Those who know me also probably know that my favorite author is the late Philip José Farmer. There are a number of reasons why. Among them are his many instances of deliberately playing with Jungian archetypes and pulp mythology. But also, there’s just such a mischievous charm to everything he wrote and eyes open to the absurdities of humanity. He was constantly challenging literary and genre expectations — "pushing the envelope", so to speak. Phil was also writing for himself first and the audience second. As a result, his work reflects him and his inner workings much more than many authors who are cynically driven to compose based on audience expectations. That’s not to say he did not pursue the almighty dollar, but he struck a fine balance of a working author (making money at it) and a broad-minded thinker and feeler who wrote first and foremost because he had stuff in his head that needed to get out.
Oddly, however, I had never even heard his name nor read any of his books or stories prior to 1990 until I read this interview I am about to share. It was a lengthy two-part interview with Phil in the now-defunct STARLOG magazine that got my attention. All the topics and points-of-view just sang to me that we were operating on a similar wavelength. When I was done with that article, I set out on a quest to find some of this man’s books. And at this point, I own and have read every novel he wrote (except his hard to find 1962 novel about race relations Fire and The Night) and probably most every short story (or at least all I could get my hands on).
It’s taken me a couple of years since I first thought about it, but I'm finally getting around to publishing this blog. The timing inspiration for it is that Phil Farmer was born on January 26, 1918 in Terra Haute, Indiana, and I wanted to make this available to existing fans, but also the uninitiated, during his birth month as my simple way of remembering him and his work. Since STARLOG is long out of print and this article ran so long ago (pre-Information Age), the ability to access this rather exhaustive glimpse into Phil’s mind at age 71 is not an easy task if you did not purchase these magazine issues off the newsstand at the time they came out. I did make an effort to contact the current owners of the STARLOG brand to see if they were interested in sashaying alongside with me on this endeavor but they never responded. I did, however, contact by email the author Will Murray, who actually conducted the interview with Phil to make sure that he had no issue with my reproducing the text in this venue. Mr. Murray kindly granted whatever permission rights he might have as the writer, so under Fair Use for archival and research purposes only, I present Will Murray’s interview with Philip José Farmer from 1990, originally published in STARLOG magazine issues 155 and 156. I claim no copyright on the interview text and reserve all content rights to the respective rights holders.
*Stay tuned for a few notes by me at the end. For now, enjoy this time capsule of sorts.*
STARLOG #155 (June 1990)
PHILIP JOSÉ FARMER: HIS APOCALYPTIC LIFE
By WILL MURRAY
If Philip Jose Farmer had only written The Lovers, his place in science fiction would be secure. But after revolutionizing the field with his sexually explicit and psychologically sophisticated debut novella, he has since gone on to become one of the major creative forces in contemporary fiction and, some say, in 20th century popular literature. From his Riverworld books, in which immortal historical figures wend their way along a 10-million-mile river on a distant world, to his World of Tiers series with
its many "pocket universes" created by ruthless Lords, Farmer has demonstrated a creative energy more akin to coruscating stellar explosions than mere prose writing. Not content with his own series — which tumble from his seemingly inexhaustible imagination so rapidly that not all of them have been resolved — Farmer has also continued the careers of several of his childhood pulp heroes, in both pastiches and pastiche-like "biographies" — Tarzan Alive and Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life, written as if those characters were real — which Farmer claims, not always with tongue in cheek, is true.
STARLOG: You're contracted to write a new Doc Savage novel. How did that come about?
PHILIP JOSE FARMER: When I wrote Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life, I hoped I would be able to do an original Doc Savage some day. I already had the title — Escape from Loki, in which Doc at age 16 lied about his age to get into the US Air Service, and was captured by the Germans [during World War I]. His plane was shot down, and he was one of those incorrigible escapees. The Germans had a special camp called Camp Loki, situated in Bavaria, near Berchtesgaden, where they sent all these prisoners that they particularly had trouble with, sort of an escape-proof concentration camp. That's where Doc met his future aides. And they were prisoners for about two months. You know, I had it in the table of chronology, too.
STARLOG: So, you've been planning this a long time.
FARMER: I originally proposed it after I wrote Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life in 1973. But Bantam wouldn't do it because they said they still had too many Doc Savage books to reprint, so I waited until they were getting close to the end. Proposed it again, and the editor, Lou Aronica, agreed with the premise. So, I signed the contract. And that's the novel I'm starting to work on right now. It'll be the first one I've ever written on a word processor, by the way!
This excites me because when I was a youth, I knew I was going to be a writer. I always wanted to write a Tarzan novel, a Doc Savage novel, an Oz novel and a Phineas Fogg novel. This will mean I've fulfilled all my childhood fantasies, except for the Tarzan novel. And I have to wait for 1999, in which case I'll be what, 81 years old or something like that! [Laughs.] I pick 1999 because I think that's the date in which Edgar Rice Burroughs Inc. loses the rights, but I could write it maybe a couple of years from now and put it in the trunk.
