Walter Tevis straddled the science fiction and mainstream worlds. His acclaimed first novel, The Hustler, which delved into the world of pool sharks and was published in 1959, was turned into an even more acclaimed film two years later starring Paul Newman and Jackie Gleason. His second novel, 1963’s science fiction gem The Man Who Fell to Earth, became a cult classic and a 1976 film by British auteur Nicolas Roeg (Don’t Look Now) featuring rock star David Bowie. In 1980, Tevis returned with his third novel, Mockingbird, another science fiction work, this one set in a dystopian future. But those who knew Tevis’s work had special regard for his small pool of short stories, published from the late 1950s through to the 1970s in such magazines as Galaxy and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. In 1981, these stories were collected, along with newer material, in Far From Home.
By 1981, the radio show that Dick Lupoff, Lawrence Davidson, and I co-hosted, Probabilities, had been on the airwaves of Berkeley, California’s KPFA for four years. Originally a program dedicated to science fiction interviews, the show had expanded to include other genre and general fiction authors as our tastes, as co-hosts, began to change, but mostly it still focused on its original theme. When we learned that Tevis was coming to Cody’s Books to read and sign copies of Far From Home, it was cause for some jubilation. Lupoff had loved Tevis’s work for years, having read pretty much everything he’d published. Davidson and I admired his three novels and enjoyed the new collection.
Because of time constraints and studio availability, we’d decided to hold the interview at Cody’s itself, just prior to Tevis’s public reading, in owner Andy Ross’s office, using a small professional tape recorder. Immediately things went wrong. Ross’s office was locked, Ross was on vacation, and nobody with a key was available.
Finally, there being no alternative, we were forced to interview Tevis in the stairwell outside Ross’s office. The echo was horrendous and the space cramped. As we talked, the stairwell got hotter and hotter, the air ever staler. Through it all, Tevis remained a trooper.
Though shy and reserved, and clearly ill at ease with all the adulation, he was remarkably forthcoming about his life, the illnesses, the alcoholism—this at a time when fame still was not considered a licence to blab one’s deepest, darkest secrets to the world. Afterwards, Tevis was extremely gracious (he signed my copy of Far From Home with the word “affectionately”) and gave an excellent reading. We all hoped he’d return while on tour for his next book, but that never happened.
He did, however, turn prolific over the next three years—until his untimely death in 1984—publishing three more novels: The Steps of the Sun, another science fiction novel; a sequel to The Hustler, titled The Color of Money (with only a faint resemblance to the film of the same name a few years later); and The Queen’s Gambit, a novel about chess that, over the course of the past two decades, has developed its own cult following.
— Richard Wolinsky
RAL: Norman Spinrad called The Man Who Fell to Earth a single-entry novel into the science fiction genre by a so-called mainstream novelist. He also referred to you as an SF novice. In view of the fact that The Man Who Fell to Earth was published in 1963, if you had been publishing stories in Galaxy, If and Fantasy and Science Fiction since 1957, how do you feel about the appellation of SF novice?
WT: I was pissed, and I thought he was wrong. You know, maybe he didn’t know about those stories. Some of them had dwelled in obscurity for several years, and the thing I was mainly known for at the time I did The Man Who Fell to Earth was The Hustler, which is . . . which everybody thinks, anyway, is pretty far from science fiction. . . . I’ve worked both sides of the street for some time. Still am, you know, and that was a long time ago, and right now in my life I’m not sure whether I’m a science fiction writer or not, but I think I’ve written enough science fiction that, you know, willy-nilly, I am.
RAL: About those early science fiction stories of yours from 1957 onward, those are collected in Far from Home.
RAL: Would you talk a bit about the editors you worked with on those stories, how those stories came to be written, and how the relationship worked between you and your publishers?
WT: Had no relationship with my publishers whatever. I was teaching high school English in small towns in Kentucky at the time, and I merely wrote them and I sent them off and I prayed for a cheque. There was no editorial, you know, impedance or assistance that I can recall. I do remember that one or two of them were bought by Robert Mills, who later became my agent as a result of an elaborate series of events, but it was just a case of writing them, sending them off. It was sort of like entering coupons in a raffle or something and waiting to see what happened.
