“And It Goes On From There…” An Interview with Gene Wolfe

“And It Goes On From There…” An Interview with Gene Wolfe

Gene Wolfe at Top Shelf Books
Gene Wolfe at Top Shelf Books

As I write this, it is Sunday afternoon, a quarter to five, and there is some serious gloaming and wuthering going on outside my window.

Gloaming and wuthering accurately describe the state of my stomach as well. I’ve just gotten home from a long lunch with Gene and Rosemary Wolfe at The Claim Jumper, where the appetizers are colossal, the entrees epic, and each dessert the size of a football field.

I have the touchdown in my fridge right now, all festooned in gobs of made-fresh-daily whipped cream. It’s the sort of dessert you’d wish on your worst enemy, in the interest of stopping her heart at a distance when she sees it waddling toward her.

A few weeks ago, I wheedled Gene into letting me interview him. He said sure, “Provided it is face-to-face and entirely hand-to-hand,” which made the whole thing sound like armed combat. I didn’t know then I’d be wrestling with an insurmountable mound of mashed potatoes and a heap of bellicose mushrooms, but things are always a bit surreal when you’re lunching with Wolfes.

The Lady Rosemary
The Lady Rosemary
“So your interview,” Gene began, once the waitress trotted off with our orders but before our nacho appetizer arrived.

“Yup?” I tried to look innocent.

“I did notice you’d sneaked in that little notebook.”

“Notebook? What notebook?”

“It’s sitting at your left elbow.”

“Well, I didn’t want to be pushy. I mean… We could, you know, eat first…?” Gene twinkled at me from beneath his mustache. Rosemary smiled benignly from across the table. “Or,” I exclaimed, “we could dive right in!”

Gene made a gracious go-ahead gesture. Or perhaps he always places the napkin on his lap with such pizzazz.

“Okay, Don Q,” (I call him Don Q, have done for years – it’s an old joke that has something to do with windmills and impossible dreams, and I forget how it started) “what I did first was inquire online – Facebook, LiveJournal, that sort of thing – if there was anything anybody ever wanted to know about Gene Wolfe but never had a chance to ask. The questions I gathered from your fans I’ll ask first. And then I have some of my own.”

“What are their names?”

“I’ll tell you! The first is Lydia – you know Lydia, we all went out to dinner together when she came to visit me from Phoenix. She’s a huge fan, loves your stuff. She has a few for you. We’ll take them a little at a time.”

A Fantabulous Fan-Active Interview With Gene Wolfe

There's Cassie! (No wonder Gene has a crush on her!)
There's Cassie! (No wonder Gene has a crush on her!)

Lydia Eickstaedt, via Livejournal:

As per Soldier of Sidon, which continues the story of Latro, are there any characters from your previous works that you have considered revisiting in new novels?

Gene Wolfe:

Cassie Casey from An Evil Guest. Cassie particularly – because I hated writing the end of that book and saying goodbye to her. I have always thought of it as a novel, what happens to her when she gets to the alien planet Woldercan.

How do you decide when a character’s story is unfinished in a manner that would benefit from further exploration, versus a story that is best left a mystery?

Gene Wolfe:

It’s decided when I miss a character. Or when, at the end of the story, the character is going into a peculiar situation that is different from the peculiar situation that was the rest of the book.

Someone says, “Well, we’ve found the pirate treasure! Now, I wonder if we can’t rescue my auntie from the darkest jungles of Africa?”

When writing a story in a setting that differs fundamentally from reality (either by being futuristic in nature, or set on another world entirely, for example), what sort of setting planning do you usually do up front, prior to writing the story, and what sort do you tend to leave to be decided when you arrive at it?

Gene Wolfe:

I leave it to be decided as I write it almost all the time. I usually begin with the concept of a world and fill in the details as I go. If I may digress?

Me: Sure! Digress away!

That's Latro, baby. (I have a crush on HIM!)
That's Latro, baby. (I have a crush on HIM!)

