PM Press Blog


TERRY BISSON INTERVIEWED BY T. B. CALHOUN, an excerpt from The Left Left Behind in which Terry Bisson interviews himself. This is the first book in PM’s Outspoken Authors Series which are all edited by Terry Bisson and include in-depth interviews, short stories and novella, essays, bios, and bibliographies by today’s edgiest fiction writers.

Is writing a political project for you, or an artistic project?

I reject the distinction, at least for fiction. Though I have done a lot of straight propaganda writing. For several years I helped write and edit the newspaper of the John Brown Anti-Klan Committee. For me propaganda is about One Thing, in that case trying to encourage, indeed to build, an anti-racist resistance among white people. Everything was bent to that end. Fiction writing is by definition about complexity.

How did you get into writing? Was it something you always wanted to do?

Ever since I was a teen. I was seduced by the Beat Generation back in the 50s. They were in LIFE magazine and they were so cool. I wanted to get away, out of the South, out of the suburbs, indeed out of 50s America where I was born and raised.

I was always a reader but now I wanted to be Jack Kerouac. I even subscribed to the Village Voice.

I’m pretty sure I was the only subscriber in Owensboro, Kentucky.

What is your personal background?

Pretty conventional, middle class, small town Upper South but a liberal family. I was raised in the suburbs but my mother was one generation off the farm. I’m old enough to remember coal stoves and squirrel suppers, but I was raised in the new post-war suburbs, two cars and skinny trees. My father came from the North (Illinois). I was a TVA baby.

My Kentucky family was (and is) pretty liberal, from the days when the “solid south” was still Democratic. FDR brought them electric lights and concrete roads. Once in my twenties, home from New York, I tried (probably foolishly) to explain to a favorite aunt why I was a radical, a Marxist, an all-round anti-war hippie rebel. She nodded and said, “You are still a Democrat, though?”

I said sure.

Did you go to college?

English major. Very conventional. But committed. Literature was my thing by then. I ended up in New York, trying to sell a Kerouackian novel which never sold, and ended up working for romance magazines, softcore porn mags, astrology and western pulps, Enquirer type tabloids, low-end publishing in general. And discovered I liked it.

No science fiction?

SF was my first literature but I outgrew it, or so I thought. I wanted to be a serious novelist. I was working on a “serious” novel called Eats Corpse for Rare Coin, based on my experiences in the tabloids. The problem was, it kept getting short instead of longer. It was ’68 and things were busting loose all over. I quit trying to write and joined up with the hippie movement in the Southwest.

No politics?

We were all political in those days, or so we thought. I went to all the anti-war demos, but I wasn’t part of the organized Left. That came later. I spent a lot of time in hippie communes in the Southwest, and later back in Kentucky.

I didn’t become actively political, in a real way, until the later 70s. I was one of those who got organized by the Weather Underground, by Prairie Fire and by the groups they organized after they broke up. My wife and I moved to New York and did a lot of work about Puerto Rican Independence. Then the John Brown Anti-Klan Committee. At the same time, I started writing again. And it turned out to be Science Fiction!

Go figure.

Ever write for comics?

My first paying freelance stories were for Creepy and Eerie. I edited a comic mag, Web of Horror, for a while, and even wrote a series for DC. But I never liked the superhero stuff and never passed the “Marvel test.”

(Don’t ask.) A couple of years ago I worked on a project with Stan Lee himself, but it came to naught.

Where did you get the idea for The Left Left Behind?

From France. A French writer and critic, Patrice Duvic, suggested that we work together on a book in which the world is a better place after the Rapture, minus all the Born-Agains. I thought it was a cool idea. Patrice had cancer and died before he could do much on the project, but the idea and the inspiration was all his.

I swiped the beginning of the story, the encounter with the prophet in Israel and the disappearances on the airliner, straight out of the Left Behind movie, then made up the rest. The ending, by the way, the scene on the train, is swiped almost word for word from R.A. Lafferty’s wonderful utopian story “The Interurban Queen.” Find it if you can.

Did you see the movie The Rapture? Did you like it?

Several times. A lot. It was written and directed by the great Michael Tolkin (who also wrote The Player). Mimi Rogers and David Duchovny, and a great ending. But much much darker than mine because it takes the idea seriously. See it!

You write a novel about John Brown, Fire on the Mountain. Did that come out of your work in the John Brown Anti-Klan Committee.