I would like to say about those stories, they were the kind of thing that really charmed me at the time. I don’t know if I could do them now or would want to do them now, but at the time I was very much caught up in the extrapolation of sort of a simple “what if?” idea in a science fiction story, and especially devices that turned upon some kind of unusual substance, an unusual invention or something like that. I really liked that. I think, in a deeper way, it was a way of staying away from my feelings, being able to write off the top of my head. I was a very good chess player in those days, too, and I think the same kind of mentality was involved. You know, this is something I can do without really getting my guts involved.
RAL: Which was the bouncing ball story?
WT: “The Big Bounce,” it’s called. You know, that was a lot of fun. That idea really got to me and I still like it, the idea of making the simple conversion of thermal energy into electrical energy or kinetic energy of some kind or another, you know. The idea behind that story came from buying my first air conditioner and realizing that I was going to have to plug money into this system and put electricity into the system and put energy into the system in order to remove energy from my room. It seemed horrendous, and I wanted to find some way around it. You know, if there’s some way that you could sell that energy or get rid of it, so I invented a rubbery compound that would cool off and deliver additional velocity each time it bounced. Isaac Asimov later told me it was impossible, that I was violating the second law of thermodynamics, but I was in another state where that law didn’t apply.
RW: You mentioned Isaac Asimov, which brings up something that Dick and I were discussing before. What contact, physical contact, did you have during the fifties and early sixties with other science fiction writers?
WT: I spent about an hour and a quarter with Harlan Ellison once, [laughs] and that was it. I was in Kentucky at the time, very much outside the circuit of science fiction writers. No, I’ve actually met very few of them. For thirteen years, after I taught high school, I became a college professor in Athens, Ohio, and there just aren’t many science fiction writers around there. There’s one, Dan Keyes, who was a good friend of mine, who wrote Flowers for Algernon, and he and I played chess and poker and shot pool and saw each other all the time.
RAL: Did you ever think of writing a story together?
WT: Nope. We’re very competitive with one another. We’re good friends, but it wouldn’t work. I wrote a story together with Ted Cogswell—Theodore R. Cogswell—years and years ago. It was published in a British science fiction magazine, as written by Tevis Cogswell. Can’t even remember the title of it, but we got fifteen bucks for it.
LD: The other night, The Hustler was on the tube, and I was watching and wondering about some of the references, knowing that you had come from Oakland and the kid, Fast Eddie, had . . .
WT: I came from San Francisco. It’s a disguised autobiographical reference, the fact that he comes from Oakland.
LD: I was wondering how fluent you were as a pool player?
WT: I was sort of a B-minus pool player. I suspect that I could beat anybody in this room, but I could not play against professionals with any hope of winning. Much of the pool-room scene as it appears in The Hustler was made up by me and was not the way that pool rooms really looked. But pool rooms have come to resemble The Hustler since. [laughs] In fact, I’ve heard that at least two pool hustlers have had their thumbs broken since The Hustler was written. You know, that never happened. And then there’s a fat guy who goes around calling himself Minnesota Fats, which is astonishing to me . . .
RAL: Oh, your Minnesota Fats came first!
WT: Yes, indeed.
