“Remember I am a science fiction writer. I spent my life writing about people who traveled in time and found themselves embedded in some strange era that they could barely comprehend and learning the ropes as they were dumped down in the far future of, say, 1979 back in a story written in 1955. So I expect change. I’m not astounded that the world has changed out of recognition all around me. I’d be pretty upset if it hadn’t.”—Robert Silverberg
The 24th Issue of Galaxy’s Edge went live at the start of the year, with stories from the likes of Mercedes Lackey, Kevin J. Anderson, and Michael Swanwick! One of our biggest joys working on Galaxy’s Edge (pun definitely intended!) is reading the ever fascinating interviews Joy Ward conducts with the luminaries of our field. Here is the latest:
Joy Ward is the author of one novel. She has several stories in print, in magazines and in anthologies, and has also done interviews, both written and video, for other publications.
THE GALAXY’S EDGE INTERVIEW by Joy Ward
Robert Silverberg is one of the living giants of science fiction. His writing has been in constant print for well over fifty years and has been a defining influence on more writers than we will ever know. No science fiction reader can ever consider him or herself to be well read without at least one of Silverberg’s masterpieces under the belt. We were lucky enough to catch up with him at his lovely home in the San Francisco Bay area.
Joy Ward: How did you get started writing?
Robert Silverberg: I started reading science fiction when I was ten or eleven and by the time I was thirteen I decided I could do this too. This was not actually correct at that point. I did send some stories to magazines and, when they figured out it was a boy sending them and not a demented adult, they sent me very gentle rejection letters. But I continued writing. By the time I was sixteen, seventeen I was getting published. That’s how I began writing.
JW: Tell me about the early days of writing. What kind of stories were you writing?
RS: Probably not very good ones.
I lived in New York then and I sent the stories, nearly all of which were edited, in New York, and they sent them back with encouraging letters. Then they started sending checks. The editors invited me to come down and meet them. I hastened to do that. I think they were surprised to discover I was eighteen or whatever but I got to know them, became part of the New York science fiction writers group as a kind of mascot, really, and as the editors discovered that I was a very dependable craftsman they began calling me and saying “Bob, we need a story of five thousand, five hundred words by Friday to fill a hole in an issue. Can you do it?” I would say yes and I did do it.
JW: How did that feel to be with all these literati?
RS: Well, I was accustomed to that because, more or less against my knowledge or will, I got skipped through the early grades very quickly. I could read when I was about four. I didn’t spend much time in kindergarten. I zoomed through. Suddenly I was in the fourth grade and I was a year and a half younger than everybody else; and when you’re seven and a half and they are nine that’s a big difference. So all through my childhood and adolescence I was younger than everyone else. Then I started my career and the same thing was happening so I assumed this is what life is like.
What is really strange is now I’m practically eighty and I’m older than just about any functioning science fiction writer. Not that I’m functioning much anymore but I’m still up and moving around and it’s a very odd experience for me after having been so precocious, to be older than everybody that I know.
It’s kind of lonely. I’ve always gone to the science fiction convention every year, Worldcon, and I formed friendships with writers who were fifteen or twenty years older than I was. People like Frederik Pohl and Lester Del Rey and L. Sprague De Camp and Gordon Dickson and on an on and on. Because they were fifteen or twenty years older and I am now eighty they are all dead. There’s one writer left, James Gunn who is 91, of all the writers that I knew from those early conventions. So I’ve had to form a new set of friends among young people like George Martin and Connie Willis and Joe Haldeman who are only sixty-five or seventy or so.
It’s been a conscious act on my part to form new friendships because otherwise I would be all alone. (I would be) that guy with the white beard standing in the middle of the convention hall saying, “Where did everybody go?”
Science fiction writers are a very collegial group. Before science fiction was big business it was a downtrodden minority. It was a funny little pulp fiction field. Gaudy looking magazines with names like Amazing Stories, Astounding Science Fiction and we were considered pretty weird. So we banded together, a league against the world. Of course that all changed, changed almost frightingly, and science fiction became such big business that it’s impossible now to keep up with the whole field, to understand what’s going on. When I go out into what I laughingly call the “real world” I hear people talk about aliens and alternative universes. All of those esoteric things that were our private property are now in everybody’s vocabulary because you can’t go to the movies without seeing five trailers for what they call the new sci-fi movies. I hate that sci-fi word.
So science fiction writers tend to choose other science fiction writers as their friends. Not exclusively. Also, I have no family to speak of. I have a wife and a brother-in-law and sister-in-law. That’s about it. I have no ancestors left. I have outlived them all and I never had children. So the science fiction writers are sort of surrogate family for me. That’s why when I go to the convention I don’t want to stand there and say, “Where did everybody go?” It’s an unpleasant feeling. But I don’t. I’ve known a young whipper snapper like George Martin, I’ve known him for thirty-five years or so. This is not a recent friendship.
The big high point of my career, not a very difficult one to understand, was 2004 when the science fiction writers gave me the Grand Master trophy. What was special for me about that, I had been a member of SFWA since it was founded. I was there when the Grand Master award was invented and given to Heinlein and to Jack Williamson and to Clifford Simak and to Sprague De Camp— and these people I’m naming are all writers I read and admired and idolized when I was twelve, thirteen, fourteen years old. Suddenly in 2004 I’m getting the same award they got, which told me that you have achieved something in your career. You have found a place for yourself among them. I never really, I don’t see myself as being among them. I’m just that kid that managed to get a lot of stories published back there in 1956. But from the outside I know it looks different.
It feels wonderful because I was a reader, a fan, and came to conventions when I was fifteen, sixteen and looked at these demigods and grew up to be a demigod myself. I can only feel that I did it the right way. That’s a good feeling. You don’t want to know that you have wasted your life or you bungled your ambition. I haven’t. I remember at a convention about twenty-five years ago I was standing in the lobby of the hotel talking to Isaac Asimov and Arthur Clarke, both of whom I had known for many years and I regard as friends. But the teenage boy within me could not help thinking, “You’re talking to Asimov and Clarke.” Then I heard somebody about twenty feet away say, “Look. There’s Asimov, Clarke and Silverberg.” It put everything in perspective when you see it from the outside like that.
To them, standing over there, that was a group of big-name writers. To me, time traveled back to 1953. I’m a kid who mysteriously finds himself talking to these titans of the field. A lot of double vision involved.
I’ve done a lot of writing that isn’t science fiction. I wrote a number of books about geography and geology and scientific subjects. I wrote a few western stories. I wrote some detective stories, even though I wasn’t very good at that. Mostly what I thought when I did this is this is what I do when I’m not writing science fiction. A lot of hardened science fiction writers have felt that way that it’s not really sensible or justifiable but I remember James Blish, a writer who I revered who has been dead a long time now, Jim was a great science fiction writer but to pay the rent he wrote for sports pubs and westerns, which was funny because I don’t know Jim knew which end of the baseball bat to swing and as for westerns, he was a New Yorker through and through. But still that’s what he did and he always regarded the other stuff as something you did when you didn’t have a science fiction idea but your main business was writing science fiction. On some level, I think that too.
To continue reading, check out the full interview here, at the Galaxy’s Edge website!