Totally. I became fascinated with the old man, and visited Harper’s Ferry and Kansas, where he fought a guerrilla war that prevented Kansas from entering the union as a slave state. Brown was not a nut, as the right would have it, or a martyr (as much of the Left sees him) who sacrificed his life for a just cause. He was in my view a seasoned and effective fighter who might have succeeded. My novel is about what if he had. And the nation of Nova Africa in my novel was inspired by the Republic of New Africa (the RNA), revolutionary Black nationalists dedicated to liberating the Deep South.

And there’s yet another connection between the John Brown Committee and the John Brown book. I wrote the first two chapters while I was in federal prison.

For fighting the Klan?

For refusing to testify before a Grand Jury. The feds were looking for some folks who were still underground. Several of us in John Brown were subpoenaed and were jailed for contempt when we refused to talk. Not that we knew anything. We had a principle of non-collaboration — following the lead of the Puerto Ricans who had refused to “cooperate” with the search for the FALN. I only did three months; several others did more. But it gave me a start on the book, which was the most complicated thing I had done so far. I had to read a lot of history, and make up a lot more.

So it’s not exactly a Science Fiction novel.

Sure it is. It’s an alternate history, a what-if.

Plus I threw in a lot of wonky technology and even a trip to Mars. I even swiped a device from SF’s

famous alternate history, Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, which is about a post WWII America occupied by Germany and Japan. Dick has a novel in his novel about what might have happened if America had won the war. I have a novel in my novel, a right wing fantasy in which capitalism gets a new lease on life and America becomes a world power. A tragedy.

Alternate history has a long and respectable tradition in SF. Much of it is dystopian: The south wins the Civil War, the Nazis conquer England, etc.

Philip Roth wrote a cool one, The Plot Against America, in which Lindbergh and not FDR is elected president and the US becomes an anti-semitic fascist state. He didn’t even know he was writing SF!

After that you ran a business called Jacobin Books.

Back in the 80s. My wife and comrade Judy and I ran a mail order business that catered mostly to prisoners. We would buy revolutionary books in English from Africa, Ireland, the Caribbean and here in the US, and mail them in to prisoners. Political prisoners like David Gilbert and Mumia Abu Jamal wrote reviews for our catalog. In those days prisoners had access to a little spending money, so it was a break-even operation. Not so easy today. The prisons are tighter than ever, and I doubt we’d even get the books in past the mail room.

All political books?

Mostly. Though Charles Mingus’s Beneath the Underdog was a big seller. Assata’s bio was big. Our bestseller was Settlers: The Myth of the White Proletariat. Every student of labor history should find and read that classic.

Have you ever been a union member?

I tried the National Writers Union (NWU) once. But alas, freelance scribblers are independent contractors, including myself.

Do you miss your time as an activist and organizer?

Not so much. I was never good at mass work. I finally had to face the fact that I am, in fact, a petit bourgeois intellectual and make the most of it.

Have you written any traditional SF? You know, with a rocket ship on the cover?

Absolutely. Time travel, first contact, little shop stories, space travel. Even a robot or two. My latest novel, Planet of Mystery is about the first landing on Venus. I believe in knowing and respecting the conventions and traditions of your field, whatever it is. I think every rock band should be required to work up a version of “Johnny B. Good.”

As a matter of fact, my next book after Fire on the Mountain had a BIG rocket on the cover. Voyage to the Red Planet is pretty standard space travel stuff with some elements of political satire, I suppose. In it, the first trip to Mars is financed by Hollywood.

Do you work on a regular schedule?

I try to; mornings. My novels have never made enough so I have always had to do pickup writing and editing on the side. What I call afternoon work. I wrote a bunch of novelizations (making a film script into a

book, which is sort of a backward project) and packaged a goofy series called The No-Frills Books. I did a car book with Click and Clack the Tappet Brothers (NPR). Working with them was fun. They hired me because I had mechanic experience and because I had once played in a bluegrass band, the Allen County Jumper Cables. I also wrote a biography of Nat Turner for “young adults” whatever that means. I’m still fond of that book, which is found in most libraries.

And you wrote a biography of Mumia Abu Jamal.

Ona Move. Mumia’s title. That was a labor of love, though it paid well too. I was lucky enough to meet Mumia back in the 80s, through a friend who was in prison with him. I visited, and we became friends. I helped him get his first book, Live from Death Row published. We still are friends, though I have seen him only once since I moved to California. He wrote the introduction to the new edition of Fire on the Mountain which PM is bringing out. He has been in solitary confinement for over twenty years.

And yet he continues, though his radio work and his writing, to be the “voice of the voiceless.”

And he is innocent.