RAL: I thought it was based on a famous—
WT: I know. A lot of people ask me, “When did you first meet Minnesota Fats?” And I feel like Walt Disney being asked, “When did you meet Donald Duck?” Come on, I made him up. One of my contributions to American folklore. We talked about the West Coast reference by the way—I was thinking as I drove up here and was trying to think of witty things to say. Where did The Man Who Fell to Earth fall from? He fell from San Francisco, and I can go into that, but essentially that book is a very disguised autobiography. It is based upon my own feelings from time to time that I’m from another planet. Feelings which I’ve not altogether negated within myself, which I’ve tried to negate within myself with booze over a large number of years, but it has to do with my having moved from what I thought was the City of Light, San Francisco, when I was eleven to the other side of the tracks—Lexington, Kentucky, where I went to a tough Appalachian school in the fifth grade and was beaten up regularly. And when I went there, I went after having been a year and a half in the Stanford Convalescent Hospital for Children. I was skinny, weak. I’d had to spend a full year in bed. They didn’t even let me out of the bed to go to the toilet. And I wasn’t aware of this consciously when I was writing The Man Who Fell to Earth, but, certainly, it just knocked me over when I read the book afterwards in galleys. It was as though I had been living in a low-gravity planet. As you know, in the movie, The Man Who Fell to Earth winds up in New Mexico—that’s because Nick Roeg, the director, likes deserts—but in the novel he winds up in Kentucky, and it was me coming from San Francisco to Kentucky. Okay, that was a very elaborate answer to a question about Fast Eddie in Oakland.
RW: How did you feel about the movie, The Man Who Fell to Earth?
WT: I give it a C-plus.
RW: What’d you think about Bowie?
WT: Oh, I think he was terrific. That was genius casting. I think that was really wonderful, and he’s a wonderful man. That book, I sold five movie options to. It came out in 1963, and the movie wasn’t made until, I think, ’76 or something like that, ’75. And I had five different producers option it. In fact, I made more money out of movie options than I did in book sales. And I would talk with these various producers about who would play the part and seriously considered were such people as Peter O’Toole and Oscar Werner and James Coburn. In fact, James Coburn wrote me. He wanted to buy an option on the book for a piffling sum, but it was already optioned to somebody else and I couldn’t sell it to him. I can imagine James Coburn . . . well, he wouldn’t be too bad, the white hair, the tall skinny figure and all . . . but it would never . . . and I knew who David Bowie was. My kids played his records all the time over my protests, you know, that kind of thing, but it never would have occurred to me . . .
RAL: Were you startled?
WT: I was startled. I really was startled. But it seemed right. It really did seem right, and when I met him it seemed even more right.
LD: What did you feel about Roeg as the director?
WT: He’s got a very good eye, he’s got a good visual sense. We fought a lot, and there’s no question . . . When a novelist sells his book to the movies, I think he has to defer to a large extent to the director. It’s a director’s medium. You can’t have everybody saying how to make the movie. With due recognition of that fact, I think he feels that it isn’t art if you can understand it, and I hate that notion. I really hate it. And I think when you do a parable, which is more or less what I do in science fiction, you have to be up front about what’s going on in the foreground. You know, to put myself in a very high category, for the sake of illustration, I think, say, that Jesus Christ and Franz Kafka are very good tellers of parables. You never wonder in a Jesus Christ story how many sheep and shepherds are being talked about and, you know, who lost what sheep and who planted the mustard seed and all that kind of . . . You may not know how to take it. In fact, people have fought and died on battlefields throughout the Middle Ages over how to take these parables, but you know what’s going on in the foreground. And people will say about Franz Kafka stories, “No, I don’t understand it.” Well, they do understand them. You know what’s going on, you just don’t know how to take it. It is very difficult. And I want people to know what’s going on in The Man Who Fell to Earth, and in Nick Roeg’s presentation of the movie, you don’t. There are a lot of things you just don’t know about. And to hell with that. I want that all to be clear.
RAL: How do you feel about reading the book and then seeing the movie?
WT: You know, in my case, since I wrote the book, I have my own very strong images of what the characters look like and what their voices are like and so forth. There’s a certain wincing that you get when you hear your dialogue spoken. You know, you say that isn’t the way it sounds, that isn’t the way he looks. On the other hand, there were a couple of scenes in The Man Who Fell to Earth movie over which I really cried. I was whacked. I mean, it was crying for myself. Because I could really get something that I hadn’t been able to see in the book itself. The movie . . . It’s like seeing your own dream suddenly thrown at you in an incredible deja-vu circumstance. You don’t see it so clearly when you’re reading the book, because you’re used to the language and you’re protected from what your book means. But when you see a version that goes through somebody else’s set of filters, it can be overwhelming.
RAL: Do you recall specifically what those moments were?
