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the genre's premiere review magazine for short SF & Fantasy since 1993

Classic Clifford D. Simak Interview

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Tangent Online Presents:

An Interview with Clifford D. Simak




Dave Truesdale & Paul McGuire


Minneapolis, Minnesota

Event & Date:

Minicon 10

April 18-20, 1975

Originally appeared in Tangent No. 2, May 1975


It was a privilege to have gotten the opportunity to speak with Cliff Simak even for a few minutes, as this interview turned out to be one of the shortest of the six or seven I conducted at Minicon 10 in 1975. Interviews with William Tenn, Leigh Brackett & Edmond Hamilton, Lester and Judy Lynn del Rey, and Donald A. Wollheim were pre-arranged and quite lengthy. Not so this one.  Cliff was just leaving a panel when I bumped into him and asked if we could set a time for an interview. He replied that he had little free time but we could do one right there in the hallway. Rather unprepared, I thanked him and motioned to some chairs in a small alcove off the main hallway. We spoke for maybe thirty minutes and the result is what you see below. Just into his seventies, he nevertheless spoke in a strong, if gentle voice.

I had read perhaps three or four of his twenty novels (as of 1975; he would go on to pen nine more before his death in 1988): Cosmic Engineers (1939), Ring Around the Sun (1952), A Choice of Gods (1972), his newest, Enchanted Pilgrimage (1975), and of course City (1952). Having just finished Enchanted Pilgrimage (in hardcover) a week prior I had it with me in hopes of getting an autograph should I run into Cliff. Obviously, luck was with me on that score as I now sat face to face with the man. As we talked I focused on him and his answers exclusively, looking up but once near the end of the interview to find a sizable crowd had gathered around us (mostly behind me, so they could get a good look at Cliff). As the interview concluded, he saw my copy of Enchanted Pilgrimage and asked if I’d read it. I said yes. He asked if I enjoyed it. I said yes, very much. He then took the book and autographed it, along with three or four more I had in my small briefcase. One of his entourage--a smiling female--then leaned over and hugged him, helped him out of his chair, and led him away to his next appointment. It was the last I ever saw of him, that weekend or ever. That said, it was a memorable half hour and looking back, one I’ll never forget.

One of science fiction’s earliest pioneers, Cliff saw his first science fiction story published in the December 1931 issue of Wonder Stories. He left the field for a few years in 1933 only to return when John W. Campbell became editor of Astounding in 1938 and ushered in what many consider to be the first Golden Age of SF. Cliff took home an International Fantasy Award for Best Novel in 1953 for City (a collection of stories first published in Campbell‘s Astounding), beating out novels by Cyril Kornbluth and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (Vonnegut’s Player Piano, no less). In 1959 he won a Hugo for his novelette “The Big Front Yard,” in 1964 he would win another Hugo for his novel Way Station, and in 1981 he made a clean sweep with four awards for his short story “Grotto of the Dancing Deer.” “Grotto” won the Analog Analytical Laboratory Award (the publication where it saw print), the Hugo, the Nebula, and the Locus Award.  In 1976 (the year following this interview) Cliff was named SFWA’s third Grand Master, following only Robert A. Heinlein (1974) and Jack Williamson (1975), and in 1988 he was honored with the Bram Stoker Lifetime Achievement Award.

Clifford Donald Simak was a talented author, winning top awards at both the short and novel lengths, and was at home writing science fiction or fantasy (or ofttimes a combination of both). But above all he was a kind and gentle man who loved humanity, despite its many faults. In many of his novels and short stories he would set characters in rural or pastoral settings, much like the Wisconsin and Minnesota environs in which he lived his life. A lifelong newspaperman, feature writer and journalist in his day job, he loved his robots and time travel, which he explored in many ways throughout his writing career. As William Tenn said of Cliff by way of compliment, he had a wonderfully childlike mind--not childish--but childlike, and this mindset served Cliff well as he tinkered endlessly with his robots and time travel, two of SF’s most basic tropes, serving to keep alive that “sense of wonder” in his stories. Low key and unprepossessing by today’s standards, Cliff spoke through his work, and he left quite a legacy for young and old alike.



TANGENT: Do you have anything new in the works?

CLIFFORD D. SIMAK: I just finished a new novel, untitled, but I don't have a new novel ready to go. I will, within a few months. I've got a lot of ideas, but nothing that has worked out to the point where I'm ready to work on it. I think I'm probably going to try to write a few short stories until I can get going on the novel.

