An Interview with A. E. Van Vogt

conducted by Jeffrey Elliot

published in Science Fiction Review #23

Copyright 1977 by Richard E. Geis, all rights assigned to the contributors.

A. E. Van Vogt is one of the most celebrated science fiction writers in America. He stands beside Asimov, Heinlein, and Clarke as one of the nation's most gifted writers of imaginative fiction. His books, which include The Weapon Shops of Isher, The Universe Maker, The War Against the Rull, The Winged Man and The World of Null-A have been translated into several languages---French, German, Italian---and even recorded on "talking records" for the blind.

In assessing Van Vogt's career, Barry Malzberg has observed: "So much of his work, reread after many years, seems to work in terms which are sub or trans-literary; so much of his power seems to come not from sophisticated technique and/or pyrotechnic style as from his ability to tap archetypal power, archetypal 'them,' and open up veins of awe or bedazzlement that otherwise are found in love or dreams." Indeed, throughout his long career, Van Vogt has championed important concepts years ahead of his time, concepts such as hypnotism, "similarization," semantics, "Nexialism," and dianetics. Perhaps that is why Forrest Ackerman has dubbed him "the undisputed Idea Man of the Futuristic field."

Van Vogt does his writing in Hollywood, California, high atop the hills, accessible only to those with strong legs or a high-powered automobile. A spectacular view stretches across his panoramic hilltop home. The decor is comfortable, modest by most standards, the kind of home which looks warm and lived in. There on a rare rainy June morning in his cluttered study, Van Vogt talked about his checkered career.

SFR: How did you start writing science fiction?

VAN VOGT: I started reading science fiction when I was about fourteen. I remember buying the November, 1926 issue of AMAZING, which caught my eye on the newsstand. At the time, I always thought it was THE science fiction magazine. I didn't really become interested in science fiction until 1939, when I picked up a copy of ASTOUNDING STORIES, and read what I thought was a fantastic science fiction story. After examining the magazine, I sent the editor a brief paragraph outlining an idea I had for a short story. I told him I had already sold numerous stories to other publications. If he hadn't answered the letter, I probably wouldn't have become a science fiction writer. I discovered later, however, that he answered all such letters. Actually, all he said in the letter was, "When you do the story, do it with lots of atmosphere." In other words, he wanted me to use plenty of "purple prose." I understood what he meant. I started writing when I was twenty. I sold my first story to TRUE STORY MAGAZINE about that time. They bought it for $245, which was a lot of money in the depression. So I knew what he meant by colorful language. I've always tried to spice up my stories with plenty of atmosphere.

SFR: What was your reaction when you received his letter?

VAN VOGT: Naturally, I started to write feverishly. I was intrigued by the idea, and his letter served to reinstate my earlier interest in science fiction. My story was entitled "Vault of the Beast." It was published in the July, 1939 issue of ASTOUNDING.

SFR: How conversant were you with the science fiction field when you wrote that first story?

VAN VOGT: Actually, I knew next-to-nothing about the field, except perhaps, what I had read in AMAZING. The whole field was new to me. It didn't take me long, however, to discover who were the best writers.

SFR: When did you decide that you wanted to become a science fiction writer?

VAN VOGT: After my first sale. As I mentioned, I had written many things before publishing in AMAZING. However, I had made very little money up to that point. I had written several stories for TRUE STORY MAGAZINE, although they weren't particularly lucrative. In fact, I had to write them all anonymously, as though I were divulging my hidden past. It was imperative that the stories be real or based on real material. The publisher even made me sign affidavits to that effect. One day, however, while I was working on one of those stories, I thought to myself, "What in God's name am I doing writing these things?" That was the end of my career with TRUE. At that point, I began to write radio plays and work as a trade paper journalist. Fortunately, I was able to eke out a living by combining the two jobs.

SFR: How stiff was the competition when you began your career in the science fiction field?

VAN VOGT: Well, we had Asimov, Del Rey, Heinlein, Leiber and several other well-known science fiction writers.

