Tuesday, 24 May 2011

An Interview with Clifford D. Simak

As a kid who spent a lot of time mooching around book shops in the 1970s, goggling at the airbrushed spacecraft on display in the science-fiction section and wondering what it must be like to read one of those books, the name of Clifford D. Simak was familiar to me. Three decades later and this once ubiquitous author is now largely out of print, excepting Gollancz finally getting around to adding Way Station to their SF Masterworks series.  Furthermore, the internet seems similarly and unusually barren where Simak is concerned, one or two poorly attended fan sites, a few reviews in the usual places, a predictably sniffy article from Sam Jordison of The Guradian, the crux of which seems to be that we're much more grown up these days.

Simak's science was shaky in comparison to many of his contemporaries, and his imagination was never quite so startling as that of Philip K. Dick (although that isn't to say he wasn't pretty damn weird at times), and his prose style varies from the pulpy to the unpolished and folksy, and the broadly ecological message of many of his tales may appear naive to some; nevertheless, there is a tremendous sense of warmth, even soul to his writing which sets his work apart from that of other more technically accomplished authors, and which secures his place within my own personal top five.

So as to save me the effort of retyping and rephrasing, NNDB has it like this:
Author and journalist Clifford Simak is remembered for such award winning classics of science fiction as City (1952), A Heritage of Stars (1977), and Way Station (1963). The author of considerable short fiction as well, his "Grotto of the Dancing Deer" garnered the Nebula, the Hugo, the Analog, and the Locus Poll Awards for best short fiction. In 1977 the Science Fiction Writers of America acknowledged him as one of the genre's Grand Masters. Although contemporaneous with Robert A. Heinlein, he is not considered as significant, yet he has added his own unique and distinct flavour to speculative fiction, one that is both pastoral and eerily mystical, with an edge of wry cynicism about the human race. He is especially known for his emphasis on the struggles of common people placed in extraordinary circumstances, for setting his tales in Wisconsin countryside, and for featuring dogs with unusual frequency. 
Clifford Donald Simak was born August 3, 1904, in Millville, Wisconsin to John Lewis and Margaret (Wiseman) Simak. He studied journalism at the University of Wisconsin, and married Agnes Kuchenberg in April of 1929. In 1929 he also switched jobs, from school teacher to newspaper man. In 1931 his first science fiction story, "The World of the Red Sun" appeared in Hugo Gernsback's Wonder Stories, but it would be several more years before he would earnestly apply himself (at the urging of Astounding editor John W. Campbell) to writing fiction.
Instead he worked as Editor on a variety of Midwestern newspapers, including the Minneapolis Star and Tribune (1939-76), and he served as Coordinator of the Minneapolis Tribune's Science Reading Series from 1961 onwards. (He received the 1967 Minnesota Academy of Science Award for distinguished service to science.) Finally, upon his retirement from the newspaper in 1976, he was able to devote himself full time to novels and short fiction. Ironically, it has been said that his best work, and his most prolific period as an author, occurred in the 1950s and early 1960s.
Among his various awards and acknowledgements include: the 1953 International Fantasy Award for City; the 1959 Hugo Award for The Big Front Yard; the 1964 Hugo Award for Way Station. He also received the First Fandom Hall of Fame Award, in 1973, and the 1987 Bram Stoker Award for lifetime achievement. Simak died April 27, 1988. He was 83 years old.
The following interview has, to the best of my knowledge, not before appeared online. It is reproduced here purely for the enjoyment of fellow Simak devotees without intent to breach established copyright.

An Interview with Clifford D. Simak
by Darrell Schweitzer
Amazing Stories Vol. 27, No. 6, February 1980

Clifford D. Simak is the author of over 120 science fiction stories and has won a Hugo award for his novel Way Station, as well as the International Fantasy Award for City. Mr. Simak has been a journalist ever since he left college and lives with his wife and two children [in Minneapolis] where he is a Special Features Editor for the Minneapolis Star.

AMAZING: Why is it that in most of your stories the person who makes the scientific breakthrough or contacts the aliens is usually a very ordinary person rather than a specialist?