And they know it. That’s the most shameful part.

Perhaps your most widely-read story is “They’re Made out of Meat.” It’s often found on the internet.

That’s cool. I like writing all-dialogue stories. I have done several. They tend to be short, although one

of them, “macs,” was longer. There is something about stories in which everything is revealed in dialogue that appeals to me.

Like a radio play?

Exactly. I have done several radio plays, and even got one produced at Radio City. But it’s way too hard to get anything produced on the radio. It’s a perfect venue for SF, but it seems all anyone wants to do is jokey retro stuff like Garrison Keilor’s “noir” detective. It’s a drag.

You worked as a mechanic. Was that a stretch for a literary guy?

Not at all. I have always loved cars, even big evil American cars, and I got back into working on them when I lived in the communes. There are always plenty of cars to fix. When my wife and I left the Southwest and moved back to Kentucky (she’s from Tennessee) I found myself working as a tractor mechanic, and then as a transmission man. I still do it but not enough. I miss the problem solving involved. It’s more intellectual than writing, which is a lot of guesswork.

Did your parents read to you?

Never. They were middle class but not bookish. There were no books around our house. I read to myself from an early age. I was lucky. I was taught to read before I went to school by a “colored” babysitter, Lily Mae, who helped me work out the words in Captain Marvel. Shazam — it made sense immediately. I went straight from comics into the Oz books, all thirty-some-odd of them, then on to science fiction, which was easy to find on the drugstore racks. I remember getting a chill reading “Surface Tension” by Blish, probably my first genuine literary experience.

I still think On the Road is a great novel. Other early influences were James Ramsey Ullman and his biography of Rimbaud. A teacher gave me Walden and another turned me on to Beckett. All this was like honey to a sixteen-year-old in Kentucky.

Do you still regard yourself as a Southern writer?

Not really. Some of my early work was set in the South, particularly Talking Man which is about a hillbilly wizard, and “Bears Discover Fire,” a sweet little tale set in Bowling Green that won me my only Hugo. I still love and identify with the South, particularly the Upper Redneck Nascar South.

Darrel Waltrip and Jeremy Mayfield are both from my home town. But I can’t stand the “fried green tomatoes” sort of folksy hometown southmouth crap.

Where do your ideas come from?

From my butt. If I sit on it long enough in front of a word processor, I usually come up with something.

Have you ever written for movies?

I’ve done scripts. An independent producer hired me to write a film about Mumia, which is still being shipped around but with no success. The media is afraid of Mumia. I recently scripted a biopic of Paul Robeson, which is still in play but has never been produced. I

would love to see that film done. Robeson is the forgotten man of the civil rights movement. He was totally cast aside because of his politics—he was an unapologetic red and a steadfast friend of the Soviet Union at a time when that was verboten. They were careful not to include him in the March on Washington.

Is your interest in Robeson the source of your play

Special Relativity?

No, the play was done long before the screenplay. My agent suggested I write something about Hoover’s long-time harassment and hatred of Einstein. What I came up with was a comedy, sort of. I’m not sure Robeson would approve. I know Hoover wouldn’t.

SF critic Nick Gevers once called you a satirist, and you insisted you are not. Who’s right?

Gevers, probably. The Left Left Behind is certainly satire, and rather broad at that. So is “The Old Rugged Cross,” though less broad; it’s about a guy on death row who gets religion and insists on being crucified. But usually the satirical elements are secondary. I regard myself as a realist, really. Humor and satire are part of reality.

Aren’t they?

Do you have favorite short story writers?

R.A. Lafferty, the late great SF writer, was a huge influence, though as writers we are very different. He’s a singer; I’m a talker. Thom Jones is I think the best short story writer wiring in America today. Molly Gloss runs

a close second. Another favorite is David Sedaris who doesn’t call his work short stories, though they are. He is sneaky.

You have hosted several SF reading series. How did that come about?

Luck, mainly. A good friend in NY, Mark Jacobson, a high-powered journalist (NY mag, Village Voice) put together a casual “non fiction” reading series for his fellow journalists who, unlike poets and the literati, rarely get to read in public. Mark pulled me in to help and it was fun. We got big names like David Remnick (before he took over the New Yorker) and Jummy Breslin and Jack Newfield, plus reallife pornsters, rock critics and wild punk gonzos. Mark knew everybody. Even Steve Earle came and read! We had a regular slot at KGB, a downtown literary bar. Alice Turner, my editor at Playboy, and I decided to try to same thing with fiction, and we teamed up SF writers with “straight” writers, and since Alice also knew everybody, we got Joyce Carol Oates reading with Lucius Shepard, Michael Cunningham with Rachel Pollack, Jonathan Lethem with Brett Easton Ellis. When Alice dropped out I teamed with Ellen Datlow, the premier SF editor, and we ran it as straight SF. Once a month, big names and small. When I moved to California in ’02 I teamed up with Adam Cornford, a poet and professor at New College. Then New College folded and now the program, SFinSF, is sponsored by Tachyon Books. I get to be the “host” and that’s fun as ever.

