Volume 29, Number 3, Spring 2011

The Untrod Path: Interview with F. Paul Wilson

By Michael Grossberg

F. Paul Wilson has written thrillers, mysteries, horror, detective and science fiction. The New Jersey resident sold his first story to Analog while still in medical school in 1970. Wilson, 65, spoke recently about his work:


Q: What attracted you to science fiction?

A: I always thought people were wired in certain ways, and I’m wired for the fantastic, rocket ships and monsters. EC Comics were really my touchstone. I’d walk into a comic book store and see those covers, and that was it. I was in love.

Q: Looking back, what made you different as a kid?

A: Some of us are mutants. Other kids didn’t have that [wiring]. All the kids liked monsters and stuff, but I really liked them. When The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) was released, I had to see it. It was my life purpose to see that film that summer.

Q: You’ve written several series or trilogies, starting with your Prometheus Award-winning trilogy of Healer, Wheels Within Wheels and An Enemy of the State. Any more trilogies planned?

A: I’d like to do a few stand-alone novels now, but that’s not popular in publishing these days.

Q: Among all your works, what are your favorites?

A: I’ve always liked The Select. That was a medical thriller. I don’t know why. I just liked the way it fell together. The book has a nice symmetry to it.

I had tremendous fun with Midnight Mass, my one vampire novel.

And I really love Sims (the Prometheus Award winner for Best Novel in 2004). That novel came from an article I’d read in the paper that humans and chimps share 98.4 percent of their DNA. I sat there and said: What if it was 99.6 percent? The book moved from there.

I wrote it as a thriller, but the moral and ethical questions just kept popping at me... about the social outcomes, about using something that’s nearly human.

Q: Only a few sci-fi writers also write horror. What attracted you to that genre?

A: I’ve always loved horror. But when I started writing, there was no market for it except little magazines. My second love was sci-fi, so I wrote that because there were actually magazines I could send stories to.

Q: You started out, as many sci-fi writers do, with short stories. How did you become a novelist?

A: I never thought I could write a novel. That was inconceivable: Too long. At that time, a novel was considered 60,000 words. I was writing 5000-word short stories and I thought that was a lot of writing.

Q: How did you broaden your range to also write mysteries, thrillers, horror and detective novels?

A: Growing up, that’s what I read. I was a voracious reader in multiple genres. As long as it had some element of the fantastic, I would read it. I didn’t realize I loved fantasy until I read Three Hearts and Three Lions by Poul Anderson. It’s a lighthearted fantasy about a guy who goes back in time and winds up in a world where magic works and there are trolls and elves. It presaged all the Piers Anthony Xanth works.

Q: How different is the writing of horror versus science fiction?

A: Horror novels are more emotion-centric. They’re also more centered on the reactions of the characters, whereas I find that in science fiction, the background is very important. You have to bring it more to the foreground because the reader can’t take for granted the world they live in. The writer has to describe it and make it real, but I can use shorthand for an urban horror novel about New York City. A futuristic setting is up for grabs about how that’s going to be.

Q: What was your first big break that helped spur your writing career?

A: My first break was a sale to [editor] John Campbell in 1970. [Note: Campbell, who died in 1971, is credited with shaping the Golden Age of science fiction as editor of Astounding Science Fiction, which later became Analog magazine.]

[Campbell] had been rejecting my stories with Pavlovian regularity, I might add, but he began to tell me why. First, he’d send me just the printed rejection slip. Then he started sending me notes... He became my writing coach. He’d write that a story has a beginning, a middle and an end—and this one doesn’t, so get it right and send me something.

That kind of encouragement was priceless from the father of modern science fiction. What more can you ask?

Q: How did you make the sometimes-difficult transition from writing short fiction to writing full-length novels?

A: I couldn’t see myself writing one long story. My first novel was Healer [a work later inducted in 1990 into the Prometheus Hall of Fame]. I kicked that off from “Pard,” a novelette I’d done that Campbell had bought for Analog. That was part one, and I took the book from there. Healer is really a string of novellas in a sense, not really that cohesive as a one-piece novel.