STARLOG: When you were doing your Doc Caliban stories, you weren't merely doing pastiches. You were also doing Doc Savage as filtered through Philip José Farmer's imagination.
FARMER: Yes, giving the darker side that [Savage writer/creator] Lester Dent and the others couldn't put in the magazine. They had some taboos and restrictions because they were aimed at the stereotype of a 15-year-old youth.
STARLOG: So, will Escape from Loki slant more toward your psychological point-of-view or Dent's?
FARMER: There isn't going to be any sex in it, if that's what you're asking. I won't be trying to imitate the styles of any of the Doc Savage writers. I'll be using my own style — whatever that is, because I have a number of different styles.
STARLOG: So, it won't be as realistic in tone as Doc Caliban?
FARMER: It will be realistic in that I'll try to imagine Doc as he really was at age 16. He's pretty advanced in knowledge at that time, but of course he hasn't nearly completed his education and there is much he still doesn't know. I would also like to elaborate the characters of his aides more. There are some contradictions in the books that you must reconcile, so you have to figure that the earlier books probably tell the truth. For instance, in the first two Doc Savage books, he's not at all adverse to violence. He kills them right and left. In later ones, probably because of editorial dictates, Doc became very careful about killing anybody and wouldn't do it unless absolutely necessary. He usually set up traps. In effect, the villains killed themselves because they committed their evil actions.
STARLOG: Will Doc Savage's father be in this book?
FARMER: He'll be mentioned, but he won't be in it.
STARLOG: Recently, a writer used one of your Doc Savage ideas from Apocalyptic Life, apparently unaware that it wasn't part of the original pulp magazine series.
FARMER: I was making notes for Escape from Loki when a fan of mine, a French woman up in Canada who's also a Doc Savage fan, sent me a copy of the DC Comics Doc Savage Annual. It contained the section in which Doc Savage was captured and sent to this prison camp and met his aides.
And they had some things in there which I had originated and which were not in the books. It may have been due to ignorance. Or it may have been that they just didn't care. I don't know. Anyway, the point is they took all that from Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life, but when my novel comes out [currently scheduled for spring 1991], people will think that I lifted the idea and I don't want that!
STARLOG: What is it about these pulp characters that keeps you coming back to them? Is that the kid still inside you?
FARMER: Yeah. William Wordsworth said that the child is the father to the man, and I believe that. They talk about golden ages. Well, it's not when you retire, past 60. Usually, when you have a good childhood, it's when you were a child and starting to read all these fabulous works. It's an imprinting that affects particular children because they have a vivid imagination and love this stuff. You know the concept. When a duckling is hatched, it usually fastens onto its mother as the mother because that's the first object it sees. But if it doesn't see the mother, and somebody else comes walking by, it picks that as the mother. So, they call that imprinting. And I was imprinted by certain heroes of my earlier reading, like Tarzan, Sherlock Holmes, the Oz books in general. I was just 15 when I read the first Doc Savage when it came out and I was all aglow. And I used to imagine all these Doc Savage adventures which are quite separate from the ones in the books. I decided that someday I would like to continue the adventures of these people, but never really thought about it until after I had gotten my writing career started. I think it really started when Bantam began reprinting the first Doc Savage books [in 1964]. I know that seems peculiar to many people, but it stimulated me so much.
STARLOG: Yet you keep coming back to these childhood heroes, as if you're driven or haunted or motivated by these characters as much as your own.
FARMER: I really can't explain the psychological basis, except to say that in my own particular idiosyncratic personality, that stuff was all generated spontaneously. I never looked into its roots, but other people started wondering why. It seemed to me just a natural thing to do. The trouble is, there are many people interested in these heroes I write about, and they made a big thing out of it, sometimes to the detriment of my other work. My other work is getting recognized, but by a different type of people. But most of the publicity is about the pastiches I write.
STARLOG: Does that bother you?
FARMER: I don't care. Whatever they want.
STARLOG: Is it that you're trying to satisfy the mature reader in you by creating more plausible versions of these characters?
FARMER: Well, I think the idea was when I was young and read about these people, I accepted them on the terms that the authors presented them. As I got older, and had more experiences with people— I also did a tremendous amount of reading in all other fields including psychology— I started to extrapolate and deduce from my observations that Tarzan, Doc Savage and others probably had a darker side to their nature than the pulp writers could present.
STARLOG: What compels you to do that?
FARMER: It's just that I am a science fiction writer. I like to extrapolate, to pick up a certain premise or a certain person and develop that— figure out certain tendencies that may be present and what would result from them.
STARLOG: Once you chronicle Doc Savage's early days, would you then write a quintessential Doc novel, set in the '30s, without the psycho-sexual overtones of your Doc Caliban/Lord Grandrith pastiches like A Feast Unknown and The Mad Goblin/Lord of the Trees!
