Joanna Pataki and Tom Moody conducted the following interview with the author, by email, in the fall of 2000. We hope to continue our conversation with Doris and will post new rounds of discussion as they take place. The order and wording of some of the questions have been changed slightly for continuity.
JOANNA AND TOM: We haven't seen anything of yours in a while. Have you continued writing?
DORIS PISERCHIA: After taking several years off from writing, I found I seemed to have misplaced my market and editors. All the names have changed and I just haven't looked hard enough to find a new agent. I do have books on the shelf looking for homes and some itching to be written.
Are there other unpublished stories besides "The Residents of Kingston"?
No, I quit writing stories to do novels and though I'd like to do some short stuff now, I can't get past the readers. I think my short work, at least some of it, is better than the long.
What do you mean, "the readers"? Prospective publishers or agents?
The stories were given short shrift by whoever saw them so I got disgusted and threw them away.
You said you feel that some of your short work is better than the long. Which stories, in particular?
No particular story. I'm referring to balance. Some writers can maintain that in a novel. I'm not very good at it. I might have done better to spend more time on first drafts but once I began a book, I wrote it at breakneck speed, finishing in 3 or 4 months and then losing interest to the point that I couldn't push myself to rewrite. With short stories, I did a lot of rewriting.
Do you have personal favorites among the novels?
I liked them all the same, while writing them. After the publication fact, I think the early ones were best: Star Rider, A Billion Days of Earth. But I wrote them all so fast and moved on to the next that I'm hard pressed to recall a whole lot about them. I know I did 13 books and I could name them but it would take some remembering. That sounds awful but I wasn't at all disciplined at the time.
Why were I, Zombie and Blood County written under the pseudonym "Curt Selby"?
Don Wollheim put out 4 of my books that year . He wanted another name.
Was there any particular reason you chose that one?
A long-dead relative's name. I did a lot of genealogy in my younger days and picked that one out.
Were any of your books or stories significantly changed in the editorial process? Are there any personal edits ("director's cuts") of stories you wish could be seen? For example, was the ending of Mr. Justice supposed to be like that?
Most of my editors didn't even edit, let alone change anything. Mr. Justice was my first book. I showed Fred Pohl the first few chapters and he liked them and said to go ahead and make a full length novel. I had written about 50M when he called and told me the publisher wanted to make it half of a double and that he was going to end it right there. I've written a sequel to that book but haven't tried to market it. I kind of like not being in the rat race. Lately I just write for me.
Your bio info indicates you discovered science fiction in your thirties...which books or stories introduced you to the genre? Which books did you enjoy growing up?
I found sf at age 11. Read tons of it; liked Van Vogt, Sturgeon, Smith and everyone else.
By "Smith," do you mean E.E. or Cordwainer?
George O. I still think of his Space Plague. [I also liked] Clifford Simak. I think he was a journalist by profession and wrote on the side... I liked nearly everything of his that I read. There were so many good ones, published in books you've probably never seen, cheap pulp mags with garish covers, big-boobed girls and BEMs everywhere. They cost a dime or 12 cents, came out monthly. I never had any money but somehow I managed to drag home a two-foot high stack of them once in a while and I would lie around reading until they were all finished and then I would hike 5 miles to the swimming pool where I worked as a lifeguard.
What are you reading these days? Are you still reading sf?
My sf reading days have been over for a long time. I guess I lost interest in my thirties, mostly, I think, because the greater part of it is bad. There's a guy in Canada who has a whole lot of old novels and I buy from him occasionally, but it's all early sf. However, I like sf movies, or a good number of them. There are times when I lump sf and fantasy together. I just saw Mission to Mars and didn't care for it much but liked Pitch Black and Frequency. I just read Hunter by [James Byron] Huggins, really liked it. It's a cyborg type nasty and there's a very macho guy dedicated to its destruction. Mostly I read thrillers and mysteries. There are times when I regret not having begun writing mysteries that day a long time ago when I first started. I think I would have done better in that genre. Of course, I'm too lazy to try my hand at them now.
Some of your books could be marketed today as "young adult fiction," (e.g. Spaceling, Dimensioneers) while others address darker and more worldly themes. Were/are you aiming certain books at a younger audience?