SFR: Is it more difficult today for someone to break into the science fiction field than it was when you began your career?

VAN VOGT: Yes, I think so. The real problem is the shortage of science fiction magazines. Most of these publications are fighting for their lives. Unfortunately, that's where most new writers gain their experience. It's tough to break in with a novel. It seems as though there are a thousand or more science fiction writers around today. And they are all working every day.

SFR: Are you concerned about competition from other science fiction writers?

VAN VOGT: No, not at all. I have no sense of competition in my own field. I was fortunate to get started when magazines were the only thing going. Not long ago, for example, the editor of ANALOG asked me to do a story for the magazine. I'm reluctant to do it, however, since it means that I'd be taking away space from new writers. It's awfully difficult for new writers to get started.

SFR: Some critics maintain that your work cannot be judged in the same terms as other science fiction writers---that your approach to writing is totally different. Is that a fair statement?

VAN VOGT: Yes, I suppose so. First of all, I write my stories differently than most science fiction writers. Most of the writers today are intuitive writers or else they learned how to write in college. That's not my method. I write my science fiction in eight-hundred-word scenes. Each scene has five steps. I write in what I call "presentation units." When I was writing confession-type (reality) stories, every sentence had to have an emotion in it. For instance, you wouldn't say, "I live at 323 Brand Street." That's just a statement. There's no emotion in it. Instead, you would say, "Tears came to my eyes as I thought of my little room at 323 Brand Street." I would use another emotion in the next sentence, and another one after that, and so on. I call these "fictional sentences." In writing science fiction, I try to write each sentence so that the reader will have to make a creative contribution. Each sentence has a hang-up in it. There's something missing in each sentence. As Marshall McLuhan would say, I write my science fiction "hot." That means that the reader must get involved. He must make a creative contribution because that's how I write my stories. It's impossible, therefore, to read my work fast. The reader must solve the hang-up before going on to the next sentence. By comparison, many science fiction writers use the narrative approach---that is, they write from the author's point of view. Sometimes they succeed beautifully, as does Robert Silverberg, who employs this method. However, my approach to writing science fiction is quite different. It's much more time consuming. You must make sure that each sentence has the essential ingredients. In addition, I try to use certain sounds, sounds which convey particular emotions. Normally, after writing a story, I would try to change words to make use of a specific sound. I thought it would bring a kind of musical backdrop to my story. However, I try not to overdo it. There is just enough so that it serves as an "extra." It's meant to create a special effect, something the reader might not notice at the time, but which would have a specific impact on him at the end of the story.

SFR: How conscious are you of technique as you're writing a story?

VAN VOGT: Oh, I'm aware of it at all times. I write with total conscious craftsmanship. I'm always aware of the techniques I employ---my eight-hundred-word scenes, my five-step process, my fictional sentences, my presentation units. All of my writing contains these basic ingredients, although I'm not successful in every case. For instance, sometimes it's necessary to have the person just say, "Yes." You can't have him say, "Yes, he whispered." [sic] It simply doesn't fit.

SFR: Do you employ a similar approach with other genres?

VAN VOGT: Yes. After all, every type of writing should possess a certain imagery. Without it, one's writing is too colorless. Also, I try to keep my sentences short. In the current SCIENCE FICTION REVIEW, John Brunner stands up for the long sentence. That's not for me. If a sentence gets too long, I get scared. I'm afraid that I'll lose my reader midway through the sentence.

SFR: Is it possible for you to stick to your rules in writing nonfiction?

VAN VOGT: Well, I never really did much in terms of nonfiction. What little writing I did do, was as a trade journalist for several newspapers. At the time, they paid 20 a column-inch. Although I published something in every issue, I never seemed to make much money.

SFR: When did you get to the point that you could support yourself through your writing?

VAN VOGT: I suppose it was when I was awarded a $1,000 first prize by TRUE STORY MAGAZINE. I used the money to buy my mother a radio, a couch and several other household items. I spent most of what was left on the movies, which I went to every evening as long as my money lasted.