Even Wheels Within Wheels [the second in a trilogy including Healer] was a patchup. Finally, my third novel, An Enemy of the State was truly a novel, written from scratch and written all the way through.

For that trilogy, I came up with an idea that if we could be conscious down to the celullar level, we could heal anything—and wouldn’t that be something?

This fellow was invaded by an alien parasite that wasn’t inimical, but was just trying to survive, so they became symbiotic in their relationship. The parasite was conscious and didn’t want to die, so every time cancer would start or an artery would clog, he’d be there to clear it up. As a result, my hero was immortal. It was a way to make him immortal.

Q: Do you tend to focus on themes as you prepare to write a story?

A: I don’t think in terms of themes.

My process is to go against the current grain.

When I invented Repairman Jack (the hero of a series of novels), I was determined that he be the opposite of Jason Bourne. No CIA training or black ops, just a guy from Jersey who had learned a few tricks.

In my horror writing, I try to take some old horror trope and turn it on its head or take a trend in the field and turn it back on itself. In Midnight Mass, I got tired of all these Byronesque, tortured-soul vampires and brought it back to the good old parasites that we all know and love. That’s what I like to do.

Q: What inspired your tendency to take the untrod path?

A: My father was pretty much a contrarian. He would never preach, but I’d hear him grumbling, so I sort of got that attitude from him. He probably could have gotten further in his career—he was an executive from the early days with Pfizer International—if he toted the line more, but he would speak up when he shouldn’t have, when it wasn’t politic to buck the tide.

Q: How did your political views evolve?

A: Maybe it’s a contrarian or genetic thing. Whatever is the current accepted wisdom, there’s probably something wrong with it.

I’m a congenital skeptic, something I picked up from my father. I think that leads you toward libertarianism.

I am suspicious of the collective and I am skeptical of the ability of the government to make lives better. I don’t think much of the collective wisdom... I also am skeptical of the motives of people who run for office.

I think that the collective is more about the common denominator—“Don’t raise your head about the crowd”—and that attitude is toxic to human progress and achievement.

The collective is like playing Whack-a-Mole. As soon as you stick your head up above the crowd, wow, get back!

Q: Have you noticed pros and cons in writing libertarian science fiction?

A: Strangely enough, no. I did get pigeonholed as that libertarian sci-fi writer in the late ‘70s—one reason I decided to write a horror novel, something that wasn’t libertarian or science fiction. l don’t like being pigeonholed.

I can’t say it’s lost me publication deals or readers, mainly because I keep it implicit. It’s my world view and it colors my fiction, but I’m not out there to make converts. I’d like people to get another look at another way of seeing life, but I find books that preach at me turn me off.

Q: What writers most influenced the evolution of your political philosophy?

A: Definitely, Ayn Rand. My feelings about the world were very unstructured and then I read The Fountainhead. All of a sudden, I had a vocabulary for these ideas.

I remember going to Georgetown in D.C. in the ‘60s and I was a political orphan. I didn’t’ fit with either group. I did find people in YAF [Young Americans for Freedom, a conservative group] that were libertarians but we didn’t even have a name for ourselves. We were the guys and girls who wanted to legalize drugs and abolish the draft but also stay on the gold standard. People thought we were schizophrenic, but there’s a consistency there.

Q: What science fiction writers inspired you?

A: It started with Robert Heinlein. His future history fascinated me. I thought it was a brilliant idea.

One story would reference back to a character or another story. All of a sudden, there’s a bigger picture out there. This isn’t an isolated story but part of a bigger world. I just loved to make those connections.

I wanted to do that, to have that kind of thing click with a reader. It makes you want to connect all your stories. So, Healer, Wheels Within Wheels and An Enemy of the State are basically interconnected stories—and so are my Repairman Jack novels.

Q: Even today, science fiction writers are pigeonholed as mere genre writers. How do you feel about that tendency, as someone who writes in several genres? Is that view accurate and fair?

A: I don’t think in those terms. I don’t care about those people or what they think. They are vegetarians and I’m a carnivore. We’ll never trade recipes. Their opinions are meaningless to me.

