Webb on the Web

Don Webb: Surreal but Awake

photograph by Jon Lebkowsky

Hard-working, prolific genre-bending author Don Webb has worked from Austin for many years, producing unique works of short fiction usually categorized as horror, fantasy, or science fiction, or by neo-marketing terms like slipstream or avant pop. His writing reflects his fascination with magic, myth, alternative cultures, technology, secret histories, conspiracy theories, and sex. Webb shares his life over the Internet through his "Letters to the Fringe," which you can read at http://www.fringeware.com/dwebb/ or http://cyberpsychos.netonecom.net/fringe/. Also check out the bibliography and other info at http://www.euro.net/mark-space/DonWebb2.html. Don, surreal but awake, says of Austin "The reason that I exist and write and can do whatever it is I do is because I live in Austin. I wouldn't be what I am if I lived in Dallas, because there would be too much oppression, or in San Francisco, because there would be too much distraction. Austin has exactly the right mix. There's certain aspects of Austin culture that we tend to undervalue. It's a fact that it's a small Southern town, and we tend to have certain Southern values, such as go to work early in the morning, then get off in the early afternoon, and be very relaxed in our social interactions." His recent books include Stealing My Rules, Spell for the Fulfillment of Desire, and Uncle Ovid's Exercise Book. His book The Double: An Investigation will be out from St. Martin's Press this fall.

Don Webb: It is interesting that in our lives we have tremendous intimacy and impersonality at the same time. When I was growing up, I was always told that "the pendulum is swinging," i.e. sexual mores or politics go from conservative to liberal. ... About a decade ago, the pendulum broke, and this no longer occurs. In every field of human endeavor, you're simultaneously presented opposing viewpoints that are extraordinarily extreme. You can find people who will argue vehemently that the only sane human mode of existence is celibacy, wearing layers of clothing to protect themselves from the outside world, shopping next to someone who is just slightly not being arrested, who you could have sex with in the parking lot. And that's not odd. No one is saying "I can't believe that these two realities are coexisting two feet from each other." That, in fact, is normal. You can watch television, and on the same channel hear some study denouncing all forms of TV violence, followed by a show two minutes later that has a body count of 50 in a half hour.

Austin Chronicle: Have you written pornography?

DW: Yeah. The story of mine that seems most popular is called "Horsing Around," about cybersex with a zebra. It's been translated into German, Czech. ... I've had people write saying "This is the most arousing thing I've ever read, and that bothers me a great deal, because I've never looked at a zebra that way." [Laughter]. I think it was more meaningful for a lot of people than it was for me. I didn't really intend this to have any depth or life, I really just wanted to write about telepresencing, how I thought it would be big in the pornography industry, if you could hook into someone else's sensations. That's going to be a lot more interesting than anything else ... so let's just take it a step further, and make it a zebra stallion. I had no idea that there's a vast and diverse group of people who are interested in zebra stallions and beautiful Norwegian tourists. Who could know that was an archetypal current out there? I bet people read the story and said, "I've always had that fantasy." I'm like, all riiiight ... so glad that we're in sync this way.

AC: How did you get started writing?

DW: All of my writerly friends say "I wanted to be a writer as soon as I was born." [He tried to sound vaguely like Bruce Sterling when he said that.] Unlike my writerly friends, it never occurred to me. I was in college, and a friend of mine said I should take this class called Writing the Science Fiction Short Story, because it's an easy `A.'

AC: You weren't an English major?

DW: No, an Economics major. I was going to be in economics and geology, your basic Texas petroleum thinking there. And I could sure use the `A,' because I was taking this math class that was eating me up. So I took this class, and they said you get an instant `A' if you write a short story. Doesn't matter how bad it is. ... it just has to have a beginning, a middle, an end, and it has to be manuscript format. So I went home that weekend, the first weekend of the semester, and wrote a short story. Not a very good short story, it's never been published anywhere. And that was all the work I had to do for the class; it was really quite easy. They said "You should try marketing this."