WT: Yeah, there were some that had to do with my alcoholism. Now, The Man Who Fell to Earth is about my becoming an alcoholic, really. That’s my private story about my sense of my own physical weakness and my sense of my not really being human, a quality that I can spot within Mockingbird as the same thing, to some extent. Mockingbird’s about coming out of alcoholism. At least, for me it is. I don’t necessarily demand that people understand it that way, but that’s what it means to me. A scene where he vomits into a wastebasket in the hotel room, as I have done into wastebaskets in hotel rooms. . . . You know, being your garden-variety alcoholic, I’ve had all those experiences and had had some of them before I wrote that book, although I was sort of on the threshold of alcoholism when I wrote it. I had sobered up from an eight-month drunk to write it. And then just the sense of his awkward movement and the pain of moving around, which I had felt as a child so much after that convalescence, and his feeling generally of goodwill toward people, but being afraid of them.
I’d like to go on about that business of movies, because something else came to my mind when you asked about it. I had to reread The Man Who Fell to Earth and The Hustler not so long ago, and when I read The Man Who Fell to Earth, I did not see David Bowie in my imagination as my character. I saw Thomas Jerome Newton, who is not me, really. I see him as a very white-haired, very thin person with a dark complexion, quite tall, very narrow in the shoulders, and the description doesn’t quite really fit me. But when I read The Hustler, which I know is older, I cannot see my characters. I can’t see Fast Eddie and I can’t see Minnesota Fats. I see Paul Newman and Jackie Gleason, and it’s infuriating. Damn it, you’ve raped my imagination! And that was the case . . . And that’s not the timeline, because that was the case fifteen years ago, that I had lost the memory as it were of what those characters looked like. Maybe that’s a testimony to the fact that The Hustler is a better movie, at least in my view, than The Man Who Fell to Earth. I don’t know. But anyway, it certainly is testimony to the fact that movies can rape the imagination. I mean, when the author can’t remember what his own characters look like, it’s certainly something.
LD: In both your science fiction novels, you make references to Bruegel’s Fall of Icarus. Why are you so fascinated with it?
WT: You know, oddly enough, it’s Auden’s poem about the painting that I love so much. I’m just crazy about that poem. And I like the painting, I think Bruegel’s great. I like Auden. I think he’s a great poet.
RW: I’d like to ask a little about your own background in science fiction. I know in a press release that we got, you mentioned Fritz Leiber and Theodore Sturgeon. When you were growing up, did you read the pulps at all?
WT: Sure, I did indeed. Every one that I could steal. I stole many of them. Amazing Stories, Fantastic Adventures, both Ziff-Davis, Astounding Science Fiction, which was Street & Smith in those days, and Super Science, Thrilling Wonder Tales, the whole bit, in the late thirties and early forties. Everything I could get my hands on.
RW: Any favourite writers from that period?
WT: Stanley G. Weinbaum, Nelson S. Bond. I could start naming stories, like “The Fertility of Dalrymple Todd” or Sojarr of Titan. Anyway, sure, I was up to my armpits in science fiction for years and years, and then I quit reading them when I was eighteen. I would pick up an occasional book, you know, that I had heard about. But I’d not been totally immersed in it since then. Although since I’ve just finished yet another science fiction novel—I’ve gotten out four science fiction books in a row—it’s about damn time I got back into it and found out whether I’m twenty years behind what’s going on.
RAL: You’re not. I hope it was intentional on your part, but the opening scene [of Mockingbird] was the most bizarre and totally successful piece of black humour that I had read in years, about a robot trying to commit suicide and not being able to do it.
WT: Gee, I didn’t think of it that way. I’m pleased with the effect that it had on you. I was writing out of my own suicide attempt—I had a couple of them—and trying to make a parallel with Spofforth and King Kong. King Kong moved me greatly when I was about five or six years old. I really responded to the ape and to his feelings for us. And I didn’t catch on to it then, but I did catch on later—I think when I first read Frankenstein, maybe—to that factor that in the non-human character in works like that, you’ve got a tremendous emotional charge, especially when they’re surrounded by such stick figures as they usually are. The people aren’t worth a shit in King Kong or in Frankenstein or in 2001, as opposed to HAL the computer or the Frankenstein monster or King Kong, who I loved. Apparently, the writer can allow himself to pull out a lot of feeling from us on those nonhuman characters, which, of course, is what I do with Newton in The Man Who Fell to Earth and with Spofforth in Mockingbird.