SIMAK: Because I write about ordinary people and most of the people who read my work are ordinary people. I'm disinclined to think that if there were to be an alien come to earth he would seek out a professional. He would probably make an effort to talk to someone who is a typical representative of our race. I think that a breakthrough or something like a first meeting with aliens is more dramatic if made by an ordinary man, because if a specialist made it he would not be as excited about it. He would probably go into a long detail of tests and wondering about it and trying to figure it out logically, while an ordinary person would react as you and I would react. I think it's far more effective. I'm against heroes anyhow. I rate heroes. They make the rest of us look so damn bad. A man who is always successful makes all the rest of us look terrible. Today we should be writing about the ordinary man in the street. It used to be, in the old romantic period of writing, the Victorian days and for many years after that, you wrote about kings and dukes and duchesses, because people were supposed to be very much interested in nobility. That's not true anymore. We are all just ordinary people.

AMAZING: What about the scientist, who through his study makes himself more than ordinary?

SIMAK: If some of the other writers want to write about the scientist who is making great breakthroughs, why that's probably more logical than what I do, but I find it extremely hard to handle a scientist, because for may years I interviewed scientists. I have all the respect in the world for them, but they simply do not make good fiction copy.

AMAZING: So when you choose a character, you're more interested in what makes good copy than what sort of character might really be in that situation?

SIMAK: Yes, certainly. I choose a reader. Wouldn't you want me to pick the best fiction copy I could?

AMAZING: What is an extraterrestrial going to have in common with an ordinary person?

SIMAK: Probably in his own terms the extraterrestrial is himself an ordinary person. In the first flights into space the extraterrestrial would probably use engineers, scientists, specialists, and technicians of different kinds, but if we were to find a race on Mars, I think we would be well-advised to send out some ordinary people along with the scientists etcetera, to try to find out just what these beings are, because the professionally trained person is going to look at these aliens with an entirely different viewpoint than the ordinary man.

AMAZING: But isn't the ordinary man going to be less willing to put aside his prejudices than someone who specialises in studying foreign races?

SIMAK: Yes, he probably wouldn't be able to put aside his prejudices, but he would have something else going for him. He'd be much more apt to look upon this alien life sympathetically and on his own terms than the scientist would.

AMAZING: He might also recoil in fear.

SIMAK: He would have to be someone who would understand that we do have to reach an understanding with these creatures. We can't recoil in fear. We can't think of them as repugnant, as we must try to meet them on their own ground. I think that as a human being he would do that better than the specialist.

AMAZING: How would you know that a flying saucer pilot, landing in your back yard, isn't going to behave like the Spanish arriving in Mexico?

SIMAK: Because the UFO astronaut, who would not come from this solar system, but from one light years away, would be a member of a culture that has evolved the kind of technology able to do this. They would also have to have the kind of curiosity that would bring them here. So they would have to have a very high culture. They would be people of great intelligence. By the time they were able to send a spaceship over a number of light years, they probably would have been able to solve their own problems. They undoubtedly would be coming here for information, or to contact us, or to find out what happened to life here. They would not be bent on conquest. They probably wouldn't need any more living room, because undoubtedly they'd have learned to control their own population within the bounds of their own planet. They wouldn't be looking for raw materials because they would have ways by which they could manufacture new kinds of raw material. They wouldn't be looking for slave labour because they would have machines which could do much more labour than the human body could. So they wouldn't be looking for anything of a competitive nature.

AMAZING: Can we be sure that moral advancement goes along with technological advancement?

SIMAK: In the case of the human race it does not. In general, anyway, although today we burn fewer witches at the stake; except in times of great war madness, we massacre fewer populations. There are no two religions now at one another's throat. We have become perhaps a little better behaved toward other people than we were, and the reason that we have not gone beyond that in the technological age is because we're too new into it. We're too entranced with our toys of destruction. Maybe we can reach a time when we won't need them.

AMAZING: You mean no weapons?

SIMAK: Yes, I hope so.

AMAZING: How would you reach that?

SIMAK: By gradual understanding. I think that some of the sociological and psychological studies that are being made now may enable us in a couple of centuries to realise that the human race can live together, that nations need not be at one another's throat.

AMAZING: As I see it, everyone must disarm at once, or no-one does, because if there's one armed country left, that's the whole ball game.

SIMAK: What's to stop us from total disarmament, given two hundred years? We're using weapons now as a deterrent for war, but at the same time we're working for some understanding. We're not getting very far with it, but the last summer when a helicopter was shot down over North Korea, the President said it was simply an incident. It was nothing to make a great fuss about, and I think he probably had the right approach there.

AMAZING: But the Koreans do this periodically because they regard Americans as patsies.