They aren't juveniles. I didn't have any particular audience in mind, always wrote what pleased me.
Regarding the cover art for your novels, are there any particular artists or images you felt captured what you were describing? Any you felt took liberties with characters, setting or plot?
I never met any of the artists that I recall. I remember being impressed with the original cover for Mr. Justice. It was just eerie enough to capture some of the spirit of the book. Earthchild: It annoyed me that he had to give a little kid such a big chest; otherwise it was a nice cover. The paperback cover for The Spinner was pretty good; the spinner looked like that except for the dopey facial expression. The book club version had a hairy werewolf type, which was nothing like Mordak. Most of the covers were mediocre, if not downright bad. I didn't like the covers for The Deadly Sky, Earth in Twilight or The Fluger, the latter not being my choice for the title.
What was your title?
I think it was Alien Kill... As for any of the artists taking liberties with my plots, I don't even know if they read the books. I imagine publishers or editors saying to them, "this novel is about so and so; make me a cover." I know very little about that business and can't say for certain. I know there are some great artists out there and some of them did my books.
We have a theory about the "hairy spinner" on the book club cover. On page 29, Jetta mentions a rumor that Mordak is "a legendary oddball from the swamp [l]ike Sasquatch." The cover artist probably read that line, ignored the rest, and went to town.
You may be right... I wonder if artists still only read blurbs and then go paint their pictures. Covers are important to writers. And mostly they're disappointments and I expect it's because it's work on demand. Writing on demand is hard enough but I think painting is harder, probably because painting takes more inspiration.
Growing up, did you spend a lot of time observing nature? The creature descriptions seem to indicate a lot of careful thought and observation...often with a humorous effect, such as the "wig" of the snape in Earth in Twilight.
Now that you mention it, I did spend a lot of time observing nature as a child. We had no money whatsoever so I played in the woods which were all around us at that time. My creature descriptions were off the top of my hat and I expect other writers create the same way. I never said to myself, "I'm going to write about this horrible thing." Almost always, I began a book because of an emotion, frequently grief or sorrow. I remember being impressed with [Richard] McKenna's "Casey Agonistes" and decided to do a story with the same theme. How odd that the result was "Idio"! Occasionally I swiped an emotion from someone. "Limited Accommodations" was written because I had read something that had a marooned topic. My creatures were always people in disguise so, if they had a humorous side, it was intentional.
Your early biographical material alludes to your desire to escape becoming a teacher. Why was that? Besides writing, are there other professions you have pursued or would have liked to pursue?
I think I avoided becoming a teacher because I couldn't bear the thought of living the rest of my life in Fairmont [West Virginia]. It didn't seem like a part of the world. I graduated, worked with girl scouts that summer, then boarded a bus to Pittsburgh and joined the Navy. I have a teacher's certificate but have taught only my own family. If I'd had the money I would have gone to medical school. I came from a large family, no one else wanted to go to college so I was lucky to get what education I did. Medical school simply wasn't an option for me. It occurred to me that I might want to do forensics in police work.
Many of your novels feature a handsome male character whom the protagonist is attracted to or bonded with, who causes all kinds of mischief (we're calling this character the "short handsome creep"--examples are Peterkin in I, Zombie, Hallistair in The Deadly Sky, Drago in Doomtime, Dandy in The Dimensioneers, even Jerome in The Spinner, although no one is particularly attracted to him). Was this "type" based on anyone in particular?
I don't know about the "short handsome creep." The guy in Star Rider was fashioned after John Wayne. As for the other characters you mentioned, most of them were rivals or antagonists and I made them unattractive in one way or another, which was my method of showing what my protagonist thought of them or how she reacted to them.
Grossly oversimplifying, your novels could be rated R for violence but are pretty much G-rated as far as sex goes. Your short stories, on the other hand, deal very frankly and thoughtfully with sexual matters. Any thoughts on this dichotomy?
Sex in books doesn't really interest me. I think people write novels about what they're obsessed with. Also, novels are about what people do while shorts are about what people are. I can't see writing 300 pages about wrestling but if an intriguing idea had occurred to me, I would have dived in and expressed it as I saw fit. I never really thought about writing something with sex in it. I began on another premise and the sex seemed to fit into it.
