Excerpts from the interview:
I have the privilege of writing what I want to write and making a living out of it, and I am eternally grateful for that. There are only so many of us (and it's an surprisingly small number) who can manage to do that. Historically, how many writers have had this enormous pleasure? With exactly the same skills, I could be writing advertising! It all comes out of the same part of the brain. But if you're doing advertising, you can't write science fiction -- it uses up the same kind of imagination. So it's really a choice between the art and the money.
I worry about the future of books. My son and his friends don't read nearly as much as they would have before the Internet came along -- they spend time on gaming in particular, which gives a lot of the same visceral pleasures as prose fiction. But writers have always lurched from disaster to disaster. After the commercial lending library collapse, you can no longer make a living. When the newspapers stop serializing novels, you can no longer make a living. It's never been possible to make a living. I don't know how we do it! It's magic.
I dedicated my life to writing when I was a teenager, and finished my first story when I was 29. I spent all those years writing stories and not being able to finish them. Gardner Dozois knew I was a writer, because like all young writers I could not shut up about it. But I had known him for many months and had not asked him for help, and he respected that and thought it might indicate I was the real thing. So he asked to see the story I was working on.
He and Jack Dann workshopped it in Gardner's little apartment, and showed me how to finish the story. I went home that night, drunk on cheap sherry and literature. 'That's how you do it: you finish a story!' Three o'clock in the morning, staggering through the streets of Philadelphia, filled with stars in my head. It was as if God had reached down and flipped a switch. From then on I could always finish stories -- it was just a lot of work!
I have a new collection, a 'Best of Me,' from Subterranean Press. Putting that together made me feel pretty good about my short fiction, because I had a rather large number of pages to fill and I was able to fill them without using any of my second-tier stuff. It was pleasing to realize I could have put in a lot more stories and had the book function on the same level. The problem with novels is they're big sprawling things with something wrong -- usually a lot of things wrong. You can write a perfect short story (and I have, several times), but even the great novels are full of problems. So much of writing is just disguising the weak points.
The Dragons of Babel is pretty obviously inspired by 9/11. I took a lot of topical stuff and scraped it off, because I did not want to have an allegory-of-contemporary-politics novel, but I wanted to get to the heart of 9/11 and our response to it. To simplify Will's predicament, he was given good reason to hate Babel, and then given the power to potentially destroy it. He has a more complicated choice than it looks like, but (again to oversimplify) he's given a choice between being Osama bin Laden or George W. Bush.
Of course I was looking for a third response. A Polish poet, Adam Zagajewski, wrote a great poem called Try to Praise the Mutilated World. I thought of it every day I worked on the novel. It's about how you can value life and the world when such terrible, hideous injustices and cruelties happen within it. The Tower of Babel, of course, is the symbol of all that's wrong with the world, the way some people see New York City as the symbol of all that's wrong with America. The criticisms of Babel and New York and America are right, and yet with all of that I believe they deserve to exist, to survive. Will never realizes it himself, yet that's his task: to find a way to accept the world as it is.
When I finished The Dragons of Babel, I said, 'Let's start another novel now,' so I could lessen that gap of so many years between my books. My Postutopian con artist characters Darger and Surplus have been extremely popular; I get hit up for a story about them roughly once a week. Sometimes people come up to me at cons and tell me they want more Darger and Surplus. So I thought, 'Maybe I should listen.'
I went to China and Russia in 2007. That was quite a remarkable experience. I went to Moscow because the Darger and Surplus novel is set largely there. Previously I'd spent four hours in Moscow between planes, which really wasn't enough so I went back for two weeks. Now I'm in that classic 'foreigner come to Russia' situation where, based on almost no familiarity, I'm really sure of myself! Everybody says, 'If you're going to write about Russia, you better do it before you know it too well, or else you'll realize everything you know is not so.' And this is true.
My generation came in all at once with a lot of really good writers: Connie Willis, Stan Robinson, Bruce Sterling, William Gibson, Pat Cadigan, James Patrick Kelly... (I'm leaving out a half dozen people, but we all know who they are). But with the exception of William Gibson, nobody was talking about any of them in the early 1980s. People were writing articles about other writers who were not as good. So I basically wrote my essay 'A User's Guide to the Postmoderns' as a way of bringing attention to writers I felt were important, who knocked me out. In some ways, it was unfortunate there was the whole Cyberpunk thing. The Cyberpunks were one half of a generation that properly belonged together. I think Sterling and Kelly and Robinson all belong in the same camp. These differences were really intra-family differences, and they're very artificial. When I wrote the essay, I came up with the term 'Humanists' because (I think enough time has gone by that I can tell this story!) Gardner Dozois was going around talking about the Cyberpunks referring to 'you guys' (meaning us) as BOFFOS: Boring Old Farts. Jim Kelly found this amusing, and he made up BOFFO buttons and gave them to all of us. I still have mine -- I keep it with my Hugos. And I said, 'Oh my god, I need to come up with a name, fast, before this catches on!' So I invented the whole Humanist thing.