A Conversation With Philip K. Dick
By Richard A. Lupoff
[from: Science Fiction Eye, Vol. 1, No. 2, August 1987, pp. 45-54]
LUPOFF: A Handful of Darkness was your first collection. Can you tell us the genesis of the book?
DICK: I had had a lot of stories published. In 1953 I published twenty-seven stories and almost as many the next year. In June of 1953 I had seven short stories on the stands simultaneously, but no American publisher had approached me to do a collection. This was before I had done any novels and Rich & Cowan in England approached me with the idea of putting out a collection of stories.
LUPOFF: Do you recall who your editor was, or your contact person?
DICK: No. They were incredibly primitive. I sent them several fantasies that had been published in F&SF, but because the stories dealt with children, Rich & Cowan decided they were stories for children. By the same token I suppose Agatha Christie’s mysteries are for ax murderers. (laughter)
LUPOFF: Who made the selection?
DICK: Well, I made the selection, by and large. Every story that they looked at was one that I had submitted to them, rather than one they found on their own. They continually kept rejecting stories and I kept sending more. So it took three or four separate batches of stories before they agreed on the contents. The contents was quite satisfactory to me at the time. They were all early stories and they were all rather short.
LUPOFF: How do you feel about them now?
DICK: I feel that they are very minor works now. Looking back on them, there is very little there of substance compared to later stuff.
LUPOFF: I still don’t understand how this thing started. How did they contact you? Did they come through your agent?
DICK: Yeah, through Scott Meredith. They bought Solar Lottery, my first novel, and brought it out as World of Chance. But they brought it out in a truncated form. They insisted that a great deal be deleted from it. I did, in fact, make a different version of Solar Lottery for them. It’s quite different from the US version. But they just simply contacted me through Scott, which was easy enough.
LUPOFF: At the time you had just gotten started. You had just graduated from UC…
DICK: No, I didn’t graduate.
LUPOFF: You quit?
DICK: Yeah, I quit after a short while.
LUPOFF: What was your major?
LUPOFF: Okay, so you left UC and you sat down and started writing. I mean, because you just sprang up – from somebody who had never been published to somebody who, all of a sudden, as you yourself say, had seven stories in one month; twenty-odd stories in one year.
DICK: Well, after going to Cal, I was working part-time in a record store, and then went to work full-time, and finally I got to the point where I was manager of the record department. I would work half a day, every day, and then write the other half.
In November of 1951 I made my first sale to Tony Boucher and…
LUPOFF: Did you know Tony?
DICK: Yes, I had attended a writing course that he gave. But that first one, I remember, was one of thirteen stories I submitted simultaneously. I figured, you know, I stood a chance of selling one of the thirteen – which is exactly what I did. But I had to revise it considerably for Tony.
LUPOFF: Ray Nelson is now running a class like that, through the Unitarian Church, and one of his students is Anne Rice, who popped up with Interview With a Vampire. Another of his students is a guy named Robert Lee Hall, who wrote a book called Exit Sherlock Holmes, that’s been through two or three printings and is quite successful. Ray seems to attract people who really have made it.
DICK: I’m not sure writing can be taught. I didn’t get much out of Tony’s class. I think that the best source for a writer, or a person who wants to be a writer, is to read good prose models. There’s no substitute for good prose models.
LUPOFF: Can you name a few examples that influenced you?
DICK: I liked the short stories of James T. Farrell very much. They had a tremendous influence on me in the short story form. Then in the novel form, the French realists like Flaubert and Stendhal and Balzac and Proust. And then the Russians: Turgenev and Dostoyevsky and some of the playwrights, like Chekhov, for example. I was very influenced by the French realist writers.
LUPOFF: So you’re not one of these science fiction writers who grew up reading “Doc” Smith and…
DICK: I did that too, but the culture in Berkeley, the milieu in Berkeley at that time – in the late Forties – required that you have a fairly good grounding in the classics. If you hadn’t read something like Tom Jones or Ulysses you were just dead, as far as being a guest anywhere. I mean, I had read lots of science fiction, but the pressure of the milieu was overwhelming.
