February 28, 2010
I was 21 when I first got my hands on a book called The Dice Man by virtue of a gift from a friend. It was a book that caught me from the first page, introduced me to the idea of deciding one’s fate by the roll of a die, and was indirectly responsible for a friend’s unsuspecting mother encountering a certain memorable phrase involving a wet sack.
The Dice Man is the story of a psychiatrist, Luke Rhinehart, who finds his way to living his life by the roll of a die. It’s been banned in a number of countries, inspired countless readers to take their immediate fate and divide it up into six options, and earned the label ‘cult classic’.
A few years ago, I idly emailed George Cockcroft, the author of the book. To my surprise, he replied. What’s more, he’s one hell of a nice guy.
One hell of a good interview subject, too.
Did you have any idea that The Dice Man was going to be the cult success it was?
Of course not. In late 1969 an English publisher discovered by chance that I and a friend were working on a potboiler about sex and dope in hippy Mallorca and that I was working on a novel called The Dice Man and my friend also had a novel. He took a look at all three and signed up me to finish my novel and my friend and me to finish up the potboiler. That spring I wrote over 500 pages to finish The Dice Man and contributed 300 pages to the potboiler. My friend and I both expected the potboiler to make us money and The Dice Man, a serious intellectual comic romp, to be a minor literary novel.
We were wrong. When my publisher read the two books he pronounced The Dice Man a near masterpiece and began trying to get out of having to publish the potboiler.
Where did the idea for the book come from – was it the book first, or the dice life?
Dicing with my own life began in my late teens, before I was either a writer or even much of a reader. I used dice to make trivial decisions or to choose among interesting options of things I might do. I used the dice to help me try to overcome some of my many inhibitions. Then, in my early twenties I began to write a tiny bit of fiction. In my first novel, which was about a character named Eric Cannon, a Christ-figure locked up in a mental hospital, a very minor character was a Dr. Luke Rhinehart, who urged his patients to try dice therapy. I wrote less than 100 pages of that novel and about Luke less than ten pages.
Over the next ten years I read widely in literature, philosophy and psychology and began to see that dicing was actually consistent with certain Sufi and Buddhist traditions of freeing oneself from self. But I always kept my dicing and ideas about dicing secret. It wasn’t until I was 33 when teaching a seminar on freedom that I talked to students about the possibility that dicing -letting chance break into the causal chain of habit – might be the ultimate freedom. The students were so horrified by or fascinated with this idea that I realized I ought to write about it. I resurrected Luke and began a novel immediately titled The Dice Man. I felt immediately I had found my author’s voice.
What was the process of writing the book like?
But one of the consequences of my reading and my dicing was that I had liberated myself from my ambition and my idealism and thus was not driven to be a great writer or even a moderately successful writer. So over the next four summers (when I wasn’t teaching at my college) I worked only sporadically on The Dice Man. By the time the English publisher discovered me on Mallorca in the fall of 1969 I had written only 220 pages of the novel over those four years. That spring I wrote 500 pages and finished it. Nothing like a little money in the offing to inspire the muse.
Is it strange at all, almost 40 years on, to have such cult fame as the author of The Dice Man?
Pretty ridiculous actually. I had received a large advance from an American publisher for the American rights to the book in 1970 and then sold the film rights a year or so later, but the book was not the success at that time that the American publisher expected. In the ‘80s and most of the ‘90s the book stayed in print in only the UK, Denmark and Sweden. It went in and out of print in the U.S. The book was essentially dead.
Then, beginning in the late ’90s, thanks, I believe, to the spreading use of the internet, interest in the book slowly began to revive. Countries that had let the book go out of print began to republish. Countries that had ignored it in the ’70s began to publish it. Media companies contacted me about documentaries or TV series or films about the diceman. Now, ten years later, the book is in print in three times as many countries as it was in the ’70s and selling more copies than ever.
But the process was so gradual that at no particular time did it seem strange. Only in retrospect does it not only seem strange but utterly miraculous. Can we think of a single other book published in the sixties or seventies that disappeared from view for two decades and is now selling more copies than ever?
How have fans tended to react to you as the author of the book?
There are fans and there are fans. No generalization is possible. The good thing is that one out of every thirty or so fans turns out to be so interesting in his or her own right that we begin a correspondence which is one of the great pleasures of my life. One was a young Australian chap who turned out to be a terrific writer and . . . .
What recommendations do you have for people looking to lead the Dicelife?
Do it or don’t do it, but don’t take it too seriously.
Do you think there’s a particular philosophy that has all the answers?
About the serious questions about human life there is no philosophy that has all the answers. I doubt that there are any that have any of the answers. All the philosophies I’m attracted to and have probably helped me be a happier more fulfilled person are anti-philosophies that spend most of their time trying to remind us not to trust answers, moral codes or beliefs. Answers are not the solution, but more often the problem.
Would you want there to be?
Could you recommend six options for me to take?
1. Write a big novel.
2. Get back to San Francisco by hook or by crook.
3. Avoid roofs.
4. Let George help me publish a book of my best work.
5. Stop all writing for three months and do some dice-directed traveling.
6. Find a new girl friend, possibly the actress I lusted for two years ago.
What are the best and the worst things that being the author of The Dice Man has brought you?
The best thing is creating new friends. There are no bad things.
What has living the dice life taught you?
Let go. Be loose. Move on. Be a nobody and enjoy it. Always remember there is nothing to do and no one to be. Hallelujah!
Did the potboiler ever actually get published? What’s next on the agenda? Or is are you living agenda-free these days?
Interesting questions, Simon, and you’ll be surprised to know answering the first one will also answer the second one.
My collaborator on the potboiler, who was only 21 at the time we collaborated (I was 37), had a distinct convoluted William Faulkner style, without humor, that was often in a character’s mind. I had a much more simple style and was writing comedy using a lot of dialogue. We wrote alternate chapters, I concentrating on the character of Katya and my friend Jay on the character of Diane.
As you will easily have concluded, the result was not a good book. Our publisher wasn’t enthusiastic about it. When in the early fall of 1970 I received a large advance for the American rights to The Dice Man I decided to reward Jay for his having talked up The Dice Man to the publisher who eventually published it, since left to my own devices I probably would never have contacted a publisher or ever finished the book. So I bought out Jay’s interest in our potboiler, giving me the right to use all the material in any way I wanted.
A few years later I tried to write a fresh version of the book all in my own style, using the story framework of the original but not using much of what Jay had written. The result was unsatisfactory. There were many wonderful comic scenes but the whole thing was loose and baggy. So I put it back on the shelf.
Then about four years ago my wife, who is always trying to find things for me to do besides sit, urged me to do a new version of the potboiler, which I had come to title Naked Before The World. So I worked on it extensively again and finally produced a version I liked. When my English publisher, Harper-Collins, didn’t like it enough I published it at my own expense, although I sold a Spanish version for a big advance.
And then more than a year ago a friend announced that he wanted to make a musical out of Naked Before The World. Since I thought Naked wasn’t a particularly cinematic book and that no one else would probably want to make a film of it I let him run with it, even though I thought the idea of it being a musical was a bad one.
Today, we are closer to making the film than I have ever been with any of my many film projects. I revised my screenplay in January to make the film a non-musical and we now have two successful production companies working on the funding.
So on my agenda these days is helping the producers of Naked prepare their brochure for the pitch to investors, polishing the screenplay, and acting as one of the co-producers of this thing.
I’ve been mulling over a new novel but so far haven’t gotten into it.