But actually, that scene has a literary source. In a sense, it’s kind of borrowed from The Scarlet Letter, which opens on the scaffolds in the centre of town with Hester and her public appearance before everybody—nobody’s there to look at Spofforth—and then closes with her on the scaffolds in the centre of town. That was, you know, the source of it. A lot of The Man Who Fell to Earth, I was embarrassed to discover, was kind of borrowed from a movie called The Day the Earth Stood Still, in which skinny Michael Rennie plays a benign visiting spaceman. I know, they’re not at all alike really. He’s handing out diamonds to Patricia Neal and all, saying “Klaatu Barada Nikto” and all that stuff. But, you know, when I saw the movie a few years after writing The Man Who Fell to Earth, it was really kind of embarrassing because I realized I made some unconscious borrowings from it.
RAL: How much uncollected Tevis fiction is there, and what chances do we have of ever seeing it in covers?
WT: Oh, gosh, there’re about, I guess, twenty-five stories or so. A lot of them are about pool players, which I wouldn’t want to publish. Partly because I borrowed from them for The Hustler and they do resemble one another too much. And then there are a bunch of pieces of magazine fiction dating from the fifties that I like a lot, that I’m very fond of. I don’t know. Every now and then, somebody suggests to me collecting them and putting them out. Maybe I will someday.
RAL: “Rent Control” is one of the most bizarre, wacko stories that I have read in the past thirty years. There must be a background to that.
WT: [laughs] It’s based on living with a lady in New York City for about a year. It didn’t happen the way it happens there, but it’s based on my recognition that I was involving myself too closely and too narcissistically in a love affair. A lot of what opened up for me in writing these stories is my realization that I can use this psychological material in a science fiction context and it works extremely well for me. I feel very comfortable doing it that way. Whereas, if I were to write confessionally or autobiographically, it would be a mess.
RAL: I’d like you to talk a little bit about writing techniques and attitudes, such as, how fast do you write? How long does it take you to write a short story or a novel and so on?
WT: Okay. I generally do a short story in a sitting, or sometimes in two days. I pay a price for this; I don’t necessarily recommend it. But I happen, still, to be suffering from a pretty serious block. I have a terrible time getting myself to work and I don’t have any excuses to make. I write entirely for a living, my children are raised and have left home. I never outline. My best ideas come at the typewriter. I write very fast. I triple-space, so that I’ll have plenty of room for repenting at leisure over what I’ve done. At least at present in my life, I have to catch myself when I’m hot, and then I work practically till I drop, and then I spend a lot of time sitting around staring at the ceiling and scratching my ear and, you know, wondering why I’m in this damn profession of writing and all that sort of thing.
It’s not the best way to work, but it’s the only way that I presently know how. I would like to get spiritually grown enough to the point that I could work about four hours a day, five days a week, you know, and go to church on Sunday or whatever . . . to clean up my language. [laughs] But I don’t do any outlining. I don’t do any researching. I was tempted while writing Mockingbird to start watching silent movies, you know, and see if I could pick some interesting stuff to use, and I realized that would’ve been just a dodge to avoid the typewriter. So I never research anything.
LD: You paint a pretty bleak picture in terms of literacy in Mockingbird.
WT: It comes from twenty-five years of being an English teacher.
RW: Do you see a decline in literacy? I do, but do you?
WT: Oh, you hear about it a lot. Yes, I’ve seen it a bit, but my private experience as an English teacher has been that Americans don’t read books. They didn’t read books in 1949 when I started teaching. They don’t read books now Television did make a difference. It deepened the slack of the slackjaws and gave another great quantity of garbage for people to fill their lives with. But, you know, there was other garbage around before television. Mockingbird does sometimes, I think, weaken into an attack solely on television and on the modern world, and “weaken” I say because I’m not completely convinced of all those things that I say. But what I am convinced of is that it is very bad for people to find substitutes for living their lives, and that’s what I hope I do say, and say well, from time to time in the book.
