write it off, I'd really rather not do that for a couple of reasons (among them, posthumous vanity). The novel that's reaching me through a somewhat altered state right now—a chapter every once in a while—is a very strange, religious-iconograpic young-adult novel called The Dragons of Como. But I'm anxious to get, thanks to unceasing encouragement from Ellen Datlow throughout the '90s, to a novel based on the "Ark" stories ("Ark", "The Girl Who Loved Animals", "Sister Moon") I wrote for OMNI back in the day, and to an animal-bioengineering novel based on a pitch that producer Gale Anne Hurd and others have liked. With health, all things are possible, and I don't see why I can't get all three of these done—along with a pod or covey of short f&sf stories—over the next five years. As long as the aliens, looking like Nessie, don't arrive through a wormhole to take me to better things.
ML: Where do you think the future of genre fiction is heading?
BM: I have absolutely no idea, but it's a good question. All I know is that literary fiction continues to borrow—to give itself new life, the life of the eon-spanning wetwired life's energy in us—from genre fiction (which of course borrowed from fable and myth and legend to begin with); and that a genre like f&sf continues to reach for more artfulness and human heart, at least for some writers and readers, even as it pursues its destiny and/or roots as a "fiction of ideas". I view this the same way that cultural anthropologists and psychologist view myth: when myth (which is the story we tell ourselves as a people to know who we are, where we have been, and our worth and meaning in the universe) stagnates, it must do what it needs to do to live again. When fiction of whatever kind starts to lose its potency as "story," as "myth" for its people, its readers, it will do what it needs to do. We see this in graphic novels; we see it in Neil Gaiman's work; we see it in The Animatrix; we see it everywhere, cross-fertilization for new potency even if that new potency will also fade and need to be replaced by new blood.
ML: I want to thank Bruce for taking the time to be interviewed and for putting up with my prying and prodding. When next we meet up with Bruce McAllister, we'll be trudging in the California backcountry hunting for Sasquatch up on Whisker Tit Mountain.
BM: I'll carry the net and you can interview him. Thanks for a great set of questions. I'm sure you're now sorry you asked them—given how long-winded and pontificating this has been—but that's what happens when you ask questions of a writer who was in academe way too long…and who, poor guy, hasn't been interviewed in an awfully long time.
ML: For more information, please go to Bruce's website.
Also, do yourself a favor and go pick up a copy of Dream Baby. It's one of the best war novels set to a backdrop of magical realism ever written.