The Newsletter of
The Council for the Literature of the Fantastic

Volume 1, Number 2 (Winter 1996)
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Insects of Aphasia :
The Stepan Chapman Interview

Interviewer: Jeff VanderMeer
Copyright © 1996, Jeff VanderMeer

Stepan Chapman has allowed CLF to post the first chapter of his novel, The Troika. Click HERE to read it.

[Jeff's article begun in Newsletter #1 , " In Pursuit of the Imagination: an Overview of Nine Elusive Books ," is, by his preference, postponed to NL#3 to make room for the present interview.--Ed.]

Stepan Chapman may well be one of North America's last true fabulists--a storyteller who mixes myth, science fiction, fantasy, and the surreal into a rich tapestry of dark, and darkly humorous, fables, short stories, and, lately, novels. His first story, bought by the legendary John Campbell, was published in the December 1969 Analog SF Magazine, followed by four appearances in Damon Knight's prestigious Orbit anthology series. More recently, Mr. Chapman has published stories in a number of literary magazines and avant garde publications, with his chapbook Danger Music (Ten Fables) forthcoming in 1996 from my own Ministry of Whimsy Press (advance orders $4.25 postpaid, to: POB 4248, Tallahassee, FL 32315).

Prior to my telephone interview with Mr. Chapman, the author had kindly provided me with a copy of his unpublished novel The Troika ; or, as Mr. Chapman phrased it, "my unpublishable novel." Daunted by the prospect of an "unpublishable" novel, I almost put off reading it. However, I did peruse the first few pages. Before I knew it, I had read through the first three chapters. Then six chapters. Then nine chapters. In short, I finished The Troika in one night--I simply couldn't stop reading it! When I had finished, I sat back in disbelief--disbelief that the manuscript had not interested even one publisher (something of a literary crime, in my eyes). Added to my disbelief was the cover letter Mr. Chapman had attached, to the effect that eight of the 17 chapters had been published in very prestigious literary magazines and genre anthologies. Since The Troika , to my mind, worked best as a novel rather than a series of short stories, it seemed inconceivable (ridiculous, actually) that Mr. Chapman could not find a publisher!

Simply put, The Troika is a tour de force of surrealism, and contains some of the most audaciously imaginative passages I've ever had the pleasure of reading. Although the mordant humor of the novel invites comparisons to Joseph Heller and Terry Southern, it is uniquely "Chapmanesque" in its fusion of mythology, psychology, and the afterlife. Some scenes are magnificent break-neck narratives, while others are whimsical, dark, and shot through with pathos.

After reading The Troika , I was very eager to interview the reclusive Mr. Chapman. He proved as imaginative on the telephone as in his work; what follows is a partial transcript of our rather whimsical conversation.

JEFF:

Where and when were you born?

STEPAN:

Chicago, Illinois, 1951.
JEFF:
Is Stepan your real name?

STEPAN:

No, Jeff, it's my Russian name. Russia has never had anything to do with reality.
JEFF:
Where did you spend your formative years?

STEPAN:

Well, I grew up in the suburbs, but at the age of five, on the parking lot of the Museum of Science and Industry, I was kidnapped by a swarm of giant cicadas. They flew me to Antarctica, where the Insect Elders kept me for seven years in geothermally heated caverns deep beneath the icecap. That's where the Pan-Mandibulate Congress keeps its archive.
JEFF:
... How nice. Where were you educated?

STEPAN:

Largely under Antarctica. Ancient trilobites taught me the 12 primary languages of the arthropods. Then I had to memorize stacks of the sacred carapaces, or I'd be stung. I still go back there for the annual Pan-Mandibulate Conferences. I'm the token mammal.
JEFF:
Uh huh. What jobs have you held, outside of writing?

STEPAN:

For a while, 1 was an inserter at a newspaper in Lakeport, California. (That sounds sexy.) I've also worked as a care provider at three different day-care centers for children. Two in Oregon and one in Tucson, Arizona. Some of those children had never seen an adult male at close range before. They didn't even know how we smell.
JEFF:
Did you enjoy working with children?

STEPAN:

No. They should be outlawed.
JEFF:
Day-care centers?

STEPAN:

No, children. They bite, you know.
JEFF:
What types of markets have been most receptive to your stories?

STEPAN:

Certain literary magazines have risen to my bait, Chicago Review, Hawaii Review, Mississippi Mud, and Zyzzyva, most notably. Occasionally I'll crack a genre market like New Pathways or Grue. Lately I've placed fiction in Axcess and Lies, which are largely focused on music reviews. And my drawings appear in a multitude of teeny tiny zines.
JEFF:
What authors have most influenced your work?

STEPAN:

Mervyn Finney and Charles Peake come to mind. Ray Pynchon and Thomas Bradbury certainly. Flannery Lessing and Doris O'Connor. Angela Highsmith and Patricia Carter are great. I hope I'm getting all these names right.
JEFF:
I'll check them later. Describe The Troika to me.

STEPAN:

I thought you read it.
JEFF:
For the interview.

STEPAN:

Right. There's this old woman and this robot jeep and this talking brontosaur, see? And they're crossing this desert, but they don't remember how they got there or where they're going. In chapter five, it turns out that the three of them are dead. They're in the afterlife, inside a music box, and they're being held prisoner by the jeep's guardian angel, Dr. Mazer, who's gone insane. Dr. Mazer is torturing their souls in the name of psychotherapy. So the plot of the novel hangs on one question: How can they escape?
JEFF:
After reading The Troika , I was convinced that you've been a factory worker, a radical geneticist, and an anthropologist specializing in early meso-American mythology.

