SHAUN FARRELL: Letís start off by talking about The Plot to Save Socrates. What was the genesis behind this novel?
PAUL LEVINSON: I think the first time I thought about looking into this question of why didnít Socrates take Critoís offer and escape, why does Socrates instead elect to stay and drink the hemlockwhich, by the way, as I mentioned in the book, is a really horrible poison. Itís not just something you drink, you go to sleep, and thatís it. You writhe in agony for a couple of days. So, that made it all the more interesting to me that Socrates turned down Critoís offer
But the first time I really thought about that seriously was when I was sixteen years old. I was a freshman at the City College of New York. I was taking an Intro to Philosophy class with Professor Henry Magid, whom I thank in the acknowledgements, and that was one of the things we were discussing in his class. So I thought, what would I have done in Socratesí situation? And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that there was no way I ever would have agreed to sacrifice my life no matter how highly I regarded the principle of being a citizen of the state. It seems to me that if they were going to kill me that would relieve me of my responsibility to be loyal to them. So, that was the genesis of the idea way back in 1963. In one way or another, Iíve been thinking about that ever since.
SF: How much research did you have to do to write this book?
PL: Thatís a good question because I have, up until this book, prided myself on not doing that much research which is not to say that I donít do any research. For example, for my Phil DíAmato novels I had to have the forensics correct. There is always a certain level of research you have to do. Iím sort of an amateur forensic scientist myself, and Iíve always enjoyed reading about that stuff, so I already had done a little research for those novels.
For this book, I already knew a lot about Socrates and a fair amount about ancient Greece. But, because a lot of the action takes place back around 150 A.D., and because I was dealing, in some cases, with characters who were real, like Alcibiades and Heron, I had to make sure I had everything exactly rightor as right as possible, based on what we know from history. So I probably did more research in preparation for The Plot to Save Socrates than all my other novels put together. I spent a good two days at the British Museum. They have some great ancient holdings. Thatís where I found out, for example, about Alcibiades having a hound, which I mention briefly in the book. But I also did a lot of work on the Internet. And I haunted a lot of libraries here in the United States. At Fordham University where I teach, I discovered an encyclopedia of the classical world that was first published in the late 1840s. Thereís nothing like looking at an old encyclopedia for getting information that may have been lost in more recent versions. The research, on and off, probably took over a year.
SF: So you were stretching yourself with this one.
PL: Iíve always loved history, and Iíve always loved philosophy. In fact, my first published book was a collection of essays called In Pursuit of Truth, about contemporary philosopher Karl Popper. I was the editor of the book. So writing The Plot to Save Socrates was certainly stretching my science fiction into areas I had otherwise been interested in but I had never written about in a fictional sense. It felt very good.
SF: We have to talk about time paradoxes a little bit here.
SF: I want to relate it to the structure you used to write your book. Each chapter bounces around to different time periods with the different characters, and we see different versions of those characters. Did you do that intentionally to reflect the paradoxical, fragmented nature of time travel?
PL: Yes, that was definitely deliberate on my part. And let me start out by saying I love time travel. I have an unpublished essay that Iíll someday turn into a book about time travel in which I conclude that time travel, in fact, is not possible and never will be possible mainly because it engenders these kinds of paradoxes. One of my earlier stories was called ďThe Chronology Protection CaseĒ. It was my first short story featuring Dr. Phil DíAmato, who appears later in The Silk Code and two of my other novels. The title ďThe Chronology Protection CaseĒ was taken from a concept by Stephen Hawking, who talks about the ďchronology protection conjecture,Ē which is: even if, mathematically, time travel were possible, the universe would not let it happen. The reason the universe would not let it happen is it would turn everything into such a shambles that reality as we know it would be unintelligible. The only way it could happen was if every time someone did even the tiniest thing in the past, an alternate world was generated. But then, if you had time travel, you would have alternate worlds being generated at the drop of a hatĖor the tip of a time travelerís hat. The universe in that context would be extraordinarily complex and interweaving. So I try to actually capture some of that craziness in this novel, even though I donít really think time travel is possible. If it were possible, youíd of course have more than one person going around in danger of meeting earlier versions of themselves. Everyone has heard of the ďGrandfather ParadoxĒ: if you travel back to the past and you accidentally kill your grandfather, you could be, in effect, knocked out of existence. In which case, how did you travel in the first place back to the past? Actually itís much more complicated than that because itís not just one person traveling through time. In a world where time travel exists there are lots of people doing this, thereby exponentially increasing the potential danger of instantly being erased.
