Tom Lichtenberg is an independent writer and blogger, and I am personally a big fan of his work. His blog is Pigeon Weather Productions, where he ruminates on a wide variety of subjects, and also promotes his extensive catalog of books. A few months ago he interviewed me, and I so I asked him if he’d let me interview him.
Without further ado:
You have quite an extensive catalog, dozens of self-published works of various lengths, and I’ll confess that I have only read a few so far. However, much of what I have read seems to be in the tradition of the New Wave Science Fiction of the 1960’s and 1970’s, writers like George Alec Effinger, Phillip Dick, Norman Spinrad, Robert Anson Wilson, and Kilgore Trout. Do you consider your work to be part of a literary tradition? Do you consider any of the authors I’ve mentioned to be an inspiration to you? Are there others that you would point to instead?
I was a teenager in the early seventies and was certainly influenced by the radical “social science” fiction of Vonnegut, Lem, LeGuin, Dick, Brunner, Delaney etc … At the same time, I also lived in South America for a while and was also strongly impacted by the writings of Borges, Cortazar, Garcia Marquez, Lispector and others. Those two strains were later joined by a lot of European writers, such as Calvino, Canetti, Kafka, Balzac and Dostoevsky. I’ve always read a lot and am happily discovering new favorites all the time, such as Cesar Aira last year.
You seem very comfortable working at the intersection of Absurdity and Science Fiction (the same neighborhood frequented by the above writers). However, they seem to me to be one way streets leading in opposite directions, epistemologically. Science Fiction is usually characterized by a hyper-rational worldview, driven by a belief that the universe is essentially rational and governed by comprehensible laws, while Absurdity takes the contradictory view that existence is an ultimately inexplicable mystery. How do you reconcile the tension between those zeitgeists, and is that tension that draws your work in that direction?
I never been a big fan of so-called “hard” science fiction, which for the most part I found to be politically awful – sexist, racist, colonialist – and mostly total bullshit, mainly cowboys and lizard/indians in outer space. Mostly the lack of imagination just kills me. Even now, you have this new television series, Falling Skies, replaying the exact same crap one more time. Perhaps the most interesting thing I’ve ever read about aliens has come from writers like Stanislaw Lem, who assume they would be just as strange and impossible for us to communicate with (reciprocally) as are most of the other life forms on our very own planet.
I don’t feel a contradiction between rational materialism and deep skepticism. Science in many ways can be defined as “what we know for certain now that we’ll soon find out to be wrong” in the light of new discoveries. I’m in awe of science as much as I’m in awe of nature. I came across the factoid recently that there are more stars in the universe than there are grains of sand on Earth. If that doesn’t put things into some perspective, I don’t know what will. It’s impossible to even begin to imagine that. Our sun the equivalent of a single grain of sand!
One of the things that I find compelling about your work is your ear for dialog. The first book I read by you was Death Ray Butterfly, and Stanley Mole’s voice pulled me in from the beginning. I have recently finished reading Fissure Monroe, which is essentially all dialog, and each voice was so unique that I really didn’t need physical descriptions of the characters to “see” them. How do you do it? Do you read out loud as you are writing? Do you keep notes on individual characters specifying word choice and diction, or do you just do it by ear?
Thanks for the compliment, but I really have no answer for that. It’s probably just by accident.
Obviously your style has changed over the past thirty years as your skills have increased. Looking back over your body of work, do you see an overall theme or pattern to your writing? Do you see your career as drawing closer to a fixed point or more of a journey onward from a particular origin?
It’s a story of an interrupted journey. I wrote an awful lot in my early twenties, nearly all of it just as awful as it was a lot. Then at around 27 I was stricken with a rather serious illness which made it impossible for me to write at all for the following dozen years. As I gradually recovered (from what they now call Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, but which at the time had no name at all), I took up writing again but as a very different person. It’s been a rebirth of sorts. I’ve been quite prolific over the past six or seven years. Not necessarily a good thing! Maybe someday I’ll see all this recent stuff as just as terrible as I now see my youthful writings, but for now they mostly make me happy. It’s all bonus time. Every time I finish one, I feel like I’m done forever. I could just as easily not write anything again, but over the weeks a few ideas accumulate and if they gather enough momentum then I start up again and see if it flies. I enjoy the process, but I don’t think it’s headed anywhere in particular.
