Ultan's Library

a web resource for the study of Gene Wolfe

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Aaron Allston 1960-2014

It was with great sorrow that we learned last week of the passing of novelist and game designer Aaron Allston. Best known for his work on novels set in the Star Wars universe, Wolfe fans will remember him for his fine story “Epistoleros” in the recent Shadows of the New Sun collection.

Many of the authors in that collection chose to write stories woven tightly into the story-space of Wolfe’s works, but Aaron chose to write a story that just felt Wolfean. He skilfully crafted a metafictional western in the epistolary style that examined the relationship between story and history. We recommend that you seek it out.

I contacted Aaron about an interview for our series talking to the writers collected in Shadows of the New Sun. His health, writing, and convention commitments prevented us from completing the interview at that time. When I contacted him again I found that he had already written a comprehensive set of story notes about “Epistoleros” which answered many of the questions I’d hoped to ask him.

We send our condolences and sad best wishes to all of Aaron’s family and friends.

You can read “Epistoleros” in Shadows of the New Sun: Stories in Honor of Gene Wolfe edited by J.E. Mooney and Bill Fawcett, available from Tor Books.

You can download the story notes free from Aaron’s website:

Shadows of the New Sun: an interview with Judi Rohrig

Photo of Judi Rohrig, Gene and Rosemary Wolfe, writer C.S.E. Cooney, and Bekah Rohrig (Li'l Pirate).

Judi Rohrig, Gene and Rosemary Wolfe, writer C.S.E. Cooney, and Bekah Rohrig (Li’l Pirate).
Photo by Byron Rohrig

Judi Rohrig is a writer of fiction and non-fiction, and an editor who has been honored with the Horror Writers Association’s Bram Stoker Award (2004) for Non-Fiction (for editing Hellnotes, a weekly newsletter for writers of dark fiction). She also edited the electronic anthology Stones. Her stories have appeared in Masques V, Spells of the City, Pandora’s Closet, Furry Fantastic, Dreaming of Angels, Extremes V, and Cemetery Dance magazine. Forthcoming are stories in All-American Horror and Shadows of the New Sun.  According to her website, Judi makes her home in tornado vulnerable, flood-prone, and earthquake-shaken Southern Indiana.


Tell us how you first encountered Gene’s writing?

It might come as a shock and surprise to those who have enjoyed the delicious worlds and deft prose and poetry of Gene Wolfe all these many years, but every day opens the possibilities to new readers. I know because in 2002, I became one of those newbies. That year I was the publicity coordinator for the World Horror Convention in Chicago, and Gene was one of the Guests of Honor. Honestly, I knew nothing about his writing except that one of my good friends spoke highly of his books (and said friend owned and had read every single one of them multiple times).

Fair enough. I dove right in, pinged Mr. Gene Wolfe via email, introduced myself and function, and requested an interview. He said he’d already done enough interviews – people were tired of hearing about him. Please understand he was never curt or rude, just, well, challenging. So I backed up and punted. That’s what I told him. I said I needed to publicize his attendance at the convention, but I wanted to engage him in something fun. So he insisted on interviewing me, and I wound up writing about the back-and-forth.

By the time the convention was over, we (including his lovely wife, Rosemary, and my husband and daughters) were friends. And I had learned to think in a whole different way. He’s not just deep in print, let me tell you.

Tell us about your favourite story or novel by Gene and what it means to you.

This is a hard question to answer. It’s akin to asking what’s my favorite kind of cheesecake. But I’ll give it a go.

I don’t think there is a better short story writer, so I love his collections. Starwater Strains especially. But whenever I come across one of Gene’s short stories in a magazine or anthology, I have to read it first. He absolutely nails just how long the story should be. Heck, the crafty devil managed to include a brief tale in the introduction he wrote for Brian A. Hopkins’ new collection, Phoenix. I don’t know anybody else who could pull that off.

My favorite short story is “Frost Free,” which Gene wrote for the new anthology. If I would read another short story in the next few hours, I’m certain it would be a contender for my favorite. But, for now, it’s “Frost Free.”

As for novels, Pirate Freedom is hands down my favorite and not because he dedicated it in part to my younger daughter, Bekah (known to Gene as the Li’l Pirate). When I finished that book, I turned around and read it all over again. Captain/Father Chris truly snagged my heart and managed to drag me into the fray all over again. Gene does that, though, all too easily. Most often it’s because Wolfe worlds involve numerous  dimensions and layers. Reading any of his books or short stories just once can’t possibly provide  any reader with the full force and impact. His tales are like those Russian Matryoshka nesting dolls. There’s more and more and more and . . .