What’s your advice to a wannabe writer?

The same advice Gary Snyder once gave to wannabe poets. Learn a trade. Plumber, carpenter, cook, mechanic. Learn how things fit together.

You have some experience teaching writing. Do you really think good writing can be taught?

Writing can be taught. The conventions of fiction: dialogue, point of view, timeline. Every writer should learn the baseline conventions. What can be taught about writing can be learned in a few months. Good writing is a different matter. It can be learned but not taught.

Peter Coyote gave you lots of credit for editing his memoir, Sleeping Where I Fall. How did you get that job?

Peter and I are old friends. We met in college and remained friends through the hippie commune Digger days, though we ran in different crowds. I was never part of the West Coast scene. Peter is a fine writer, he had already won a Pushcart Prize for a piece of the book, and only wanted another (colder) eye on how to shape the thing. That was me. It worked out well. I tried to get him to change the title, but Peter rejected all my bad ideas.

You also worked on Walter Miller’s sequel to A Canticle for Leibowitz.

Alice Turner recommended me for the job. Miller had worked for years on the sequel to his classic bestseller,

but he was depressed and old and alcoholic besides, and he wanted somebody to finish the book according to his instructions. It was all there. All I had to do was land the thing, and the wheels were already down and it was lined up with the runway. I never got to meet Miller. He killed himself before St. Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman was finished.

Are these different skills — editing and writing?

Absolutely. The trick in editing is to stay out of the way. The editor should be invisible. I have edited several memoirs since Coyote’s, mostly of old political comrades and friends. I edited Diana Block’s book about being underground, Arm the Spirit. That was a pleasure. Also political prisoner David Gilbert’s memoir. And I edited a serious nonfiction book, Dan Berger’s history of the Weather Underground, Outlaws of America.

Does this mean you approve of the Weather Underground?

Very much. I came to know them late but I dug them from the beginning. Like the Panthers, they were young and foolish, and like the Panthers they restored militant internationalism to the American Left. The first time I saw them running through the crowd at the March on the Pentagon carrying a “Vietcong” flag, I thought, “Of course!”

How do you feel about anarchism?

As an idea I like it. But I am a big government guy. I’m a TVA baby. Still a Democrat.

Why are you raising your hand?

I thought of another satire. I wrote a story called “Pirates of the Somali Cast” a few years ago. I did it to make fun of all the people who thought pirates were cool (the Johnny Depp syndrome). I was unfair to the actual Somali pirates, though. In my satire I made then very very cruel and in fact, they are not, at least so far, or so it seems. Nothing to rival Guantanamo.

What do you think of hip-hop?

I think it’s sad. To me it’s a minstrel show. Saddest of all are the black intellectuals who celebrate it because it’s “authentic.” Lots of stuff is authentic.

How come there are no pirates in Pirates of the Universe?

Pirates are boring. The universe, on the other hand, is interesting.

You have written several books for young readers. Do you enjoy writing kids’ books?

Not particularly. I still get fan letters for my Boba Fett books though they were nightmare to write, since Lucas had to approve everything. I did a YA series about stock car racing that was even worse: NASCAR was trying to go mainstream and they killed all the hillbilly and redneck jokes. My adult characters couldn’t even chew tobacco or say ain’t. This was before NASCAR got hip and allowed Talladega Nights, the second funniest movie ever made.

What’s the funniest?

Spinal Tap. Everybody knows that.

Other than Lucas and NASCAR, have you had any encounters with censorship?

Very few. SF is generally under the radar, which is one of the advantages to not being taken seriously by the media. I did have a hard time placing Me Left Left Behind, and I suspect that’s because it satirizes Israeli militarism. Christian fundamentalism is fair game but Israel is not.

You’ve been writing for some thirty-odd years. If you had it to do over what would you do?

Work harder. Learn to touch type. I still hunt and peck which is maybe why I am such a stingy writer. I always write short. My last two novels are novellas. This is not a career plan in SF.

Do you like fried green tomatoes?

Of course. Bourbon even better.