FARMER: Yeah, I would love to do it, but I don't know if I ever will, or if they'll allow me, as far as that goes. That would be fun. Even A Feast Unknown, which has been called pornographic — it's not; it's erotic — was a funny book. But none of the novels I wrote for Essex House turn people on. If anything, they might repulse people, shock 'em. A Feast Unknown actually was a funny book. I know some people, friends of mine, laughed when they read it. They knew I'd had my tongue in my cheek. And in The Image of the Beast, I was satirizing the Gothic novel, the horror novel and pornography itself. It stretched things out.
A Feast Unknown did allow me to extrapolate some of the harshness of if there had been a real Tarzan, what he would have gone through. For instance, during periods of famine when he couldn't find any food, he was reduced to eating animal excrement. He said elephant wasn't too bad, but lion was terrible because he was a meat-eater! I laughed when I wrote that, but it might have been actually what the real Tarzan did. He's not what we would call a noble savage. He wasn't even a savage. He was raised by these so-called Great Apes, and while he was born a human in his attitude — and [writer/creator Edgar Rice] Burroughs stresses this at times — he never would have been fully human. Tarzan would have looked at the world through the eyes of a higher animal, and would have done, in order to survive, things most people wouldn't be able to do. They would be repulsed.
STARLOG: What's the status of your next Doc Caliban novel, Some Unspeakable Threshold!
FARMER: Well, it would be better to use the word stasis instead of status. [Laughs.] It's an idea I had which I hope I'll live long enough to develop. Actually, it springs primarily from Up From Earth's Center, in which Doc Savage, we think — he wasn't sure either — met supernatural beings. He was at least in the suburbs of Hell for a while. So, since I wasn't allowed to write Doc Savage novels personally — that may change — in this pastiche, I was going to carry that idea out and have a sequel to it, but at the same time, it would be a development of the story that started in A Feast Unknown, with Doc Caliban disguised as an old man living in the skid row section of LA, still hiding from the Nine, and then have him go back to that place in New England.
STARLOG: If you get permission to write more Docs, would you consider turning Some Unspeakable Threshold into a Doc Savage novel?
FARMER: I really won't know unless I'm presented with it. This one Doc I want to write may be the only one, really. Although I'm bubbling over and fermenting with ideas and projects, time limits you. That might just be it, having accomplished my childhood fantasy.
STARLOG: Didn't you at one point write a Doc Savage screenplay?
FARMER: I was invited by George Pal to do a treatment, not a screenplay. I went out there and I met Ron Ely. I saw the movie before it was released. George Pal told me that the head of Warner Bros, at that time didn't like Doc Savage. I read the original script. It was much more complicated and costly than what he ended up with. One thing was the villain's yacht. He pressed the button, and it became a sailing vessel. You could disguise it. I had great hopes for the movie. Till I saw it! [Laughs.] Pal couldn't get anybody interested in a second one. So, the treatment went untreated!
STARLOG: Was it an original work, or an adaptation?
FARMER: You're going to have to excuse my memory. It was a story in which this new mechanism or death ray dissolves people, but their image is projected onto walls. I used that as the basis and used elements from other stories.
STARLOG: That was Murder Mirage. Why that one? It wasn't a Lester Dent novel. Laurence Donovan wrote it.
FARMER: It just happened to appeal to me. I don't care who it's by. It was a Doc Savage novel, a pretty typical one. It had some stimulating elements I could do something with. I wish they had made a movie out of it. Man, we had a great fight. Their laboratory headquarters was invaded. I thought up many devices that hadn't been in the Doc Savage books. It would have made a tremendous scene. I think the first movie destroyed all hopes. In essence, Pal treated as camp what was already camp.
STARLOG: If you do get around to writing a Tarzan novel, what kind of story would you do?
FARMER: I would take one of the undeveloped stories in the Burroughs Tarzan books. There's one where he is wandering across the desert and finds this skeleton still clad in 16th or 17th century armor with a parchment map. He went off in one direction, but I would have him going off another way. It would be sort of a compromise between Lord Grandrith in A Feast Unknown and Tarzan. Be pretty realistic. But if I do write it, and I probably never will because of lack of time, I would want to make this a definitive Tarzan novel.
STARLOG: Speaking of Tarzan, you started a series set in Burroughs' Opar some years ago, and promised two or three more novels. Will you ever do them?
FARMER: I'm determined to finish that sequel. It's a matter of getting to it. I got an Italian translation the other day with a magnificent cover. That renewed my desire to continue. It hadn't really gone away; it just stimulated me again. I had planned three more novels. I'm kind of superstitious. I think if you write a series, it should either be three or five or seven, odd numbers. It's well known that the best of Beethoven's symphonies are all odd numbers.
STARLOG: It has been speculated that one of the characters in your Opar books is the same as the unidentified hero of Time's Last Gift. Who is he?
FARMER: There's a mysterious character known as the God of Time and Bronze in my ancient Opar books. He taught them about fire and how to make bronze and all that. The curious thing— and I don't think I actually mentioned this— is that the use of the bow is taboo. It's against their religion. I got that because in Burroughs' Opar stories, the Oparians never had a bow. I figured it must have been some taboo. It's obvious to anybody who has read Time's Last Gift that this God is the time traveler who's back in that period because in Time's Last Gift, he went back to approximately 1200 BC and the Opar series takes place around 10,000 BC. He's supposed to have actually started the civilization. And that time traveler is Tarzan.
