An Interview with Philip K. Dick

By Nita J. Petrunio

[Note: a copy of this interview was sent to me by Claudia Krenz Bush during correspondence about her cogent and perceptive 116 page M.A. thesis The Splintered Shards: Reality and Illusion in the Novels of Philip K. Dick (1975), a work that deserves far more attention and discussion than it has gotten to date. I could not verify when this interview took place, though internal evidence suggests 1973-74, nor obtain information about N.J. Petrunio. I have made minor spelling and grammar corrections to it and it has not, as far as I know, been published until now. FCB 3/99]

After the preliminary good host routine: Will you have coffee, or tea; Won’t you sit down, Philip began answering nearly all of my questions in remarkably good form. The only dismaying element of the entire evening was the lack of a tape-recorder because we both sensed that he was saying many things of tremendous import and the chances were that many of his ideas would be lost forever. However he did answer (and I do remember the answers) the questions I had gone specifically to ask him, such as: Why were the women in his novels so much alike? Why does he write in the first place? Why does he not “show-case” himself, as does Harlan Ellison? Why are so many of his characters insane, or Oriental? As a bonus he discussed his ideas of a “complete” life, and suicide, his own attempt and suicide in general.

I had asked Theodore Sturgeon what questions I could ask Phil — or any writer — in order not to bore the author or sound fatuous or uninformed. Ted advised me to simply ask “Why do you write?” and then sit back for an hour. That seemed great advice, so I tried it on Phil. But I did not get the response I expected, such as “I have a mission in life and that is to educate everyone in the world.” However he did say that most writers in general would pay to have their work published.

I broke off that and asked, accusingly, why were the women in his novels as they were: 1. All the same person, 2. Given to destroying a man in the way he least expected. For instance in The Man in the High Castle the heroine is an expert in all sorts of physical violence. That is, she is equipped to cripple anyone using judo, ju-jitsu and karate but, when she decides to assinate the assasin she secrets a razor blade between two fingers of the right hand and as she passes by him she cuts — in one fell swoop — his carotid artery. In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? the “heroine” pushes the hero’s real animal off the roof, thereby killing it and in a way defeating the hero. In Clans of the Alphane Moon the “heroine,” while she could have had her man shot, bombed, torn to pieces either by the gun she held or by the men who were following her orders, instead meekly capitulates to the hero, aplogizes for having been such a monster, and asks if they might not resume their marital roles. In capitulating she has sneaked past his point of vulnerability and destroyed his capacity to kill her.

Philip agreed that all the women have been the same woman. A Canadian College student pointed the fact out to him last year with a published/publishable paper. He offered to let me read it but, somewhat chagrined that my “brilliant insight” was an also-ran insight, I rejected his offer. He went on to state, however, that in his new novel, Flow My Tears, he has made a conscious, a serious attempt to examine other types of “woman” and is sure he has broken his stereotype. Yet, he stated, women are all sneaky, crafty and wicked. This last was said with a large friendly smile; the teasing words and smile directed toward his lovely wife, Tessa, who wisely ignored him.

The fact that the women in his novels are a microcosmic portion of his larger and ever more persistant theme, appearance versus reality, lead to my next question: Why does he persist in hammering away at that theme? He is almost a latter-day Shakespeare in his concern with the topic. It is as though a baton has been passed from the 16th century author to Phil who continues to search for the truth. Just as Hamlet was beseiged with the task of separating the true from the false, so are nearly all of Phil’s heroes. In We Can Build You the simulacra are no less confusing than the Barrows and Prises.

This line did not invoke the immediate response from Phil that I expected so I brought into the conversation the story from his recently published DAW collection wherein a man goes to his office at the wrong time and discovers the people with whom he works are ashes instead of solid humans. He leaves the office to find his wife and tell her of the horror he has experienced and she suggests he has been under a mental strain and is suffering from a bizarre hallucination. When he returns to his office he finds the people more or less as they were before he had seen them as piles of ashes — yet each is subtly different, younger, more vital than before.

A guest of Phil’s asked at this point what the meaning of this was and part of Phil’s explanation was that new elements of life derive from the destruction of the old. The falling of a tree means compost for the new, sunshine for the new growth and an area in which it might grow. A divorce can mean the same thing for humans. The destruction is often, or always, painful; the caterpillar must feel pain when it is metamorphosing yet it continues to change. If it had a choice the caterpillar might not want to have itself destroyed in order to find its new life but in reality nothing is asked for its permission; life does as it will and we must go along with it.

When asked where his conception of God came in here he said he saw God as both benevolent and capricious, while not mindless perhaps God was unmindful. However there were no options: growth came from destruction.

At this point I asked him why he did not showcase himself in order to sell more of his novels, as does Harlan Ellison. I realize this was a non-sequitor from the previous line of conversation but there were questions I had to ask and when I believed he had run dry on a subject I rapidly asked something related to another topic. Dick’s reply to the showcasing question was two-fold. First Harlan enjoys speaking in lectures. It is Harlan being Harlan, where as for Phil to do the same would not be in character. However he has lectured but it did not take too long before he realized that on a dollar and cents level lecturing paid very little.

