Barry N. Malzberg’s science fiction career began an agent for the Scott Meredith Literary Agency in New York in 1965, and he has seen the field from many angles, as reader, writer, editor, agent, and critic. He began publishing short stories in 1967, novels in 1970, and became known as a prolific writer of fiction that took a sardonic view of the meaning – or lack thereof – in individuals’ lives and undertakings, to the point of occasionally being labeled anti-SF in his outlook. Notable novels include Beyond Apollo (1972), winner of the first John W. Campbell Award; Herovit’s World (1973); Guernica Night (1975); Galaxies (1975); and The Remaking of Sigmund Freud (1985). His many short story collections include The Passage of the Light: The Recursive Science Fiction of Barry N. Malzberg (1994) and In the Stone House (2000). His collection of critical essays The Engines of the Night: Science Fiction in the Eighties (1982) won a Locus Award.
“I have long maintained that Malzberg’s portrayal of The Lone Wolf is one of the most brilliant in the genre. The slow build-up over the series more than pays off in the shattering finale. I’d give just one bit of advice to anyone reading the series from the beginning: Malzberg knows exactly what he’s doing.” —Jerry House
“Since my so-called career, like that of most commercial writers, is little more than a function of what I could write and where I could sell it…” —Barry Malzberg
An Interview with Barry Malzberg
You wrote what you could write and sold it where you could…It’s telling that at around the same time you were writing The Lone Wolf you were creating one of your finest most nuanced masterpieces Guerenica Night. I know you were a hard working pro…but that had to be quite a literary leap.
No, I felt that Guernica Night was no “literary leap”. Same writer, same urban decay, same obsession with death-as-purgation and for that matter same style. I wrote the first 10 Lone Wolf novels between January and October of 1973, then right on to Guernica Night. Felt seamless.
I’m not sure whether you or your agent came up with the idea to do a Mac Bolan-type series but what did you make of the genre after you read a few examples of it?
As I wrote in NOTES ON THE LONE WOLF (collected in Breakfast in the Ruins) I had never read an Executioner novel prior to signing the contract on Lone Wolf. I found one at the local candystore (paperbacks were sold in candystores, bus terminals, drugstores, gas stations in those roseate days) and spent an hour with it. Absolutely terrible, I thought, but added in the spirit of Schmeling viewing clips of Joe Louis before their first fight, “I see something.” By the way my editor George Ernsberger approached me; I had no thought of doing this series and was shocked at his solicitation. He saw something, obviously, that I had not seen in myself. (And also they wanted this series on the stands at the earliest instant to take advantage of the market trend and I was the only writer living or dead who could be counted upon to deliver ten novels in eight months.)
Did you consciously decide to basically turn the genre on its head? Wolfe and his vision are nihilistic. He sees that he is trapped in two hells–himself and what America has become. Nothing like this would ever occur in the avenger series by other writers.
Jerry House’s quote is dead-on; I knew exactly what I wanted to do before I typed the first line and I proceeded with conscious intention. Burton Wulf got ever crazier by intention.
What always fascinated me about The Lone Wolf Books was not the violence-which is considerable–but about the running commentary on how the American Streets were fighting a war parallel to that of the battle in Viet Nam. This gave Wulf a gravitas and harsh poetry none of the other avenger series had. You were serious.
Yes, I was quite serious. I had at that time what I took to be a Social Vision. Synchronous to the composition of those first ten novels was the passage of the insane and insanely punitive Rockefeller drug laws in NY State which more or less mandated life sentences without probation or appeal for those convicted of selling drugs in any amount. Millions of lives were destroyed. The laws remain largely in effect almost four decades later. Rockefeller died – in the saddle with a girlfriend I would like to remind all – 33 years ago but his legacy for those under the penumbra of the drug laws is eternal.
Did your publisher fight you for using the pretext of a men’s action for a somber look at the grim unraveling of our country’s tenuous grasp in civilization?
My editor fought me on nothing. George Ernsberger, a renegade, knew exactly what I was about and left me entirely alone. The publisher was unhappy with the first three books; the characters murdered were depicted too vividly and sympathetically he thought and their deaths went beyond cartoon deaths…he wanted to stop the series. But for one reason or another he relented – my editor fought for me – and gave the greenlight for #4 and its successors and never bothered me again.
I agree with you about drugs (I exempt marijuana). Tune in, tune out, right on bro etc—my generation’s gift to the world was the utter destruction of the inner cities as well great damage to every other aspect of American culture. But you were saying this when it was unfashionable in the kinds of circles you and I traveled in. Did you get flack for it?
I got no flack for the series. I was a fat kid living with spouse and two young daughters in a suburban house, living in camouflage. The gap between the ferocity of those novels and the pallor of my daily life might have been astonishing if I had given it some thought but I didn’t, not on a conscious level anyway.
Wulf’s world view is at times almost misanthropic. I think of what Eugene O’Neill said when first told about the Atomic bomb: “Maybe we deserve it.” Or am I wrong?
Wulf’s view was of course misanthropic. He was Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd half a decade before the musical. “This world is full of shit and we are not out of it: you all deserve to die.”
Did you get much flack for the series?
I received one letter. Sic. A Sp4 in Texas mailed me the cover of #5, Havana Hit, with a brief note: “You can tear this into quarters and you know where you can stick it.” My response: “You’re a paying customer and beyond that you’re a noncom in the US Army, you have my undying respect.” I enclosed a copy of #6 Chicago Slaughter “As a way of thanking you for expressing your opinion.” I did meet few people at NYC paperback conventions who expressed appreciation. One asked me if the series was based on actual events.
Did you get many reviews?
To the best of my knowledge, no contemporaneous reviews. Nice mention in Bill Pronzini’s/Marcia Muller’s Thousand and One Midnights but Pronzini is my, um, collaborator. Very nice mention too in Encyclopedia Mysteriosa by the Edgar winning novelist William DeAndrea who died young so long ago.
Are you ever invited to men’s adventure meetings or conventions?
Other than those 3-4 NYC pulp Conventions I attended (brief signings) I’ve never been invited to any mystery-related function.
How do you feel about having the books available in e book form on the great website Prologue Books?
I’m gratified to feel that they are still alive and available in however perilous a fashion more than three and a half decades after I typed FINIS to the series.
I’d like to end this by asking you what was it like free landing full time in the years you did it? You produced an enormous amount of work, a good share of it that has not only endured but also been influential on succeeding generations. Does knowing that make your memories of all the long hours and scrambling ins search of work worth it?
That’s an embracing question and difficult to answer. Ten years ago I would have responded flatly” Not worth it. In the words of Harry The Flat from my 1974 novel Underlay “The fucking you get is not worth the fucking you take.” Now I am not sure. The work is honorable because it emerged from an honorable perspective. The money was essential but it wasn’t ultimately the money which was driving those books or anything else. I had big plans. Top of the world, Ma.