An Interview with Roger Zelazny

Webmaster's Note:
This interview is reprinted here with the express permission of Warren Lapine, publisher of Absolute Magnitude. It is with sincere thanks for his generosity that I ask the readers of this interview to nominate Absolute Magnitude for a Hugo award in the semi-professional magazine category.

Without any further ado, here is the interview, published in Absolute Magnitude volume 1 number 1 (Fall/Winter 1994).

An Interview with Roger Zelazny

The author of such books as Lord of Light, The Dream Master, Eye of Cat, and The Chronicles of Amber, Roger Zelazny is one of Science Fiction's true luminaries. His work began appearing during the mid sixties which lead some people to erroneously associate him with the New Wave movement. Zelazny outlasted the New Wave, piling up an impressive number of Hugos and Nebulas in the process. I met up with him in Lynchburg Virginia, where he was the guest of honor at the Kaleidoscope convention. He graciously took time out from his busy convention schedule to speak with me.

Absolute Magnitude: I enjoyed your new book A Night In The Lonesome October. Where did you get the idea?

Roger Zelazny:
I got the idea for that story in May of 1979 I didn't know what it was going to be; I just thought it would be neat to write something about Jack the Ripper's dog, and ask Gahan Wilson to illustrate it, partly because of the fact that a dog is such an unusual person. No matter who owns a dog, if that person is nice to the animal, the dog is going to love him. I thought at the time, if you take a really despicable person, a serial killer or someone like that, and tell a story from his dog's point of view it would make him look pretty good. I just suggested that much to Gahan Wilson. I said I'd like to do something involving Jack the Ripper's dog. He wrote back to me, I still have the letter--that's how I know when I came up with the idea--it's dated May 11, 1979, saying, "I like the idea, but I'm just too busy." I kept the letter because underneath his signature he drew a picture of the dog. It looked just the way I thought the dog would. Every few years I'd take the letter out and look at it. I sort of wondered what I would have written, because I didn't have it worked out at all. I just liked the situation. Then I forgot about it until two years ago when my agent Kirby McCauley said, "I've got to run now, I'm having dinner with Gahan Wilson." I remembered that Gahan was one of his clients too; I had changed agents since I had gotten the original idea. I went and pulled the letter again and I looked at it. I said, "Gee, Now we're with the same agency. Maybe we could work something out." The letter was so sketchy I could see why Cahan didn't know what I was talking about. I thought that if I sat down and wrote a brief prologue--just a few pages--it might give me an idea as to what would happen in the story. At the time, I was simply thinking short story or novelette length. First, I started thinking of Jack as a ritual killer rather than a psychopath. For another thing, I had once written a short story involving Jack the Ripper. It was for Heavy Metal. It was called "Is There A Demon Lover In The House?" I had actually skimmed a book about Jack the Ripper at the time, and I remembered that the last Ripper killings occurred in October. I said, "You have a ritual killing situation and October. What's special about October? Well, Halloween, but there's a Halloween every year." I was looking for something to distinguish it. I said, "Well, there's not a Halloween with a full moon every year. That could make it special." That's when I got the rough idea for a sort of game. A stylized duel between two sides involving something that would culminate on Halloween. I decided to write one section for each day of the month up through Halloween, I said "Well, I'll just write a few sections to get it going." And I did. I still thought it was going to be something very short. I said, "Oh Hell, I'll do the whole thing and show it to Gahan." So I started writing in high gear. The book went very fast. I was halfway through it when the sections started getting longer-- could this be turning into a novel--? I just kept writing, I finished it pretty quickly, and I called Kirby the following Sunday afternoon, when he wouldn't be bothered by other callers. I started describing the book to him, and he said, "That sounds pretty good. You want to write that one?" I said, "I've already written it; it's sitting on my desk." I hadn't told him I was doing the book. I decided I'd just wait until I was ready and then let him know. So, I asked him to talk with Gahan Wilson and see whether we could work something out. And anyhow, things worked out very well indeed. I've already done an audio book version. It's the only uncut audio book I've done, out of ten of my own plus three other authors. I did the whole thing in a single day. It came out at about the same time as the book. I talked to Gahan Wilson just the other day, because I'm editing for some anthologies. One is on martial arts, and one is on gambling. The martial arts one is called Warriors of Blood and Dream. The gambling one is called Wheel of Fortune. Gahan used to hang out around casinos years ago in Europe, and he had an idea for a story called "Casino Mirago," set in Portugal." He's finished it and it's quite good.