You have to bear in mind that at that time science fiction was so looked down upon that it would have been tantamount to suicide to, in a group of people, come forward and say “Boy did I read a marvelous story recently,” and they say, “Well, what was it?” And you say, “It was ‘The Weapon Shops of Isher’ by A.E. Van Vogt.” They would have just pelted you with grapefruits and coffee grounds from the garbage. (laughter) If they could have deciphered who you meant, anyway. They didn’t even know the name.
There wasn’t anybody who read both. You could either be in with the group of freaks who read Heinlein and Van Vogt and nothing else, or you could be in with the people who read Dos Passos and Melville and Proust. But you could never get the two together.
I chose the company of those who were reading the great literature because I liked them better as people. The early fans were just, you know, trolls and wackos. I mean, being stuck with them would be like something from the first part of Dante’s Commedia – up to your ass in shit. They really were terribly ignorant and weird people, so I just secretly read science fiction.
LUPOFF: Those were the days when you hid this month’s issue of Startling Stories inside a copy of whatever…
DICK: Of War and Peace, yeah. There was a kind of an embryonic, you know, fetal fandom coming into existence, because there was the Little Men’s Marching and Chowder Society and I knew the people in it, but they were all real weird freaks. They were unpalatable to me because they did not read the great literature.
LUPOFF: What you said about the trolls is true. I mean, there were some nice people, it’s not that I would unanimously consign these people to the Pit – if I were consigning people to the Pit. But I would say that an inordinate proportion of them are pretty bizarre and essentially unsavory kind of characters. Not unsavory in the sense of being nasty or violent or destructive types, but…
DICK: Yeah, losers. I rejected the ghetto concept of science fiction right from the beginning of it. These people seem to prefer the ghetto. They want it to be a separate thing from mainstream life and mainstream fiction both. This has certainly had tragic repercussions for the growth of the field, because this mentality has continued.
LUPOFF: Well, you know Larry Niven’s theory? He maintains that it is not a ghetto, it’s a country club. It’s an exclusive and luxurious domain. Of course, Larry Niven inherited a huge fortune. He has oil money, so he’s been able to take that attitude right from the outset.
DICK: It’s a ghetto in the respect that most science fiction fans are ignorant of great mainstream literature of the past. I mean, very few of them have ever read War and Peace, but all of them have read The Hobbit trilogy. I’m not putting down Tolkien, because I’ve read the trilogy too, but I would hate to have missed out on great books like War and Peace. I’m glad that the Berkeley of the late Forties/early Fifties forced me to read things like The Red and the Black and Madame Bovary and others because those are really great books and they taught me a lot about writing. They taught me a lot about how to write a novel. Maupassant taught me a lot about how to write a short story. So did James T. Farrell, and some of the New Yorker short story writers.
But when I started to write science fiction, the people in Berkeley would say, “but are you doing anything serious?” That used to make me really mad. I’d get really mad and I’d, all of a sudden, just drop my posing and get really furious. And I’d say, “my science fiction is very serious.” If I said anything at all. I usually just got so mad I couldn’t talk.
But the science fiction I wrote before I sold I took as seriously as the experimental stuff I wrote. I wrote a lot of experimental short stories.
LUPOFF: Did you sell any of them?
DICK: No. I submitted them to, like, Tiger’s Eye, but I was never able to sell any of them
LUPOFF: Are any of them still around?
DICK: No, they’re destroyed. All the manuscripts were destroyed.
LUPOFF: That’s too bad. Do you have any idea how many there were?
DICK: Oh, thirty maybe. And I wrote eleven experimental novels. They’re still around. They’re over at Cal State Fullerton.
LUPOFF: Do they include Crap Artist?
DICK: Confession of a Crap artist was one of them, but that came in 1959, that was later. That came before Man in the High Castle. That’s really the bridge between my Ace Double science fiction type of writing and Man in the High Castle. Actually, if you read what I wrote for Ace prior to Putnam’s buying Man in the High Castle, you cannot account for Man in the High Castle. It doesn’t seem to come out of Ace Books. But if you read Confessions of a Crap Artist and date it as 1959 and 1961 for Man in the High Castle, you can bridge the gap between the two.
