Volume I Issue 4 Interview:
John Varley

Virtual Scene: John sits in a director's chair, smoking. There are three monitors behind him flashing film clips: cnn, mtv, talk shows, industrial equipment demo tapes, hbo's sex bytes, nasa footage.

Xero: Hi John, welcome to the XERO MAGAZINE interview. Would you like to redecorate?

John (looking around): Seems like I've been here before. How about an English club, book-lined shelves behind me. I'm the distinguished-looking chap in the tweed jacket with the elbow patches, lighting my pipe.
No, too John Le Carre.
Let's set the chairs beside a road snaking through a featureless desert. Angular mesas and tall rock spires in the background. When things get slow a tall bird streaks behind us, chased by a coyote wearing Acme In-line Rocket Skates.

Xero: I've always liked Wile E. Coyote. He knows what he wants and is willing to go to extremes to get it. Are we in a cartoon setting, or is it a disneyland on one of your Eight Worlds?

John: It's virtual reality; who knows? Sort of like that one where Daffy Duck is trying to get on with making a cartoon, but the animator keeps changing the backgrounds on him. Turns out the animator is Bugs Bunny. Duck Amuck, that's it. Just get on with the interview, but don't be surprised if you suddenly find yourself with the head of a platypus. And try to ignore that little Martian fellow with the Acme Disintegrator Ray.

(Marvin runs onto the scene looking for his Illudium PU-36 Explosive Space Modulator. He looks at John, who is sans pipe and smoking a Benson & Hedges cigarette. Marvin points his gun at John and zzzaps him to a pile of carbon. Xero pulls a bottle of hot sauce from a small table and pours it onto what used to be John. The carbon reassembles and the animator quits, leaving the set.)

Xero: Maybe I should give you a chance to check out the 'zine.

(Xero rifles through a duffel bag full of 'zines, avoiding the ones bent up and coffee stained. He hands a few issues to John. The animator comes back on the set just long enough to fast forward.)

Xero: Virtual reality lends itself well to this sort of stuff. Up to speed?

John: I did connect with your [Franklin's] editorial re women and so-called feminists who set a self-defeating double standard about porn. I was going to ask you what "psychosexual" means.

Xero: "Psychosexual" relates to the psychological elements of eroticism. It assumes a separation between explicit and erotic, the mental and the physical. While explicit elements may be present, they are neither necessary nor sufficient to conjure eroticism.

John: That was more or less what I thought, but as a man of 50 I have to keep doing reality checks, because the definitions keep changing. I'm still trying to wrap my mind around the concept of the mosh pit. With no success.

Xero: I don't mosh, but I'll take a crack at it. Hmmm... It's like Free Love, only it's Free Violence. You get some of the physical and psychological aspects of a violent encounter, without the commitment of a fistfight. No offense to any experiments you might have tried years ago.

John: Free love always was a crock of shit... and even at its height, pussy was never that easy to come by. Seems to me that violence always has been and probably always will be free, and damn easy to find. Why anyone would want to find it is what has me stonkered.

Xero: It's a dangerous world. (Cough) Speaking of dangerous worlds, I'd like to ask you about your new novel coming out, Golden Globe. It's off to the press. Want to give us a hint what it's about?

John: Golden Globe is about an actor. In the same sense that Steel Beach was about a reporter. The third book of the non-trilogy, if I write it, would be about a cop, Irontown Blues.

Xero: So are we going to be seeing more of the post-invasion world? Rampant sex changing and body modifications? Ever see some of the stuff going on today? Man...

John: I have a picture in a book of a guy who split his penis down the middle. If there's anything more radical than that out there, I need to know about it.

Xero: Check out the body modification ezine. They have stuff like the split penis. It ranges from temporary mods to permanent stuff and all the way to amputation (nullification). Lots of pics and some attempt to explain. I almost puke every time I visit. What I find interesting are some of the ritual bod mods. Looks like something out of Hellraiser.

(Bugs tiptoes across the set with a tattoo gun and a body piercing needle. Shortly after, Taz comes rushing by with a pierced tongue and a tribal tattoo. He growls something at John while pointing in various directions. Xero surreptitiously points in the opposite direction Bugs exited.)

Xero: Ok. Here's a question for you. In your Eight Worlds death is not certain, disease has been eradicated, and people don't even need to have jobs. Yet you're not presenting it as utopia. The people of your universe seem to need to go to extremes in order to feel anything. Do you feel that is a parallel with contemporary America?

John: Not really. Just the human condition, I think. I don't believe in Utopia, because once you've built it, who are you going to put in it? As Buckaroo Banzai said, "Wherever you go, there you are." Part of our brains may be good at building spaceships and computers and stuff, but another part is designed to hunt and kill and rip out the throats of our competitors. And I feel that if we "fixed" that part, we'd no longer be human, and I can't figure out how to write about post-human beings and make it interesting.

