Tor Books announced the news today that author Gene Wolfe has died at the age of 87. I interviewed Wolfe in 1993 when I was a reporter for Pioneer Press Newspapers in Chicago’s suburbs, visiting him at his home in Barrington. Here is my article, which was originally published in the Barrington Courier-Review on March 18, 1993.
The basement of the small Barrington house is overstuffed with books. Science-fiction novels line the walls, while hardcover reference books are piled on a desk, alongside stacks of paper. Gene Wolfe, an unassuming man in a plaid shirt, sits at the desk, using a typewriter.
Two globes hang from the ceiling over Wolfe’s head. One is a standard globe of the planet earth; the other shows the constellations as they appear from the viewpoint of someone standing on the earth.
But Wolfe’s mind wanders farther afield as he sits at the typewriter, imagining what the universe looks like from vantage points on distant planets and huge spaceships traveling through the emptiness of space.
This small basement room, where book and movie posters are taped to the ceiling, is the place where Wolfe wrote a series of books that was praised by the New York Times Book Review as “one of the modern masterpieces of imaginative literature.”
Wolfe shares his writing space with an exercise bicycle, an aquarium, a washing machine and a drying machine.
“It’s a combination office and laundry room, and exercise area,” Wolfe jokes.
When he takes a break from writing, sometimes he places a game of chess with a computer. A tally of victories taped next to the chess board shows Wolfe has won more games than the computer.
Most Barrington residents don’t know it, but their town is home for the man recently described by the Washington Post as one of America’s best unsung writers.
“The best novelist in America that you’ve never heard of, let alone read, because you don’t bother with ‘science fiction’ is Gene Wolfe,” the Post wrote. “His four-part ‘Book of the New Sun’ is as ambitious as Pynchon’s ‘Gravity’s Rainbow,’ as intricate and beautifully written as Nabokov’s ‘Pale Fire.'”
Those are high words of praise, but Wolfe has grown accustomed to high praise over the last 10 years.
Wolfe’s books aren’t best-sellers, and he isn’t even one of the best-known writers in science-fiction circles. Yet his books have attracted a small but loyal cult following.
”There’s a Gene Wolfe Fan Club in Europe,” he says. “But there isn’t one in America.”
Wolfe began writing fiction when he was in college in the 1950s, but it didn’t become his full-time occupation until about 10 years ago. While he wrote short stories and novels before work in the morning and after work in the evening, he spent 17 years as a mechanical engineer for Proctor and Gamble and 11 years as the editor of a Barrington-based trade publication, Plant Engineering.
Perhaps the most important inspiration or Wolfe’s career came one day when he was sitting on a panel at a science-fiction convention, discussing sci-fi costumes.
“I sat there listening and sulking, because no one had ever dressed as one of my characters,” Wolfe remembers.
So Wolfe came up with a character that would make a good costume for the masquerading fans at SF conventions: a bare-chested torturer, wearing black boots, black pants, a black mask and a black cape.
“Then I thought, ‘Who is this guy behind the mask? How did he get to be a torturer?'” Wolfe says.
At first, Wolfe planned to write a novella about the torturer. But pretty soon, it was long enough for novel. Wolfe says he discovered he couldn’t finish the story in one book.
Wolfe’s superficial idea about a black-leather costume turned Into the four-book “The Book of the New Sun” series, a story of baroque complexity. It was one of the most critically acclaimed science-fiction or fantasy works of the 1980s. He later wrote a fifth book, “The Urth or the New Sun.”
The story about the torturer and his travels is set so far in the future that present history is forgotten, and technology seems like magic.
As in other Wolfe novels, the science-fiction premise behind the story isn’t obvious at first. The story appears mote like a medieval fantasy than a futuristic tale. But gradually, the reader learns more about the structure of Wolfe’s fictional universe.
“It’s what’s called science fantasy,” Wolfe says. “It has the feeling of fantasy, but it’s science fiction.”
“The Book or the New Sun” was written in archaic-sounding language, sprinkled with strange and obsolete words: preceptress, pancreator, fusUs, jezails and falchions, for example.
Other science-fiction writers make up new words and names for the creatures and people they dream up, Wolfe says. But fictional animals are usually inspired by real animals, he says.
“In science fiction, you call a rabbit a smeep,” Wolfe says, quoting another science-fiction writer. In other words, if you imagine a creature similar to a rabbit on another planet, you make up a nonsense name to describe it.
“I said, ‘Why call a rabbit a smeep?’ There are plenty of other words for a rabbit,” Wolfe says.
Wolfe’s approach is to find real words to describe the pieces of his fictional worlds. When he was writing “The Book of the New Sun,” Wolfe began digging through the Oxford English dictionary and other books tor the perfect words.
“Often, you can find a Latinate or Greek term for something it you dig hard enough,” Wolfe says. “There are times I spent a whole day looking for the word I needed.”
Wolfe says he doesn’t expect readers to understand everything that Is going on in his novels right away. But he hopes they understand it alI by the time they reach the last page.
“I hate books that lecture me,” he says. “If I want lectures, I’ll read nonfiction. … If there are killer minnows in a creek, I want to see someone trying to cross the creek. If I want a lecture about fish, there are plenty of nonfiction books about fish I can read.”
Over the past few years, Wolfe has written several books that faIl outside the science-fiction genre, including the mystery novel “Pandora by Holly Hollender,” which is set in Barton, Ill., a fictional town patterned after Barrington. Wolfe says the Barrington Area Library’s Head Librarian Barbara Sugden recognized herself as a character in the book.
But now Wolfe is hard at work on a new four-book science-fiction series. “The Book of the Long Sun” is a follow-up to the “Book of the New Sun” series, and the first book, “Nightside the Long Sun,” will arrive in book stores next month.
The new series is set inside a massive generational spaceship, but the inhabitants don’t know they are in a ship. The “gods” of this spaceship, which is built from a hollowed-cut asteroid, are faces that appear on video monitors. The “long sun” of this world Is a plasma-discharge tube in the middle of the ship, Wolfe says.
But most of these details are only hinted at in the first novel, which recounts two days in the life of a priest, who tries to save his church and parochial school from the clutches or a wealthy buyer.
Wolfe’s loyal readers won’t find out until later who built the spacecraft, where it is going and why.
Although Wolfe’s books continue to garner good reviews, including comparisons to literary heavyweights like Vladimir Nabokov, Wolfe says he never sets out to write award-winning books.
“I don’t think people who write books sit down and say, ‘I’m going to write a book that’s going to win the Nobel Prize,’ ” he says.
Wolfe remains modest when he’s asked about the high praise he has received from critics and his fans.
“I’m always surprised and pleased when that happens,” he says.