Home Fires is like that, too: It’s Science Fiction! It’s a mystery! It’s a thriller! I totally enjoyed peeling away those layers. The first time I heard Neil Gaiman talk about Gene’s writing, he said he’d read Peace and then turned around and read it again because he didn’t know until the end that there was so very much in that story. I’d already read Home Fires three times when the editor called me about the anthology. That was the world I wanted to explore more fully, so I reread it twice more.

But Peace does hold a special place in my heart.

That brings us to Gene’s essays. Castle of Days includes some of the finest essays on writing I’ve found. See? There’s so much to consider, and I haven’t even hit on Letters Home. (Be patient.)

What is it about Gene and his work that has inspired you and so many other writers and readers?

He spins one heck of story. I don’t know anybody else who writes like he does. His words grab me by my collar, whoosh me into whatever world he’s created, and fold me into his story immediately. There’s no warm-up. No hesitation. Just here it is and here’s what’s happening. I haven’t figured out how he does it. Maybe I really don’t want to know, and I’m a writer who reads the end to mysteries, not to kill the suspense, but because I want to see how the writer gets to that end. I don’t do that with Gene’s works though. I plunk my keister down with my dictionary and open all my senses. I think it’s a lot like savoring twenty-year-old fine Kentucky bourbon. I sip; I consider; I marvel. And in the end, I feel mighty fine!

But there is more to Gene Wolfe than his writings. I have the extreme privilege of knowing Gene as a person. Our emails and letters and conversations generally revolve around our families and things in the world other than writing. Lots of silly things. Silly songs. Poems. Remembering things from our pasts. And yet having swept away his writings, I have to say his Letters Home, a collection of his correspondence with his family when he served in the Korean War, is the one book I treasure most. Li’l Pirate is now older and married to a Marine. Gene’s letters have helped me to understand a bit of what my son-in-law must be feeling being so far from his family. I try to read something from it right before I go to bed at night.

Your story in Shadows, “Tunes from Limbo, But I Digress” is related to Gene’s novel Home Fires. What was it about this recent book that inspired you? Can you tell us how you came up with the story?

My tribute in the book touches a bit on explaining this. I came up with that title a long time ago. Gene told me then I better hurry up and write a story to go with it or he was going to steal it. But no matter what I wrote, no story of mine seemed to be the right fit. Then when the editor called and said Gene requested a story from me for the book, lots of things suddenly fell together: Home Fires; a comment Gene made about pencils and my obsession with Palomino Blackwing 602s; his many stories where he wrestles with memory; Mark Roth’s TED talk about suspended animation. And once I got out of the way of the narrator, lots of other things popped up.

Storytelling is always a surprise. It’s part of the fun of writing. But besides wanting to tromp around in a Gene Wolfe world, I also wanted to write a story for Gene and Rosemary, so there are things in the story that only Gene will understand. Names he will recognize. Lines from poems we shared. I knew from the beginning the story would begin with “Dear—.” I mean how many of Gene’s stories begin just like that? And I said I was a junkie for his letters. “Tunes . . .” is my letter home. Gene Wolfe forced me onto a spaceship bound for who knew where. It was fun finding out.

There has never been a story that I have worked on harder or have sweated over more because how do you pay homage to a man like Gene? As long as he likes the story that’s all I care about.

Home Fires is another of Gene’s tricksy books. I was astonished that you felt safe to write a related story. Were you at all worried that you hadn’t “got” the story beneath *Home Fires*’s surface (because I would be terrified)? But your story oozes confidence as it builds on the novel’s foundations. I am curious to know how you felt about it?

Thanks for those kind words. They truly mean a lot. Yes, the pressure at first was daunting, but that spring when I first met Gene, he asked that I be one of the speakers at his tribute luncheon. At that time I had read very few of his works, but I agreed. (I mean, what an honor!) I talked about how bowled over I was with his writing. How he was like drinking champagne in a paper cup. Or was it beer in Waterford crystal? The point was I was a new reader. Brand-spanking new!

Gene Wolfe as a writer is all about being brand-spanking new. He grows as a writer with every new project. He keeps his eyes and ears open, his imagination cranked up to high. Maybe that’s the most important thing to take away from Gene Wolfe as a writer. He forgets the stuff that came before and embraces the possibilities of the future. The man is ageless, and some people need to catch up.