AM: A Niqht In The Lonesome October and your recent collaborations with Robert Seckley seem to be a departure from your usual Work. Will you be continuing in this direction?

Yes and no. I'm doing a third book with Bob Sheckley. We had a three book contract with Bantam. There was Bring Me The Head Of Prince Charming, If At Foust You Don't Succeed, and the new one will be called Imitations Of Immorality, which hopefully we'll have wrapped up sometime this year, and see published next year. That will probably be it. Fred Saberhagen would like to do another book sometime. That's sort of on hold. I've got some other things going. I have a western historical novel coming out, in February of 1994, which I did with a writer named Gerald Hausman. Our publisher liked it a good deal. It's for Tor Books. The editor, a fellow named Bob Gleason, is quite an authority on western fiction. He mentioned to us recently that he'd like another. I decided whether we do it or not, I would like to at least study the historical background. I've been a history buff for many years. A second book by us would be a few years down the line, though, because we both have a lot of other work lined up. But it is a pleasant change to so something outside the area. I do like working with Gerry. He's one of the writers with a story in the martial arts volume. He's a Sokol teacher, and he had one of the better stories in the collection. It's not an ass kicking story either; it's one of the ones that talks about the healing aspects of the martial arts, the fact that it's for developing yourself as well as learning to fight. The one he did for the gambling book is very interesting also as he was a friend of William Saroyan and his family. Saroyan was an interesting person, to depict here, as he was a compulsive gambler. He told this story in Saroyan's voice as he remembers him telling it. It's called "Tyger, Tyger, Purring Loud." I met Gerry originally because he was my kids' English teacher at the local prep school. We just sort of hit it off.

AM: You've collaborated with a number of authors such as Philip K. Dick, Fred Saberhagen, Thomas T. Thomas, and Robert Sheckley. How different was it to write with each of these writers?

They're all different. That's the reason I like it. You learn new tricks working with other people--and no two collaborations are the same-- well I shouldn't say that. No two writers I've ever worked with have been similar to any other two. Books have been similar to each other because I've done more than one with somebody. Fred Saberhagen outlines to great length and detail. When I get something like that, I can write very quickly. on the other hand, Bob Sheckley doesn't like to outline. He considers himself basically a short story writer. So I have to do the outlining here, as Saberhagen does the outlining when the two of us are working together. I'm also good at doing re-writes if someone else wants to write fast and give me a sloppy draft. I can clean that up very quickly. With Phil Dick, he had been blocked initially on his book Deus Irsa. I got it because the publisher got him to agree to let someone else finish it. When I started writing it and showed him what I'd done, he got un-blocked. He'd write a section and I'd write a section. That was the only book, up until I met Gerry Hausman, where I'd written alternate sections. In the case of Phil Dick, I changed my style to make it closer to his. In the case of Gerry Hausman, our styles are sufficiently similar that we decided to simply leave them as they were. It's a double story line. The whole thing was his idea. He came over one afternoon and we were having coffee. He said, "I want to tell you about a book." I said, "Don't do it, it'll take the edge off and you'll never write it." He said, "No, I want to tell you about this." It was a pair of inter woven stories involving two mountain men in the early nineteenth century. It sounded neat. It was one of the few times in my life that I ever felt it would be nice to steal someone else's idea. So what I would do, I decided, was wait a few years and ask Gerry If he had ever written it. If he said no, I'll offer to buy it from him. But when we finished our coffee he said, "Would you be interested in writing it with me?" I said yes right away. We did it as a hobby. We didn't have a contract or anything. He'd write a chapter and when I had a chance I'd write a chapter. We kicked it back and forth for a long time.

AM: D.C. Comics is currently working on a graphic adaptation of the Amber chronicles for Byron Preiss, when will that be out and what can you tell me about it?

