An interview devised and carried out by Paul RHOADS and Damien DHONDT
for Slash magazine 14th September 1998. Published in Slash #17 0ctober 1998.

 (Translated from the French by Patrick Dusoulier 8th August 2002)


If any Science Fiction masters deserve to be hailed internationally for their literary imaginative creations, Jack Vance is definitely one of them. You can then imagine how excited we were when Slash saw an opportunity to interview such a “living god”. We’d like to give special thanks to France Ruault, without whose help this interview could never have taken place under such conditions. Thanks also to Damien, a real professional, who reread the whole of Vance’s oeuvre and studied the author late into the night, when the moon and stars begin to merge. And thanks to Paul Rhoads, a friend of Jack Vance, who put the final touch to this interview, and incorporated some of his considerable knowledge.

Paul Rhoads had made arrangements with Jack to ask the questions in a phone meeting. Jack Vance gaily replied over the phone: “Here I am!” He seemed to take a childish pleasure at the thought of being interviewed, and launched the conversation himself, as if it were a foot race or a game. “Are you ready?” Jack has a tenor voice, soft and lilting. Born in California, he shortens certain words in the local speech mode (for instance, he says “’um” instead of “them”). He laughs a lot, and often switches to a different mood according to his overflowing spirit. He made me think of one of his famous Demon Princes, Howard Alan Treesong (The Book of Dreams), with his multiple voices. With an altogether soft and dreamy expression, he suddenly assumes a feigned pomposity, barely hiding his laughter, to tell a joke; almost immediately afterwards, he’ll imitate a voice or ask a clever question in a deceptively innocent tone.

Paul Rhoads: I’m ready. Shall we begin?

Jack Vance: Let’s go!

You’re a great traveler and your books show a high sensitivity to the specificity of different locations. What do you think are the most striking differences between Europe and the United States?

There is a sense of continuity in Europe: Europe extends into the past. On top of that, there are large differences between the European countries. That’s what I like in Europe, just move a measly 120 miles and you may find yourself in a radically different culture. There’s more homogeneity in the States. But that’s not to speak against the United States: it’s a wonderful place, and we mustn’t forget it has its own regional differences, although they’re not as strong as in Europe. But I love America… Admittedly, its regional differences are gradually fading, year by year; the same applies to Europe now with the increasing move towards the European Union. But I love the feeling of crossing a border and finding myself in a different culture, say, like between Italy and France; I just love it!

What is your opinion about French science fiction?

I don’t know anything about it… I don’t consider Jules Vernes as a science fiction writer. He’s more of an engineer with a very down-to-earth writing style, with no fantasy at all. As a child, I read several times “The Mysterious Island”. I was really keen on it!

And Italian science fiction?

I know nothing about it… Except that Italo Calvino is really boring!

And Stanislaw Lem?

I don’t know who he is.

And Gabriel Garcia Marquez?He wrote what is called “Magical Realism”.

Who? I really don’t know anything about all this kind of chic, avant-garde stuff.

Who’s your favorite 20th century writer?

 P.G. Wodehouse.

Your stories almost always take place in the future. Still, compared with other science fiction writers, you don’t care much about futurist technology. And you also write about contemporary issues such as environmental concerns. In what way would you say your stories deal with the future, and do they really deserve to be called “science fiction”?

I never think of it. I don’t like to talk about robots or extraterrestrial beings. That’s just like cheating at chess. If you want a robot that runs fast, you just crank the handle and it runs fast. If you want a hyper-intelligent extraterrestrial alien, hey presto! it’s hyper-intelligent. I’m not interested in all that. My stories deal with the development of humanity in various environments. I don’t like the word “science fiction”. I like stories about people finding themselves in varied circumstances, and how those circumstances modify their ideas. I also try to make my characters understandable for my readers, who do not live in the year 25 million AD or BC ! I must create a character they can identify with, so that their reactions to this or that situation can correspond to my character’s own reactions. Take a sculptor, for instance: if the Art Academy asks him to make a statue of a man, and if he makes something that looks like a huge pile of earthworms, how can you expect the people who look at the statue to identify with it? When I write about humanity, I look for a link between my readers and my characters.

