DE: [...] in the early 70s, you joined the Coast Guard. The Coast Guard?-d.d.
JS: I was in the Coast Guard in Portland. I joined it like joining the Foreign Legion because my girlfriend left me for a certain corrupt, sex-addicted guru. I never did quite get over her. I found the Coast Guard to be totally unsuitable for me and me for it, BUT it was a very good, seasoning thing for me [...].
DE: And in Portland you got into punk rock?
JS: I was in the punk band SadoNation in Portland, as lead singer, and then went to New York City and started Obsession. Basically punk saved my ass, it gave me an alternative identity to the tortured and unacceptable one I'd sewn raggedly together; it gave me a forum for reacting to things like the My Lai massacre and the industrialization of America, the "mini-malling" of America, the tract-housing of America.
New York was both glorious and depressing. I'd have done much better there if I hadn't got side tracked into drugs. The needle, later the glass pipe. Drugs leach away the energy of life-direction. But the East village was a place of inspiring ferment. People like Basquiat and the early Beastie Boys and Karen Finlay and Nick Cave were around. [...]
DE: All this time you were writing. Getting published in magazines like Amazing and Fantastic and anthologies edited by people like Terry Carr and Robert Silverberg?
JS: They tried to give me direction, give me outlets. They bought stories, tried to hammer my spiky manner and undisciplined style into something more artful and crafted, God bless them for trying. Ted White and Silverberg and Carr and Jim Frenkel and Ellen Datlow especially helped.
Other writers would throw a really good, cunningly aimed fastball at the editorial catchers; I'd fire a roman candle at the editors and usually they'd duck and swear at me. Roman candles are bombastically pretty and make a great noise, but they fly crookedly, after a moment, and they burn out quickly.
Still, since I was prolific, some of it came out, more or less satisfactorily. [...] But I had no understanding of professionalism. I had no social graces, was a compulsive womanizer -- which didn't help me make friends; but then my wife at the time liked women, too. We were strange people. I was childishly manipulative -- and, worse, clumsy at trying to manipulate people -- people winced at my swaggering; but I wasn't a cowardly, colorless nerd either.
The thing is I really did come from the streets, so where I came from it was right and natural to say anything to try to hustle something up. Truth or lies, it was all the same because you were trying to hustle the squareheads. I had punk damage, too, and thought that doing things professionally was selling out or something.
DE: [...] in the early 80s you met up with these SF writers: William Gibson, who you met at a convention in Vancouver and recommended to Terry Carr and Robert Sheckley; Rudy Rucker, Lew Shiner, Richard Kadrey, Bruce Sterling. Sterling edited a samizdat -- a one page newsletter -- called Cheap Truth, in which you guys (self-named "the Movement") attacked mainstream science fiction and pushed your own version of SF. This "movement" was later dubbed "cyberpunk," of course. What was your role in this?
JS: I only contributed a little to Bruce's brilliant broadsheet, but in public, at conventions, on panels, I was, quite often, the point man; or flailing away at Bruce's side. I'd say ANYFUCKINGTHING. We wanted a science fiction that was open to other cultural influences, like, yes, punk, like modern art, like surrealism, like the more artful noir films and fiction, and people like William Burroughs; and we wanted to dilate the iris of SF so that it took in more sheer FUTURE. I think Bruce felt that most SF was cowardly in its vision of the future. It was coy, winsome, mild mannered, or when it had energy it was oriented toward the kind of guys who took fencing lessons (I love you, Tim Powers, I don't mean you) and dressed up like the characters in the original book Starship Troopers and what have you. Pathetic beer hoisting pot-bellied fannish "macho."
DE: Part of being the "real punk" in cyberpunk was being obnoxious. There are all these stories about you from SF cons: tossing over panel tables, assaulting editors verbally and sometimes physically, Harlan Ellison challenging you to a duel...
JS: Whoa, wait -- he didn't challenge me to that kind of duel. He thought I'd dissed his writing and he challenged me to a writing duel! [...]
DE: But the other hijinx you were up to didn't do a lot to endear you to people who could help your career.
JS: [...] I only wish those stories were exaggerated rather than under-reported. I don't know, I have regrets about some of it, but on the other hand the whole SF and publishing scene was so DEADLY BORING then and mostly still is now. Hey, just trying to be helpful, ease the boredom! But it was not strategically wise, no. I think to this day I don't get certain writing jobs because of fall-out from that sort of horseplay. And sometimes people take shit too seriously.
1 Kindly archived in its totality at Dark Echo.