I have been asked before on many interviews how much research I do before I start writing. The answer is, almost none. I do research while I’m writing the book. If it’s a book on Ancient Greece, what is it about Ancient Greece that I need to know? What did Ancient Greeks eat for breakfast? That’s one of the toughest things to find out.

Me: So – what did Ancient Greeks eat for breakfast?

They didn’t eat breakfast! But there are only records of that if you go pretty far deep into the research.

(Here there was a pause. A wiping of the mustache. A snitching of a nacho.

Gene glanced at me and advised solemnly, “Ancient grease should not be used for further frying. You should probably pour it off into a little tin can.”

“Heh heh heh. Right-o! Moving on, Don Q. The second guy – I… didn’t get his name, actually. I only have his LJ handle.”

“What is it?”

“Um… Silk4Calde.”

Gene started to laugh. “Say no more! I know where he got it.”)

silk4calde, via LiveJournal:

Your next novel, Home Fires, is due out in January. What have you been working on lately, and do you plan to do any more multi-volume series?

This one looks really cool, too.
This one looks really cool, too. It's a Science Fiction story about space wars, a very long-distance marriage, spies, suicide rings and sail-powered yachts. I can't wait to read it.

Gene Wolfe:

I am working on The Land Across right now. I don’t have any plans for a multi-volume series, but if one happens, then it happens.

Me: Well! Tell us about The Land Across!!!

There’s a young man. His father is dead – or he believes his father is dead. He’s grown up all over the world, because his father was in the State Department. He has written a travel book about Austria. English is his cradle language, but he picked up others – some German, French, and Japanese – when he lived in those countries.

He decides to write another book about a different European country, “on the other side of the mountain,” from Austria. This country is a surreal Balkan nation, formerly under the Communist government, anciently invaded by the Turks, completely fictional.

The young man is arrested as soon as he enters this country. His passport is taken, his luggage is taken. The police there bring him to the house of a man they do not like – this is the kind of thing the police do – and explain to him that he is to live in the man’s house. He must sleep there every night; should he escape, his host will be shot. And they give him as a little hint:

“If you don’t like the food, you can threaten to escape.”

And it goes on from there.

Me: I love when you say that, Gene. “And it goes on from there.” I’ve heard you say that so many times right at the most interesting part of a story.

Phil Brucato from Facebook:

So, did the Urth of the New Sun series begin as a darkly literate intentional parody and subversion of the Sword & Sorcery tradition, or am I just reading it that way?

Gene Wolfe:

No, it did not. At the beginning of that whole series, I simply wanted to write a short story or novelette for Orbit. I was at some Con down in Chicago and Bob Tucker grabbed me and dragged me to this panel on costuming, which I would not normally have attended, so he’d have someone to talk to. As I listened to this panel of professional costumers, I started sulking a little that none of my characters had ever been made into costumes.

And then I realized I’d never written a character that would make a good costume – so whose fault was that? I started listening to these people and thinking up a costume people could make easily and enjoy wearing.

wolfetortureBlack boots – nothing easier.

Black trousers – ditto.

No shirt.

Black cloak – for beans you can make a black cloak.

A mask. A big sword.

And I thought – who is this guy? The answer was obvious. He’s an executioner.

I started writing this thing and it kept getting longer and longer. I thought – this is going to be a novella! And it got longer and longer. A novel! And it got longer and longer, until it was a trilogy. Only the third book was 50% longer than the previous two books. My publisher thought that I should divide it into two books and build each book up. Sell more books that way!

That’s what I did. If you look in the third book, you will find a storytelling contest that’s strictly padding. That contest got me a really good review in Playboy Magazine – and I’ve always been grateful to it for that reason.

Sally Tibbetts from Top Shelf Books, via Facebook:

What kind of authors did you enjoy when you were growing up?

Gene Wolfe:

I grew up on Lewis Carroll and Frank L. Baum and Ruth Plumly Thompson. She was continuing the Oz series after Baum died and wrote twice the number he did.

Me: Was she as good as he was?