I write basically for people who want a good story. I’m a storyteller. I don’t have a need to be considered literary. I’m very happy with what I do.

When someone tells me “I had to stay up ‘til 4 a.m. to finish your book,” there’s nothing better for me to hear. That means I’ve done my job. I’ve taken over their will; I’m ruling them. Their physiology is at my command.

The idea of telling a story is to grip the reader’s interest, get them involved to the point where you can increase their heart rate or turn on their tear ducts. But that’s not coercive: It’s totally voluntary on their part. They are there for that reason.

Q: You’ve written more novels about Repairman Jack than anyone or anything else, starting with The Tomb, a 1984 New York Times bestseller. What is it about your favorite character that keeps you coming back?

A: Jack has taken over my writing career. He’s the anti-Bourne, an urban mercenary who lives completely under the radar. He’s got no Social Security number. He never had one and he never paid taxes. All his IDs are fake. He lives in the interstices of society and he hires out to fix situations that the system can’t fix or that the system has caused.

Repairman Jack is not a do-gooder. A lot of people look at him that way, but he’s a small businessman in a way. He works for hire because sometimes his skin is on the line.

Almost every other hero can go to the police, but he’s not connected. Other detectives or spies or heros have a friend on the force or in the CIA who can run prints for them or run plates through the DMV (department of motor vehicles) or let them see the videotape from that store robbery. He can’t do that. But Jack has no safety yet. He’s all on his own and that makes him unique.

Q: Your Repairman Jack novels sometimes include supernatural elements beyond the focus on his human efforts to solve a problem or a mystery.

A: I always mix his worlds. There’s some supernatural because Jack has been fingered since birth to be part of this cosmic war going on between two unimaginable forces. Earth is not necessarily the big prize, just another marble in the game. Whoever gets all the marbles, wins.

Unfortunately for him, Jack has been tapped. That’s the irony of the series. He spends his whole life achieving what he considers autonomy. As he goes on, he finds out that his life has been manipulated.

Q: Where are you in the Repairman Jack saga? How many novels do you plan to write about him?

A: I’ve done 15 Repairman Jack novels and three young-adult novels about Jack when he was 13, 14. I just finished writing the last one: The Dark at the End, due out in October from TOR/Forge.

Q: The last one? Why?

A: The series really reached a critical mass. I’ve always viewed it as a closed-end series. I never saw it as going on forever. There’s a big arc that’s gotten to the point that it has to be resolved.

Everything really ends with a novel called Nightworld (Note: initially, the culmination of a trilogy with Reborn and Reprisal) that I wrote years ago and am rewriting, where earth’s population gets decimated. It marks the end of my Adversary cycles, another series I’d done earlier, and all comes together in what I call the secret history of the world.

Nightworld, due for release in 2012, will be heavily revised and I’m writing that now. It will be longer than before, with quite a bit of new material.

The Dark at the End is a long complicated story about the Ally and the Otherness, who’ve been doing the war. The Ally is just not very friendly, but isn’t against us; the Otherness is definitely toxic. The Ally has its champion here on earth, now an old, old man. Jack, who has been held back from fighting the Otherness, is supposed to take his place when he dies. Finally, in The Dark at the End, Jack is freed to go after Rasalom, the paladin of the Otherness.

Fans may be pleased that Jack does not die. He survives the series.

Q: Libertarians like the Repairman Jack series because Jack seems like such an independent-minded hero, an individualist who operates beyond the State and explicitly without its help—or hindrance. How broad a fan base has your series attracted?

A: Jack reaches across a broad spectrum. I’m surprised by how many women are fans. I always thought he would have a 90-percent-male audience, but when I go on tour, half of the people there are female.

Not only libertarians like Jack, but a lot of conservatives, cops and a fair number of liberals. He cuts across political lines. His lifestyle is definitely libertarian but it’s not explicit. He’s not a preacher and I think that’s what has kept it (the series) going.

Q: Do you keep track of how many novels and stories you’ve written?

