When a writer puts together a collection of their work, they often collect their best work, their most recent work, or work that all falls within the same genre. And they usually keep their own council. But with A Few Last Words For The Late Immortals (paperback, Kindle), sci-fi and fantasy author Michael Bishop not only worked with editor Michael H. Hutchins, but he started with the idea of collecting pieces based on length; Immortals includes short stories, poems, prose poems, and a play, none of which top 3,000 words. In the following email interview, Bishop discusses what inspired him to assemble this collection.
Let’s start with the basics: What is A Few Last Words For The Late Immortals?
As Sarah Pinsker notes in her introduction, it’s “A collection of prose, of poetry, of prose poems, and even a short play. A collection spanning the fullness of Bishop’s career.” Sarah breaks down what the book is, and isn’t, far better — and far more generously — than I ever could.
What made you think of putting together a collection like this?
As I explain in my brief “Story Notes” at the end of the collection, “Ray Bradbury’s A Medicine For Melancholy, which I read in 1960, Donald A. Wollheim’s Two Dozen Dragon Eggs, briefly encountered in 1969, and Yasunari Kawabata’s elegant Palm-Of-The-Hand Stories, all prompted me to compile a collection of my shorter pieces. The stories and poems in A Few Last Words For The Late Immortals are more of a mixed lot than these three writers’ anthologies,” so in my story notes I offer presumably helpful, often terse, observations about each one of our selections.
And whose idea was it to mix together stories, poems, and a play?
Mine, but Michael helped mightily with their recommendation and sequencing.
Brevity and economy were the watchwords for this collection, and I believe that all the pieces in A Few Last Words For The Late Immortals — note the first four words of the title — qualified for inclusion on those terms.
So how hands-on — or hands-off, as the case may be — were you with Michael H. Hutchins in assembling A Few Last Words For The Late Immortals?
I asked Michael to edit the book because, as my bibliographer and friend, he knew my work as well as, if not better than, I do. I told him I wanted to assemble a collection of short pieces, none longer than 3,000 words, but needed him to lay out and sequence the pieces. Michael obliged me beautifully, dividing the stories, poems, prose poems, and a short play into three parts, each bearing the title of the story to appear first in that section, the first part being “Love’s Heresy,” the second “In The Memory Room,” and the third “Last Night Out.” He used several measures to sequence the pieces and mixed chronology (date of composition) with contrasting or complimentary themes, literary genres, and harmonic or dissident resonances as his main guidelines. I told him I wanted “Astyages’s Dream,” the first written of all these pieces as the Proem at the book’s beginning, and “The Scaffold,” the most recently written, a homage to and a critique of Dylan Thomas’s “A Refusal To Mourn The Death, by Fire, Of A Child in London” as the Envoi to conclude the volume. So, I dictated the placement of those two entries, but pretty much followed Michael’s sequencing throughout for all the others.
You’re known for writing science fiction and fantasy, and I assume that’s what we get from A Few Last Words For The Late Immortals. But are there any other genres found in these pieces?
As Sarah Pinsker says in her intro, A Few Last Words…is a “[c]ollection of horror and dark fantasy and realist works, of futures near and far running the entire gamut of fantastika. Works that disturb and provoke thought… Stories that defy concrete conclusions.” She goes on, eloquently, and I’m grateful for her willingness to undertake writing the intro, which I won’t quote again.
No worries. So do you think A Few Last Words For The Late Immortals serves as a kind of “best of” collection, a proper survey of your oeuvre, or is it just an interesting collection of your work?
It’s a “best of” featuring the best of some of my shorter works: prose, poetry, or prose poems; it’s also a survey of my writing career, minus novelettes, novellas, and novels, and of some of my recurring themes across the board.
Now, when it comes to the short stories in A Few Last Words For The Late Immortals, are there any writers who had a particularly big influence on any of them, but not on your style as a whole?
Early on: Ray Bradbury, but my influences also include Ernest Hemingway (“Hills Like White Elephants,” “The Snows Of Kilimanjaro,” etc.); Jose Luis Borges (Labyrinths); “Ursula Le Guin (“Vaster Than Empires And More Slow,” “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas,” etc.); Robert Silverberg (“To See The Invisible Man,” “Born With The Dead,” etc.); Harlan Ellison (“I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream,” “Jefty Is Five,” etc.); Thomas M. Disch (“The Asian Shore,” “Roaches,” On Wings Of Song, etc.); and the incomparable Flannery O’Connor (seek out her collections A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Everything That Rises Must Converge, etc.).