LUPOFF: So, anyway. There you are in 1953 and all of a sudden you sell your first story to Tony Boucher. Do you recall which story that was?
DICK: “Roog.” It’s about garbage men. It’s about a dog who can sense that the garbage men are predatory carnivores from another planet, who accept the garbage each week as a propitiatory offering in surrogate for the people themselves. But eventually these garbage men will tire of accepting these surrogate offerings and take the people in the houses and eat them. And that is how the dog sees the garbage men. The story is from the dog’s point of view and the garbage men are seen as only quasi-humanoid. They have thin necks and their heads are like pumpkins and their heads wobble.
I remember that Judith Merrill saw the story and refused to anthologize it because she said that garbage men don’t have thin necks, and wobbly heads, and so on. It’s not true. So I wrote her a long letter explaining to her that that’s the way the dog saw it and she would have to accept the dog’s viewpoint. But she still wouldn’t accept the story for anthologizing because she said it just wasn’t true. Garbage men aren’t that way.
So I said to her, “It’s a fantasy, Judy. A fantasy. Do you understand what is meant by a fantasy?” But she said, “No, a fantasy is a story with a fantasy premise, and then it’s realistic from then on.”
So I said that in this story the fantasy premise is that the dog has a different point of view from us and that everything is predicated on that. But I couldn’t convince her. The story is still in print. Bob Silverberg reprinted it recently in one of his collections, Science Fiction Bestiary, so it’s still in print.
LUPOFF: She couldn’t grasp that it was make-believe, a fantasy.
DICK: Yeah. I ran into a lot of opposition because my early fantasy stories were essentially psychological stories. They were heavily into anxieties such as animals or children feel, in which the thing that was feared would actually come into existence and was treated objectively.
I just gave up writing them, finally. People would make that kind of criticism. They would say, “There’s no such thing as…” Their sentences would begin that way. So finally I just gave up and went over and wrote science fiction and abandoned the fantasy format. Because what I meant by a fantasy was evidently not what other people meant by a fantasy. My idea of a fantasy was where the archetypal elements become objectified and you have an exteriorization of what our inner contents are.
I remember I had a term I used to defend this kind of internal projection stories. Stories where internal psychological elements were projected onto the outer world and became three dimensional and real and concrete. Scott, my agent, wrote me incredibly long letters saying that there was no such thing. There was the inner world of dreams and fantasies and the unconscious and then there was the objective outer world, and the two never mixed. So I gave up.
Later, when I’d established myself more securely in the field, I began to go and do it in such books as The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. I reverted to what I wanted to do and had the nightmare inner content objectified in the outer world. So I slowly began to reintroduce those elements into my writing.
LUPOFF: Do you do any fantasy now?
DICK: No. No I don’t. It pretty much cured me of trying any fantasy.
LUPOFF: Let me tell you. I wrote a story about a woman who can see into her husband’s dreams. She wakes up in the middle of the night and can see, in sort of a cloud over her husband’s head, what he is dreaming. It’s not a good marriage and he has essentially retreated – his life is really drab, anyhow. He could be one of your garbage men. We really never do get to know his job except that he works at the plant. So he drinks a lot of beer and watches a lot of television and daydreams and dream dreams. These actual sleeping dreams are his last avenue of retreat from an unpleasant, though not directly threatening, environment. He lives adequately, but he’s not happy.
So his psychic energy goes into his dreams and she succeeds in invading them, they were his last refuge.
DICK: Oh, that’s a terrific idea.
LUPOFF: It was written for Heavy Metal, of course. Because they are French in orientation and erotic and morbid; their three themes. Gallic culture, eroticism and morbidity. So the name of the story is “Mort in Bed.”
DICK: Ursula LeGuin in The Lathe of Heaven gets into the idea of dreams being somehow objectively real.
LUPOFF: Yes. Effective dreaming.