In the 1950’s, science fiction writers gave the impression that Man would soon colonize other planets. Still, so far, this hasn’t happened. Do you have an opinion on this?

I never give a thought about it. I must point out that I don’t like being called a “science fiction writer”! I am totally indifferent to all that stuff! I am outside all trends and fashions of any kind. Maybe there were some people who really thought they would soon go to Mars and live there, but personally, I’ve never believed it. It doesn’t make sense. To discover planets orbiting around other stars, you need to travel there at light-speed, which is impossible for Man to achieve. As for the planets of our own solar system, they’re uninhabitable. You’d need a staggering deployment of resources to build a settlement there, but you’d need a very strong reason to go to such an expense. All this doesn’t make sense. You need light-speed for those stories. You also have to assume that all the issues around different biologies will have been solved so that people won’t just drop dead every time they’ll land on one of those planets. Those are just conventions.

You often write about childhood. You use children as protagonists, and your heroes and villains have lived through tragic childhoods. Does this relate to your own life, or if not, what is the significance of this theme for you?

I don’t know… Everybody’s life began with childhood… It’s impossible to set somebody apart from his childhood. I never asked myself this question in those terms. It definitely has nothing to do with autobiography. I use childhood events to explain the evolution of my heroes. I allow their past and their surroundings to influence them.

Among your most fascinating characters, we find your criminals. They’re often artists, or they’re motivated by artistic impulses. Does this mean that evil is a source of creativity, or that creativity is a source of evil?

No… Evil people are interesting because… Do I know really evil people myself? I don’t think so! A couple, maybe. It’s easy to write about evil people, nobody knows any! What about you, do you know any?
… Yes, my neighbor.
Ha! They exist, of course! Stalin, the marquis de Sade, Gilles de Rais, the emperor Tiberius; they can all lead the parade in the foremost ranks of the Legion of Evil! What is evil? It’s the essence of egotism, raging out to the extreme, paying no heed to other people’s feelings. How can you enjoy torturing others? I simply shudder at the thought! When I think of what Ivan the Terrible could do… It’s too dreadful, it can’t be grasped. On the other hand, creativity is an all-devouring passion. It may well be that the best aspects of life stem from it. But maybe the people who are so inspired by it tend to ignore other people’s feelings.

You often deal with politically sensitive, controversial subjects. WYST shows a criticism of egalitarianism, while TRULLION seems to approve of a permissive society. In CADWAL, you offer the remedy of deportation to solve the very acute problem of immigration, although your books clearly condemn slavery. How do you position yourself: left wing or right wing?

Neither one nor the other, I’m just myself. I’m definitely not left wing. And I’m not religious. I’m against egalitarianism, but I hope that every born human being will have a chance to live a happy life. I’m against idleness, cheating, stealing from your best friend, and all those sordid things people do! Equality is a disease of current society. Same for religion… But the Catholic Church has nothing to do with egalitarianism, it has as much hierarchy as you can possibly get. What I don’t like is ideas that aim at making everybody jump and walk to the same tune. Everybody must sing his own song… Sometimes, you need to say: “Hey! What’s that old song you keep hollering! I just can’t stand it!”

Is it true that the French colonial history in Algeria inspired THE GRAY PRINCE? (1)

No, that was an abstract idea. I simply realized that the legal ownership of any piece of land, however small — except in the extreme northern regions or in utterly inhospitable places — results from an initial act of violence. All you need to do is go far enough back into the past. The American Indians complain about having been expelled from their land, but they did the same thing previously to other tribes, and so on, going back to the first settlers who came through the Bering Strait.

And…those first settlers expelled the animals?

That’s right. All the saber-tooth tigers died! But this book isn’t one of my favorites. It’s not bad in places, but it’s not properly led to its conclusion.

THE GRAY PRINCE and CADWAL seem to approve of colonialism. Is this correct?

