At any rate, behind the cut is most of what I did today. When the transcription is complete I'll be passing it along to Mike Croteau at The Official Philip Jose Farmer Home Page, and will send out the link to everyone once it's posted.
Some quick Peoria notes: he refers in the interview to two old streets, High Street and Grandview Drive. High Street has a number of huge old--mostly 19th century--homes (nearly all restored now), with a Revolutionary War-era oak at the head of the street. Uncle Phil's caretaker, John, took me there for the first time last summer as part of a day we spent wandering around Peoria. Grandview Drive is filled with panoramas of the Illinois River (hence the name) and mansions, many of which were also built in the 19th century, some of which are much more modern. One is actually a medieval English manor house that was shipped across the ocean brick by brick and reassembled on a Grandview lot. (The Farmers briefly thought about buying it when it came up for sale, but decided not to for reasons I don't remember now.)
When he got to those streets in the interview I suddenly remembered that of all the pictures I posted of Peoria last year, I never actually posted pictures I took in the town itself--including High Street and Grandview Drive. I may do that later today if I have time.
Anyway, this opening stretch of the interview covers his then-newest (and still unreleased at the time) mystery novel Nothing Burns in Hell, and the desire he had to write a mainstream novel called Pearl Diving in Old Peoria.
DANNY: August 18th, 1997. The next book that you’ve got coming out is Nothing Burns In Hell. When is that supposed to appear in the bookstores?
PHIL: It should be out by next May. At least it’s scheduled to be. And when they first told me that, it meant more than a year’s delay, which really bugged me because I’d spent three years writing it. It wasn’t a normal three years—my wife and I had accidents and numerous other interruptions. But anyway, I was very eager to see it come out and then they tell me I have to wait more than a year. It’ll be in May 1998.
D: Who’s the publisher on that?
P: Tor Books, which is connected…actually it’s a subsidiary of St. Martin’s Press. And God knows what St. Martin’s Press is a subsidiary of. Tor publishes a lot of different types of books but it’s chiefly known in the science fiction world for its science fiction books.
D: And it’s one of the few publishers I’ve heard about that is actually seeking out new writers.
D: So I heard that you were floating around this book with an agent for awhile and nobody would take it because they said it was not conventional enough, or it wasn’t what they expected from Farmer.
P: They kept calling it a “hard sell”, which as far as I was concerned the hard sell was to the publisher, not to the public. But (laughs) I think they’re wrong. In the first place, although it’s primarily a mystery it’s also a regional novel, which I think is what they objected to. And one critic—he wasn’t putting it down, he loved the book, but he called it “picaresque”, which I guess means it kind of rambles around in a way. There were a lot of things in there that are not in a pure mystery novel. One that starts out and drives straight towards the goal, you know. I had a lot of stuff about Peoria and life in general and so forth. But it read fast—he said it did, and he loved it.
D: Have you seen the galleys on it?
P: Well they haven’t even gotten started.
D: I was wondering how much they might try to chop out of it.
P: I don’t think they’re going to chop anything out. Not unless they confer with me. The length is acceptable, I mean it wasn’t too long. It was an amusing book. There wasn’t really anything to take out, except maybe for a few remarks that some native Peorians might take offense to.
D: Well that never stopped Steinbeck or anybody else.
D: So this is more of a straight mystery novel without any elements of fantasy or science fiction.
P: No, no fantasy, no science fiction. Many of the scenes and characters kind of just border on the absurd but they never quite step over. You can’t call it a satirical novel, but it’s funny.
D: Can you give a rundown of the plot without giving too much away?
P: Well, I don’t know. First place, while I was careful to keep the identity of the killer a secret until near the last, which you’re supposed to do in a mystery novel—but there were certain clues which any reader with perception can determine who the murderer probably is—still, what I was basically interested in really was character. But there was a good plot there, you know, and it moved all the time towards the denouement.
D: Who was your protagonist in this novel?