Next Issue: This apocalyptic interview continues as Philip Jose Farmer discusses the World of Tiers, "retiring" his novels and (yes) the scripts he wrote for Star Trek in 1966.
STARLOG #156 (July 1990)
Philip José Farmer discussed in detail last issue his fascination with childhood heroes, pulp supermen like Tarzan and Doc Savage, what they mean to him, why they recur so often in his work, and how this fascination has led him to writing a new Doc Savage novel for Bantam Books.
In this concluding conversation, Farmer takes us on a tour of his "other" career as an important science fiction novelist from his troubled early days to his current plans to finish his many series, with brushes along the way with Star Trek, the film versions of Riverworld and Dayworld and the importance of dreaming creatively. And Farmer shares some surprising assessments of many of his most important novels.
STARLOG: What's your next project after the new Doc Savage novel Escape from Loki?
PHILIP JOSE FARMER: It's a novel called Red Orc's Rage, which I don't know if publishers will regard as mainstream or fantasy. I got a letter from a psychiatrist in Youngstown, Ohio. He treated a select group of troubled adolescents who suffered from low self-esteem and all sorts of emotional problems. He told them to take the five books from my World of Tiers series, read them, pick out a character to identify with and try to become these particular characters— acquire the good characteristics if they could. As the therapy proceeds, they were to try to come back to Earth in a sense, shed the particular character's bad characteristics and keep the good. He said he had an amazingly high success rate. Out of a group of 14, he had only two failures. This is very high for psychiatric care. He also had a small group of mild schizophrenics who did the same thing. When he told me, I thought, hey, that would be a great idea for a story. I can pick my own character — in the book — and put the stress on him. So, I wrote an outline and sent it out. The idea of an author writing a story based on real therapy which originated from his works intrigues me. There's that circular thing.
STARLOG: Why call it Red Orc's Rage!
FARMER: If you know the poet William Blake's works, one of the deities in it is Red Orc. That's the one my protagonist in this novel picks as a role. It's set up so you don't know if it was his vivid imagination or if he did go through these other Earths because these patients had various ways of getting through to the worlds. Now, one patient took all five books, taped them together and used them as his power pack. And then about two-thirds through the therapy, when starting to shed the characteristics, he would tear the covers off one day and a page here and there until finally it was all gone. But the curious thing about this therapy was once they had gotten through it, they didn't dare think about it because sometimes they would get flashbacks and they would be back at these imagined situations.
STARLOG: You were involved in the original Star Trek TV series, with a script called "The Shadow of Space," which you later turned into a short story.
FARMER: Yes. And one called "Sketches in the Ruins of My Mind." I was living in LA at the time. Gene Roddenberry was just starting Star Trek. It hadn't been broadcast on TV yet. I met him a number of times and talked, with him. I also did a 100-page guide for it, telling them what was feasible, what wasn't, what to avoid, and the potentialities. They paid me for it, but never used it. Wish I had a copy of it. Be a nice collector's item. Then, I presented two treatments. He said his criterion is what his little old maiden aunt in Iowa would understand, and he said, "She would not understand these." And they were too expensive. So, I went back to writing novels. I should have kept on sending other treatments because there were many other science fiction writers who did.
STARLOG: But for that, you might have become one of the major creative forces behind Star Trek.
FARMER: Well, looking back on it now, I can see that he was probably right— especially for TV. "Sketches in the Ruins of My Mind" originally involved a little idol that Captain Kirk had picked up in the ruins of a planet. It turns out to be a device that makes you lose memory two days in a row and you keep going backwards. Kirk wakes up and he thinks that it's two days before he woke up. He's completely confused and then his memory keeps dropping out day by day. So, every time he wakes up in the morning, it's two days [earlier], but eventually it's a year before, and he's in a new situation. I changed that when I turned it into a short story. I had this gigantic spaceship appear and the aliens were electromagnetically sucking out people's memories in order to store them for study. Everybody in the world woke up thinking it was the day before, and then you keep going back and back and back until your youth — and then back and back until you become a baby. The civilization had partly collapsed. They eventually blow this object up before they all become so young in mind that they're incapable of doing anything. It is a grim, horrible story.
And then the other one was basically "The Shadow of Space" except the crew was Star Trek. They said, "No, the audience wouldn't get it." I don't think they could put "Sketches" across in a full-length movie!
STARLOG: There has been talk of film and TV versions of Riverworld and Dayworld. Anything happening now?
FARMER: Actually, what they bought was the short story "The Sliced-Crosswise-Only-on-Tuesday World," which formed the basis of the Dayworld novels. But they have the rights to the novels. It was Castle Rock Productions. They were going to do Stephen King's Stand By Me then, so they put that[Dayworld] on the back burner. I thought the whole thing had died, but recently I heard that they had written a new script and were thinking of going ahead. I don't get excited about it because they might do it, and then again, they might not.
