Samuel R. Delany, The Art of Fiction

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From The Paris Review:

The first time I interview Samuel Delany, we meet in a diner near his apartment on New York’s Upper West Side. It is a classic greasy spoon that serves strong coffee and breakfast all day. We sit near the window, and Delany, who is a serious morning person, presides over the city as it wakes. Dressed in what is ­often his uniform—black jeans and a black button-down shirt, ear pierced with multiple rings—he looks imperial. His beard, dramatically long and starkly white, is his most distinctive feature. “You are ­famous, I can just tell, I know you from somewhere,” a stranger tells him in the 2007 docu­mentary Polymath, or the Life and Opinions of Samuel R. Delany, Gentleman. Such intrusions are common, because Delany, whose work has been described as limitless, has lived a life that flouts the conventional. He is a gay man who was married to a woman for twelve years; he is a black man who, because of his light complexion, is regularly asked to identify his ethnicity. Yet he seems hardly bothered by such attempts to figure him out. Instead, he laughs, and more often than not it is a quiet chuckle expressed mostly in his eyes.

Delany was born on April 1, 1942, in Harlem, by then the cultural epicenter of black America. His father, who had come to New York from Raleigh, North Carolina, ran Levy and Delany, a funeral home to which Langston Hughes refers in his stories about the neighborhood. Delany grew up above his father’s business. During the day he attended Dalton, an elite and primarily white prep school on the Upper East Side; at home, his mother, a senior clerk at the New York Public Library’s Countee Cullen branch, on 125th Street, nurtured his exceptional intelligence and kaleidoscopic interests. He sang in the choir at St. Philip’s, Harlem’s black Episcopalian church, composed atonal music, played multiple instruments, and choreographed dances at the General Grant Community Center. In 1956, he earned a spot at the Bronx High School of Science, where he would meet his future wife, the poet Marilyn Hacker.

In the early sixties, the newly married couple settled in the East Village. There, Delany wrote his first novel, The Jewels of Aptor. He was nineteen. Over the next six years, he published eight more science-fiction novels, among them the Nebula Award winners Babel-17 (1966) and The Einstein Intersection (1967). 

. . . .

In 1971, he completed a draft of a book he had been reworking for years. Dhalgren, his story of the Kid, a schizoid, amnesiac wanderer, takes place in Bellona, a shell of a city in the American Midwest isolated from the rest of the world and populated by warring gangs and holographic beasts. When Delany, Hacker, and their one-year-old daughter flew back to the States just before Christmas Eve in 1974, they saw copies of Dhalgren filling book racks at Kennedy Airport even before they reached customs. Over the next decade, the novel sold more than a million copies and was called a master­piece by some critics. William Gibson famously described it as “a riddle that was never meant to be solved.”

. . . .

INTERVIEWER

Between the time you were nineteen and your twenty-second birthday, you wrote and sold five novels, and another four by the time you were twenty-six, plus a volume of short stories. Fifty years later, considerably more than half that work is still in print. Was being a prodigy important to you?

DELANY

As a child I’d run into Wilde’s witticism “The only true talent is preco­ciousness.” I took my writing seriously, and it seemed to pay off. And I ­discovered Rimbaud. The notion of somebody just a year or two older than I was, who wrote poetry people were reading a hundred, a hundred fifty years later and who had written the greatest poem in the French ­language, or at least the most famous one, “Le Bateau Ivre,” when he was just sixteen—that was enough to set my imagination soaring. At eighteen I translated it.

In the same years, I found the Signet paperback of Radiguet’s Devil in the Flesh and, a few months after that, the much superior Le Bal du Comte d’Orgel, translated as Count d’Orgel in the first trade paperback from Grove Press, with Cocteau’s deliciously suggestive “introduction” about its tragic young author, salted with such dicta as “Which family doesn’t have its own child prodigy? They have invented the word. Of course, child prodigies ­exist, just as there are extraordinary men. But they are rarely the same. Age means nothing. What astounds me is Rimbaud’s work, not the age at which he wrote it. All great poets have written by seventeen. The greatest are the ones who manage to make us forget it.”

Now that was something to think about—and clearly it had been said about someone who had not expected to die at twenty of typhoid from eating bad oysters.

. . . .

INTERVIEWER

Do you think of yourself as a genre writer?

DELANY

I think of myself as someone who thinks largely through writing. Thus I write more than most people, and I write in many different forms. I think of myself as the kind of person who writes, rather than as one kind of writer or another. That’s about the closest I come to categorizing myself as one or another kind of artist.

Link to the rest at The Paris Review

Here’s a link to the Samuel R. Delany Author Page on Amazon (where his photo shows a world-class beard)

6 thoughts on “Samuel R. Delany, The Art of Fiction”

  1. So, “William Gibson famously described it as “a riddle that was never meant to be solved.”?

    I can believe that.
    It is one of tbe few SF books I declined to finish.
    I have it shelved next to James Joyce.

  2. Like a lot of people I found Dhalgren opaque, but I love a lot of his other works: Babel 17, Nova, his graphic novel Empire , The Ballad of Beta-2, and Triton. All great reads.

    • Oh, no question he is a great writer.
      With good things to say.
      But if he goes out of his way to hide what he has to say, I have better ways of wasting my time.
      Some folks get too clever and lose sight that the literature of ideas is for exploring and sharing ideas, not hiding them.

    • If you liked Delany, A, I’m going to give one of the books you list a try.

      No offense intended, Felix.

      • Why would I mind?
        There’s people that like ULYSSES.
        And lots of people’s like puzzles.
        I don’t pretend my tastes are universal.
        Just trying to figure if anybody agrees, it’s all.

      • Be warned Triton may not be to your taste. I liked it, but it was also the last book of his I read.

        All the others I recommend without hesitation.

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