Interview: Richard A. Lupoff

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

When I was a young husband my bride surprised me by insisting that Tarzan of the Apes was a really good novel, not just trashy kid stuff. I’d read a little Burroughs as a kid. I still remember sitting under a cool elm tree on a warm spring afternoon and becoming immersed in Tarzan and the Ant-Men. But a long time had passed and I think my perceptions had been warped by too many bad Tarzan movies. She got me to try Burroughs again and I was instantly hooked. I started reading all the Burroughs books I could find. I was already a science fiction fan, and was totally captivated by the Barsoom series.

What do you find appealing about the characters and milieu?

The characters are certainly larger than life, yet paradoxically plausible. I didn’t read the books in sequence because most of them were simply unavailable in those days – late 1950s and early ‘60s. I think the first one I read was A Fighting Man of Mars in the Canaveral Press edition. I had recently spent several years in the army myself, so I identified instantly with Ulysses Paxton. The last one I found was Swords of Mars, which had eluded me for several years. Finding it was both a joy and a sadness. A joy because I could read one more Barsoom book and a sadness because I knew I would now have read them all. But of course I eventually wound up editing Burroughs books for Canaveral Press. Talk about a dream job! As for the milieu of Barsoom – and of all Burroughs’ fantastic novels – he had an endlessly creative imagination. You never knew what strange being or fantastic sight he was going to show you, and yet he integrated them all into a gigantic web of imagery.

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

The entire field of interplanetary romance grows from this single source. I won’t say that Burroughs created the interplanetary romance. There were forerunners to be sure. My personal favorite is Lieut. Gullivar Jones: His Vacation, by Edwin Lester Arnold – a remarkable anticipation of Barsoom and very likely a source of inspiration for Burroughs, along with Arnold’s novel of an immortal swordsman, Lepidus the Centurion. But Burroughs put together the imagistic heroic adventurer and the exotic otherworldly setting and created something that approaches story-telling perfection.

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

Oh, there are so many – do I have to pick just one? It’s hard to deny John Carter and Dejah Thoris, but I have a warm spot for John Carter’s Barsoomian “dog,” Woola. I’ve already mentioned Ulysses Paxton, but how about a vote for Ras Thavas, the ultimate mad scientist? Remember Frank R. Paul’s astonishing image of that wicked genius on the cover of Amazing Stories Annual for 1927? If you’ve never seen it, look it up! And of course Xaxa, that incredibly wicked, scheming, evil woman! They’re all favorites because they’re all so vivid. We meet a thousand people a day in this mundane world of ours, and ninety-nine per cent of them make hardly an impression at all. But the one memorable individual out of a hundred that we encounter makes a lasting impression on us. And that’s the way it is with Burroughs’ spectacular characters!

How did you go about identifying which terms needed to be defined in the gazetteer?

I started with my subtitle, “Who’s Who and What’s What on Barsoom.” The most important characters, places, and devices. I hope the gazetteer will work like a tourist guide for the new visitor to a gloriously exotic – but dangerous – country. Of course you made suggestions, and my original draft document kept growing.

Were there any sources other than the original books themselves that you relied on to write the entries?

Oh, yes! In any field of scholarship, I revert to Isaac Newton’s dictum, “If I see farther than other men it is because I stand on the shoulders of giants.” Burroughs fans have produced a steady stream of commentary for decades. I went back to my own two books on Burroughs, Edgar Rice Burroughs: Master of Adventure and Barsoom: Edgar Rice Burroughs and the Martian Vision. But before I written those, a very important source was Dave Van Arnam’s magnificent 1963 work, The Martian Odyssey of Edgar Rice Burroughs, subtitled Over the Dead Sea Bottom by Thoat and Zitidar. Van Arnam’s own sub-subtitle was “Being a Cultural Geography of Barsoom; a Glossary of Place Names; with an Addendum on Certain Apparent Anomolies; and an Essay with Some Notes & Queries.” This was a marvelous work, the centerpiece of a volume I edited and published called The Reader’s Guide to Barsoom and Amtor. Almost forty years later Dave and I discussed producing a revised and expanded version of the book, but Dave died suddenly before we could make much progress. And of course others have done later, similar works. John F. Roy produced a book remarkably similar to Dave Van Arnam’s, and still more recently Clark A. Brady wrote a spectacular Burroughs Cyclopedia. Mr. Brady’s book is not directed specifically to Barsoom, but covers all of Burroughs’ works, and is a real accomplishment. And then, of course, I have the good luck to live very near Michael Chabon, one of the writers of the Disney John Carter film. Michael and I have sat over coffee and jetan for hours, discussing events on Barsoom.

Was the gazetteer particularly challenging to write? If so, how?

It was an embarrassment of riches. Many times I would work on a brief entry and get caught up in the details and the complex relationships that Burroughs put into his creations. It is flabbergasting to think of his keeping all those things straight: family trees, the ancient and modern history of Barsoom, the species of plant and animal life and the human and para-human races, the wild variety of societies and civilizations on that planet. How could I write an entry of the proverbial twenty-five words or less? Well, I’m kidding, of course. You didn’t stick me with any such limitations – thank goodness! – and some of the entries are sizable. But there’s no substitute for going back and enjoying the Barsoom books themselves all over again.

What kind of research – other than, perhaps, rereading the Barsoom novels – did you have to do? Or were most of the entries stuff that you knew so well it all just came off the top of your head?

Oh, I’m afraid my memory isn’t that great! I relied heavily on earlier works, my own, Dave Van Arnam’s, Clark Brady’s, Larry Ivie’s splendid map of Barsoom that was published as part of The Reader’s Guide to Barsoom and Amtor… So many other people have done admirable work in this field, I confess that I’m shameless when it comes to picking brains for reference data, but I also believe in acknowledging one’s sources and I must give huge credit to George McWhorter, Bob Zeuschner, and the late Henry Hardy Heins.

I also try to keep up with new information as it comes in from NASA. I mention this several times in the gazetteer. Our former image of Mars as a cold, dry desert world that never had and never will support life has been thoroughly demolished. We have learned that Mars was once a lot warmer and a lot wetter than it is now, and might very well have supported life at one time. The ancient Mars bears a remarkable resemblance to Burroughs’ Barsoom. My personal theory is that John Carter didn’t just cross space to the Mars of 1865 – he crossed time as well, to the colorful, vibrant, culturally and biologically rich world of Ancient Barsoom!

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

For the past couple of years I’ve been editing a boutique imprint called Surinam Turtle Press, part of a company called Ramble House www.ramblehouse.com . Most of our books are reprints of neglected classics, but we’re definitely open to new works and I’d like to publish some colorful adventure novels in the Burroughs tradition. As for my own work, my most recent novel was a mystery, The Emerald Cat Killer (St. Martin’s Press). Recent collections are Quintet: The Cases of Chase and Delacroix (Crippen & Landru), Killer’s Dozen (Wildside Press), and the three-volume set, Terrors, Visions, and Dreams. Forthcoming from a new company, Dark Sun Press, is a police procedural, Rookie Blues. So I’m staying pretty busy!