Now with Riverworld, it ended up they were going to do a TV mini-series. Two networks turned it down. The ABC president at that time took a look at the treatment presented and said OK. They did a script for the two-hour pilot. This was done by the same guy who wrote the script for Roots — I can't remember his name. I read it and it was pretty good, especially since it was written by somebody who didn't know science fiction. Except even then it seemed to me, if somebody came in at the middle, they wouldn't know what was going on. Not only that, one of the characters is named Peter Jairus Frigate — obviously based on myself— and they decided that had pornographic connotations, so they changed it to Quentin. They decided they wouldn't have any children resurrected because they were too difficult to deal with. And of course, being on TV, they weren't going to show them nude. They would all have towels. He did a really good job starting out, and I am curious how he would have finished it.
STARLOG: Is the project dead?
FARMER: Eventually, it just petered out. As far as I know, they still have the rights for a couple of years. But Riverworld would be extremely difficult to present on TV. I would rather see a motion picture made out of it, but even then, it would be difficult. Riverworld is such a big concept, I don't see how they can put it in a two-hour movie.
STARLOG: Have we seen the last of Riverworld?
FARMER: I originally planned only three, but I ended up with five novels. I might change my mind. But I doubt it. Too many things going on. Too many worlds in collision up inside my skull. I did actually plan a non-Riverworld story with the same people after they set out in a spaceship from the
Riverworld, but I'll never do it.
STARLOG: Are you getting a sense of time running out? You have many unfinished series and sequels you could write.
FARMER: Yes, I'm 71 now. I don't know how long I will live. I would like to go back and finish up some of the series I started earlier. I don't plan on starting any new series. I would like to finish the Doc Caliban/Lord Grandrith series. Actually, one time I counted them. Counting short story series, I have about 12 series going. Some of it I never did anything further. Too bad! [Laughs.]
STARLOG: How would you assess your writing career?
FARMER: I did the same thing in science fiction I had hoped to do when I became a mainstream writer. I was pretty naive. I was sending stories to The Saturday Evening Post and others with sexual content, now that I look back on it, that made it mandatory they reject it. I decided I wasn't getting anyplace. The trouble is when I started out writing mainstream, I really hadn't lived enough to be able to do it. Now I have and I want to write a novel set in the early '50s, after the GIs came back to college. Met the wildest group I ever met in my life— and I've worked in a lot of places— at Bradley University after the war was over. It's called Pearl Diving in Old Peoria. It's actually the story of a family, descended from the whiskey barons of Peoria that has fallen on bad times. At one time, Peoria had the biggest distillery in the world. The novel is much more involved than that.
STARLOG: If your eye doctor told you your sight was failing and you had only a year or two in which to write, which projects would you finish?
FARMER: I would write my mainstream novel, Pearl Diving in Old Peoria. Yeah. In a year, I would be lucky to get it done. It would take two years to write it! Really hard to decide what to do. I have many ideas. That Tarzan novel I was talking about [last issue]. Maybe! I don't like to be presented with these type of situations. Maybe I would launch into another science fiction novel. I had the germ of an idea for a novel that would include all the themes that are being used in science fiction now plus a couple of others that haven't been.
FARMER: Originally, I think it was to open science fiction to a more mature treatment, a more realistic one. Since then, the impact has been on certain readers who reacted to my particular type. There are readers who don't like me, and there are others who are lukewarm, and there are others who are fanatic about it. I never really had a cult like Ray Bradbury or Frank Herbert did because I don't stick to one note. Bradbury, he had about three different themes, I think, and he repeats and repeats. But, of course, he's a great writer. I have done what I have wanted to for the moment and ranged all over the field, from adventure to deep psychology. I never made any effort to stick to one world or one set of characters. I wouldn't want a cult around me. I wouldn't have been happy. [It would have] been too confining.
STARLOG: Do the potentialities of SF still excite you as a writer?
FARMER: Oh, yeah. I get excited. I think nowadays many new ideas or new variations of old ideas are being written. I will continue to be excited because the human imagination, as far as I'm concerned, is basically boundless. If I don't get excited about a story, I don't want to write it.
STARLOG: If you had your life to live over again, how would you change the direction of your career?
FARMER: In the first place, I would have made a [much greater] effort to get a PhD in anthropology. I had a much-checkered college career, due to the Depression and the war. The furthest I got was halfway through a master's degree in English linguistics. But I would kind of like to be an archeologist or a layman.
STARLOG: You mean, you wouldn't write?
FARMER: Oh yeah, I would write. But I would have supported myself in other ways — working in a steel mill or in a dairy or as a tech writer. The idea is I would have a good profession, but at the same time, I would write just as I did when I worked in the steel mill. Evenings, weekdays and holidays, I was writing then.
If I had become a professor of anthropology, I probably would have worked on mainstream more. I have a natural tendency toward anthropology. I do an immense amount of reading on it. If I had gone in another direction, that's the direction. Strange customs and trying to reconstruct the past instead of the future.