SIMAK: They do regard us as patsies, but if they finally decide after twenty years that they can't goad us into unwise action, they'll probably quit it. Then leaders die and are replaced, and whenever a new leader comes along there's always the chance that he might be a more reasonable man. In the case of Russia, when Nikita Krushchev was out of office, many of us at the newspaper said that we were sorry for us, because we understood Nikita and he understood us. We knew how far we could push him and he knew how far he could push us. When the new regime came in, I think that probably for a considerable time, we got along better with them than we did with Nikita. So there's always a chance that you'll get new leadership. And the Russian people want peace just as badly as we do. All we have to do is put enough pressure on our governments, and maybe in another hundred years we may be able to do that.

AMAZING: Do you foresee any real moral progress for the human race?

SIMAK: Yes, as I just told you, we don't burn witches anymore.

AMAZING: We don't burn heretics, but we purge them.

SIMAK: We do, but not quite as violently as we used to. Burning at the stake is pretty damn violent. Some of these fellows that we purge and disgrace, after all, come back. Oppenheimer was in as deep disgrace as you've ever seen a man. He was practically run out of the human race, and still, thirty years later, he was honoured as a great American.

AMAZING: Getting back to extraterrestrials, isn't the concept of moral progress an anthropomorphic idea? We're defining it in our own terms.

SIMAK: Certainly we're defining it in our terms, because it's something that fits us. What we call morality might not be what an alien would call morality. They might have a concept of morality which is much better than ours. They might have one which is much worse. Whereas the aliens and we can reach an understanding with one another, isn't it possible we can take the best from both?

AMAZING: When you're writing about an alien who thinks differently, how do you get this into human terms so the reader can understand it?

SIMAK: That's the trouble. I can't, nor can any other science-fiction writer. We can only think in human terms. What we try to do is twist human concepts into strange, distorted shapes. They seem alien, but all they are are distorted human concepts. You don't know how many years I have tried to develop a true alien. I have never been able to. Terry Carr came awful close in The Dance of Changer and the Three, but he wasn't quite successful. I think probably it's very close to impossible to do it.

AMAZING: What do you think is your most successful attempt?

SIMAK: That's a question I can't answer, because I'd have to sit down and think for half an hour and run through all my stories.

AMAZING: What caused you to start using traditional fantasy elements in science-fiction contexts?

SIMAK: I see no reason why they should not be used together. Science-fiction, while it's gone too far to change it, is a misnomer. It's not actually science-fiction. It's fantasy. It's scientific fantasy. What we're doing is writing in the great broad field of fantasy and whether it takes a scientific and technological turn or a mythical turn or some other aspect, it's still fantasy. It's reaching out into the unknown and saying what's out there.

AMAZING: How about the old rule of violating what's known to be known? We know that there are no dragons, but you've produced a few.

SIMAK: Well, who in the hell makes these rules? Is it an editor sitting behind his desk, or a critic sitting behind his desk, or a writer or the general public saying this is the way it should or shouldn't be done? If you want to put together fantasy and science-fiction, I see nothing wrong with it. I took my lumps for doing it, but I kept on doing it. I haven't done it for a while, but I think I'll probably do it again some day. It's fun. I see no reason why you should want to put scientific fantasy over here and mythological fantasy over there and draw a line between them and say the twain shall never meet. It's ridiculous.

AMAZING: Can we expect aliens to conform to our mythological expectations?

SIMAK: You can make a beautiful story by saying that trolls, dragons, etcetera are all based on creatures which had at some time visited the earth and had perhaps lived here for many years before man came, but no, I don't think so. Everything is possible, but I think it's very unlikely. I don't think the true alien, when we finally meet him, is going to resemble us in any way. The trolls, elves, and all the rest are distortions of the human figure.

AMAZING: When you go about constructing a story, where do you start?

SIMAK: I can start from many points. You can start a story, of course, with the character. You can start with a situation. Now that actually happens - and I'm more and more convinced of this as time goes on - is that you don't plot stories. They sort of hatch. All your life you're storing ideas in your subconscious. This doesn't only apply to writers, but also to inventors and everybody else. These ideas that have been stored away mostly never come to anything. They just lie there and moulder and die. But I think that the subconscious part of us is thinking of these things all the time, sorting and re-sorting, and classifying these ideas. The reason I think this is that suddenly, out of the blue it seems, and idea will come to me, and if I give it any further thought, I can identify where it came from. There is a fragmentary thing I might have read or thought or heard someone say. Your ideas just lay back there and hatch. You could start from scratch and say, well I'm going to plot a story, and I'm going to have a hero and a heroine and a villain and a certain situation. You can mechanically plot it. I think the mechanical part of it would show when you finally came around to writing it.