Rosemary Wolfe (1931-2013)

It was with great sadness that we learned of the death of Gene Wolfe’s wife Rosemary this past weekend. 

Photo of Rosemary WolfeRosemary, who had been suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease, died on Saturday 14 December in Peoria, Illinois, after a long period of illness and progressively worsening health. She and Gene had been married for over 50 years and had had four children. She was Gene’s muse, and it was to her that he dedicated his lone volume of poetry, For Rosemary.

A funeral mass will be held for Rosemary on Thursday 19 December at 11:00 am at St Bernard’s Church in Peoria.

Our sincere and heartfelt condolences go out to Gene and all the family.

The Editors,

Ultan’s Library

Here are links to:

Shadows of the New Sun: Nancy Kress

Photograph of Nancy Kress

Nancy Kress is the author of 26 books, including the classic Beggars in Spain, which won the Hugo and Nebula awards for best novella in 1991.

Last month she deservedly won a 2013 Nebula award for her  novella After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall (Tachyon Publications).  Nancy also teaches at Clarion and other writing festivals and is the author of several books on writing. You can find out more on her website.

Her contribution to Shadows of the New Sun is a delight – an exploration of the pain and pleasure of being lost in books, inspired by one of Gene’s earliest classic short stories. We wanted to find out more about the origins of her story and what she thinks about the author who inspired it and were therefore delighted when she agreed to answer our questions…


You’ve known Gene a long time, but how did you originally come across him? Did you encounter the man or his writing first?

I first read Gene when “The Island of Dr. Death And Other Stories” appeared in 1970. I was enchanted. By 1980, when The Shadow of the Torturer was released, I was a firm fan. At that time I was teaching at the State University of New York at Brockport, and the English Department was running a week-long summer writing workshop in various genres: poetry, fiction, journalism, science fiction. Each faculty member (I was adjunct faculty at the college) was asked to invite one co-teacher, and I was astonished and delighted when Gene accepted. We hadn’t met before, and I was an unknown, having published only a handful of stories. Gene stayed at my house for the week, and we had plenty of time to schmooze.

During that workshop, my young son broke his arm at Day Care and I rushed him to the ER. That happened to be the same night I had invited all our students, plus some faculty, to dinner. So I’m calling from the hospital to Gene: “Could you please put the ham in the oven at 325 degrees?” And later, “Do you think you could get my big pot from the lower left-hand cupboard by the stove, fill it with water, and set it boiling for the corn?” Later: “Gene–do you know how to shuck corn?” Gene did it all, and both the kid and the dinner were fine.

Tell us about your favourite story or novel by Gene and what it means to you.

My favorite is “The Island of Dr. Death and Other Stories,” which is why I leapt at the chance to add to the story for the Gene Wolfe tribute anthology. I loved it for two reasons. That little boy is so appealing, so clueless as to what is happening in his household, and so real. Creating a character that memorable in such a short space is not easy. Second, I was exactly that kind of child, bringing the characters from my favorite books into my “real” life—at least, in my mind.

Gene wrote a memorable introduction to your first collection back in 1985 (and it is reprinted in Castle of Days). If you were to introduce Gene, what would you try to say?

I would say that this is the science fiction writer that other SF writers aspire—or should aspire—to be. Incidentally, I am still touched and proud of that introduction he wrote for my first collection.

There’s also an extract from a letter to you in Castle of Days. Does Gene always write such wonderful letters?

Yes. We used to correspond regularly. Somehow when the Internet appeared and both our lives got much more complicated, we stopped doing that. It’s a shame, really.

Cover to Shadows of the New Sun

How did you get involved in the Shadows of the New Sun collection?

I was thrilled to be asked to contribute a story.

Some of the stories in Shadows of the New Sun play with Wolfean conceits and themes or re-examine earlier stories, but yours, “… And Other Stories” takes this process to a new level. Can you tell us the origin of the story?

I can’t ever identify the origin of any of my stories. I did know that I wanted to somehow use “The Island of Dr. Death and Other Stories”, and so I reread it. And immediately my story popped into my head. There are gift stories, that come to you whole, and this was one. Although, of course, they’re not really unearned “gifts”—they come from years of unconscious fermenting of ideas, emotions, other authors’ work, daily experiences, imagined experiences, and everything else that roils away in the bottom of writers’ souls.

What is it about Gene and his work that has inspired so many other writers and readers?