I thought she was better, to be honest. A heretical opinion maybe, but that’s the way I felt at the time growing up.

wolfewellesI remember reading the pulp magazine Famous Fantastic Mysteries – this one issue devoted entirely to The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells. I read it once, and was blown away. I read it again, and was blown away. I read it a third time, I was blown away.

The fourth time, I decided to put it away, because I already knew everything that was going to happen. And then I never read it again until I was supposed to write something for a classical science fiction book.

I started reading The Island of Doctor Moreau and I had forgotten the entire first paragraph. But when I came to the line, “As everyone knows, she collided with a derelict not ten days out from Callao” – bang! The whole thing was back, and I was scared out of my wits. Here we go. Dr. Moreau has risen from the dead.

On this reading, I picked up all sorts of things I hadn’t as a kid. Wells was doing some really great stuff in that story.

Rebecca Bushong-Taylor, your good friend, via Facebook:

Given that The Very Best of Gene Wolfe just won the WFA, could you talk a bit about a few of your short stories – ones you are particularly fond of, or proud of – and what makes them so for you?

Gene Wolfe:

The problem there is – I’m fond of a whole lot of them!

“Beach Hill” is a tiny little story, but I really like it, about a man who goes to a convention (call it, a “gathering”) of fakes.

Me: Fakes?

…People who pretend to be what they are not. A man who pretends to be a wild animal trainer. A woman who pretends to be a countess. The protagonist is posing as a spy – a James Bond – but he’s actually a short order cook.

Another one that my agent insisted on being put into the collection was called “A Cabin on the Coast.” I wasn’t going to include it – I had a word limit, but she said, “You gotta put in ‘Cabin.’”

Wolfe covPete Crowther in England (with P S Publishing) wanted to put in “Christmas Inn,” so he called the British edition The Very Best of Gene Wolfe, rather than the American edition, which is The Best of Gene Wolfe.

What happened with “Christmas Inn” was that Pete had promised his Post Scripts subscribers that he would send them a Christmas story gratis in the mail.

As Christmas drew near, the author who’d originally agreed to write this ten thousand word story was at thirty thousand words. He was still banging ahead, writing more, and would not be finished in time. So Pete asked if I could quickly write a ten thousand word story for him.

In my short story, “The Tree is My Hat,” the ex-wife who shows up on the tropical island is named Mary Christmas. I never say that – you find out by deduction – but I asked myself, what’s her family like? Who is her father, Julius Christmas, and what’s going on back at home?

Well, back at home, they check in four time-travelers to the Christmas Inn. Two men, two women. The story goes on from there.

John O’Neill, Editor-in-Chief at Black Gate Magazine:

I was quite touched by your acceptance speech for the World Fantasy Award, when you said the award really went to two writers – the young Gene Wolfe, and the man you are now. I’m rather curious what was behind that – do you feel you’ve changed in any really significant way as a writer since those early days? How so? Or was it a simple acknowledgement that the young man who craved something like a World Fantasy Award for those stories had to wait so long to receive one, and a yearning to share the award with him?

Gene Wolfe:
I think it’s all of that. I have changed. Rosemary and I have been married fifty-four years. I started writing to move out of a furnished apartment into a real house. I thought I’d finish a mystery novel. And here I am now, still writing novels.

Me: But not mystery novels. Although you did write one.

wolfehollyThat’s right. Pandora By Holly Hollander.

Me: I’ve never read it. Although I think I may remember Rich Horton telling me once that he really liked it.

Did you know Rich Horton’s editing a Best of Science Fiction and Fantasy for 2010?

Me: I – did – know… Are YOU in that one, Gene?

I am. I just found out a few days ago.


Formal Interview Ends Here But Wait! There’s More!

What followed were a few minutes of manic hand pumping and grinning and squealing. Well, Gene didn’t squeal. And Rosemary didn’t squeal. But somebody at our table was squealing.

Right around this time, our desserts arrived. Rosemary had ordered “The Chocolate Motherload.” Gene, the Deep Dish Berry Pie. I, in a fit of vanity, had gone with the “I Declair” since it sort of sounded like my name.