I don’t know what colonialism is. Is it simply that more advanced societies impose their rule upon the weaker? In CADWAL, there are people who find a virgin world and who want to preserve it intact. It’s like someone who has an island and doesn’t want any ruffian to come and spoil it all. Colonialism is just a name for what all human beings do. The Indo-Europeans colonized Greece, the Celts colonized France. Those things happen! A society dominates another, and afterwards there is assimilation. Generally, when people speak of colonialism, they mean the sort of thing England and France were doing in the 19th century. I don’t see anything wrong with that. That’s normal. Sometimes it’s not good, and sometimes it is. Sometimes, it’s even very beneficial! Take India for instance. When I travel around India, I keep hearing: “Oh, how better things were with the English! Ten times better!” It’s not the same in North Africa, but in Dakar and in Morocco the French are still there! They never really left, although I doubt that the Foreign Legion is still very popular in the Atlas! Those things are so complex, they lead to so many ideas and theories, that it’s very hard to judge… Sometimes it’s no, sometimes it’s yes. I remember the picture of a miserable little Vietnamese — he looked 5 years old, all scrawny and shriveled — who carried on his back an enormous Dutchman weighing 300 pounds, to get him across a river. The Dutchman’s bulky buttocks were completely wrapped around the Vietnamese’s shoulders!… And then, I imagine that this was also good for the Vietnamese. The Dutchman must have given him a piastre to buy himself a small bowl of rice.

THE MURTH seems to be a condemnation of feminism. Is this a correct impression?

No, not a condemnation, but simply a satire. I am strongly in favor of equal rights for women. They are entitled to have equality before the Law. What I don’t like is all those cantankerous crabby females! But that makes me laugh. Who was that woman? She was a writer… We were with the Herberts (Frank). Walking past her, I gave her a little pat on the buttocks with my banjo — I don’t remember what key it was tuned in — but that was all, no harm intended. Then her lip began to tremble, her eyes began to flame. She said (Jack takes a deep penetrating voice): “Don’t do that ever again, Jack!” I said OK! I don’t like it when people get too excited. But women have a right to make efforts to improve their condition. I was one day with a group in a public building. Everybody went out before me, and then came a woman who was not with our group, and I kept the door open for her. So she said to me: “Don’t keep the doors open for me!” So I stepped outside in front of her, but still kept the door open, otherwise it would have slammed right into her face. But she still refused to go through. She kept looking into my eyes, and her eyes were saying “You bastard!” She turned round and went back into the building!

Some French critics claim that Thaery was inspired by the United States. What do you say to that? (2)

Thaery? What’s that?

You don’t know? In MASKE: THAERY, the country divided into counties…

Ah, I see… No, absolutely not.

Slavery and tenure are often represented in your works. Is there a link with the history of the United States?

Absolutely not. This kind of thing comes from deep down inside human beings. Maybe the Neanderthals kept humans as slaves, who knows? England abolished slavery in the 18th century, is that right? (3) In America, this required a war. The Arabs still keep slaves, even nowadays. It’s the same for sharecroppers, those are just different names for a person dependent upon another for his living. In Russia, there were serfs. No, this has nothing to do with America, it’s the human race.

Can you explain why you were in favor of American intervention in Vietnam?

Of course. At the time, communism had impetus. The Communists had taken over in China. With the Korea War, we pushed them back. It seemed to me that they had to be contained on a global scale. I believed in the domino theory (which states that a communist country will lead its neighbors into communism). I still think we missed our chance. If we really wanted to make war, we should have gone right about it and crushed them, instead of pussyfooting. I still believe this today. Our policy was badly handled. What was going on in those days was terrible! At the time, we had those communists that kept going at weak democracies, a real flood of evil over the world. If we wanted to defend ourselves against that, we had to have the courage to fight. It’s impossible today not to have a more moderate opinion, but in those days we saw this as a fight to the death.

Are any of the sea adventures in your books based on your own adventures?

No, absolutely not.

You seem to have a special interest in Irish mythology. Are you more attracted to it than to other mythologies?

Yes, rather. But I love Russian myths! They’re full of caprice, of imagination. Cu Chulainn does not interest me. All those stories of cattle thieves are boring. I prefer fairies and ghost stories, but Russian myths are enthralling, such as the house that walks on chicken legs.

What about the Greek myths?

They bore me. They lack this little cachet, this undercurrent of strangeness and savagery. Except a few, such as the Medusa one.

