You have been referred to as one of the parental units of cyberpunk. What do you think of your kids? Do you have any particular dreams for the grandkids?
I’m not as up-to-date on younger SF writers as I should be, so I can’t answer this really well. Charles Stross is young enough to be second generation cyberpunk, and he’s great. Cory Doctorow, Paolo Bacigalupi, and Hannu Rajaniemi, too. Widening the focus, it feels like cyberpunk and what I call transreal SF are becoming modes used by mainstream high-lit writers. Some of them don’t actually understand SF well enough to make it work—like maybe they’ve read 1984 or something—and the results are pathetic. But David Mitchell, Margaret Atwood, and George Saunders are mainstream writers who can hit the SF mark really well.
I’m generally disappointed by today’s SF movies. They often have kind of a cyberpunk feel, what with the neon light reflecting on rain wet streets. But, at the movies, the future drugs are dull. The hackers are autistic. The heroes are in league with the cops. The robots are evil or childlike. Nobody ever laughs, nothing interesting happens, and, may god help us, the big AI is a face on the wall with a stewardess voice. I was encouraged, a couple of years ago, by the movie District Nine, but cyberpunk isn’t a mode that comes easily to giant corporations. I wish they’d break down and base some movies on my Ware Tetralogy. It’s under option once again, so I have a spark of hope.
You wrote a pretty passionate manifesto for transrealism in the early ’80s—see bit.ly/transrealist. How has your relationship to transrealism evolved over time?
In short, transrealism means writing fantasy or SF that is in some way based on your actual life. You’re steering clear of received media ideas and trying to write about your daily reality in a warped way. SF tropes become objective correlatives for your psychic drives. At times, I’ve based transreal novels on specific swatches of my personal history—such as college, say, or my experiences working at a software company. But these days I’m more likely to write what I call cubist transrealism. That is, I don’t go for a full reality-encrypted roman à clef. Instead I shatter my daily experiences into surreal frags and tessellate them into a tale. The juxtapositions generate the story and plot.
In your transrealist manifesto you cited the importance of organically finding a story, what might be described as sketching rather than plotting. I’m intrigued to see how many of your paintings are part of your novel writing process. Could you tell us a bit more about how your visual arts practice and writing practice interweave and feed into each other?
It’s the left-brain/right-brain thing. Part of my mind fabulates tales and thinks in words. Another part of my mind sees images and dreams up flash. It’s useful to do a drawing or even an oil painting that relates to whatever might be in one of of my upcoming chapters or stories. The paints and canvas do a lot of the work. I shove the colors around and see what I get. (By the way, you can see my paintings at rudyrucker.com/paintings.)
Of course, if I can get loose, my writing can be that way too. Sometimes I’ll be tempted to go with a completely crazy and out-there scene, even though, in the current terms of my story, it doesn’t make sense. Turns out it’s almost always better to go with that impulse and to do the gnarly scene. You and the readers want to have fun and to see wild things. And you can patch in an explanation later.
Another lesson from painting is that revisions are easy. You can always paint over a fence or daub in a tentacle. It’s just paint, it’s just words.
A couple of questions about your story “The Knobby Giraffe.” Why a giraffe? And why the philosopher Gottfried Leibniz’s cryptic essay, The Monadology?
For many years, I kept journals, where I’d write about my thoughts and moods, and about things I’d read or see. Last year I published my Journals: 1990-2014. While editing the journals, I made notes of entries that suggested story ideas. One particular entry, from 2004, was about me being alone in a motel in the North Beach area of San Francisco, and how I’d woken up early, and I’d read the whole of Leibniz’s short book, The Monadology, while lying in bed. The Monadology is pretty close to being incomprehensible. It’s way out there. Leibniz seems to say that our universe is an assemblage of “monads” which reflect each other, and each monad has the whole world inside it. And, naturally, it struck me that an idea this crazy ought to be used in an SF story. And—here’s the pro surrealist-in-action part—as soon as I thought of that, I immediately thought that each monad should resemble a knobby giraffe. With brindle patches on it. A zap from the muse. Those little black antlers on a giraffe, they’re like joysticks, see, and you could wiggle them to control the appearance of the world. The knobby giraffe! Very clear in my mind.
So, okay, I’d written this journal entry in 2004, and I came across it again in 2014, and a year later I found a way to put that image and the Monadology rap into the heart of an SF story. I often start with a cool image or situation, and I grow a story outwards from there, filling in the gaps with transreal story cubes.
I was so surprised by this story’s happy ending! Messing with reality in this way never works out well, we’ve been taught that in stories time and time again! Were you surprised by the ending when you got there? Was breaking the standard expectations part of your plan all along?
I think it might be easier to write a sad ending than a happy one. Sad or meh endings are a cultural default. People think a downer ending is tough, and hard, and realistic, and it’s bravely facing facts. So when you write a happy ending, you have to do it with the right touch, or people might think you’re corny or weak. But if you nail a happy ending, people like it. I almost always give my novels happy endings. People already know that life’s a bummer. So why rub that in their faces? We’re talking about escape literature, friends. Fairy tales. Entertainments.
How has working with other writers affected you? You edited thirteen issues of the webzine Flurb, you’ve taught a few writing classes, and you’ve collaborated on about twenty-five stories with other authors.
It was fun editing Flurb and being able to help other writers get into print. And interesting to be on the other side of the table—looking dispassionately at stories and making suggestions about how they could work better. But when you teach a workshop instead of editing a magazine, the students tend not to take your advice. It’s not like you’re going to pay them or get them into print. Why should they listen to you? They might feel like they wrote the story once, and that’s enough. Even so, it helps me to try and tell them how a story could work.
The most writing feedback I get is when I collaborate on a story with someone. There’s different ways of doing this. The easiest is if you just take turns, adding a thousand or a couple of thousand words at a time, and then you’re done. I learn from closely observing how the other writer bends the story and develops the characters.
Sometimes collaborating is harder—like with Bruce Sterling. Over the years, I wrote nine stories with him. Rather than just adding new stuff when it’s his turn, Bruce tends to go back and revise what I’ve already written. And then I have to think about his changes, and possibly even be angry about them. But in the end the stories always work out, and I learn a certain amount from the ordeals, like about tightening and cutting. We recently published the Bruce and Rudy stories as a collection called Transreal Cyberpunk. The transreal aspect of the book is that each of the stories has two characters, and the characters are always based on Bruce and me, although in different ways from story to story.
What are you working on now?
I’ve been writing on a novel for a little over a year. Million Mile Road Trip. It’s about three high-school kids driving their car really far on a giant flat world. I like road trips, and I have some cool aliens, and we’ve got a war against the flying saucers. Lots of wonder, it’s funny in spots. I’m slanting the book so it could be viewed as a YA novel, but it could work equally well as adult SF.
I’m not sure if I can sell a novel to a big commercial publisher anymore. Over the years I sold twenty novels to the big houses, but somehow I’ve been edged out of that scene. And I tend not to want to bother with the small indie houses. So these days my default option is to run a Kickstarter to get the equivalent of a decent book advance, and then I self-publish in ebook, paperback and hardback via my Transreal Books. I’ve learned how to make it work. I’m still not ready to quit. Writing makes me happy.
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