So I got a marketing guide, which said that there was a new magazine, I forget the name. I thought, well, a new magazine, maybe I'll have a chance. I mailed it to them, and got a letter right back saying "This has been accepted, and it will be in our premier issue, which will also feature Isaac Asimov and Ursula K. Leguin." I thought, "This is easy. Now I'm with the giants in the field." There was no effort at all.

So I produced just tons of crap. Meanwhile the magazine never showed up. Months kept going by. Finally I called them. I'm not going to mention the name of this guy, because he's better now, but I called up and asked to speak to the editor, and they said "Mr. X doesn't have phone privileges today." And I said, "What d'you mean, he doesn't have phone privileges?" They said, "Well, he's not been acting well lately." It turns out that this first acceptance was from a guy whose mental illness caused him to believe that he was editor of a major science fiction magazine. By that time I'd spent six months just writing furiously, and some of those things did sell to lower echelon publications. ... But probably, if I'd not had that seeming overwhelming success, it would never have occurred to me to do this. So had the guy had enough Thorazine or something, I wouldn't have written.

AC: Obviously you've read Lovecraft and other horror authors ... what were your sources? Were you a science fiction reader early on?

DW: Yes, I was. I grew up in Amarillo and the public librarian who bought the books for the science fiction section was in love with the phenomenon called the new wave - the writings of Michael Moorcock, Samuel Delaney, Harlan Ellison. ... That was a tremendous influence on me. Lovecraft also. Fortunately I read him early enough in my life not to realize what an atrociously bad writer he was.

AC: When you read Lovecraft, did you realize it was fiction (laughter)?

DW: Yeah, sure.

AC: You never know, some folks take Lovecraft pretty literally ...

DW: A little too seriously. Lovecraft weaves a tremendous amount of factual material into his narratives. Sometimes you're going on, and you'll find something in the real world, and you'll think "Oh, shit, there really is something there." Like Cthulhu ... if you look at the latitude and longitude, it's at a place where there are really strange ruins to be found in the Pacific. I didn't find that out until 10-15 years later. I was reading about the Nan Madol ruins ... these huge buildings with no windows. They're strangely shaped, and no one knew who built them. I thought, ooh, that's really creepy. Then I looked and saw where that is on the map, and I thought, ooh. That was Lovecraft's little joke. He had waited for me to get the punch line, 70 years later.

AC: I guess he studied the Roger Corman version of history.

DW: Lovecraft was interesting, because his education consisted entirely of the library his grandfather had, which was a very eccentric collection. Lots of books on secret societies, black magic, exotic locales ... and in all the English literature, of the 18th century, he saw that people wrote like that. He wasn't trying to be strange, he just thought that was normal. And of course, he was a nut, so that also had an effect.

AC: He was pretty solitary, wasn't he?

DW: In the first part of his life, his mother told him that he was so ugly that he would frighten other children. And so he couldn't associate a lot with kids, and it wasn't until after his marriage that he started having these friends that would write him. He would then go out and talk to them and interact socially. Largely eating tons and tons and tons of ice cream.

AC: People like Lovecraft and Philip Dick ... some of the writers that influenced me the most early on ... turned out to be really crazy. I was a huge Philip Dick fan over the years, for instance, but over time I read his biography, and something an ex-girlfriend wrote about how he tried to drive her car into oncoming traffic. ... At times I've wondered whether you have to be really crazy to get those visions. However, you've written some really visionary stuff, but you don't seem very crazy to me. Is that just my mistake? (Laughter).

DW: Hopefully, I hide it well. I think that Dick went crazy because he saw too well how society was working. He's someone basically ruined by drugs and too little success. He was doing pretty well the last year of his life; he made money. But there was a point in time when he had 10 books in print, and was eating dog food. That doesn't make you that stable. He tended to pick up all his wives at the hospitals that he'd be in for mental illness. One of his friends told me once that he was with Phil, and he checked out, and Phil was like, "Met some great women." Yeah, Phil, but they're psychotic!

AC: Picky, picky, picky.

DW: Yeah, she actually hears voices in her head, but you know ... they're mainly telling her to do nice things ...

