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“Tell me about the Lexicon Urthus”: an interview with Michael Andre-Driussi

Delighted by the recent publication of a new edition of the Lexicon Urthus, Master Ultan tracks down Wolfe scholar Michael Andre-Driussi to find out how he came to write this invaluable reference work.

Master Ultan: Let’s start at the beginning. Where and when you did first encounter Gene Wolfe’s writing and what did you read first?

Michael Andre-Driussi: In a chain bookstore at the Santa Monica Place. I was in high school and I had a part-time job there. I saw the paperback covers for The Shadow of the Torturer and I said, “Oh great, just what we need–more blatant sadism in science fiction.” I was not at all interested in it, since it looked like it was out-doing the Gor books in that department.

But I was reading a lot of Jack Vance. While I was hunting for more Vance, somebody told me, “Well then, you ought to try Shadow–it is like The Dying Earth. The tower is a rocket ship.” This must have been at a used book store–probably the one on Wilshire in Santa Monica.

So I started reading. Then I had to wait for the other books to come out, so in the mean time I read The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories. When the New Sun books came out I read copies from the Santa Monica Library.

The Science Fiction Book Club offered four books for $1 or something when you join, and they were listing something called The Castle of the Otter. So I joined and requested four copies of Castle. Then I bought the whole New Sun set from them, and that fulfilled my obligations to the SFBC.

I gave one of my copies of Castle to the Santa Monica Library, as a way of paying back to the house of books and paying forward to other Wolfe fans.

Master Ultan: What did you think of The Book of the New Sun when you first read it?

Michael Andre-Driussi: I thought it was pretty good. It grew on me, obviously.

Master Ultan: When did you first start working on the Lexicon Urthus and what originally inspired you to undertake the project?

Michael Andre-Driussi: The Castle of the Otter has that article “Words Weird and Wonderful.” That one in particular seemed like a blueprint, or a sponge-dinosaur in a gelatin capsule – just add water and the thing grows into an earth-shaking thunder lizard.

Because Castle came out so early, I figured that somebody must be writing such a thing, and I was patient enough to wait. Years went by and nothing was happening, so I wrote to Gene Wolfe in 1989 or so and asked if something was being written, because if not, then I would. He wrote back that nothing was being written, as far as he knew, so I could go ahead.

I like good guidebooks. I was a kid reading Edgar Rice Burrough’s Barsoom books when I found John Flint Roy’s A Guide to Barsoom (1976), which is good in many ways but there are things about it that I would do differently. For example, that book is divided into nearly a dozen sections (Geography, Biography, Flora/Fauna, etc.) rather than being a straight alphabetical listing for most of it and appendices for longer things. So if you have a Barsoomian word, but you don’t know if it is animal, mineral, or vegetable, then you have to look it up in various sections.

That bugged me.

I wanted there to be a book like that (but better!) for the New Sun. I wanted it to be done by an expert. Alas, I had to do it myself!

Gene Wolfe gave me the go-ahead while I was still living in Japan. I did a certain amount of work using paperbacks (ugh), but I didn’t really get going until I returned to the States in the Fall of 1990.

Master Ultan: How did you go about compiling the Lexicon? What was your method and how long did it take?

Michael Andre-Driussi: Writing words down on 3″ x 5″ cards. Looking them up anywhere I could. Early on I would go into a library and the books were practically jumping off the shelves, but then it became a trickle, and finally a desert marked by an occasional oasis. I found “Madregot” in a book in a shop in London while on my honeymoon.

I had a solid work in progress when I met Gene Wolfe in person for the first time at the 1991 World Fantasy Convention in Tuscon, Arizona. Our plan was to sit down with David Hartwell and convince him to take it on for Tor. That was Gene’s idea. Kind of a knight and squire deal, I guess. (It didn’t work out, obviously. But we tried!)

Anyway, first we saw Kathryn Cramer. She asked me, “So how are you doing this project? Is it like each word is a game of twenty questions with Gene?”

It took me a split second to see the semi-truth in that, so I said, “Yes.”

But Gene Wolfe was already saying, “No, not at all – he looks things up!”

Master Ultan: How did you come up with the name Lexicon Urthus?

