B R O A D S H E E T
The Legendary Joanna Russ
(Editor’s Note: What follows is excerpted from a telephone interview with Ms. Russ at WisCon 30, in May 2006, and is printed with the permission of WisCon, Ms. Russ and Mr. Delany. Any inadvertent misrepresentation of their spoken words is the editor’s fault, and she apologizes in advance for any such errors. In a few instances, titles of works were corrected for the benefit of those seeking recommended reading.)
Samuel R. Delany: In my humble opinion Joanna Russ is simply one of the most important writers who has written in the United States in the last fifty years. This is a writer who has produced works on the level of Willa Cather, James Joyce and William Gass. She writes, among other things, sentences that are absolutely spectacular. A description of a spaceship which I quote endlessly to my writing students at Temple University, where she’s describing a star-liner: “The big one was the platonic idea of a pebble turned inside out, born of a computer and aspiring to the condition of mechanical opera.” That is such a luscious sentence I don’t think I will ever be the same.
Also there’s a range and intensity of concern for the problems of women. Feminism works for Joanna Russ the way Marxism works for the great German writer Bertolt Brecht. It is something innate to the concerns, not something that can be dismissed. It already is of course an incredibly important aspect of the world — possibly one of the most important aspects of the world — but she foregrounds that importance, makes us understand it in terms of the social portraits that she creates in her work. Her first story, “Nor Custom Stale,” appeared in F&SF in 1959 I believe, and she went on to produce many other wonderful stories: “My Dear Emily,” “I Thought She Was Afeared Till She Stroked My Beard” (such a wonderful title that it had to be changed to “…I Gave Her Sack and Sherry”), Adventures of Alyx (which Joanna calls pre-feminist and I call a spectacular story), We Who Are About To (one of my personal favorites), and more, [including] the novels The Two of Them and On Strike Against God.
So Joanna, what are some of the things you’ve been thinking about lately?
Joanna Russ: I don’t know if I can tell you. I’m still basking in all your praise.
SD: You deserve to bask. Tell us a little bit about where you’re living. What is Tucson like?
JR: Tucson is getting to be a rather sprawling small city. Desert. Very hot in the summer. I just love it. Not the city so much, but the location and the skies. Oh the skies, my friend: Yes, Tucson specializes in that.
SD: [Asks about the "double bind situation" — the economic realities of a writer trying to make a living writing.]
JR: Yes, that’s awful. It’s not the writers’ fault. It’s the economics of publishing now. What I’ve seen again and again is that a writer will do very fine early stuff — really good stuff — and say, “Okay, I can make a living writing.” But they then find themselves having to work too fast. Words should not only be thought, they should be felt through, and there just isn’t enough time. People in that bind never do great stuff again. And if you don’t do that, if you say, “Okay, I will keep my day job (as they used to say in the theater), and I will just write what I damn well please,” you end up working too hard.
SD: Yes, I can remember my first five books in three years, and I ended up in a mental hospital. Any thoughts on changing it?
JR: No. I don’t know, I think it is an industrial capitalist problem. It didn’t use to be true. There were niche markets, eighty-five different little magazines all doing something different. A young man wrote to me and said he had read Alyx and liked it, and he read another book of mine and he was shocked and horrified to discover that it wasn’t the same thing. I know that’s funny but it’s like Gor, the 56th book of the series, and people will buy these things because they’re familiar.
SD: What are some of the authors you find yourself returning to and reading whether fantasy/sf or other genres?
JR: It’s a mixed bag. In sf when I was younger I loved Heinlein because he was always doing something different, and the sf didn’t disappear after the beginning of the book; it was carried through all the way. I go back to some of Clarke’s short stories, and Chaucer, frankly.
SD: Yes, you’ve always talked about Chaucer; he comes up again and again. What interests you about a classical writer like Geoffrey Chaucer?
JR: He has written some of the most perfect short stories in English, if you can think of Middle English as English. The three men who go out to kill Death is absolutely a smashing thing; the shape of the story is perfect. The Pardoner’s Tale.
SD: I’ll go back and take a look at that one. Any other writers you find yourself returning to, to give you solace or what have you?