Its complexity and simplicity combined. The complexity is in the ideas, the plots, and the wonderful language. The simplicity comes in the characters’ desires. You are always clear what Tackie or Severian or Candy Garth need, and their humanity leads you through their sometimes convoluted plots.

 

New anthology to honour Gene Wolfe

Shadows of the New Sun is a new anthology honouring Gene Wolfe to be published by Tor this August. The anthology features stories by Gene, Neil Gaiman, Nancy Kress, David Brin, and more. The foreword is now available to read online at the Tor Website.Cover to Shadows of the New Sun

Complete Contents:

  • Foreword copyright ˝ 2013 by Jean Rabe.
  • “Frostfree” copyright ˝ 2013 by Gene Wolfe.
  • “A Lunar Labyrinth” copyright ˝ 2013 by Neil Gaiman.
  • “The Island of the Death Doctor” copyright ˝ 2013 by Joe Haldeman.
  • “A Touch of Rosemary” copyright ˝ 2013 by Timothy Zahn.
  • “Ashes” copyright ˝ 2013 by Steven Savile.
  • “Bedding” copyright ˝ 2013 by David Drake.
  • “. . . And Other Stories” copyright ˝ 2013 by Nancy Kress.
  • “The Island of Time” copyright ˝ 2013 by Jack Dann.
  • “The She-Wolf’s Hidden Grin” copyright ˝ 2013 by Michael Swanwick.
  • “Snowchild” copyright ˝ 2013 by Michael A. Stackpole.
  • “Tourist Trap” copyright ˝ 2013 by Mike Resnick and Barry Malzberg.
  • “Epistoleros” copyright ˝ 2013 by Aaron Allston.
  • “Rhubarb and Beets” copyright ˝ 2013 by Todd McCaff rey.
  • “Tunes from Limbo, But I Digress” copyright ˝ 2013 by Judi Rohrig.
  • “In the Shadow of the Gate” copyright ˝ 2013 by William C. Dietz.
  • “Soldier of Mercy” copyright ˝ 2013 by Marc Aramini.
  • “The Dreams of the Sea” copyright ˝ 2013 by Jody Lynn Nye.
  • “The Logs” copyright ˝ 2013 by David Brin.
  • “Sea of Memory” copyright ˝ 2013 by Gene Wolfe.

 

New podcast about The Shadow of the Torturer

Dr Kate MacDonald, lecturer in English at the University of Ghent, Belgium, has been in touch to tell me that the latest edition of her Why I Really Like This Book podcast is about Gene Wolfe’s The Shadow of the Torturer.

You can download it at the links below

Detail from Bruce Pennington: The Shadow of the Torturer, (c) Bruce Pennington

An interview with artist Bruce Pennington

Many British readers first encountered Wolfe’s novels through the stunning cover artwork of Bruce Pennington. His artwork was used on the first hardcover and paperback editions of the Book of the New Sun, The Island of Dr Death and Other Stories and Other Stories,  Gene Wolfe’s Book of Days, The Fifth Head of Cerberus and The Devil in a Forest.

Visually striking, the art seems to perfectly capture the blend of the futuristic and the fantastic that characterises the Urth cycle. Bruce’s work was a fixture of any bookshop with a good SF and Fantasy section in the 60s, 70s and 80s. His work could be seen on the covers for Ray Bradbury, Frank Herbert, Robert Heinlein, Marion Zimmer Bradley, and many more. It has been said that Gene considers Bruce’s cover for The Shadow of the Torturer to be one of his favourites. It has also been suggested that in chapter 26 of The Urth of the New Sun (“Gunnie and Burgundofara”), Severian’s remembrance of his youth in Nessus is a direct reference to Bruce’s painting:

“As clearly as if he were in that chamber of tears with us, I saw the young journeyman striding along, his fuligin cloak billowing behind him and the dark cross of Terminus Est rising above his left shoulder.”

Examples of Bruce’s work can be seen in the gallery above and on his website.

Novelist Stephen Palmer, author of Urbis MorpheosMuezzinland, Memory Seed and Glass, to name a few, interviewed Bruce for Ultan’s Library in April 2013. Steve’s article on religion in the Book of the New Sun is reprinted on Ultan’s Library.


How were you first approached about the four covers to the UK (Arrow) edition of Gene Wolfe’s ‘Book Of The New Sun’ quartet?