And then, in terms of the poems in A Few Last Words For The Late Immortals, who do you see as being a big influence on them?
Different persons in different poems, but certainly John Keats, Dylan Thomas, and too many others to try to list. I hope that I’ve internalized my favorites in such a way that the resultant work has an identity all its own, but that’s a judgment for others either to make or to dispute.
Do you think Keats, Thomas, and the too many others also had a big influence on your short stories, and especially the stories in A Few Last Words For The Late Immortals?
Paul, I honestly can’t say.
A couple years ago you put out a collection of your Urban Nucleus stories called The City And The Cygnets. Are any of those stories included in A Few Last Words For The Late Immortals?
None of the stories in The City And The Cygnets appear in A Few Last Words, primarily because most are too long to fit the bill of the latter collection, and also because these books have appeared so close together that I felt it inappropriate to include stories from the former in the latter title, even they came in at fewer than 3,000 words.
When we did the interview about The City and The Cygnets you said you’d revised many of the stories in that book because, “All the stories first appeared in magazine and book form when I was still a pretty young, obviously still learning and developing writer.” Given that some stories in A Few Last Words For The Late Immortals are also from when you were pretty young — “Asytages’ Dream,” for instance, was written when you were in college — does that mean you revised these stories, too?
“Astyages’ Dream” is probably one of the least worked-over of any of the pieces in A Few Last Words because it’s a poem of two stanzas of fifteen lines in which the last word of the first line of the first stanza rhymes with the last word of the first line of the second stanza and that pattern continues all the way through the second stanza, so that its last line, the 30th, rhymes with the last word of the 15th line of the first stanza. In many respects, these rhymes are seen rather than heard, although some may hear them through a resonant time lag if they grow sufficiently familiar with the poem.
I probably did the biggest cutting job on the story “In Rubble, Pleading,” which is more than 1,000 words shorter than its original appearance in Fantasy & Science Fiction back in 1974. And I believe that what it loses in verbosity, it gains in intensity. But heartfelt thanks to Edward L. Ferman for buying it at its original length: his taste for my early stories helped keep me writing.
So is there anything else you would want a potential reader to know about A Few Last Words For The Late Immortals before making their decision to buy or not buy this book?
I would say that it’s probably quite different from any story collection they’ve ever picked up, and that each story is, as Sarah Pinsker points out, an act of chutzpah that must work or fail entirely on its own terms. Further, the reader needn’t wade through pages and pages of narrative to make that determination in each case. Also, if you dislike one story or poem, you may find yourself wholly engaged by another, and your idea of what is great, good, mediocre, or beneath contempt from piece to piece may differ radically from another reader’s take on the same set of performances. C’est la vie.
As you know, Hollywood loves turning short stories into movies. Are there any stories in A Few Last Words For The Late Immortals that you think could work as movies?
I don’t believe that many short stories make compelling or coherent full-length films. Most directors look at novels before they consider adapting a short story. But it is sometimes the case that a director can make an anthology of selected stories, say four or five, from A Few Last Words into a film. I’d suggest “Love’s Heresy,” “Darktree, Darktide,” “Tears,” “The Egret,” “In Rubble, Pleading,” and maybe “Give A Little Whistle” from Part One. But as soon as I corral these stories for an anthology film, another set of tales from Part One, Part Two, or Part Three leaps out at me as film-worthy. Who am I to judge? I’m not a filmmaker, although I often wish I were, and my judgments have no indisputable built-in value or authenticity.
Finally, if someone enjoys A Few Last Words For The Late Immortals, which of your other short story collections do you think they should read next, and which of your novels would you suggest they check out?
My favorite collection to date is The Door Gunner And Other Perilous Flights Of Fancy: A Michael Bishop Retrospective, also edited by Michael H. Hutchins. It includes 25 stories spanning my entire career, almost all revised to tighten, sharpen, or hone the pieces selected. That volume would alert most readers to the scope of my talent, such as it is, and maybe whet their appetites for a novel like No Enemy But Time; Ancient Of Days; Philip K. Dick Is Dead, Alas; Unicorn Mountain; or Brittle Innings. From novel to novel, I try not to repeat myself, for working new ground in each book keeps my imagination ticking. I’m not a huge fan of titles in grand running series, at least as a writer, and my prejudice against writing them has done me no favors when it comes to solidifying an enthusiastic readership. Again, I say, “C’est la vie.” As Popeye would put it, “I yam what I yam.”