Michael Andre-Driussi: Whimsy, I guess. I thought it was okay, Gene Wolfe thought it was okay, but John Brunner tried to talk me out of it. “Why not ‘Lexicon Urth’? That’s perfect German.”

“But I don’t want German.” (And I didn’t want perfect, either, but that is more difficult to explain. Anyway, perfect German was simply out of the question.)

What to call it? “Words of Urth” sounds like Whitman. (As it stands, we had a number of order requests for something like “Lexicon Urethra,” which sounds like a highly specialized medical dictionary. Now that’s where the money is! Why didn’t I think of that?)

For what it’s worth, some people early on gave me a hard time for coining “Urth Cycle.” That seems to have gone away.

Master Ultan: When did you realise that all the words in the Urth Cycle were real words and not Wolfe’s coinages?

Michael Andre-Driussi: That’s what all the fans were saying, that the words were real, and then that’s what Wolfe himself said in “Words Weird and Wonderful.” So pretty early on I had that information. I naively thought that I could find all the words in the Oxford English Dictionary – the work of a weekend! The main task would be assembling all those cards.

Master Ultan: How soon did you uncover the various naming schemes Wolfe uses in the Urth Cycle, like naming people in the Commonwealth after Catholic saints? Were there any surprises once you started looking into the meaning of the names of people and places?

Michael Andre-Driussi: The saints clue was given in Castle. Still, nobody had published the results of tracking them all down, and a few of them, like Yrierix, were really quite difficult to find.

But The Urth of the New Sun came out after Castle, so I got to figure that stuff out on my own – the “iron” names of the sailors, the star names of the people in Yesod. People on GEnie were spooked that I figured the iron thing, but that one was easy for me – I happened to have the perfect reference book for that! (The Concise Dictionary of 26 Languages.) They were also spooked about my figuring the Proust angle for “Suzanne Delage” (a short story in Wolfe’s Endangered Species), and yeah, that one was spooky. I started getting a reputation.

But really, it is easier if you have read Gene Wolfe before you go on to read all the literature you’ve been meaning to read. So when you read, say, The Pickwick Papers, and you see those guys with the big keys, and you say, “Hey, look at the clavigers!” And you read Proust, and you say, “Suzanne Delage, Suzanne Delage, now why does that name sound familiar?”

Master Ultan: Why does it sound familiar? What is the connection between Proust and Wolfe’s story “Suzanne Delage”?

Michael Andre-Driussi: It sounded familiar only because I’d already read Wolfe’s story. Suzanne Delage is a minor character who is mentioned in Le Côté de Guermantes, the third book in Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu. The context is the funny part: the context of my reading a book at random (but it is known that Gene Wolfe really likes Proust) and seeing an unsuspected link to a Wolfe story; the context of Suzanne Delage within Proust’s monumental work, wherein she is only a name, only mentioned in one part! She has far less impact than a number of unnamed background characters.

Anyway, I realised that Wolfe had named his character after Proust’s and mentioned my discovery to others when we were discussing the story. Well, it took on a life of its own. It started on GEnie; it came up on the Urth List, years later; Damien Broderick wrote an essay about it for The New York Review of Science Fiction (where, if I recall, he gave me credit for my discovery – yay!); Robert Borski wrote an essay about it in The Long and the Short of It; and now there’s even an entry on it in the WolfeWiki (http://www.holkar.net/pmwiki/pmwiki.php?n=Stories.SuzanneDelage) which doesn’t mention me (understandable), nor Broderick, nor Borski (both of whom really should be mentioned).

Ah well! (Following the publication of this interview, the WolfeWiki entry for “Suzanne Delage” has now been amended to include appropriate acknowledgements – Master Ultan.)

Master Ultan: You mentioned John Brunner just now and you also thank him for his help in the Acknowledgements at the start of the Lexicon. Is that John Brunner the English science fiction writer? How did he come to know about the Lexicon Urthus?

Michael Andre-Driussi: Yes, the same John Brunner. I already knew his work very well, having read those wonderful fat books Stand On Zanzibar, The Sheep Look Up, and Shockwave Rider. Anyway, it turns out that he was something of a word nut, so after he read “Words Weird and Wonderful”, he wrote a letter about word definitions to Gene Wolfe, and Gene forwarded it to me. So then I corresponded with John Brunner for a while. I had plans on getting him to write a preface of some kind – I thought it would be grand to have one by Gene, one by me, and one by John Brunner, just load the thing up. But I stopped at just getting the one from Gene.

