an interview
with eileen gunn

conducted by karen fishler, june 24, 2004
Stable Strategies and Others, your new short-story collection, with an introduction by the celebrated William Gibson and an afterword by the strange and unique Howard Waldrop, and has been described as a major literary event. Why did you decide to create the collection, and what do you hope to achieve with it?
Gunn: I just want people to be able to read my work. I travel a lot, I talk to new writers, I speak at a lot of conventions, and people are always complaining to me that they can only find a couple of my stories, “Stable Strategies for Middle Management,” and “Computer Friendly,” the ones that have been most widely reprinted and are assigned in college classes. I have to say that it astounds me when people tell me that they read a story of mine as a college assignment in Hamburg (in German!), and to discover (thanks to the Web) that “Stable Strategies” is being taught in Cape Town. I once asked a university librarian if the instructor was using me as a bad example, but she politely assured me that wasn’t the case.
Like most other writers of short fiction, I’ve had a deep and, until now, unfulfilled yearning to have all my stories in one place, in an attempt to prove that I haven’t totally squandered my life and talent. This collection is pretty much all the fiction I’ve published in the past twenty-five years, plus two new works: a story about death and reconciliation, “Coming to Terms,” and “Nirvana High,” a collaboration with the Nebula-Award-winning writer Leslie What. I’m working on several new stories, and am not planning to wait another quarter-century for the next book.
Your stories explore the Byzantine dynamics of the corporate workplace, a normally unwelcoming environment for literary fiction. Does your background as a Microsoft advertising executive give you a unique perspective on the high-tech lifestyle?
Gunn: Working at Microsoft in its early years, as I did, was certainly a unique experience, but I have a much longer perspective on high-tech. I started writing advertising for a very creative high-tech ad agency in 1969, and wrote several short interpretive books for Digital Equipment Corporation in the late seventies and early eighties. I’ve always enjoyed working with computer engineers, because they see the world through remarkably playful metaphoric filters.
And DEC, which was larger then than Microsoft is now, was a real hothouse for corporate politics. I was extraordinarily lucky to work with people who made a point of cutting through the political tangles, rather than getting enmeshed in them. And because I considered my lifework to be my fiction writing, not my corporate career, I was always ready to quit a job if it made me miserable. That’s very empowering, and really, that’s probably what gives me a unique perspective: attitude.
Are there other themes that thread through the collection?
Gunn: A lot of my work is about dealing with change, about encountering situations not of your own making that change you in ways that you can never undo. That’s one way of looking at life: even if you hide from change, even if you manage to avoid the terrors that wait for most people as they make their way through the world, change will be thrust upon you.
And I think there’s a general consensus that my work is funny and weird. But really, what do I know? It seems normal enough to me.
You’ve had several Hugo Award nominations for your short stories, some of which appear in Stable Strategies. What do you think is the greatest appeal of your work?
Gunn: Maybe it really is funny and weird.
“Stable Strategies for Middle Management,” the story that gives the collection its title, has been reprinted around the world and resonates with anybody who’s ever held a white-collar job. What are some of the other stories in the book?
Gunn: “Coming to Terms” is a new story, inspired by the late Avram Davidson’s habit of writing in all his books. I started it after helping Avram’s son pack up his father’s apartment after Avram’s death. I worked on the story over about ten years, during which time both my own parents died, and I packed up their belongings and correspondence. “Nirvana High,” also not previously published, is a collaboration with Leslie What, and deals with the eternal themes of sex, death, and high school. It takes place at Cobain High, a magnet school for depressed teenagers with ESP.
Do you have a personal favorite?
Gunn: They all have their charms. “Fellow Americans” is usually the most fun to read out loud, because I get to do my Richard Nixon imitation. “Lichen and Rock” has happy memories, because the first time I read it in public, Bruce Sterling admitted, somewhat reluctantly, “I’m pleased to see it has an ideologically correct ending.” “Stable Strategies” enabled me to work through some of my Job Issues. “Nirvana High” makes me laugh, because I can’t tell what I wrote and what Leslie wrote, so it’s not as though I’m laughing at my own jokes.
You’re the editor and publisher of the online magazine The Infinite Matrix. Did your experience in these roles help you put Stable Strategies together?
Gunn: Well, I’ve certainly learned more about hands-on editing in the past four years of doing The Infinite Matrix (www.infinitematrix.net). But I’m basically a writer, and for the copyediting and proofreading of my collection, I’ve depended on the kindness of others. Thank goodness.
For many years you’ve been on the board of directors of Clarion West Writers Workshop, one of the best workshops in the country. What do you believe is most important about teaching writers?
Gunn: First, do no harm. The most important aspect of teaching writing is not to break anything. Writers need to be self-reliant and able to accept and reject criticism, but it does them no good to doubt who they are and whether they should be writing.
I am involved with Clarion West to make sure that anomalous writers, introspective people with odd and different points of view, writers who are difficult and troublesome and out of the mainstream, who are not instant crowd-pleasers, are encouraged and learn how to be more of whoever they are. At Clarion West, we do this by choosing a variety of instructors with different styles, interests, and backgrounds, by encouraging a form of discourse that addresses the story and not the writer, and by keeping an eye on interpersonal dynamics within each six-week workshop.
Can you describe your own writing process?
Gunn: I get ideas from words, so I have to have words before I can figure out what the ideas are. If I decide too soon what a story is about, it seems simplistic and uninteresting, and I get bored and can’t finish it. This means there’s a period of time when I’m working on a story in which not only do I not know what it’s about, but I don’t want to know what it’s about. I’m not sure if this describes a process or a demonic lack of process.
You regularly give talks and will shortly be speaking at the new Science Fiction Museum in Seattle about cutting-edge science fiction. Do you find readers receptive to the insights you offer?
Gunn: I’m always delighted when people tell me that I inspired them or they gained something from hearing me speak. I don’t think of myself as offering insights per se. I think that one has to achieve insight, rather than having it thrust upon one.
At the Science Fiction Museum, I will be speaking with Kelly Link and Gavin Grant, of Small Beer Press, and it will be a chance to talk about the kind of fiction that we buy as editors and the kind of fiction that we write. In my case, those are not the same thing, and I know quite well that nobody else writes like Kelly Link. I don’t like set speeches and fixed ideas, and I’m looking forward to having a really stimulating public conversation, and I’m sure some members of the audience will join in, because we’ve got a lively, opinionated writing community in Seattle, and all too few of them are shy.
Your work is somewhat reminiscent of that of Gregory McNamee and Carol Emshwiller. Who are some of your literary influences?
Gunn: I love Carol Emshwiller’s writing, and Ursula Le Guin’s, and Gregory McNamee’s stories (of which there are too few). I greatly admire Maxim Gorky. It’s really hard for me to know who actually influenced me: that requires an out-of-body experience for which I am not prepared.
But I do know who I studied like a fiend to see how they wrote like they did. Oscar Wilde. Robert Benchley. Finley Peter Dunne, the great American political humorist. Brendan Behan. I also partook voraciously of Hunter Thompson, Mad Magazine, Bob Dylan, the Fugs, the Holy Modal Rounders, and Michael Hurley. I wish I’d obsessed more about plot.
What will your next book be?
Gunn: I’m currently researching a biography of Avram Davidson, one of the great American fantasists of the twentieth century. And, of course, I’m working on a novel.