The Breadth and Depth of a Writer's World:
An Interview with Richard A. Lupoff

by John Mark Eberhart

The Kansas City Star
Sunday, April 14, 2002

If Richard A. Lupoff dressed the way he wrote, his garb would be motley — his feet shod in gumshoes, his wiry body clad in a spacesuit, one finger adorned with a magic circlet straight out of The Lord of the Rings, and on his head, Sherlock Holmes' deerstalker cap.

Alas, the author photo inside Lupoff's new book, Claremont Tales II, depicts a figure dressed in jeans and a pullover. Make no mistake, though: Richard A. Lupoff is the king of American genre writers.

He has written dozens of books, and he does it all: Science fiction. Fantasy. The hard-boiled detective tale. Marvelous pastiches, including an outlandish yarn that stars Holmes and Watson but is written in the run-on style of Beat deacon Jack Kerouac. And truly creepy horror, much of it inspired by that prince of pulp, H. P. Lovecraft.

Lupoff is such a prolific short story writer, in fact, that the editors at his new publishing house, Golden Gryphon Press, decided one book would be inadequate to represent his talent. Hence the small Illinois press published Claremont Tales in 2001 and its sequel this year.

Lupoff, 67, forsook the writing desk in his Berkeley, Calif., home recently for a phone chat about the breadth of his work. How does one writer work so well in so many rooms of American fiction?

"Oh, boy," Lupoff said. "You have asked me the question that the earthworm asks the centipede: 'How do you keep track of all those legs?' And the centipede says, 'I have no idea; I've never thought about it,' and the next time he tries to take a step, he just goes paralyzed.

"But the fact is I don't write the story's (specifications) and then make the story fit them. . . . I'm not a mystical guy; I don't believe in a lot of supernatural hooey. But in some peculiar way, I think the stories are there. I started my writing career as a journalist, and I always feel there is some fragment of a journalist's heart beating in my chest. And what a journalist has to do is find the story and tell it rather than make it up. That's the way I feel even with works of fiction."

People who don't write science fiction — or fantasy or horror — sometimes get the impression that the writer's chief task is to flabbergast. But Lupoff knows that the willing suspension of disbelief depends not on flashy ideas or cute phrasing, but on convincing the reader that this wild tale is actually a piece of reportage.

Bizarre as they are, Lupoff's tales read like verity, thanks to his careful diction and often grave tone. "Black Mist," a hybrid of sci-fi and suspense from the first Claremont volume, features a futuristic Japanese sleuth named Mr. Ino who is stationed on Phobos, a moon of Mars. It begins thus:

"The body was found by a worker assigned to the Phobos Research Station, Jiricho Toshikawa. Toshikawa had been born in a small village in Okayama Prefecture. Uneducated and knowing only the simple skills of a farmer, it was a mystery how he came to be posted to Phobos. Perhaps it was believed that Toshikawa possessed skills that would be useful in the experimental farms of the Marineris region of Mars. But he had wound up on Phobos, a hapless individual who grudgingly performed his menial tasks."

Nearly half a century ago, Lupoff worked as a sports stringer for several East Coast newspapers, then double-majored in philosophy and journalism at Florida's University of Miami. Ernest Hemingway thought journalism would kill a fiction writer, but Lupoff contends reporting was essential to his development.

"I think it was the best training in the world, because if you were covering some little . . . basketball game, and the game ended at 5 p.m., and your deadline was 6 p.m., you had to hustle your rear end back to the office, get your story written and get it on the wire by 6. What some fiction writers don't understand, if they've never had that background, is that it didn't matter if you had a headache tonight, dear, or if the muse was not whispering sweet inspiration in your ear. . . . You just do it."

Lupoff has been doing the fiction since his high-school days in the early 1950s, yet he never sold a story until 1966. For 15 years, his creative life consisted of rejection slips.