And then John Brunner died, making it all the more a pity that I didn’t get him when I could.

Master Ultan: Yes, it would have been interesting to read what he had to say, as a science fiction author, about the way a fellow practitioner used such an unusual vocabulary. As it is, though, the Foreword by Gene Wolfe makes fascinating reading. How did that come about? What did he think of the whole Lexicon Urthus project?

Michael Andre-Driussi: I asked him to write something, and I offered him money and copies. He knew I wanted to get John Brunner, too – maybe that’s what got him. He has always been very supportive, and patient, and generous with his time. He seems to like the Lexicon, but maybe he is just being polite! Or “always glad when it’s over,” that sort of thing. Actually I didn’t bug him at all this time round, he hardly knew the second edition was coming.

Master Ultan: Some of the entries in the Lexicon are relatively short, but there are some longer articles in there as well which give a lot of useful background about Severian’s world. You refer to them in the Lexicon as “special articles and tables”. Could you tell me a little about them?

Michael Andre-Driussi: There is one on calendar, which is really a week-by-week tracing of Severian’s life in The Book of the New Sun. The version in the second edition is much expanded from that in the first.

There is one on history, putting together all the posthistorical bits into one place. There is the synopsis at the end, which is pretty long. There is a part about prehistoric life forms, which have either been reintroduced on Urth or whose names have been given in the Urth Cycle to their posthistoric analogues, just to get a grip on that sizeable chunk of time and its parade of strange creatures.

Master Ultan: What sort of reception did the original Lexicon Urthus receive? How did it sell? (David Langford wrote a good article about the original edition of the Lexicon back in 1998 which is still available here: http://www.ansible.co.uk/writing/odyss03.html.)

Michael Andre-Driussi: The reception was favorable, and early sales were surprisingly brisk. We sold 80 copies pre-release! That is, we made a brochure, and sent it out by snail mail to a list of Wolfe fans that we had assembled. Eighty people were willing to buy it, sight unseen, with no reviews out yet.

It was so energetic, in fact, that we thought we might have a second printing in a year. But after the first few months the sales were a bit anaemic. I mean, it took me eight years to sell all 1,000 copies!

This is mainly due to the niche-market nature of it.

Master Ultan: What prompted you to revise the Lexicon Urthus and produce a second edition?

Michael Andre-Driussi: In addition to fan mail, the readers kept sending in corrections and quibbles. I kept finding new tidbits. So I made a little booklet, a chapbook, of corrections and additions. Then I made another one, so it was a series. Then I made a third one, the fat one, to try and end it. But then I made a fourth one that was just a synopsis of The Book of the New Sun and The Urth of the New Sun.

So all this revision and correction work was already done. It was just the matter of putting it all in. That drudgery would be the least I could do.

But I also wanted to rise to the challenge of catching all the characters. Plus there were a few new things I wanted to add. That is, I wanted to do some fun stuff to offset the drudgery.

Master Ultan: So what are the major differences between the first and second editions of the Lexicon? The second edition is a lot longer than the first. What have you changed? What have you added?

Michael Andre-Driussi: I added just about all of the material in the four chapbooks, so there are those additions and the synopsis. I added the rest of the characters – it turns out the first edition had the majority already, but still, it is nice to be complete. A new map.

Master Ultan: How long did the revision take? Did the process of putting together the second edition differ from that you used for the first? If so, in what ways?

Michael Andre-Driussi: The whole thing was delayed six or nine months because we spent the summer of 2007 in Tokyo. Still, I think it managed to come out on schedule – I said it would take a year or two and I got it to market in two years.

The process was different in that I had less help than the first time! So it was a slow developing nightmare in that sense – it was at its worst at the very end. But I’ve learned! The next book will be different.

Master Ultan: Are there any words or names in the Urth Cycle whose meanings are still uncertain?