RAL: It seems to me that in a number of your works and mostly, or most emphatically, in Mockingbird, you’re portraying a peculiar kind of tyranny where there is no chain-mail fist, there is no club or whip, but where you’re just cozened and cajoled into acquiescence to our own domination.
WT: And nobody much is doing it. The government of the United States, when it appears, is just a silly voice coming from a computer somewhere. You can do what you damn well please, really, in the world of Mockingbird, but nobody knows that. Or you can almost do what you please. You know, Paul gets locked up for what he does. . . . I have to get an incarceration episode in every one of my books. Even Fast Eddie in The Hustler, although he’s not locked up, has his thumbs broken and is forced to depend upon Sarah, his girl—who maybe at depth is really my mother who presided over me in a kind of ghoulish way during my illness when I was a kid—and becomes dependent on her. And none of those things were conscious in the writing of them, but they kind of zapped me reading about it afterwards. You know, you do find, as a writer, that you’re writing the same story over and over again whether you want to or not. It’s kind of scary.
RAL: What was this illness? You mentioned having been in bed for a year . . .
WT: Yeah, rheumatic heart, rheumatic fever, and St. Vitus’s dance. All three of them. So I was diagnosed.
LD: What do you see as your future. I mean, do you plan to stay writing science fiction?
WT: I want to work both sides of the street. When I finish Belsen, I intend to write a realistic novel, somewhat along the line of The Hustler perhaps. I mean, it won’t be about a gambler, but a book in that general vein of verisimilitude realism. I want to write about a world where you can write sentences like, “He lit up a Marlboro and stepped into his Chevette.” You get tired of making up the world of science fiction, and after a while it gets shrill.
RAL: It seems to me, in your novels in particular, that there is a peculiar blend, a sort of gentle tragedy rather than a really horrendous tragedy, with always a hopeful note at the end, as for instance in The Man Who Fell to Earth. For all the downfall that has happened to Newton, at the end he is surviving. He is somehow sticking it out and moving along. At least, he’s there today and he’ll be there tomorrow, and maybe he’s going to get it together and be all right. In Mockingbird, much more positively, we have a rebirth of hope at the end. And in The Hustler, again, Fast Eddie at the end somehow overcomes, or seems to be overcoming, his own weakness and failures and is going to go on to something better.
WT: Yeah. I think you’ve described it very well. I don’t know how to account for it. I hardly have a comment to make. I’m really impressed with the way you stated it. It’s not an effect that I aim at. I suppose it derives, to some extent, from my own unfinished sense of my own life and my own lack of knowledge as to whether it’s comic or tragic. I don’t design my books to have a particular outcome, but they do wind up in a kind of uncertain way. Mockingbird ends up deliberately hopeful. I wanted it to be hopeful. I feel hopeful. I feel a lot more hopeful about life than I used to. I feel a hell of a lot better about living. I like the fact that the grass is green. I really am pleased with that in a way that I didn’t used to be.
Richard Wolinsky produced, co-hosted, and hosted the Probabilities radio show on kpfa-fm in Berkeley from 1977 to 1995, followed by Cover to Cover Thursdays from 1995 to the present. Archived audio interviews can be found on-line at www.bookwaves.com, and current programs can be accessed at www.kpfa.org during their regularly scheduled times.
Lawrence G. Davidson has been a buyer at Cody’s Books of Berkeley, California, since 1977. He co-founded the Probabilities show on KPFARadio of Berkeley. More recently, he co-authored the critically acclaimed book Pulp Culture: The Art of Fiction Magazines with Frank M. Robinson.
Richard A. Lupoff recently published his fiftieth book, The Great American Paperback, a work of cultural history. Many of his stories have been collected in such volumes as Before 12:01 and After, Claremont Tales, and Claremont Tales II.