Interview: Austin Grossman

How did you first come to discover the Barsoom books by Edgar Rice Burroughs?

Working my way through the Science Fiction/Fantasy section of Cary Memorial Library in Lexington, MA. You couldn’t ignore the cover art, Vallejo or Frazetta, that was just indelible. You felt you were reaching back to the pure pulp source of
everything–guy with sword, buxom lady, four-armed tusked green monster, four-armed various other things. Just this originary madness.

Then you open it up and find something like the first sentence of Warlords of Mars: “In the shadows of the forest that flanks the crimson plain by the side of the Lost Sea of Korus in the Valley Dor, beneath the hurtling moons of Mars, speeding their meteoric way close above the bosom of the dying planet, I crept stealthily along the trail…”

It reads like Tennyson! How can you not be hooked?

What do you find appealing about the characters and milieu?

I love Barsoom, how big it is, how it can contain anything – caverns, deserts, oceans, mad kings, crazy weird rays. I love all the ruins, how although it’s an endlessly varied world of adventure, it is also on some level melancholy, like all this brilliant commotion hides a deeper level of mourning.

And then John Carter’s voice matches the weird atmosphere of repressed sadness–he seems so unconscious of himself, so much the man of action that he can have the most bizarre or violent encounter, or the strangest coincidence, then shrugs and move on. And he’s living basically forever, and you can sense that somewhere there is an ocean of feeling beneath it that you never quite glimpse.

What sort of an influence do you think the Barsoom books have had on the development of fantasy & science fiction?

People borrowed from him all over the place, it’s part of the foundation of early pulp that so much of the 20th century’s fantasy and SF work came from, along with Robert E. Howard and Lovecraft. Partly because it’s one of those basic
portal fantasy narratives–guy steps into this crazy fantasy/SF world, marvelous adventures where he’s the greatest hero in history, then returns to the ordinary Earth. Partly because of its blithe mix of fantasy and SF tropes–interplanetary travel by mystic means, sword-fighting aliens, and so forth.

You can see Barsoom’s particular hallmarks even in more literary SF writers–C. S. Lewis’s science fiction series, where he took some of the basic components of Barsoom and added an allegorical weight. And likewise, David Lindsay in Voyage to Arcturus.

Who is your favorite character in the Barsoom canon? (And why?)

You have to love our noble savage Tars Tarkas, but the character I fixate on is one we never meet alive, but whose nameless body is seen at the end of Princess of Mars, when Carter first returns to Earth. He reappears in that original cave, and sees a dark shape:

“As I approached it I saw that it was the dead and mummified remains of a little old woman with long black hair, and the thing it leaned over was a small charcoal burner upon which rested a round copper vessel containing a small quantity of greenish powder.”

“Behind her, depending from the roof upon rawhide thongs, and stretching entirely across the cave, was a row of human skeletons. From the thong which held them stretched another to the dead hand of the little old woman; as I touched the cord the skeletons swung to the motion with a noise as of the rustling of dry leaves.”

Who the hell is she? How did she die at her post? Who are all the dead people? She’s the most enigmatic figure in the whole series.

Tell us a bit about your story in the anthology. What’s it about?

The scene is Mars, later in John Carter’s career–he’s already had children with Dejah Thoris, he’s been at this over a hundred years. He hasn’t aged but Earth has, back home we’re up to 1970 and he’s lived through some of that time. But he’s up to his old tricks–he’s dashing across the deserts of Mars, risking his life to rescue (or so he thinks) Dejah Thoris, who has gone off in search of a mysterious artifact that fell from the skies.

Carter is an incredibly obtuse individual–enormously profound experiences never seem to make a dent in his “and here’s what I did next” narrative style. But in some part of his mind he’s starting to become aware of how absurd his lifestyle is, how weird it is to do what he’s doing. There’s a sense, I think, that major characters around him, like Dejah Thoris and Tars Tarkas, have started to notice he’s not the most reflective individual–that he’s a bit of a dunce.

What’s was the genesis of the story–where did the initial seed for the story come from?

It came from two things. Part of it is just my enchantment with Barsoom itself, I wanted to write a journey through its enigmatic mysteries, and particularly Barsoom’s strange lost civilizations.

And the other is, reading through the books I kept asking myself, who the hell is this guy? Where did he come from? How does he feel about having children? As a narrator, John Carter is absolutely deadpan, only very occasionally cracking into
humor and emotion, and I wanted to get underneath that surface a little bit more.

Was this story a particularly challenging one to write? If so, how?

Yes! Burroughs and I are very different writers, and I set myself the challenge of imitating Burroughs’s prose as closely as I could, training myself to write his action-oriented plain style where every sentence, every paragraph is a new incident, the next event and the next and the next.

And then at the same time, stay true to my own obsessive concerns as a writer–to whit, selfconsciousness, humor, depression and disappointment. I hope people will find it an entertaining union of opposites.

What kind of research–other than, perhaps, rereading the Barsoom novels–did you have to do for the story?

I’d love to tell you, but it would spoil the ending!

Any new work of yours just out or forthcoming you’d like to mention, or anything else you’d like to add? 

I have two novels forthcoming from Mulholland Books. YOU, a novel drawn from my experiences as a professional game designer coming in late 2012; and CROOKED, the secret, rather Lovecraftian history of Richard Nixon’s career, coming in 2013.