TANGENT: Since being a newspaperman must take up much of your time, how much time do you have to spend on your writing?

SIMAK: I've never figured out how much time I have. I try to do some writing every day. Some days I don't get anything written, but I try. I sit down at my desk and if something doesn't get written within fifteen or twenty minutes I give it up as a bad day. I absolutely do not try to write a certain number of pages a day. When you place any sort of pressure on yourself, when you introduce a stress sort of situation into your writing, you are defeating your purpose. You then make it a job instead of a creative process.

TANGENT: Do you make complete plot outlines far in advance of what you're writing, or do things occur spontaneously?

SIMAK: No, I usually plot any kind of story out, and it's fairly tightly plotted for perhaps the first half of it. The last half is rather loosely plotted. The reason for this is that I've found out that there really is no point in detailed plotting for the last half of it. Because as you write, the situations, the characters, and the flow of the narrative begin to take over. You find, by the time you get halfway through the story, that you are not writing the story―the kind of story―that you thought you were going to write to start with. So, when you get to that point, you see that the rest of your plot outline is invalid.

Then I start in again and replot the thing, and I may even have to replot it again before I get through with it, because it is absolutely uncanny how situations will develop. Your characters begin to develop and take charge of the situation. It's incredible to see it happen and most people don't believe it when I tell them.

I think this is the true writing process. You could very well tightly plot a story from beginning to end, and no matter what, you could follow that plot. I have a feeling that you probably wouldn't have as good a story as if you allowed the situation to take over itself. This type of writing is writing with your guts, it's writing with your nerve endings, it's absolutely the opposite of formula writing.

TANGENT: It's a very emotional type of writing as opposed to the contrived intellectual type?

SIMAK: Yes. If you try to be too intellectual you will get too traditionally hidebound on the thing. This is exactly what will happen.

TANGENT: Have you noticed many changes in your work over the years? Personal, thematic, or otherwise?

SIMAK: A couple or three years ago, after John Campbell died, Harry Harrison conceived the idea of putting out a memorial anthology for John. The idea was to pick some of the older writers that were writing back in the “Golden Age”--so called--which really wasn’t the Golden Age at all. The Golden Age is right now. He wanted to put out what would stand as the final issue of the old Astounding. Harry wrote to me and said I want you in it, and would you possibly write a final City story. I was very reluctant to do that because as far as I was concerned the City sequence was finished. Done. There was nothing else I thought needed to be done with it. But, because it was Harry Harrison, because it was for John, and because I was rather flattered for being included, I said I’d try. So I wrote the final City story which, I don’t think, is as good as it might be. At least it’s in the spirit of the tradition that I created in the City stories.

Knowing that I hadn’t read City for fifteen years or more--to try to get the hang, the spirit of the thing, the way I wrote back then--I went back and read the book in its entirety. And when I reread it I absolutely ached to go back and rewrite it. The writing is somewhat crude, and juvenile, and it shows the lack of technique and craftsmanship you pick up as you go along. I know that if I rewrote City that I could make a much better book out of it, craftsman-wise, but I would lose the spirit of it entirely. I just don’t think the way now, as I did when I wrote City.

As a writer develops--and this is true of any writer--he’s bound to change. His viewpoints shift, his ideas change, his values vary and are reassessed. That’s what is important. What was important twenty years ago is not so important today. Something else becomes much more important.

TANGENT: From reading your novels, it seems you have a hell of a lot of fun when you write.

SIMAK: I do have a good time writing. I love it, I love it. I think the most fun of any book I wrote was Goblin Reservation. I got more fun out of that because--here’s what happened:  It was a standard science fiction plus fantasy situation. But it gave me a chance to pull together this grotesque misalliance of characters. Shakespeare’s ghost, Alley Oop the Neanderthal, and so on. You put these people together and you add them, and this is one case where the characters took over. Alley Oop took over, he took over very much. He became the prime character in the story. He was a lovely character.

TANGENT: How much do you go over, polish, what you have written?

SIMAK: I think this business of going back and polishing and polishing until the damn thing shines is defeating what you’re trying to do. You’re narrative flow is interrupted, your feeling of character and situation is interrupted as you become so concerned with words as such, that you lose touch with the rest of it.

I also think it’s dangerous to try to analyze yourself and what you’re doing in your work, because then you reduce your work to a sort of ethnological matrix, and you leave whatever old creativity hanging out.