SFR: Do you find it personally challenging to write science fiction?

VAN VOGT: Yes, very much so. When I write my eight-hundred-word scenes, I must work at a very slow pace, much slower than even the reader, who must solve the hang-ups as he goes along. In my science fiction, the reader is required to do an incredible job. Not only must he read the story, but he must also make a creative contribution in order to understand it. My readers are extremely bright people. They must create much of the story as they go along, largely out of their own imagination, because of the various hang-ups which are built in. Once a person has read any science fiction of mine, his brain will no longer be the same. Hopefully, he will be changed for the better.

SFR: How carefully do you plan out a story before you begin writing?

VAN VOGT: Well, that has always been my problem. I don't work that way, which has proved to be a real problem in terms of television and film. Unfortunately, most producers require the entire outline in advance. I write a story, for the most part, as I go along. In fact, I'm not always sure where it's going.

SFR: Don't you then have to reread each segment before proceeding to the next one?

VAN VOGT: It's only necessary to reread a segment if I put it aside for some time. However, I have devised a much quicker method for writing a novel. With my old approach, it would normally take me about two years to put together a book. In 1969, however, I borrowed a technique that I learned from L. Ron Hubbard, as a result of my work in dianetics. It requires the writer to create his story at several key places throughout its development. For instance, I would write, perhaps three sentences at the beginning, maybe a paragraph midway through, a few sentences later on, and a couple of paragraphs near the end. I discovered that after I wrote three or four of these sentences, another three or four would come forth. The story began to fit together a lot more quickly. Eventually, I had enough to write a novel. It worked out much better than my previous method, which was extremely time-consuming. In fact, it has enabled me to write many more books than I would have otherwise.

SFR: Does your approach to writing require substantial rewriting and editing?

VAN VOGT: Yes, an incredible amount. It's a long, difficult process. I'm not a super-fast writer. I can't write straight from my head onto the typewriter. That's beyond my capabilities. I've tried, instead, to develop quicker methods of writing, but it's still a long, drawn-out process. Perhaps the best example of someone who writes slowly, somewhat as I do, is Ray Bradbury. His work is super-successful because of the skillful way he puts a story together. He might work on a manuscript for a period of five-six months. But this painstaking approach has paid off for him in the long run. It has for me, too. Most of my stories are still in print or under contract. A good example of the speed-approach is John Brunner. He would "worry" a story for a while and then sit down at the typewriter and compose it in no time. Looking back on my own career, my approach has worked out extremely well. My stories never seem to become dated, largely because the reader is required to make a creative contribution. It has enabled me to reach a much larger audience.

SFR: Are you a disciplined writer? Do you follow a set regimen each day in terms of writing?

VAN VOGT: No, not any more. The way I operate these days, is that I do what I must. In other words, I do what's next. I allow myself to be interrupted. For example, even though I gave up dianetics in 1965, I feel a certain obligation to those people who came to my wife and I for assistance. Should any of these people call up in an emergency situation, I would drop whatever I was doing and try to help in any way possible. When my wife was alive, if she needed something from the store, I would never refuse. I would always go and get it. However, earlier in my career, when I used to work on six novels simultaneously, I would work for four hours on the one I wanted to finish first, and 1-1/2 hours on each of the other five, although I never got to number six. When I went to bed at eleven o'clock, I would always be at work on number five.

SFR: Do you find it difficult to work on several books simultaneously?

VAN VOGT: No, not at all. In fact, I discovered it was the best thing I could do. After working on a story for a long time, several problems would inevitably arise. By putting it aside for a while, and working on something else, many of the problems would seem to work themselves out.

SFR: How does your approach to writing differ today from the way in which you worked previously?