STEPAN:

Jeff, you're so gullible. I just collect big words.
JEFF:
Then what kind of research did you have to do for the novel?

STEPAN:

Well, I'll tell you. As a younger man, I was a troubled person, plagued by ugly thoughts. So what I did was, I built a special bondage device, hung myself upsidedown on it, and lowered myself, very carefully and with proper antisepsis, onto the whirling bit of a power drill. I opened a trepanation hole in my skull. And for a time, I felt much better. But after the bone healed over, I realized that a housefly had laid her eggs in my cerebrum. The eggs hatched out a mass of maggots that completely consumed my brain. You can imagine my discomfort. I thought I'd died and gone to hell. (That was my research for the novel.) Luckily, thanks to my command of insect languages, including Common Larval, I was able to train the maggots to undertake all of the functions formerly performed by my brain! In fact, the maggots are a tremendous improvement . They can speak, write stories, even give interviews! And since I got them under control, I've never again been troubled by ugly thoughts. Why are you weeping, Jeff?
JEFF:
I'm not weeping. I'm laughing.

STEPAN:

Oh. Sorry. I get those two confused sometimes. Do you hear a sort of buzzing sound? All day, I've had this . . . buzzing in my ears.
JEFF:
Let's move on. Your vision of angels and of the afterlife is pretty unique. At one point in The Troika you suggest that the angels were once human.

STEPAN:

True. Dr. Mazer and Ensign Wing, for example, were once Daedelus and Icarus. Which helps to explain their strained relationship. Daedelus, by the way, was exiled from Athens for killing his wife and his first son. It's in the books. Whacked his own son, when the boy picked up a fish skeleton and invented the hair comb. A twisted individual. Daedelus invented the concept that architecture could become so extensive as to constitute an escape-proof prison.
JEFF:
What is your religious background?

STEPAN:

Let me tell you a story about my ghost tutor. In his life, he was an Inuit shaman. (That word shaman comes from Siberia by way of Mircea Eliade and exIs febrile sentimentality among new-age airheads.) My tutor once brought a message to his tribe that they didn't want to hear. So the Head Man ripped one of my tutor's arms right out of its socket.
JEFF:
Ouch .

STEPAN:

Exactly. But my tutor still wouldn't recant. So then they exiled him, expecting him to crawl off and die. But he lived to a ripe old age and trained an apprentice, who finally took over his duties. Whenever I get discouraged about my career problems, my tutor visits me. He points to his arm socket and says, "Look, Kid. This is what people are like. So don't be expecting any thank-yous."
JEFF:
The Troika , which I believe is brilliant . . .

STEPAN:

I agree.

JEFF:
. . . mixes science fiction with fantasy in a decidedly surreal way. You've told me in correspondence that editors hate this.

STEPAN:

You said it first .
JEFF: Why do you think this is?

STEPAN:

Well, surrealism is never an easy sell . What I'm striving for are stories that partake of the same depth and resonance as folktales and myths. But to be modern, they necessarily include the imagery of science fiction. Tolkien chose to write about elves and wizards, but I prefer robots and angels. To medieval audiences, a mountain of glass was miraculous and unthinkable. Modern audiences live inside mountains of glass. Times change.
JEFF:
Is the present situation a trend? Or has the market always been this way?

STEPAN:

All I know is, if William Blake sent his poems to a modern literary magazine, the editor would tell him, "Forget it, Bill. Real poetry doesn't rhyme !" And when Franz Kafka was my age, he had seven stories in print, and he was dead.
JEFF:
What do you think of the current state of the marketplace for ambitious, serious, fantastical novels?

STEPAN:

I think that we can safely look forward to more movie tie-ins, more novelizations of comic books, more swords-and-sorcery trilogies based on characters by Moorcock, and lots more shared worlds in shrink wrap.
JEFF:
Where is your work forthcoming?

STEPAN:

From International Quarterly, Potpourri, and Sandbox. Also from SF Eye, TransVersions, and Leviathan.
JEFF:
What projects are you currently working on?

STEPAN:

More short stories and my second novel, Burger Creature.
JEFF: What's that like?

STEPAN:

It's a comic adventure saga about love, industrial espionage, and ground beef. Are we done yet?
JEFF:
One more question. Although The Troika is structurally avant garde and challengingly dense, you never lose sight of the emotional lives of your characters. There's also a strong theme of hope and redemption, despite the grim and desperate settings. Is it safe to say that you're basically optimistic about individuals, although pessimistic about society in general?

STEPAN:

Nothing is safe to say, Jeff. If you say the wrong thing, the Head Man rips out your damned arm . But I will say this: Six millennia ago, the Goddess cultures were forcibly crashed by soldiers, priests, and other slave-mongers. Now it's the King's turn to take his own medicine. The King has sung the songs of death, and now he must dance the dance. Industrial culture is walking the zombi road. The factory walls are crashing to earth. The children are playing under the walls. The women are rushing to drag the children out from under. The men are inside the factory, pretending to work the machines. The machines are out of control. That's our physical situation. In the psychic realm, as even the smallest of children is well aware, our situation is even worse . In the psychic realm, we're all out on the howling wastes, naked and afraid, huddling around trash fires and wondering where our culture went. We are left with no rituals, no verbal skills, no attention span, no stories, no songs, nothing . But we're still humans. The good news is that the insects of the planet feel an intense, unwavering faith in our future as a species. Ever since our origin on the beaches of Africa, the insects have been watching us and waiting. They are waiting for us to grow wings and leave their planet . We will depart from their planet, or they will eat us all . But the insects are very patient. A comforting thought, don't you agree?


The Council for the Literature of the Fantastic is based at the Department of English of the University of Rhode Island. We thank the University and the Department for their support.

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