Xero: Yeah, and part of us just wants to get in our cars, strap on the belt, and slam on the gas. We just want to get that black and dashing road beneath us. I just want to haul some sort of highway ass, pistons spinning and blacktop blaring, Nine Inch Nails pulsing through my body, road lines screaming beneath me... Sorry. Sometimes I get... Never mind.


John: I'm from Texas; I understand speeding. I used to regularly make the 240 mile trip to my grandparent's house in three and a half hours, and that was before they put in the freeway. Two-lane blacktop, no shoulders, and dozens of little towns to go through and old farts on tractors to pass. My god, the cars we had in those days! A regular production "family" car would purr along at 100 mph all day long. I once hitched a ride with a discharged veteran going from Georgia to San Francisco in his yellow '65 Chevy that didn't like to go below 60mph. We made it from Fort Worth to San Francisco in 24 hours, and that included a two-hour stay in a whorehouse just south of the Arizona line during the part of the day when it topped 115 degrees. I picked up a CHP car when I blew through Westmoreland, CA in the middle of the night, and he chased me for half an hour. I got worried and pulled over because his were the only headlights that had not vanished behind me the entire trip. I didn't want any roadblocks or shoot-outs. He could have thrown me in jail, I'm sure, but he was laughing and having a great time because I'd terrified his partner, who kept telling him to break it off every time their speedometer hit the pin at 120. Said it was the most fun he'd had in a month, and wrote me up for 70 in a 65 zone. Second-nicest thing a cop has ever done for me.

A lot has to do with how and when you speed. School zones are right out, in my opinion. And you may find, as I have, that as you get older you'll settle into a more leisurely mode of travel.

Xero: (Clears his throat.) In Steel Beach, royalty is pervasive. Just about everyone is the duke or count of something or other. Do you think we'd have the sort of frenzy we had over Princess Di's death if one of them kicked off?

John: The "royalty" I described in Steel Beach were more a bunch of enthusiasts, like the Society for Creative Anachronism, than representative of the culture at large. Outside of their little circle no one would know who the hell this Queen of England was, even though she did have legitimate claim to the throne. Come to think of it, didn't I have the previous King, the erstwhile sewage worker, die in some sort of unfortunate plumbing accident? And cause barely a... er, ripple? And wasn't the Coronation held at the Airport Howard Johnson's, or something? Not quite up to Princess Di standards.

Oh, I forgot another irony. I needed titles for some others present at the coronation of the Queen. I wanted them to be fairly obscure, claims to blue blood that were long forgotten, even back on Earth. (You know there is a Stuart Pretender out there somewhere, and of course there is a man, a Romanov, who could be Tsar of All The Russias; in fact, there was a movement not long ago to call him back and have a constitutional monarchy.) Anyway, I plucked what I thought was a suitably obscure principality off the tortured map of the Balkans: Bosnia-Herzogovina. Nobody in the west had heard of it since the assassination of the Arch-Duke Francis Ferdinand, I figured. That will send the reader scrambling for his atlas, I thought. Now Yugoslavia lies in ruins and not a day goes by I can't read about Bosnia in my newspaper. Go figure.

Xero: Back to Golden Globe. I guess this is sort of a writing process question: You've mentioned reviewing Shakespeare during writing Golden Globe. For you, does it help the creative process, or is it a referential thing?

John: I'm not sure. I was writing about an actor, so I felt I needed a better grounding in the classics of the theater. I watched film versions of a great number of plays. I watched every Shakespeare play at least once. I saw Lear five or six times.

Xero: My favorite line from Lear, "Out, vile jelly!" I remember reading Phantom of Kansas. Now that would make a good movie.

John: Oddly enough, I wrote a screenplay for Phantom of Kansas twenty years ago, as practice to see if I could write one. There was some interest in it back then, but I haven't tried to market it since. I'm not optimistic about it. I recently went to see Men in Black. There were six previews before the film: Air Force One, a new Bond movie, and four SF movies. Sounds great for a SF writer. But Starship Troopers (which could have been intelligent) is going to be a routine shoot-em-up. Then there was Lost in Space. Please! It was stupid on TV, and will be stupid in the theaters. Then a re-make of Godzilla. Just what the world has been waiting for. The fourth was so memorable I've completely forgotten it. Check out Norman Spinrad's homepage to see the regard a serious SF writer finds himself held in these days.

Xero: Some of your work has gone to the college theater, though.

John: Twice I've had cases of college drama students who asked permission to adapt my stories for the stage, for student projects, not for profit, and I've granted it gladly... One work that was done was The Persistence of Vision. I almost refused permission on that, since it is too important to me. But since I didn't have to see it, I let him go. Another was a horrid little thing called Manikins, which I wrote as a sort of antidote to some woman-as-alien stories I'd read. But I've since been alarmed at how many feminists see it as literal truth.

There have been several cases of people who have developed stuff using my setting or characters or stories, and thought I'd be delighted to help them get it published. When I pointed out the error of their ways, none of them could ever see my point of view. And all went away extremely angry.