P: Well, he’s a private eye, born and raised in Peoria, then he went to UCLA to get his degree in criminology. And then he joined the LA police force and worked for it until he was summoned home because his mother was dying of cancer and he had to help his father take care of her. After his mother died then he decided to stay in Peoria and become a private investigator. With his background he had no trouble getting a license. But it starts out I would say almost convincingly with a call from a mysterious stranger in the middle of the night, and he isn’t going to meet this woman but then his curiosity is piqued and he just has to.
I don’t want to reveal too much, but during the course of the novel he ends up for awhile in a place called Goofy Ridge, which actually exists.
D: In Illinois?
P: In Illinois. It’s about forty-five miles south of Peoria and it’s in a forest that’s sort of like a hole-in-the-rock, or a cave-in-the-hole place. It’s in Mason County, where 90% of the crime is committed by 10% of the citizens of Goofy Ridge. That’s a fact. According to the police. This trail leads him down there and he gets captured. I had a lot of fun portraying some of the citizens of Goofy Ridge. Plus it actually exists!
D: They’ll probably enjoy reading this too!
P: Anyway, some weird things happen down in Goofy Ridge. We read about them in the paper now and then—I hear stories about ‘em from people who used to hunt around there. It’s quite a place. But then I go from the citizens of Goofy Ridge, who don’t have much, up to a house—or a manor—on Grandview Drive. The people who live on there are pretty rich. What I actually show is that as far as moral attitudes go, there’s not much difference between the inhabitants…the criminal inhabitants of Goofy Ridge, they’re not all criminals…and the criminal inhabitants of Grandview Drive. (Laughs.)
D: Different types of criminals, or just…?
P: Oh no, different kinds, you know. The ones on Grandview Drive are a lot smoother and have power. The police don’t harass them.
D: A lot of people are going to think that now that you’ve made a sudden break to mystery, I guess they’re going to wonder two things. First of all, why you’re writing a mystery novel now. And second of all, if you’re going to be doing a fantasy or science fiction novel in the future.
P: Well, ever since I learned to read I’ve always been fascinated by science fiction, and read all I could in the old days. But at the same time I was also reading mysteries and mainstream. And I really intended when I started to write to be a mainstream writer. Somehow or other I got into science fiction. I guess because my imagination led me into that type.
D: It’s easier to play in science fiction and fantasy.
P: Well yeah, and it was more fun. So I guess I really was just a naturally-born science fiction and fantasy writer. But I always wanted to write a mystery novel and I think I’ve come to the end of my science fiction writing. I still have a lot of ideas but I thought “I’m gettin’ up there in years, and I’d better try to do some of the things that I’ve always wanted to do”.
D: So what kind of mainstream novel would you have written or would you write?
P: Oh I really intend to do that. I’ve had in mind a novel—mainstream—for years called Pearl Diving in Old Peoria, which would take place in the middle ‘50s, right after World War Two, and concern the GIs returning to Bradley University. Which reminds me, I keep talking and I forget—the PI in Nothing Burns in Hell is the son of a retired Bradley professor. Bradley University exists in Peoria. The retired Bradley professor is a character who is much more educated than the son, although the son is not uneducated. But he has certain views that are voiced…
D: (Apparently at this point I said something about the taping—the tape itself is starting to run short.)
P: Hmm? Oh, I see. No, that’s all right. Anyway, the Bradley professor in Nothing Burns in Hell is an old man now, but he’s a character in Pearl Diving in Old Peoria. He’s a young man, just coming back from the war. A paratrooper. And he has a brother, and a sister, and they have a mother who owns a house on what is called High Street here. There are some old houses, magnificent old houses but run down, that exist on what we call here High Street. It used to be called Whiskey Row because all the very wealthy distillers and beer barons lived up there. Anyway, that particular mainstream novel, the story of the GIs coming back to Bradley, including the two sons of this woman, their relationship with their mother is…it comes from a very once-wealthy family, it’s fallen on hard times so she’s turning this big house into an apartment building. It goes from there. But I’ve planned that for years. All sorts of characters, a plot, and so forth.
D: You’ve just never had the…
P: Well, every time I thought about doing it, then I’d get a contract for a science fiction novel or another idea, and I thought I’d do that. ...