DICK: I was fascinated by that. There is, of course, a contemporary heretical sect of scientists and laymen who, based on Jung’s theory that UFOs were projections from the collective unconscious, that have begun to talk about mental contents as being actually objective. This is the Tulpa theory that they can be projected into the outer world and even be photographed, and are sensible objects. They are objects of our percept system and are projected from the unconscious – which is just one step further from Jung’s idea that an individual will project elements of his unconscious. Now we have the collective unconscious of a number of people being projected and forming Tulpa objects. I’ve read some interesting material on that. It’s also connected with the weird scientific discovery that the observer influences the performance of sub-atomic particles.
Now one of the basic psychotic ideas is that you can affect objects by just thinking about them, and yet this has crept into quantum physics. By picking up the Jungian thing we arrive at the conclusion that we can and do project a lot of our outer reality. This is exactly what I was trying to do in my early stories.
LUPOFF: Were you reading Jung then?
DICK: Yes. Yes, definitely. He was a major influence on me.
LUPOFF: Can you recall specific works?
DICK: Psychological Types would be one. I read all the Jung that was in print in English at that time, but not very much was in print in English. Since then I’ve read so much more because the Pantheon Press people have published all of Jung in English. I can’t remember which ones were in print in English then, except Psychological Types. Most early Jung…
LUPOFF: I came across an article the other day by a guy who was as unintellectual and unsophisticated as can be. He was just a huge pulp fan, but he somehow came across the concept of Tulpas. He maintains that in the apartment in Greenwich Village where Walter Gibson lived in the 1930s, when he was writing The Shadow novels – two a month – that the fellow who lives there now can see this vague figure moving around the apartment all the time. And the figure is Lamont Cranston.
He didn’t know anything about the history of the building. He discovered that Walter Gibson had written all those Shadow novels in that apartment and he deduced that Walter Gibson had created a Lamont Cranston Tulpa by writing all those books in that room, and that that figure is still there.
DICK: That’s very interesting. Back at the time I was starting to write science fiction, I was asleep one night and I woke up and there was a figure standing at the edge of the bed, looking down at me. I grunted in amazement and all of a sudden my wife woke up and started screaming because she could see it too. She started screaming, but I recognized it and I started reassuring her, saying that it was me that was there and not to be afraid. Within the last two years – let’s say that was in 1951 – I’ve dreamed almost every night that I was back in that house, and I have a strong feeling that back then in 1951 or ’52 that I saw my future self, who had somehow, in some way we don’t understand – I wouldn’t call it occult – passed backward during one of my dreams now of that house, going back there and seeing myself again. So there really are some strange things…
That’s the kind of stuff I would write as a fantasy in the early Fifties.
LUPOFF: Who were the editors you were dealing with and selling to back then?
DICK: Tony Boucher for F&SF, Horace Gold for Galaxy and Beyond, Bill Hamlyn at Imagination, and the editor for Fantastic Universe, Hans Stefan Santesson. That’s all I can remember. Any magazine that was extant in 1953 I was dealing with. Except for Campbell.
LUPOFF: You never dealt with Campbell?
DICK: Well, he just said my stories were nuts. He said they were crazy. He bought one story.
LUPOFF: What was that?
DICK: That was “Imposter.” He said that psi was a necessary premise for a science fiction story, and I had a very strong prejudice against psionics. I thought it was a form of the occult and should not be allowed to invade science fiction. I’ve changed my mind since, but at the time I thought of it like witchcraft and stuff like that. Superstitious.
LUPOFF: What made you change your mind?
DICK: I think the powers actually exist. I think they’re real.
LUPOFF: Now these editors you dealt with – Boucher lived in Berkeley, and you were in his group – but did you have any direct contact with these others, or was it all through Meredith?
DICK: Well, Horace Gold and I wrote back and forth quite a bit. I met Evelyn Page Gold, who was then married to him, in ’64. Howard Browne, editor of Amazing and Fantastic, was very nice. He was a lot of help to me. Howard Browne was a very good editor.
LUPOFF: What did he do for you?
DICK: He defined the type of story he felt I could best write, and he was quite correct. I did a lot of stuff for him.
