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1993 interview with Gene Wolfe

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.

Why Machinal Should Be Revived More Often

Playbill, August 2017 — Plot spoilers aren’t a big worry with Sophie Treadwell’s 1928 play Machinal. Just about every description of the expressionist drama says it was inspired by the true story of Ruth Snyder, a Queens housewife who murdered her husband and was executed at New York’s Sing Sing. Chicago’s Greenhouse Theater, which is currently reviving the play through September 24, doesn’t bother hiding any of these facts. The theatre’s poster for Machinal shows an electric chair.

So, there isn’t really much suspense about how Machinal ends. It isn’t that kind of true-crime entertainment. “It is more about how she got there than what she did,” says Greenhouse’s artistic director, Jacob Harvey, who is directing the play. …

Read my story at Playbill.

Photo: Evan Hanover

Sharon Jones interview

Pioneer Press, June 19, 2015 — Soul singer Sharon Jones sounded and looked as vibrant as ever when she returned to concert stages in 2014, less than a year after learning she had cancer. She’d had six months of chemotherapy. Told by her doctors that she’d beaten the bile duct cancer, she wasted no time getting back on the road with her killer band, the Dap-Kings — not even waiting for her hair to grow back. Read the interview.

Gonerfest in Memphis, Tennessee, September 25-28, 2014

By Robert Loerzel

Wondering Sound, September 29, 2014

In its opening moments, Memphis’s Gonerfest looked like a tame affair. Parents with toddlers and al fresco diners mingled with punk rock fans, both old and young, around a gazebo in city’s Midtown neighborhood as power-pop legend Paul Collins played. “When I started, Goner didn’t exist,” Collins said, referring to the eponymous label (the Oblivians, Guitar Wolf, Jay Reatard) that launched in 1993. “That’s how old I am. But I’m glad they exist. Hallelujah, Goner!” Every year since 2004, the label and its record store have been holding the festival, a celebration of rough-edged underground music.

A few hours after Collins’s gazebo gig, as the action shifted to the Hi-Tone nightclub, beer cans hurtled through the air and the Goner faithful moshed passionately. Gonerfest Eleven, featuring three dozen bands, showed how garage, punk and indie pop music span the generations. On the younger end of the spectrum, there were scrappy groups like Ausmuteants, Nots and Protomartyr. (The Ausmuteants were just one of several groups from Australia, ranging from the bright pop of Scott & Charlene’s Wedding to the powerful intensity of Deaf Wish.)

But musicians from earlier eras, including a few actual senior citizens, proved they still know how to rock. Overlooked in the 1980s, the Len Bright Combo — that’s Englishman Eric Goulden, aka Wreckless Eric of “Whole Wide World” fame, together with the Milkshakes’ rhythm section, Bruce Brand and Russ Wilkins — played in the U.S. for the first time ever, sounding marvelous. “We’re three teenage men on a mission,” Goulden cracked. Saturday night concluded with a raucous set by the original 1977 lineup of the Gizmos from Bloomington, Indiana. The older Hoosiers standing on the stage didn’t look like the sort of people who have ever attended a punk show, let alone played in a punk band, but they quickly got the youngsters slamming on the dance floor. A few kids climbed onto the stage to join in the chorus of “Human Garbage Disposal.” The Gizmos looked invigorated by the experience, grinning like teenagers.

Photo of Deaf Wish by Robert Loerzel