Xero: I'm impressed that you actually read the stuff.

John: It didn't take much real time, and not a lot of reading was involved. One offering was an audio tape and a sort of collage/comic book. I listened to the murky sounds for a while, leafing through the book. No original art, no original music. Sampling and Xeroxing. Two euphemisms for plagiarism.

Xero: Getting back to the movie thing, I've been wanting to ask you how Cheryl Ladd got the lead role in Millennium.

John: It's certainly too long to relate in its entirety here. You should know that our first casting choices, back at the beginning, were Jane Fonda and Paul Newman. And it wasn't a pipe dream, either. We were working at MGM and John Foreman, the original producer, had once been Paul Newman's agent. They had a good relationship, and we met with him several times.

Xero: Jane Fonda, huh? I remember her in Barbarella. I'll never forget watching her in Duran Duran's orgasmic torture machine. Hmmm... So what happened?

John: Natalie Wood died, and killed my movie. Certainly one of the odder ways for a picture to die. Briefly: Doug Trumbull, who was to direct Millennium, was then working on Brainstorm. With one of his main characters dead before she'd finished all her scenes, MGM took a look at its completion bond and discovered they could make a tidy profit on the movie just by collecting the insurance. Doug naturally resisted this idea, and not very diplomatically. He went to the media about it, saying he could fake the last few scenes. Soon Mr. Trumbull was not welcome at MGM. And we were without a director.

Eight years, six drafts, and five directors later, we found ourselves making the movie in Toronto. Now, I had a blast in Canada, found the people up there to be professional and hard-working and technically almost up to Hollywood standards... but let's face it, Toronto isn't Hollywood and never will be. A lot of filming gets done up there, for many reasons, but one is various money advantages obtained by working in Canada, but obtained at a certain cost. One of them has to do with Canadian content. You can't just move a California project to the great white north and bring your whole crew with you. You must hire a certain number of Canadians in the top jobs. At least one of your top stars must be Canadian.
So we made a list. Cheryl Ladd is Canadian by marriage. In the end, she was cast in the lead because of her passport.
I must add that she was much better than I had feared she would be. She was professional, never temperamental, and a hard worker. We got along well.

Xero: How did you like the Hollywood lifestyle?

John: I liked:

Big, ego-boosting perks: Bungalows at the Chateau Marmont and Bel Air hotels. Rental Camaros. Hot dogs and beer with Paul Newman and friends. An office right at the gate at MGM. Lunch at the Polo Lounge and dinner at Mortons. Mandatory first-class air travel. The screening rooms under the Thalberg Building, with easy chairs and a phone to the projection booth to tell the guy to pause for a moment while you call to have food delivered. The list of about fifty names I can now drop to impress new friends. ("Oh, sure, Mel Gibson's a short fellow, but Charlton Heston really DOES look like God.")

Smaller, rewarding experiences: Wandering alone through the sound stages at MGM and the backlot at Warner Brothers. (Under this floor is the mega-pool where Esther Williams swam; these twenty-foot destroyers bleaching in the sun were made for In Harm's Way.) Shaking Cary Grant's hand as he pays a visit to the commissary; realizing these Big Important People I'm with are as impressed as I am. Working with Doug Trumbull, getting a backstage tour of his studio, riding a prototype of Back to the Future with him, seeing early screenings of his Showscan process. Working with Richard Rush. Standing beside the Plane Crash Set at midnight, freezing my butt off, watching a thousand people and a hundred vehicles all over a smoking hillside in the mud, realizing it was mine, all mine; I created this. Hearing the next morning that several pilots flying over the set had called the Toronto tower to report an airliner down. Working with John Foreman. Working with David Begelman. Just getting up in the morning and knowing I'm going to work at Metro. Working in the movies! (Or as we Hollywood sophisticates call it, The Picture Business.)

And: Money. Money, money, money. More money than I've ever made in my life, and I wasn't even near the upper reaches.

Bad stuff: Working with Richard Rush. (I like him, but he wanted to ruin my baby.) Working with David Begelman. (The very day I first arrived in Hollywood, he was indicted for check forgery; that afternoon I was meeting him for lunch. The most charming crook I ever met. Blew his brains out a while ago, I heard.) Meeting with six people to discuss script changes, realizing none of them had the slightest idea what the picture should be about. Trying to explain to Freddie Fields why it would be difficult to research time travel by simply going to meet with people who were building time machines and asking them how to do it...

Worst stuff: Realizing I never should have taken the last two assignments I agreed to write, simply because the money was good. Turning in bad scripts. Finally, turning away from the whole scene. In short, largely my own fault.

(Xero checks his head, trying to tell if it had been changed into that of a platypus.)

Xero: Thanks, John.


The Golden Globe (Amazon.com)

Varley's novel, set in his Eight Worlds universe. Humanity has been exiled from Earth, and is living elsewhere in the solar system. Shakespeare, murder, and the Charonese Mafia, shaken, not stirred. Science fiction.

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