Let’s start with an introduction: Who is Bruce Sterling?
Well, at the present moment, I’m some unshaven guy in his mid-sixties surviving a global pandemic in Ibiza while wearing house slippers, linen pajama pants and a poncho.
Your latest book, Robot Artists and Black Swans, will be published by Tachyon in March 2021. It looks really interesting: How would you introduce it to a potential reader?
It’s a literary conceptual-art piece. I was an American science fiction writer spending time in Italy, so I naturally thought, “I should write some science fiction about Italy!”
But then I surmised: “What kind of science fiction would I write if I myself was Italian?” Then, instead of me peering through a keyhole as a puzzled foreigner, it was like a vast door had opened up into the marbled streets.
Where do you draw your inspiration from in general, and are there any particular influences for the stories in your new collection?
I combine things I see while wandering around Turin with some new, personal methods of research. The extent of European cultural archives is fantastic. There’s so much in the libraries, so much online, and in so many languages — in Italy you can stumble over some minor curiosity from 500 years ago, and there’s such a density of historic information about it that it seems to explode.
Also, most of my Turinese friends are not literary people; they’re designers, crafts people or technology artists, so while they’re talking shop in their comfort-zone, I’m on a magic carpet ride.
How were you introduced to genre fiction?
I had a kindly uncle who gave me his SF paperbacks. Later in college I started meeting people who were published SF writers, and I attended conventions and joined some workshops. I wrote for fanzines, people encouraged me, mentors arrived in due course. It was fandom acculturation, basically.
How do you like being a writer and working within the publishing industry?
I understand how publishing works, but I consider myself a science fictional personality who happens to write, rather than a writer who creates and sells genre fiction.
I’m inspired by fellow creatives who don’t write fiction, such as industrial designers, digital crafts people and software artists. That’s where the “robot artist” aspect of the new collection comes from.
Do you have any specific working, writing, researching practices?
I like being in situations where I’m bad at the language. I’m a glib, chatty guy who does a lot of public speaking, so it does me good to shut up, open my eyes and ears, and take better note of the state of the world.
My professional writing habits are frankly bad. I’m one of those self-actualization writers, and I need to explore forms of expression that make me more like myself. I’m a visionary and fantasist, rather than an airport-rack bestseller or an accomplished man-of-letters. But I do have some unusual interests, so my intuition is, that if I’m fascinated by my material, there’s a chance that the reader will be interested.
When did you realize you wanted to be an author, and what was your first foray into writing? Do you still look back on it fondly?
I used to write odd little stories for my junior high school classes and stand up and read them aloud. When the class laughed and the teacher nodded, I thought, well! It seems I can do this.
I found it was fun to get famous as a writer, but having been famous for a while, I found that fame is intrusive, it bothers me. I don’t hunger for massive approval and I don’t cultivate my fan base; I know plenty of writers who do that, and I understand how gratifying it is to have your readers adore you, but I’m on top of my game in situations and places where nobody’s ever heard of me.
What’s your opinion of the genre today, and where do you see your work fitting into it?
Well, we’re in a situation of severe and prolonged media upheaval in the print world and everywhere else, and the turmoil is hard to outguess.
As an American SF genre writer, I wanted to see if I could make my work fit into the Italian genre of “fantascienza.” And yes, my work does fit: I really am a genuine fantascienza writer, I publish original works in Italian for Italian SF readers about Italy. I go to Italian conventions, I have Italian colleagues who know me, I get Italian prizes, I became one of them.
However, Italian readers like my American science fiction better than my fantascienza. By Italian standards, the fantascienza in Robot Artists and Black Swans are peculiar and odd stories; they’re something like Italians filming spaghetti westerns about imaginary Texan cowboys.
Still, it helps that they’re Turinese stories. Most Italians consider the Turinese to be really eccentric and self-involved Italians. They believe that because it’s true. “You could have Turin without Italy but you could never have Italy without Turin,” that’s what the people say.
Do you have any other projects in the pipeline, and what are you working on at the moment?
I’m still slowly working on my Bruno Argento historical epic about Turin in the 1600s, which looks like a trilogy at this point. It’s Gormenghast-sized and very densely researched.
What are you reading at the moment (fiction, non-fiction)?
I read a lot more academic papers than I once did. I subscribe to academia.edu and I search, point and click through that academese. I’m old enough to be patient with the professors. Whenever I meet one, I’m kind and understanding.
I like ransacking archives. I’ve got colossal pdf collections from the likes of Gutenberg, archive.org and Google Books.
I used to read a ton of genre material and evangelize the good stuff, but nowadays I’m considerably more astral and detached. Even the music I listen to can kill mice at twenty paces.
If you could recommend only one novel or book to someone, what would it be?
Probably some vast, weird, encyclopedic compendium-of-everything such as Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy or d’Israeli’s Curiosities of Literature.
What’s something readers might be surprised to learn about you?
I was a teenage emigre and lived for three years in southern India.
What are you most looking forward to in the next twelve months?
Bruce Sterling’s Robot Artists and Black Swans is due to be published by Tachyon Publications in March 2021, in North America and in the UK. Tachyon also publishes Sterling’s Pirate Utopia in North America and in the UK.
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