Some time over the next year a new movie, Radio Free Albemuth, starring Alanis Morissette, is due to be released. The movie is based on a novel Dick wrote before VALIS and originally entitled VALISystemA (it was published after his death as Radio Free Albemuth). The novel VALIS includes references to a science fiction movie “Valis,” which recapitulates the plotline of Radio Free Albemuth. Did Dick intend for all of these works to be intertwined? Can you help us sort the threads?
Jonathan Letham: I’m not familiar with the movie project, apart from what you’ve heard, so I can’t predict how faithful or satisfying it might be for readers of VALIS or the other related works. The novel that the movie takes as its source, Radio Free Albemuth, is an odd duck in Dick’s shelf of published works in the sense that it was actually an earlier draft of the VALIS material, submitted for publication by Dick and then reworked so completely in the writing of VALIS that it appeared to his posthumous editors as a legitimate work of its own. It has champions— some who even prefer it to VALIS. I can’t agree, myself. It seems a fairly pedestrian and cautious feint at the material—readable, perhaps, but not essential. VALIS, meanwhile, is one of Dick’s great masterpieces, so I’m awfully glad that Radio Free Albemuth was written, if only to be rejected and rewritten.
You have a new novel coming this fall, Chronic City, and many of its themes—paranoia, drug use, alternate realities—echo those of Dick more than any of your recent novels. Did editing the three Library of America volumes influence your writing—or is Dick’s influence like a centrifugal force that becomes simply irresistible at some point?
Good spotting. I’ve certainly had a very full refresher course in Philip K. Dick over these last few years, and that’s unmistakably had its effect on Chronic City, yes. Yet I think your image of a “centrifugal” influence is also right, and it feels to me that I’d been swinging back in this direction for a long while—and I’d conceived of many of the images and sequences that would become Chronic City as much as ten years ago. The odd thing about writing novels if you write them as slowly as I do (as opposed to the breakneck speed of Phil Dick) is that you often can barely remember their point of origin by the time you’ve finished them…