STARLOG: That is the reverse of what you do. In Stations of Nightmare, you wrote, "People get the kind of science fiction writer they deserve." What did you mean and do you consider Philip José Farmer the kind of science fiction writer people deserve?
FARMER: I don't know. Maybe no one deserves that! [Laughs.] I had forgotten that quote. It was just one of these things I made up, didn't mean anything, except maybe to me. People's moods vary. Sometimes I'm pretty optimistic, sometimes pessimistic, even cynical. I recently read a book by Gary Wolfe, who's a teacher and one of the foremost science fiction literary critics. He pointed out something that I was probably subconsciously aware of, but didn't really know until he mentioned it. And that is the structuring effect that fans have on the science fiction writer because they expect certain types of science fiction. They reject anything outside that. That's probably the basis of that statement, which I made a long time before I ever read that and must have known unconsciously.
STARLOG: Do you still subscribe to that quote?
FARMER: Well, I think I broke free when I parted with Putnam's. At one point, my editors suggested it would be a good idea to dumb down my books. They were making the suggestion to other people. The present readers, they felt — they might not have been talking about the core fandom, but about the vast body of readers that we actually depend upon for a living — they felt they were illiterate and didn't catch the references to history or art. And I think that's true, too, because before they ever said that, if I made a literary reference, I would explain it. I really think that for the majority of my readers, it's necessary that I tell them what I'm talking about.
STARLOG: If they were going to burn every copy of your books, which ones would you rescue from the flames?
FARMER: I would stand there full of indecision and finally cast myself on the fire.
STARLOG: That's a great answer, but it doesn't satisfy the question.
FARMER: No, because it can't be satisfied. I just couldn't do it. I would burn myself up and solve the problem that way.
STARLOG: Well, let's turn the question around. Which ones would you happily burn?
FARMER: You mean my minor ones I might want to retire, which I'm actually trying to do right now? When they go out of print, I'm just going to keep them out.
STARLOG: Which ones are those? Why?
FARMER: Well, the ones that are not my best. They might be entertaining, like The Stone God Awakens and Cache From Outer Space, which I had entitled The Long Trail and [editor/publisher] Don Wollheim renamed Love Song, even though I still think that had some good psychological stuff in it. There are some others. I've written so many I can't remember them all. But I'm in the process, as they come out of print, of retiring them.
STARLOG: What's the point of that? If your readers want to read them, who are you to say that they aren't good books?
FARMER: Well, that's a good point. But I'm going to do it anyway! [Laughs.] I'll think about it.
STARLOG: Let's look back on some of your books. What do you think of them now? Let's start with Fire in the Night.
FARMER: On rereading it, I still think it was a good book. It was ahead of its time in regards to black-white relations. It was actually set in a steel mill based on the one I worked in Peoria. I've made a few proposals to get it reprinted, but now they say it has been done. But it hasn't. I have steeled myself to face the fact that it won't be reprinted.
FARMER: That's one of the books I was going to retire. Just didn't think it was up to my others. But like you say, who am I to judge? [Laughs.]
FARMER: I kind of liked that when I first wrote it, but I don't know. I might retire that, too. It needs a sequel, but I'm not going to write it. I like the idea. The development was crude. I haven't read it in years.
STARLOG: Is it strange rereading your old work?
FARMER: Yeah, I read my earlier books and wish I had written them a little differently, more polished, more smooth. I see things I missed that I could have done.
STARLOG: If you could rewrite one book, which would it be?
FARMER: I can think of a number of them. [Laughs.] I guess people still like The Green Odyssey. I was thinking of retiring that, but I don't think I could, because I had so much fun writing it. And [Astounding editor] John Campbell turned it down for one of his own idiosyncratic reasons. He said, "Well, you portrayed essentially medieval people as dirty, uncivilized and barbaric, but you don't give them any credit for what they did in architecture and art." Well, that wasn't the book's point. So, I sent it to Ballantine and they took it. I had the satisfaction of holding a copy of it and walking past Campbell once, but he probably didn't remember! [Laughs.] It was a fun book and I liked the concept of the ship on wheels.
STARLOG: Let's continue. Flesh!
FARMER: I had fun writing it. That was the only one of the Galaxy Beacon stories that [editor] H.L. Gold felt compelled to censor. He cut out some parts. I'm lazy. I never got around to putting them back in. Maybe because I lost them.
STARLOG: Traitor to the Living!
FARMER: I would retire that. It was wide open for a sequel, but I'll never do it. Our hero ended up in a woman's body. Since then, others have taken up that theme.
STARLOG: Wind Whales of Ishmael?
FARMER: Drop that, too.
STARLOG: Many of your readers will be very unhappy. What about Night of Light!
FARMER: I would keep that. That's one of my favorites, especially the early part. The first section originally appeared as a magazine story. That's another series I never finished. I left Father John Carmody hanging up there in outer space with an egg growing from his chest. Planned at least two more stories. I have the idea for the next one, but never got around to it.
STARLOG: Jesus on Mars!
FARMER: I would like to see that reprinted. As a matter of fact, I would like to see it get some distribution. I can't get the rights back because it's hung up in the bankruptcy case with Pinnacle [which published it].