After the first five bites, which barely made a dent in the whipped cream, we were pretty much finished with them (and for our calorie count for the rest of the week), although those desserts would never be finished with us.

When I started sculpting a crocodile out of my pastry and using my fork to make it snap its jaws at Gene, yelping things like, “Feed me! Eat me!” I figured it was time to wrap up the interview. I had several pages of my own questions left, but I thought I’d just stick with the one.

Neil Gaiman and Gene Wolfe
Neil Gaiman and Gene Wolfe

See, Gene is very good at writerly advice. I’m not just saying that from my own experience. I’ve heard  author Neil Gaiman talk about the time after he’d just finished his first draft of American Gods:

“I saw Gene at a CBLDF evening. I said, “Gene, I’ve figured out how to write a novel.”

“You never learn how to write a novel,” he said. “You just learn how to write the novel that you’re on.”

So I said to Gene: “Don Q, you’re always telling me to get up early and write. Do you have any other writerly advice? Or, oh, I know! How about a Gene Wolfe Top Ten List?”

Gene: I don’t think I could think up ten things on the spot!
Me: Top five? Come on. You already have the first one.
Gene: Okay. Top five.


1.) Get up early and write.
2.) Read what you’re trying to write, for Godsakes! (Don’t read enormous fantasy series if you’re trying to write short stories.)
3.) Remember that it is characterizing that puts your story heads and shoulders over the others in the slush pile.
4.) You do not characterize by telling the reader about the character. You do it by showing the character thinking, speaking and acting in a characteristic way. You simply show it and shut up.
5.)Do not start a story unless you have an ending in mind. You can change the story’s ending if you wish, but you should always have a destination.


From my first writing convention to my first G.K. Chesterton, Gene Wolfe has been my mentor and friend. I know I’m not the first young(ish) writer he has coached, chided, encouraged and fed, and I probably won’t be the last.

The interviewer would like to thank both Gene and Rosemary for ten years of lunches, brunches, letters and love. A girl couldn’t ask for better honorary grandparents.


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That’s not just an interview–it’s a loving tribute. Awesome stuff.

The writerly advice is the best–short, sweet, to the point, and beyond all else–undeniable!

Amal El-Mohtar

This was beautiful to read! I felt like I was sitting at the table with you, grinning at the flourishes made with napkins and dessert. How wonderfully splendid.

Amal El-Mohtar

YOU can call me Amalface ANYWHERE and ANYTIME you want, Cooney. Same goes for interviewing. Gosh I love you.


Fascinating interview with one of the great writers of our time.

Amal El-Mohtar

But Cooney! What if my first novel’s also YOUR first novel? What then?

Dave Thompson

Wow. Thanks so much to CSE for doing this interview. It was absolutey charming and had me grinning from ear-to-ear, pretty much the whole time. Thanks for the inspiration!

Spectacularly, charmingly, delightful dear Claire! A joy to read, especially since I’ve been fortunate enough to hear you read aloud and so I could read this in your voice. What fun!

And mucho congrats on the selection for Horton’s “Best of” AND sharing ToC with Gene!

[…] I will. I’m just going to link to it. It’s amazing. Affectionate and smart and really, really […]

[…] Interesują was książki dla młodszych czytelników‭? ‬Pomocna może być lista‭ „‬Top‭ ‬50‭ ‬Sci-Fi Novels for Kids‭ & ‬Young Adults‭”‬,‭ ‬a może zainteresuje was tekst Nancy Jane Moore‭ „‬Science Fact vs.‭ ‬Science Fiction‭?”‬,‭ ‬który zamieściła na swoim blogu.‭ ‬Na koniec z przyjemnością odeślę was do wywiadu z‭ ‬Genem Wolfem. […]

[…] side note: My mentor, Gene Wolfe, won the Rhysling award for the same category — long-form poetry — in 1978. Since […]

[…] Read C.S.E. Cooney’s lengthy interview with Gene, conducted over breakfast in November 2010, here. […]

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