VAN VOGT: When my wife became ill, she needed a lot of attention. Everything changed in my life. There was a great deal of emotion in me. I'm not as alert today as I was earlier in my career. It's something I'm trying to solve. I've come to the conclusion that one never really recovers from the loss of a loved one, particularly someone as close as a wife. The real problem isn't grief, although that is great, but what I would call "vivid memories." These are special remembrances which induce fear or sorrow or guilt. These vivid memories serve to inhibit thought and action. I still have not resolved my wife's death in my own mind. I don't think I ever will. I've tried, however, to deal with the problem in a variety of ways. For example, I experimented with small amounts of alcohol and, by God, the memories dimmed. But that was no solution for me. I discovered that the best thing to do was to put the whole matter out of my mind, which is obviously much easier said than done. Some people do this by changing their surroundings---by pulling up stakes, selling the house, discarding the furniture, throwing away the pictures. However, I felt that that approach was wrong. I couldn't bring myself to do it. For me, I had to learn how to deal with these images. When the would come, I would simply say, "No, not now. I'll think about it on Sunday." In other words, I would put it off until a later time. I wasn't throwing it away, but I was postponing it until I could better deal with it. Usually, I would postpone these images until the end of the month, at which time I would think about them.

SFR: Are you now able to put distance between the memories?

VAN VOGT: Yes, I'm able to do it more easily today, largely because I've developed a system for dealing with it more effectively. I don't view the problem as solved, however. My immortality is still in danger.

SFR: Are you able to write with more or less the same discipline that you were before your wife's death?

VAN VOGT: No, not really. I'm not able to work the way I did when she was alive. I'm not investing the same amount of time or energy. But I'm getting better at dealing with the problem.

SFR: Do you find writing to be a lonely activity? Does the daily regimen bother you?

VAN VOGT: No, I never was a 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. writer. I still write from the time I wake up until the time I go to bed, except that I allow myself to be interrupted. However, I discovered a long time ago, that in order to write, you must keep at it. You can't allow yourself to take breaks. Once you start taking breaks, you lose your high energy state. It takes a considerable amount of time to bring that state up again. Writing requires an extremely high energy state. The moment you shift gears to do something else, you're immediately operating at a lower energy state. Actually, I thoroughly enjoy the process of writing, particularly science fiction. I sometimes feel that I've invented at least six sub-fields that will have an important impact on the scientific community. For instance, I would cite my work in dream therapy. It's a process that requires little effort, but which can do much to heighten awareness.

SFR: In terms of the ideas of your stories, where do most of them come from?

VAN VOGT: I try to keep abreast of new developments by reading the scientific magazines and journals, although I haven't been as successful in recent years, probably due to my wife's death. Even so, I only rely on science for information. Most of my ideas come from something I have thought about or experienced. Occasionally, I might get an idea from an editor, a producer, or even a fan. I'm presently writing a screenplay based on an idea suggested by a producer. I was furnished with a title, and then asked to write a first draft based on that suggestion.

SFR: Is it your view that science fiction has a function beyond entertainment?

VAN VOGT: I think so. Today's science fiction writers are concerned with developing a worldview. They're trying to provide the reader with a look at the past, present, and future. Most science fiction readers are extremely bright. They have good jobs. They're interested in the world. They have inquisitive minds. They're involved in lots of things. In fact, Robert Kennedy was a great fan of science fiction.

SFR: How important is "message" in your work?

VAN VOGT: Well, I'm known as a "message" writer. But I've never really thought of myself in those terms. I simply developed an interest in my subjects and wrote about them for my own amazement. My main objective, however, is to write a good story, as opposed to conveying a particular message. That thought only occurred to me after it was pointed out by a critic.

SFR: What do you see as your strengths and weaknesses as a writer?

VAN VOGT: I resigned myself to my particular approach to writing some time ago. I can't bring myself to become a narrative writer, even though I've dabbled a bit in that area. I've often been faulted for not having enough characterization in my stories. It seems to me that my method requires considerably more characterization, particularly since the reader is required to make a creative contribution, than if I were simply to describe the character to the reader. With my approach, the reader is asked to contribute to the characterization, which makes my task considerably more difficult.

SFR: Who are your favorite writers of science fiction?