STARLOG: Have you retired The Mad Goblin/Lord of the Trees?
FARMER: No. That's the publishing world. I didn't want to retire that. I loved writing it. I want to finish the series.
STARLOG: What about Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life!
FARMER: It's retired right now. I want to revise it and correct some mistakes. The timing is perfect. I'll propose it, then we'll see.
STARLOG: Venus on the Half-Shell?
FARMER: I definitely want to keep that in print. I wrote it in six weeks and never had so much fun in all my life, except for The Adventure of the Peerless Peer. There are philosophical implications in there that are quite serious. Again, it's because I had so much fun writing it.
STARLOG: Many people still don't know you wrote Venus on the Half-Shell, which appeared under Kilgore Trout's name.
FARMER: It's really a Farmerian book. If Kurt Vonnegut had refused to let me write it as Kilgore Trout, I would have written it anyway under my own name because it did not really depend on Kilgore Trout. I just wrote it as I thought Kilgore Trout would have — minus the bad grammar and spelling mistakes! [Laughs.]
STARLOG: What prompted you to pastiche a living writer like Vonnegut?
FARMER: At that time, I was a great admirer of Vonnegut's works— and I still am of his earlier stuff — but there was a scene in his God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, where the shyster is at this airport stand and he picks up one of Trout’s books, and it was the only one that didn’t explain the plot. It had a blurb on the back page from the text, a picture of the author and one passage, a couple of paragraphs. And I got to thinking, most people would think Trout is entirely fictional. Now wouldn’t it blow their minds if a novel by him appeared, one that was already named in one of Vonnegut’s books? It took me a year to convince Vonnegut, and then I wrote it. Then, he got pissed off because so many people thought he had written it. Some people said it was Vonnegut. Some people said it was Philip Dick. Some people thought it was Barry Malzberg because in the beginning, the hero and the girl friend are having sex and not enjoying it, and that’s typical of Marlzberg! [Laughs.] [Since this interview—prompted by interviewer Will Murray’s evident horror at Farmer’s plan to “retire” certain books—Farmer has changed his mind. He informed STARLOG shortly before presstime that he’s going to keep as many novels available as possible, letting readers decide if they’re as good as other Farmer books.]
STARLOG: If you were asked to make up a suggested Philip José Farmer reading list of, say, six titles, which would you select?
FARMER: Let me see. For humor, Venus on the Half-Shell. That represents one range. Lord Tyger. Let’s exclude the two biographies. You know, I’ve written 65 books! [Chuckles.] Of course, many of them are collections of short stories. The collection called Riverworld and Other Stories or The Book of Philip José Farmer. I don’t know. Or maybe The Grand Adventure from Byron Preiss. Probably The Unreasoning Mask, which didn’t seem to do well, even though many critics thought it was one of my best. It was one of my favorites. It's hard to think of a lot of them. Damn! Even I can't remember all of my books! [Chuckles.] Either one of the first two Riverworlds — probably To Your Scattered Bodies Go. It's too bad The Fabulous Riverboat wasn't printed with it in one volume, because I like that, too. I hate to eliminate any of the World of Tiers. I might, on reconsideration, change [the list].
STARLOG: What happened to your planned novelization of Fantastic Voyage II!
FARMER: That deal was the one that fell through and almost wrecked my career again. NAL was going to put up about a million bucks. Isaac Asimov didn't want to do it, so I was suggested. I thought it would be a great idea. I wrote the novel, did a vast amount of research in anatomy and physiology for it. The basic idea was provided by Jerome Bixby who wrote a treatment for a screenplay. I was supposed to more or less follow that. It became obvious after I had written it that NAL was getting cold feet. They still had me do a rewrite. I was halfway through that when I talked with the editor who was very cold and distant. I felt something was going on, but I had to finish it. And they rejected it. They didn't want anything more to do with the deal or anybody. So, I think they were sinking too much money into it. Anyway, the movie company was going to get another publisher. This went on for a long time and we went through some agonizing things. I would have made a lot of money on it. I did it as a writer for hire, not on my own. I took an initial advance, but that was it. And as far as I know, that novel may never be published. Doubleday and the movie company both have the rights and they're thinking about not publishing it, or using it for the movie's basis. Ike Asimov [who wrote another sequel Fantastic Voyage II: Destination Brain] read it and said, "Great. Go ahead and publish it." So, it's hung up.
STARLOG: There isn't some way you could rewrite it and salvage it?
FARMER: No. There are some ideas I would like to use as short stories, but my agent said, "No, don't do it," because legally, they have the rights to everything in it. I lost two years and went through a lot of spiritual and emotional agony. It plunged me into a depression and gave me a lack of confidence, even though logically, I know it shouldn't. Authors, writers, painters are funny people. Temperamentally unstable. This was so big and reminded me of that Korshak deal. They weren't trying to cheat me, they just wanted to cancel. I put a lot of time in there, writing and rewriting. It reminded me of the Korshak deal because he had me writing and rewriting a book that didn't need to be rewritten, wasn't supposed to be rewritten.