You have described yourself as an atheist on your blog, and some of your works are listed on Amazon under the rubric of atheist writings. Do you feel that there is such a thing as “Atheist Fiction” as distinct from “Fiction By Someone Who Happens To Be An Atheist”? If so, what do you feel that the significant characteristics of Atheist Fiction would be? Are there works by other authors that you feel would fit in such a designation?
The “atheist fiction” genre is partly a joke, but also partly not. There is an atheist fiction, but I’m more interested in “atheist comic fiction”, a genre that would include Douglas Adams, Kurt Vonnegut, and Stanislaw Lem. One distinguishing characteristic is the sense that we are all we have, that there is no other authority to rely on, no supernatural excuses or alibis or blueprints for our behavior. We have to take responsibility for our own actions. If we’re going to oppress people (women, gays, jews, blacks, foreigners), it’s not good enough to claim that some old book says we can. However, most atheist writers have as little a sense of humor as anybody else. I make fun of “new atheists” in Orange Car with Stripes and Missy Tonight but I also make fun of religion in stories like Renegade Robot and The New Guy in Moon Base Twelve.
You have not been treated kindly by reviewers. How do you deal with that? In particular, reading over some of the reviews that have been posted on your work I got the distinct impression that the reviewer entirely missed the point of your work. Do you ever want to try to explain yourself to a reviewer? Is it hard to keep from being bitter?
I do get the sense that a lot of the raters and reviewers of my books have missed the point, but it’s understandable. My books are mainly classified as science fiction because that’s where the likeliest readers are, but personally I think of them all as literature. The separation of “science fiction” from general fiction has been unfortunate for both. Technology has long had a place in literature, as in the steamships of Conrad or the railroads of du Maupassant. It’s the same with the gadgets in my Ledman Pickup and World Weary Avengers. Anyway, people expect certain things from a so-called genre book and when they get something different than what they expect, they ding it for that. Also, my books are kind of weird and don’t always follow the usual pathways. I’ve been more surprised by the people who like them than the people who don’t! The low average rating I’ve been getting on Goodreads is convincing validation of my original expectations.
You continue to offer the digital copies of your work on-line for free or nearly so. Why is that? Obviously you have put a lot of work into your stories, and I find it strange that you don’t ask for money in return.
I spent nearly twenty years working in center city bookstores in DC and SF, doing everything from stock clerk to cashier to store manager and book buyer. I was pretty good at it, too, and I think I developed a sense of what sells and what doesn’t, and it was clear to me that the kind of books I write are the kind of books that don’t, especially not in America. My ideal readers are probably Hungarian and Argentine. Writers of short, strange, absurd little stories sell only marginally at best in this country, and only then if they have a literary reputation, like Italo Calvino or Robert Walser, and are favored by the New York Review of Books. My books sat around doing nothing for a very long time, but when I heard about Smashwords, back in 2009, and the possibility of just throwing them out there for free, I couldn’t pass that up. My potential “real” readers are few and far between, and the only way for me to reach them is to (metaphorically) cast those books upon the waters, and throw a few rocks in behind them to give them a push (meaning some little promotional activity here and there). I think I was really lucky to get in there right on time as this thing took off, and then I had a huge break when the caretakers of getfreeebooks.com when on hiatus one summer with my Zombie Nights on the front page of their web site. That book shot up to #1 on Smashwords and its remained in the top ten of free downloads there ever since. I was also lucky by the fact that most writers want to make money, so the field of free is not as congested as you might think. Because all I wanted was some readers, I’ve already succeeded way beyond any measure I could have imagined. It’s crazy. I’m quite sure that if I’d been charging money for my books from the beginning I would have made around 1000 dollars and found about 1/1000ths as many readers. It’s a deliberate calculation. As for the effort, it’s more fun than work. I don’t take it all that seriously, and if it wasn’t easy for me, I’m sure I wouldn’t even do it. I’m not driven by any ambition or financial pressure. I’ve got a good career going, so otherwise I only do what I feel like doing.
I really enjoyed posing these questions, and hope to do more interviews. If you would like to be interviewed, drop me a line on my newly renamed Reach Out And Touch Me page.