JR: Well, some of the feminists. The Chalice and the Blade, which has marvelous early Christian writing in it. Actually I don’t read nearly as much as I used to. It’s very annoying to have to get up every twenty minutes, and…wait a minute, there’s a punch line. I found that, after having a VCR for several years, you can treat TV just as a book. And now I have a DVD player. I have been going mad about Buffy. [much applause from audience]
SD: You have a lot of friends.
JR: I’m glad of that. Even though Buffy was created by a guy, it was one of those TV shows aimed directly at women, and it is not domestic, but adventurous, and horror fiction, and comedy, and it’s very well written, I’ll say. A feminist friend of mine wrote me from Philadelphia and said, “You have to watch this.” And I did and I loved it. I collected them on VHS tapes and now I’ve bought them on DVD. And some of the things they talk about are extremely funny.
SD: When we were talking about things to talk about, you mentioned general problems of growing older as something we all do.
JR: That struck me among other things because I have arthritis and chronic fatigue syndrome, and I have begun to understand the kind of writers who write about limitations and mortality. I don’t have the books with me — I forgot to bring them into the bedroom — but there are at least two for writers. One of them was Sarah Orne Jewett.
SD: The Country of the Pointed Firs.
JR: She has this sense of characters, she does not condescend to them, which I love. Just when you think you can look down on them, they are smarter than you are. She wrote one story called The Hiltons’ Holiday which is almost heartbreaking because it’s such a perfect day and it will never be repeated. I can’t tell you the story because I will gobble if I do.
SD: Are you particularly interested in Jewett, because of how she deals with age?
JR: Not just age. She deals with limitations of all kinds — mortality in particular.
SD: How do you experience limitations of old age? I’m 64 and can’t do what I did before.
JR: I’m 69 and can’t do what I used to do before. I thought I would put up signs around the house that said, “You are 70. Stop it!” [audience laughs]
SD: What about some of the fantasy stories that you have, you mentioned Terri Windling’s fantasy collection and some thoughts you had about that.
JR: I think there’s a lot of very fine fantasy being written. I don’t mean unicorns and warlocks, but fantasy that comes into ordinary life… a kind of vitality there that I don’t know is in science fiction. See, I have been out of the loop for a long time, but I know that some of these fantasy stories are just thrilling.
SD: Yes, there is a feeling that some of the energy that was in sf for a long time may have moved over to fantasy. It makes it a very interesting field.
JR: Yes, thinking about your tales of Neveryona. Boy, does that resemble Tolkien.
SD: What else has been going on in your life of interest?
JR: Mostly I have to keep about taking care of my body and keeping it functional and so forth — something I didn’t used to have to do. I do trunk exercises in the morning and hip exercises in the afternoon. Ah, very boring, they really are, but they work, they do good things, so I keep doing them. There gets to be a point in your social life… is much more with doctors than anyone else.
SD: I gather you’re not doing much writing.
JR: Not doing any — haven’t been doing any for ten years.
SD: Talk about the transition from someone doing writing to not.
JR: I found out once I got CFS [chronic fatigue syndrome] that writing takes an enormous amount of energy. It takes concentration, and this is a physical thing. I always used to wonder why when I finished writing I was so tired. I was only sitting down and writing. But now I can’t concentrate long enough to do this, and I can’t keep a whole thing in my head at the same time. If you’re writing a novel, you’re keeping stuff in the back of your head for a year or two, and it’s very difficult to find suddenly you can’t do that. It took about — oh let’s see — eight or nine years for me to live with that comfortably.
SD: It’s something that one way or another every writer will eventually have to go through.
JR: I find that the real solution is to be very self-indulgent. Really. Go to thrift shops, read books, watch TV, talk to your friends.
SD: Do all those fun things that you weren’t doing.
JR: Yes, when you were too busy.
SD: At one point you said sf was a religious literature. Can you comment on that?
JR: Well, there’s the old phrase — I don’t know if it’s still current — sense of wonder. The sense of wonder or awe of the hugeness of the universe. It comes up in all sorts of places. The Nine Billion Names of God by Arthur C. Clarke, or 2001. The protagonists tended to turn into the new messiah on the last page.
SD: Yes that’s a fairly common trope I think we call it in sf.
JR: Yes, it was a feeling of awe and wonder and gorgeousness and complexity.
SD: There are many moments in your own fiction when this kind of thing happens, certainly spectacularly presented in language. Toward the end of We Who Are About To when the protagonist is starving herself to death and she has a vision of agape, hears the music of the spheres — she’s never experienced them at that intensity.