AMAZING: How much of it is a deliberate process for you?

SIMAK: You mean how much do I actually sit down and plot?

AMAZING: Yes. After you got the idea, and the subconscious has hatched something.

SIMAK: After I got the idea I'll talk a lot of it into a tape. I'll put a lot of it down in notes. I'll wrestle around with it for anything from two weeks to a year or three years or four years - not exclusively working on that, of course. and one of these days it will all seem to come clear and I begin replotting, and finally when the time comes to write it, I probably don't refer to the notes or the tapes any more, because the story is pretty well in mind. I may make myself a rather sketchy outline and this has to be fairly detailed  for the beginning of a story because I have to keep that on track, but I don't trouble with where I'm going. I don't consciously plot too much of the second half of the story because I know very well by the time I'm at the midpoint, the characters and the situations will have taken over, and I'll be writing an entirely different story than I started out to write.

AMAZING: Do you find it difficult to talk about a story beforehand because you lose it?

SIMAK: I never talk about a story beforehand. Writing is sort of a private thing, and the idea of what you're writing belongs to you, and if you share it with anyone else it becomes just that much less yours. I think most writers feel that way. They will not talk about a work in progress.

AMAZING: As far as I can tell they divide into two categories. There are those who like to bounce ideas off people and those who are afraid of losing the story.

SIMAK: I can lose a story by talking too much about it. It's no longer an intensely private property.

AMAZING: Have you ever been able to collaborate?

SIMAK: I have collaborated with my son, and I think we did a beautiful job. I collaborated with Carl Jacobi on one story. I'm not too sure I'm ever going to collaborate with anybody again. The collaborations have turned out rather happily, but they become a little bit awkward. You have two different minds and it's hard to match them into one integrated piece of work.

AMAZING: How did the Jacobi collaboration come about?

SIMAK: We fought like hell for the weeks it took to write it but we finally agreed and wrote it. Carl wanted the man to do things like this. I wanted the man to take sleeping pills and Carl said they had to be sleeping powders, and if you knew Carl you could understand that much better than just hearing me tell it.

AMAZING: Is science-fiction what you wanted to write from the start?


AMAZING: Did you ever attempt anything else?

SIMAK: Oh sure. At one time I was awfully broke and wasn't able to write as much science-fiction as I wanted to, so I wrote a lot of westerns and some air war stories.

AMAZING: Whatever happened to them? Have they disappeared?

SIMAK: I hope they have.

AMAZING: What drew you to science-fiction originally?

SIMAK: I had always wanted to be a newspaper man, and when I got to be one I was quite happy at it, but I realised after a few years that this was not entirely doing for me what I wanted it to. When you are writing for a newspaper you have to write objectively. You write from the record or from the interview, or whatever your source might be, and you don't deviate from it. But I found out that what I wanted to do was some creative writing, and I had read Wells, Haggard, Poe, and the rest of them. I was very excited about them, and then I saw my first copy of Amazing and that excited me even more. I knew immediately that I did want to write science-fiction.

AMAZING: How long did you try before succeeding?

SIMAK: I sold my first story, but it was never published because Amazing sent it back after holding it for five years and said it was somewhat outdated. My second story sold and was published. Now during my lifetime I don't think I have had more than two or three stories that have not sold.

AMAZING: That's a remarkable record. How do you account for it?

SIMAK: At the time I started there were very few science-fiction writers, and the magazines had by that time reprinted all of H.G. Wells and Haggard and the rest of them, and they were very avid to get new people into the field. So if you could put two sentences together you could qualify as a science-fiction writer. The early people who got into the field really had no competition. The editors were at their mercy. They sent in a story and maybe the editor didn't like it, but where else could he get another story? So by the time the competition got rougher, most of the early writers had learned our craft well enough that we could hold our own.

AMAZING: Were you dissatisfied with the early science-fiction because it was not well written?

SIMAK: No, not at all. It was something new and it was wonderful. It was not well written, but we didn't know it at the time. I realised years later that it was badly written.

AMAZING: What are your criteria for good science-fiction?

SIMAK: You need two things. You need a good idea, and just because I put that first that's not ahead of everything else. You need a good idea and you need good characterisation, and after that you need some craftsmanship.