TANGENT: Why do you think that now, and not the 1930s, is the Golden Age?

SIMAK: By and large, I think there are more writers to start with. If you have more writers, then by the law of averages you’re going to have more competent writers. The markets have increased, so that there can be many more pieces published. You do get an awful lot of junk today; out of every twenty stories you have one that kind of shines. But that was true back in the so-called Golden Age, too. They weren’t all great stories. Some of them were. They stand right up--head and shoulders with what’s being written today. But don’t let’s kid ourselves, there’s some good fantasy and science fiction being written right now.

TANGENT: To what do you attribute the feelings of some people who call the 1930s the Golden Age? Just nostalgia?

SIMAK: It’s nostalgic. You’re young, and this is a new experience, and you think God, how wonderful it is, and you are intrigued with the idea that there can be such a thing as science fiction that you’ll read even a bad piece of science fiction and say, look how good it is. You have that sense of wonder. A lot of the old-timers are screaming now that in our writing we no longer create a sense of wonder. The sense of wonder never was in the writing, it was in the minds of the people who were reading it. Now, I suspect that when a kid of thirteen or fourteen begins to read science fiction now, that he’s got the same sense of wonder we had back in the late 20s, 30s, and 40s. Or whenever you started to read science fiction.

The sense of wonder is in the mind of the reader, not in the work that is being put out. An author should put something in his work that will evoke a sense of wonder in a mind that is receptive, however. And I think most of them do.

TANGENT: Do those who look back to the 1930s and that type of science fiction do it because of a rejection of the grim psychological novels of today?

SIMAK: Yeah, I suppose it is. Well, if they object to the grim psychological novels, hell’s bells, they can go back to my novels which are not grim psychology, or they can go back to a lot of other people’s novels. The variety is there, you can pick what you want.

TANGENT: You certainly wouldn’t agree with someone like Dick Geis then, who seems to like only one certain type of science fiction.

SIMAK: Well, Dick has created a pedestal on which he stands and screams to the high heavens that there’s only one kind of fiction. Now, you take this convention here. You ask every person what kind of fiction he likes and one will say sword & sorcery, another will say regular fantasy, and another will say he likes hardcore science fiction. Now, if each one of these people were on a pedestal there would be bedlam, because each one of them would be up there like Geis screaming that this is the only kind of fiction there is. That’s not fact. The strength of science fiction lies in its diversity today.

TANGENT: Do you see any trends that might dominate science fiction in the next few years? Any cycles?

SIMAK: I don’t know. There’s just no way in which you can prophecy. I would like to see cycles finished because cycles, when they do come, dominate the field, and that’s what always sets the field back a few years. I can remember when the post-catastrophic story came, and two or three or four of them are fine, but everybody got into the act, everybody thought that he had to write a post-catastrophe story--and I think the same thing would happen today.

One thing that starts a trend is writing topically. You know, when you take the burning issues of the day and extrapolate them into the future. Trying to show solutions or trying to show the extent to which it can go. The population story, where you’ve got one square foot per man, and then what do we do--that sort of thing. These things are fine; they’re gimmick stories I think, but they haven’t got the universality, the lasting quality.

If you write about the universal mind, about the human heart, then you’ve got it going.

TANGENT: Jim Baen at Galaxy might agree with you. He no longer wants the if-this-goes-on type of story. He now wants more upbeat stories.

SIMAK: Well, now, I think Jim can carry that too far with an upbeat story, because you can’t be happy all the time for goodness sakes. But yes, I don’t think we should beat these old drums of running scared.

I don’t see anything but good for science fiction. We have got the old hands who are still in there and who will, after a time, begin to drop out. We’ve got middle hands who came in later, and they are going, and in time they will become old hands and will begin to drop out. I have been afraid at times that there would be no new blood coming into the field, but there is plenty of new blood. There are some people who started a few years ago and who have done very well. Look at Joe Haldeman--he’s beautiful. There will be kids starting out who are writing kind of, uh, punk stories. Certainly it’s just their apprenticeship, and in a few years they’ll be up there. So, we’ve got strength, we’ve got an awful lot of strength. I just hope we don’t get faddish, I hope we don’t have another New Wave, I hope that we don’t begin writing topical stories. I hope that we just start writing the best possible stories these guys can write.


~ end ~

Clifford D. Simak interview copyright © 1975, 2011 David A. Truesdale

All Rights Reserved.