Sturgeon began writing during the three years he spent at sea as a
teenager in the Merchant Marine. After a total of forty or more stories
published in various genres, he began his immeasurable impact in science
fiction and fantasy with an appearance in John W. Campbell's Astounding
in 1939. This culminated in his reception of the International Fantasy Award
for the hallowed Gestalt treatise More Than Human, and both the Hugo and
Nebula Awards for his remarkable short story, Slow Sculpture.
Throughout his distinguished career, Sturgeon has created many
unforgettable narratives including his first novel, The Dreaming Jewels,
and a ground-breaking psychiatric case history, Some of Your Blood. In
addition to his wealth of experience in many fields, he has reviewed books for
the New York Times, National Review, Galaxy and
Zone. He has written extensively for film and television including two
classic Star Trek episodes, Amok Time and Shore Leave. Presently,
he is in the midst of constructing his ultimate achievement, the long awaited
He was interviewed in the middle of a 13,500 mile, five-to-six month
tour in which he crossed the US four times. Much of the time was spent travelling
in his tiny Volkswagen with his incomparable wife, the Lady Jane. During his
travels, he rescued the first University of Tennessee at Knoxville science
fiction and fantasy writing symposium (Tennecon 79) by devoting four
hectic days and nights to reading students manuscripts and chairing discussions.
Articulate in a number of diversified areas - including sexuality and
sensuality in the future, the energy dilemma and the need for renewable
resources, and the Optimum Marriage (consisting of seven individuals: three
women and four men), Sturgeon is an endless source of inspiration and
introspection in an age characterized by impersonality. He views his writing
to be preoccupied with the search for the optimum human being.
An extremely tactile and approachable individual, Theodore Sturgeon is aware of and attuned to the forces, trends and effects that rule our lives. Any one of his renowned novels or short story collections will provide further illumination on subjects that are vital to the understanding of the puzzle that is humanity.
David D Duncan
Q: Could you explain the significance of your personal trademark, which is the letter Q with an arrow through it pointing to the right?
TS: It means "Ask the next question." Ask the next question, and the one that follows that, and the one that follows that. It's the symbol of everything humanity has ever created, and is the reason it has been created. This guy is sitting in a cave and he says, "Why can't man fly?" Well, that's the question. The answer may not help him, but the question now has been asked.
The next question is what? How? And so all through the ages, people have been trying to find out the answer to that question. We've found the answer, and we do fly. This is true of every accomplishment, whether it's technology or literature, poetry, political systems or anything else. That is it. Ask the next question. And the one after that.
Q: How did you begin your writing career? Most anthologists date your first appearance as Ether Breather, which appeared in the September 1939 Astounding.
TS: That was my first work in the science fiction or fantasy field. But I had published before. The first writing I did was short short stories for a newspaper syndicate for which I was paid five dollars a piece on publication.
And I used to live on that. It wasn't easy, but I learned a lot. I learned how to live on five and sometimes ten dollars a week. When your room cost you seven dollars, anything you could save you could eat. Eating came later. It was rough, it really was. But I paid my dues, by golly, I did. Writing for a half a cent a word for publications that failed before you got your check, and stuff like that. Lots of it.
Q: Was there any impetus that guided you toward writing or was it something you did as a creative outlet?
TS: The story of my very first sale is the fact that I dreamed up a foolproof paper to cheat an insurance company out of several hundred thousand dollars. I was only a kid at the time. I had run away from home and I was in the Merchant Marine, but I researched it very carefully. It involved insurance, the railroads, and the postal service at the time. I wrote to them of course as somebody requesting information and so on. But I had it all set up.
Once I had all the facts in, I found I didn't have the immoral courage to pull the caper. So I wrote it as a story. As a teenager, I didn't have any skills for writing as such, so it came out in 1500 words.
I sent it off to a newspaper syndicate, and when my ship came in to the New York area, I got my mail. Lo and behold, here was this acceptance. They were buying my story. I actually flipped out. I quit my job, and went ashore to become a writer.
Q: Since those early journalistic stories, your writing has developed into a prose form that utilizes each word. Is economy essential to your work?
TS: I've always written very tightly, and there's a good reason for that. There's no point in using words that you're not going to apply. You don't use words that are not going to be employed in the narrative or context. It should consist of short, sharply focused sentences, each of which is a whole scene in itself. By that, you put the reader right in there where the story is.
Q: Do you have a particular method of writing?
TS: There is no way of writing stories that I haven't done. I've charted them out carefully and used storyboards. I've hung around in absolute exhaustion and starvation waiting for an idea to hit, which might have been months. I've talked things over with editors, found out what they wanted, and when they wanted it delivered.