In "A Brilliant Curiosity," there is only one human girl saved by the Valenians, correct? An angry black girl (Whitey) who internalized racism until she believed herself to be white, and hallucinates the other girl (Blackie)?
Without going back and looking at it, I seem to recall that the only human to survive was a small black girl who expressed the desire to be white because she had been mind washed to believe she wasn't quite worthy. Her realization that what she was was okay vied with her conditioning.
Many of your books have urban settings that are quite gritty and claustrophobic. Did you live in an "inner city" environment when you were writing the novels? If so, where?
I never thought about the settings of my books as being urban and/or gritty. Certainly Blood County wasn't. I've never lived in a gritty urban place, just a gritty place in Fairmont. Being married to a soldier, I lived in a great many cities but I can't think of a single overcrowded or dirty one.
note: Doris's next response threaded together answers to several questions,
so we combined the queries in one big group.]
What cities have you lived in? Is there anywhere you wanted to travel that you haven't yet? Where was your favorite place to live?
Did you do any writing growing up? How did your parents and siblings feel about science fiction?
When you began publishing, you were raising your children...how was it juggling children and work?
My daughter says I'm weird because, among other things, I think it's likely that those who develop a fascination for sf, fantasy, space, etc. have been alien-abducted earlier and more often than most people. Pictures and stories cause our subconscious to recognize the trappings and an emotional connection is formed. I remember once reading a channel who said abductors create a situation or condition that inspires a dream in which we find ourselves under water; we grow anxious and then discover that we're breathing normally and everything is okay. So, if you've ever had such a dream, you've probably been doing some surreptitious traveling.
I'm not a fiddlefoot and am hard pressed to come up with a response when asked where I'd like to travel. How about Pompeii before Vesuvius? I've lived in San Francisco, Fort Knox, Germany, Salt Lake City and my present address. Joe was in the Army so we moved approximately seventeen times.
I had the suspicion that if I started writing sf I'd be stuck in it because the creativity thing had a way of developing a mind of its own. I loved sf but recognized that its audience was predominantly male. Pretty soon I stopped worrying about whether guys wanted to read what I offered. The audience had changed since I was a kid, had expanded to include people who were willing to accompany me down strange or quirky paths. I never set out to be odd, weird, funny, philosophical or anything but simply wrote ideas that appealed to me. I have received a few letters from kids who asked for writing advice and I always told them to just write what was in them, to produce the very best that they could and all that other individualistic stuff would well to the surface.
My maiden name is Summers. Joe was from Jersey so we decided to move east where the world was green and right away we left the brown mountains, canyons and snow in April behind us. I had an Olympia that I wrote most of my stories on. I picked up a used IBM Selectric and wrote my novels on it. My kids were growing up around me and I learned to focus dead-on while they were tossing the house out the window over my head. As I said before, I wrote much too fast and didn't do nearly enough rewriting. Usually, I produced four or five pages a day.
I always wrote, through the grades and college. I was living in Salt Lake when I decided, at age 37, to try my hand at really doing it, wrote "Rocket to Gehenna" and sold it right away for $15 to Amazing. There were several mags at that time so I had no trouble selling. Ejler Jakobbson of IF especially liked my stories and bought whatever I sent him. He kept telling me to stop flying and come down to Earth once in a while.
As for my sibs and parents and what they thought of me and sf, my parents had third grade educations and really didn't know what sf was. My mother read religious books while my father read westerns. My brothers and sisters were tolerant of me, knew I was striving for some invisible goal and scarcely ever made fun of me. My children like sf movies but not books; same with my grandchildren.
What are your thoughts on religion? Did you grow up with a particular faith and if so, are you still in it?
I grew up a Mormon. Religion had always been a puzzle and fascination to me until I finally came to the conclusion that they had no answers to the most important questions and that if I wanted to learn anything I'd have to find my own inspiration. I noted that some people are inspired to do a great work but as soon as they pass away, others who are far less talented take up the banner and change everything to suit themselves. At this time, I believe churches are unnecessary and generally teach people not to think. I hold no fealty to any organized group, though I believe the Hindus are probably closer to the right track than most. My daughter-in-law is a Hindu and a Catholic and I sometimes tease her by saying she abandoned the superior religion.