AMAZING: How much do you think can be learned and how much is innate?

SIMAK: You can teach yourself to be a craftsman if you write long enough and work hard enough at it, but I think that the creative process, the idea of being able to dream up a story and work it out and actually bring it to the point where you can write it, is something that only a few fortunate people have. Anybody can learn to play a violin, but they don't all play it well.

AMAZING: Do you have any ideas on the nature of the creative process?

SIMAK: I have no idea whatsoever. It's something in our genes, I suppose.

AMAZING: Samuel Delany has suggested that it's best we don't examine this too closely because we might lose it.

SIMAK: I think we had better not. If we examined it too closely and found the answer, everybody would be writing.

AMAZING: You would no longer have the editors at your mercy.

SIMAK: That's right.

AMAZING: Do you feel that you still do?

SIMAK: No, we do not. The writer who tries to break into the science-fiction field today has an awfully hard time because he does have a lot of competition. It's become easier in the last few years because the publishers have become very avid for science-fiction stories. A writer who might not have had a chance to place a story ten years ago now can place it more easily because the supply does not quite meet the demand. I'm thinking about the novel particularly.

AMAZING: Do you see any danger that the field might overexpand and lower its standards accordingly?

SIMAK: You can't foresee the future. You don't know what is going to happen, but if the present trends continue we may lower the quality because the demand is there. I don't know how much that hurts the field. As long as readers will buy it, okay. When the readers begin to drop off, the publishers may lose interest and then you will have to be a top notch writer to sell. But we may never reach that point.

AMAZING: What I had in mind was something like what happened to the magazines in the middle 1950s happening to the paperback market.

SIMAK: What happened to the magazines was that the paperback market came into being. What might happen to the paperback market. I can't imagine. There's not another medium that I know of that could draw them off.

AMAZING: Movies?

SIMAK: I don't think so, because to see a movie you have to either go to a theatre and pay far more than you pay for a pocketbook, or you can wait for a long time and get it when it comes on television, but you can't pick your time to see it. I think that somebody who wants to get enjoyment out of any sort of literature will want to read it at his leisure. You can do that with a book. You can read it at any time. If you want to see it on television, you've got to wait until it's programmed on television. So while they may be competitors of sorts, I doubt very much that the entertainment media will have much effect.

AMAZING: Couldn't they have considerable effect on the public image of science-fiction?

SIMAK: Yes, it certainly could. Science-fiction so far has been badly hurt by inept television and movies. I'm not too happy about Star Wars, but it was good clean fun with a sense of wonder in it. It was the worst kind of space opera, but maybe you have to break the public in on space opera. I think that the movies can turn the public off on science-fiction. They go and see a movie and say "for Christ's sake, if that's science-fiction I want nothing more to do with it."

AMAZING: Has the movie industry ever expressed any interest in any of your books?

SIMAK: Oh yes. If they could get it for peanuts...

AMAZING: But you never let them have it?

SIMAK: Never. One of my stories has been used on television and that's the only time I've been on the screen and still after all these years I keep getting royalty checks from it. It's playing all over the world.

AMAZING: This was Good Night, Mr. Jones on The Outer Limits. Were you pleased with it?

SIMAK: Not at all. Christ, I didn't recognise that it was my story. I remember that I knew it was coming on, but I had no idea when it would be. Nobody could tell me. I got home one night rather late, and my wife was in a tizzy because she said I had to sit down and eat dinner right away, and as soon as I had eaten dinner my daughter and my son hustled me into the living room and turned on the television set and I sat there for fifteen minutes not knowing what was going on - I had missed the credits - and I finally got up and said "those sons of bitches have stolen my story!" and then my wife said "well, this is your story!"

AMAZING: Did they just do it badly?

SIMAK: Sure they did it badly. Since when haven't TV and movies done things badly?

AMAZING: Because they had to water it down for a lowest common denominator audience?

SIMAK: Because they've got the concept that to make a good movie or a good television picture, they have to have violence, they have to have a chase; this that and the other thing. They aren't at all concerned with storytelling. If you take Star Wars, which is so fascinating to people, and break it down, there's practically no story there.

AMAZING: There's no conflict because the hero can't get in danger.

SIMAK : That's right.

AMAZING: I've always had this theory that the Imperial Stormtroopers are really terminal heroin junkies from the streets of Harlem and they have the shakes, which is why they can't hit the side of a barn.

SIMAK: That's right.