Q: What is your analysis of science fiction?
TS: I believe it is the wrong name for the field. It should have been called a number of other things - speculative fiction, for example. In many people's minds, science fiction is girls in brass brassieres about to be raped by a slimy monster, and being rescued by some guy fully dressed in a space suit with a zap gun. It is all in the future, all in space, it is all Star Wars and Buck Rogers.
Science fiction, outside of poetry, is the only literary field which has no limits, no parameters whatsoever. You can go not only into the future, but into that wonderful place called "other", which is simply another universe, another planet, another species.
It's things that happen inside your head. I've always said that there's more in inner space than in outer space. Inner space is so much more interesting, because outer space is so empty.
Q: Do you resent being classified as a science fiction writer?
TS: The reason I stayed in the science fiction field is that you can go anywhere with it. You just cannot do that in historical fiction, or costume drama or western or whatever because the lines are drawn so tightly. In science fiction, you can also test out your own realities. The world around you - is it a good thing or a bad thing? Create a world in which these things do or do not exist, or in which they are extended in some way. Test reality against this fiction. The reader will recognize the world that you're talking about, even though it may be another one altogether.
Q: Were you ever subject to any censorship?
TS: No. It was made clear to me that there were some subjects that they didn't want dealt with, and I ultimately rebelled against that. There was so much that you could do, instead of looking for things that you couldn't do.
I wrote the very first stories in science fiction which dealt with homosexuality, The World Well Lost and Affair With a Green Monkey. I sent The World Well Lost to one editor who rejected it on sight, and then wrote a letter to every other editor in the field warning them against the story, and urging them to reject it on sight without reading it.
Q: In stories of yours such as The Other Man, you write extensively about hypnosis. What kind of research did you do?
TS: There are a lot of people who write very intensely about things they do not and cannot do. As far as hypnosis is concerned, I had a very serious problem when I was in my twenties. I encountered a man who later became the president of the American Society of Medical Hypnosis. He couldn't hypnotize me. Nobody has ever been able to. I became interested in hypnosis and as a result, did an immense amount of research. I learned a great deal about it.
I feel angry that I can't be hypnotized. I'm not putting it down, and I'm not saying that it doesn't exist. I have talked to a great many people who are very good at it, but so far nobody has ever been able to hypnotize me.
Q: Do you have vivid dreams?
TS: I have lived most of my life with the conviction that I don't dream, because I never could retrieve a dream. As far as I'm concerned, I didn't dream - ever. My wife is beginning to instruct me on means to retrieve dreams, and bit by bit, it does seem to be working. I find to my mixed astonishment that I do dream, but I didn't know it.
For years, I thought I simply didn't dream. I felt left out. Everybody else had a thing I didn't have. It's such an important thing. It's so easy for everybody, but I couldn't do it. When I can't do something, this always impels me to study it.
Q: How can you explain the eternalness of your writing? It never seems dated or concerned with trivial matters.
TS: You see, I have a secret formula. A secret, magic formula that many writers are always looking for. I have a pretty good hold on this one. I write a story as if it were a letter to someone and essentially, that's what you do. Writing is a communication. You don't sit up in a cave and write the Great American Novel and know it is utterly superb, and then throw it page by page into the fire. You just don't do that. You send it out. You have to send it out.
You must write to the people's expertise. In general, what are people expert at? Fear, love, loss, laughter and loneliness - above all, loneliness. You write a story about loneliness, and you grab them all because everybody's an expert on that one. Sometimes it's called alienation, but it's something more than that. It's loneliness, not being separate from the whole world. It's a seeking, a searching for somebody who'll understand you.
There are really only two parts to writing: what you say, and how you say it. There are people who have tremendously important things to say, but they say it so poorly that nobody would ever want to read it. They don't know how to put it into the kind of vehicle that people will stop and get into.
And then, there are others who are so deft and graceful, but they're not really saying anything at all. When you combine something to say with the skill to say it properly, then you've got a good writer. The idea of something to say goes back to the individual matter of finding something to believe in.
Q: Do you think it is essential to have something to believe in?
TS: I've spent most of my life worrying about things that people believe in. More and more, I've come to the feeling that I'm looking for people who believe in something, virtually anything, providing they believe in it. We've been acculturated in the last fifty years or so to become so equitable in our thinking. Because of our ability to see both sides of every question, we cancel ourselves out. We've become political ciphers. We don't vote. We don't take sides. We say, "On the other hand ..." We say, "However..."
