Q&A with Darrell Schweitzer

Readers’ Award winner and former Asimov’s editorial assistant Darrell Schweitzer is back with his latest poem in our current issue. Here, he details his history with our magazine and offers advice for writers hoping to make it in its pages.

Asimov’s Editors: What is the story behind this piece?

Darrel Schweitzer: This is rather like asking where a writer gets ideas. There are two schools on this question, Poughkeepsie and Schenectady. For some reason upstate New York seems to be so rich in ideas that they are an item of export. But seriously, a poem like this is a science-fictional notion which has been distilled down beyond the level of a short story. The image, or myth, or whatever is best expressed in such a compressed form.

The “story” behind this particular piece is the realization that time-travelers from the future, unless there has been a serious interruption in civilization in the meantime, will not need to come back to learn our history. They will already know it. It will be their past.


AE: What made you think of Asimov’s for this piece?

DS: Asimov’s is the best market for SF poetry. I always send such attempts there first. There is no actual center in American poetry, just a series of isolated readerships, some associated with various schools or magazines, or with academia. Asimov’s reaches quite a large readership, as far as poetry-publishing magazines go. A literary magazine with a circulation of even 10,000 readers would be quite extraordinary. Do all Asimov’s readers read and value the poetry therein? I don’t know. Do all the readers of The New Yorker read the poetry that magazine publishes?


AE: What is your history with Asimov’s?

DS: I was an editorial assistant for the magazine during George Scithers’s editorship, 1977–82. My involvement in later years has hardly been central to the magazine’s history. Some poetry. I won the 2006 Readers’ Award for Best Poem for “Remembering the Future.”

AE: Who or what are your greatest influences and inspirations?

DS: The more we read, the more we have to draw on. This is one advantage to being an English major and having a background in literature. You have a much broader range of things to steal from. I would not have been able to write a comic noir-detective story set on a futuristic replica of the Mount of Purgatory if I had not had a graduate course in Dante. (No kidding, I really published such a story.) For fiction, I suppose the writers I lean on most heavy are Lovecraft, Dunsany, and Borges, but of course influences can come on a one-time basis. I once participated in a discussion of Arthur C. Clarke’s Tales from the White Hart. I thought, with some hubris, “I could write one of these.” Of course I was wrong, but what I could do was turn my inability into an asset and write a story about an American trying to tell an English club story, and why he gets thrown out.

For poetry? H.P. Lovecraft once said that if you want to be a poet, read Shakespeare every day. Not bad advice. There are any number of poets I have learned from in some way, or shamelessly borrowed technique from: Thomas M. Disch, Stanley McNail, William Butler Yeats, Clark Ashton Smith, C.P. Cavafy.


AE: How much or little do current events impact your writing?

DS: Very little. One bit of advice I would give new writers, especially poets, is to avoid topicality. If it takes you a couple years to sell the result, it may become old news before you do. If you succeed, ten years later the result may be incomprehensible. I once made a Watergate reference in a short story (to Rosemary Woods and the fifteen-minute gap in the tapes). I wonder how many Millennials would understand that.


AE: What is your process?

DS: My process for verse is usually to write it by hand, in a notebook, make corrections there, and then go to the computer, at which point I may completely rewrite the poem. The notebook version may be no more than a setting down of the elements that go into the poem. Form is very important. If I see the form, I understand where to put the pieces.


AE: How did you break into writing?

DS: I have been writing since I was about 14. I got into print in amateur publications, then semi-professional ones, then professional ones. The transition was so gradual that it was hard to say where my “career” began. I had a poem in Weirdbook in 1970. I may be that publication’s most continuous contributor. (I am in the current issue.) This 1970 poem was what we will politely call a “minor work.”


AE: What inspired you to start writing?

DS: The instinct is either there or it is not. The actual trigger may have been adolescent arrogance. Fred Pohl’s Worlds of If magazine made a point of having a “first sale” by a new writer in every issue. At one point it was mentioned that one of the recent contributors was a high-school student. I was a high-school student. I decided I could do as well or better than some of what I had read. I even told my friends that I was going to “make a hundred dollars” this way. Where I got that figure, I don’t know. As my education continued and my vocabulary grew, I learned that this sin is called hubris. But I did get my first rejection slip that way. Later, when I came to read slush pile myself, I understood that mine was one of those manuscripts that can be justly disposed of in about 45 seconds of the editor’s time. Obviously by a kid. Not at all suitable. You check off a few things and you are done. One of the things Fred checked off was, “Do not learn your science from other science fiction stories.” Always good advice for a beginner.


AE: What other projects are you currently working on?

DS: Mostly compilations. I am editing some anthologies based on Weird Tales magazine. I am proofreading a book of interviews with SF writers, the 4th in the Speaking of the Fantastic series. I am assembling a two-volume retrospective Best of Darrell Schweitzer (short fiction) to be published by PS Publishing in England. Given that one story I intend to include was actually published 44 years ago, it almost makes me feel like an old-timer. I do need to write a story soon for an anthology, because I promised the editors I would. Poems happen as they happen.

AE: If you could choose one SFnal universe to live in, what universe would it be, and why?

DS: It would have to be one of the dull ones, because in order for there to be an exciting story, there has to be conflict and danger. Most of us do not actually want conflict and danger in our lives.

AE: What SFnal prediction would you like to see come true?

DS: That we actually have a future, and mankind will spread to the stars. Right now, the gleaming, space-faring future we read about in 1950s science fiction seems further away than ever.


AE: Do you have any advice for up-and-coming writers?

DS: Do not give up your dream. Do not try to write what you think the market wants. Try to write what you want and find a market for it. Do not quit your day job. There is a profound difference between writing well and writing for a living. Many careers have been wrecked attempting the latter. If you are so successful as a writer that you are losing money by going to your job, and you have factored medical benefits into this equation, then think about going full time. For most writers, even successful ones, this point will never be reached. Don’t worry about it. Concentrate on writing well and getting the result into print.


AE: How can our readers follow you and your writing?

DS: I am on Facebook. I have a Wikipedia entry. You can find extensive listings on the Internet Speculative Fiction Database. You can find much of my material for sale online. I am an active eBay dealer, so you can get signed copies that way. (“I know the author. He’ll sign anything.”)


Darrell Schweitzer is the author of three novels, The White Isle, The Shattered Goddess, and The Mask of the Sorcerer, and over 300 short stories and novelettes, published in numerous anthologies and magazines since the 1970s, in everything from Amazing Stories and Interzone to Twilight Zone Magazine and S.T. Joshi’s Black Wings series (all six volumes). His most recent story collection is Awaiting Strange Gods published by Fedogan & Bremer in 2015. He has been nominated for the World Fantasy Award four times and won it once, and was also a Shirley Jackson Award finalist for the novella/collection Living with the Dead in 2008. He has been publishing poetry even longer, and has two volumes of serious poetry in print, Groping Toward the Light and Ghosts of Past and Future. He is also noted for humorous verse and eldritch limericks (he famously rhymed “Cthulhu” in a limerick) and perpetrated The Innsmouth Tabernacle Choir Hymnal that is now in standard use at Cthulhu prayer breakfasts.

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