So, what I tried to do in The Plot to Save Socrates is invest its characters with a certain knowledge of this, but at different stages they would know more or less about this and they would behave in different ways at different times. I see the narrative structure as giving a glimpse of the incredibly convoluted complexity of a world in which time travel exists.
SF: I thought the structure captured that really well. It also gave a little cliffhanger at the end of each chapter, which is nice.
PL: Well, thank you. I realized after I wrote the first chapter that something felt right about chapters of that length, each having a certain amount of cliffhanging quality. Each chapter - certainly the earlier chapters - could be taken as a story in itself. Then as the novel progresses the tempo picks up.
SF: I thought it was interesting that you included William Appleton, the publisher of Charles Darwin and Lewis Carroll, in there. Why did you include him in the book?
PL: I was smitten with the idea of having the time chairs in these gentlemenís clubs. Of course, these clubs exist now, in 2006, but they also did exist at the end of the 19th century. So, it seemed like a good idea to put in some of the action at the end of the 19th century. That also worked well because it was the end of Benjamin Jowettís life and work, and he is probably the best known translator of Platoís works. Once I had that time period, and I knew some of the novel was going to take place in New York, I started thinking, who would some of my characters run into if they went into a gentlemenís club in New York in that period?
I had already known about William Henry Appleton for two reasons. Number one, I have a great collection of the books he published. My wife and I, especially in the 70s and 80s, were avid old book collectors, and weíd go around to all the bookstores in the Northeast that we could get into and buy up whatever we could. I have a complete series of all of Thomas Huxleyís works, most of Darwinís works, and about another thirty works all published by Appletonís company. Theyíre beautiful books - green and red leather with gold lettering on them. Theyíre great books to read and to just hold in your hand. So, I had already known about Appleton from that. I admired him because it took a lot of courage to publish Darwinís work in those days.
And the other reason is for many years we lived in the Bronx. In fact, my wife and I were born in the Bronx, and we used to take our kids to Wave Hill, which is now sort of a museum/botanical garden along the Hudson River. Totally coincidentally it turns out that William Appleton lived at Wave Hill in the late 1800s. So, I already knew those things before I wrote the novel. I didnít think about putting him in beforehand, but somehow when I began the chapter in which we find a central character going into the Millennium Club in the 1880s, it rang a bell with me. Appleton could easily have been here. What better character than a publisher who would have knowledge about all these things. So, thatís why I put Appleton in.
SF: Is there any chance of a film adaptation for The Plot to Save Socrates?
PL: Nothing would make me happier! As a matter of fact, there is a very talented stage actor and voice-over artistĖhis name may sound familiar because he has done audio books of two of my earlier works. In a few weeks, the audio book of The Plot to Save Socrates will also be published. The person who did these narrations is Mark Shanahan. And Mark also wrote the script for the radioplay of my story ďThe Chronology Protection CaseĒ.
Well, Mark has just sold a script he co-wrote to Universal Pictures. I donít know much about itI think itís a mystery, some kind of detective movie. Anyway, Mark, having done the audio book with the narration for The Plot to Save Socrates, told me he thinks its my best novel. Pretty much next on his agenda is to begin writing a script of it for a movie. Now, in Hollywood there are a lot of ideas, and very few of them, as Iím sure you and your readers know, actually become reality. But I think Mark has the talent. Heís a great writer. What I would like to see in the next couple of years is for Mark to write a great script of the novel and get a big studio to pick it up and go with it. I do think The Plot to Save Socrates has cinematic possibilities.
You know, modesty is not one of my virtues. But I think a lot of the buzz about The Plot to Save Socrates is not about meitís about Socrates. I think I wrote a fine novel, but what it has going for it is that people have been thinking about Socrates ever since he took the hemlock. Who knows exactly what happened back then. Maybe a lot of it was creative writing by Plato, but Socrates is one of the great people in human history. Anything written about him is bound to attract interest. I think a movie would do really well, and Iím certainly going to do everything in my power to make that happen.