The artist on the first one was Lou Harrison a very good artist. The first one is finished, and I'm quite happy with the artwork. The guy doesn't have the usual diffuse lighting in the individual panels that most comics art has. Harris actually got live models, established a light source, and posed them and photographed them and worked from the photographs, so he has all of the shadows in the right places. D.C. [Comics) wanted to have three issues in the can, though, before they brought the first one out. When I was at the San Diego Comic Con two weeks ago, I saw the art work on the second one. So probably next year some time, they'll start issuing them. What they propose doing is three comics per novel, so there will be thirty all together. I believe each group of three will eventually be bound together into a graphic novel.

AM: Ten Amber novels, a role playing system, and several fanzines devoted to Amber. Are you at all surprised by Amber's success?

Oh yes. It's very gratifying. Things just catch on sometimes. It's nice when they do.

AM: With all the success that you've had with Amber, I imagine there's a lot of pressure for you to write more Amber novels, do you ever wish it would all just go away?

No, because I won't do it unless I want to. I'll probably do more eventually. But I've solved the problem, for the time being, I think. Recently I decided I would write Amber short stories. I'm using them as a medium for clearing up some of the loose ends in the novels.

AM: Where do you plan to sell those?

Oh, different places. It's not something I can schedule. I wrote one while I was in England, about a month ago. I thought I'd write a little bit each night. I had a fellow interested in doing a leather-bound addition of short stories. The price was good, and I decided I'd try an Amber story from the point of view of a character I hadn't used yet as a viewpoint character. It's also scheduled to appear in Eric Wujcik's Amberzine.

AM: Given your well known dislike of the movie adaptation of Damnation Ally, can we expect to see an Amber movie?

All of the Amber novels are under film option, and I would take their money. I just hope they'd do a better job.

EM: I enjoyed When Pussywillows In The Catyard Last Bloomed and To Spin Is Miracle Cat. Is there a new book of Roger Zelazny poetry on the horizon.

No, though when I was in England I was interviewed by poet Steve Sneyd. He was talking about the use of poetry in my novels. I mentioned that The Hymn To The Sun, from the Egyptian Pharaoh Amenhotep, was a much longer piece than what we used as section dividers in Flare. He said, "How much longer?" I said, "Oh, pages and pages." He then said, "Why don't you do it as a chapbook?" I thought about it. That's not the only place where I did classical poetry adaptations. I use Robert Lowell's theory of imitation when I'm working with such foreign language stuff. I used it first in Lord Of Light, with the Hindu and Buddhist material I employed for chapter breaks. Later on, I used it in Eye of CAT for the Indian material--the chants and the prayers. The Hymn To The Sun, which is seventh century Egyptian was actually ripped off by the psalmist who became the basis for the 104th Psalm. So what I did was I put together a manuscript with an introduction, explaining Robert Lowell's theory of imitation, and then talking about my piece. Then I have the complete version of The Hymn To The Sun, and then an appendix containing the 104th Psalm, to show the similarities. I have another appendix containing all the pieces from Lord Of Light, and a final appendix showing the Eye Of Cat material, and explaining the different categories involved.

AM: At the beginning of your career, you had an amazing amount of critical acclaim. How did the pressure of having to live up to everyone's expectations shape you as a writer?

I don't know. I just don't think about it much. I guess you have to be a little arrogant to be a writer. I decided early on that just because a lot of other writers were bothered by getting bad reviews didn't really that the things were particularly important. By the same token, the good ones didn't mean all that much either. So I just forget about reviews and I wrote what I wanted.

AM: How would you like history to remember Roger Zelazny?

RZ: Oh, I don't know-- that's a hell of a question-- I don't tend to look at my stuff that way. I just look at it a book at a time. Something like the Amber books are in a different class. I try not to anticipate. I don't know what I'll be writing a few years from now. I have some ideas--I have lots of different things I want to try. I almost don't really care what history thinks. I like the way I'm being treated right now. Jane M. Lindskold has just turned in a literary biography I'm extremely pleased with. I think she did a wonderful job. It will be coming out from Twayne books.

Zelazny's biography is available from Twayne books,
ISBN 0-8057-3953-X.