John Boonstra: “Horselover Fat and The New Messiah” (Hartford Advocate April 22, 1981, p. 24)
…I had the privilege of talking to Phil Dick by phone recently. We spoke about VALIS and its imminent sequel.
In an interview in 1976, you indicated that VALIS had already been sold to Bantam Books. Yet it didn’t appear until early this year. What caused the delay?
Bantam held it up for awhile because they had a change in editorship. The version that has been published was written in 1978. I guess they had a backlog; they didn’t print it right away.
But the real origin of the delay was the fact that I did, for the first time in my life, two completely different versions of the same book. The first version appears in the second as the movie they go see.
I wasn’t satisfied with the first version. I wanted to do a book that was better than my previous novel, A Scanner Darkly, and even after Bantam had purchased VALIS and all that was required was that I type a final draft, I simply was not satisfied that I had done the best book I could do.
In its published form VALIS seems as candid as autobiography, particularly when read I conjunction with Dream Makers, where you describe your encounter I 1974 with ” a transcendentally rational mind,” A transformation central to VALIS. Does this “tutelary spirit” you mention continue to guide you?
It hasn’t spoken a word to me since I wrote the sequel to VALIS, which is called The Divine Invasion — Simon & Schuster is bringing it out in May.
The voice that speaks to me, my priest – I’m an Episcopalian – is identified as ruah, which is the word that appears in the Old Testament for the Spirit of God. It speaks in the feminine voice and tends to express statements regarding the Messianic expectation.
It guided me for awhile. It has spoken to me sporadically since I was in high school. But I haven’t heard from it since the sequel. I expect, though, that if a crisis arises it will say something again. It is very economical in what it says. It limits itself to a few very terse, succinct sentences.
I only hear the voice of the spirit when I’m falling asleep or waking up. I have to be very receptive to hear it. It’s extremely faint. It sounds as though it’s coming from millions of miles away.
Two elements of your fiction which have given me great pleasure for many years are your respect for the individual at work in menial jobs that nevertheless demand competence, and your perception of the mutability and passion of human relationships.
What is your own work and personal background? I know you’ve been through a couple of marriages.
At least. There’s more. I hate to say how many. My work background: I was in the retail record business. I managed one of the largest record stores on the West Coast in the ’50s and I worked at a radio repair shop when I was in high school. I was used to essentially a family-type of work situation, in other words, where the boss is the father of the family.
As regards my personal background: an endless succession of divorces, all stemming form recklessly engaged-in and seized-upon marriages. I still have a good relationship with my ex-wives. In fact, my most recent ex-wide – there are so many that I have to list them numerically – and I are very, very close friends. I have three children. My youngest is seven, and she brings him over all the time.
But the reason all my marriages break up is I’m so autocratic when I’m writing. I become like Beethoven, you know? I become completely bellicose and defensive in guarding my privacy. It’s very hard to live with me when I’m writing.
You’ve indicated in a few places that many of the characters who appear in your fiction are thinly-disguised variations of people you’ve know personally.
That is correct.
What effect has this has on them?
They hate my bloody guts! They’d like to rend me to shreds! I expect someday that they’ll all fall on me and beat the crap out of me.
I find that you can only really develop characters based upon actual people. There is really no such thing as a character that springs, you know, ex nihilio like Athena from the brow of Zeus. The great prototype for this, of course, is James Joyce. Tendencies are extracted from actual people. The people aren’t transferred intact. This is not journalism, this is fiction.
The most important thing of all is picking up speech patterns, picking up their cadence of actual spoken English. That’s the main thin I’m looking for, their little mannerisms, their word choices.
How do you compare VALIS to the rest of your work?
I jettisoned the first version of VALIS, which was a very conventional book. I cast around for a model that would bring something new into science-fiction and it occurred to me to go all the way back to the picaresque novel and have my characters all be picaroons – rogues – and write as the picaresque novel was written, in the first person, write it I the vernacular, and use a rather loose plot.
I feel there is a tremendous relevance in the picaresque novel at this time. You are able to write about people such as Donleavy wrote about in The Ginger Man – that’s a picaresque novel; so is The Adventures of Augie March of Saul Bellow. I see this as a protest form of the novel, a repudiation of the more structured bourgeois novel that has been so popular.
I do hope that VALIS will reach people outside the science-fiction ghetto. I did go back to a conventional science-fiction format I the sequel.
I’m reprocessing my own life. I had a very interesting 10 years. Starting in 1970 when my wife Nancy left me and went off with a Black Panther, much to my surprise and amazement. As a result of which I hit rock bottom. I mean, I just fell into the gutter, I just crashed into the streets in shock when this happened.
I was very bourgeois. I had a wife and a child, I was buying a house, I drove a Buick and wore a suit and tie and all those good things. All of a sudden my wife left me for a Black Panther and I wound up in the street with street-people. And after I climbed out of that – which was ultimately a death trip on my part – I thought, “Well, I’ve got some interesting first-hand material that I’d like to write about. I will recycle my own life in terms of a novel.” Having done that in A Scanner Darkly, I was faced with what to do next. It took me a long time before I felt that I had what I wanted. And as I say, the basis of what I had was the picaresque novel. I was used to the companionship of rogues. It seemed natural to view people in that aspect.
Now, prior to that I tended to view people in terms of the artisan, which you pointed out yourself. I worked for eight years in retail. I tended to view people in terms of “the TV repairman,” “the salesman,” and so forth. The later, as a result of my street experience, I tended to view people as essentially rogues. I mean unscrupulous rogues out to hustle you at any moment for any reason. I found them endlessly fascinating and I didn’t see people of this type adequately represented in fiction.
The film VALIS inside the novel reminded me in its style of the film The Man Who Fell to Earth.
You got it. You got it. That’s where the idea came. It’s like Madame Bovary going to see Lucia — I remember that scene so well, how it crystallized all the nebulous things that were floating around in Madame Bovary’s mind. Now, that impressed me enormously.
I saw The Man Who Fell to Earth and thought it was one of the finest films – not just science-fiction films, but one of the finest films I had ever seen. I thought it was incedibly original, incredibly provocative, rich in ideas, beautiful in texture, glorious in its overall conception. It was enigmatic. IN no way is the film VALIS the plot and theme of The Man Who Fell to Earth, but the idea occurred to me that a science-fiction film, if well done, could be as rich a source of knowledge and information as anything we normally derive our knowledge and information from. The film tremendously impressed me; I just loved it. My use of the film VALIS is my homage to The Man Who Fell to Earth. It was one of the greatest experiences of my life to see that.
Do you want to say anything about the direction VALIS’ sequel will take?
Yeah, yeah. The Divine Invasion, which was originally called VALIS Regained, is set in the future. It doesn’t begin where VALIS left off; there’s a hiatus of, oh, a couple hundred years. It starts out with the child born again, the child Sophia. The resolution is not in terms of the occult; it’s not even in terms of Christianity. It’s resolved in terms of Judaism.
I did a very detailed study of the Torah and the basic tenets of Judaism for it. I studied real hard. I did my homework.. I’m not Jewish, so it was something I was not normally into. I have now gained this tremendous respect for Judaism, for the concept of the Torah – we’re not just talking about the Decalogue; the entire structure of the Torah is to me the greatest achievement of human beings in the world. I really would seriously consider converting to Judaism now that I’ve studied it. It just absolutely provided the resolution I wanted – it’s sane, it’s rational, it’s rooted deeply in reality.
But what is reality?
Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, it doesn’t go away.
I worked that out a long time ago.
Thanks to Patrick Clark for making this and other long-lost PKD Interviews available.