SF: Well, at least you have someone in the business getting the ball rolling, and thatís the start so many people canít get.
PL: Thatís right, and as you and I have discussed, maybe you can play one of the characters!
SF: Yeah, but I get killed off, though. Whatís up with that?
PL: (laughing) Iíve got to tell you, itís not my fault. The original draft of The Plot to Save Socrates was far more complex than the published novel is. I really went to town with the story, but my editor said it was too incredibly complicated, weíve got to try to simplify some things. The truth of the matter is I donít kill that many people in my stories. I donít like killing people. It just seemed that this was a logical person to be killed at that time because that sets us up to be much more serious about all of this. At that moment it becomes less of a game. Some reviewers have said its the book is reminiscent of Bill and Tedís Excellent Adventure. That was a movie, apparently, where they use a phone booth to save Socrates. There is fun and humor in my novel, but thereís serious business in there as well. And unexpected death is a way of signaling the seriousness of the situation.
SF: Well, I donít think itís at all appropriate to equate your book with Bill and Tedís Excellent Adventure.
PL: Good! Thank you.
SF: Anyway, what are some of your favorite time travel stories?
PL: I have a lot of them, in all media. So, starting with books: The End of Eternity, by Isaac Asimov. I enjoyed that immensely. Itís just classic. I love it now every bit as much as when I first read it in the late 1950s. Itís a masterpiece. Time and Again by Jack Finney is another great
time travel novel. And there are some great short stories: ďBy His BootstrapsĒ and ďAll You ZombiesĒ - the Heinlein stories - which are just classic and wonderful. In other media: ďThe City on the Edge of ForeverĒ from the original Star TrekHarlan Ellison wrote that - and ďYesterdayís EnterpriseĒ on The Next Generation. Both of those are superb time travel stories. In motion pictures one of my favorites is 12 Monkeys, which, talking about the paradoxes, just does it brilliantly. Another really good one is Frequency.
The problem with a lot of time travel stuff is they donít take the paradoxes all that seriously. They give lip-service to it. For me to really enjoy a time travel story, whether itís in words or on any size screen, the paradoxes have to be a main part of it. They have to be almost insurmountable obstacles for the characters.
By the way, The Butterfly Effect is also a fine time travel story - not a great movie, but I thought it was a good movie. I thought the critics were too harsh on it. At least it tried. I thought the Back to the Future trilogy was also great. I really enjoyed that, too.
SF: Were you at all influenced by The Time Machine?
PL: Oh, yeah, I donít know how I could have neglected mentioning that. I was extremely influenced by The Time Machine. I enjoyed both movies and H.G. Wellsí original book. The only reason I donít say itís an all-time great novel is it doesnít deal all that much with the paradoxes. But it certainly was the first and a great piece of writing. It set the world of science fiction up for more ambitious time travel stories.
SF: The fact that your time machine was a chair, I thought maybe you were tipping your hat to him a little bit.
PL: I suppose I was. I gave the means of time travel a lot of thought, and it seemed to me, why should it be complicated? Why not a chair? Indeed, I think Wells had that right. We first discover the chairs in The Plot to Save Socrates in a club thatís back in the 1890s, and thatís about the time Wellsí time traveler was sitting in his chair.
But you know, an interesting thing about writing . . .some years ago I actually got to know
Isaac Asimov a little bit. I wrote an article about the Foundation series and it was published in a magazine called Media and Methods way back in 1980, and I sent Asimov a copy of it. What he would do is send postcards to people as a way of acknowledging when they sent him something, so he sent me this postcard - I still have it. He wrote something like, ĎThanks very much. I enjoyed your article. I had nothing like this in mind when I wrote it, but it sounds like a really great ideaí. (laughing) I didnít even think until this second that the chair does, in effect, hearken back to the H.G. Wells time traveler. It just goes to show that authorsí minds work on an unconscious level, and very often the things you put in there just feel right. As an author youíre not even fully aware of why youíre putting them in there.
SF: Letsí talk a little bit about your writing style.