This world has been moved and shaken. The movers and shakers have always been obsessive nuts. Name any mover or shaker you like - I don't care if it's Attila the Hun or Jesus of Nazareth or Karl Marx or F.D.R. or Winston Churchill. They were all obsessive nuts. They were not even-minded people who saw both sides of the question. Far from it.
I'm not saying that I admire Adolf Hitler because he was a dedicated human being. That's an extreme situation. But without going to absolutely dangerous extremes, you have to be dedicated to something. You must really believe in something.
For example, look at the phenomenon of Star Trek. Star Trek was founded by a guy, Gene Roddenberry, who had some fine Mom and apple pie values. He believed in equality of the sexes, equality of the races, and in the American ideal of freedom and justice. He really and truly believed in these things, and still does to this day. Every episode of Star Trek bears out these particular convictions of Gene Roddenberry. You'll find some of these things in all of them. That's what Star Trek is about and this is why it has endured.
Some of the episodes were a little bit on the hokey side. George Jessel used to wrap an American flag around himself and dance across the stage in order to get applause. If people didn't applaud him, they were going to applaud the flag. Once in a while, Gene was guility of that and I won't deny it.
Nobody ever said that he was an equitable, even-handed liberal human being. He isn't. By no means, he isn't. He's an autocrat. Nevertheless, his convictions are real. And that's the one secret that Hollywood has still not understood - the matter of conviction, of believing in something.
Q: Which episodes of Star Trek did you write?
TS: As a matter of fact, I wrote six. I sold four, and two were aired, which was pretty well par for the course in those days. The two that were aired were Amok Time and Shore Leave. Shore Leave was the one that begins with the big rabbit. That was a gas because anything could happen. Any wild idea you could possibly have could be stuck into that script. Everybody had a good time with that one.
Q: Could you explain your distiction between talent and skill?
TS: Anybody can do anything he wants to if he wants to do it badly enough. Now I know that's a vast oversimplification, but in principle, it's true. For example, I think that you or I or anyone could be a wire-walker for Barnum and Bailey, and all it would take would be an absolute determination and practice, practice, practice. You have to study your field and you have to find out how other people do it, and you have to keep working and learning and practicing and ultimately, you would be able to do it.
However, there are people who are able to do it in the first three tries. They're born with such coordination and talent, a construct of the semi-circular canals in the inner ear, that they're able to do a thing like that with great ease. Now skill is what you develop by that kind of practice and work and study. Skills can be developed and refined and brought to a very, very high pitch indeed.
Talents you are born with. There is simply no question about it. People with a high talent unfortunately don't have to continually practice. They don't have to, so they don't do it. It is a great loss because a lot of highly talented people never work at their talents at all. In the end, their product is lesser than somebody who has worked his buns off to get somewhere and refine the talent that he has.
Q: Does this apply to writing also?
TS: Writing is certainly the same thing. There are people who have a born facility with words. They absorb words, they see them correctly, never have any difficulty with spelling or grammar. They have a startling poetic view and a way of creating images and doing the brilliant unexpected. This is coupled with an observance of human beings and how they react, the things they are afraid of, the things they care about.
There are many people who don't have a particularly high talent in this kind of observation, this kind of facility with words. Yet they become superb writers almost because they don't have the talent and have to work a little harder at it.
Q: Could you outline the process of metric prose?
TS: It isn't my only way of writing, but it's something that I do. I teach writing courses and first of all, I teach my students what prosody is. Then I have them create for me perfect sonnets or some other verse form. The sonnet is very handy. Fourteen lines, it's not too long but the rules are brutally rigid and cannot be broken or it's not a sonnet any more.
The question is how to change the texture of your work right in the middle of a page so drastically that it might be printed on sandpaper, then suddenly printed on silk. It's not done with typography or different colors of ink, or anything like that. The way to do that is to write your ordinary prose your ordinary way, and then write a paragraph or so of metric prose. The change is abrupt and drastic; the result is astonishing. If it's visible, if the reader can find out what it is you've done, then you've failed. It only succeeds if you can get away with it, and it is indetectable.
Here's the point to be made - there are no synonyms. There are no two words that mean exactly the same thing. I don't care about the dictionaries of synonyms and antonyms. If there were two words that meant exactly the same thing, there wouldn't be two words. That means that every word you use has a certain amount of semantic or psychological freight that it carries that makes it different from other words.
Q: There seems to a great reluctance from students to contribute creative material to Phoenix. How would you explain this?