AC: In order to approach the surreal, do you think you have to go a little nuts?

DW: I think you have to be willing to drop your preconceived ideas. For example, in the neighborhood I live in, everyone comments that it's a very typical lower-middle-class white neighborhood. And that's all that they see. So I say, "Have you ever noticed down the street, that guy who has those sculptures in his yard." And they're like, "What sculptures," so I say "Come look." And he has big scenes from Jurassic Park, and he mows his lawn around them. And they never see that, because a grown man making dinosaur statues in his yard is not part of the scanning pattern. The sad thing is, eventually they'll see it and say, "We don't want that in our neighborhood." Once you start letting things like that speak to you, you see the world as a much stranger place than you realized.

AC: What are you working on?

DW: I'm currently writing my third mystery novel. Unlike the others, this one is going to be set in 1970. It's going to deal with collecting and selling exotica. The uncle I'm named after was a captain in the merchant marine, and would buy the weirdest stuff he could find. And then, in the later part of his life, he was out of money and had to sell this stuff. He was in the odd position of being in a tiny Texas town selling inlaid tables from Burma. That struck me as an interesting, and rather odd, situation to write about ... so I'm going to have him have in his possession a legendary treasure from the 1,001 Nights that he then sells, realizes that he's sold it, and then, when he goes to buy it back, is blamed for the murder of the person who'd bought it from him. The rest of the book goes from there.

AC: Are you into exotica yourself?

DW: I have a lot of exotic things in my home, often not so much from seeking them, as people thinking, "Gee, you write really weird stuff ... you'll like this." That's another reason why I do things like "Letters to the Fri2nge" ... if you just mention in public you have some weird interest, there's someone out there with the same interest, who's waited all his life to share.

AC: Do you get many responses from those letters?

DW: Usually one or two a letter. Some of them have been extremely interesting. I've even had a couple of people send me gifts, saying, "I'm really interested in that writer you just wrote about, and he had this one really great book, did you know about it?" I say, "No." He says "I found two copies, I'm going to give you one." And nobody else even knows who the guy is. It's not so much for getting that copy, it's more for just the moment.

AC: Are you really into the SubGenius stuff?

DW: No, I've interacted in literary ways with Ivan Stang, who is the primary mover of the Church of the SubGenius.

AC: Have you ever met Bob Dobbs?

DW: Bob did give me the secret to world domination, which was pretty startling. He looked at me and he said, "Don" (he called me Don), "think how dumb the average guy is." And I thought about that for a moment, and he said, "Half of them are dumber than that." [Laughter.] And there's tremendous wisdom in that utterance. In fact, if you say that just before you listen to the news everyday, you're no longer surprised by any story you hear. If you think, why did they do something like that? Think about it for a minute, and you realize, oh, that's why ... because people are stupid.

AC: Yeah, but how do you define stupid? If most people are really that stupid, then how is anybody smart? What does it all mean? What is reality?

DW: There probably isn't anyone that's really smart. We have moments that we're less stupid, and then we forget. Mankind makes no progress. In greater Austin right now, there are more people living than lived in the whole of greater Greece at the time of Plato. Why do we not have four or five world-class philosophers? Six or seven world-class playwrights? Because we're stupider than we used to be!

AC: Do you think that's because there are more of us? Or because we have too much information, an overload?

DW: Yes, we could never correlate the contents of our minds. But I think that all the great truths you have to figure out by yourself, which is why there's not really generational progress in philosophy.

AC: There's a significant breakdown in the standards and credibility of "trusted sources." In the last few weeks, there've been several accounts of reporters who were making up their stories, and this is happening in some of the top publications, publications of record. So there's the sense that you can't really believe anything anymore ... and my take on that is not just that the standards seem to be diminishing, but that those standards were never there in the first place. Nine-tenths of what we've been reading over the years, accepted as the public record, passed into history, is all bullshit.

DW: A lot of that may be true. I've passed on hoaxes.

AC: You are a hoax!

DW: Yeah, I don't even exist! You're actually sitting here by yourself.

