Philip K. Dick: Confessions Of A SF Artist
[An interview with Philip K. Dick]
by George Cain and Dana Longo
[source: Denver Clarion, October 23, 1980]
Philip K. Dick has carved a deep niche for himself among the world's top science fiction writers. Unlike many of his fellow genre writers, however, Dick tends to write more about inner space than outer space. His characters come before his machines.
Dick's first published short story, "Beyond Lies the Wub," appeared in 1952. Since then, he has published over 200 short stories and novels.
The Clarion managed to contact Philip K. Dick, by telephone at his home in Santa Anita, California. He granted an interview on the spur of the moment, proving what has been said of him many times. He's really a nice guy.
Currently on the verge of publishing his first new novel since 1977, Dick elaborated on the project, entitled Valis. "It's the theological study of the inbreaking of futuristic technology, established by supernatural intelligence, into the life of an ordinary, present-day man. It basically deals with this invasion from the future into the present and man's attempts to cope with it."
Valis is planned for release in February, 1981, and marks the beginning of Dick's first series, possibly a trilogy. The author's next work to hit the newsstands will be a short story in the December Playboy, entitled "Frozen Journey," which Dick says he likes more than the last few stories he's had published. Two recent works can be found in last month's Omni and in the Stellar #5 anthology.
A new Berkely anthology is also planned for 1981 release. It will include one of Dick's hardest-to-find novels, The Cosmic Puppets, first published in 1956. Dick estimates he has written "at least 100" short stories which have never been anthologized. But, he's not writing as many as he used to.
"I'll never be as prolific as I was," Dick laments. "For short stories, the financial return is just not great enough. I'm saving my ideas for novels now. I personally enjoy novels more, anyway. I have a chance to develop the people, flesh out the characters. I'm primarily interested in the people."
While he is cutting down on his short story writing, Dick has stopped writing non-sf altogether. Works such as Confessions of a Crap Artist (1959) are things of the past. "I really liked that one, myself," comments Dick. "But I've lost interest in writing non-sf. Their time has passed. They're essentially fossils. When I'm dead and lying in the marble orchards, I won't stop my heirs from digging them up and publishing them. But I don't want to flood the market with a bunch of my old non-sf now."
One thing Philip K. Dick is doing more of is research. Seven years of research spent prior to 1962 on The Man in the High Castle, paid off, when that novel won Dick his first Hugo Award for best science fiction novel of the year.
Working on the Valis trilogy, Dick has taken down "hundreds of thousands of words of notes."
How much time does Dick spend writing? "All the time," he claims. "From the moment I get up until the moment I go to bed, except when I'm with my friends or watching television. I spend a lot of time with my friends."
His family life isn't what it once was. "I'm divorced now," he says. "I live with two cats, Harvey and Mrs. Mabel M. Tubbs. I don't like living alone very well at all. I do have a girlfriend in France, who I met at a convention in Europe. She keeps calling me and trying to convince me to move over there. If I wasn't so involved with my work, I'd do it. And there's all these big Hollywood deals..."
What big Hollywood deals?
"They want to make a film of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. It's going to be directed by Ridley Scott, who directed Alien. The last reported budget on it was $20 million."
The assistant produced of Alien is interested in making a movie out of "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale," a short story. Another film company reportedly is interested in rights to "Second Variety," with a screenplay written by Dan O'Bannon, who, just by coincidence, wrote the screenplay for Alien.
As for the release date of these movies, "God only knows!" says Dick. The actor's strike hasn't had a good effect on the progress.
"I thought I was getting an exorbitant sum of money for the films," he remarks. "And I was having a drink with Ray Bradbury, telling him about it, and he had an aplopetic stroke He told me I was a babe in the woods and I wan't getting nearly enough out of it. I thought it was large amounts of money. I was crushed."
Unfortunately, Dick hasn't been asked to write any screenplays yet. "I'd do it if they asked me," he says. "I like to do script-type things."
Dick also pointed out that the three works chosen for the silver screen all deal with "robots posing as people. Apparently, I have a basic patent on that," he laughs. "Movies like Westworld all used ideas I'd thought of a long time ago. Now, I'm finally cashing in on it."
Dick admits being a movie freak. Two of his favorite films are The Man Who Fell to Earth, starring David Bowie, and Robert Altman's Three Women.
"I have a pay TV, so I can see a couple of movies a day," he says. "I go mostly by directors. I like Altman and DePalma a lot. I also go by actors. I like the Rocky Horror Picture Show and Phantom of the Paradise, too."
This led to a discussion of Dick's musical tastes. He has been a confirmed classical music fan for some time. "I'm starting to get into punk rock," he comments. "I enjoyed rock in the sixties, like Country Joe and the Fish, The Grateful Dead, the Stones and Jefferson Airplane."
Now he likes the Germs, the Circle Jerks, the Plug, and Suicide. Aside from punk, Dick also enjoys listening to the electronic, experimental classical work of Karl Heinz Stockhousen.
As for his favorite authors, Dick says "Thomas Disch and Norman Spinrad are both very good. And I think John Varley is an extremely fine author. Roger Zelazny is another one of my favorites. He and I are good friends. I really like Roger's writing."
Zelazny and Dick wrote a novel together in 1976, called Deus Irae. Now there is talk of them doing a follow-up collaboration.