TS: There is no explanation other than not enough people know about it. I'm very much interested in what you're doing with Phoenix in reference to evoking more literary quality in the magazine. Where are the writers going to come from if they don't come from the kind of people that you're dealing with right now? True, good writers come from everywhere but there is such an outlet, such a fantastic opportunity for people to get on the record, to have their names known, to have their styles and kind of writing known. Also, Phoenix gives them the kind of freedom that they're not always going to get in the outside markets.
The vast majority of fiction is written to markets and to this damnable business we have nowadays of categorizing everthing. With an outlet like Phoenix, there is a beautiful freedom. You publish a good deal of poetry and the expression of the poetry is free. If you could get more prose to publish with the same kind of freedom, then the writers will realize that they are not bound by what's current in fiction and what's popular. Little magazines, college publications, literary quarterlys such as Phoenix turn out as proving grounds for totally new talents.
I wish Phoenix the best of luck and I think that Phoenix is an opportunity for people to have a voice, to have their names in print, to create some kind of a track record, something they can show years later. The writers in Phoenix can write anything and I'd like to see more of them do it.
Q: What is your approach to fiction?
TS: Fiction is very important to me. It's what I do, it's what I do with my life. Basically, fiction is people. You can't write fiction about ideas. You can write about people and ideas, but not ideas alone. This so-called fiction is not fiction at all, but trash.
Some major writers have a huge impact, like Ayn Rand, who to my mind is a lousy fiction writer because her writing has no compassion and virtually no humor. She has a philosophical and economical message that she is passing off as fiction, but it really isn't fiction at all.
Q: Do you feel fiction has a certain power over reality?
TS: Stories like Orwell's 1984 have a tremendous amount of force. We have several frightening aspects of 1984 right now, including the violation of privacy that's happening all over due to our computerized society. Orwell made the amazing prediction way back in 1948 of there being three huge forces in the world, and that we would ally with one or the other. This is happening, and you can see it happen. However, there are a great many aspects of 1984 which are not going to happen because he wrote that book.
Q: Do you think our technology is flawed?
TS: Sure, and we try our best to make fail-safe technology. As far as high technology is concerned, I think technologists have the idea that accidents can happen. They try their best to build the safety factors twelve times as safe as they have to be. Disasters happen from time to time, but it's in the nature of things that accidents must happen in order to keep further accidents from happening.
Q: You have been busy with a mainstream novel for quite some time titled Godbody. How is the work progressing?
TS: Godbody has been growing for eleven years, and as far as I know, it may grow for another eleven years. I will not sell it, because having a book contract means not only an advance, which may be nice, but also a deadline. There is going to be no deadline on Godbody. I'll sell other things, but that one's going to be quite some time.
It will be the most important thing I've ever done. It has to do with love and religion, and those are the two greatest guiding forces of humanity. They have been separated from one another. Organized religion tends to tell you not to love or at least if you do any loving, you do it within the parameters that they lay out for you.
Q: What do you consider to be your most enduring work?
TS: The book that I've written that seems to have drawn the most water all over is More Than Human. More Than Human has been published in more than twelve languages. A very interesting thing is that there are four Japanese editions. This means that it not only survives translation into another language, but apparently the Gestalt relationship is something that people really and truly want to know. The Gestalt relationship has preoccupied me for so long - the concept of a whole entity made up of very discrete individuals who don't lose their individuality. Gestalt between people is not like an army or a fascist dictatorship where everybody does what he's told. It's not an idea or particular creed that people have or share. It's what they are.
Q: Any last thoughts on your career as a writer?
TS: I was last honorably employed in 1951, and I've made it on writing ever since. God knows, being a freelance writer has its ups and downs. The income is always extremely irregular, and you have to learn carefully how to manage money and how to get through the lean times. You might make two thousand dollars this week, but you make nothing for six weeks after that. Then, that royalty check you were waiting for finally comes in for the first time, and it's three dollars and forty-six cents. When you've got wives and children to take care of, and rents and mortages and stuff like that to pay, they come like clockwork. Somehow you have to make everything bridge and stretch.
However, to be a freelance writer is to acquire a certain invulnerability, and a certain freedom to say what you want, to whom you want. I don't have a boss. Nobody can tattle to a boss and get me fired. I'm virtually immune to blackmail. And if you blackmail me with one publisher, then there's a half dozen others who are more than anxious to buy what I write.
The freedom to go where you want to go and not have to report to any one place at nine in the morning is very nice indeed. You want to sleep late, you sleep late. And if you don't want to work for a couple of weeks, you don't. That kind of invulnerability is worth a lot of suffering and deprivation. It feels good, it really does.
(This interview html'ized by William Seabrook, published with permission of David Duncan.)