PL: Everyone has their own writing style, and I guess there are two aspects. One is how I write and two is what I write. As far as how I write, I donít have a fixed pattern. I resist fixed patterns. I never write from outlines. If anybody wants me to do an outline, if Iím forced and have no choice - and I donít have to do that for my science fiction, but occasionally I do for my nonfiction - I write the outline but then proceed to write what I want to write about anyway, without really consulting the outline. For me, it takes the fun out of it to write from an outline, so I donít.
Also in terms of how I write, I write whenever I can. It could be morning, it could be late in the evening. Iím always taking time away from everything else Iím doing, and that makes it all the more enjoyable to write. I could be having, just like anyone else, a bad day, but as long as I manage to write a little bit, that makes it a great day.
As far as what I writeitís interesting, I donít think my style is really that much like Asimovís. He had an incredibly clear style, sort of a windowpane style where you would never get sidetracked by a metaphor or an image. And then there are other people where itís all image and itís all about putting words together in captivating ways where words themselves sing. I would say my style is a mixture of those things. I try to tell the story as clearly as possible, but at the same time I do enjoy situating Sierra on the beach looking out at the cobalt sky and sea, with flecks of white disappearing in the distance.
SF: So, youíre sort of a mix of Asimov and Bradbury.
PL: Yeah, thanks, I hope youíre right. Bradbury is a master in terms of those watercolor images.
SF: The Plot to Save Socrates had a really nice pace. How conscious are you of pacing?
PL: Iím conscious of it in the sense that I have to keep myself excited. I believe that if Iím not excited with every page, if every new chapter doesnít bring a new punch, then my readers may well not be excited either. It may be that I pack too much into few words. Some people have said that The Plot to Save Socrates could have been twice as long. That it doesnít need to be so lean. Other people, like in the very short review - though I was delighted to get it! - in Entertainment
Weekly, said if you can get through all the philosophy, there are some great scenes here. I think that review was saying there were parts that were too slow for that reviewer. In the end, ideas do interest me, and action interests me, and romance interests me, what people look like are of interest to me, even what theyíre eating for breakfast interests me. So, the pace is driven by my need to keep the story exciting to me, which happens by weaving in things I find interesting.
SF: I want to ask you about the time you spent as President of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.
PL: First of all, I should mention that I became President in a somewhat unusual way. I was Vice President of the organization, and Robert J. Sawyer, a good friend of mine and a fine writer, was President. Itís not easy being President of a writerís organization. Understandably, writers are very emotional about what theyíre doing. Itís one thing if you are part of a 9 to5 job, and youíre in a union. Iím sure people are emotional in that instance as well. But anyone who has written at all knows that writing is much more than a job. Itís your life. Itís your heart and soul. If things arenít working out well it can be extremely upsetting. The good thing is when things are working out well, there is no better feeling in the world. But being President of an organization of writers puts you into a whirlwind of dealing with peopleís problems. In any case, I was elected Vice President. I had been on several Nebula juries in the organization, but I hadnít served in any other position. And Rob, after about six months of being President, said, this is just eating up too much of my life. Iím a writer. Iím not a politician. At first I encouraged him not to resign, but as his friend I said, ĎYour writing and your life are more important than anything in this organization.í So, I became President when Rob stepped down, and then I did run for office for two more year terms afterward. So, I served a total of two and a half years. And I faced a lot of the same difficulties that Rob did. For example, there was an organization, Wizards of the Coast, who had a plan to put out a CD of stories that were originally published in Dragon magazine, which they had been publishing, without any additional compensation to the writers of the stories. To make a long story short, I brought in the Science Fiction Writers of Americaís agent to talk to Wizards, and they finally worked out a deal. Weíre not formally a union. Itís more of an organization, an association. Technically we were not negotiating on anyoneís behalf. In the end they offered anyone whose story was to be in the anthology some sum of moneymaybe a hundred dollars per story - I donít remember exactly what it was. I thought it was a good idea. I had a lot of people tell me what a wonderful idea it was, how grateful they were to get this unexpected money, but I got an enormous amount of flack from a few people who said I should have gone to court against Wizards of the Coast. But I felt that getting a guarantee of some amount of money to writers was better than getting no money to anyone. The flack I received as President on this is an example of ďno good deed goes unpunishedĒ.