I don't disbelieve people right off the bat when they talk about their dreams, instincts, visions and premonitions because I've had a few experiences that might make listeners skeptical. I'll mention one of the more mundane ones, in case you're interested. I had a backyard swimming pool, a four footer and, one hot day, a few years ago, I was standing in it, sunning my back, when I happened to turn to look eastward and then I saw something incomprehensible. There are about thirty feet of shrubs near the pool in that direction and a couple of big trees serve as bookends. The sky was bright and blue and about fifty feet upward and about a hundred feet in front of me I saw a line, like a thread or a string. It was the same color as the sky, very thin, but I could see it because it was so straight. It ran across the sky in front of me, each end disappearing behind the trees. At the right edge of the line, beneath it, was an object some thirteen by thirteen inches, an irregular shape, and it was moving across the line like a zipper. There was no sound. The object moved slowly to my left until it was out of sight and I watched and waited but nothing else happened. I have no explanation for that but don't doubt that I saw it.
It seems apparent to me that people believe what they want to believe and what they believe is what they want to happen. You might say, "Oh, no, I don't want that to happen!" but if you believe it will, it might be a good idea to search your thoughts and feelings and find out if there's a chance you want it to. The subconscious of humanity is a potent force and I think we're finally getting around to creating a world that's fit to live in. If enough of us want, no demand, peace and beauty, we're going to get it. I see this in the signs of the time. There are plenty of awful places and things in our lives, but we're going to work them out. People who haven't gotten war out of their systems will finally get enough of it, our medicine will cure many ills, we'll learn how to be decent parents so that the criminal element will dwindle. I believe all this. People should dwell on positive ideas, visualize this planet as we want it to be, pristine once again and loved by us. We'll tell ourselves that we will no longer tolerate or entertain thoughts of war, hunger, hatred or skepticism.
Was there any particular event, or reason that led you to stop publishing in the '80s?
In l983 I needed a new market. Don Wollheim bought everything I sent him but he had a small distribution and I believed not enough people were seeing my books. Incidentally, he wasn't fat and happy. He was not too tall and quite thin and several years ago he had a stroke.
I was putting out feelers to editors and still writing but not submitting. Suddenly my oldest child sickened. Thirty years old, she became so ill that I brought her home to nurse her while Joe, whose health was deteriorating, went to their apartment to care for our son-in-law who was undergoing by-pass surgery. After six doctors, sixteen office visits and trips to the emergency room, my daughter died suddenly of an undiagnosed brain tumor. She was in my bed, talking to me, when she simply left.
Looking back on it now, I realize I should have gotten some extensive grief therapy. My energy seemed to slip away, along with will and ambition. The three-year-old that Linda left me demanded a great deal of care, especially after her father became very ill with liver disease. After he died (she was seven), Joe began to fail and underwent open-heart surgery for the second time. They never should have cut him for he was too old and sick. It took him two years to die, years of being in and out of the hospital, and when he fell down, as he often did, and I could no longer pick him up, I put him in a nursing home five minutes from our house. He was never in it long enough to use up his Medicare allowance and then he would go back into the hospital.
Raising the child hasn't been easy since she is prone to bouts of depression, TMJ and migraines. Joe and I adopted her when she was twelve. Her name is Christina. Her father was from Greece so there was no help from his side of the family. She's nearly twenty now and is in college. She shares my house with me and will do so until she's capable of supporting herself. All those years when I should have been working to eliminate the stunning shadows in my head, I retreated into school conferences, class plays and that other stuff.
After a while I was glad to be out of the rat race of writing. The thought of it simply made me feel tired. Once in a while, a film company expresses interest in one of my books. Usually, it's The Spinner. Now it's Earthchild; some outfit in Canada. I actually received some option money on a deal for Mr. Justice. Nothing has come of any of it but I sometimes wonder what a little success would do for my energy level.
(c) 2001 Joanna Pataki, Tom Moody, and Doris Piserchia