A: I don’t keep track exactly, but I’m in the mid-40s with the novels, and have completed well over 50 short stories.

Isaac Asimov always had it at his fingertips: “Oh, 232 today. Next week, it will be 290.” He laughed about it. He was a funny guy, very talented and also very full of himself.

Q: What was it like meeting and befriending some of your favorite writers in the field?

A: These are people I read as a kid. And then you become a writer and you’re accepted as a peer by them, sitting down for a chat with Robert Bloch or Poul Anderson. I felt: “Here I am, having a beer with Poul Anderson. I can’t believe I’m having a beer.”

When you get into the club, everyone is equal around the bar. There are guys who are jerks, and don’t ask me who. But most of them are just regular people who don’t hold themselves in this tremendous high esteem that I hold them in.

Q: What’s the most difficult lesson you’ve learned about sustaining a writing career?

A: I’ve been pretty lucky. I never had any hard lessons, and there is some luck in having success in this field. Having the right book at the right time is huge.

The Keep (1981) was the right book at the right time. It made my career and became an international best seller. A lot of people were writing horror in the small-town Stephen King mode, but I took it another way, against the trend. I took horror back to the castle with some really gothic elements, but I put it into an international scope on the eve of World War II in Romania

Q: In histories of the genre, you are credited with helping to define the field of horror, starting with The Keep and going through the 1980s. But since then, you’ve frequently moved back and forth between genres—horror, sci-fi and medical thrillers. What’s been your biggest bestseller?

A: Because it was set in Europe, The Keep became an international best seller. It’s never been out of print, with many different publishers, sold its first million by 1984 and has sold over a million copies in the U.S. The Select also was huge overseas, and number one in Germany.

Overall, my novels have been sold in 24 languages around the world. The total? Without fear of exaggeration, it’s more than 8 million copies.

Since my first novel was published in 1976, I’m long past the point where I follow the numbers. I’d make myself crazy wondering why a book sold this many copies last week but this many this week. What did I do wrong? Just send me the check.

Q: How have your views evolved in recent years? Or if not your ideal views, but your attitude about recent political trends?

A: I have less hope for a free future. I see it trending all in the wrong direction.

I mean, things have gotten freer when you really look at it. If you’re black, you certainly have benefited from that. There is more liberty for minorities, which is good. That kind of racism, going to the back of the bus, was heinous. You had to drink from your own drinking fountain? Or you had to sit in certain areas in court or on the bus? That was the state, through the Jim Crow laws, putting down a group of people. I’m glad that’s gone.

Also, socially, things have loosened up... The drug wars are lightening up. There’s medical marijuana now. If you want to pollute your own bloodstream, that’s your right.

But economically and certainly in academe, the schools that are supposed to be bastions of free speech are anything but.

Speech is in danger. Guns and gun ownership have always been in danger. The Patriot Act has a number of things in it that are a little scary.

So on one side, there are some extra freedoms, and on the other side, some threats. On the whole, people are looking to the state too much for answers. That comes from the government compulsory school system, which teaches that the state is your friend and the answer to your problems.

Q: How often do you visit science fiction conventions?

A: Not often. I go to fantasy and horror conventions and I go to Thrillerfest, where most of my readers are. I used to be semi-known in science fiction circles, but I have drifted away from that. Although it’s billed as an sci-fi convention, Marcon [where Wilson was the prime guest of honor May 27-29, 2011, in Columbus, Ohio] is a mix, pretty eclectic with some nice people.

Q: What are you working on now and what do you hope to do?

A: I’m doing some graphic novels, some crime books and three more Repairman Jack books about his first few years in New York City. I’m most excited about a one-off, an international thriller with a weird element as the McGuffin, but I’d rather not talk about it because it has a pretty high-concept theme.

I’d like to do more young-adult fiction—but not Repairman Jack—because I enjoy writing for that age group and those books were well received.

I sort of got talked into three more Repairman Jack books, but that’s it. The Dark at the End is the end of the big arc. I won’t have any more to say about him after this.

Note: A different (and much shorter) version of this interview ran in May 2011 in The (Columbus) Dispatch.

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