FARMER: This was the Shasta International Fantasy Award Contest, back in '52, right after The Lovers came out.
STARLOG: Oh, right. Your prototype Riverworld novel won and was going to be published by Shasta, except they went bankrupt. There was a sort of lost period in your career due to that debacle.
FARMER: I had become a fulltime writer and I couldn't write anything else because he had me rewriting this thing. I wasn't getting any money. Finally, when it all broke loose, I still continued to be a fulltime writer. But we were too far behind with debts. So, even though I wrote some stories before I went back to work, it wasn't enough.
STARLOG: That must have been tough, since you thought you had put the working world behind you.
FARMER: Yeah, especially after 13 years in the steel mill! [Laughs.] I worked as a common laborer in a milk dairy. Then, I was able to get a job as a tech writer up in Syracuse, New York, with GE. On the basis that I was a college graduate and I wrote science fiction, they assumed I knew a lot about electronics. I studied while I was working and kept one step ahead of the job. By the time I quit tech writing, I knew a lot!
STARLOG: You have one of the most boundless and unfettered imaginations in the field. Where does it come from?
FARMER: Well, it's difficult to explain. I think that some people are born with more extensive, wilder imaginations than others. I just happen to be born with it. None of my brothers or sisters have it.
STARLOG: I understand you get many of your ideas from dreams.
FARMER: Well, "Sail On! Sail On!" was originally from a dream I had in '52 in which I saw a caravel of Prince John the Navigator sailing along. On the poop deck was a radio shack with a man in a monk's robe with earphones. He had a crystal set, a gap transmitter, and he was tapping out a message. I got to thinking about that dream, and so I wrote "Sail On, Sail On!" only I changed it so that it was Columbus' fleet that was setting out and the radio operator was a monk of the order of St. Francis and he was transmitting a call for help. In the story, they actually sailed over the edge of the Earth because it was flat.
STARLOG: What other stories or novels derive from dreams?
FARMER: For Dayworld, the original of the short story that formed the series' basis is very funny. It didn't seem to have any connection to my ideas later. I was pushing through the mists — in many of my dreams, I start out in a mist or fog and emerge into the open— and I emerged into a jungle and there was a little native village there. And in the doorway of each of these round bamboo huts were these tall, thin, gaunt blue-skinned natives. They all looked like they were dead, but they were still moving. Then, I woke up. Somehow, my mind leaped to the idea for ''The Sliced-Crosswise-Only-on-Tuesday World" where population and pollution problems are solved by dividing the world into sevenths. On one day, say Monday, the population which had been in suspended animation, would come to life and live that day. Close to midnight they would go back, and Tuesday would take over. That was the basis for that idea, but it's hard to see the connection. Except they were standing in the doorway, which may correspond to the cylinders in the story, and they were dead but they could move.
STARLOG: Did the World of Tiers series come out of a dream?
FARMER: I'm glad you asked that. I thought of the original idea when I was still going to high school. Never did anything with it then. It was an artificial pocket universe in which there was one Babylonian-shaped planet. I don't know whether I thought it up and wrote it down or had a dream about it. Anyway, the hero, Kickaha, was originally an American Indian, and he was going along the edge of the world there. He had all sorts of adventures which I wrote down in a notebook, which I don't have anymore. But I never forgot the idea. So, many, many years later, I incorporated it into The Makers of Universes, only this time, Kickaha was an American youth who came back from World War II, a Hoosier, same initials as mine. Paul Janus Finnegan, or Kickaha, is what I would like to be, but am not. Riverworld's Peter Jairus Frigate is more like I am, although I'm somewhere between the two. More closer to Frigate than Finnegan, unfortunately. [Laughs.] The whole idea derives from something I had written in '35 or '36.
I finally decided I would write the story, and I did. It wasn't until the third novel, A Private Cosmos, that I got the idea of incorporating it into William Blake's didactic and symbolic work. I never said anything about the connection, but people who knew these works, and there aren't too many, could tell from the names of some of the Lords that they were derived from Blake. Then, I started shaping the connections between them, which will be revealed in the last World of Tiers series, which is also mentioned in Red Orc's Rage.
STARLOG: How many further World of Tiers novels are planned?
FARMER: In a sense, this mainstream novel, Red Orc's Rage, is a World of Tiers novel. But I plan one or two more. If I can finish it up in the next one, OK. If not, two more. I will tackle that first chance I get. I get more mail on the Worlds of Tiers series than on Riverworld.
STARLOG: What will the final World of Tiers novel be called?
FARMER: It originally was The Garden of Evil, though I may write one before that. I think the next one will be Kickaha's World, and then The Garden of Evil. Unless I decide to incorporate them and make one novel and just finish it.
STARLOG: Are you under contract to do either of those?
FARMER: No. I haven't proposed them yet. I'll probably have to write Red Orc's Rage if I get a contract for that. But I first have got to write the Doc Savage novel. Maybe I can finish something in my life! [Laughs.] ✩