In THE CHASCH, you wrote: “In Pera, no one may rob or rape but Naga Goho and his Gnashers.” That’s a bit strong, don’t you think?

That’s just a bit of satire. That’s part of this society’s attributes, in complete harmony with its principles.

The mysterious character appearing in the ALASTOR series, is that the Connatic?

Yes, I don’t like being too explicit. He’s a benevolent tyrant, a fly on the wall or Santa Claus. He’s not omnipotent like God, but he’s there. He travels around in disguise, sits in bar rooms and gets a better understanding of what’s going on. I know that’s impossible. It’s hard to believe! I use the idea because I like it. But I know it’s impossible to rule over 3000 planets by walking from bar to bar! It’s not a thumping idea, just one that floats around like a wisp of smoke, like a dream: a nice man going here and there, doing some good, then going away. But if I got a splinter in my foot, I don’t think the door would suddenly open and president Clinton would rush in to pull it out!

In SERVANTS OF THE WANKH and in other stories, you introduce official assassins organizations,  with a well-recognized place among society. What do you like about this idea?

Nothing, it’s just for the shock value. It’s like in Clarges (TO LIVE FOREVER) where it’s a process to control over-population. It’s a play on words: “Tonight we invite our assassin to dinner!” Well… It’s just what you could call a pathetic rhetorical trick.

At the conclusion of the DURDANE series and the DEMON PRINCES series, your heroes are struck with melancholy: why?

That’s because I am struck with melancholy myself, when I finish a series…

Which of your heroes is your favorite?

I don’t have any favorite… Cugel, maybe. But he’s not my favorite, it’s just that he surprises me… I think I rather admire myself for having invented him.

Why don’t you go on with him?

I don’t think I could do it anymore. I’m very proud of the two Cugel books… Although I’m not happy with the first chapter of the first book. I’d like to correct it. I like Navarth very much, the mad poet. I identify myself with him! And there are some women I love… Especially the girl in the same book, what’s her name… Flir?

Don’t you mean Jheral Tinsy?

No, one of the girls produced from her.

Drusilla Wayles?

I don’t remember, but Gersen meets her on the docks when he comes to see Navarth, see what I mean?

Yes, that’s Drusilla, Zan Zu from Eridu. She’s wearing a black skirt and a brown jacket.

When I think of her, it makes me shiver. I find her exciting. And then, there’s another girl in ABERCROMBIE STATION. Her name is Jean Parlier. I admire her.

Did you like the TV film based on BAD RONALD?

No, I haven’t seen it, but it was described to me. Maybe I should have seen it… Generally, films and television dilute a book and reduce it to nothing. I’ve never liked films made from my scribblings.

Are there any new adaptations to come out?

Maybe a few, but I don’t know. My agent mentions things, but…

Why do you use various pen names: Jack Vance, John Holbrook Vance and Ellery Queen?

Because Ellery Queen offered me 3000 dollars per book. That was a lot of money in those days! The contract said that I was not to reveal that I had written them. So, in theory, I’ve never actually used the name. Anyway, he used to just take my good prose and then added a lot of make-up, to make his own little soup. John Holbrook Vance is reserved for my mystery novels. I used the name of Jack Van See for “First Star I See Tonight”. The plan was to have lots of names, to do varied stuff, so as to sell more of it, but it didn’t work out. I couldn’t deliver. That’s an aborted idea.

Your recent books seem to be a bit different from the previous ones. What do you think?

I don’t know. I don’t see that… I’m getting old, that’s normal! I don’t want to do the same thing all over again. I’ve already done that in HENRY MEETS THE TIGER, so darn it! now I do something else! Every year there’s something new. But my interests evolve a little… Not much, though. Now there’s less ‘éclat’. But I don’t know… I feel more relaxed. In PORTS OF CALL (latest published work) there’s more comic stuff; I quietly let the comic part of my nature, what there’s of it, speak out.

(1): see Jacques CHAMBON’s preface to “Le Livre d’Or de la Science-Fiction, Jack Vance” (« Jack Vance, le grand temple de la science-fiction »)

(2): Jacques GOIMARD in the postface to « Un tour en Thaery »

3): Historical error, this was in the early 19th century.

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