PW: Phases of the Moon is a big, beautiful collection of stories that sums up your career thus far. Did Subterranean Press approach you first?
I approached them. The book is also being published by Byron Preiss's ibooks later in the year. He's my regular paperback publisher, now. But since it's the 50th anniversary volume, I wanted something a little more imposing as a monument for myself. So I went to one of the small press people who have done such nice work with limited hardcover editions.
Your stories written during the '60s and '70s—"Passengers," "Good News from the Vatican"—seem to be more concerned with politics and social conflict, while some of your later tales seem to almost hark back to the space opera of the '50s.
I'm not sure that's accurate. Certainly, in the 1980s, I wrote [stories which used] all the material of the old, rip-roaring space operas. But, the technique was far more sophisticated than I could've achieved in the 1950s. The point of Phases of the Moon is that I've been around as a writer now for 50 years. You go through a lot of changes; different things concern you at different times in your life. As you age, also, at least in my case, you move farther from the center of everyday existence. In the '60s—which of course, was a turbulent time in our society—I was in my 30s, busy with the ongoing problems of one's life. Now, I'm in my seventh decade here, going into the eighth fairly soon, and my life is much more inward and withdrawn. I'm not in the swirling thick of things that most young people are, so my writing reflects that.
How are you dealing with being given the Grand Master Nebula Award?
There are odd features to it. I'm joining a group of writers who must be regarded as my peers, but who were also my idols as a boy. Heinlein, Asimov, Van Vogt, Williamson: these writers were all established when I was a small boy. Now I've been picked up and put in that pantheon myself. The other side of the Grand Master honor is that I feel no false modesty about it. I worked long and hard and well for 50 years, and probably did write a lot of important and influential science fiction that led my fellow writers to feel I deserve the award. And I'm not going to disagree with them!
You've "retired" from writing science fiction several times over your career, usually in frustration. Do you see yourself entering another retirement now?
The various retirements that I've gone through are a reflection of my ongoing war with science fiction. I think science fiction is a very important kind of fiction. It's also a branch of popular entertainment, and I've struggled back and forth between my desire to make science fiction into a visionary literature of great emotional and literary intensity, and the publisher's desire to make a lot of money by selling popular entertainment. Every decade or so I've walked out in anger saying I can't cope with this dichotomy anymore. I won't do that again. Now that I've moved toward relatively small publishing houses, I'm just removing myself from that whole commercial battlefield. I'll write what I please, and have it published by people with whom I can work without commercial prodding.
So old writers never really retire?
What I feel now is—with the Grand Master award as a kind of consummation of everything I've been working toward all my life—let's sit back and take stock, travel, read, take deep breaths. And, in a year or two, figure out what I want to do next. And I may never write anything again. I doubt that very much. This is not a retirement. This is just a period of withdrawal from the battlefield. I [still] get Publishers Weekly. There's a mark of an unretired writer: I haven't canceled my subscription yet.