But overall I count those two and a half years as very good, productive years. Hereís another example: Ben Bova, who was President of SFWA in the early 1990s, created an award called the Bradbury Award given for the best science fiction produced for movies and non-print media. I brought back that award and gave it to Joe Straczynski and then to Harlan Ellison. Harlan and I got to know each other pretty well and Harlan rejoined the organization. That was a great thing. Under my presidency, and this actually started under Rob, there was also a move toward giving the Nebula award not only to the best books and stories but also to the best script. And that became a reality in my tenure. Iím happy about that.
We did a variety of things, also, to make electronic publishing easier for writers. My general view then, and I feel this way more than ever now, is that electronic media are not enemies of the printed word. Theyíre part of the same picture. I think any writer who is interested in becoming successful appreciates Amazon, Google, Myspace. Some look at that as a threat, and I think they donít understand what the world is really about.
So, all in all, I wouldnít want to be President of SFWA again. I had my two and a half years and it was fine. But I think itís a very worthy organization, especially as a way for established writers to mentor newer writers.
SF: What did you learn about the publishing business as President that you wouldnít have learned as a regular writer?
PL: I didnít learn that much more about the publishing business than I already knew because I had been publishing nonfiction back in the 1980s, and I edited an academic journal in the 1990s, so I had some understanding of the business. Over the years I got to know a bunch of publishers, and I actually brought part of that knowledge to bear when I was drawing William Henry Appletonís character in my novel. What became even clearer, and all writers need to know thisitís just the way it is, itís never going to change: if youíre a bestselling author, if youíre Stephen King or Robert Jordan, the publishers will do anything and everything they can for you because, understandably, they want to maximize their income. Ironically, when youíre at the level of
Stephen King, you donít need a publisher to do much for you. If youíre a new writer, then youíre thrilled just to be published. I remember what that was like. The first time you walk into a bookstore and you see your book on the shelf, my God, I canít believe this! Even better: you see someone who is not a member of your family, whom you donít know, pick the book up and look at it. Almost doesnít even matter if they buy it or not. Itís an extraordinary feeling. New writers have that.
The problems almost always arise in publishing what are called mid-list writers. By the way, the greatest numbers of SFWA members are mid-list writers. These are people who have a couple of books out, theyíre doing okay. They want, just like anyone else, movies made out of their books, they want more promotion for their books. Publishers have the hardest time working with those authors because they can never do enough for the author because the author always feels more needs to be done, and the author is right because the publisher does very little. They put the book out, maybe assign a publicity person, but nothing moreno ads, no big store displays, no multi-city book tours. The book has to sink or swim on its own. As President I became even more aware of that than before.
What itís all about, in terms of success, is, when a novel first comes out, how many books will the marketing department be able to sell to the bookstores. Thatís why I was so thrilled when The Plot to Save Socrates went into a second printing and itís now on the verge of going into a third printing. Torthe publisher - is very excited about the 2007 trade paperback edition because the novel did better in hardcover than the marketing department expected in the first place. Thatís exactly what you want to happen. But the problem is, if you have one or two books that donít sell very well, it becomes very hard to sell any books up front to bookstores. Then your book comes out and nobody even knows it exists. It gets a review or two somewhere and thatís it. Thatís the worst thing that can happen. What authors need to strive for is to get to the level where theyíre doing well enough that the publisher is making enough profit to do more marketing and publish more of the authorís books.
SF: Youíve written multiple nonfiction and science fiction titles. Is there any other genre you want to contribute to?
PL: I might at some point do a straight mystery, but for me anything without science fiction would be like ordering a slice of pizza without cheese. It would be lacking something. I am just so thoroughly a science fiction person. I include fantasy in that, too. I havenít written any fantasy novels, but I have published some fantasy short stories Iím very proud of. So, I doubt that Iíll write anything that has no science fiction or fantasy, but the one exception is that I might write a straight mystery novel.
SF: How do you balance your writing life and your teaching life?