Michael Andre-Driussi: Yes. There are some that seem tentative. I wonder about the second R in “Yrierix,” for example – it might be a typo, but it didn’t originate with Wolfe. There are entries that seem solid, yet in the future a reader will write in and point out some problem.

Master Ultan: What is your favourite name or word in the Lexicon, and which is your favourite entry?

Michael Andre-Driussi: I like “yurt” more than I should, to the point where I could not be argued out of including it.

I’m really enthused about the solid work in the calendar section. I should weep bitter tears that the moon symbols got all messed up – it seems like a curse, since they were messed up in the first edition, too! But despite this, the text part is still solid enough that it isn’t totally ruined.

Master Ultan: Some of the illustrations in the first edition, such as the drawing of the “achico” on page 4, are missing in the second. Why is that?

Michael Andre-Driussi: I had to remove most of the illustrations because the book was getting too big. The material from the chapbooks and the rest really added up!

On the other hand, I have a story about the new illustration on page xii, “Colossal Statue of Mount Athos”. I chanced upon this illustration in a used bookstore (in a district called Sawtelle, in between Santa Monica and West L.A., up by the Nuart Theater), back when I was in high school. I immediately recognized the connection to Mount Typhon, far more direct than any Mount Rushmore variation. I thought, “Man, this really needs to be in a book about The Book of the New Sun!” The illustration was in a book entitled Futuropolis by Robert Sheckley, and I bought it.

Of course I wanted the illustration when I created the first edition of the Lexicon, but I couldn’t find it anywhere. In the years between creating editions of the Lexicon, the Internet grew more powerful, so that when I got around to shaping the second edition I was able to find the illustration on line, and pay for it on line. That makes me very happy, since that illustration was such an early intimation of the Lexicon.

Master Ultan: What insights into the meaning and significance of the works in the Urth Cycle have you gained through all your work on the Lexicon?

Michael Andre-Driussi: I can’t tell you that now. It will have to come out in essays.

The good news is that I am still not sick of the text! That is pretty amazing, in itself – the fan runs a serious risk in working too hard on the subject of enthusiasm, such that what was once pleasure is degraded into a threadbare remnant, or worse, a chore.

Master Ultan: Well, we’ll certainly look forward to reading the essays. Meanwhile, has Gene Wolfe himself commented at all on the new edition?

Michael Andre-Driussi: Yes, he wrote to me that it is “a marvelous book to get lost in. I know you’re proud, and you have every right to be.”

Master Ultan: Tell me about the printing, publication and distribution of the new edition of the Lexicon.

Michael Andre-Driussi: The first edition was printed in the traditional way, so that we took possession of all 1,000 copies and stored them in our apartment, then put some in storage. As a result, I had the drudgery of all that – being my own warehouse, warehouse man, shipping guy. In addition to sales rep, etc.

This time we are going with Print on Demand, meaning that we do not have boxes of a book cluttering the place up – each copy is made when the order comes in. That is much better!

Plus this time we are offering hardcover, trade paperback, and also Kindle versions. This gives customers more choice. (First edition was hardcover only, and there were complaints about that.)

The distribution is about the same, with the book being carried by major distributors Baker & Taylor and Ingram. Online sales were strong for the first edition, and that continues.

Master Ultan: How’s it going so far? What sort of response have you had to the new edition – reviews, sales, readers’ comments? Do people still make suggestions for definitions, revisions or changes?

Michael Andre-Driussi: Sales are strong. We are now seven weeks in and over 330 have sold (mixing hardcover, trade paperback and Kindle versions). These are mainly to people who know what the book is and know they want it, people who have been frustrated for up to six years (the first edition sold out in 2002). They are an informed group, a crop of patient customers linked by word of mouth and their own Wolfe discussion groups. But they are a finite reserve, and I don’t know how long their sales can go on. (I mean, you look at 330 sales in about two months and you are tempted to think that you will sell 1,000 by the seventh month, or surely in one year. But no, that is not likely.)

The question of reviews is a tricky one. Many places don’t want to review a reference book; many shy away from reviewing a second edition.

And yet a review is one of the only ways to get the information to new people, potential customers. There have been a couple of online reviews so far (the BookSpot Central one is at http://www.bookspotcentral.com/2008/09/book-review-lexicon-urthus/ and there’s a nice one by Michael Swanwick at http://floggingbabel.blogspot.com/2008/07/blog-post.html – Master Ultan), for which I am grateful, and I hope that there will be one or three print reviews as well.

