An Interview with Gary K. Wolf
by Pete Allen
Gary K. Wolf is probably best known for his creation of Roger Rabbit, Jessica Rabbit, and a whole slough of others in the novel Who Censored Roger Rabbit? which of course became the movie Who Framed Roger Rabbit? His newest novel, Space Vulture, cowritten with his friend John J. Myers, Catholic Archbishop of Newark, New Jersey, has just been released from Tor books, and is available at finer bookstores everywhere. Interviewer disclaimer – I've had the pleasure of working with Mr. Wolf on stories for Amityville House of Pancakes Volume 3, the forthcoming Grimm and Grimmer anthology, and Tales of Moreauvia #1, and I believe I also owe him dinner and drinks, so this isn't exactly a cold interview. I know via email conversations that he is charming, suave and debonair, and I have it on (very) good authority that he's gracious and charming in person, as well as a hell of a story-teller. With that said...
Pete: Let's talk about the fun big news first – tell me about Space Vulture.
Gary: The process of writing Space Vulture began fifty years ago. That was when my best friend John Myers gave me a book which he had found in our school library. That book was Anthony Gilmore's classic pulp science fiction saga Space Hawk. John had read it and loved it. He told me I should read it, too. It was, he said, a Western in space.
John was absolutely correct. I read it, and I did love it every bit as much as he had. Neither of us had ever read anything like this before. It was science, but it was fiction. It was science fiction! It made such an impression on us that, to this day, John and I can still quote verbatim passages from Space Hawk.
We sought out more of this, to us, new and amazing genre. We discovered and read Isaac Asimov, William Tenn, Poul Anderson, Robert Heinlein, Harlan Ellison. We were hooked. Both of us still read and enjoy science fiction. When I started to write, I wrote what I loved, science fiction.
A few years ago, I thought it might be fun to re-read the book which had made such an impression on us. I searched the Internet and turned up two copies, one for me, one for John. I gave him his as a Christmas present.
I settled back and started to read, ready to be as enthralled this time as I had been the last. You can probably guess where this is going. Space Hawk was not nearly the same the second time. Oh, it was still an okay action story, but the characters were one-dimensional and the narrative had obviously been pieced together from several short stories. I couldn't believe that this unstructured potboiler was the book that had shaped my life. It's no exaggeration to say that without Space Hawk, there would be no Roger Rabbit.
John had the same reaction I did. One of us, I can't remember which, said that it was a shame we couldn't write a new version more like the book we remembered rather than the one we actually read.
And so we did. We worked on it by telephone, by e-mail, and in person over a five year period. Our story is not a re-telling of Space Hawk but rather a re-imagining of it. I like it much better than the original. I'm hoping science fiction readers will agree.
P: Everybody wants to know about Roger Rabbit of course, and even more so, Jessica. I know I've sent you links to random sightings of either or both, so I'm imagining others do too – how big is your collection of sightings these days, and tell me about a couple unique places you've come across them?
G: I still get several hundred e-mails a month from Roger and Jessica fans. I answer every one personally. I owe it to them. Without my fans, my characters and I would still be down a deep, dark rabbit hole. I'm especially interested in unusual uses of the characters. Of course, there are the tattoos. People regularly send me pictures of their Toontown Tats. I've seen my characters on just about every possible body part. My nephew, a rough, tough Army Sergeant, has Roger tattooed on his leg from ankle to knee. My wife's cousin, a prominent Southern lawmaker, has him tattooed in a location I'm not allowed to divulge. I've been approached many times at conventions and autographing shows, and asked to autograph Roger or Jessica tattoos. The bearer usually goes straight from the show to the nearest tattoo studio and has my signature made permanent. I've signed some pretty intimate body parts. The first time it happened, I thought, "Wow, I'll bet not even Mick Jagger has done this." Then, on reflection, I thought, "No, I'll bet he has."
Here's what I consider probably the most unusual use of Roger. There's a seedy bar on the West coast. When you go into the men's room, you see Roger Rabbit painted on the wall. A cartoon balloon painted on the wall has Roger explaining how to use a urinal.