LUPOFF: This was all by mail?
DICK: Yes, though I did meet him in 1964 and liked him immensely.
LUPOFF: I never met him, but I had an interesting letter from him. I wrote a book about Edgar Rice Burroughs – the first thing I ever wrote – and I mentioned people whose work resembled Burroughs or might have influenced Burroughs or been influenced by him. I mentioned a couple of books by Browne, Warrior of the Dawn and The Return of Tharn. And Browne wrote me a letter and said that as a matter of fact, Burroughs had read Warrior of the Dawn when it first came out in about 1940. And Burroughs had said, “Dear Mr. Browne, I really enjoyed Warrior of the Dawn and it is one of the best books I ever wrote.”
DICK: Howard Browne was a very nice guy. I later had a terrible fight, in 1954, with Horace Gold because Gold would change parts of your story and add whole new scenes and characters without telling you, and publish them. And you would suddenly discover that you had collaborated with Horace Gold. I just got to the point where I couldn’t stand it anymore. I told him I wouldn’t submit to him as long as he was going to take out scenes and put in other scenes. So I did not resubmit to Galaxy until he ceased to be the editor of it. That was my main market at the time, and I took a tremendous financial risk by doing that, but by then I was going into the novel form. But that was one of the reasons I went into the novel form, and then I started hassling with Donald Wolheim, so I didn’t gain a thing.
LUPOFF: How come you went to work for Ace Books, of all publishers?
DICK: Scott did the marketing. I had nothing to do with that. There really wasn’t much else of a market.
LUPOFF: Ballantine was starting up about that same time.
DICK: Yeah, that’s true, but Scott kept selling to Ace. I had no control over that. Sixteen times we went with Ace.
LUPOFF: Did Wolheim mess with your copy?
DICK: Never. Oh, once with Dr. Futurity. He made a lot of cuts in Dr. Futurity, but outside of that he never messed with them.
LUPOFF: He didn’t monkey with any of your other stuff, why did he cut Dr. Futurity?
DICK: Because in Dr. Futurity I had Christianity dying out and interracial marriages. Don disapproved of Christianity dying out or talk of it dying out. And he definitely disapproved of the interracial marriages.
LUPOFF: He’s so scared about treading on toes. I’ll give you a Don Wolheim story. My first novel, a book called One Million Centuries – bad book, but what the hell, we all write first novels. I sent a portion and an outline to Terry Carr, who was then working for Don. And Terry said, “Hey, I like this. I’d like to buy it, but I need Don’s approval.” This was before the Special series, and he didn’t have the clout to buy a book without approval.
So he turned the proposal over to Don who held it for quite a while and finally bounced it and sent me a rejection slip – which is somewhere in my house, and I’d pay twenty dollars if I could find it because he listed his objections to it.
But the major objection was that the hero was black, and he said, “Surveys indicate that most of our readers are white and that most black people don’t read books, or at least not science fiction. So nobody would want to buy this book, so I don’t want to publish it.”
I’m inclined to believe that these are less of Don’s personal prejudices and convictions than they are very calculated commercial considerations.
DICK: That could be, yeah.
LUPOFF: God knows he’d have no objection to a novel about Christianity dying out – not being a Christian. First of all, he’s Jewish by birth, and he’s a sort of radical atheist.
DICK: He was supposed to be a communist for a while.
LUPOFF: Oh, yes, he makes no pretense about it. In fact, I asked him about it for an article I was writing about social and political attitudes in science fiction for Ramparts. I asked him a few questions and he said that back in the late Thirties/early Forties when it was fashionable to be a communist, a bunch of science fiction fans – including himself – had a contact with some recruiters from the Communist Party USA. And the “real” communists wanted nothing to do with the science fiction fans because they thought that science fiction was too far divorced from immediate reality. It was utopian and fantastic and what these people should do is abandon science fiction and then they’d be acceptable as recruits for communism. But they didn’t want them as long as they were going to be science fiction fans.