An earlies collaboration, The Ganymede Takeover, was done with sf writer and cartoonist, Ray Nelson. Nelson, incidentally, invented the propellor-beanie which is used to symbolize today's ehthusiastic science fiction fan.
What does Dick think about the millions of science fiction fans collectively known as "fandom?" He doesn't attend many science fiction conventions these days.
"I don't go to many cons," he admits. "But it's not because I don't like them. I find them too arudous. My health is not too good, and they're just too physically taxing. I can't do lecture tours anymore either. I had to give up giving speeches. But I love to do interviews."
Dick was eager to talk about Valis. "It's very autobiographical," he began. "It's about a guy who starts having a nervous breakdown when his girlfriend is gone. He sinks lower and lower until he resorts to a suicide attempt. Then there's an invasion by supernatural forces, which he finally identifies as futuristic. But the forces are elusive. When the book ends, he still needs an answer. It's a blend of fact and fiction."
One thing the advanced beings tell the protagonist of Valis is that a new savior is about to be born. When questioned about his own religious beliefs, Dick said he could best be classified as a "religious anarchist."
"I'm totally against organized religion," he states. "I believe you have a direct relation with the divine or you have no relation with the divine. It has nothing to do with faith or dogmatic creeds. The initiative comes from the divine side. There is nothing you can do. All you can do is live an honest life, be brutally honest with yourself, and hope to become an object of interest with the divine beings. Using a formula to evoke them is technically called "magic." I guess you could call me a neo-Platonist with gnostic overtones."
Dick says there is some gnosticism in Valis as well. The second book in the series will deal with Judaism, and the third will be a "computer study of cybernetics and quantum mechanics."
Dick gets so wrapped up in his current work on the Valis books he claims, "It's almost to the point where I can't get myself together enough to go shopping at the store. I'm way out in left field. I'm having a hell of a time. Someday I'm just going to walk through a wall. I'll dematerialize my own universe."
If Valis is autobiographical, does this mean that Philip K. Dick has been in touch with supernatural beings?
"That's my impression," he says. "It's kind of hard to talk about, and work into a casual conversation. ‘What have you been doing, Phil?’ ‘Oh, I've been contacted by supernatural beings who are super-advanced and they told me about this savior who..." (blends into chuckles.)
Dick was rather "amazed" when he first became aware of this unearthly contact. "I couldn't figure out what they were up to," he says. "Once, just after my wife had a baby, my blood pressure was near stroke level. It was a lethal physical condition and I was close to death. The baby was close to death, too. But we didn't know it. The supernatural power informed me of my condition as my son's. It told me to go to the hospital and we had surgery scheduled and made it through." Dick's son is seven years old now.
Valis is the name Dick has given this supernatural force. It stands for Vast Active Living Intelligence System. It still talks to him occassionally. Dick's first experience with Valis was in high school, during a final physics exam.
"There were eight questions based on a principle I didn't understand," he recalls. "The supernatural being took hold of my brain and explained it to me in a way I could understand. I got an "A" and made my college entrance grades as a result. This was in the forties. I was amazed."
One of Valis' favorite subjects is apparently reincarnation. The possibility that Valis may have once been human is something Dick has often pondered. Valis described himself to Dick's "tutelary spirit." After looking the term up in the dictionary, Dick discovered it means "supernatural protector," with a secondary meaning of "tutor." The spirit would only describe his function, without giving his real name.
"He only tells me things if I'm completely exhausted in trying to find the answers myself," Dick explains.
Since the spirit is reportedly so involved with reincarnation, would it give Dick any clues as to his past lives? According to Dick, it has.
"Do you want me to be frank, or do you want me to be coy?" he asked. The Clarion asked for frankness.
"I lived in the first century A.D., in Asyria," he says. "I was a secret Christian named Thomas. I was killed very brutally by the Romans. I was garroted."
Dick claims to have some residual memories of this prior existence. "It's been showing up in my dreams all my life," he says. "It comes back very clearly, being in Rome. It came back so clear once that I thought I was in Rome. I told my wife we had to watch out for the Romans."
The personality of Thomas once became so overpowering in Dick's life that he was "taken over" for about a month. "He was very different from me," says Dick. "He was very hard-boiled and shrewd. He was much more energetic and resourceful that I am."
What is Dick hoping for in his next life? "I'm hoping I'll be nothing next," he says. "I'm tired. I've been fighting against the Roman empire in different forms for 2000 years. Today it's the U.S. government. I'll leave them alone if they'll leave me alone."
During the sixties, Dick was heavily involved in anti-war activities. Because of this, his house was broken into, his belongings and papers were destroyed by a bomb planted inside the house, and Marin County officials warned him to leave the area or be shot in the back.
"Whatever they thought I was doing was much worse than what I was doing," he says.
During the sixties, Dick was also allegedly involved with drugs. His latest novel, Through A Scanner Darkly, tells of his disillusionment about drugs after several incidents of friends suffering death and brain damage because of drug abuse. Dick's current opinion of drug use is rather negative. "I think it's a very risky thing to do," he says. "You're essentially playing a game and betting that you'll get something that's better than it is bad. It's far too risky."
Clarion readers interested in Philip K. Dick have much more to learn about the author and his works. Some good books to start with might be Ubik, Counter-Clock World or The Best of Philip K. Dick.