The Artist’s Way: Samuel R Delany, Writer

In this special feature, T photographed and interviewed 34 artists from various disciplines about 24 hours in their creative lives.

Article by Nicole Rudick

Samuel R DelanySamuel R. Delany, 79, stands for a portrait at his home in Philadelphia in 2021. Photography by Hannah Yoon.

When I lived in New York, I had a library that was very, very big. It was mostly paperbacks. I never counted them, but I’d estimate they numbered around 7,000 or 8,000. When I moved to my kid’s place here in Philadelphia in 2015, I had to give my library up. I’m in my own apartment now, and this and one wall in the bedroom are all the books I’ve got. There’s just no space. As far as libraries are concerned, this is kind of a joke.

My library makes me comfortable. I mean, I’ve lived around books all my life. My parents didn’t have that many, but my relatives did. My second job was at a Barnes & Noble bookstore. My first was at a rotisserie chicken place on Broadway, where I discovered I couldn’t make change and lost the job at the
end of the week. Later, I worked for a place called Bob’s Bargain Books on 42nd Street and found that I couldn’t make change any better, but the owner didn’t mind. All he wanted was someone selling these secondhand sex magazines, which he got for free anyway, so as long as you weren’t robbing him blind, he didn’t care. In between came Barnes & Noble. They put me in the back, moving books around. I kept that job and was actually pretty good at it. Meanwhile, I was writing my own books.

I was brought up with a series called “My Book House”, edited by Olive Beaupré Miller, which I still refer to. Those books introduced me to mythology and history, to the “Iliad” and “The Odyssey”, the “Kalevala”, the legend of Dick Whittington and early stories of Johnny Appleseed. In them, I got my first images of what Shakespeare’s childhood must’ve looked like, and the great wagons on which the travelling mummers rode around and presented their plays. The drawings were wonderful. They were particularly important to me because I was dyslexic, and I got a lot of my education through images. The very first thing I read all the way through was a Bob Kane Batman comic book. My father wanted to stop me because he objected to comics, but my mother said, “No! He’s reading!”

There are images in [my novels] “The Fall of the Towers” (1970) and “Return to Nevèrÿon” (1979-87) that are directly from those books. Sometimes my stories come to me as a phrase; sometimes they come to me as an image; sometimes they come to me as the sense of a character or a situation. They can do all of those things. When I’m writing, I think about the paper in front of me and the story I’m trying to tell. But I’m very much aware that almost any idea can be sourced from somewhere, and they’re as liable to be from other books as they are from things in life.

This is an extract from an article that appears in print in our seventh edition, Page 76 of T Australia with the headline:“The Artist’s Way”