Monday, 15 July 2024

Samuel R. Delany

The Author at Home

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Over 59 years Samuel R. Delany has written more than 40 books about everything from distant planets to the specifics of sexual encounters in New York movie theatres. Whatever world he is documenting, he is legendary for using his writing to effortlessly subvert the norms of straightness and whiteness. Samuel is 79 years old, lives in Philadelphia, US, and also goes by the nickname Chip.

From Fantastic Man n° 34 — 2021
Portraits by ETHAN JAMES GREEN

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QUESTION — Hello Chip, how many books have you written, exactly?

CHIP — Offhand, I don’t know. I’d have to count. Just a second, and I’ll look at my shelves. Probably it’s not a bad idea for a writer to know that. Let’s see… Thirty-one volumes of fiction, including two graphic novels, and 18 volumes of non-fiction.

You write science fiction, essays, journals, memoirs, travelogues. You have also been described as a “polymath.” What exactly do you think all that means in the context of your work, and how would you sum up what you do and what you write about?

I haven’t the vaguest idea. Rule number one for all serious writers: Never believe the hype current about you. And all that is just what other people from time to time have said. I try not to pay – too much – attention to it. How would I sum it up? How about a minor stylist, often working in out-of-the-way genres. (Full confession: I’m stealing that from my favourite American writer, Guy Davenport, who – thanks to lung cancer – didn’t live to the age that I have now. By my lights, he deserved much more.)

What role does sex play in your writing? When did you realise that sex was important to your work?

Now and again a rather large one, and often none at all. When did I realise it was important? Well before I started thinking of writing as work.

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Chip’s first novel, ‘The Jewels of Aptor’, was published in 1962. His most recent work of fiction is titled ‘Big Joe’; a steamy novella set in a trailer park. It was published earlier this year.

What first drew you to writing science fiction?

I used to enjoy reading it, and after an early marriage (I was 19), my wife (who was 18) lied about her age and began working as an editor at a paperback house, Ace Books, that published twelve novels a month in the genres of science fiction and fantasy.

You published five books between the ages of 19 and 22. Can you briefly summarise them and tell how you feel about them now?

Can I summarise them? No. Why in the world would I want to? Suffice it to say they’re still in print. That makes me feel pretty lucky. Besides, today I’m 79, going on 80. If I was all that interested in those early books, if anything, I think it would be a bit sad.

Do you wish you were still as prolific or have you settled into a different rhythm of writing?

I never considered myself all that prolific – that’s just more hype. After I was 46 or 47, I made my living mostly as a professor of comparative literature – and eventually, of English. For the last five years I’ve been retired and, in order to keep body and soul together, working twice as hard. You can’t see it, but I have a rather big grin on my face – under my beard.

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Which single book do you think you have read the most, and why?

That’s probably Djuna Barnes’s ‘Nightwood’. I first read it when an older woman poet gave it to me at 16 or so. I found it weird. By the time I was 25 I’d read it five or six times and decided it was quite amazing and wonderfully written and conceived. Pretty soon I was teaching it fairly regularly. Eventually I broke 30 readings and stopped counting.

One of your recent novels, ‘Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders’, features, according to ‘The New Yorker’: “coprophagia, bestiality and the erotic sharing of snot.” Could you share some other specific and unusual fascinations from your other works?

To give you something to chew on, here’s what K’eguro Macharia wrote about the book. As a Nigerian gay activist, he may be somewhat more in tune than the white, probably straight, ‘New Yorker’ writer who clearly jotted his list to shock. Macharia writes it’s a book about Black gay men who: “have steady, if unglamorous, jobs; ready access to food – the repeated mentions of cooking and eating are central to this book; healthcare that is attentive to their ‘benign perversions;’ practices and communities of sociality anchored in being ‘good’ to one another; and a lot of ‘fun’ and ‘affection’ (one could write about the significance of hugs in this novel). Works anchored in and tethered to black gay livability are so rare as to be unrecognizable – in fact, they remain largely invisible even in black queer scholarship. And, perhaps, what is so surprising (even difficult to comprehend) about ‘Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders’ is that it does not begin with or ever engage in the exceptionalism that would make black gay characters acceptable within mainstream white aesthetics.” Now doesn’t that make it sound more interesting than a list of things one or another of the characters sees, or even hears about, or – yes – takes part in, now and again, in the course of 75 years in a 95-year lifetime chronicled in 800+ pages?

What is your daily writing routine?

For many years I more or less drifted into Lord Byron’s daily schedule – those periods when I didn’t have a day job at Barnes & Noble or Bob’s Bargain Books – I’d rise at noon and socialise till five or six, and after a light supper, I’d get to work and work till dawn, then turn in, and start all over again. Once I was a parent, however, my very good friend and supporter Judith Merril gave me some advice: the secret to writing with a child was always to rise at least two hours before the kid, and get in a good solid hour and a half of work. Then, when the child wakes up, get her ready, get her breakfast, and walk her to day-school. Once I’d walked home, because I was already in writer mode, it was pretty easy to get back to work. But if you started off in parent mode, you never got back into writing and just looked for more parenting stuff to do for the rest of the day.

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What drink or foodstuff do you write best on?

Probably I write best when I’m mildly hungry and haven’t had too much sugar. At this point, I seem to have trained myself that a final bit of sweetness is a reward for finishing the day’s work.

How many piercings do you have?

Three in one ear. None in the other. Back in the ’70s I wore a pair of tit-rings, but they had to come out before one MRI or another and never got reinserted.

And how many tattoos? Can you describe one of them?

One on each arm – both have been there a long, long time. On one arm there’s a python around a leopard’s head. On the other arm is a dragon coiled around a skull – which was given me as a birthday present many years ago by a friend named Sam Benedetto, from a tattooist named Huggy Bear out in Brooklyn. I was supposed to go back and get it finished, but I never did. I’m pretty sure Huggy Bear is dead by this time. Sam, alas, is.

16 July, 2021

Philadelphia