DICK: Yeah, I remember an article in The People’s World after World War II in which science fiction was denounced as a reactionary tool of the Imperialist, Fascist powers. Then, as you know, the party switched its mind on science fiction and became pro science fiction. I think they changed over about the time of Sputnik.
LUPOFF: Yeah, science fiction is considered acceptable in the Soviet Union. They publish a good deal of it. Have you had any works published in Russia or other Socialist countries?
DICK: Well, Ubik has appeared in Poland in a very nice edition, and they’re bringing out Solar Lottery and Man in the High Castle in Poland. They’ve purchased them, but haven’t paid me for them yet. And I’ve heard that I’m the third most published American science fiction writer in Russia, but I don’t receive any royalties.
LUPOFF: Who are the other two?
DICK: Heinlein and Asimov. Heinlein is very popular in Russia.
LUPOFF: (laughs) That’s amazing. I wonder what he thinks of that?
DICK: I don’t know. That’s his problem. I don’t even know if he knows, because it was even hard for me to find that out myself. I was trying to find out if I had any substantial royalties in the Soviet Union, and I did find out that my books are published there.
I had a story pirated by their leading literary magazine and published in the Fifties. The magazine, Ogonek, had a circulation of a million, five hundred thousand copies. It was the magazine equivalent of Pravda. I wrote them and they paid me out of an account in a Wall Street bank and they sent me a copy of the magazine, but it was confiscated by the US Postal authorities as communist propaganda. (laughter) That’s really true.
LUPOFF: What was the story?
DICK: “Foster, You’re Dead,” which Ballantine printed in the Star anthologies. The Soviet magazine ran thirty-two pages – the pages being the size of Life magazine – and five pages was the story and illustrations and everything. They asked me to submit stuff directly to them, but I never did. They paid me exactly three and a half cents a word, which is what Astounding and Galaxy were paying at that time. They knew exactly what the rates were in the United States. (laughs)
LUPOFF: I was pirated by a magazine in Spain, a big slick Life magazine type magazine. They took an article I wrote about Janis Joplin for Ramparts. I only found out about it because I happened to see a copy of the magazine. So I wrote them a letter. I told them I had mixed feelings about what they had done. I was flattered that they thought so highly of my stuff and went through all the trouble of getting it translated and put in this beautiful format in this plush magazine, but it would be nice if they had paid me.
DICK: I find I just don’t write short stuff anymore. I can’t even come up with a final draft of this novel for Bantam because I’m doing so much research on it. I now do so much research that I just don’t have time to write. Sometimes I work until five in the morning on research. I don’t ever want to have happen what happened on Deus Irae where I started a book and found out I didn’t know enough about my subject matter to do the book. I didn’t know enough about Christianity. So I’m trying to avoid that particular pitfall.
But it’s really funny. Roger [Zelazny] and I have just cleaned up on Deus Irae. We made a mint on it.
LUPOFF: It must be the authors, because in all honesty, I like your books better than that, and I like Roger’s books better than that. But a shared byline by two people who both pack a wallop can’t miss.
DICK: I called Roger the other day about Deus Irae. This just tripped me out. My ex-wife Tessa brought me a copy of the first paperback of Roots. Roots went into paperback as of this month, November 1977. And she said, “Here’s the paperback of Roots.” I said, “Fine. Are you giving this to me?” She said, “Look in the back.” I looked in the back and there was a full page ad for Deus Irae.
So I called up Roger and I said, “Roger, I want to approach what I have to say this way. Now that Roots has finally come out in paperback, by Dell, how many copies do you think the first printing would run?” And he said, “Well, somewhere between one and two million, I would guess.”
“Fine,” I said. “There are between one and two million ads for Deus Irae, which includes a coupon you can clip out and send in.”
LUPOFF: Oh great.
DICK: It’s the greatest advertisement we’ve ever had. Isn’t that incredible?
Contributing editor Richard Lupoff has written a variety of books, including Circumpolar and the ground-breaking Space War Blues. He has recently finished a mystery novel. His upcoming contributions to these pages include a short story in EYE #3 and whatever else he can find in the bottom of his filing cabinet.