Thinking of comments from your writing that stuck with me, one of them, related to Souls, that extraordinary novella about a medieval convent which is run by the abbess Radagunda, which is besieged by Norse Vikings, and she saves the place more or less, or makes several attempts to save the people. And the abbess is an alien getting in touch with her inner alien. One night she’s musing in her inner monologue, the people want religion that gives and gives but the true god is a god who takes and takes until there is nothing left but god. This was very powerful when I first read it, and it remains powerful for me even today. I think in terms of the ending of We Who Are About To.
JR: I’m temperamentally atheistic, no religion. One of the things I loved when I found it in college was information about Taoism. They are mystics. When I was in my 30′s and I was teaching at the University of Seattle one summer — the science fiction course you know, the writing course — I got to talking to one of the students who was also very much into this kind of thing, and we drove several people nuts because we were saying things that were paradoxes, contradictions, and one of them said that cannot be. And I got him in a corner and pulled his hair.
SD: Sometimes you have to do that.
JR: But mystics have always talked in contradictions. A man Asiatic who wanted to be a shooter of golden arrows went to see the greatest of these, [and went to see him where he lived at] the top of a mountain. He was told first you must look at very very big things until they seem small, and then you must look at very very small things until they seem big. And coming back to the guy’s hut, the guy who wanted to be a great bowman or whatever, had left his arrows leaning against the hut, and the old man looks at this and says, “Oh! What are those?” It always gives me chills. It’s the part where you know something so well and so completely, but in an odd way you can’t even talk about it. This is what was driving him nuts. Science fiction does this so well — the end of [Arthur C. Clarke's] Childhood’s End — mystics do so well. The whole earth becomes light in the end.
SD: I think it was Willa Cather who said that most literary writers get all the material that they’re going to write about by the time they are eight years old. And I’ve always thought that this is one of those things that alternate between seeming absurd, and seeming insanely true. Do you have any thoughts about that? Do you think the same age range applies to science fiction?
JR: No. you learn a great deal by eight or nine, but you’re always putting other things in as you get older. I don’t know if this happens in other literature, but it does happen in sf.
SD: If all literature is in a sense the literature of childhood, then I think that sf is the literature of adolescence.
JR: Yes, I’ve heard that from you before.
SD: You were a Westinghouse winner in high school. Can you tell us about the project?
JR: My dad built a long box for me with lights at the top and I grew a fungus in each compartment. And each compartment light had a different gel with colors red, blue, white, and completely dark. The fungus produced different kinds of spores and produced them in different patterns, depending on the light. Aspergillis janus, Janus being the two-faced, ancient Roman god of the beginning of the year — two faces, one of future and one of past.
SD: Did you ever use that sort of thing in stories?
JR: I didn’t. By the time I finished I thought it was terribly boring.
SD: A story of yours I’ve always been very fond of, a story called Gleepsite. Basically a large winged creature hovers outside a window, made of — do we learn what gleepsite actually is in the story?
JR: No, it’s not in the story, it’s the title of the story. And it’s an imaginary material made up by a Cornell architect. Whenever you had a problem you couldn’t solve, we said make it a gleepsite and change whatever variable you had. The story is in a way about fantasy in which fantasy becomes real.
SD: Gleepsite is a great story and a great title. Any of yours you find yourself still particularly fond of?
JR: It’s hard to say — things change as time goes by. I will say this, I read most of them, and I think they were pretty good. I have a few of those and think, “Did I write that?” I have a few of those but not very many.
SD: I think they’re pretty good too, because you’re one of the writers I go back to read. Can we talk about your novels? You don’t talk about And Chaos Died much.
JR: Yes. I’m embarrassed. Lots of stereotyped ideas about gay men. That didn’t come to me until later. Marge Piercy put her finger on it when she said if you think of the gay man as a woman, it makes sense.
SD: Those things don’t bother me personally nearly as much as they do when the book came out.
JR: Yes, because the whole social surround has changed so much.
SD: The result is that there are just spectacular passages, just pell-mell one after another through the book, despite anything you might raise an eyebrow at, all sorts of wonderful things. You say it embarrassed you. Are there any parts you like?
JR: Yes. I think the protagonist and one of the women are walking through the countryside — and I think the description of the countryside is very good.
