Even after thirty years, “Not Our Brother” continues to be a powerful and relevant work. What led you to write this story?
I was experimenting with writing horror/fantasy stories as a change of pace from science fiction. And I had just come back from a trip to Mexico.
The masks, the jungle village setting, the dramatic transformation of Ellen Chambers, and even the mundane things Halperin comes into contact with are richly described. What sources did you draw on to inject such lush detail into this story?
As I said, I had just come back from Mexico. (Though nothing like the events of the story had happened to me down there!) I have collected Mexican masks myself and the house is full of them. Some of the ones I describe in the story are hanging on my own walls.
The instant that Halperin breaks the taboo against trying to buy the masks, Ellen Chambers ensnares him. To me, it almost seems Edenic—in the paradisiacal garden of the gods, there is a prohibition, a temptation, a transgression, and a fall. How do you feel about such parallels? Were they intentionally written into the story?
Probably not intentionally. For me a story has its own logic, and I let things unfold without consciously trying to impose a substructure (or superstructure) of myth on it. Of course, if I do things the right way, the mythic parallels will turn out to be there anyway.
Halperin begins the story a confident explorer, eager to experience life, and ends it a broken man. Is there a cautionary tale here about how we should approach the world?
Again, it’s the logic of the story. Obviously we all begin our lives eager to experience life, and end up dead, but I don’t think that that’s a very profound point. A story is about a transformation: this was Halperin’s.
I found myself making comparisons to Joseph Conrad and Ernest Hemingway as I read “Not Our Brother.” Are they influences on your writing? What are your favorite and most influential authors and works outside of SF?
Conrad is a big influence in my writing—not his style or technique, but his sense of the moral forces governing our lives—and I have acknowledged that many times by giving my characters and even my stories names out of his work. I’ve studied Hemingway closely too, and from him I learned not to spell things out too heavy-handedly, but he has not been a major influence otherwise. Other writers I’ve paid close attention to include Graham Greene, Robert Stone, and John Updike. And the Greek tragedians.
Do you ever pick up one of your older works and find that you’re surprised or amazed by it? Is there any piece from your body of work so far that you’re particularly proud of?
I always read some older work of mine and wonder how I thought of it and got it done. Always. As for pieces I’m particularly proud of, I’d cite the novellas first—”Sailing to Byzantium,” “Born with the Dead,” “Hawksbill Station,” “We Are For the Dark,” and a few others. Among the novels, Son of Man, Dying Inside, Book of Skulls.
Your cumulative output is extraordinary. It’s difficult for me to imagine anyone writing in the sustained manner that you have at times. Where do you turn for ideas and inspiration, especially in your most productive periods?
They come out of thin air. It’s not a process I want to look at very closely. It just happens, and I’m grateful for that.
As a SFWA Grand Master, you have a unique perspective on the progress of SF through the years. What opportunities do SF writers have in this decade that they did not have in others? What potential pitfalls do you think they should avoid?
I really haven’t been keeping up with the current state of affairs. I’m doing very little writing these days and pay almost no attention to the current state of the market.
What are you working on now?
See the previous reply. I’ve had a 55-year career and written an enormous number of books and stories. These days I’m just kicking back and taking it easy, reading, traveling widely, working in my garden. I have no immediate plans for new work, though of course that could change at any moment.
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