Then while living in New York in the early 1960s, Lupoff and his wife, Pat, became friends with a god of science fiction: James Blish, author of the Hugo Award-winning A Case of Conscience. "I remember one night sitting in the living room, crying the blues to him that I'd been writing short stories and had never been able to sell one. . . . And Blish said, 'Well, write a novel.' I said, 'I can't dig a foxhole, and you want me to dig the Grand Canyon?' And he said a novel is an easier form than the short story. It requires more endurance, but that's all; it's a less disciplined form . . . and you can sort of relax and sprawl around. So I did and promptly sold it. It was called One Million Centuries, and it wasn't very good. But it was good enough to get a contract, earn a few dollars and get me over the threshold."

Short takes

Since then, oddly, Lupoff has become better known for short works than for novels. Perhaps all he needed was time: During the last three decades, he has become an adept of the form. One reason is that he counts himself a disciple of Edgar Allan Poe, one of the short tale's great practitioners.

Another reason is that Lupoff has a true affection for the "pulps" — those magazines and books, usually genre-oriented, from his youth, the ones printed on cheap paper and packed with thrilling tales.

One of pulp's horrormeisters was H. P. Lovecraft, who filled the pages of magazines such as Weird Tales with his monstrous creations until his death in 1937.

As a boy, Lupoff was snared by Lovecraft's stories. Lupoff's mother died young, and his father traveled, so Lupoff and his brother spent time at a boarding school, where they were forced to pretend to be Baptists.

"They felt everybody needed spiritual development, so you had to go to church every Sunday, which didn't please me because I'm Jewish, I'm not particularly religious, and I would have been perfectly happy in a totally secular environment. . . . I conducted a silent protest against this by sneaking books and magazines into church every Sunday morning and reading during the sermon. I came across a little paperback called The Avon Ghost Reader, which had Lovecraft's story "The Dunwich Horror" in it. Wonderful story; it just made an immense impact on me."

Other writers have tried to imitate Lovecraft's eldritch excess. But Lupoff really can summon the master. Claremont Tales II features a sort of "Dunwich" sequel, "The Devil's Hop Yard," which avoids Lovecraft's adjectivitis yet captures the eerie Lovecraftian obsession with an entire universe going to pot.

In other works, Lupoff hasn't been content to take on Lovecraft's subjects — he has used Lovecraft as a character in his historical novel Lovecraft's Book and in a mind-warping short story called "Discovery of the Ghooric Zone," in which three cyborg astronauts discover a 10th planet — and a dilemma involving Lovecraft's body.

A deeper sea

If all these stories sound like jolly fun, it's because they are. But Lupoff's tales also swim in a deeper sea.

A theme that runs through both Claremont volumes is that of how we perceive reality — and how we must make ethical choices for our lives.

Mr. Ino, Lupoff's solar-system-roving Japanese detective, goes up against a death cult in "Green Ice," one of the finer stories in Claremont Tales II. A purely evil enemy? Perhaps, but Lupoff enriches the story by focusing much of the yarn on Ino's own internal battle to sort out the positive and negative facets of his personality.

Lupoff said completing his philosophy major decades ago was one of "the richest intellectual experiences of my life."

"And one of the great questions of philosophy, and also of theology, is free will vs. determinism. Being somewhat of a materialist like Lovecraft, I had always inclined more toward determinism. But in recent years I've been reading books on chaos theory. And between quantum probability theory . . . and chaos theory, I've come to realize I was wrong for the past 60 years: We do have free will; it's not all writ out there for us.

"I don't think there's an old guy with a long gray beard who made us . . . but at the same time I do think there are profound issues of morality that we have to deal with. . . . If there's to be any meaning to (life), we have to give it that meaning."

That's heady stuff from a fiction writer. But Lupoff laughs it off, saying, "I'm no philosopher." And to this day, at 67, he's still self-deprecating about his art.

"I'm a beginner. I really believe that. I've been writing professionally for 50 years, and I've been writing books for pushing 40 years, and I really feel, every time I sit down, 'Maybe I'll get it right this time.' "

2001 kansascitystar and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.

To reach John Mark Eberhart, books editor, call (816) 234-4772 or send e-mail to


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