PL: Thatís easy because I find writing to be incredibly stimulating for teaching and vice versa. I write my best stuff, sometimes, after teaching a class. Itís really stimulating just going in and talking and seeing peopleís faces. And I like the fact that as a professor Iím also a writer. A tougher thing is how to balance your total life. Iím happily married. We have two kids. My son is 22, my daughter is 19. Of course we spend less time with them now than when they were young. But there are only 24 hours in a day, and you have less than that if you put aside a couple of hours to get some sleep! Itís a constant juggling act. The reason it works for me is that I thrive on tensionplus, I have an understanding family. Some people are killed by tension. For me thereís nothing more exciting than juggling all these things together. I also do media appearances, so Iím running down to New York City to be on CNN, or doing a radio interview in between my writing and teaching and living, and I love that pace.
SF: What are you working on right now?
PL: Iím working on a couple of things. One is my next nonfiction book called The Flouting of the First Amendment. Iím about a third of the way finished with that. It is a political book in addition to being a book about media, and, therefore, rather than going to my current nonfiction publishers, who have done a very good job, I might want to go to a different publisher more suited to this kind of book. Iím going to write some more of the book before I think about what might be a good house to publish it.
As for my fiction, I have several novels that I have a chapter or two of, including another possible novel in the same universe as The Plot to Save Socrates, but not about Socrates. Iíve written a chapter or two for another Phil DíAmato novel. I love the short fiction genre, but one of the problems I have is novels take so much time to write that once I start working on a novel seriously I never have a chance to get back to the short fiction. At present I must have 10 or 15 short pieces in various stages of completion, and I hope to finish some of them soon, but probably wonít.
SF: I know that Asimov has been very important to you. What other writers have inspired you the most?
PL: After Isaac Asimov I would put, roughly in this order, Robert Heinlein, Frank Herbert, and Arthur C. Clarke. And then right after them Alfred Bester and James Blish. I donít write anything like William Gibson, but I think Neuromancer is a masterpiece. And Bruce Sterling. Their writing has certainly inspired me. I think thereís less difference between fiction and nonfiction writing than people might think in that itís all about words. I like reading philosophy, whether itís Benjamin Jowett translating Plato, or Bertrand Russellís books, or Karl Popperís books. When people write clearly about complex ideas, I find that stimulating and inspiring for my science fiction.
I also want to mention, because it seems relevant to your question, a book called Red Moon. I actually did a blog post about it. I think itís up on Amazon and on Myspace, so you can read more about that. Itís a totally unknown book published by some small press. The author is Dave Michaels. Itís a novel about why the Russian space program collapsed in the 1960s. Itís about 600 pages. I couldnít put it down. I was inspired by that book, and Iíd love to see some larger publisher pick it up someday and give it a wider audience .
SF: If you could collaborate with anyone on a novel, who would it be?
PL: Probably no one, and the reason why is I donít particularly like collaboration. I could change my mind. Iíve tried it a few times with some very good writers, and I was never particularly happy with it. For me writing is almost too personal and too egotistical to share in its creation. Itís like Iím God in the universe that Iím writing, and Iím not particularly in the mood, no matter how excellent it is, to have somebody elseís input into that. That said, anything is possible. I wouldnít rule it out.
SF: Paul, is there anything else you would like our readers at Far Sector SFFH to know?
PL: It sounds trite, but I think itís trite because itís true, that the amazing thing about science fiction is itís incredibly fun, but itís also incredibly important and profound. What other kind of writing deals with what makes us quintessentially human? The fact that weíre looking out into the cosmos to see whatís out there and telling stories about actually getting out there. Stories about remaking ourselves through genetic engineering. Stories about building machines that somehow rival our intelligence. Time travel stories, messing around with the nature of cause and effect in the universe. I canít think of a better, more exciting realm to delve into, and Iím as excited about it now as I was when I first started reading science fiction when I was nine years old.
SF: When I talk to people who donít read science fiction, and they want to know why I love it so much, I tell them two things. First, science fiction is the genre where you can take the real world, put it in a different context and, therefore, understand it. And itís also the only genre that pushes itself beyond what it has done before, and itís trying to make something new. Thatís from my perspective of what I see out there in the publishing world.
PL: I think youíre completely right. Thatís a good answer.
SF: Paul, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us.
PL: I enjoyed it, Shaun.