He asked how many people I would estimate had been at Harlan’s lecture. As much as I hate to try estimating anything like that I responded there might have been sixty people there. “How many there,” he asked, “as a direct result of that lecture bought any of Harlan’s books?” I replied that I did not believe anyone bought any of his books as a direct result of that particular lecture, because as they were all fans already they would have already owned a selection of his work, therefore that crowd was not a fair sample to discuss when wondering about how many books were sold.

Rather, I wanted to consider, how many books were sold as a result of Harlan’s lecturing to the group of tennis-shoed women he had mentioned. Phil said he had no idea about that group but he had estimated about his own lectures and said that all in all a lecture earns him about $1.20 per hour which is too small an amount and if he has to pay for his own lodgings and transportation out of that $1.20, he is working at a tremendous loss. Harlan, however, is not bothered by that because he liked being Harlan On Stage.

I told Phil how after the lecture Harlan had come over to me and asked me who I was. I replied, “Nita,” and he said that I looked like his second wife. After a brief pause, and as if it were expected of him, he added, “she was very nice.” In a split second I responded “So was my first husband.” At which Harlan turned his face toward someone behind him and asked, “who is this woman?” and walked away. I did not know what I had done that was wrong but evidently I had done something. Phil laughed and told me I had committed the unpardonable sin, I had topped Harlan.

He went on to say that he had been a guest of Harlan’s shortly after his, Phil’s, return to this country from Canada. At dinner everything had been fine, but afterward Harlan steered the group through the Hollywood blvd throngs of tourists, cyclists, homos and tourists to a bookstore where there was a display of Harlan’s books. Harlan, according to Phil, began telling the book-browsers that here he was The Harlan Ellison. He pointed to a large sign over his book’s display and to himself and repeated that he was The Harlan Ellison. Phil, having heard enough, picked Harlan up from behind, under the arms, carried him out of the store and in this fashion propelled him along Hollywood Blvd. Harlan was not pleased. When they returned to his house Harlan began berating the girl who was Phil’s guest, prophesying terrible things about Phil’s and her relationship in the future. Phil said the girl just sat crying quietly. As events proved, Phil said, Harlan was correct but he was only trying to hurt Phil and his guest as retaliation for the manner in which Phil removed him from the store.

Phil said he was not in shape for the battle with Harlan because he as ill, having just barely brought himself back together from his brush with a suicide attempt. His mention of his suicide attempt helped us to segue to another part of Phil’s personal philosophy, that of the complete life. It is his belief that no matter how long a man lives, be it ten years of one hundred nine, it is a complete life. Not only that, but the moment a man has the answer to his life he dies. I told him he reminded me of my mother’s idea about death and life: the last ten seconds before death the reason for the life is vouchsafed to the person who is dying.

Phil said that is not exactly what he meant. He was reminded of the story of the dying of Gertrude Stein. She had just been operated upon for cancer. Prior to the surgery it had not been known if the operation would be a success, if the cancer was removeable. As soon as she regained consciousness she asked, “What is the answer?” No one said anything at which point she asked, “What is the question,” and immediately died. Phil believes she had a sudden revelation about life, an immediate clarification of some sort and as a result no longer needed to continue living — and died. I wondered aloud if that was why he did not pursue his own suicide attempt but called upon a service to save him from his own act. He said that he was not sure he even knew he was going to do what he was doing.

Since then he has put some ideas together and now believes he had had an intimation of his attempt some days before he actually tried it. He had written a long letter to his mother in which he recounted a dream he had had the night before. A large horse, in his dream, was trying to leap the house in which Phil was living and in the attempt did not clear the roof. Instead it fell down and died. The horse, he thinks, was his own life in the symbol of the horse. A day or so after the dream and the letter he found himself swallowing some pills and realized what the was doing, phoned the “help-line” and to the temporary help he needed. He said he does not think the suicidee actually knows what he is doing when he does it. He is reminded of the character in From Here to Eternity who puts a gun in his mouth and thinks he will kill himself. At that split second his brains are splattered out. Hemingway, Phil thinks, actually believed he took his rifle out for some other purpose than suicide and not until he actually shot himself was he aware that that was his intent. Not until he had actually lived out his life did he take it. He died, in effect, exactly as did Gertrude Stein.

I questioned him on Free Will. Someone said that Free Will is what a stone has when it wills itself to fall at 4.3 miles per second. Phil told me who said it but again I have forgotten. Phil said that there is a ubiquitous free will and that the table in front of us has it, or does not. And because at this point I was thoroughly confused, and hating myself even more for not having brought a tape-recorder so that I could replay the conversation and get my hooks more clearly into Philip’s ideas, I welcomed the respite Phil’s remembering that someone needed to go to the store to buy something brought. I offered to drive them to the store or go myself or whatever to help. Phil decided that Tessa needed to get some air and that she and I would go together, which we did.

When Tessa and I returned with the bundle and packages Phil thanked me not only for driving Tessa to the store but for carrying the parcels up the stairs for her. Because he was so effusive in his thanks I looked at him very closely and then realized Phil was exceedingly tired. After a few beggings on my part for a continuation of the interview, promising to bring a tape-recorder, promises on his part to show me the way the I Ching works, I left.

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