VAN VOGT: R. A. Lafferty. I think he writes the most original stories in the science fiction world, perhaps in the entire world, today. When I first met Lafferty, I asked him who most influenced his thinking. His answer was C. K. Chesterton. As a result, I've been doing some research on Chesterton, whom I hadn't heard of until then. I used to consider Robert Heinlein my favorite science fiction writer, until he started to write those super-long stories, which I absolutely refuse to read. Once a writer goes beyond 100,000 words, he loses me. In fact, I won't even start a book of that length. I can't bring myself to read a long novel.

SFR: Some critics have charged that your recent work fails to live up to your previously high standards. Is there any truth in that charge?

VAN VOGT: I've heard that criticism before. After hearing it the first time, I reread some of my work. I discovered that I hadn't followed as many of my rigid rules in my later novels as I did in earlier works. For the most part, I merely pointed in that direction. I wrote a bit more by intuition. I was a little less demanding in terms of my craftsmanship. And yet, it doesn't seem to have mattered too much. My work continues to sell just as well today. I'm willing, however, to experiment and see whether my new approach results in any significant differences.

SFR: Your latest book, THE ANARCHISTIC COLOSSUS, deals with a future Earth where anarchy has become a way of life. What motivated you to write such a novel?

VAN VOGT: I had thought about the subject for some time. I asked myself the question, "What technology would it take to produce an anarchistic society?" I don't believe that human nature is "pure" enough to have such a system. The idea proved extremely interesting to me. In the process of examining the question, I amassed many books on the subject. After reading them, I could only shake my head at their naivete. After all, communism is supposed to result in an anarchistic society, and yet there are no real signs of it on the horizon.

SFR: In the book, you contend that the human species is unlikely to change for the better. How do you view the nature of man?

VAN VOGT: Unfortunately, there are many people who have negative motives that we don't need on this planet. These are the people who have the small impulse to do damage which precludes the possibility of an anarchistic society. A sizeable number of young people fit into this category. It's an almost perverse desire to do some needless inconvenience. For instance, consider the case of the child who stuffs up a toilet in a public restroom or the adult who double parks on a busy street. These kinds of negative impulses must somehow be controlled if we ever hope to create an anarchistic society.

SFR: Do you see anarchism as a desirable state in which to live?

VAN VOGT: Well, it's an outrage that the majority is able to dictate behavior for everybody. Where do they get that right? It has historical validity, but no truth in the reality of things. Unfortunately, we must yield to these controls because of the negative harassments perpetrated by the minority. These are the people who must be controlled. It's a sad fact, but there are people who wouldn't contribute a cent to the commonweal unless they were compelled to do so. They would look for every possible excuse to avoid their obligations. However, the present system is all wrong. We should not have to elect a government to keep the people in check. But we're forced to do so because we're a bunch of villains---apathetic, selfish, and unfeeling.

SFR: In a recent interview, you stated that you intend "to move more and more away from science fiction." What plans do you have for the future?

VAN VOGT: As I mentioned, I'm presently working on a screenplay. However, my ability to work in this area is not yet established. It's a very different field, and I haven't yet developed real craftsmanship-security. However, I've solved several of my problems in this area. After all, you can't write an eight-hundred-word scene in a screenplay. So I wasn't quite sure how to tap my knowledge in this field. The procedures require a very detailed outline, something which just kills me. As I see it, however, if other people can do it, I should be able to do it, too. Also, I'm hard at work on four new books, all simultaneously. I hope to have them finished within the next year or so.

SFR: How do you feel about science fiction fandom?

VAN VOGT: I like my fans a great deal. It's nice to meet them at the various science fiction conventions which are held throughout the country. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to attend as many of these meetings as I would have liked. But I do enjoy the feedback---the give-and-take. It gives me a much better picture of the real world. It's also a good opportunity to get away from my work, which is particularly important, since I always feel guilty when I'm not working. But I know I should do these things. It's wrong to simply work all the time.

SFR: Thank you, Mr. Van Vogt.

Al's Van Vogt Page