The readers seem to be very enthusiastic. I’ve received a number of very nice emails.

As for corrections and quibbles, yes! Darrell Schweitzer has already given me two. One was a phrasing problem on my part. In tracing down the other problem, I discovered on line that the book of saints I was referencing had a name typo (Eudoxia for Eudocia) that was cleared up in subsequent editions.

Master Ultan: Do you have any plans for further revisions to the Lexicon? Is there likely to be a third edition?

Michael Andre-Driussi: Never say never. Print on Demand offers the potential for easy revising, but I haven’t really explored that yet. For one thing, I’d like to put aside all essays and stuff just long enough to read An Evil Guest! It would be like a mini-vacation that I could stretch out to a whole week if only I could pace my reading . . .

Master Ultan: One last thing! Have you ever considered extending the scope of the Lexicon to include The Book of the Long Sun and The Book of the Short Sun? Or maybe writing a separate Lexicon Whorlus?

Michael Andre-Driussi: Interestingly enough, that was David Hartwell’s idea, to mix Long and New suns. I refused to even consider it.

However, I did publish a series of chapbooks on The Book of the Long Sun. And that was to be the opening move of a book called Gate of Horn, Book of Silk. So I’ve already made that promise, and look! The work is already done! (Well, The Book of the Short Sun hasn’t been integrated into the material, so maybe that’s the joy quantum to get me going.)

No publishing date has been announced.

Can I read An Evil Guest now?

Master Ultan: Yes, I’m sure you can! Michael, thank you for telling us about the Lexicon Urthus.

Still frame from hidden surveillance camera footage of the meeting between lexicographer Michael Andre-Driussi and Ultans Library co-editor Nigel Price in California in 2006

Still frame from hidden surveillance camera footage of the meeting between lexicographer Michael Andre-Driussi and Ultan’s Library co-editor Nigel Price in California in 2006

Disclaimer: Rumours have been circulating recently that an emissary from Ultan’s Library has travelled out to California to meet with Michael Andre-Driussi not once but on two separate occasions. A legal representative of Sirius Fiction has reluctantly confirmed that this is indeed the case, citing clandestine meetings in Santa Rosa, Sonoma County, in 2005 and in San Francisco the following year. He confirms that Mr Andre-Driussi received hospitality on each occasion (breakfast in Santa Rosa, supper in San Francisco) but denies claims that he was either offered or accepted financial inducements in exchange for his literary services on Master Ultan’s behalf. He goes on to admit, however, that Mr Andre-Driussi did accept the gift of a small coffee mug emblazoned with a science fictional motif on the occasion of his first meeting with Master Ultan’s representative. He confirmed that it had subsequently become “a favourite” but vigorously denied the claim that it had influenced Mr Andre-Driussi’s decision to contribute material of a literary critical nature to Ultan’s Library. When asked whether a third meeting had ever been planned (reportedly in Seattle and possibly including a meeting with a certain famous author), the Sirius Fiction spokesperson would only state that Mr Andre-Driussi had been willing to arrange child-minding facilities for Master Ultan’s emissary’s dependents on such an occasion but that, as discussions about the proposed meeting had broken down at a very early stage, this had never in fact been necessary.


Film version of “The Death of Doctor Island”


Two more Wolfe novels on the way


  1. James Wynn

    Thanks for this interview.


    Is there any event in the near future where one might run into you to get my…ehem… I mean, *one’s*, new edition of Lexicon Urthus signed?

  2. Thank you, James. I’m glad you liked it.

    I’ll ask Michael to respond to the second part of your comment!


  3. Michael Andre-Driussi

    Hello there James Wynn!

    What, =again=?! I just saw you last year at Seattle!

    I’m thinking about going to WindyCon, Chicago Nov 14-16, but I haven’t decided yet. If you’re going, I’d probably go.

    Beyond that, did Texas A&M ever reschedule that Gene Wolfe thing that Wolfe had to cancel because of the SF Hall of Fame/Seattle thing? I keep wondering. Anyway, that seems like it would be a great one to go to!


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