P: As much as I loved the film Who Framed Roger Rabbit, I loved the book it was based on more. What are you thoughts on the changes from book to film in your case, and/or in general?
G: The book was a book, and the movie was a movie. There were certain things I could do in a book that played off a reader's imagination. Those same things were impossible to do in a movie because it's visual. For instance, in the book, Toons speak using word balloons. Instead of hearing them, you read them. When they turn around, their balloons also turn around, so if you want to talk to a Toon, you have to learn to read backwards. That premise can't be done in a movie. It slows down the action too much. It turns the film into a silent movie. That said, I'm quite happy with the way Disney and Spielberg translated my work to the screen. They kept the basic concept and characters, and turned the story into one that's much more filmic. I wasn't the least bit disappointed with the outcome.
P: In the past, you and I have had several discussions about humour and SF – give me a rant.
G: There's a lot of humorous science fiction out there but very few people publishing it. Everybody nowadays seems to want the big, serious stories. I've been told many times by my agent that if I were to write Roger Rabbit today, I'd never get it published. Not because there's no market for I it, but rather because there's no category for that kind of thing on bookstore shelves. Thanks goodness we already have Alice in Wonderland, Gulliver's Travels, and The Wizard of Oz. They'd never be published today.
P: OK, it's story time – I've heard two stories second hand and I'd love to hear them straight from the source. The first involves a leather flight jacket…
G: Several years ago, my wife arranged for me to watch the fifth game of the World Series at the Yogi Berra Museum with Yogi Berra. I was so enchanted by the experience and by Yogi, that when I went home the next day, I left my Vietnam leather flight jacket in my hotel room. I never got it back.
Assuming that somebody had stolen it and would eventually try to sell it, I vowed that for the next year I would check every flight jacket that came up on eBay. I never did get it back. That's not the story. On the last day of the year, the last time I would be checking eBay, I saw another flight jacket. It was in rotten shape, but it did have the same patch on it as mine. This one had the Fifth Air Force which my unit, the Fifth Air Commandos, had adopted. So I bought it. It was filthy dirty and smelled funny. I sent it to a restorer. She said the dirt was machine gun lubricating oil and the smell was gunpowder. I suspected I was not macho enough to wear this jacket.
Later, the restorer told me that in cleaning the lining, she had found a serial number inside. I checked the serial number on the Internet. That jacket had belonged to a B-17 tail gunner named Edward Wolf from Cicero Illinois. It was my father's jacket. That was later confirmed when the restorer cleaned the grime off the jacket's leather nametag. The name on it was Wolf.
P: Next story has to do with your hobby of collecting carousel horses/animals. I came across a book on the subject, and was and kind of wasn't surprised to find that you'd written the introduction. But that's not the story I was talking about…
G: My most interesting merry go round story concerns an animal, a zebra, I turned up many years ago. The fellow who sold it to me had found it in storage in a Midwestern barn. I traced it and discovered it had been manufactured by The Philadelphia Toboggan Company. The carousel it came from had operated at Riverview Park in Aurora, Illinois. That's about 30 miles from where I grew up. I called my mother and told her I had found an animal from that machine. I didn't tell what it was. She told me that she and my father had gone to that park many times when they were courting. She had ridden that carousel often. Her favorite animal was a zebra. She remembered it because it had monkeys carved behind the saddle. I checked my new acquisition and, you guessed it, there were the monkeys. I had bought my mother's favorite animal. The other animals from that machine, the ones in the barn, disappeared. This is that merry go round's only surviving animal.
P: Finally, I've got my order of Space Vulture placed, and I'm anxiously awaiting its arrival. What's next for you? A sequel? Other works on their way?
G: I'm currently working on a book that's a bit unusual. It's a fictional autobiography. Since my real life is so boring, I decided to enhance the slow parts by making stuff up. More than that, I can't tell you. Well, I could tell you, but it would take up the rest of the magazine. We'll all just have to wait and see (I'm not quite sure myself) how the story turns out.
P: Well, recent events might suggest that a fictional autobiography is becoming the norm. At any rate, thank you Gary for sharing with us, and best of luck with Space Vulture!