AC: Exactly! Actually, I thought Bob Dobbs was a hoax, then I found there's really a guy named Bob Dobbs, and they based the SubGenius thing on his rants.

DW: J.R. Dobbs, yes. World's greatest salesman. The founding of the Church of the SubGenius was wonderful, because the moment of its founding was Ivan Stang and some of his friends sitting around, saying "Why aren't we millionaires? Y'know, if we were geniuses, we'd be millionaires. I guess we're SubGeniuses!" And suddenly all was revealed to them! Most people would have merely bought a lottery ticket at that time.

AC: Conspiracy theorists are ascendant. ... They make some of the weirdest connections ...

DW: We trust everybody, and we have to. There's not really a better way to deal with the world. You trust the guy, or lady, in my case, who walks up to the mailbox at your house and puts mail there ... that they're a post office employee. You never stop and think, "It could be someone in a uniform, fixing to blow up my house." Conspiracy theorists realize, suddenly, that you can't trust everything, and then they go the other way, and trust nothing. But the biggest conspiracies are always out in the open, and everyone sees them, and no one thinks about them very much. For example, there's a huge eugenics program in the United States. It's called "ivy league colleges." It's a place where rich, intelligent people go to mate with other rich, intelligent people, and somehow they control our country. Now, if you explain that there's a eugenics program to produce rich, intelligent people, everyone looks at you like you're a nut. But if you talk to someone and you say, "Hey, you went to Yale, where'd you meet your wife? Oh, she went to Yale, too. And her parents went to Yale. And I see that you have this 16-room home. And you're head of this corporation, and all your kids are going to be lawyers." That's normal. So the bigger conspiracies pass us by. The smaller conspiracies are just people being worried.

AC: I heard a guy last night on "devil's radio" talking about some government task force that's creeping from city to city ... the Delta Force. [Author's note ... description found on the Internet: "Delta is organized for the conduct of missions requiring rapid response with surgical applications of a wide variety of unique skills, while maintaining the lowest possible profile of U.S. involvement."] I guess these are the guys who fly black helicopters.

DW: Black helicopter is a case in point. About a year ago I started hearing about black helicopters, and I'd assumed this was just somebody's paranoid ranting, until one day I saw one. They really exist! And then I tried to ask questions of people, and they said stuff like "It has something to do with the DEA, we're not sure." This thing was flying around in stealth mode, wasn't making any noise, and it had no markings. "Well, it's taking care of us."

AC: Why assume that the government has more knowledge than anyone else about anything ... the state of reality, the existence of UFOs ... Isn't the government just a bunch of guys who don't know any more than you and I do? But we assume that somewhere, hidden with in the government, there's special knowledge that would give us insight into the inner workings of the universe.

DW: It's comforting to think that someone knows. I think that comes from growing up. ... You assume at one point in your development that your parents know everything, and then slowly you lose that illusion as you get older. First you realize that they don't know anything about relationships, they don't know how to figure right from wrong. ... Then eventually you realize they don't even really know how to get their plumbing fixed! You'd assumed this competence. So you transfer that notion to the government, which is a parental figure. They know something, you figure, and either they're protecting me - so you're a child - or they're withholding it from me - so you're an adolescent.

AC: When you're an adult, what are they doing?

DW: They're a bunch of jerks who don't know what the fuck they're doing! Civil servants range from most well-meaning, wonderful people on earth to little neo-Hitlers. But it's neither one of those attitudes that's relevant, it's just the fact that they don't know what they're doing, either.

AC: And the guys who are flying the UFOs and abducting humans and conducting experiments on 'em don't know any more than the humans do.

DW: It's a bureaucratic error on Neezart 5 or something. ... They said make one test, but there was a typo, so now they make a million tests. And by the time they get back, they're going to have evidence of 100,000 anal probes of humans. And some mid-level bureaucrat there is going, "I've got to cover this one up! If the taxpayers knew that we had paid for this ... "

AC: Or "we didn't say anal probes, we said haircuts!"

DW: We checked the wrong part of the form!

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