The editor and art director of Arrow Books decided to try me out with “The Shadow Of The Torturer” in the early 1980s. They liked the result enough to use my talent on several more Gene Wolfe covers.

Did you get to read any of the text before you began work? Did the publishers perhaps give you a summary of the scenario and characters?

I was always given the text to read through of each book before tackling the picture.

Would you agree that many of your paintings, including those not for SF book covers, seem to mix the ancient past with the distant future? The cover for “The Citadel Of The Autarch” in particular seems to epitomise this feel.

Both ancient and futuristic themes hold a fascination for me personally. It is the polarity of both extremes that has a certain impact I suppose.

Was there a specific real-world inspiration for the bird-creature holding a flaming torch depicted in the painting for “The Claw Of The Conciliator”?

Throughout my school days I was obsessed with ornithology. This took the form of creating my own ‘bird club’ at school, with lectures and bird-watching expeditions into the countryside. The bird-like creature that you mention wasn’t drawn from any particular fowl. The pin-tail duck is about the closest I can think of.

In many of your paintings lifeless environments seem to take on the forms of living things; is this a phenomenon, imaginary or otherwise, that particularly interests you?

During my ornithology days I took up taxidermy, which involved working on the lifeless forms of dead birds. This meant removing the bones etc to make room for wires and sawdust stuffing. Maybe all of that influenced me subconsciously.

I have found that many Gene Wolfe fans who discovered him when he was becoming better known as an SF author associate your four paintings with the work. Has this been borne out by your own experience since painting them?

It was gratifying to receive a letter from Gene Wolfe to the editors of Arrow Books, in which he believed that he and I were in danger of forming a mutual admiration society (praise indeed). I also received letters from fans endorsing the same opinion. All I can say is that I’ve been extremely fortunate to be given such atmospheric tales to illustrate.

How do you think about your cover art for Gene Wolfe’s books? Do you see your pictures as being illustrations of episodes in the books, or do you view them as images inspired by the books? In other words, are you trying to capture a scene or event, or you trying to express the mood and feel of the book in a visual medium?

The atmosphere and iconography of Gene Wolfe’s books already existed in my own imagination way before I read them. If you take a look at the section of my website titled “Migraine Monochromes” you’ll see what I mean. They were done back in the 1970’s – prior to 1980 when I was given the first in the Urth series to illustrate. The mood and environment were paramount above any particular scene, although I tried to keep as close as possible to the text.

Tell us about the colour palette you use for your depictions of Urth. Why those particular colour combinations for a world under a dying sun?

Regarding my choice of colour schemes, I tried to keep them sombre and solemn, as opposed to bright and vivid.

Many of your illustrations of Urth prominently feature stone and bone, particularly skulls. What are the significance of these materials for your conception of how Urth looks and feels?

Those familiar with my imagery know that I have a liking for fossilised remains and bones, particularly skulls. This stems from my early childhood when I discovered a horror comic in my school desk – that, along with seaside ghost trains, were to blame, I’m certain.

Did you read all the Gene Wolfe books you illustrated? If so, what was your reaction to them?

I’m a slow reader, so I have to confess that I tend to ‘skip-read’ books that I have to illustrate. With the Gene Wolfe books though I got really engrossed. From the very first description of them before I had a chance to read them I knew that they were meant for me. I’d like to thank all those who made it all come together.


We’d like to thank Bruce (and Steve) for their time in putting together this interview. All of the images above are the property of and copyright Bruce Pennington.

To see more examples of the art of Bruce Pennington, try the following links:

Grand Master Wolfe

Photograph of Gene Wolfe

Photograph of Gene Wolfe

In December 2012 the Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA) named Gene Wolfe as the latest recipient of the Damon Knight Grand Master award for his “contributions to the literature of Science Fiction and Fantasy.”

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Alastair Reynolds discusses the Book of the New Sun for Gollancz

Noted UK SF author Alastair Reynolds talks about Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun for Gollancz.

Part of Gollancz’ 50th anniversary celebrations from last year, but worth posting.

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Ultan’s Blue Waters

We’ve just moved Ultan’s Library to a new webhost and taken the opportunity to tweak the colour on the site slightly – firstly so that it would became clear when the site move had propagated around the internet, and secondly because we hope to add a few updates to Ultan over the coming months. I particularly hope to use this blog section to highlight Wolfeana around the internet and perhaps start talking about Wolfe’s work in a more informal way than our (brilliant) featured articles.

 

Jonathan Laidlow

Co-Editor, Ultan’s Library

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