SD: Yes, some of the transition scenes, I read them and my jaw drops even if I’m not in agreement with what he’s transitioning from and to. It’s great writing. It’s also a poignant sympathy for the young that manifests itself in many stories. But in particular, The Second Inquisition, the story of the young lesbian girl in The Female Man, just wring your heart out. They certainly wring my heart out. Is there any special relationship in terms of your own life?
JR: Yes, I think so. I was discovering maybe a little later than that, but also in that time, discovering what they call the child within. And I discovered that I have one. I think everybody does. This is not a separate personality, it’s a kind of different personality, and she insists that she is the empress of the universe. Then if she gets in trouble she comes and hides behind me, and I have to take care of it.
SD: Your descriptions of the young woman in The Second Inquisition… I’m trying to remember the epigraph in that story… something like if you can survive the opinions of the people in the small town in which you live, you can survive anything… is what I took away from it.
JR: I put a lot of autobiographical detail in that story: the town, the backyard, the little sort of couch or swing they sit on, stuff like that. The dance. All comes from stuff I’ve seen or lived through.
SD: And stuff that feels incredibly real and has that ring of truth, or as once I described it in critical writing, it’s not the ring of truth, it’s a whole gong of truth.
JR: I felt very bad about not writing when I got sick and couldn’t. The only thing I could do was finish the book What Are We Fighting For? that I’d started much earlier.
SD: You did a great job.
JR: Well, I’m beginning to be self-indulgent as I said. I like it.
SD: I don’t know why I found myself rereading of all people Plato recently, and discovering that his idea of what education was for, was to make your own world interesting to you.
JR: The more education you get, the more interesting everything becomes. I don’t know how long it took me or you to decide that the double-bind in science fiction was economic, but I didn’t know that in my 20′s. I hadn’t had that experience.
SD: But there is the one you did go through. Maybe you can give me some advice because I haven’t figured it out. How do you write and teach at the same time?
JR: You write and teach at same time by getting very tired. In a way I did do it and in a way I didn’t. In my 20′s I was a junior teacher, I was an instructor, and that meant that I didn’t go to meetings and didn’t have any voice in the department, but it was great because I had lots of time and energy. But as I got older and my rank increased, I had less time. In my 50′s, if I got an idea for a story or a novel I’d say, “Oh god, not again. I can’t.” [But she would write, and the consequences were people remarking she was…] not coming to meetings, not having enough honor students or advisees. I would just look sort of pathetic and say, “Oh yes, I’m trying.” But I wouldn’t do it.
SD: That’s probably what you have to do. You have to break down and take the time for yourself, which is hard to do if you’re a labile, friendly, genial sort of person.
JR: Which I was not. I think what I did very self-consciously was teach the same kinds of classes all the time — creative writing classes all the time — so I didn’t have to develop from scratch.
SD: My greatest failing is that I do want to teach new things all the time. Now I just want to think.
Question from the Audience: You mentioned that your opinions of gay men used to be very different and traditional. I was wondering if your opinions of transsexual women have changed since you wrote The Female Man.
JR: Oh yes, oh yes, it’s almost as if my life has arranged itself to disabuse me of one prejudice after another. And all of these have gone because none of them were real, really.
AUD Q: Would you comment on the state of feminism today?
JR: I don’t really know enough about it to comment. I’ve been out of the loop, except for Buffy, for about ten years at least now, so I probably shouldn’t say anything.
SD: I’ve been pushing your books at various people for many years. Which book would you like me to push first? How would you like your works to be introduced to people?
JR: I think you would have to decide what kind of people they are and what would not repel people, but would pull them in.
SD: I think that’s what any writer would say. May I offer my own prejudices as someone who teaches Joanna’s work again and again? I’d say younger and less sophisticated readers really enjoy The Adventures of Alyx; more sophisticated readers like more sophisticated books like We Who Are About To, The Female Man, The Two of Them, and don’t forget On Strike Against God, which is just as good.
AUD Q: What do you think of the progression of the situation you described in How to Suppress Women’s Writing, and do you think it’s getting better?
JR: Oh boy. Again, I really have been out of touch. I have the impression that yes, it’s getting better.
SD: Let me offer my two cents as someone in academe. What seems to be happening is that to make room for women writers is that notion of “Great Writer” itself is dismantled.
JR: Well that’s a great thing… It takes at least two generations to make an artist. In my case, maybe three.